Category Archives: France

A brief glimpse of Northern Spain, then through France to the ferry.

 

On Monday 2nd May, we entered Spain from the North East of Portugal, via the tiny border town of Rio de Onar. We travel up and over a high area of sparse scrubland with a few forestry plantations, before descending to spend the night by the river at Puebla de Santabra, beneath the imposing medieval fortress town on the rock above. Something is very different. Everybody is ‘doing the paseo’. It’s so much more prevalent here. And just to confirm we’re in Spain now, we’re parked next to an unfinished development, complete with overgrown roads, footpaths and streetlights 🙂

In the morning we follow the A52 motorway East, and then the A66 north to big, busy, Leon for some shopping. We do love the Spanish ‘Mercadonna’ supermarket. Sooo much good stuff, Sooo cheap, and a charcuterie section to die for! Stocked up, we head east again, across flat plains, before the mountains slowly begin to rise again. We pass through Guardo, an unattractive industrial place, before joining a high route through the mountains. We skirt round the Compuerto reservoir and head higher, towards the snow-capped peak of ‘Espiguete(2450m). Over a pass at 1408m, before descending again down to the smaller Ruesga Reservoir, just before the town of Cervera de Pisuerga, for the night. A lovely quiet spot (apart from the noisy singing frogs hehe). The sky has been a stunning clear blue all day. We’re still at around 1000m. It’s going to be a cold night!

This is a beautiful area. Wish we could stay and explore longer, but the dreaded ‘schedule’ is upon us. In the morning we leave, via the CL626, heading east, and then it’s north again on the A67 motorway, down, down, down to the coast. We join the coastal motorway near Santander. It’s busy! There aren’t many options along here. The mountains seem to fall straight into the sea. We stop just before Bilbao at a recommended cliff top carpark for an afternoon sitting out in the sunshine.

In the morning we make the big mistake of trying to avoid the boring motorway and end up in traffic in central Bilbao. Not a recommended experience! We then try and take the coast road for a bit of scenery and to visit a few places along the way. Another big mistake! It turns out to be a nightmare and one of the most stressful and downright physically hard drives I’ve ever done. Up and down endlessly twisty turny roads. It’s a truly mad landscape all along this coast. Reminding us of Switzerland in places, we rarely glimpse the coast. We go over 500m passes on the closest road to the coast!  It’s very tiring, very slow progress. The towns (Bermeo, Lekeitio,..), that from a brief glance at the map, might have been attractive, are busy, tightly packed with flats, all at least 6-7 stories high, and virtually nowhere for us to stop either. We take a break just outside Lekeitio,

but when the tide is in, the waves echo annoyingly, all around. Maybe it’s the frayed nerves from the driving, but we don’t fancy being woken by it in the early hours of the morning when the tide comes in again, and so move on again. There are very few options without a BIG detour and we continue along the nightmare coast road trying to take it steady and not use the brakes too much – they’re now grinding badly at every turn, which is constantly, whether we’re using them in earnest or not. Not good! To end this drive from hell, we stop at an official spot  in what turns out to be an industrial estate, next to a 24hr engineering workshop with continuous lathe and grinding noise – Nice! Almost anywhere would be better. We’re at Zumaia, a biggish port with more ugly flats. Don’t bother! Infact, i’d think twice about stopping anywhere along this bit of coast in the future. On a mission to extricate ourselves from this mess, we manage to find a much needed garage on the outskirts of San Sebastian. They were very busy, but managed to fit us in, order new brake pads (the old ones had crumpled to dust but luckily the discs had survived), replace them and have us on our way again within 3hrs. (Euromaster – there’s one in most major places in Europe and we’ve found them good and efficient). Instructed to use the brakes sparingly for a bit, we took the mechanic at his word and didn’t touch them much for the next couple of hundred miles. We made tracks, gladly paying the €11.35 charges on the motorway to be out of the mess that id Northern Spain (come off at ‘Labenne’, France. Jct. 7 or 8? to avoid further charges). We didn’t stop until we were north of Bordeaux, France, where we pulled off the N10, and spend the night at the quiet little village of Laruscade. It’s good to be in rural France. All we can hear now is the birds tweeting – what a contrast to yesterday!

