Biking Across Belgium, Part I

{Ed. Note: This is an article from Books and Vines contributor Dlphcorcl. As occasionally done, this article has nothing to do with books or wine, but with travel. Part One will introduce readers to the concept and specifics of the trip and the first four cycling days, Part Two will cover the next four cycling days, concluding with a ride into the historic medieval town of Bruges, a UNESCO World Heritage sight.}

For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed cycling.

Just a guy and his bike!!
Just a guy and his bike!!

Living in a region with a distinct four-season climate, however, limits my cycling season to end of April to mid-October.  For the past two decades I have motivated myself to round into cycling shape each season by taking a cycling tour in September or October, one that involves some physical challenges (steep hills, long distances, etc.) without doing a truly advanced tour for expert cyclists involving steep mountain passes, extreme distances, etc.  Invariably, these trips have been taken in European countries.  This year’s trip was taken earlier than usual for me because it was only offered in mid-July.  The trip was taken with Ciclismo Classico (CC) of Arlington, Massachusetts, a company that has been organizing upscale cycling trips for twenty-five years.  For their first 15 or so years they specialized exclusively in Italian cycling trips involving all regions of Italy.  The two guides were almost always native Italians fluent in English, often guiding tours in their native regions.  However, for the past decade Ciclismo has branched outside of Italy, giving tours in other European countries.

This tour was an intriguing choice for me because it was given in Belgium, one of the few European countries I had never visited.  Additionally, Bruges had been on my Travel Bucket list for many years.  It was entitled ‘Bike Across Belgium’ and it did just that.  The group included ten cyclists (including myself) scattered from across the United States and we met at the International Hotel Clervaux in Clervaux, Luxembourg – a 5-star hotel.  From Clervaux, we immediately crossed the border back into Belgium and cycled across the entire country moving diagonally from southeast to northwest, concluding with a ride into the historic medieval city of Bruges.  It covered 360 miles in seven days of cycling.  CC subtitled the trip ‘Bikes & Beer’ and a focal point of the trip was visiting several microbreweries and sampling their beers.  Belgium is home to over 1,000 different beers brewed in Belgium, six Trappist ales and other abbey beers, and a variety of wheat beers, brown ales, red beers, saison beers, etc.  The trip was given the award “Best Foodie Destination’ for 2014 by Outside Travel magazine and it certainly lived up to it.

Cycling, Beer and Belgium:

Belgium may well be the cycling capital of the world and nearly everyone owns and regularly uses a bicycle.  It is not an afterthought, a fad, or part of a Green Movement.  It is part of the Belgian DNA and it is the normal mode of transportation for most Belgians who are not traveling long distances.  It is one of the few countries in the world (including the United States) in which football (soccer) is not the national sport – it is cycling.  This is reflected in Belgium’s transportation infrastructure, where most roads have clearly defined bike lanes that are not an afterthought.  The bike lanes are nearly 50% of the width of the lanes for cars and they are well maintained, free of glass and debris.  Sidewalks, as we know them in the U.S., are often demarcated as bike lanes as well and are twice as wide and well paved.  Bike lanes are commonly found throughout Belgium in farming and rural areas extending for many kilometers through beautiful countryside and are actively used by one and all.  Best of all, Belgian motorist are attuned to cyclists and are among the most cycling-friendly in the world because nearly all of them are active cyclists as well.  They will routinely yield to cyclists on the road, even at busy intersections and traffic circles, without honking or showing any impatience.  Simply put, if you are an avid cyclist and were to suddenly die and find yourself in heaven, you would probably be somewhere in Belgium.

Beer is the other passion in Belgium and brewing and drinking beer is taken very seriously.  While many Books and Vines readers are familiar with Stella Artois, it is but the tip of the iceberg.  Brewing beer in Belgium is a one-thousand year old tradition dating back to the first crusades.  Belgium has over 280 breweries which produce over one thousand different kinds of beer.  Each beer is poured into its own distinctive glass with its own logo or trademark, varying widely in size and shape, to give each beer its proper flavor and bloom.  Beer must be properly poured to give the proper amount of foam or “head” as well.  An excellent description and summary of Belgian beers can be found here. One must work diligently or be very unlucky to drink a bad or unflavorful glass of beer in Belgium.

