Archive for the ‘Europe 2016’ Category

Coasting from A to B

22 April 2016

The Bikelele team is about to take off again from Amsterdam to Barcelona. This adventure will include a prologue in The Netherlands with an extended family group of 4 generations. Hmmm. Could be fun. We will break away on 10 May 2016 to head south through the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta region of The Netherlands to Belgium, then Bretagne, and along the Atlantic coast of France to Bordeaux. This will be followed by a deviation into the Aquitaine and Languedoc regions, a Pyrenees crossing and a downhill run into Barcelona.

We will attempt to provide daily posts and photos for your amusement.

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Getting in the mood – Koningsdag at The Dutch Pantry, OG Road, Klemzig!

 

Koningsdag in Amsterdam

27 April 2016

Arrived! A few highlights from the plane window were Colombo by night, Iranian mountains dusted with snow, the Carpathians with heavy snow cover and colourful tulip fields as we approached Schiphol. Ian was excited because the second leg was in an A380.

It’s freezing here! We did bicycle assembly on the footpath outside Enno’s house, assisted by him and his excellent set of tools. Then he kindly escorted us across town to our place of accommodation in the eastern part of Amsterdam in an area where all the streets are named after places in Indonesia  – eg Celebestraat, Sumatrastraat. This is a multicultural area where we have observed Muslims going to mosque and Surinamese and Turkish fast food.

Koningsdag (King’s Day) was in evidence with street parties, children conducting footpath sales of drinks and 2nd hand toys and lots of people dressed in orange. We put our orange accessories on to blend in.

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The bikes emerge

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Enno leads the way

 

De Bosbeek

28 April 2016

We all woke up before dawn and drank tea and repacked panniers. Once the sun came up we did an exploration of Indische Buurt, our area in east Amsterdam, before a bagel breakfast in a canal-side cafe. It is cold so multiple layers of clothing are needed as well as gloves.

At Amstel Station Margaret’s Bike Friday annoyingly decided to auto-fold as we lifted it into the train so we took to it with a hammer, broke it into small pieces and chucked it into the nearest canal.

After taking the train to Utrecht we began riding towards our destination, taking the non-scenic route alongside the main road – my fault for overriding Garmin’s (the GPS) suggestion. At Wijk bij Duurstede, about the half-way point, we had a traditional lunch (bread and cheese) before organising a taxi to deliver Margaret to the hostel as she is 84 years old and had done over 30km in cold conditions. Ian and I continued by bike and arrived in Bennekom as the temperature dropped and drizzle began. Here, Albert Heijn (The Netherlands equivalent of Coles) provided free wi-fi. This supermarket chain believes that shoppers should be able to sip coffee as they browse the aisles, so they provide coffee (from a machine) and shopping trolleys with coffee cup holders. Coles – lift your game!

To summarise the highlights of today: cows, cherry blossoms, tulips, children kayaking on canal, 2 middle-aged Dutch women with aero-bars for faster riding (looked better than it sounds), man cycling in wooden clogs, apple pastries, black & white spotted sheep (Friesian cow style), espaliered trees with multiple horizontal branches, impressive cheese shop, the linguistic fluency of the Dutch people.

We are now in the Friends of Nature House De Bosbeek, near Bennekom. This is the closest you can get to being in a remote location in The Netherlands – it’s at least 20 minutes cycling to the nearest Albert Heijn. We have 15 members of the Day family in residence here encompassing 4 generations. So far the dynamics are congenial – and there’s every reason to expect that this will continue!

Today’s route

 

 

 

 

 

Along the Nederrijn to Arnhem

29 April 2016

We separated into several parties this morning for explorations of various kinds. Our party of two set off along forest paths to the university city of Wageningen in chilly and damp conditions. We explored the old town centre and modern university campus.

A ferry took us across the Nederrijn (the Rhine as it flows through The Netherlands) on to a path on top of the dike so we followed this all the way to Arnhem. Coffee and pannenkoeken (pancakes) revived us before meeting up with some of the others at the cathedral. The outdoor market was in full swing so we bought up for dinner.

