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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!

Beer Cycling Through Belgium

Posted December 9th, 2010

Love beer? Love cycling?

Why not combine the two with a bike tour to Belgium’s trappist breweries. That’s exactly what Kyle & Briana did in summer 2010. They spent a week bike touring from one brewery to the other, seeing the traditional abbeys and tasting the results of the monk’s efforts.

“The route was enjoyable for the scenery alone and the prospect of another beer tasting at the end of the day made it one of my favorite tours so far,” Kyle wrote in a post describing the trip on their Roll Global website.

We were intrigued by the idea, and so we asked Kyle & Briana to tell us more about their trip.

Beer at Rochefort, Belgium

1. What was the inspiration behind this particular beer tour? How did you pick Belgium?

As avid bike commuters and home-brewers, a bicycle beer tour seemed like a logical goal for a trip. We had both been urban riders for years but neither of us had any touring or long-distance riding experience and the flat terrain and developed bike infrastructure in Belgium and the Netherlands seemed like a great place to get started. The fact that Belgium alone has over 125 active breweries brewing world-renowned beers was enough to make our mouths start watering and our legs start aching for the trip.

2. How did you plan the trip?

While we had discussed the tour for a long time, we never really got around to planning it out until the last minute. Inspiration to travel and to change our lifestyle kind of exploded from the beer tour idea and next thing we knew we were no longer thinking about a 2-3 week vacation from work but rather a multi-year round the world odyssey, a marriage and a liquidation of most earthly belongings.

When the time came to start the tour we decided to focus the itinerary on the seven Trappist breweries, six of which are in Belgium with the remaining one being in the Netherlands. Planning the tour around the Trappist breweries provided an easy framework on which to build an itinerary and ensured we would get to taste some of the best beers in the world.

We scoured the internet for information on bike paths and route planning but found relatively little. In the end we mapped out the location of the places we wanted to visit and using a trusty 1:200,000 scale Michelin map and our GPS we found the best way to connect the dots. On several parts of the itinerary the breweries were a perfect day’s ride away from each other and in other parts we spent 2-3 days cycling between them.

trappistbreweriesmap.jpg
See the Trappist Breweries Map created by Kyle & Briana

3. Did you follow bike paths? Was it relatively easy to navigate and stay away from traffic?

Our ride was an even split of bike paths and road riding. Our Michelin maps showed the major long-distance bike routes in Belgium and France and we generally steered ourselves towards those when appropriate. We were really impressed with the quality of most of the bike routes we cycled on. Many of them are converted railway lines and tend to travel away from development through beautiful natural surroundings. Following bike paths adds a little mileage but we considered it to be a worthwhile tradeoff.

When we were riding on the road we found that the pavement was generally of good quality and the traffic was low. We were easily able to avoid major highways and saw very little truck traffic the entire trip. It was definitely a great riding experience.

Bike Lanes In Belgium

4. What did you typically find when you arrived at the breweries?

Well, planning a tour of the Trappist breweries is a little silly in a sense because none of the breweries are open to the public. Trappist beer is brewed by monks in abbey breweries using traditional methods that date back to the seventeenth century. The beer is produced and sold to support monastic life, a key element of which includes remaining closed off from the general public.

In most cases this means that you will only get to admire the often gorgeous abbeys from the outside, though Orval and Chimay offer access to portions of the abbey grounds. Most of the breweries have semi-official visitor’s centers where you can taste their beers and other Trappist products. Some of the abbeys, such as Rochefort, are located a short distance from the town with no services at the actual site. In this case the local town will invariably be home to a variety of pubs for you to choose from where you can taste the full selection of brews often paired with delicious local cuisine.

If you want to go to the Westvleteren tasting room (an absolute must on this itinerary, since it is widely considered to be the best beer in the world) be aware that it is closed on Thursdays and Fridays as well as the second week in April and the last two weeks of September.

Bike Path In Belgium

5. Aside from the beer, what were some of the highlights?

At the end of a long and steep day of riding in cold rainy weather we pulled into a little town near Chimay and were surprised to see every resident out and about, huddling under leaky party tents, drinking beer and boisterously celebrating their local holiday. The very sight of the two of us, wet and dirty from our journey on the fully loaded bike made the entire crowd erupt in cheers. It was an uplifting finish to a trying day.

6. Give us one “insider tip” for anyone wanting to plan a beer tour in Europe.

It’s fun to plan an itinerary around internationally renowned beers but don’t let that focus stop you from slowing down and popping into a local pub to see what’s on offer. In Belgium especially, almost every little village in every region has its own beer. At the end of a long day drop in for a glass, make some new friends and maybe you’ll discover your new favorite brew.

Read more about Kyle & Briana’s beer tour and check out their great website, with lots of cycling tips at www.rollglobal.com

Brussels, Madrid and Munich

Posted October 28th, 2005

* WPG2 Plugin Not Validated ** WPG2 Plugin Not Validated ** WPG2 Plugin Not Validated *So many pictures to catch up on from when our server died. Check out our weekend in Brussels (beeeeeeeeeeerrrrr!), a few days in Munich, Baden-Baden and Strasbourg and some from Madrid, which was actually for curling, although you wouldn’t know it from our photos. We should have some shots from the rink soon.