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For the last 11 years I have travelled to Belgium for Easter to meet up with friends. At first it was on motorbikes, but as I’ve gotten older this has changed, and in the last few years I have gone by car. Late in 2017 I purchased a Hymer motorhome with the plan to travel around Europe.

 

My Grand Tour starts this year and it seems to make sense to start my tour from Belgium at Easter. The initial plan is to begin in Ghent, then onwards to the Netherlands, with a stop at Arnhem in particular.

 

I need to get to Berlin for the end of April as I want to attend a friends art show.

 

 

 

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Vianen, Utrecht and Aires!

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Foot passenger ferry to Nieuwegein.

A number of people have asked me what an Aire is. It is mainly a European thing with a few in the UK. But basically it is a parking and stopover point for motorhomes. In Europe, they can be as simple as just a pull-in similar to our lay-bys to have a rest, coffee and sandwich which other vehicle can also use or a more dedicated area just for motor home. These come in many shapes, forms and sizes from 3 or 4 marked out bays in a village car park with no other facilities other than being able to park overnight for 1 to 3 nights, to a more dedicated area which might have water, electricity and drains to expel your grey (washing, shower etc.) water and empty your toilet cassettes or any combination of these!

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A couple of different AiresIMG_0585

These will also vary in size from just a few parking spaces to possible 20-30 spaces. A lot of  these being run by the local authorities. Many of these Aires are free to stop at. Others you might pay €5.00 – €12.00 or more per night depending on where they are and what facilities there are with them. Many of the small villages and hamlets have Aires as they are seen as a way of drawing income and visitors to the area as many motor home owners will spend money food shopping or for fuel. I recently stayed on a small farm which had all the facilities and was a 10 minute walk into town.

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Another Aire. Some of them look quite full and they do get that way. But in the main, there is room for everyone.

I, like many others like to use these Aires as they are much cheaper than going to a campsite and help to keep cost down if you are traveling for a long period of time. I have also found that many of the larger supermarkets will encourage us to park in their car park overnight as well, as they see it as added security for them! The likes of Carrefour and Uexpress even have washing and drying machines in their car parks for anyone’s use for about €4.00 a go, so you can stay overnight do you’re shopping and get your washing up to date which I have done on a number of occasions.

 

Unfortunately, the UK is taking the opposite view to all this and many towns and cities are banning overnight parking on the seafront and out-of-town car parks even with a small charge attached. Even places like the Lake District has this ban as well, whereas in Scotland wild camping is not seen as a problem as it is seen as a way of generating income and tourist to the country.

 

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My Aire at Arnhem. €6.00 a night with EHU if you want it? Co-ordinates N51o 58′ 23″ E5o 54′ 57″

Unfortunately, the UK is taking the opposite view to all this and many towns and cities are banning overnight parking on seafront and out-of-town car parks even with a small charge attached. Even places like the Lake District has this ban as well, whereas in Scotland wild camping is not seen as a problem as it is seen as a way of generating income and tourist to the country.

Using Aires is a very good way of seeing a country as some are right in the centre of main towns while others are in smaller villages slightly out of the way taking you to places you might not have stopped at otherwise. In theory, they are only for parking and “camping style” should not happen! So you should not put out tables and chairs and open your awnings, but many people do! Including me at times!

While I was staying at Vianen I decided to cycle to Utrecht. Finding that there was a passenger foot ferry across the canal to Nieuwegein made it a much easier and shorter journey, making the cycle journey very enjoyable if not a bit of an effort at times as I had not really been on my bike for some while. But the route took me along the canals seeing all the old barges along the way along with the larger newer commercial ones and the industry that has built up around the canal with the newer constructed houseboats along with the many barge conversions for live aboard.

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Some of the new build houseboats.

Most of Utrecht is surrounded by a canal with a couple of others running through it as well and was originally on the banks of the Rhine until the main flow moved south, making the walk around town to be most enjoyable. Some of the building go back to the middle ages and it has been a religious centre since the 8th century.

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The canal running through Utrecht

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Just to prove I was there!

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Even the rubbish is collected using the canal!

