We weren’t too sure what to expect from Belgium. We knew it was where beautiful, creamy chocolate came from, as well as some sort of waffles…….but that’s about it. Of course it was going to be beautiful, it’s a part of Europe after all, but I guess without any widely known tourist drawcards, it had flown under the radar, for us anyway.
As it was all a very hasty decision to hop on the ferry to Europe, we hadn’t really got around to doing any research on where we wanted to go or what we wanted to see. We had a vague plan of which countries we wanted to visit but had not as yet decided on any specific areas or booked any accommodation. We literally drove off the ferry, drove around in a few circles and found a road leading to some part of Belgium and began driving. This, for me, was pretty scary. It was the middle of the night (the ferry had arrived in Dunkirk, France at 2am), we couldn’t understand any road signs, and we were driving on the wrong side of the road. Pete remained calm, while I freaked out, certain that every oncoming car was going to hit us. It was bad enough that we were on the wrong side of the road, but Peter was on the wrong side of the car too! Being in the spot the driver should be I felt very exposed and very vulnerable. It was the early hours of the morning and we had no accommodation booked or any chance of finding any so we just kept driving. The kids slept in the car and when Pete and I were starting to feel really tired we pulled off the highway and drove into a town where we parked in a closed service station and had a sleep in the car for a few hours. Now we really did feel like true wanderers (homeless hippies)……..
We woke and headed off as the sun was coming up. We couldn’t remember the way we had driven into the town and ended up driving all over the place. Our frustration quickly turned to excitement however, as we drove into a beautiful old part of the town where hundreds of people were lining the streets setting up stalls for a trash and treasure market. We parked, woke the kids and began walking through the market. It was raining lightly and the kids were a bit grumpy but it was great.
The stalls were full of toys, household items and interesting and amazing bric-a-brac and antiques. The little ones each chose a soft toy which cheered them up for three and a half seconds and Pete tried, unsuccessfully to find a portable cooker and a GPS. The buildings that lined the streets were old and full of character, our first real taste of beautiful, grand European charm. We stopped at a bakery and as I listened to everyone ordering in a language I wasn’t even sure of (I really had done no research on Belgium whatsoever) I attempted to order some pastries using mime. I was pretty proud of myself and felt utterly ripped off when the lady serving me responded in English! By this time the rain was getting heavier and heavier and everyone was covering their stalls with plastic so we headed back to the car and after some more random driving, we were on a freeway headed to Bruges. I did not enjoy this drive at all! The rain was pelting down and we had trucks flying past us. It was a massive relief to arrive in the beautiful city of Bruges, and just as the rain was clearing up too!
We drove around for quite a while, very quickly falling in love with the city. We drove along the canals, lined with gorgeous terrace houses. We stopped at a draw bridge and watched the road rise up as a barge approached. We waited for it to go past very, very slowly. We waited and waited and waited. After about 5 minutes we gave up waiting and turned around, watching a long line of cars behind us follow suit. We parked in the city centre and went to Market Square where we had a look at the fountain and a little wander around. It was here that we experienced for the first time, being expected to pay to use the public toilets, 50 euro cents (about 75c Aust) may not seem like much, but when there are 6 of you needing to go, it’s extortion. Ironic really, considering you can buy a drink for less than 50 cents……….. We opted instead to go for a long walk to the nearest McDonalds, which actually worked out really well as we saw some beautiful old buildings and churches along the way.
That afternoon we drove to Bredene, an extremely popular, busy beachside town about 20 minutes out of Bruges. There is an area of the town lined with lots of caravan parks and Peter asked at several before finding one that had vacant sites. It was an absolutely massive caravan park and our site was right down the back. When the kids and I left Peter to set up the tents and headed off to explore the town it took us 15 minutes just to get from our site to the entry of the park. The weather had turned hot and sunny by the afternoon and after that walk alone the little kids barely had enough energy left to walk along the main street which was jam packed full of tourists. Needless to say it was a very brief, not very fun exploration. During our 15 minute walk back through the caravan park we needed a toilet stop. It wasn’t until after the girls had done what they needed to do that we discovered that you actually had to supply your own toilet paper!?!? Fortunately I still had the map of the caravan park in my back pocket………. Seriously, what is with Belgium and toilets? We (half) joked that they must have a high rate of urinary tract infections in the country or do people always just carry some loose change and a couple of sheets of 3ply on them?
The following day we got off to a slow start. We slept in a bit then had showers (1Euro for 5 minutes!!!!) and the kids had a play at the park. We then headed to a shopping centre just outside Bruges where the kids and I spent hours looking around and buying some groceries while Peter made use of the free wi-fi, researching and booking accommodation. We found some great bargains. Cheese and salami in particular were exceptionally cheap compared to what we are used to in Australia, however groceries on a whole were generally more expensive than I was expecting. Definitely more costly than what we had experienced in the UK. Interestingly petrol in Belgium is considerably cheaper than in the UK.
At one point Peter got into an argument with a toilet attendant who wanted him to pay after using the facilities. His argument was that he shouldn’t have to, hers was that he had used their water and toilet paper and therefore should pay for it. I guess that is just the way in Europe and Europeans are used to it. Definitely makes us appreciate our free public toilets and well equipped caravan park facilities in Australia!
After our rather long and arduous shopping centre visit we headed back in to Bruges where we walked along the river and through some very quaint and picturesque streets lined with eateries and shops.
We found a little park next to a beautiful old church and had a picnic dinner before walking back to the car, stopping to buy some chocolate covered Belgian waffles which we ate by the river. It was lovely evening in lovely city.
The next day we packed up early and headed off through Belgium to Germany. We drove through Brussels, very unimpressed with (the parts we saw of) the city. We did plan on stopping and doing a little sight-seeing, but not only did we not see much worth stopping for, we felt quite uncomfortable and unsafe as we drove though what I can only describe as ‘dodgy’ areas, quite dirty and scary with many sinister looking characters hanging around the streets and staring as we drove through. Maybe I should have researched where to go first. I definitely should have researched where NOT to go! We still had a long drive ahead so we were happy enough to remain in the car (with the doors locked!), take a few snaps out of the window, and continue on our way.
Our time in Belgium was only short. We were getting a bit fed up with camping and had found accommodation in Germany at an excellent price, but with limited availability, so we decided to head straight there. Belgium certainly is a beautiful and unique country and we definitely plan on visiting for longer another time. Bruges in particular is a place I will now forever recommend to anyone planning a visit to Belgium or even Europe in general.