Posted in Travel

En Panne in De Panne – The Tale of our Belgian Breakdown

Debbie and Laura about to buy Sancerre at source
“Have red shoes, will travel” – outside a wine shop in Sancerre in our 2011 French tour

A post about the night our camper van blew a tyre on a Belgian motorway, near the coastal resort of De Panne, Belgium

When travelling, I try to go native, as far as my natural English reserve will allow. The very least I do is to try to eat and drink what the locals are having. Bath buns in Bath, drinking Sancerre in Sancerre – what’s not to love about those destinations?

But in some cases I’d prefer to make an exception, as in our February 2014 trip in our small motorhome to France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

We’d just spent a lovely afternoon at Plopsaland (yes, it is a real place – see this earlier post), in the pleasant Belgian coastal town of De Panne. If you’re wondering why the name De Panne sounds familiar, it’s because of its similarity to the French phrase for being in the state of automotive breakdown: en panne.

Camper Van Crisis

We’re bowling away from De Panne in the direction of Antwerp when my husband, at the steering wheel, starts emitting anguished noises nearly as loud as the sounds emanating from our back axle.  When the rear right wheel starts to sound like a tank crossing cobblestones, Gordon pulls over onto the hard shoulder.

“We’ve got a flat tyre,” he surmises, stony-faced.

Cars and lorries are hurtling past us in the pitch black, terrifyingly close. It begins to rain.

My heart sinks. As Gordon scrabbles in his wallet for his rescue service membership card, I search for the paraphernalia that drivers are required to carry on the continent.

Don't drive through France without it (photo via Amazon)
Don’t drive through France without it (photo via Amazon)

I’m astonished and relieved to discover that we do have on board the reflective triangle which must be placed 50-100m behind any vehicle in case of breakdown, plus the requisite dayglo waistcoat, which Gordon dons before marching into oncoming traffic to set up the triangle.

While he does so, I unearth the spare set of bulbs, the headlight adapters and the breathalyser, in the absence of which we would face a police charge. I’m impressed. We’re not normally this organised (and yes, I do realise that strictly speaking the headlight adapters ought to be on the headlights, not in a cupboard).

A Tale of Previous Panic

The Young family does Fontainebleau
Innocents abroad – spot the tourists in Fontainebleau, summer 2011

Gordon is keen to avoid a recurrence of our previous near-arrest by French traffic police on an earlier trip.

They pulled us over in a small town on a sleepy summer Saturday afternoon, after we’d gone twice round a roundabout trying to find the local swimming pool to cool off. They asked to see our papers for the van. The papers were still in England.

While apologising profusely for their absence in my best schoolgirl French, I glanced over my shoulder to check that Laura, then aged 7, was not frightened at this turn of events. She flashed her sweetest smile at the policemen from where she sat surrounded by cuddly toys, and the gendarmes‘ hearts melted.

A swift discussion ensued between the policemenin which I detected that they were going to change their incident notes. They’d skip the bit about the missing papers and say they’d stopped us to check the child in the back was wearing a seatbelt. She was. We were off the hook – and they even told us how to get to the swimming pool.

Back in De Panne in de present, I’m relieved to realise that our overseas rescue membership must still be valid, as it’s less than a year since we called them out in Luxembourg, when we renewed our card.

International Rescue

The rescue vehicle with the sign "depannage" on the side
Our knight of the road

I keep to myself the knowledge that, in the UK at least, for safety reasons it’s deemed best practice to leave the distressed vehicle and sit on the hard shoulder until the rescue vehicle arrives. We might in theory be safer perched on a precipitous grassy bank in the dark and in the rain, but I feel more secure remaining in the van, with the lights on, rustling up a cup of tea and a meal on the gas stove.

We are not waiting long. A Belgian rescue mechanic arrives within the hour, cheerful, friendly and efficient. Ten minutes later, he’s replaced the burst tyre with the spare wheel. He advises us to drive slowly to the next aire (motorway services), conveniently just 700m ahead, to inflate the spare tyre to the legal standard. To make sure we arrive intact, he leads the way in his bright yellow van and helps us find the air hose, parking his van protectively alongside us, like a mother hen on wheels.

