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

Posts tagged ‘Bruges’

Biking From Bruges to Paris

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
Bruges, Barge

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.

 

Didn’t take us long to get our first flat! Unfortunately, this was a common occurrence over the next 2 weeks 😦

 

The Belgian version of a corn maze, though no one got lost.

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.

More of the wonderful Belgian trails

 

Oudenaarde city hall. Also a tapestry museum.

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.

With 24 riders, we tended to overwhelm most restaurants that we stopped at, especially the ones with only 1 employee on duty (like this one)!

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.

Me giving the “customs inspector” a wet willie.

 

Lucille having some fun with the customs guy. He seemed unperturbed.

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.

One of the garlic shops in Arleux. Pallets of garlic braids ready to be shipped off.

 

The Swaantje entering Lock #1 on the Canal du Nord. Tight fit!

 

A bread vending machine, selling fresh bread daily.

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.

Leaving the barge, after exiting the tunnel, to start our day.

 

The South African memorial at Deville Wood. A very sombre place for quiet reflection and an impressive memorial and museum.

Map of the day’s ride: tunnel to Peronne

Saturday Sept 14
Peronne

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.

The war museum in Peronne.

 

The giant organ in the St. Jean-Baptiste church in Peronne. You can just see the top of the organists blond head below the centre pipes. Glad to have heard it perform in the evening.

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.

Rolling along the quiet secondary roads in France.

 

The war damaged church courtyard in Noyon showing an ominous line of bullet holes at chest height on the wall.

 

Old and older and still surviving. If those walls could talk…

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.

More French country roads on a sunny day.

 

One of the wider areas on the single track. Usually the branches stretched across the whole trail.

 

The train car in the Armistice Museum.

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.

The lovely bike trail out of Compiegne on the way to Pierrefonds.

 

Our first view of Pierrefonds Castle. Like a movie set.

 

Not all trails are paved but most of the dirt ones are in good condition and fun to ride.

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.

The Chateau de Chantilly.

 

One of the many art-filled rooms in the chateau, like a mini Versailles. The Musee Conde contains one of the largest art collections in France.

 

Part of the vast library, containing books and manuscripts dating as far back as 983.

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.

 

Fun hard-packed dirt trails after leaving Conflans.

 

Our first view of Paris from St. Germaine.

One of the life-size sculptures in a park near our dock on Ile de la Chaussee. Very well done!

Today’s route: Auvers to Bougival

Total route: Bruges to Paris

Total riding for the trip was 614.4 km

FridaySept 20
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!

Entering Paris on the barge. View of the Eiffel Tower and mini Statue of Liberty.

 

Mike and the Eiffel Tower.

 

Notre Dame from the Seine.

Saturday Sept 21
Paris

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.

The riders and the crew.

 

Notre Dame from the opposite shore. Couldn’t get close to it due to the construction barriers.

 

Didn’t want to wait in the long lines so took photos of the tower from outside the barrier.

 

The Arc de Triomphe guarded by police. NO access allowed 😦

Sunday Sept 22
Paris

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.

The hoard of people trying to get a view of Mona Lisa.

 

The closest I was able to get with an almost clear view.

 

The rest of the museum was far less crowded. Couldn’t use a flash but the guards had no problem with pictures being taken throughout.

Monday Sept 23
Paris

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.

Our guide in Montmartre beside the statue of Dalida. The breasts are buffed bright because touching them will supposedly bring you good luck in love (much unlike Dalida’s life).

 

The “I Love You” wall.

Summary

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.

 

A Week in Norway

For the month of September, I had planned 3 distinct trips in Europe with a friend and group of friends. The first part was spent in Norway, on an itinerary set up by Nordic Visitor. What follows is my report on that portion.

Thursday – Aug 29
Edmonton to Oslo 1

Picked Up Lucille at 2pm and got to the airport 40 minutes later after missing the turnoff to Calgary Trail! So much for being wide awake and alert in mid-afternoon ☹ Had checked in online the day before and there were no other passengers at the KLM counter so dropping off our bags was fast and easy. My bag was 15 kg and Lucille’s much smaller one was 12 kg. How can I be packing more stuff than a woman!!

KLM had us on an A-330. Nice plane, comfortable seats with seat-back entertainment system and a USB port. We sat in 2nd to last row in back (2-3-2 configuration last 4 rows – rest of plane was 2-4-2). Attendants were friendly and efficient- a very comfortable flight. Arrived in AMS early but had to wait for another plane to leave our gate. Then a pushback truck broke down while pushing, blocking the whole taxiway so had to wait another 20 minutes for it to be moved. Sitting so far back in plane, it took about 15 more minutes to deplane.  So got to the gate about the time we should have! All in all, a nice flight though.

