Cycling Day 1

Brugge - Damme - Sluis - Knokke Heist - Damme - Brugge (Click above for details)

Day 2 of the trip. Day 1 of cycling.

Picked up our rented bikes and headed off on the only route that R knew about, and was comfortable with. That route was from Brugge to a nearby village called Damme, a bare 7kms one way. Like all of Flanders, the route was flat, and straight like an arrow with a canal alongside for company.

But about the route and ride in a minute. First, a word about those great looking cobblestones that form majority of inner-city roads across this part of the world. They are a pain! They may be popular with tourists, they may make the spring classics so interesting, they may slow down some crazy Clarkson-esque motorists but that doesn’t take away the fact that they are a right pain in the – Ass. Add the fact that we were riding upright seating urban bikes in which almost all the body weight is borne on the bum and you knows which part of our bodies was sore within 5 mins of the ride, every ride. I hate cobbles! Say it aloud, with me: ‘I HATE COBBLES!’

Back to the ride…

Off we go, on the long straight road to Damme

Off we go, on the long straight road to Damme

Here’s the long straight road from Brugge to Damme. The canal is on other side of the bank on right, fields as far as one can see on the left and two dots in the distance – one is Rags/@julykatrae while the other is a runner, apparently long distance one, running almost as fast as we were cycling. Frankly, this was the most boring part of day’s ride. The embankment and trees were shielding us from wind, road was flat and there was absolutely nothing to see. Almost felt like I was back in my home state back in India (except for the lack of murder-minded traffic). Thankfully, it was a small stretch.

Windmill welcoming us to Damme

Windmill welcoming us to Damme

Earlier in the day I’d wanted to see the wind powered mills in Brugge that all tourist maps showed. Rags wasn’t interested (and we started late), so we skipped it. You can thus imagine my joy when I saw this sight on the approach to Damme. I admit, I did go a little shutter-crazy at the sight. Little did I know that I’ll see more than a dozen of them over our rides, and about 3 times more of the modern electricity generating ones. They do put that crazy wind to good use.

Damme town centre and the usual collection of flags

Damme town centre & the usual collection of flags

Damme welcomed us with its own set of flags. From our brief stay, it seemed more like a small village than a town to me. The village square had its set of cafes, pubs and a couple of restaurants. It also had quite a bit of parking – for cars and …

Loads of cycle parking in Damme

Loads of cycle parking in Damme

… for bikes. Specially for bikes – loads of it. Almost one bike parking space for each house in the town :)

There was nothing special to see in Damme, and we had just had our breakfasts before leaving, so we didn’t stay long.

From Damme, To Brugge

Looking back towards Brugge from the bridge over canal at Damme

A final look back over the canal towards Brugge and we set off to our next destination – Sluis, in Netherlands.

After Damme, we decided to get off the canal-side path and take a route through the fields. For the first couple of kms we didn’t see a soul – no walkers, no cyclists, no cars, no dogs and no cows! Then, suddenly in the distance appeared more riders on …

Riders, on horses & cycles

Riders, on horses & cycles

… horses :)

A group of half dozen majestically astride their beautiful steeds, out on a ride through the countryside. The best part was that after passing some indifferent cyclists and dour walkers earlier – these horse riders were brilliantly cheerful. Each of them smiled and ‘posed’ for my camera, and even said hello as they passed us. Brilliant folk, all of them :)

After looking down at all the cars in cities from my perch atop the bike, looking up at the horse riders was another difference I noticed. It’s a completely different street view from up there :) … must try it some time.

Once the horses had passed, we set on towards Sluis, passing through the villages of Oostkerke and Hoeke. Nothing special there – regular Belgian villages though the restaurant / tea room at Oostkerke did call itself an interesting place – “Charming Room”. Wonder what’s behind that label?

'Charming Rooms'

'Charming Rooms' :)

Just out of Oostkerke, I noticed this building with interestingly painted windows. Almost reminded me of government schools in Indian villages. But then it was too big, too clean and too well maintained to be an Indian government school in Belgium :P

Quaintly painted windows near Oostkerke

Quaintly painted windows near Oostkerke

Belgium-Netherlands border is the oldest visa-control free border in modern Europe. After the 2nd world war, while rest of the world was busy establishing visa control and border posts, the low countries – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – decided to remove all barriers to travel and trade between them. It’d be a few years before this initial customs union was extended to form the basis of current European Union and Schengen zone.

The removal of visa controls in the region is so perfect that we didn’t even realise that we’d crossed over from Belgium to Netherlands when we reached Sluis. Needed to use Google Maps on my Nexus One to figure out the exact point on ground (a really old wooden draw bridge over the canal) where we’d crossed the border.

A cyclist-cum-pedestrian pathway runs just outside the old fortifications of Sluis, so we took the long way in – halfway around the fortifications. Good thing we did as this was the sight that greeted us:

Welcome to Sluis!

Welcome to Sluis!