The group of ten cyclists met at the International Hotel Le Clervaux in Luxembourg where we met our two Italian guides.  After lunch, the guides installed our cycling pedals and bike seats (everyone brings their own clipless pedals & cycling shoes with cleats and specific bike seats from home), fitted the bikes to our specifications, and we took a brief warm-up ride of 15 miles to assure that our bikes felt comfortable and were properly fitted.  Our visit to Clervaux was enlivened by three or four dozen racing cars from the Rallye Luxembourg with the drivers and passengers fully tricked out in total body racing clothing, head to toe.

Rallye Luxembourg
Rallye Luxembourg

In the evening we visited the historic Clervaux Chateau, a beautiful medieval castle that is now home to Edward Steichen’s “The Family of Man” original photograph collection ( shown at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC in 1955) where it is on permanent display.

Clervaux Chateau - home to edward Steichen’s ‘Family of Man’ photography exhibit.
Clervaux Chateau – home to edward Steichen’s ‘Family of Man’ photography exhibit.

The tour of the museum was followed by an excellent alfresco dinner at the Restaurant Les Ecuries du Parc, including a round of Orval beer, a Trappist beer that would prove to be one of the finest I tasted in Belgium.

Day 2: Clervaux to Marcourt, Belgium (49 miles).  Upon departing Clervaux, Luxembourg, we crossed the border into southern Belgium after about 12 miles.  This region of Belgium is known as Wallonia and it is French-speaking.  We rode through the stunning countryside of the Ardennes forest where the infamous World War II ‘Battle of the Bulge’ was fought, with a mixture of lush forest, rolling hills and countryside.

Riding in the Ardennes Forest of Wallonia
Riding in the Ardennes Forest of Wallonia

The highlight of the day’s ride was a visit to a marvelous brewery called Brasserie d’Achouffe for a tour and tasting of their “Chouffe Soleil” (light), “La Chouffe” (blond), and McChouffe (dark).  They were among the finest beers I encountered during the week, probably because the brewing is done and supervised by the famous d’Achouffe gnomes.

The gnomes point the way to Brasserie La Chouffe.
The gnomes point the way to Brasserie La Chouffe.

After tasting and lunch we continued riding into the village of La Roche en Ardennes to spend the evening at La Grande Cure, an elegant auberge in a quiet secluded part of Marcourt.

Hotel La Gran Cure
Hotel La Gran Cure

Dinner at La Grande Cure later that evening was exceptional and I suspect that the hotel is as well known for its gourmet restaurant as its elegant hotel.

Day 3: Marcourt to Maillen (55 miles).  It rained heavily all evening into early morning and I began the day by debating whether or not to ride.  I HATE cycling in the rain and typically do not do this at home if I can possibly avoid it.  Additionally, since nearly every day in Belgium involves riding over stretches paved with cobblestones this can prove dangerous, especially during moderately steep descents in which the wet, slippery cobbles make for a dicey ride.  Fortunately, the Weather Gods intervened and made my decision for me.  By the time we were ready to start riding after breakfast, the rain had gradually subsided to a fine drizzle.  Additionally, the weather forecast called for gradual clearing and bright sunshine later in the day.  I donned my rain jacket and vowed to keep my speed in check during any downhill stretches on the notorious Belgian cobblestones.

We traveled through more of the Ardennes forest (gorgeous)  and rode into the small town of Celles, with its massive Romanesque church and ancient stone buildings.  The streets were filled with revelers celebrating Belgian National Day, Belgium’s equivalent of our July 4th Independence Day (or vice versa).

Belgian National Day in the town of Celles
Belgian National Day in the town of Celles

We were unable to find a place to park the Ciclismo Classico support van and could not stay in Celles to join the celebration, so we continued riding into the town of Dinant.

The ride into the town of Dinant with its massive cliffs
The ride into the town of Dinant with its massive cliffs

Dinant proved to be a picturesque town built between the river Meuse and massive cliffs with an overhanging citadel at the top of the cliff.

Town of Dinant with massive cliffs.
Town of Dinant with massive cliffs.

Dinant is the birthplace of Adolph Sax, the inventor of the saxophone and this is duly noted along the bridge which crosses the Meuse river.