Friday – Aug 30
Edmonton to Oslo 2

Fast walk between D gates and B gates at Schiphol and got to our gate 10 minutes before loading the flight to Oslo. KLM E-190 (2-2 configuration) tight but enough leg room for us. 1 hour 30 minute flight to Oslo. Once there, Lucille bought express train tickets to the city, which departs every 10 minutes, and we caught it immediately. Arrived at Oslo Central Station in 20 minutes. Good, efficient service! We were booked at the Comfort Hotel, which was right in the station, so very handy. They gave us the wrong room by mistake, but after changing to the type we booked we went out for a walk.

Got a map from the tourist info in the station and headed up to the Vigeland sculpture park, about a 4 km walk away. Karl Johan’s Gate is a pedestrian street leading from the train station up to the royal palace. Lots of high-end shops and pubs and crowded, mainly due to a climate change demonstration. Very orderly though – no professional demonstrators or hooligans causing trouble. Passed the National Theatre, went through the grounds of the Royal Palace, and found the sculpture park after a lot of map checking and passerby assistance. Don’t know how we couldn’t find it – it is huge! The sculptures are all nudes – women, men and children in playful poses, as well as fanciful and artistic ones. Nice grounds and we enjoyed walking around.

A small part of the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo.

Started to tire on the return walk, mostly from lack of sleep. Had a laugh while passing through the Royal Palace grounds again. Norway is very “tap” friendly – almost all transactions are done with credit or debit cards, even for small purchases. Most locals don’t seem to use cash. We passed a public washroom where 2 women were having trouble getting the “tap” to work with their card. We tried to help, making light of the situation, but one of the women, with legs crossed, said good naturedly “please don’t make me laugh”. We left before they were successful (or not) getting in, wishing them good luck.

Had a pizza back at the hotel, then to the room. I showered, sorted stuff for tomorrow, did French lessons (lots of sleep-deprived mistakes!) and crashed at 9:30. Lucille asleep before me.

Saturday – Aug 31
Oslo to Trondheim

Woke at 1:30 for an hour (damn jet lag), then, luckily, at 6:30. Lucille had set her alarm for 6 but it didn’t go off because she had mistakenly set it for pm!  Hurried packing and down to breakfast by 7:05. Quick bite and coffee then to track 19 to catch the 7:30 bus for Ringebo. Glad the bus was leaving from the train station.

Sat up top in a double decker bus so had a great view of the countryside. Low clouds, some rain and fresh out. Views are similar to home – forests of spruce, poplar, and birch, and lots of small farms. Except for the road signs in a strange language and the number of roundabouts, very reminiscent of the topography of the Maritimes!

We transferred onto a train in Ringebo for the rest of the journey to Trondheim. Comfortable but no plug-ins to charge up our devices, not that we needed to. The train had a snack car though where we settled in to play some Farkel. And free wifi!

Once we arrived in Trondheim, it was about a 20-minute walk to the Thon Hotel. Google Maps came through again to lead us to the hotel. The hotel, or Nordic Visitor (the tour coordinator), had booked us into a room with only a double bed instead of the twin room we ordered. No other rooms were available. The desk clerk called all the not-yet-checked-in customers to see if they would change to a double and was successful after a few hours What great service! We walked around town and checked out the dock where we had to board tomorrow morning, about a half-hour walk away. Not really a lot of time to get a good feeling for the town or what it had to offer.

Sunday Sept 1
Trondheim to Bergen 1

Had a good breakfast at the hotel then walked down to the ship, the Nordlys. Moderate sized ship, with 7 decks, and our cabin was on #5. Small room but ok. Spent most of our time on deck 7, where the lounge was, playing cards, watching the shoreline, or walking around the deck. The ship was not only a means of transport from port to port but was also a cruise ship. Some passengers had been on board for over a week, having cruised above the arctic circle. To pass the time, and for interest’s sake, we attended a lecture on Norwegian history over the past 1000 years. Well presented, with humour along with the information. This was the last lecture of the trip – all of them set up for the people who had been on the full cruise. Relaxing time though. Hit some rough seas around supper time, making walking around somewhat of a comedy. The ship was not equipped with stabilizers so pitching and rolling in the waves wasn’t tempered at all. Videoed the swivel chairs in the bistro doing a dance.

Not the “Nordlys” but the same type of ship.

The ship docked briefly in several ports during the voyage, usually for a half-hour or so, to on- and off-load passengers and supplies, and we took the opportunity to go for a short shore walk when we got to Molde. They told us to make sure that we were back in plenty of time because the ship wouldn’t wait so we walked quickly. We were able to leave the harbour area and see some of the town, but this was mostly to stretch our legs not sightsee. Felt much better than the strolls around the deck!

Typical shore scene from our cruise on the Nordlys. Much like Newfoundland!