Arnhem has pink bikes everywhere at the moment – suspended from trees, on top of buildings, in shop windows – and pink shirts strung up like bunting. This is in anticipation of the 2nd stage of the Giro d’Italia which will begin there next week.

Our evening meal was an evolving event that partly resembled a re-enactment of La Grande Bouffe. It had several stages and numerous sittings. Courses included pasta, kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), fruit loaf, aspergers (asparagus cooked by Ian with the guidance of a Dutch man who advised him on the importance of peeling the stems thoroughly), more bread, vegetable frittata, and in amongst all that, a plate of mango flummery presented to us by a young fellow guest who was unable to consume it all himself. A well balanced meal that should set us up well for tomorrow’s departure for the next hostel in Oisterwijk.

Today’s route

Three rivers and a luncheon

30 April 2016

An impatient contingent left early, dashing the hopes of others striving for a group photo. Too bad; the road and an almost perfect day beckoned. We rode through the forest to the Nederrijn (Rhine anabranch) in cold but still conditions under blue skies. We crossed the river on a bicycle ferry at Rhenen but not before a pause at a warm and very schmick cafe (coffee with cream, croissant, cheese twist and apple tart).

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We took back roads through extensive tree nurseries and saw three storks (ooievaar) – one building a nest, one on the wing and one foraging – early birds but we expect to see many more in the next few weeks.

We had a wonderful welcome and lunch from Roelant and his family in Beusichem but we still had 50 km still to travel to Oisterwijk.

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Half the party took to the trains while the remainder put our heads down. Monsieur Garmin guided us to a quite busy road without a bike path! It did have a reasonable sealed shoulder and a few local cyclists so we accepted our lot, picked up the pace and hoped for better circumstances later on.

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We crossed the Waal River (Rhine anabranch) at Waardenburg and the Maas (Meuse) just before ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Restorative hot chocolates floating rafts of whipped cream at Den Bosch set us up for the final run to the Natuurvriendenhuis Morgenrood (Friends of Nature House) near Oisterwijk – another fabulous, huge, well-appointed hostel.

After off-loading, we cycled 200 metres back up the road to a hotel where we joined a jolly and slightly rowdy crowd with beer and bitterballen. Back at the hostel we finally got to tuck into the cheese platter we’d stocked up for a few days ago.

Today’s route

 

 

 

Mooching at Morgenrood

1 May 2016

After a long day yesterday we have stayed local today with a chilly but sunny post-breakfast ride through forest and farmland, with a fine cafe stop for mid-morning refreshment.

It was great to spend the afternoon with family friend Lavinia, our Brazilian exchange student from 1976, who now lives in Helmond. Her 3 grandchildren blended in well with our young ones and the other children here.

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The Friends of Nature House Morgenrood is fantastic for a family holiday – well equipped kitchen, huge dining room, toy corner for children, heated rooms, outdoor tables, playground, camping area, relaxed vibe and great location with forest and heathland nearby for exploring by foot and bike. There are also plenty of cafes and hotels as well as the pretty town of Oisterwijk nearby. We are souping it up for the evening meal – leek and potato!

Bosch 500

2 May 2016

It’s the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch, famed 15th century artist of fantastical and monstrous creatures and the Garden of Earthly Delights, who was born in Den Bosch, only 20 km from our Morgenrood hostel. The people of The Netherlands are so enamoured of Hieronymus that almost all opportunities to view the exhibition or partake of any official activities are fully booked. We felt that the general HB atmosphere would be sufficient and set off early for town. Den Bosch did not disappoint – it’s full of banners, sculptures and HB images and with a significant improvement in the weather, it was a wonderful day to spend wandering around and taking it all in.

We all made the compulsory visit to Banketbakkerij Jan de Groot in order to consume Bosschebollen, a local delicacy consisting of a tennis ball-sized choux pastry filled with whipped cream and then completely covered in chocolate. Lekker!

