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Europe’s Best Bike Routes In 2014

Posted January 23rd, 2014

It’s almost that time again, when the annual Fietsenwandelbeurs takes place in Amsterdam.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of going, let us explain. This is a huge two-day exposition, dedicated to everything for cyclists and hikers. We go every year to check out new gear, the latest bikes and of course to get inspiration for future bike tours.

Ahead of the fair, the Fietsenwandelbeurs nominates bike routes for the “Route of the Year” award. This year there are four nominees:

#1. The Pirinexus (through Spain and France)

The Pirinexus is a 350km loop, of which 280km are in Spain and 80km are on the French side of the Pyrenees.

Pirinexus Route

At the moment, it’s southern Europe‘s longest marked bicycle route. The route is mostly flat, taking in a part of the Costa Brava and former railway lines. That said, you will have to climb a couple mountains with peaks of 1,000-1,500 meters. The roads leading up these mountains aren’t too steep, however. Part of the Pirinexus also tracks EuroVelo 8 from Athens to Cádiz. Read more…

#2. The Tour de Manche (France and England)

The Tour de Manche is a bike route around the English Channel. Ferry services help you make the connection between England and France. In total it’s a route of 1,200km but there’s also a smaller version of 440km, which takes in the Channel Islands.

Tour de Manche

The Tour de Manche doesn’t always follow the coast. Sometimes it uses old railway lines and small tracks to cut across Normandy. The English section involves a few steep climbs. On the return leg, you get a wonderful view over the cliffs. You can also use the Tour de Manche route to hook up with the Vélodyssée, which runs down the coast of France towards Spain. Read more…

#3. Valsugana (Trentino, Italy)

The Valsugana route follows the Brenta river valley between Pergine Valsugana and Bassano del Grappa. It’s fairly short at just 80km. You bike nearly entirely on dedicated bike paths. The route climbs very gently (you’ll barely notice it). It the Western part you can take on some extra loops around local lakes.

The Valsugana Route

The Valsugana connects to the Adige (Etsch) cycle path from Austria to Verona and the Via Claudia Augusta, going towards the Adriatic coastline. Read more…

#4. Vennbahn (Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg)

The Vennbahn is a dedicated bike path that follows old railway lines from Troisvierges (Luxembourg) to Aachen (Germany). It’s 125 km long.

The Vennbahn

Leaving Aachen, the route climbs to 500 meters but the grade is never more than 2% so it’s a gentle climb. Save your energy! There’s a 10% climb just before the Luxembourg border. As far as the landscape goes, the bike path mostly goes through green areas and there are many signs of the area’s railway history. We’ll be cycling this route over Easter, so there’s more information to come! Read more…

Three Great Bike Touring Routes In Europe

Posted February 4th, 2013

Every February, thousands of cyclists come to Amsterdam for the Fietsenwandelbeurs. It’s a gigantic fair centred on everything of interest for bike tourists, hikers, campers and anyone who enjoys the outdoors.

As part of the event, 3 bike routes are nominated for ‘best bike route of the year’. Here are the 2013 selections.

1. Velodyssey – The Atlantic Cycling Route
The top choice of this year’s judges is Velodyssey: a 1,200km bike route that starts in Britain and runs all the way down the western coast of France to the Spanish border. It’s France’s longest waymarked bike path and connects up neatly with the Eurovelo 6 and Eurovelo 4 routes.

2. Burgundy By Bike (Tour De Bourgogne)
The Tour De Bourgogne sounds like a food-loving cyclists’ dream. It’s a 580km bike route (soon to be expanded to 800km) that passes through the gastronomic capital of Dijon and famous wine regions around Mâcon. The route is set partly along voie vertes, canals and disused railway lines, where no motorised traffic is allowed. Detailed route descriptions and a GPS track are available from the website.

Tour De Bourgogne

#3. The Vennbahn
At just 125km in length, the Vennbahn is the shortest of the three nominated routes. Unless you live nearby, it’s not likely to be a destination in its own right but could make a nice addition to a longer tour. It traces the path of an old railway line through Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. The website has some good information about the route and the area, including intriguing stories about the coffee smugglers that roamed the border areas of Germany and Belgium after World War II.

Video: Our First Big Family Bike Tour

Posted July 31st, 2012

We just returned from our first extended bike tour as a family. 

With 5-month-old Luke in tow, we cycled 550km through the Netherlands, Belgium and France. We’ll be blogging more in the coming weeks about the lessons learnt from this tour but first, a video that we managed to shoot and assemble (in our tent at night) along the way.

Bike Touring Belgium & France: Our Planning Resources

Posted July 24th, 2012

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:

Leaving the highest beer cafe in the Netherlands

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:

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.

