The second leg of my European trip in September was a re-do of a bike-and-barge trip that I had done previously in 2012. I enjoyed that trip so much, probably because it was my first bike-and-barge and my first trip back to Europe since 1973 (!) that I decided to do it again. This trip was with a totally different group of people, though I had biked with most of them for years with our ski club’s biking group, and on a different barge. The destinations each night, where the barge would moor for the night, were pretty well the same as before but I was sure that our daily routes would vary, simply because there are so many bike route options in Belgium and France.
Saturday Sept 7
We spent the morning walking around Bruges. We couldn’t get on the barge until 3 so just sightseed until we could check in. I have been to Bruges twice before and have visited all the top tourist spots so I was fine with the wandering. While walking on the bargeweg, the area where the barges dock, in the morning, we said hello to the captain as he was getting it ready for us. He looked concerned that we might want to board but we assured him that we were only curious and would be back at the proper check-in time.
With only a 20-minute walk from the hotel to the barge, we all dragged our suitcases down the streets instead of taking cabs. The captain met us as we climbed on board the Zwaantje at 3 pm, helping us heft our suitcases down the steep, narrow stairs to the cabins below deck. We were introduced to the crew: Martijn (captain), Andre (guide), Bo (hostess), Gabriel (mate), Frank (cook), and Michael (engineer). We checked out the bikes for proper sizing and made a few adjustments but didn’t do any riding. The last 2 times I left from Bruges, our check ride was out to the town of Damme, a few km out of the city. I guess Andre will just eye us up tomorrow to see what sort of riders we are.
Sunday Sept 8
Bruges to Ghent
It rained during the night and over breakfast but lightened up as we left and didn’t rain the rest of the day. We had a few opening day incidents – the batteries on Susan and Brian’s e-bikes lost all charge after just a few kms. Andre had to get the boat to send out 2 charged up spares. A few hours later, Susan got a flat. Took longer than usual to change it because Andre wanted to patch it instead of just removing the wheel and replacing the tube. That proved unsuccessful – the patch wouldn’t stick properly – so he eventually changed the tube anyway. Don’t know why he didn’t do that to start. Maybe he was more used to dealing with internal hub bikes where removing the wheel is a pain in the ass!
We stopped at the SAR (South Alberta Regiment) memorial, then at a herb garden, where I managed to hit myself in the teeth with the bungee holding my pannier down. Cut my lip and sore but teeth all right, thank goodness. I thought that I had broken a tooth, it hit with so much force. Lucille and I were quite the pair – her with a black eye from her fall on the hike and me with a fat lip!
Made it to Aalter for lunch just after noon. Stopped at a bar in the town square so coffee and/or beer could be ordered to supplement our bagged lunches and to make use of their washrooms. This will be our plan for most days, especially if we don’t stop for coffee in the mid-morning.
Got to the Ghent town square around 3:15. Walked around the old downtown area, visiting the churches. Paid €4 to see the Ghent altarpiece again. Didn’t get the audioguide again though. A group of us then went to a bar before getting back to the square by 5pm, when Andre led us back to the boat. Had another beer on deck, a shower, washed my jersey, then supper at 6. Went for short walk after supper, followed by a game of Farkel. To bed a little after 10. No internet in the cabins ☹️ so I couldn’t do my French lessons. I’ll have to take time during the mornings to do them in the lounge before breakfast. Total riding for day was 57 km.
Map of the day’s ride: Bruges to Ghent
Monday Sept 9
Ghent to Oudenaarde
Started off at 9 again with sunny skies but cool temperature. Made our way through the outskirts of Ghent to country roads and forest trails, wonderful for biking. Stopped for a break in Huise. We stopped outside Oudenaarde at the archeological park in Ename to look around. The park has the remains of a Benedictine Abbey that existed from the 11th to 18th century before falling into ruin. All that exists now are the outlines of the foundation walls. We then went into downtown Oudenaarde to visit the biking museum, hoping to be able to buy some souvenir biking shirts. The museum was closed but the store was still open. Lots of pricey jerseys on display but no XXL shirts to fit me! I tried on a L but it was a club fit and waaay too tight for this recreational rider body. Lucille and Susan, both being small, had better luck and bought the nice black and yellow Flanders lion shirts. Back on the boat by 4pm after 59.6 km of riding.
