4 COUNTRIES IN 4 DAYS OR MY FIRST EVER ROAD TRIP

I’ve been back from my adventure for over a week ago and now finally sitting down to write about it. Here it is –  my very first travel blog!

It was a day before Easter break and my boyfriend Myles and I couldn’t decide whether to go to Wales, go camping or stay at home and save some money for another holiday we booked at the beginning of May. We both spend our holiday leave very wisely, I feel that I squeeze everything out of my yearly allowance, even requesting extra weeks worth of unpaid leave just to have the time to go to every festival I want to be at. This year is not an exception and spending 4 days indoors seemed like a waste.

At the last minute, seeing how rainy the next few days were meant to be in Wales we changed our plans and booked a ferry with an intention to drive to Europe. I was going on my first ever road trip without a plan or doing any research on possible activities. I decided to have a digital detox from social media as well and having no internet and no plan, seemed like a big adventure already. Stepping into the unknown 21-century style.

The ferry departed at 4 am on Friday from Dover, arriving to Dunkirk (France) around 7:30 am and were in Bruges (Belgium) by 9 am. This is when I started realising how tiny European countries are. Back home in Russia to get from my town to the regional centre is 8 hours by train and you would still be in the same district. It seems crazy to me that you could drive 6 hours and see different 3 countries!

Bruges is charming. We walked around the town centre and went to a few shops. I didn’t want breakfast as I have been enjoying skipping it and giving my digestion a rest in the mornings. That’s why I brought bread, olives and sun dried tomatoes with artichokes for my lunch on the go. I’m going to write more about my experience eating vegan on the road without cooking, subscribe if you don’t want to miss it.

At noon we were on the way to Holland, the first stop – Rotterdam.

On the way there, we got stuck in traffic for over an hour between hundreds of lorries which didn’t feel very safe but luckily we got out, turned on to a paid toll and got moving.

The beauty of not having a plan is a sense of wonder and a bigger surprise on arrival. A desire to spend more time walking to discover new things on our own and a sense of child-like giddiness, not only because I was travelling but mostly because I felt like I was breaking rules (whether they were mine or not) and being slightly irresponsible, which brought an inner teenager in me. Why not, let see where we are going to end up!

 

In Rotterdam we drove to the centre, parked the car and went to explore. Since we didn’t do any research and I’ve never been to Rotterdam I didn’t know if there was an old town. Apparently not. It is full of new architecture. Firstly we went for lunch at a Vietnamese cafe where I had vegetable spring rolls made with see-through rice paper and pho with tofu. Vegan option wasn’t on the menu but they were happy to create one for me. Unfortunately (this what I have discovered through the trip) mixing hot water with vegetables without seasoning and oil does not equal a proper meal). This was the first sign of how much Europe is behind in the plant-based movement. But since I was going with the flow, didn’t do any research ahead or planned on cooking to bring lunch with me I wasn’t complaining. This was a part of the deal.

It wasn’t easy to eat out for me and some days all I could find was bread, but hey that’s travelling. Sometimes giving up the comfort and certainty is a price to pay for new experiences. This includes paying 4 euros for a cup of hot water in Bruges and inability to find any hot food in Bethune on a freezing Easter Monday morning. The moral of the story is when you see a supermarket get as many long lasting supplies as possible.

In Rotterdam we found very unusual Cube houses and looked like people actually live in them. Another stunning building we came across was a marketplace, shaped as an arch with two glass sides and flats along the curve with windows going into the market and balconies on the outside. Very outside the box! Inside the market were many local shops and fruit stalls, I even found raw young coconut which was delicious, shame I didn’t bring reusable straw with me. I’m definitely packing my funky paper straws to Italy this weekend!

After spending the afternoon in Rotterdam we were on our way to the first Airbnb we’d booked the night before. The house was only 30 mins drive away and we were pretty tired after such a log day of driving and sightseeing.

The countryside we passed was stunning. The Dutch don’t seem to plant hedges or build walls between their properties, most of them are separated by canals. You could see miles of fields ahead. We didn’t know this when we booked but Guisennburg, a village we were about to stay in, is famous for its location 7m below the sea level. The reason they aren’t constantly flooded is because of the work of windmills which take water out and make the area livable. While driving through the open fields we were wondering if we were about to stay in a farm house, when out of nowhere a stunning village appeared, looking straight out of the fairy tale.

We’re staying in a gorgeous cottage renovated by its owner Wim in the middle of the cutest village I’ve ever seen, or maybe it’s the fresh country air that went straight to my head..  Then Wim told us about the Kiderdijk park with windmills and we couldn’t believe our luck! Not only the house and village were much better than we expected, but the area has one of the biggest sights in Holland, win!

The next day we went to Alblasserdam where we had lunch before hiring bikes to cycle to Kiderdijk. After walking around for at least 20 mins and checking out every restaurant in the area nothing seemed right, but we kept searching. Luckily we found a lovely restaurant t’Raedhuijs which also didn’t have any vegan options, however they offered to make me vegan asparagus soup and I also ordered two sides of chips with fried onions and mushrooms. This was a very substantial amount of food and it was delicious. Served on most beautiful plates, you know how much I love pottery! By the way, asparagus in Holland looks white and thick, nothing like green stalky sticks I am used to having.

 

We hired bikes for 2 hours from the tourist centre in Alblasserdam. The guy renting them out seemed very chilled and kindly explained that even if we come back 3 hours later there won’t be any extra charge. I only realised afterwards why though, Kinderjik was really close and 2 hours is really all you need to get there, take as many pictures as you wish, stop every 2 metres behind groups of tourists and still make it back 15 mins early.

