I love mainland Europe, I’ve always loved it. It always brings back fond memories of family holidays and other adventures I’ve had over the years.
So in September 2019 with some free time on the horizon, an opportunity arose for a new excursion across 5 countries.
The weapon of choice for this road trip would be my 16-year-old BMW 330ci, anyone who knows me well knows I’m overly attached to this car, but it’s got me through some tough times and has been a good friend. In my opinion the perfect choice for this trip!
The route for this trip would take me from my home in Essex through the Channel Tunnel into France along the A16 into Belgium, through The Netherlands into Germany along the Ardennes Forest into Luxembourg before finally returning through France back home again. The route was set and my overnight stops were set. But no specific agenda was arranged in advance. I set off on a Wednesday lunchtime with no real objectives in place.
Day one – The Channel to De Panne
I arrived at Folkestone’s Euro Tunnel terminal early in the afternoon, the Euro Tunnel is always my preferred method of crossing the Channel, I’ve got no real issue with the Cross Channel Ferries but the train is much quicker and in my opinion an all round better service, even if it is a little more expensive.
After 35 minutes travelling under the English Channel, I emerged in the now very familiar surroundings Coquelles this is normally the point where I feel any good adventure by road in mainland Europe has begun.
Heading North along the A16 passing Dunkirk and over the non-descript Belgian border coming to the first junction once in Belgium you arrive in the small Flemish town of De Panne. De Panne was only intended as a small stopover just to get me on the other side of the Channel. As I’d made it in relatively good time I figured it was worth a look around.
Choice of the hotel was the Hotel Ibis De Panne, the bill for tonight’s stay was a fair €60 not including breakfast. However, the sting in the tail for this one was a whopping €20 charge for parking, extortionate parking aside the hotel had everything I’ve come to expect from Ibis’.
Shortly I was enjoying my first Leffe of the trip and then set out for an explore. De Panne was a pretty town but almost completely deserted, new developments going up all over the place but with no one to live in them. In a 25 minute walk to the beach, I don’t think I encountered another person.
Arriving at the beach I was greeted with a large statute, this was the statute of Leopold I the first King of Belgium who in 1831 sailed from England to Calais but arrived in De Panne. The statue commemorates where he landed.
De Panne is also famous for being the residence of the Belgian Royal Family during the First World War, notably as this was a small area of Belgium not occupied by the attacking German forces.
A short walk along the beachfront promenade brought the Kursaal restaurant into view. A fairly modern looking restaurant with a fairly seafood-based menu. Some may know I can’t eat seafood but lucky for me, Steak Frites was on the menu and with a blue cheese sauce available! I was in my element. A tasty steak with a couple of Brugse Zots to drink left me ready for bed! An early start was due the following morning.
Day two – De Panne to Sint-Niklaas via Ghent and Antwerp
An early start the following morning with the Medieval city of Ghent in my sights. After around an hour along a featureless section of Belgian motorway and I was in Ghent. Parking was straightforward in the city centre with pleanty of signage to new visitors.
I had never been to Ghent before, having spent a large amount of time in Bruges in the past it’s similar in style perhaps with a smaller historic centre and far less touristy. But the beautiful buildings and striking canals were a great feature.
I love a canal trip and soon found a boat offering canal €7.50 was the charge for around a 45min guided tour of Ghent’s canals with the guide offering stops and explanations on many parts of the canal.
After some wandering of Ghent’s medieval back streets, it was time for a little break, stopping at a little riverside cafe to have a Belgian Waffle and another beer, this time an Orval!
Moving on I wanted to see the Gravensteen castle right in the middle of the city the entry fee is €10 and a free audio tour is included, I opted to forego the audio tour as I’m not normally a fan.
The castle was built in 1180 and from that date until 1353 housed the Counts of Flanders, you can walk the castle walls and get a fantastic view of the city from the top of the castles tower seeing almost all of the city.
It was mentioned on my canal trip that the former dungeon and tourture chambers can now be rented out for weddings… each to their own!
Moving on from Ghent to the next overnight stop the city of Sint-Niklaas in-between Ghent and Antwerp. Blander Belgian motorways followed before arriving in Sint-Niklass. A pleasant city with a nice market square and nice surrounding streets, but very clearly a commuter city supporting nearby Antwerp. Visiting Antwerp wasn’t a place I’d intended on visiting, but after a little research, it was only 20 minutes away by train at a cost of about €6 for a return trip.
