Open the photo gallery >>

So we came to our final morning at Center Parcs and had until 10am to vacate the cottage. This is quite early to get a family of four out of somewhere so we got up pretty early and while Kas and Izzy were doing some packing and sorting out of stuff me and Ami wandered across the car park to fetch the car in for loading.

Before we could do loading I decided we’d give it a bit of a clean first though. Nearly 2 weeks of travelling near the seaside meant we had a fairly large amount of sand inside the boot and on the rubber mats inside, all of which wanted getting rid of. Thankfully I could just about get the car close enough to the house to use the hoover, but it still took some time to do. There was a lot of sand.

After this we had a sort-of rolling breakfast, consisting of whatever was left in the fridge and fit to eat. Whilst we were doing this we were also busily disposing of all the things that weren’t fit to eat and cleaning up any other rubbish we happened to have lying around – you’ve gotta love self-catering holidays. Nothing says “time to go home” quite like spending your morning cleaning someone else’s property.

All of this activity went swimmingly well and we managed to get the chalet cleaned up and the car loaded up well before the required 10am deadline, so we then found ourselves off on our way, with just one night of our holiday left.

We had a hotel booked in Ghent for the night but decided that as everything is nicely close together around here that we quite fancied taking the girls to Brussels to see the Atomium. It’s a pretty spectacular thing and was more or less on the way (well, on one of the ways) from South Holland to Ghent anyway.

The route there from where we were took us inland a bit over to Zierikzee and then over a long bridge towards Goes and then along the narrow stretch of island past Krabbendijke before turning south across the border north of Antwerp. The boundary between Belgium and the Netherlands is a bit confusing at the best of times (see Baarle-Hertog) but thankfully as this is the main motorway between two of Europe’s biggest ports (Rotterdam and Antwerp) the border has essentially disappeared. There is still some evidence of the control gates that used to be there 25 years ago (albeit closed even back then) – nowadays there’s a big layby where lorries used to have to park up to be cleared and there’s an overhead gantry where the customs post used to be, but that’s it.

Belgium is very compact around here. There aren’t many gaps in between the towns. Driving from Antwerp to Brussels takes half an hour at the most, even in the fairly heavy traffic we had on this day, and before long we found ourselves picking a route around the Brussels Ring trying to find the right exit for the Atomium. We did find it eventually but we ended up on a slip road that was covered in roadworks, and one closed off portion appeared so late that I essentially had to stop and reverse back down again, as I’d got myself into a position of being unable to drive up the lane I was pointing at. I wasn’t the only one though. The route in to the Atomium from the motorway seemed much more complicated than it really needed to be, but eventually we were parked up on a nice wide boulevard staring directly along the road at an enormous load of shiny silver balls connected by equally shiny metal rods.

As we approached we did a random walk-by geocache ( Atomium – stealth challenge (Expo58) ). I’d checked the day before if there were any nearby and it turned out that there was one attached to one of the legs of the Atomium itself. So as we approached the closest leg I stuck my hand up where the cache must be given the supplied spoiler photograph, and managed to put my hand straight onto the cache without needing a GPS device at all. Magic.

Since Kas and I were last at the Atomium they’ve built a flashy new ticket office and cafe arrangement at the base. It took a while to queue to get the tickets (it was very busy) but once we had tickets there was then much less of a queue to get into the building itself. We did the various expositions on the lower floors (is that the right term – might be better to say “in the lower balls”) and then joined a huge queue to get up the obviously inadequate lifts which take you up to the upper viewing gallery and the restaurant.  I suspect it’s designed to control the total number of people at the top, but there was a definite problem with people spending longer up top than their estimate.#

Once we did get to the top the view was quite spectacular. The structure has been recently cleaned and sparkled and as it was a clear sunny day we could see for miles.

After the dizzy heights we came back downstairs and sat in the new cafe having a bit of lunch. We then had about half an hour left on our parking so we wandered off down one of the avenues to see if we could get any photos of ourselves appearing to “hold up” the Atomium. They worked, sort of.

And that was that. It was only mid-afternoon but we decided there wasn’t really enough time to explore anything else in Brussels, so we jumped back into the trusty CR-V and picked our way relatively slowly along the motorway to Ghent. It was busy. Somehow, though, we managed to get the right motorway exit first time, and then managed to spot the hotel in enough time to make the next junction too. And we found ourselves parked up outside the Ghent Holiday Inn, near Ghent’s new football stadium, the Ghelamco Arena, in remarkably good time.

The check-in was efficient and we had packed such that we only needed to carry up one suitcase and the various bits of hand luggage.

It was still quite early but couldn’t really be bothered to go out, so we just went down to the hotel bar for some beer (Leffe mainly), crisps, and chat. In the bar at the same time was a bunch of proverbial middle-aged-men-in-lycra who were cycling their way from the English West Country through some of the old military cemeteries in Flanders and northern France. Ghent was an overnight stop for them, having made their way from somewhere up near Calais during the day. They were having a whale of a time.

We also couldn’t be bothered too much with dinner so we decided to just try the hotel restaurant. We normally steer clear of hotel buffet all-you-can-eat jobs as they can tend to be a bit dodgy, but in this case we caught it quite early in the evening and everything looked quite fresh, and using the buffet had the advantage of the kids eating free, so we tucked into big starters, then hadn’t left enough space for much main course, but then remarkably had digested enough to make room for far too many puddings. Well, they were quite small.

We finished off our final night away by dozing off in the room whilst watching a few bits of the BBC coverage of the 100th anniversary of the UK joining the First World War. A fairly sombre kind of occasion but it’s the kind of thing that kids need to understand. One day we’ll come back to Flanders and “do it” properly by visiting a few of the major sites.

The room was far too hot, and we couldn’t figure out how to either open the windows or switch the air conditioning on. That made for a fairly fitful night for us all.