On the ski hills, on the bike trails, and thru life in general

Archive for June, 2012

In Paris

June 9. Paris.  Took taxis from the dock at Pont Morland to the hotel in Paris.  Twelve of us are staying at the Hotel Beaudelaire in the Opera district and the rest elsewhere. The taxis were not too efficient, with the first arriving around 9 a.m. but the next 2 at least an hour later. Three taxis to the same place and all 3 had different fares.  Welcome to Paris. Once we settled in our rooms – small but palatial compared to what we were crammed into for the past 2 weeks – most of us took the metro to the Eiffel Tower. The line for the elevator to the top was about 4 hours long but we wanted to climb the tower anyway so went to the stairs line.  It was only an hour long and only cost 5 Euros, compared to E10.50 for the lift.  The climb was nice, after standing around for so long, and the views from the first and second decks are tremendous.

View towards Trocadero

As it happens, you can take the lift from deck 2 to the very top (stairs not open to the public) for another 5 Euros, with no lineup, but I was happy with the deck 2 views. After climbing back down, we had snacks and started walking back to our hotel on the Champs-Elysses.  History and views all the way – past Place de la Concorde, Museum of Modern Art, the Grand and Petit Palaces, Tuileries Gardens (where we stopped for a beer) and the Louvre. The main streets in Paris are wide and straight but the side streets are a chaotic jumble.  They seem to start and stop in the middle of nowhere and radiate in all directions.  They also seem to change names if more than a 10 degree jog in direction, so it is easy to get lost.  The walk back to the hotel took about 2.5 hours, including the beer, and we were all feeling pleasantly fatigued after the climb and the walk.  Supper was at a restaurant recommended by the woman at the hotel desk.  Because we made the reservations so late, the earliest we could get was 8 p.m.  The place was packed, mostly with locals from the sound of the din, the tables crammed tight together and the servers were looking very harried.  I asked ours if it was like this all the time or if this was a typical Saturday night.  “Oh no – it is always this busy. Every day, at all times”. Yikes, I’d go deaf working there.  She was right though – there were still people coming in at 10 p.m. to eat a full supper and every table was full. The meal was so-so and expensive – E40 with wine.  We had much better and far cheaper meals in Peronne and Bougival, but this is Paris!

June 10. Paris. Gerry and I spent the day in the Louvre, about 10 minutes away from our hotel.   The doors opened at 9 but we got there at 8:30 so were only a hundred feet down the line and got in very quickly.  Cost is only 10 Euros, which I think is a great deal considering that there must be about a billion dollars worth of art in there!  We walked over to the Italian painters area first thing, before the hordes got to Mona, but there were no crowds at all and we had a great view.

Gerry and Mona

Took our time and wandered through the whole building, every floor, every wing, for the rest of the day.  What a fantastic place but it is easy to get overloaded with all the artworks.  It really should be best seen a bit at a time, over several days, so you can linger, but 1 day is all we had available for it.  We were done (in) by 2:30 and headed back to the hotel for a rest. I don’t know if it was the physical or mental  exhaustion that was worse. Later, I wandered around the neighborhood we are in, getting lost multiple times even with a map, trying to find reasonable restaurants and grocery/wine stores before calling it a day. Gerry picked up a bout of food poisoning and spent the rest of the evening in bed so I bought a baguette, cheese and wine (an amazingly good Bordeaux for E4.95) and enjoyed a simple and inexpensive meal in my room.

June 11. Paris.  Gerry still ill so I headed out alone to walk to the Arc de Triomphe.  Pleasant walk of a few miles along the Rue de Rivoli, opposite the Louvre, then over to the Champs-Elysees.  I just sauntered along, checking out the souvenier stalls and stores for anything interesting.  Found a few selling Tour de France and other biking jerseys, but the TdF ones were E89.  Out of my price range, especially since I already have a yellow jersey from Brendan 2 years ago.  The polka dot jersey would have been nice though. Climbed the AdT (E9.50) and took a bunch of pictures and videos.  Again, great views – not as high as the Eiffel tower but, because it is right on the Champs-Elysees, very picturesque. Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre in one direction, La Defense in the other.