Today’s route

 

 

 

Riding by numbers

3 May 2016

A few days ago we could not have imagined that the weather would improve so quickly. We have gone from icy cold to sunny and warm in a couple of days, and the forecast is for warmer temperatures over the next week.

This morning was rubbish collection and recycling pickup in Oisterwijk. The people of The Netherlands know how to recycle correctly! The neat and clean state of every town is impressive. Oisterwijk has two churches, both immense for a small town.

I embarked on a solo ride with the aim of exploring the heath and swamplands near our hostel. There is a well-developed network of cycling trails throughout The Netherlands with detailed maps situated at key locations and a numbering system that identifies trail sections. It is possible to navigate using this system as the numbers are also displayed on signs along the way. I rode through varied landscapes in the nature reserve, then into farmland and neighbouring towns with only a few mistakes that required backtracking or re-routing. In the town of Liempde I came across a clog factory and was invited to have a quick look inside. It was a small operation with an impressive output – no robots have been brought in yet, all done by traditional methods.

We had a hilarious family outing to the hotel down the road that has 4 bowling lanes. With Abba, Toto and Michael Jackson playing at full volume, we bowled our best powered by big beers and bitterballen.

The kitchen at Morgenrood hostel provides a great opportunity for learning basic vocabulary as all the drawers and shelves are labelled – lepel=spoon, theelepelje=teaspoon. We are learning fast!

 

 

 

Dutch Liberation Day

4 May 2016

The first feature of interest on today’s ride was the Dutch Sahara, an area of drifting sand in the National Park de Loonse en Drunense Duinen.

We noticed flags flying at half mast for Dutch Liberation Day, commemorating the end of the occupation by Nazi Germany in WW2.

Morning tea was at Waalwijk: pannenkoeken, coffee and hot chocolate in the shadow of the clock tower of the extraordinary domed church of St John the Baptist.

A small off-road adventure began after we deviated from the route to photograph a windmill. A reluctance to backtrack led us along a grassy path to a fence and narrow canal that separated us from an easy exit back to the road. A bit of bog hopping, nettle bashing, stile climbing and bag heaving got us to a small bridge over the canal and into the back yard of a private house. Here we were greeted by the surprised owner who accepted our explanation of being lost and cheerily sent us on our way!

More sights: roadside sculptures, windmills, potato farms, cows, sheep, a nesting stork, cherry trees in blossom, canals, charming villages, motorways, industrial parks and the wetlands of De Biesbosch National Park. Just before reaching Dordrecht we crossed the Nieuwe Merwerde canal on the Biesbosch ferry.

Our hostel, De Kleine Rug, one of the network of Friends of Nature Houses (Natuurevriendenhuisen), is situated at the edge of Dordrecht on a narrow sliver of land with water on all sides. The only way to reach it is by boat – a short trip taking only a couple of minutes. We arrived at the correct place, waved to someone over the canal who dispatched the boatman, and in a short time we were in residence. We have befriended our fellow residents and, as the sun was setting, joined with them in two minutes of silence as is the national custom on this day.

Today’s route

Fast boat to Rotterdam

5 May 2016

It was a public holiday today (Liberation Day) and we did little cycling as we chose to take the waterbus from Dordrecht to Rotterdam (40 km, 1 hour, 6 euros, bikes free).

We were told to catch the waterbus from the Noah’s Ark landing stop 5 km downstream. Unfortunately that wasn’t such good advice as the huge but tacky ark had been moved to make way for a housing development. Consequently, there are no passengers for that stop anymore and few boats stop. After a 30 minute wait and a 5 minute, 2 euro trip we changed at Dordrecht Merwekade for Rotterdam. While we waited we enjoyed the urban wasteland environment including an abandoned open air night club and a Soviet-chic Trabant.

The ferry took us past the world-renowned Kinderdijk, many deep-laden barges, oil-drilling ships, the aforementioned Noah’s Ark and under the Erasmus bridge to the Rotterdam harbour. The Dutch rivers and canals are still an economic boon for freight transport.

