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 for 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 temporarily closed his shop due to the untimely and tragic death of his father in a cycling accident.

The route

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.



Cycling in Belgium

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.

With 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 surface.

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 Holland.



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, while following the river Schelde between Ghent and Antwerp, it was predictably flat. 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 canalised rivers.

There was an ample supply of laundrettes in the larger towns, so you don't need to carry too many changes of clothes.


How Much Did it Cost?

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.


The Weather

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.

Brussels to 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 upon a 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.







We were told that the views from the top of this museum devoted to music were amongst the best in Brussels, but it was closed by the time we got there. Note the relatively steep angle of the road passing the front of the building, Brussels is a hilly city!




Brussels to Ronse

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 not, for 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 itself.

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 push the 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 time 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  fallen 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 Northumberland had commented that the bunkers looked rather like them when seen from a distance.

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


Ypres to Ghent

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 something else!



A stroke of photographic good fortune, a stormy sky but with sunshine on the buildings.



A beguine or nunnery.



The town cryer - incredibly loud voice for a relatively small man!

The band were very good incidentally, playing a series of internationally known light pieces, we sat throughout and enjoyed the entire concert.



The king Charles V forced the burghers of Ghent to march through the town wearing nothing but a shirt and a noose around their necks and then beg for mercy, because the people had refused to pay an unpopular tax. Rather than take this as a great indignity, the people of Ghent decided to repeat the event on a yearly basis, it seems to have become the trademark of the City!



The Oudberger complete with noose!



There was an interesting market in the town square.



Ghent is a good socialist city, Our House!

Ghent to Antwerp

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 of almost 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 architecture/civil engineering.





Photography

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 look here

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