Next it’s back to the free, and motorway standard, N10, taking us quickly past Angouleme, towards Poitiers. Bored and as usual seeing nothing of the areas we’re rushing through, we turn off and head for Candes-St-Martin, between Angers and Tours, on the Loire river. Candes-St-Martin is supposed to be “one of the prettiest villages on the Loire”. It’s certainly an attractive little place, built out of the very white limestone of the area. It’s very busy, perhaps because there’s some sort of fete going on, but perhaps everybody else has read that it’s the prettiest village too? True to form, we come in the ‘back way’ following the Sat Nav, and end up in the narrow “camping-car interdit!” section in the centre 🙂 Well, there were no signs the way we came in! The following day we manage to loop back round the town. Avoiding the centre, to Monontsoreau and continue along the river to Saumur. It’s a nice stretch of river with several small villages famous for their wines. The wine is, or at least was, stored in limestone caves cut out of the rock that forms the edge of the river valley, often with 3 sides of a house built in front. We park by the river at Saumur and enjoy a good lunch at the ‘Cristal Hotel’ before a walk up to the castle/chateaux. For €6 each including a personal guide in English, we are bombarded with more information than my poor historical knowledge could cope with.

Having been educated a bit in Saumur, we continue north looking for a suitable ‘quiet little French village’. Mouliherne does the job perfectly, with an attractive parking spot, next to a picnic site and stream and motorhome services a short distance away. The French are so good at this! (probably said that many times before?) There’s also, as we’ve seen elsewhere, signposted walking routes making a loop from the centre of town and back.

Another couple of driving days follow. We try to find a good route, avoiding the motorways. We skirt past the edge of Le Mans, through Saint-Martin-Du-Vieux-Bellame, through the national park area of ‘Parc Naturel Regional Du Perche’ (looked like a nice area; lakes, walks, picnic sites, monasteries – another area on the list for future investigations when we have more time), stop at Les Aspres for lunch, before continuing to La Mailleraye-sur-Seine, on the River Seine. It’s an insignificant little place, but it provides a good Aire, right on the grassy banks of the river. It’s supposedly €5/night but the guy never came and asked for it, even though he was there apparently asking others.  Bargain 🙂

A shortish hop, and we’re back on the coast at Dieppe, waiting for the ferry. The end of another good trip! Until the next one….

Don’t forget a map of our complete route can be found here:  https://drive.google.com/open?id=1ymzS6pFRHp4LYX2NeuDVuhMzaVY&usp=sharing  GPS locations, photos and extra infos by clicking the pins

Advertisements

Voyage to Venice (and beyond!)

(hover over the pictures to see captions, or click on the first one of each set to scan through them in full size)

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

On the morning of the 9th of May, at 0530! We’re waiting in the dark on an empty Igoumenutsa dockyard for the ferry to Venice..

Soon a couple more hopefuls turn up and by 0630 the ferry is here. It starts it’s journey at Patra (North West Peloponnese), where it seems, the majority of people get on. With a bit of manoeuvering, we’re in our spot on the ‘open deck’, and plugged in to free onboard electrics. Glad I’m not driving the artic’s that will have to reverse back down the ramp, with mm to spare, when we disembark! The weather’s fine and it’s a smooth crossing. We find we can sit in a patch of sun on the car deck and stay out of the wind and away from the smell of diesel and fried food on the upper decks. It’s certainly a very effortless way to cover around 500 miles (and the overland distance is a whole lot more). Every now and then we check our position via a mapping app. on my phone – the captain seems to know where he’s going J

It’s a beautiful calm and sunny morning as we arrive in Venice. They’ve recently changed the route in and unfortunately we no longer go anywhere near the old city. It’s just visible in the distance beyond the miles of fish traps and lagoons.

As we leave the ferry terminal, we immediately notice how busy everything seems …and organised – there’s road markings: bus lanes, bike lanes, and signs and parking meters. We’re definitely not in Greece anymore! We head out onto one of the thin strips of land that form the final barrier to the sea here and manage to find some free parking (there’s very little of it!) at Punto Sabioni. It’s all madly busy compared to what we’ve got used to. There are loads of huge campsites and bungalow parks here, and importantly a ‘vaporetto’ stop (the water busses that take you to the various islands of Venice). Having shelled out a fortune on tickets for the next 3 days (2 x 40eu + 3eu for a map), we find a spot by the river/canal and read and watch the many! boats go by for the afternoon.

