Take advantage of a long weekend, suggests Sarah Barrell, and enjoy a European road trip
Fancy embarking on a European road trip that takes in three countries but only puts a few hundred miles on the clock? Then get into gear to nip across the Channel for a journey that will take you via historic war sites, a medieval city, the Dutch Delta Works and much more in just four days. It's the perfect way to spend a long weekend...
Aim for an early-morning departure on the ferry (dfds.co.uk) or the Eurotunnel (eurotunnel.com) to vive la France within 35 minutes of leaving Folkestone. From there, it’s just a half-hour drive east along the French coast to Dunkirk, a good place to stop for a café au lait.
This war-flattened town is none too easy on the eye, but there is no better place for fleeting visitors to get a sense of the 1940 evacuation – notably at the popular multimedia museum Mémorial du Souvenir (dynamo-dunkerque.com).
Back on the road again, follow route D601 out of town for your first border crossing into Belgium 20 minutes later. Point your nose towards the sea and (hopefully) the sun for a pleasant drive east on the coast road, taking in the sea views, to arrive in the quaint beach town of Ostend in 45 minutes.
Even if you choose not to ‘take the waters’ 19th-century style, don’t miss sampling the local shellfish. A good choice for lunch is Beluga (belugaoostende.be), a waterfront restaurant specialising in seafood, including the deliciously sweet grey shrimp. The shoreline is a good place to stroll off lunch, perhaps calling in at the two museum ships Mercator (zeilschip-mercator.be) and Amandine, an Icelandic trawler (00 32 59 23 43 01).
Next stop is Bruges, just a half-hour drive away. Consider basing yourself at the pretty Hotel de Orangerie (hotelorangerie.be; doubles from €185), set in a former 15th-century convent with a terrace overlooking the canal. Time now to wander at will along the canals to stretch your car-weary legs before dinner. This city has plenty of superb places to eat, but Refter (dekarmeliet.be), the modern bistro by Bruges’ Michelin-starred chef, Geert Van Hecke, offers truly top-class food at affordable prices.
Give the driver a break and spend the day in Bruges, exploring its gothic medieval marvels and network of canals fed by the North Sea. Don’t miss the romantic Groenerei, ‘green canal’, best seen from Peerdebrug, the ‘Horse Bridge’, where avenues of trees and ivy-clad 17th-century mansions line the waterfront. The ‘Burg’ medieval centre is the place to marvel at the best of Bruges’ gothic architecture, including the Stadhuis, Belgium’s oldest town hall, dating from 1376. Hungry? Why not call in for moules-frites at Breydel De Coninc (00 32 50 33 97 46), a fabulous purveyor of Belgium’s national dish.
The Groeningemuseum (brugge.be) is the petite and intimate home to a prize collection of masterpieces by Jan van Eyck and the prolific Hans Memling. More creative inspiration can be found at the Onze Lieve Vrouw church on Mariastraat, with its soaring gothic interiors and royal tombs. Whatever you choose to see, you’ll have worked up an appetite, so treat yourself to a slap-up dinner. Den Dyver (dyver.be), where fine local cuisine is matched with delightful Belgian beers, is highly recommended, as is the buzzing courtyard of De Republiek, which is the ideal spot for post-prandial drinks (derepubliek.be).
Leaving Bruges behind, head north-east into Holland’s fabulously moody flatlands, the Delta Works, a fragmented, watery expanse forged by bridges and canals. Let the N57 to Rotterdam be your guide, snaking across bridges, vast dams and silty inlets. En route (about 90 minutes from Bruges), it’s worth taking a coffee stop at the atmospheric fishing town of Veere, complete with beaches, 15th-century merchants’ houses and a medieval wool-trading history with Scotland. Roughly the same distance again brings you to Rotterdam, an arty, youthful city that’s often overlooked by tourists in favour of Amsterdam. Quirky design and modernism are the order of the day here in the shape of Rem Koolhaas’s De Kunsthal museum (kunsthal.nl), Ben van Berkel’s Erasmus Bridge, aka ‘The Swan’, in the city centre, and Piet Blom’s cube houses on Overblaak.
But there’s heritage here, too, best represented by the old masters at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (boijmans.nl), a collection that begins in the early medieval period and includes the works of renowned artisits Bruegel and Bosch.
For lodgings with a superb sense of whimsy, try the Hotel New York (hotelnewyork.nl; doubles from €99), a cafe-restaurant-hotel-barbershop set in the former head office of the Holland-America Line. The fun continues if you dine at Dizzy (dizzy.nl), a bustling jazz café with live music most evenings.
Make the most of your final morning exploring Rotterdam, perhaps calling into the 1950s icon that is the Las Palmas building, home of the Fotomuseum (nederlandsfotomuseum.nl), with its rotating exhibitions of young and established artists.
Then, head to the Las Palmas restaurant next door for a fantastic lunch of fresh seafood (visrestaurantlaspalmas.nl).
Back behind the wheel, take the motorway for three hours back to Calais. Your drive of discovery has reached the end of the road.