Map of the day’s ride: Ghent to Oudenaarde
Tuesday Sept 10
Oudenaarde to Tournai
Another sunny day and quite warm for a change. Didn’t take long until we were down to just jerseys. We rode to the city hall for a tour of it and the tapestry museum within. I had seen the tapestries last time but not the collection of silver and gold tableware and fine cabinets in the attic. Impressive collection.
After a coffee on the square, we headed off at 11:30 – an unusual late start for our riding day. After about 15 km, we started to climb up out of the valley – this time on cobblestones! The Oude Kwaremont is a section of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, one of the professional spring classics. One website describes it thusly: ”Since 2012, the Oude Kwaremont has been part of the finish for the pros. It’s the penultimate climb challenging the pros. Just as in previous editions of the Tour, this climb may well be the deciding factor. The steepest kilometre has an 11% gradient”. The maximum grade shown on my Garmin was 8.9% but I believe the website. Damn that was hard work – the cobblestones made it seem so much steeper! The e-bikes ate it up, though the rest of us needed a little recovery time once at the top. A little taste of what the pros have to endure, although we had suspension and bigger tires to better absorb the teeth-rattling cobbles.
Not long after, we entered a wooded trail that followed the border between Flanders and Wallonia, the same one we took 7 years ago. I rode behind Andre and he sped along pretty good, and we eventually left everyone else behind. Not sure if he was testing me because I passed him going up the Oude Kwaremont or maybe he was just enjoying the ride. We waited for Carol, who was next to show up, then I waited as a corner as everyone else made their way through the forest. We passed by the restaurant that we ate at 7 years ago (it appeared closed) but stopped at another one a few km beyond. After lunch, we got to do a really nice downhill to make up for that brutal climb.
The stretch into Tournai is a flat towpath beside the Canal du Nord that was a joy to ride. We caught up to and passed the Zwaantje as we rode into the city. Stopped in the square for 45 minutes to look around the Notre Dame church and have a beer, then back to the boat. Total riding for the day was 47.5 km.
Map of the day’s ride: Oudenaarde to Tournai
Wednesday Sept 11
Tournai to Bouchain
The barge started cruising at 7 am and moored at a temporary spot outside the town of Maulde at 9:30 to let us off. We started riding in light rain, but it didn’t last too long and it was warm enough to be comfortable. Al and Susan chose to stay on the barge for the day to rest their legs. It was a pretty easy day as the route was flat all day and we made more stops than usual. We actually disembarked the barge in France, rode back into Belgium and then back into France 8 km later at a little “customs stop” at Rumegies. We stopped for a coffee at 10:30 and lunch at around 1 pm, complete with huge bowls of French fries for everyone to share. We stopped at the mining museum at Lewarde, which I had enjoyed 7 years ago, but we couldn’t get a guided tour for 2 hours so decided to just have another coffee break 😦 That was very disappointing, as I was looking forward to doing the tour again and I was sure that the others would really enjoy it too! Andre knew that we would be going there and should have phoned ahead to ensure that they would be ready for us. Poor planning on his part.
After 15 more km, we met the barge in Bouchain then cruised for another few hours to our evening dockage in Arleux. Total riding for the day was 58.7 km.
Map of the day’s ride: Tournai to Bouchain
Thursday Sept 12
Arleux to Havrincourt
We started biking in Arleux at 9 am. After only a km, we stopped at a garlic market in town for a look around and pictures. The town is well known for producing garlic, both raw and smoked. A braid of 10 smoked garlic heads went for €8. They smoke them over peat for 10 days before putting them out for sale.
