Wednesday 29 September 2021

West Side Story, Part 4

Time marches on relentlessly. Summer has made way for Autumn and in just a matter of days the calendar's page will be turned to October.

Apart from those which appeared in the episodes of my travelogue, I haven't shared any September outfits with you yet, nor did I tell you about the exciting life (NOT!) I've been leading since we came back from our holidays. Nevertheless, all this will have to wait another couple of days, while I regale you with another post of holiday adventures.

Although the previous episode ended on the afternoon of Wednesday the 8th of September, the day's excitements weren't finished just yet. As we happened to glance through our cottage's front door window, we saw that hop picking had commenced in the field across the road. The one I'd posed in only that morning! 

As usual, as the evening progressed, the resident sheep were joined by a fluffle of bunnies. Yes, that really is the collective noun for them!

Now let's move swiftly to Thursday! If the weathermen were for once to be believed, it would be a slightly cooler day, the temperature struggling to reach the mid-twenties, and with a strong possibility of rain towards the end of the afternoon.

Hoping the forecasted change of weather would have prevented the worst of the crowds of flocking to the seaside, that was our destination for the day sorted! So, off we went to De Panne, the nearest Belgian seaside resort to Poperinge, just under 35 kilometers away.

Having found ourselves a spot on a free car park just outside the town centre, we proceeded towards the promenade, where we soon spotted the colourful candy-striped cabins and parasols typical for this resort. 

It was busier than we'd expected but probably not much more so than on previous September visits. Not being very good with crowds to put it mildly, Covid-19 certainly seems to have exacerbated my dislike of them. What crowds, I can hear you thinking, there hardly seems to be anyone about! Well, I just happen to be an expert in framing my photographs just so that it seems as if we had the place practically to ourselves! The odd gull notwithstanding, obviously ...

Like most of the Belgian coastline, De Panne's skyline is marred by ugly apartment buildings to cater for the tourists and second-homers. Pranged between these, and holding on for dear life, are some delightful villas from a bygone age. 

After a stroll along the promenade, we were ready for a spot of lunch at De Kursaal, a long-time favourite whenever we come to De Panne. Originally one of the oldest hotels on the promenade, built in the 1870s, Grand Hotel du Kursaal was completely rebuilt after its destruction in the second war, the floors above the restaurant converted into yet more apartments. 

As a nod to our seaside rendez-vous, Jos was wearing a sailing boat patterned shirt ...

... while I honoured the occasion by wearing a lobster patterned top!

In spite of the sea breeze, it soon got too warm for the jackets we were originally wearing, especially when seated behind the glass screens enclosing De Kursaal's beach terrace. I had a most delicious fish gratin, which was served in a boat shaped dish! 

Our plan for the afternoon was a walk along the beach into the direction of France - De Panne is the final Belgian resort before the French border - as it is much quieter there, away from the hustle and bustle of the promenade. 

Our first mission, though, was to go and buy a hat, as once again I'd left mine behind in the car. Available in a range of colours, I went for this jaunty orange one!

The tide was coming in, and after a game of tag with the rolling waves, we soon had to desert what was left of the beach and make for the safety of the sea dyke. 

Meanwhile, ominous looking clouds with a definite promise of rain were advancing from France so, quickening our steps, we hurried back to our car, driving off just as the first raindrops were spotting our windscreen. 

The rain had turned into a veritable deluge by the time we reached Poperinge, where we waited until the worst had passed while parked opposite the town's charity shop.

In spite of its small size, we always seem to strike lucky here. This time, half an hour's rummage yielded two blouses - the one I'm wearing a King Louie - a red raffia belt, a blue wooden beaded necklace and a copper and turquoise cuff. There was also a retro tin for our kitchenalia collection and a delightfully kitschy plaster statue of Our Lady of St. Jan, local to Poperinge. 