What I enjoyed about Utrecht was the amount of small independent shops and artisan workers who lined the canals. As you walked along you would see carpenters, artist, little coffee shops, stonemasons all working along the canal side. The tallest building and tower in Utrecht is the Dom tower, which is also the tallest I think in The Netherlands and use to be part of the cathedral until the central nave was destroyed in storm damage in the 1600 hundreds.

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One of one of the many artisans working along the canal.

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Seeing some of his work in progress.

Utrecht also has a very good University which is also the largest in the Netherlands. I would really like to go back there again as I have been really enjoying the country and feel it’s worth spending a couple of days there so as to see so much more.

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The Dom tower.

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A stained window in the abbey.

After leaving Vianen I decided to head for Spakenburg as recommended by the Vianen fish monger. Just a short drive away, just 29km. Through the Aires books I found a really nice site on a marina for €10.00 a night to include all facilities and just a 5 minutes cycle ride into town. It is a beautiful small town and traditional harbour with some very old fishing boats still in use. The weather whilst there was so good, with people on the river-beach and swimming. Every day I went into town and found something new. And most days the fishermen were working on their boats, repairing, painting, getting ready for a fishing trip or a visitors day trip out.

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Spakenburg harbour and fishing boats.

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New decks being laid and new mast in background.

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The keel being repaired.

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Getting ready for an evenings sailing.

Whilst driving there I noticed again how flat and low the area was. Most of the fields that I passed had small channels cut into them for excess water from the rivers and canals and to avert any flooding of the area.

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A great way for the teachers to get their children around. 2nd buggy just coming around the corner.

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Coming back from an evening race.

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Racing to the edge.

I really enjoyed my 2 nights in Spakenburg and reinforced my thoughts as to how nice and welcoming the Netherlands and Holland is. Spakenburg is certainly a place I would like to visit again.

Next stop, Arnhem.

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The John Foster Bridge (A bridge to far)

 

Amsterdam to Vianen.

 

Saturday 14th April.

Miles travelled 28. Average fuel consumption 27 mpg.

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For my 3 witches

The journey from Amsterdam to Vianen is quite short, just 28 miles. It is the nearest free Aire to Utrecht and we are allowed to stay there for a maximum of 3 nights. The journey itself is quite pleasant with a mixture of minor roads and motorway. When I arrived the market was in town, so it was a quick set up of Cookie, getting her levelled up and everything secured and a walk into town.

Vianen has been a city since the early 1300’s. A 17 century brick gate and water tower still exist along with some remnants of the old city wall.

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The 15th century city gate.

The market runs the whole length of the high street with all sorts of local products. My favourite was the fishmongers who had a whole array of locally caught fish and shellfish.

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It’s Saturday, It’s market day!

During my conversation with him, he told me he lives in a small fishing village just north of Vianen called Snoekbaarsweg and that I should visit it – so that was my next stop sorted! I stocked up on his salmon and other nice fresh products to fill the freezer.

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A  nice relaxed local beer.

After shopping and a walk around I went into the local museum. Then it was time for a local beer. (well it would be rude not to?).

 

 

 

After the beer and shopping and with the days drawing out there was time to walk along the canal that goes down to the river Lek. The canal  is a busy tributary to the river the bed of which is slightly higher than the surrounding lands as is the case in many parts of Holland.

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Waiting for the green light.

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Motorway in the background.

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Leisure boat running down to the river, but letting the barge go first.

Sunday 15th was another nice day so a cycle ride was in order to explore towards Nieuwegein and Utrecht. I rode along the cycle route next to the motorway and over the river towards Nieuwegein which is a busy port off the main river with many small industrial units but mainly into shipping goods along the river. The city is connected by 3 canals, the Amsterdam-Rhine canal and also the river Lek.

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The old and new bridge and roads.

The area has a lot of new build along the canals as it has expanded into a suburb of Utrecht and it’s proximity to the 3 motorways close by and well worth the visit as by the river there is a very good selection of cafe’s and bars and a number of small independent shops.

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A mixture of leisure and working boats along the canal.

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Always, we want to live on the river or by water?

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The old lock.

It is so interesting to see the mixture of traffic going along the canals in the Netherlands and Belgium.

