Monday, August 13, 2018

Back to the Netherlands, but Then a Quick Transition to the Belgian Coast

After five weeks biking in Germany, we left Hannover by train headed for the Netherlands.  The train trip itself was easy-peasy since we took Regional Express trains, which had generous space for bicycles on both legs of the trip.

It was nice to be back on the roads and bike trails of the Netherlands.  For the most part.  But we found that this eastern part of the country has more unpaved trails than we're used to in the Netherlands.  This was exacerbated when we decided to route ourselves through some of the national parks, where paved paths were the exception, not the rule.  With our wide tires (we're using 20 x 1.85 Schwalbe Marathon Pluses) we had good traction, but Jeff has to stay alert for possible soft sandy spots that could be tricky for our tandem given all the weight of us and our luggage.  As it turned out we made it through just fine, of course on the paved roads before we reached the national parks but also on some of the rougher park paths.

A far bigger issue than the road surfaces was the weather.  We have had an exceptionally dry summer here in Europe.  In June and July combined we have stayed put due to rain only three times, and dodged showers maybe once or twice more.  In the agricultural areas we are starting to see corn that is so dried out it might not be worth harvesting.

For most of this time the temperatures have been cool and comfortable.  But this started to change in mid-July, and our last few days in Germany and our first days back in the Netherlands have seen temperatures hitting 30 to 36 C (high 80s to mid-90s F) every day.  In the national park outside Apeldoorn it looked drier each day, and sometimes we even found Fall-like colors.

That sign, by the way, is telling cyclists to pay attention, they're about to go over a cattle guard.  A set of bars like this is called a rooster, which translates in English as a "roaster," a grill you would roast meet on.  Usually they're only called a rooster, but this one specifies it's to control cows.  More common in park lands is a wild rooster, to control wildlife such as deer or wild boars.

August is the ideal time to ride through the Netherlands' many heathlands, but between the dryness and the fact that it's now only the first of August, this one photo probably overstates the look -- most of it has yet to burst into the blankets of intense color heather is famed for.

Air-conditioning is not overly common in Dutch hotels, particularly in the type of older, smaller and less ritzy ones we steer toward.  But for three days we sought and found hotels with A/C and were able to get some sleep.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that the weather was not getting better, and looked like it might even get hotter.  A quick search of weather forecasts, particularly near the North Sea, disclosed that the Belgian coast was not as crazy hot, and was expected to cool down sooner, than the center of the Netherlands we had been heading toward.  Jeff put his computer skills to work and found that a combination of trains and a little biking could get us there before the next big heat wave arrived, and that it would crest at "only" 90 F there vs. 94-96 where we had planned to be.

Step 1 was to bike to Nijmegen.  We had wanted to visit it in 2015 but discovered, just in time, that we would have been arriving at the time of the Vierdaagse, a 4-day event in which participants walk, for each of the 4 days, either 30, 40 or 50 km.  That year, 42,700 were at the starting line on day 1.  Obviously, we were not going to find lodging within 100 km of Nijmegen that year!  This year, however, it was over and done with, and 41,000 of the 44,000 starters made it to the last kilometer on the last day.  Off to Nijmegen it was, and a special visit it would be for us since we would get to see a very special sight, the Snelbinder bike bridge.

The Snelbinder is one of the Netherlands' world-class pieces of bike infrastructure.  It should be at the price paid for it, 40 million, or $50 million at the exchange rate when it was completed in 2004.  It provided the first safe crossing for cyclists of the Waal River.  It is not an independent bridge, but rather an appendage hung off the east side of a railroad bridge that was built in 1879.  Because the railroad bridge is quite high, long ramps were needed on both ends of the Snelbinder, making the whole thing 2 km long.  The odd name, by the way, is a play on words.  It literally means "quick connector," but is also the nickname for an elastic bungee cord that cyclists commonly use in the Netherlands.

European trains are very bike-friendly, but not necessarily tandem-friendly, and the best way to avoid problems is to take local trains, with as few connections as possible.  We worked it out to move 100 km westward by train in the morning, then 40 km by bike in the afternoon.  It reached the high 80s but the ride was easy.  It was even drier than places further west, as you can see in this pitiful corn crop that will no doubt be simply plowed under, as there wasn't a corn cob to be seen, only parched leaves and stems.

By happy chance, our Swiss friends Yannick and Romaine and their cute kids Ilias and Layna were staying close by and they were able to drive over for dinner and provide us with an opportunity to reconnect.  After dinner the kids "tried out" our tandem.  Hmmm, think we need a few more years for those feet to hit the pedals.

