Tuesday 27 September 2022


Hello, and welcome to the third chapter of my travelogue covering our latest little getaway.

After another rainy night, we woke up to hesitant sunshine on Thursday the 8th of September. While we were having breakfast, the sun did her best to trick us into thinking it would be a glorious day. Our phone's weather app, however, told us quite a different story, promising showers throughout the day. 

Not to be fazed, we decided to go ahead with our plans, which involved half-an-hour's journey and crossing the border into France. Our destination for the day, the compact little walled town of Bergues, in the French region of Hauts-de-France.

With the mercury not expected to climb higher than 19 to 20°C, I opted for long sleeves, and selected this green and navy Breton striped top from my travel capsule. It was charity shopped just weeks before our Shropshire holiday, during which it certainly proved its merits, as I wore it twice.

The denim skirt was found in a Shrewsbury charity shop, and its generous side slips makes it perfect for walking. The blue belt with its green stitching was a sales bargain from Mango this Summer, while the necklace and brooch were old charity shop and flea market finds respectively. My feet thanked me for wearing my comfortable walking shoes, which would be my footwear of choice on most days.

Blue skies and sunshine accompanied us on our journey, which took us through a succession of picturesque Flemish villages which had ended up on the wrong side of the border, until we reached the A25 motorway. We only had to take this for a short stretch before reaching the exit to Bergues. From here, we followed directions to the Place de Marché aux Bestiaux (Cattle Market), where we'd parked last time we were here, in 2018. After finding a convenient spot for our chariot, we set off to the town centre.

The blue wooden building is home to the market's cattle scales and apparently it is still in use. It had clearly undergone quite a transformation at some point since our last visit (see here) as its paintwork was looking spick-and-span.

If you are wondering about the Ch'ti sign on the top right, it is the nickname given to the inhabitants of the town, a reference to their - according to their Southern compatriots - undecipherable dialect and unsophisticated ways.  But then Bergues became popular overnight with the successful French comedy, "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis", which was filmed in Bergues and released in 2008, and tourists started flocking to the town.

The cattle market shack wasn't the only edifice to have received a total transformation since we were last here. Indeed, back in 2018 the town's most celebrated and certainly most eye-catching monument, the 47 metres-high belfry, was hidden by scaffolding and its 50-bell carillon was shrouded in silence.

Now, in contrast, we could hear the pealing of its bells the minute we stepped out of our car, and long before the magnificently restored tower came into view. The current belfry, which dates from 1961 and is the building's third incarnation, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005. It was rebuilt in 1961 following its destruction by fire in 1940 and dynamiting by the Germans in 1944.

Next to the belfry's entrance, a giant wearing a top hat and dressed in a frock coat was seated. He is one of the Giants of the North, representing historical, legendary or fictional characters, which are a long-standing tradition in this part of the world. This particular one was created in 1913 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the election of Alphonse de Lamartine as deputy for Bergues in 1833. He has recently received a change of costume and has moved to his current spot from the town hall opposite this Summer. Note that he is also carrying an large black umbrella (just visible in the photo on the top right), which is also known as a  "berguenard"! 

berguenard \bɛʁ.ɡə.naʁ\ masculin
Grand parapluie que l’on sort pour le carnaval. (Note : à l'origine c'était les habitants de Bergues qui les utilisaient).
Transl.: Large umbrella used for carnaval, so called because it was originally used by the inhabitants of Bergues

On the occasion of our previous visit, we did a 5,2 kilometer walk which mainly took us along the town's extensive ramparts. This time, we had no real itinerary other than drifting around the town, just following our noses and anything that caught our eye. 

I indulged in my passion for photographing interesting doorways as well as miscellaneous oddities and curiosities, such as the ceramic house name sign on the top right, its name (The White Horse House) being in Flemish rather than French. 

We crossed the Place de la Republique and admired the  fine Flemish-style town-hall  which was initially built in 1665 in another location and relocated, stone by stone, to its current one in 1871.

And look who me met there, no less than Mr. Alphonse de Lamartine, albeit this time sans top hat, frock coat and berguenard!

