The Road to Norway: First Stop - Ghent
Our family holiday hadn’t started promisingly. Not far from home as we drove through the curling, coiling dawn mist that often floats through the valley, I noticed, every now and then, a horrible grinding sound coming from the back of the car. I tried to ignore it at first, only to find myself waiting anxiously for it to re-appear. It did, frequently, every time we went over a pothole or a dip in the road. “Umm, what’s that noise?” I asked my husband, Charlie tentatively, dreading his response. “Oh yeah, that” came his reply. “I think it’s the wheel arches rubbing on the back tyres because the car’s so heavy.” Yikes! A feeling of dread descend into the pit of my stomach like a heavy stone, where it would sit for the rest of the morning. With hindsight, in ordinary circumstances we might have turned round; gone home, checked the car, and altered our travel plans if necessary. But this was the first day of a four-week summer adventure; a family road trip to Oslo that had been six months in the planning. Turning back before we’d even started didn't really feel like an option. We carried on in grim silence for another twenty minutes or so, until Charlie, who seemed to have brightened after apparently ruminating on the possible causes of the worrying noise, piped up, “I think it must be because I packed the new tent in the back of the roofbox, it’s heavy and it’s weighing down the rear of the car.” We decided to carry on, having reassured ourselves that we could re-balance the packing once we arrived in Folkestone for our Channel crossing.
With every passing year, I become more aware of the importance of embracing the moment I’m in, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel at the time. I read somewhere that time goes slower the more present you are in the moment, as the brain is better able to store quality memories. With Charlie’s four-week sabbatical from work looming, I had been looking forward to us spending some quality time together, and relaxing together as a family. It would be the first time the four of us had spent this much time together, well, ever. And, as happy as I was about the thought of shirking the mundane chores of everyday life and exchanging the humdrum for the heavenly, it went deeper than that for me. I found myself harbouring hopes of capturing something of the spirit of those summer months spent during childhood, when a single day seemed to expand in every direction, and one adventure would unfold into another.
It was always going to be tricky to plan a long trip that would give each member of the family what their hearts desired. Charlie, who’s ardour for adventure goes way beyond mine, doesn’t really like planning anything - for him, spontaneity rules. He’s used to travelling. His work as a newspaper photographer has taken him all over the world. This year he’s had assignments in Antarctica, Ukraine and Lebanon. Last year, Brazil, Congo and Indonesia. His passport’s bulging with stamps from countries covering every continent. I haven’t been further than the South of France since having children (that’s almost ten years). Until recently, I’d been quite happy staying close to home. But I think somewhere within us all lies the urge to discover new places and experience new things. We’d travelled together regularly before we had children (we had a trip to Japan in our sites before I fell pregnant for the first time) and, truth be told, I was beginning to feel resentful of his jet-setting ways. “When do I ever get to go anywhere exciting?” had become a familiar refrain of late.
My brother had recently moved to the Norwegian capital, and he was keen for us to go and visit him in his new home. We decided that this would be the perfect opportunity. But because we had the luxury of taking four weeks off, we didn’t necessarily want to fly direct, and we liked the idea of our children seeing as many places along the way as possible (and practical). The trip had, inevitably, taken quite some organising - and a bit of negotiation. While Charlie craved a journey into the unknown, I, on the other hand, like to have a plan. While researching ideas, I’d read an online travel guide that suggested that to plan one’s trip too rigorously would be to risk missing out on potential fun, but, as boring as it might sound, I afraid I wanted to know exactly where we were going to be laying our heads each evening. It turned out to be a fine balancing act of spontaneity and rigorous planning. And so, after weeks of excitedly poring over maps, sharing ideas and discussing our objectives, we picked a more-or-less direct route that, on the outward journey, would take us from Calais to Copenhagen, with stopovers in Ghent, Utrecht, Bremen and Kolding, before taking the overnight ferry to Oslo.
