Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cycletrip Day 6: Forges - Laon

At a last minute suggestion of Tac's, from our cosy little blue room in Forges, we booked not one, ladies and gentlemen, but two possible accommodation spots for the following night. Laon was the next big spot for us to hit up, but we thought perhaps we wouldn't make the 70+kms successfully in the one day. Perhaps sanely is more the adverb we wanted to be able to employ, thinking back on our washed out, blown out, exhaustive first day from the Netherlands to Belgium. It would be nice to get to Laon, but we didn't want to blow a fuse doing it. So we hedged our bets, and booked two places. One in the slightly-out-of-the-way Marle, because it was the only spot between Forges and Laon we could find, the other in the Big L itself. We would ride the first 30 or so kilometres, then make the Marle/Laon call, at Besmont. This picture shows the process:

Annie and Olivier gave us lots of extra bread to make up some sandwiches to take on our way. Just after 9am we took off. The exit from Forge involved a few big downs and ups and then, with open fields around us for the first 10kms or so to Forges Phillippe, the wind really hit us in the faces. I said to the weather gods that we would perform some sort of naked thank-you dance that evening if things stayed as they were and wind was all we had.

Just after Cendron we crossed the border into France, then headed into the Foret Dominiale de St Michel, which was a beautiful, quiet, leafy green escape from roads. Just look at this picture, though, taken in said forest. I had spent the past 7 days thinking this headband I took from Taco's Dad's house to wear was pretty cool. Practical and warming, yes, but I also felt a bit funky. It was with horror, on examination of this photo later in the day, that I realised I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

How wrong I was
But no matter, headbands do not maketh the woman. We rode on through Montorieux and Martigny, Taco's two favourite towns. In the latter we stopped for a bananabiscuitbreak. It was starting to spit a little, but, without wanting to commit until we were at Besmont, we were both pretty sure by here that we had the drive to get all the way to Laon. And at decision time, we went left!

The wind was still with us. At Agnicourt we took the wrong road for a few kilometres, and cursed on the return to the deviation point, pushing up hard against the wind. The right road, once we were on it, was windy (quelle surprise!) and by this time of the day had quite a bit of traffic. There were a few shitty moments with cars and trucks- when the wind and the rain are a bit fierce, their passing can cause a real, unwanted whoosh on the bikes- and by the time we were in Pierreponds, it was pissing down. Lucky we'd had our final energy-booster petit pain sandwiches before that big old stretch. We stopped in a town about 10kms from Laon, and confirmed that, although we were soaked through to our undies and beyond, our waterproofing system for the karretje (bubble wrap + garbage bag + backpack cover) was holding up well.

We entered the outskirts of Laon and got a wonderfully-comprehensive hand-drawn map and set of directions to our booked hotel from a nice lady at a bar. Feeling pretty awesome as we squelched into town, our mood was slightly dampened (pardon the pun) at the sight of the hotel. It was called Hotel Welcome, but that was not really the vibe. It smelled of petrol and there was no-one to be found at the reception, only a woman living upstairs who couldn't speak French, and many many children. It felt dodgy, so we treddled on down the road to the Hotel Des Arts. They had a room for us, and also a proprietor who was really into her sponge-painting, evidently, making the hotel live up to its name.

Washed and warmed, we high-fived a bit, then wandered the streets of the lower section of Laon. You get the impression it's not the sexy half of town; this title is reserved for the old city (known in Celtic times as Lugdunum, or The Mountain of Light), located high up, and easily-reached by a funicular(!) called the POMA. Well-deserved beer and dinner were had in a little first-floor restaurant with a very cheery waitress. The return to our room, full of wet things hung up around the place, was a soft, warm, smelly smack in the face, but with a window open, we slept like babies under a sponge-painted sun.