The weather forecast on Friday was quite uncertain and after a bit of dithering we decided that our best bet would be a day trip to Ypres. Not having visited this poignantly beautiful town for a couple of years, we were looking forward to reacquainting ourselves with its delights and perhaps indulge in a spot of shopping.

Sadly, our decision turned out to be a big mistake!

Having parked at the railway station, we walked towards the town centre when, just before reaching the Market Place, we were halted in our tracks by a huge hole in the road where extensive sewer works were taking place. But that wasn't all. There were road and construction works everywhere we turned, the Cloth Hall's magnificent belfry was covered in scaffolding and the Market Place itself was cordoned off due to a car show! 

We comforted ourselves with a spot of retail therapy, buying a poppy tapestry bag and wooden poppy brooch at the In Flanders Fields Museum shop. Then we had lunch at one of the restaurants lining the Market Square. Catering for the many British tourists who used to visit here pre-Covid, fish and chips was on the menu, so this is what I went for. And quite delicious it was too!

The morning's disappointments were somewhat redeemed by walking back to the railway station the long way, taking the designated footpath along the town's ramparts and moat. 

It was a lot busier than usual here too. As luck would have it, a three-day music festival taking place on the outskirts of Ypres was about to go off to a start that day, and we met several groups of youths making their way into town from the railway station. 

The same festival made us drive around in circles on our way home, as quite a few roads were closed off. To add insult to injury, the town's charity shop where we briefly stopped for a rummage turned out to be rather disappointing as well.

By the time we finally made it back to Marjolein the sun had decided to put in an appearance after all, offering the perfect opportunity for outfit photos on the balcony.

The new-to-me zig-zag skirt I wore earlier that week was now accompanied by a red and white floral top by Belgian retro label Wow To Go, which I think I once bought in the sales, and the red raffia belt I found in the charity shop in Poperinge.

A slate grey sky and a steady drizzle greeted us on Saturday morning. As there was no let-up in sight by mid-morning, we abandoned our plans of going for a local walk and, after checking their website to see whether we needed to book ahead, we set off for a visit Talbot House in Poperinge instead. 

Talbot House was founded in 1915. During World War I, Poperinge was used as a garrison town for the British soldiers, with thousands of soldiers passing through the town each day when going to and returning from the front;

Thus, Talbot House was opened as a club house for all soldiers, regardless of rank, by chaplain Philip "Tubby" Clayton. For many, this place became their home away from home. "An oasis of serenity in a world gone mad", is probably the best way to describe it.

This being our 10th stay in the area, it obviously wasn't out first visit to the house and its garden, but it definitely was as hauntingly moving as ever.

For the afternoon, we'd booked a tour at a hop farm in the neighbouring village of Proven, where we were initiated into the secrets of hop growing.

’t Hoppecruyt is a modern hop farm growing 11,5 hectares of environmentally friendly hops. 

The harvest is dried and pelletized on the premises, and as we were visiting during hop picking season, we were able to see part of that process up close.

Jos was delighted to learn that his favourite beer, the alcohol-free version of Brugse Zot, is made with hops grown at this particular farm! 

At the end of the visit we were offered a free beer from the range produced with the local hops, while farmer's wife and tour guide Benedikte regaled us with an old hop picking song accompanied on accordion.

In continuation with the beer theme, our final port of call for the day was Malt Tower St. Joris in Reningelst, another one of Poperinge's satellite villages. 

Built in 1913, the brewery malt house now offers exhibition space, as well as a magnificent panorama of the village and the West Flemish hills from its viewing platform.

As a nod to the weather, I was wearing my floral trousers from New Look again, this time combined with a sage green Breton top and a coral polka dot cardigan. 

Quite windy it was, as you can see ...

I hope you'll join me again on our final day, followed by some of the promised September outfits, in my next post!

Friday 24 September 2021

West Side Story, Part 3

Once again, we were greeted by the sun when we woke up on Tuesday the 7th of September.

