de Panne to Ieper

Distance: 46.38 km
Time: 2 hours 19 minutes
Average speed : 19.9 km/h
Total distance: 801.89 km

a relaxed breakfast — a morning’s cycling — the Ieper canal — spires on the horizon — is the car still there?
We found the sea last night, following the road named Zeelaan, then Zeedijk, the clue perhaps being in the name… It was phenomenally windy, a gale blowing in off the sea, but the beach looked very nice in the early evening sun, white sand and little blue and white beach huts everywhere. We ate pizza in a not very Italian Italian (called ‘Milord’, strangely), and were blown back to our hotel in the Markt for a good night’s sleep. No idea why it wasn’t a Grote Markt, it was perfectly Grote… Maybe there was an even Grote-r one elsewhere.

Breakfast was a relaxed affair this morning, in the knowledge that we had only around 45km to cover back to Ieper and the car (“if it’s still there!”, we said, only about 90% in jest), and we watched the cafe owners around the setting up their terraces for the day. After a final packing of the panniers, and an exit down Zeelaan in an ‘away from the sea’ direction, we were on our way.

There was definitely a more languid air to our pedalling today. Starting a day as we did yesterday with 110km on the clock to complete brings a certain mental challenge, along with the physical task of completing the mileage (kilometrage?). Today would be just a morning’s cycling, though, and we breezed through the countryside in the sunshine, knowing that we’d have no trouble making Ieper for lunch. We must be tour-hardened now, because we were bowling along at over 20kph without even trying!

With de Panne quickly behind us, we passed the curiously named ‘Plopsaland’ theme park, and then joined the canal for a while. Turning briefly away from the water, we skirted Diksmuide, then arrived at Knokke to find the lifting bridge across the canal just lowering back into place after letting a boat through. There was a little picnic area just over the other side, and we sat for a little while having a drink and watching all the Fietsers coming and going. There was a lady from a German holiday company’s camper van, preparing lunch for a group who hadn’t yet arrived, and a little hut with information about the fort which used to stand on the spot. It was all very pleasant, and we even got to watch the lifting bridge go through its routine again, to let another boat through.

We set off again, just 16km to go, following the Ieper canal now. The German party passed us heading for Knokke a few kilometres later, but we didn’t tell them their lunch wasn’t ready yet. The canal track was lovely, except for a short section where the roots of the trees next to the track had intermittently distorted the surface. It was a little bumpy, and the tandem is so long that when we go over the bumps we sound like a train going over the points..

We started to see spires appearing on the horizon, and cycled through Ieper’s industrial outskirts, and then suddenly, there was the distinctive grey spire of the Cloth Hall, practically in front of us. Two more turns and we were there, Ieper’s Grote Markt. We had a small but delicious lunch in the square (no excuse for stuffing ourselves, with no more kilometres to cycle!), then it was back on the bike, and a short ride to the car. We passed the restaurant where we ate on our first night, then popped out of the trees, crossed the road, and rode into the car park.

“Is it still there?”

“It’s still there!”

So that was that, the end of our tour. It had been brilliant fun, we’d learned a lot about Belgium, met some lovely people and cycled through beautiful countryside, mostly in the sunshine.

We’ll record some reflections later, but for now, it’s a couple of days recuperating in Brugge/Bruges, and then home.

Here’s today’s track:

de Panne to Ieper

Ghent to de Panne

Distance: 109.2 km
Time: 5 hours 26 minutes
Average speed : 20.1 km/h
Total distance: 755.51 km

slumming it — horsing around — headwinds — sand dunes — where’s the sea?

The last time we stayed in Ghent was late in 2008, and the town centre was relatively quiet, it being winter. This time, on opening the hotel door and stepping out onto Korenlei (yes, we admit we’re not really slumming it on this tour!) the waterfront was crowded with many hundreds of visitors, enjoying the fantastic views on a summer’s evening. It’s a stunningly lovely vista, whatever the time of year.