From here, we continued along the Rue des Annonciades, until we reached the Groenberg (transl. green hill), a 22-metre high hillock overlooking the swampy region south of the sandy beaches of Dunkirk, where Bergues was founded in 857. In 885, the town was fortified by Baudoin the Bald, Count of Flanders. He entrusted the local religious authorities with the relics of Saint-Winoc, a patron saint who converted the region to Christianity at the end of the 7th century.

Beyond the magnificent marble gate we could now see in front of us are the ruins of the Benedictine abbey of Saint Winoc which was founded in 1022, and remained very influential until the French Revolution.  The Porte de Marbre was originally the entrance gate to the courtyard of the abbey palace. 

Only the Square and Pointed Towers survived the destruction of the abbey, in their capacity as  navigational landmarks. Ships entering the Dunkirk channel were guided safely by the two towers of Bergues.

The town acquired the site at the beginning of the 20th century and turned it into a public garden.

As it was nearly lunch time by now, we sat ourselves on a bench in the garden as, rather than return to the town centre, we were adamant to revisit a gem of a place we discovered back in 2018.

Picturesquely located in the heart of the public garden, L' Aubette appeared like a fata morgana just when hunger pangs started to get the better of us at the time, and its menu certainly did not disappoint.

Nor did it this time around, although there was no way I could finish everything on my plate of couscous with merguez, chicken and lamb.  

Dark clouds had been chasing away the fluffy white ones while we were eating and any trace of the formerly blue sky had disappeared by the time we stepped outside. In fact, we hadn't walked very far when it started chucking down, so that we had to open our umbrella and wait out the worst sheltering under some trees.

As soon as the downpour diminished, we made our way back to our car to pick up my waterproof camera bag, by which time the sun had once again made an appearance. Thinking the worst was over, we returned to the town centre to continue our explorations.

The weather gods clearly were in one of their mischievous moods as sunny spells and showers followed each other in quick succession. Even the saintly guy in his little niche (above, top right) was holding up his hands in desperation, while the rain streamed down the faces of the scantily clad three graces guarding the fountain in the Place Saint-Victor.

We took shelter in the parish church of Saint Martin, whose origins date back to the end of the 16th century. The building was badly damaged during the Second World War, most notably on 16 September 1944 – the date of the liberation of Bergues – when the tower was blown up with dynamite. The tower was rebuilt in the 1950s, although not according to the initial design, and only a few parts of the original church remain today. 

The interior is illuminated by splendid contemporary yellow-orange stained glass windows.

Dating from the 18th century, the black marble baptismal font (above, top right) is topped by a wooden sculpture representing the baptism of Christ. This is a rare piece as its base rotates to reveal the baptismal font in order for babies to be christened under the benevolent gaze of Christ and Saint John the Baptist. 

We left the church once the rain had virtually stopped and walked around its back to the ruins of part of the original church set into a tranquil garden complete with headless statue.

The remarkable building on the left and bottom right, is the former Mont de Piété, dating from 1633, an institutional pawnbroker ran as charity. It is now the home of the municipal museum, which has a large collection of mainly Flemish paintings and drawings dating from the 16th to the 19th century, as well as an extensive natural history collection.

It is possible to walk around the entire length - about 5 kilometers - of the ramparts Bergues is surrounded with. These are partly medieval and partly the work of Vauban - a French military engineer who worked under Louis XIV and generally considered the greatest engineer of his time - and are still complete with their entrance gates and some of their towers.

It was virtually unavoidable that our wanderings eventually took us on a small stretch of them. As I kept lagging behind to take photos, Jos plonked himself down on a conveniently placed post while waiting for me to catch up before continuing on the path skirting the outer town walls.

The rectangular squat tower with its mysterious entrance is the ruin of the medieval Tour des 7 Baraques which, in spite of my claustrophobia, we decided to explore. I do look a bit like a rabbit caught in headlights in the photo on the bottom left. 

Before too long, a set of steps took us back to the public garden and L' Aubette, where we rested our feet and enjoyed large cups of cappuccino. Then we made our way back to our car, stopping for a baguette for our evening meal along the way. 

By then, the weather gods had finally grown tired of taunting us so that it remained dry for our journey back to Poperinge. Not for long though, as it started raining heavily again minutes after we'd walked through the door.

According to Jos, it had kept raining all through the night and it was still doing so when we woke up on Friday morning. The dark clouds which our phone's weather app insisted would keep coming our way didn't bode well for the rest of the day. 