Monday Sept 2
Trondheim to Bergen 2

Hit more rough seas from 1-3 a.m. The motion made sleep a little difficult, though not in a sickly way, so I was tired by the morning. More time spent playing cards and farkel in the lounge until disembarking at 2:30 pm in Bergen. Looked up the Zander K hotel location on Google Maps and followed directions there, about a 20-minute walk. It is located beside the train station, so it will be handy for leaving on Wednesday. I’ve got to give Nordic Visitor credit – they booked us into nice and convenient hotels.

After checking in and stowing our bags, we walked to the funicular and took it up to the viewpoint on top of Mount Floyen to get the lay of the land. We had a full day tomorrow to spend here and wanted to see what the city looked like from that vantage point. It was also one of the recommended things to do while in Bergen. After a look at the vista, and Lucille buying a nice looking down jacket at the gift shop, we rode it back down again. While in the funicular, we talked to a couple of girls who had just completed the hike from Mt. Ulriken to Mt. Floyen, another of the recommended activities for active people. They said the hike was “rocky” and seemed pretty beat so we didn’t get into more detail. We walked through old Bryggen for a while – neat shops and arty places developed in the historic part of Bergen. We had been told to make sure that we visited the fish market, conveniently located right downtown and close to our hotel. It is kind of like a farmer’s market – kiosks selling everything from clothing to food, as well as a few restaurants set up in large tents. We settled on a place that had a good selection of fish dishes and a warm seating area. I had a tasty fish soup but the fish and chips were only so-so.

Looking down the funicular towards Bergen

 

The front part of Bryggen, the historic old part of Bergen.

 

Bergen from the viewpoint on Mt. Floyen

After trying samples of reindeer, moose and whale sausage at one of the kiosks, I bought a package of moose sausage to take back home for Brendan and Rhianne. The taste of the other 2 were a little too gamey for my taste buds. It should survive the upcoming month packed in a suitcase better than other things I could get for them.

Tuesday Sept 3
Bergen

Had a big buffet breakfast at the hotel and then set out for a hike. It was obvious yesterday that the funicular was the quick but lazy way to get to the top of Mt. Floyen. So we walked the switchback route to the top, taking about 40 minutes. At the top, we stopped into the Information booth and inquired about the hike to Mt. Ulriken. The info guy walked around his counter, looked at our footwear (running shoes – we had not packed for any hikes on this trip) and said that it would be muddy, but we shouldn’t have too much trouble. He estimated that it would take us about 5 hours. Five hours! To hike only 15 km? We would show him! We got a map and set off.

The hike is classified as “medium/experienced” or “demanding”, depending on which website you look at, but we didn’t think it would be any problem. The reverse route is easier since it loses 300 metres elevation from Ulriken to Floyen but that didn’t deter us either. After all, we had both hiked Machu Pichu, did a lot of cycling over the summer and were in pretty good shape. Well, the demanding part was right! The first part of the trail was in good condition – wide, packed dirt and crushed stone, easy to follow – perfect for lulling us into a false sense of security. Then it deteriorated significantly after about 5 km. Rocks, mud, streams, constant short but steep elevation changes (i.e. cliffs), and the trail eventually devolving into, um, NO trail! Above treeline, just a series of rock cairns, then skinny steel posts, disappearing off into the distance to give us something to aim for (if we could see them). The route was whatever we figured was the driest and easiest way to the next cairn. Yup, took us almost 5 hours to do it. Lucille went for a headfirst tumble when clambering down one steep rock face and banged her head on a rock. It bled profusely but stopped quickly with a Kleenex and pressure. She was fortunate – that could have been so much worse! Glad to finally arrive at the gondola at Mt. Ulriken to take us back down. Although “demanding”, there were more than a few trail runners bolting past us in both directions, mud and water be damned. Norwegians take their trail running seriously! We got our shoes, socks and pants pretty muddy, as well as blood on Lucille’s shirt. After taking the gondola down from the top, we took a bus back downtown and walked to our hotel.

Lucille, on all fours, “walking” on the trail between Mt. Floyen and Mt. Ulriken

A cairn in the far distance. Get to it however you see fit!

 

Had to clamber up and down lots of these.

 

The boardwalks were nice to come across and some of them were even above the water!

 

View of Bergen from the gondola on Mt. Ulriken

We spent some time in our room getting as much mud off our shoes and clothes as we could then took the clothes over to an adjoining hotel to do a proper laundry. Thank goodness our room had a hair dryer, which we used to try to dry out our shoes! Needless to say, the hike was memorable, and we are glad we did it.

Wednesday Sept 4
Bergen to Flåm

All the clothes that we had hung in the room overnight were dry by morning. Not surprising considering how dry our room is. Raining pretty good this morning but the train station is only across the street, so we didn’t get too wet. Caught the 8:39 train to Voss, a little over an hour away. Transferred to a bus that took us down a series of -18% switchbacks, past a number of high waterfalls, and into Gudvangen, another hour or so trip. Then another transfer to a fjord cruse boat for a 2-hour cruise into Flåm, rain continuing for the whole trip.

