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Saturday, 19 April 2014

Easter in Bruges

Day 1

Today I am off to Bruges. The alarm went off at 5am and an hour later I was on my way to work. I had a lot to do this morning before the passengers turned up. Because it's Easter, all of our passengers are given an Easter egg from the company, so I had to fetch them from the office and hide them on the coach, along with the hot cross buns which we would serve for breakfast on our way to meet the ferry, as well as loading all my usual kit and doing the various vehicle checks. For this tour I am working with Sharon. I've not worked with her before but when she arrived at the coach, we hit it off straight away.

The first of our passengers started arriving on feeders at 0630. I didn't really see any of them because I had my head in the locker loading luggage. We were early to leave the yard and went to pick up the remainder of our passengers from the second meeting point, before setting off down the motorway for Dover.

We were booked on the 1255 ferry. We had a lot of time in hand and I was hoping to get an early ferry. Sharon started making coffees and after about 10 cups, the coffee machine packed up! I hadn't even had my coffee! The most important person on the coach and I'm deprived!! Although a lot of people weren't able to have a drink, the hot cross buns went down well and it wasn't long before we stopped at motorway services for a comfort break where my caffeine levels were brought back to normal! I rang the mechanic to ask how to fix the coffee machine but I just didn't have the time to do what he was telling me. It was more important to get to port and on a ferry.

Back on the road and having an easy journey until, 3 miles from port, we came to a stand still. It took over an hour to do those last 3 miles! We didn't know at the time but one of the trains on the channel tunnel had broken down and so the freight were being transferred onto the ferries from Dover. Operation stack should have been put into action but it wasn't, resulting in trucks in both lanes who couldn't get into port, meaning no one else could either!

We checked in 10 mins before our booked ferry was due to sail which meant we had missed it with the cut off point 30 mins before sailing. So we were on the 1355, one hour later than planned. I wasn't too concerned. We should still be in our hotel for 6pm local time. There was only a short drive on to Bruges from Calais.

So while we were on dockside I actually had the chance to talk to the passengers and see who we had on board. We have 45 on and I'd say about 20 of them have travelled with me before and of them, there are about 10 who I know quite well. It's always nice seeing familiar faces. Finally we see our ship coming in to dock, 'Spirit of Britain'. They are quick to unload and equally as quick to send on the police and an ambulance! This wasn't good! There had been an 'accident' which had to be dealt with before loading too many vehicles. The coaches were the last vehicles to load and they packed us in like sardines. Now feeling hungry, we went straight to the drivers room for lunch. I had pork steak. It wasn't until I had finished my lunch that I realised that we still hadn't moved out of port. Finally, we set sail an hour late, so we were now 2 hours behind schedule. What should have been an easy day was turning into a long stressful one! We now weren't due to our hotel until 7pm.

We landed in Calais, got back on the coach and pedal to the metal all the way to Bruges! Sharon has been very good today at turning negative situations into positive ones. When she had to  say the coffee   machine wasn't working it was followed up with "but we have hot cross buns and we'll be stopping soon!" And when we were just getting off the ferry at the time we should have been checked in and in our rooms at our hotel she said "we are running later than planned but we're all safe and we will get there!" It's enough to make people just stop and think before complaining and keep the mood on the coach very happy and relaxed.

We arrived at Bruges. Coaches are usually banned from the centre of Bruges in an attempt to preserve it, which is even more important with it being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it was my first time to drive into the city. We checked into the hotel and Sharon very kindly took my luggage while I took the coach to park for the night.

I parked up and had a quick check down the coach to find a very nasty surprise! Coach toilets are only for weeing! Not only had someone done more than a wee, they hadn't managed to flush either! After I'd gained control of myself and stopped wretching, the offensive matter was dumped at the toilet drop before parking for a second time and walking back to the hotel.