I decided to head to Antwerp!
After a 15 minute walk from the hotel to the train station, I found myself on the train to Antwerp, a straight forward and easy process and I found myself in central Antwerp, another city I had never visited before. The most striking thing I noticed straight away was the beauty of Antwerp station. It is a stunning building with beautiful features and styles. If you find yourself in Antwerp either by train or otherwise take 10 minutes to come and admire this beautiful building.
I didn’t have all that long in Antwerp so decided to head to the old town visiting Antwerps impressive cathedral, sadly the spire was in scaffolding so I couldn’t see it in it’s full beauty. A walk down to the river followed as the sun was beginning to set I took in the sights while trying to decide on where to eat that evening. Eventually I stumbled across a Hard Rock Cafe, a burger with a Duvel beer followed. Then it was time to head back to Sint-Niklaas.
On returning to the main square in Sint-Niklaas the town hall in the centre was lit up and looked simply magnificent.
Day Three – Sint-Niklaas to Bonn via Heerlen and Colonge
An early start the following morning to head to a city that I’ve never visited but I’ve always wanted to visit, Cologne in Germany. Around a 2 hour drive was needed passing through more of Belgium and into The Netherlands. I stopped for a late breakfast combined with a Dutch supermarket visit in the small town of Heerlen.
I couldn’t tell you much about this town other than it’s modern looks and feels and confusing one way systems. After a quick stop at Jumbo branded supermarket that was maximising it’s Max Verstappen sponsorship deal, I returned to the motorway with Germany in my sights.
It becomes fairly obvious that you have arrived on the German unrestricted Autobahns as speeds run at a steady 110-120mph in the outer lanes. I took the opportunity to have some fun with my BMW (I won’t tell you how fast we went!).
Just before 1 pm, I arrived at my overnight stop on Bonn. Fortunately, the hotel allowed me to check in early to drop off my bags. I then headed down to Bonn central station to get the train to Cologne central station.
A return ticket came in at €10 curiously however I was charged for a student ticket. So I’m not 100% sure my pricing is accurate.
As you exit the modern Cologne Central railway station it is impossible to miss Colognes Cathedral directly outside the station.
The building is huge and simply dominates the skyline, construction started in 1249 and didn’t finish until 1473. Before undergoing further works in the 1800s and then finally a restoration program began in 1950 which continues to this day. This impressive monument of German Catholicism and Gothic Architecture was declared a world heritage site in 1996.
Entry to the Cathedral is free, however, there are many donation boxes around the site to pay your contribution to the maintenance of this impressive structure.
I moved to cross the Rhine river over the Hohenzollern Bridge once on the otherwise you get the famous image of Cologne looking back across at the Bridge, the railway station and the Cathedral. An image that symbolises Cologne.
The Hohenzollern Bridge was originally built between 1907 and 1911 as a railway and road bridge. In 1945 during the second world war, German military engineers blew up the bridge to slow down advancing allied forces. In 1959 a new bridge was completed this time for rail and pedestrian traffic rather than road. The bridge is one of the most heavily used in Germany handling around 1200 trains per day.
It has also become popular with couples placing love locks on the railings of the bridge.
If you should ever find yourself in Cologne take a walk along the riverfront there’s plenty to see and do with lots of riverfront bars and restaurants, I took the opportunity to enjoy some currywurst from a street vendor. I’ve always enjoyed currywurst when in Germany it’s a lot better!
I walked the streets some more passing the City Hall with a large bell tower. I settled for a pizza for dinner that night with a Bitburger to drink.
As darkness descended it was time to head back to Bonn, I couldn’t seem to get my head around Bonn, Germanys de facto capital during the split of East and West Germany. A modern city but with not a lot going on in my opinion. Suitable for an overnight stop. But not worth going out of your way for.
Day Four – Bonn to Reims via The Nurburgring and Luxembourg
That morning I woke up with a little bit of excitement. That day I was heading to the Nurburgring. I’ve never been to the Nurburgring but I’m a life long motor racing fan. I was excited to have a look at this place.
