Ok. Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Belgium. It's all waffles, chocolates, beer and frites with mayo, right?
Well, there's always a truth in a cliche and our trip there did incorporate all of the above - some more than others - but I'm glad to report it's all that and quite a lot more.
Along with it being a welcome break over Easter, our visit to Bruges was a bit of work mixed with pleasure for me - which is a lot less international jet set than it sounds.
As a pretty much exclusive user of Carl Zeiss lenses on my Sony, I was delighted they agreed to let me road test some of their fantastic Loxia lenses in the field. To avoid boring the non-camera nerds among you, I've left the technical bit to the end - scroll down to find out how I did with these lovely bits of glass...
Meanwhile, let's hop on a ferry, shall we?
Day 1. No fighting on these beaches.
After an astonishingly early start and drive to Dover (white cliffs untouched by the Photoshop skills of the Daily Express that day) we disembarked at Calais and - remembering to drive on the right - made our way to Dunkirk as a lunch stop.
Having enjoyed/endured the Christoper Nolan film of the same name recently and to experience the real thing, we dropped by the excellent Museum Dunkerque 1940 Operation Dynamo museum which is stuffed full of exhibits, artefacts and staffed by enthusiastic staff ready to inform history mad 10-year-olds.
It was pretty sobering stuff. The museum doesn't just centre on the 300,000 evacuees, but tells the wider story, serving as a welcome reminder of the horror of war and the rise of nationalism - especially pertinent in the current political climate we find ourselves in. This stuff happened then, and it could happen again.
The Nolan film is obviously a big deal locally at the moment. There was signage up everywhere and on one building on the beach (the frankly hideous Dunkirk Kursaal) you got a full explanation of the filming locations - including the pier that they blew up. You really get a feel for Operation Dynamo on Malo-les-Bains - you can almost see the little boats of England appearing through the fog...
So, full of history we wandered through town (stopping for some very nice Wes Anderson architectural opportunities) and back to the car for the final part of the journey - and a welcome blonde beer. To Bruges!
Day 2. Waffles, Bikes and Pralines.
After a hugely unhealthy and enjoyable waffle breakfast (really - how can it be so wrong?) we hit the cobbles - avoiding the many, many bikes - for some serious tourist action.
There's pretty much nothing in central Bruges which hasn't been cleaned, polished up and made Belgium in a heart-shaped box for the international tourist, but unless you're some sort of hardened travel cynic it's really difficult to not enjoy it. The food and drinks are top notch, the shops small and artisan, and the architecture beautiful. A day of wandering was polished off with another round of beer in a fantastic little bar called 'T Brugsch Bieratelier - worth a visit if you fancy going through the entire menu and putting a downpayment on a catering sized hangover.
Day 3. Belfries, Boat Rides and Windmills.
Hitting our stride, we really pushed the boat out on our third day in town. Literally.
If you go to Bruges, you do need to go on one of the canal boat rides. It's like going to London and not riding a red bus. Our little cruise came with a comedy Captain Haddock style driver (spot him below) who was worth the entry fee alone.
Before our trip out on the high seas though, Alice and I scaled the giddy 366 steps up to the top of the famous Belfry - Mrs. W decided this was not her cup of tea and went to visit the local C&A instead (the Europeans still have a soft spot for 80's flammable polyester it would appear)
There were certainly some amazing views to be had up in the Belfry - but if you're not a fan of lots of ascending small steps it might be worth giving it a miss. Still, I'm glad to see that contrary to that In Bruges scene where Brendan Glesson decides there's a quicker way down from the tower, that plenty of sturdy wire mess is installed up top...
Despite being pooped from all that climbing, we spent the rest of the day wandering towards a less well known Bruges landmark - the Sint-Janshuis Mill. Still working, it's at the end of a lovely walk out of town which gets quieter and quieter as you pass through little streets of charming houses - basically, I want to live there.
Day 4. Meant for Ghent.
Most of the big hits in Bruges are 'do-able' in a couple of days, so on our final day we diverted pre-ferry to Ghent for lunch and a bit of a look around. Via charming tea shops (one called Alice so we had to go in - turns out that it was beautiful inside), we made a bee line for the remarkably well preserved (read: much rebuilt - castle). Not sure I was prepared for the extensive torture exhibit, but everybody loves castles and it's got great views of the city.
Ghent itself is a bit like Bruges' older, bigger and less polished brother. It's still got canals and boat rides, but with added hen and stag do chic and a more 'working town' vibe. We liked it though - worth jumping on the ferry for again.
Which neatly leads up back to the DFDS terminal and, waiting in the queue a little time to ponder on the Belgian cliches mentioned above. Yes, you've got your praline, your Leffe and your chips, but Belgium is certainly a bit more than that. With its long history, pretty towns and duel Dutch/French nature, there's a complex character to it that get's a bit missed on a worldwide stage which is shame, and the people we found hugely friendly and welcoming.
Lots of the UK obviously has issues with Brussels, but don't include us. Especially when the beer is so good.
Twice as nice with a Zeiss.
So, the technical bit. I've written a post about using manual lenses for street work before where I spent an afternoon using an old Olympus 50mm with an adaptor.
Being a big fan of the Batis range of Zeiss lenses, I really wanted to try out the manual only Loxia range, so the trip to Belgium was a great opportunity to give both the 35mm and 50mm a street whirl.
Obviously, it's a big difference from AF as you've got more to think about when 'in the moment' - getting the focus correct whilst hitting the composition with a moving target is no mean feat out on the street. I'll be honest and say even with the A7Rii's cool manual focus peaking mode that I struggled a bit initially and my 'keeper' rate was really low - nothing to do with the lenses here, all down to the photographer!
After a bit of trial and error, I reverted to using the old 'f8 and be there' trick - you can especially see this in the Ghent people shots as they're different to my usual style, which tends to be more shallow in its use of depth of field. I can certainly see why people use this setting - suddenly I started getting proper decent shots - albeit it with high ISO's - and my confidence returned!
For me, where the Loxia's really shine is in a static situation (or that might be my lack of manual street chops!). When sitting in a bar capturing people, having the ability to choose the thing YOU want to focus on rather than what Mr. Sony thinks is best in that situation is wonderful - there's more control. Plus the warm analogue aesthetic they give off is lovely - compared with my AF Sony 55mm f1.8 for example, which is great but very, very sharp and slightly 'digital' looking, the Loxia's have a nice 'old fashioned' look.
Oh, and did I mention they are gorgeous bits of kit? - fast, smooth focusing action and lovely metal build quality. Pick of the two for me was the 35mm - it was certainly nice to have a lens of that focal length on my Sony that was drastically smaller than my behemoth Distagon 1.4 which tends to shout "LOOK... PHOTOGRAPHER!!!" when you're trying to be a bit covert.
So the question is: could I move to an all manual set up and dump autofocus? Possibly, but not now. I love the quality of the Batis line and they allow me to get the shots I want without the worry of missing the moment.
However, the charm, history and control of a manual lens are real and it's certainly something I'll be developing. So perhaps it's not a choice between one or another, perhaps it's horses for courses and perhaps a Loxia will be in my future camera bag after all...
Small tech note: 85% of these shots were the Loxia 35/50 and the rest were the Batis 25 when I need to go wider - for instance up in the Bruges Belfry and shots from the castle in Ghent.
Many thanks to Adam at Zeiss for the loan.