Got our room at the Fretheim Hotel and went to the tourist info centre nearby (everything is nearby in Flåm) to find out about the zip line and bike/hike possibilities for the rest of the afternoon. Best choice, considering the wet weather, is to take the train up the mountain (which we were scheduled to do tomorrow as well) to the last stop before Myrdal (Vatnahalsen) and get off. The zip line is about 200 metres to the right. We did as suggested and it was definitely a hoot. The bottom of the 1300-metre long zip line, advertised as the longest in Scandinavia, is at Kårdalen, on the road back down to Flåm. The employees at the top gave us helmets, got us to sign a release (always comforting), strapped us into the slings and set us off gliding through, and out of, the fog into the farmland below. Lucille’s zip line was about 10 metres away and I filmed her the whole way down. Although we couldn’t see bugger all for the first part of the ride, with the whole upper valley enveloped in a cloud, we could still feel the sensation of speed due to the wind whistling past our ears and clothes snapping. It was certainly like flying into the unknown. But, like an airplane coming in for a landing, we broke through the clouds and had a great view of the world beneath us. It took about 90 seconds to travel the 1300 metres, so we never got up to the advertised speed of 100 kph (more like 52 kph) but it was a thrill anyway. The video link of our ride is below. The zip line employee who unhooked us from the apparatus at the bottom also doubled as a goatherd for the Rallarrosa goat cheese farm at the base of the ride. We read later that it had a coffee shop and made wonderful goat cheese, but she never mentioned it so we continued our walk 3 km further down the road to the Blomheller station to wait for the next train back to Flåm. We would have liked to bike the rest of the way, about a 2-hour ride, but it was too wet out and we would have gotten soaked. With no laundry facility in the hotel (we found out the next morning that they DID have a laundry room), we didn’t want to take the chance on our clothes not drying in time for our trip tomorrow.

Riding the zipline

 

The zipline disappearing into the clouds below

 

Goats at the Rallarrosa goat cheese farm enjoying the weather.

Thursday Sept 5
Flåm to Oslo

Our train was scheduled to leave at 12:20 so we just wandered around Flåm, taking a few of the hiking paths around town and looking through all the many clothing stores. We both found jackets that we liked – to be used for x-c skiing this winter – so have even more stuff to take home!

The train ride back to Oslo was 7 hours long and boring, except for the first hour or so when the scenery was beautiful. The rest of the trip just reminded me of home! Arrived into Oslo, had supper and bought tickets for the early express train to the airport tomorrow morning. Early night.

Friday Sept 6
Oslo to Bruges

Up early to catch the train to the airport. The flight to BRU on Brussels Airlines was comfortable enough. Got there in time to catch the direct train to Bruges, so we didn’t have to transfer. It was about a 20-minute walk to the hotel where all 24 of us on the barge trip were staying, along the trail to Minnewater Park and on to Katelijnestraat. Not having any schedule to meet, we stopped for a beer and lunch at a bar on the way. We met some of the group at the hotel, the Ibis on Katelijnestraat. Chris and Susan told us about a free harp recital later in the day near one of the churches and Lucille and I decided to go. Wow! What a good decision. The harpist, Luc Vanlaere, also made the instruments and was definitely a master at them. He played his own compositions on 3 or 4 of his own instruments, without any commentary to break the mood, then did a presentation and a q&a. Very well received by the small (his shop/studio was small) audience of about 25 people. His TripAdvisor reviews give him a rating of 5.0 and I have to agree with them. An unanticipated highlight of the trip so far.

Bruges to Ghent

June 1 – Sunday. Our first full day ride! After 4 days of eating, drinking beer and walking at a museum pace, save for the short ride yesterday, we needed to get some exercise. Many of us rode between Bruges and Ghent 2 years ago but Tom followed a completely different route. Such is Belgium that you can pick many different routes suitable for biking between cities. As before, our route consisted of towpaths, wooded trails and roads, without having to battle cars at any time. If we encountered a car on a narrow road it just patiently waited until there was room to pass. Other roads had designated bike routes beside the roadway, painted red so there was no question where the bikes belonged and cars didn’t. We stopped after 25 km for a snack, i.e. coffee/beer, in Aalter then kept on going for another 25 km until lunch in Drongen. The Gandalf provided bagged lunches but the cafes were more than happy to let us eat our lunches at their tables in exchange for buying their beer. We were more than happy to fulfill our end of the deal. Lunch in Drongen even came with entertainment, in the form of 2 quite inebriated but friendly locals who had lots of questions (and some doubts) about what we were doing and the usual curiosity about Canada.

Route from Bruges to Ghent

Bruges to Ghent

Bruges to Ghent

Riding on country roads...

