Belgium and the Labadoux Music Festival

1st May to 8th May

The whole reason for visiting Belgium was that we had bought tickets for Labadoux earlier in the year. With this in mind, we wanted to see a few more places in Belgium to get a greater sense of the country before the music festival. Several years ago we had a great time in the Ardennes staying a few nights in Chimay enroute to Switzerland in the camper so we had high hopes.
We arrived at Tournai around mid afternoon but unfortunately the weather had changed dramatically and it certainly felt similar to our more northerly position – grey sky, rain and wind.
Tournai is predominantly French speaking and lies in the middle south. The town centre is dominated by a cathedral and old town and seems relatively touristy as the square is lined restaurants and bars and even has a horse and carriage set up to ferry visitors around the historical centre. The historical centre was the area where I decided to complete a mini bar tour, the goal been to sample the wonderful Belgium beers of course.
A remarkable thing happened when we were leaving Tournai, as an English van parked next to us on the aire. This van seemed familiar so we took a double take as Colin and Anne jumped out. We had parked next to Colin and Ann the first time in Koper, Slovenia. Then on our second visit to Treviso, Italy we parked next to them on the town’s aire too, completely by chance. Now, over 9 months later they were next to us in Tournai. Completely unbelievable, what is the probability of these occurrences? After a cup of coffee and quick catch up with Ann and Colin (great to see you guys again, enjoy your trip to Greece) we headed off north to Ronse, a Belgium town that lies directly on the county’s linguistic divide.
Upon entering Ronse, we missed completely the entrance to the town’s aire and sailed past the entrance. Attempting to double back we proceeded down the next left hand turn. At this point a Volksawagen van that was following us started flashing it’s lights and beeping it’s horn. Being cautious and fearing some sort of scam we carried on and took the next left and upon turning I managed to get a glimpse at the driver behind us, who seemed relatively old and had a Captains Birdseye white beard and therefore we decided to pull over and see that he wanted. Staying put in the cab, the driver approached us from the pavement and then asked if we spoke Dutch, which we replied no, he then proceeded in Dutch and a little English to tell us directions to the aire, which lay behind the local swimming pool and then gave us the code to the barrier so we could enter without having to go to the reception. What a friendly and useful gesture and maybe a small antidote to all the horror stories you hear of motorhomes being flagged down to then be robbed at the roadside.
We were greeted with more Belgium friendliness once we were parked up as an employee from the swimming pool came out to greet us and gave us a tourist guide of the town. This lady spoke excellent English and also explained to us that in Ronse it’s inhabitants speak either French or Dutch. Using the tourist information we walked around the sights and checking out tobacco prices as Belgium is reportedly the cheapest place to buy. On this price reccie we wandered into a convenience store and fell into conversation with it’s owner, an Iraqi who had served in the recent troubles as an official translator to the UN. He ended up in Beligium with his family after his UN contract had finished and started his Belgium life in Antwerpe and then had moved to Ronse. He talked about language and integration difficulties even though he spoke both Dutch and French well, especially for his wife whose second language was English. He also talked about separation from his friends as it seemed they were re-repatriated to the USA and not Belgium. I think we were both touched by his openness about his personal life and also we were reminded about the reality of other peoples lives and how lucky we are.  To help us contemplate these feelings we found a Belgium frituur and ordered a large portion of fries.  Wow, we were not expecting the portion size!!!  We both gasped as the waitress placed the tray on our table, it really was too much for two people.  It makes sense now that Belgium food is described as ‘french quality in German portions’!!!!!

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When in Belgium…

After a morning of tabacco purchasing we finally headed over to the site of the festival location near the town of Inglemunster not far from Gent. Labadoux was suggested to me by a friend that we met on the Camino, Jempie, who lives in Brugges and it seemed perfect this year as 1) the Levellers were headlining on the Friday night and 2) it was our last weekend before we start work in the UK!!!!!