It’s only then that I notice on the side of his vehicle the declaration of the service that he offers: “Dépannage”. So, we have been dépanné in De Panne. That’s rather pleasing.

Cover of 1974 single, Shanghai'd in Shanghai by Nazareth
(Cover of 1974 single – image via Amazon.co.uk)

All the same, as he pulls away into the night, I make a mental note never to visit Shanghai.

Read more about another incident of depannage and other vehicle-related misadventures here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Travel

Plopsaland – It’s Nicer Than It Sounds!

The next instalment about our half-term trip to France, Belgium and Luxembourg, focusing on the delightfully-named Belgian theme park Plopsaland

Entrance to Mayaland, part of Plopsaland
Getting ready for a bee’s eye view

“Plopsaland – it’s not just about toilets!”

As we tour this amusement park near the Belgian seaside town of De Panne, I’m trying to devise a slogan that will do it justice, unlike its name, which sounds less than alluring to the English speaker’s ear.

Sign in Flemish with French translation
Putting Flemish first

Plopsaland is defiantly Belgian. Its directional signs are all in Flemish, with a less prominent French translation. There is not a word of English in sight – but why should there be? The polyglots of Disneyland have given us English an inflated idea of the importance of our native tongue.

Model of Maya
Meet Maya

It seems Plopsaland doesn’t especially welcome the French speaker either. When I ask an attendant a question in French, he looks at me blankly, saying “Je ne parle pas Français”. A Belgian who doesn’t speak French? I didn’t know such a person existed.

To be fair, the pleasant young man on reception spoke perfect English. He apologised that only one of the park’s many zones was open, as it receives few visitors in February. Each zone is dedicated to a different Belgian cartoon, of which Maya is the only one I know, from an encounter during my teenage years in Germany, where she was known as Die Biene Maya  (Maya The Bee). I can still sing the theme tune. (I may not know Flemish, but I do speak fluent cartoon.) Fortunately, today’s open zone is Mayaland.

Giant strawberries overhead in Plopsaland
From a bee’s eye view

The entrance to Plopsaland is similar to Disneyland’s, a vast paved forecourt curving around you as if offering a welcoming embrace. Beyond the main gates lies Flanders’ equivalent to Disneyland’s Main Street, composed of eerily deserted Flemish merchants’ houses.

On the far side of the square is a heavily disguised industrial metal storage shed. It’s like a an aircraft hangar on acid, decked from floor to rafters with giant plants and flowers, scaled up to make us feel as if we are the same size as bees. Mushrooms dwarf the entrance, and just inside vast dusky strawberries hang tantalisingly above our heads. The hall is filled with flowers that have overdosed on plant food.

Waterlily boats in Plopsaland
By the light of the silvery moon

Laura’s eyes light up. She has spotted nestling among the floral forest seven or eight classic theme park rides, each with an added a dose of bee-appeal, and fit for children from toddler to 10 (Laura’s age).

Gordon and I take it in turns to accompany her on the rides. At The Dancing Tree, we sit in a massive hollowed log which swings, rocks and revolves in an arc. Strapped into waterlily boats, we weave a graceful figure-of-eight beneath three-metre bulrushes against the backdrop of a cloudless  midnight sky.  Harnessed into sturdy plastic seats, we ascend the Redwood of dandelion stems, reaching the ceiling, before plummeting, spinning, back to the floor.

Giant slide at Plopsaland
Please don’t change lanes

On Plopsaland’s answer to Disney’s Flying Dumbos, we soar aloft in flower cups, each huge bloom accompanied by a plump, smiling bee the size of a small dog. Now and again, we haul ourselves from one side of Mayaland to the other by way of a wood raft which is attached to a rope traversing the stream that divides the hall.

I climb the giant slide with trepidation. I still bear a scar on my wrist from too close an encounter with a Welsh helter-skelter a few years ago. At least this time I don’t inadvertently change lanes, as I did on the giant slide at Horseworld, when I became unexpectedly airborne half way through a steep drop.