Riding on country roads…

and wooded trails...

and wooded trails…

and neighborhood roads.

and neighborhood roads…

and more country roads.

and more country roads. We never went a day without passing cows, horses, and sheep.

Lunch in Drongen with the locals.

Lunch in Drongen with the locals.

It was a short ride after lunch into Ghent, a city much like Bruges though much more populous, with a large university and younger population. We had over 2 hours of free time and Tom led a short tour to point out recommended places to visit. As an aside, he took us through the medieval-looking front door of the Marriott Hotel. Walking over the threshold was like passing through a time warp, with a bright and ultra-modern lobby on the other side. It was also evident that the sweaty people in bike helmets didn’t belong there. On the art front, I was able to see the second of the Monument’s Men works accessible on our ride – the Ghent Alterpiece. It is in the St. Bavo Cathedral and is such a complex piece of work that, using the audio guide, takes about 40 minutes to listen to the explanation of what you are looking at on each of the 12 panels. Fully protected behind glass and no pictures allowed though. I would love to spend more time in this city.

Ghent on a Sunday. Pretty and relaxed.

Ghent on a Sunday. Pretty and relaxed.

Ghent. St. Bavo Cathedral at centre left.

Ghent. St. Bavo Cathedral at centre left, home of the Ghent Alterpiece.

In Belgium, beer is always served in an appropriately labelled glass.

In Belgium, beer is always served in an appropriately labelled glass.

The last ride of the day - back to the barge for supper.

The last ride of the day – back to the barge for supper.

Rode 63 km

All Aboard the Gandalf

May 31 – Saturday.  Today was to be the start of the bike/barge portion of the trip. We checked out of the Cordoeanier and loaded up a taxi with all our bags at 10 a.m. Gerry and I walked the 20 minutes to the bargeplein while Gordon and Darryl stuffed them selves in the cab to accompany the bags. We arrived just as they had finished unloading and putting all the bags on board but the Gandalf, our barge home for the next week, would not be ready for us until 2 p.m. so we spent the time wandering and checking out museums. At the Church of Our Lady, I forked over the €2 admission to see the Michelangelo Madonna and Child. I guess I never saw it last time in Bruges because I didn’t want to pay, since I remember being in the church (where Gail got pickpocketed) but don’t remember the statue. The sun was nice and warm and Darryl, Gerry and I hung out in the courtyard by the Four Horsemen while Donna did a quick tour through the Groeninge Museum. Then off for a waffle lunch, which seems to be our standard lunch for departing Bruges, and walk to the boat.

Michelangelo's Madonna and Child

Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child

Waffles - our final lunch in Bruges

Darryl and Gerry attacking waffles – our traditional final lunch in Bruges

While passing through Berg Markt, we saw a large collection of gull-wing cars being lined up on display. It was the DeLorean Club of Belgium, with at least 2 dozen of their cars opened up for public viewing, including one equipped with a flux capacitor, plutonium chamber, cable hook and all the other accoutrements on a Back to the Future car.

DeLoreans galore!

DeLoreans galore!

Complete with flux capacitor and all

Complete with flux capacitor and all

Nice detail

Nice detail, even to the alarm clock.

Once we made it to the boat, we were introduced to the crew: Captain – Hans, Mates – Nick and Meyian, Cook – Pim, Guide – Thomas, and ship’s dog Jala, a large but docile Tibetan Mastiff. We were assigned our bikes, adjusted them to fit and took off for a short ride to Damme to check them out. We followed the same route as 2 years ago, there and back, and got back to the boat a few hours later for a fine supper. The bikes were all 8-speed, internal hub, with hand brakes and equipped with panniers. And heavy as hell. Not that that mattered much, seeing as the only elevation changes we would come across were the bridge and overpass ramps. As with all Dutch bikes, we sat very upright on cushy seats. After getting used to it, I found my bike quite comfortable and adequate for the distances we would be doing.

Rode 18 km

Route from Bruges to Damme

Bruges to Damme, return

Bruges to Damme, return

My 8-speed touring bike. Weighs a ton.

My 8-speed touring bike. Weighs a ton.

Our split level bedroom in the Gandalf

Our split level bedroom in the Gandalf

Looking up the stairs to the door and the tiny bathroom.

Looking up the stairs to the door and the tiny bathroom.

Nice bright salon/lounge, where we ate our meals.

Nice bright salon/lounge where we ate our meals and relaxed, when not drinking beer on deck.

Jala, the captain's 10-yr old Tibetan Mastiff.

Jala, the captain’s 10-yr old Tibetan Mastiff.

Bruges, Round 2

I don’t know how other people do it – having the time to update a travel blog so that it is more or less current – but I do not have that dedication or talent. Setting out on this trip with every good intention to keep my friends and family informed of my adventures (assuming that they were indeed interested enough to follow it), I found that I was just too busy enjoying myself and being in the moment to take the time to document everything. I did make notes every day – my smartphone was handy for jotting the odd note to jog my memory later on – but compiling everything into a readable and timely document proved to be too much for me. Regardless, late as it is, I’ll start at the beginning.

