Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cycling Down the Meuse in Belgium

When we planned our trip through Europe on the theme of following rivers, the first three rivers to explore were easy to figure out, as the Main, Rhine and Moselle make a fairly steady procession westward across Germany.  What next?  One idea was to take a train back to Koblenz, where we left the Rhine, and continue on the Rhine to Holland.  A little research convinced us to scrap that idea, since it would have been a tour through one of the most industrialized parts of Europe.  Hence the decision to take a train westward to the Meuse, which flows far more bucolically into the Netherlands.  But where, exactly, should we start on the Meuse?

Dinant, Belgium was an easy choice once we had seen our first photo of it.   The combination of church, cliff and fortress was breathtaking when we saw it in person, even after numerous viewings of it in miniature on our iPad, where we had copied several pages of a guidebook to Belgium.  Dinant is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, inventor of course of the saxophone.  The city had a brochure about its connections to him, entitled Sax and the City.  Jeff sat down for a portrait with Mr. Sax, each of us with our favorite wind instrument.  Jeff's has a very limited pitch, but it does great keeping our bike tires inflated.

Another attraction of Dinant was its closeness to the Chateau de Freyr, an easy 13 km r/t on our tandem after we checked in early at our Dinant hotel and switched from train-traveling attire to our bike jerseys and bike shorts.

The Chateau sits across the Meuse from yet another grand cliff, as you can see in our photo above and in this charming painting we saw a few days later at a museum in Liege.

The de Freyr's were minor nobility who married well and moved up the hierarchy of titled society.  One notable addition who married into the family was Juliet Sieyes, a close relative of the Abbé de Sieyes, author of the most famous lines of the French Revolution: "What is the Third Estate?  EVERYTHING!  What has it been hitherto in the political order?  NOTHING!"  Father Sieyes went on to vote in the National Assembly for the execution of King Louis XVI, and to be Second Consul (Napoleon Bonaparte was First Consul).  Other members of the de Freyr family had actually gone into hiding during those turbulent years.  A later member of the family used to say she had blood in her veins "from guillotined aristocrats as well as their executioners."

The views from inside the chateau were outstanding.  Bedrooms on the east faced the cliffs pictured above, while the remaining bedrooms on the north looked over the formal garden to the left and a bend in the Meuse to the right.
The family's modest position in the aristocratic pecking order didn't keep Louis XIV away -- he slept in this corner bedroom in 1675 while his troops successfully attacked that pretty little castle back in Dinant. Soon after, "his man" met with (Spanish King) "Charles II's man" to negotiate a trade treaty in the adjacent room.  The coffee served during the diplomatic negotiations was supposedly the first taste anyone in this part of Belgium ever had of our favorite morning beverage.  As the family married its way up the hierarchy, they created a new entryway to the chateau, in the last photo, to demonstrate their "class" in both senses of the word.

Our last look at the Chateau de Freyr is of the Orangery, one of two buildings put up over 300 years ago into which these orange trees are moved for the winter.  The oldest trees are almost 350 now!

From Dinant we biked two days to Liege on Ravel (Route a velo) 2 then Ravel 1, part of Wallonia's limited bike network.  Unlike Belgium's Dutch-speaking Flanders, whose bike trail network is as dense as Holland's, French-speaking Wallonia has few trails.  Perhaps culture has something to do with it, but geography no doubt is the main reason.  Wallonia is way hillier, and more industrialized as well thanks to its iron and coal deposits and early adoption of English style factories.

The first 30 km to Namur were by far the most interesting.  The trail alternated from smooth asphalt to bone-shaking cobblestones to other intermediate surface textures, and the scenery from hills and cliffs to farms and chateaux.

Namur has yet another imposing fortress atop a hill.  We rode the whole way up, albeit in our lowest gears going only 4 mph on the steepest part.  You can see portions of our route in the second photo below, looking upstream (south), and the third shot looking downstream.  

Namur is where the Sambre River joins the Meuse, and has long been an important city.  In fact Namur now functions as the capital of Wallonia.  Here are two views of the city from the fortress, and one from the Sambre looking back up.

After descending somewhat more slowly than this group of kids, we wandered the downtown for a while and ran into a Dutch couple also tandem touring.  They have almost twice as much luggage as we do, since they're camping.  As we like to say, the only camping equipment we carry anymore is this little plastic card that fits in our wallet.  Saves a lot of effort formerly spent in putting up and taking down tents, not to mention crouching over uncooperative cook stoves.

The route from Namur to Liege was much less interesting.  It was basically the paved edge of the river.  Not a place to bike with the kiddies, as most of it was a twenty-foot straight drop off to the river..

There was a brief respite to visit Huy, which you can pronounce "whee" or "wee" depending on your frame of mind.  Serious cycling fans know it for the Mur de Huy, a climb with a crazy 19% gradient that features in famous Belgian one-day races and even on several occasions (this year included) in the Tour de France.  That's the view from city hall of yet another hilltop castle, then a photo in the city hall lobby of Belgium's most famous bike racer ever, Eddy Merckx, leading the Tour up the Mur de Huy.

Well, after that brief interval, it was back to the Meuse, which got more and more industrial.  On multiple occasions we rode past workers pushing, pulling, lifting or dumping stuff, mostly sand and gravel.  Larger and larger factories popped up on the opposite shore.  We passed a cement plant and our bike tires went from Kevlar-belted to cement-belted, till we were able to scrape it off.  Then heard clicking from the front wheel.  We stopped and found we'd been hooked!  Amazingly we "caught it" early enough to extract the hook without a tire puncture.

We spent two days in Liege to take in this famous city.  It is large and chaotic.  Getting through that chaos to our hotel was a minor miracle.  But the hotel was a calm but trendy place that helped restore our spirits.  

For four days we've been pretending like we know French.  We guess a lot in restaurants, and we nod to a lot of people as if we know just what they've said to us when, in a good moment, we've recognized two words in ten of what they said.  The supreme challenge was getting haircuts.  How do you communicate "cut my hair to look like it did six weeks ago after the last cut," using charades and sign language?  Louise's stylist was game to do what she thought Louise wanted, and they both decided the result was actually pretty good.

For a little last insight into Wallonia, we spent two hours in the Musee de la vie Wallone.  It was in a former convent, and a new glass walkway suspended high above the ancient cloister had a wonderful display of photos collected apparently from numerous family albums.  The most interesting exhibit was not particularly Wallonian, but the locals did use it until 1824:  a guillotine.  As you can see, it's kept in a steel cage to keep would-be Darwin Award winners from testing it to see if it still works.

As we cycled north on Ravel 1 out of Liege, the valley noticeably widened as we approached the Dutch border.  Somewhere in a corn field -- there was no marker -- we crossed from Belgium to the Netherlands.  But within five minutes of that ambiguous transit, it was overwhelmingly clear we were back in Holland as we rode down our first road lined with trees, a beloved Dutch tradition.  We both sighed the sigh that says "We're Home!," so comfortable are we now with Dutch culture.

We'll take you with us through Maastricht and on deeper into Holland in our next blog entry, the first of several as we spend the next 30 days wandering through 7 of Holland's 12 provinces.

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