Tag Archives: Grey Wave

Picture perfect Burgundy

Everywhere in France, the dead of the Great War are commemorated

Everywhere in France, the dead of Great War are commemorated

Its been a month since we’ve returned from our Grey Wave camper adventure, and its time to close the report. As I’ve revealed in the last post, for our main event we were going to France. France is one of the largest countries in Europe. But even big European countries are built up on the remains of a vast array of smaller ones, melted to a certain degree into a centrally governed state. Some of these semi-states, like Catalonia, are well-known and are actively striving for independence. Others, like Bavaria, while also well-known, seem content being part of a larger whole. And yet others, that in their time have themselves been a major player on the European scene, are almost entirely absent from the public eye, only marginally important even to their inhabitants. We were going to such a “forgotten state”.

A typical Burgundian village square

A typical Burgundian village square

As the September nights in the North were getting colder and colder, we drove 400 km south, and it was the best move we could make. We came to Burgundy. Once upon a time, merely 5 centuries ago, the Duchy of Burgundy was one of the most powerful states in Medieval Europe. Nowadays it is reduced to a minor region of France, hardly known outside the story of Jeanne of Ark, Burgundy wines and beef bourguignon. Its an excellent destination for tourists looking for peace and quiet. Not quite Mediterranean, but surely not Atlantic. Not entirely continental, but too far from the nearest sea. Not yet the Alps, but on a bright day you can see the Mont Blanc from a Burgundian hill top. If this is not the heart of France, I don’t know what is.

A street in Tournus, Burgundy

A street in Tournus, Burgundy

The weather here was ideal – sunny, in the low 20’s during the day, and not dropping below 10 at night. We’ve spent an idyllic week on a camping in a castle’s garden. Ask me what we were doing there the whole week and I will honestly tell you I have no idea. One of the days we cycled to the nearby city of Tournus. The only rainy day we’ve had we took the camper for a road-trip through the hills, ending up in spectacular Cluny. Where did the other days go? Beats me. I went running along the Saône river a few times, we’ve cycled a bit around the camping, but most of the time we just spent doing nothing – a rare occasion in today’s world. The only disturbance (which has added some spice into our week) were the low-flying jet fighters roaring over our heads from time to time.

Our trusty camper

Our trusty camper

We were almost the last to leave as the camping was closing for the winter, moving a mere 50 km northwards to Beaune, our last stop of the adventure. I’ve never heard of the place before, but if you’re even slightly interested in wine you probably have – its the wine capital of Burgundy. The vineyards around here are already on the short-list for the UNESCO World Heritage List – continuously cultivated for two millenniums! Of course, in early October the town was full to the brim with grey-hair, but it probably is in any season. Beaune is a bit like Bruges, but with every other building being a wine merchant instead of a chocolatier. Wine business is done on all levels in Beaune, from vin en vrac for as low as 1.50 per litre, to the famous Hospices de Beaune wine auction selling wines for over 100 000 Euro per  456-litre barrels. Beaune was an excellent place to close our adventure – urban yet laid back, surrounded, as I’ve mentioned in the beginning of my narrative, by the most perfect sunset scenery known to man. All we had to do was drive the 700 km back to Rotterdam. At least, all I had to do was drive – due to a minor technicality (expired driving license) the wife was doing 0% of the driving. But I didn’t mind – driving a 3.5 ton camper around Europe was an adventure on its own right.

And even thought I won’t get a kick-back from them, should you consider renting a camper while in The Netherlands – check out this website: http://camperfun.nl/

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Adventure starts just across the border

One often hears generalizations about Europe and Europeans. “All Europeans are…” people go. Not all stereotypes are even negative – so, Europeans are supposedly all riding bicycles and are fit. Undoubtedly, some Europeans are, and maybe the average European is skinnier than the average American, but about half of the population of Europe is overweight nevertheless. Well, these stereotypes are just what they are – wild generalizations that may or may not be partially true.

Often, the same people that make generalizations about Europe are surprised how the EU members can’t agree on a common policy on this or that issue. Truth is, that Europe, even seemingly very similar countries, is far from a uniform place. Take the Dutch-Belgian border, for example. If you can find it, of course – it doesn’t even exist! Well, technically, it does, but the border is divided into two very distinct sections that take you to two completely different countries – Flanders and Wallonia.