We spend the next few days exploring Venice and the surrounding islands. It’s an amazing place and unfortunately, SO busy. luckily you can see a lot from the vaporetto, and we make good use of our ‘go anywhere’ tickets. It’s also VERY expensive – we payed 24eu each for a multi museum pass. They last for 6 months, so would be reasonable value if you could make use of them for that time – but then you’d need to keep shelling out for the water busses. We visited the famous Doge’s Palace, the Correr Museum and Mocenigo’s Palace – All housing hugely impressive paintings, sculptures and other works of art; the importance and significance of which, being mostly lost on us. The majority of the paintings are allegorical and unless you understand ‘what’s going on’, they all become a bit ‘samey’. You really need to be a bit of an expert. We’d been warned not to buy anything to eat or drink in, or near, St, Mark’s square, but were still charged 9 euro! for 2 coffees in an apparently insignificant spot – argh!

We enjoyed wandering the tiny back streets. We discovered the market (the fish section was particularly impressive) and we even managed pizza and wine in a quiet square without completely breaking the bank.

We popped into several of the old churches and joined the other queuing hordes for St. Mark’s Cathedral. The ceilings in St. Marks are all done in tiny mosaics with a propensity of gold, but although they are probably more unique, after the highly painted Orthodox churches of Greece and Eastern Europe, we found it rather disappointing after all the hype.

A day on the island of Burano, with it’s brightly painted houses was a nice change from the hubbub of the main city. We had lunch out here too – being surrounded by lagoons full of fish; fish and shell-fish are specialities. Here we also discovered a restored walled garden, planted with flowers and vegetables and vines, as it would have been when these islanders were self-sufficent. I’m surprised they didn’t struggle for fresh water in the middle of a salt-water lagoon.

We spent a few, rather more relaxing, days based near Punto Sabioni, finding some free, allocated motorhome parking (surprisingly along the road outside a campsite) and later a beach carpark with no parking restrictions. The area is completely flat with many marked cycling routes and we explored more on the bikes in the warm wind. It reminds us a lot of Holland, with fields divided by canals and quite a bit of ‘reclaimed’ land; below sea level. It was quiet and peaceful as we headed out along dykes into ‘lagoon land’; home to lots of wading birds.

On Saturday 16th of May, we head off towards Lago di Garda (Lake Garda). It’s very busy on the roads and we pass seemingly endless industry and huge shops, interspersed with some agriculture. Roundabout follows roundabout on badly surfaced roads (we’re avoiding the motorway tolls). Traffic flow seems fast; it’s a rough ride for Heidi. We comment on the neatly clipped verges, trees cut back from the road and relatively fresh road markings. Again; it’s not Greece! We stop for water and a loo empty at Soave, home of the wine, at an official ‘sosta’ (like the French ‘aires’), before continuing to another one right on Lake Garda. There are free motorhome services here too, but they’re charging 15euro! to park for 24hrs and it’s packed. So is everywhere here. The many campsites seem full too. We stay at Garda for a couple of days, discovering a small free carpark 10 mins walk from the lake front on our second night. It’s a lovely spot, and we enjoy swimming in the lake and wandering along the lakeside path between Garda and Bardolino, bringing back memories of 15 years ago when we spent holidays here in a tent, two summers in a row. We decide it’s got overly popular and too busy for our liking now though, and escape to the other (West) side, which is less busy at the moment, before continuing to Lake Iseo to the West.

We continue to be shocked at how built up and busy everywhere is in these parts, and there seem few attractive places for us to stop. There are a lot of tunnels through the mountains, and the sat-nav struggles to determine whether we are above or below ground, more than once asking us to turn off at a roundabout somewhere far above us. The smaller roads really are tiny too, and although they have ‘no lorries’ signs, there are, unhelpfully, no size or weight restrictions. This normally means it’s fine for us, but not around here! With little information, we choose a small car park by a bridge over a river, at Sarezzo, which turns out to be in an industrial estate, for lunch, followed by a lakeside carpark on a point sticking out into the lake at a place called ‘Castro’ at the North end of Lake Iseo; you’d guess an attractive spot with surely a castle, wouldn’t you? No, it’s dominated by heavy industry with no sign of a castle. At 9pm they were still crashing and banging (steel on rock or vice versa, it sounded like). Surely they don’t do it all night, there are a lot of (ugly) flats very close too. We moved to the other side of town and had a relatively quiet night in the harbour / marina carpark, before heading North, up the valley, towards the high Alps.