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Festival parking at Labadoux

Labadoux overall was perfect, we both had a great time and it really was a big finale to the trip. We will both remember the Saturday afternoon where we spent all of the afternoon outside our van with the people who were parked next to and over from us. Everyone at the festival was really friendly and I quickly made ‘festival’ friends with Goern, Bart, Kornflake, Sam and Co. The whole time went far too quickly, almost a blur which was probably helped by the vast quantities of Jupiler beer. The only negative was that I was unable to find Jempie at the festival even though we were messaging each other – it was completely ridiculous really, I just don’t know how we did not meet up. It was a real shame, but obviously not to be. Maybe next year???? Seriously, if time permits I would go back………raise a glass (plastic!) to Labadoux.

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Saturday afternoon at Labadoux………..

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…….was spent socialising with our neighbours.  Labadoux was a really friendly festival and this sums up Belgium people well.

 

Next stop is the UK and work…..

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Heading north through France

21st April to May 1st

The next milestone on the trip was Sharon’s birthday and we planned to meet Sharon’s brother Steve and wife Maryann in the city of Nantes.  It seems now that Steve and Maryann feature in many of our trips as we drove the Nissan camper to their home in Basel some years ago, then on the first Eurosuntor we again passed by Basel to meet them and now they would be flying from Basel to Nantes to meet us, which was great.

Enroute to Nante though we still had some touring to do and chose Saint-Sever in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine, approx 30km north east of Bayonne for our first night.  Quaint Saint-Sever seemed a typical small French town dominated by a square and a beautiful church.  In the morning we were surprised to find many cars had parked up near by and these were visitors to the small market that was been held in the town square.  We ambled around and drooled at the lovely meats and vegetables that were on offer accompanied by a foursome playing traditional music on wind and string instruments.

Completing a moderate drive north we arrived at Blaye.  Blaye is famed for it’s fortress and citadel that sits next to the Gironde estuary but it was not this historical site that made our visit to Blaye great, it was the parking place.  Located on a vine yard at a nearby chateaux Marquis de Vauban, the owners were encouraging motorhomers to visit and generously allowed a 48 hours stay complete with free electricity.  As we were settling in a lady came around and bundled us into a minibus where we understood we were going on a tour of the citadel.  We obviously had misunderstood her French as in fact we were been transported to a free aperitif hosted at the vineyard’s own tasting room in the walls of the citadel, what a great surprise!!

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Our space on the Marquis de Vanban, Blaye

The vineyard’s grounds were beautiful and weather really sunny and hot so we spent time strolling around the citadel, the town of Blaye itself and lazing on the deck chairs outside of the van watching the coming and goings of life on a vineyard. See links for the Marquis de Vauban website, it comes ‘motorhome’ recommended.

After two nights in Blaye and feeling relaxed and rested we drove further north reaching Benet in the Vendee region. Conveniently the official aire was located in the carpark of an Intermarche and there is nothing more that we like than to peruse the shelves of French supermarkets, this time looking for those giant tins of Coc au Vin. Upon arrival we had noticed an English van in the aire too and whilst returning from the supermarket visit the van’s inhabitants had set up a table and were enjoying the evening’s sun with a pastis. Obviously we went over to introduce ourselves and the night continued. After a few drinks outside their van, an unsuccessful local bar search (or one that was open) we ended up drinking and chatting on a purpose built amphitheatre on the fringe of the car park. It was a memorable night – Hilary and Chris, we hope you are having a great trip? See you on the road some time.

After the social time at Benet, Les Herbiers was much more sobering as the good weather had completely changed to rain. Being well stocked after our supermarket visit we achieved nothing more than a lazy food day in the van and a quick trot around the town’s sights made just out of curiosity more than anything. Les Herbiers, also in the Vendee, seemed like an everyday town, but is famous for being very close to the historical theme park Le Puy du Fou. Obviously our budget did not allow us to visit, but what we can say is that the free aire at Les Herbiers is brand new, free, has all the services and is perfectly located to enable a day trip to the park.

What I have noticed though, is that recycling in France is much more difficult than in Portugal. In Portugal you are never too far away from a recycling ‘eco point’ where you can separate your rubbish. So far in France we have had to take our recycling with us and dispose of it later, in the end not recycling it at all but placing it an public dustbin as we have been unable to find recycling bins. At Les Herbiers we were faced with a new recycling barrier, the bins were in sight of the aire but unfortunately they were locked and it seemed could only be opened by a swipe of a local resident card. Strangely though the general waste bin was installed without a lock and therefore it was easier not to recycle……….I am not sure how successful that process is going to be!!!??!!