May 27 – Tuesday

Awake at 3am and up by 3:30 to pick up Archie and Velma by 4. The one good thing about an early (7am) flight is that there was virtually no traffic to contend with and we made it to the airport before 5. Because we were routed through Newark, we had to pre-clear US Customs but everything went smoothly. On the immigration card, I wrote “Brussels via Newark” as my destination. This prompted a “Where’s Brussels?” comment from the customs agent. Apparently, I should have specified Brussels, Belgium, so as not to be confused with Brussels, Wisconsin. Live and learn, and be specific.The flight to Newark, on a United A319, was comfortable . We left a little late but had a 4 hour layover in Newark so we were not concerned about making our Brussels connection. Didn’t get fed, of course, being United and all. I guess a 4.5 hour flight isn’t long enough to warrant even a bag of pretzels unless you buy them. The wait in Newark airport was long, boring and expensive – and all we bought was food. I guess with a captive audience, the restaurants can charge whatever they want to hungry fliers and get away with it. Soup, sandwich, smoothie and a later beer put me back $30. And the cheap-ass airport doesn’t even offer free wifi, even for a limited time. The real frustration came once on the plane. We boarded a few minutes late but sat on the tarmac for 2 hours before taking off. It was hot and muggy outside, 89 F, and lots of thunderstorm around so all the flights in the New York area (and that is a lot of flights) had to be routed through the ever-changing narrow gaps between the storm cells. Fortunately, as we had to stay buckled up for the delay because “we could leave at any time”, I had drained my system before I got on the plane so I wasn’t too uncomfortable. I found the seats in the 777-200 less comfortable than the shorter haul A319, which didn’t bode well for the long flight. I wasn’t able to sleep for the duration but at least they fed us. One bonus was that “The Monuments Men” was one of the movie choices on the flight. Since the movie dealt with some of the cities we would be visiting and some of the art works (Madonna and Child, in Bruges, and the Ghent Alterpiece, in Ghent), it was very relevant. Decent movie but, as one of the reviews I read said, it would have been more informative (and likely more accurate) if done as a documentary.

May 28 – Wednesday

Arrived in Brussels 2 hours late, not surprisingly, but at least we didn’t have any air connections to make. The rest of our group, flying on Air Canada, also arrived late, but only by a half hour or so. Since we were originally supposed to get in 45 minutes ahead of them, we conveniently hooked up waiting at the baggage carousel! We would have waited for them at the airport anyway so our combined delays actually worked out pretty well. Most of the group wanted to go on a tour of Brussels but 5 of us wanted to go directly to Bruges. We all grabbed the same train from the airport but the 5 of us got off at the Nord station and changed for the Bruges train, about a 30 minute wait. It was a nice ride on a fast, comfortable train, passing through Ghent after 30 minutes then another 30 to Bruges.Once in Bruges, we got on a city bus (Centrum) and went to the Grote Markt square. From there, it was a only short walk to our hotel, the Cordoeanier – the same one we stayed in 2 years ago. Nice cozy hotel with an exceptionally good beer selection and a huge complimentary breakfast. Having spent 3 days in the city only 2 years previously, everything was quite familiar. It was almost like going home again. Funny how a foreign city can feel like that.

Bob wanted to check out a nearby bike store before we did anything else, like eat or drink, but the items there were highly overpriced (€100 for a bike jersey, although a very nice one). So back to our hotel we went and settled into the bar to sample Belgian beers. I LOVE Belgian beer and am trying to sample as many as I can while in the country without becoming an alcoholic. My favourite so far is Chimay Blue, a 9% dark Trappist beer. It goes down really smoothly but packs a punch! The rest of the group arrived around suppertime so we finally grabbed some food and I, at least, retired to bed shortly after. Being awake for over 31 straight hours, not to mention the strong Belgian beer, makes one a little sleepy!

Umm-umm good! My favourite beer of the many that I tried.

Chimay Blue – Umm-umm good! My favourite beer of the many that I tried.

May 29 – Thursday

After a fitful 14-hour sleep, more like a bunch of naps really, on a narrow bed with an anorexic pillow it was time to wander the city, see some sights and play tourist. As luck would have it, today is the Feast of the Ascension, a big day in this Catholic city. One of the churches – the Church of the Holy Blood – houses a vial of what is purported to be Christ`s blood and this is the one day of the year that it is paraded around town. A lot of the town, especially on long the parade route, was shut down and bleachers and seats (for rent) were set up everywhere. This was not a little undertaking. The procession lasts about 3 hours, with floats, horses, bands, dancers, and hundreds of participating townspeople in period costumes – about everything you would expect from a religious celebration and more. Unfortunately, my naps were not enough to offset the jet lag and Gerry and I missed the first half of the procession. We only had to walk a block from our hotel to see it though, so eventually caught a lot of it and even got to see the `Raiders of the Lost Ark` type of box that contained the Holy Blood – not that the vial itself was on display. All this was presented with great fanfare. It also intertwined some of the history of Bruges – the various guilds, participation in the Crusades and such – which made things a little confusing for those not in the know, interspersed as they were with the way of the cross (what are these guys in robes doing marching after Jesus carrying the cross and being flogged). After the show we all retired back to the hotel courtyard for more beer, supper, then bed. Even though we just walked around, it was an exhausting day as we were still adjusting to the jet lag.