The weather deteriorates now – that’s the trouble with mountains – and we have heavy rain and there’s a fresh sprinkling of snow at any height. It all comes as a bit of a shock, having got used to the heat. We dig out trousers and socks! and fleeces, and even resort to heating! This was not the plan! We consider the pass above Tirano as our route into Switzerland, but change our mind as the grey clouds descend. Instead, we head West again, towards the top of Lake Como, half way down it’s west side to Menaggio, and West again, on the SS340 to Porlezza at the top of Largo di Lugano. Como looked attractive, but was madly busy on the only road around it’s edge and we saw nowhere for us to pull off and stop, other than directly into a campsite. Porlezza was thankfully quieter, with several car parks and even one without time restrictions – a rarity in these parts! It’s an attractive place with some parkland alongside the lake. We could have easily lingered.

In the morning, we drive a short distance along the lake shore and out of Europe. Switzerland is independent and there is even a manned border post, but they show little interest in us and wave us through. We come to Lugano and stop at a cash point for Swiss Francs. No Euros here. We get 100 of them for about £70. Lugano is packed and busy with lots of blocks of flats, mostly 6 or 7 stories high, but some much higher. It seems here, as with Northern Italy, any remotely flat bit of land is built on. We quickly join the A2 motorway, heading North and over the high mountains. We’re supposed to have a motorway ‘vignette’ (we think?), but have seen no signs to confirm this or any obvious means of obtaining one. We were thinking of driving the San Gottardo Pass, but signs say it’s closed, so the motorway tunnel is the only way to go anyway. The pass is presumably closed due to recent snow – I thought we’d be all right at this time of year. When we emerge on the North side, it’s in to grey, misty cloud and it’s raining – glad we didn’t go over the top, even if it had been open!

We stay on the motorway until Lucerne, where we turn off, hoping to find somewhere to stop. We don’t. Everywhere is far too busy for our liking. It’s grey and damp and the forecast is much the same for the week ahead. We make the decision to keep going, and head for France, where we know there are hundreds of places that welcome campers to stop for free. (Not much use for the Swiss Francs!) Hopefully the weather will be better too, away from the high mountains? Having decided we’ve probably tempted fait too long with our motorway stint, we take a non-motorway route West, towards Basel. It continues to be a nightmarishly busy. We’re shocked, at how built up, highly populated and full of industry and big business Switzerland seems to be. The beautiful old buildings and bright green grass are still there, but it seems, these days, more often than not, they’re surrounded by square grey and white modern boxes. Obviously much of Switzerland is taken up with the high, fairly impenetrable, mountains, and from what we could see, the side roads were very small and steep – not for us (and we’ll give most things a go!). We’ll need to do some more research before we venture back. There must surely be some motorhome friendly places?
Just south of Basel, we turn off, and are quickly into France – instant quietness and ruralness. The Alsace region, covered in rolling fields, attractive farms and villages with colourfully painted, ancient timber frame buildings is very welcome after a couple of weeks of busyness in Northern Italy and Switzerland. We stop at a dedicated ‘aire’, behind the church in the quiet village of Oltingue. There’s a big car park here, complete with 3 large dedicated camper places, surrounded by neatly clipped flower beds. Full services are provided for us. You need to put 2eu in the meter for water, but parking is free. Happy chickens pecking about in the garden next door complete this rural idle. What a difference a border makes! Shame about the 24hr clock chimes, but compared to the, electrically amplified, Greek variety they’re much more bearable.

We stay in Oltingue for 3 nights. Everybody seems friendly, wishing us “Bonjour” and “Bon weekend”. We have a couple of bike rides, enjoying the green fields and woodlands and relative quietness. It all looks very neat and organised. It’s become a popular area for Storks, and we find a refuge for them close by, with ready made platforms for them to build their nests on. We watch the young being fed and ‘Daddy Stork’ flying off for more food.