We lingered over breakfast and discussed plans for the day, which we would start with a rummage in the local charity shop, followed by a food shop in the small supermarket in the village up the road.

Tiny it may be, but I've never left the charity shop in Poperinge empty handed. I was in luck again this time, finding a brown embellished skirt by posh Belgian label Caroline Bis and a bird print pussy bow top from a Belgian high street label. Total spend: € 6,50.

The sun came out long enough to make some photos of my new-to-me outfit outside the cottage's front door. 

We had lunch at the cottage - consisting of a salad with the rest of the baguette from Bergues - and then drove to Poperinge for a visit to the Hop Museum. 

As mentioned in a previous post, the museum is housed in the former  Stadsschaal or Municipal Scales, where the hops used to be weighed, inspected and stored. The warehouse's beautifully restored exterior belies its spectacular contemporary interior, where an audio tour guides you through four floors of history and culture, starting from the impressive loft to the ground floor.

As it looked as if yet another shower was imminent, we made some quick outfit photos before going inside. Nothing new here, just my favourite vintage maxi skirt with a short-sleeved knit jumper, my orange leather jacket and the pleated yellow scarf I charity shopped in Bridgnorth in June.

The exhibits include an extensive collection of authentic equipment used for the hop harvest as well as photographs, models and audiovisual presentations illustrating the history of hop culture.

On the ground floor the Belgian Beer Collection, with more than 1,800 Belgian beer arranged by region, can be found, with microbreweries sharing space with the big names.

Unfortunately, a group of school children on an outing was sharing our visit. They were boisterously running around the floors and kept popping in and out of the various rooms so that it was hard to get to some of the exhibits, let alone taking decent photos of them. 

However, my deadly stare seemed to do its work once again, especially after I told a couple of them in no uncertain terms that we too had paid an entrance fee, and that they should have the decency to give us some space and wait until we'd finished looking at things. From that moment onwards, they kept saying sorry whenever they got in our way. 

After this semi-ordeal, we finished the day with restorative cups of coffee in a café on the market square. No waffles though, as we were informed that the kitchen of our chosen establishment was closed for the day.

Would rain stop play again during the rest of our holiday? You will find out the answer in my next posts!

Thursday 22 September 2022

Autumnal adventure

The night's steady downpour had left puddles on our cottage's terrace and had washed the rain-starved landscape clean.

We were up bright and early and were happy to see the morning sunshine illuminating the tops of the trees and slowly making its descent into the garden. Our weather app insisted that there would be more rain later that day, but for now gossamer wisps of white clouds were floating in a Wedgwood blue sky.

Taking our time to linger over breakfast, our usual menu of fruit and yogurt tickled our taste buds better than ever before, what with the glorious view and the full length and seemingly endless possibilities of our holiday still stretching out before us. 

For our first day, we opted not to stray too far from the cottage, selecting one of the walks I'd picked up in the tourist office, its starting point a mere 10 minute drive away. So, armed with picnic and walking map, we were ready to go.

Our walk of choice was the 6,5 kilometer Galgebossen walking route, which starts from a car park at the edge of the woods. The word bos (plural bossen) means wood(s) in Flemish, while the Galge part translates as gallows. Indeed, until the early 18th century, when it were the lords of nearby Vlamertinge who decided on life and death of their subjects, executions were carried out at the edge of these woods.

While we were trying to get our bearings and find the first of the hexagonal signs indicating the walk, we were met by a gang of chickens We presume these belong to the adjacent restaurant De Vuile Seule, which in the delightful local dialect means the The Dirty Bucket. No chance of a meal or even a cup of coffee, as it's only open from Friday to Sunday, so sadly enough I cannot report on the cleanliness of the place.

As for the chickens, we have met them before, when we came here for a short walk back in September 2019, at which time they insisted on sharing our picnic!

We soon spotted the first of the signs, which we followed walking on a succession of woodland paths meandering through a variety of young and old deciduous forest.  Nature is allowed to take its course here and dead wood is left lying around, creating the perfect habitat for a plethora of creepy crawlies.

There's no denying there was more than just a hint of Autumn in the air, and it all smelled heavenly after the previous night's rain. One could almost literally hear the parched soil's sighs of pleasure as it distributed rations of moisture among the trees and vegetation.

