Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Back to reality

I wrote the following reflections about this vacation on the plane home. 

Three weeks on the road. Three weeks of a new adventure every day.

Convention has it that humans are exploratory by nature. Certainly, there is an argument to be made that the propensity for exploration confers an evolutionary advantage: the explorers in a population will find uninhabited territory in which to thrive, as opposed to staying at home, where they must compete with others for resources. Of course there is the obvious counter argument that the inherent dangers of exploring the unknown must be weighed against the advantages of remaining at home, where presumably there is safety and prosperity in numbers and an established base.

And while each of us probably possesses at least a modicum of this drive to explore – so celebrated literature and popular culture, and especially science fiction – clearly most of the humans on this planet are not explorers. The vast majority of us live in cities or cultivate the land in some way. Only an extremely small percentage of us are nomadic nowadays.

So we must quench our thirst for adventure in other ways. We travel to new places, see the sights, meet new people, taste different kinds of foods. One might say that the entire tourism industry is based on humanity’s need to explore and find adventure. 

In that context, and viewed with an “objective” eye, this three week tour on two wheels was just another form of quenching that thirst. But of course, I’m not objective at all; I experienced it! So while I can try to write objectively about it till the page turns black, it doesn’t alter the visceral joy and satisfaction I feel for having done it, nor the melancholy of its being over. 

On Wednesday, as we were cycling in the rain, I thought I might be ready to come home. But as I wrote yesterday, upon resuming our journey Thursday morning, I realized I could happily continue on another week, a sentiment I also felt on our last cycle tour. These trips are the only times I have ever not felt ready to come home. Such is the draw of waking up every morning to a new adventure, to new lands, to new people. After our last trip, I wrote it was the “routine of change” that we loved so much.

In the grand counter-clockwise movement of this trip, we cycled through four countries: Luxembourg, Germany, Holland, and Belgium. And while they are all very close together, I am amazed at how different each country is. Luxembourg, with its lovely gardens, hills, and obvious prosperity; Germany, with its winding river valleys, castles, colourful houses, and strict rules; Holland with its flat terrain, incredibly manicured gardens, cheerful people, and amazing bike paths; and Belgium, with its more rolling countryside, large farms, and of course, amazing beer. But for us, the common thread was the camaraderie of the road, rediscovered each morning.

So I write this as we fly home, 11,000 metres above the southern tip of Greenland, already thinking about where we should go next. With our second trip under our belts, we are much more experienced and confident as cycle tourists. On our first trip two years ago, we purposely stuck to countries that we knew had excellent bicycling infrastructure, but for this second trip, we ventured into more uncharted waters. While Germany is still a great place to cycle, it’s nothing as organized as Holland. So now we feel we might be ready for a less organized place – perhaps France or England; Denmark is another possible destination. And even though it’s now a very well-known quantity, I would love to explore northern Holland. 

On this trip, we learned that our wet-weather gear is perhaps not good enough for an extended period of wet weather (something we have been fortunate not to encounter in over five weeks of cycle tourism). And I’d like to find a way to reduce our weight. My bicycle (16 kg) and panniers (14 kg) plus myself (90+ kg) made for a lot of weight to pedal around. 

We learned that it’s a good idea to take a day off at least once a week (something we did accidentally on our first trip). But we also learned that we don’t like to spend that much time in cities. It is the cycling we enjoy most. If I could do it again, I wouldn’t spend three days in Heidelberg, lovely as it was. 

I learned that it takes me a solid week to shed the anxiety of not having place to stay booked in advance, and this is something I really hope will change with more experience. 

After our last trip, we mourned our return for two weeks, and there has been a similar period of adjustment this time, though both of us were plunged cruelly back into work immediately. But it has been good to reconnect with family and friends, tell the stories of our adventures, and show the pictures. And as I have done from time to time with the last trip, I will return to this blog and relive the adventure to some small degree. And that will have to do, until next time. 


