Belgium Booze Cruise & the return of Duty Free

Belgium Booze Cruise & the return of Duty Free

Drive to northern Belgium to take advantage of duty free beers, wines and spirits on offer, not forgetting tobacco and cigarettes. And combine this with a tour of some of the most beautiful towns in Europe. See the seaside resort of Oostende with its sandy beach and elegant promenade. Visit historic Brugge and take a tour of the old cobbled streets, rich merchants houses and delightful canals. Head over to Ghent with its stunning cathedral, impressive castle and charming Old Town. Pay your respects at the World War One museums and memorials in Ypres and at the sombre and solemn Menin Gate.

Leaving Calais heading eastwards on the A16/E40 you will drive for about half an hour through France to the Belgian border, and almost as soon as you cross it there will be an exit sign, junction 1 for Adinkerke. Exit here at the roundabout then turn left on Kromfortstraat, drive up to the next roundabout and turn left onto the N39. The canal will be on your right and on your left a collection of stores that earn the nickname "Tobacco Alley". Here you will find easy on street parking and a collection of shops selling cartons of cigarettes and tobacco pouches. As tobacco is cheaper to buy here than in France the first stop over the border has all the shops you need. There are a variety of different stores, one is even called Tobacco Alley and may of them will also sell Belgium chocolates and souvenirs. It is very popular with day trippers from the UK who arrive here to load up on cigarettes and go straight back home again. If it does seem a little busy there are cigarette shops available later on in Brugge that will certainly be as cheap.

Nearby in Adinkerke itself is the unusually named Plopsaland which opened in 2000 as a theme park with rollercoasters and other rides. A fun diversion for adults and children alike.

If you return to the E40 you can then continue eastwards to Junction 5 for Gistel. From here take the N33 northwards and after a few moments you will see the P&J Chocolate Factory appearing on your right. This has a larger variety of chocolates than the ones in Tobacco Alley and you are welcome to browse and try samples. There is a small cafe here as well and a good selection of Belgian beers along with more cigarette cartons and tobacco pouches!

Continue north along the N33 and you will arrive at the seaside town of Oostende. Stay on this road as it will take you straight onto its lengthy promenade which you can drive down passed the hotels and the gothic church of St Peter and St Paul (Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk), built from 1899 to 1908, and along the harbour to the parking area, Q Park Churchill, right by the docks. You can then stroll along the seafront, visit St Peter and St Paul with its elaborately decorated west front and maybe choose a cafe in the square with great views of the church and order some moules-frits and a good strong Belgian ale. The square is a pleasant place to while away a lengthy lunch or dinner but the seafront promenade has also a good variety of restaurants.

In the harbour is a floating museum, the tall ship 'Mercator' built in 1932 in Scotland as an ambassadorial and racing ship, she finished her duties as a training ship in 1960. She has been moored in Oostende since 1964 and you can explore the decks, rigging and authentic fixtures and fittings. Nearby, if you wish to drive around the harbour is Fort Napoleon, just take the N34 briefly eastwards around the docks. The fort is open to the public and was constructed in 1811 to repel a feared British advance during the Napoleonic Wars. The advance never materialised and the fort is perfectly preserved.

From Oostende leave on the A10 which will rejoin the E40 then exit at Junction 8 for Brugge. Although the French spelling, Bruges, is a more popular way of spelling the name of the town, the official Flemish way is Brugge (pronounced "Brew-ga") and is an old word for a landing stage or bridgehead.

Drive into Brugge and park near the railway station. The city is famous for its medieval charm with narrow cobbled streets and canals. It is really worth parking on the edge of the city and walking through its wonderfully scenic interior. You can park at the railway station itself or just over the R30 road at Ketsbrugge which is just that little bit closer to the centre. From here walk eastwards alongside the main road on a path parallel to the R30 to Bargeplein where there is a public information point, map and toilets. This is where you can start your walking tour of Brugge.

From the Bargeplein head north over the red painted footbridge and then turn left. You are now walking along the earth ramparts that supported the defensive wall surrounding Brugge in Medieval times. In the 14th century there would be 40,000 people living within the walls, a population similar to London at the time. Nowadays about 20,000 people live within the old ramparts, but sprawling outside of the walls the city of Brugge has a total population of 117,000 people. The golden age of Brugge as a centre for merchants and business declined when the River Zwin began to silt up and the nearby port of Antwerp became more useful. By the 18th century the merchants had gone, leaving the old buildings to remain and the locals trying to make a living from lacemaking.