The next day we rode 55 km to Antwerp, Belgium.  We have yet another friend who lives there, so we sent her an email as soon as our plans had coalesced two days earlier.  Good luck again, she was arriving back in Antwerp that evening from a few days in London, and we pulled off dinner together at a restaurant convenient both to her train and to our hotel.  Riet is the biggest bibliophile we know, so much of dinner was an extended conversation about great books we've all been reading lately.  She has a large advantage on us -- we're stuck only reading English, whereas Riet will read books in Dutch, French, English, whatever she can get her hands on.

The final part of our jump to the North Sea was a 125 km train ride from Antwerp to the coastal town of Oostende (aka Ostend).  We had an elegant send-off from the Antwerpen- Centraal Station, one of the most elegant train stations we've ever used.

Once again, getting the tandem a spot on the train proved to be easy.  The train also amused us with a lighthearted way of encouraging passengers to give up seats for the handicapped:  "Sweet of you, Louise.  And of everyone else who gives up a seat to those who need one."  Since this is a Belgian train, of course it is in both French and in Flemish.

Oostende is at the mid-point of the Belgian seacoast.  From the end of a breakwater we looked north to a shore with its natural sand dunes largely intact.  We came back in two days to ride that way, but first we pointed the bike south 45 km to the coastal city of De Panne and the small city of Veurne some 6 km inland, where our lodgings were.  This was another matter altogether!!!  This is about as un-natural as a shore can get!

35 of our 45 km were along the shore, and 25 of those 35 km were just like these next two photos, km after km, 10-story apartment building after apartment building, cafe after cafe:

As you can see from the second photo, this is an official bike route.  The biking was odd.  There is rarely a designated lane for bikes, so we just swung right or left to spots where there were openings in the crowds, trying to stay especially far from kids on rental bikes and adults in 4-wheeled pedal-powered beach buggies, both of whom tended to be fairly unpredictable.  There was one extended break where development was barred by the need to preserve a dark part of the coast's history, the Atlantik Wall defenses built by the Germans in WW II to prevent the Allies from landing there.  Zipping by at 30 kph is a trolley that goes the full length of the coast, about 75 km, helping keep the car traffic from overwhelming the place.

We were initially disappointed that we couldn't find a hotel vacancy in De Panne, the last city on the Belgian coast before you reach France, nor anywhere else for that matter between Oostende and De Panne.  However the small city of Veurne proved to be more interesting, since it had some real history and a well-used town square.  It seems that one Robert II of Flanders was returning from the Crusades in 1099 when his ship was hit by an enormous storm.  He made an oath that if he survived, he would donate to the first church he saw the precious cargo he was bringing back (like all good Crusaders):  a piece of the True Cross.  He survived and spotted the church of St. Walburga in Veurne, which then became a destination for all sorts of pilgrims.  All that prosperity led to a first class city square, which we enjoyed viewing while having dinner that evening.

The next day we had, for us, a rare treat -- a bike ride without panniers.  Since this part of Belgium is as flat as most of the Netherlands, the difference in weight doesn't make that much of a difference other than that it's easier to accelerate.  The major change is in wind resistance, since there's nothing sticking out a foot on either side of the bike catching the wind.  Going downwind of course isn't much different, but a cross wind or head wind is sooo much easier to bike against on an unloaded tandem.

Our destination was the peaceful river behind Little Red, the IJser River.  From late summer 1914 to the Fall of 1918 it was anything but peaceful.  As the German Army marched across Belgium on its way to attack France in August 2014, the Belgian Army flooded the IJser and made a last stand.  It held.  And once the German advance was stalled, it was unable to get going again.  Trenches filled with troops lined both sides of the unfortunate river.  Cities and town along or within artillery range of the enemy were so devastated some of them could only be identified after the war by map, not by their now-atomized remains.

One particular stretch of the river was especially hard-fought over, and became known as the Moordgang, or Trench of Death.  It was preserved shortly after the war by replacing the sandbags with cement replicas.  For a modest fee we were able to wander through and to view occasional photos taken a century ago on the very same spots where we now stood.  Jeff was particularly glad he didn't have to be there then, since he's at least 6 inches higher than the sandbags, not 6 inches lower as one would hope to be.

A small museum contained ghostly articles of war recovered from the scene and a good example of a periscope used by soldiers who were understandably reluctant to peer over the top of the trenches to see what the enemy was up to.  There was also a helpful map.  The Germans wanted to go where the green arrows point, until fate intervened.  Where we were was roughly the midpoint of the small Belgian sector, protecting the 5% of Belgium that was not occupied by the Germans.

Before departing we noticed, sadly, the poppies.  Who can forget the opening lines of the war's most famous poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

After two nights in Veurne we headed north along one of Belgium's many canals, along with other bike tourists and a small herd of sheep.  Just show them you mean business and they'll (usually) move over.  They did for us, thank goodness.

To our left we could see the line of oceanfront apartments like some sort of new Atlantik Wall.  We stayed parallel to them for the most part until we were on the north side of Oostende.