Day's stats
Forges, Belgium - Laon, France
Left 9.05am, arrived 5.50pm
Distance travelled: 95km
Conditions: Wind wind wind. Bit of rain. Bit more wind. Shit loads of rain.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Cycletrip Day 5: Romeree - Forges

It was a grey morning. But it was dry. We took our time getting ready, had a little beggar's breakfast in our bedroom of bits and pieces we had with us, then rode towards Mariembourg, as the rain started to lightly fall. The warm lights of a boulangerie drew us across the town square, and as the rain got heavier, so did our bellies, with fat, fresh, filled baguettes and buttery pastries. These we ate sitting outside the bakery. Then we popped around the corner, bought some clementines from the store and sheltered under its awning as it pelted down like buggery. Also held the leash of a lady's dog while she did her shopping. That was nice.

It cleared up a bit, and we continued on our way, across some more shoddy surfaces that we took on foot- we are still a bit like overly-protective parents when it comes to what our darling karretje can handle in his slightly-damaged state. In addition, I could feel Kev starting to struggle a little bit. As everyone who does a bit of fixing on him remarks, he is an old Raleigh (and luckily not too sensitive about comments regarding his age), and suspension ain't his biggest asset. I frequently try to put him at ease by telling him that wear and tear on the joints is a natural part of that ageing process, but it's difficult to have that right in your face as you are forced over gravelly paths and quaint-but-crap cobblestones. So sometimes we just walk.

There were a few problems with directions- I felt a little bit let down by our man Paul Benjaminse (of the 'Cycling to Paris' book fame) with slightly dubious directions where normally he is so right-on in his guidance! It definitely wasn't our fault that we took a wrong turn somewhere after Dailly and ended up having to go on a little detour with a big dip down and up. Anyway we got to Baileux, and that was the main thing. From here it was onwards to Boulers, and we stopped for lunch in the sun, after, what was it, golly, a hard 30kms? It was our shortest day, but only because from our research, Forges had turned up as the last place with accommodation before Laon (another 70kms), so we accepted today would be a light one. It felt like more though, really, because of the uppy-downy-ness of it, and the “huh?” moments in finding our way.

From Boulers we peddled on up the hill to Forges, and found our resting place for the night. It was a really sweet little house, and the section put aside for the chambre d'hote was just beautiful. The whole place was like something out of Country Life or Vogue Living- all blue hues and love hearts and artfully-arranged pieces of wood and glass. Our hosts were Annie and Olivier, a couple who really looked after us, even driving us in the pouring rain to a town a few miles away so we could dine at the cosy little restaurant there. Claire tried the specialite de la maison, a cold fish dish called l'escaveche, Tac had a steak, we had lots of frites, and some vino! Yew! The place was tiny, “like being in someone's lounge room”, said Taco, and there was nothing else around it, but it was bustling, and the waitress looked a bit stressed, but did a stellar job. We flopped into bed, tummies full.

Day's stats
Romeree, Belgium - Forges, Belgium
Left 10.15am, arrived 4pm
Distance travelled: 38km
Conditions: Cloudy; steady, light rain; lots of ups and downs and directional conundrums

Some pics NL and Belgium

Tac, Claire, Caz and Auk

Interesting conversation

Marjan, Maartje, Ellen and Jojanneke 

Ghis and Tac

Record party

Oma and Tac

Walking in Antwerp

Sitting in Brugge

Nice beer

Cycletrip Day 4: Namur - Romeree

We cycled a looong way next to the river the Meuse (Maas), the road was very hobbledy and we also had a vicious wind in our faces, but the beautiful views made up for it. We crossed a few castles and many abandoned Grand Hotels where the tourists loved to go but nowadays are no more then storage places. We passed the Leffe Abbey (we had a couple yesterday) before we came into Dinant, the place where the inventor of the saxophone was born. Just a funny fact.

After Dinant we stopped at a place to buy some more pieces of wood and crocodile/gaffa tape that would support the broken karretje a bit more. We chose to cross the river not by ferry, but just went over the bridge, easy as that. A few kilometres further we had to cross back, also over a bridge, to continue our road on a long straight way, away from the Meuse. We felt that the energy was running a bit low so we stopped several times to regain this by eating cookies, bananas and chocolate.

