Belgium requires concentration. I cross it by car four or five times a year, zipping through to Aachen from Calais or Dunkerque, usually on my way to Austria. The Belgians have their own special driving style, which combines a lemming-like fondness for following their neighbour with a carefree approach to pulling out that always ensures a lively, exciting ride. It’s no surprise that the road death statistics are roughly twice as bad as those for the Netherlands, a country with which Belgium shares a language, a border, a landscape and a population density usually found only in flash mobs.
Just across the border from Dunkerque the motorway does a slight kink to avoid the town of Veurne. And perhaps it’s merely the novelty of having to turn the wheel, but Veurne always registers in a way so many of the Belgian towns I speed past fail to. It helps that the traffic isn’t as fearsome as the Death Race 2000 rerun that is the Brussels Ring. Plus, there’s a promising-looking cluster of spires and belfries roughly where the signs suggest Veurne will be.
So this time I gave in to my curiosity and pulled off the motorway for a closer look. And do you know what? Veurne is lovely, with one of those step-gabled Flemish market squares that calls for chips all round and a trappist beer or three. It has a Unesco world heritage site, no less.
So here’s a tip. When you’ve been cut up by an apparently suicidal Fleming in a dented Peugeot for the umpteenth time, do yourself a favour and pull off the motorway.
It may save your life. It’ll certainly transform your impressions of Belgium.