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Scrape metal and always a car on the stern deck.

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Grain?

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liquid? And two cars.

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Friendly crew.

On my way back to Vianen, I noticed a number of motor homes parked up near the river in Vianen so went to explore – as we are always looking for new places to stay. Whilst there, I saw that there was a pedestrian ferry going across to Nieuwegein, so that would save me a 30 minute cycle journey the next day.

The free Aire in Vianen that I stayed on is co-ordinates: N51 59′ 46″ E5 05′ 41″ and you are able to stay for 3 nights.

 

Next. A cycle ride to Utrecht

 

Amsterdam 2 & Its true! I don’t listen!

Wednesday 10th April.

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Today is my first full day in Amsterdam. It was my thoughts to go to the Rijksmuseum (Rembrandt),  Stedelijk (Modern) , Van Gogh and Anne Frank’s museum or at least get tickets for them. Whilst the bus & tram service is very good I got off a bit early and walked to the main museum area. I was really glad I did as I came across a really good second hand record shop called Record Mania. It is a great shop and if you are after vinyl or cd’s this is the place to go when in Amsterdam. One of the great things is that the records and cd’s were all catalogued into artist and music type. I was very lucky as I found a couple LP’s of great interest to me.

From there I walked to the main museum quarter and attempted to get museum tickets. Unfortunately Anne Frank’s was fully booked for the next couple of weeks but I got admission to the Rijksmuseum museum and the Stedelijk and Van Gogh for the next day.

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Rijksmuseum. Note the solar panel’s which most buildings have.

I have to say, that as much as I enjoyed the museum and many of the exhibits, Rembrandt and the period did very little for me. I found it all very dark in colour and content but I did enjoy other parts of the museum showing the ceramics and military items. The museum is quite substantial and took up the full afternoon. so if was back to the campsite after this.

Cycling in Amsterdam is a main event with very little and expensive parking in the city itself. The bike parking at the main station is enormous.

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The main station cycle park. It has a further level below the ones you can see.

The next day Thursday 12th back into town early as my ticket to Van Gogh was timed for 11.30 so breakfast on the run to the station. Van Gogh I really enjoyed and had not realised how many self portraits he did of himself. His works and that of others were very absorbing.

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The Duke of Wellington

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Although dark, I really liked this painting, the purples and whites of her face and sleeves.

Also of great interest was the exhibition of Japanese art and the influence it had on Van Gogh and how he incorporated it into his own works from time to time.

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Hokusai’s view of Mount Fuji.

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Included in the Japanese exhibition was works by Hokusai and many other artists. This part I also found of great interest and felt very lucky to have seen it as it is only  there until July I think?

After Van Gogh, it was off to the Stedelijk modern museum, which again did very little for me. But interesting to see that they had things such as1F8A14CB-ECCD-47BE-9952-63DFFFD4775C bubble lamps, which I think I bought one for my daughter, Helen, many years ago? But also a string of light bulbs! So this museum was done with great haste!

But there were a couple of things that did grab my attention though.

 

 

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A string of light bulbs! This is art?

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A quote on a flight of stairs there.

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And taken from the same landing.

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Another view of the Rijksmuseum

Dinner that evening was at the Thai street café mentioned in a previous blog.  IMG_0432

Chicken, noodles and Jasmin tea. And a wander through the town on the way back to the station.

 

 

 

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Always tulips!

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Lock, canal bridges and red coat.

Friday 13th! A day for not doing to much, catching up on chores, dinner at the camp bar and planning my next destination which is to be Utrecht staying at Vianen.

Ah yes! The not listening bit! I’m always being told I do not listen properly and it’s obviously true.IMG_0433Helen & Steve brought me an electric hair clipping set for Christmas for my travels. I showed it to my hairdresser and discussed it with her a couple of times. I’m sure she said to use no 3 but when it was too late, I think she said no 5! So I just had to go with it then.

Next. Amsterdam to Vianen (Utrecht)


					

The Red light district!

Saturday 7th April: Ghent to Keukenhof, Holland.

