Belgium by Brompton 2008
Carol, being a history
graduate, had long wanted to visit the WW1 battlefields in Flanders. I
was not quite so sure about the trip, Belgium did not figure high on my
list of holiday destinations, but, as usual, I was eventually won over
and agreed to go.
After doing some preliminary research we decided that the folding
Brompton bikes would be the most suitable steeds for the trip. The
areas we were proposing to visit were relatively flat, and folding
bikes currently travel free on European railways. It is possible to
take conventional bikes on many trains but you have to pre-book and pay
for bikes and we knew from experience that you cannot book the bikes
over the Internet, and end up paying top rates for the tickets on the
day, to say nothing about the queuing for tickets - typically 1 hour
international bookings from Amsterdam. We therefore booked our train
tickets on line for journeys between Amsterdam and Brussels and from
Antwerp back to Amsterdam.
Our Bromptons are of the six speed variety, with a 3 speed SRAM hub and
a two speed derailleur. When we bought our bikes there was a choice of
overall gearing with a lower range being selected by the fitting of a
smaller chain wheel. We chose this option, but the bikes remain over
geared in my view. I would like to have a further 10% reduction in the
ratios. We carried conventional capacious Brompton front bags and
bought one Brompton rear bag for additional capacity. This gave us
about as much luggage space as we have experienced using the tandem.
It's fine for credit card B&B touring but would not be much use for
camping. In addition I carried a camera bag and Carol a
conventional small backpack (useful when walking), both of which would
hook over the handlebars and travel ahead of the main Brompton bag.
Having used many different types of bicycle luggage over the years we
have learned that the only way to guarantee dry kit is to use bin bags
within the panniers.
We had no real problems with the bikes, the Brompton is a well sorted
bicycle that is a stable load carrier.
The Bromptons parked somewhere between Ghent and Antwerp. Note the
shower caps used to keep our Brooks leather saddles dry.
Special thanks are due to Norman Fay of Holdsworth Cycles in South
Shields for providing me with a new rear wheel despite having
his shop due to the untimely and tragic death of his father in a
We took the overnight DFDS ferry from North Shields to Ijmuiden, and
then cycled to Amsterdam. We then took the train to Brussels where we
stayed two nights. While at Brussels we made a return trip to Waterloo.
The first part of the real cycling trip was from Brussels to Ronse for
an overnight stay. The following day saw us cycling to Ypres where we
stayed a further two nights, using a whole day to cycle around the old
battlefields in the area. Leaving Ypres we cycled to Ghent, for another
two night stay. The last stage of our bicycle trip in Belgium was from
Gent to Antwerp. We enjoyed a bike free day in that city,
walking and using the trams to get around. The following day we took a morning
train back to Amsterdam, using the afternoon to ride over to
Monnickendam, where there exists what is possibly the world's greatest
tea shop, before riding back towards an overnight stay at Amstelveen,
on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Finally we cycled from Amstelveen back
to Ijmuiden for the ferry home.
In line with most other mainland European countries, and unlike the
situation in the UK, motorists are generally courteous and careful
where cyclists are involved. If you approach a junction at the same
time as a car, chances are that the car will stop and you will be waved
across. Vehicles will typically not overtake unless it is safe for them
to do so. You can hear them changing down through the gears as they
await their opportunity to get past on the other side of the road. In
short there is a very different culture on the roads as compared to the
UK, it felt much safer to cycle in Belgium than in the UK.
most motorised vehicular traffic on the motorways or more important
trunk roads, cycling was a generally pleasurable experience.
Specialist cycling provision is rather variable however. Around
Brussels we found little real evidence of cycle paths, but as we
travelled over towards the Flemish speaking regions the situation
improved noticeably with good quality separate provision becoming the
norm. Most of the cycle paths that we encountered were hard surfaced,
using either tarmac or blocks. There are no anti-motorcycle barriers
and there is a welcome freedom from broken glass on the tracks. Most of
the N roads (equivalent to A roads in the UK) provided separate cycle
tracks, although at times the separation was merely a line on the road
I particularly liked the arrangements at roundabouts where there was a
separate cycle lane just outside the main circle. This, coupled with
the considerate driving behaviour, made roundabouts feel quite safe,
and I speak as one who has been knocked off the bike on a UK roundabout.