A wide street full of cyclists and pedestrians with cafes and small shops on both sides and an imposing, working windmill at one end. As I scouted for a place to lock our bikes, I noticed a beauty in the corner.

Polka dotted beauty

Polka dotted beauty

This was one sweet lady I just had to take a picture of :)

As if to further confirm we were in Netherlands, these beautiful clogs were displayed just across from where the bike was parked:

Just in case you had a doubt which country you were in..

Just in case you had a doubt which country you were in..

Sluis is a beautiful town and seemed to be a big tourist destination. It was also the first proper town we’d stumbled upon on the day’s ride so we decided to take a long break for some refreshments and ‘sight seeing’.

Eat. Drink. Burn it all.

Eat. Drink. Burn it all.

Well, some sights were declared off limit to me. Still, a beautiful city ;)

These folk in low country do seem to have a way of displaying their wares. For example, how would a grocery store say they sell fresh milk? Like this:

'Buy fresh milk here' in fat, black & white Dutch

'Buy fresh milk here' in fat, black & white Dutch

The polka dotted beauty wasn’t the only one I was to feast my eyes on in Sluis. There were many more, specially the two brutes – one each for the pedal powered …

An Eddy Merckx Beauty

An Eddy Merckx Beauty

… and the petrol powered …

A non-pedal-powered beauty

A non-pedal-powered beauty

Sluis also saw the continuation of my love affair with Tea Rooms …

The wonderful tearooms ... miss them so!

The wonderful tearooms ... miss them so!

… and the beginning of a new affair – with Waffles.

Belgian Waffles, in Netherlands

Belgian Waffles, in Netherlands

Now, a few months into that continuing love affair, I can’t believe it took me so long to get started. Rags has been a fan of them from her 2003 days at INSEAD. I, somehow, never even tasted them all through my trips in Europe, stay in London and the first day in Brugge. It was finally in Sluis that I decided to dig in and have a taste. I ended up hogging more than half of it. Now a visit by me to any Dutch or Belgian establishment is incomplete without a dig into the delish waffles. That deserves a big thanks – Thank You Sluis :)

After a leisurely coffee, waffle and stroll around town, we headed off towards the coast and back into Belgium. The route out of Sluis was a pleasure – a two lane road with a wide cycle path on both sides separated from the road by a small hedge. Just the right mix of separation and visibility without adding any more concrete – loved it!

Our stay on that lovely route, though was short-lived. We soon reached Sint Anna tir Muiden, last village in Nederlands on our route, and had to take a smaller road around the village. All fine… except:

Damned cobbles again :(

Damned cobbles again :(

Yes, I Hate Cobbles! Say again, louder this time.

Thankfully, that cobbled stretch was small – just around the village – and once we were past the village the route returned to normal metaled roads and our bum bones heaved a sigh of relief. The next destination was coastal resort twin towns of Knokke-Heist. Enroute, there were some interesting sights, e.g. ice cream factories doubling up as B&Bs …

Hazelgras, ice cream and B&B

Hazelgras, ice cream and B&B

… and a deserted child resort with colourfully dressed but stolid faced kids …

Good Kids...

Good Kids...

… their healthy caretaker …

And their fat caretaker

And their fat caretaker

… and a place for the dad’s to relax while the kids enjoyed themselves:

What dads do while kids are away playing

What dads do while kids are away playing

Once past the intersection hosting this kids park, we were in suburbs of Knokke-Heist. Our cycle path was still separated from the road but the scenery on both sides changed from farms to huge (and interestingly designed) houses with an occasional pasture in between

Horses & Houses

Soon we were passed by a club ride of a local cycling club. Now, there are plenty of cycling clubs in the UK and I occasionally encounter a club ride at Richmond Park or Box Hill. Never, though, have I seen so many riders in a ride. Nor have I ever, I think, seen so many riders riding a single make of bikes – Eddy Merckx’s EMX range.

Club Ride

Club Ride

Soon after reached the Knokke-Heist town center. Well, more of a city center. This was, from Belgian standards a full fledged city.

The weather was windy, sea choppy and rain imminent. So we gave up on the beach front and settled for an Italian lunch just off the sea face. While the food was passable and service ‘haughty’, the rain mixed with music from this street performer drizzling in made up for all of it.

Mixing music & pasta in Knokke-Heist

Mixing music & pasta in Knokke-Heist

The music didn’t last long though. Soon, the rain broke with gusto and the guitarist took cover as well. A table or two flew off in the neighbouring restaurant’s outdoor seating area. A part of us was glad that the rain came when we were indoors. The other part was worried to death how were we going to cycle the 35 odd kms back to Brugge in this weather.

Another beer was ordered, cycling maps spread open to find a shorter route and google maps to locate the nearest train station with link to Brugge. Good news was Knokke Heist had a train station. Bad news was that train schedules weren’t available online so we weren’t sure if there was still a train available to go back. Better news soon emerged.

The gusty winds that had accompanied the rain also drove it away quickly. The wind stayed back, and stayed strong, but the rain was gone. We could still manage the journey home. I altered the cycling plans for rest of day – axing Zeebrugge from our route, instead routing home through the village of Ramskapelle and then Damme again.