An extended forest bathing session was just the ticket after all the stress of the past couple of months and the temperature, which were nudging the mid-twenties, couldn't have been more perfect for this bracing walk.

Just minutes into our walk we came across a motte-and-bailey surrounded by a moat (above, top left), which is thought to be the relic of a medieval farmstead that was located here near the Roman road from Cassel (now in France) to Bruges.

We emerged from the woods into a clearing and passed a textbook example of a dew pond ringed by ancient pollarded willows. After the drought of the Summer months, however, only a tiny bit of water was left on the bottom of the pond. I can only hope that the persistent rains of the last week or so have been able to replenish it in the meantime.


The little brick barn turned shelter next to the pond is all that is left of a former farmstead, its old meadow now incorporated into the domain and kept as grassland. We briefly stopped here to get our bearings and read up on the fascinating snippets of history of the area mentioned in our walking leaflet.

The woods, now comprising 107 hectares, are a remnant of a much larger forest which disappeared between the 9th and 14th centuries.

The walk continued through stretches of wood punctuated by meadows and fields offering flat as a pancake panoramas, empty but for a scattering of farms on the horizon.

At one time, we joined the infamous Plankenroute (Plank Road), which connected the woods with the centre of nearby Vlamertinge. It was along this road, which was paved with planks due to its muddy surface, that soldiers marched to the Yser Front during the Great War.

I was wearing the charity shopped Zara trousers which sparked my embracing trousers again after many years of wearing only dresses and skirts. The leaf-strewn orange T-shirt and Wow To Go shirt worn as a jacket were charity shop finds as well. 

Poperinge's skyline could be glimpsed across a field of courgettes, although only one of its church spires was visible, the others hiding behind a line of trees. I guess it would be a totally different story once the trees have shed their leaves. The windmills standing sentinel along the ring road seemed to be waving at us at every turn.

We were starting to get peckish but the walk, which until now had been on woodland paths and through meadows and fields, suddenly continued along a tarmacked road. As we were leaving the woods well and truly behind for now, we knew the chances of finding a bench anywhere soon were getting dim.

A handful of houses dotted the single track road and, at a street corner, one of Poperinge's multitude of roadside chapels awaited. An elderly man pushing a wheelbarrow eyed us suspiciously as we were peering through the chapel's barred window trying to get a glimpse of its interior.

He started getting even more suspicious when I was taking photos of the delightfully shabby farmhouse (above, bottom right) and its picturesque crop of pumpkins (below, top right). Not surprisingly perhaps, as this turned out to be his home.

With still no benches in sight and our hunger pangs getting worse by the minute, we were glad of the opportunities offered by the Cross of Sacrifice at the entrance of Hagle Dump Cemetery.

The cemetery, which was begun in April 1918 during the Battles of Lys, was named after a nearby stores dump and contains 437 Commonwealth graves, a staggering 139 of which are unidentified. 

Jos was looking suitably mournful as he sat munching his sandwiches, but I'm sure the fallen heroes who found their final resting place here wouldn't have begrudged us our lunch. 

After raising our cups to them, we said our goodbyes, and continued our walk.

We rejoined the woods shortly after leaving the cemetery, and of course, the first thing we came across  when we turned onto the woodland path was a bench!

At a crossroads, the woodland path continued straight ahead until we passed a 19th century gamekeeper's house (below, bottom left) with a tiny chapel devoted to Our Lady of St. Jan, fixed to its façade. Our Lady of St. Jan is connected to the eponymous church in Poperinge, which is a well-known place of pilgrimage. Legend has it that she brought a stillborn child back to life in 1479.

During the Great War, the gamekeeper's house was used as an inn called De Gaai (The Jay) where soldiers came for entertainment, drink and women and to buy fresh bread from its bakehouse.

The woods remained British territory throughout, and formed a last place of rest before the troops continued on the way to hell. The British named it "Dirty Bucket Camp", referring to inn De Vuile Zeule, which I mentioned at the start of our walk.

We were near the end of our walk by now, and were glad to give our feet a rest. Secretly, we were quite chuffed to have finished the walk without any hiccups, although I'm fully aware that this was probably due to the excellent way-marking rather than to our aptitude.