View towards La Defense

Walked back along the other side of the Champs-Elysees this time.  Stopped in to see the Grand Palais (E5), which was a waste of money and time.  Like walking into an empty Rexall Place!  A panelled glass dome ceiling over an empty expanse.  Good place for a rodeo though!  Was probably the first domed stadium of it’s time.  Not really a stadium though, since it doesn’t have any seating – just a surround balcony.  Saw a big Canadian flag down a side street and walked down to check it out.  It was the Canadian embassy and it is in pretty pricey company.  The stores around it were Fendi, Dior, Chanel – lots of other high end stuff.  Pretty swanky neighborhood. Went over to see the Paris Opera House.  This is where my son proposed to his wife 2 years ago and what a place it is!  All marble and gold and sweeping staircases – I’d love to attend a performance there but I don’t have any clothes nice enough!

Paris Garnier Opera

Ended up having supper at the same place we ate breakfast this morning (Le Pain Quotidien) – far better and cheaper than the hotel.  We are slowly finding the good spots to buy munchies and meals.

June 12. Paris.  No real plan of action today. Wandered around in the rain after breakfast, just checking out streets and stores (Galleries Lafayette a maze of shops and yelling Asian tourists), then back to the room for a nap.  No, there is nothing special about Paris in the rain.  You still get wet.  Gerry running on low energy after not eating for a day so he stayed back in the hotel.  I walked over to the Musee D’Orsay after lunch but the lineup was hours long at that time of day so I gave up on that idea.  Went over to the Petit Palais instead, a few blocks away, and glad I did.  First of all, a surprise after all the other Paris experiences, it was free! Second of all, it was a lovely art gallery with pictures from Rembrandt, Renoir, Gauguin, Rubens and many others, as well as a Rodin sculpture.  That was a bonus after throwing money away on the Grand Palais!  Walked back along Rivoli again, taking a few side streets to check them out.  Stumbled onto Place Vendome, which was also under refurbishing. Would have liked to gone over to Latin Quarter but no time today.  Hope to get enough time on Friday, after getting back from Chartres.

June 13. Paris to Chartres. The information we had was that the train to Chartres left from the Gard du Nord station, so took a bus there.  Very handy, as the stop was only a block from the hotel.  Unfortunately, when we got there, we were told that the train left from Montparnasse, nowhere near Gard du Nord.  So we hopped the metro and backtracked to the right station, where we caught the train to Chartres.  The trip took about an hour and we arrived just after 1 p.m.  We walked to the hotel, about a 10 minute walk away,and checked in.  By far the fanciest accommodation we have had to date (Best Western Grande Monarque) – the room is at least triple the size of the one in Paris. Crappy internet connection though!  You would think that a hotel that sells itself as being upscale, all fancy rooms and overpriced dining area, would have a wireless connection that worked!  Not impressed with that part of it.  Rooms in town were at a premium as the Le Mans 24 hour race is on this weekend, Le Mans being very close to Chartres.  We headed out to see the famous Chartres Cathedral, our main reason for coming here.  It was built in the late 1100’s – early 1200’s and looks truly medieval.  Gothic, flying buttresses, immense support columns – it looked like a hunchback should be staring at us from the upper reaches of the towers.

Chartres Cathedral

The arched roof is well over 100 feet high inside and the bell towers are well above that.  We were supposed to get a guided tour but the expert, English speaking, guide was sick so we had to make do with audioguides.  Not the same at all, as the guide is touted to be one of the foremost experts on the place. Also, the main alter was being renovated, so 1/4 of the church was closed off.  Later, we walked around the old part of the town, then bought a few provisions (wine, baguette, cheese) and settled down for our own version of happy hour.  I love the wine in France. Even the cheap wines are excellent!

June 14. Chartres.  Chartres is a nice size – a 15 minute walk will get you anywhere within the downtown area – and attractive.  It has a good layout, with lots of squares surrounded by brasseries, boulangeries and cafes.  Not many places offer breakfast though (even McDonalds was not open till 10) so we bought croissants at a boulangerie and sat down at a cafe.  A lot of locals were doing that too so it must be  the acceptable thing to do.  There is an agriculture museum in Chartres that Bill was interested in seeing, considering his ag background, so we walked over to it and spent a nice few hours being informed about the history of agriculture in the region and checking out the old farm implements and machines.  A nice break from viewing art works, although a lot of the photo displays contained reproductions from Monet, et al, that had farming themes.  The museum was more targeted at French tourists, rather than foreigners, and I doubt that they get a lot of foreign visitors, but it was a pleasant place to spend time.  Headed back to the central part of town for lunch, then just wandered the streets looking at stores and picking up gift items for home.  Gerry had instructions from his daughter to get a specific item at a specific store (St James) that had branch in Chartres but they didn’t have it.  The store keeper gave us instructions on where to find the store in Paris, which promised a further quest.   Following our ritual of a France happy hour (wine, cheese, baguette), we had a late supper and, just after dark, took in the light shows in town.  Many of the churches and other buildings are the sites of projected light shows set to music.