Finally on the 26th April we arrived in Nantes one day ahead of meeting Steve and Maryann. Using the aire adjacent to the Campsite Piscine de Petit Port, we were excellently located. In the local area, about 4km from the heart of the city, boasted a thriving student community along with a few hipster bars, a kebab take away and the all important tram line into the centre. We kept Wednesday night quiet, careful not to peak too early before Sharon’s birthday and we visited briefly a bar called Berlin 88, which was a German 80’s theme bar. This theme might seem a little kooky, but the local student hipsters were there in full force during the happy hour. It was here that Sharon shared an interesting fact about Nantes:- it has the youngest population in France with almost 45% of the population being under the age of 29 and 72% of the population under 60.

The next evening we met Steve and Maryanne almost direct off their flight from Basel. Steve had pre-booked a restaurant to celebrate Sharon’s birthday and it proved to be the right choice for ambience and excellent food. Cheers again Steve and Maryann.

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Sharon’s steak frites!!  Happy Birthday……

The next day we all met up to visit Les Machines de I’ile, an artistic, interactive, cultural, technical and touristic project based on the Isle of Nantes. At first I was unsure what I thought about the mechanical structures that made up the unusual theme park, but after I while I lost the more engineering type thoughts I was having and merged more into the magical and artistic spectacle that was before me. Not to be perturbed we all enjoyed the interactive giant carousel and that got us in the mood for the grand finale of the huge mechanical elephant ride. Here, on the side saddles, I really enjoyed the feeling of being in the now, a feeling that was brought on by the slow speed of the elephant’s walk and the sight from up high of other people’s reactions in the crowds who were also marvelling at the elephant. I am sure we all sensed different things at I’ile, but the common factor was shared enjoyment. Maryanne certainly was engrossed with the elephant and now has over 100 photos to prove it!!!

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View of Nantes through the ‘Machines’ carousel

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The elephant

The next days were spent visiting the rest of the town’s sights including the green line city walk, the old banana hanger and even a boat ride to the near by fishing village of Trentemoult which lies on the south bank of the Loire river. This ferry ticket is included in the tram day pass and from our experience in Nantes this public tram service is excellent. We all had a great time in Nantes however we all observed how young the city feels. The centre is crammed with young people and at times I did feel a little old, even at the grand age of 41!!!! Also, this was the first time on both of the Eurosuntors that we have shared a travel experience over a long period. We certainly covered more than we normally would but both feel that we were rewarded by doing so. Here’s to our four days in Nantes, thanks again Steve and Maryanne for making the effort to visit us.

On the public holiday 1st May we headed off making quite a lot of distance north to Buchey, north east of Rouen. Luckily we caught the local bakery in the old market square before it closed for the evening, but apart from this store the whole town was closed. After the Nantes activities though this respite was welcome. Leaving yet another good free aire (France really does lead in the motorhome facilities league) we were now Belgium bound……….

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At the market square, leaving Buchy for Belgium.  We have covered a lot of distance over the last week in France, and as per usual it has been a stress free pleasure.

Driving the Camino de Santiago backwards (Sp)

16th April to 21 April

This part was meant to be a little fun for both of us now as we wanted to rediscover some of our ‘walking the Camino’ memories and re-visit some of the places we did not have enough time to see properly or places where we just liked a lot.