Miles travelled: 145. Average fuel: 32.20mp

After a quick stop (well not so quick) for some groceries at Carrefour’s and some diesel we were off to Keukenhof and the bulb fields. It was only a short run of about 145 miles, but there was a lot of Saturday traffic around so the journey was slow taking about 4 hours with stops for lunch.

 

The favourite spot to “wild camp” is a 10 minute bike ride to Keukenhof and I found a nice spot with about 8 or 9 other campers along the road next to one of the many canals in the area. IMG_3341

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The view from my door

 

That evening I just chilled with a beer and sorted out Cookie.

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Time for a beer!

 

Sunday found me going for a cycle ride round the village and through some of the bulb fields.

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The aroma from the Hyacinths was just amazing!

 

Cycling in Belgium and certainly Holland is just a joy to behold. All the roads are set out with cycle lanes or there are dedicated cycle lanes through the country lanes. After a nice coffee and delicious apple cake at the old station café I went to Keukenhof to have a look around. The site is absolutely enormous and takes hours to get around and preferable two days if you can. Unfortunately, due to the recent weather not all the flowers were open but one could get the feel for the site, another 2 weeks and it will be just marvellous. There is so much to see, sculptures, set garden displays, a windmill, canal boat rides, and many other things to entertain you during the day.

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On Monday I cycled into Lisse the local village. Which is larger than expected with many small independent shops (unfortunately it being a Monday most of the shops were closed) but there was a nice market there where I managed to get some nice fish which I seem to be living on at the moment! I then took a cycle ride along the canal to look at the windmills and also the custom built houseboats moored along the canal. Along the way I noticed that some of the bungalow owners also reared chickens, geese and goats in their front gardens.

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Chickens are reared in many front gardens in the country. 

 

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That evening I sorted out my location site for Amsterdam.

Tuesday 10th April: Keukenhof to Amsterdam.

Miles travelled: 28.7 Average fuel: 23.10mpg.

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The journey to Amsterdam was very simple and short and the new campsite just grand. Nice to have electricity, showers, washing machines and free Wifi. After a quick sort out of Cookie, hooking her up and putting her on levelling blocks, Amsterdam was calling me! The local metro is a 5 minute walk away and a 15 minute journey into town coming out at the central station.

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Central station

 

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The cost of public transport in Belgium and Holland seems so cheap compared to the UK! €7.50 get you a 24 hours return ticket that can be used on any public transport for the whole 24 hours. Amsterdam is just a fabulous place. From the moment you get off the metro and into the streets it is just heaving with people and atmosphere. I spent the evening wondering around the local area which also takes in the famous red light area and “smoking” Coffee bars. You know you are getting close to one as the sweet aroma hits you quite early! The red light district is quite famous, mainly known for the “ladies of the night” sitting in their window rooms. Looking through the glass these rooms seem quite small and just wide enough to take a bed! Amsterdam’s other notoriety comes from the cannabis café’s, whilst technically illegal it is accepted by the authorities.

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Amsterdam. Canals, boats and bridges. 

 

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Interesting design.

 

After wondering around for a couple of hours looking at the sight and architecture I found myself in the Chinese / Thai area and a really busy looking Thai street food café that sits 20 inside and 6 outside on a window bench. It’s the “Thaise snackbar Bird” they have more of a restaurant across the road, but the street food café has loads of atmosphere to it. After my fill I headed off back to the campsite via the metro.

To follow: Museums and LP’

 

 

Plans change!

Mileage from Ghent to Keukenhof: 145. Average fuel consumption: 27.80mpg.

One of the advantages of being a motorhome owner and touring in it is the fact that you can more or less go where and when you please. My original plans were to leave Camping Blaarmeersen in Ghent www.camping.blaarmeersen.be last Thursday and head to Holland and the Dutch bulb fields that day. Unfortunately, because my domestic water pump was not working I had to wait for a replacement from Becks in Norfolk to arrive which it did on Thursday afternoon. The staff at the campsite called the local motorhome dealers and arranged for it to be fitted the next day Friday, so a small delay but no problems.

IMG_3285Ghent at night.

What have I been up to since my last blog? Not a lot really. The weather has not been very kind to us here with lots of constant and heavy rain, making some areas of the site waterlogged. But I have been busy though, planning my route to Keukenhof and the bulb fields and also where I will stay for the few days I hope to be there. Fortunately there is an off road (wild camping) site just 1km away and just a short cycle away, so that is my choice.