We originally selected a restaurant on Graslei, opposite the hotel. It was full, though, and like each of its neighbours sported a small queue outside. The waiters seemed somewhat disinterested in the concept of booking a table, so we switched to Plan B, involving refreshing glasses of Rochefort 8 (for the captain) and Cava (for the stoker) in a nearby bar, before repairing to another restaurant near the Belfort. Fortune has favoured us with good restaurants throughout our trip so far and “Passion” was no exception. We were served by a waiter who was keen to explain that he was French French as opposed to Walloon French, but had been happily living in Flanders for decades. He was keen to sing the praises of Ghent (and let’s face it there is plenty worth praising), particularly when compared to Bruges. This being fully discussed, we ate a very good meal of Ghent Stoverij (captain) and Rabbit (stoker). Oh, and a very good Beaujolais. It’s a tough life…

Today was to be our longest day in the saddle, featuring a journey of more than 70 miles in a north westerly direction, past Bruges towards the coast at de Panne. We set the alarm for an early start, and ate breakfast in a lovely room overlooking Korenlei. It was a gloriously hot morning, and the sun sparkled attractively on the water outside. After breakfast we rescued the tandem from the underground car park, loaded up and set off alongside one of Ghent’s many canals. Mindful of the distance we had to cover we set a fast pace from the start, and covered the forty-three kilometres to the outskirts of Bruges in a couple of hours.

Today we decided to have a mid-morning stop, and “Minnewater”, due south of Bruges city centre, was the perfect place. We cycled on the cobbled roads for a few hundred metres seeking a café (it being Monday, most of them were closed), before emerging near the popular spot where “horse and cart” tours around Bruges usually commence. Settling down at an outside café table with a huge bottle of mineral water we watched the horses being fed and watered at the end of each trip. It must be a tough life for them, particularly in the summer, and when leaving for the start of a new tour each horse seems to struggle on the slippery cobbles.

We didn’t want to hang around for too long (and we’re spending a couple of days in Bruges after our cycling tour), so we set off again fairly swiftly, hoping to accrue a further thirty or so kilometres before our lunch stop. The Ghent-Ostende canal towpath provided our route out of the city, and a good surface led to a consistently fast pace. It was scorchingly hot, though, and after an hour and a half we were flagging somewhat and in need of refreshment. We headed into the centre of Gistel and found an open café (hurrah!) where beer was taken and croquettes were consumed.

With seventy-five kilometres under our belt we knew we had another forty remaining – about two hours at our average speed today. The zig-zag route, however, kept pointing us into an increasingly strong headwind, which sapped our strength somewhat. By now the sun was blazing at full power, and we were glad to have replenished our water bottles at Bruges. The cycle tracks were buzzing with people as usual, particularly as we approached the North Sea coast near Nieuwpoort.

The last few kilometres were spent among holiday homes, caravans and sand dunes, though we never quite caught sight of the sea (we intend to rectify that omission this evening). Eventually we dragged our tired bones and other sore parts to our hotel in the town of de Panne, a short distance from the border with France. It’s a lively, pleasant spot and we’re looking forward to our evening here.

Tomorrow is our last cycling day – it seems to have arrived all too soon. We will be heading more or less due south towards Ieper, only forty or so kilometres away.

Here is today’s track:

Ghent to de Panne

Antwerp to Ghent

Distance: 91.24km
Time: 4 hours 48 minutes
Average speed : 19 km/h
Total distance: 646.31km

groentjes — what bridge? — a bit ‘off-piste’ — what is ‘kop’ — church spires

We fancied some thing simple for dinner last night, after the ‘fine dining’ of the night before, and Sjalot en Schanul was perfect, a warm welcome, and the waiter very patiently translated the menu for us. (We especially liked the word for ‘veggies’, which is groentjes, pronounced ‘cchhhr-earnt-cheese’, very gutterally, as if you’re harrumphing. We practised saying it, until we realised that was going to seem really odd to any Dutch or Flemish speakers, us going around saying ‘veggies’ repeatedly to each other..).The steak was really good, and we left room for a trip across the Grote Markt for an ice-cream.

Lots of kilometres to do today, so we got up half an hour earlier to get a good start. We left Antwerp with no navigational accidents, Gary having decided not to be on strike today, and after an hour we spotted node 34 coming up, complete with bench, and decided to have a stop for a drink. We had been riding next to Antwerp’s river, the Schelde, for a while, and knew we had to cross one of its tributaries, but there didn’t seem to be a bridge. We realised that it was because the crossing was a little ferry, especially for Fietsers! When the ferry arrived at our side of the water it disgorged loads of cyclists with a variety of bikes, including a tandem and two recumbents. We boarded along with all the other waiting cyclists, who stacked their bikes up in a long chain, one facing left, the next facing right, the next left again, and so on. We were too long, so we stood at one end, and were joined by a couple on solo bikes, one of which was pulling a little trailer with their collie, Sam, in it. They came from Mol, quite near Turnhout, and were touring to France and back, camping as they went.

