Since we were making our way to northern Atlantic coast France, we stayed to the west in Belgium. Our first stop was Antwerp where we stayed at the city camperstop N1.18958 E4.40064 where we were just two years ago. Not much had changed except the price was now 10E a night and the tram ride increased to 3E. There were no longer machines available to buy the much less expensive tickets until you got into the city where we purchased a 10 ride card for 14E that could be used for multiple riders. The tourist office said it was also good in Ghent and Brugges. If you walk out to the right of camperstop you can catch the Expo free wifi sitting near their gate. Our main goal was the residential area of Art Nouveau homes Zurenborg just next to the Berchem train station. We had decided not to visit two years ago because of rain and cold—had we known how marvelous it was no weather would have kept us away. It was far and away the most beautiful and unique area of homes anywhere in Europe—but then we are very partial to Art Nouveau. We only had the short write up in the Lonely Planet to guide us. We hope to be armed with more information before our next visit.
The main museum in Antwerp is still closed for restoration with its art spread between the Cathedral and the Rockoxhaus. Rather than go back, we decided to wait till 2016 when it will all be back together. The museum building itself is a UNESCO site, so it will certainly be worth a return trip. By the way, don't miss the main train station—incredibly beautiful and right next to a vibrant Chinatown. How strange to see menus posted in the window in Chinese, Flemish, French and English.
Next up, Ghent. Ghent is an easy place to visit with a free camperstop in the suburb Gentbrugge N51.03765 E3.76638 . Lots of space available and to get to the bus walk under the expressway and catch bus 3. Yes, the expressway does make it a bit noisy. There are no facilities there. Last time we were able to use the snackbar's wifi. Maybe we were there on a weekend but the snackbar wasn't open this time. Ghent was all about walking around and seeing new neighborhoods that we had missed before. With three main squares there is a lot to miss. We did revisit Van Eyck's famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in the cathedral. The audio is terrific but really long. Unfortunately, between the glass and the wood railings you really can't see it that well even with binoculars. I don't think we will try again. They still have the photographic copy in the original chapel but it was locked with a sign for guided tours only. Sigh. Still the city is terrific and we had an absolutely glorious Belgium waffle. This one was somewhat different than others we've had, with an almost candy coating that kept its crunch.
Of course the star of the west Belgium trifecta is Brugges, though Mark likes Ghent best. I admit Brugges is very crowded but it is still lovely. Memling and Van Eyke may not forgive us, but we didn't return to the art museums and instead strolled all the neighborhoods we hadn't had time for before. We didn't stay at the 22E camperstop but at Kleine Strand campground in the suburb of Jabekke during the last week our discount card would be good this summer. Only 18E and no tax—but in July and August that would rise to 39E! But they have a lake, water park, kiddie rides, entertainment—all the things European families are looking for for their holidays. Unfortunately, our bus tickets we bought in Antwerp couldn't be used on the suburban system so we paid 3E for our ride to the center. The camperstop would be cheaper if you add in the bus fares. The bus stop is the one with the Bicycle and nude statues (don't ask) and everything you want to see is really within walking distance. Do allow at least two days for any of these cities.
On our way to the coast, we stopped in Veurne (not that far from Dunkerque)for a couple of nights at their free camperstop N51.07037 E2.66599. What a lovely town. The camperstop is on the canal with lots of room and a very short walk to the town center. This Gros Markt unfortunately still allows cars but the buildings are beautiful and the UNESCO carillon plays several times each hour. Two large cathedral type churches—one of which was built over a 1000 year period and at one point had part of it turned into a cistern for water storage. The TI offered free wifi that is not turned off after hours. Just get the password before they close. Lots of bicycle trails wound along the canals and over to the coast. I will say this, if you are a good bicycle rider you should definitely buy or bring your bikes. They will pay for themselves in saved bus and tram fares and also allow you some unique opportunities. Of course, the low countries and Denmark are the absolute best for riding but bicycles are ubiquitous throughout Europe.
Our refrigerator had been acting up on propane and not cooling. We called Rene in Amsterdam but he was out of the country for another 6 days and told us to have someone clean it and he would pay the bill. Normally, his guarantee requires you to bring the vehicle back to his shop but the fridge has been giving us problems all along. After a week of calling and emailing various camper places we could find no one to work on it. After consulting the internet, Mark tried to get the fridge out to clean the burner but it wouldn't budge. So we made a quick trip back to Amsterdam and Rene and his helper sawed off the screw shafts holding it, cleaned 14 years of gunk out of the burner, and then it worked great. We decided to stop back by Westhavleen brewery on the way back to France to try again to buy beer. They were sold out Saturday afternoon and the place was packed. We bought some glasses for our daughter and got permission to spend the night in the parking lot. Very quiet until 7 am when the bells for the monks chimed.
We then visited Ypres having seen the spires from a distance and been very impressed. The entire town was flattened during WWI. Now, we have been to many places in Europe where the destruction from WWII was pretty complete, but none of the pictures we saw in those places compared to the damage in Ypres. So yes, everything is reconstructed but still the Cloth Hall was a magnificent sight. It is one of Belgium's greatest buildings and even larger than the cathedral. Also the Memorial Commonwealth Arch with its 54,000 names of soldiers who died but had no graves was very moving. We didn't go to the Flanders Fields Museum but will save that for our next visit.
Back to Westhavleen to the brewery we had a great lunch. Where else can you get a croque monsieur for 3.8E with table service? Still no beer available for sale, but maybe after 2 pm. So we hung around and Mark managed to que up right at the start and bought a 6 pack for the dark 8. You are allowed two 6 packs per person and they maybe had 100 for sale. There was no way after the first 5 minutes of forming the line that the rest were going to get any beer. It was quite an experience. The 6 pack cost 16E. One young man we spoke with the day before said he bought 3 bottles in Brugges for 15E each. Our daughter claims they go on Ebay for $80 each. So having finally had success with buying the best beer in the world it was off to France again.