Wednesday 27 September 2023

Briefly back to August

I was all ready to make a start with the another installment of my latest travelogue. In fact, I'd already been scrolling through my photos and reliving it all in the process. But then it dawned on me that I still owed you a blog post about the last couple of weeks of August. Now, I could easily have skipped them and you'd have been none the wiser. However, as we'd made the effort of taking outfit photos on several occasions, surely it would be a shame to let these go to waste.

So, I'm inviting you to take a seat in the old time machine again, but make sure to fasten your seatbelts, as it's going to be a slightly bumpy ride to the penultimate weekend of August. 

After Summer briefly went AWOL at the beginning of August, the weather gods seemed to have every intention of making up for their bad behaviour half-way through the month.

In continuation of the string of gorgeous Summer days we'd been blessed with that week, Saturday the 19th of August saw the mercury climb to 26°C. However, it was cloudy and quite stifling until the sun decided to make an appearance mid-afternoon.

What with the clouds and the slight headache I'd woken up with, I needed clothing as armour, as Sheila would say. So, how about a mix of green and red? 

My red and white polka dot top is from River Woods and came to me by way of the charity shops back in May 2022. The skirt with its tiny green and white checks and red dots and the wooden beads were charity shopped as well. While the vintage celluloid Scottie dog brooch was a flea market find, both the belt and my sandals were picked up on the high street.

After breakfast, we drove down to optician's in nearby Mortsel to order an extra pair of reading glasses. This would enable me to leave my old pair at the office so that I would no longer have to stress about accidentally leaving them behind either at home or at the office, both of which would be a bit of a disaster.

Back at home, I made a feeble attempt to catch up with blogland and peruse some of our holiday brochures. But sadly my slight headache had turned into a full-blown migraine which refused to budge.

While I was good for nothing, Jos assembled the reading lamps we'd recently bought from IKEA. Both being bedside readers, we desperately needed to replace the inadequate bedside lamps we'd formerly been using. The new lamps have made all the difference, although they haven't prevented me from falling asleep after half a page as I often do!

By Sunday, both Saturday's clouds and my headache had taken leave of absence. With the temperature heading into the high twenties, it would have been foolish not to go for a stroll. Just a stroll, though, as we were in that quintessential lazy Sunday state of mind.

Solhof Park in the neighbouring village of Aartselaar, which is only a 10-minute drive from Dove Cottage, sounded just the ticket. Formerly the pleasure grounds of an old castle whose history goes back to the 15th century, it is deliciously wild and unkempt, with monumental 100 to 150 year old trees, their towering trunks rising skyward, Jack-and-the-beanstalk fashion.

We aimlessly wandered until we found a bench near the moat to sit and stare from. 

The local population of ducks seemed to be somewhat disappointed when it turned out we hadn't brought any tasty bites to feed them.

My lazy Sunday outfit consisted of a button-through chambray skirt, an old Think Twice find customized by yours truly with vintage buttons from my stash, combined with an orange cotton blouse printed with birds and flowers, which was charity shopped two Summers ago.

One of my chevron patterned stretchy belts, a green beaded necklace and ditto butterfly brooch and my super comfy Clarks sandals completed my outfit. 

I was recently asked by Vronni about my walking stick, which I'm in the habit of carrying. I have been using one for years and find it really helpful for climbing hills, dealing with rough terrain and negotiating muddy patches. It also takes the strain off my back and knees. In short, I couldn't imagine going for walks without it and miss it whenever I do.

Another thing I should get into the habit of is applying insect repellent whenever I go out walking in bare arms and legs. I was reminded of this when, near the end of our walk, I was bitten in the arm by a horsefly. Just a tiny mosquito bite-like patch initially, it had swollen to massive proportions by Monday morning and I had been lying awake for half the night as it was itching like crazy. It took countless applications of hydrocortisone cream and, as recommended by the chemist, an antihistamine tablet taken overnight, to finally bring the swelling down after a couple of days. The tablet, however, had the unfortunate side-effect of making me feel groggy for the better part of the next day. Not the best start to the week ...