For Sunday lunch in Oltingue, we venture to a local restaurant and choose ‘Tarte Flambe’. They’re like a pizza, but with crème fraiche, or similar, in place of the tomato sauce. In German they’re called ‘Flamkoeken’. We had one back in August, last year, when we were in Ulm, Germany (https://heidihymer.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/sourcing-the-s…-of-the-danube/) – another reminder that cultures and traditions are not necessarily divided by national borders. There are a lot of impressive old half-timbered properties around these parts – again very similar to their German counterparts that we saw in the Swartzwald (Black Forrest) area. It seems a wealthy area and we assume these places must be worth a fortune, but are surprised to find you can buy a huge place with acres of land and huge barns (ideal for parking a Heidi in?) for 150-200k. Interesting!

We move on; stopping at Hirtzbach with it’s wealth of restored and brightly painted houses, before continuing to Mulhouse, where we park up out of town and head into the centre on the bikes. Mulhouse has an attractive centre square, lined with ancient buildings including the St. Etienne Cathedral and the beautifully restored and painted town hall. The town hall houses the extensive ‘Musee Historique’. Much of the info. is only in French or German, the majority of which is beyond us, so we’re pleased to find an English speaking ‘guardien’ who was keen to talk about the main hall (Salles du Fetes). This room has seen a lot of history! All the previous ‘Burgermeister’s’ shields (coats of arms) are here, going back to the 1300s! Mulhouse (for a time Mulhauzen) has variously been Swiss, German, French or an independent state. We realise we have no knowledge of where Switzerland fits in to the whole historical border thing? Something else to add to the research list! We enjoy a drink in the sunny square, before heading back to the van and continuing to the ‘Ecomusee’ (open air museum) at nearby Ungersheim.

The Ecomusee (www.ecomusee-alsace.fr), costing us 14eu each, is one of the largest open air museums in Europe. It houses all kinds of Alsatian heritage stuff; loads of reconstructed and restored half-timbered houses, farms and businesses from the surrounding area. These buildings would have been originally designed and pieced together off site anyway, so lend themselves to being moved. There’s demonstrations of traditional skills; A forge, a pottery, a cartwright, various cooking using the traditional ovens, tours of the kitchen gardens and the surrounding sustainably managed farmland, a nature reserve etc. etc. …and storks nesting and wandering around everywhere! Unfortunately lot’s of the demonstrations were not actually happening and about half of the fancy recorded information points weren’t working (and these had the best English info.). It kept us busy and entertained for most of the day, but was overall a bit disappointing.

On the 29th of May, we drive on towards ‘Le Ballon D’Alsace’. ‘Le Grand Ballon’ is the highpoint around here at 1424m. Most of the area is densely forested with occasional open spaces and views for miles – as far as the Alps on clear days. It’s not that clear for us, but we can see the Rhine valley laid out before us, and to the beginnings of the hills of the Black Forrest in the distance. It seems a popular, busy area, criss-crossed with hundreds of marked walking routes. There’s numerous lakes and waterfalls too, and with careful choosing, we found quiet, dark overnight spots; enjoying the stars and the owls by night and loads of twittering birds by day. The weather is still very changeable. We have a good sunny day, out walking, but also lots of rain, encouraging us to keep moving.

On the 1st of June, we wake up in a cloud! It’s damp and drizzly and we head out of the mountains and towards more rolling green hills in the Loraine region. The weather improves towards the end of the day as we drive along long straight roads lined with trees – very French! We end up at Lac Madine, the largest lake in the region, where we stay at an official ‘aire’ near Heudicourt-sous-les-Cotes. They’re charging 5eu a night, but that includes services. There’s even loos and showers available. There’s a campsite here too, and holiday chalets, and a conference centre etc. etc. You can walk/cycle round the lake (20km) or on a bigger circuit, which we did, around the surrounding villages (35km). On our ride, we visited the American war memorial, on the hill at Montsec – an exhausting climb, but with spectacular views of the surrounding country. This, of course, is what made it such a strategic and, fiercely fought over, location. It was controlled by the Germans for much of WW1, before being taken by an American organised offensive with huge loss of life. There are a lot of war memorials and various battlefield sites in this whole area (which has changed hands many times during both the world wars). We came across leaflets on ‘Battlefield Tourism’ – a somewhat strange concept.