On Tuesday I cycled into Ghent which was so easy and enjoyable. It is indeed a pleasure to cycle in Belgium because of the cycle ways. I found the main post office sent off some post and had some lunch. Ghent is a really nice city and like many towns and cities in Belgium it has many independent shops both large and small. The cycle ride back was easy, just following the canal back to the campsite.

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Wednesday & Thursday were chilling days because of the weather and catching up on things that have been left behind, so actually felt good. Friday arrived and Cookie had her new water pump fitted and all is well with the world! Hot water, shower and taps working and of course the toilet flushes properly! The afternoon sees me getting Cookie ready for the journey to Holland the next day, including a quick shop at Aldi for their Greek yogurt which really is the best for the price. And a bigger shop at Carrefour’s on Saturday along with diesel to see me through.

Things to remember when cycling in Ghent, or any other city in Belgium. Remember to cycle on the right side of the cycle track. Watch out for tramlines! Saw a few cyclist get caught in them and come off. Wear a whistle around your neck, to many silly people walking out in front of you. Unfortunately, the streets are not paved with gold but very uneven cobble stones. Again, as are many Belgium cities are! Luckily, I remembered most of those.

Holland, Keukenhof and beyond to follow.

 

 

 

 

The journey begins!

Mileage from Reading to Ghent: 218. Average fuel consumption 27.80 mpg.

I had booked myself an overnight stop at The Drum inn, Ashford a well-known pub/stopover point near the Eurotunnel terminal. Many pubs with large grounds have now added showers and toilets to their facilities, and offer them as stopovers for caravans and motorhomes, which is a handy, inexpensive option to the local camping sites. I arrived at the terminal early the next morning, so I checked in and managed to get an earlier train to Calais!

I have always found that driving in Europe is a dream, and in a motorhome it’s even better. The journey along the motorway to Ghent was very pleasant, and with a quick snack stop just inside Belgium I arrived at the campsite, Camping Blaarmeersen (www.blaarmeersen.be), in the early afternoon. The campsite is quite large, and split into small areas for about 9 or 10 units. They do have hook ups, but beware as some points could need up to 50m of EHU cable! Then the fun began! After filling up with water, I realised that the domestic water pump had stopped working. I checked the fuse and other options all to no avail, so on I went to Facebook and the Hymer owners section for some great advice on how to resolve the issue,. Unfortunately this didn’t work, so next was a phone call to my dealership, Becks, who were wonderful and have posted a replacement pump to arrive at the campsite later this week, and the helpful people at the reception desk at the campsite called a local dealer for me, who will fit the replacement as soon as it arrives.500 different beers500 different beers which is fairly standard for some bars in Belgium.

After all that, Good Friday found me in Ghent, a short bus ride away (I later found out that buses are free to use on Sundays!), to meet up with my friends Lainy and Ken from my biking days, and some wandering around the very busy and beautiful city of Ghent. St Bavo’s Cathedral is just stunning and beautiful, the Leie canal is busy with trip boats, and various sizes of house boats were moored up. Over the next couple of days we strolled all over town, taking in the wonderful flower market, doing some window shopping, stopping at coffee shops and eating at lots of nice independent small and large restaurants.

A bicycle made for 3!A bicycle made for 3. Ghent is mainly car free so everyone gets around on bikes or the trams.

img_3278.jpgA busy canal side.

IMG_3290The canal by night.

There are many good restaurants in Ghent, I would recommend trying the following restaurants:

Three Monkeys (https://www.three-monkeys-ghent.com/ for a selection of 50 different versions of omelettes, burgers and finger food.

Brasserie Savarin (http://www.brasserie-savarin.be/) a really great Ghent stew: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/user/4862541/recipe/stoofvlees-flemish-beef-stew

5th Gök (http://www.5thgok.be/ ) Great variety of food. Their toasted sandwiches were really good and the pasta looked good as well.

Hopefully, my water pump will arrive within the next couple of days and then I am heading for Holland and the tulip fields.