Ten months after I started my Up North trip and 9 months in the Netherlands, it was time to move Down South again and face the next adventure. (part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6)
You can also fallow the trip in Polarsteps.
Not to overload the post with pictures, most of the photos you can find at the end of it divided into galleries.
Ghent, Belgium • 1-3 July 2022
Starting the Down South part of the trip is quite a special feeling. Emotional. The last worn clothes left by the bin (deliberately chosen to be last), the shelves emptied and the bed striped off the sheets.
After almost an year standstill, getting back on track takes quite an effort. The backpack weighs more on my overworked shoulders, but I know they can handle it.
It takes me about a kilometre to get onto the main road that leads to Belgium and find a suitable place for hitchhiking.
I’m not surprised at all when, less than ten minutes later, a police car pulls up nearby. On the contrary. And with a smile I went to the policeman – I guess you are coming to me?
Yes, he had come to me. 😁
I wasn’t surprised that I was not allowed to be there. Something else surprised me, though. It turned out that, when people see a hitchhiker, they call the police. This is something I don’t understand…
Anyway, the policeman happened to be a very nice and smiling young gentleman who explained the risks and the fines! “I should fine you for this. Although I won’t, if I do it, the fine should be around 1000 euro. I think you can BUY a car to get home!” Oh, he was absolutely right!!
Afterwards he put me in the police car to take me to the station.
Shit! The station is at the very tonw center (I used to pass by it every day), it will take me tremendous time and efforts to get to the ring road again.
“Okay, can you drop me off somewhere else? The train station is too far away…” – “Hmm, where do you want to go?” – “Gent, Belgium…” – “Well, unfortunately I can’t drive you there..🤭 but get in the car.”
And he just dropped me off at the other end of town, even closer to the Belgian border, at a place where I would have no problem hitchhiking.
I find it hard to believe this is happening – a police officer acting so friendly and helpful!! I don’t know if this applies to all/most policemen in the Netherlands. Luckily I haven’t run into any others! A huge thank you to this nameless law enforcement officer!!
After 10-15 minutes Stephanie (she preferred not to have her picture) cleared her seat for me. A Belgian woman living in the Netherlands, whose destination was only 13 km away.Well, for me every kilometre is important. 🤷🏻♀️
Hmm, how long does 13 km take… I didn’t ask. Until at one point she stopped the car and said – this is Ghent! Almost 100 km away from her target. Thanks Stephanie!! 🙏🏼🤗
I had arrived unexpectedly early. The weather was beautiful and Stephanie had dropped me off only a kilometre from my host’s address for the next 2-3 nights. So all I had to do was to find a nice coffee shop in the area and wait for Veronica to come back from work.
Oh yes, I also needed a supermarket. After yesterday’s coffee meeting with my ex-boss Chin, I had about 1.5 kg of cheese in my backpack… 😆🤗 So my lunch was provided, I just needed some extra crackers.
And a coffee. Maybe because I left very early, I was just dying for a cup of coffee! A good coffee! (and some Wi-Fi) 😜
After the coffee, I sat in the garden nearby to reduce the volume of cheese in my backpack. The smiling Veronica found me there.
Radiant and positive, talkative and impulsive Italian woman who literally enveloped me in her warmth! One of the things that impressed me when I first wrote to her was that she was learning Bulgarian.
What?!? Which foreigner, for God’s sake, learns Bulgarian?! Most Bulgarians do not learn Bulgarian… 🤦🏻♀️🤔
What a start of the Down South, huh?
We left the backpack and went out to meet another female traveller. This time from India – Darshana. Coffee, short walk, picking up Vera’s 2-year-old son from kindergarten, dinner and… a massage!
No, it wasn’t me! Vera, noticing that I was unconsciously rubbing my shoulder all the time, insisted on giving me a light massage with balm to soothe the pain!!
The amazing sunny Veronica!! Thank you so much girl!!! 🤗🥰🤗🥰🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼
The next days, Veronica took on the role of a local guide and devoted her entire day to walking with me along with the beaming Leonardo. That boy is just like his mother – always smiling and ready to make everyone laugh.
Well, what can I say about Ghent? Beautiful! I was told so, but it’s completely different to see for yourself. Really very beautiful!
Perhaps the only thing I was not fond of was the chalga (kind of gross Bulgarian music) at every step and the Bulgarian speech (usually obscene). It was a bit too much for me… And Vera said: “You didn’t see anything, we are in the center, here it is not so tangible, I have to take you to the neighbourhoods…”
Oh, no, thanks! I can definitely live without that experience! Please, don’t ruin the beauty of that town for me!
As I have been told, the must-try things in Belgium were chocolate, beer, french fries and waffles. We started with the waffles… God, I’m glad I won’t be staying longer! I won’t be able to button my pants in less than a week… 🤭😜
The famous Belgium fries also deserve their name. Sooo good, fresh and tasty! With very heavy sauce, though. I chose a piquant one “Samurai” (the only one I actually knew from the Netherlands 🤭) – delicious!
The local knowledge of Vera was very helpful once again, as there are fries at every step, but the good ones aren’t that common…
Okay, we had 2 of 4. Beer and chocolate are still to go.
So, quite logical, after the fries it was a perfect beer time. Lots of choices. Probably most of them good. Yet I decided to try a local one. I am in Gent, am I not?! So, Gent beer then!
Well, that was a great choice – amazing and strong beer!
I can say no less about the chocolate we did try a bit latter. Lots and lots of choices. We took only a piece, just because of the idea. I did ask the lady in the shop to choose on my behalf.
Good decision again! The Belgium chocolate is… Belgium chocolate!!
And, of course, I haven’t forgotten about my souvenir – a plastic travel card. As it was during the weekend, I had to take care of it just before I leave on Monday.
