Biking Across Belgium, Part II

{Ed. Note: This is the second part of a two part 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 introduced readers to the concept and specifics of the trip and the first four cycling days. Part Two covers the next four cycling days, concluding with a ride into the historic medieval town of Bruges, a UNESCO World Heritage sight.  Note that on any picture, you can click once to zoom in, and click twice to zoom in even further, allowing significant detail to become clear.}

Day 5:  Leuven to Mechelen (24 miles).  Today’s ride is a quick-hitter, a mostly flat easy ride on a bike path along the Dilje River, meandering through the countryside and cornfields.

Bike path along the Dilje River
Bike path along the Dilje River
Bike path through Belgian cornfields, tranquil and serene
Bike path through Belgian cornfields, tranquil and serene

The ride is a short 24 miles until we arrive at our next destination, the charming Flemish town of Mechelen.

Arriving in Mechelen
Arriving in Mechelen

The hotel this evening is Martin’s Paterhof, a modern hotel built inside of a XIX century gothic church, replete with an altar in the dining room where breakfast is served.

Breakfast room in Martin’s Paterhof Hotel, formerly a XIX century gothic church
Breakfast room in Martin’s Paterhof Hotel, formerly a XIX century gothic church

The hotel is located right in the town center known as Grote Markt (Large Market square) which is dominated by the magnificent tower of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site which was begun in 1200.

St. Rumbold’s cathedral in Mechelen, Belgium
St. Rumbold’s cathedral in Mechelen, Belgium

The other building of major interest is Town Hall, which began its existence as the town’s Cloth Hall in 1311-1326.

Town Hall, formerly the Cloth Hall in 1311-1326, Mechelen
Town Hall, formerly the Cloth Hall in 1311-1326, Mechelen

Day 6: Mechelen to Oudenaarde (67 miles).   Although a long ride, it is a flat and beautiful ride along quiet, well paved bike paths in the countryside paralleling several canals.

Cycling along the canals
Cycling along the canals

We stop for a group snack at the Opwijk railway station which gives new meaning to the term “Park and Ride”.

Train station ‘Park and Ride’ - Belgian style !!
Train station ‘Park and Ride’ – Belgian style !!

Continuing on to Geraardsbergen for lunch we spot several barges floating along the canals in a tranquil setting, well off of the beaten paths.  When we arrive in Oudenaarde our hotel (the Steenhuyse) is located directly in a town square with several monumental buildings.  My room has an amazing views of Sint-Walbergakerk Cathedral with its dominant spire.

Sint-Walbergkerk Cathedral, Oudenaarde
Sint-Walbergkerk Cathedral, Oudenaarde

A photo with brief commentary exhibited on wooden stands outside of the cathedral is a grim reminder of the toll both World Wars exacted, showing extensive bombing damage resulting from World War II.

Cathedral damage from World War II bombing
Cathedral damage from World War II bombing

Belgium is a tiny country that (historically speaking) was “in the wrong place at the wrong time” during both world wars, becoming the site of several fierce engagements and suffering extensive bombing damage through no fault of its own. Americans are reminded of how fortunate we are that our geographic isolation from Europe has spared our cities and towns from the carnage during both world wars that was all too commonplace throughout Europe. The other building of note in the town square is the Town Hall, a flamboyant Gothic design notable for its symmetry and balanced composition.

Town Hall, Oudenaard
Town Hall, Oudenaard

It has a majestic belfry featuring a crown with gilded eagles and a golden statue of a 16th century flag bearer.  The impressive facade is perfectly symmetrical.   Oudenaarde is also home to a wonderful cycling museum (the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen) a few hundred yards from our hotel, chronicling the history of the Tour de Flanders and its Belgian cycling heroes.

Tour de Flanders bicycle museum, Oudenaard
Tour de Flanders bicycle museum, Oudenaard

Oudenaarde is clearly one of the jewels in East Flanders.

Day 7:  Oudenaarde to Bruges (58 miles).  We began our final day of riding in glorious clear weather, making our way to the nearest bike path which led us to several of the infamous “muurs” (aka “walls”) featured on the Tour de Flanders. The two muurs, the Koppenberg and the Paterberg are ultra-steep climbs over cobblestones (ugh!) that are an integral part of this race and its lore.  The Koppenberg is a 22% grade while the Paterberg is “only” a 20% grade.  About half of the intrepid riders in our group (present company excluded) tackled and conquered both climbs.

Climbing the steep (22% grade) Koppenberg of the Tour de Flanders
Climbing the steep (22% grade) Koppenberg of the Tour de Flanders

Following this display of cycling prowess we continued toward Bruges, passing the American Cemetery from World War I (“Flanders Field”), a somber but meticulously maintained tribute to the fallen.

American Cemetery (Flanders Field)
American Cemetery (Flanders Field)

Continuing along the Belgian bike paths we traversed beautiful farmland, encountering two rather large but friendly draft horses, not dissimilar from Clydesdales.