Chartres Cathedral at night

They were very well done, a complete show lasting about 15 minutes on each building.  The relaxed pace of Chartres was like a breath of fresh air after the hubbub of Paris.  No street vendors, panhandlers begging on the street (except for the singing guy in front of the cathedral), or cars flying by on the narrow streets.  This is probably a bedroom suburb of Paris for some people, considering that it is only an hour train ride away, and I can see why some would prefer to live here instead of Paris.

June 15. Chartres to Paris.  Did more last minute shopping after breakfast and took the 11 a.m. train back to Montparnasse.  The St James store that Gerry was looking for was supposed to be on Rue de Rennes, in the Montparnasse area, but turned out to be in the Invalides area, a fair hike away.  But we had lots of time and no other agenda so the 4 of us started walking, rather than take the Metro.  We finally found the place and Gerry was able to get his item, then we walked the rest of the way back to the hotel, stopping again for an overpriced  beer in Tuileries Gardens.  Ended up walking almost 8 km all told.  After supper, Art and Kathy took us to see the Royal Gardens, which was only a few blocks from the hotel and none of us had found before.  What an oasis in the city!  An area twice the size of a football field surrounded on all sides by a chateau, which is why none of us knew about it.  A lot of the buildings in Paris are built in the same way, although on a considerably smaller scale, with a small internal square – normally used for parking cars but sometimes with green space.  The gardens were quiet and serene, with a fountain, flowers, trees and lots of benches.  They also took us to another place  we hadn’t known about – the extensive and very modern shopping centre under the Louvre.  Lots of surprises remain in Paris but no more time to explore.

June 16. Paris to Edmonton.  The hotel had arranged 2 taxis to take the 8 of us to CDG at 7:10 a.m.  Right on time and, unlike a lot of the Paris taxis, lots of space for our luggage.  E60 for the half-hour trip, probably equivalent to St Albert to YEG in distance but most of it through the maze of Paris streets.  Got there with lots of time to spare.  Our plane (Air Canada) was a little delayed but we settled in for the 8-hour flight to Toronto.  The AC 777-300 was infinitely better in comfort and service than the United 767-300 we took to get there.  Roomier seats, nice meal, complimentary wine, more and better movies – what a difference.  Never fly United if you can avoid it!  I bought some wine in the duty free shop in Paris and there was no problem in carrying it in my carry-on all the way to Toronto.  However, once there, we had to clear Canadian customs and re-enter security (stupid bloody system – why can’t they just funnel connecting passengers through a secure area?), so I had to quickly repack the wine in my checked luggage and hope the baggage handlers would be gentle.  After a 4-hour flight we were back home, wine bottle intact (thank you baggage guys), and ready for our own beds.  Great trip!

My lasting impressions of Paris – everybody smokes (impossible to escape from the second-hand smoke), squished dog shit on the sidewalks (apparently much better than in years before but still very noticeable), chaotic driving, narrow streets, superb and inexpensive wines and cheeses (think I’ll miss that most of all), sidewalk cafes and brasseries everywhere, the incongruous compatibility of the super modern La Defense area with old Paris (both wonderful in their architecture). Everyone should visit Paris.

On the Road – Week 2

June 1To Peronne.  Overcast but still warn. Barge left at 7 a.m. and entered a 4+ km tunnel at 8 a.m.  Took close to an hour to pass through it, arriving at another point in the middle of nowhere after breakfast.  Got the bikes off and started our daily journey.   Rolling hills (friendly) and lots of poppies growing by the roadside.