Down South – Lille, France• 4-7 July 2022
It wasn’t easy to part with Veronica and sunny Leo, but France was just round the corner and only waiting for me (With all the cheese to be tasted! Ha-ha!).
So we said bye (not goodbye!) on Monday morning and Vera went to work. I decided to leave Gent a bit later, since the meeting with my host in Lille was only at 5 in the afternoon, and by a car it was about 1.5 hours. Even hitchhiking it wouldn’t take me all day long to get there.
So I took the last opportunity to get my regular souvenir. Without the backpack, of course! Thanks to Vera, who left me the key and also gave me the exact directions I needed to go.
Left the luggage to wait for me at Vera’s apartment and got a brisk walk to the town centre. To my surprise, the only option was a personal card. For that they needed my ID, which they scan the photo from. (and 5 euros in addition 😆)
Everything was ready in about 2 minutes! Quite impressive! It did cost me a bit too much for a souvenir, but… yeah, I want my souvenir! 😉
Back at Vera’s apartment, a quick phone charge and back on the road. The luck was with me again – the highway entrance (I didn’t want to risk AT the highway anymore) was only a kilometre away.
A total of three people stopped for me that day. The second only for about 2-3 km, but every meter counts with a 30 kg backpack! 😜
And after 10 months without any sun around, I did sunburn even before crossing the French border… 🤦🏻♀️
Jocelyn Dusautoir took me for the last part of the way. An extremely positive and sunny young gentleman who drove me to the outskirts of Lille. He dropped me off at a metro station, explained in detail where and how to go, as everything is in French, os course. When I told him I will try to walk instead, he was like 🤦🏻♀️ and gave me his travel card + 2 euro to load it (the ticket is 1.7).
Incredibly nice and helpful person!
His card, although a paper one, is definitely becoming a part of my collection. It might have been made of cardboard, but it has a story!! Thank you Jocelyn!
I followed all the instructions (thanks again!) and did still need some additional help. All the machines were in French and I had no idea how they work. If you use them 1-2 times, even in foreign language, you are getting used to it. Yeah, I haven’t seen those before… 🤦🏻♀️
I was warned many, many times, that French people (as well as Germans) do not speak any other language. Even they know it, they don’t want to speak. Well, I have different esperance since the very beginning! Maybe not many of them speak foreign languages, but they definitely want to help, no matter of the words…
There at the metro station was almost no one, but an elderly lady. I doubted she knew English or Spanish, but had no much of a choice. Yeah, she obviously knew the word “help” and seeing the travel card in my hand, was all she needed! She did top-up for me and did it step by step, so I could remember it immediately.
Thank you, kind lady! You were another proof that people are always ready to help!
So, by 3 pm I was already at Gare Lille Flandres, where my meeting with Claire due 2 hours later. No chance of walking around with my monster on my back, so I just sat and waited.
Meanwhile, I had interesting conversations with some of those waiting like me. Including a sincere invitation to visit one of them or to call for coffee and a walk while I’m in town. Thanks Alan! I’ll probably go with the second one. Maybe, I’ll try to… 🤷♀️
Claire arrived just after 5 pm and I don’t think she had a hard time finding me in the crowd – my backpack was sticking out of the chair next to me, yelling: “Ehoooo, Claire, WE are here!” 😆😜 I think that was the reason she said latter that I have to name my backpack! 😁😆
Yeah, I am thinking about it! How does Roberto sound for a backpack name?! 🤔😎
Absolutely lovely lady with whom we just got along pretty well. Apart from the same age, it turned out that we have a lot in common and similar thinking.
It was past midnight when we finally went to bed anyway. The dinner she made took twice as long simply because we were too busy chatting about different topics. 🤭🤫
Amazing welcome and hospitality! Thank you so much Claire! 🙏🤗🙏
Even before arriving in Lille, Jocelyn told me that on Wednesday le Tour de France starts here and the traffic will be blocked, so it will be very difficult if I decide to travel then.
Great! That was exactly the plan and my stipulation with Claire! So how to ask her for more…
Well, I didn’t have much of a choice anyway.
Still I didn’t have to even ask! At the moment I mentioned le Tour de France she understood my worries and directly said – and of course you can stay another day!
This happens when you’ve been travelling for years…
Afterwards she even offered if I wanted to stay until Friday so she could give me a ride to Paris. What do you think, do I want to?! 😁
Not only that, but she made a detailed plan for me of how to get from northern Paris, where she would drop me off, to the southern part, where I was about to stay.
She also gave me a ticket for public transport in Paris, as well as a comprehensive list (+explanations) of lots of free places to visit there, all divided by days according to their location!
What an amazing woman! Thank you so much Claire!!! Over and over again!
Since I was going to stay 4 instead of 2 days, I had plenty of time to walk around and explore.
The first day I went through most of the marked places, but a few had to be left for the next day. I had to meet Claire after work (I had the only key) and we would go home together.
As I had walked almost 20 km I decided to rest the next day. I have lost training for a long walks and, given the opportunity, I preferred not to overexert myself at the start.
And as much as I wanted to see the start of le Tour de France, I decided it was better to take it easy and not jostling in the crowd. Especially with two cameras on the shoulder.
So the last walk was left for Thursday, when I promised to meet Alan (the boy from the station) for a walk and a coffee. We walked around, went for a coffee and also to a nice unusual exhibition. Very curious and sadly it was all in French, so I am not sure what have I actually seen. 🤷🏻♀️
At the afternoon met Claire again and we went to a brief walk around, so she could tell me about the history of all those places. She is just a wonderful guide, incredibly well knowing the French history!
Very unfortunate that I have lost all the videos I made that day… 🤦♀️
But still have my photos! 😉