But then August's final weekend appeared on the horizon, starting with my regular Friday off.

Never mind that, after a week of sunshine, we were now treated to a dark, dismal and rainy day which was quite incongruous with the mild 23°C temperature.

The lime green midi skirt with its stylish black and white flowers was charity shopped last November. It had been hanging outside my wardrobe for weeks, as I desperately wanted to wear it but couldn't think of a top that would work with it. That is, until I was rummaging through my short-sleeved knits and my eye was caught by this King Louie one. The yellow in its tropical leaf pattern turned out to match the skirt almost exactly.

Apart from the black stretchy belt everything I was wearing was either a charity shop or a flea market find. And yes, that includes the King Louie top and the shoes!

Having received a text from the optician's that they were ready, we picked up my new pair of reading glasses. Aren't they gorgeous? They're from the French Anne et Valentin brand and were the first frames I'd tried on the week before. Both Jos and I instantly fell for their two-tone pinks. Three-tone, actually, as the inside of the frames are the palest of pinks. Now I can finally read in style!

Unfortunately, there was little improvement in the weather as the weekend progressed. Yet more rain and a drop in temperature to 20°C was our lot on Saturday the 26th of August. 

The view through our rain-splattered kitchen window wasn't exactly inviting us to go outside but the  plants in the passageway definitely wouldn't need watering that day. 

I spent the morning doing some gentle pottering and packing away a few essentials for our upcoming September holiday. 

Then, after lunch, we answered the siren call of the charity shops, as it had been far too long since we'd gone for a proper rummage.

But first, let me take you through my outfit of the day. 

I'd unearthed one of my Diolen Delights from my wardrobe that morning. If my memory serves me right this flower infused button-through frock was purchased from a shop called Vintage Styling, which sadly stopped trading in the early days of my blog.

I picked up the navy bits in its pattern with my belt, necklace and ring but opted for a pair of red shoes from the Portuguese Kiarflex brand. 

The blue jacket with its orange leaf pattern is from Belgian high street label Liberty Island. By way of a charity shop, obviously.

After stopping at the museum garden down our street for outfit photos, we picked up our car and made our way to the charity shop in Mortsel. This was the very first charity shop we ever ventured into many, many years ago, and it's still a firm favourite.

The clothing rails are always plentiful here, and leaving this shop empty-handed is a rare occurrence.

This lightweight, almost-see through Summer skirt's peacock pattern was simply too good to resist!

I didn't have a King Louie heart-patterned cardigan in this particular shade of green yet, so adding it to my basket was a no-brainer. I must have at least ten of these cardigans, all in different colours, by now, all of them charity shopped at a mere fraction of their original retail price.

The navy, white and pink chevron jumper on the right is by the Danish Only label and will effortlessly slot into my Autumn/Winter wardrobe. I've already got a couple of outfits in mind!

I used to own and love this dress by the Belgian Wow To Go label well over ten years ago. In fact, I was heart-broken when - thank you menopause! - its size S no longer fit me. So, I couldn't be happier when this one, in a size M, leapt at me from the charity shop rails.

Finally, while on our way to the till, a cursory glance at the otherwise very bland jewellery display yielded this vintage gold-tone brooch with its multicoloured faux gemstones.

All in all, not a bad haul!

So, that was it, the month of August all wrapped up.

I'll be back with the final episode of my heatwave holiday travelogue shortly. See you soon!

Friday 22 September 2023

Heatwave holiday - Part 2

Things were definitely heating up as our holiday week progressed: the weather forecast for Tuesday 5 September spoke of full-on sunshine and temperatures exceeding 30°C. 

At this time of year, at least, we were guaranteed slightly cooler nights, but sleeping was still a sweat fest in spite of the fact that we kept the French windows open all night.

Consulting our weather app in the morning, we learned that our best bet would be a trip to the seaside, where a mild sea breeze would halt the mercury in its tracks just under the dreaded 30°C mark. So, that was our destination for the day sorted!