We spend another couple of days in this very green place – it’s dominated by fields of wheat and other crops, and acres of mixed deciduous forests – and it’s all covered in bright green new growth. It seems, thankfully now, a very quiet and peaceful region. We find an isolated small carpark on a quiet back road and spend a day walking the woodland paths, discovering the art of the ‘Vent des Forets’ project, which each year invites international artists to place works over the area – they’re connected via a 45km network of paths. We recover from what was rather a long walk by spending another day, mainly sitting, reading, and just enjoying the quiet ‘greenness’ and the birdsong. It’s hot (35C) and the sky is a clear, cloudless blue. No more than 4 or five cars pass in 24hrs. Another! good spot. At 8pm, we’re still sitting outside wearing very little. At 9 the sun descends below the horizon, and at 11 it’s still feeling warm with a pinky glow along the horizon. We watch the bats and listen to the foxes calling..

 

Friday 5th of June. It’s going to be another hot hot day. Time to head north; if for no other reason than to create a bit of breeze! We wend our way through quiet green countryside; fields and fields of wheat and other crops; sleepy villages – huge barns with small houses attached. We visit an unusual modern church in the woods, and then the, disturbingly huge, American war cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montifaucon. In the afternoon, we try and find some respite from the heat at a shaded picnic area; but after a couple of hours of 36 degree heat with a wind that feels like a hair dryer, we decide to continue and drive on to Montherme, on a tight bend of the River Meuse. It’s an officially allocated motorhome spot and very popular; there must be 20 vans here. We join everybody else sitting on the grassy river bank and enjoy a drink as the heat finally relents and gives way to thunder and rain by the evening. We’re now in the Ardenne region. Steeply wooded slopes, lead down to the winding river. There’s signposted walking and bike routes in both directions – another place we’ll put on the ‘must come back to’ list.

In the morning, we’re quickly through the Ardennes cross-country skiing areas and into the much flatter lands further north. We blink, and the signs have changed from French to Dutch (or Flemish?). We skirt the southern edge of Bruxelles before heading West across completely flat land, dotted with Friesian cows and farmhouses with red tiled roofs. We’re travelling fast on the now free, and very busy, motorways. In no time, we reach the coast and head South again to find the place we’d visited before at Zuydcote, near Dunkirk. It’s just over 11 months since we were here last (https://heidihymer.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/destintation-dunkerque/)   and there’s been a few miles (aprox.  8510m / 13700km) under our wheels since then. How many of you, reading this, have done more than that driving backwards and forwards to work, I wonder?

Time to relax for a few days. We do some washing, buy a ticket back to the UK, and consider our next move….

In Flanders’ Fields

On Monday morning (7th July), in fresh showery sunshine, we headed inland to the towns and fields of French Flanders.  As we drove out of Dunkerque we stopped at the main cemetery in the town, to visit the ‘British Memorial’, This commemorates the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Forces who fell in the campaign of 1939 to 1940.

DSC01094

Lining each side of the central avenue are columns bearing the names of the 4528 British Army and 6 Indian Army soldiers who rest in unmarked graves.  Next to this memorial are the graves of 810 soldiers from both World Wars, the majority of whom fell defending the perimeter of Dunkerque or during the evacuation operations in May-June 1940.

DSC01103

The town cemetery also contains the graves of both French and Belgian soldiers who fell in both World Wars.

DSC01088

After a brief lunch stop near the walled town of Bergues, we headed to the pretty town of Esquelbecq.

DSC01119

Just as you leave the town, you take a right down a small road between fields to ‘La Plaine au Bois’.

DSC01141

Here on 28th May 1940, over 90 British soldiers defending the strategic crossroads at the nearby town of Wormhout, were attacked and taken prisoner by German forces and were forced to stand shoulder to shoulder in a small barn.  A few hours later, in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention, members of the SS Adolf Hitler division (the Führer’s personal guard) threw hand grenades into the barn and then continued the massacre with machineguns! Only 12 survived and were later discovered by the local farmer’s daughters.

DSC01135The site has become a place of remembrance and an exact replica of the barn was built along with planting 80 commemorative beech trees.

