Day 16, Sun 20 Sep, Kortrijk to Roubaix to Paris.

Breakfast was a simple affair. I went to the kitchen for my tray which contained the cutlery, butter, jam and milk. The rest was on the buffet – cereals, apples and oranges, yogurt, bread, ham, cheese, and a choice of hot coffee, tea or chocolate. Not a bad spread for a hostel.

There weren’t too many guests that day so it was a nice relaxing breakfast. I took my time…in fact, I overdid it and was told by Johann that checkout was 10am and it was already close to 10.

As I readied to leave, Johann once again came to my assistance, giving me a small map of the town with directions to get out of it and, a list of towns to tick off on the way to Roubaix. Thanks Johann, you’re a godsend.

My first samaritan of the day ... all colour-coordinated, too.

You know when you're leaving town.

Just outside Kortrijk, I couldn't help noticing that things got a little automated. Drank = drink, snoep = snack, brood = bread.

Cobbled roads on the French side

From now on, I would be cycling along main roads, although still on designated sections marked for bicycles. It was faster though. It took me only about 2 hours to ride the 30kms or so to Roubaix. Somewhere in between, I’d crossed into France, and the signs had changed abruptly to French.

Another sign that indicated that one had left Belgium was the general cleanliness of the town. Roubaix was scrappy-looking. Rubbish was everywhere, and some of the houses looked drab and rundown…. even the people looked different.

I had just entered Roubaix, and at this particular roundabout over a canal, 2 opposite sections of it could be elevated to allow boats to pass through. Not the most convenient of arrangements, as traffic built up about 100 metres or so.

Not sure of directions, I asked this friendly French boy and he drew me a map to get to the velodrome.

Finally, we're getting somewhere...

I circled around a bit and finally made it to the velodrome. It wasn’t some grand piece of architecture but it was hallowed ground – having been the finishing point for the infamous Paris-Roubaix Race for the last 119 years. 250km and some of it on cobbles that were so bad, people just didn’t use it in normal times.

(Read more about Paris-Roubaix race here)

The main gate was closed but not the side gate, which was strangely open. I saw a group of cyclists already inside. There were Brits, from Cycling Club Hackney, and they were here for the same purpose as I was.

Their leader, a guy by the name of Keir, was a bit apprehensive about us all riding the track and said we’d better not, and that somebody might be watching and all that, because normally velodromes aren’t just open like that. So we just posed a bit at the trackside.

The boys were a bit cheesed off that they didn’t get to ride after coming from so far. As for me, I’d decided that as soon as they were gone, I’d go ahead and ride it anyway. After all, the worst that could happen was probably somebody telling me off, and it would be worth it, too.

I took to the track just as they were leaving and as soon as they saw me on it, they hesitated going off. I could tell the boys were telling him ‘See, it’s alright, let’s do it’. Next thing I knew, 2 of the boys zipped past me ( a fully-loaded tourer is like an elephant lumbering along while the thoroughbreds went past me like lightning).

The sidegate was open, so I went in.

So did this group of pilgrims from Cycling Club Hackney, England.

Happily trespassing and doing a ceremonial lap in the velodrome (see video below)

A giant piece of ‘pave’ at the main entrance to the velodrome

With that crossed out of my things-to-do-list while in Europe, I headed for Lille, about 20 kms away, to take the train for Paris. (I was behind time and I had no choice but to take the train other wise it would be another 3 days on the road and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Paris).

To get to Lille, one simply rides on the Grand Boulevard, an old road that has dedicated tram lines, cycle paths and a dual carriageway, all flanked by beautiful trees the leaves of which were already changing colour, covering the street below with a golden blanket. I rode a little slower to enjoy it.

On the extreme left is the road for cars, followed by trams, then a fast road cars again, then the 2-way cycle path, then another road for cars.

As I was riding along, a cyclist came up to me with the usual ‘Bon jour.’ I bon jour’ed back and we started chatting. His name was Jean Chevalier, he was on his way home from his work as a communications executive with a bicycle manufacturer, and he was another like-minded soul. He started telling me about his ambitious plans for a long cycle tour that would be taking place early next year – India and across Australia.

We chatted almost all the way to Lille and he decided that he would take me to the train station, and help me buy a ticket. I love it when I meet such people on the road. They really do make my day.

Like elsewhere in Europe, bikes inside train stations do not raise any eyebrows.

The picturesque town of Lille.

Lille's main square.

The non-stop train to Paris cost me 64 Euros (ouch), including bike, of course, and it took a mere 1 hour 4 minutes to cover the 220 or kms.

The carriage for cyclists offers a special room to store bikes, hung up by the front wheel (I'd forgotten to take a picture).

A fellow tourer (enroute to Spain) who was on the same train with me.

It felt great to be finally stepping out onto the Parisian streets --- it was busy, noisy, colourful and beautiful.

Enroute to the campsite at Bois du Boulogne on the eastern side of Paris, I stopped to take in the sight of Arc de Triomphe, basking in the warm glow of a setting sun.