The down-town Rotterdam bustle was boosted by passengers from a huge liner alongside the Holland Amerikakade wharf. We had a pleasant cycle about the city, found a great bakery for lunch and caught the ferry back to meet our Dutch friend Kees at the Friends of Nature House.

A party of 12 Belgians has arrived forcing two sittings in the dining room.

A tale of two tours – part one

6 May 2016

Rosalie and I split up today (just for the day). I joined Rosalie’s brother Timothy and his son Sylvan on a jaunt by train to Apeldoorn to watch the prologue stage (individual time trial) of the Giro d’Italia.

We left our bikes in Dordrecht and the only blot on the day was the cost of parking our bikes at the railway station. – 1.5 euro seemed a bit too much for my bike, but 4.5 euros for the tandem was excessive.

As we homed in on Apeldoorn the trains became packed with cycling devotees. There was a huge crowd in the town pink-themed for the event but no traffic issues because most came by train.

The 9km stage wound through the streets of the town. Some residents had installed scaffolding bleachers in their front yards and were hosting large, pink-clad, jolly and rowdy parties singing, chanting and cheering as the cyclists passed. There was a Dutch percussion band playing and some old codgers singing cabaret style.

The Dutch favourite Tom Dumoulin won the stage and there have been no doping scandals (yet) so everyone was happy.

There were a few delays on the rail system during our return journey including a train changing from platform 9a to 9b at the last moment in Utrecht. That created a huge crush for the passengers that had to hurriedly relocate. Nevertheless we all got on including a few adventurous  people with bikes – it seemed impossible that they would succeed.

We got back to the hostel to find: dinner prepared, our friend Lavinia and her daughter Isis had come to visit and Margaret’s friend’s granddaughter Janieke had stayed for the evening. Very nice. 🙂

Part The Second

6 May 2016

We formed a women’s team and recruited Janieke, granddaughter of Mien, Margaret’s 91 year-old friend since 1950. Coffee and apple tart on the Visbrug set us up for the 18km ride to Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site with 19 windmills located close together on a polder. Their job was to keep the polder dry by pumping water into the River Lek. It is now a famous tourist destination but, in the civilised style of The Netherlands, you can only walk or cycle around the area so, despite the presence of many people, it was quiet and felt uncrowded.

We returned to Dordrecht on the Waterbus to indulge in more Dutch food. It was through keen observation that we spotted an excellent cafe where we indulged in poffertjes. Janieke, as our local guide, gave us excellent advice after the first plate was consumed: order another!

I have completed my first lesson as a Garmin navigator – go me! If you come with me you probably won’t get lost. There is a high level of technology usage among our group with social media being hammered pretty hard. Margaret writes her blog in analogue style on scraps of paper and opened-out paper bags from the newsagent. We are blissfully ignoring election related politics of Australia and elsewhere.

De Kleine Rug

7 May 2016

It’s a warm weekend and the Dutch people are getting out, stripping off, boating, swimming and generally increasing their Vitamin D production while they have the chance.

Margaret, Ian and I visited the old town of Dordrecht. We climbed the 275 steps to the top of the Grote Kerk, the Church of Our Lady, a medieval Protestant church, while Margaret received historical facts from a knowledgeable Dutch man and wrote them down in her notebook. We could see Rotterdam in the distance and watched the Railway Bridge (Spoorbrug) opening to let sailing boats through. The Grote Kerk is actually the Leaning Church of Dordrecht. The lack of perpendicularity is pretty obvious – we read in a brochure that the tower is now 2.25 metres off plumb.

De Kleine Rug, our hostel, is surrounded by canals on 2 sides and backed by De Grote Rug, a large reservoir that provides drinking water for Rotterdam. Opposite us is a boat ramp and landing, a popular spot for people to launch boats, swim, sunbake, have picnics and just sit and watch the on and off water activity. When we arrive we call for the boatperson to come over and pick us up or, if we’re lucky, the boat might already be there having brought another guest over. Our bikes sleep overnight locked in a large shipping container.

