21 Jun 2014

Europe 2014: Day 1 - London to Sint-Gillis-Waas

So much for an early start—by the time we were fed, watered and my cousin Carol given a crash course in my cat’s dietary regime, plus a last minute update for something at work, we set off at 11am with no hope of making our scheduled 11:48am Eurotunnel crossing.

It was my hope to fit everything in the panniers without expanding them (makes filtering through traffic easier with a narrower backside) but I finally gave in. Regardless, I think it was an accomplishment to fit 15 days’ gear for two people completely in three panniers and a tankbag without having to sit on any of them to close them.

Traffic in London had died down from the morning rush and the M20 motorway was practically empty so we made good time, the journey taking around an hour and a half.

The woman in the Eurotunnel check-in booth was oh-so-Folkestone as she scolded us like naughty school boys about being 45 minutes late and handed over the boarding card for the next available train, insisting that Zev promise he wouldn’t drop it as we rode off. Eurotunnel provide a great service as they will honour bookings ±2 hours from the scheduled time, presumably to prevent people from driving dangerously to make their slot—however this can involve a wait if it’s a particularly busy day.

No shame in a clean GS—waiting in terminal hell for our new slot
After 25 minutes I got tired of waiting under the beating sun at the terminal, and despite having an ’N’ crossing slot, tried my luck while they were calling the ‘K’ slot. My luck paid off as they didn’t even check, and just waved me through toward border control.

The first booth is to check out of the UK, and the second is to check into France. Of course these are both EU areas so they are only interested in people trying to transport restricted items (including pets which require a pet passport to re-enter the UK). It is unusual for motorbikes to be stopped due to their minimal cargo capacity. In fact, French border control wasn’t interested in seeing passports and didn’t even ask either of us to remove our helmets.

We ended up getting on the ‘K’ train along with about 10 other bikers, all with UK registrations, distributed between two carriages. A few Triumph Explorers, a Daytona, at least three R1200RTs, two F800GSs and a blue Yamaha XT660Z Ténéré (like this bike a lot!) among others. Mine was the only R1200GS which is slightly surprising as this is the top selling bike over 600cc in the UK.

Hello. I’m Zev. I’m hot and bothered because I kept my helmet on the whole time we were queued
in the beating sun before boarding the train. Now it’s all wet inside. So shut up and let me read.
The RT behind my bike in the photo above belongs to a Scotsman who’d just toured England. He’s now off to the Black Forest. He commended Zev’s bravery for agreeing to ride pillion for 3,000 miles.

The Eurotunnel trains are so smooth, no tie downs are required—bikes must be on the side stand, in 1st gear angled toward the kerb in the carriage. Couldn’t be easier.

Hello. Zev again. Not only are you still disturbing my reading, but now you’re interfering
with my yoga moves. I hate you and I’m going to shove that camera down your throat.
All said and done, and jumping an hour ahead from GMT to CET we came out the other side about 3pm. Out the other side and up to speed, we were feeling somewhat more refreshed and in better spirits. As soon as we crossed over the border into Belgium (about 25 minutes ride) I exited the motorway and reprogrammed the GPS to route on the backroads.

I’ll pause for a moment to mention that we are already altering the original route plan—skipping the visit to my family in Sneek as they are away. So I’ve pointed the GPS to Aachen (originally planned for the end of the trip) for a stop at FC-Moto so Zev can buy a new helmet to replace his ageing (and very noisy) Shark S500.

We reached Brugge around 5pm and it was overwhelmed by mainly English-speaking tourists (UK and American/Canadian)—as in, we could barely get through the streets. I finally made my way to my favourite little Egyptian restaurant opposite the Frietmuseum and was disappointed to read a note on the door that the owner was on holidays until next week. The other restaurants and cafés nearby had menus starting from €25, a bit steep for a light supper, and clearly cashing in on the tourists.

We figured this was our cue to leave Brugge with empty bellies and find a supermarket along the way. I adore Brugge, but visits are best left for the off season—February/March and October/November when the streets are quiet and the restaurants return to ‘local’ pricing.

Belgium’s roads have improved substantially since even last year with barely a pothole in sight, and the backroads cut through some beautiful scenery—tree lined stretches, red poppies everywhere and fields of onions and corn. Because of the proximity to the North Sea, northern Belgium can be extremely gusty, and there are sections of planted forests which act as windbreakers. These are found around northern France as well.

We came across Buurtwinkels OKay supermarket in Assenede and chose a few bits and pieces for an on-the-go dinner. I love that AriZona tea drinks—my sugar rush of choice—are offered everywhere in Belgium as they are near impossible to find in the UK. However, I discovered that supermarkets in Belgium don’t take debit/credit cards (they only accept cash or a special local credit card for this purpose from what I understood) and I hadn’t stopped at an ATM to withdraw cash. The cashier was kind enough to hang on to our groceries while we rode a few kilometres to the nearest cash point.

After our classy car park dinner party we carried on in the general direction of Aachen. By 8:30pm I was feeling more and more distracted so it was time to fire up the booking.com app to find someplace suitable to settle down for the evening.

And what a place we found—the Fruithof Tack in Sint-Gillis-Waas, not far from Antwerp. As the name implies, it is a B&B located next to apple and pear orchards. The whole place, from top to bottom, is absolutely gorgeous and the owners welcomed us into their home with local lagers and an hour of warm and friendly conversation. They opened up their fruit processing area so the bike would be secure and even insisted on carrying up the luggage. Couldn’t have asked for more—highly recommended.

After a day where things were just a bit more difficult than they should have been (and not enough photos were taken), being able to type this post from one of the most comfortable beds I’ve experienced in a long time was the perfect way to wind down.

Europe 2014 quick links

Day 1: London to Sint-Gillis-Waas
Day 2: Sint-Gillis-Waas to Bad Driburg
Day 3: Bad Driburg to Berlin
Day 4: Berlin
Day 5: Berlin to Prague
Day 6: Prague
Day 7: Prague to Wemding
Day 8: Wemding to Ammerschwihr
Day 9: Ammerschwihr
Day 10: Ammerschwihr
Day 11: Ammerschwihr to Eschdorf
Day 12: Eschdorf to London