Leaving V.N de Cerveira we crossed the Minho, glimpsing the ancient bridge at Ponte de Lima, into Spain. Our first stop on this whistle stop reverse tour of the Camino was Sarria. On the Camino, Sarria is a landmark town as many people start their walk there as it sits just outside the 100Km mark and therefore if you start here you qualify for your Compostella. For others like us who had started in the French Pyrenees, Sarria is a celebration point as the end is only about 4 days away. When we were walking we dumped our bags and drank wine all afternoon with Giovanni and others meaning that we did not see anything more than a few streets of the old town. This time around the motorhome stop over was on the outskirts of the town next to the leisure centre. We ambled into to town to find a whole row of river side bars and restaurants where it seemed the locals were easing away the Sunday afternoon. We ventured further finding the Camino and the old town. There were some pilgrims hobbling around but the area certainly was not as busy as when we were here. Again the pilgrims were congregating on the outside patio of the bar where we drank, so we decided to join them. After one drink we had disappointingly being unable to fall into a conversation with any of the pilgrims so I went to pay the bill inside the bar. Here the bar maid looked up and said to me in Portuguese, ‘Weren’t you here last year?’ and as it turns out she remembered me as I did her. Meeting this Brazilian bar tender again made me so happy, the fact that she remembered me and our conversation, and this small interaction made up entirely for not speaking to any of the pilgrims.

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Camino subsistence.  Tortila, beer and wine in Sarria.

Once at Sarria we would be heading directly east following as closely as possible the Camino. I don’t know how many memories came flooding back as we beeped and waved at the rucksack wielding pilgrims slogging their way in the opposite direction.   The next stop was Carrion and again the motorhome stop over location found us at the other part of the town. We walked the streets and found various other plazas and streets and finally stumbled upon the Monastery where we stayed the night before. Next up was the bar where we met a Swede who was walking the Camino. We exchanged stories, being mindful that this was his Camino, and not ours anymore.

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Combining both, the Camino by motorhome.  Sign at Carrion.

On the drive to Calcada dos Domingos we enjoyed more waving and shouting buen camino to the unsuspecting Pilgrims.  Calcada dos Domingos was a town that we did not stay in, but just lunched in the old town with our Camino family at the time, Jana and Dan.  Once we orientated ourselves with where the Camino led us through the town we were able to wander off track and see what we had missed. It seemed quite a busy and bustling town, something we had not seen at all when walking. The next morning I woke up early and pulled on my walking shoes and completed a small 10km round walk on the Camino trail back to the village of Ciruena where I enjoyed a cafe com leite in the sun. I must admit I did feel slightly strange (fake?) walking the camino without a ruck sack and passing other pilgrims……..but it did bring back some great memories and that is what I wanted.

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Walking on the Camino trail again, this time just outside Calcada dos Domingos.

Viana was next and last time we had an amazing alcohol fuelled pilgrim party in the town. It was this phase on the Camino I enjoyed the most, walking from Pampalona to Burgos.  Viana being quite small meant that we did not have to discover parts of the town that we missed when we were walking. We went straight to the main street and sure enough there were a group of pilgrims partying (must be something in the water in Viana?) We joined them but yet again we sensed that we were not really part of it as even though we were Pilgrim veterans we were not currently walking placing us outside of the crowd slightly. We completely understood this, as the Camino becomes a bubble and when you are in it nothing else consumes you apart from walking the next day and the people you are with. Therefore we made ourselves useful and photographed the camino groups on the steps of the church that lies in the central plaza. On the way back to the van once we had sloped off from the pilgrims we went into a local bar and enjoyed the most amazing deep fried bacalho tapa with cold garlic potatoes which rounded off our second Viana visit appropriately, sans Pilgrims.

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Getting back to motorhoming……..this Dutch rig was using the services at Viana.  Looks Morocco ready as does the dog driver. 

Finally on this reverse tour, we took in Pamplona, but since the excitement of the Camino revisit was wearing off slightly we stayed in the outskirts of the town at a great free aire in the suburb Berrioplano.  Upon arrival I went to a local bar to mentally regurgitate the emotions I had felt over the last few days on the Camino. On my way back to the carpark I spotted a green Sprinter van conversion owned by a couple from Wales that we met briefly back in Paderne in Portugal. This co-incidence seemed absolutely timely as it brought me back to the ‘current’, back to this motorhome trip. We had a few beers with Harriet and Elle, swapping stories and laughs of Portugal and living in motorhomes generally. Cheers H + E, hopefully our paths will cross again.

Feeling now Camino cleansed, the only thought that remains is that I want to walk it again at some point, maybe in April as it was a little quieter and cooler, we headed into France.

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Our driving revisit of the Camino stirred many good memories, and that was the objective. Here, the road runs along the walking path between Burgos and Leon, we remember this as the flat and hot bit!