Exploring Europe: A Sneak Peek

While for the most part I'm going to wait to really go through my photos until after I'm home, here's a little sneak preview.  This is the inside of a cooling tower at an abandoned power plant.

Cooling Tower


Day 12: London, solo-style

It turns out that I was incorrect about the state of the kettle. I was not aware that there was a little dial that I had to turn, a timer, that would allow me to use the particular electrical outlet that the kettle was plugged into. I happily made myself some breakfast consisting of oatmeal, yogurt, a little cheese, and a glass of juice. After cleaning up, I set out to the Victoria and Albert Museum and spent a few hours wandering around the galleries until I got a certain email from Bart. We agreed to meet up around 1pm at a nearby Starbucks. I waited there for an hour.

When they finally arrived, they both looked like the walking dead. I quickly led them back to the hotel where they both showered. Bart immediately went for a nap after his shower. When Matt had finished his shower, we went for a short walk and a coffee, and Matt told me the tale of their adventure. It was all very surreal. When we were done, we returned to the hotel and had a nap as well.

When we were all feeling more refreshed, we met up with Bart's friend, Nikita. We all went out for dinner and drinks at a nearby pub. She told us about life in London (she has been here about four months now) and we told her about our adventures. We made some tentative plans to meet up again the next day for dinner again. She wanted us to experience "a Sunday roast". Sure! The rest of the evening was very quiet.


Day 11: Group activities and solo adventures

Today we had a private tour at National Trust’s Orford Ness National Nature Reserve site. There were nine people in our group. Everyone else who participated was from Europe. The three of us had travelled the furthest to attend. Our private tour started with a short boat ride to the facility. We had a brief meeting, complete with hot beverages, to discuss the ground rules. It turns out many locals are unaware of this site’s former military history. Afterwards, we all clambered into a large covered trailer that contained benches and we were on our way. We toured and photographed approximately 10 different buildings. Since they were former military buildings, almost everything was stripped out of the buildings. Several hours into our tour, it started drizzling. And then it started pouring. We ended our tour a little earlier than scheduled and returned to the mainland. The majority of our group stayed together and we went off to grab some dinner together at the same pub that we ate at on Day 10. We talked about our previous experiences with urban exploration. We talked about the challenges of driving in foreign countries. We all had a good time. After dinner, Matt and Bart dropped me off at the Ipswich train station and I made my way back to London on my own.

Since I had already done some quick internet research the night before, returning to London by train was the easy part. The challenging part was navigating London’s Underground stations with a large suitcase and no escalators. Wow. Lucky for me, I was rescued several times by sympathetic gentlemen who helped me move my giant suitcase up several sets of stairs. The walk to the hotel was quite painless and took under 5 minutes. And then once again, I faced more stairs. Four sets of stairs. By the time I finished dragging the suitcase to the door of our room, I was practically hyperventilating and ready to pass out! After a few minutes of rest, I unpacked a few things, and then stepped out to a local grocery store to pick up a few things for breakfast. When I got back, I put on the kettle to make myself some tea. Just my luck: it seemed the kettle was out of order. Oh well. I will settle for microwaved water in the morning. I took a bit of time to clean my camera and tripod and then took a nice long hot shower. What luxury! In the morning, I will probably head to a nearby Starbucks to plan out my day and see if I can get any updates regarding Matt and Bart’s evening adventures without me. Good night!


Day 10: This is London

We returned to London in the evening of Day 9 at the same train station that took us out to Paris, St. Pancras Station. We walked to our hotel for the evening, checked in, and then went out for a bite to eat. That was more difficult than we had anticipated. Many of the restaurants close by were either closed or remained open (like pubs) but their kitchens were already closed. Who knew the area of London we landed in would be like small-town America?! We got a recommendation from a local pub employee to try the area around Brunswick Square. We lucked out and found a restaurant called the Hare and Tortoise which served Chinese and Japanese dishes. The portions were generous and the food was tasty. What more could we ask for?

