The little campsite at Grimbergen just outside Brussels was a gem of a find, very clean, organised and yet chilled out (we generally steer away from over organised campsites -too uptight and over manicured) with attractive layout and planting – as much as we’d like to wild camp we need wi fi and electrics on this trip so its a bonus when we find ambient little sites like this one. We decide not to go into Brussels City but instead to use a day or two of down time to get organised as well as planning for this first leg of the trip. It also helps us forget the fat fine we had found on Vic’s windscreen in Bruges for what we are yet to decipher! We then push on into Germany and our first stop is the small medieval city of Aachen, famous for the crowning of many German kings, burial place of the emperor Charlemagne and a rather impressive Domed cathedral. A lovely first taste of Germany with interesting little boutique shops, a bubbly student community and that day a chic wedding complete with mobile champagne bar!
A tiny shop near the main square beckons us with its curious window display. It sells only brushes. There is a brush for every task you can imagine even one for cleaning other brushes. They are beautifully made from wild hog hair with stainless steel or leather details and olive wood handles, some only the length of a finger. I have a thing for unusual hardware, why have boring old plastic when you can have handcrafted ‘tools’ made with age old materials that are a joy to look at or hold in your hand and that will probably will last a lifetime. I convince Roddy we need the small chunky one with odd curved bristles…..to remove dog hairs of course!
Further down the street I meet Petra Sahm……. one half of ‘Lotus Collection’ a home interiors partnership that works with tailors in Nepal using local raw plant materials that are hand woven into sophisticated homeware textile products. What is notable is the care that has been taken to preserve something of traditional Nepalese designs balancing these with contemporary Western tastes. This is not a cheap labour set up but instead a respectful friendship and equal design collaboration the likes of which I have rarely seen in the UK.
Moving on through the winding streets and I am amazed to find another collaborative design store but this time on a much bigger scale. The Contigo shops may at first look like a standard fairtrade shop with independent coffee produce, woven baskets hanging outside and rainbow colours. A closer look however reveals sleek design products including handprinted printed origami lighting, angular table ware and hip accessories. I learn from the helpful assistant that the shops are dotted throughout Germany. The owner herself travels around the world several times a year to find interesting traditional craftwork and then works closely with them to develop new design products. Fairtrade conditions have been established throughout the process including subsidising the export and import the process and ensuring a good price for the makers. It quite inspiring really to see what is possible with a little imagination and effort. I think Germans are good at this – problem solving and finding creative and efficient ways of making things happen.
We stop for a late lunch tucking into our first and surprisingly tasty currywurst and a cold beer then leave for Cologne.