After the ferry arrived at the opposite bank we cycled around the next part of the route to the next crossing, this time of the Schelde itself, and also a ferry. The trouble was that the ferries only travelled across every half an hour in each direction, so it felt like we were losing a lot of time. After this crossing, we cycled on, the cycle path was smooth and wide, and the views of the river were lovely. The next crossing was a bridge, and on we went, eating up the kilometres very efficiently, but all too soon, yes, you guessed it, another ferry, and we’d just missed it.

The couple with the dog had told us they were also heading for Ghent today, but just following LF route 5, a sort of pre-planned route along the nodes, also sign-posted with the node numbers themselves along the side of the cycle path. We decided we’d abandon our own route and follow LF5 for a while, until it met up with our route again, to save a bit of hanging around for the ferry. It was a bit ‘off-piste’, but we could see it was going to work, LF5 was well signed, and before long we were back into our own route, even arriving at our proposed lunch stop cafe at 60km as expected.

Unfortunately it was completely full!

The lady told us we could find another cafe just across the river, and that the ferry was going in only a few minutes, so we headed over there, as we had to cross at that point in any case. The cafe was very pleasant, although we seemed to have arrived in the crucial part of the day when it was too late for hot snacks (stopped at 13:30) and too early for waffles (not available until 14:00), which was a bit weird! So sandwiches it was, which was fine. One sounded interesting, with ham, cheese, groentjes (!) and something called ‘kop’.

“What is kop?”, we said.
“It’s … err … I don’t know what the word would be in English”, said our waitress, “it’s kind of a meat, it’s soft”
“Is it nice?”, we asked
“Well”, she said, pulling a face, “some people like it, but I really don’t”

We decided to go for the safe option of cheese, with some groentjes (good job we’d practised), and it was very good. Whilst waiting, we looked up ‘kop’. It’s that stuff beloved of the French, ‘head cheese’. A narrow escape, we decided!

After lunch we headed out in the scorching sunshine, 28 degrees now according to the sign in one village, still alongside the Schelde, which was filling rapidly now after the earlier low tide. We were really enjoying the cycling, it had been varied and interesting along the river, and we were feeling very strong. We had planned a couple of shortcuts where the route seemed to take an unnecessary detour, and navigated them without too much fuss. One was a really silly detour around five sides of a hexagon, so we took the easy option and just did the sixth side.

We started to see church spires on the horizon, we were coming into Ghent! A few cobbled streets, steering very clear of the tram tracks, which looked like terrible wheel-grabbers, across the canal, and we were there. It had been a long day, but hugely enjoyable.

Might even treat ourselves to some groentjes for tea.

Here’s today’s track:

Antwerp to Ghent

Turnhout to Antwerp

Distance: 51.36 km
Time: 2 hours 37 minutes
Average speed : 19.6 km/h
Total distance: 555.07 km

canal — canal — canal— canal — canal — Antwerp!
Turnhout turned out to be much larger than we had imagined. In particular the Grote Markt was huge – bigger than any other we have seen. It had a lively ambience, too, in the many outdoor bars and cafės we passed en-route to our carefully selected restaurant for the evening: “Cucina Marangon”. What a great choice it was too, a Venetian restaurant in an airy room with a sort of faded splendour and cooking worthy of a Michelin Star. In particular we both really enjoyed delicately flavoured canneloni and some excellent pork loin. The proprietress spoke no English but we were able to exercise our slightly rusty Italian, much to her relief.

We have two demerits to award today. The first one is for the tandem, which had clearly had a wild night in room 1. Clearly other tandems had visited in the night…. The second is for Gary the Garmin, who crashed every time we tried to load today’s route, the little sod! Fortunately our planning and compliance officer/rear motive unit had of course prepared a back-up plan, consisting of a laminated card describing all the nodes and important roads of today’s route. As the saying goes: Prior Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Pedalling!