We had a set menu dinner in the hotel this evening, which was good considering how late we had arrived, it meant that people didn't have to go looking for food in a strange city they hadn't become acquainted with yet. The menu was basic but the food that was served was very nice. The complimentary Kia aperitifs went down very well, as did the included wine!

After an early start, no one stayed around for long after dinner and had an early night. I've got a nice big bed to myself so I slept diagonally across it all night so as not to waste it!

Day 2

After a really good nights sleep, I got up late and appeared for breakfast shortly after 9am. I was quite surprised to see that not many of our passengers had been to breakfast yet. After breakfast I went down to the coach park to attempt to repair the coffee machine.

I spent 2 hours checking fuses, swapping pipes to feed through a different pump and getting soaking wet in the process! I did get it working although not as it should! The water from the handbasin in the toilet needs to be running in order to get water running from the tap of the coffee machine! A bit of a gymnastics act is needed to do this and I don't envy Sharon trying to serve drinks from it on the way home on Monday! But it's better than nothing! 

An English driver from another company was parked next to me. He was a proper know all! He came over interfering, trying to tell me what was wrong with the coffee machine and how to fix it, until I told him I had to feed through the other pump. He obviously had no idea and disappeared! 

At 1pm I went to pick up my passengers. This afternoon, we were booked on the paddle steamer from Bruges to Damme.

It was only a short 35 min cruise up the canal but it was a lovely day and everyone seemed to really enjoy it. 

I had to drive to Damme to pick the group up, but first they had an hour in this pretty, tiny village before heading back to Bruges.

There wasn't a lot in Damme, but especially with the weather being good, it was a nice place to sit out and enjoy a drink.

I did come across a random statue. There was no plaque, or anything to say its relevance or reason for being there!

We headed back to Bruges, driving through the suburbs and seeing where the 'normal' people lived. It was a nice relaxing afternoon. I parked the coach then Sharon and I had a beer before getting changed for dinner. 

We met up again at 7pm and headed off aimlessly for somewhere to eat. We ended up in a very nice little restaurant, sat on the street side under heat lamps on Burg Square. Firstly we ordered a medium Kriek each, these were a little larger than I remembered!

Sharon ordered Moules Provençal and I had schnitzel! Then Sharon forced me into having pudding! I had Damme Blanche (vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce and cream) while Sharon had a big fat chocolate waffle!

By the time we payed the bill it was dark. We had a nice walk back to the hotel. The city looks a different place at night time, all lit up. 

By the time we got back to the hotel, with a full tummy, I was feeling tired. I was off to bed. All in all, it had been a good day.

Day 3

This morning I had to be up early. I had breakfast and walked down to the coach where I had Easter Eggs to put on the seats for the passengers. After feeding the parking meter with €25 worth of shrapnel to be able to exit the car park, I went to fetch the group. Everyone was pleasantly surprised by their eggs and some were quite excited!

Today's excursion is to Brussels. It's not a city I enjoy driving around. I find it difficult to get my bearings here with no river or landmark to navigate by. Also Brussels is full of tunnels. Some a coach can fit through others are too low, but none are height marked so you just don't use them! 

I dropped everyone off by the central station which is close to the cathedral and the Grand Place.

Sharon and I went for a walk and after she had spent so long on the coach talking about the Manneken Pis, I had to take her to see the Jeanekke Pis! 

Then we went and sat on the Grand Place and had a coffee. I really wanted a beer! It's not the same sitting in a street side cafe in Europe drinking coffee! It should be beer!

After coffee I was dragged into the Musee de Ville, which is a museum of Brussels through history, tapestries and paintings, and the outfits of the Manneken Pis. 

Embassies, tourist offices, but also workers, sportsmen, artists, bon vivants, associations,... wish to honor Manneken Pis with a suit or costume. It was worth going in just to see the costumes!

When we came out, we took a walk down to the Mannekin Pis, then found a frituur and sat on a wall with our chips like classy English birds do! We went back to the coach and had an hour quiet before the passengers would be returning.

