Posts Tagged ‘Cycles’

A street bike named Desire…

Posted: June 2, 2012 in Cycling, Dreams
Tags: , ,

… actually, it’s called Plug. Charge Plug.

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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.

(more…)

Bike Blenheim Palace 2011

Bike Blenheim Palace 2011

Sportive virginity, that is. On Sunday, 21st Aug 2011. It wasn’t the first sportive I registered for but the first I attempted. The first one I registered for is a much harder, longer one about a month from now.

I had read about the Blenheim Palace sportive on road.cc last year and, having learnt that it is one of the easiest sportives in the country, planned to attempt it this year. So, when I read again on road.cc that the entries were open, I registered right away.

The BEFORE.

Had driven down previous day from LDN, checked in at our fav B&B in Oxford and then driven to Woodstock and registered for the event, collecting the number and timing chip. The result was that I was already a little tired the previous night. Then insomnia struck. At 2AM when I’d finally started to doze off, the phone buzzed with an SMS tone. I tried to ignore it but given the torrent of bad news that has been flowing in from India, I just couldn’t resist. Thankfully, it was a good luck message, but my heart rate was already sky high by then. Another hour of tossing around in the bed before I finally fell asleep. 3.5 hours later I was awake again to get ready. Our hostess had been kind enough to provide a huge tray full of stuff for breakfast and I helped myself to a large bowl of cornflakes with milk and a banana. Wasn’t much in the mood for yogurt or blueberry muffins. Later, I was to be glad that I’d eaten atleast what I did.

7:15 AM and were were off, driving to Blenheim Palace. 7:30, Parked in the grounds. I got down immediately to assembling & checking both our bikes while Rags went to register for her ride (26.5 mile ‘pink ribbon’ ride – shorter than the sportive but much longer than the 2.5mile ‘family ride’). She came back and we changed into our lycra & tees. 8:10, heading towards the start line.

The START.

After much prodding from her, I joined the medium speed start group (5-6 hours for 60miles) rather than the fast one (<5 hours). I’ve been doing most of my century rides in under 4.5 hours so was sure this wouldn’t be a problem. That over-confidence was to be my undoing. After a bit of waiting, our group was called to the line, the pressure horn blew, and we were off. Like everyone’s first time, I was excited. I knew I could do it, and had done it by myself a lot of times, but this was the first time I was doing it with others. So many of them.

The initial section inside the park was super slow. The roads were narrow and we were still one large group ranging from super-fit riders on all carbon bikes to even an odd MTB. I rode patiently till the park gates, reminding myself all the time that I needed to warm up before picking up the pace. Suddenly, a couple of (tall, thin) riders overtook me and I felt the adrenaline rush. Immediately got on their tail and accelerated away. Soon, we were picking large number of people off. By the time we hit the first climb, I’d passed half the ‘fast’ group as well. My average speed for those 10 miles  – 19 mph. And then I cracked. The foreplay was over.

The PAIN.

I hadn’t warmed up before the ride and by starting pushing at close to top of my capacity so early had blown me. To add to it, I hadn’t been drinking any water all this while. I started to cramp, the heart & lungs started to give away and all this was at the base of first (and longest) climb of the day. My heart rate usually averages between 160-164 bpm for rolling rides. Here, I was later to learn, it had averaged 182bpm for that first flat section. I had lost my senses, let the adrenaline take over too early and was now suffering.

Having pushed myself into a corner, I did the only thing I could – spin. Went into the smallest chainring and started steadily spinning my way up the hill. Also, started drinking lots of water, in small sips. By the time I crested the hill, almost all the people I’d overtaken earlier had gone past, and I’d finished one of my 2 bottles of water. Still, I was happy. For not having given up and stopped or walked. And for the long downhill ahead :)

A smart thing I’d done the previous night was written the distance marks at which each hill began, specially the 6 category 5 hills. So, I knew there was a hill immediately after this 1st one but a decent stretch of level road between the 2nd and 3rd hill. The rest stop was after the 3rd hill.

I curbed my usual die-hard-downhill self and instead gave my legs and heart a long recovery on the downhill. On the next hill, I went to the old setup – low gear and high cadence. I could only spin at  75-80rpm by this time but it was enough for now. Soon, quite a few people who had gone past me on the first hill were falling back. Even saw the first walkers. But then there were the strongmen too – two old fellas overtook me near the top of the hill warning me it was too early to be using the granny gear. Smiled at them, gritted my teeth and carried on. Freewheeled on the 2nd downhill as well and took an easy pace – 80-85rpm cadence in a ‘soft’ gear – on the level stretch.

By the time I hit the 3rd climb, legs were already starting to recover. Those initial signs of cramps had disappeared and the heart was feeling better as well. The only concern was that my 2nd bottle of water was getting over fast. It was a good sign though, that at the top of third climb I realised that I was subconsciously still waiting for the climb to kick in. It was an easy freewheel down to the pit stop now.

