Early Friday morning, large snowflakes fell across Luxembourg City settling everywhere. We sat munching on our all inclusive continental breakfast in the refectory of the youth hostel contemplating a day of riding on snowy roads in the cold. Reluctance hung heavily from our shoulders. Our plan was to cycle back to the UK for a brief visit to see Jerry’s mum and surprise my youngest nephew on his birthday at the end of February, before returning to France. We were on schedule, having cycled over to Luxembourg from Trier the previous day but whilst our bodies were willing, our minds were definitely having a protest at the thought of more snowy nights in the tent. The weather forecast was not helping our motivation with wind and rain forecast for three days after the snow let up. Mmmm… What to do?
Luxembourg city has a history dating back to the 10th century when someone called Siegfried decided to build his castle here on a rocky outcrop above the confluence of the rivers Pétrusse and Arzette.
In the middle ages many more fortifications were built here and a small town grew up around them. The city lies at the heart of Western Europe and many different regimes have wanted to hold sway here. Burgundy, Spain and Austria all ruled here before the French took over in the Revolutionary wars and then Prussia moved in. Napoleon considered the city to be the best defended place in Europe second to Gibraltar. The city and grand duchy finally became an independent state in the 19th century. Many of the fortifications were dismantled and Luxembourg became a neutral country. Despite this it was invaded by Germany in both WWI and WWII, in the later, the Nazis tried to convince the local population that they were German citizens at heart and to join the Third Reich. They were not successful.
We had a very enjoyable time walking around the city to see the sights: the ducal palace, the cathedral, the remaining defences, and many more.
It is a beautiful city. We visited the town museum on the first evening we were there and then, having decided to stay another night, we went to one of the art galleries and took in a lunchtime concert by three soloists from the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra.
Our decision from the earlier question was to avoid the bad weather and take the train, via Brussels, to De Panne on the Northeast coast of Belgium, cycle 30km to Dunkerque and take the ferry to Dover. It’s hard cycling and camping in this part of Europe in the winter – may be this is why not many people do it!
Saturday 20 February turned out to be a bit of an epic day. We left the hostel around 8am and walked to the station. The steep hills of Luxembourg city making it impossible to ride much of the route. Having checked that there were no engineering works on the line, we were hopeful of a smooth run through to northern Belgium. However, no sooner than we had loaded our bikes onto the train, the guard informed us that there was a problem on the line just across the border in Belgium and a replacement bus service was being put in place. Our hearts sunk as we checked the distance between the two stations and saw that it was over 30km through hilly terrain. If we had to cycle that we would miss the ferry. Belgium railway staff turned out to be real stars though. Realising that our bikes would not fit on the bus, they laid on a personal taxi service using one of their crewcab vans! Struggling with the swap from speaking German to speaking French, and with the latter very rusty, we communicated in a language that was very reminiscent of Luxembourgish, a strange mixture of German, French and English. Jerry asked the driver, in beautiful French, what had caused the problem on the line. The driver’s reply in French remains an untranslated mystery.
We eventually completed our journey to De Panne, arriving an hour later than planned at 16:00. We had three hours still to get 30km to the ferry terminal. Sounded possible. We were faced with a strong headwind and pouring rain. It was not long before I took my glasses off – I could see more without them. The first part of our journey into France and along to Dunkerque town went reasonably smoothly. From there I had planned to follow a cycle path out to the ferry terminal. However, this plan was foiled fairly early on, when we cycled half way across a bridge across a river and railway only to find the other half of the bridge was yet to be built! We retraced our route back to roads and set off to find the main car route to the port. What joy when we finally spotted a sign pointing to the ‘Car Ferry’. By now, dusk had arrived, and we sorted out our bike lights. More time lost faffing. We headed out of Dunkerque town on the busy main road, the rain still falling and the wind whistling around our ears. None of the signs told us the distance to the car ferry, but we knew time was ticking away and kept pressing on.
All went well for a couple of kilometres, then at traffic lights we came across a square, blue sign with a white car. Mmmm… that means cars only. We looked around for an alternative cycle route. Nothing showing. ‘Let’s just go for it’, I thought and continued on into the black, wet night with Jerry following hard on my heels. Another couple of kilometres, and we came to a giant roundabout at the start of the autoroute south. From here, amazingly, was a cycle path and we quickly grabbed the opportunity to use it. The path followed the road for a kilometre or so, then swapped sides and split off to the left. It dropped us off on another road with no sign to the car ferry. Tension was rising as we knew we had little time left to find the port. Jerry ran off to look at some roadsigns away to the right whilst I held his bike – not much help. Then I spotted a lady with a bunch of flowers walking to a car. Rapidly trying to open my French language brain channel, I approached her saying ‘Excusez moi, excusez moi. Où se trouve le …… Car Ferry?’. I hoped that because all the signs read ‘Car Ferry’ she would understand where I was looking for. Luckily she did. Even more amazing, I understood most of her response and we headed off into the small village of Loon sur Plage, past the pub, right at the roundabout and out the other side. Here we came to another roundabout where my map app showed a road directly to the ferry port, though not the way signposted. By this point, we decided we had probably missed the ferry and our mission became just to get there. We took the shorter route and, to my surprise, two cars came past. Then, as we reached the main route again, two lorries sped by. Maybe, just maybe, we still stood a chance. Bright lights glistened away in the distance and we pedalled purposely towards them, the increasing wind buffeting us left and right across the road. We checked in five minutes past the cut off time, were last through British passport control, then started overtaking other vehicles as border control called us past ten waiting vehicles after they decided we weren’t hiding any people in our panniers. On to the queues of vehicles in the boarding lanes. We had a lane to ourselves so smugly cycled past all the cars and lorries who had been here for hours and arrived at loading staff. They immediately waved us on to the completely empty deck and we were able to secure our bikes for the rough crossing before another vehicle appeared! To top it all, the Purser offered to dry our wet clothes in their onboard tumble drier!
After a bumpy trip across the Channel, it was a delight to be greeted by my sister, Jocelyn, waiting at the docks with her car and bike rack. She stays just a few miles north of Dover and her partner, Jon, had a roast dinner waiting for us when we arrived.
The past two weeks have been spent celebrating nephews’ birthdays, sorting out essential repairs and upgrades to our bikes and equipment and dog walking around the Kent countryside.
Locks Cycles of Sandwich have built me a new front wheel complete with a dynamo hub that will charge our devices on the move. They also replaced a worn and wobbly bottom bracket on my bike and a badly pitted front headset on Jerry’s. In addition, we have both replaced our very stretched chains and heavily worn rear gear cassettes. New equipment includes new rear panniers and handlebar bag for me as my old ones were letting in the rain and new sandals for Jerry, whose previous ones had slowly fallen apart since Norway and became unwearable in Germany.
Now we are in Brighton visiting our old friend Alison and catching up with Jerry’s mum. We had two gorgeous days’ sunshine cycling along the south coast of England, punctuated by a very windy and wet night camped down on the beach near Hastings. If it has to rain, this is the best combination. We stay warm and dry in our tent at night and then lap up the sunshine by day.
We can even dry off the tent at lunchtime ready for the next night. Cycling across Romney marshes, a short-eared owl flew silently across the road about five metres in front of us before turning and flying back even closer. Birdwatching at its finest.
Tomorrow we take the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe and our southern Europe adventure begins.