The nearest seaside resort to our holiday cottage is De Panne. Lying at the western end of Belgium's straight 67 kilometres long coastline, it is almost literally a stone's throw from the border with France.

Much head scratching ensued when our Satnav made us drive on minor country lanes which were definitely not taking us into the direction of the main road to the coast. In fact, we were dumbfounded when we suddenly found ourselves in France! But our Satnav seemed to be knowing her way around and eventually we made it to De Panne, and the free car park we have been using for many years. Formerly free car park, I should add, as a Pay and Display machine had materialized in our absence. 

Having parked, paid and displayed, we walked around the corner and took the tram for a couple of stops until we were within easy access of the promenade. 

In spite of the perfect weather conditions, both promenade and beach weren't exactly jam-packed, which would have been quite a different story in the Summer holidays or during sunny weekends. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking that we had the place completely to ourselves, the odd paddling gull notwithstanding!

The tide was out, leaving a wide expanse of beach we had to traverse until the shoreline with its gently lapping waves was reached.

Swiftly removing our shoes, we followed the gulls' example and dipped our toes into the salty water. Then, slowly but surely the tide started turning so that soon the water reached beyond our ankles. Jos was obliged to roll up his trouser legs, while I tucked my tiered skirt into my knickers!  

And so we walked on, with the waves following each other in swift succession and increasing force, until we were parallel with a break in the row of unappealing apartment buildings lining the promenade. The bane, unfortunately, of most of Belgium's coastal resorts.

We walked back to the promenade over the rippled wet sand, followed by a final stretch of sun-kissed golden sand untouched by the tide which dusted our feet as if sprinkled with flour. 

Sitting on a bench, we tried to brush off most of it, which proved a nearly impossible task: we could feel it squishing between our toes for the rest of the day.

De Panne's brightly striped deckchairs and windbreakers and old-fashioned bathing huts are reminiscent of a Victorian seaside postcard.  Although I have taken countless photographs of these over the years, I couldn't resist trudging up to them for some more, with the warm fine sand slopping over the tops of my Cloudsteppers. Jos was far more sensible and waited for my return on a shady bench.

It was well past midday by now and our stomachs were ready for some sustenance. However, it seems that we'd picked an awkward time for our visit as our favourite restaurant along with many others happened to be closed on a Tuesday.

We finally managed to grab a table on the terrace of Le Beaulieu, which turned out to be a cut above  some of the other eateries lining the Promenade. Our waiter - like most of the workforce here - was French, with just a limited grasp of Flemish, resulting in a minor mix-up in the order of the Dutch people sitting at the table next to ours.

After lunch, we strolled along the promenade. Then, while Jos once again rested his feet in the shade, I briefly ventured a bit further afield to admire some of the coastal architecture from yesteryear which is still hanging on for dear life among the concrete jungle.

However, it was far too hot to trawl the streets of the Dumont quarter, a gem of architectural heritage built between the late 19th and early 20th Century which has been protected since 1995. Next time, perhaps ...

There was no escaping the heat on Wednesday 6 September, as the mercury now refused to descend from its lofty +30°C height.

My floaty chambray midi skirt, which had already more than proved its worth in Shropshire, came out to play again. I paired it with a charity shopped floral top by King Louie, accessorized with a yellow cat brooch. The belt was an old retail buy.  I removed the necklace - another charity shop find - after the photo was taken, as I knew it would bother me while out walking.

We looked for the largest patch of dark green - indicating wooded areas - on our walking map and found it in De Palingbeek, at over 230 hectares the largest Provincial Domain in the West of Flanders.

We'd walked here twice before, starting from a different car park, which our Satnav had us drive around in circles to find back in 2020. Now, we opted to start from the car park near the domain's visitors centre and, although we started our journey with some trepidation, I'm happy to report Ms. Satnav was well behaved this time around.

Our intended walk took us past the ecological kitchen gardens which are part of the domain after which we followed a succession of woodland paths until we arrived at a clearing in the woods. Here a bittersweet surprise in the form of one of the area's many WWI cemeteries awaited us.