The next morning, we did something different. We did not have pastries for breakfast. I know, you must be in shock, too! The place we were staying at had a cafe downstairs that served organic fare and gave a discount to people who stayed at the hotel above it. Our breakfasts at the Bloomsbury Cafe were delicious and filling. We checked out, took advantage of the on-site luggage storage facilities, and were regular tourists of London for the day.

Matt led us on a walking tour of London’s downtown. We saw the London Eye, the Thames River, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace to name several famous landmarks. After a few hours, we returned to the hotel to collect our luggage and then made our way to the car rental agency.

The next two hours were probably the most stressful hours of Matt’s life. But he was the perfect candidate for the challenge. London’s roads were highly congested and it was extremely stressful for him to pay attention to driving on the left and everything that comes with having to re-thinking driving habits. Bart’s efficient navigating and Matt’s awesome driving skills got us to our hotel in Ipswich safely, on time, and without incident. I personally would have given up or had a traffic accident within the first 2 minutes behind the wheel. Matt described the stress as “ten times worse than riding the Million Dollar Highway at speed”. I know not everyone will understand that statement. I for one am extremely grateful that he took on the challenge and conquered it, hands down.

We checked in at our Ipswich lodgings and then went out for dinner. We found a fantastic pub with great food and drinks at very affordable prices. It was recommended to us by a fellow who was working the bar at another establishment we walked into and their kitchen was already closed. Now we are ready for our next adventure. Are you ready? We are!


Day 9: Stage 1 Complete

This morning we got another early start.  By 7am, we were in the car on the way to our first location: an abandoned coal mine in Belgium.  Upon arriving in the vicinity of the mine, we got our gear and began a walk to get familiarized with the area.  As it turned out, the mine is in fact not completely abandoned at this time.  While one of the mine buildings is certainly no longer in use, the grounds itself were busy with several workers who were dismantling some rails as well as doing miscellaneous cleaning.  At this point we immediately knew that no exploration would take place at this site.  While the exploration was likely possible on a weekend, it was definitely not possible on a weekday.

Given that we suddenly had gained several hours of free time, we decided to try and stop over at another couple of locations near Brussels.  The first was an abandoned Stella Artois brewery.  Sections of the brewery were still remaining (and were definitely abandoned!), however, the building we were interested in had already been demolished.  On to the next site!

Our last site of the day was an abandoned train station in the heart of Brussels.  To our surprise, this location was not at all abandoned.  In fact, it was even open to the public.  It looked like the train station terminal had been renovated a little bit (sections of the roof were quite new) and was now housing a ... circus school.  Yes, you read that correctly, a circus school.  Scattered throughout the entire site were various circus tents and apparatus such as swings, tightropes, and the like.

As we sat on the high speed train back to London, we reflected on the first stage of our trip which has now come to a close.  All in all we consider this portion of the trip to be a resounding success.  Of all the prime locations that we had planned, we managed to visit all of them.  All of the locations we weren’t able to access were secondary locations, so we were never too disappointed.  Besides, as with any urban exploration outings, you don’t expect to be 100% successful in accessing sites.

We’ll now have a couple of days to decompress in England before diving back into our urban exploration ventures.


Day 8: How did I get here?

One of the ways that we have saved on food costs is going to grocery stores to purchase pastries for breakfast, pre-made sandwiches for lunch, and other assorted things like fruit, granola bars, and beverages for the rest of the day. This allows us to go out for dinner wherever we happen to go. Also, our dining experiences have vastly improved since we started using Trip Advisor to research our dining options. The time spent researching restaurants has been a worthwhile experience. A few of the better places we have had dinner at were Gruuthuse Hof ( in Brugge, De Werf ( in Loeven, and Gdanska ( in Oberhausen.