A little further on we stopped at lock number 1 on the Canal du Nord and watched while the Zwaantje went through. The whole lock system is an interesting process and works very well. Obviously, the barges have to be narrow enough to fit but many barges, like the Zwaantje, have to reduce their height as well. The transom house is the highest part of the barge and most are fitted with mechanical or hydraulic systems to raise and lower the walls as required.
Biking through a small town, we noticed something that we had not seen in Canada – a bread vending machine! Our guide told us that it is a law that every town in France is required to have a bakery to provide fresh bread for its citizens. Obviously, there must be a loophole as the town we were pedaling through did not have a bakery but did have that vending machine to provide bread from a nearby town. There was a proviso though – a sign on the machine said that the bakery is closed on Monday and the bread within was from Sunday!
We continued biking on through hillier countryside to Cambrai where we had lunch and a walk around. Very nice cathedral (Notre Dame de Grace de Cambrai) and worth visiting. We stopped at a Cistercian monastery further on, but it was not open for visitors.
The countryside here is more rolling and we ended up doing more climbing (476m) than previous days. Lots of turns and, with the slowdown on the hills and me generally in front, I ended up being a “corner” numerous times, i.e. waiting for the group to catch up so I could show them where Andre went. Once the sweep was in view, the corner could rejoin the flow of bikers. Whoever happened to be behind Andre when numerous turns were made would be the next “corner” person. I liked doing it because it gave me a nice workout getting back up to the front.
We met the barge on the Canal du Nord pretty well in the middle of nowhere. We will stay here the night and cruise through a long tunnel tomorrow before resuming our biking, ending up in Peronne. After supper, Martijn walked us over to lock number 7, a short distance from where we were docked, and explained the process of how the locks work. Interesting concept with the surge pond to accept the first half of the water when lowering the lock level and then feed that water back into the lock when raising the level again. Total riding for the day was 54.4 km.
Map of the day’s ride: Arleux to Havrincourt
Friday Sept 13
After tunnel to Peronne
After breakfast, we cruised through the 4.3 km long tunnel. We had to wait to enter for 3 other barges to exit, then took about 40 minutes to get through. Docked just after and started biking from there. Stopped at the South African memorial at Deville Wood, a very impressive commemorative site with museum, cemetery and expansive grounds on the site of the battle. This must be their version of our Vimy Ridge memorial. We stayed for about an hour then biked a km or so to a bar in Longueval for lunch. It started raining lightly just before lunch but finished by the time we did – great timing! Another cemetery stop at the Necropole Nationale in Maurepas, a French one this time.
After that, we did a lot of rolling hills before getting to the bike trail beside the Canal du Nord for the last 5 -7 km. Total riding for the day was an easy 52.8 km.
Map of the day’s ride: tunnel to Peronne
Saturday Sept 14
Today was our, and the crew’s, day off. No biking or meals, except breakfast, so we headed over to the large WW1 museum in town. Spent 4 hours wandering through the museum and the market. I have to say that I am getting pretty tired of seeing the always depressing results of war, especially WW1. So much suffering, destruction and death, only to serve political purposes. Which, I suppose, is the whole point of these memorials – not to glorify war but to serve as a reminder that humans have to do better at resolving conflict or risk repeating history.
After a nice group supper at one of the higher rated restaurants in town, Le Bistrot d’Antoine, we broke up into smaller groups and wandered around. Chris and Susan heard some music coming from the St. Jean-Baptiste church, went in and there was a string sextet practicing for a concert next month. Four more of us followed, after getting permission to sit quietly by. They also had a choir and the enormous church organ as accompaniment. That was a nice treat and the acoustics were incredible, with no electric amplification needed. Another unexpected highlight of the trip! No riding today.
Sunday Sep 15
Peronne to Noyon
Headed out at our usual time on a sunny and warm day. We stayed beside the Canal de la Somme on the towpath or on nearby roads, for quite a ways, eventually stopping for lunch in the town of Ham. Found a patisserie a few blocks away to supplement our packed lunch and succumbed to our sweet tooth (teeth?) with a nice dessert. Damn, I’m going to miss good bakeries once back home!