Hedge Row Trench Cemetery was begun in March 1915 and was used until August 1917. The layout of the cemetery is rather unusual. During the war, the site suffered so much from shell fire that the positions of the individual graves couldn’t be reconstructed. The headstones are now arranged  around the Cross of Sacrifice, with the circle serving as a symbol for the large amount of craters caused by mine explosions in the area. 98 Commonwealth soldiers are buried here. 

Hundreds of military cemeteries arose in Flanders Fields after the First World War, reminding us of the staggering human toll the conflict took. 27 of the area's WWI sites - alongside a further 112 in Wallonia and France -  have finally been added to UNESCO ‘s World Heritage List earlier this week, Hedge Row Trench Cemetery being one of them.

Next to the cemetery, a row of haversacks are displayed on pedestals. They contain the personal belongings of a fallen soldier buried here. The items are preserved behind plastic: a white handkerchief, a field shovel, a water bottle, a tin of corned beef and a torch to name but a few. 

The display definitely added to veil of unspeakable sadness which hung over the site.

Leaving the cemetery behind us, we rejoined the shady woodland path. 

The patches of bright blue sky and the persistent rays of sunshine which tried to reach us through the the leafy canopy of the trees belied the fact that we were on the cusp of Autumn and that these Indian Summer days might very well have been Summer's swan song. 

There were plenty of benches offering picnic opportunities, so we soon found a shady one for our picnic of ham and cheese sandwiches. Then, after negotiating a cattle grid, we spotted the art installation Coming World Remember Me (below, top right) in the distance. Created by artist Koen Vanmechelen, it originally consisted of 600.000 clay figures sculptured by people from across the globe, representing the 600.000 victims who lost their lives as a result of WWI in Belgium.

One would think that making use of a walking map based on numbered markers is very much like painting by numbers. However, it does require navigational skills, particularly as some of the markers have been placed in such a way that their instructions are somewhat ambiguous. So, it wasn't entirely our self-confessed topographical disorientation which was to blame for the fact that we didn't end up at number 16 as intended. This left us no other option other than to return to the previous number for a second attempt. As we didn't exactly relish the detour in the heat, we breathed sighs of relief when we finally made it to the elusive number 16 post.

We were now at the highest point of the Palingbeek domain. Known to the British as "The Bluff", this was one of the few places where the Allies held higher ground than their opponents. For this reason, at the end of 1915 and throughout 1916, the Germans attempted to capture the position, which was known to them as "Die Grosse Bastion". As a result, it was the scene of several underground explosions and heavy fighting. On 25 July 1916 a massive explosion blew away the top of the mound. In December 1916 the British replied with mines of their own, after which the area became an inaccessible quagmire of deep craters.

There's a pavillion here where you can watch a film about the build-up of the underground war on the battleground known as the southern Ypres Salient.

A couple of paces from the pavillion there's another sculpture by Koen Vanmechelen. This will eventually become the carrier of 600.000 personalized dog tacks (above, bottom left), each bearing the name of a WWI victim. The egg is symbolically protected by a nest of bronze chicken claws.

After having watched the film and rested our feet, the walk continued on a recently installed boardwalk path through the former No Man's Land and along various craters.

The sheep which have the privilege of calling this part of the domain their home were sheltering under the boardwalk and didn't seem to be all that bothered by our approach. 

The final stretch of the walk was mercifully downhill. Here woodland creatures were immortalized in wooden carvings. The hedgerows were full of juicy blackberries which we picked until the plastic tub formerly containing our picnic was filled to the brim.

Having made it back to the visitors centre, we purchased a bottle of ice-cold homemade apple juice to quench our thirst.

Needless to say it tasted quite heavenly after the day's exertions!

Friday 15 September 2023

Heatwave holiday - Part 1

After closing the office door behind me on the last day of August, it was a bit of a letdown to hear torrential rain beating against our bedroom window overnight and to wake up to a grey and damp morning on the first day of our September holiday. We certainly did not envy the schoolchildren and their parents their first school run after the Summer holidays, and luxuriated in the fact that we didn't have to join them that morning. What's more, we breathed huge sighs of relief realizing that there wouldn't be any need for us to get up early for the daily race against the clock for no less than 12 days! 