The High Fens peatlands in Belgium - our first stop - are a unique peace of Subarctic landscape on mainland Europe

The High Fens peatlands in Belgium – our first stop – are a unique peace of Subarctic landscape on mainland Europe

Wallonia has been our first stop on the Grey Wave surfing trip. Every time I cross this border I am surprised how different two countries so close in geography and history can feel. Travel over the highway from the Netherlands into Flanders and you’ll have a hard time noticing you crossed the border. Cross into Wallonia, on the other hand, and even in the dead of night you’ll immediately notice you’re in a different country just by how your car is almost rattled to pieces by the dreadful Wallonian roads. Fortunately, the kind Wallonians notice you about the road perils by signs announcing that “Route dégradée”. Even in Spa, probably the wealthiest community in all of Wallonia, the roads look as if they were carpet-bombed just the other night.

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Of course, the language changes instantly to French, and due to the Belgian language divide you won’t find any sign in Dutch in Wallonia. Nor will you see any French in Flanders, by the way, even Lille is referred to as Rijsel on the highway. Furthermore, I am quite used to wide range of beers in Dutch stores, but the Belgian beer shelves are simply overwhelming, including local Spa beer, unknown to the rest of the world (for a good reason, I assure you). And the supermarket music is not the Top 40 drab I am accustomed to – no, its electronic music, and good one, too. Perhaps that’s the Belgian (or should I say Wallonian?) Top 40? Speaking of supermarkets and food – its tough enough being a vegetarian in the Netherlands, but at least they don’t label fish courses as vegetarian food on the menu, like they do in Wallonia. But the main difference is undoubtedly the landscape. Just across the border they have hills, and steep ones, too! In short, even in Western Europe, your adventure starts as soon as you cross the border.

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Riding the Grey Wave – a September vacation in Western Europe

As you may have noticed, I’ve been absent for a few weeks. And I have a very good excuse – I’ve been on an adventure! Amazingly, even someone like me, who has been literally all around the world, can still find adventure in Western Europe, not too far from home, even when on vacation with the family. You probably wonder “what was he doing”? Well, I was surfing. Not the ocean waves, not even Couchsurfing – no, I was riding the biggest wave of the Old Continent –  the Great Grey Wave.

The Grey Wave surges in September, when schools start. The Dutch, Belgian, German, English and French retirees all wait for that magical moment when the families with children are already gone but weather is still fair. Then, they take over the highways, in their seasonal southwards migration. The resorts, camping’s, hotels and tourist attractions of Europe are suddenly flash-flooded by an enormous maelstrom of Europe’s elderly. Its a magnificent sight – something like the migration of Gnu in the Serengeti, just slower. And since I am not bound by the school calendar yet, I was biding my time the entire summer, waiting for the right moment to jump on the Grey Wave. To top things off, I was doing it entirely in style – I was driving a camper van. Yes, me, the great adventurer and explorer was plodding the roads in one of those dreaded vehicles, loaded to the brackets with peanut butter, toy dinosaurs, diapers, strollers, bicycles, oat flakes and even a complementary mother-in-law.

Our original plan was more daring. Corsica was supposed to be the destination, but without direct flights and with pricey, lengthy layovers as a lousy alternative, we had to rethink the plan. “How about a camper van?”, the wife said. And I actually found it a good idea. We’d have the freedom of movement to follow the good weather, won’t have to pack and repack every time we move and will be able to take everything we want with us (like those oat flakes and toy dinosaurs). Plus, the rental costs in September were almost half what they are in the high season, so it was quite affordable.

I’ll say it outright – it was the right decision. Boy, what an adventure it was! We’ve been to 4 countries in 3 weeks, adapting ourselves to the leisurely pace and travel style of the Grey Wave particles, considerably lowering the average age at every camping we’ve pulled in to (not too difficult – the average September traveller in Europe is about 85 years old). I am writing these lines in Beaune (or, was writing – I’m back home by now, typing out my notes), the capital of Bourgundy wines, with a cigar in one hand and an unbreakable plastic camper-compatible glass of Côtes du Rhône red next to me. The sun is setting behind the vineyard-covered hills that surround me, and I have in my head the words of a real corny song that describe quite correctly how I feel – It’s 72 degrees, Zero chance of rain, It’s been a perfect day. OK, almost perfect day – I should have bought that bottle of Armagnac. Well, we live and learn.

Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting my experiences and reflections from the ride on the Grey Wave – stay tuned! In the meantime, you can try and guess which countries we’ve been to based on the photos below.

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