‘Do not arrest women drivers,’ Saudi religious police told
‘Do not arrest women drivers,’ Saudi religious police told
Having had so much good weather I find myself horrified by the sight of clouds. The first thing I did this morning was take a look outside. It had rained in the night and the streets were already busy with men cleaning up the mess from last night’s party. By the time I had finished breakfast the sky was clear and the workers had done a tremendous job in restoring the streets to their pristine state, free of broken glass and garbage.
I love the NH hotels but their breakfasts are way over priced at €21. I went for a walk instead and had the same breakfast for €4.10.
Leaving the hotel, with my passport and wallet today, I followed my iPhone to the canal that runs through the centre of Gent. I was keen to avoid the main roads on my way to Brugges and Google Maps showed me that there was indeed path that I could follow all the way. I was skeptical but gave it a try, cycling through the centre of town with my iPhone in one hand and my rear brake in the other. Gent is a hazardous place to ride like that with holidaymakers wondering all over the roads without looking and many tram lines lying in wait to trap your wheels. I made it to the tow path without incident though.
The canal path was splendid for once with a smooth surface and an almost complete lack of traffic. It is obviously a popular route as I saw more touring cyclists today than I have done in the last month. It was a leisurely ride all the way into the centre of Brugge. At one point I was forced to stop at a Citroen sponsored cycling event for pensioners. There were about three hundred, all wearing bright yellow high-vis jackets, with an average age of well over seventy.
Brugge is a splendid place with incredible old buildings in the city centre.
My first job here is to find a chemist and buy something to get rid of the stench my sandals are emitting. Since they got wet leaving Brussels they need to carry a biohazard warning. I tried washing them twice in the sink, all to no avail.
This cycling trip is almost done. My aim was to ride from Milan to Brugge over the alps, through Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Belgium. I now only have an hour’s ride the port and then from Hull to Brighouse. About 2000 km in total and all without a puncture … so far.
Ten hours after having breakfast in Exki, a wonderful chain of whole food shops that I have only seen in Belgium, I was sitting in the same seat enjoying my third coffee of the day. Between cups two and three I cycled from Brussels to Gent …
Cycling in Belgium hasn’t been quite what I expected. I had envisaged long canal towpaths and travelling from city to city without the hassle of heavy traffic. In part this has been true, but to keep to the cycle paths and canals it would require a lot more advanced planning and some old maps. For about fifty percent of the time I have been able to stay off the roads, but nearing the big towns I have found the route finding too difficult and have resorted to a straight GPS route in.
My longest canal stretch so far was between Liege and Namur. It was pleasant, mostly quite fast and only occasionally bumpy where the port traffic had destroyed the concrete road, or where there were remnants of ancient cobbles. It was 36 degrees on that day – Saudi temperatures!
Namur was definitely not worth a visit. It’s a red brick town with little that I could find of interest. There was an antique market along the main street but I suspect that anything much older than the smallholders and certainly anything of value had already hit eBay. For once my hotel had air conditioning and I made the most of it, taking a long siesta before dinner. Eating in Namur wasn’t what I expected. I went to a Thai restaurant but left because it smelled of damp and stale fat. I found a Japanese restaurant but the lack of service made me suspicious of the food quality. I walked out of the restaurant in the hotel opposite the railway station because it smelled of urine. Eventually I sat at a bar on the corner in the main road and did enjoy a good meal, but even this was disturbed by a stream of beggars making the rounds of the tables. In my hotel, which was excellent, the receptionist told me that at the end of every month they had regulars that would check in for a long weekend. They were homeless people living on benefits. Try blow their social security money in the hotel and then spend the rest of the month living on the streets. There is high unemployment in Namur.
With some difficulty I managed to get three quarters of the way from Namur to Brussels on roads and trails without cars. Marvellous. I was navigating on my iPhone using open source cycling maps. This worked pretty well, although I can’t read the iPhone when it is mounted on my handle bar bag, so I have to stop frequently. Whoever devised the route was quite ingenious as it was complex but short and traffic free. About fifteen miles from Brussels the land becomes more built up and my route became more and more tortuous. Having cycled for a mile or more along a six inch dirt trail through fields and woods, I was beginning to wonder if it might be time to hit the roads. As it happened I was left with no choice. My route was to follow the railway lines towards Brussels but there was work on the lines and the track was impossible.
Cycling without traffic spoils you! You don’t need to concentrate half as much. Still, Belgium’s roads are generally very well set up for cyclists, with special lanes or smooth pavements. The drivers too are extraordinarily considerate. In four days of riding I have only had to shout abuse twice.
For the most part Belgium’s roads are pretty litter free, although outside one village I passed an intriguing sign inviting drivers to toss their cans into the hedgerow where a large net had been set up to catch them. A tongue in cheek way to encourage drivers to be more environmentally conscious perhaps? Looking at the names on the discarded cans, drinking and driving is obviously quite popular.
Brussels is a wonderful city and I enjoyed my two days there, wondering about the streets and squares, enjoying the multicultural atmosphere and the excellent beers. It has an extensive tram and bus system, as well as bikes that you can hire and drop off at different parts of the city. I was impressed by how the traffic respects pedestrians and cyclists, giving way instantly at pedestrian crossings or when someone just needs to go somewhere. It’s a far cry from Saudi Arabia.
I was unable to work out a good route to Gent so just plugged the address into my GPS and followed the instructions. It wasn’t the best as you might imagine. Once out of the architecturally beautiful city centre I found myself cycling along a straight, interminable road through a rough area that could have been on the outskirts of Manchester or Oldham. Then it started raining. Heavily. For the first time on this trip I was forced to dig out my waterproofs and started to question whether it might have been wiser to cycle from north to south. Although my route was along busy main roads though, it was remarkably easy and stress free. For much of the way there was not only a marked cycle path but a hard shoulder separating that from the traffic. Cycle paths can be a problem where there is a right turn – traffic coming up from behind you can turn into you or in front of you too quickly because of impatience or because they haven’t seen you. I was very cautious. Belgium obviously likes cyclists though. In forty miles along busy main roads, not once did a driver cut me up or pass too close. As I came up to right turns I would check the traffic behind me to see motorists waiting patiently for me to clear the way.
Gent was mid festival when I arrived, with food, beer and music stalls set up across the streets of this ancient city. I found my hotel entrance with some difficulty as it was hiding behind a temporary tented beer hall. Having deposited my bike in the hotel garage, the receptionist told me that my room wouldn’t be ready for about an hour and a half, so I went back out to find a late lunch. Cycling gear is fantastic on the bike, but makes me feel very self conscious walking about a city without one.
When it finally came time to check in I dug in my camera bag to find my passport and credit card. To do this I have to lift out the camera insert. They weren’t there. I stared at the bottom of the bag for a while in disbelief. They were gone. How could that have happened? It didn’t make any sense. To find them you would have had to empty my bag and then put it back together again. Surely a thief would nick the camera and the iPad at the same time. And when did anybody have the opportunity? Then the penny dropped. The day before I had read an article about Romany pickpocket gangs operating in Paris and thought that it would be a good idea not to carry all my valuables with me. For once the hotel room had a safe … And that is where I had left my things, and why, ten hours after breakfast I was back in Brussels. Considering some of the journeys I have made on this trip, I picked a good day for my stupidity. Returning to Brussels was relatively simple, only requiring a tram ride, a fifty minute train journey and a two mile walk. Each way. Imagine if I had had to cycle back over a couple of the alpine passes at the begging of the trip.
It was eight thirty by the time I got back to Gent and by that time the city festival was in full swing, noisy, crowded and in very good humour.
This afternoon I ride to Brugges.
Time passes quickly. I stayed a couple of nights in Luxembourg then cycled to La Roche en Ardennes, then on to Liege and am now in Namur.
I found the city of Luxembourg to be a little disappointing. There is obviously a lot of wealth there but also significant poverty. Walking around the central part of town I found it bewildering that up market boutiques, expensive hotels and international courts could be just a few minutes walk away from abandoned, graffiti covered buildings. It seemed like a city that had lost its civic pride.
My hotel was by the railway station and backed onto an area that was shady even in the bright summer sunshine. I didn’t venture out after dark, although from the noise that came though my open window on the fourth floor, it was clear that the city continued to get more lively as the night went on. I would have closed my window if there had been air conditioning or a fan, but there were neither and my room was a good, humid thirty degrees. Haven’t Europeans discovered air conditioning or are fuel prices too high?