The provision of specialist cycling signs was also variable. We
followed the National cycle route 6 for some considerable distance and
around Brussels this manifested itself as an occasional rectangular
route 6 sign on a convenient post. Unfortunately the signs were nowhere
to be seen near many junctions, and it took a lot of map reading,
argument and guesswork to follow this route. The quality of the paths
followed by route 6 was also highly variable, with some sections
through forests that were not properly surfaced and not really suitable
for bicycles with relatively thin tyres. Eventually we gave up on route
6 and followed instead minor roads or sections of N roads with clearly
marked cycle tracks.
Elsewhere, for example along the banks of the River Schelde, there were
some excellent signs that gave directions and distances to particular
destinations, which was more typical of our experience of cycling in
There are three languages in use in
Belgium, and they are French, Dutch and Flemish (similar to Dutch, but
spoken not written). Typically in the French speaking areas the signs
all appear in two languages and the spellings are often quite different
(Antwerpen and Anvers), but in other regions there is only one name
given. This can be confusing as you are looking for say Ypres and the
sign is for Ieper. All of the B&B/hotel owners and most young
people that we encountered could speak English, those who did not would
converse in French, even though their preferred language was Flemish.
We found the Belgians to be friendly and helpful, with many
conversations prompted by our unusual folding bikes.
There was a noticeable difference in the terrain between the north and
south of the country. The area around Ronse is described as the Flemish Ardennes. Leaving Ronse we encountered a very real
hill that necessitated getting off the bikes and pushing. In contrast,
following the river Schelde between Ghent and Antwerp, it was
The countryside around Ypres is gently undulating, just right for city
bikes like the Bromptons, with their limited range of gears.
We had difficulty in finding suitable
cycling maps. We thought that we had found the ideal map in
Lange-Afstand Fietsroutes in Vlaanderen 1:250000 (Long distance bike
routes in Flanders, from Stanfords in London), but we were forced to
buy a larger scale 1:50000 Fietsroute-Netwerk van Groen Oost-Vlaanderen
because of the lack of suitable signs. Neither map gives any real
indication of terrain, while they show different routes or route
designations - very confusing. Around Ypres we used Major and Mrs
Holt's Battle map of the Ypres Salient with a scale of 1:45000.
The trip from Brussels to Ronse and on to Ypres was the most difficult
in terms of navigation and terrain, that onwards largely followed
There was an ample supply of laundrettes
in the larger towns, so you don't need to carry too many changes of
How Much Did
The return journey on the DFDS ferry from
North Shields to Ijmuiden cost £216 for an interior double
en-suite cabin, i.e. £108 per person.
The train from Amsterdam to Brussels (2.5 hours) cost £35
each and that from Antwerp to Amsterdam (2 hours) £25. The multi
lingual conductor made station announcements in three languages.
Accommodation cost between 55 and 66 Euro for a double room B&B,
which is about what you pay in £ in the UK! Most premises
provided en-suite facilities but two did not. Generally the B&Bs
wanted cash while the hotels would take a card, with one charging a 5
Euro card handling fee. All were clean and comfortable, with our
favourite being the Villa Vanilla just outside of Ypres.
Our cheapest dinner comprised a take away plate of frites with
mayonnaise preceded by beer in Ghent at about 2 Euros while the most we
paid was 44 Euros for a set menu, including wine, at the Waterpoort in
Ypres - beautifully presented and one of the best meals that we have
ever eaten! Generally bar meals cost around 12 Euros and are good value
at that. Lunchtime meals were generally bread, cheese, tomatoes or a
composed salad from a supermarket. We were disappointed at the relative
lack of coffee/tea shops in Belgium, they are in scarce supply compared
to other European countries that we have visited, including the UK.
While on the disappointed front, there are very few public toilets -
none whatsoever in Antwerp according to the Tourist Information Office,
who recommended nipping into pubs.
We made this journey during the first two weeks of July 2008. It was
warm throughout with the temperature, as indicated by those digital
thermometers above chemists' shops, never dropping below 16 degC, even
when it rained. The highest we saw was 30 degC, which is way too hot
for me! Mostly dry, we were caught in two brief but torrential
downpours, but on each occasion managed to take shelter from the worst
of the rain. The wind could be a problem, but we were lucky in
that it blew our way for most of the time which made cycling great fun!
We returned with a nice tan.
