.. In the Benelux countries on bikes. Nothing special, maybe only the fact that we got into this great journey at the beginning of February, in 4 degrees of cold with winter jackets and 30 year old bikes…Wednesday night the preparations were underway as the next day the adventure awaited us. But of course one never knows what he gets into. We got our bikes in our rooms, tightened the breaks and checked if everything ran properly (not including Javier’s lighting system J ). The sandwiches were made; the oranges, the box of Mars chocolate bars and the map all went into our bags…And the next day it all began.
Utrecht→Nieuwegein→Gorinchem→Breda (and a couple of other unintelligible settlements)
…Half past six, dawn (dawn ‘cause we’re not used to get up so early). Neither of us slept really well. Half of our corridor is already enjoying there short holiday, a few have left their rooms for good. The other day Tim left the Netherlands as he only stayed for a semester. Australia waited for him (“down undaaa’ mate”). Javier and me signed a postcard (that depicted a voluptuous naïve looking nurse treating a patient) and left it under his door. We tightened our scarves around our necks, the gloves warmed our fingers and our hats completely covered our ears…And so we set off.
Utrecht was still enjoying its sweet slumber. The canals occasionally waved their water and the alleys’ red bricks were just beginning to prepare for the morning traffic. A good quarter of an hour later we were already heading to Nieuwegein…Suddenly a slumbering red giant started to dissipate the morning haze. With dully smouldering orange waves he ruptured the dark sky. Slowly he started crawling up the horizon while with his sleepy razes he took a glance of the two bikers. The first real Dutch sunup. Our hands were cold; the cameras lay in our jackets because probably we didn’t want to share this unique spectacle with anyone. A strange and cosy feeling ran through me and gave me strength to continue. From here we searched our way to Vianen knowing that we had to cross the Lek river. An enormous bridge appeared in front of us and it truly put our muscles to the test while the wind was blowing in our faces. Already we could sense that it won’t be an easy day. And unfortunately our suspicions became true.
…1 euro 70 the ticket and we used a ferry to cross the Merwerde river. It wasn’t something that we were used to but for the Dutch kids going home it was on an every day basis. On the other side of the river lay Sleeuwijk and from here onwards all hell broke lose. The tiny village lazed around on the edge of the river, watching the two travellers. In front of us stood the garishly green Dutch landscape occasionally crossed by some bikers. With my basic knowledge of Dutch I asked the road to Breda. A mother of three showed us the road towards Almkerk. And so we set off. Straight face to face with the wind. The faster you cycle the more it slows you down. As much as we tried we could barely advance. We would get on our bikes but each minute the wind would push us of. It slashed our faces, lactic acid swept through our muscles but we were forced to continue. I lost my temper and started swearing. I couldn’t believe why all of this was happening to us. I was about to give it up when Javier reassured me that it could be worse. Let us at least reach Breda.
With the snail’s pace we continued to push on and reached the high-way. Could it be worse? Well yes it could. The rain started falling. At the beginning just dripping but eventually the wind even blew the droplets in your ears. As disgusting as it might sound our snot was all over our faces as we pushed further on. I reached the lowest point of this trip and it was only the first day. I was cursing heavily and asking why this had to be like this. The only other problem was that Breda was the only city where we didn’t find any accommodation through guidebooks and the internet. Probably the turning point was the sign with the name Breda on it. The rain was bashing us but we shouted with joy that we reached it. The first 80 km took us nearly twelve hours to complete and a warm dry bed not even on the horizon. We found refuge on the side of the road and ate the rest of our food.
35 euros for a night – replies the first hostel owner. Ridiculously expensive for two students so we moved on. They didn’t provide us with useful information at the train-station either. Another small hostel appeared. Unfortunately we are full because there’s a carnival in the weekend – answered a kind lady. But there would be another place where you could sleep. And this is how we started looking for the Premier hotel at he edge of the city so we could finally enjoy a dry rooftop over our heads. We got lost several times, our clothes were soaking wet and 3 hours after we arrived in the city we could take the keys of our room. Two beds, a shower and toilet. Just what we needed. We fell on the beds exhausted. Tomorrow we’ll see what happens. If the rain doesn’t stop we are taking the first train back. And we went to bed with this thought in our minds, but the tired body wouldn’t even allow us to sleep.
Breda→ Rijsbergen→Braschaat→Antwerp (finally we reached Belgium)
The wake-up bell rings and we struggle to get up. From my previous biking experience I knew that the second day is always the worst. Your body is numb, your knees stiff and you didn’t quite sleep well the previous night. I slowly open my backpack and stuff myself with my last sandwich which was followed by an orange. With stiff knees and pudding like legs I get into the shower. Should we continue? Or let’s just call it off? It would be the first time in my life to do this but I give a second chance to this trip. We packed our stuff in a couple of minutes, left the key at the reception, tied the bike-bags and set off. The center of Breda turned out to be quite confusing so the granny’s standing on the side of the street provided us with the info how to get to Antwerp. Of course Breda lies slightly to the South so not so many people speak English.
