I thought I had died and gone to cycling heaven. There was cycling signage and dedicated paths, people out on bikes in lycra and ordinary clothes, and car drivers giving us priority. It was a very strong NE breeze blowing straight off the North Sea that brought me back to reality. We had just crossed the border from France into Belgium.
The previous day we finally crossed the Channel from Dover to Calais after spending 10 days with my sister Jocelyn and her family sorting out some admin and buying a few new bits of gear. Jocelyn and my nephew, Alfie, cycled down with us to the docks on their tandem and gave us a rousing send off.
Leaving Calais on the coast road heading east (after an unintentional visit to the immigrant camps having taken a wrong turning), we learnt to cycle on the righthandside of the road and look over our left shoulders for traffic. As my neck doesn’t turn so easily that way after years of looking in the opposite direction this movement was accompanied by wobbles and swerving corrections! We stopped to camp in a small village close to the sandy, holiday beaches of the north French coast on a rather dilapidated site and successfully booked a tent space in our rusty français.
Originally we planned to cycle to Belgium along the north coast of France through Dunkerque, but we quickly realised this meant cycling on busy urban roads for most of the day. Something that neither of us particular enjoy. Instead we headed slightly further south into a flat farming landscape and cycled on quieter roads between fields of wheat, potatoes and maize. After a brief stop in the little market town of Bourbourg to buy croissant and baguette in nervous French at the local boulangerie, we pushed on along straight canal side roads in to an increasingly strong NE breeze.
We reached the pretty market town of Bergues, enclosed by much of its original mediaeval thick stone wall, in time for lunch. In the market square there is a curious 6 metre high model of a man dressed in fine clothes. L’electeur de Lamartine was constructed in 1913 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the town electing a member of parliament. He was recently given a new outfit by local amateur seamstresses. I wondered how he survived the two world wars when 80% of the town was destroyed by bombs, dynamiting, and fire.
At the border between France and Belgium later that afternoon, tarmac became concrete, Trois Rois Rue changed to Driekoningenstraat and we were greeted by a plethora of cycle routes each with a different number. Before arriving in Belgium, I had imagined everyone would speak French so we were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by Flemish. Whilst officially a duel language nation, in practice the north, Flanders, speaks Flemish (similar to Dutch), whilst the south, Wallonia, is French speaking. Here you can catch a train in the Wallonia to Malines and arrive at your destination in Mechelen! Most towns have two names and there is only ever one on the signs and these switch as you cross between Flanders and Wallonia. Only in Brussels/Bruxelles are there signs and information in both languages.
The NE wind prevented us getting to Brugge to camp and we stopped in Nieuwport and continued the final 30km to Bruges the next day.
Wow! Brugge!! An amazing, picturesque brick built town surrounded by canals that also run right through the centre. We dumped our tent and bags at the campsite and wandered around the town for the afternoon. It was impossible to tell what was original and which buildings had been rebuilt since the two world wars. But the overall effect is beautiful. It’s like a miniature Amsterdam with lots of canalside homes.
The sun had come out and we took breaks in the shade – unheard of in Scotland!
From Brugge we cycled onto Gent, where we bumped into King Filip in Sint Pietersplatz. Actually, he was there to watch the Belgium Homeless football competition and wasn’t interested in two slightly smelly cyclists from Scotland. Sorry royalists, I didn’t manage to get a picture of the Belgium King, but I did get a picture of the cars and Politie that came with him.
As you will all know 😕, June 18th this year is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and so we had to take a trip to visit the battle site. Accompanied by my old school friend, Shanda, and her husband, Chris, who drove us there, we went around the very new exhibition that sets the Battle in the context of European politics at the time and, in particular, the French Revolution. It seems that countries were always trying to gain more land, and that they frequently swapped alliances depending on what was most advantageous at the time. It was very interesting, and very well laid out. Though we were all starting to get a bit brain dead by the time we got to the descriptions of the uniforms worn by all the troops.
Outside in the fresh air and sunshine, the Dutch had conveniently built a monument to mark the spot where the Prince of Orange was injured in the battle. A huge bronze lion sits atop a steep sided mound that gives a great view across the whole battlefield.
We tried to imagine the 200,000 soldiers fighting it out with sabres and rifles for a whole day before the European allies triumphed. This may have been easier a few days later when a couple of re-enactments were scheduled to commemorate the battle.
The following day we took a Belgium train to Brussels, the capital city of Belgium and spent a very pleasurable day strolling around in warm weather. We particularly enjoyed the Place de Petit Sablons where there are 49 statues of different trades. We enjoyed guessing what each trade was from the equipment each statue had. Here are a few for you – answers at the bottom of the blog:
We couldn’t be in Belgium and not talk about beer. It is the nation’s passion. There are over 200 varieties, most made by small brewers in a tradition going back to Trappist monks. We visited the beer museum in Brussels to find out more and sampled a blonde and a special.
At the end of the day we caught the train back to Malines and arrived in Mechelen.
Mechelen is a happening city that lies almost mid distance between Brussels and Antwerp. There are lots of festivals that take place there throughout the year. The International food market was on whilst we were there and we wandered around the stalls tasting nougat, cheese and sausage. Unfortunately there was no UK stall so we could only imagine what would have been for sale… Haggis? Cornish pasties? Stilton? Cullen skink? What would you take?
In the middle of the city is St Rombouts Tower, with its new carillon of 49 bells. It also contains an older set that is not as tuneful and is now used to play tunes 8 times each hour. I hope the structural engineer got his maths right because the largest bells weigh 8 tonne!
Mechelen is the world centre for carillon bell playing and has an international school for students to learn this popular European skill. The Bells are played using a mechanism that looks much like an organ in layout. There are wooden levers instead of keys that connect to the bell hammers by wire. One evening we went along to a concert by a tip notch player, Philippe Beulens, a local man, who entertained us with a wide range of classical pieces and finished with a memorable performance of Freddie Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody!
Tradesman Answers: A – baker, B – Sailor, C – Furniture maker, D – Brewer, E – Cobbler