Poppies by the roadside

Poppies grow like weeds here – perhaps they are.  Every field has poppies growing on the verges and they have taken over some fallow fields. Canola starting to blossom too – their season must be a month ahead of ours.  Lunch at a former endive farm where Albert had stayed while researching the tour route last March.  Had some local Peronne beers and cider, followed by a video of how the owner used to grow and process endive.  The money went out of it though and he turned the place into a B&B last year, making more money the first year than he did producing endive! Biked into Peronne and went through the war museum.  We saw another bike shop in town but no good deals, although Robbie picked up another jersey.  This was our night to have supper in town so Albert asked locals for opinions on good, cheap restaurants.  He made reservations  at Le Saint Vincent, about a 20 minute walk from the boat. They offered 4 menu choices each of 3 courses and all looked great but no prices evident.  More than a few of us were expecting to wince when the bill came in, especially with 8 bottles of wine and a superb meal.  Total price, including tip, was 25 Euros each!  This earned Albert a round of applause.  Total biking for the day was an easy 39 km.
June 2. Peronne to Noyon.  Another fine biking day – sunny and warm, with little wind.  Spent some time on roads paralleling the Canal du Nord and spied the boat once.  Epancourt for coffee and on to Ham for lunch.  A busy and pretty little town.

Lunch in Ham

No problem with the bar owner for us taking up so many tables eating a packaged lunch, especially with the amount of beer we order.  Took to a bunch of back roads in the afternoon, dirt with lots of potholes, so slower going.  Pushed it pretty well when back on pavement though, in farm country.   Arrived in Noyon at 3:30 but Albert couldn’t make contact with the boat and didn’t know where it was going to dock.  So, what is a dry and thirsty group going to do?  Found a convenient bar and settled in until we got more news!  We had to wait for a while anyway  while Kathy had her leg stitched up from an incident earlier in the day. Finally got word from the boat, and Kathy back from the hospital, at 6pm.  Biked another 20 minutes through the most traffic we have seen to date to get to the canal and the barge.  Total biking for day 72 km, but most of it very pleasant.
June 3. Noyon to Compiegne.  Total biking 61 km.  Rained overnight and drizzly and cool to start the morning.  Stopped raining just as we were about to leave and stayed dry the rest of the day.  Everyone was dressed up in their rain clothes to start but soon shed them as we started doing a few hills.  The longest hill, between Tracy en Val (bottom) and Tracy le Mont (top) was 1 km and about 5-6% grade, so got the cardio system going but not onerous. Nice rolling countryside to start then descended into forest after the hill climb.  Not only forest, but paved bike trails! With the cooler weather and few cars to deal with, this was a fine day for biking.   Stopped at the Armastice Clearing, the site (museum now) where the 1918 and 1940 German-French armistaces had been signed. Toured the museum (Albert promises that it will be our last war stop), followed by lunch outside.  No tables, or chairs for that matter, and got a little cool.  Glad to get going again.  Eventually made our way through the forest trails, reminding me of Edmonton river valley at times (without the river), to Pierrefonds.

Pierrefonds castle

The town is the site of a huge 14th century castle, complete with battle scars (although it was demolished in 1617 and rebuilt in 1857) and cannonballs embedded in the stone walls. Some of the group took the tour of the interior but a few of us decided that beer had priority, seeing as that we were supposed to see a finer castle tomorrow.  We had to backtrack about 8 kms on our route to get to the turnoff for Compiegne, where the barge had docked for this night.  Nice bike trails through the woods still and got a great view of the palace in Compiegne from part way down a scenic viewpoint.  Albert took a wrong turn somewhere and we ended up biking right into the grounds of the palace until he was stopped by a cop who told us to get out.  Found a way to get outside the palace walls and biked through the city to the river.  Unfortunately, the palace closed at 6 p.m., just as we passed by, so we were not able to wander through it.  Pity, since this was the one day of the month with free admission!
June 4. Compienge to Creil.  Total biking 55 km.  Beautiful morning but started to deteriorate quickly after we left. Rode back up through town to get to the forest, then quiet paved trails for half the morning. The overcast finally produced a drizzle that turned into proper rain.  Once out of the forest, and shelter, we found that the wind had built up and was in our face the rest of the day.  Stopped for our first, and only, coffee break at St Jean aux Bois at a very nice restaurant – great atmosphere and a lovely aroma coming from the kitchen.

