Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ghent stopover

OK, ok, I know. "Surely'" you are no doubt thinking by now, "they can't still be pootling along in a convoy, can they?"

Indeed we are not. We have found ourselves, post Gathering, in deepest, darkest North Netherlands. It's been a busy week-and-a-bit. We've been putting the finishing touches to the September Airstream Gathering (details very soon!) and there were all sorts of shenanigans going on on the UKAirstreamers Forum after Pete Ritchie of Vatco did a runner with people's money, leaving work undone and trailers in pieces. There was a good deal too much undignified mud-slinging from a small group of Forum members and I felt the need to roll my sleeves up and wade in to do some heavy moderating. It was, pretty much, a full-time job for a few days.

So now we're boondocking again. This time we're in the back yard of a wonderfully generous Dutch family, Axel, Annieta, Sven & Lyn. And luckily, Axel has superfast WiFi, so I've been spending most of the time on t'interweb.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," I hear you interject. "But what about the convoy and Ghent and Venlo and all that Airstreamy stuff? That's why we read this rubbish!"

Be gentle, dear readers - it's been a hard week. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin...

Where was I? Oh yes...

We spent three nights in Ghent, and I think we all needed it.

It's not that we'd driven far or for a long time, but the excitement and stress of the preceding few days left a lot of us feeling more than a little drained.

Luckily (for everyone else on the campsite), we had an area to ourselves. Which was nice.

Our first full day there brought good cycling weather, so a small, intrepid group of explorers set out to find the heart of the city. It's possibly worth pointing out that the campsite was a municipal affair, functional and clean but nothing award-winning. It's also worth pointing out that the site was on the edge of a huge recreational area, with sports facilities of every kind and even a lake with a man-made beach, all of which made it a pleasure to cycle through - once we had figured out which way we were going.

The trip into the city was mostly along a canal, making for easy cycling. It was our first introduction to the way the cyclist can be treated on the Continent, and it was royally. Cycle lanes are abundant and not just half-a-yard scrounged from the side of the road. They are usually wide and up on the pavement, but in addition to the pedestrian bit. Utterly joyful to ride on - once we had figured out which way we were going.

Ghent itself was an interesting city. Much of it has survived more wars than you can shake a musket at, and the typically Flemish buildings are everywhere.

Perhaps it's worth a quick lesson in how to pronounce the word "Ghent" like a local. You'll need a good helping of spit for this one - half a pint or so should be enough. Then, with the aforementioned bolus nicely positioned at the back of your throat, take a good run-up and try to say "Gent", "Kent," and "Hent" all at the same time and without choking. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Ghent is in the Flemish part of Belgium.

We spent an hour or so wandering around, before the biological cry for lunch went up, then we wandered around for another half an hour or so, trying to find a supermarket where we could rustle up a picnic. We finally found a lovely big deli, posh enough to be at home in Selfridges and expensive enough to have been airlifted from Harrods. But we managed to find something in foreign to nibble on by the canal. Which was nice.

After lunch, we had a wander around more of the city, coming across some History, in the form of Gravensteen Castle..

Apparently, the castle was abandoned by it's aristocratic occupants some time in the 14th Century, and over the next few hundred years, lots of houses were built against its walls and in its courtyard. At the end of the 19th Century, just as it was about to fall down, the castle was bought by the city and the first thing they did was, interestingly, tear down the houses and restore the dungeons. A progressive housing policy if ever there was one.

The city is built on a small canal system and you are never far from a pretty view of unmistakably Flemish houses.

Another high point, which sadly we didn't have time to explore, is St. Baaf's Cathedral.

The Cathedral hosts one of the world's great art treasures, in the form of (deep breath) the early Netherlandish polyptych panel painting, "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" by the van Eyck brothers. Saint Baaf, by the way, is the patron saint of Ghent and, possibly, rough channel crossings.

Ghent has the largest pedestrianised area in Belgium. We saw little of that, since they've dug it up to build an underground car park. Still, there are plenty of open spaces, including the Vrijdagmarkt which hosts the rather splendid Bond Moyson, or Socialist House of the People, built at the end of the 19th Century in the Macaroni style. I really don't make this stuff up! Honest.

The guy on the plinth here is Jacob van Artevelde, the "Brewer of Ghent" (good title!). Back in the early 14th Century, he managed to mix politics and weaving to make Ghent one of the most prosperous cities of the time, by getting in with the English wool trade. Sadly, politics being what it is, his popularity took a nose-dive when he backed the wrong king and he was murdered by an angry mob in 1345 (the vote used to really count back then). He is pointing at England, the source of both the city's prosperity and the wrong king.

