The last campsite on our journey is a sleepy little place on the grounds of a chateau. We are across the channel from Briton on the French side of the French-Belgian border, and the campsite is filled with British tourists. We feel done with France and decide to spend the majority of our time in Belgium. Everyone has recovered from their colds, except for me so I hack and sniffle my way through the next week.
We decide to visit Bruges, a beautiful Belgian city renowned for it’s chocolate and lace. I decide chocolate is just what I need for my cold and we end up buying a box of chocolates containing one of everything they sell in the store! The chocolate art is beautiful with seashells filled with smaller Belgian seashell chocolate. We gorge ourselves.
The city is filled with bikes, more so than everywhere else we have been, though bikes seem to be the predominate form of transportation all over Europe. I am envious of the safe biking infrastructure and irritated that we don’t have the same safe pathways at home. You can traverse any city or town we have been in in Europe by bike, safely and protected from cars. When cars and bikes do interact there is actually respect for the cyclists not anger like back at home. Young children are able to safely bike everywhere, I debate picking up and moving to Europe for this reason alone. Many of the bikes in Bruges are adorned with flowers and it makes for a colourful bike rack.
The buildings that surround us are heavily gilded, gold is everywhere. Carvings cover everything. We hop on a river boat to explore the canals and see more of the city. As we pass under low bridges with tiny platforms beneath, I think of clandestine night time meetings. The meeting of boat against dock as the water laps against them. A passing of goods or information… my imagination runs wild with scenes of an medieval era. Z is thrilled when we pass a grouping of swans and she begs to stay, though the boat must move on.
That evening we phone Thierry and Annik, travel friends that Mom and Dad met on a previous trip and who are visiting my parents in Canada later this summer and staying at our house. We arrange to come to their house the following morning and spend a wonderful day in their company. The kids swim in their pool while we drink wine and talk. It is glorious to spend a day talking with other adults, speaking English and not struggling to be understood. They own a Brasserie and a Fritterie, and must leave for work in the afternoon. We decide to go visit the nearby student city of Leuven and return to the Brasserie for supper. Leuven is full of little shops and giant gothic buildings, we spent a couple hours wandering around and then return for dinner. The food is amazing and we leave for our 2.5 hour drive back to the campsite feeling sated.
I become sicker and so we spend a couple days laying really low, We try taking the kids to a Belgian beach, but I end up feverish and we return to the campsite. One place we really want to visit in the area is Ypres and I am determined no matter how awful I feel to get out of bed and see it on our last day.
We drive across the pastoral countryside to one of the original trench museums from WWI that is in existence. The trenches are as they were during the war and the terror of what the men huddled in these narrow muddy trenches felt is almost palpable in the air. Derek and I feel stricken as the kids explore, unaware of the magnitude of what happened here. We descend with flashlight through underground tunnels, which make the hair raise on the back of our necks. I imagine the suffocating feeling of that as shells land overhead. It is a powerful place, and I am shocked at how intense the feeling is here. We leave and Derek and I are unable to shake the heaviness. We drive through the Menin Gate in Ypres and the thousands of names of the missing stare out at us from the walls. Walls and walls of Canadians, far from home, never to return.
We walk further into Ypres and the bustling town is a sharp contrast with the solemness of the entrance. We visit the cathedral, partially destroyed in the war and rebuilt. Classical music plays as we enter and it adds to the ambiance of the massive building. A service is soon to begin and organ music rings out. T has been desperate to hear an organ in a church, so we sit and listen until the service begins then quietly slip out.
Some French children move into the campsite beside us on the last day, and all the kids play together. Z and T give out Canadian pencils and stickers to the French children (Thank you for those Katherine!) and the French children rush to find some little toys to give our kids. They race through the campsite playing until it gets dark at 11pm, language no barrier.
We have enjoyed Belgium, and would love to return at some point to visit the rest of it. We leave our car at the Airport and go to take our larger suitcases to long term storage at the airport. They tell us they are full. My stomach sinks… We are taking the overnight train to Krakow and only want to take small packs. We are flying Ryan Air back and can only have carry-ons. I calm down a slightly panicking Derek and think. We are staying at a hotel 5 mins from the Airport the night before we fly home. Derek phones them and they say it is no problem to leave our bags. We take the free shuttle and drop off the suitcases. They tell us no charge! We were going to have to pay $140 to store them at the airport so are thrilled with this turn of events. We shuttle back to the airport and hop a city train to Midi station where we start what feels like real travelling… The overnight train to Krakow.