Part of the 3-hr long procession celebrating The Feast of the Ascension.

Part of the 3-hr long procession celebrating The Feast of the Ascension.

The group sampling the beers and making plans.

The group sampling the beers and making plans.

May 30 – Friday

Bob had arranged a Flanders Field Battlefield tour for today, through quasimodo.be. The tour host, Philippe, drove us through and stopped at many of the Commonwealth and German cemeteries (Tyne Cot and Langemark among them), battlefields, memorials and towns well known to most Canadians. Philippe had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area and WW1 (which is good, considering his job) and kept us well informed and entertained throughout. A highlight for me was the visit to the Essex Farm Cemetery and Dressing Station, where John McCrae worked and wrote “In Flanders Fields”. The panels in the Menin Gate, in Ypres, contain the names of over 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies have never been found. Bodies are still being discovered today and, if identified, the names are removed from the Menin gate. Armaments – grenades, shells, gas canisters, etc – are also still being discovered, either turned over in fields by farmers, in construction sites, etc, sometimes to disastrous effects. Sadly, people are still dying from this war.

Passchendaele Memorial

Passchendaele Memorial

In Flanders Fields memorial

In Flanders Fields memorial

Tyne Cot Commonwealth cemetery. The largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war.

Tyne Cot cemetery. The largest cemetery and memorial for the missing for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war.

The Menin Gate in Ypres. It contains the names of over 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found.

The Menin Gate in Ypres. It contains the names of over 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found.

There were lots of other tour groups roaming around, and at the Poelkapelle British cemetery we encountered one composed of some car club, driving their hot cars.

Ferrari

Ferrari – back seat was all engine!

Lamborghini

Lamborghini

Mclaren

Mclaren

Kinda took the edge off the sadness of the area, which wasn’t a bad thing.

In Bruges

May 25. Last full day in Bruges.  We climbed the Belfort right after breakfast, while the temperature was still comfortable.  At 89 metres, it is the highest climbable tower in Bruges and gives a great view of the city. You can even see into Holland, albeit only 20-odd km away. The tower was built in layers – the first 2 built in the late 1200’s and the top tower built in 1480’s. Steep, narrow, clockwise winding staircase with stone steps up to the top tower. Then even steeper, narrower wooden steps to the top viewing level, right under the bells. Very difficult to pass anybody coming the other way but no fat people on those stairs!  The bell arrangement was fascinating.  The bells are rung every 15 minutes, with the main bell rung on the hour.  Of course, we were there at 11 a.m. so had all 11 bongs of a giant bell not 5 feet from our heads.  The tune the bells ring every 15 minutes is set up on a huge brass cylinder, like a piano roll on a player piano. They reconfigure the settings on the cylinder every 3 months to change the tunes, so as not to drive the locals crazy, I suppose.

May 24.  (No hitmen were harmed in the writing of this blog.)  Our first full day in Bruges.  The only scheduled activity today was the bike tour of Bruges.  We used a company called Quasimundo and the owner, Jos, gave us a very entertaining and informative tour.  We only cycled 8 km in the 2.5 hours of the tour, basically the southwest quadrant of the city, but saw most of the required touristy areas and a few of not so touristy.  Jos spoke Flemish (which is a dialect of Dutch), English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Greek (his wife is Greek).  No wonder his day job is as a tour guide.  He is also a stage actor and it shows in the way he presented his info.  His tour is highly recommended – definitely not your everyday tour.  After his safety talk (cars and bikes coexist remarkably well on the narrow roads but cars are bigger than cyclists so always be aware and cars entering from the right ALWAYS have the right of way) he covered the history of the city, including the Belfort (belfry), many of the various churches, architecture, trading houses, canals, breweries (of which only 1 remains in Bruges).  Of course, the tour included a stop at a pub for a sample of the local beer (Bruges Zot).  Very good.

Spent a long, leisurely lunch after the bike tour, from 2:30 to 4:30, at an outdoor restaurant in the shadow of the Van Eyke statue by a canal.  The service was lanquid to say the least.  It wasn’t our intention to have a 2 hour lunch but the waiter, although friendly enough, moved at a glacial pace.  We wanted to climb the Belfort – the 89-metre high bell tower that dominates the skyline, but it closed at 4:30 so had to wait for another day. The rest of the day was spent walking around, checking out the shops and sampling more beer. Such is the tourist life in Bruges.  Chocolate shops abound and make their treats to accommodate all tastes, both of the palate and otherwise.

