Thursday, 23 May 2013

Antwerpen to Spa - Day Thirty-one to Fourty

Antwerp was a milestone for Jake and I. I shall rephrase that, Antwerp was our 400th mile and our feet felt like stone. But, our foot ache did not deter out joy as we absorbed the knowledge that our days of moving further and further from our final destination were over; every step that followed would be a step closer to Menton. With this nortical alteration came lush forests, romantic windmills and rain. Lots of rain.

The night after leaving Antwerp we camped in Jagerboek Forest, amongst nettles and brambles. We woke early and flicked molluscs from the tent, before rejoining the path. In Halle, we bought freshly baked eclairs which we finished in seconds. That afternoon the much awaited GR5  came into view. We danced around it for a minute or two, noticed the time on our faithful Casios, then pressed on for Nooderwijk. Whilst queuing at a checkout in town, with our evening's dinner of noodles and tomatoes in hand, Bram, who had joined the line behind us, kindly offered to buy the banquet. We accepted with a pathetic fight.

Streams ran down trees and leaves that were not quite ready to part from their branches fell. It had been almost two weeks since Jake and I last washed our clothes, save socks and underwear. Not even the relentless rain could mask the smell that almost effervesced from our gear.

A night in Diest, a beautifully quaint town whose narrow streets were decorated with flags, proved to be little help when it came to drying our clothes. My walking shorts, that did manage to dry, were quickly soaked again at breakfast when I clumsily spilled a glass of apple juice over my lap. We left Diest with the aid of our 16th map since parting from Bristol. On the outskirts of the town something odd and unfamiliar filled our vision. It was large and roundish, with jagged edges here and there. A think green blanket of deciduous trees was draped over its body. It was a hill. The towering mass peaked at a dizzying 50 metres and finally gave our thighs something to think about. Over the following hours we were to see several hills of similar stature before joining the Albert Canal, whose water's arrowed us into Hasselt.

We spent two nights in Hasslet (the second at Mija's Paalsteen Bed and Breakfast, or Cambre d'hotes, where we were outrageously pampered back to fitness), not for it's charm, but to rest a sore ankle that Jake had been nursing since Noorderwijk. A particularly strong Roquefort cheese at breakfast powered us south along the canal, passing coral-coloured poppies and stalking herons. Soon we bumbled into Zutendaal Forest, sleeping below the mixed canopies.

The following day we side-stepped into Germany, but quickly found familiar land in Belgium a few minutes subsequent. Over the next 20 kms, we noticed a stark alteration in language, Dutch to French, which we celebrated (this signified a dramatic expansion of our vocabulary) with our first meal out since arriving on the continent. I had bolognaise and Jake macoroni cheese; we were neither ashamed. We spent the night at Gheslaine's Au Ver L'Oie in Vise - delightfully cluttered and even more delightfully hosted - learning all there was to know about the town's history.

Two days of heightening hills and near continuous rain took us onto Spa, the 40th day of our hike. Wet and tired we hung our gear across the furniture of the helpless hotel room. As I lay on the bed I saw a worm fall from the dripping tent.

The bog.

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