Tomorrow, I do the tourist thing, along with the thousands of other visitors from all over the world.

Distance today:: 62
Distance to date:: 878

Playback today’s ride on Garmin Connect (Kortrijk-Lille)
Playback today’s ride on Garmin Connect (Paris train station to Bois du Bologne)

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Day 14, 18 Sep, In Bruges

Ray: After I killed him, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through – “Get the f#@# out of London, you dumb f#@#s. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges f#@#ing was.

[pause]

Ray: It’s in Belgium.

 

Ray is Colin Farrell in the dark and wickedly funny movie ‘In Bruges’. Shot entirely in the old city of Bruges, the story is about 2 Irish hitmen (played by bushy-browed Colin Farell and the excellent Brendan Gleeson) sent to Bruges to lie low after a botched job.

The dialogue is sharp, witty and coarse, but I was more fascinated by the backdrop of Bruges in the move. I had to include Bruges in my plans.

So here I am, In Bruges. I’m gonna be a tourist again.

But when I woke up this morning, it seemed to be colder than usual. I would have to add another layer of clothing to keep warm. The campsite is about 15 minutes bike ride from the centre of Bruges, where it’s ringed by canals and the remnants of some fortifications.

I hadn’t bargained for the ridiculously high number of tourists though, and they were all over the place. Not nice. Buses and buses of them, many in orderly groups being led around like dumb sheep by their herders. Many others were sightseeing on boats floating through the many canals … damn, they were everywhere.

After I tired of the crowds, I pointed my bike in the opposite direction and explored the less popular parts of the city. Unencumbered freedom on wheels. Again, advantage cycle-tourer.

So here’re the pics of my little jaunt through the cobbled streets of medieval Bruges, or Brugge, as the Belgians call it.

One the entrance to the old part of Bruges that dated back hundreds of years. A busy main road is just off to the right bordering the canal.

Bruges lives up to its reputation as the ‘best preserved medieval city in Belgium’

At the town square, a Salvador Dali exhibition was being held

The town square is quite huge…this row of buildings flank one side of it.

A different kind of bike rack, which I couldn’t use.

It was easier for me to lock my bike to a lamp-post when I went to explore a building nearby. The 2 ladies are American tourists … eating fries.

Cycling through the streets of old Bruges, I could just imagine what life was like when Bruges was in its prime hundreds of years ago.

Canals and bodies of water covered the entire city.

as well as shady tree-lined roads

One of the quieter streets with no tourists in sight. The autumn leaves added a warm touch to an otherwise cold day.

At the Our Lady’s Church, simple on the outside,

but exquisite on the inside.

It was also famous for this statue — Madonna and Child by Michelangelo.

Real homes inhabited by locals. I had an interesting peek through the wooden windows of the house seen here.

Just next to it is this quaint little bridge.

One of the many boatloads of tourists plying the canals throughout the day.

Almost all the streets in central Bruges are paved with cobblestones

A sculpture that paid tribute to the humble bicycle.

Sometimes, I’d act like a tourist, too 🙂

.

One of the first things I do when visiting a new place is to get a free map. I loved the one that I found at the campsite reception. It’s called ‘Bruges. Free map for young travellers’. Instead of the usual boring spin, this particular leaflet dished out tips and advice in a very tongue-in-cheek manner. The introduction, and some of the tips, deserve a mention here:

ACT LIKE A LOCAL

Bruges has 3 million visitors a year. Almost 1 million take the tourist boat, and many also do the horse carriage. No wonder it’s called ‘The Venice of the North’, there are some swans on the water, and there’s a Michelangelo statue in a church. Do you care? Of course not. Very well, then start acting like a local!

* Use your bicycle to run over tourists. It’s what we do as well. Kamikaze bicycles are for rent all over town.

* On your face! Most people in Belgium say ‘Sante‘ when they toast, but around here ‘up je mulle’ does the trick. It literally means ‘(I toast) on your face‘.

* West Flemish, the dialect in Bruges, is the most powerful dialect around. To summarize it; just pronounce half of the sounds. For example, ‘pannenkoek met chocolade‘ should be pronounced as ‘panne’oe’e me cho’ola‘. Ask help from any real local.

* Do not salute people with a stressy ‘Yo!’, but go for ‘Yuuu‘ or ‘Yooo‘ while pointing your finger at the person you’re greeting. Don’t wink or whistle though.

* Choose the right football team. Club Brugge (blue and black) is always high in the first division and regularly gets to the Champion’s League, but Cercle Brugge (green and black) is the proud underdog. The worse they’re playing, the more enthusiastic their fans get.


And then there are ‘QUESTIONS TO PISS OFF THE LOCALS’

* Oooh, I know this tower! It was built for the movie ‘In Bruges’, wasn’t it?
* When does Bruges close?
* Where is McDonalds?

Charming little town, isn’t it?