DSC01129

As we drove through the fields to our night stop in Hondschoote, we saw a variety crops being grown: – potatoes, corn, wheat, turnip and flax.  Unfortunately we were just too late to see the fields cover in blue flax flowers. Our wander through the fields also produced bounty for our dinner table; wild potatoes and a very tasty horse mushroom – Yum!

DSC01124

DSC01153

Flemish Architechture - Hondschoote Town Hall. Spot the 'bottle arches'

Flemish Architecture – Hondschoote Town Hall. Spot the ‘bottle arches’

Hondschoote

The next morning we crossed the border into Flemish Flanders, to find that our Garmin Sat Nav seemed to think Belgium didn’t exist! Fortunately we were able use our laptop and good old Autoroute to reach our destination; Diksmuide, Belgium.

The town of Diksmuide is dominated by the monstrous and oppressive looking 84m high IJzer Tower. Built by Flemish nationals it bears the letters AVV, VVK; “Alles voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen voor Kristus”.

DSC01224

The tower contains the Museum of the IJzer, it costs 8 euros each for adults, but was very informative and interesting, we spent four hours there! When you first enter the museum, you’re whisked up 22 floors in a lift for fabulous views of Diksmuide and the Flanders fields.

DSC01172

Then by taking the steps back down you’re taken through all aspects of the First World War;

Life in the trenches:

As the Germans surround the Allies, the Belgians stop their advance by opening the locks and floodgates at Nieuwpoort

As the Germans surround the Allies, the Belgians stop their advance by opening the locks and floodgates at Nieuwpoort

 

"The mud, the horrible mud, the worst thing in the world, in which crawls an army..."

“The mud, the horrible mud, the worst thing in the world, in which crawls an army…”

Life continues in the trenches for almost THREE YEARS of ‘stalemate’:

DSC01205

Comeradery - All the trenches were inches deep in water. Clearing out the rats was a constant task.

Comradery – All the trenches were inches deep in water. Clearing out the rats was a constant task.

There's even time for art - working on the spent shell cases!

There’s even time for art – working on the spent shell cases!

Life of civilians in both occupied and unoccupied Belgium:

Refugees from Holland and Belgium fleeing to unoccupied territory.

Refugees from Holland and Belgium fleeing to unoccupied territory.

What would you take?

What would you take?

The ‘Propaganda Machine’:

Belgian Resistance paper ..perhaps they wished they had. Opening the floodgates was more efficient!

Belgian Resistance paper ..perhaps they wished they had. Opening the floodgates was more efficient!

Cartoon in British paper. The Vlaamshe Stem (Flemish Voice), a Flemish paper, was bought by the Germans, whereupon the whole staff resigned, as it no longer represented its title!

Cartoon in British paper.
The Vlaamshe Stem (Flemish Voice), a Flemish paper, was bought by the Germans, whereupon the whole staff resigned, as it no longer represented its title!

The current exhibition runs from 2014 to 2018, well worth a detour.

 

Just up the river from the tower are what were once called the Trenches of Death. Although very sanitized now, this 400m length gives you some sense of the scale and size these trenches which formed the 400km of the Western Front.

DSC01231

Flanders Fields

Destintation Dunkerque

 

First French Sunset - on Zuydcoote Beach

First French Sunset – on Zuydcoote Beach

Well – the weather outside is gross so we thought we’d start our post with a nice sunset! It’s the afternoon on Sunday 6th July; we’re enjoying tea and Marmite toast as the rain runs off Heidi’s roof on the seafront at Dunkerque.

On Tuesday 1st July after weeks of preparation, we filled and emptied Heidi’s tanks, before saying farewell to our spot at 7a and starting our journey East. Our evening destination was Stevenage to visit Steve; Peter’s friend from school, who we last saw at our wedding nearly seventeen years ago. On route we rested at Startopsend, near Tring, a set of stairway locks on the Grand Union Canal; and walked round the nearby Reservoirs built as a water supply to the canal.

Tring Reservoirs

Tring Reservoirs

The following morning after a very pleasant evening with Steve and Virginia we trundled on the motorway to Kent, spending the afternoon at Minnis Bay near Margate. Peter then spent a frustrating few hours trying sort out our new Toggle SIM so we can keep in touch throughout Europe.

Our last night stop in the UK was overlooking the Dover Straits near the of village St Margaret at Cliffe.  After a leisurely start to the day and a final English breakfast; on Thursday 3 July a little after 1pm we boarded the ferry to Calais. Auf Wierdersehen England!