Our evening meals are always excellent. We have become a well-oiled catering machine, turning out great food for 15 people – last night’s left over rice became tonight’s delicious rice pudding. This morning we farewelled Marian; tomorrow Jonathan will join us after we’ve cycled 75km to Nordwijk in the dune and bulb region (Duin- en Bollenstreek) of The Netherlands.

North to Noordwijk

8 May 2016

A balmy day dawned and we were packed and ready to leave by 8am. We’d done a good job of eating left-overs last night and so had little food to pack and we’d saved almost a full pannier of space with the excess warm clothes entrusted to Kees. The collection of panniers in the bow of the boat looked colourful and impressive.

M. Garmin did a good job guiding us out of Dordrecht, over the Merwede (part of the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta and mostly fed by the river Rhine) and on to Kinderdijk. We’d beaten all but the early bird tourist buses in Kinderdijk and the collection of traditional polder-draining windmills were quite a sight. We saw many families in their Sunday best answering the call from peeling church bells across the polders.

We had to plug into a head wind for a while before morning coffee at a bucolic cafe filled with lycra-clad cyclists half-way through their Sunday morning workout. Soon we were able to turn off the wind onto narrow paths threading between small brim full canals and swans’ nests leading us to Gouda.

Gouda was splendid with narrow streets, canals and wonky old buildings. We had lunch on the gorgeous plein (town square) with its impressive stadhuis and then headed off down-wind to Leiden. We passed a notable intersection between a motorway and canal. The motorway went under the canal. Many gardens had rhododenrons in full bloom.

In Leiden, the Dutch were making the most of the warm sunny Sunday afternoon. The canals were clogged with pleasure boats and grassy banks covered with fairly naked sunburnt locals. The cafes were doing a brisk trade. Holland to the max!

After Noordwijk we hit the tulip fields spread out in the lee of the coastal dunes. We haven’t spotted the North Sea yet but may well dare a plunge (or extended wade) tomorrow morning.

The YHA hostel in Noordwijk is modern and not busy. We ate at a nearby Indian restaurant which was satisfactory.

The flowers of Keukenhof

9 May 2016

We slept in this morning but were still too early for the breakfast supplied in the deal. We were patient, got some office work completed and finally had a very nice European-style meal.

The party gathered at about 9:30 with the addition of friend Guido from Switzerland and we rode a few kilometres to the tulip gardens at Keukenhof. We thought we’d beat the crowds by getting there early on a Monday morning but we were not alone. Thousands of people were already there including many coachfuls of international tourists. Keukenhof is evidently especially popular with Indian and other Asian tourists but it was still a predominately Dutch crowd.

The numbers continued to grow throughout the day but the grounds are extensive with artfully landscaped woodland settings and no particular focus so we were all accommodated quite comfortably. There was no litter and no-one collecting litter because they weren’t required. There was no visible security – not needed either. Many aged people in wheelchairs and several people in hospital beds were being wheeled around the gardens.

The tulips are amazing with each flower bed seemingly more vividly colourful or extravagantly featured than the last. Many of the blooms are scarcely believable as real flowers. This is an over-the-top floral experience. The effort involved in creating this display for just a few weeks every year must be herculean. In the fashion of Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours we also found our fellows visitors interesting subjects for study.

We returned to the hostel for a rest in the early afternoon. Our 84 yo matriarch needed her customary three cups of tea but, unusually, this YHA doesn’t provide access to a kitchen or even water-boiling facilities. Three cups of hot water were finally provided for 6 euro – highway robbery!

Rosalie and I cycled in to Noordwijk for a swim in the North Sea. It was quite brief! The water felt about as cold as a good gin and tonic. It wasn’t our coldest swim ever (Fox River, New Zealand in late winter still retains that prize after more than 30 years) but we were disinclined to loiter. While cold, the water was soupy and heavily laden with flora. Now we know what those moules eat before they’re caught and eaten in their turn.