Luckily, that morning's rain would be the last we'd see. The temperature which managed to climb to 22°C on Friday afternoon would be on the up in the days to come and, in fact, a veritable heatwave had been forecasted for our holiday week. 

Still, it was a bit of a struggle to decide what to pack. Known for their eternal capriciousness, I didn't fully trust what the weather gods had cooked up for the week ahead so, in addition to an armful of heatwave proof tops and a selection of floaty skirts, I threw in a long-sleeved Breton top, some short-sleeved knits, a couple of cardigans and a pair of trousers. Not to mention my orange leather jacket, green raincoat and beloved denim jacket.

But for once the weather gods decided to leave well enough alone, so that I wouldn't need any of these last-minute additions.

The sun was shining in full force when we said goodbye to Bess just after midday on Sunday. By the time we arrived at our cottage in Poperinge, which is only a leisurely hour and a half drive from home, the temperature had effortlessly reached the mid-twenties.

We have been spending September holidays at this same cottage for 12 years running, and as I have been sharing our adventures here with you since 2016, it will by now be familiar to long-time readers of my blog. 

Still, as apparently I haven't shared the cottage's interior since 2021, here are some photos as a reminder.

The cottage, Marjolein Guesthouse, is actually a compact first floor studio above the owner's carport, in a rustic thatched wooden building. It's got everything you can possible think of: a dressing, sitting area, kitchenette, breakfast nook and bedroom, all-in-one, with a small bathroom leading off the main room.

The view from the balcony, which is reached through the breakfast nook's French windows, has had us mesmerized ever since we first laid eyes on it back in 2012. Looking out over the extensive domain's lake, which is teeming with wildlife, and the patchwork of fields and the French-Flemish hills beyond, is one of the highlights of our holidays here.

The front door window looks out over one of Poperinge's many hop fields. Hop picking usually starts in the week we are staying at the cottage, and this time was no exception. Still looking green and lush in the photo on the top left, the hop stakes would be completely bare by the time we went home one week later.

We arrived shortly after 2 pm and after reacquainting ourselves with the cottage and befriending one of the domain's new lawnmowers - a fearsome looking but quite docile black horned sheep - we drove down to sleepy Poperinge's town centre.

We both had a craving for waffles, so we plonked ourselves down on the terrace of one of the busy cafés lining the market and ordered some of the icing sugar sprinkled delicacies accompanied by cups of cappuccino. 

Then, as is customary on our first day, we walked down to the local park for a stroll. 

Late Summer flowers were attracting the custom of a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Can you spot the Comma perching on the Ice Plant (Sedum spectabile) on the bottom left?

My outfit of the day consisted of a charity shopped funky green, turquoise and off-white top from the Belgian Vila Joy label, paired with an orange and off-white tiered skirt picked up in the C&A sales last year. My sandals were a sales bargain too, while my accessories were a mix of high street and charity shop finds. The chunky green ring, which unfortunately isn't very visible here, was a gift from Claire.

After purchasing a baguette to eat with the salad we'd brought with us, we picked up our car and drove back to our little home away from home.

Watching the sun go down over the lake was the perfect end to the day!

On Monday, the weather thermostat was cranked up another couple of degrees to 27°C. 

In the weeks preceding our holiday we'd made a list of possible outings which unfortunately all had to be scrapped due to the unseasonably warm weather. Town trails, uphill walking and rambling in the relatively treeless River IJzer wetlands or along any of the area's picturesque canals: all off the menu and saved for a rainy day another year.

And so it was that we escaped to the woods that day. 

Only a 10-minute or so drive from Marjolein, the Sixtusbossen (Sixtus woods) are a 300 hectares complex of woods cared for by Natuurpunt, the largest Belgian nature conservation organization. The woods belong to the famous Abbey of St. Sixtus, where monks have been brewing the much sought-after Westvleteren Trappist beer since 1839.