You can follow the walls over the Minnewater which once served as an inner harbour. The grand cylindrical brick structure ahead of you is one of the remaining gunpowder towers built as part of the defences in 1398. Turn right here and walk towards the Sluice House at the end of the Minnewater. There is a lovely photo opportunity here with the canal, swans and the tower of Our Lady's Church as a backdrop to the bridges and old brick houses with their ornate gables. You can take a left under the brick arch and enter the Begijnhof, a tranquil open space surrounded by the 17th houses of the beguines. Initially founded in 1245 by Margaret of Constantinople for women who would live an unmarried religious life but without taking full Holy orders. More recently it has housed women of the Benedictine Order and they now live in the little whitewashed houses, one of which is now a museum. The church here is dedicated to St Elizabeth and dates from the foundation of the Begijnhof in the 13th century. In Spring the garden is awash with daffodils.

Exit through the other doorway at the north west end of the Begijnhof next to the little museum. Take the bridge over the canal towards the restaurants. Here the horse-drawn carriage tours pause to give the horses food and water. Turn left on Wijngaardstraat then left again along Walplein. There are plenty of shops here selling Belgian waffles with chocolate sauce, cream and strawberries. Also one of the few surviving breweries left in the city (there used to be nearly fifty) the Half Moon Brewery (De Halve Maan) can be seen on your left and is open for guided tours. Another view of the 400ft (122m) high tower of Our Lady's Church can be seen from here.

Moving on to the end of Walplein you will then take the narrow alley known as Stoofstraat right over to Katelijnestraat where you turn left. You are passing chocolate shop after chocolate shop at this point with windows full of sweet delights on display. Walk along this street up to the old St John's Hospital and Our Lady's Church. The hospital was founded in the mid 12th century and was still operating until 1976. The old buildings now provide a medical museum along with some of the works by the artist Hans Memling who may well have been a patient here in the 15th century. Across the road Our Lady's Church has a very important piece of artwork, a Michelangelo sculpting of the Madonna and Child which dates from 1506 and was the only work of Michelangelo that would leave Italy during his lifetime. The church, known as Onze-Leive-Vrouwekerk or Notre-Dame, is open to the public for a small charge. The church is 13th century with the tower and steeple completed in 1350 and at a height of 400ft (122m) it still is one of the tallest brick structures in the world. 

Now leave the church, hospital and main road and turn east down a short street with the long name, Onze-Leive-Vrouwekerk Zuid to a pedestrian bridge over another canal. Bonifacius Bridge was only built around a hundred years ago but it has become one of the most photographed spots in Brugge. Here, at this point, you will be surrounded by museums. Firstly the fascinating Groeninge Museum of art, full of works by the Flemish Primitives, Van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, Van der Goes and Memling, right up to Magritte. Next door is the Arentshuis museum featuring the works of artist Frank Brangwyn and extra works from the Groeninge Museum, then next to the canal the enthralling and absorbing Gruuthuis Museum, a former Flemish merchants house filled with lavish tapestries, richly decorated furniture and beautiful paintings. It also houses exhibits concerning a general history of Brugge.

You will now find yourself on Dijver. Turn right here and walk along to the Rozenhoedkaai passing a number of small jetties where the half hour guided canal cruises leave from. You will have witnessed many of these already bobbing up and down on the waterways with a loudspeaker commentary in eight different languages. At the end of Rozenhoedkaai you will be standing right next to the picture postcard, chocolate box, Instagrammers favourite, everyone's first choice classic photo of Brugge. Look over to the Belfort tower, see the canal sweeping across with the 17th century gabled buildings all lined up in front. Get your camera ready!!

Then from here walk up into the square known as Huidenvettersplein to the old fishmarket (which sells art on a Sunday) and along Blind Donkey Alley (Blinde-Ezelstraat) up to the Burg. This is the highest point in the city, not actually very high, a metre or so above sea level, but it was here you would have seen the castle and the cathedral of St Donatian had they not been destroyed in the wars with Napoleon in 1799. What does remain here is the 13th century Town Hall or Stadhuis and the amazing Holy Blood Basilica. This ornate and beautiful 12th century church claims to have a phial of Christ's blood brought here by Thierry of Alsace having been aquired in 1147 while he was on a crusade. The church is on two floors and the older lower building with its Romanesque architecture is free to visit. If you wish to go upstairs to the elaborately decorated upper room and see the phail itself then it is better to book in advance. 