The route the rest of the day was mostly flat and restful – country roads, little traffic, sunny, warm and gentle breezes. Great riding day! We rode into Noyon and spent an hour or so poking around the large ancient cathedral, originating from the 12th Century, and its grounds. Still lots of evidence of war damage in the form of bullet holes and chips in the foundations, possibly left unrepaired on purpose as a reminder of the destructiveness of war. One poignant area was a stitch of bullet holes, positioned at chest height, on a wall in an interior courtyard.
Total riding for the day was 63.7 km.
Map of the route: Peronne to Noyon
Monday Sept 16
Noyon to Compiegne
Left the barge at 9am. Cool again to start but people were shedding after the first hour. Everybody was anticipating the hill between Tracy le Val and Tracy le Mont, based on what I had told them the night before. I had climbed that hill 7 years before and remembered it as long with a steeper section. It was actually only 1.5 km long and maxed out at 5.6%, kind of like Groat Road North back in Edmonton. No one had any problem with it (maybe because I had sold it as something worse).
We stopped at the Abbey of Ourscamp for a look around and pictures. Old ruins but still a functioning abbey. After the hill, we rolled on up high on country roads with great views of the area. Eventually, we cruised joyfully down a long winding hill to Bitry, the town at the base, and stayed low the rest of the day. Stopped for coffee at Vic sur Aisne, followed by a flat tire by Doug just as we started off again. Andre led us along a path beside the river that was interesting in its, um, closeness. That is the narrowest single track that I’ve been on, ducking and weaving to avoid the branches the whole time and only occasionally successful! This was followed by a really nice rail trail, but it led onto a busy and dangerous main highway for almost 5 km. Andre almost got hit by a semi and informed us that he will not be leading his return group along it!
We had lunch at a grocery store in Rethondes, then a short ride to the Clairiere d’Armastice, where the 1918 armistice was signed. Spent an hour there going through the museum but I am “warred” out. The €7 admission fee was not well spent as I took no enjoyment looking at more war mementos. The ride from there to the dock in Compiegne was quick and pleasant. Total riding for the day was 58.5 km.
Today’s route: Noyon to Compiegne
Tuesday Sept 17
Compiegne to Creil
Started off at 9 again, warmer but cloudier than the past few days. Stopped at Compiegne palace for a few minutes for a look around outside then started off through the woods. Great paved trail for 10 km at least, then headed off to Pierrefonds castle. We stopped for 45 minutes to let people check it out and have a coffee/beer and pastry just off the town square. It is still the best looking castle we have seen, like a movie set.
We had a few minor uphill sections over the day, but it seemed like most of the riding was downhill for some reason. Nice weather, great trails and lots of downhills! What more could a cyclist ask for 😊.
We did a stop at the abbey of St Jean aux Bois (open for mass on the 4th Sunday of every month), as we did on my previous tour, and then at a picnic spot in the woods for lunch. Rather than riding through the traffic-filled streets of Creil, the barge picked us up at Pont Ste. Maxence and cruised down the Oise the rest of the way into Creil. The highlight of the day was John breaking out in a version of Chantilly Lace in the evening 😁🎶 in anticipation of our ride tomorrow.
I was surprised to see the barge that I was on for my Bruges to Paris tour in 2012, the Feniks, docked right behind us in Creil. It was on its way in the opposite direction to us, towards Bruges. It now has a new owner/captain and has undergone a few very necessary renovations – increasing the room sizes (badly needed) so that it now houses 14 passengers instead of 18. The captain said that they will add air conditioning for next year., also badly needed.
Total riding for the day was 55.2 km.