Waterloo and back
Brussels is quite a hilly city and we did not find much specialist
provision for cyclists. Carol, the historian, wanted to see Waterloo so
we headed off in that direction. We did manage to get rather lost on
poor quality paths in a forest not far from Waterloo and at one point
emerged near a busy main road that was unsuitable for cycling. If
anyone involved in traffic planning or Brussels tourism is reading
this, some signs pointing to named destinations would be advantageous.
Back into the forest we managed to find an alternative way out that
brought us to a small town with a road that included a cycle path which
we followed until it expired. We then rode along a footpath into the
town of Waterloo, where there was a tourist information office staffed
by a very helpful lady.
The Dom in Waterloo
The site of the battle of Waterloo was some miles out of the town, and
there did not appear to be a cycle path heading in that direction and
the road looked to be very busy, so we cut our losses and headed back
to Brussels. It would have been possible to have caught a service bus
out there, but we were running out of time and decided against it.
Coming back we took a different route and were lucky enough to stumble
superb traffic free tarmac road through the forest that took us to the
outskirts of Brussels, this made for very pleasurable cycling - it
needs to be better promoted.
Brussels is an attractive city with some fine buildings and interesting
shops, a visit to the Grand Place is a must.
Looking at our map we saw that Vlaanderen
Fietsroute 6b (Cycle route 6b) headed in the required direction so we
elected to follow that. This turned out to be a mistake as it uses some
entirely inappropriate badly surfaced forest trails while most of the
sign posting only appeared to be present when it wasn't needed, but
example, at junctions. It became apparent that the forested
sections of route 6 were not suitable for our bikes, so we looked for
alternatives to avoid them. Leaving Brussels was reasonably easy
however, as there is a cycle path alongside a canal that leads south
out of the City. The provision for cycling
improved the further we got from Brussels and we found that many of the
N roads had separate cycle tracks or clearly marked tracks on the road
Ronse to Ypres
Coming out of Ronse, and looking to get
back onto route 6, we encountered a
very stiff climb that was beyond what we could manage with our Brompton
bikes with their limited range of gears. We were therefore forced to
bikes for a few hundred yards. From Kortrijk to Menin we were able to
follow the canalised river Leie, which removed the need for map
reading, was traffic free, and wonderfully flat! We started off following 6 but by the
we reached Menin we had had enough of its meanderings and the general
lack of clear sign posting, so we abandoned if for the N road, with
cycle tracks marked on the tarmac, that led
directly to Ypres. Later
in the journey we came across a vintage Belgium cyclist who confirmed
our view that route 6 was not a good option for people needing to make
reasonably speedy progress.
The Menin bridge.
Just outside of Ypres we were hit
by a torrential rain storm, but were able to take shelter beneath the
canopy of someone's house. The rain didn't last long and we were soon
on our way again. Entering Ypres from Menin, you pass through the Menin
Gate, erected as a memorial to those killed in the fighting during the
1914-18 war. The photograph that follows does not give a sufficient
impression of the size of the structure, which forms a tunnel over the
road with a very large interior space.
The Menin Gate
Every evening at 8pm the traffic
through the gate is halted and there is a simple ceremony during which
the Last Post is played, and visitors place wreaths in memory of
soldiers. We went along that night and were surprised to find the space
within the gate to be packed with people, with parties of British and
Belgium school children swelling the ranks of tourists, those who had
lost relatives, and old soldiers from many different conflicts. It is
an emotional occasion, and the crowd was commendably silent throughout
the proceedings. I read that this ceremony has been conducted every
night since the gate was opened, with the only break occurring during
the period that Ypres was occupied in WW2. Normal service was resumed
as soon as the town was liberated, with the buglers playing the Last
Post while there was still heavy fighting at the perimeter of the town.
Ypres was literally flattened during the fighting in WW1 but the town
centre was gradually rebuilt in its original form, with elegant
medieval buildings, during the first half of the 20th Century. Perhaps
the most impressive structure is the Cloth Hall and the adjoining Town
Hall. The cloth hall is now largely occupied by a museum dedicated to
the peoples of many nations who fought in the 1914-18 war. The museum
is very well planned, with lots of inter-active elements, in fact you
forget to look at the interior of the building itself, which is awesome.
Ypres Cloth and Town Halls with the cathedral spire in the background.