The Dancing Log ride
Gordon and Laura take a spin on the log
Laura and giant grasshopper
Laura meets the giant grasshopper

Providing much-needed respite for the adults is a pleasant café, offering mass-produced Flemish dishes, from erstersoepe to flammekuche. The servings are on a scale with the flowers, and Laura is confronted there by the biggest crepe she has ever seen. Perhaps park policy is to provide extra ballast on the rides – or to plunge all the grown-ups into a post-prandial snooze, allowing the children longer to play undisturbed. While we’re dining, a seven foot grasshopper strolls around shaking small hands.

The advantage of visiting in February is that there are no queues, allowing us to ride non-stop all afternoon.

Giant dandelion ride
Enough to give any gardener nightmares: the giant dandelion ride

Finally, towards closing time, we pop into the shop to scoop up thew inevitable souvenirs: plastic play figures of Maya and friends for Laura and, in the absence of branded t-shirts,  for Laura’s younger cousin a small plastic lunch box featuring the name of the gnome after which we’ve discovered the place is named: Plop. Knowing his sense of humour, we are certain it will give him hours of pleasure.

As the gates are locked behind us, we stroll slowly out of the complex, lingering to take photos and storing the concepts in our memory for future recall. Laura and I lag considerably behind Gordon so are surprised when we get back to the van to discover he is not yet there. Then the penny drops.

“I bet I know where he is,” I tell Laura.

As I march her back to the toilet block at the entrance, we see Gordon emerging from the Gents.

“I thought so,” I tell Laura. “He’d gone for a Plop.”

Plastic box with the Gnome Plop on the lid
We wonder what Laura’s cousin will keep in this box

Like to read my previous posts about our February trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands? Here you go! (Next instalment to follow soon)

Posted in Writing

Channelling Calm for the Dover to Dunkerque Ferry

(My contribution to the March edition of the Tetbury Advertiser, written in the middle of February as we were about to embark on a week-long trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands)

As I write this month’s column, I’m just 22 miles away from becoming the Tetbury Advertiser‘s foreign correspondent: I’m poised to cross the English Channel. In a Force 10 gale.

This morning, the idea of spending a week in February touring Northern France in our camper van has lost its charm. When we booked our passage in the dark days of December, far-off February seemed comfortingly spring-like. We knew we’d have to pack warm clothes to guard against the colder climate of a continental landmass but did not foresee such storms.

The Royal Naval vessel on which my father served: HMS Belfast, now moored in the Thames as part of the Industrial War Museum (Photo: Creative Commons by Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia)

Naval Advice

My parents phoned before we were due to set off yesterday, just after the lunchtime shipping forecast.My mother did not exactly suggest we cancel our trip, but I’m sure that’s what she was hoping to hear. My father, a former Royal Navy meteorologist, sounded positively excited on our behalf. The prospect of our trip brought back fond memories of his days serving on the HMS Belfast during the Korean War. He offered us the benefit of his advice.

“Just close your eyes and think of the sea as rocking you to sleep.”

That might have worked when he was in his navy issue hammock, but unfortunately our chosen ferry service, DFDS, doesn’t provide hammocks.

“Tinned peaches are the best thing to settle your stomach when you’re seasick. Make sure you pack tinned peaches.”

We have none in the larder, so I slip tinned pears and pineapple rings into my bag instead.

“We are allowed to postpone the trip to the Sunday when the forecast looks better,” I tell him.

“Oh, the swell will continue for days after the storm,” he assures me brightly. “That’s how it was every time we set off towards Korea, as soon as we were away from the shelter of the land.”

Outlook: (Fun)Fair

My daughter on board the Channel Ferry, late afternoon
After boarding the ferry late afternoon, Laura demonstrates how many cuddly toys she can fit into one small “Wanted On Voyage” bag

My daughter asks what our crossing will be like. I try to frame the prospect as a positive adventure.

“Think of it as crossing the Channel by rollercoaster,” I suggest.

I know she’s just reached the age where she loves rollercoasters.

“Will we go upside down?” she asks eagerly.

“I sincerely hope not!”

I’m thankful that the journey will be relatively short, until my husband recollects a memorable Channel crossing from his distant past.

“Once we had to wait outside the port for four hours because it was too rough to dock,” he remembers. “We just had to ride the storm out at sea.”

