Monday, 24 May 2010

Belgium Again - The Ardennes

Lesley –

Garmintrude got us to the nearest Renault garage by about 10:15 a.m. on Saturday 15th May. The funny thing about the sat nav is that because it speaks to us in a female voice we keep referring to it as she and, despite saying we don’t name things, she’s sort of picked up the tag. I blame it on Rob.

Of course, as expected, the garage didn’t actually have a spare wing mirror for a Renault Master van. It could be ordered, but we’d have to hang around for 3 or 4 days and Bergen-op-Zoom, even with such a peculiar name, wasn’t going to hold us for that long. The best they could do was sell us a mirror for a different van and gaffer tape it on to our casing. €40 and all we get is a tatty looking make-do jobby. Lovely! We are doing a “it’s better than nothing”, philosophical approach, and it felt safer having the mirror in position for a day’s driving past the urban sprawl of Antwerp, down to the Ardennes.
Not such a good look!

We’re getting the hang of Garmintrude now. She can avoid motorways, but we can’t tell her we like pretty, scenic routes, which is a shame. She took us through the border back into Belgium right in the centre of the town of Putte.

Our route through Belgium to Luxemburg

We tried quite hard to make a stop in Mechelen. We drove right through the centre. I’m not sure we were allowed to actually. There seemed to be traffic wardens closing off the streets for an event of some kind, probably more Ascension Day stuff. The centre looked interesting from the passing glimpse we got, with impressive medieval and renaissance buildings, but we couldn’t park our van – the opposite of the tardis – small on the inside, large on the out – so, after criss-crossing the same streets a couple of times we gave up and travelled on.

Instead we stopped in the old university town of Leuven. Think Oxford on the scale of King’s Lynn with gilded cherubs on the stadhuis – lots of them – more than twenty. This was about the last large bastion of Dutch speaking Belgium and the switch to French seemed sudden just a few miles south. Rob reckons the split between the two parts of the country is almost Bosnian in the lengths they go to to disassociate themselves from the other. At least they’re not fighting.
Leuven - Grote Markt

At about the same time the language switched over, the landscape began to change too. We began to climb hills, small ones at first, but accompanied by woodland and meadows as opposed to flat fenlands as far as the eye could see.

A lot of the campsites around here seem to be set up for caravans, not necessarily static ones, but certainly parked on a permanent basis with gardens, BBQs, bird tables and the assorted accompaniments for weekends away. There aren’t as many as I thought there’d be though. I sort of expected lots of little farm campsites, but they just don’t exist here, even though it’s a touristy area and quite a few motorhomes are moving about the roads. So where are they all stopping over? We squeezed into an attractive little corner of a campsite near Dinant, in a valley by a stream, and, after a peaceful sleep with no-one trying to move us on, we had a very relaxed start to Sunday 16th May – my birthday.

It’s a good feeling having nothing pressing to do. We drove into Dinant, which stretches either side of the river Meuse, the main run being overshadowed by the massive grey cliffs, on top of which sits a dark grey castle. Tucked underneath the castle is the looming mass of grey which is the imposing church with its towering steeples. Grey features heavily in Dinant, as do shops selling gingerbread in all sorts of fantastic designs.
Dinant looms

From Dinant we headed along the Lesse valley, detouring into the hills to look for possible campsites. After rejecting a couple as not quite our sort of places, or too pricey, we ended up at a smashing little place near Hulsonniaux. It looked like a perfect spot on the banks of the Lesse, with ducks and the internet. The joy of getting an internet fix and some electricity pushed dinner back to 10:30 p.m. - at this rate we’ll be having it about breakfast time.

Mind you, breakfast the following morning was about 11:30 a.m. We’re beginning to wonder whether this pattern of time keeping is good for us. Perhaps we should make ourselves rise early and do things because it’s beginning to look like we will have got no further than Finland when we find our year is up. As it was, Monday was rainy and we didn’t feel the need to do much at all. As the day progressed so did the weather and by late afternoon, when Rob had to go out shopping or have nothing for dinner, there was hail and thunder and the washing we’d done was hanging in the shower and in danger of staying there several days.
Good camping - great charcuterie
Rob’s bit - Jesus gave me 5 euros

Cycling back to the campsite down a steep lane, I was flagged down by a guy with a Mercedes parked off the road, but facing downhill in a different direction.  He explained that the ignition wouldn’t work, and could I help him manoeuvre the car towards the road so that he could bump-start it on the road with gravity?  After nearly half an hour of heaving this heavy beast back and forth we were nearly in position for the downhill start, when he tried the ignition again and hey presto ! it started.   During these exertions I started to feel it was all rather unreal, and half-wondered if Jesus might appear as a stranded motorist to test the sinner.
When the motor restarted, I exclaimed ‘Quel miracle!’, but he didn’t take the bait.  
Jesus wanted to give me money for my good deeds, which I tried to refuse, but ended up accepting €5 ‘pour une bière’.  So much for the test.

Back to Lesley –

Luckily there was a complete turnaround in the weather the following day (Tuesday 18th May) and not only could the washing dry, I could also lounge around outside the van and listen to the hoots of laughter from the many school children in kayaks. I managed a chunk of editing on the novel while Rob went on a long cycle ride.

On Wednesday we headed off in a southerly direction across the highest parts of the Ardennes. I drove for the first time. Some of you might have imagined I’d been doing my share all this time. I’m sure Rob imagined the same. It wasn’t too bad actually, despite being paranoid about something else attacking us on the left (but hey, the wing mirror has already gone, so what more could they do?).

This part of the Ardennes is heavily forested. Some of it is managed pine with a massive logging industry, but large tracts are lovely mixed deciduous, with lush colours of birch, copper beech, ash and lots more (I am regretting not buying a pocket tree spotting guide). As a side note, we went to see “As You Like It” last year and the blurb in the programme said that there is some thought that Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden was based upon descriptions of the vast forest that was the 16thC Ardennes.

The area had tourist hot-spots, but they all seemed pretty low key in the mid-May sun. There's quite a lot of military history here, with many leftovers from the Battle of the Bulge in Dec 1944. Many signs directing cross-country skiers and a distinct nod to chalet style architecture attests to much winter tourism too. We even came across the Belgian version of Hay-on-Wye in a village called Redu. On a tourist board it even said that the whole idea to create a book village was inspired by a chance meeting by one of the local big-wigs with the chap behind Hay. Redu was no Hay, though mid-week is probably not the best time to visit and I would guess at weekends and during the summer months all the many cafes are full and the little roadside tents are piled high with books.
Military buffs would have a field day around the Ardennes.

Our last full day in Belgium for the time being ended with a brief stop in La Roche-en-Ardenne, a small town in a wooded valley, which is overlooked by a large castle. Again, the place looked like in the right season it would be heaving with tourists, many of them crammed into the little tourist train and being driven up to the battlements. The last half hour of shop opening times was spent in the excellent charcuteries. A good point to note – forest areas attract hunting which makes for a magnificent choice of sausage products. They had to sweep us out as they shut up shop.

From La Roche we drove to the Nisramont dam, where there was designated motorhome parking. It wasn’t quite wild camping, but it was free and no-one moved us on. The spot by the river Ourthe, just a few metres down from the barrage, was lovely and we dined on charcuterie washed down with trappist beer to the throbbing accompaniment of the hydro-electrics.

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