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.
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.
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.
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.
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 28. Ghent 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,
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 29. Oudenarde 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.