The Auberge

After that, it was open fields and tiny town after tiny town with no pub, restaurant or even a place to pee!  Eventually stopped for lunch at a large cedar bush – the only wind break around.  No place to sit so stood around eating our sandwiches and getting chilled. Good place for the guys to pee though!

Lunch/wind break

Compounding the lack of bar issue was the fact that France seems to be closed on Mondays, so even when we did come across a pub it was shut tight.  Albert finally got the library in St Fromburg to open up so that we could use the toilet.  The women were greatly relieved (pun intended).  Countryside far more rolling today with lots of up- and downhill runs.  Biking into Creil was an adventure.  The narrow roads were 2-way, the drivers impatient and no safe place to ride.  Even the sidewalks, which we normally avoid, had power poles in the middle of them so were even more of a challenge – could ride in the road with inches of space from the zipping cars or ride on the sidewalk and try to avoid the poles that could send you cartwheeling into traffic if you caught a handlebar.  A long, cold, wet, tiring day.
Albert:”Could we have a moment of silence before supper please?”
Jan:”Try to keep quiet Rod”
June 5. Creil to Auvers. Total biking 55 km again.  The morning looked promising but was cool.  After the hazardous ride getting out of Creil, the rest of the day was a piece of cake.  Only took a little over an hour to get to Chantilly palace

Chantilly castle

on good roads. Had our coffee break at a pub (L’Etrier) across the street from the palace grounds.   Unfortunately, the museums in France are closed on Tuesdays and we could only see it from beyond the gates.  I can see why the peasants rebelled, with the upper class flaunting that oppulance!  Quite an impressive place, like a mini Versailles.  Huge grounds, with large horse stables and a maze of well sanded and groomed trails for exercising the horses.  The trails looked like they used ski hill groomers, they were so nicely corduroyed!

Groomed horse trails

We rode on paved and packed dirt trails to get to our lunch spot – La Chateau de la Reine Blanche.  Beautiful little restaurant beside a lake, still on the Chantilly palace grounds.  Although still a little cool, we ate outdoors to enjoy the view.  After lunch, and exiting the forest, we spent the rest of the day on open roads trying to avoid getting run over, mostly.  The closer we get to Paris, we closer the cars get to us while passing.  Most cars still hang back while our entourage snakes through the narrow streets but there are a few that get a little too aggressive.  Still no horns blaring though,

Chateau de la Reine Blanche

much to my surprise. The drivers here are way more patient with bikes than the drivers in Canada would be.  We ended our day in Auvers, where Vincent van Gogh spent his last 70 days.  He did a lot of painting there before he did himself in and the town is capitalizing on it.  We rode up (emphasis on UP – must have been 15-20% in places) to the cemetery where he is buried.  Ironically, his and his brother’s headstones are the least elaborate there.

Van Gogh grave

On leaving the cemetery, it took about 5 minutes to get to where the barge was docked.  We set sail immediately and arrived in Conflans, at the confluence of the Oise and Seine Rivers, a few hours later.  Docked at a pretty quay, with flower gardens lining the riverside and huge flower pots of bamboo on the promenade.  There were a lot of permanently moored barges, used as floating homes, condos, cafe and even a church, along the dockside but a lot were in

Docked in Conflans

pretty decrepit condition.
June 6. Conflans to Bougival.  Total biking 30 km.  Overcast and cool morning again (dress warm) but the sun seemed to come out every time we climbed a hill (strip off).  Repeated the dressing/undressing thing a few times. Stopped at La Frette, a former (maybe current) artsy town.  Lots of art reproductions along the river road, painted by different artists who had lived there 60-70 years ago, which offered a good comparison of then and now views.  Were still there when the Feniks motored past for a photo and video op.  Continued on to St. Germain-en-Laie, where the birthplace chateau of Louis XIV is located.  Rode down the large paths to the terraces overlooking Paris, our first glimpse of the city.