We left the centre of Brussels and Sharon had asked if we could have a drive by the Atomium.

  1. The Atomium is a building in Brussels originally constructed for Expo '58, the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. Designed by the engineer AndrΓ© Waterkeyn and architects AndrΓ© and Jean Polak, it stands 102 m tall.

    So being the helpful driver I am (snigger!) I changed my route so we could drive past the Atomium and the Royal Palace.

    We were only 2 miles from the motorway when we came across a road closure with diversion. Panic! Where is this going to take me? Will it put me in a tunnel? Sharon! This is your fault! Aaaaargh! It all turned out fine and we were back on track within a few minutes. More luck than judgement! 

    On the motorway on the way back to Bruges, there was a duck with a least 10 ducklings running around the middle lane. Cars were braking and swerving all over the place, I don't know how there wasn't an accident. Sharon got quite distressed about it so now wasn't the time to joke that all the cars stopped on the hard shoulder, which there were many, had pulled over to remove dead duckling from their radiator grills!

    We got back to Bruges, dropped everyone off, then the rest of the evening was our own. 

    We went for dinner in a nice little Italian I know just off the main market square.

    After we'd eaten we went for a drink in the Druids Cellar Irish Bar and then onto another pub just off the market square, in search of chouffe coffee. We couldn't find anyone who'd heard of it let alone served it, so we made do with Kriek! I had a fit of the sneezes and told Sharon that the hops in beer can bring on hay fever and that's why I was sneezing! She believed me! Beer can cause hay fever! Haha!

    We went back to the hotel quite early, it had been a long day and I was feeling tired. I need a good nights rest tonight because we have another long day tomorrow.

    Day 4

    Today we are heading home so the luggage needed loading onto the coach. On the way back to Calais today we are due to go to Ieper and I thought it would be a nice idea on the way to call in to Tyne Cot Cemetry. There are a lot of people on the coach who have not been to Ieper before and so I assume they've not been to war graves either.

    A few people got very emotional at this visit because of close family involvement in the Great War. It is a very moving experience to visit these places and it gets me every time. Tyne Cot is a memorial to 12,000 men, 8,000 of which are unknown. I'm not going to say any more about it as I have spoke of Tyne Cot in a previous blog. Everyone appreciated our visit here. Another of my brilliant ideas well received!

    We moved down the road to Ieper. I told the passengers of the brilliant little bookshop to visit, where I went to buy another poppy badge, and the best chocolate shop in town. It's the best because it gives me presents!

    The weather today was gorgeous. We sat in a street side cafe for coffee before going to buy ice cream. None of our passengers saw us having coffee but they all saw us with big fat ice creams! We went and bought our chocolates and went back to the coach to catch up on our neglected paperwork for the weekend.

    We left for Calais and got on our booked ferry. Another of our drivers was on the same ferry and he said there had been no squashed ducklings on the motorway, so Sharon was happy!  The drive from Dover to Henley is the longest ever on the way home, it never seems to end! All our feeders were in place waiting for us and our passengers went safely onward home. 

    I've had a brilliant weekend and I've really enjoyed working with Sharon and I'm looking forward to our next one together. The end of yet another successful tour! 

Monday, 14 April 2014

Mechelen and Oostende - Day 2

  Feeling fresh and ready for another day, I was the first to breakfast. I had a good intake of coffee and enjoyed the walk in the sunshine to fetch the coach. 🌞

Today we are going to Brussels. We have a nice leisurely start, leaving the hotel at 10am. Was anyone surprised when 'Sparkles' wasn't on the coach in time? Not really! And we left him behind! 😊 (I love doing that!)

I've just realised that I've not introduced Sparkles! The lad who had left his passport behind and chased the coach to Folkestone, Ben, thinks he looks like the hot guy from Twilight! So, mates being mates, his mates have nicknamed him, much to his disgust, Sparkles, because Vampires sparkle in the sunlight!