We stayed at the attractively named, and
beautifully appointed, Villa Vanilla guest house just outside the town
- by far the nicest accommodation on our trip. Our friendly host
commented that the restaurants in the centre of the town did not always
offer the best service or value as they were mainly used by the passing
trade. However we had a perfectly acceptable and economical Pizza in
one of them, but we did follow her advice and ate at the de Waterpoort
restaurant and that was in another league, truly excellent.
We stayed two nights at Ypres and during the second day toured around
some of the WW1 battlefields, relics and cemeteries.
Tyne Cot war graves.
The official war graves are
fastidiously maintained. The Belgium government gave the land to the
countries that had contributed their young men to the struggle. The
cemetery at Tyne Cot has a visitor centre. As you approach you
become aware of a quiet and unemotional recorded voice which gives the
name, rank, age and place of birth of some of the many soldiers resting
there. During your stay no name is repeated. Soldiers of many
nationalities, friend and foe, are buried at Tyne Cot, although the
great majority are British and Canadian. The cross and structure that
you see in the picture shrouds the remains of a concrete bunker, part
of which can be seen through the black square orifice near to the base.
The cemetery takes its name from Tyne Cottages, as soldiers from
commented that the bunkers looked rather like them when seen from a
Elsewhere private individuals have been able to exploit the area's
wartime history by setting up small museums. At the site of Hill 62,
there remains a series of trenches preserved since hostilities ended.
Given that the trenches are in essence holes in the earth that must
have suffered considerable erosion in the ninety years since the war
ended, you have to wonder just how original they are. There is an
accompanying "museum" with relics from the war including weapons,
shells and uniforms. No attempt is made to educate or inform, the items
are just stacked there for you to look at.
Trenches - Hill 62
We retraced our route back to Menin and
then along the river Leie towards Ghent. At intervals along the river
various settlements had provided vistor information notice boards,
normally housed beneath a simple but attractive tiled roof carried on
strong wooden pillars. In this way we learned how the prosperity of the
region had once depended upon the processing of flax to produce linen
cloth. Apparently at one stage in the process the flax was held in
containers moored within the river and, such was the quantity involved,
this resulted in severe pollution of the water. The flax industry has
now gone, but there is an interesting museum within Ghent dedicated to
it. For some petty bureaucratic reason you are not allowed to take
photographs in there, even of the aged British made weaving equipment,
but it's still worth a visit.
It's difficult to be entirely objective about the places that you see
during a tour, as your thoughts are conditioned by the weather, people
that you meet, your accommodation and the surroundings. However we both
liked Ghent and thought it the nicest city that we had encountered
during this holiday. It might have been the container of Frites and
Mayonnaise that we ate after a couple of beers, or it may have been
From Ghent to Antwerp you follow the
course of the river Schelde. There are paths along the river banks so
this is safe and easy cycling.
A riverside shrine for sailors.
A riverboat moored at Temse
Once you get closer to Antwerp the river is wider and on occasion there
is the need to cross by means of a free ferry. At one point the river
divided and it became rather unclear as to how to proceed, but a bit of
map reading and the realisation that we would have to cross some locks
and take another ferry to get across a tributary, got us through.
Everybody who comes to Antwerp must take this shot, and maybe the
next one too!
On the riverside is a museum
dedicated to the Red Star shipping line, famous for the transportation
three million emmigrants from Europe to the Americas. The embarkation
sheds still exist and they are presently used as a boat museum.
The barge Gephee within the boat museum.
A section of the town is famous for
its collection of Art Nouveau style houses. Due to the narrow street,
it's difficult to photograph them without a specialist tilting lens,
so, despite some post processing, my picture shows converging verticals.
Perhaps the nicest photograph taken during the visit, the view
across a cobbled bridge in Antwerp.
We completed the Belgium section of
our holiday by taking the train from Antwerp to Amsterdam. The railway
station in Antwerp has a huge dome rather like a great cathedral, while
inside the tracks are on three levels, it's an incredible piece of
I decided to leave my heavy digital single lens reflex camera at
home and relied upon two compact, if antique, Pentax 35mm film SLRs,
along with a small collection of lenses; 28mm f3.5 K, 35mm Samsung f2,
50mm f1.7 M and a 75-150 f4 M zoom. The colour film used was Fuji
Provia reversal, while the B&W shots were taken on Ilford HP5
developed in Perceptol at 1:3. All shots scanned using an Epson 4990
flatbed and processed using Photoshop CS3.
For details of more cycle tours that I have documented, please