The PITSTOP.

I don’t think there was anyone else so delighted to see the first rest stop that day as I was – just 10kms back I’d been wondering whom to ask for the ride back in broom wagon.

It was time to rest, recover, refuel and even reflect. Started with a flapjack. Then a bottle of water. Then one of the best bacon rolls I’ve ever had and a cupppa of coffee. Finally, half a bottle of gatorade and a long rest (~20 mins). My guess is I spent almost 45 mins at this rest stop, feeding and recovering. I’ve never been a fan of most energy/activity drinks and prefer a combination of water and energy-food. That flapjack and bacon roll should’ve been good enough but today I wasn’t taking any more chances. Filled one of my bottles with gatorade and the other with cold water.

The PLEASURE.

It was my first time. I’d suffered the pain. Now, was the time for pleasure.

Right on the first pedal stroke, I knew this section would be better. I could feel the energy back in my legs and on the short climb away, the heart and lungs barely fluttered. Soon, I was flying (by my standards!)

There was a long up & down section before we hit the three hills again on our way back. I caught up with a group that seemed to be going at a decent pace (~28kmph) and settled down. Finally, as we hit the first hill on return, the group fell apart and I climbed ahead. That my speed never went below 15kmph on this hill and the cadence was now comfortably in high 80s & low 90s was a good sign. Finally, I pushed on the downhill as I like to. And stayed steady on the levels. I was catching up groups on the downhill and dropping them on the hills, both up and down. Of course there were still quite a few riders who whizzed past me, but I was overtaking many more than those going past me. More importantly, my rhythm was fluent, I was in the zone and finally enjoying the ride.

The 2nd rest stop came really quickly. Though I didn’t ‘need’ to stop, I still stopped for a 10 minute break. The initial rush had made me a little cautious. Ate a peanut butter thingy and a banana, filled up water bottle, picked up an energy gel, checked on the cricket score with a couple of fellow riders (Dravid scored a century, rest of the team failing, again), and stretched the back a little.

The final 12 mile stretch was the easiest. It was up & down, with just one small but steep uphill. I drafted behind a 3 man group till that hill, dropped them on the hill and comfortably solo’ed till the finish. The final short uphill to the finish line was the only one that I jumped on the pedals and accelerated up. Just for fun. :)

The AFTER.

Crossed the line. Timing chip was taken away. Medal was handed over. Downed a small bottle of water and poured myself a coffee. R, who had finished her ride over an hour back, came over. We sat on the grass, exchanged notes (mainly her telling me excitedly about how hard her ride was, how she drilled everyone on the downhill sections and how badly she wants a road bike now), finished my coffee and soaked the sun. After I’d cooled down a bit, packed the bikes back in car and changed out of the sweaty clothes. There was a time trial and a Brompton championship race also scheduled that day and I’d badly wanted to see them both. My stupid start and resultant long break at first rest stop had paid put to those plans. Now, I went around clicking pics of the few people around still ‘dressed’ for the Brompton race. Treated myself to a half-pint of ‘extra cold’ lager, some Thai food and a cone of fresh ice-cream. Soon, it was time to go. The long drive back to LDN awaited us.

The drive back, as expected, was boring and tiring. Lack of sleep from previous night and morning ride’s exertion were starting to tell. Stopped at a services stop after Oxford and picked up a large serving of Coke to keep me awake. It worked and we got home safely. Next time, though, I’m staying there for the night before driving back next morning.

Now, 3 days later, I’m still feeling happy at having done the sportive. It was stupid of me to go racing at the start and that’s a lesson well learnt. Recovering from that mistake was a good experience in cool headed thinking and keeping it simple. Learnt the value of staying hydrated and warming up. And the form on latter 3/5th of the course is now a source of confidence. Got an additional confidence shot when I saw that I’d done over 1000m of climbing in those 100kms. That is almost double of the previous max I’ve done over that distance. Yet, I had an average speed of 23kmph, not too below my usual avg, and avg cadence of 81rpm despite suffering through that section over first 3 climbs. Even the avg heart rate was 164 despite avging in 180s for that first part. Must’ve done something right after that.

LOOKING AHEAD.

This week has been a whitewash. Did a strong 38km ride on Monday, then the bike was away for scheduled servicing on Tuesday, skipped today and next two days are forecast for rain. On Saturday, friends arrive from India and Monday we head off for a week long tour around England & Wales. And just like that, 2 weeks are gone. That leaves me under 3 weeks to prepare for my next sportive – the Big One.

It’s called the ‘Ride Around London‘ and it takes a 115 mile loop around the south-west, west & northern fringes of out city.

