In the Land of the Cloggies

Current Location: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I don’t need a book to tell me that The Netherlands are probably the most densely populated country in Europe.  It’s entirely evident upon crossing the border when you constantly see people on bike paths, walking their dog, shopping or just loafing around in a park.  I never feel truly alone here even what seems to be the middle of nowhere I’ll encouner another cyclist.  This does make it more difficult to free camp, but not impossible.

I have to thank Frank and Marieke  for putting me up in Den Haag (The Hague.)  I met them in Chiang Mai while on the mahout training and got along famously with them.  At the time they invited me to stay if I ever made it to The Netherlands, they were more than happy to have me drop by.  We did a cycle tour around the city after I dropped my gear off at their place.  It almost turned into a whole mahout reunion but Gordon and Ezmie couldn’t make it.  The tour was excellent and they introduced me to typical dutch fare and gave me history lessons and some current events that I had been wondering about.  We finished the day with an excellent meal back at home with some equally amazing beer. 

Having skirted around Amsterdam (abbreviated as A’dam) for about a week  I finally took the plunge and made it into the city of a certain repute.

I had been avoiding A’dam for the simple reason that I have an invitation to celebrate Queens Birthday (Dutch Queen) with Miranda who I wwoofed for back in New Zealand and is back visiting family and friends.  From what I understand Queens Birthday is an excuse for everyone to party hard.  The streets turn orange (the national color) and everyone is out to have a good time, I am quite excited.

First impressions of A’dam.  It’s expensive, 50 euro got me 3 nights bed in a hostel that includes breakfast, you can be sure I smuggle out enough fruits, bread and cheese to get me an included lunch and dinner.  A backpackers gotta do what a backpackers gotta do, that is all I’ll say about that.  The second thing is that the reputation that A’dam has is well earned.  Everything you’ve heard about the place is true, it’s sort of a no-holds-barred playground.  As long as what you do doesn’t interfere with anyone else it’s basically all good.  It is interesting to see how everything meshes together though, you may have some mental image of the place (something akin to “Sin City”) but it still somehow maintains a sense of wholesomeness (in the daytime at least) where families still wander around the streets and kindergartens are right around the corner from the red-light district.

It must be the famous Dutch tolerance I’ve heard so much about.

Old Zeeland

Current Location:Alkmaar, Holland

I found it more than a little difficult to get out of Brugges even though I was only there for 2 days.  I could easily have found myself sticking around a few more days enjoying more hot chocolate and breads.  But I figure being on the road is a bit cheaper.  I ran into one girl who was panicking because she couldn’t make her flight to Ireland due to the whole volcano thing and my only advice to her was enjoy it, you’re in friggen Brugges.

Border crossing in Europe is a lot more different than what I’m used to in Asia or even America for that matter.  It’s as if borders barely exist, the only significant change that can immediately be seen is the signage is different and then the language of signs also shifts, sometimes more slowly than the symbols themselves.  Crossing into the Flemish area cycling becomes a lot more prevalent as well with every age group cycling, along with the ”pills” (what I call the speed freaks in their Lycra outfits.)  And now that I’m in Holland pelotons can form up around me as I wait at traffic lights, it’s weird because at that point all I’m thinking is don’t fall over.

I met a group of 6 french kids cycling north so I kinda tagged along with them for a few days making it as far as Rotterdam with them.  It was fun not having to navigate for a few days, mostly because I lacked even a map to navigate with as I planned on picking that up at the visitor information but it was closed the day I crossed over.  I did enjoy having company, even it was for two days.  They spoke pretty good English and we stopped a lot for coffee or beer depending on what time of day it was.  Their pace was a lot slower than what i’m used to but it was good to change, I kinda figure I’m probably doing at least 140k a day (this is based on the fact that I typically cycle for 9 hours a day and my average speed back in NZ was about 12mph putting me around that distance.

Spending some time in the Zeeland region was nice, lots of beaches and camping grounds.  Some towns are centered around the camping which makes me wonder what happens to them in the off season.  They must evaporte into thin air until the following year.  Getting into Rotterdam was a bit hecktic as it is either the biggest or busiest shipping port in the world which meant a lot of lorries moving freight around.  Luckiliy I am in Holland which means cyclists typically get their own lane and when they don’t motorist are well aware of who has the right of way.  I got into Rotterdam to find a map of the country and spent way to much on a map which I’ll probably barely use, but at least I have something to look at while I sip my coffee in the morning. 