Le Defense from the outskirts

Paris is huge!  We will be in the city biking for 2 days before we get to our final dockage, close to the Bastille.  Rode from Louis’s palace to Bougival, where we lunched in a park, then a 5 minute ride to the boat.  This was another supper night out and Albert found a Basque restaurant for us.  Great meal, lots of wine, and – again – total bill of 25 Euros.  Hope we can find that sort of deal when in the heart of Paris.  I have the feeling I’ll be living on frites for a week.
June 7. Bougival to Versailles.  Total biking for day was 22.9 km. Cool and threatening in morning but we only had a short ride to Versailles.  A 3 km portion of it was uphill, getting out of town, but only at a 5-6 % grade. Otherwise, an easy ride.  Albert led us right in to the palace grounds, through a gate marked ‘No Bikes’, and right up to the palace before a security guard on a scooter and another in an SUV headed us off and started barking orders.  Guess they didn’t like us breaking their rules.  They led us back down to whence we came and told us to go in through the main gates.  Nothing like a police escort through the grounds of Versailles!  Finally made it inside the correct gates, stood in line to buy tickets and stood in another line to get in to the main palace.  Only took about 40 minutes.  This place must pull in a pile of money – 18 Euros for a day pass and there were 1000’s of people there on a wet Thursday! Still, the grounds and buildings are so large that Versailles soaks them up pretty well.  The opulence of the main palace outdoes any other palace seen to date.  No wonder they lost their heads, flaunting that sort of wealth. I did enjoy all the artwork and the furniture though. It poured for a portion of the time we were there, including the time spent waiting in line for the train to Marie Antoinette’s palace and the gardens.  It was too miserable to wander in the gardens, unfortunately, but we walked through Marie’s place.  It was not so opulent as the main palace, not jammed full of artwork or paintings on the ceiling, but I’m sure she was very comfortable eating her cake there.  I have not included any pictures in the blog because 1 or 2 pictures would not do it justice.  The place is over the top with decadence. After 4 hours touring the place, it was time to ride back.  A short 1 km uphill, some reasonably quiet roads, then the 3 km exhilarating downhill into Bougival.  The barge left just after we arrived back and sailed closer to Paris, docking for the night in Puteaux.
June 8. La Defense.  Total biking for day was just 13.3 km.  Biked through a portion of the city to the NEW Paris.  Everyone was astounded at how modern this area of the city is.

La Defense office towers

This is really the downtown Paris, not the old Paris that most of the tourists see.  All the head offices are in this area, the architecture  varied – no two buildings look remotely the same – and spacious!  The open straight line between the Grand Arch and the Arc de Triumph, many miles away, is a sight to behold.  What great city planning.  If only the arena district in Edmonton could take a few pointers from here on how to create a downtown cityscape. Distinctive, attractive office buildings, huge pedestrian malls, restaurants, bars, public art, convenient public transit – it just invites people to be there. We followed the arch line pretty well back down to the Seine and back to the barge.

Towards the Arc de Triomphe

After putting all the bikes back on board, we set sail for the centre of Paris.  A 3-hour cruise took us past the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame and into the lock at Pont Morland in canal St. Martin, in the Bastille area, where we docked for our last night here.  We set out for a brief walking tour of Ile Notre Dame, and Notre Dame Cathedral, before supper. Stopped for a quick beer during a downpour before walking through the church.  Albert seemed to be in a hurry to get us back to the boat, presumably for our final “Captain’s Supper”.  There have been many highlights of this tour, and some surprises, but the biggest was what awaited us.  Two of our group had a hidden agenda that they planned to get married on this day.  Only Gordon, a minster, and Esther knew about it beforehand and the entire ceremony was pulled off to perfection as a complete surprise to everyone present.  The crew was let in on the secret at the

Charlotte and Robbie

last minute, to do some necessary preparations, but the rest of us were completely in the dark.  My ski and biking buddy Robbie did me the great honour of asking me to be a witness to his nuptials and I could not have been more pleased.  I wish him and Charlotte every happiness in the years to come.  What a great way to  end off this adventure.

Total biking for the past 2 weeks was 604.5 km.  Not bad for a bunch of 60-70 year olds.

On the Road – Week 1

Finally have time, and an internet connection, to update the trip so far.

May 26.  Checked out of the hotel after partaking in a feed of waffles.  Can’t go to Belgium without trying the waffles!  Yes, they were good, especially with the ice cream, whipping cream and chocolate sauce.