It was bright and sunny as we left Turnhout for a short cycling day – we have never visited Antwerp before so we wanted to allow time for sightseeing. So only fifty-one kilometres to do today and, as with yesterday, the vast majority on canal-side paths. It being Saturday the cyclists (of all shapes and sizes) were out in force on the towpath of the lovely narrow canal between Turnhout and Antwerp. The surfaces were variable, some sandy tracks and plenty of Tarmac, and on the latter at least we were able to achieve speeds of up to 30km/hr for quite some time.

When enthusing about the cycle tracks a couple of days ago we forgot to mention perhaps the most impressive feature of cycling here in Belgium – the astonishing courtesy shown towards cyclists. Often the cycle paths (usually coloured red to distinguish them from the roads) cross the ends of side roads, or form a continuous ring around roundabouts. So we were bewildered at first when we approached such crossings and the cars simply stopped to let us through, every single time. We even tried to wave some of them on, but they would wait patiently for us to pass. This was often somewhat embarrassing, as, expecting them to go first we were not quite ready to continue, or were in the wrong gear. Anyway, just thought we’d mention this particular feature of Belgian cycling, we’re sure the “lads” at Top Gear would be really interested to hear about it.

Back on the canal we were speeding along in the benevolent warmth of the sun. It gradually became less benevolent and more scorching, and we stopped briefly for a drink in the shade of the canal-side oaks. Eventually, after passing ten or so locks the scenery started to change. We were obviously entering the suburbs of Antwerp and, with about 12 kilometres to go we left the canal and took road-side cycle paths towards the city centre. We paused briefly at a bike shop to borrow their track pump so we could re-inflate our tyres to the optimal pressure. Then, passing through a couple of city parks, and navigating without the assistance of Gary, we headed into the centre. The signing of the nodes was sometimes less than obvious, and we had to retrace our steps a couple of times, and to avoid some nasty tram tracks near the water-front. Soon enough, though, we found ourselves at Antwerp’s Grote Markt and located our hotel in a nearby side street. After the disgraceful scenes of last night the tandem has been relegated to the hotel garden!

By now it was lunchtime, and after a quick shower we changed into our civvies (strange feeling, that!) and walked towards Antwerp’s cathedral, looking for somewhere to eat. A simple pasta lunch followed, washed down with a bottle of Soave! We tried to get into the cathedral to have a look around, but sadly it was closed for the afternoon. In the nearby square of Groenplaats we spotted a “petit train”, always a favoured way of getting a quick view of an unfamiliar city. Nearby we also spotted a poster for an Elvis Costello concert, but not for tonight, unfortunately. We enjoyed our tour of the city, although the rather solid suspension of the “petit train” made for an uncomfortable ride, worse than our tandem saddles!

Afterwards we returned to the hotel to catch the end of today’s stage of the Tour de France – well done Chris Froome! We’re looking forward to a sunny evening stroll and perhaps an outdoor meal.

Tomorrow (excitingly!) we’re cycling to Ghent/Gent/Gand (so good they named it thrice)!

Here’s today’s track:

Turnhout to Antwerp

Thorn to Turnhout

Distance: 86.13km
Time: 4hrs 9 minutes
Average speed : 20.7 km/h
Total distance: 503.71km

grimacing and wincing — alpaca and a kangaroo — is it straight on? — hairy caterpillars

Thorn was a lovely village, known as ‘the white village’ because of all the white houses. It was really buzzing when we arrived, lots of people sitting in the sunshine enjoying a coffee or a beer. After we’d enjoyed a long relaxing bath, we headed down to the hotel’s restaurant and enjoyed some specialities of this Limburg region, and a bottle of locally-produced Dornfelder red wine.

It was quite overcast when we got up this morning, which was no bad thing, we’d both caught the sun a bit yesterday during the afternoon. After breakfast we loaded up, took some pictures of the town, and then prepared to set off. We were both feeling a bit saddle-sore after yesterday’s many kilometres on the flat, so it was with a fair amount of grimacing and wincing that we left the village, down a cobbled road, of course (ouch!).

We were soon up to warp speed, though, and stopped after an hour for a drink to find we’d already covered 20km. It was perfect cycling weather, cool enough, with very little discernible wind. We were mostly cycling through crops, including some weird frondy dark green stuff we eventually realised was asparagus – it must be in its ‘growing’ phase now, although there were a few spears visible still.

We also cycled past a field with a sign saying ‘Alpaca and Kangeroos’. It was full of alpaca, and even one lonely-looking kangaroo, very surreal in the Belgian countryside!