We had a beer at a snooty beach-front restaurant. The pomaded waiter didn’t like the look of us and started with the insult of an offer of klein beers. Once it was clear we weren’t going to buy dinner to go with our grote beers (it wasn’t even 5 pm) they were pretty quick to explain we had to clear the table by 5:30 and then weren’t that keen to take our money as we were trying to leave. No tip and I hope our bathers left damp patches on their seats.

We dined at a nearby Dutch pannenkoeken restaurant. The food was delicious if a little strange at first to foreigners more used to sweet pancakes. The hostel is now full with a secondary school group. They’ve been rampaging around this afternoon and are now dolled up and having a disco.

This evening marks the end of our extended family sojourn in the Netherlands. Tomorrow Rosalie and I peel off south along the North Sea coast headed for Belgium, France and Spain.

 

Through the dunes to Hoek van Holland

10 May 2016

We farewelled the family this morning after two weeks together. It has been great fun – now we are on our own. Jonathan, who joined us yesterday, rode with us for 30km or so along the dune paths and through the beachside holiday resorts of Noordwijk and Katwijk to Den Haag. This area is The Netherlands’ version of the Gold Coast with lots of big (and rather ugly) hotels, holiday accommodation and Dutch style fast food. The dunes are valued as defences against the sea so they are protected and carefully managed. There are many interesting sculptures installed along the seafront, part of a program to educate the public and foster an appreciation of the coastal environment.

We travelled beside a major highway into Den Haag, still a pleasant enough experience because a separate path was provided and deciduous forest lined the road. We parted from Jonathan after coffee at the Grote Markt – he is now an independent world traveller with multiple devices and data sources linking him up to everyone and everything!

At Scheveningen, the location of the annual New Year’s Day North Sea swim, we sampled the fish and chips (mediocre), admired more sculptures and took to the dune paths again. It is on the beaches in this area that Theo Jansen developed and tested his amazing strandbeests. However he is now a global phenomenon and is strandbeesting elsewhere on the planet. The size and number of the bicycle parking bays along the way attest to the popularity of the beach in areas where there is no car access.

Approaching Hoek van Holland we saw huge expanses of glasshouses with vegetables and flowers growing. The industrial landscape of the port loomed up – cranes, container terminals, cargo ships, power stations. We made it on to the RET Fast Ferry (pedestrians and bicycles only) with seconds to spare and were rapidly delivered to Maasvlakte, an industrial area on reclaimed land on the other side of the river. The waterways here are complicated – it’s hard to distinguish between rivers and canals.

The demarcation between the industrial zone and normal countryside is stark – suddenly we were riding past fields again and soon arrived in Oostvoorne where we are hosted by Peter, a retired teacher, intrepid cyclist with unique customisations to his bike, and wonderful cook and raconteur. He provided herring (raw and smoked) accompanied by a glass of gin, delicious soup and typical Dutch farmers dish of meat and vegetables minced together accompanied by beetroot.

Today’s route (approx)

Island hopping

11 May 2016

Well they used to be islands once, but are now joined by sea walls and re-engineered so much that they are no longer.

We have seen the coastal defences up close and can reassure everyone that they are being well maintained – there were work teams on the job today and we understand that new composites are now being used for greater strength and lower up-keep.

Peter, our Oostvoorne host, escorted us to the correct path towards the dunes and we set off. Sights: the red brick lighthouse Westhoofd near Ouddorp;  Dutch draft horses near Ellemeet – they are solidly built with massive hooves; in Noordwelle another church with a leaning steeple, held up by two buttresses; wide North Sea beaches; school classes out on excursion by bicycle – students and teachers decked out in hi-viz vests but no helmets of course; a few surf schools although the sea today was as flat as a pannenkoek.

We passed a pleasant hour or so in Middelburg, another town with fine square surrounded by cafes, with people of all ages gliding quietly past on their bikes.

Tonight we are in Serooskerke, hosted (WarmShowers) by Jan-Willem and Marianne and their son Jonas. We have again been treated to a lovely meal, good conversation and useful advice about tomorrow’s route into Belgium.