I got out of Rotterdam with no particular target in mind and ended up in the outskirts of Lielle.  I figured on waking up the next morning it would be worth visiting the Kuekenhof gardens, kinda like the Disneyland of flowers.  It certainly had that atmosphere with a huge parking lot full of buses disgorging their passengers and ice cream and hot dogs for sale on the grounds.  It certainly is a sight to see all these gardens and a photographers dream really, I probably took over 100 pictures which I’ll let mom sort through when I get home.  I think it ended up being worth the visit.

I’ll post pictures when I get a computer that allows me to work on them, so far the library computers don’t allow it.  It’s gonna be a huge task.

Beer and Waffles

Current Location: Bruges, Belgium

No rest after 15 days of riding makes for dug to be a weak boy.  Even Tour riders have two break days.  I guess taking a break day in Bruges isn’t a bad thing either (they have a beer museum, hooray for beer!)  It also doesn’t help that something I ate or drank didn’t sit well with me and I spent a night heaving my guts out in the middle of a forest.  Not the nicest prospect for a cyclist as I didn’t end up with much sleep and really low on water (couldn’t even keep that down.)

I didn’t really intend to go 15 days straight but I kinda got hooked on the free camping gig and when I did try to find a hostel they were booked up so sick and all I kept pushing on.

As for youth hostels in Europe they really are for youths.  I think the average age in the one in Champlon was around 16.  Only a week later did I find out it’s Easter break for kids so that is  why they are all out in groups and not in school.

I find myself visiting a fair few abbeys now that I am in Europe, kinda like the temples of Asia.  Along side that are the museums that seem to litter each town I visit, not that I go to most of them.

A lots of the museums deal with the Great War “The War to End All Wars” or WWII.  I went to a Battle of the Bulge museum and it was pretty well done if a little low budget, most museums are privately run so they have limited budgets.  I do think I should have gone to the one in Bastone but the one in Ardeens was good on information.  Fun fact from a local in Bastone, “Some tourists don’t know where Brussels is but sure know where Bastone is.”  I’m pretty sure he was referring to the vets that come back to Bastone.

As an American I’ll be the first to admit that my commonwealth knowledge was lacking considerably before making it to New Zealand, so when poppy day came around I was a little puzzled what it was over.  I ended up looking it up online and found that it’s a reference to Armistice Day.  The poppies reference comes from a poem written during WWI in Belgium.  I accidentally ended up in Ipres and cycling past the museum figured it was worth the visit.  I wasn’t let down at all, lots of photographs and stores to be told here and really well done held in the ancient cloth hall.  They put a fair emphasis on the Christmas of 1914 where along portions of the front lines soldiers put down their arms and became brothers again for a night.  For those that haven’t seen “Joyeux Noël” I really recommend it, one of my favorite films of last year thanks to Max & Jane for sharing that one.

On leaving the museum I wanted to catch another trail that wouldn’t be marked and got somewhat lost.  I asked a gentleman passing in the other direction where this river might be and he offered to take me.  He took off in the other direction that he was travelling and I followed along.  Little did I know that this would entail him taking me 8k out of his way.  He was absolutely gracious about it playing guide along the way pointing out his daughters house, canals built but never used, memorial for the place where chemical weapons were first used, and the memorial to Flanders Field.  He showed me how to get around some construction and then set me on the right path, talk about a nice guy.

The bike is holding out something fierce, beside one flat tire and one busted tire no other problems yet.  It was something of a problem having a busted tire as I was travelling with no spare.  I spent an hour trying to thumb a ride into a town with a bike shop but nobody was stopping.  I gave up and started walking into a town I passed through several kilometers back to see if I could find some help when a guy pulled up in a van that spoke no English.  With my limited French and German I was able to express “Velo Kaput.”  We loaded up the bike into the van and he looked at me and said “1 Minute” he thought to himself for a while and took off in the direction I had come from.  He pulled up at someones house and jumped out and said again “1 Minute” he talked to a guy for a while and jumped back in the van again and we were off.  A few minutes later we pulled up to some guys house who happened to have a slew of bike parts.  He talked to the guy for a while and asked through the guy if he wanted to wait to take me back to where he picked me up and  I declined.  I said my thanks and he smiled and jumped back in the van and was off again.  I’m nominating that guy as Mr. Belgium.

The road really flattened out the last few days once I reached the Flemish area.  I thought I should get a tail wind as I turned north only to have the wind switch directions on me.  I prefer hills, at least they have a payoff.  The wind will just grind you down relentlessly.  I did end up getting used to looking at every vertical object for signs of a turn or to stay on course and it turns out to be a pretty elegant solution to the difficult problem of signing a complex yet relatively traffic free route for cyclists.  On the other hand once in the flemish area there are a multitude of signs for different routes that will take you everywhere it seems.

If only I had time to go everywhere.

