If you live on mainland Europe it is just so much easier to jump in the car and drive across a border into a different country, heck, some people pop over to another country just for lunch or dinner if they live close enough.
Having a common currency in the Euro also helps to make this so much easier as well, not having to worry about exchange rates and getting hit with all those hidden charges!
Being a keen skier I have always been envious of those people who can jump in their car and drive to a ski resort for a weekend’s skiing. It’s unfortunately not quite so easy for those of us who live in the UK what with having that stretch of English Channel between us and The Continent.
However, when the Channel Tunnel first opened for business back in May 1994, many people were of the opinion that this new gateway to The Continent would put the existing car ferries on the Dover-Calais crossing out of business. But in fact, quite the opposite happened, as the arrival of Eurostar and Le Shuttle simply stimulated the market and newer, bigger, faster, more comfortable, and more frequent ferries were soon launched onto the route, with P&O’s fleet slashing crossing times to just an hour and a half, compared to a mere 30 minutes aboard the Le Shuttle car rail service.
As a result, Continental Europe is today far easier to get to in a much shorter space of time than it ever used to be, with millions of Brits make the short crossing every year. But as with any journey, short or long, particularly to another country, my advice is to always make sure you have adequate holiday breakdown cover, as you just never know what might happen, and being stuck abroad with a broken down or damaged car can so easily ruin your holiday.
With the assumption your car is well maintained and you have all the necessary paperwork, travel insurance and cover, my advice is on disembarking your train or ferry in France, take the short drive from Calais, in French Flanders, to the exquisitely picturesque walled town of Ypres, in Belgian West Flanders.
Flanders, with the adjoining territories of Artois and Picardy, is known to historians as ‘The Cockpit of Europe’. Straddling the borders between present day France and Belgium it’s a region that shaped two world wars and much more besides. The launching ports for the 1066 Norman invasion, Henry V’s killing field of Agincourt, the Duke of Marlborough’s battleground of Malplaquet, the horrors of the Great War trenches, the beaches of the Dunkirk evacuation – memories of these and other monumental moments in the turbulent history of Flanders resonate down the years.
You can drive into this historical town through the monumental Menin Gate, whose portals are inscribed with the names of some 54,896 of the more than 90,000 British and Empire soldiers who gave their lives in the region but whose remains were never recovered or identified.
With a population of 70,000 that more than doubles in season, Ostend has all the amenities you would expect of a modern seaside resort and should be next on your map to visit after Ypres. It is jam-packed with nearly 100 multi-storey hotels and holiday home apartment blocks and the casino and beach are popular tourist attractions in the summer months.
French Flanders, like next-door neighbour Belgian Flanders, today focusses a great deal of attention on its turbulent past, and not just its pivotal role in the two world wars, but dating way back past the Napoleonic wars to the Hundred Years War we all know about from the writings of William Shakespeare. Battlefield tourism has become a very big business today.
You may also want to do an overnight stay at the outstanding La Charteuse du Val Saint-Esprit, in the village of Gosnay, an estate that provides not one but two very good hotels. There is the upmarket château-style La Chartreuse itself and the Best Western affiliated La Maitaire along with three restaurants on the one site, a beautifully restored and refurbished one-time convent and impressive outbuildings that date back to the 1300s.
Also in Gosnay is the Cantiques de Gosnay Unité d’Art Sacré, which comprises an important collection of 70 religious paintings, 10 stained glass windows and sculptures, created by René Ducourant.
The close-by town of Béthune’s connections with the British army are recalled through the medium of a way-marked Bethune And The British’ walking trail. And be sure to pay a visit to the very large Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, which is the largest French military cemetery, while numerous British and Empire troop burial grounds, with their serried ranks of alabaster white headstones are dotted through the rolling poppy dotted hills.
For those of you interested in European history and who wish to visit some of the most pretty little towns in northern France and Belgium, this is a little road trip well worth making.
Simon Burrell is Editor-in-Chief of Our Man On The Ground Travel and Lifestyle Magazine, a member of The British Guild of Travel Writers and professional photographer.
Photographs courtesy of Visit Flanders