Tomorrow, I head for Kortrijk, near the French border.

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Day 13, 17 Sep, Renesse to Brugge, Belgium.

The weather was still very agreeable today, and although there were some clouds, there was a clear hint of a sunny day ahead. Usually, when the sun had risen higher in the sky, it would chase away the clouds, warming up the day.

After a quick breakfast, I packed up and went straight to the reception to pay the bill. Only thing was, this part of the world was pretty laid back and the manager had not arrived yet. Another man was there though; he didn’t speak English so he gestured for me to wait by putting up five fingers to indicate 5 minutes so I just hung around.

I was impatient to get on the road. Today I would be crossing into Belgium, and I’d hope to make Brugge (say bru-ger), or Bruges (say broojzh) depending on which country you came from, before sunset. I wasn’t quite sure of the distance but estimated it to be around 100km or so. It was going to be a pretty long day.

A woman arrived by bicycle a little later and I paid the 9 Euros for sleeping in an empty field and taking a dump in their toilet. I wondered if I should have just stealth-camped and save the money. It really wouldn’t have been much different.

I headed for Burghamsted, the next village less than 10km away. I found the supermarket and proceeded to stock up on food. When you’re on the road, it’s better to always have some food ready … just in case. I got the fresh milk that I just absolutely must have in the morning, and some bread. Water, on the other hand is never a problem – you can drink it straight from the tap. Saved me quite a bit of money.

Rural landscape of Burghamstead, horses and all.

 

Continuing after Burghamsted, the path would wind through smooth paths, a dyke or 2, and sometimes gravelled dunes that were higher than the houses nearby

 

O yea…boom! Actually, slagboom means ‘barrier’

 

Idyllic, serene leaf-strewn paths

Following the LF1 A  faithfully would sometimes take you through very colourful settings, in this case, a small town with cobbled streets

 

and busy sidewalk cafes in full swing

 

Passing through the town of Middleburg …

 

where Churchill is so revered, they named a street after him.

 

Interesting characters on the bike path. This one’s not an invalid, just an old pirate who gets around easier on her electric buggy.

Canals inevitably means boats, which take priority when they had to ‘cross’ the road. Here, the middle span of this bridge is lifted to allow the tugboat pulling a massive crane of some sort to pass.

 

 

My next destination was Visslingen, a port just outside the town of Middleburg to take the ferry across to Breskens. It was a pedestrian-and-cyclist-only ferry and costs 3.5 Euro for the 30-minute crossing.

In the hold below, bikes are simply tied to railings with the ropes supplied

 

Typical bikes that the Dutch ride

20 kms from Breskens, I reached the town of Sluis.

 

From Sluis, the plan was to ride along the canal all the way to Brugge, my destination of the day.

I patted myself on the back for being quite clever to have plotted my route through this town because all I had to do to get to Brugge from here was to simply follow the canal. Easy peasy…

In Europe, whenever there’s a canal, one can be sure to find a cycle path next to it and although I didn’t have any reference to this canal, I simply deduced as such from the Michelin map of northern Belgium (and a bit of France) that I had bought in Delft.

As Sluis, a rather popular tourist town, I stopped at a tourist information booth to confirm my plans and after that, I headed straight for the canal which passed through the town itself. One hour later, including a break for food at one of the many benches along the canal, I arrived at the UNESCO certified heritage city of Brugge, just 20km away.

10 minutes into the ride along the canal, I was already in Belgium, but as EU countries go, there really isn’t a border. Things just subtly change as you go along – the houses, the language (not that I could understand any of it), the number plates, the directional signs ….

Brugge is just another 20km away

 

The inspiring tree-lined canal bike path

 

and the occasional windmill

 

Finally, after 111km, I arrived at the town of Brugge

 

I headed straight for the campsite, the only one within city limits, and was pleasantly surprised by it. It wasn’t big, but it was fringed by tall, dense forest which apparently contained recreational cycling and jogging paths. Lovely, I thought and proceeded to pitch up my tent in what I though was a site for tents. The office had closed by now and as is usual of campsites, you just pitched your tent (or your mobile home) in an empty plot and register yourself the next day.

 

 

I had clocked 111km today, the longest distance in a single day since I began my tour. The wind had been quite cold and I was feeling a little knackered. I made a quick trip to the supermarket nearby, came back and cooked a simple dinner of rice with tomato, an egg, some simple seasoning, with some bread and cheese, and I had myself a little feast.

Tomorrow, I will check out ‘the best preserved medieval town in Belgium … or was it Europe? Anyway, sleep came real easy. It was cold that night, too…at least 6-7 degrees. Maybe it was because of the forest next door. Brrrr…. Good thing I had Aljoscha’s sleeping bag that Eva made me exchange for the one I had originally brought. Thanks Eva 🙂 It kept me warm and toasty inside.

Tomorrow: Exploring Brugge

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Distance today:: 111km
Distance to date:: 732km

Playback today’s ride on Garmin Connect

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