Joyeux Noël

Joyeux Noël

Notes From Around

Current Location: Champlon, Belgium

This is what happens when I try to write off the cuff, I forget to put things down that I had meant to write.

First I wanted to write about navigation in Paris.  Don’t try it, it doesn’t work.  They don’t believe in blocks or building things in rows.  I had the same problem in Hanoi, also built by the French, streets would twist and turn as soon as you get on them and also have the tendency to change name mid stream, as if they forgot the name of the street and forgot to go back and fix it, to make things even more frustrating there could be multiple streets with the same name.  You try and figure that out, the only way to do it is to remember landmarks, other than that good luck.  More often than not I would be lost in Paris.

And as for riding in Paris it’s both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  Especially the round-a-bouts where there exists some demented scheme of round-a-bouts within round-a-bouts, all with minimal markings and traffic lights in the middle.  Going around the Arc de Triomphe was a big deal for me as that is where the Tour de France ends but the entire time I just recited my mantra of ‘don’t die.’

On to the Luxembourg cycle paths.  If I could choose a country to cycle around as a beginner it would have to be Luxembourg.  The paths aren’t that difficult, they are all paved and excellently maintained.  They still provide some challenges and provide nice scenery along the way.  Now that I am in Belgium I can compare to another national cycle network and hands down Luxembourg has the signage almost perfect.  It’s very accessible for everyone to use and you don’t need to spend money on any maps.  Here in Belgium I find that I’m staring at every telephone pole for another marker.

I should make a shirt ‘Don’t bother me, I’m staring at telephone poles’

This took 5 times longer to put down than necessary, French keyboards are tough.

Around a Country in a Day

Current Location: Luxembourg, Luxembourg

Thats right, the capital of Luxembourg is Luxembourg.  Keep that in mind should it pop up on a quiz sometime.

First I have to thank Gina for hosting me in Paris and Fannie (her roommate) for putting up with me.  Paris turns out to be heaps of fun if you have someone to hang out with.  We both gushed over each meal we had and did a whole lot of wandering around the city.  I’ll share Gina’s link just because it’s such a different aspect which which to ‘view’ a city.  Paris is such an audible city that we managed to catch some classical guitar and accordion (2 different people) performing in the subway.  We caught a band playing in front of the Hotel de Ville and I caught another one in front of the Notre Dame.  All this without even trying. 

We ate at little cafe’s outside and watched the world pass by,  I know most people who know me will find it hard to belive but I really can take two hours to eat a lunch.  It’s just how it works in Paris.  Of course this is helped by the fact that we typically start with a coffee, then an appitizer, on to the plat, and of course dessert, and round it all off with a coffee at the end.  One of Gina’s friends, Ibrahm, (probably one of the few PhD’s to come out of Niger) introduced us to a west african resturant which we also fell in love with.

I did a little of the touristy stuff but tried not to pay too much for it preferring to save money for the food.

I caught a train out of Paris because I had already proved that I could cycle into the city center, I didn’t need to prove anything more.  It just saves a lot of headache navigating around a very busy city.  This time I was headed north, with the wind for a change.  The rough idea was to head into the champagne region and cycle around there for a couple of days.  The day cycling out of the train station into that area was brilliant, sun was finally showing it’s face and the wind was at my back.  I made it to the capital of champage, Epernay, and booked myself onto the Moet & Chandon tour.  The tour was interesting enough if a little pricy at 14euro for a 1 hour tour.  The lady spoke perfect english and was very high brow, she probably didn’t approve of me wandering about in shorts and a ratty jumper.  We got to try one glass of the stuff and I carried on, this time in the rain.  Unfortunately the rain didn’t let up like it normally does, it carried on for another day and a half. 

The rain followed me all the way into Luxembourg, I slipped once into Belgium completely by accident but I righted myself and started peddling through Luxembourg.  At first glance I hated the place, it seemed far too industrial and traffic was crazy most of the time.  That is until I found a bike path leading to a town that wasn’t on my map which lead to another trail and yet another.  At this time I thought this might be a large regional cycle network and that I wouldn’t make it into the capital.  That is until I found a map of the cycle routes that covers the ENTIRE country!  At this point I figured out the biggest loop I could do that would take me through the capital and back into Belgium.  Unfortunately I managed to cycle around the country in a day, so I’ll spend the afternoon making my way into Belgium.  As for the routes themselves I found them all quite easy, some of it is old rail trails with magnificient tunnels and easy grades.  A lot of riding through forests and the signage through towns is almost impeccable.  The arcitecture of towns is somewhat dissapointing after France.  It seems a lot of the old stone buildings are either demolished or covered over with plaster so it all looks very new. 

PS. Did you know that the official language of Luxembourg is Luxembourgish?  Yeah, neither did I.