The crossing was nice and the ferry had a sleeping lounge with business class type seats. Somehow though I wasn’t expecting two hours sleep to get me through the day…….
Whilst not exactly carefully planned, I worked out that with clever driving, careful navigation and the planets being aligned, we could actually turn our cheap ass crossing into a well timed visit of Commonwealth memorials at Ypres – dawn is always a good time to think of the sacrifices made by those who went before us.
We dis-embarked on time at about 4.30am and headed South East. To be honest, I had no idea how central Belgium was to the fighting along the Western Front. So many of the towns we visited in Belgium in our one day dash westward were names that were very familiar to me – but I must guiltily admit to having always assumed they were in France, inclusive of WW2 sites.
So starting at Ypres, after two U-turns and some confusion in the breaking dawn, we spent the day soaking up memorials to the fallen and to Liberation.
First stop was Bards Cottage cemetery, a Commonwealth War Graves site. It is one of many in the area and at dawn was typically moving – a reminder of how crazy the first World War was and how well Western Europe remembers the fallen.
In Ypres town centre we were amazed at the beauty of the town cathedral and then spent some time as the Sun rose, reading through the names of the fallen that are listed at Menin Gate. I can’t imagine what went through the minds of Australian soldiers – 2 years on the Western front, 10,000 miles from home, fighting for a free world at an age when they should have been leaving school, finding a suitor and starting a family (or maybe they should have been on their “gap year”?).
We left Ypres and drove westward towards Luxembourg. On the border is a Belgian town called Bastogne and I could recall it from military literature I had read in my youth. We battled the impatient peak hour flow of traffic on motorways and decided on taking the secondary routes, as much for my sanity as for the views! Each town we passed through was increasingly more scenic and when we arrived at Bastogne in the late morning, we were impressed with our chosen destination. Every town square should have a large choice of café’s and restaurants, a tourist information centre, a car park and of course, a Sherman Tank!
After lunch we headed into Luxembourg. Lots of pretty villages in mountain valleys and memorials to the allied soldiers who liberated the country. We found the cheapest fuel in this part of the world could be had in Luxembourg and that a day or a week could easily be spent in the little villages surrounded by mountains.
By now we had basically been traveling for 24 hours, having left Yorkshire the afternoon before. Our aim was to get to the Arnhem area of The Netherlands so that we could train in to Amsterdam the next day. To do this we had two options: back through Belgium and North into Holland by motorway or cross into Germany through back roads and wind our way North to motorways further into Holland. By going through Germany we would have driven through 5 countries by the time we got to The Netherlands, all in one day. That little achievement and the fact that Belgium motorways had not been very pleasant earlier in the day helped us decide.
We had afternoon tea in a beautiful town square, posted some cards from Luxembourg and headed off, crossing several rivers and mountains and then coming into Germany.
Despite having a fairly recent Michelin road atlas, not every road turned out to be as we expected – an hour into Germany and we were on motorways. Obviously Autobahns are famous throughout the world but this motorway was only signposted for 130km/h so pretty normal for Europe.
Apparently though, in Germany, it is pretty normal to ignore the speed limit and go as fast as your German or Swedish car will go – but it certainly helps to keep you awake after a long day.
We covered distance easily, despite a couple of traffic jams. We passed into The Netherlands and headed North. Julia had an idea that we should stay closer to Amsterdam so we headed that way. She navigated us through some really ugly satellite suburbs as we got closer, much to my delight after a long day, but then discovered the beautiful town of Hilversum, just 15 minutes train ride from Amsterdam. After 6 laps of the town we eventually found where the Hotels were and we were in for the night, ready to see Amsterdam the next day.