This isn’t the first time that I have driven in Europe, but I will be honest and say that my experience with driving on the right hand side of the road is somewhat limited. Having grown up in Australia, which is basically at the back end of the world and is pretty much miles away from any other country, particularly countries that drive on the right hand side of the road (Thailand and India both drive on the left), the opportunity to drive on the right hand side of the road (legally that is) is not readily available. Okay, we do have China and Indonesia, but China is actually quite a distance away, and even then, like Indonesia, driving in China is simply not recommended (and apparently there are some countries, such as Vietnam, that don’t even recognise international drivers licenses). Also, some of these countries seem to only have road rules in name only – people just seem to do what they please.
Okay, some might say that there isn’t much difference between driving on the right as opposed to driving on the left, except that there is – everything is the opposite, and when you don’t have a huge amount of experience, doing the opposite of everything that you have spent a bulk of your life doing is actually pretty difficult. In fact if the worst thing that happens to you is that you turn on the windscreen wipers as opposed to the indicators then you are actually doing okay (and the fact is that no matter where you go in the world, there are people that have yet to work out what indicators are for, let alone exist).
You see the thing that I discovered is that if you have been doing something a particular way for a considerable amount of time (such as driving on the left hand side of the road), then you become hardwired to driving in that particular way. The problem is that unless you are paying a lot of attention you end up doing what you have always been doing by second nature and suddenly discover that there are a bunch of cars heading straight towards you. Okay, you can honk your horn, and they will probably move out of your way, but the police officer that is going to eventually pull you over simply isn’t going to be all that impressed, and I doubt ‘I come from Australia and we drive on the left’ simply isn’t going to wash. However, other than a couple of incidents (such as discovering that I was heading straight for a bus, and when I swerved to avoid it I served to the left, he swerved to the right, and only then I discover that I am on the wrong side of the road), I managed to survive, and was even able to return the car without any damage done to it whatsoever.
Anyway, during my more recent trip, I spent three days on the road behind the wheel of the car, one day in Belgium, one day in Pas-de-Calais in France, and the final day seeing if I could visit five countries.
Back Roads of Belgium
One of the problems that I encountered with hiring cars is that you can’t always pick them up when you want to pick them up. When I appeared at the Hertz counter (was it Hertz – I hope not because I hate Hertz, especially when they refused to refund my deposit due to the tank being only 95% full, and when I objected they brought the big burley guy over to threaten me, and the fact that I had a plane to catch meant that I couldn’t simply stand there arguing with them) nobody was there, which meant that we had to ring up the head office asking why the office wasn’t open despite the fact that they had been advised months in advance that I was going to be picking up the car. It turned out that the reason for that was because it was 9:30 and I wasn’t supposed to pick up the car until 10:00.
Anyway, after collecting the car it was time to make our way out of Antwerp, which wasn’t as difficult as some places I’ve been to, and having Google Maps available made it even easier (though since I was driving I wasn’t able to constantly look at Google maps, and the car didn’t have one of the holders where I could put my phone). However, all that was required was to take a couple of roads (which involved me accidentally turning onto the wrong side of the road at one point, only to discover a heap of cars heading towards me, resulting in a quick switch to the correct side, but then again it was one of those massive intersections so it wasn’t surprising I made a mistake then) and then I was on the freeway heading out of Antwerp.
Actually, there were a number of star forts surrounding Antwerp and the original plan was to visit them. However, due to being caught up at the railway station, and also the fact that I do tend to try to do more than I am actually capable of doing in a day, I only went to look for one of them. However, it simply turning out to be a park, so after meandering through the side streets, we made our way back onto the main road, and then onto the freeway to take us in the direction of Brussels and beyond.
One of the things that I really don’t like about driving in Europe is when you hit the cities. Fortunately the motorways are well developed meaning that you can actually avoid the cities if need be, however I wouldn’t recommend doing anything too smart, such as I did by driving into the Brussels airport to check in on Yelp only to discover that I had become completely lost, and almost had another accident. I even landed up heading in the wrong direction, so pulled off the motorway, took a short cut across the country, and found myself on the correct road heading in the direction on Waterloo.