We joined the canal, and started what must have been 40km of canal-side riding for the day. It made the navigating very easy:

Clare: Node 201 is in 100 metres, and the next node will be 220…
Jonathan: No, don’t tell me, let me guess, is it straight on?

We were keeping up a great pace, with our average for the day creeping up nicely. We’ve done loads of turbo-training in the last eighteen months, on solo bikes attached to a sort of rolling system so you can cycle statically in the house without going anywhere. It was really to try to maintain fitness over the winter months when the weather is horrid, but it’s turned out to be great training for flat kilometres next to canals.

After 60km we stopped for lunch in Postel, and the Captain ordered the very local beer (see ‘Halle to Tienen’, not going to make that mistake again!), and pronounced it very good indeed. After a lunch of Croque Monsieur for the Captain and a Belgian Waffle with strawberries and cream for the rear motive unit, it was back to the canal-side with a bit more grimacing and wincing at the restart. This was actually a different canal, calling itself the Turnhout Dessel canal, which was encouraging as Turnhout was our destination. It was lovely, very wide and still, and lined with tall trees, looked like oak or some relation.

We stopped with 16km to go, which probably sounds strangely random, but if you convert it to miles, you’ll see that it’s the psychologically important ’10 miles to go’ mark. There was a sign next to the bench we were sitting on, with pictures of huge numbers of hairy caterpillars swarming up a tree trunk, and the nasty skin irritation you could expect if you went near them. As we cycled on, we saw a few small nests of caterpillars on the trunks of the canal-side trees. Having looked them up later, the sign was referring to the caterpillars of the oak processionary moth, which are terrible destructive to oak trees. Apparently the infestation in Belgium was so bad that the Belgian army were brought in to deal with it! It looked like they had it all well under control now, though.

We finally left the canal side for Turnhout, and entered the town next to the castle. It was very impressive, it even had a moat with various interesting modern sculptures in it. We stopped to take some pictures, and got into conversation with a Belgian couple out for a day ride. They had a little card of the node numbers for their route, just like ours, and told us they also had a tandem.

So we’re comfortably settled in at Turnhout now, after an initial kerfuffle about where to store the tandem. It was awarded its own room in the end – if we check out tomorrow to find it’s been ordering expensive drinks on room service, there’ll be trouble…

Here’s today’s track:

Thorn to Turnhout

Liege to Thorn

Distance: 90.08km
Time: 5hrs 9 minutes
Average speed : 17.5 km/h
Total distance: 417.58km

vertiginous ascent — into Holland — back to Belgium — wait, we’re in Holland now, aren’t we? — no, I’m sure this is Belgium — lovely Thorn

Today was the sort of day you dream about on these trips. Admittedly, writing the blog after a couple of beers on the sun-kissed terrace of our very fine hotel here in Thorn may have imparted a rosy glow to all proceedings, but it was still a brilliant day!

We enjoyed our night in Liege. We expected cultural differences over the border into Wallonia, but it was more French than France! Everything changed at the border – language; demeanour; style; food – it is quite remarkable that these two such disparate regions form a nation. Still, who were we to complain when we could sample the best of French cuisine for an evening. So sample it we did, in “Maison Leblanc”, an excellent restaurant in the heart of the old town. As usual after the exertions of the day we flagged somewhat after eating, but made it back to the hotel for a restful night.

The hotel staff , by the way, didn’t so much as blink an eyelid when we wheeled our filthy, mud-caked tandem into their “left luggage” room for the night!

It was still overcast when we awoke, but the chances of rain seemed to have receded, and after a hearty breakfast we wheeled our disreputable-looking tandem back out of the hotel onto the cobbled streets of Liege. The traffic was light compared to the rush-hour horrors of the previous evening, and we were soon onto the long steady climb out of town. This was easier than we had feared – steep-ish but mostly uncobbled, and soon accomplished. In three quarters of an hour we were out of the city and back onto the Fietsroute network.

On our French “End to End” trip (see blogs passim!) we were really impressed with the French “Voie Vertes” – the green routes through parts of France designed for cyclists and pedestrians. Well the Fietsroute network is similar, but on a massive scale. Imagine the difficulties one might encounter in proposing a bill in Parliament to introduce an intricate network of (usually metalled) tracks for cyclists covering the whole of the country, funded by taxes. Well the Belgians have done it, and it is fantastic. Of the 417.58 kilometres we have cycled so far (yes, I checked!) about 90% has been on dedicated cycle tracks. A further 5% has been on quiet roads shared with other traffic, leaving the other, er, 5% on regular roads. So we have been able to cycle along untroubled by cars, and they in turn haven’t had to share their roads with us.