Finis  

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The road to Brussels (and home)

After the hard day yesterday, I thought I was just about ready to come home. But when we started out this morning – relatively early so we'd still have some time at the end of the day in Brussels – I was immediately wistful, knowing it would be our last day of cycling. Even though our legs were feeling tired, it being the 7th day in the row on the road, we were both of the opinion that after a day or two of rest, we would happily continue for another week.

Such is the wonder of waking up every morning and setting off on a new exploration. Such is the incredible appeal of cycle touring.

Last day on the road
The landscape this morning started out much like we ended with yesterday, sans pluie, but after 10 km or so, it became clear that our route was becoming increasingly urban. As we rode south of Leuven (Louvain) in Heverlee, we came across Park Abbey, which seemed to be undergoing some restoration. We cycled under some lovely 18th century arches.


Park Abbey (dated 1722) 
Typical lunchtime view.
We stopped for coffee after about 25 km, and then for lunch at about 35. We had a lovely view, though we were happy to get off the cobblestones. We got to the Airbnb about 2, settled in and had showers, and then took the Metro into town to do some shopping. In my case, this mostly meant hitting Cantillon, a great bottle shop called Beer Mania, and the wonderful bar Moeder Lambic.

Toasting the end of #cycletour2017 with a glass of Rosé de Gambrinus chez Cantillon. 
We found a burger joint for supper then walked home via Brussels' always bustling Grand Place. 

One last selfie. 
Maybe on the plane tomorrow, I'll try to sum up my thoughts about this trip, but right now, I'm too tired, after 49 km on the bike and another 7 or 8 km walking downtown. Time to crash for the last time in Europe.



Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Nice weather... for snails.

Today, our luck with the weather finally ran out. We set off nice and dry at 10:15 but within 15 minutes it had started to rain, and within half an hour, it was coming down hard. Alas, our home-made booties didn't pass their first real test, because our feet were wet almost immediately.

Then about 10 km into our ride, Sonia's rear brakes started rubbing, so we stopped and had a crash course on brake adjustment in the rain. It took us 10 minutes to figure it out, but we eventually got it sorted. Then a little farther on, her front brakes started rubbing too. However, seasoned brake mechanics that we now were, we where back in the saddle in just a few minutes. If this is the only mechanical trouble we encounter, we'll count ourselves lucky!

We were also lucky that it wasn't overly cold or windy, so we weren't actually unhappy... just a little moist. But with all the stopping our progress was slow, and by 12:30, we were barely half way to our goal of Tienen. We rolled into Sint-Truiden and decided to have lunch at a little cafe in the main square, where Sonia could also change her clothes so as not to get too chilled.

By then, the rain had slowed to a mere drizzle, but the wind had picked up a little. For today and tomorrow, we had decided to forego the LF6 and navigate by number, which makes a somewhat more direct route, if theoretically less scenic. To explain: In Belgium and Holland, there are two ways to navigate. You can take the well marked LF routes, or you can follow the numbers. The countries are dotted with numbered waypoints, and there are always signs directing you to the various local waypoints. To get from point A to point B, you just identify the various waypoints along the way and follow them. So today went something like 117 > 132 > 156 > 155 > 151... and so on. It's all incredibly well organized and civilized.

And in fact, if it hadn't been for the rain, today would have been one of the nicer days of cycling on this trip. The roads/paths were well-maintained and the scenery was lovely. I'm pretty sure that for a chunk of the day were were riding on an old Roman road, locally called Romainse kassei. Google translate says this means "Roman cashier," but my translator's instincts kicked in and, with a little digging, I found that "kassei" also means "cobble(stone)." Certainly, it seemed like a Roman road, cutting straight across the countryside. We eventually turned off it, but looking at the maps, I think we could have taken it all the way into Tienen.

Needless to say, I didn't take any pictures on the road today (Sonia got one of some snails "rushing" across the bike path as we played snail slalom). We rolled into Tienen about 3 p.m., checked into our hotel and made a beeline for the shower.

Nothing much to report about Tienen. Nice 13th-century church on a hill and apparently an oldish train station (thanks wikipedia). For us, it is memorable mostly as the next-to-last stop on our journey and the place where a bird is striving valiantly to sing the Spiderman theme outside the window (Eb-Eb-Cb-Ab ... E-Eb). Tomorrow we ride into Brussels for our final night of #cycletour2017.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Holland anymore.

