Day 11: The Deluge

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It sure knows how to rain in Belgium. Anyone following the Grand Prix practise sessions will be aware of the amount of water on the racetrack giving rise to rumours of abandonment. Well we are only 8 kms from that very track and can assure you that it has rained so heavily today that we have only been able to dash from the caravan to the toilets and back again. And it is not very warm at all. Both Mary and I have donned the one warm piece of clothing we brought with us and consideration may have to be given to putting the fire on if things don’t improve.

This has of course done nothing (well, very little) to dampen our escapological spirits and we have found various means of amusing ourselves in the caravan today. But enough of that! It has given me the opportunity to acquaint myself again with Simenon and I am halfway through the excellent “Le chien jaune” whose owner is probably the killer and will definitely get caught by the astoundingly laidback inspector Maigret.  His very name conjures up for me the opening sequence of the BBC’s original series in which Rupert Davies would be seen striking a match and sheltering its fragile flame in order to light his pipe. My dear Mum loved that! I can hear that accordion too.

It is now 16.30 and for the first time today it may be possible to go outside without drowning. Mary has just left on an adventure to Reception to find out what is hot and what is not. There’s probably synchronized swimming on the path beside the caravan followed by fly-fishing in the car park. I reckon we picked the right day to go and see Liege yesterday as it was warm and sunny and above all completely dry.

I must put in a good word for the caravan and awning which have now seen us through 2 monsoons in Killin, 2 days downpour in Amsterdam and 16 hours ridiculous non-stop rain here in Spa. I am in no way exaggerating when I say not a single drop of water has penetrated either of the 2 structures. This has really impressed us as we could not have known we were buying such weatherproof facilities as these at the moment we decided to buy. Shall I uncross my fingers now? I’m sure all you pessimists out there are thinking “He shouldn’t have said that!” but if we didn’t have our attitude right we would never have left Dundee would we?

I notice from Facebook that Scott is to have a leaving party. Should we worry? What could go wrong with a cup of tea with his brothers and a selection of his best friends in a nice café on the Perth Road? At least that’s what I assume he’ll be doing!

We went out for a walk before tea and found the site packed to capacity with F1 fans. The place is jumping, there’s a buffet on as well as a disco and general mayhem. We spoke to some Brits who look like they’ve swum over from Blighty and they enthused in a way we could not understand about that forthcoming car thing at Spa-Francorochamps or whatever the circuit is called. We’re half expecting Murray Walker to walk by at any moment (that’s assuming he’s not dead. Well, is he?) “And Alain Prost wiiiins!”

Ok, we’ve given in and put on the fire, or to be precise the halogen heater Gavin and Eve lent us. It’s very efficient and hasn’t fused the entire campsite…..yet! I feel a session coming on tonight but will have to ca canny as it’s up sticks and off to hopefully sunny Deutschland tomorrow. Koblenz beckons, the Rhine, sausage, Lederhosen, Lili Marlene and other stereotypes. Moenchengladbach and Bratkartoffeln (that’s just for Gavin!)

God but this is fun!!

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Day 10: Simenon

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Today we thought we would go in search of Georges Simenon to see how the creator of the famous detective “Maigret” is remembered in his home town. So after breakfast Mary prepared a packed lunch and we drove back up to Liege, about 30 kms away. I decided to be brave and drive right into the heart of the town, eventually finding an underground car park beneath the Opera shopping centre. God those access lanes are really tight and I had to take a cut at one of the bends to ensure I didn’t scrape the car against a concrete pillar. However we successfully got ourselves parked on level -3 and took the lift to civilisation.

We found ourselves very close to Liege cathedral so this prompted us to pay a short visit before settling down in the pedestrian precinct for lunch. Midway through a ham and cheese doorstop (with that Baxter’s chutney, thanks again Marie!) my attention was drawn to 2 young boys about 6-7 years of age who were deep in a game just a couple of meters away.  I could clearly hear what they were saying although the hand gestures also gave the game away. As they hid one hand behind their backs, they chanted rhythmically “Pierre, Papier, Ciseaux” and revealed their chosen shape on the third word. Well, well, well. There’s nothing new in the world, is there? Stupidly I asked the boys what the game was called. The wee one with the NHS specs looked at me quizzically and answered oh so politely “Monsieur, le jeu s’appelle “Pierre, Papier, Ciseaux!”. Somehow I should have known that. I then introduced them to the Scottish fourth shape – the crane – and, lunch having ended, left them chanting anew “Pierre, Papier, Ciseaux……Grue!!”

Tragically the next 3 hours were spent tracking down Georges Simenon’s museum only to discover there actually isn’t one but a series of plaques on various buildings along with the normal exploitative name stealing of Café Georges Simenon, Restaurant Georges Simenon, Boulangerie Georges Simenon and Piscine Georges Simenon.