And after some initial struggling we finally got out of the city following the canal that led to the south. The wind kept on blowing from the front but it eased down and the Sun’s ever growing strength slowly started to dismantle the seemingly infinite grey sky. We planned approx. 60 km for the second day and hoped that we can reach our destination in time… Slowly we moved on to Rijsbergen our faces once again fighting the wind but however painful it seemed to our backs we decided to lean forward on the handles and ride this way. The weather kept getting better and better and in one of the small villages we even ate our lunch on the trash bin of a gas-station (well it turned out to be an ideal table 😛 ).
…I look at one of the pictures. Both of us with idiotic faces and our hands razed up, stand near a blue road sign. België – is written on it in white surrounded by yellow stars. As impossible is it seemed we finally reached Belgium. No border cross exists for a long time now. Two signs marked the two countries. One of the houses on Belgian territory, its neighbour on the Dutch side…Crossing the border the language didn’t change but the quality of the roads did. Compared to roads back home, the Belgian ones are overwhelming but still Dutch precision is Dutch precision.
A fairly calm and easy day awaited us. From time to time we would pull over to eat something while the locals greeted us and said smakelijk eten. Sometimes Javi had to put some eye droplets on his contacts or maybe we just had to go take a wee. It was around noon when we crossed the border and by four o’clock we were already wondering in the outskirts of Antwerpen. As we got closer to the center we could feel that we are in a new country. The architecture changed slightly, they spoke Dutch with a Flemish accent and people weren’t seven feet high but breathed air from a lower layer of the atmosphere. The city blew me away. Cosmopolitan, a commercial and fashion center; hundreds of different faces look at you from different corners of the Earth.
After some searching we came across the small youth hostel on Provinciestraat where a kind bearded old guy gave us the keys to our room. Eight beds in the room which never filled up and breakfast included. And all of this at a reasonable price…It was still daylight when we began our tour of the city. First of all the Jewish diamond merchants with their black hats couth our attention. In the ‘infamous’ diamond district of course we were not allowed to take pictures of the merchandise but strangely enough I found three pictures on my camera. I wonder how they got there :P?
The mesmerising hall of the Central Station with trains coming in on four different levels was the centrepiece of our next couple of minutes. Night began to fall and the city changed its appearance. Streets bathed in light with overstuffed fashion galleries, trendy youngsters, diamond merchants and typical smiling Japanese tourists. On every street corner a new square appeared with amazing buildings, overwhelming cathedrals, restaurants and cafés. We eventually reached the river-side and took time to take in the beauty of the city. It’s a unique place which I would gladly visit again if the wind wouldn’t blow in my wallet…
Antwerp→Vrasene→St. Niklaas→Lokeren→Gent (we sort off got lost at the beginning)
Our hopes were up on the third day. We got up early and to our amazement a really rich breakfast waited for us. We left our keys and packing became something usual. Leaving the city as soon as possible so we don’t catch the morning traffic. Although we checked our route on the map, one of the grannies made us take the wrong turn and we woke up that we weren’t quite on the right track.
The industrial zone of the city on our right, on the other side a green meadow and a high-way that should’ve been a national road. We had to stop a superman dressed up in blue to ask for directions. The bloke approx. the same age as my father, really sportive, his bike was like the Apollo space shuttle compared to ours and he biked 4O km each day. Well that’s enough I think about Western culture and healthy life. He told us after which bridge, on which road to take the turn to the right to Vrasenen but of course no one is amazed that we came to a dead end. But nothing to worry about and after a few minutes we were on the right track. Somehow we found our way to Vrasenen and we were on our way to St.Niklaas. Two words about this last town. Maybe it’s the size of Amersfoort and in the center lays a huge St. Nicky statue surrounded by the biggest square I’ve ever seen. Why such a huge central square? Only they know. Maybe they sold a lot of ‘oxen’ back in the days J.
Maybe this day is renowned for the fact that we got lost several times and this is what happened in the nearby Lokeren too. But kein stress because we have plenty of time (not quite) and there is enough food (but of course, a few slices of bread, cheese, ham and three oranges J ).
We reached Gent before nightfall. The city slowly revealed its hidden treasures and arriving in the center we stared at the old buildings like two kids at the candy shop. Three towers symbolise this city and this is because in this region a lot of wealthy ladies and daddies lived who built five cathedrals of which three of them lay on the same street. So from one of the bridges a 4 star rated (by the Michelin Guide) panorama unfolds in front of your eyes. And it deserved every star as it is an astonishing site. Of course this could’ve only been followed by the 12th century castle.
…Well not a lot of action happened until now, but the Almighty granted the readers’ wish and in the middle of the city I woke p with a flat tire. Pufff. A huge cursing followed as it was already getting dark and the hostel nowhere in sight. Oh, and something else. IN Utrecht Katya was preparing for her birthday and I promised in December that I wouldn’t miss the birthday party of our “corridor’s baby” (because she is the youngest :P). So I pushed my injured ‘battle horse’ (bike for those who don’t understand) to the hostel and Javi undertook to fix it. In the meantime I took his bike and raced to the train-station. The nuts and bolts that held the mud flap slowly fell of on the cobble-stone alleys and I almost caused a heart-attack to the bystanders with my infernal racket. I put down the bike, got on the train just in time and was already on my way to Utrecht. I switched in Antwerpen and Rotterdam and at 10 o’clock Katya was already hugging me that I managed to keep my word. The party turned out to be awesome, our baby got a year older and half of the people got shit-faced and at six in the morning I was already on a train to Amsterdam. I don’t really recall what happened during the journey but I know that the four African guys sitting next to me looked at me in a funny way as I was woken up by my own snoring. So what? One has to even sleep :P.