This was the first time I saw windmills. Before setting off on this road trip I wished to see at least one old-school windmill and here I was admiring 19 of them in a row! Most of them are 300 years old and half of them were spinning.

It was such a great afternoon and I loved riding my Dutch bike! The seat is high, handle bars are quite low which made me seat upright. If I had more space in my house I’d definitely get one. I don’t live on a ground floor and these bikes are a lot heavier than my road bike, it would be a nightmare dragging it up and down the stairs in my house. Perhaps I’ll get one in the future when my lifestyle allows.

Another cool thing about Dutch bikes is that their rear light is mounted on the mudguard. It’s a part of it, making the whole thing look very stylish. The front light is also huge, I immediately wondered how did they manage to operate it years ago before the invention of batteries and whether they still work in the same way. I wish I could find a way to never use batteries for my lights, it would be so much better for the environment.

After Kinderdijk we gave our bikes back, bought tonnes of snacks in a supermarket and set off to Belgium. The next Airbnb was the one I’ve discovered the night before and it was 1,5 hrs away. Just like that we said goodbye to Holland and were in a different country not long after. Amazing! Myles and I both were blown away by our lucky stay in the cottage and secretly didn’t think that the next place could top it off.

In the spirit of travelling I booked a night to stay in a 1930 French gypsy caravan and as soon as I saw it I fell in love with the place. The caravan was magical, beautifully decorated, full of lovely touches such as vintage suitcases and boho bird cages. The bed was really comfy and it came with a heated mattress, each side of which was controlled separately so Myles and I could have different heating levels, which is always a good idea. I need one in my life.

We were greeted by Veerle and Philip and they showed us around. The main house they live in is gorgeous. I was sure I saw it on ‘Grand Designs’ but then they said they haven’t seen the show… Staying in a gypsy caravan for me was a mini dream come true and something very inspiring, it takes a certain type of a person to buy one and the whole property was saturated with creativity. The main house is built in a modern style with floor to ceiling glass wall, open plan kitchen and loft style bedrooms. We had access to the guest bathroom in the house and were surprised at to find how luxurious it was.

On Sunday morning over breakfast, we had a chance to chat with our hosts and find out how they’ve managed to create such an inspiring space. It was the second day in a row we were blown away by the beauty of the surroundings and were lucky to meet another wonderful family. Veerle’s place is only 2 miles away from Tomorrowland festival, so if you are planning to go there check their website, as they pitch extra bell tents on and hire a hot tub for the weekend for their guest as well. I’ve yet to treat myself to a hot tub while festivaling, I can imagine it would sort out aches and pains from a full day of walking and dancing.

Staying at Graze Land made me realise even more how much I want to build my own house, how wonderful it is to live in the country and what a great idea it is to have a vintage caravan. I feel so inspired and uplifted just thinking about it!

 

Ghent was only an hour drive away from their place and I was very excited to visit yet another town. Driving into Ghent we passed a huge castle and even managed to find free parking right nearby. The Gravesteen castle is epic, standing casually in the town centre and it is even surrounded by water, just like I imagine a ‘real’ castle should be. I already loved Ghent and we had just arrived. We spend a whole day wandering around, drinking chai on the waterfront, soaking up the sunshine and fantastic views of the medieval buildings.

Apparently, Ghent has the largest designated cyclist area in Europe, with nearly 400 kilometres of cycle paths and more than 700 one-way streets, where bikes are allowed to go against the traffic. It also boasts Belgium’s first cycle street, where cars are considered ‘guests’ and must stay behind cyclists. Next time I come here I will definitely hire a bike!

Finally, it was the time to leave for France. In the beginning, it wasn’t our intention to stay in a new country every night, but by this point, that’s how things were looking. I was going to get the address of our last Airbnb when I realised we hadn’t been approved. My first Airbnb fail, as I didn’t respond to the message from the host. I guess there are some downsides to going offline for so long. Luckily I managed to get accepted once I responded and we were on the move again to Bethune where we booked a loft apartment in the centre of town facing the clock tower. It was a quirky little place with lots of light and full of travel inspired details like antique maps, skis, old bikes and other wonderful touches. We had been pretty tired after a full day of exploring and decided to watch a movie before going to bed. The movie we watched was called ‘The Man From Earth’  – a mind expanding peace of intelligent science fiction. Highly recommend if you are into this kind of thing.

We were ready to leave in the morning and drive to Calais, where our ferry was leaving from, but we decided to find a store and stock up on some (vegan) food. The market was on and it was freezing. After walking around for an hour I realised there is nothing in this place I could eat, so we bought two types of fresh bread from the local bakery and went on our way. Bethune reminded me of my home town which I left almost 15 years ago and strangely enough, it felt like we were back in early 2000s. This brought up some memories and emotions from my adolescence. I was very surprised as this was unexpected but very interesting. Mini time-machine!

Within an hour we were in Calais and made the ferry with 30 seconds to spare. Lucky! I was surprised to see how clear the cliffs of Dover are visible from France. When we were in Dover I could barely see the other side. The distance is a lot smaller than I thought. While on the ferry I was eager to start writing about our trip, I wanted to remember as many details as possible, since the weekend was so packed with adventures.

The leaving present from France was gaining an hour of clock time and getting home at a reasonable time to unpack, unwind and relax. I must admit I wasn’t sure I would enjoy a road trip type of holiday, but I absolutely loved it and I can’t wait to go again! I want to drive through all of Europe, it is reachable and a lot more fun than I originally thought. I thought a road trip involves spending most of the time in a car, but it means having a base, a piece of home with you and an opportunity to see a lot more.

Thank you for sticking with me to the end and I hope you found it interesting. Next stop – Verona and Lake Garda.

Have a beautiful day! Marina x

 

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