Our first visit was to Duval Chocolate Factory which, from the outside, just looked like another house in a row of terraced houses. I had to double park to drop the group off and then go away to park, so I didn't get to go in. The only good thing was they were only having a tour and so I wasn't missing out on making my own chocolate! 🍫 Bless him though, Doug thought of me and brought me some chocolate πŸ˜‹

Our next visit was a brewery which specialises in making sour beers and was on the other side of the city, definitely not at the posh end! 😧 I struggled to get the coach through and we didn't fit up the road to the brewery, although they had put cones out for the coach to park! There was nowhere to pull over to let the group off safely so I did what everyone else seemed to be doing and just stopped, blocking the road, telling everyone "2 minutes" and waved, when they honked their horns!πŸ™‹ Very unprofessional, I know!

From here we went into the centre of Brussels for free time. I planned my route to use the major looking roads on the map but OMG! There must have been an easier way! Nevertheless, the group were dropped off and went to explore with their maps of good pubs in their hands and the coach was parked, still straight! πŸ˜„

I went for a little walk. I have only been into Brussels once before and that was about 6 years ago, so I was behaving like a tourist! πŸ“·

All of these photos were taken in the Grand Place before heading off in search of the 'Jeanneke Pis'. Everyone has seen statues of the peeing boy. Well apparently, the original 'peeing boy', the Mannekene Pis is in Brussels and it came about when, hundreds of years ago, the king visited Brussels and a little boy needed to wee, so he did, in front of the king! The 'Jeanneke Pis' is the little girl version!

By now I had met up with the lads. We had a snack in the friterie, chips! Then headed for the Delerium Village! Delerium is a very popular, large Belgian brewery and we went to the Delerium Tap House where they have 14 real ales on tap and 2500 in bottles! Yes, 2500!!

Each floor had a different style bar, notice the 500 tequilas on the menu!

I'd like to come to Brussels when I'm not working. I've been introduced to all these wicked bars and beers and I think it would be a lot of fun with a group of friends. It's still a pig of a place to drive round though!

At 10pm we were due to be leaving. Sparkles and his mates had been told they'd be left behind if they were late! They were cutting it fine but they weren't last. We were missing one of the older couples who had never been late and so we were hoping they were just lost and nothing more serious. They weren't answering their phone and there was no sign of them. At 1015, a lady on a push bike came over to the coach and said, "are you waiting for Pam and Ken? They are lost! I told them I'd let you know they are on their way and now I'm going back to get them!" I'm not sure you'd come across such a helpful random person in London! So after a few more minutes we were relieved to see them come round the corner and we would soon be on our way. Why is it though, when people come back late, instead of getting on the coach and rushing to their seats so we can go, they have to stand at the door and tell you a really long winded story of why they are late! "Yeah alright! Get on!"

The journey back to Mechelen was very quiet. Most were having a quick kip so they were ready to go to the pub when we got back! I parked the coach and joined them for a drink. Doug was drunk! Paul had unknowingly bought an 11% beer for Doug which definitely had an effect! 

After a couple of beers I headed back to the hotel and had another really good nights sleep. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Mechelen and Oostende - Day 1

Wahoo! The touring season has started! And I'm off to Belgium with a group who I took last year and have requested for me again. Must be gluttons for punishment!

The group are all members of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and the purpose of this trip every year is to sample the Belgian beers, so I'm in good company!🍻🍻

I had an early start this morning, leaving the depot at 0445hrs to travel to Northampton and take a break before picking up the first few of the group at 0700hrs. 😴 I was met here by the group organiser, Doug, his lovely lady friend, Janet, and his two sons, Kevin and Carl. Seven o'clock came and I was told we were just waiting for the third son, Michael, who I hadn't met before. I was told Michael was always late and if you wanted him there at 7, you had to tell him quarter to! Nevertheless, they told him 7! So when he turned up at 0708hrs he said, "did you notice I'm 7 minutes early? If you'd wanted me here at 7 you'd have told me quarter to!" That's when he was told if he was late again, he'd be finding his own way! So we left 10 mins late and set off to collect the rest of the group.