Today’s route: Compiegne to Pont Ste. Maxence
Wednesday Sept 18
Creil to Auvers sur l’Oise
Interesting start to the morning. Around 2:30 am, some thieves cut the cable securing the bikes on the boat. That set off an alarm in the crew cabins, so Andre and Michael ran upstairs and chased them off before they got any bikes. Last year, 6 bikes were stolen while in Creil. Not a good place to dock apparently. The people who went out for a walk last night said that the location was pretty sketchy, and they did not feel as safe as at the other towns that we docked at.
The day started cooler than it has been, around 6C. I wore gloves and a jacket to start but quickly peeled off once up the hill out of Creil. After getting out of the city, we rode on the lovely forest trails to the Chateau de Chantilly. We spent 2.5 hours there roaming the museum (€17), the stables and having lunch. I never got to see it the last time through as it was closed that day, and I am glad I got the chance this time. The place is like a mini Versailles with 100’s of paintings, other works of art and the furniture and accoutrements of life in a palace. The library is also impressive: “The library of the Petit Château contains over 1500 manuscripts and 17,500 printed volumes, that is part of the collection of over 700 incunabula, and some 300 medieval manuscripts, including one page of the Registrum Gregorii (c. 983)” – Wikipedia
After leaving the chateau, we again hit the lovely trails through the forest around Chantilly. Saw a couple of horses being run on the sandy, well groomed, horse trails. Some of our bike trails were a little sandy too, forcing us to pay attention in some sections.
The rest of the day, which turned out to be a nice temperature, was spent on bike paths, busy roads, in busy towns, and single track. Passed through a unique, somewhat diabolical, gate intending to keep motorbikes off the trail in a regional park. Probably 80% of the day was good biking and the remainder required plenty of concentration! Total biking for the day was 59.9 km.
Today’s route: Creil to Auver-sur-l’Oise
Thursday Sept 19
Auvers to Bougival
Our last day of cycling. Blue skies again and the promise of warmth. We started by riding to Van Gogh’s house in town then up to the cemetery to see his grave. The hill wasn’t nearly as steep as I remembered! We headed back down but took a meandering route through the town to get back to the Oise and the bike trails. After going 14.5 km we stopped for a stretch and realized that Lucille wasn’t with us! Andre called the boat and was told that she was at the tourist office, so he rode back to get her. Don’t know why the boat didn’t call Andre first, as soon as they were aware of the situation! Apparently, there was a miscommunication and Lucille went down to Auvers a different way than we did. She handled the predicament perfectly though – going to the tourist office, calling the boat (which had already departed) to let them know the situation and getting maps of where our lunch stop was scheduled. Andre got back to her just as she was going to leave – good timing.
We all waited in Pont Cergy, having coffee (€4 – welcome to the outskirts of Paris) and relaxing in the sun on a beautiful day. Once they got back, we continued on to Conflans where we had lunch. Conflans is where we docked for the night 7 years ago. Then on bike paths, paved and dirt trails, to St. Germaine, the site of Louis XIVs palace and with a view of Paris in the distance. We stopped for a refreshment and then on for another 7 km to our dockage on Ile de la Chaussee, near Bougival. Total riding for the day was 47.2 km.
Today’s route: Auvers to Bougival
Total route: Bruges to Paris
Total riding for the trip was 614.4 km
Bougival to Paris
Left Bougival at 7am to cruise down the Seine into Paris on a nice sunny morning. Although we were not that far out of Paris, all the bends in the river made it a longer trip than we anticipated. We got to La Defence at 10am and the locks around 10:30. Got to the bridges and Eiffel Tower at 11:30 and our dockage at Port Morland around 1pm.Went for a walk with Lucille, John and Brian in the afternoon. Walked to Notre Dame but the perimeter was completely sealed off as they work at the extensive renovations. Took a few pictures but no good perspective through the fencing and scaffolding. Stopped at a bar on the river walk on the way back for our first, though not last, expensive Parisian beer!