Unless we have something in our schedule that has been set in stone, we have been booking our hotels only a day in advance. Urban exploration can be a finicky hit or miss business. We have now seen most of places that we wanted to see so our pace is no longer quite so frantic. Our days are more relaxed, whew!

Today was definitely a relaxed day. We started by going to the grocery store near our hotel to purchase a few pastries and coffees for breakfast. We also picked up a few pre-made sandwiches for lunch. Bart even managed to find a flashlight to replace the one that mysteriously disappeared a few days ago. We packed up and headed back on the road. We only had one destination in mind for the day. The multi-building complex was originally a fort that was eventually repurposed into a jail and then later on into a hospital.

The buildings were located behind a gated area that was close to an active school. We could hear the children laughing, screaming, playing, and being generally noisy on their school grounds behind a tall hedge fence.  We walked through the open gate and proceeded into the closest building. It was three stories tall with long dark corridors. The building had been abandoned long enough for small trees to have grown inside some of the rooms and staircase landings. There were no furnishings, but there was plenty of rubble and rubbish strewn about. The one building we explored had multiple staircases and they were all a little different. There were a few interesting simple murals on some interior room walls. While we were doing a walk through the main floor, we heard footsteps echoing down one of the staircases from a floor above. We never saw the person or persons while we were there.  When we finished we decided that we did not need to explore the other buildings, they were very likely the same. When we left the property, we noticed that someone had closed the gate. Not again! Lucky for us, the gate was only closed and not chained shut. We returned to the car, ate our sandwiches, and went on our merry way.


Day 7: One, two, three strikes! You're out!

Not every day is a fantastic day. Today was one of those not so fantastic days. It started going wrong when we booked our train tickets from Brussels back to London. When I had originally researched the tickets, they were about $65 per person. I really should have booked them right away since we knew we had to be back in London for a specific date. When I checked again last night, I was in for a nasty surprise. The price was now about $175 per person. Ouch. We had a quick discussion amongst the three of us. We decided to bite the bullet and proceed with our original plan of taking the train at a specific time. Then, just as I was about to complete the transaction, the internet connection froze and would not let me continue. We were resigned to complete the transaction in the morning. Strike one and two were complete. What else could possibly go wrong? There is always a trifecta in play.

 It turned out that all three sites that we had scheduled to visit also did not work out. The first one was a power plant. When we arrived, we saw workers coming and going on the property.  We decided very quickly to move on. The second site was an abandoned manor. It looked very promising when we drove up to it. However, we were stopped by a gentleman on the neighbouring property who informed us that we could only be allowed access to the property for a “small fee” of 50 Euros per person. Apparently he was the assistant to the person who was renting the two adjacent properties and this was the arrangement that was in place. Again, we decided very quickly to move on. Our last stop was at another abandoned mansion. By this point of the day, daylight was already starting to fade. We drove up and ... there was a large sign that indicated that trespassers would be fined a minimum of 250 Euros each. As you can guess, we again decided to move on. We didn’t move on right away. Matt and I waited while Bart did a very quick walk through. He returned and shook his head. We had been spoiled by better sites on this trip. We could move on knowing it would have been a waste of time.

Despite our setbacks today, we had some very good moments as well. We did not get rained on the entire day. We spent a bit of time in Brugge seeing the touristy sights and doing a little bit of shopping. We returned to Brussels briefly to enjoy “the best waffles in Belgium” and see the famous statue of Manneken Pis. We found a self-service laundromat and I was finally able to do some laundry. And finally, we received a few emails asking how we are doing (from other urban explorers) and a few emails saying that our daily posts were being thoroughly enjoyed. Maybe today was a good day after all!