                             There you go!

After a quick visit to the toilettes George Simenon (ok that’s not true!) we wandered back over the river Meuse and took in the other sites of Liege city centre before settling down for a grand crème. We felt we couldn’t leave Liege without some genuine Belgian chocolate, so we popped into a patisserie and emerged with some kind of sculpture, a swirling cone of meringue and chocolate ganache. To die for!

I actually ate my half of the cake as I wound my way through the Liege rush hour traffic, head craning this way and that while listening to Victoria telling me to “make a U-turn when it’s safe to do so!” and Mary alerting me to what was coming up ahead. Who said men can’t multi-task?

We stopped in the local town of Sart to shop at Proxy, stocking up for the next couple of days. Back safely at the campsite we were astonished at the sudden influx of visitors, discovering we had multiple neighbours now (disappointingly all Brits) and all revving up for this weekend’s Grand Prix. Tea of stir-fry and pasta was followed by a quick nap and then Waterloo Road which was actually rubbish this week. I stuck my feet in a basin of warm water for a half-hour just to pamper them after their support of the Tour de Belgique today and then it was TV in bed and Goodnight Liege. Honestly too tired to blog so am writing this Friday morning. And it’s chucking it down!

Day 9: Liege

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When we stirred from our slumber this morning it was already 20 degrees but we had no plans for sunbathing as today was a moving day, not in the emotional sense, but literally. It would be Bye! Bye! Antwerp and Bonjour or Hallo! Liege. Right after breakfast, we hit the showers, packed our gear away, dismantled the awning, hitched up and drove off. The ducks laughed us off the campsite.

Victoria took us through some ordinary roads before letting us loose on the motorways. It was on one such small road that I decided to fill up with diesel at a wee petrol station. As I struggled to understand how the pump worked, a diminutive balding man came out and explained in Flemish that…….. well, I don’t exactly know what he explained, but it seemed this was not a self-service pump. We were whisked back to the good old days of motoring when you could stay in the car while the tank was filled, the windscreen was washed and the oil was checked! Isn’t that strange? I’ve just written a sentence whose 4 main points are all factually incorrect! I got out of the car, the man did not fill the tank (but gave me 50 euros worth), nobody went near the windscreen and only an Audi engineer would know how to check the oil.

We arrived at the site near the town of Spa only to discover it was full. It wasn’t full at that moment but promised to be by the end of the week as motor fans poured into the area for next weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix somewhere nearby. I asked the girl to see what she could perhaps organize, crossed my fingers and went and had a coffee with Mary. Sure enough a place was found, apparently one booked by a family called… McDonald! Hope they don’t turn up tomorrow or we could have another slaughter in the glens of Belgium.

We set up quite quickly this time and had a walk around the site. Two facilities caught our attention. One was at the bottom of the site over a bridge and across a football pitch and turned out to be an outdoor gymnasium with 5 or 6 machines to work up a sweat on. Amazing! The second was a lovely large swimming pool! We hurried back to the caravan, jumped into our swimmies and headed back to the pool which was fantastic in the glorious sunshine of the afternoon. Splish! Splash!

Isn’t it a total bummer that even warm water feels really cold when you first put your sensitive bits in? I amused a selection of motley swimmers by sitting on the top step at the shallow end and then moving one step down in the sitting position every 3 or 4 minutes until all of me was in except that bit from the nipples up! OMG how excrutiating is that last bit? Finally of course I slid below the surface and immersed myself in the clear blue water, mostly to escape the grinning onlookers, especially the 4 Italian bronzed ragazzi who just threw their clothes off and dived in. I of course had avoided this after reading the Flemish notice that said “Duken Verboden!”. At least that’s what I told Mary.

Speaking of which, Madame Burton didn’t exactly divebomb into the deep end either, you know. No, she took a ladylike 5 minutes “to get to know her environment”  before she joined me in a cool, relaxing doggy paddle. That was our first swim outdoors since last summer with the family in the Vendée. A swift 40 winks followed tea tonight and I’ve just watched the opening ceremony of the Paraylmpic Games on channel 4. I must tell you that the reception on satellite here is over 90%, the best we’ve had. As a Scot I’m pleased the Hoops have won again tonight as that gives me someone to cheer on for the rest of the year.

One huge drawback here. No ducks!

Day 8: Farniente

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The title comes from the 2 Italian words for “do” and “nothing” suggesting that we had no great plans for today. Admittedly it would be our last chance to visit the town of Antwerp but quite frankly nothing we read left us with an itch that just had to be scratched. My humble apologies to any Antwerpians reading this blog!

