Wednesday 21st August 2013

[London] The first day was kicked off with the potential crisis of Peterborough Station being engulfed by a fireball. In reality, however, this didn’t happen, yet the station insisted on evacuating the platform.

An hour and some minutes later and we arrived at the Megaro Hotel [highly recommended for anyone staying in central London]. The room was said to be deluxe—modern, spacious, air-conditioned and with great views across the bustling city: two prominent railway stations [King’s Cross and St Pancras] and bright lights at night.

The day saw our second visit to the treasury of the British library and I was able to appreciate more than ever such gems as Ælfric’s translation of the Hexateuch. 

The food [at hotel restaurant Karpo] was wonderful, with highlights including the courgette flower appetiser, crab, scallops and a “Desperate Dan” portion of beef—still mooing!

Thursday 22nd August 2013

Today began in London with a tasty eggs Benedict breakfast and ended in Liège, Belgium. The Eurostar was rapid and gave the impression of never having left the island of Great Britain [be warned that an upgrade to Standard Premier as we did on the journey back home is essential if you value comfort!]

Further tiring rail travel followed with a double-decker (!) Belgian train that seemed to stop and go as it pleased (with delays for “unknown” reasons).

But now we are here, just a few miles away from Spa-Francorchamps. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of McLaren and it was in 1968 here in Belgium that the team’s first victory came. Since then—with the most recent win back in 2012—the onslaught of race victories has waned, but with all the work and hype of the team, we can surely hope for decent points or perhaps even a podium this weekend.

Friday 23rd August 2013

Today was an early start for the first of the track days. As no one in Wallonia seems to speak English, knowledge of French came in handy for the first time in years. We managed to buy a return rail ticket from Liège to Verviers and a bus was waiting to take us to Francorchamps. Having to stand on this bus along the region’s windy roads could be compared to a Spa track simulator experience!

The track action, however, was exciting, our first experience of live motor sport and good opportunity to take photos. It should be noted that the track is a long (and steep!) walk away from the bus stop.

Furthermore, Belgian bus drivers are eager to cram in as many people as possible, with so many standing that there isn’t a single inch of space left. The forest scenery on the way to the track is, however, wonderful even if many of the buildings are dilapidated.

Everyone in Wallonia [Belgium, actually] loves Jupiler. Don’t expect to find water in a vending machine, but do expect to find Jupiler lager! This stuff is loved and more accessible as well as the same price (as expensive as, to be specific) as water.

Saturday 24th August 2013

Qualifying day! Today saw the Porsche and F1 qualifying. And what a day! Sure enough, the rain began and ended suddenly. There were cheers among the crowd as drivers slipped on the wet track, jostling for position. There was no clear order emerging in Q1 when Marussia and Caterham made the brave move of putting on dry tyres. The track dried, resulting in a bizarre and exciting session in which two Marussias and one Caterham ended up in Q2. McLaren’s Sergio Perez only managed 13th unfortunately, but British drivers Jenson Button and Paul di Resta performed well in Q3—and of course Lewis Hamilton secured pole position to an eruption of joy from the crowds!

Sitting on Eau Rouge, the cars were close and loud! Some of the best action of the day came during the first GP2 race with two cars side by side in the corner and a resulting crash straight into the barrier just below us. Cue safety car…

Talking of safety, the Belgians have some important rules:

  • If you’re a bus driver, allow as many people onto the bus as possible. It doesn’t matter if they’re pressed against windows —at least you’re not leaving them stranded!
  • Avoid wearing helmets on motorbikes, especially if you’re a marshal at a grand prix.
  • If you manage a track, leave plenty of stones on access pavements to trip up pedestrians.
  • Permit smoking in outdoor enclosed spaces especially if the floor is wooden and there is only one way out.

All the same, everything has been quite amazing so far.

Sunday 25th August 2013

Race day—the 58th Belgian grand prix. The day began with the second GP2 race, continuing British domination with a Calado victory after a Sam Bird win and Lewis Hamilton pole yesterday. There was also the Porsche Super Cup race, which would end our winning streak—Sean Edwards came third.