Friendly draft horses
Friendly draft horses

We then had a picnic organized by our two guides at a local bar in one of the small towns we were passing through (with the bar/restaurant owner’s knowledge and permission, of course !!).  We finally made our way into Bruges, the most popular UNESCO World Heritage site in Belgium.

Our stay was in the lovely Hotel Navarra, a XVII century historic monument that was the ancient palace of the Spanish ambassador in Bruges.  It is perfectly located, several hundred yards from the town center (Market Square) and the world famous belfry tower, recessed from the street by a beautiful cobblestone entrance, quiet and refined.   Our evening is spent with a tour of Bruges from one of the City Guides following by a visit to one of our cycling guides’ favorite Bruges haunts, the Staminee van de Garre in a 600-year old house.  It featured one of the finest beers we encountered  during the week (haven’t you heard THIS before !!??): the Tripel van de Garre.  The following evening, we had the last of our series of brewery tours and beer tastings at De Halve Maan Brewery (the Half Moon), the only family brewery still active in Bruges.

De Halve Maan (‘Half Moon’) Brewery, Bruges
De Halve Maan (‘Half Moon’) Brewery, Bruges
De Halve Maan brewery tour
De Halve Maan brewery tour

They make two beers:  Brugse Zot, a golden blond beer with slight fruity flavoring and  Straffe Hendrik (“Strong Hendrick”), a bitter triple ale of 9% alcohol, albeit still a blond beer.

Beer tour and tasting at Bruges’ ‘De Halve Maan’ brewery
Beer tour and tasting at Bruges’ ‘De Halve Maan’ brewery

Ho hum!  Belgian beers = good, better, best !!!

Day 8:  Although a loop ride to Holland of 38 miles was on the scheduled agenda, I took a pass on it to spend the entire day in historic Bruges.  There were no notable highlights on this ride and the decision to spend two full days carefully exploring Bruges (I stayed an additional day after the cycling trip concluded) was a no-brainer.

THE HISTORIC CITY OF BRUGES

Regarding Bruges, I have Good News and I have Bad News.

The Good News:  Bruges is a beautifully preserved medieval city clearly deserving of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000.

The Bad News:  Bruges is NOT an undiscovered gem.  Au contraire, it is one of the most touristy and frequently visited sites in Europe, attracting well over four million visitors each year from all over the globe.

That said, the crowds are not oppressive although a bit of foresight and planning are required to properly explore the city.  I had a hit list of ‘Things To Do’ during my two-day stay in Bruges, which included:

1. Climbing to the top of the 13th-century Belfort (belfry).
2. Taking a boat ride along the canals of Bruges.
3. Visiting the major museums, the Groeninge Museum with the Flemish Primitives and the Memling Museum within the St. John’s Hospital complex.
4. Exploring the Markt (main square) and the Burg Square.
5. Visiting the Church of Our Lady to see Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna and Child’, the only sculpture to leave Italy during Michelangelo’s lifetime.

Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna and Child’ in the Church of Our Lady (Bruges)
Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna and Child’ in the Church of Our Lady (Bruges)

6. Visiting several of the finest chocolate shops to bring back Belgian CARE packages for family and friends.

It is well outside the scope of this Books and Vines article to discuss all of the wonderful things to see and do and Bruges. I will describe two of the highlights during my Bruges visit and then supply a healthy sampling of Belgian eye candy – photographs in and about Bruges.

1. Climbing the Belfort (Bell Tower) in Markt Square

The Belfort (Belfry) in Markt Square, Bruges
The Belfort (Belfry) in Markt Square, Bruges
The Belfort viewed from the courtyard
The Belfort viewed from the courtyard

I am a veteran climber of bell towers throughout Europe,  including the Torre del Mangia (bell tower of Siena Cathedral), the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris bell tower, and the Campanile di Giotto within the Piazza del Duomo complex in Florence, Italy.  There is a right way and a wrong way to approach this.  All of these bell towers have several characteristics in common:

1. They have between 300 to 400 stairs to climb to the top.
2. The stairs are steep and extremely narrow.
3. They ascend in a tight, dizzying spiral.
4. They have prohibitively long lines and crowds by late morning lasting the remainder of the day.

Want to waste and ruin a perfectly fine vacation day?  Visit your bell tower of choice at noon, queue up and wait in line for 1-2 hours, take another hour or two climbing the stairs behind a 300-lb. tourist with emphysema or congestive heart failure (while maneuvering around and about the visitors trying to climb their way back down in the ultra-narrow stairwell), and then hastily shoot a series of panoramic photographs in the midst of bright sunlight, guaranteeing that your photos will be bleached and washed out.  No amount of tweaking or software manipulation on your computer will rescue your wretched photographs.  What to do??