A healthy lunch

The famous Belgian frites, though, are nothing special at all – no different from McCains.  And they charge for condiments, 50 cents for a dollop.  Anyway, we loaded up a taxi with our luggage, and all but 2 of us made the 25 minute walk down to the bargeplein.  Met the crew of the Feniks and settled into our cabins – small! Gerry and I have a cabin with bunk beds – very comfortable – but no space to unpack and 2 people can’t use the room at the same time without being extremely intimate.  The room is 6 feet wide, including the width of the bed, and just over 6 feet long.

Feniks cabin – 6 ft wide, 6.5 feet long

Also a tiny bathroom – have to put the garbage pail in the shower just to sit on the toilet! There are a few shelves in the room, which is more than we had in the hotel room in Bruges, but most of clothing has to stay in suitcases stashed under the bottom bunk.  We had a beer (Dutch – Amstel, since the barge just came from Holland), adjusted the bikes that we will use for the next 2 weeks and left for a short ride to Damme.  Lovely bike trails and they are very well used by walkers and lots of bikers.  Hardly any locals wear helmets and only maybe 50% of road bikers wear them.  Damme is a pretty little town just northeast of Bruges. As will be part of our daily routine for the next 2 weeks, we sat out in an outdoor patio, had a beer, took photos of the local buildings and got back in the saddle. After the 18 km ride, put the bikes away and had a relaxing evening on board.
May 27.  First full day of riding.  Bruges to Ghent. After  a few more bike adjustments, left around 9:30am.  Early into the ride, we passed by a monument to WW2 Canadians who died while liberating Belgium.    The courtesy of the cars and other bikers in Belgium is almost unnerving.  Cars will stop for you when you turn into traffic and I have not heard a horn or shouts of inconvenience or seen abusive gestures at any time, even with 19 riders stopping a line of traffic to cross a road.  Stopped in a little town, Poeke, for lunch and beer.

Our daily routine

Hot day and the town fountain looked very inviting.  Every town has numerous bars  and all have lots of tables on the sidewalk or, if on the square, out 8 deep into the square.  What is quickly evident though is that bars on the square charge more for the beer than those in a side street.  Also, the towns are CLEAN!  No litter, plastic bags, coffee cups, anything.  Well, except for cigarette butts.  For all the biking these people do, they  still haven’t figured out that smoking is unhealthy. Even road bikers, all kitted out in their team jerseys and shorts, stopping for a beer break can be seen puffing away.  Arrived in Gent/Ghent by 4pm and our guide took us on a walking tour.

Another cathedral, this time in Ghent

Again, lots of churches, a large town square, and many bars.  Although obviously catering to tourists, every patio had numerous locals relaxing with a beer.  Left to find the barge but it hadn’t arrived yet so we biked around looking for a bar.  Think we could find one in the barge area?  Had to go about 2 km before we came across one.  Total biking for the day was 68 km.  Pretty good for our first day. The barge was still pretty warm at night and it was difficult to get to sleep. No air conditioning, small windows in the cabin and no air movement so it was sultry to say the least.
May 28Ghent to Oudenarde.  Again, lovely trails and paths.  The network of trails is astounding.  The bike trails are actually multi-purpose country roads and, although only 1 lane wide, you will encounter cars, road bikes, motorcycles, hikers, tractors – pretty anything that will fit on an 8-foot wide trail!  And, as in the city, everyone is so patient and courteous with oncoming and passing traffic.  The trails are numbered like roads,

Belgian bike route sign

with directional signs at many intersections. In the small area of Flanders that we were in, there are over 790 km of biking trails, with the local gov’t producing detailed maps.  Kind of like an AMA for bikers.  Stopped at Ename for lunch and beer. Eventually started paralleling the Schelde (Skelda) River and stayed with it right into Oudenarde. Arrived around 3pm and went for a guided tour of the cathedral (Saint Walberga) and the tapestry museum.


After the hot day, the darkened coolness of the tour buildings was a soporific for some people and it was a struggle to stay awake. The one good thing about this tour is that I learned something! I always thought the stained glass windows in the churches were just meant to be fancy and decorative. Not so! They were set up like comic books to tell a religious story to the illiterate populace, who had no access to manuscripts (and the printing press had not been invented yet).  The graphic novels of the time.  Total biking for the day was an easy 38 km. Hot and sticky again at night. The steel of the ship absorbs heat and doesn’t give it up easily.
May 29Oudenarde to Tournai.  A little cooler in the morning but sunny and warmed up quickly.  We left the river to take a trip on part of the Tour de Flanders route.  Only a few hundred metres of relief here but some roads (on the TdF route) are up to 20% grades.  We stopped at the bottom of one of the TdF grades for pictures, all cobblestones, and watched one road rider start his way up.  We went up a much gentler road, maybe equivalent to Victoria hill but longer.  That got the blood going a bit after all the flat countryside of the past few days.