Today’s route

 

 

 

Netherlands no more

12 May 2016

The day has arrived that we must leave the Netherlands. It’s exciting to be heading south but we have loved our time here and are sad to go. Cyclists are really spoilt in this civilised country.

We had another perfect day: sunny, blue skies, cool and a north-easterly wind aiding our progress most of the time. Our Warmshowers host warned us not to expect too much of Vlissingen but, notwithstanding some working class northern suburbs, we found the centrum to be a gorgeous little port with a small boat haven surrounded by high flood walls. The town seemed strangely deserted but a dog-walking local assured us that it was just a normal working day and most people were inside at their desks.

We crossed the Sheldt river estuary by the passenger-bicycle ferry that runs every 30 minutes from Vlissingen to Breskens and then sped south with a tail wind to Ghent in Belgium. The cycling facilities deteriorated as soon as we crossed the border and we often had to share the road with speeding cars and trucks and huge-wheeled tractors hauling over-width manure trailers.

Ghent is a busy, sprawling city by European standards. The old town has canals, many rough cobbled streets with plenty of tram tracks demanding careful attention from the teeming cyclists.

Our Airbnb is a tiny terrace house with a pokey kitchen and bathroom and a precipitous staircase but a charming atmosphere. Tine, our host, is friendly and helpful. Her boyfriend Damien is huge – maybe 7 feet tall – so we guess he feels the squeeze.

After another long day (90 km) – we’ve had beer and frites and will sleep well tonight. Tomorrow night we will be in France.

Today’s route

Ghent, Oudenaarde, Lille

13 May 2016

We started the day at Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market) in Ghent, held in a spectacular square. If you go there, don’t order coffee at Le Chat Noir as it’s substandard and their kitchen doesn’t open until 8.30am.

It took awhile to escape Ghent and get away from heavy traffic, but we eventually found quiet country roads with cows, barley crops and precisely furrowed fields. For some distance we followed the River Scheldt – actually it looks like a canal with cycle paths along each side, locks and barges travelling up and downstream.

Navigational challenges cropped up regularly and at one point we took a wrong turn on to a motorway from where we hastily retreated.

Our lunch stop was at Oudenaarde, a small regional city with a fantastic town hall and huge church. The extensive connurbation of Roubaix and Lille made the last 20km hard work. Lille, however, has a beautiful centre with huge Grand Place surrounded by impressive buildings. There is a large park near our lodgings in which there were hundreds of people in the early evening sitting on the grass, playing petanque and enjoying the fresh air.

Today’s route (approx)

Notre sojourn en France commence

14 May 2016

With the assistance of a helpful but mono-lingual SNCF travel adviser in Lille last night we booked train travel today Lille – Amiens – Paris (Gare du Nord) || Paris (Saint-Lazare) – Caen – Pontorson/Mont-St-Michel (4 changes and and a transfer between stations in Paris). So we had a day off the bikes and the trip worked fine including the 7-minute change at Amiens. Our bikes travelled free and no reservation was possible for them. Facilities for bikes were limited but few other cyclists were travelling so we had no problems. We could have blown our tickets had we been beaten by others.

The weather turned cold overnight  but we had a quick outing to the Lille Citadel (star-shaped fort on Lille’s eponymous island) before boarding the train. We travelled up the valley of the Somme to Amiens and spotted a few military cemeteries. A feature of the day was the number of small towns sporting massive cathedrals (Bayeux, Coutances) – some with gilt cupolas (Albert).

Unsurprisingly, there were many heavily-armed military police in Paris including both railway stations we visited.

Once we had cleared the Parisian sprawl this afternoon, we were treated to green, rural and forest scenery and were keen to get riding again, but we stuck to our plan and arrived in Pontorson at 7:30. We had tantalising glimpses of Mont-St-Michel as we approached. We are now 1ᵒ 30′ West of Greenwich but 2 hours ahead of UTC so we had plenty of daylight to enjoy the medieval festival that was rocking this little town tonight.

We had the ‘medieval’ plat de jour in a small restaurant and struck up a conversation (in French) with Jean-Yves and Noelle at the adjacent table.