In Romeree we had a nice finale up a hill that seemed like the alp dhuez (Claire, reading over this entry: should I know what that is? Is my knowledge of big mountains really poor?). Luckily there was a very nice massage douchecabin (Claire again: that's not a naughty cupboard for idiots, it's a shower) complete with chair so that warmed us up. We also warmed up our lasagnas in the microwave, and had a little game of Yahtzee. After dinner we spent some time, too much for our liking, finding a place to stay the next day. Before we went to sleep we watched an episode of our replacement of Homeland, Breaking Bad.

Day's stats
Namur, Belgium - Romeree, Belgium
Left 10.00am, arrived 5.15pm
Distance travelled: 62km
Conditions: shitty surfaces at start, some showers later on
Funniest bits: accidentally put the aluminium bowl with lasagna in the microwave, sure there were lots of funnier bits, can't think of a specific one at the moment.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cycletrip Day 3: Diest - Namur

I think we held our breath for the first few kilometres. As we rode along the paths leading us away from the town, some of which were a little bumpy, we crossed all our bits in the hope that the work of Mister What's His Face with the Nuts and Bolts would see us through. At least today. Just give us one day, little cart. At his bike shop, we had also taken the step of buying some pannier bags to go on Claire's bike, so as to offload the overworked and slightly-disabled karretje.

Gradually we stopped looking at the connection every two seconds (although any chance in surface we took very slowly), and began to enjoy what was going on around us. The path was pretty flat and straight for the most part, and the sun was shining across the green fields of the Belgian countryside. We stopped for a snacky here and there (Marjan's sandwiches still going strong), and found the route we needed pretty easily, following the bible book and the various knooppunten along the way. Knooppunten are little numbers inside green circles, and each one has arrows pointing in the direction of possible following knooppunten that one might be searching for.

Lunch break, Jodoigne
At Jodoigne we stopped by the side of the road to have a lunch break under some trees. Lads in lycra who had stayed at the same hotel as us the night before road past, zooming along on their way to Barcelona doing double our speed, but with about a quarter of our weight and more fancy-schmancy but less lovely bikes, obviously. They were jealous of our sandwiches and chocolate too, I'm sure.

There were moments of pure joy along the straight straight path all the way through to Namur. Sun through trees and smooth paths guided us. There was a brief torrential downpour, but we were conveniently located near a bridge under which we could shelter and put on our sexy rain gear. I felt like I was becoming some sort of weather-reader-woman (which of course I wasn't), judging the movement of clouds and making silent bargains with them, most of which they didn't seem to come at.

Ten kilometres from Namur we were both going at snail's pace against the wind. We remarked to each other that energy levels were feeling pretty low, then the Dutch In Lycra came past again, with some positive, peppy words of encouragement about how close we were to Namur. I'm not sure they helped too much, but our stop for a stretch and the winning banana-chocolate snack attack combination certainly did. The last few kilometres were lovely.

We reached a busy highway in Namur, took 5 to re-orientate ourselves, then found our way down to the river (not before another spectacular fall off the bike from Claire- it's hard when your feet are numb and the bags on your bike are heavy). The surface of the path along the river was a bit bumpy for our liking, so we walked a bit of it. It was a very pretty stretch along that river, old houses either side and numerous quaint cobbled bridges. We came up from the river path in order to cross one of these bridges, just as the rain started to pour again. Taking shelter under a car park entrance, I watched a woman watching the rain from a window a few storeys up on the other side of the street. She looked at me, and did three quite similar movements with one of her hands, and I nodded. It was easy to understand the message being conveyed: “Dear me. Look at this rain. It's a bit crap.”

As the rain slowed, we hopped on the bikes again, and just a little ride down the way found our resting place for the night- a nice hostel overlooking yet another river. We washed up and warmed up, and felt really pleased we had made it. The beers in the bar downstairs were delicious (and can I say I bloody LOVE how everywhere in Belgium gives a little bowl of something salty with your drinks- it feels like such a bonus!), and we were pretty buggered so even ate dinner there like lazy buggers. It did have nice views of the river outside as the sun set, though, and we could have a laugh at the 25 Dutch kids hassling the woman behind the desk about their washing every 17 seconds.

Day's stats
Diest, Belgium - Namur, Belgium
Left 9.30am, arrived 6pm
Distance travelled: 83km
Conditions: nervousness giving way to pride
Funniest bits: "But... do we have to go through Longchamps?" becoming the catchphrase; a million questions about washing from the kids and increasing frustration from the poor lady working

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cycletrip Day 2: Hoogstraten - Diest

Alright, alright, so the first day of our cycle trip hadn't gone entirely according to plan. But you know what, we survived it. We felt kind of awesome for surviving it. And we followed up a day of rain, wrong turns and occasional despair with three days of wonderfulness with Marjan and Patrick (Taco's Mum and step-dad) in Belgium. That first night was total bliss: Marjan's home-cooked food, a foot bath, wine, showers we could have lived in forever, and beautiful beautiful sleep.

Bicycle break: 3 days with the folks in Belgium...
On Wednesday we woke to the smell of freshly-squirted espressos, courtesy of Patrick and his magic machine. After enjoying a Dutchy-goodness breakfast of fresh bread and cheese and spreads, we headed for Antwerp. The city was quiet (a little too quiet, according to M & P, who lived there previously). But it was nice to wander and ogle pretty things in shops, as well as learn a bit about the city. It has a large Jewish community, apparently due to many of them being spared the fate of other Jews during Nazi times, and I learnt that Friday is Jewish peoples' day off, so it's school on Sunday for the kiddies. The men wear those cool hats with curls, and the women wear wigs (?!). We had lunch in a veggie cafĂ©, including their famous hot, frothy, ginger tea (verdict: Marjan and Claire- “delicious”; Patrick and Taco- “blergh”). Marjan sneakily bought us a box of finest Belgian chocolates (and DAMN, they were FINE!), which were to be scoffed over the next few nights. That night we feasted on Marjan's cooking with Ingrid, Patrick's daughter, and her beautiful baby (who, at roughly 4 months old, apparently isn't such a fan of meatballs and lasagne just yet- we ate her share). The following day we visited the lovely old city of Bruges (full of bridges!), drinking Belgian beers, walking the cobbled streets and visiting the Begijnehof- this is essentially a convent, and not uncommon to many old cities in Europe. I need to do some high-quality (Google) research on it still but I understand these places were sort of havens for single women in times when they were at risk of being in danger within communities (slash wanting to find God, I suppose). The Begijnehof is a little walled city within itself- tiny houses in a circle around a main square, this one grassy and filled with daffodils, which would have been lovely to skip through, were it not for a sign forbidding it: sad face). We popped inside the little church and were lucky enough so be able to listen to some of the nuns praying in sing-song form for a little while. The next day was spent doing errands and getting ready for our departure on Saturday. We dined on big, fat, fresh asparagus and smoked salmon, and played Dutch/English Scrabble.

Back on the bikes...
Saturday we were up, croissant-ed and packed by 9-ish, ready and excited to hit to the road Jack. Marjan and Patrick waved us off from Hoogstraten. I was feeling pretty stylish in my waterproofs (pants as well as the jacket, ladies and gents!). It was a little cloudy, yes, but we were ready for it today. And all went swimmingly. The sun shone, the attractive waterproof pants were shed, directions were easily followed and some nice little towns were ridden through.