Today was a short day of cycling, about 25 km or so. The road back to Brussels is just a tad too far to do comfortably in two days, and we decided to do one short day (in lieu of a rest day) and two normal days. Tongeren looked like an interesting little town, so we've stopped here. Tomorrow, we hope to get to Tienen, and then on to Brussels by Thursday.

As we rode out of Maastricht this morning, we finally turned off the LF3 – which starts way up by the North Sea, so we probably only saw half of it – and onto the LF6 route across Flanders.

Hanging a right through Flanders. Goodbye, LF3. 
It was a drizzly morning. We probably could have gotten away with not wearing our rain gear, but hey, we brought it all this way, we might as well use it. The "rain" eventually tapered off completely around 11 or so. 

Our home-made ("Sonia-made") rain booties. Simple but effective. Stylish? Maybe not so much... 
A few kilometres west of Maastricht, we crossed over into Belgium, and like the crossing from Germany into Holland a few days ago, we could feel the difference immediately. The building style, the gardens, and the farms are all very different than Holland. My impression is that the farms in Belgium are generally bigger; it also seemed like there were fewer little towns, and what towns there were were much sleepier – no little cafés and bakeries. At least none that were open. 

Girding our loins to climb a hill in rural Belgium. 
The landscape is also much less flat. Not quite as hilly as Luxembourg (though the first hill to get us out of the Meuse valley was a doozie!), but definitely more relief than Holland. Still it was a nice ride, with not much wind or traffic on these back roads, and we made it to Tongeren by noon. Luckily, the Airbnb host allowed us to check in a few hours early, so we settled in, had lunch and then went to explore the town 

Tongaren is quite nice. The town dates back at least to Roman times, and there's a very good self-guided walking tour, with signs in four languages. There are some remnants of town walls dating from the 13th century, and a fairly well preserved beguinage. The main square is dominated by quite a lovely basilica, the building of which started in the 13th century. The square also features a statue of Ambiorix, a leader of the "Belgae" who revolted against Julius Ceasar and purportedly destroyed a legion. 

The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Basiliek and statue of Ambiorix in Tongeren
It was in view of both of these monuments that I sat down to drink some fine Belgian beer while Sonia went to do some shopping. An excellent start to the last few days of our trip. 

Rodenbach Caractère Rouge, on tap no less. Gotta love Belgium. 


Monday, June 26, 2017

Peter and Sonia's A Series of Interesting Events

We left Roermond this morning at 9:15, a pretty decent time considering that for some reason neither of us slept very well. Which is weird, because our accommodations were wonderful.

In any case, we hit the road and found our way to the LF3. At one point, wanting to avoid another exhausting day by taking a few judicious shortcuts, we were looking at our maps when a "kind" Dutchman asked us if he could help, giving what seemed to be a good route to Maastricht; he even took us to the start of the path along the Juliankanal.

A typical Dutch scene, with the water on the left higher than the ground on the right
All seemed well (if a little less structured than we were used to) until the path became increasingly overgrown. We soon realized that we should have turned off at one point and taken a path leading down to the bottom of the dike.

Yeah, something's not right here. 
Eventually, we decided this bushwhacking on bikes couldn't go on, so we unhooked the paniers and took everything down the VERY steep embankment to the real LF3, about 8 metres below.

That's more like it!
All's well that ends well, and the rest of the day was fairly innocuous. That'll teach us to take advice from the Dutch. We'll just follow the posted signs from now on!

As per the last 3 days, today's ride took us through quaint little towns and picturesque farmland. There were also several detours, which turned out to be well marked once we realized what they were -- the joys of travelling where you don't understand the language. At one point, we encountered some heavy machinery building some sort of earthworks, and it occurred to me that most of Holland is one huge feat of engineering. It's no wonder that Dutch gardens are so tidy and meticulously kept. It's just part of the Dutch mentality to control nature. (I don't mean this as a criticism at all; it's kind of mind-blowing how lovely and natural Holland seems despite its being completely manufactured!)

