Saturday, May 8, 2010

Trip Report: Cycling Belgium

“Let’s ride our bikes to Belgium and sample some beers and chocolates!”

Like many brilliant/insane ideas, this one began in a pub. About a year ago, we were enjoying a beer festival at the Cambridge Blue when we got to chatting with another couple who were up from London. After we had established that we were all fans of both beer and cycling in flat places, they told us about one of their favorite itineraries that combines both: They go to Dover with their bikes, take the ferry to France, then ride into Belgium for a few days of touring – and, of course, beer drinking. They were even kind enough to follow up by e-mail with a couple of suggested destinations.

It took a year for that seed of an idea to germinate, but DSC_9253two weeks ago we finally made the trip ourselves: We left our house on our bikes Thursday morning and returned the same way the following Tuesday night. In between were ferry and train rides, an angry French man and a crazy Belgian bicycle collector/bartender, somber reminders of World Wars, delicious chocolates, more than 40 of Belgium’s impressive beers, a pepper-favored gin hot enough to make JT cry -- and 120+ miles of beautiful cycling.

Now that the sore legs have recovered, it seems all so easy. But in the weeks before the trip, we were in a bit of a panic. For starters, the maps of Belgian cycling routes that we ordered didn’t show up before we left: Landing in a foreign (language) country without a map is one big panic attack waiting to happen for KT. And while we have caught the cycling bug, the longest we’ve ridden in one go is 60 miles, and we’d never done an overnight cycling trip where we carried everything we need on our bikes. We didn’t even own panniers, those cycle bags that latch onto your back rack. We finally bought panniers in time to load them up and do a 15ish-mile test ride the weekend before our trip.

With that practice run out of the way, the big thing we had to worry about was the volcano. The week leading up to our trip, airspace over much of Europe closed because of the ash cloud from Iceland’s volcano, and chaos ensued as people stranded throughout Europe and the U.K. frantically tried to get home or get to open airports. But for us, the volcano was a break. Eurostar had added additional trains between London and Belgium and at good prices, so at the last minute, we were able to close the loop on the biggest variable of our trip – how and when we would get home.

So, we had ferry and train tickets, all the kit we’d need, and a gorgeous weather forecast ahead of us. There were no more excuses.

Note: This is going to be really, really long. You might want to get a beverage, perhaps a snack or a sandwich. You may need a bathroom break. We get so much of our travel advice from the Internet and fellow travelers that we thought it high time we give back a little. You can skip stuff if you want, it’s okay. Or if you just want to go look at some pictures, that’s fine too. Otherwise, get comfy, because here we go …

“Belgium?”

Day 1, Thursday: Cambridge-London-Dover-Dunkirk-Veurne (~35 miles cycling)

The first day would be our longest and most challenging – and we IMG_0745 knew that going in. We left our house early Thursday morning for the Cambridge rail station where we caught the 7:15am train to London. Once there, we walked our bikes across the street to St. Pancras International and hopped a high-speed train to Dover. Once in Dover, it was quick, 3-mile bike ride through the city, and past the hilltop castle, to the docks. Trucks and cars are the ferries’ main customers; we cyclists pedaled alongside them following a red line on the pavement to the check-in point and the queue to get on the ferry. After a 30 or so minute wait, we sped up the ramp onto the ferry and locked our bikes to racks next to the trucks (British: lorries). As the ferry chugged out of port, we had beautiful views of the famous white cliffs of Dover.

The 2-hour ferry ride gave us time to relax for the 30-mile bike ride ahead of us. We had a couple of different routes from the internet to guide us, but these would be on-road – not on bike paths. It meant navigating through the industrial heart of Dunkirk and out into the countryside, along roads that were alternately empty and well-IMG_0748 traveled. Little did we know that our biggest problem would be a steady headwind for most of the day!

Still, KT’s Google map printout served us well. Once the ferry landed, we and one other cyclist were the first to speed down the ramp. We were soon in the French countryside and not much later in a cute village where we quickly braked to a stop at the sight of a roadside market that included a local butcher and a truck selling myriad local cheeses. With ham, two cheeses, a baguette, and an éclair in hand, we were already enjoying the vacation. But the wind did make it tough going—as did some of the traffic on the roads (A Frenchman yelled at JT at one point when he rode on the sidewalk).

After what seemed like forever, we neared the French border and stopped at a fork in the road to consult maps. A man came out of his nearby house and questioned us in French. “Belgium?” KT asked, and the man pointed us down a small road -- “Houtem [the name of the next town over] - une petit route,” he said. Within minutes were in DSC_9280 Belgium (as evidenced by better signage on the roads), with its brilliant cycle paths, many of them traffic-free and along canals. Minutes after that, the petit route brought us to the charming village of Houtem, which provided an excellent reminder of why we were doing this crazy trip on bicycles.