After our customary fruit and yogurt breakfast - we'd stocked up on fruit at the local supermarket after we'd returned from France on Monday - we repaired to our balcony, enjoying our morning coffee while making plans for the day. 

The weather forecast kept insisting that we were in for another scorcher that day, which ruled out doing anything too taxing like uphill walking. Well, we'd already had our fair share of the latter in France the other day and we were definitely feeling the strain.

As luck would have it, there was a leaflet among our cottage's holiday brochures which immediately caught our eye. The castle domain in Zonnebeke, established on the site of a former Augustinian abbey (1072-1796), and incorporating the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917. A leafy walk and a chunk of World War I history sounded right up our street.

We wasted no time in packing a picnic, but before embarking on our 20-minute or so journey to Zonnebeke, let me show you what I was wearing first.

The blue organic cotton skirt I'd picked up in the Mango sales turned out to be such a joy to wear during our little getaway in August, that packing it for our holiday was a no-brainer. The funky floral top I combined it with was a purchase from the high street as well. By retro label Zoë Loveborn, it has been a Summer staple for years. The belt is again one of my favourite stretchy ones. On my feet, another pair of sales bargain Clarks, as I'd exchanged my comfy sandals for my even more comfy Cloudsteppers!

The sun was already climbing towards its zenith by the time we'd parked our car in one of the domain's car parks, a searing orb in a brilliant blue sky. 

Making our way towards the cover of some trees, we passed the 8-metre-tall memorial honouring the role of New Zealand’s Māori in the First World War. The pou maumahara (memorial carving) was created over four years from 4500-year-old native New Zealand timber by master carvers, tutors and students from the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua, New Zealand. 

Our leaflet contained a map indicating a 1,9 kilometer walking trail around the estate, and as it seemed to start at the museum and information centre, we walked into its direction. Both are located in a lake-fronted Normandy-style mansion which was built in 1922 to replace a castle bombarded into rubble during the war.

The faintest of alarm bells started going off in our heads when we couldn't find any signs and our fears were confirmed when the nice lady at the information desk informed us that the walk was indeed not signposted. You can't go wrong, she said. You can see the house at all times, she said. But we have a track record of getting lost, we said. I could see her smiling behind her mask.

We walked towards the lake as instructed and took the path skirting it, happily breathing in the scent of the late Summer air, a hint of Autumn carried along a whisper of a breeze. Soon we were faced with a choice of woodland paths which we selected at will, without a glance at the map. 

Arriving at a clearing, we detected random pools of red picket fences. Some head-scratching followed by a look at the map revealed that these were the Passchendaele Memorial Gardens, a series of eight poppy-shaped remembrance gardens created for the Battle of Passchendaele's centenary in 2017, each one designed by one of the nations that took part in the battle.

The one immediately in front of us turned out to be the United Kingdom's. Sitting down on a conveniently placed garden bench, we looked at the map, which confirmed that we'd already taken a wrong turning.

We were supposed to pass in front of Villa Zonnedaele, which we could see shimmering between the trees beyond the gardens, so we made our way towards it with the intention to continue the walk from there. The villa, commissioned by the castle's owner for his eldest daughter in 1933, turned out to be another sad case of neglect. 

After this false start, we resumed our walk, this time correctly passing all eight gardens, starting with the Belgian one, which you can see above.

The New Zealand garden (below, top left and bottom right) was my favourite, its centre piece a hollow concrete column, the scale of the door requiring visitors to bend low to enter, echoing the physical confinement of the battlefield trenches. 

I was also enamoured by the swathes of Echinacea juxtaposed with the red picket fence at the Canadian garden (top right and bottom left).

Two of the gardens were laid out separately from the others, and were somewhat hidden by lush thickets of shrubs and trees, and it was here that we had another wobble. Eventually we arrived back at the chalet, err ... castle, where we searched out a shady bench to have our picnic on.

Thus fortified, we were ready for the haunting experience which awaited us at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917.

Aided by audio guides, the museum presents the history of the First World War in a poignant and vivid way, with a particular emphasis on the Battle of Passchendaele. 