Before returning to the cottage, we stopped at the local supermarket for provisions. This was an adventure in itself as, due to renovation works, which seem to be following us around, half of the shelves were empty. 

Back at the cottage, we read and napped until it was time for dinner, which we'd booked at restaurant, De Strooyen Hen (The Straw Hen), a couple of minutes up the road.

For this, I changed into the zig-zag skirt I charity shopped in the Summer of 2021 and a sales bargain orange short-sleeved jumper, accessorized with one of my stretchy belts, a butterfly brooch and a multi-coloured wood and ceramic necklace. I didn't bring any fancy shoes, so my Cloudsteppers would have to do.

While I was taking photos of our meals (mine was fish gratin, while Jos opted for pork tenderloin), a message appeared on my phone to welcome us to France.  Although we were still in Belgium, the restaurant is only just over 3 kilometers from border town Watou ...

And if you're wondering what's going on in the centre photo, I was having fun with the squishy battery operated LED lamp thingy on our table. As one does.

I'll be back with further west country adventures in a couple of days and hope you'll join me again then.

Saturday 17 September 2022

Breathe in the air

I know, it's been a while ...

Although I've been back since Tuesday, there has been no rest for the wicked, as I was already expected back at work on Wednesday. So far, I've only had time to catch up with blogland and upload the hundreds of photos I've taken on our yearly sojourn to Belgium's far west. To let you in on a secret, I haven't even finished unpacking yet!

But first things first, as in order not to disrupt my blog's sequence too much, I'm taking you on a short trip in the time machine, back to August's final Saturday.

Due to circumstances, these were the last outfit photos we managed to take before we headed off on Tuesday the 6th of September. But more about that later.

We hadn't been on a proper rummage for the longest time so, after breakfast, we packed a couple of sandwiches, grabbed a drink, and went for a charity shop trawl, starting with the one near the park where the above photos were taken. It was sunny but a bit breezy, which made the 21°C insisted by the thermometer feel a bit too chilly for my sleeveless Diolen wrap dress, recently found at Think Twice. I was glad I'd had the forethought to wear a cardigan and my denim jacket on top, which I both removed to show you the dress in its full glory.

Then, after a short stroll and a picnic on one of the park benches, we continued to our most local charity shop. 

The charity shop goddesses must have taken pity on us, as they rewarded us with plenty of finds. These included a floaty floral blouse from the Danish Vero Moda label and a vintage brown floral shirt, both long-sleeved, to be worn once weather shifts into Autumn mode.

More flowers, in burgundy, turquoise and a tiny bit of orange, for this retro-style King Louie dress, which I already wore to work in the meantime. 

The red printed cardigan is from the Belgian Who's That Girl label, while the green top with its garlands of flowers is from Only, which is another Danish label.

Sustainable Belgian label Froy and Dind provided the bottle green dress on the top right, which I can't wait to wear with a pair of contrasting opaques.

The cheongsam style housedress is deadstock vintage from an underwear and nightwear label called Carine, which I remember being around here in Belgium in the 1960s and 1970s. A quick trawl on the Internet didn't deliver, so unfortunately I can't tell you anything further about its origins.

Add to that the glorious vintage maxi skirt I picked up for a mere € 3,55 at the vintage-per-kilo shop during one of my lunch breaks, and I couldn't have been happier.

I'm fast-forwarding again to Tuesday the 6th, when we arrived at the cottage which over the last 11 years has become almost like a second home, in the early afternoon.

It was nothing short of a miracle that we'd actually made it there. Just a handful of days before I was due to go on holiday, my one and only colleague sustained a broken wrist which needed surgery. When it transpired that she would be out of action for much longer than expected, it meant that I wouldn't have any coverage for my job during my holiday. Luckily, it all worked out ok  in the end as my lovely boss came over all the way from Miami and, with some guidance from me, took over my job as best as he could while I was away. 

And now, breathe ... and relax!

In spite of a sky full of angry looking clouds, it had remained dry so far, and the temperature, which had come down from 30°C to 25 °C after a thunderstorm overnight, was still quite summery.  After a packed lunch of omelette sandwiches made by Jos that morning, and washed down with cups of coffee, we hopped into our car again for the short drive to Poperinge, our nearest town.