While I could spend some time talking about Waterloo and the Bute, I won’t namely because that deserves an entire post itself. Instead we spent a little bit of time there, had a drink at a random bar in Waterloo, and then made our way to our next destination – Chimay. The first part of the trek to Chaleroi went without fail, and fortunately there was a ring-road (something that a lot of European cities have) that meant that I didn’t need to travel through the city. However, after we arrived at the otherside we had to say goodbye to the motorway and the rest of the trek was going to be along the back roads.
This makes things a little awkward because the thing with Europe is that there are an awful lot of villages, which means that once you have reached the speed limit along these back roads you suddenly have to slow down again because another village has just appeared. In Europe, there aren’t long straight stretches of road, but then again you do have the motorways which means that you can easily avoid these many towns.
Once again, Chimay, is probably deserving of a post all of its own, and the main reason that I came down here was to visit a trappist monestry (that being Scourmont Abbey). It turned out that while you would wander around the monastery, there wasn’t all that much to see beyond it being a monastery. However, the countryside was lovely, and there was even a forest you could spend some time wandering around. However, for those keen on their beers, just around the corner from the monastery was Espace Chimay, where you could enjoy cheese, beer, and a multitude of other goodies. Anyway, after a quick drink it was time to head back north to Ypres.
Actually, using the term outback probably shouldn’t apply to France considering the concept of the outback, at least as it applies to Australia, is a region that is dry and parched, and basically empty. One of the major differences between Australia and Europe is that in Europe you are never a short walk away from a house and in turn a phone, whereas in Australia you could be days away from the nearest piece of civilisation. In fact it is possible that if you wandered too far you will never be found again.
Anyway, after spending a day wandering around Ypres and visiting some of the old World War I sights (and a couple of Museums), it was time to head into France. However, unlike the previous day, I was going to avoid the Motorways, namely because where we were going there weren’t any motorways. Well, there is, but there is nothing like a lovely drive through the country. So, we pulled off the freeway just outside of Tournai and headed towards France. Sure enough we encountered one of the old border posts, which had now been closed own. Mind you, my brother was really impressed with the fact that the border post was still there but no longer being used, but then again back when he was much younger he had tried to get into France only to be denied on the grounds that he was Australian and the Australians weren’t all that appreciated because of the fact that they objected to France testing nuclear weapons in their back yard.
Anyway, on our trek we paid to visit to La Coupelle near St Omar, which is a technology and war museum inside a former nazi bunker which was used to build rockets. Then we paid a visit to the village of Ajincourt, the site of a battle between the French and the English something like five hundred years ago. It seems as if quite a lot of people visit this small village since they had built a museum dedicated to the battle. However, while the battle was a decisive victory for the English, the theme of the whole museum is basically ‘yeah, you won the battle, but you lost the war, and even then that was over five hundred years ago so get over it’.
Yet there was something really charming about driving through the country, and visiting countless numbers of villages. In a sense they are similar, but in another sense they are all different. Sure, not every village is a major tourist attraction, but they all have their lovely charms, and their own unique characters. However, as I have mentioned, the biggest problem is that you are always forced to slow down, but then again sometimes, just to take in the beauty of a region, one does need to slow down, relax, and simply look around.
We finished off the day with dinner at Boulonge sur Meer, but before than I wanted to have a beer in a random pub in the middle of the country. I discovered such a pub at an intersection, named Thery Michele (though the collection of buildings were it is located doesn’t have a name, though Google does connect it with the nearby town of Courset). Mind you, wandering into random pubs isn’t always the smartest thing to do, particular since some places really don’t like strangers in their midsts (though I have been lucky enough not to get into too much trouble). Fortunately this wasn’t one of those pubs, and not surprisingly nobody here actually spoke any English (though one could tell that strangers generally don’t pass through here). However, when I told them that I was from Australia they became really excited, but then again I probably shouldn’t be surprised because I doubt many Australians find themselves around this part of France, and even less would bother stopping here for a beer.
