First up, a trip to the Ardennes Forest. A former coworker of mine from back in the states came into town for a few weeks of training at headquarters, and he conveniently had a rental car and was looking for things to do on the weekend. A local friend I know had been wanting to go to Ardennes. So I made the suggestion, and we made the arrangements, and went to France for the day. (I later learned that “Ardennes” refers to a large geographical region including areas of Belgium, Luxemborg, and France. I thought it was just a forest and national park in northern France. Anyway.)
After about 90 minutes of driving we arrived in the small town of Revin, France where we planned to base ourselves for the day. Back in Hampton it could take 90 minutes just to get outside of town on a weekend, and 3 hours more to get to a good national park. So far, Belgium was living up to my expectations in this regard.
After finding our way to the tourism office in Revin, we acquired a hiking map and set off to find some trails. Unlike a lot of parks I had visited in America, the trail entrances were just jutting off of roads around the outskirts of town, with no gates or entrance controls of any kind. These gates grew to be quite irksome in America, as it meant I couldn’t enjoy a nice sunrise or go stargazing (or watch fireworks from a public beach on Independence Day…true story) without committing a misdemeanor. I always ascribed this practice to the over-litigious culture of America wanting to stop me having cause to sue anyone with a pretense of “safety.” (I will decide what is safe and what is not! …says the man who drives fast on racetracks for fun.) It was quite frustrating. But it seems for now I’ve gotten away from that!
Anyway, during the day, in the course of five hours, we hiked up (and down) two different thousand-foot peaks around Revin with a snack of frog legs in between. It was about 45°F, but the 25° inclined slopes warmed us right up. The area reminded me of Shenandoah or the Adirondacks, with lots of forested hills and small towns. In all we probably walked/hiked 25 km that day. I’m looking forward to exploring more of that region. Here are my photos so far.
World Rally Cross
On the other end of the spectrum, I went to the Belgian round of the World Rallycross Championship in Mettet. This was one of the major events I had in mind to attend when plotting my move here. I had been following the sport for a few years, and seen it grow a lot, and it generally looked like an exciting thing to go see in person. I decided to rent a car (as I still hadn’t gotten mine at that point in May) to go see it so I wouldn’t have to wait another year, and it was totally worth it.
Rallycross racing is a motorsport seemingly designed from the ground up to be as exciting as possible while not being a total gimmick like Monster Jam or demolition derbys. The tracks are small with a mix of dirt and asphalt, the races are short and frantic, the cars are insanely quick, and nobody seems to make a real effort to avoid contact. In the last few years it’s managed to attract some incredibly talented drivers like Petter Solberg, Sebastian Loeb, and Mattias Ekstrom. Global Rallycross in the US uses pretty much the same formula. The tracks aren’t really as good, and the drivers are not at the same level, but it would still be a good show if you wanted to go to an event.
At this event, located about a 50 minute drive from my apartment, I had some of the most fun shooting motorsports I’ve ever had. This was partly because of the dirt
…and partly because of the competition’s intensity.
(And by “intensity,” I mean “crashiness”)
The paddock area was also quite accessible to all the fans, so you could get a close look at the cars. Sometimes the drivers would even come out to greet nearby fans and give autographs (I got Mattias Ekstrom and Petter Solberg. I barely knew what to say, I was starstruck.) It was a great atmosphere.
The other cool thing about this event for me was, it was the first time I’d ever been to a major multi-day motorsport event within this short a drive from home. It was great as a photographer because I could review in detail the shots from day 1 to know what to try on day 2. And it just made for a more relaxed evening and better sleep on Saturday. Now I’m looking forward to the Grand Prix at Spa even more.
On the other other end of the spectrum, I made my way to London for a John ’00’ Fleming show. Or, to put it more succinctly, a rave. It usually surprises people to find out I go to raves occasionally, but John ’00’ Fleming is one of my favorite current musical artists, and to me it’s just going to a concert. I’d wanted to see him live for years, but he never came nearby in the US, always to Miami or San Fransisco or some other nonsense. So after moving, I took a look at his tour dates, saw one in London, and decided it would be a great excuse to see some sights for a weekend.
This also gave me the opportunity to see what all the fuss about the Eurostar is about. Not only is it cheaper than flying, but it’s faster, more convenient, more comfortable, more efficient, and generally better in almost every way. Frankly I don’t know why people even bother with airplanes within continental Europe.
This is based off of just one trip so far, but here’s the rundown. When you take a high-speed train to go somewhere in Europe, you have to show up 45 minutes early instead of two hours. The security check (metal detector + x-ray) takes ten minutes because they don’t make you remove liquids and laptops and use seven friggin bins. You can take drinks with you from outside. The whole boarding process takes 10 minutes because each car has two doors that everyone can use. They don’t even bother with calling zones. The seat I had didn’t recline, but was large and comfortable with lots of leg room. There’s no period where you have to stay in your seat or keep your electronics off or keep your tray tables up. During the trip you can even use the internet via your smartphone, even though it might not be 100% reliable at 180 mph. If you want food or a drink, just get up and walk to the diner car. It’s much quieter than an airplane, and there’s no pressure drop in the cabin. And because the whole thing is so much more relaxed and comfortable than air travel, you arrive at your destination feeling refreshed and ready to get on with the rest of your day.
Suffice it to say, I already love traveling by high-speed rail. I can’t imagine why I’d fly anywhere within an 8 hour train trip.
Anyway, back to London. It is the most American city I’ve seen outside of America. Maybe it’s because America was born out of England. Maybe it’s just because of the familiarity of the English language. Maybe it’s because I watch too many British TV shows and movies set in London, so it’s a familiar city to begin with. Whatever the case, the Underground acted like a metro system should rather than whatever the heck Brussels has going on with its trains. The pubs were what I expected out of pubs. Beer selections had international variety and quality. There were diners and BBQ joints around. I immediately liked the place.
London is also massive. It is just a huge city. 45 minutes on the Underground only got me halfway across. If you are planning a trip, you need at least a solid week to see the main attractions. I just hit the big museums, and had to rush through a lot of it.
Also, because I am bad at planning trip details after the major points are sorted out, I was not able to book a tour at Fuller’s Brewery, which I had been really looking forward to. But this is why I moved to Europe instead of taking a couple of big vacations. I’m bad at (and don’t really like) planning out a lot of trip details. I tend to play things by ear a lot. That style is much more conducive to a bunch of small weekend trips than one or two large vacations.
As for the rave? Well, that was everything I expected. John ’00’ Fleming lived up to his reputation. He and his compatriots played amazing music for seven hours until way past dawn (Imagine this at 100 dB). At the bar before the show, I even met a guy who has music on the label (Façade). He wasn’t playing that night, but some of his music ended up in the night’s mix, and he went totally nuts when he heard it. Pretty incredible night. Just what I needed amidst the stress of dealing with my car situation.
So, I’ve learned that there’s quality national parks not too far away. I’ve learned that having local racetracks is even cooler than I thought it would be. I’ve learned that high-speed rail is a much better way to travel than I expected. And this has all just been in two months. Tomorrow I leave for LeMans, and that’ll be my biggest trip yet. So far, it’s looking like my move has been completely worthwhile.