This battle in 1917 is known as one of the most horrific of the First World War, with almost 600.000 casualties for a frontline movement of merely 8 kilometers. ‘Passchendaele’ not only became a concept in the history of the First World War, it also became a symbol of the great futility of the violence of war in all its horror. 

After the museum section, the tour continues with he unique Dugout Experience.  As a visitor, you discover how the British went to live underground in 1917, an oppressive experience that creates a disconcerting picture of the miserable and claustrophobic living conditions at that time. 

The final part of the museum constitutes a faithful reconstruction of German and British trenches, complete with  original shelters.

After this almost physical ordeal we felt worn out, which wasn't at all aided by the relentless heat of the sun, as the temperature continued to flirt with the high twenties. We sat down on a bench on the museum's verandah to recover before returning to our sauna-like car and driving home to our mercifully cool cottage.

On Wednesday the 8th, the weather thermostat was turned up even higher, the mercury forecasted to reach a scorching 30°C.

Nursing our morning cups of coffee on our balcony and mulling over the day's possibilities, I announced to Jos that I wanted to take some outfit photos in the hopfield across the road. So, before we started the day's adventures, that is exactly what we did.

As we'd planned a walk in the woods, I was wearing one of the pairs of lightweight wide-legged trousers I'd thrown into my suitcase. They are Zara by way of a charity shop, and I've worn the pussy-bow top - an ancient retail buy - with it many times before. A tried and tested no-brainer of an outfit. On my feet, barely visible in the photos, my pair of charity shopped pink floral sneakers.

The woods we'd selected for our walk were called Praetbos (bos is the Flemish word for wood), about half an hour's drive from Poperinge. On the outskirts of the small village of Vladslo, near the town of Diksmuide, it's adjacent to Vladslo German Military Cemetery.

Here, 25.638 German soldiers have found their final resting place. With stone tablets bearing multiple names, interspersed with roughly hewn stone crosses, there is a poignant sense of sadness and loss here, yet it feels soothingly peaceful in the dappled shade of the trees.

Among the soldiers who rest here is Peter Kollwitz, son of renowned German artist Käthe Kollwitz, who was killed at just 18 years old on October 23, 1914.  

For nearly twenty years, Käthe Kollwitz struggled to find a way to memorialize her dead son, discarding draft after draft, and putting the project aside temporarily in 1919. When she returned to the project in 1924, she settled on two simple figures, a mother and father with the features of Käthe and her husband Karl, who would kneel in mourning before the graves. Their son Peter's name is on the tablet just in front of the mourning father.

Our walk in the woods turned out to be only a very brief one, as once again, in spite of the leaflet outlining the walk, it was not signposted. 

So we just wandered at will and sat down on a bench where I gathered materials for a seasonal display.

The woodland paths were part of a 10,5 kilometer Käthe Kollwitz walk and indeed, her life and artwork ended up being the theme of the day, which continued with a visit to a museum dedicated to the artist in the nearby town of Koekelare.

In a unique former brewery setting, the Käthe Kollwitz Museum houses a collection of her original artwork.

Through these, one discovers how Käthe rebelled against war and poverty through her expressionist work. 

Being directly under the eaves, it was quite warm at the museum, and we were glad to have the space mostly to ourselves, so that we could take off our masks.

We declined a visit to another museum on the same site, which was included in the ticket price, as it was even hotter in there. So, after refreshments on a terrace on the town square, we made our way to the final leg of our day's adventures.

The day ended with a very leisurely walk in Koekelare Arboretum. Here we just had to follow the yellow signs ... Easy peasy!

Needless to say, we still managed to get lost, so when we caught sight of the car park, we decided to call it a day and made a beeline for a our car.

See you next time!

Sunday 19 September 2021

West side story, Part 2

Hello, and welcome to the second episode of this year's West country travelogue.