Oh, yes, this was a much more interesting stretch of shoreline.  For 5 km we felt we were truly on the edge of the European continent.  And then the trail tucked inland.

Our next destination was the uninspired city of Blankenberge. It has a casino built after WW I.  It's the building with the square tower and a few giant babies crawling on and up the walls.  We found one nicely designed building that proclaimed it was built in 1929.  There's a pier that juts out a few hundred meters into the North Sea -- it's behind those lifeless beach shacks.  Almost all the other structures we saw appeared to have been designed by accountants hired to to pack the largest amount of rentable space into the cheapest possible package.  In short, it looked like we were in the USA.


And yet people poured in from the train station and hit all the "attractions," like this kiddie race car track, or the velodrome that had all sorts of oddball bikes for kids to try.  Check out the "tandem" where the stoker faces backwards and pedals backwards.  Whaaaaat?

Our final destination in Belgium was Bruges, or Brugge in Flemish.  It is one of the hottest tourist destinations in Europe these days because of its atmospheric canals and its large collection of quaint and/or quirky buildings in a variety of Romanesque, Gothic and Flemish styles.  Here's a sampling from a walk through the heart of town.

It's a town that grew wealthy from trade and from the manufacture of lace and fine linen.  Lace is still sold here, but we suspect you'll find a "Made in China" label on much of it these days.

Much more popular are the chocolate shops, and in the tourist areas there are two or three per block!  Many sell the same sort of thing you find in chocolate shops in the States, but a few go well beyond ordinary, such ones that specialize in sea shells.  There's this first one that's a bit larger than a fist and sells for almost 15 euros (about $17).  We bought some of the smaller ones and they are scrumptious!  Then there's a reasonably standard chocolate collection in a distinctly non-standard box made of -- duh --  chocolate.  And then there's the X-rated chocolate shop . . . .

What would a trip to Belgium be without Belgian Waffles?  Sorry, it would be like ours.  We're not really into them.  But lots of tourists are, and it doesn't take long to find shops with window displays like this.

Even more popular are places that serve fries, either as a stand-alone snack or as the accompaniment to pretty much every other item on the menu:  chicken with fries, beef with fries, spaghetti with fries, you name it.

And forget the "French" part of it.  They're simply Friet.  So ensconced in Flemish culture are fries that Bruges is the home of the Friet Museum ("the only one in the world") and in the Netherlands you never see Friet on the menu, you see Vlaamse Friet, "Flemish Fries."  Just look for the cone of fries with hands and legs.  Just don't ask for ketchup.  Here, they're served with mayonnaise.  Seriously.  

Hmmm, how do we transition this blog back to our more usual topics?  Well, let's walk through a quiet part of town.  To the left is a former hospital, now a museum.  Below, on the edge of the tourist area is a Beginhof, a type of community we've written about before.  The idea arose in the 13th century to have a safe place for single and widowed women to live without becoming nuns.  Beginhoven were somewhat religious, but the residents did not take religious vows and were free to leave or to marry, though in the case of marriage one had to do both, leave as well as marry, for no men were allowed.  Today many continue as residences for the elderly, sometimes but not always just for women.  Tourists are allowed to walk through, but signs abound asking folks to be quiet and respectful.  And they were, making this a calm place to shake off the high intensity of the tourist areas.

Back in the center of town, it's also fun to look for unusual details, such as a stone carving that reveals what trade once had a guildhall in the building, or who were the benefactors of a building and as a reward for their good deed got to have their images preserved for the ages peeking out above the door.  There are surprises to be found on every block, it seems.

We originally planned a three-night stay in Bruges, but then rain entered the forecast for the planned departure date so we extended it to four nights and used the extra day to catch up on reading and on bringing this blog up to date for the first time this summer.  Our stay was in the Hotel Jan Brito, the main parts of which date to the 1500s.  In 1993 it was purchased from a Baroness and converted "to a maximum of comfort and safety with the least transformation possible," a process that took a year and a half.  Our first three nights were in a garret room that was nonetheless airy and comfortable.  It's the square window at the top of the left gable that looks black because of a screen.  Not to worry, there were two other windows.  For our last night we had to move to the larger room right below it, pictured in the second photo.  Gosh, that was tough having to move there -- not. From that first room Jeff got a photo of our wonderful garden and a close-up of one of Louise's masterful dinner salads, something we do for dinner once or twice a week as a break from restaurant food.

While in Bruges we did one more bike ride without the luggage to explore the area east and southeast of the city.  Oh, these Belgian canal trails are wonderful!  On the way back we stopped at a wayside chapel that gets crowded when more than one person arrives.

Don't know about chapels, but we do know we will see quite a few kilometers of canal trails tomorrow as we head east back into the Netherlands.  Talk to you from there in our next blog.