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

Posts tagged ‘Damme’

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.

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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.

On the Road – Week 1

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

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

A healthy lunch

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

Feniks cabin – 6 ft wide, 6.5 feet long

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

Our daily routine

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

Another cathedral, this time in Ghent

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

Belgian bike route sign

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

Tapestry

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

Forest trails

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

Tournai TdF jersey

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

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

Mike in France

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

The BMC Team

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

Vimy memorial

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

“Drift” in Lewarde coal mining museum

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

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