At 10 o’clock I was waiting for Javi in front of the hostel and only a dozen of guys dressed up as hookers could have enlightened my day.
Gent→ the canal and some villages→Bruges (aahh, a Sunday walk)
Well I couldn’t refer to the Sunday in a different way. Some 50 km between the two cities, on the side of a canal on a bike-lane. The Sun lazily throws its beams on the Earth, seagulls search for some fish and the Flemish supermen (well equipped bikers) were passing us in every two minutes.
There was no rush at all. The sky is crystal clear, a couple of yachts appeared and we even came across some fat little ponies. We talked about this and that, sometimes we got lost or stopped to eat or other times we were too lazy to even open our bags with food. I cannot write a lot about this section of the trip as not a lot happened. We reached the old medieval town before we planned to. A Snuffle named hostel became our place to stay for the night. A 12 bed room but we didn’t stick around as the city waited for us.
Bruges is a perfectly preserved medieval marvel where mister Mc Donald didn’t set foot and in the historical center you can only indulge yourself with the famous Vlaamse Frites (Flemish French fries or for others Liberty Fries). Even during winter hundreds of tourists visited the old buildings. Colossal stone towers, the pinnacles of Flemish architecture, horse pulled carriages, Flemish cuisine, water canals and cobble-stoned streets. If someone wants to take his/her darling to a romantic place this small town would be it, where you can find everything from lake side willows, to beautifully lighten canals and windmills. We went to bed relaxed and full of confidence. By the end of the trip everything was running smoothly. A couple of Belgian beers followed in the bar and it seemed to be a strange thought getting back into our routine again.
Bruges→Zeebrugge→Blankenberge→choochoo train → Utrecht (Heeii..our bikes!!)
We finally got to the last day of our small adventure. Our last destination, the Belgian sea-side. We set off quite early but unfortunately the windmills gave way to a broken down industrial zone. Well at least we saw every part of the Benelux states. The wind, the canals, the windmills, the breath-taking cities, the fat ponies grazing in the greenest grass possible and the industry. A good 10 km of industrial zone lay ahead of us. It would be interesting to show this side of a country. Most probably not so many tourists would come (I hope everyone understands why I write about this, because the Dallas Pashamente and similar movies don’t quite illustrate the beautiful Saxon cities back home).
The last day of our trip ended sooner than we planned as Javi’s leg gave up. But no problem, at least we got more time to enjoy the sea-side. In short time Zeebrugge lay in front of us and beyond the houses the seemingly infinite North Sea appeared. The end of the trip, the climax, the sea. A wide beach stood in front of our eyes and it took us a good five minutes to cross the sand and reach the waves. A big dilemma in front of us. Should we bike to Oostende or we end it here? The remaining 20 km would’ve probably damaged Javi’s leg but no problem, the nearest train-station is at the Blankenberge sea resort.
Slowly we reached it and to our comfort we found out that the tickets for the bikes were at an acceptable price. We didn’t have to sell them after all and the afternoon was opened to do anything we wanted. The thermometers showed + 0,5 degrees and everyone wore two layers of clothes while walking their dogs and cats. And then…Comm’on Javi, let’s get down into our boxers and run straight in to the sea. Yes it sounds crazy. Back home only a couple of orthodox blokes do this when on John the Baptiser’s day the orthodox priest throws a cross in to the river. So. We got to the beach, I put the camera on my bike and we started stripping. The people around us looked amazed and were wondering what happened with these guys but when we were finally in our shorts they got the idea. One, two and on the third one we were running towards the Sea. We could only get in up to our wastes but still we were running around like crazy and splashing each other like people who just escaped from the nuthouse. A truly unique moment. These are the moments that stay forever in your mind and which you will remember while sitting in front of a fire place at 70…We ran back to the beach and fooled around for a few more minutes while the old people passing by nodded. And just like this, wet and in a pair of shorts, we asked an old couple to take a photo of us.
It’s over Gashi – I hear Javier’s voice on the train to Gent. Javi it is not over until we don’t walk into our rooms. And the Almighty once again intervened and as we got of in Gent, the conductor forgot to give back our bikes. Noooo bikes. We ran straight to the information office and started shouting and in the blink of an eye we were first class on the way to Brussels to get our bikes back. (Honestly I don’t know why would someone pay extra money for two more inches of legroom). Some quarrelling in Brussels and the bikes were once again with their owners. Now we could safely get back home. The adventure came to an end, the routine resumed but the next trip is already waiting for us. Groningen! Look out here we come!
6th of February 2008, Utrecht