Anyway, back to today! On rejoining the node network near Juprelle we started a steady descent towards the valley of the Meuse, crossing the Albert Canal to reach the side of the river itself, which flowed in swirling angry-looking currents between the Belgian and the Dutch banks. We were clearly still in Wallonia, as all the signs were in French, and the cycling was idyllic – largely flat, and with striking views over the river. At some point (it wasn’t really clear) we entered the Netherlands, and approached the outskirts of Maastricht.

Neither of us had really noticed when planning the route that we were passing through the historic centre of Maastricht, but we were glad to do so – it is a strikingly beautiful town centre and the cycle paths took us straight through the middle. If it hadn’t been too early we would definitely have stopped there for lunch – there were some very tempting looking riverside cafės. Resisting, we cycled on in the improving weather, by the side of the Meuse (or Maas, if you prefer) until we crossed over into the Belgian town of Maasmechelen for a spot of lunch. We found a cafe called t’Hoekske with a sunny terrace. All the cafės nearby seemed to be called t’Something, it was just like being back in Yorkshire! Anyway, the slow but friendly service (and some fantastic dark bread) allowed for some recuperation before setting off again.

We got some serious speed up after lunch. Well it was speedy if you take into account the heavy tandem and the heavy panniers. We may have overtaken some senior citizens. More idyllic river-side tracks took us steadily northward, remaining on the Belgian side of the border until a few kilometres from our destination.

We duly arrived at Thorn, just inside the Netherlands, a lovely town of cobbled streets and white buildings surrounding a church. The proprietor of the Logis Hotel Crasborn took one look at our scruffy tandem and offered the use of his hosepipe! In fact he wielded it himself with great enthusiasm, while the Captain wiped the tandem clear of the Flanders mud from two days ago. We decided to thank him by drinking his beer on the terrace outside the hotel, in the bright sunshine that arrived by the end of the afternoon.

Tomorrow we head west. Our destination is the town of Turnhout.

Here’s today’s track:

Liege to Thorn

Tienen to Liege

Distance: 86.33 km
Time: 5 hrs 33 minutes
Average speed : 15.5 km/h
Total distance: 327.5 km

rain — the ‘Apple route’ — the outer limits — vertiginous descent

We both had a craving for rice last night, so we decided to go with it, and had a Chinese meal in Tienen, which seemed to do the trick. The Grote Markt in Tienen was lovely, as usual, with a huge white cathedral at one end. These Belgian towns all seem to have a Grote Markt (the Flemish equivalent of the Grand Place), and they’re always a good bet for finding bars and restaurants. We found ourselves seriously flagging by the end of the meal, and trudged quite wearily back to the hotel (uphill, sadly), and put ourselves to bed.

This morning dawned grey, and the rain started as we were breakfasting. The lady receptionist in the hotel had looked up the weather forecast, and told us it might well rain all day. We met a Dutch cyclist in reception who was cycling from Amsterdam to Barcelona, some 2000km. He didn’t seem fazed by the rain, and to be honest neither were we, really, we’ve coped with worse, and it was still warm, with no discernible wind.

We’d got up half an hour earlier today with the idea of visiting one of the town’s several bike shops to see if they a replacement ‘proper’ tyre, so we could refold the folding tyre and keep it in case of more tyre problems on this or a future tour. The shop we picked was brilliant, the owner claimed only to know English from watching films, but they must have been quite high-brow, he was really good! He replaced the tyre, and made a small adjustment to a sticky brake return mechanism, and we were on our way by 9:45.

It rained solidly for the first hour, until our toes were swimming in our shoes, but we didn’t mind, the cycle paths were back to wonderful quiet hard-surfaced lanes through the countryside, and we made great progress. We seemed to have entered the fruit-growing area, at one point we were officially on the ‘Apple route’, but we also saw cherries, pears, even raspberries growing up wires.