Day 6: Close encounters

We arrived in another city mid-afternoon on Day 5. It was raining pretty hard so we went straight to our hotel. The rain stopped in the early evening and we made our way to the city centre to look for dinner. While we were there, we decided to walk around the Chambre du Commerce to assess the situation. We found parking on one of the side streets leading to the building and walked over to check it out. Bart nudged one of the doors with his foot and it simply opened. We were in shock. One of the locals that joined us for Day 5 had told us he last tried to explore the Chambre du Commerce about a month ago and had no luck. We regretted not taking our camera gear with us but slipped inside the building for a quick peek anyway. Wow. We would definitely be back in the morning. We left after a taking a few cell phone pictures and did a quick walk around of the outside of the building. Once we were done, we returned to our original mission of finding dinner.

We left the hotel early in the morning in order to arrive at the city centre by 7am so that we could enter the building while it was still somewhat dark outside. We entered quickly and quietly through the same door. We started a cursory walk-through when we heard door opening noises and saw flashlights cutting through the darkness. We quickly ducked for cover and waited. Bart and Matt watched the two figures moving through the darkness. My heart was pounding because I couldn’t really see what was happening. They had ducked one way and I had ducked another. Eventually Bart and Matt came out from where they were and started waving their flashlights around. What was going on?!

It turns out the two figures where moving in such a way that it did not look like they were patrolling. It was also obvious that at least one of them was carrying a tripod. Hello, fellow urban explorers. ;) We had our first unplanned encounter with other urban explorers. The two cautious figures were a pair of females from Holland. We spoke quietly with them and learned that they had driven about 2 hours to get there and also entered through the same door. We found a quiet spot and waited together for enough daylight to begin our photography. We learned that they had been exploring together for the last 2 to 3 years. They were impressed that we had travelled from Canada to explore European sites. They gave us some tips regarding other local sites that they had been to recently.  When there was finally enough daylight, we all went our separate ways and did our best to not get in the way of each other. We agreed to do a quick group photo before leaving.

The Chambre du Commerce has been disused since approximately 2003. It is one of the most popular urban exploration sites in Belgium so it was not extremely surprising to run into other urban explorers there. It still caught me off guard. The best features of the building included the extremely large atrium, the surrounding balcony, and the numerous unique columns. The ceiling was also fantastic, highly ornate. The building was void of any furnishings.  We spent a few hours exploring and photographing. While we were there, another couple showed up. They asked how we had entered the building and managed to stay so clean; they had quite a bit of grime on their clothes. It turns out they were from the Netherlands and had entered through a basement grate. We pointed to the door that we had used. They were amazed. We were amazed that they had uncovered the grate and entered in full daylight. We exchanged pleasantries and continued our photography and they disappeared to begin their own.

A few minutes before leaving, we met up with the two females again and took our group photo. We got a good laugh out of it. They wished us well and we quietly slipped outside. What a fantastic adventure!

Unfortunately, we managed to miss our opportunity to see Henk’s gallery showing in Antwerp. The combination of bad weather, a lack of time, and exploration worked against us. We managed to check out the location of the showing but could not see into interior of the gallery. It was a slightly ironic situation. We returned to the hotel, checked out, and then drove to Brugge, our next destination. This would be our first opportunity to actually be tourists and enjoy the historical city centre with just the motive of seeing the sights with no time pressures. Yay!


Day 5: We are not alone

We were happy to sit down for dinner with Henk. Day 3 was all go go go and we only had brief chats while exploring and driving from one site to the next with the aid of his walkie talkies. He expressed how impressed he was with Matt’s driving skills. He was pleasantly surprised by how well Matt was able to handle a manual transmission car. We also had a chance to ask him some general touristy questions about Belgium. Here’s a sample of the conversation.


Cess: So what is Belgium famous for besides beer and chocolates?

Henk: Mussels!

Matt: Muscles? Jean Claude Van Damme?

Henk: No no, mussels, like oysters. If you like mussels, you should eat some.

Cess: Is Belgium famous for anything else?

Henk: Pedophiles.

Cess: I can’t bring those home to Canada!


Yes, we certainly had a lively conversation!