Armed with a recent walking map of the area, we set off into the direction of the leafy park of  De Lovie which with its 60 hectares is also part of the St. Sixtus cluster of woods. 

Both the Neoclassical castle - which you can catch the merest of glimpses of between the trees on the bottom left - and its English landscape inspired park date from the mid-19th Century, commissioned by Marie-Joséphine van Renynghe and her son Jules Van Merris, who had settled in the area in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

One of the eyecatchers of the park was the garden pavillion (above, bottom right) constructed in cast iron and glass. Now in a sorry state of disrepair, it has been protected as a monument since 2000, and is awaiting its much-needed restoration.

Over time, the castle has served as a Summer residence for the aristocracy, a military headquarters during WWI and a sanatorium for TB patients. Today, the site is being managed by a charitable organisation which supports children, young people and adults with mental disabilities.

Shortly after entering the grounds, an uphill path took us past a Neoclassical gazebo built on top of an artificially constructed mound called the Drogenbroodberg. Translated as Dry Bread Hill, it allegedly got its name as the workmen who built it were given dry bread in lieu of payment. The gazebo too has been a protected monument since 2000 and has been restored to its original 19th century condition in 2006.

My outfit of the day consisted of one of my all-time favourite skirts, which has accompanied me on all our Summer holidays since I found it in a charity shop back in 2020. The orange top with its scattering of blue leaves was a charity shop find as well, as were the haori cover-up and my necklace. For our walk, I exchanged Sunday's sandals for my Clarks Cloudsteppers, which have now definitely seen better days. Particularly after walking on a dew-laden, freshly mowed grass path.

We meandered through the park, relishing its lushness and coolness, with only the merest hint of approaching Autumn lingering in the air. 

After about one and a half kilometres we reached one of the park's exits and emerged on a quiet country lane where tiny shrines lined the road and we were gaped at by a herd of inquisitive young cows. 

As midday approached, we were starting to feel peckish and were on the lookout for a suitable bench to have our picnic. Our walking map told us we were approaching a picnic site, for which we briefly had to re-enter the park through the so-called Chinese gate (above, top centre). 

Until the 1920s the gate was standing at the entrance to the sanatorium St. Idesbald in Houtem near Veurne, but it was rebuilt here when the convalescent home for tuberculosis patients moved here in 1930.

Once through the gate, a tarmacked path lead us to the heart of the park, passing a chapel dedicated to St. Theresa half-hidden by topiary (above, top left and right and bottom centre).

The picnic site offered a view towards the rather forbidding looking Neoclassical castle and was furnished with a musical installation which I'm sure Kezzie would have been able to put to proper use. 

There is another little chapel here, erected in Neoclassical style in memory of Mrs. Maria Joséphine van Renynghe, with next to it a much larger round chapel built in the 1930s by the aforementioned sanatorium St. Idesbald.

When I was editing the photos and zooming in on the one of the castle, I was quite spooked to see a ghostly apparition in one of the upper floor windows ...

Hunger pangs satisfied and weary feet rested, we returned to the Chinese gate and the country lane we were walking on.

Before doing so, however, we were waylaid by a sign welcoming us into the charming garden belonging to a farmstead called The Six Senses. This offered a plethora of surprises, including a tiny toy mouse hiding in a naively painted wooden house.

Back on track, we suddenly found ourselves in Canada!

The final stretch of our walk took us into the woods again, where a surprise of a different kind awaited us: the remnants of a secret WW2 V1 launching base (above, bottom left).

It was one of eighteen V1 bases the German army had erected in West Flanders by Russian forced labourers. 

From here, the German army wanted to target London, a distance of about 200 kilometres as the crow flies. But although the work was finished in August 1944, no V1 bomb would ever be launched from West Flanders: the Allies were advancing too fast from nearby France!

Having miraculously finished our walk without getting lost, it was time to go back to the cottage for some well-needed rest and finishing my current read, Paula McLain's The Paris Wife.

I was so absorbed in its final pages that I almost missed that day's magnificently fiery sunset!

Then it was time for bed and to recharge our batteries for next day's adventure.