Antwerp & Ghent, Belgium
It's strange to look out the window and see beautiful blue skies yet be freezing cold, even inside the van. This resulted in us blasting the heater the entire way to Antwerp, trying to absorb as much warmth as humanly possible. As soon as the car was turned off though, the shivering recommenced.
In Antwerp we went straight to the Information Centre and enquired about campsites. The exceptionally unhelpful man behind the counter simply said it was closed and offered us no other alternatives. Not content to give up that easily, we took our laptop to a cafe and found several options around the area that were supposedly open all year round. These “information centres” in Belgium don't really live up to their name. On the plus side the cafe was toasty warm, and we ended up sitting there for an hour or so to keep out of the arctic conditions outside.
Eventually, we pushed ourselves to brave the elements and hit the streets. The three centre squares were quite picturesque, with a huge cathedral imposing itself in the middle of three. Our plan was to visit this cathedral, but they charged a hefty entrance fee due to a couple of Rubens on display inside (he was a former resident here). That quickly put an end to that plan. Instead we wandered the store-lined streets and checked out Antwerp Central train station, a stunning building that seemed fairly extravagant for a terminal.
Danny and I decided to split up so he could shop while I continued my exploration of the city. I wandered through several areas with amazing architecture, ranging from Gothic to Renaissance to space age. This was the clear highlight of Antwerp for me, and I felt like I spent hours taking photos of all the incredible structures. At one point I accidentally strayed into the Red Light District, which is not a tourist attraction here like it is in Amsterdam. I was the only female on the street (apart from the women in the windows) and had to hustle to leave the area as fast as possible. My getaway led me out to the river, where there were several promenades to walk along offering views of the city skyline. I randomly followed a few tourists and found a 500 metre long tunnel that stretched underneath the width of the river. The opposite bank didn't offer much except views back over to where I was ten minutes ago. I didn't stay long before making my way back down the long underpass.
Testing out Google’s accuracy, we drove to the nearest campsite that was supposedly open. Well, it turned out to be sort of open. There was no one manning the reception desk but there were definitely people staying there (although they possibly lived there permanently). All the facilities seemed to be operational, so we parked in a spare site and set ourselves up for the night.
Our thermometer told us it was 3ºC inside the van when we woke up the next morning – we were basically sleeping in a fridge. Thankfully, the showers were warm and allowed us to thaw out for a brief period of time. Once we were dressed and ready to go, we located a staff member at reception and explained our situation. He had no issues with us staying last night and let us pay on our way out. If only the man at the Information Centre was this considerate.
First stop today was a suburb a couple of kilometres south of Antwerp, known for its affluent, Art Nouveau-style houses. One street in particular was full of mansion-like homes, decorated with mosaic tiles, coloured windows and unusual flourishes that made them all unique. Several were for sale. I could only imagine the price tag.
Leaving Antwerp behind we drove on to Ghent. After picking up a map of the city, we made a beeline for the first cafe we could find to defrost for a while. Clearly we were not a fan of these wintery conditions. Forcing ourselves out the door, we briskly walked past the main sights. The centre squares were dominated by two large churches, with a Belfry sitting in-between. We ended up visiting all three towers. The Belfry offered average views from the top, and the local history lesson we were given on the way up was only mildly interesting. The rest of our journey through the city took us past charming buildings, a handful of canals, a mini castle, and alleyways lined with tiny, expensive restaurants that were way out of our price range. We also stocked up on some much-needed winter clothes and accessories (even though it isn't technically winter yet).
For dinner we headed to a restaurant housed in an old monastery, serving Belgian beer food. Danny had read a review of the place and had his heart on set on eating (or more accurately, drinking) here. He dove straight into the beer first, followed by French wine (we haven’t seen Belgian wine anywhere), and then we could look at the food menu. The meals ended up being massive, although Danny didn't mind as he had ordered beef stew cooked in - you guessed it - beer. No such thing as too much beer, apparently. My moussaka was also fantastic, but we both went to bed with uncomfortably full stomachs.