Yep, that’s 115 miles – almost double of what I rode on Sunday, and 15 miles longer than what I’ve ever ridden before. Moreover, knowing the broad route that’s being planned, I know it could have proportionately more climbing than the Blenheim Palace sportive. So, I’m looking at doing 115 miles of riding with 2500-3000 m of climbing with just a 20 day period to prepare. As if the pain of losing my virginity wasn’t enough. Bugger!

Some of the Brompton Championship riders I saw later:

A few pics from the phone. Most about Richmond Park, Deer, Cycling bits, view across the great pond, 1 post #riotcleanup, and a few random ones.

A bank holiday
+ No real vacation for long time (trip to India doesn’t count)
+ Too small a period to visit R’s preferred destinations (Corsica & Tuscany OR Baltics)
+ My plans for a cycling vacation in the low countries
= 7AM Eurostar to Brussels

Brussels, though, was just a transit point. Within 30 mins of getting off the Eurostar, we were in another train, on our way to Brugge. We were both looking forward to this vacation and not just because we hadn’t been on one for a long time. Rags had been to Brugge before and had good memories of the place while I’d been enchanted by it ever since I’d seen the movie whose name I shamelessly lifted for the post title. Also, both of us were looking forward to the cycling bit – in forms very dissimilar to each other and to the one it would end up to be.

Random Bit: I’d read about it on the web and heard it countless times during the classics, still I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how ‘flat’ Flanders is. It quickly became clear why this cockpit of Europe is referred to sometimes as the ‘Low Countries’. Also, while the flat terrain makes it easy to cycle in the towns and cities, it also means there is little protection for longer distance cyclists from the strong winds coming in from the North Sea.

Any guesses on nationality?

Style with cigar

So, we landed in Brugge around noon and took the bus to the B&B. Wait. One bit. At the time I’d been trying to quit smoking and had been off it for about 3 weeks. Belgium – bad choice of place for someone trying to quit – I had smoke coming at me from at least 3 directions while waiting for the train to Brugge at the platform in Brussels, similarly at the bus stop in Brugge and at almost all restaurants and open areas around the town. It didn’t help that for some reason cigars are highly popular amongst tourists in Brugge. I lost about a month’s quota of self-restraint in those 5 days trying not to smoke. Specially, every time I smelled those cigars. Rant over.

The Belfry - Welcome To Bruges

The Belfry - Welcome To Brugge

So, we landed in Brugge around noon and took the bus to the B&B. We knew the B&B was within the limits of inner, historical city. What we didn’t know was that the bus would take us right through the central Markt square. A pleasant surprise. And then, when the canals appeared on side of the road, it turned into delight. The B&B itself was wonderful too – right by the canal with a traditional exterior but with the rooms and passage done in a very post-modern style by an architect friend of the hosts. The best part about the B&B, though, were the hosts – Cathy & Dries – uber helpful and always ready to chat about every topic under the earth. Being cyclists themselves they helped us with tips and even detailed cycling maps of north-west Flanders. The breakfasts weren’t as heavy as the ones we were served in Scotland but definitely tastier than anything I’ve had in a B&B before. The only issue with the place was the lack of shower curtains with the bath tubs (which Dries had explained was to maintain the unity of the architecture) but the wonderful attitude of the hosts made us quickly forget that small hiccup.

After dropping the bags, getting initial bits of advice from Dries and getting a snapshot of the map of central Brugge in my head, we started off to see the city. That’s when the next surprise came. The main squares – Burg & Markt – which had seemed far in the centre of town turned up within 5 minutes of walking from the B&B. Spent a bit around the squares before heading off to the info centre to gather a few cycling maps.

Flags plenty: Brugge, EU, Belgium

Flags plenty: Brugge, EU, Belgium

Random Bit: Most city & town centres in Belgium have 2 things – at least 5 flags and a cart or two selling fries. The flags, as in pictures above and below, are of the key political/geographical entities. In case of Brugge, from biggest to smallest: EU, Belgium, Flanders, West Flanders and Brugge.

Flags Plenty - Flanders, West Flanders & Brugge

Flags Plenty - Flanders, West Flanders & Brugge

Later, stopped for lunch at just another restaurant for lunch. Having no idea of what to order, and the quantities served, I took the safe route of going for the set menu. Brilliant choice. It was the first time I loved a mushroom soup. The steak was done just right, the sauce was delicious and to help me on the side were the first of many beers I’d be having on the trip and the first of many serving of fries. To top it all, I decided to have a coffee – simple cafe. And that, for me, was the find of the trip.