I followed cycling route out of the city using my iPhone for guidance. It worked well, after a short spell making repeated u-turns in the bus lanes as I worked out which direction I should be heading (I have no sense of direction) I plunged down a steep land under the fortifications. For the next couple of hours I hardly saw a car – a remarkable exit from a busy city and one that made me keep saying “Wow, this is amazing” to no one in particular. If you talk to yourself in the countryside it doesn’t matter, there is nobody there to know you are doing it and at leas you get appreciative looks from the cows as they chew their cud.
Back on the road some time later I crossed into Belgium. There was a sign and that was it. I thought that was minimal until the following day when I discovered that La Roche en Ardennes is in Luxembourg and I thought I was in Belgium. I hadn’t notice the border crossing. Maybe it was a minimalist thing that I just cycled past, in the same way as I am constantly finding myself riding down motorway slip roads and having to back track wondering what happened.
What did change as I crossed the border was the roadside litter and availability of refreshments. That makes it seem like I scrounge things along the highway as I cycle. I don’t, but in France my eyes are always drawn by the sight of a discarded water bottle, its contents still gleaming in the sun, for cycling through rural France is like being in the desert: if you don’t have it with you you are not going to find it on the way unless you hit a city. I listed the litter I passed for a few hundred feet in Luxembourg. Red Bull can, McDonald’s box, knickers, tissue box, cigarette packet, lighter, knickers, dead hedgehog, Coke bottle, McDonalds’s bag, McDonalds drink cup, more knickers. Is there some custom in Luxembourg that requires you to discard your underwear along the highway after consuming fast food? In Belgium there was no litter and the sky was bigger.
Having avoided another motorway, barely, my GPS declined to help me find an alternative route. I fact it refused to give me any maps a all. I thought the micro-SD card might have come loose so I took it out and put it back a few times. Nothing. Cursing, I headed off in approximately the right direction. As I headed up a particularly steep hill that I thought had no right to be there,it suddenly occurred to me that this was my first time in Belgium and that I might not have enabled the maps. I stopped at once, causing a motorist on his mobile to blow his horn at me in disgust. A few button presses later and my maps appeared and confirmed that I still had a long, long way to go, but at least I was going in the right direction.
La Roche en Ardennes, scene of a major battle in WW2, possesses a ruined castle and a river meander. Apart from the huge number of restaurants and bars, there is nothing there to explain why it should be the huge tourist attraction it is. In a month of cycling through Europe I haven’t seen so many tourists. Many of them were drunk, or in the process of getting so. In town I was entertained by a rather pathetic sound and light show at the castle and a fight between two crop topped bimbos in a bar, who made considerably more noise and displayed better choreography.
A long way, hot and on pretty busy roads through rolling agricultural land and shuttered villages, this wasn’t the most enjoyable day’s ride. Still, the vast majority of drivers were very considerate and I was only prompted to shout incentives three or four times at vehicles passing too closely.
Metz sounds like it should be in Germany. My hotel was by the station and reception was on the second floor. These two things tend to make me think that a place is going to be a bit of a dive but I was pleasantly surprised. The three flights of steps were rather trying with the bike, but the place was OK. Even the strange smell of my room vanished after I opened the windows for a while.
I showered and headed for a walk around town. After a six hour ride though I wasn’t much in the mood for exploration, so I settled for a bookshop, a quick look around and dinner.
There is, however, quite a bit to see and do in Metz and it would have been worth spending another day there.
The breakfast room was transparent. Or at least the tables and chairs were, made from colourless Perspex. The table cloths were clear plastic sheets. A little bizarre. During my third croissant I read that google had just released a new update to their google maps app for the iPad and iPhone. I downloaded it. For the first time it gives cycling directions and can save maps for offline use. I had been trying to find a decent route between Metz and Luxembourg without much success – I really didn’t feel like another day with heavy traffic. My Garmin and Michelin.com hadn’t come up with anything, but the new google map suggested a very interesting route following the canal that runs parallel to the Moselle River.
After a day in the traffic on largely dual carriageways, it was a delight to be on a canal path without a single car, and such a surprise in this area which is fairly heavily built up. Occasionally I would have to leave the path and ride along the road for a while, but even these were minor and pretty quiet. It was on one of these sections that I passed the Ikea central distribution depot. Massive. I counted 89 unloading bays and I suspect there were more around the other side. The scale of the canal was difficult to appreciate too until I saw a barge heading towards Metz, complete with a BMW on board behind the cabin so that the captain isn’t stranded when he moors.