Chocolaty treats

Walked in the general direction of where we would be meeting the Feniks, our floating hotel for the bike trip.  Took a while to navigate the streets and alleys but we made it to the barge docks in about 45 minutes.  The dock area is in a big park. There was a wide paved bike path on the canal side, with bike symbols painted on the trail and bikes whizzing by, and, across the street, an unpaved walking trail (with bikes whizzing by).  Bikes are the dominant species in this area!  Had a beer at a barge bar and timed our way back to the hotel – only 25 minutes, now that we knew the way. The streets are amazing – you would see a horse carriage, followed by 2 bikes, followed by a scooter, followed by a bus, then a car, then bikes, then trucks – all co-existing wonderfully.  No horns or irate drivers who feel they own the road.  The bike culture here is ingrained into the fabric of daily life.

In Flight

May 22/23. The United flight between YEG and ORD, on a CRJ700, was cramped as expected. I booked an aisle seat online but the seating arrangement on the plane was different and it turned out to be a window seat. Fortunately, I had a small woman next to me so was not crowded.  The 42 minute window in Chicago, between arriving at Terminal 2 and departing from Terminal 1, turned out not to be a problem. Everyone else took the shuttle bus but I wanted the exercise so I walked (briskly) and beat them to the gate by 15 minutes!  Too many people waiting for too few shuttles slowed them down.  The flight over to Brussels (767-300) was a long and sleepless 9.5 hours in the cheap seats.  There are advantages to being short. I pity the people with long legs who have to endure the cramped legroom. At least we got fed, although I question the functionality of the spork (foon?) provided as a utensil.  Didn’t work as a fork for the chicken (tines too short to stab anything) or a spoon for the yoghurt (glop slips thru the tines imperiling the front of my shirt). United almost got all our bags to Brussels – only 1 out of 14 got lost. Not mine, thank goodness.

Arrived in Brussels around 11 a.m., but with Bill’s luggage problem, we decided to wait for the Child’s flight to arrive before heading into the city.  Took the train to Central station downtown and started walking.  It didn’t take any time at all to find the Grand Square and a heap of restaurants and touristy stores.  It was a lovely, warm day so ate lunch outside.  Every restaurant had tables set up on the sidewalks so we just found some empty seats, not that easy seeing as it was just after 12, and grabbed some food and beer from a take out store.  Everywhere there is beer!  And when we checked the prices of it in beer stores, it was pretty well the same price as what we paid in the restaurant.  Not much markup.  After lunch, a bunch of us wandered around the galleria (covered shopping streets) and checked out the old buildings in the square.  Lots of gargoyles and little statues set into the walls, mostly of saints and bloody battle scenes.

The Beer Museum seemed as good a place as any to start our cultural education.  Not worth the price of admission but at least it came with a complimentary beer, so it did have 1 redeeming grace.  Belgium is known for it’s varied types of beer, including fruit beers, so I tried the raspberry beer.  Tasty and very raspberryish but not my idea of what beer should taste like.  Next, we went to the large and ornate Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. Lots of stained glass windows. a huge pipe organ and lots of apses (naves?) filled with confessionals – i.e. a fancy, rich church.  After a nice rest on a park bench (apparently there is photographic evidence that Klaus and I may have been caught napping), we headed back to Central Station where we caught the train to Bruges.

The train ride from Brussels to Bruges is only 55 minutes and not really designed for people dragging suitcases around.  Unlike the LRT in Edmonton, or any other Skytrain-like transportation, the train and platform do not meet.  It is quite a step to get into the train and the cars have no room to store luggage, except in the overhead bins.  Glad again that I packed light so that I was able to heave it up there without getting a hernia or killing some unlucky Belgian commuter.

The bus ride from the station to our hotel in Bruges was another treat. Imagine 18 seniors trying to get on a city bus with suitcases and carry-ons. Yes, it was a clusterfrak. But it was only a little over a euro to use it and the driver was quite good natured, even giving us detailed instructions how to get to our hotel from the bus stop.

After throwing our stuff in our rooms, it was time for another beer in the hotel pub.  It has a nice outside courtyard, not to mention the largest selection of Belgian beers of any hotel in the city – over 150 different brands.  I’ll never get through them all but I have found that I favour the Trappist beers so far.  Went for a walk in the streets around the hotel, trying to get our bearings for the coming days.  Like Brussels, lots of bars, restaurants, chocolate shops and knick-knack shops.  The little gold guy in the picture below is either showing that Bruges has a sense of humour or showing what they think of tourists.  Slept like a log that night.

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