At the weekend I went on a road trip. I decided to combine my love of driving with my love of travelling; For the first time, I took my car abroad!
I left from Cirencester on Friday evening, and after a 4 hour journey (the M25 was a nightmare – 90 minutes to get from junction 12 through to the roadworks between junctions 11 and 10) I stopped near Sevenoaks for the night.
Less than 6 hours later, and it was back on the road again – straight for the Eurotunnel terminal, just off the M20 near Folkestone.
My final destination would be Ypres (or Ieper) in the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium, in the Province of West Flanders/West-Vlaanderen.
Here’s the video footage from my dashcam.
Calais to Ypres
The top video is the journey to Ypres on Saturday. Click through to the actual Youtube page where in the description I’ve put a list of the timings which you can click on to skip to the relevant parts.
Ypres Battlefields & Return to Calais
This second video shows me trying to find the Essex Farm Cemetary, then moving on to Langemark and the Tyne Cot Cemetary before heading off to Calais. Click through to the actual Youtube page where in the description I’ve put a list of the timings which you can click on to skip to the relevant parts.
At less than 100 miles from Calais (about 60/70 miles, if I remember correctly) I did more driving on the British side of the channel and on the continental side; but just enough to get me used to the idea of driving abroad without having to rush about.
The journey from Calais to Ypres was essentially split in to two parts. I joined the French AutoRoute A16 at Calais and was on the motorway for about 45 minutes.
Unsure as to what driving on the wrong side of the road would be like, the first few kilometres I took rather slowly. Before too long, I realised my visibility wasn’t too bad, and I pulled in to lane 2 to overtake. Soon after, and you completely forget you’re driving on the right.
I crossed the French/Belgian border and after about 1.5km my motorway driving for the day was over. By this time the French AutoRoute A16 had become the Belgian Autosnelweg A18 and I took the first junction to exit the motorway. From here on in, I would be using the National Roads (the ‘N’ roads) – roughly equivalent to our A roads.
It was as I came off the motorway that I tackled my first foreign roundabout. This didn’t feel as unnatural as I thought it would. Like in Britain, priority on Belgian roundabouts goes to traffic already on the roundabout. In countries like Greece and Germany, traffic joining the roundabout has priority and traffic already on the roundabout has to stop and give way.
I stopped in the coastal town of De Panne; the most southern point on Belgium’s North Sea coast and very popular with Dutch and German visitors. Parking and driving through the town itself was no problem at all! Although the weather grey, and the sea a bit rough, the beach itself was nice and big; there were lots of cafés and restaurants all along the pedestrianized promenade along the sea front.
I then started to head inland on the N8 road, which lead me all the way down to the N38 – the Ieper Noorderring road. It is at this point my sat nav started trying to take me down roads which simply didn’t exist; Sat Nav recalculated the route, and I joined the A19 motorway and got off after 1 junction. Then Sat Nav took me on a rather scenic route through a narrow country lane to get back on track.
The B&B I stayed at was fantastic – great hosts, and being a B&B it had the feeling of a home, not of a hotel. There was a communal living/dining area and a little study. The rooms themselves were en-suite and the room quite nice. It was called the B&B Villa Vanilla. Free parking and (if you want) bicycle hire available.
In the evening I walked from the B&B in to Ieper’s town centre – the Menin Gate – to see the Last Post Ceremony, which has taken place every night since the end of WW1, apart from during WW2. It was quite a strange sensation to be standing in a foreign country listening to men in kilts playing Scottish bagpipe tunes! Quite a few Brits go to Ieper, perhaps due to its proximity to Calais and therefore to British drivers. Some drive over, others come on coach trips. I visited Ieper on a coach trip myself, back in 2013 when I stayed in Brussels – but this is my first time to really get to know Ieper itself.
After the ceremony I walked round the town centre and eventually decided it was time for dinner – I went for a pizza. I think just about everyone in the restaurant was British or at least English speaking! Still, no problem for me, as I don’t speak Flemish (Dutch) I was speaking English. The temptation was there to speak German though; Dutch (and therefore Flemish) is very closely related to German.
Returning to the B&B, and breakfast the following morning was a selection of bread, ham, cheese, yoghurt, an omelette and fruit juice. Gathering all my stuff together and loading the car, I paid my bill and drove in towards Ieper town centre. On Sundays, the centre is closed off to cars so I parked along the main road. Only about a kilometer or two from the B&B, but it cut the journey time to the centre by half.
I visited the In Flanders Fields museum, which we passed on the coach several years ago but never stopped at. The museum focusses on Ieper and the role it played during WW1. A quick drink at the café, and then it was off to the shops: Belgian Chocolate was my target. I thought, maybe buy a bar or two to take home. Well, I got that – and more – there was a special offer on so there was a whole load free as part of the offer! Some of it is now stored in my drawer at work!
Time was getting on but I wanted to see some of the key battlefield sites again. Before leaving for Belgium I ordered a booklet which outlined a 70km tourist car route around the war grave sites. In total there must be 20+ different points of interest, but with Calais a 90 minute drive away and my train due to leave later that afternoon, I had only a couple of hours to spare. I picked a couple of key sites: The Essex Farm Cemetary, the Langemark Cemetary and the Tyne Cot Cemetary. I never did find the Essex Farm Cemetary; It is only after returning to the UK and checking Google Maps that I realised I had I driven past it (twice actually) whilst looking for it! The other sites I did find, so not all bad!
Just before 2pm, I got in the car and pulled out of the Tyne Cot Cemetary car park. I set the Sat Nav to Calais and headed for the French border. I took a slightly different route back to Calais – heading West to Poperinge, crossing in to France, joining the Motorway A25 and then joining the A16 again near Dunkirk.
By 15:30 I was checked in to the Eurotunnel, and through security (French Police decided they wanted to search my car in the process… I guess a young male in a VW like mine travelling alone is suspicious). At 16:50 the train pulled out of the station and by 16:30 UK time I was back on British soil, making my way along the M20 up towards the M25 and on to Gloucestershire.
Now I have learned that driving abroad is so easy, I can’t wait to start planning my next European road trip. Maybe early spring next year, I might do something: the Dutch coast has some nice places; perhaps go over to Germany (and with Germany being a big country, I could easily double the milage of my Ypres trip).
I’m off to study the maps…