Luckily (although I didn’t think so at the time) Charlie’s week-long trip to Ukraine coincided with the the urgent need to get the accommodation for the first leg of the journey nailed, and it was left down to me to make all the reservations. With a holiday this long, we were on a pretty strict budget, but alongside the obligatory campsites and Airbnbs, I did managed to book us into a chic, family-friendly boutique hotel for our third night - my thinking being let’s ease ourselves into this adventure gently!
With the roof box re-packed and in high spirits (despite the thunderous blue-black clouds overhead), we drove off the train in Calais into sheeting rain and spent the next hour whizzing through France playing “spot the British car” and looking out for a sign letting us know we’d crossed the border into Belgium. Songs full of memories play on the car radio and I start to feel myself finally begin to switch into relaxation mode. Our first stop was Ghent, the Flemish canal city in the heart of Flanders, between Brussels and the coast. By mid-afternoon we’d arrived what would be our home for the next two days: a small, modern apartment surrounded by fields in the small suburb of Nazareth. After unpacking and stocking up on groceries from the excellent local supermarket (the array of food on offer - particularly the pastries and cakes - was something to behold), we drove into the city and spent what was left of our first day exploring its sleepy medieval streets.
The following morning, we took the park and ride, as recommended by our Airbnb host. A short tram journey took us into the heart of the city, allowing us to discover a sense of the place along on the way. We jumped off the tram on Nederkouter, on the lookout for hip bakery and restaurant De Superette, where we had hoped to stop for lunch, only to find it had moved to a new premises on Guldenspoorstraat. This serendipitously lead us to discover Greenway, a pretty, down to earth vegan cafe across the street from De Superette’s old building. We ordered the BBQ black bean burger, that came with salsa, fried onions and ginger-lime aoili (hands down, the loveliest veggie burger I’ve ever tasted, and as a longtime vegetarian, I’ve tried a few), the “Meatlovers Favourite” a patty of red pepper and grilled vegetables that Isaac, our eight year old, wolfed down; a falafel wrap and the “mega-vega” Caesar salad. It was all superb. Our five year old, Sophia, however, was not in agreement and wouldn’t touch a morsel. Flying the flag for carnivores, she opted for a sausage in a bun in Würst, an upmarket hot dog joint next door.
The blazing summer had given way to mellower days, and we spent the afternoon drifting along the wharf-lined waterways of the river Leie on a barge, floating under wooden bridges and admiring the medieval buildings, before stopping for waffles and ice cream and wandering around the 12th century Gravensteen Castle and the architectural wonder that is the City Pavilion.
I fell instantly in love with Ghent - it was everything I’d hoped it would be, and more. There’s something wonderfully idiosyncratic about this picturesque city, with its baroque fascias and Art Nouveau apartment blocks. Full of history and echoes of its gilded past, Ghent radiates personality, romance and character, and has an appealing, easy-going coolness. The city has a population of around 250,000 and approximately a quarter of them are students, and it’s a place where the young dominate the landscape and the culture.
Ghent has some sublime shopping opportunities, too. I’d read about Billierose, an cool concept store selling homeware by up and coming makers and crafts people, that did not disappoint. It’s run by super-friendly and welcoming Noor Callebaut (the shop is named after her daughter) and her brother, Wolf, who manages the cafe.
Inside is a beautiful and inspiring collection of ceramics, unusual homewares, children’s clothes and toys, and pretty jewellery - all set against a backdrop of powder pink walls, faded wood shelves and wheat-coloured grasses and dried flowers.
From the tram in the East District, I’d also spotted Bluet, a plant and flower store run by botanist, Daniel Deprez, housed in an imposing three story building with vast, floor to ceiling leaded windows.
Stepping inside we found its labyrinthine interior filled with exotic plants. The jungle-like atmosphere was enhanced by hanging woven floral sculptures, tufted moss installations that snaked up the open brickwork walls and the hundreds of tiny terracotta pots that lined the ceiling.
I could easily have spent at least another two days exploring more of Ghent’s unique independent shops, but we were on a tight schedule, and alas, it was time to move on.