Hungry and tired, we finally rolled into our destination, Veurne, and to our hotel around 7:30pm—or so we thought. Somehow in the craziness of the day, we had both forgotten to move our watched an hour ahead. We were nearly finished with dinner before we realized that it wasn’t 10:30 p.m. – it was 11:30. No wonder the town was empty! Nevermind: our dinner destination, DSC_9297the stylish bistro Onder den Toren, which as the name suggests, is under a huge church tower, stays open late every night. There, we finally got to sample our first Belgian beer, as well as a traditional aperitif called Pineau. It was also JT’s first taste of ice cream made with speculoos, the addictively delicious spice cookies that are common to the region (a recipe). We would seek out speculoos ice cream several more times on the trip.

To say we collapsed at the end of this 18-hour day is a bit of an understatement. But we did high-five each other when we got to Veurne – this journey, even the first day, was a true accomplishment.

Day 2, Friday: Veurne-Poperinge (~20 miles cycling)

DSC_9306 Knowing the first leg would be tough, we planned a leisurely second day. We roamed Veurne’s city centre, stopping in the tourist center to finally get copies of the useful Belgium bike maps (see also an online route planner), and stopped in at Flandria, a highly recommend beer café, for two very delicious beers. We didn’t roll out of town until almost 1 p.m. but most of the ride was easy sailing down canal paths, and the wind was far less an enemy. We tried to stop in at the De Snoek beer museum/brewery in Alveringem, but it was closed (for good?), so we detoured into the nearby village of Lo and had a pit stop where we gobbled up traditional Belgian frites and enjoyed the town’s beautiful (and spotless) square.

While going through another village, I called for KT stop because I had DSC_9333 spotted a bakery with an odd feature: an outside bread vending machine! The owner explained that when the shop closes for the day, they place any leftover bread in the “broodautomat” so customers can get bread after-hours. Brilliant!

Our final goal for Friday was Poperinge, a place celebrated for producing the hops that goes into the nation’s beer. Indeed, nor far outside the city, we spotted farmers working on running wires down 20 ft poles—we later discovered they were for hop vines (The hops wiki describes the process).

When we reached Poperinge, we easily found the Palace hotel—a former theatre and now moderately-priced hotel that came highly recommended by cyclists and beer fans, the latter for its bar that DSC_9336 serves more than 100 kinds of Belgian beers. Much less tired than on our first day, we took ourselves on a walking tour of the small city and headed to another bistro, Passage. We were yet again impressed with the modern, stylish design of the place and the excellent food; KT had scallops that came close to matching those from Rays in DC, which says a lot. It was here that we also met a potent cocktail called Picon, for which KT would develop a fancy.

Day 2 was a nice follow-on to our intense first day. The cycling took us along canal routes, which are lovely to cycle along, and took us through small villages, our favorite destinations wherever we are. And we were able to begin in earnest the beer tourism aspect of our trip.

Day 3, Saturday: Poperinge-Ieper- Kortrijk (42 miles cycling)

IMG_0781 But of course, no beer tour through Flanders would be complete without a trip to the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren, home to a brewery that makes some of the most difficult-to-get beer in the world. The brewery is only open certain days and will only sell a single case to people who must call in to make reservations. It’s about 3 miles outside of Poperinge, so, though we had a big day of riding ahead of us, we felt it our duty to start it off with a few beers at the abbey’s cafe, Vrede.

DSC_9358 You might think that we’d be the only people there at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday, but when we rolled in, the bike racks were nearly full. An entire cycling club, clad in matching lycra uniforms, had the same idea and were already enjoying their beers. We quickly caught up, sampling the breweries 3 beers, including the famous “12”, which has a 10.6% alcohol content. They were indeed delicious, and well worth the short detour.

We (slowly) biked away from the abbey and down more canals on our way to Ieper, which is better known to Americans by its French name Ypres. A major site of WWI battles between German and Allied forces, DSC_9376 the area around Ieper is full of military cemeteries. This area of Flanders is the inspiration of the famous poem about WWI war deaths called In Flanders Fields. We soon came across our first WWI cemetery, which was the final resting place of more than 1500 British soldiers. In Ieper itself, we visited the massive Menin Gate that honors more than 50,000 soldiers who died without known graves. I was particularly struck by the thousands of Australians who had traveled so far to defend the British Empire. When we got back, KT was amazed to look at pictures of the destruction in Ieper after WWI and compare it to the magnificent city centre we saw.