Saturday Sept 21
We had on final breakfast on the barge, finished packing, then we all left. Andre had arranged for 3 taxis for 9am and they all arrived on time! Our taxi, with 5 passengers, was €38 to get to the IBIS Opera La Fayette hotel. Brian, John, Lucille and I then went for a walk to check out the sights. We walked down to the Louvre, then through the Tulleries gardens to Place de la Concorde. It was completely sealed off by riot police, anticipating problems from the yellow-vesters, so we headed across the river, past Musee d’Orsay and to the Eiffel Tower. The lineup was too long to waste time in and no one wanted to climb up the tower except for Lucille and me anyway, so we went to a side street, had lunch, and headed back towards the Arc de Triomphe. The closer we got, the more cops lined the streets, many dressed in riot gear. The Arc was sealed off by police, with no entry underneath let alone up top, so we started off towards the Champs Elysees. That is when we got hit by the tear gas. The yellow-vesters had co-opted the climate change demonstration and the hooligan cohort were vandalizing cars, stores, etc. The cops were using tear gas to disperse them, and it wafted up to us. Not a pleasant experience! I can see why the professional demonstrators wear ski goggles to protect their eyes, as well as masks. We made a wide berth around the problem area and finally made it back to the hotel after a much longer walk than we anticipated. It is interesting to note that Lucille and I walked through a climate demonstration in Oslo just a few weeks before. It was completely peaceful – just speeches by the coordinators – and, though the crowd was large, it was more a party atmosphere than confrontational and destructive.
Sunday Sept 22
A group of us walked to the Louvre, where we all went our separate ways according to our viewing priorities. Spent the day, from 9 to 3, there and were pretty much museumed out by the end. The place is just too vast, with so much to see, that it is impossible to give it justice in one day. But one day was all we had, so… Mona had been moved from the room she was in 7years ago, due to renovations, to a temporary display area and the room was packed. Guards cycled everyone through in airport security fashion, giving people about a minute for pictures before making them move along. The chaos and jostling disappeared once we left the Mona room. Unfortunately for all the other artwork hung on the walls, none of it was admired, or even able to be admired, by the throng. They only had eyes for Mona Lisa. In our 6 hours of walking around, at a tiring museum pace, we were still able to see almost everything on our list.
Monday Sept 23
We wanted to go to the Musée d’Orsay but it was closed on Mondays so we decided to take a free walking tour of Montmartre. As usual, we walked from our hotel to an area across from the Moulin Rouge, about 20 minutes away, to meet the tour guide. There were about 15 people in our group, so a little crowded to always hear what the guide was saying, but it was still an informative tour of a pretty area of Paris. From what used to be a low-rent, bohemian district, it is now one of the priciest and sought-after, certainly gentrified, places to live. Our guide took us through many of the side streets to show us examples of present-day art, also pointing out the old studios of masters like Degas, Van Gogh and Picasso, among others. I love the idea of the Love Wall, where “I Love You” is written in over 100 different languages. Her recounting the tragic love life and death of Dalida, when showing us her former house and the statue erected in her honour, showed us that fame doesn’t always bring happiness. The tour ended at Sacre-Coeur which, she stated, was hated by most Parisians, a carry-over from when it was built in the late 1800’s. “It is only loved by the tourists” was her comment.
Later in the afternoon, most of us changed hotels to be closer to CDG airport. Most of the group had early flights to catch on Tuesday morning and didn’t want to fight Paris traffic to get there. We went for a final supper as a group at a restaurant near the hotel, enjoying our last night together.
Although the bike/barge trip was enjoyable, I did not have the same level of enjoyment as 7 years before. For the most part, the weather was great, the barge was comfortable, the crew of the Zwaantje was outstanding, the routes were interesting and my fellow passengers were a hoot. No complaints in that regard. My main disappointments were that we didn’t get to visit Versailles or La Defense or take the “underground” tour of the Lewarde mine, which I knew that everyone would have enjoyed, even though I had seen all those places before. But the same feeling of wonder and discovery that I had on the initial visit wasn’t there. Somewhat similar to “you can’t go home again”, because it will never be the same. In future, I’ll stick to visiting places that I have never been to before and just savour the memories of the places I have seen already.