While Brugge & Belgium may be famous for the beers, fries, mussels and waffles (all of which are amazing), what clinched the deal for me was the coffee – a simple black coffee, neither thick and sticky like an espresso nor light and watery like the americano, with a tiny pack of milk cream and a biscuit on the side. I so fell in love with the coffee that a couple of times I actually skipped having a beer just to have the coffee. And have been avoiding coffee here in LDN since coming back so as not to forget the taste of wonderful coffee on the continent :)

Cycle chic country

Cycle chic country

Moving on. After the coffee, with lunch on the side, we wandered through some more of the market streets while I set my internal compass in order and R window shopped. The first stop on that walk was the cycle rental shop. An innovatively done up exterior made the shop a breeze to find even in the maze of streets. Though R was a bit upset since they didn’t stock too many MTBs, Bilal helped her try and select the most comfortable of the available bikes. It was just a matter of comfort as being used to being bent forward on an MTB, sitting straight on these city cruisers felt strange to R. Having booked our bikes for pickup the following morning, we moved on towards the city theatre and then back to Markt square for the only museum / gallery / exhibition I was to visit on the whole trip.

Dali Exhibition - 15

Salvador Dali

While walking through Markt earlier, I had spied upon a Salvador Dali exhibition in the market building below the Belfry and decided to check it out later. R, as usual, didn’t want to go. So we made a deal – she takes off to check out all the shoe stores we’d seen and buy a new pair of stores while I get to visit the exhibition. Now, I intended to write a complete separate post about this exhibition (and might still do so) but given that even this post has taken about a month to appear, I’ve dumped a few photos from the exhibition in the gallery of this post. So jumping to the end of exhibition. It turned out that though I’d been told it’d take me about 45 mins to view the exhibition, about 90 minutes after I had entered and with quarter of the exhibits still to go, I was pushed out the gates as the exhibition closed for the day.

The Fries Museum

The Fries Museum.

Random bit: Brugge is full of museums. There is a chocolate museum, a diamond museum, a museum dedicated to fries, a hospital museum and countless other brilliant museums apart from many travelling exhibitions and street sculptures and exhibitions. Unfortunately, R is allergic to museums so I got to visit a grand total of zero.

Cappuccino, with cream

Cappuccino, with cream

Having shopped, walked, visited an exhibition, we couldn’t find much else to do so we headed off to the nearest cafe for another taste of the local beer & coffee. Rags went for the cappuccino, which they prepare here with cream instead of milk froth, and I tasted my second beer of the trip. It was here I spotted the most innovative beer vessel (can’t call it a glass) ever. It is used to drink a beer called Krak (or Kriek). Unfortunately, the particular cafe we had stopped at didn’t have that beer so I just noted the name to try it later. Little did I know then that I’d have to wait till the last drink on the last day in Brussels to finally taste the Krak :)

After a long time caressing our drinks, we finally headed back to the B&B to freshen up before heading off for dinner again. Took a longer route home this time through the Astrid park and back up along the Coupure.

For dinner, R selected a nice little restaurant from her lonely planet and asked me to locate it on the map. It turned out to be about 10 houses down from our B&B. I was in love with this city already. The restaurant itself was a nice little place tucked into a corner house with the grill, low ceiling and subdued candle lighting giving it a welcoming, cosy warm feeling. My dish, kebab of king prawns with garlic creamsauce and pasta, was good. However, R’s dish – Rack of lamb with wocked vegetables and mustardsauce, was brilliant. Looking at the size of the serving she got, she initially asked me to help her with it. Soon, though, she was threatening me with dire consequences if I so much as touched her dish for the second time. And this from a girl who refused to touch red meat – mutton, pork or beef – till little over an year ago. Topped off the amazing dinner with a Dame Blanche, essentially vanilla ice cream and ice tastefully covered with chocolate sauce and cream on the side. The food in this city, whether mains, fries, desserts or coffees, just kept getting better.

Resting & Preparing

Resting & digesting

Finally, filled to the top, beaming at the wonderful town and its people, we retired to the B&B to prepare for the first of our planned bike rides. Being used to doing 50-80 km rides without much preparation, I expected it to be a slow and easy ride. How wrong I was… but that’s in the next post. Till then, tot ziens.

Random Bit: There was a time, not too long ago when Netherlands and Belgium were a single country ruled by a Habsburg king. There might be a time, not too long in the future when the two regions of Belgium, Flanders and Wallonia, may be separate countries as well. The differences between the three – Wallonia, Flanders and Netherlands are small but striking. People of Wallonia are French speaking Catholics. People of Flanders are Dutch (Flemish) speaking Catholics. People of Netherlands are Dutch speaking Protestants. Small differences but ones that tore countries apart. Of course, there were other wider geopolitical factors involved in separation of Belgium from Netherlands. Similarly, there are other bigger (fiscal / financial) reasons for the growing disparity between Flanders and Wallonia. Still, those small and stark differences help each region retain an identity. 

Bonus Random Bit: Brussels, the capital of Belgium is in heart of Flanders but the majority of its residents are French speaking. I wonder, if Belgium ever splits, who’ll get to keep the capital.

Day 1 Gallery: