Bike Touring Belgium & France: Our Planning Resources
We’ve just returned from a 2-week bicycle tour though southern Belgium and northern France. Here are some of the resources we used to plan the trip, plus a few thoughts on how it worked out.
Trip Overview: The goal was to cycle 550km from the Netherlands to a small town in northern France, where friends had rented a house for a few days. We hoped to camp most of the way. In terms of sights, we wanted to see:
- the highest beer cafe in the Netherlands
- the hills of the Ardennes in southern Belgium
- famous Trappist breweries such as Chimay
- the medieval town of Laon
- unique fortified churches
The Route: This was our first bike tour with 5-month-old Luke. Our main priority was to find smooth, quiet roads. We used the following sources:
- GPS track for cycling from the Netherlands to Paris (Onbegrensd Fietsen)
- Michelin Regional Maps of the Belgian Ardennes and northern France
- GPS tracks on Waymarked Cycling Trails (from OpenStreetMap data)
- RAVeL bike path network in Belgium
- We also identified small, quiet campsites in the region
Putting all of this together, we came up with the route that you see below. It includes a train journey back home. You’re welcome to download the GPS track but beware: it includes all our wrong turns and detours! There’s also this relatively clean pre-trip plan.
How did our trip work out?
Highlights: We definitely achieved our goal of riding only on quiet roads and bike paths. We were often on dedicated bike paths and the roads we did use had very little car traffic. We felt very safe with Luke in tow. We also loved the area around Compiègne in northern France: it’s full of beautiful chateaus, forests and historic sights.
Lowlights: In addition to poor weather (just a matter of bad luck), here’s what we didn’t like so much…
- Bike paths in Belgium weren’t always up to scratch. Sometimes major paths such as the RAVeL network were little more than a muddy track through the forest, and a poorly maintained one at that. The picture below illustrates our point. On one day, we spent more time walking than cycling. It wasn’t always so bad. Many sections were excellent but the inconsistent quality was frustrating.
Walking and lifting our way along a bike path in Belgium. Photo by Alicia.
- There’s little to see in southern Belgium. Once we left the Ardennes, we found very little to see other than the countryside. It was surprisingly hard to find supermarkets and other services without detouring to major towns. The whole area felt a little isolated and run down. Finding a nice cafe to have a coffee and a slice of cake seemed like mission impossible. This was very different from the cycling we’ve done in northern Belgium.
- Coming back by train was a pain. It’s perhaps stating the obvious but getting a fully-loaded touring bike on a train in Europe is often difficult. Bike wagons may or may not exist, often involve lifting your bike up a steep set of stairs and can be crowded in the summer. We managed but only thanks to the help of many other cyclists along the way, and a good sense of humour. We were also lucky that the staff at two stations led us across the tracks to change platforms, rather than making us lug our bikes and gear up and down flights of stairs. We are seriously considering folding bikes (such as the Dahon Speed TR) for future tours of Europe. A reader also suggested that the Bicycle Bus (Fietsbus) would be a good option for journeys to and from the Netherlands.
Conclusion: Not one of our most memorable bike tours, though we are happy to have done it and we particularly enjoyed cycling in France. If we cycle to Paris again, we’ll probably plan a route along the North Sea and then south through France – and we’d get folding bikes for an easy train journey home.