Belgium's 'national' Bike Route
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.

A Beer-Tasting Bicycle Tour In Belgium

Posted August 16th, 2011

If you thought that bicycle touring was our only passion, you’d be wrong. We have many loves, and near the top of the list is a good beer.

Lucky for us, we live just a hop, skip and a jump from Belgium – probably the best beer-making country in the world. So, in August 2011, we set off to explore the beers of Belgium by bicycle. We gathered up 4 other friends (all newbie bike tourists but definite beer lovers) and started mapping out a weekend jaunt.

Planning the route was challenging. Many breweries aren’t open to the public, and Belgium doesn’t have good online bicycle route information. Thankfully our friend Alicia (an experienced beer cyclist) came to the rescue with a 90km route from the Belgian city of Antwerp to the Dutch city of Tilburg, passing the Westmalle and La Trappe trappist breweries along the way.

Beer cycling map
A map of our route. You can download the GPS track.

To get started, we had to take the train to Antwerp. We live in Holland, and it’s normally easy to take the train because there’s always a bicycle car. On this train, it wasn’t so easy. One minute we were waiting in the late afternoon sun. The next we were frantically trying to find our place on an outdated Belgian train, with no bicycle signs on any of the doors.

Waiting for the train; Holland Spoor
Waiting for the train at Holland Spoor. Photo by Jane Starz.

Only after we crowded onto an ordinary entrance did we discover there was actually a bike carriage one wagon further down, so we changed at the next station. Later, we asked the conductor why it wasn’t more clearly marked. He didn’t really answer, and he told us that in future there might not be any bike space at all on this route. Hummmmm.

No matter. We made it to Antwerp, and started with beers of course in the main square. De Koninck was the beer of choice. It’s made in Antwerp, so it’s the obvious local choice.

De Koninck
Li drinking a De Koninck beer.

Next was a great meal at De 7 Schaken, a casual gastro-pub just off Antwerp’s main square. After a few more beers, we settled down for a night at ‘t Katshuis (a remarkably good value B&B). By Saturday morning, we were ready to go, but not before we packed our panniers with Elisa chocolates.

Aside from the chocolates, Andrew put an empty beer crate on the back of his bike, just in case we found anything tasty along the way.

Andrew with empty beer crate

It wasn’t long, of course, before we found a pub and stopped for beer. This time, it was the delectable Corsendonk that made the grade. Their dark beer was later voted best of the trip. Everyone gave it a raving review but who needs words? The smiles say it all really.

Erik & Andrew with Corsendonk Beer

The strawberry waffles weren’t half bad either.

Strawberry Waffles

From there, we pedalled along quite Belgian lanes and bicycle paths to the Westmalle Trappist brewery. There are nearly 200 Trappist monasteries around the world but only 7 produce beer, and this is one of them. They aren’t open for visitors, but we had our picture taken at the entrance anyway, and then we hit the nearby Cafe Trappisten for a sample of the local brew, fresh from the tap.

At the entrance to Westmalle Trappist Brewery

When we got hungry, we stopped for strawberries – from a vending machine, of course! Put in a couple coins and out comes a box of refrigerated, luscious berries. The Belgiums seem to like their vending machines. We also saw bread and meat products (outside a butcher’s shop) being dispensed from similar machines.

Strawberry Automat!

Now we were near the border, and it was time for a stop at what turned out to be the highlight of the trip: a beer shop literally on the Dutch-Belgian border. The border line ran right through the shop, and they had the most amazing selection of beers you’ve ever seen. Andrew’s beer crate was suddenly full.

Beer bicycle loaded and ready to go
With the right crate, you can easily carry 24 bottles of beer on your bicycle. Photo by Li.

We also wanted to stop at the Dochter van de Korenaar brewery but it was closed for vacation. Next time. Instead, the weekend ended with a quick stop at La Trappe and then beers on the train home. Yes, you can crack open a couple beers on the train. It’s no problem in the Netherlands (although it seemed odd at first to our no-drinking-in-public Canadian mentality).

Beers On The Train

Beer Cycling Tips:

  • Go slowly. About 30-40km a day is ideal for tasting lots of beer, while still doing a bit of cycling at the same time.
  • Consider leaving your camping gear behind, so that you’ll have more room for beer (and don’t forget the crate on the back of the bicycle!)
  • Research, research, research. Make sure you know the opening times of the breweries, and see if you need to call ahead to visit. Book your accommodation too because at least in this part of Belgium there are a lot of private B&Bs that you won’t find by chance as you’re passing through.
  • Stop to enjoy some Belgian food too. Waffles, chocolates and french fries are ideal for soaking up all that beer!