After a quick walk around and lunch, KT and I faced a decision. ShouldDSC_9394 we bike all the way to our final destination, which we estimated would mean a total for 40+ miles for the day (remember, we started with 3 beers!), or do we hop a train? It was the third straight sunny, gorgeous day, so we concluded we should try to work off the beer and chocolate calories—and there were other train stations we could catch if we got to tired. It was the right decision—we soon hit the superhighway of canal paths, a wide paved route that we could speed along. As in the previous two days, we found Belgium beautiful—the farms were remarkably clean and well-organized, and the farm animals even seemed better behaved than many children. We never got tired of the Belgian Blue cattle, whose odd “double-muscled” appearance stems from a genetic mutation.

After an ice cream break energized us for the final push, we finished DSC_9409 our 42-mile trek of the day in the town of Kortrijk. As neared our hotel, a man taking out trash greeted KT by name; he was the manager at the Hotel Focus and knew we’d be arriving on bicycles, so it was a pretty safe bet we were the guests he was waiting for. Each of the rooms at the hotel was designed by a different artist; the manager let KT check out the three rooms available -- designed by a musician, choreographer, and a cartoonist – and she settled on the cartoonist’s room, stark white except for the artist’s black sketches.

DSC_9400 Despite our tired legs, we headed into town for a quick walk around and a visit to the Begijnhof, a small convent founded in 1238 –very charming a beautiful in the evening light. Dinner was at Mouterijtje, an old grain store turned restaurant with lovely modern touches. We feasted on meat and fish; one guess what we drank.

Day 4, Sunday: Kortrijk–Ghent-Huise-Ghent (20 miles cycled)

Kortrijk was hosting a music festival while we were there so when we came down for breakfast we found a duo—spanish guitar and cello—serenading us. They were practicing for an event at the hotel later DSC_9425 that morning. We took one more stroll through Kortrijk that morning; the highlight was definitely the Baggaertshof, 13 small houses around a garden set up in the 1600s for poor women. The current installation of sculptures are from Laurent Geers – life-size nudes. The proprietor asked what we thought of the sculptures; KT replied that they were beautiful. “Not too shocking?” he asked. I’m guessing not all guests shared our opinion.

We assumed we would face a train-bike decision Sunday morning, but the long ride the day before and our rather sore legs made the decision for us: We hopped a train to take us the 30+ miles to Ghent. Getting our bikes on the train here was a bit confusing, but another cyclist (who thankfully spoke English) helped us locate the right door and lift our weighed-down bikes up 4 feet and onto the train.

But this wouldn’t be the end of the journey that day. Once in Ghent, we headed straight for our hotel to drop off our bags, and headed back out on our bikes south of the city. More easy canal paths and more ridiculously pretty scenery. KT spotted an egret poised in the marshland at one point, and a bit further along, a horse jumping competition was going on next to the canal path. We were beginning to think Belgium might be even more idyllic than Cambridge.

DSC_9435 Why immediately leave Ghent for a 17-mile ride? We were on a mission to de Gans (the Goose), a country pub highly recommended in Tim Webb’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium and other places. While the ride might have been a breeze on fresh legs, it was a bit challenging. Then we briefly got lost and it threatened to rain, but we found our way back to the route and after a final uphill climb we made it to the pub tired, hungry, and thirsty. That was all soon forgotten as the owner gave KT a hearty welcome and made her join the regulars in the main bar area.

IMG_0831 We quickly ordered two beers and a cheese/sausage plate, which was then followed by two more beers and apple tart and pancake with chocolate syrup (with a goose shape on top crafted from powdered sugar). My only disappointment was there was no fire going so the owner couldn’t do his trick of sticking a hot poker in a Chimay beer to carmelize its sugars—it’s supposed to be tasty. The owner did show us an original Good Beer Guide signed by Tim Webb each time he returned and another gentleman at the bar revealed he was the son of the brewer at de Ranke brewery that Webb liked a lot—which persuaded us to try two of his beers.

We could have stayed at de Gans the rest of the day, but we had people to meet. Our friends M&S were arriving in Ghent that evening. They had spent the previous days in southern Belgium, and we had arranged it so we would meet up in Ghent. We found them at a great canal-side café called the Waterhuis--besides a huge list of beers from around Belgium, it had special house beers specially brewed for it, including one that was a potent 11%. After a quick dinner with M&S, we decided we’d meet again the next day for lunch and a serious stroll around Ghent. KT then guided us back to our hotel, which was a few miles from the city centre, via moonlit canal cycle paths.