We spent three nights in Ghent. Having planned to visit Brugge on day two, it was inevitable that it would piss down, so instead we stayed in. I think the feeling was common across the camp, as by late afternoon, once the rains had subsided, many a snoozing Airstreamer could be seen in their chairs.

Friday morning came and everyone was up early to get ready to leave. The pitches were arranged like animal stalls, so hitching up was carried out with military precision.

Some of the group were, perhaps, more ready than others,

But we were all lined up and ready to hit the road on schedule.

Venlo, here we come!

To be continued...


Thursday, 16 June 2011

Euro Trip day one... Kent to Ghent

Up at 6am. I’m confident that I’ve seen 6am from the staying-up-all-night end many times more than I have from the getting-up-far-too-early end. I’m equally confident that I’d like to keep that ratio.

It was a rush to get ready. Luckily, we have volunteered ourselves as “caboose” in the convoy. Most people believe we have taken up the responsibility of shepherding the rest of the party, making sure nobody gets lost, picking up stragglers, fixing break-downs etc, etc. Actually, it just means we don’t have to be ready until after everyone else. Which is nice.

We all gathered in the adjacent field to have our pictures taken for Caravan Finder TV. Apparently, we’ll be appearing on a screen near you soon.

And then we were off.

First stop, a local motorway services to re-group after the journey through town.

And then back on the road to Dover.

Big ferry port, but not big enough to fit all of us into one lane.

We got well-and-truly split up getting on the ferry, but spirits were high as we waved bye bye to the White Cliffs.

And fed the wildlife.

Regrouping at the other end was tricksy. Luckily, we all managed to pick the correct exit lane and gathered together in a customs area before hitting the road.

This was my first time driving on the Continent, and since all I had to do was follow the Airstream in front of me, it wasn’t too much of a headache. And what a view I had!

We managed to pick up the tenth member at a pre-arranged Aire without any difficulty. The Aires we saw seemed to range from something like our motorway services, to little more than glorified lay-bys.

We took a couple of pit-stops (in the glorified lay-by type of Aire) along the way to give the dogs a pee-break. It also gave the humans a chance to stretch their legs and have a giggle.

And so, after only about 110 miles and a ferry crossing, we arrived in Ghent. That’s where it got tricky. Things like traffic lights and roundabouts seriously dented our ability to keep together and us tail-enders became right Charlies. Despite what people might say, we didn’t take a wrong turning, I just wanted to go back and have another crack at that roundabout. Honest. As an aside, another advantage of going at the back is that no-one can see if you make a pillock of yourself.

But we all arrived safely (eventually), and the evening was spent chilling and chatting into the night.

And so to bed.

Internet access is proving to be something of an issue, but I have plans, so hopefully I'll be able to keep you updated soon. Stay tuned...

Monday, 13 June 2011

We're off to see the Wizard...

We're sitting in a field with eight other Airstreams.

It's ungodly o'clock, we're all up to make final preparations and to have our picture taken before setting off for the ferry port of Dover. In convoy! Depending on the point-of-view of other road users, we'll be the best thing on the road ever, or the largest waste of tarmac in Kent. Still, we'll all be having a good time!

I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say that we're quite excited.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A quick catch-up before we head off into the sunset...

It's been a really busy couple of weeks. I'm sure many of you have lives that are constantly busy, but Having Loads To Do In A Very Short Time is a bit of an alien experience for us. The reason we're so busy? We're leaving the country.

Fear not, dear reader - it's not for good, just for a few weeks. We're heading over to Europe for a bit - more on that later.

In amongst all our preparations, we popped down the road to see Airstream Europe's launch of their new Service & Repair Centre near Cheltenham.

It also (more-or-less) coincided with the launch of their re-branding, so now you can call them "Airstream and Company." We wish them every success!

We've also been working on the UKAirstreamers September Gathering - details soon...

The long trip from our site in Worcestershire to the rendezvous in Kent was broken up by a couple of nights boondocking with our Airstreaming friends Glynis & Pete. And we couldn't have hoped for a friendlier welcome. They are two of the loveliest people I know, and while we were there we met up with another two of the loveliest people I know - Simon & Emma - former Airstreamers who have been part of our Airstreaming "family" from the start. It was a wonderful couple of days, though it is just possible I might have drunk too much.

Not a bad spot to park an Airstream!

And so we made our way to Kent, spending a deeply unpleasant hour or two on the M25 Orbital Car Park. Why Kent? because we're meeting up with eight other UKAirstreamers and all heading off on Tuesday, in convoy to a European Gathering in the Netherlands next week. At the last count, there were 49 Airstreams booked in for the weekend! You read that right, forty nine!

I wouldn't say we're excited, because that wouldn't cover it. Giddy might be better.

And I suspect there may be fairy lights.

P x