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...


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