After an hour, the rain let up, and our good progress continued. We seemed to be going directly east, and also slightly uphill, but almost imperceptibly. The signs for the nodes and routes between them changed today, they’re blue in this area and slightly bigger. We navigated off the node network into Tongeren for lunch, and found a nice cafe in the Grote Markt (of course) and refuelled. The Grote Markt church played tunes with its bells on each quarter hour, although we didn’t recognise them. There was also a very odd sculpture in the middle of the square, which can only be described as a sort of roman centurion atop a Stonehenge menhir arrangement. Very odd. Photos were taken.

After lunch we pushed on, knowing that we had to abandon the node network after about 10km for our excursion into Wallonia. It felt very weird, as if we were reaching the outer limits of the solar system like Voyager and heading off into the unknown. Unfortunately, when we reached our final node, and loaded Gary with the route to Liege, it became clear that we should have left the solar system slightly earlier than we had… We decided our only option was to retrace our steps, which was a bit annoying, but soon done, and we did manage to cut off a corner, which helped.

So, free of the nodes, we headed towards Liege, reaching the dizzying heights of 210m before a rather vertiginous descent into the centre and a slightly hairy 500m round the cobbled inner ring road in the Liege rush-hour to our hotel.

The bad news is that we will have to ascend the vertiginous descent tomorrow on our way out of Liege in order to re-enter the solar system. Having done it downhill, we know exactly how bad it’s going to be… On the plus side, though, it’s pretty much the last hill in the whole trip. They’re not called the Low Countries for nothing!

Here’s today’s track:

Tienen to Liege

Halle to Tienen

Distance: 84.93 km
Time: 5 hrs 47 minutes
Average speed : 14.7 km/h
Total distance: 241.17 km

slow progress — cobbles and mud tracks — a welcome brewery — a bit of Beethoven

We had to stagger all of fifty yards last night to get to the restaurant, which was part of a spa complex. Once we’d found the restaurant entrance (harder than it sounds) we settled down to enjoy a very good meal. The hotel too was good, although the traffic noise woke us quite early this morning. The excellent breakfast was some compensation for this.

Gary the Garmin navigated us impeccably through the centre of Halle to the first node of today’s route to Tienen. When planning the route we’d reckoned yesterday to be the toughest day, but this morning was brutal! It wasn’t so much the climbing – there were fewer hills than yesterday, and the gradients were generally less severe. Yesterday, though, the surfaces were generally very good, but this morning we encountered all kinds of tracks: tarmac (though not much); smooth cobbles; rough cobbles; sand; grit and mud with deep potholes. At one point we had to climb a very narrow mud path which wound horribly steeply up the hillside, using every ounce of our strength to keep pedalling. We were glad not to meet anything coming the other way… The pot-holed surface was difficult to handle, particularly on a tandem, and we pedalled gingerly between the more solid sections of the track.

Our average speed was pretty dire as a result, and our target lunch stop seemed a very long way away – at mid-day it was still some 24 kilometres distant. A couple of smoother sections gave us some false hope of making it but it was not to be. After negotiating a vile mile-long stretch of pot-holed mud we emerged with delight onto a metalled road. Fifty yards later Gary instructed us to turn left. Yes, onto another muddy track, for another mile. There may have been bad language, from both Captain and Stoker!

Abandoning our planned lunch stop we decided to find the nearest cafė, and after cycling in a circle around the town of Neerijse we found a great spot where we could sit outside and enjoy a meal. We ordered a sort of Caesar Salad, but with a mild curry dressing, reminiscent of Coronation Chicken.It sounds a little strange but was really delicious. The Captain washed his down with a glass of Westmalle Tripel, but soon realised this was a faux pas, as what we had thought was a simple cafe was actually part of a brewery – the Brouwerij de Kroon. Not wanting to upset the waiter, he decided a second beer was in order, this time the local brew. Very fine it was, too!

Somehow, that was the turning point. If this morning was tough, this afternoon was an absolute delight. The early kilometres were spent cycling on good tracks through woods in dappled sunlight. A few cobbled sections seemed easy after the exertions of the morning. The terrain, too, had changed, from a seemingly endless series of ridges to a more open, gently rolling landscape.

We passed signs for Waterloo, then emerged, cycling past a canoe slalom, into the grounds of the magnificent university at Leuven. The university buildings and grounds were spectacular, and after cycling through them we emerged near the Abdij van t’ Park, or “Park Abbey” where, as we rolled past, the steeple bells serenaded us with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. How thoughtful of them!