We spent the previous evening in our luxury hotel packing everything up so that we could leave bright and early in the morning. We woke up, got dressed, packed the car, and took advantage of the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Our goal was to be on the road by 7:30am. Bart and Matt had been contacted by a local urban explorer during our trip preparation last month who showed interest in accompanying us with a few friends to some of their local sites. We agreed to meet them shortly after 8am at a site.

Our first site was a former veterinary school. We could see that it was being repurposed along with other buildings in the complex into loft style condos. The building was three stories tall. The majority of rooms stood empty save for a few pieces of furniture. A collection of specimens in formaldehyde filled jars still occupied the basement. Some previous urban explorers had moved some of these specimen jars to the upper floors to stage some macabre scenes. An auditorium still contained banks of seats but a large number of them had been piled up in the back of the room. Surprisingly not all the discarded textbooks were in Flemmish or French. A few were in English.

Our next destination was an abandoned school. It too was being repurposed but the progress was much more advanced compared to the veterinary school. The one outstanding feature of this school was a very long hallway with archways at periodic intervals. Corridors branched out from this hallway leading to subsidiary buildings.   

When we were done, we thanked the locals for spending some time with us and exchanged some information regarding sites we had visited and some other local sites that they had knowledge of. They also provided some touristy advice for my benefit: shopping! If we get a chance to take a break from urban exploration, maybe I’ll get to do some shopping. ;) Stay tuned!


Day 4: We're not in Kansas any more, Toto!

We were extremely appreciative of Henk’s company during Day 3 for several reasons. We met Henk during an urban exploration trip to Detroit in late summer. When we found out that he was from Belgium, we hoped that we would meet again during our Europe 2012 trip. Not only did Henk take time off from his own busy schedule, he travelled to France to spend time with us! The three sites that we explored as a group were all in France. We drove together back to Belgium and had dinner in Arlon in a local restaurant that served Ukrainian cuisine. We shared a fantastic meal together before parting ways. We confirmed that we would attend Henk’s gallery showing in Antwerp on the weekend. I know that Henk would appreciate our support for his own photographic works.

With Henk’s assistance, we were able to find a place to stay for the evening. We had been worried that we would have to sleep in the rental car if we were not able to book a hotel for the evening. Luckily that didn’t happen. Not only did he help us by calling the hotel, he also got us a great rate! Many thanks, Henk! =)

In the morning, we stopped by a local boulangerie and got ourselves pain chocolat, coffee, and a baguette.  We quickly ate and set out on the road. We saw our first road accident: a transport truck had jackknifed on a windy road and the local police were directing traffic around it. No one rubbernecked and everyone proceeded in an orderly fashion.

Our first destination of the day was an abandoned castle that had been used as a summer home by its owners. We went on another trek through the woods when approaching the castle. The trek was challenging because of the steep forested terrain that surrounded it. According to the internet, the castle was built in the late 1860’s and has stood empty since about 1991. After twenty years, there was a lot of structural decay. Some interesting features were the painted ceilings in the main hall, the tower, and the Disney-like external appearance of the castle.

Next we went to a disused cooling tower. The outer shell was concrete while the inner surface was covered in wood. The structure was open to the elements because there was no roof. The wood surfaces inside were very weathered. There were fantastic leading lines everywhere.

Our final destination was an abandoned theatre. When we arrived, we discovered it was no longer “abandoned”: it was being renovated. When we went for a stroll to look it over, a local told us not to bother attempting any exploration. The building was locked down and regularly patrolled. We took his advice and continued on our way.

 We arrived at our hotel for the night at a much earlier time than expected. Imagine our surprise when we saw our room: 4 double beds with mirrored headrests and matching nightstands with lamps accompanied by chairs at the foot of each bed. And a kitchenette with appliances that still had stickers on them. This will likely be the most luxurious accommodations that we well experience during our two week trip. Sadly, the bathroom door does not close properly because the locking mechanism and the notch in the door frame do not line up. Oh well. Close enough. ;)


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