I try to banish images of the final scene of the movie The Perfect Storm.

So if my copy for this column turns up a little late, that’ll be because we’ve been shipwrecked and I’ve resorted to old technology to submit it. But not to worry, I’ve got an empty Cotswold Spring water bottle in the van that I can use to send my message. I’m just hoping it has a homing instinct.

Postscript: Our scheduled 10am departure on the Saturday morning was delayed till early evening. DFDS bumped us up to the 8am crossing instead – which left around 4pm. The reason for the delay? The ferries had been stuck out at sea for not four hours, but 10 hours, awaiting conditions sufficiently calm to let them dock. By 4pm, thankfully, all was calm. And my tinned pears and pineapple stayed in their tins. Phew.

More posts about our February trip coming soon! Here are the first two:

A Question of Priorities – about a strange encounter on the dockside as we waited to board

A Theme Park By Any Other Name – a theoretical tour of prime European theme parks, resulting in our visit to, er, Plopsaland

Posted in Travel

A Theme Park By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

Parc Asterix logoThe second instalment of the travelogue of our half-term camper van trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

With our usual degree of advance planning for our travels, we are already at Dover awaiting the Channel Ferry before we discover that the only place we had identified as a must-see on this trip will be closed for the duration of our stay. The Parc Asterix website , which I’m idly browsing on my smartphone, informs me that this attraction operates only from March to October. I’m anxious that my daughter Laura (10), an ardent Asterix fan, will be bitterly disappointed.

My husband is less than helpful.

“Isn’t this what happens in the National Lampoon movie, Vacation?” he reminds me. “The Griswold family base their entire trip to visit a particular theme park and turn up outside its gates after a long road trip to find it closed?”

I sincerely hope that the similarity between our holidays will end there, and am starting to wonder how I have the nerve to call myself a travel writer when inspiration strikes.

“Plopsaland!” I declare. “Let’s go to Plopsaland!”

Plopsaland logoThe Secret Theme Parks of Europe

Some time ago we realised that certain European countries like to keep their best attractions a secret, discouraging visits from pesky foreign tourists and preserving all the fun for their fellow countrymen. Choosing names that do not sound alluring in other languages is another great tactic for repelling non-national visitors.

Exhibit A: France’s conservatively named Grand Parc, which sounds like damning with faint praise. It strikes me as a bit of an understatement for a place that is meant to outshine Disneyland Paris.

Exhibit B: Efteling in the Netherlands. Not only does the name mean nothing to the non-Dutch speaker, (it sounds to me like some sort of fish), it’s listed in the Rough Guide under “D” for “De Efteling”rather than “E”, which explains why I couldn’t find it until after we’d been there.

Exhibit C: Belgium’s Plopsaland. We’ve seen copious signs on the Dunkerque-Bruges roautes, but the name sounds so unalluring to the English ear that we’ve always passed it by. Laughing. Well, when you have a small child on board, it’s hard to ignore any signs that offer the opportunity for toilet humour. Apparently there’s also a PlopsaCoo and a couple of PlopsaIndoors too.

The Call of Plopsaland

Last Easter, on our way back from Luxembourg, we managed to collect a Plopsaland leaflet to show Laura’s cousin Tim, who embraces lavatorial jokes ever more enthusiastically than she does. He was delighted. So this trip, to compensate for Asterix playing hard to get, we decide before we’ve even left Dover that we’re going to make a bee-line for Plopsaland, where, according to its website, we can look forward to such treats as the Gnome Plops Garden.

“Well, gnomes have to poo too,” observes my husband, who really ought to have grown out of toilet humour by now.

And bee-line proves to be an appropriate word, because it turns out that Plopsaland was founded by a honey manufacturer. Sweet.

As we board the Channel Ferry, I’m already looking foward to visiting the gift shop, because I’m sure Tim would love a souvenir t-shirt saying “I’ve been to Plopsaland”.

  • Catch up on the first instalment of this tour at my previous post: A Question of Priorities
  • Coming soon: a full report on the Belgian theme park, under my new suggested slogan – “Plopsaland – Much Nicer Than It Sounds”