We were rolling along nicely now, though never quite quickly enough to raise our daily average speed to a respectable value. We were getting tired, though, and we crossed, re-crossed and crossed again the busy A3, each time climbing wearily to the bridge level. After the final crossing we spotted our destination town, Tienen, in the distance, and after a few more kilometres we arrived at our hotel, not far from the centre of town.

So another day done, and we’re definitely getting stronger by the day now – even when tired we can feel the increased power available from our legs. We realised today that on the first day of this trip we reached the milestone of 10,000 miles cycled by tandem in the last 5 years – at this rate in a few years we could be quite good at it!

Tomorrow we head for Liege, the last leg in an easterly direction before we strike north for the Dutch border.

Here’s today’s track:

Halle to Tienen

Ronse to Halle

Distance: 73.97km
Time: 4hrs 52 minutes
Average speed : 15.2km/h
Total distance: 156.24km

grinning like idiots — Fietsers!!! — the Muur of Geraadsbergen — belegde broodjes

We headed to Ronse’s Grote Markt last night for dinner, passing under the “Red Bull” finish banner for the go-karting marathon, which had finished at 7pm as promised. It was already partially packed up, lorries driving around the course picking up the tyre barricades very efficiently. It was a lovely evening, still warm, and we chose a cafe-style restaurant with tables outside, and had stuffed mushrooms and pizza.

We slept well, enjoyed an excellent breakfast in our hotel, and extracted the tandem from the garage, ready for the day’s exertions. We’d planned to ask Gary the Garmin each morning to calculate the best route to our first ‘node’ of the day, but when we asked him to get us to node 34, some 800m away, he plotted a complex route of about 5km in a silly circle around Ronse. So we decided to wing it, and managed a surprisingly flawless return to the Fietsroute system on our own.

We knew from the profile of today’s route that it would be pretty hilly, and so it proved, with an early climb of 100m, well before we were warmed up properly. It always takes a few kilometres to ride off the stiffness of the day before, especially on the second day, for some reason. The climb was followed by a long gliding descent, though, and that was the pattern of the day: climbing 100m, then gliding back down to sea-level, up again, down again, up again, repeat to fade…

The tracks were wonderful, as yesterday, and it was difficult to cycle along them without grinning like idiots, it was all so quiet and peaceful, traffic- free, and in beautiful countryside. The node system seems to work really well, although having Gary helps, since he shows the whole expected route as a line to follow, just announcing when we reach a node and indicating the next node to look for, rather than giving turn by turn instructions.

We’re getting quite used to being ‘Fietsers’ now, which is the name used round here for cyclists following the routes. Sometimes there are orange signs giving us information, saying ‘Fietsers!!!’, and then something incomprehensible in Flemish underneath. We’ve learned that Omlegging is a diversion, as is Omleiding (in some subtly different way). The sign with the most exclamation marks today said Ongepast, but we had (onge)passed it before we had a chance to wonder what it meant. Having subsequently looked it up and found it to mean ‘unsuitable’, it’s probably best we didn’t understand it! Don’t remember anything dodgy about the subsequent section, fortunately.

Before lunch we went through Geraadsbergen, very lively, with a big market we had to wheel through on foot. The road kicked up, and then the signs directed us onto a very steep cobbled section. Hard work on a fully-laden tandem, and as we slowly crawled up it we started to see posters showing professional cyclists racing up it. It was the Muur of Geraadsbergen! A 20% gradient in places, and quite long, it’s often part of the Tour of Flanders, apparently. We managed to get to the top, but it was tough! Must be horrible in the Spring Classic races, when it’s cold and wet.

We stopped for lunch in Galmaarden, a few kilometres and one more cobbled climb further on. It being Monday the two bars were shut, but a bakery was open, offering belegde broodjes (filled breadrolls) and eclairs (er…), so we purchased some broodjes and an eclair each (well, we’d earned it, going up the Muur!) and sat in the square in the sunshine to eat them.

After lunch: more climbing, more descending, cycling in the sunshine through fields of crops, until we spotted our hotel on the skyline, a big white house, Villa d’Elbeek. It’s lovely, wooden floors, high ceilings, beautifully decorated. There’s a restaurant right next door, so we won’t even have to drag our weary legs too far this evening!

Here’s today’s track:

Ronse to Halle