It’s a very strange life, cycling around like this. Riding the bikes is the easy part, time on the bikes feels like a rest sometimes just because there’s so much to think about as soon as we step off them. This life style is a completely new experience, It feels to me a bit like what being a gypsy or nomad must feel like. It’s like we’ve slipped through the net of normal society and already the stresses of modern life are beginning to feel a bit pointless. When you’ve only just enough time and energy to think about what’s immediately important, like how much water we have and where we’re going to sleep, a different perspective begins to settle in. It’s taking a bit of getting used to but we starting to get the hang it now. It’s a good feeling.
I don’t know how I’ve made it to 29 and never been cycling in Holland before, what have I been doing with my life?! I’d heard that the Duch have a pretty nifty cycle path network but I wasn’t quite ready for this, It’s crackers, so much fun! To be honest I was pretty surprised at the Netherlands in general, I couldn’t believe how different the culture is considering how near it is to the UK, they deffinately do things a bit differently. It feels like a giant centerparcs, a maze of chocolate box houses, forests and recreational facilities, all connected by an elaborate network of narrow roads filled with smiling cyclists.
Already I’m beginning to loose track on the days and the distances, we’re making good progress though. The days have been long. There’s so much to do! We have to shop every day because we need to carry enough food to eat but not so much that the weight of our bags slows us down, this also involves getting into the rhythm of local opening times (which are invariably inconvenient) so we make it to our destination before everything closes up, easier said than done! We’ve camped every night so far, setting up the camp doesn’t take much time but finding somewhere suitable to camp is a different story, I would say we probably spend at least an hour a day finding a camping spot and it’s always when we have the least energy too. Add to all this the routines off cooking, cleaning, washing, laundry, packing, purchasing good maps (this can be a nightmare), bike maintenance and calls of nature and the time remaining for cycling across a continent begins to close in a bit!
It’s not all work though, life always has it ways of slowing you down, sometimes we rock up in a town and we just have to stop and savour it, one town we passed through had every street closed for the biggest bring and buy sale I’ve ever seen. Some places are so bizare you just have to stay a little while longer than you planned.
Progress in terms of distance has been better since we left Holland, beautiful as it is the dutch cycle route network is, from our experience, pretty easy to get lost on. Maybe that’s because I was tight and bought a cheep map but with so many cris-crossing paths and tiny signs it does slow you down a bit. So from Alphen we headed south for Belgium, to a fairly dull industrial town called Turnhout which had a good bakery and a huge canal which we could follow pretty much all the following day.
We were determined to re-adjust our body clocks, as pretty much everthing we were doing up to this point seemed to be 3 hours late, so we called it a day at about 6 in the evening to enjoy some Belgian beers. After 2 nights wild camping we thought we had earned a shower so we headed for the local camp site. Clean and well fed we pedalled off the following day, through Forrest paths singing along at the top of our lungs to a stream of 80’s hits supplied by the little radio hanging from Jim’s handlebars. The radio, which our friend Rich kindly gave to us as a parting gift when we camped on our first night in Sherwood Forrest, has proven to be one of our favorite bits of kit. The radio stations out here are great, always playing good music and as I don’t understand any of the crap they talk about between tracks it serves as a kind of ambiance to remind me I’m abroad. We get a few funny looks riding along in matching jerseys, singing to the radio.
Now then, Belgium. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, it’s not like people rave about Belgium or anything so my expectations weren’t especially high. It took me by surprise, I thought it would be much like Holland but it’s not, I don’t know why I thought it was flat but it most certainly isn’t, there are ski slopes, we’ve seen them! The villages we cycled through are beautiful, many still have cobbled streets. We’ve seen many different sides to the country in quite a short space of time. We’ve decided against using guide books so we never know what to expect when we arrive somewhere. As I mentioned we started our visit to Belgium on the canal. Now, the canals in Belgium aren’t like the canals back home. Where as our canals are pretty much recreational these days, out here they’re still an integral part of industry and shipment of goods. So the towns around the canals aren’t that great but it’s still a pleasure to cycle through. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the long flat paths and not just cyclists, we had a race with the fastest rollerblader I have ever seen, we must have chased him for quarter of an hour and we couldn’t overtake him, that guy was super human!
The great thing about our route through Belgium, and Luxembourg, is that we’re always near to a boarder. We don’t even know what country we’re in sometimes, we’ve had to check with the locals once or twice. One day we even managed to eat breakfast in Belgium, lunch in Germany and dinner in Luxembourg! Some parts of Belgium speak Dutch, other parts French and others German. The French don’t appear to be particularly popular in the areas of Belgium we visited, many of the French versions of Belgium place names are scratched off road signs. I was expecting to hear French in Luxembourg but they also spoke German in the towns we visited and they all drive German cars.
So, our canal took us briefly back into the Netherlands where we stayed the night in Maastricht, what a treat. I would highly recomend this city, small but perfecly formed. As luck would have it we happened to pass through the day that Maastricht hosts a stage of the Tour of Flanders cycle race! A cobbled track around the city center was fenced off for pro cyclists to battle it out while we kicked back with a beer and an ice cream.
From here it gets hilly. South, through the Ardene region of Belgium we find rolling hills as far as the eye can see, views, yes views! I don’t get people who don’t like hills. It’s a huge misconception that the best places to cycle are flat. The hills take us away from hustle and bustle, Europe begins to stretch out ahead, huge open spaces!
As we get closer to Luxembourg the landscape becomes quite breathtaking, steep winding valleys adorned with castles, steaming rises from the trees as thunder storms are follwed by short spells of hot sunshine. As we push on we take a cycle route along the Mossele valley, a picturesque wine region to the south east of Luxembourge. What a cracking way to spend Sunday afternoon, the sun has returned and everyone is out playing with powerboats and jetskis on the river. Next stop France!
Hope you like the blog, let’s get some bikes to Africa yeah?…http://www.justgiving.com/reallybigbikeride
For the route click here[slickr-flickr tag=A1]