I avoided the motorways as I left Bonn taking beautiful roads throughout the Ardennes Forest seeing eagles and other wildlife along the way.
Soon enough I arrived at the Nurburgring one of Germanys most famous race tracks if not one of the most famous in the world. At just over 14 miles long it’s also arguably the most challenging.
You can take your road car on the circuit for a lap and I had spent the morning debating with myself if I wanted to take my ageing but currently well behaved BMW on a lap of the ring.
Fortunate in some ways disappointing in others the decision was made for me. On arrival, the circuit was being used for a live race meeting. Meaning it wouldn’t be possible for public use that day.
However, it gave me a chance to have a look around the circuit and the surrounding roads. There is a museum at the circuit with an impressive collection of racing cars and memorabilia.
A quick walk over to the paddock followed to have a look at the cars racing that day before then heading to the Brunnchen corner to watch some of the action on the Nordschleife circuit.
There was a lot of ground to cover on this day so sadly I couldn’t hang around as I wanted to be in Luxembourg for lunch. So reluctantly I set off for my 6th country in 4 days. The scenery along the German Autobahn and the Luxembourgish Motorways was beautiful running through pretty valleys with little towns below.
Around an hour and a half down the road, I arrived on the outskirts of Luxembourg City. It’s a straight forward city to navigate and I had arrived just in time for lunch.
After lunch, I had a wander around the city centre and its historic streets. In the middle of the city is a great valley, this is where a river through the city once ran before being diverted and turned into a park.
Not far from here is the Notre Dame Cathedral an impressive sight to see up close and personal. There is a fantastic view point looking over the Park below and the Pont Adolphe bridge.
France, my first stop was the Reims-Gueux race circuit. My second racing circuit of the day, the reims circuit was an ultra-fast circuit that was on public roads. Races were held here from 1926 until 1969 hosting the French Grand Prix 11 times as well as multiple other non-championship Formula one races, Motorcycle races, Formula 2, Formula 3 and the 12 hours of Reims endurance race for sportscars cars.
Some sections of the old track are still available to drive on as public roads, some others have been demolished and the long straight is now a dual carriageway. But the history of the circuit remains in the shape of the original pit buildings and grandstands. Still with their sponsorship branding on. There is no cost to visit this and it’s a great way to kill half an hour (over an hour in my case).
It would have been wonderful to have seen races at this circuit in the period. A frighteningly fast track with no barriers or run-off areas.
I headed into central Reims at dusk to find something for dinner, this evening was an Italian restaurant. With no more Belgian beers or Pilsners to drink, I had to settle for a Saint-Omer instead.
That evening passing the impressive Reims Cathedral an impressive sound and light show was illuminating the whole cathedral. This happens every Saturday night during the summer months. Worth a look as there’s no charge to watch the show.
Day Five – Reims to Home via Laon and Arras
In the morning I took the chance to have a walk around the streets of Reims. It was a Sunday and it was early, which meant the city was almost deserted giving me free rein. I opted to head back to the cathedral for another look around.
Walking through the streets of Reims I came across a memorial garden to the victims of the Holocaust from Reims. I actually cannot find any information on it online since returning home. Pictures around the outside told the story of some of the survivors and also stories of those who lost their lives.
I had to be at the Eurotunnel depot to return home by the evening so it was time to press on. However I took the time to stop at the medieval city of Laon, I’d never been to Laon, in fact, I’d never heard of Laon.
But what a discovery. From a distance, you can see this hilltop medieval city. With its huge cathedral sitting atop. Parking on the outskirts was free and you pass through the old medieval gate before being greeted with the cathedral.
You’ll find goats on the outskirts of the city walls in little pens on the hillside.
Above the cobbled medieval streets multicoloured umbrellas were hung. A sight that has been seen in other cites before. But still pleasant to walk through.
Leaving Laon and heading north the weather turned, my next stop would be Arras. But it was tricky to figure out where the centre was. A central square was found with almost Dutch or Belgian styling but nothing much to see. Sadly the rain soon came and it was time to retreat to the Eurotunnel and head back to my home in Essex.
6 Countries in 5 days and just over 1500 miles covered but nothing felt rushed.
Driving in Europe is always a joy, you see and do things you wouldn’t do if you’d just flown to a destination.
I’m already looking forward to going back soon and exploring more of Europe.