Bikes cram Bruges's market square
I’ve enjoyed riding the Dutch and Belgian cycle networks
over the past few weeks, and I’ve now been doing some research.
The Belgians invented the cycle network system and it’s paid off handsomely. When the mines in the Belgian province of Limburg began to close one by one, mining engineer Hugo Bollen had a great idea. Putting funds into building cycle paths could generate work, and stimulate the Belgians to appreciate their land more. “The more people cycle through their area, the more they will come to value it…and valuing it will lead to nature and landscape being preserved.”
Hugo’s fietsnetwerk (cycle network) officially opened in 1995. By 2007 Limburg had 1860km of signposted cycle routes, 700km of it car-free. The idea spread to the rest of the country, which now has a staggering 13,000km of signposted cycleways. Holland, Germany and Denmark have followed the Belgian example enthusiastically.
Even Hugo probably didn’t foresee the economic boom his cycling infrastructure would bring. Over 700,000 cyclists visit the Limburg area every year, and this directly generates income in the region of more than 16million euros.
We invested a couple of hundred euros of our own in Belgian food, accommodation, trains, bike hire and alcohol last week.
Money well spent, I say!
There are still a few corners of Bruges like this...
Bruges (officially ‘Brugge’ in Flemish) is reputed to be a quiet, olde worldy mediaeval place, where people can step back in time to an era when life was slow and strawberries were small and tasted like strawberries.
...but a lot of it is like this...
...or like this.
Millions of visitors can’t be wrong. Bruges is beautifully preserved, and there are spectacular old buildings around every corner. Come to think of it, the corners themselves are made of spectacular old buildings.
This is the oldest hospital in Europe. Never mind the leeches and the blood-letting – the brickwork alone should make you feel better!
St Jan's Hospital is now a museum.
Fortunately there is a place where we can escape the chocolate and lace shops, the clip-clop of horse-drawn carts, the amplified commentary of the tour boats, the I Love Bruges and 50 Great Beers t-shirts.
Elizabeth Beguinage, Bruges
The Elizabeth Begijnhof
attracts only the devout few. I’m one.
And Belgian strawberries look like strawberries, smell like strawberries and by golly they still taste like strawberries too.