The next section of ride back was the hardest of whole tour. Wind had really picked up and even though the average wind speed was stated as 30-35kmph, there were occasional gusts at almost twice that speed. Rags had to attend an important office call and we’d planned to reach Ramskapelle by then. Seeing her struggle in the wind, I started assisting her by gentling pushing her with one hand while using the other to keep my bike straight in the wind. The wind was howling so loudly that I didn’t even hear the car that had been driving behind us on that tiny village road. I have no idea how long the car had been behind us watching the spectacle of a fat brown man on a bike pushing a short & fat brown woman on another bike while a camera dangled from his neck. Perhaps they didn’t honk once because they were enjoying the spectacle so much!

(More likely they were regular, civilised continental folk who respect the right of cyclists to be on the road without getting honked at, shouted at and driven at.)

Anyway, soon we reached Ramskapelle and found shelter in an embankment next to a canal where Rags attended to her call.

The weather and route seemed to have taken offence at Rags attending an office call on a vacation. Because as soon as her call ended, the wind slowed down – not by much, but it did – and we came to a section of the route where we had canal embankment on one side and line of trees on the other, both slowing down the wind a notch.

The route back to Damme didn’t have much to offer except for the occasional horses grazing around.

More Dutch horses, in Belgium

More Dutch horses, in Belgium

Having just had lunch, there was again no reason to stop in Damme on the way back so we headed straight for Brugge and its *curses* cobbled streets.

Once in Brugge, headed straight home. Parked the bikes, clicked an obligatory self potrait …

Moi, and the rear of our rented cycles, at the B&B entrance

Moi, and the rear of our rented cycles, at the B&B entrance

… and crashed on the bed. That was me crashing, btw. Rags got busy with her cleaning up, 4-5 rounds of combing hair and researching dinner options.

It was also the night of Champions League final between my team, Manchester United, and my sister’s fav team, Barcelona. Knowing that I’d be more interested in the match than food, Rags decided to postpone and ‘fine dining’ plans in favour of a place which was showing the match live. Unfortunately, neither Lonely Planet nor the local food guides suggest dining places based on whether they telecast live football. At least not in Brugge. So, it was down to the old method of walk & shop.

The trouble with the walk & shop method in a place like Brugge with a person like me is that I forget the shop, slow down the walk and instead concentrate on the photo-shot. Here’s a canal-side railing joint I found interesting:

Canal-side railing joint

Canal-side railing joint

… and a house with canal entrance …

Canal-side walk in Brugge

Canal-side photo walk in Brugge

… and some not so interesting, like this friet kart in the market square:

The friet cart outside Markt building in Brugge

The friet cart outside Markt building in Brugge

Market square had a surprise waiting for us – a local marching band comprised of the widest range of ages possible (do check more marching band photos in the gallery below). Leading the band may be a, slightly paunchy, drum major but my favourite part of the band was a cute little flag-bearer and her friends :)

After the band had marched out of Markt square, I got busy with taking a few more photos of the square with buildings lit up before we headed off in search for dinner.

Interesting bits were the cafe rows around the square:

Cafe row around the Markt

Cafe row around the Markt

A few expensive wooden toys and some real life ones:

Finally, it was time to find dinner and a place to watch the match. Unfortunately, the pizza place with huge screens was packed and even the small chicken takeout with a screen had all of its seats taken. A bit disheartened, we nevertheless headed into the small chicken place. Soon, as some customers left, we even got a seat though its location required an un-natural craning of neck to watch the match. A little after half time, we finally got good seats right opposite the TV. Sadly, between the marching band and looking for a dining place, I’d missed Rooney’s early goal. What was left was for me to sit in that ‘good’ seat and watch Barca take another Champions League title away from my United :(

Nevertheless, there was also a good bit. The small chicken place we’d stumbled upon seemed to be run by a sports fan. On the wall next to the TV were a load of sports jerseys from cycling and football. My favourites – Tom Boonen’s signed Quickstep branded Belgian Champion’s jersey :)

Tom Boonen's signed national champion jersey

Tom Boonen's signed national champion jersey

The match result may not have been pleasant but it had been a good day and those jerseys a cheering find. It was time to rest and prepare the bums for next morning’s assault of the cobblestones.


P.S.: If you plan to cycle in low countries, specially the non-road bike citizen cycling, then these signs are your best friends:

Pt. 51 in Nederland

Pt. 51 in Nederland

All major (and most minor) road intersections are numbered points where you see these signs showing direction to neighbouring points. Using a cycling map, you can chart a route between any two points and just follow the numbered junctions to get there. Super easy and superbly executed. Loved it.

P.P.S.: It took me 2.5 months to complete the second entry of Brugge trip. At this rate, I wonder if I’ll complete the series by end of 2012 :/

The gallery of (rest of) images:

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  1. […] The cycle vacation in Brugge & West Flanders […]

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