My endeavors to cycle independently through France had met with mixed success; I had made it to St. Malo and Roscoff on my bike, however my overarching success had been to figure out how to use the French train system toting a bicycle. It turned out to be fairly easy – just find a train and a train car with a bicycle symbol and wheel one aboard, pushing aside all those baby carriages and wheelchairs who deigned to park their apparatuses in the exclusive bicycle section.
Unwilling to concede defeat to the bicycle and buoyed by the beautiful photos posted on Facebook by two of my colleagues who were cycling independently through The Netherlands and Belgium, I signed up for a week long Bike and Barge tour offered by tripsite.com, going from Bruges to Amsterdam during the tulip season. We would cycle the flat bike paths in Belgium and The Netherlands during the day and meet up with our barge/floating hotel each evening. It sounded like a very civilized way to tour a country and get some exercise.
My first hint that things might not go smoothly was upon receiving the joining instructions – the group was to meet at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam to be transported to the barge moored in Ghent. I had wrongly presumed a trip titled “from Bruges to Amsterdam” would start in Bruges and had booked a hotel there for the preceding 3 days, thus requiring me to take a train to meet the boat in Ghent.
The barge, named the Clair de Lune could not be described as luxurious; perhaps functional is a better label. The top part contains the bridge, with the steering wheel, a large interior dining area/lounge and a sun deck with a box containing life vests should they be needed. Below deck were 9 single and double cabins. My cabin was bigger than the couchette I had on the Australian Ghan train, but that’s not saying much. A single bed, a tiny sink, a toilet that used river water and a shower that was smaller than a breadboard. As I said, functional not luxurious.
Age (pronounced aghher) , a 65 year old former IBM project manager and our tour guide, met me at the boat and helped me aboard. I was introduced to Michael, the skipper, and Chris, the cook and second (and only) mate. In the next few hours, I met my fellow 16 travelers, 4 Australians, 2 South Africans, 2 Germans, 8 Brazilians and me. Between us, there were 2 doctors, a dentist, a pathologist, a leukemia researcher, 2 lawyers, a nurse, an engineer, a teacher, a pharmaceutical consultant, some housewives and 2 businessmen. The youngest was 44; the oldest 72. It was a congenial group although the Brazilians were not the best at being punctual, which drove the Australians crazy. Best of all, not a single smoker.
After Chris served us the first of many hearty meals, Age fitted us on our bikes and we rode 5 kilometers to the center of Ghent, where we had a brief guided tour. As was becoming the custom in the Belgian cities visited, there was a marvelous belfry near the town square, a Cathedral, too many churches to count and 2 old castles, all nestled between ancient canals and cobblestone roads.
Most of the group took the train to Bruges the first day, but since I had just spent 4 days there, I chose instead to walk around Ghent. I visited Grovensteen castle, where the audio guide seemed focused on its builder’s (Phillip of Alsace) inability to procreate and the various means of torture and execution preferred in medieval times. An entire room was devoted to medieval torture instruments, making current interrogation techniques seem kind and gentle.
As Ghent is a canal town, a canal boat tour seemed in order. Five minutes after embarking, the skies opened up and the rain cascaded upon us. The boat operator/tour guide spent most of the time racing under one bridge to the next, but did provide a good history of Ghent’s golden age. Like Bruges before it and Antwerp later on, its fame in the Middle Ages came from its strategic location on a river that led inland from the North Atlantic, becoming a trading centre as its multitude of still existing warehouses attest, and wealthy from the tolls collected from the use of the canals.
The next day was our first real cycling day – 50 kilometres to the city of Dendermonde – alongside lazy canals with lovely, secluded bike paths running on each side and the occasional pasture where sheep or cows grazed. Age led the way, wearing a yellow vest, with one of us appointed the sweeper each day whose job was to also don a yellow vest but always be last. If Age could see the sweeper, we were good. If not, we stopped until the last joined up. The Brazilians were intent on documenting every second of their trip, so they made frequent photo stops, took pictures while cycling, raced ahead to film the cyclists coming forward and after a while, even the ever patient Age asked them to reduce their photo stops. Once that was sorted out, the group cycled at a reasonable pace, only about 10 kilometers an hour with a 45 minute coffee break, lunch and small pit stops near interesting things where Age would share some aspect of Belgian history or lifestyle with us. No one tried to race and everyone kept up the pace.
Dendermonde was a pretty, medieval town like the other Belgian ones we toured without the name recognition of Bruges or Ghent. The next morning, we set out for Antwerp, arriving there after 5 hours on our bike at 3:00PM, much earlier than our barge which had been held up at a lock which refused to fill with water, then by rush hour traffic in Antwerp during which the harbour master wouldn’t open the drawbridge to let the boats through. It was a good opportunity to sit outside and enjoy a glass of wine and watch all the Hasidim walk by – the only clue to Antwerp’s position as a diamond industry giant.
On day 5, we cycled across the border into Holland, with only a small concrete post marking the boundary and began our trek in search of windmills. Soon enough, we arrived at Kinderdijk, the place of 18 windmills and a bustling tourist attraction, with busloads of Asians doing their European highlights tour and river cruise excursions bringing scores of Americans to the Visitor Center, both likely part of a concerted effort to get tourists out of the overly crowded Amsterdam. The mills themselves were beautiful against a backdrop of cloudy skies and the video, which explained the purpose of the windmills (water level management) and their mechanics, informative.
From Kinderdijk, we cycled to Gouda, home to Gouda cheese. The barge was moored close to the main square, which again was charming, with a town hall and medieval hall which weighed the cheese and other goods for tax purposes. I located a cheese store and sampled all their different varieties of Gouda- green pesto, black lemon, almonds – before settling on a medium, an aged and a spicy red pepper one and posing for the obligatory picture holding a (plastic and hollow) round of cheese.
Day 5 had been all about windmills and Gouda cheese; day 6 was devoted to tulips. Our trip had been advertised as a tulip tour; unfortunately Mother Nature had the final say. Thanks to a prior week of glorious sunshine and hot weather, most of the tulips had blossomed early and the farmers had cropped their fields already. We were able to locate a few still carpeted with flowers, where everyone sang Tiptoeing through the Tulips and took pictures, but the best display was at the Keukenhof, botanical gardens outside of Amsterdam ablaze with tulips of all colours and varieties. The tulips there are planted sequentially, ensuring a longer bloom. The gardens are massive; I spent 3 hours there and wished I had more time.
We cycled to Amsterdam and met the barge for one last city stroll, dinner and an evening of drinking and exchanging email addresses. We had cycled about 250 kilometers, endured 2 flat tires, 1 bike falling into the canal (but fished out again) and 2 falls where the worst damage was some scraped knees. The bike and barge had been a nice way to see Belgium and The Netherlands. People were uniformly friendly along the route, the pace relaxed and I felt that I was able to see some of the “real” country.
I was reluctant to do much touring in Amsterdam. I’ve been here before and the crowds are unreal, but I couldn’t resist a canal boat ride, some pancakes, some brownies and stopping in at the Rijksmuseum to see the All Rembrandt show, featuring all of Rembrandt’s paintings and most of his sketches. I enjoyed it so much I abandoned my pledge not to visit any more art galleries and went across the road to the Van Gogh museum. It exhibits his early paintings in Amsterdam followed by his Impressionist period in Paris through to his madness and ultimate suicide in the south of France. The gallery does an excellent job of explaining Van Gogh’s paintings through his interests – whether about religion, nature or the peasant lifestyle – and his influence on his art friends and later painters.
After 5 weeks in France, Belgium and The Netherlands, where it seemed to rain for all but a few days, I am off in search of sunshine in Croatia.