All went swimmingly, yes, and at 40kms in, just after a snack and loving life, we had only 15kms or so to go until we reached our destination for the day- Diest. The two of us were, we later confirmed, about to turn to each other and suggest we maybe go a bit further today! And as Claire turned to Taco, there was a horrible sound, and Claire's bike went a bit wobbly, and felt a bit lighter, and we turned to see a broken fietskarretje. The bar holding the bicycle cart to Claire's bike had snapped clean in half. We stared. Blinked. Said a few swear words. Then burst into laughter. What were we to do? Really, what the hell were we to do?! Long story short, what we were to do involved a lot of gaffa tape (am I actually an Aussie male, do you think?), elastic ties and a handbag strap, all of which we had on us. We timidly rode on. Just get to Diest, that's all we need to do. The cart was wobbly, but wasn't moving thanks to the aforementioned 8687678m of gaffa. We got about 10km like this, before the hail came and we took shelter in a horse stable. After the bad weather passed, we rode on a little, and, coming across a man and his dog, we asked for some directions. This man was Luke, who turned out to be our Saturday Saviour. He suggested he could take us, and the karretje into Diest in his van. We walked back through some fields with him to his car, and drove to a bike shop. A dude from the shop came out to inspect the damage and whether it could be mended. He scoffed and told us it couldn't be fixed, good luck getting to Paris. But there was another man. Another man in a bike shop with much crap at his disposable- he connected one broken half to the other with a bit of hollow metal pole he had, screwing it all together as Dutch crooners sang out from the radio behind him, and we held our breath in anticipation. He did it! It worked! (We hope!)

Luke said he would drop us, and our down-but-not-out bike cart in Diest. Beforehand, however, we needed to pop by his place as his family might have begun to worry over his whereabouts. We ended up being fed Flemish food and meeting said-family, who were all very lovely and welcoming. After calling nearly every accommodation place listed in our little book, and finding them all full, we eventually found a spot in the slightly-beyond-what-we-wanted-to-pay-but-beggars-can't-be-beggars French Crown hotel in town. Luke dropped us off. We thanked him and promised him our first-born in return for his extreme hospitality and extent to which he saved our asses. We showered, walked around Diest, located our starting point for the next day, watched some football in the pub, then crashed into bed. Things could only get slightly more normal.

Day's stats
Hoogstraten, Belgium - Diest, Hoogstraten
Left 9.30am, arrived 6pm
Distance travelled: 57km
Conditions: weather ok, bike cart not so good but fixed, plenty of Belgian hospitality
Funniest bits: the cart breaking- the sheer "what the fuck" and timing of it

Cycletrip Day 1: Barendrecht - Hoogstraten

After all the preparations (not that many) we were ready to leave Barendrecht at 10.30am. All the stuff fit in the cart so off we went. The first bit went very smoothly and before we knew we were in Dordrecht.

After a short break we had to go over the Moerdijk bridge: shittabrick, the trouble started there. What a wind, it almost threw us off our bikes. On the other side we decided to change route, following the green signs instead of the red ones. Bad decision.The green ones take you along the scenic route, wich probably is beautiful when you are not cycling with the wind in your face. Focking hell what a wind. At times we drove 8 kmph (shown to us on our last minute buy, a basic bike computer a.k.a.odometer).

Finally we came into Breda but from there we didnt have a route, so in the rain we had to check on the roadmaps beside the road to work out where to go to get through the city. Pfff, what a hell, and what a wind, or did we already mention something about the Dutch storm? Once we crossed the border into Belgium it took a bit of a search again, but it was pretty easy from there although we drove for a bit on a road that also was used by massive trucks. Anyway it took a bit longer than expected before we arrived, soaking wet and chilled to the bone in Hoogstraten, it must have been around 20.45. Just in time to see the semi-final of the champions league ;-)

Day's stats:
Barendrecht, Netherlands - Hoogstraten, Belgium
Left 10.30am, arrived 8.45pm
Distance travelled: 88km
Conditions: bloody bloody wind and rain
Funniest bits: Claire falling over while Taco asked for directions; Claire travelling at approximately 4kmph over the Moerdijk bridge; Taco saying as we came into Meerhout, realising we weren't yet in Hoogstraten, in a very sad-serious 5 year old voice: "It's the next village, isn't it?"