A short walk from the Burg along Breidelstraat will take you to the Markt,  the vast central square where most of the horse drawn tours leave from and where the more pricier restaurants can be found. It's also where the Belfort and Hall is located. Its bells can be heard all over Brugge, the 47 hand worked carillon chiming the hours and various other events during the day, sometimes with a tune that may be familiar to you! 366 steps will take you to the top of the tower at 272 ft (83m) and fans of the film "In Bruges" with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason will recognise it almost immediately. The merchants hall lies below the tower and the oldest parts are 13th century. The tower has been rebuilt a number of times after lightening strikes and fires.

From this great square one can take a more direct route back to the parking area or head north of the square to find a surprisingly quiet area away from the crowds. Most visitors walk from the railway station, coach drop off area or car parks through the beautiful narrow streets to the Markt but don't venture much further. If you have the time, getting yourself lost in some of the streets and canals north of here is to be recommended!

However the direct route back is to leave the square southwards on Wollestraat back to Dijver then turn right and walk past the Gruuthuis Museum and turn left on Katelijnestraat then just walk along this street past the St John's Hospital and Our Lady's Church. After a while you will pass a number of cheap tobacco shops, just in case Tobacco Alley was too busy, and then eventually you will arrive at a swing bridge over a large canal. Don't cross this bridge but take a right turn before it, head along Bargeweg which will take you back to Bargeplein.

From here simply return to the E40 following signs to Brussel/Bruxelles and follow the E40 southwards for about half an hour, if you have a larger vehicle over 2.2 metres in height then exit at Junction 14, signposted Denijs-Westrem to take the B402 in to the city of Ghent. The large station car park can take larger vehicles but it will be a long walk or tram ride into the centre.

Just head under the Timichegtunnel that takes you under the railway tracks then turn left. You can use this area to leave your vehicle and make the walk into the old historic centre of the city by walking along Rozemarijnstraat and onto Papegaaistraat until you reach the River Leie. Turn left here and follow the river northwards to the Graslei. It will take you about 30 minutes to walk in as the station is a bit of a hike from the old centre but the parking is readily available. If you have a campervan less than 2.2 metres in height you can head in a more direct way by taking the E40 to the junction with the E17, the Zwijnaarde intersection, there you follow signs for Ghent Centrum, take the B401 then left on the R40 and right up Kortrijksepoortstraat and continue along Nederkouter then head right and up to the underground parking area at Kouter.

Ghent has a population of just over a quarter of a million and is the third largest city in Belgium, after Brussels and Antwerp. Back in the 13th century, thanks to its dealings in cloth and grain, it was the second largest city in Europe north of the Alps, only Paris was larger. Just like in the city of Brugge, merchants would settle here and import wool from England and Scotland, the financial success of which lead to the building of fine houses, churches and riverside warehouses. Unlike Brugge the two rivers that meet here, the Sheldt and the Leie didn't suffer any major silting and Ghent was still prosperous right up until the turn of the 19th century. In fact the name Ghent comes from the Celtic word  Ganda which means confluence. Today tourism has now replaced cloth as the main industry.

The old medieval buildings still remain in many parts of the city, no more so than at the Graslei. Here, this beautifully photogenic location reveals a collection of fine gabled buildings from the 13th to the 16th centuries stretching along the quayside by the river. Many of these are now cafes and restaurants, the majority of which are on the east bank. The west bank is a little quieter, with less restaurants, but, as a bonus, this also gives a better view of the delightfully gabled buildings on the east bank! Just north of here is the impressive Gravensteen, a fortress built around 1180 for the Counts of Flanders and surrounded by a moat. By the mid-14th century the Counts had gone and the Gravensteen alternated from being a prison, to a royal mint to a cotton mill. Its variety of uses ensured its survival and after major restoration work towards the end of the 19th century by Violett le Duc the castle eventually opened to the public. Visit the Great Hall, the Count's residence, the exhibition on instruments of torture and climb up to the roof and ramparts, all with an audio tour included in the admission price. The tour is narrated by Belgian comedian Wouter Deprez and his way of linking historic life to present day pop culture can be either informative and helpful or just plain annoying with very little in the way of historical facts and more in the way of light-hearted chatter.

