Disclaimer: Lots of words. Proceed at your own peril.
Day One: The Great No-Claims Write-Off
Our story begins on a Thursday afternoon just like any other.
A post on Facebook by me ol' mucker Perjury Saint caught my eye. "Bit last minute but I have a plus one going for Belgium if anyone is interested". And interested I was. Having first travelled across in the pond in the summer, my experiences there had left me an unsatiated appetite for more continental exploring. A phone call later and it was all arranged. In a few hours he'd snatch me up from South London and we'd barrel down M25 to Dover to catch the last ferry. I had just enough time to make sure my camera batteries were charged, scrape together a quick dinner and try think up the best excuse I could to give to my unexpecting partner for why I was abandoning her for a long weekend of stomping around dusty derps.
Just as I'm about to grab my gear and bid my farewells to the little lady my phone goes. "I'm lost and the sat nav is buggered"
Shit! I have a train to catch so there is nothing I can do but give some basic and hurried directions, cross my fingers and dash out into the evenings drizzle, hoping against hope it all somehow works out.
The rain ramps up to a deluge as I wait at the station for Mr. Saint's car to show, minutes slowly ticking off the large clock in the foyer and our chances of making the ferry on time edging ever closer to the impossible.
Never have I been so glad to see another person when he finally arrives, headlights illuminating the gloom. It's gonna be tight, very tight, but bar any disasters we should just about make it. My bags are hurled into the boot and the car accelerates off into night as lighting rips the sky in two.
Somehow we make it to Dover with but mere minutes on the clock to spare. The rain so heavy you could only make out a few feet in any direction but we could see the car ahead of us in our queue was taking it's sweet time while the lane next to it was all but empty. Thinking quickly, and with time very much against us, Perjury Saint shifts gears and reverses. A car horn blares out into the night and our brief journey backwards ends with a crunch as our rear end gets a little too cosy with the front of the vehicle behind us. With the driver of the bumped car failing to see any humour in our present situations, insurance detail were quickly swapped and somehow, somehow, all parties made it onto the boat just as it was preparing for departure. The very definition of relieved, we scuttle up to the lounge to sleep off our short journey across the pond.
Freshly arrived in Calais at horrifically early o'clock Friday morning, Perjury Saint pulls out a carefully composed notebook full of tasty sounding locations and their coordinates then enters the first on the list into the sat nav.
But our trials were not to be over so soon. With slow dawning horror he realises the device wouldn't accept the geographic coordinate system and despite all best efforts his phone wouldn't connect to the sodding internet for love or money.
We quickly start texting our assorted friends who would in time come to our aid and give us the various street names we needed to find our way about. Guys, you know who you are, we are truly indebted to you as you well and truly saved our bacon on this one.
While waiting with fingers crossed to hear something, anything, back or at least to find out if we were effectively stranded in a strange country with bugger all to do for three days (though on the plus side the rain did seem to be letting up a bit) we decide to go check out the one place we did have a location for. Chateux De Foret.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly this one was locked up very well, but walking down a lone dirt track in the middle of the night with a faint sheen of rain in the air, deep in the heart of the woods and listening to the nocturnal fourna crashing and howling in the overgrowth, I was having the time of my life. When the Chateux itself finally loomed out from behind the trees, well, it made all our efforts getting here thus far worthwhile, even if we didn't manage to get a decent look around inside. Didn't bother taking pictures, it was one for the memory books. Utterly haunting.
We made our way back to where the car was parked just as the sun made an appearance and started it slow but steady climb and moments later the life-saving texts started coming in. Spirits renewed we began our adventure now in ernest.
Crystallerie Val Saint Lambert
Founded in 1826, out of a deserted building, Val Saint Lambert became a world famous, rapidly expanding and emerging as the epicentre of the Belgian crystal industry in the late 19th century, employing some 5000 people and producing 120,000 unique creations each day.
The first World War and then later the Great Depression brought an abrupt end to Val Saint Lambert's fortunes and in the 80′s, despite the Belgian government subsidising the plant, Val Saint Lambert was threatened by bankruptcy. The company since has changed hands several times and now while still remaining ambitious about the future runs on a skeleton crew with only a quarter of the whole facility remaining active, the rest now abandoned and falling slowly into ruin. Which is where our two gallant explorers come in to the story.
Actually, we come in through the nettles and thorny bushes, but sleep deprived and desperate to crack this nut it seemed a perfectly good idea at the time.
Despite being a little gem this was probably my least favourite site of the weekend if only because the bar was raised so high by the explores that were to follow. Still, it was a very enjoyable mooch indeed, with the many boxes and overgrown windows looking fantastic, a bit of ducking and dodging around some half hearted security and such an embarrassingly easy exit that our bungling way in was made all the more painful to remember. Onto the next one then.
Universite Du Val Benoit
Constructed between 1930 and 1965, Universite Du Val Benoit has been standing empty on the banks of the Meuse river in Liege for the past 8 years. Once the home to several of the countries finest mathematicians, plans are to transform the modernist ruins into housing, offices and retail spaces over the next few years.
Hard to miss from the outside, the sheer size of Liege University campus is beyond words but suffice to say it's quite large.
A good few hours were sunk into exploring this one and I'd say we barely scratched the surface, especially considering all the empty buildings that lay outside of the main complex. Alternating between severely trashed and almost untouched, Universite Du Val Benoit could easily have been my favourite from the weekend if we hadn't seen such amazing houses later on, but walking those long corridors and finding those amazing labs and auditoriums made for a truly memorable explore. Brace yourself, for there are many photos.
Our final stop of the day was Agnus Dei, a small church connected to an equally small nursing home. After a destructive fire in one of the wards it was abandoned in 2005.
Spotting the famous red van first and the glorious church spire soon after, we quickly pulled over and parked up before finding our way inside. Stepping instinctively first into the chapel we found ourselves interrupting a photoshoot with girls, professional lighting rigs, bouquets of fake flowers, hot-pants and everything. With the sound of giggling models ringing in our ears we step back out into the fresh air and decide to give them thirty while we investigated the remainder of the property.
The nursing home itself was fairly trashed but there were a few moments of photographic potential to be found scattered here and there about the ruins, including a few nicely staged rooms. The building itself was also bewilderingly quite large considering how small it had originally seemed from the outside. There is also a huge attic space which gave me a serious case of the heebie-jeebies while investigating it.
Returning to the church we found it now empty and were able to get in enough time to cover the place to our satisfaction before the next round of photographers showed up and we bid our leave, continuing on our way into the fast approaching evening light.
Heading back towards Liege for some grub we decide on the way to have a look at Chateux le Chat Noir, a site we knew next to nothing about but we had a rough location and the name alone sounded pretty cool so it was worth a shot.
Sadly it seemed the cruel hand of fate was not done tormenting us just yet.
Perjury Saint overshoots a barely visible give way sign and our increasingly unlucky mode of transport is broadsided by a bewildered and shortly to be royally pissed off Belgian lady. The police are involved along with some poor sod whose only crime was to stop and see if everyone was alright and was then conscripted in to provide translation duties between the office of the law and the two frustrated drivers. Insurance details are once again exchanged.
With the light now well and truly gone, taking with it Perjury Saint's no-claims discount, we consoled ourselves with trying to find some grub, a mission that was to take several hours of driving about and a great deal of exasperation before any decent tucker was eventually found.
Tired but at least refuelled we pull in to a service station lay-by to get a nights shut-eye just as the storm we left behind in Dover finally catches up with us and the heavens open once again. Not entirely confident our car won't have floated onto the highway by morning, exhaustion finally overtakes us...