It was Monday the 6th of September and, after a restful night, we'd woken up to the first proper day of our little holiday. Another blue-skied and sunny day had been forecasted, with temperatures which were expected to climb steadily towards the high twenties.

Drawing the curtains of Marjolein's French windows leading to its balcony, the sight that greeted us was as magical as ever, the view across the lake and the patchwork of fields gently rolling towards the French-Flemish hills still managing to delight us after all those years.

We'd brought essentials such as bread, butter and eggs with us, as well as the remaining perishables from our fridge at home, but in our haste we'd left the contents of our fruit basket behind. Therefore, instead of our usual fruit and yoghurt breakfast, we had a starter of berries with a dollop of yoghurt, followed by one of Jos's delicious omelettes and slices of bread and butter. Washed down with cups of strong coffee, obviously.

We hadn't made any definite plans for our holiday, letting our moods and the weather be the deciding factors each day instead. That morning, we got it in our heads to go abroad for the first time since the pandemic. This isn't in any way as far fetched as it seems, as the French border is less than six kilometer from our cottage! France, here we come!

So, we set the controls of Truus, our satnav, towards the charming little town of Cassel, a journey of less than half an hour. This wasn't exactly new territory for us, as we first visited the town back in 2017. But while Marie-Jeanne, our old satnav, took us along winding country lanes through tiny hamlets and fields ripe for harvest, Truus seemed to prefer busy main roads. These we followed until we passed the ghostly empty shell of the former border control building followed by the sight of an unusual church tower which halted us in our tracks.

As we'd just passed a village sign, we knew we were in a little town called Steenvoorde which, in spite of being just across the French border, is a decidedly Flemish sounding name. And no wonder, as this area of present-day France was once part of the historical County of Flanders.

We decided to investigate, so we parked our car and walked into the direction of the church dedicated to St. Peter, its 92 meter spire guiding us like a beacon. 

The church, whose origins date back to the 12th century, has had quite a turbulent history. It fell victim to Iconoclasm - in fact, it was here that the Dutch Revolt started in 1566 - and after being burned down and destroyed in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was rebuilt in the late Gothic style between 1660 and 1664. The tower is from 1712 and the spire was added in the late 19th century. After being badly damaged again in May 1940, the church was finally restored in 1950.

Making our way to what appeared to be the town's market square in search of a boulangerie in order to buy a baguette and some brioches, I was drawn like a moth to a flame to a rusty post box and a row of houses which appeared to be in a serious state of disrepair. This kind of delightful dilapidation seems to be par for the course in these parts.

A friendly waitress was laying tables on the terrace of Brasserie Le Faucon, and after successfully scanning our Pass Sanitaire (vaccination certificate) we were allowed to sit down and enjoy un petit café before continuing our journey to Cassel.

Lunchtime was approaching when we reached the town and by the time we'd parked our car in the last available spot in the free car park near the Grand' Place I remembered from our previous visit, our stomachs announced they could do with some fortification.

Spotting a couple of inviting terraces further along the Grand' Place we strolled into their direction and, after perusing the menus, selected Café-Brasserie A l'Hôtel de Ville. Judging from the office workers who joined us shortly afterwards, it was a local favourite.

Again, our vaccination certificates were successfully scanned, after which we both ordered faux filet au poivre, which came accompanied by a salad and what I'm reluctantly calling French fries (as opposed to the correct Belgian fries) since we were in France.

We might have been drinking our usual alcohol free beers, but a rusty plaque announced that the place was granted the licence to sell alcohol and spirits in September 1940!

Hunger pangs satisfied, we briefly returned to our car as I'd forgotten my hat, after which we decided to once again attempt the town walk we did back in 2017. 

The walk, which is waymarked by copper studs (below, bottom right) starts almost opposite the restaurant, in front of the Musée de Flandre, details of which you can admire in the above collage, bottom left and right. A photo of the stunning 17th century Flemish building can be seen in the first Cassel collage on the top left. 