Before we knew it, it was past lunchtime and time for a sleep. Now that may sound like crass hedonism verging on sinfulness but it really isn’t, honest. Everyone on site here spends the whole day doing as little as is possible without actually messing their own pants rather than walk the few meters to the toilets. The highlight of the day is when the man drives round in his grass-cutter. Quite a sight. And there was excitement verging on hysteria when one of the 12 anglers positioned round the lake actually caught a fish, although it was small enough to have fitted in a sardine tin, even with its head on.

To calm down from this series of highs, we decided to go and visit the nearby town of Turnhout. Turns out (oops!) it was a good move as the weather got better and better and the town revealed itself to be a hidden gem. We wandered around the city centre, explored the 2 large churches nearby and ventured into Schuhright where Mary splashed out 4 euros on a pair of flip-flops.

Uncle Ian will no doubt bristle with joy when I say that we did a bit of shopping at Lidl in the town and bought a huge satellite dish, a lawnmower and a de luxe gazebo. Only kidding! We actually bought enough food to see us through the next few days as well as some kitchen roll and toilet tissue which surprisingly this Belgian site does not have among their facilities. So that’s why we never saw Tintin go to the loo.

Two nights ago we skyped several of you and were delighted to catch up with the latest news. Upon reflection we did not realise at the time precisely what we were participating in. Picture the scene. We are in a wee caravan in the middle of a forest, 10 kms from the nearest town, 40 kms from Antwerp in Belgium. We are sitting in front of a black box called a laptop and, after a few clicks with the mouse, we are talking in real time with almost no time delay with Gavin & Eve. Not only that but we can see them in their living room in Arbroath and it is obvious my daughter-in-law has a poor taste in pyjamas. Consider what I have just said. Can you imagine recreating such amenities if you find yourself a survivor of an Armageddon scenario?

Tomorrow, after packing up and hitching up (and once Mary has straightened her hair), we are off south-east to the area around Liege near the Belgium-German border to a spa site. We could find ourselves being seriously pampered for the next 3 days before we head into Germany and drive down the Rhine to Koblenz where Mary has been every 2 years for the past 10 with Monifieth High School. I have never been there so hopefully will be able to sit back and let my lovely guide show me the sights and sounds of the Lorelei area. So goodbye Antwerp, but we will both really miss our new friends, the ducks!

As a postscript, thank you for all your positive comments about this blog. Hopefully I will be able to brighten up your mornings for many weeks to come.

Day 7: Etten-Leur

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We awoke to a cloudless sky and unbroken sunshine this morning. We liked that. But the day took an immediate turn for the worse when I discovered my beloved packet of Tesco Muesli finished and I was forced, nay tortured, into joining Mary in a healthy bowl of discarded husks stuck together with superglue. In short Weetabix. This curse on the discerning breakfaster is tantamount to the cracking of a couple of eggs, the discarding of both whites and yolks and the eventual consumption of the crushed shells. At least my gruel was eaten outside by the pond.

The view from our awning

You have to admit, ducks really know how to laugh. They seem to spend all day doing it here, splitting their feathery sides with the most raucous of laughter at the sight of…… just about anything! How we brits claim their clarion call to be the sound “quack!” is beyond me, and the same goes for the French who think ducks say “coin!coin!” seemingly appealing to a duck referee for a corner. I recall the cleverest boy in S6 at Lawside when I was there also had the heartiest laugh. He was the Dux too!

Ducks are also philosophical. They appear to worry a lot about the direction duckkind is taking and they express their despair by regularly tipping themselves forward and plunging their heads below the surface of the pond. They may even be trying very unsuccessfully to end it all! Ostriches avoid the realities of life in a similar way and many of you may even think Mary and I are doing that very thing ourselves right now.

                                Don’t do it!

To get back to the laughter of the ducks Mary thinks the sound they make was the inspiration for that most memorable advertising campaign for Smash instant mashed potato. Remember how the extra-terrestrials fell about laughing as they witnessed humans preparing real potatoes? “….and then they smash them all to pieces!” Bet you’re smiling.

We were busy doing nothing when Petra phoned to say she had been given our message by her neighbour and would we come for tea. We accepted of course and were soon driving back to the Netherlands to Petra’s house in Etten-Leur. We had a lovely Chinese meal along with Petra, her younger daughter Kelly and her friend Samantha. It was really nice being back to the place where my friend Larry was laid to rest. God bless his family.

Samantha, Mary and Kelly

Our return journey was quite adventurous in the dark as I am not really all that used to Victoria our new SatNav girl on Tomtom but we did nonetheless get back to the caravan safe and sound with only 2 wrong turnings. Sleep beckons, my friends, and I believe someone may just have told the funniest joke of all time…… to the ducks!!