Get your lazy arse out of bed, have an early breakfast and get to the ticket office of the bell tower well before it opens to avoid the oppressive crowds later in the day.  I arrived in the courtyard of the Belfort at 9:00 AM, thirty minutes before the ticket office opened, and was quite surprised to find that I was first in line.  I purchased my ticket at 9:30 AM, scrambled up the 366 stairs totally unimpeded, and proceeded to take a series of wonderful panoramic photos  for about 45 minutes. The vista was somewhat dark, a bit devoid of sunlight, but crystal clear – perfect for taking the photographs I wanted.  The effect was not unlike a painting by El Greco – slightly dark colors, dramatic, with contrast and punch.  These photos were then easy to tweak on my iMac by performing simple changes with brightness, contrast, and sharpness.

Panoramic view #1 from top of belfry, Bruges
Panoramic view #1 from top of belfry, Bruges
Panoramic view #2 from top of belfry
Panoramic view #2 from top of belfry

As the observation deck of the bell tower began to fill up I calmly began my descent, spending time to appreciate the architecture and complexity of the bell tower’s carillon with 48 bells – the city still employs a full-time carillonneur who gives free concerts on a regular basis – and associated exhibits.

Carillion with large brass bells, Bruges Belfort
Carillion with large brass bells, Bruges Belfort
Belfry Drum Room: the giant brass drum plays pre-recorded melodies which are changed every two years
Belfry Drum Room: the giant brass drum plays pre-recorded melodies which are changed every two years

2. Visit to Begijnhof (Beguinages) and Minnewater

Say what??  I had never heard of this complex but a visit was strongly recommended by our City Guide the prior evening and I quickly understood why.  A Court Beguinage in the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) is/was a courtyard (or series of courtyards) surrounded by small houses, a church, an infirmary complex, and a number of communal houses or ‘convents’.  They were common from the twelfth century through the eighteenth century – nearly every city and large town in the Low Countries had one – and they housed women known as Beguines, a lay order of women who spent their lives in religious study and service without taking the formal vows of a nun.  Currently, the Begijnhof of Bruges is home to single religious women of all social classes and Benedictine nuns.  The complex is a small island of tranquility in sea of tourists, providing a wonderful respite from the rigors of being a tourist.  The complex is heavily shaded by trees, the small white houses are simple and uniform in appearance, the church is unpretentious and slightly austere, without the typical trappings of larger European churches.

Housing complex in Begijnhof
Housing complex in Begijnhof
Convent in Begijnhof
Convent in Begijnhof
Begijnhof church, exterior
Begijnhof church, exterior
Begijnhof church, interior
Begijnhof church, interior

Adjacent to Begijnhof is Minnewater (“Water of Love”), a peaceful lake and park slightly south of the Begijnhof complex, filled with small canals and overstuffed swans.

Minnewater (“Water of Love”)
Minnewater (“Water of Love”)
Minnewater swans and canal
Minnewater swans and canal

3. A Chocolate Pilgrimage

In the late afternoon prior to my departure day I visited several of Bruges finest chocolate shops  and proceeded to assemble a collection of Belgian goodies to fill my backpack with for family and friends.

My chocolate pilgrimage.  Hard work but someone has to do it
My chocolate pilgrimage. Hard work but someone has to do it

I will be up front about this – I am a chocoholic and I take my chocolate very seriously.  I spent the prior day sampling chocolates from a variety of shops, no easy feat since Bruges has between two to three dozen wonderful small family-owned chocolate shops.  Armed with my impromptu taste tests and recommendations from personnel in the Hotel Navarra, I went to Jacques Dumon Chocolatier and BbyB Chocolate shop, purchasing several small boxes of praline-filled chocolates, chocolate bars and almond bark (dark chocolate, of course).  I then went to La Cure Gourmande on Breidelstraat and filled a decorative tin with a fabulous assortment of their cookies and biscuits.  This is serious business but someone has to do it !

La Cure Gourmande chocolate shop
La Cure Gourmande chocolate shop
Another elegant chocolate shop (Note the little fella in the rear of the shop)
Another elegant chocolate shop (Note the little fella in the rear of the shop)
Little guy with Sweet Tooth - macro view
Little guy with Sweet Tooth – macro view
Mom said: “No.”   “Are you kidding me ??!! "
Mom said: “No.” “Are you kidding me ??!! “

I have taken many cycling trips in Europe over the past several decades and Bike Across Belgium proved to be one of the most thoroughly enjoyable.  The people we met throughout Belgium were gracious and friendly (and multilingual !!), the countryside was unspoiled and beautiful , the hotels we stayed at were elegant and distinctive,and the food and dizzying assortment of beers were outstanding.  The cycling and cycling infrastructure (roads and bike paths) were as good as it gets.  If you are a cycling enthusiast, and even if you are not, a visit to Belgium and Bruges will not disappoint.

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