That's OUR Boat!

That’s OUR Boat!

Coastal views from 'The Lookout' at St Margaret at Cliffe

Coastal views from ‘The Lookout’ at St Margaret at Cliffe

 

 

 

 

 

 

We disembarked at 16:00 local time and were quickly out of the port and on our way to Dunkerque 45km away. Heading to a motorhome ‘official’ parking spot on the East end of the Avenue de la Mer. This spot we found to be full so we carried on a little further down the coast to Zuydcoote and parked just behind the dunes; a good spot just a few minutes walk from the beach.

Zuydcoote!

Zuydcoote!

With this year being a 100 years and 75 years since the start of the First and Second World Wars respectively, we were keen to learn more and remember those who fought.

At sunset we walked along the beach at low tide to the wreck of the ‘Crested Eagle’.  A Thames Paddle Steamer used as minesweeper during the Second World War. She was bombed by German aircraft on 29th May 1940 during the evacuation of the British Army from the Dunkerque beaches. At the time the Crested Eagle was carrying 600 soldiers plus crew, she caught fire and ran aground at Zuydcoote with the loss of over 300 men.

It was one of many similar paddle steamers used. The restored ‘Princess Elizabeth’ now resides here in the harbour and interestingly for us Bristol Channel sailors, the ‘Waverley’ was also amongst them.

DSC01030

The 'Princess Elizabeth', one of many civilian ships used in the evacuation

The ‘Princess Elizabeth’, one of many civilian ships used in the evacuation

The next morning we got on our bikes go exploring! The first place we stopped was the Zuydcoote Military Cemetary. There are casualties from both the First & Second World Wars buried here. Those from the First World War were fighting on the Nieuwpoort Sector of the Western Front in 1917 and died in the hospital here in Zuydcoote – mostly now empty and derelict. The soldiers from the Second World War were French who, ‘mort pour la France’, fighting in the Battle of Dunkerque 25 May to 4 June 1940.

Zuydcoote Military Hospital

Zuydcoote Military Hospital

English French and German; as well as Christian Muslim and Jewish..

WWI - German soldiers, Christian & Jew side by side

WWI – German soldiers, Christian & Jew side by side

So Many…..So Young….DSC01035

“ Flight Sub Lieutenant J T Bone died October 1915 aged 22”
“Unknown Soldier”
“ W J Golden of the Royal Irish Rifles dies June 1918 aged 17!”

It’s hard to understand how a gunshot in Serbia on 28th June 1914 could lead to all this!

In quiet reflection we leave the cemetery and cycle to seafront at Bray-Dunes before returning to Heidi via Carrefour!

Saturday morning it rained and rained and then rained some more. Finally at lunchtime the clouds cleared and we set off on our bikes again; along lovely flat roads in to Dunkerque.  Passing the Fort de Dunes, a military fortification built under the sands to protect the port of Dunkerque after the Franco-Prusian War of 1870.

Les Fort des Dunes

Les Fort des Dunes

We finally made it to the Basin du Commerce, where they had kindly laid on some entertainment for us!DSC01059

..back to Dunkirque with Heidi, ready to visit The Memorial du Souvenir (Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo Museum) in the morning.

Busy!

Busy!

..the view's not bad though

..the view’s not bad though

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back from the museum http://www.dynamo-dunkerque.com and feeling educated..

Operation Dynamo, carried out on the 26th May to the 4th June 1940, led to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and thousands of northern French soldiers. It was the largest evacuation effort in military history, and an unimaginable success after the humiliating defeat of being surrounded and overcome by the German Nazis. A ‘miracle that allowed 338,226 allied soldiers, including 123,095 French and 16,816 Belgian soldiers to escape the hell of Dunkirk.

They were evacuated by a huge fleet of British military, but also hundreds of civilian ships and small private boats ‘the little ships’, who picked soldiers up from the harbour’s East Mole, where we are parked. They also made makeshift ‘jetties’, out of lines and lines of trucks put in place at low tide, further along the beaches so that the larger ships could come alongside – ingenious!

Of course, a great many didn’t make it. 4,534 who have no known graves are remembered in the nearby British Memorial.

snapshot_14049169364001720569416