Day 5, Monday: Ghent (a handful of miles cycled)

DSC_9438 As if we weren’t relaxed on this trip, Monday brought a new level of relaxation: We wouldn’t have to pack up and move that night. We were free to do as much or as little as we wanted. So we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in our hotel’s gorgeous sunroom and spent some time reading. We then made the couple-mile journey into the city where we used our guidebook to give ourselves a little walking tour, taking in Gravensteen Castle, the waterside, and Patershol, a lovely little brick-lined neighborhood.

We met up with M&S for lunch for our one “foodie” adventure lunching at the Belga Queen, a trendy canal-side restaurant. We had nice, though not spectacular, meals and even experienced the infamous DSC_9472 toilets. The stalls have clear glass doors that go opaque when one locks the door—or they are supposed to!

After we and M&S separated, we visited St. Baaf’s Cathedral, church built in the 14th century. And then we visited one of Ghent’s newcomers, a 1-year-old brewery called Gruut that makes its beers using herbs rather than hops. The café in the brewery was beautiful and the beers remarkably delicious and “clean”—very distinctive among Belgium beers.

More walking around the city burned off some calories before we rejoined M&S at the Troll’s Cellar, yet another Beer Guide recommendation – and a very enjoyable place. We were nearly the only ones there, and the knowledgeable bartender was happy to help us navigate the bar’s huge beer list.

DSC_9489 After grabbing pizza for dinner, the four of us continued our tour of Ghent’s unusual but delightful drinking establishments. KT had been reading about the local jenever, a primitive form of gin, and Ghent had a well-know placed next to the Waterhuis that served more than 100 varieties, many hand-made by the Santa-like owner named Pol.

We were not disappointed! KT first tried a tasty citron-flavored shot, while I enjoyed a smooth vanillajenever. KT next went for almond jenever, while I made the mistake of being macho and asking for the pepperjenver. I got some of the last liquid in a bottle full of peppers. My mouth started burning on the first sip—and hiccups came next as I tried to recover. I eventually gave up with half a shot left, earning Pol’s amused disdain.

Thinking that little could top our visit with Pol, we ambled along to our next destination that had come highly recommended, t Velootje (“little bike”, I’m told). The owner at de Gans had told us it was “a bicycle museum with beer.” We turned down an alley to see a cluttered doorway marked by a bicycle sign, looked at each other nervously, and walked in. Bizarre doesn’t start to describe t Velootje! The darkened interior was like the worst cluttered garage you’ve ever seen, with IMG_0843 complete and partial cycles everywhere, including covering much of the ceiling (here’s a well-lit picture).

The bar only had a few places to sit and we sat across from each other on a long table piled with junk, including an old corking machine and a can of cat food. When we asked for a beer menu, the bearded owner, who may have been dressed in pajamas, snorted and said “It was a busy weekend, I sell a lot of beer. You want beer, I bring you beer.” Luckily, he brought us 4 Pater Lieven beers, which turned out to be excellent ones from the local Van den Bossche brewery just outside Ghent. They were pricey at 4 euros but we agreed they were worth the price of admission to this strange place. Although at one point we weren’t sure we would survive our visit when a raging fire briefly flared in the nearby fireplace!

We decided this was plenty of excitement for one day, and there was no way we were going to top t’Velootje. So, we called it a night.

Day 6, Tuesday: Ghent-Brussels-London-Cambridge

The last day of our trip saw us biking back into Ghent’s city centre for some final touristy items, including amazing chocolates from Cedric Van Hoorebeke, a tour of the impressive Design Museum, a stroll through the Meat Hall (a former meat market turned into a café selling local delicacies), and a canal boat tour that included a waterside look at Castle Gravensteen. The day got off to an amusing start as we watched a police scuba team dredging the canal for some of the many bicycles that had gone to watery graves.

DSC_9516 And after one final visit to the Waterhuis, and a pub stop on the bike ride to the hotel (where we bumped into M&S!), we started out voyage home, catching a Ghent to Brussels train. Once at Brussels Midi station, we checked in our bikes with Eurostar and dashed out to sample a pizzeria KT had read about.

The two hour Eurostar train ride was relaxing, although the ending was a bit hectic as we learned that the last several trains from London to Cambridge had been cancelled and we would have to rush to catch the 10:15pm train. Of course, no one could tell us where in St. Pancras our bikes would be—should you ever need to know, it’s at the far north end—and when we got to the counter, no one was around. Finally, a lone man wheeled out our bikes and we quickly crossed the street to catch the train at Kings Cross. An hour later, we rolled out of the train station in Cambridge and biked the last mile to our home—a satisfying conclusion to our once-in-a-lifetime experience. And we can’t wait for the next one.

IMG_0835

2 comments:

jt said...

Hmm, should I post our list of 40 beers sampled...

Jim Nariel said...

Well done for making it happen and great article by the way

http://cyclingframes.blogspot.com