Old Stompin Grounds

Current Location:Mechelen, Belgium

Ask any travelling western European what they miss most about home and I’m willing to put money that the answer would be bread* (this goes especially for Germans. (Family and friends are understood to be a given.)) I now understand why they say this, until now most breads I’ve had have been fairly tame and since being in Dutch homes and eating different breads in Belgium I’ve learned what bread can be, and American bread is lacking.  I only found muslibrood a week before leaving Holland and am puzzled being back in Belgium that they don’t have it here, it’s subtle things like this that change when going across borders.  Something that was available 5 kilometers in one direction isn’t available here.  Suffice to say that in the 3 weeks in Holland I got quite used to a variety of Dutch eats and am a little disappointed I can’t get them in Belgium. 

A big thanks goes to Miranda and her brother Sean for putting me up during Queens birthday in Amsterdam.  It’s really quite amazing to see an entire country shut down for a day and party so hard.  Amsterdam canals were packed with revelers all donning orange.  The streets are no exception to the crowding and drinking which we participated in whole-heartedly.  Also going on is people setting up shop outside their doorsteps, so the country basically turns into the worlds largest flea market.  I commented during the festivities how nice it is to see everyone in it to have a good time, not one time did we see any fighting or unruliness going on.  I was quite impressed with the whole thing and had a great time with everyone we hung out with that day. 

Miranda and I then carried on to Longadijke for her going away BBQ party, I was quite excited to get to have a bbq as it had been since New Zealand since I had been to one, and it sure beats cheese and bread. 

From there I meant to carry on north to the islands that string along north of Holland but found out that my next appointment later that week was further south than I had planned so re-arranged my itinerary to head in that direction.  I did manage to skirt through Flevoland which is where I was in Holland 15 years ago for the World Boyscout Jamboree.  Not much of the event remains today except for a statue that I vaguely remember and the roads that went between camp sites (we were phoenix camp, I think.)  I approached a lot of people trying to figure out where the place was, most were really helpful once I managed to explain what I was looking for while others probably weren’t born when the thing happened.  The roads still being there gives the place somewhat of an eerie feel but I found Flevoland very apt for the camp as it has the most wide open spaces I found in all of Holland. 

Another thanks goes to my moms friends Linda and Ad who live in Breda for putting me up for the weekend and showing me around.  They took me to Kinderdijke which is known for it’s many windmills.  In my limited knowledge of what windmills were used for I’ve usually associated them with grinding flour while the Dutch use them for controlling water levels (which is why they have so many of them.)  The Dutch being masters of controlling water (all of Flevoland is reclaimed land from the sea.) Riding over some bridges in Zeeland there looked to be gates that could close and keep out the ocean, I thought that quite silly because who do they think they are trying to control the ocean.  Only to find out, to my astonishment, that is exactly what they do.

I was sorta sad to leave Holland cycle paths, everything is so easy there that it is something of a shock to go back to navigating by symbols on poles.  I’m not exactly sure what Germany has in terms of cycle paths but I’ll soon find out.

*except for Alastair who would probably complain about the failing state of mustard or cheese in that particular country.

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