Wednesday 19 August: We crossed the Dutch-Belgian border again, but this time we went by car and there was no return journey! We travelled to Antwerp, which is not far, so even with roadworks and disobliging traffic lights we were there well before noon.
One thing we debated about our journey was: should we restrict ourselves to doing what Pa did, or should we stop for sightseeing along the way? We decided to generally do the former – otherwise our trip would never end! But we also decided to make an exception for Antwerp. Pa and Frans arrived by tram at the Central Railway Station, and then took an express to Brussels. They didn’t stop in Antwerp at all. But as it is one of the few major European cities that we’d never previously visited, it seemed a shame not to have a look around.
So we had a ‘day off’ to do the tourist thing. We saw the Grote Markt, with its renaissance town hall and guild houses topped by golden statues. We visited the cathedral, which had an exhibition of altar paintings by Flemish artists. We walked through the St Anna foot tunnel and took pictures from the other side of the river. At the Steen Castle, a deep shaft was discovered only two years ago, and we joined the queue of people waiting to go down in a lift to see the excavations going on.
Belgium is known particularly for beer and mussels. Sandie is vegetarian and Ian doesn’t drink beer, but between us we sampled both of these.
Thursday 20 August: Pa went by train from Antwerp to Brussels, and we originally intended to do the same. But we were ahead of our own rough schedule, and it seemed pointless to pay train fares when we still had prepaid time on our rental car. So we walked to the Central Station (which certainly is impressive!), had breakfast there, took photos – and then returned to collect the car.
When Pa arrived in Brussels, he already had a contact there: a M. Lauwers, who owned two garages in the north of the city. So on our way into Brussels we detoured to find the roads he mentioned. There was one small garage in each, but neither was operating in 1943. However, we spotted nearby a large car-related business called Rouwers, and wondered if Pa could have got the name wrong. If so, maybe M. Rouwers’ business had expanded! It was a longshot, but no harm in asking, and we talked to M. Rouwers, who was very helpful. He confirmed that his family business had always been on that site (so much for our theory!) but on the Net he managed to find an invoice dated 1946 for Lauwers and partner, at 122 rue Stephenson! So we were able to locate the exact address, although it is no longer a garage.
Driving into the centre of Brussels took some time, and so did finding the place to return our rental car. There was no time for any more research that day. Pa had a few hours to spare before catching the train south, and was taken sightseeing by M. Lauwers’ daughter. He refers coyly to ‘the little man at the corner of a square’. We had been to Brussels for a weekend back in 1999, and had seen the sights then. But we enjoyed revisiting the Grand Place, by day and again by night. We had dinner at St Catherine’s, in the same restaurant where we had eaten 16 years ago, and they again gave Ian a bib while he ate his lobster!
Friday 21 August: Following a suggestion we had received, we went to the National Archives of Brussels, and were referred to the librarian, who called an archivist, Filip Strube, to talk to us. He was not able to give us any information, but suggested avenues we could try. We had not been able to trace rue de l’Imperatrice, where the Lauwers family lived, but Filip suggested looking up the Dutch equivalent name, and there it was!
Just like Pa and Frans, we went by train to Quiévrain, close to the French border. In 1943 there were several cafés opposite the station, but now the station is closed (apart from a ticket machine) and there is only one café, called Le Rail. However, the lady there (Armelle) was very helpful, and spoke excellent English. After a drink, we left our luggage with her, intending to get the bus (no longer a tram) to Roisin, but there was a long wait and so we started walking, and were given a lift the rest of the way. We got the bus back, but did not see anywhere en route that corresponded to Pa’s description of where they crossed the border. As there was no accommodation in Quiévrain, we spent the night in nearby Thulin.
Saturday 22 August: We returned to Quiévrain and again left our luggage with Armelle. This time we walked to Angre, a village about half way to Roisin. We found a pub there and stopped for a coffee; we attempted to ask people about the path to the café in the woods (as described by Pa) but could get no information – possibly because of our bad French! We tried a path from the village leading uphill and possibly fitting the description, although things have changed much over the years (fewer trees for a start) so we could not be sure. But at least we were in the right area.
We reached a tiny hamlet called Marchipont which is right on the border, and so found ourselves in France. We carried on walking, and then returned to Quiévrain (crossing the border again) by the main road. It was quite hot, so we were glad of some drinks at the end of our walk. We collected our luggage and walked back across the border (for the third time!) to a bus stop where we caught a bus into Valenciennes. Like Pa, we stayed at a hotel opposite the railway station, but the name was different, so we could not be sure it was the same place.