Biking and Barging in Belgium and Holland

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, 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.

The Clair de Lune

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.

Ghent by night

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.

Me, the bike and lots of sheep

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.

The Windmills at Kinderdijk

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.

WWI Battlefields: Flanders in France and Belgium

My son joined me for a short visit in France. I had asked him to choose an area of France he would like to see and he picked WWI battlefield sites. Thus, we arrived in Arras one cloudy afternoon, picked up our rental car, programmed Google Maps and set off for our first destination, Vimy Ridge.

Vimy Ridge 

After a short 15 minute drive, we started seeing signposts with Canadian flags directing us to the Visitor Center. The land at Vimy Ridge, where both the memorial and the Center are located, was gifted to the Canadian government by the French shortly after WWI. Today, Veteran Affairs Canada employs bilingual Canadian students on 4 month stints to act as greeters and guides at the site. 

Vimy Ridge holds a special place in the heart of Canadians. Between April 9 and 12, 1917, 4 divisions of the Canadian Corps of the first army battled the German army in an effort to capture the high ground of Vimy Ridge. They succeeded, despite the loss of over 10,000 men. Vimy Ridge remains a symbol of sacrifice and heroism, but also one of national pride. It was the first time the Canadian regiments had fought as a separate unit and their strategy, tactics and perseverance were widely regarded as being instrumental in their victory.

Trevor, a recent graduate from the University of Ottawa and heading to Immigration Canada, gave us a private tour of the tunnels. I had seen photos and reenactments of the trench warfare – most recently via Mathew’s WWI travails on Downton Abbey – but nothing prepared me for the real thing. Despite the day being overcast and wet, the trenches (most of which are re-creations) were dry and protected from the wind. But it was easy to imagine the horrors – trying to race across the muddy ground with heavy packs, barbed wire everywhere and German soldiers firing at anything that moved. Even staying in the trenches would be awful; they easily flooded in the rain, bringing dampness and the rats. The tunnels were a relief- warmer, dry and dimly lit.

Trevor described the 3 lines: the front line was nearest to the Germans and no man’s land (sometimes only 100 meters apart), then there was the support or observation trench and finally, the reserve trench, containing reserve soldiers if those on the front line faltered. Linking the trenches were the tunnels, providing storage and communication between the trenches. Sometimes, tunnels were cut under the German lines and explosives detonated, resulting in the giant craters which still exist today. But most of the pocks in the landscape are the result of grenade attacks.

After the tunnel tour, we went to the Visitor Center. It provides excellent commentary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the combatants, its outcome and its importance, along with shelter from the elements, clean toilets and good wifi, with commentary from polite, enthusiastic Canadian students. We ended the day with a trip to the memorial:


The Somme: Beuamont-Hamel and the Somme Museum:

Our second day in Arras began with a quick trip the center of Arras and its advertised “baroque style central square” with market. It was definitely Baroque style, but completely reconstructed due to its total destruction in WW1 Sadly, the vista was lost on us as most of the square was taken up with a combination X-Mas and weekly market. Ferris wheels and giant slides do not evoke Baroque architecture, nor do the clever cheese trucks and other market mainstays.

Our objective today was the Museum of the Somme in Albert, but as we were driving toward it, we saw more maple leafs and signs pointing us to Beaumont-Hamel, a battlefield made famous by the Newfoundland regiment. As Newfoundland was an independent dominion until joining Canada in 1949, it provided its own soldiers and fought under its own flag as a battalion of the British Expeditionary Forces.

As we learned on our tour of the grounds, on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland battalion pressed forward into no-man’s land, but the more experienced German infantry had advance warning of the attack thanks to a mine detonation and the Allies’ flares signalling the start of the assault being confused by the combatants. In less than 30 minutes, 670 of the 780 Newfoundlanders were dead, injured or missing.


We were again guided through the site and the battle by another Canadian student. She provided excellent commentary about the build-up to the battle, the strategy, the shortcomings of the Allies’ attack and their ultimate defeat on July 1, 1916, as well as leading us around the site – through the trenches, the cemeteries and the memorial. We finished at the Visitor Center, where more information about the battle and its impact on Newfoundland was provided. Sadly, the battle effectively wiped out a generation of Newfoundlanders, leaving the Dominion economically strapped and dependent on Britain.

Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel

We drove to the town of Albert where the Somme Museum is located in a 13th century tunnel. Dioramas portray aspects of life in the trenches, for soldiers, communications, medics; a video highlighted many of the memorials, and plaques explained the Somme battles in a broader context. Very simply, the Germans were seeking to arrive at the Atlantic on the Western Front, a 700 kilometer stretch of land from Belgium south through France, and the Allies were trying to push them back. On July 1, 1916 the Allies began an offensive against the Germans lasting 114 days. The Battle of the Somme was largely inconclusive in terms of victory or defeat, but both sides suffered heavy casualties. Estimates range as high as 1 million dead or wounded on both sides.

The Tunnel at the Somme Museum


The following day, we went to Ypres in Belgium, another significant battlefield along the Western Front. The nearby area resonates with Canadians for 2 main reasons: Flanders Field and Passchendale. In Flanders Field is the poem written by Canadian physician John McCrae, who was inspired to write it during a funeral for a friend when he noticed how quickly the poppies grew around the graves of those who had died near Ypres. A memorial to McCrae stands at the well preserved Advanced Dressing Station, a medical triage center, where McCrae served as a medic:

Memorial to McCrae. The poem is on the right.

A few miles away is the town of Passchendale, near a ridge overlooking the entire area. Its strategic location high above the land made it desirable by both sides. The Germans had dug in there with deep, well defended trenches. British forces had unsuccessfully tried to retake the ridge. In July, 1917, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force ordered the Canadian corps, a formation over 100,000 strong, to capture the ridge. While the Canadian commander objected owing to his concern for the potential loss of lives, his protests went unheralded. In mid-October, the Canadians began their onslaught on the ridge. By October 26th, they had captured the ridge, earning a reputation for bravery under horrendous conditions, but at a cost of 15,654 dead. A Canada Gate honours their achievements and those who were injured or died in the battle.


Concluding Thoughts:

Touring the battlefields and nearby towns strikes home the awful reality of WWI – the trenches, the devastated towns, the gigantic cemeteries – and the memorials ensure that the lives lost will not be forgotten. I have two lingering memories. As we were driving through the fields toward Passchendale, our guide stopped at the side of the road to point out a shell recently uncovered as a farmer tilled his soil. “This” he said, “was a weekly occurrence. There is still a bomb disposal unit which comes around once a month to pick up all the shells. Most are duds, but two years ago, a live one exploded.”

Rusted shell in the field

I also thought the memorials and Visitor Centers do Canada proud. The sculptures are moving, thoughtful commemorations, the Visitor Centers informative and the guides, all bright-eyed, polite, bilingual Canadian students, are great ambassadors for the country.