If you head east of the River Leie you will find the old heart of Ghent. Cross the Sint-Michielsbrug, the stone bridge built in 1909, and along Cataloniëstraaat which will take you past the church of St Nicholas and on to the Belfort. Similar to the one in Brugge and other Belgian towns, the large tower with its carillon sits on top of the city's old cloth hall. The Belfort, or belfry, was completed in 1380 to a height of 299ft (91m), and a climb of 350 steps, or alternatively an elevator, will take you to the top. The beautifully sounding bells, comprising a carillon of 54, regularly ring out over the rooftops.

Across the square you will find St Bravo cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal) which dates from 1274. Visitors here will find the 15th century altarpiece a main highlight. The Van Eyck brothers painted these biblical scenes on twelve panels, completing the work by 1432. The Ghent Altarpiece or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, as it is known, is regarded as one of Europe's most important art treasures. Entry to the main part of the church is free but there is a charge to see the crypt and altarpiece.

 The square in front of St Bravo's is Sint Baafsplein with its water cascading statue of Jan-Frans Williams, founder of the early 19th century Flemish Movement. And up on a balcony at the imposing Royal Dutch Theatre visitors can have a drink and a snack overlooking the square below.

 Linking Sint Baafsplein to the Vrijdagsmarkt is Werregarenstraat, the graffiti street, full of colourful walls and spray paint designs. Head through here to what is the site of the Friday market to see the pointing state of Jacob Van Artevelde, England's ally in the Hundred Years War (some say it is towards England that he is pointing). On one side of the square are a collection of Art Nouveau buildings and on the other side the 15th century Tanner's guildhouse with its little working bell tower, Het Toreken.

Once you have explored the narrow streets, little canals and medieval buildings you can head out of the city towards Kortrijk and onwards to Ieper (Ypres). Head out of the station car park and turn right onto Burggravenlaan and Gaston Crommenlaan to access the E17. Head south west towards Kortrijk then join the A19 towards Ieper (Ypres) exiting left on the N37 which will take you straight into the town centre. Try and aim to park at Ieper Centrum on D'Hondtstraat.

leper, known to many people by its French spelling Ypres, is synonymous with the Great War. It features the sombre and reflective Menin Gate along with several military museums and monuments. Like Brugge and Ghent its early history revolved around cloth and textiles and standing proudly in the centre of the town is the medieval Cloth Hall. The tower was initially built in 1304 but the whole building suffered heavy damage in the First World War that a major refurbishment and rebuilding took place between 1937 and 1967. Today, this building is home to the In Flanders Field museum which opened in 1998 to tell the story of the Great War in Belgium from eye witness accounts and through documentation and artifacts. The admission also includes a chance to climb the tower and belfry at a height of 230ft (70m) with impressive views over the low lying land around, land that saw utter carnage and unspeakable horror between 1914  and 1918.

There were three separate Battles of Ypres, in 1914, in 1915 and the third and final battle from the 31st July to the 6th November 1917 when the Allies, the British, Canadian and ANZAC troops tried to take Passchendaele Ridge at the cost of thousands of lives. Many young soldiers would leave Ypres town via the Menin Gate out to the trenches and after the war this gateway became symbolic and a focal point of the suffering and death this war had ultimately caused.

The Menin Gate lies on the eastern edge of the town.  The present Gate was designed by Sir Reginald Bloomfield in 1921 to resemble a Roman Triumphal Arch. 55,000 names of the missing are displayed throughout the structure but, even after the arch was completed, there was not enough room for every name of those who died without a grave. Over 30,000 more names are located at the Tyne Cot Cemetery nearby. In July 1927, when the Gate was dedicated, the Last Post was played and from 11th November 1927 it has continued to be played every evening, in all weathers, at 8pm. A poignant and emotive end to your day at Ypres.

A journey north from Ieper will take you on the N8 to the town of Veurne. This brings you back to the E40 westwards to Calais. You can call in again at Adinkerke for more supplies if necessary and then enter France as the E40 gets renumbered to the A16 and about 30 minutes later you will arrive at the ferry port and/or Eurotunnel entrance in Calais.