With the good weather and a lack of headwinds (and even some tailwinds), we made excellent time and arrived in Maastricht by 2:30. After settling into our lodging, we went to explore. Maastricht is another university town. You can always tell; there's a certain liveliness to them (all the young people zipping around on bikes is also a giveaway). It's a very pretty town and just the right size to wander around and get lost. There are lots of old churches and fortifications. In some ways, it reminds me of Bruges. In others, Basel is brought to mind, since Maastricht too is separated by a river.
Maastricht city hall

The old city wall

So pretty. Reminds me of Bruges. 

Tomorrow, we turn east into Belgium, heading for Brussels. Hard to believe we fly home in a few days.



Sunday, June 25, 2017

Head winds

Another great day of cycling, but whoo boy, were we tired when we arrived at our Airbnb. As the crow or highway flies, Wellerlooi to Roermond (or Herten, to be precise) is only about 51 km. But when you add the twists and turns of the LF3, it was more like 62. And we actually took a few shortcuts! We were also riding into fairly stiff headwinds, especially later in the day, and a good chunk of the route was on gravel or dirt paths (which is somewhat unusual for the LF routes in our experience).

We started off at 10, a little later than usual owing to the very quiet and comfortable B&B we had in Wellerlooi, and our route led us through some beautiful forested parkland.

Not the kind of landscape you expect in Holland.
Then we went through the cute town of Arcen, with it's lovely little moated castle.

Arcen

Much like yesterday, the path took us through a very varied landscape of farmland, pastures, forests, and towns. We also saw our first windmill of this trip.

Ah, OK. Now we're in Holland. 

The last 25 km were fairly blustery, and Sonia rode in my wind shadow for much of it. When we got to Roermond, we were happy to find that the Airbnb was really lovely (our hosts are actually musicians too, which was a bonus), with a grocery store and a French fry shop within 100 m. After showering, eating, and planning the day for tomorrow, it's time to crash. It's been a looong (but lovely) day.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

On s'amuse sur La Meuse

Today was the first time on this trip where we had to put our rain covers on. Which is not to say that it actually rained; it was merely spitting a little from time to time. But we wanted to be prepared. It was also quite cool, hovering around 16C (a full 20C lower than a few days ago in Cologne!).

Paved cycle path alongside a dirt road for cars. We're not in Kansas anymore!
 But you know what, it was one of the nicest days of cycling on this trip. First off, have I mentioned yet how nice it is to be back cycling in Holland? Because this country truly is a paradise for cycling. There's so much infrastructure for cyclists, and bikes are simply considered vehicles like any other; car drivers treat bikes with as much respect as they do trucks. Only in Holland do you see a dirt road for cars, with a paved cycle path alongside it. It's so refreshing. 

A couple of happy cyclists

Holland the beautiful
Another thing that makes touring in Holland great is the LF routes. They are not direct routes, but they do take you though some really beautiful countryside, and unlike the routes we rode in Germany, which in our experience tended to avoid or merely skirt small towns, the LFs in Holland take you though picturesque little towns and villages too, so you don't just see the country, you also see the people. 

Today's ride was incredibly varied. We rode through both forested and open parkland; various kinds of farm fields growing corn, barley, potatoes, wheat, and turnips; pasture land, with horses, cows, goats, sheep, and chickens; lots of canals and lakes; and through various sized towns. There was something new and interesting to see around every bend. At one point, we rode through a wide swath of potato fields in bloom, and the scent of all those flowers was incredible. Who knew potato flowers smelled so good!

Nous étions dans le champs de patates, mais sur la bonne route quand même.


Before lunch, we stopped at a bakery for coffee in the little town of Gennep, where I had one of the delicious sausage rolls you find in Holland, which I had totally forgotten about from our last trip. I look forward to having more of these over the next few days!
The perfect mid-morning snack on a cool day.
We ended our day in the barely-on-the-map town of Wellerlooi, halfway between Nijmegen and Roermond. We are in a lovely little housekeeping suite with a small farm behind it. I'm looking forward to getting a good night's sleep and getting another good ride in tomorrow.