We arrived at the next pick up to learn that 2 of the younger lads had woke up late, rushed to the pick up point and realised they hadn't brought their passports, so they rushed home with the intention of catching up with the coach at the first services.πŸƒπŸƒπŸ’¨ When I did the safety announcement I also asked that everyone could put their hands on their passports. It's always been a rule with this group, if you forget your passport, you don't come, because it's not fair to hold up 40 people on the return journey while 1 struggles to get back into the country without a passport. At this point, Michael, who had made us late from the first pick up point, came and asked to get his luggage out to check for his passport! He didn't have it! So he was left behind, again with the intention of catching up with the coach, after someone had delivered his passport!

So finally, we were on our way, 25 mins late, with a train to catch! We had an easy journey down to the M20, with no sign of the lads chasing us, although they were in contact on the phone. 🚌 We had to go to the Eurostar station to meet them so they didn't have to pay extortionate parking prices for the weekend. I disagreed with us doing this. It meant our crossing time was being jeopardised because we were not going to be arriving at the channel tunnel terminal until 30mins before our crossing. That's cutting it a bit fine for my liking! It also meant that the group would not have time to use the services to get coffee and breakfast before getting on the train and so we would have to stop as soon as we arrived in France. And I was in serious need of a caffeine fix! ☕️☕️☕️ 

But we did make our 1120 crossing to France, πŸš‡ unfortunately without Michael! From here on, it should be smooth sailing.......she says!

We stopped at the services after getting off the train and I got my free coffee and breakfast! ☕️🍳🍞☕️ Then we got on the road, heading for our first brewery visit in Ninove, Belgium. The journey should have taken just under 2 hours but the traffic was horrendous and it took us nearly 3 πŸš—πŸš›πŸš™πŸš•πŸšŒπŸš•πŸš—πŸš—πŸš›πŸššπŸšŒπŸš—πŸš—πŸš‘ Despite us arriving so late, the owner of the brewery was very welcoming and hospitable, telling the group not to leave thirsty! They had a bit of a guided tour and lots of sampling 🍻🍻🍻 while I tried to get a quick kip πŸ’€πŸ’€ After an hour and a half we were on the road again for the final time today, to check into our hotel, which for the next 2 nights is the Holiday Inn Express Mechelen. It is on the square in the very centre of the city. 

It is a 10 minute walk back to the hotel from where the coach is parked for the night and on my way back, I bumped into Doug with about 8 others and was invited to join them for a drink. Well it would be rude not to! A lot of research is done before this trip, into where the best bars are with the largest beer menus, so I was quite surprised at the relatively low choice of beer at the first bar we went to with only about 50 to choose from! It was a funny little place. Everywhere you looked was chickens! Whether they were ceramic, plastic, cuddly toy or dead and stuffed, they were everywhere! πŸ“πŸ” There was even Cock Art!

We stayed there for a short time before moving on to the next bar where we would be having dinner.

A lot of our group were already here eating when we arrived and the place didn't seem to be as 'quirky' as the bar before. The girl came to take our order and I very quickly ordered a bottle of Kriek (cherry beer) and steak and chips, which pushed the rest of them to hurry up and make a decision! I was starving!

While we were waiting for our food, I was looking around and there was a really cool chandelier made from green wine bottles. Apart from that, there was nothing about the place that really caught my eye. The rest of the group were more than happy with about 100 beers on the menu though!

My dinner was lovely and the beer went down very nicely but it was now getting on for 10pm (9pm British time) and I had been up for nearly 19 hours. Now that my tummy was satisfied I was really starting to feel tired, so I left the group and went back to the hotel where I slept for a solid 9 hrs!