Bridge over Meuse River commemorating Adolph Sax’s 200th birthday.
Bridge over Meuse River commemorating Adolph Sax’s 200th birthday.
If trumpet’s have mutes, why can’t a saxophone ??
If trumpet’s have mutes, why can’t a saxophone ??

It is also home to the Maison Leffe, a brewery associated with the abbey Notre-Dame de Leffe where they have been brewing beer since 1240.  It was converted into a multifunctional hotel (named ‘La Merveilleuse”) in 2008 with fine restaurant (“Le Couvent de Bethlehem”) , and brewery museum with beer tasting bar and lounge.  After an elegant lunch we toured the brewery museum and, of course, settled in for a beer tasting!!  Leffe now makes nine different beers but their flagship beers are Leffe Blond and Leffe Brown, a dark beer.  Did I say previously that “this is one of the finest beers I tasted in Belgium??  At risk of sounding redundant, the Leffe Blond was just that.  So many fine beers, so little time…..

Maison Leffe
Maison Leffe
Abbey Notre Dame de Leffe complex with vaulted ceilings.
Abbey Notre Dame de Leffe complex with vaulted ceilings.
Maison Leffe brewery museum with historical photos and……
Maison Leffe brewery museum with historical photos and……
…..and stained glass windows.
…..and stained glass windows.
Lunch at Maison Leffe
Lunch at Maison Leffe
View of Dinant from Maison Leffe
View of Dinant from Maison Leffe

We continued our ride to Maillen and this evening’s hotel, the Chateau de La Poste, is a genuine castle dating from 1884 that was completely renovated into a modern hotel in 2009.

Chateau de la Poste
Chateau de la Poste

It is situated in the midst of the Ardennes woods with a large terrace overlooking the stunning landscape.

View of Ardennes landscape from Chateau de la Poste terrace
View of Ardennes landscape from Chateau de la Poste terrace

The hotel was a wonderful combination of old and new with spacious rooms.  Dinner was excellent, as usual, and the beer that evening (for me) was Maredsous, a dark beer brewed by the Benedictine monastery Abbey-Abdij.  Hands down, this was the finest dark beer I have ever imbibed.  It had the rich flavors of a dark beer without the Guinness-like bitter aftertaste.  In fact, several of the women cyclists in our group commented that Maredsous was the first dark beer they had tried that they enjoyed drinking.

A dark beer “to die for”.
A dark beer “to die for”
Dinner at Chateau de la Poste
Dinner at Chateau de la Poste

Day 4: Maillen to Leuven (51 miles).  With today’s ride we left French-speaking Wallonia and entered the Flemish region of Belgium  We quickly entered the town of Namur, riding along the quay on a wide, well-paved bike path.  The smoothly paved bike path quickly changed to the dreaded Belgian cobblestones.

The dreaded cobblestones of Belgium
The dreaded cobblestones of Belgium

We picked up a bike path build on an ancient railway and proceeded for 40 kilometers cycling into Hoegaarden, a small village that has always been an important brewing center, and visited their brewery.  Hoegaarden is famous for its “wit” (wheat) beer which, of course we sampled during our lunch.  After lunch we cycled into the historic city of Leuven, a UNESCO World Heritage site with an important university and a spectacular gothic town hall.  Leuven is a university town of about 100,000 and when the university is in session Leuven is filled with about 40,000 students.  KU Leuven, as the university is often called, was founded in 1425 and it is heavily research-oriented, consistently ranked in the top 100 universities in the world.

We checked into our hotel, Martin’s Klooster, situated at the end of a picturesque cobbled street in the midst of Leuven’s historical center, only three blocks from historic Market Square. The Klooster is a modern hotel built within a monastery complex dating back to 1531 to accommodate the rooms of Guy Morillon, Emperor Charles V’s secretary.  Afterward it became an Augustininan monastery in whose hospice the sick and wounded were cared for and pilgrims would rest en route during their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (Spain).  Market Square was destroyed by the Germans during WWI but, as with many European towns and cities, it was faithfully rebuilt and restored.

Historic Market Square in Leuven
Historic Market Square in Leuven

Our evening was spent with a guided tour of UK Leuven University and the gothic old City Hall.

UK University of Leuven
UK University of Leuven
Gothic City Hall in Leuven
Gothic City Hall in Leuven
Market Square and City Hall
Market Square and City Hall

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