The coach was much more comfortable than a public bus, but showed as we struggled through the traffic down the rural route the sheer volume of international fans who flock to the Belgian grand prix every year. The mood was jovial and everyone—supporting various teams—waved at each other through vehicle windows.

As the main race was about to begin, hearts no doubt leapt as the clock ticked closer to the race start. The drivers paraded the track in classic cars, with Vettel sporting a new and quite unorthodox hairstyle.

Unfortunately, Hamilton was soon passed by both Vettel and Alonso and, while Vettel went on to secure an easy win, the gap he drew out to the other cars was admirable. Alonso’s drive from ninth was equally impressive, showing he is not to be underestimated. Di Resta, who was racing well, was unlucky, being taken out by Maldonado. As for McLaren, there were mixed results. Jenson pulled off two overtakes and later lost two positions, but still finished a solid sixth (for the MP4-28 at least!) Sergio was keen and exciting, but a little too bolshy as he sustained a drive-through penalty for forcing Grosjean off the track. He will still be world champion one day!

This extraordinary Sunday was fulfilled by a walk across the legendary track, giving the opportunity to collect genuine Pirelli marbles and take photos. Only then was it fully possible to appreciate how long and steep the Circuit de Spa is. Passing the starting grid, we saw the Sky Sports F1 crew filming outside the McLaren garage. And as Damon Hill stood less than a metre away, I remembered the dark early morning when I saw him win the championship in Japan years ago [1996]. “Where’s Ted? Where’s Ted Kravitz?” one of the fans exclaimed, much to the amusement of Johnny Herbert, who gestured to the end of the pit lane.

Back in the Alliance Hotel in Liège, there are many Williams personnel. Today’s entry is nicely summarised by a quote from one of them: “I f**ing hate it when he [Vettel] wins!” Nevertheless, the weekend has been unforgettable.

Monday 26th August 2013

Though it was sad to wave goodbye to the grand prix weekend, today was the start of a new adventure to Bruges. The train journey was long, but makes one realise how distinct the Belgian communities are—they have little in common. Confusion can arise for foreigners using rail. A station in Wallonia will list stops as Louvain and Gand-Saint-Pierre, for example, but as you cross into Flanders, you’ll find they are actually Leuven and Gent-Sint-Pieters.

Bruges (or Brugge to use its “native” Dutch name) lives up to expectations as a beautiful and historical city. The landscape is pristine and the architecture grand, with all manner of flags, coats of arms, and religious figures abounding.

The Grand Hotel Casselbergh is just as impressive—the best hotel we’ve stayed in!

Tonight we sampled the delight of Flemish stew with a glass of Leffe blond before wandering about the city after dark, hearing the bells [of the Belfort] play tunes such as Auld Lang Syne.

Tuesday 27th August 2013

The first visit of the day was to the Church [Basilica] of the Holy Blood, a fantastically decorated and ornate building with a small treasury. The main attraction, which is hidden behind a silver tabernacle, is—allegedly!—Jesus’ blood.

Next was the ride in the horse carriage, surely the best way to see the streets of mediaeval Bruges in style. Also well worth a visit is the Groenigemuseum with its collection of phenomenal Flemish art from between the 15th century and the modern era. The afternoon was rounded up with a walk around the Sint Salvator Cathedral. 

This was followed later in the evening with a huge pot of mussels cooked in beer and a dessert of chocolate mousse with advocaat and ice cream at the very friendly ‘t Fonteintje restaurant. (We’d also managed to tick chips and mayonnaise as well as Belgian chocolates off our list of local cuisine earlier in the day.)

Wednesday 28th August 2013

This morning we walked around the vast market before going to the Historium, a modern attraction giving a “multi-sense experience” of Van Eyck’s Belgium. Bruges has had an extremely important place in history and especially in art.

This was followed by waffles and a boat ride along the city’s canals. We also saw Choco-Story, the chocolate museum, with artefacts dating as far back as the Aztecs, and the interior of the town halls with its portraits of historical foreign dignitaries.

Food tonight featured a stone grill with turkey, veal, beef prawn and fish fillet—a speciality of the Mozarthuys Brasserie where we also ate on Monday.

All packed up now and ready to leave tomorrow morning. What a week it’s been!