It has become a tradition of ours to spend the first day reacquainting ourselves with this quintessential West Flemish town, which strikes the perfect balance between lively and sleepy.

For such a small town Poperinge has its fair share of museums and, being the hop-growing capital of Belgium, it is only fitting that it host the National Hop Museum.

The museum is housed in the beautifully restored old Stadsschaal (Municipal Scales), which is where hops used to be inspected, weighed and pressed until the late 1960s. There's an ancient piece of hop picking equipment displayed in front of the building and the courtyard was strewn with dried hop bells carelessly discarded by museum visitors.

The courtyard was quiet and thus the perfect place to show you what I was wearing. It certainly wasn't the first time I wore this 1970s vintage skirt with this particular top, which was a high street sales bargain a couple of years ago. Surely, the marriage of their naive flower patterns couldn't be more perfect, especially as the pink flowers of the top match the pinkish background of the skirt almost exactly. The belt was picked up in the Mango sales in August and the shoes, which were snapped in the sales earlier this year, are definitely in the running to compete with my Cloudsteppers in terms of comfort.

Across the courtyard is the newly opened De Plukker Pub (Hoppickers’ Pub) where home brewed real ales can be sampled. It's at the back of a building, also part of the Stadsschaal complex, which originally belonged to the monastery of the order of the Recolettes. 

Here, according to the commemorative plaque at the front, Dirk Frimout was born. If you're wondering who the hell Dirk Frimout is: he was the first Belgian astronaut, flying aboard NASA Space Shuttle mission STS-45 in March 1992. He is the town's most famous son, and even has the local park named after him!

The next building of note we passed on our walk up from the car park is Talbot House, home of the "Everyman's Club", an open house for those serving in the British Army during the Great War, regardless of their rank.  It was opened in 1915 by army chaplains Neville Talbot and Philip "Tubby" Clayton. The house is now a museum and is still run by British wardens. You can even spend the night in one of the guest rooms!

Presently, we arrived at the market square, which is dominated by the stunning town hall. In spite of initial appearances, it was only built in 1911, in neo-Gothic style. The basement houses the town's tourist office, where I went to buy some local walking maps and leaflets.

Our first day always ends at the aforementioned local park named after the town's hero, Dirk Frimout.

The elongated park, which covers 3 hectares, is the town's green lung, and was opened in the presence of Viscount Frimout - a title he got when he came back from his space mission - in September 2002.

I left Jos sitting on a bench and went exploring, noting that, as expected after the recurrent heatwaves, things weren't as lush and green as usual. 

Then I met some of the most approachable ducks I've ever come across. They let me come really close and seemed to be more than willing to have their portraits taken. 

On our way back to the car park we stopped off at one of the cafés lining the market square and indulged in the most delicious waffles and huge cups of cappuccino. It started drizzling while we were sitting on the café's covered terrace but thankfully it was over within minutes, as we hadn't thought to bring umbrellas.

As a treat we were given pieces of typical old-fashioned Flemish candy in the shape of Our Lady. They are made from guimave, which is a kind of marshmallow, and made from sugar, egg-white and gelatine.
Although this candy comes in all shapes and sizes, these particular ones, which are affectionately called Mariatjes (little Marys), have a certain nostalgia factor. I actually hadn't seen or tasted one of these since childhood, when they could be bought individually for pocket money in the corner shop.

After picking up some groceries to tide us over for a day, we drove back to the cottage.

I was playing around with my camera, taking photographs of the hop field across the road viewed through the cottage's very own wrought iron topped with fleur-de-lis and pineapple finials, when I could hear a low rumbling sound which appeared to come closer and closer.

And there it was, the red hop picking machine, emerging from one of the rows between the hop poles.

Yes, it was that time of year again when the hops were ready for picking. When we visited a local hop farm last September, we learned that hops are a crop which is regular as clockwork and that, depending on the variety, they are always ready for harvesting within the same time frame of just a couple of days.

Before the evening was over, all the hop bines in front of the cottage had been cut down from their poles, leaving us with quite a different sight.

It started raining in earnest in the evening, and we watched the light show provided by the accompanying thunderstorm over the darkened landscape from our terrace window. A rather spectacular end to our first day!