Forest trails

Worked our way into a forest with lovely scenic trails, mostly packed dirt, leading to a nice little bar. Bars are everywhere here! Had coffee (beer) break and headed down to the lowlands again to meet back up with the Schelda River on on to Helkjin for lunch (and more beer).  We are now in Wallonia, the French part of Belgium, after spending the previous days in Flanders, the Flemish part. At least I can read some of the signs now!  Followed the river all the way into Tournai.  Smooth, flat trail – a road biker’s heaven.  Not only are the trails here very well maintained, they have no frost heaves so it is not like riding a washboard.  Total for the day was 45 km.  Biked right past the barge so we could get into the centre of Tournai to find a

Tournai TdF jersey

bike store before closing.  No such luck – only stores were on the outskirts of town.  A bunch of us are looking for bike jerseys, preferably Tour de Flanders, but not likely now since we will enter France tomorrow. Tournai is the end of the second stage of the Tour de France and the local belfry was decked out in a large TdF jersey.

After looking around the local cathedral, under extensive renovation, we (surprise, surprise) went to another bar. Hung around the barge at night, finally getting time to update journal.
May 30. Tournai to Bouchain.  Cooler in morning but warmed up to mid-20’s again.  Pretty flat day.  Passed from Belgium into France in morning.  Just a small sign denoting the border.

Mike in France

At first the trails in France were very similar to those in Belgium but soon ran out and we had to use roads, complete with traffic.  Roads still narrow and no room for 2 cars and a line of bikes, so cars would end up following us for quite a ways while waiting for a break in traffic.  Must be very used to bikers though as we still have not heard a horn beeped in impatience.   Stopped at noon for coffee, then went on to Hergnies for lunch for those who didn’t eat it earlier.  Arrived in Bouchain at 4:30pm.  68 km total riding.  Good day of biking – flat, sunny and not windy.  The barge had not arrived in Bouchain when we got there (held up in locks) so we settled into a bar.  Art inquired if there was a bike shop in town – the bartender said no but one of the patrons piped up in French and said he would drive us (Gerry, Robbie, and me) to one in a town a few miles back. Off we went in the fellow’s car, complete with a half-eaten baguette on the dash to remind us we were in France.  Found the store 3 towns back.  We must have passed it on our ride in but no one noticed it.  The 3

The BMC Team

of us went in and, after inquiring about jerseys, the storekeeper pulled out a special he was having – the jersey and bib shorts of the 2011 BMC team for 42 Euros!  Gery and I got the kit and Robbie got the jersey (for 25 Euros). Outstanding deal! Couldn’t even come close to that at MEC. And he threw in a BMC carry-bag with it.  He had 3 happy customers.  The local drove us back to Bouchain, we bought him a couple of beers for his trouble and we biked to the barge.
May 31. Arleux. A partial rest day.  At our request,  Albert arranged for 3 vans to drive us to Vimy Ridge in the morning, instead of what was on his itinerary.  Took about 45 minutes to get there from Bouchain.  Very impressive monument and displays.

Vimy memorial

Spent about 90 minutes there before taking the vans to Arleux, where the barge was to meet us.  Would have liked to spend longer at Vimy, especially for the guided tunnel tour, but he had a schedule to keep.  Ate lunch at the boat and some of us hopped on bikes for a short ride to the coal mining museum in Lewarde.  Took the “cage” down to the mining level (i.e the first floor) where numerous realistic displays were set up in a series of fake drifts to show history of coal mining in the area.  Very well done with extensive use of actual rusty steel sets, mesh holding back broken rock, mining equipment, etc.

“Drift” in Lewarde coal mining museum

Had some people fooled thinking they were actually underground. Total riding for day was an easy 23 km.  The barge left Arleux shortly after we got back on board and headed towards Peronne.  We passed through numerous locks before docking pretty well in the middle of nowhere. Cool evening on deck for a change.

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