"Good morning, how are you today?" he said in easygoing English, squinting into our car. "And where are you off to? Poland? Germany?"
"Belgium," I responded.
Suddenly he looked up from our passports, eyebrows raised. "Belgium? Really?"
Poor Belgium. The common view is it's a nondescript province sandwiched between larger, more interesting neighbours, but that's unfair. Belgium is home to one of the best sandy beaches in Europe and has a clutch of absurdly pretty medieval towns, criss-crossed with canals and winding streets lined with chocolate shops. As Europe's battleground for centuries, it is also the site of commemorative wartime complexes such as Waterloo, Ypres and the Atlantikwall, reminders that this region's fate and Britain's have been tied together for centuries.
We explored Flanders, but our holiday began when we caught the DFDS Seaways overnight ferry from Newcastle to the Netherlands. This is more like a cruise ship than a ferry. There are no purgatorial reclining seats. Everyone has a cabin with an en suite and a shower. Ours wasn't brand new but everything was spotless and, crucially, quiet.
This is a ship designed to be enjoyed and mini-cruises to Amsterdam are a popular choice. It has three restaurants catering to different budgets, plus a cafe and a coffee bar. We went to the Blue Riband, all crisp white tablecloths and sunset views. There was a vegetarian menu and the steak was excellent, but be warned – the Blue Riband and Steakhouse aren't cheap, though you can save money by booking in advance online.
Feeling full, we bypassed the bars and opted for an evening at the pictures. There were two cinemas, each showing three films during the evening. Watching We Bought A Zoo, we had the place to ourselves.
And so to Ostend, a resort fashionable in the 19th century that still gets thousands of German and Belgian visitors on account of its magnificent beach. Unfortunately, high-rise concrete blocks extend along the promenade. The point, though, is to stand on the inside looking out. Our top-floor apartment, in a more attractive building a mile from the centre, had sweeping views of the beach and at night we thought we could even make out the twinkling lights of Kent.
Ostend has plenty of restaurants and a modern art museum, but the highlight is the Atlantikwall (€6.50 adults; €5.40 children), set in dunes west of town. The best-preserved part of Hitler's coastal defences comprises titanic gun emplacements, barrack rooms, command centres, subterranean hospital bays and ammunition stores.
In this corner of Flanders, the highlight is Bruges, 15 miles from Ostend. It was one of the main centres of the great medieval Flanders cloth trade, using English wool to make fine fabric. The main squares, Markt and Burg, are lined with distinctive Flemish stepped gables. The Stadhuis on Markt (€2 adults; €1 children) is well worth a visit for its frescoes, as is the Groeninge Museum (€8; €6 children) with its early Flemish art, but the main joy of Bruges is ambling around, trying fragments of exquisite chocolate and taking a canal boat tour (€6).
There are two official languages in Belgium, Flemish (a group of Dutch dialects) and Walloon French. Flanders is Flemish-speaking Belgium, but try French as the next best alternative and you'll soon be told to stop, in our case by the man in the post office. "We have to learn four languages at school," he said, "so it's fine to speak English."
If you love Bruges you'll like Ghent, a city with a medieval centre. Don't miss The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb (€4), an altarpiece in St Baafskathedraal painted by Jan (or Hubert) van Eyck in the 1430s. Ghent also has the castle of the counts of Flanders, Het Gravensteen (€8; under-19s free), now a museum of crime and punishment.
Heading home after four days, we had seen a lot, though a longer visit should include a trip to Ypres, destroyed in the First World War then meticulously rebuilt.
Driving off the ferry in Newcastle, it felt like it had all passed too quickly – but then that's the sign of a good holiday.
DFDS Seaways operates a daily service from Newcastle to Amsterdam. A return crossing, based on a car and four people sharing an en suite cabin, costs from £88 per person. A return based on a car and two sharing an en suite cabin costs from £150pp. A return based on two bikes and two sharing an en suite cabin costs from £86pp. Book your meals and save up to 30%. Book Novasol accommodation and save 10% on return ferry. Visit www.dfds.co.uk.