Eventually I was forced to leave the canal as it veered off in the wrong direction, leaving me with twenty five miles or so of rolling hills on reasonably quiet roads, some of which even had cycle paths where two could easily ride abreast. Along this part of the journey it was interesting to see how the villages and small towns changed in character. They became more and more scruffy and had an air of dejection as I neared the border. Gone were the pretty, if shuttered, villages of Alsace to be replaced with something more akin to Fartown.
I arrived in Luxembourg without seeing any border and yet it definitely feels like a different country. Extremes of poverty and wealth are more noticeable here than anywhere else I’ve been on this trip. There are significant numbers of very expensive cars and people living on the street, Armani suites and LV bags, Romany beggars and the tattooed shirtless, exclusive boutiques and abandoned graffiti covered buildings. It’s not a place that I shall revist.
I thought leaving Basel might be difficult as the roads towards Mulhouse looked like they would be very traffic heavy. Over breakfast I downloaded the cycling topo maps for the area and discovered a bike route that led out of town to a special part of Switzerland where it borders on Germany and France. With too complex a route to programme into my GPS I decided to try and follow it on my iPhone. Within a hundred metres I was out of the city and cycling through woods on traffic free lanes. Brilliant. A few miles and villages later I was cycling along the banks of the Rhein on what looked like a tow path. There was a speed limit of 6 km an hour, which I ignored, wishing to get to my destination in one day. I noticed that all the other cyclists I met were doing the same.
Cycling along this part of the Rhine, in the Réserve Naturelle de la Petite Camargue Alsacienne, was a strange experience. It has been controlled by man and flows neatly in a straight line between artificial banks lined with reeds and trees for miles. I have a habit of watching my front wheel or the ground immediately in front of me. Each time I looked up it seemed as though I was in exactly the same place. The landscape was completely unchanged for mile upon mile and you could see the river disappearing into the far distance. There were also a number of runners on the same route. I would think it only less soul destroying than a treadmill. Although it is in a nature reserve, there was no wildlife to be seen at all.
Leaving the Rhine I headed for Mulhouse. My route into the city took me past a large number of poor apartment blocks housing. There were so many Arabs hanging around the entrances and poor shops in the area that for a moment I forgot that I was in France. Finally finding the old centre of the city my impressions improved – at its heart Mulhouse is still very attractive, but the outskirts are hideous.
My blood sugar levels must have been low by the time I had lunch because I discovered that I was feeling rather bad tempered. That might sound funny, but I had no idea that I was feeling irritable until I started walking about town trying to find somewhere to eat. The town was busy and the pedestrians were milling around quite illogically, causing me to keep swerving or stop completely. I was pushing my bike at the time, riding would have been impossible. Each time someone got in the way I found myself muttering obscenities or questioning their intelligence. I ate an emergency pizza slice and had an apricot tart, after which the world seemed quite fine again.
Finding enough water and food as a cyclist in France is surprisingly difficult. Whilst every Swiss village has a shop, cafe and a water fountain, French villages and even small towns frequently have none of these. If you are lucky you might find an advertising hoarding for a supermarket – an E Leclerc or Super U, and although I have seen many of these signs, I have yet to find one of the shops. If a village does have a water fountain or horse trough, there is always a sign saying that the water isn’t drinkable. I passed through village after village where all the houses were shuttered up and there wasn’t a person in sight.
Some time later I arrived in Colmar. It is a very special place and I was kicking myself for not staying there but having booked a hotel in Kaysersberg. I walked around for a while, pushing my bike and enjoying the atmosphere of the place.
From Colmar to Kayserberg I was on the Alsace wine route, cycling through vineyards with there perfectly straight parallel rows of neatly trimmed vines. As it was getting late I programmed my GPS to take me on the fastest route, which turned out to be a main road passing through beautiful scenery, but with far too much traffic.
Arriving in Kaysersbrerg I forgave myself for not booking a hotel in Colmar. It is a delightful fourteenth century village with timbered houses and narrow streets. I walked around for a while before eventually giving in to tiredness and ordering a half bottle of Gewurtztraminer. That, followed by a dinner and beer, meant an early night. There was a festival that evening – I remember half hearing the band and singing – but by then I was almost dead to the world and just built it into my dreams.