I’m a bit wobbly on a bike. I never had one as a kid. I go white-knuckled in traffic and when I see nettles overhanging the path. My wife is a native of Amsterdam, born on two wheels. She can squeeze between a tram and a parked car, while pressing a cell-phone to her ear. But even for her, the Flemish Cycle Route is a challenge.
It’s ‘750 kilometres of pure cycling pleasure’ according to the guidebook*. The authors tactfully don’t mention saddle pain, and it turns out they’ve added 100km of pleasure to the route since our edition of the book was published. That makes it about 580 miles altogether.
The Flemish Cycle Route is a sign-posted itinerary around Belgium, which glides along dykes and meanders ‘through the most picturesque villages of Flanders’. It skirts around the southern edge of Brussels, calls in at Ghent, Bruges and Ypres, and leads us through landscape painted by Breughel, sung about by Brel and fought over by just about everyone. The Route is mostly flat, though it includes a few short stiff climbs of the Tour of Flanders race to make it interesting. A ‘cross-section’ cyclist can do it in two weeks, says the book. That cross-section cyclist sounds like one tough cookie.
There are bikes for hire at larger Belgian stations, but we paid a small surcharge and carried our own bikes on the train from Amsterdam. Since doing the full route is a round trip, we could have started riding the loop anywhere, but we chose Leuven. It’s just 20 miles east of Brussels, and we assumed it would be easier to start the ride in a smaller place, rather than battling through the traffic of a big city on Day 1.
It turned out to be a good decision. We liked Leuven very much. It’s the 600-year-old university town where Gerard Mercator made his projections. It is also the home of the Stella Artois brewery, so the town’s symbol, celebrated in a statue outside the town hall, is a student holding a book in one hand and a beer mug in the other. And it’s a very attractive town.
We’ve decided that Belgium has the most beautiful squares in the world. The Great Market and Old Market of Leuven are spectacular, but they’re not unusual in this country. It seems that every town in Flanders has a lovely cobbled market in front of a massive gothic church, and a town hall draped with bright flags, surrounded by step-gabled buildings.
In the parkland behind the Heverlee campus of Leuven University we found a reassuring green sign marked ‘Vlaanderen Fietsroute’. This had to be it – the ‘Flemish Cycle Route’. So after a brief but spirited debate about whether to follow the arrows to left or right, we set off.
We cycled east across the hilly Haspengouw region, through fields of brown, yellow and green, dotted with patches of forest, villages and churches. The hills were great to roll down, but tough to pedal up. It was a relief to stop for an hour in Hoegaarden (is there any town in Belgium which isn’t famous for beer?) and visit the lovely public gardens. Then it was back in the saddle. Over the next couple of days we made it past the towns of Sint Truiden and Tongeren to the Dutch border in Limburg. We’d done 90 miles and we weren’t far behind that cross-section cyclist.
For the following week we rode on mercifully flat paths. The route took us north and briefly back over the Dutch border to picture postcard Thorn, where they’ve painted nearly all the houses white. Every building has a plaque telling us it’s hundreds of years old, and even the German tourists pouring out of buses are early 20th century.
At Thorn the route turns left and heads west along canals and rivers to Turnhout, proud home of the National Museum of the Playing Card. There are three storeys of printing presses, conjuring tricks, and the history of playing cards. What we found particularly moving were the torn-off cards which mothers pinned to babies’ clothes when they left them at the foundling home. The mother kept the other half card as proof of the child’s maternity, while she waited for better times, which no doubt arrived all too seldom.
Generally the itinerary is easy to follow by watching for those friendly green ‘Vlaanderen Fietsroute’ signs, although we did sometimes find a sign missing, or a treacherous arrow pointing the wrong way. On such occasions we had a short male/female discussion about the relative merits of map reading and asking locals for directions.
Our simple city bikes stood up to the challenge, with one minor hiccup when in a town called Boom I ran over a drawing pin. It had been twenty years since I fixed a puncture, but it’s just like riding a bicycle and we were back on the road in less than… well, later that same afternoon.
With a howling south-west wind in our faces we struggled down the path beside the River Nete to the town of Duffel, famous to us children of the sixties for its coats and bags. On the way we passed Lier, one more lovely town we’d never heard of. It has yet another beautiful town square, and a beguinage. Twelve Belgian beguinages received World Heritage listing in 1998. Originally established as accommodation for devout single women, they’re little houses clustered round immaculate gardens and often an attractive church.
We found that cycling 35 miles a day was very comfortable, allowing us time for sightseeing. We took a rest day in Ghent to visit the churches, the Design Museum and the Museum of Industrial Archaeology and Textile, with more information than we ever knew we needed about flax, cotton and spinning jennies. Then it was westward-ho to the North Sea and down along the coast to Nieuwpoort.
Around the sadly notorious Ypres, the Flemish Cycle Route passes cemeteries for soldiers of the Great War. Near Diksmuiden, wild poppies grow on the ruins of the ‘Dodengang’, the ‘Death Trench’ where the entire Belgian army fought in rotation for four years, with appalling casualties. The rebuilding that has taken place in the towns is astonishing, considering they were piles of rubble in 1918. Now they look mediaeval, though in fact hardly any building is more than a hundred years old.
After ten days riding, our bottoms had become saddle-shaped, and the daily distance crept up over 50 miles without undue pain. The cross section cyclist dropped behind, and by the time we powered over the Flemish Ardennes, zipped past the suburbs of Brussels and raced back into Leuven we’d been riding for 13 days and were planning our next biking adventure.
Of course, not everyone wants to spend a whole fortnight pedalling, so we should recommend the best one- or two-day stages. If you have a bike and legs of the sportier variety, do the Haspengouw from Leuven to Maastricht. For a gentler ride along canal paths to pretty towns, go to the Kempen area north of Brussels.
But whatever your condition and cycling experience, next time you’re in Belgium, when you’ve seen Mannekin Pis, tasted too many odd-coloured beers, and you want something more, we suggest you get on your bike.
* NGI Topogids Vlaanderen Fietsroute
ISBN 90-5934-001-9, includes maps and notes (in English, French, German and Dutch)
For more cycle routes in Belgium: www.fietsroute.org (English version available)