Day 6: Back on the road

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If we were genuinely meant to be hitched up and away by 10.30 then the torrential downpours of last night and this morning certainly put paid to that. The girls at reception were however tall, blond, beautiful but, above all, very understanding, and made it clear to us that we could stay until we were absolutely ready to leave. Quite a relief!

Thankfully the sun came out at about 11 and we seized the opportunity (carpe diem!) to dismantle the awning and pack everything away. Once we were ready to leave and Mary had finished straightening her hair we started to swing the caravan around on its axle and heave it off the grass back onto the tarmac. This proved a bit strenuous but 4 other campers appeared out of nowhere and lent their shoulders and arms to the task, hauling the caravan to terra negra firma in no time. A brief stop to hand in the extension lead I had borrowed and recover my Camping Card I had left as a deposit and we were off on the road to our second destination.

Both Amsterdam and Utrecht were pleasant places to visit, the two of them displaying particular similarities involving canals and boats. We did however think Amsterdam yesterday evening was beginning to bounce and had we had the energy then we feel there would have been much fun to be had. The seedier side was not what we had anticipated and surprisingly the ladies in the windows caused little offense or repugnance: it was the sights and sounds from inside the Kaffeehuis which seemed most unsettling and I would suggest visiting such places only in the company of a few like-minded friends.

We headed south towards Rotterdam for about an hour then swung over towards Breda, the TomTom taking us unerringly to a town called Etten-Leur and more precisely to the door of the widow of my dearly departed friend Ian “Larry” Mills. I had come here in January 2011 with 2 pals from the University of St. Andrew’s to attend Larry’s funeral, arriving on the day of the cremation at 12.00 p.m. and leaving 8 hours later. I remember that, when I got home to Dundee I, like Augustin the hero of  Alain-Fournier’s “Le Grand Meaules”, was uncertain as to whether my trip had been real or simply a particularly vivid dream. Unfortunately Larry’s wife Petra and their family were not at home as we had not forewarned them of our arrival (to make the visit a nice surprise) but I brass-necked it and knocked on their neighbours’ door, asked if they spoke English (Is the Pope a Catholic?!) and got us both invited in for tea and biscuits. Gift of the gab or what?

The rest of our journey was uneventful and we were soon camped at the side of a lovely pond with a south-facing aspect some 20 miles from the port of Antwerp. It is here, taking advantage of the site’s astonishingly generous free Wi-Fi, that I am writing this entry accompanied by my wonderfully courageous wife (for taking this on with me!) a glass of red, some Tuc crackers with Gouda cheese and Baxter’s Chilli chutney, a most marvellous going-away gift from dear auntie Marie despite her sore leg. My friends, we bid you farewell for the moment. mary has a novel to finish and I am about to watch Match of the day 2!

Day 5: Anne Frank’s House

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You’ll be expecting tales of an excellent sound sleep and a lovely relaxed breakfast under the awning and to a certain extent you’d be right. What you will not have expected would be us getting woken up at 3 a.m. by the rain clattering down on the roof of the caravan. We did however nod off again quickly and it was past 8.30 when we rolled from our bed and made a cup of tea.

While I prepared sandwiches for our lunch, Mary had a shower and straightened her hair. Great teamwork! We drove back to Velsen Zuid and took the fabulously fast flying ferry down to Amsterdam and took in some more of the sights, just wandering through the streets watching life passing around us. As it was Saturday there seemed to be a lot more people and bicycles zipping about. We certainly noticed a strong sweet smell in the air down the narrower vennels of the old town and I knew it must be Marijuanha (because a bad boy once described it to me!)

At 4 p.m. we were outside the famous Ann Frank’s house and thankfully able to avoid the ten mile queue of people waiting to get in, my gratitude obvious to my clever wife who had had the forethought to purchase the entry tickets online on Thursday evening. Thank you, Mary. The visit was very interesting but not nearly as harrowing as we had anticipated, although the walk through the Secret Annexe where Ann remained hidden for so long with family and friends was a sobering experience. The quotes from her diaries brought home how she had longed to be free, go outside into the fresh air and escape from the hell that was all around them. For a young girl she was very astute in her assessment of the evil being perpetrated by the Nazis. I personally felt angry on 2 counts: 1 – that some swine betrayed them all to the Germans and 2 – that the poor girl died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp only a month before liberation.

On our way back to the quay we encountered what must be close to the best way of getting round Amsterdam while simultaneously getting rat-arsed with your mates. It’s called the Beer-Bikes and involves a group of friends sitting either side of a bar while peddling through the town. Absolutely brilliant!

After our visit we hopped back on the fast ferry and were home in about 25 minutes. We intend to get up early tomorrow as we have to leave for Antwerp by 10.30 once we have dismantled the awning, packed everything away and hitched up to the car. And Mary will have her hair to straighten!

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