Anyway, it was dinner at Boulongue-sur-Mer, which is a small seaside town that seems to have a habit of drawing tourists from all over the place. Actually, one of the good things about towns like this is that they don’t always tend to be as crowded as some of the larger and more popular cities (such as Nice or Barcelona). Despite there being cars everywhere we were still able to find a place to park nearby, and then wander around for a bit, have a drink and some food, and then head off to Dunkirk.
Five Country Trek
One of the things that I like to try and do when I’m in Europe is to see how many countries I can visit in a single day. So far the record is five (previously it was four – Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy). I suspect I could probably do more if I started at midnight and finished at midnight, and don’t stop for more than a few minutes, and the route would probably start in Norway and finish in Italy. However I suspect that I might be pushing it, and to travel from one side of the continent to the other in a twenty-four hour period certainly wouldn’t give me any room for mistakes.
Anyway, I started off in Dunkirk, however I didn’t immediately rush off namely because I wanted to check out a museum (and we had arrived fairly late the night before). While there are a few things that I could say about Dunkirk, I’ll simply leave it as there wasn’t all that much to do here. In fact I remember two people coming to the concierge asking her if there was actually anything to do and whether there was anywhere to go and eat (and have a drink). I probably could have headed off to the docks where there were supposed to be some bars, but I ended up staying at the hotel (though the area around the hotel was pretty dead). Oh, there is also a beach, and a half decent one at that, but due to time constraints were weren’t able to stay for too long.
So, we headed from France into Belgium, and other than a couple of stops to stretch our legs, we went straight through, passing around Ghent and then around Antwerp and on to Turnhout. It was then that I pulled off the motorway and headed north towards the rather strange town of Barrle-Hertog. The reason I wanted to visit Baarle-Hertog was because it is one of those strange places where there are lots of pockets of Belgium inside the Netherlands. However, while there are lots of Belgium exclaves, only a couple of the borders are marked, including one that heads through the middle of a cafe. Mind you, it wasn’t like the old India-Bangladesh border which made the inhabitants incredibly poor due to the lack of ability to provide infrastructure and services (due to the two countries not being the best of friends), but rather just minor inconveniences such as closing times. Still, it is also a bit of a tourist attraction.
Well, after Baarle-Hertog it was time to head south and into Germany, which is an experience in and of itself. The thing is that Germany is famous for the motorways having no speed limit (as opposed to say Italy where there is a speed limit, it is just everybody ignores it). So, it is a little intimidating when you cross into Germany and suddenly discover that Minis are shooting past you at 180 kph. It is true that there actually isn’t a speed limit, however they have a recommended speed – 130 kph. Mind you, the speed limit is also defined by the road-worthiness of the car and the skill of the driver, but honestly, letting people self-regulate generally doesn’t result in happy endings.
So, we drove down to Koblenz so I could see the Deutsche Ecke, and then off to Luxembourg, where were managed to enter the Grand Dutchy at around 10:30, which made it five countries in a single day (in fact in half-a-day). A part of me did want to find a spot and step out of the car to look at the stars, but by the time it was dark enough to do so, and there was no light pollution to spoil the view, we had crossed into Luxembourg and the roadside stops had suddenly vanished. Mind you, this part of Germany is reasonably mountainous, so it does get pretty dark at night.
Well, it seems as if this had turned out to be a pretty long post, but I will finish off with a quick word on driving at speed – I don’t recommend it unless you are experienced. Mind you, I am talking about doing it legally here, not illegally. The thing with driving at high speeds is that you need a lot more concentration than normal because things come up on you fast – really, really fast. Take for instance an idiot driving slowly in the fast lane – if you aren’t careful before you know it you are on top of him and may not have anywhere near enough time to slow down. Also, some cars aren’t actually built for high speeds, and the older the car, the more dangerous driving at speed will be. Driving at speed in a 2016 model BMW roadster is going to be a lot different than a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.