Originally established by the Romans on top of the 176 meter hill now known as Mont Cassel,  overlooking the lush rolling pastures of French Flanders, the small town is considered one of the most picturesque in the area. In fact, it was voted one of France's favourite village (Village Préferé des Français) in 2018.

From the Grand' Place, the walk climbs to the top of the hill by way of the Rue du Château, passing under the Porte du Château, or Castle Gate, a replica of the 17th century original.

However, Mr. and Mrs. Know-it-all preferred to take a different route. After all, we'd been here before. Never mind that we got a bit lost at the time ...

After a stiff climb upon a winding cobbled path, we eventually arrived on the summit, where a magnificent panorama of the town and surrounding countryside awaited us.

There's the Jesuit Chapel with the town's main church, Collégiale Notre Dame de la Crypte, on its right in the collage's central picture. We visited the church last time we were here. Now, it was partly covered in scaffolding, which I conveniently cropped out of the frame here.

There are several viewpoints with orientation tables, this one pointing us not only into the direction of Steenvoorde, where we had our morning coffee, and Poperinge, but our hometown of Antwerp as well. 

My outfit of the day was built around the recently charity shopped zig-zag patterned skirt which I combined with another recent charity shop find, a lightweight yellow top with a delicate leaf pattern, which had its origins in a high street shop. Both the belt - one of my beloved stretchy ones - and the sandals were retail buys, the latter picked up in the Clarks sales in a Shropshire town in June 2018. 

After admiring the attractions of Mont Cassel, the Casteelmeulen (Castle Mill, top left) and the equestrian monument of Marshall Foch (bottom right), who had his headquarters here during the Battle of Ypres, we took a path downhill to arrive on the sleepy Rue de Bergues. As you can see, the street signs are all bilingual, Bergenstraete being the local Flemish dialect. In the Flemish spoken by us at the other side of the border it would be Bergenstraat.

Just after the octagonal Horne Chapel we turned left and walked into the direction of the Rue de Dunkerque, where an open garage door allowed us a peek into the premises of the Mont Cassel brewery with its vintage Citroën delivery van.

At that point, it was only a matter of passing through the Porte de Dunkerque to arrive back at the car park, where we had a welcome break and another alcohol free beer on the terrace of the café on the corner. On our first visit, we'd parked our car directly opposite the café and had a coffee to get our bearings. At that time, we were both mesmerized and horrified by the old-fashioned sticky fly paper full of hapless victims hanging from one of the café's lighting fixtures. Admittedly, we were quite disappointed to see that this part of the decor had gone.

We might have been back at the car park, but that didn't mean our walk was finished. Suitably refreshed, we continued following the copper studs, pointing us into the direction of the Jesuit Chapel - and other cases of delightful dilapidation - and the Chemin du Chapitre, with its steps taking us down another level. 

At its bottom an atmospheric old cemetery awaited. The sun had momentarily dipped behind a veil of clouds, turning the delightfully dilapidated jumble of graves quite spooky. Especially since I was all alone there, with Jos resting his weary feet on a bench at the roadside.

The final part of the walk took us along the Chemin des Remparts, a footpath running parallel with the Grand' Place, offering yet more panoramic views.

Having walked roughly half of the path's length, we decided to cut our walk short by taking a street passing under another town gate, the Porte d'Aire, leading straight back to the Grand' Place.

We had both grown quite tired by now, which wasn't helped by the temperature, which had easily reached the predicted high twenties.

Finding a shady bench, we sat and stared for a while before returning to our car, which obviously had turned into a hot oven by now. 

With the airconditioning on full blast, we started the bumpy ride down the winding, pot-holed road leading us to the bottom of Mont Cassel, towards Poperinge and our lovely little cottage. 

But that didn't mean the excitement was over for the day!

I was just stepping out of the shower that evening, when Jos told me to hurry up and have a look outside. Apparently, a hot air balloon had only just avoided having to make an emergency landing in the field beyond the lake!