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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 The next we were frantically trying to find our place on an outdated Belgian train, with no bicycle signs on any of the doors.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!

Pushing The Reset Button (Part II)

Posted July 31st, 2011

We got a real soaking on the first few days of our staycation bike tour around the Netherlands, and it’s at this point, dear reader, that we have a confession to make. We went home.

Getting the train home

Yes, that’s right. We caved. We piled our wet soggy bodies, and our dripping tent and our musty shoes onto a train and we went home. You might think we were wimps. Maybe we were, but sometimes you just have to push that reset button and for us – after 4 straight days of cycling under a rain cloud – this was our time.

In another time and place, we might have done something else (like get a hotel for the night) but that’s the advantage of touring close to home – there’s always an easy way out if things get too miserable.

So home we went, to wash and dry our clothes, hang out our tent and restore our spirits with a good night’s sleep in a warm bed, rather than a squishy, muddy field. Twenty-four hours later, we were ready to set out again, so we checked the forecast and headed for what the weatherman said would be the driest spot in the country; Groningen.

Our mission was to cycle as much of the Fietserpad as possible; a 500km bike path that runs north to south through the Netherlands, and twice enters Germany. As soon as you leave the city of Groningen and head south, the Fietserpad starts to shine. It goes past some iconic Dutch scenery. The dark skies hung over us, but it didn’t rain.

Andrew cycling past a windmill

As we pedalled along immaculately paved bike paths, we couldn’t help but admire the Dutch bicycle infrastructure. Even though we’ve been living here nearly 2 years now, we’re constantly amazed at the diversity of paths, and how well marked they are. This one shows signs for local paths, as well as the direction of a long-distance bicycle route.

Dutch bicycle signs

We were also impressed at how much woodland we cycled through – over 100km and we barely had to cross another road or even see a car, let alone cycle alongside one. How is this possible in such a crowded, densely populated country? Of course, you wouldn’t find this near Amsterdam, but the Dutch are good at preserving what nature areas they have, and all of this is accessible by bicycle. Bliss.

Cycling Through Dutch Woodland

As the Fietserpad wound its way south, we occasionally dipped into Germany, and we didn’t need the border signs to tell us that we’d changed countries. We could guess as much when the bike paths turned to sand, and bumped along the back of fields. This happens sometimes in the Netherlands too, but most of our ride in Germany seemed to be like this.

Sandy bicycle paths

And when we crossed back into the Netherlands, the bike paths magically reappeared. On the German side? A dirt road full of potholes. On the Dutch side? A smooth, marked bike path.

Germany versus Holland

Although the weather had certainly improved from the first half of our bike tour, the second part of our trip wasn’t without its disasters. One night, in a campground, a gust of wind blew over Andrew’s bike before we had the chance to catch it. His handlebar bag was still on the bike, and there was one casualty: our beloved Kindle.

Kindle is broken!

This seems to prove the concerns we had about its fragility when we reviewed it. Nothing else in the handlebar bag broke (there was a camera, a GPS and other gadgets inside), and the Kindle was protected (albeit not in an official Kindle case). Hopefully Amazon will replace it, and we’ll have to think up a better way of carrying it for future trips. We still love this thing; it’s incredibly useful and convenient, but it does require a little TLC.

On we pedalled, through seemingly endless Dutch woods, finishing up each day in one of the great nature camping sites (less developed campsites). We were determined to try some new camping recipes, and the highlight of our camp cookery was sausages and mashed potatoes (bangers & mash for the Brits out there); inspired by a recipe we got from Liz & Chris (we’ll share it soon on the site). It was by far one of the best camp meals we’ve ever made, and a great way to finish our summer bike tour around the Netherlands!

Bangers & Mash

The Wet, Wet Bicycle Tour Of Holland (Part 1)

Posted July 29th, 2011

Bicycle pump at a cafe “This is unexpected! Totally unexpected!”

The owner of the small cafe in Friesland where we’d taken shelter from the rain paced around our table, tapping his iPhone, shaking his head and muttering.

“There’s no rain in the forecast. I just don’t know where it’s come from. I’m sure it’ll pass soon,” he added, trying to make us feel better.

We nodded and turned back to the steaming mugs of coffee in front of us, trying not to look at the puddles forming underneath our dripping jackets. Rain or no rain, we were determined to draw pleasure from the moment – a brief escape from the latest downpour in what was turning out to be a very wet bike tour.

Earlier, we rode off the ferry that goes across the IJsselmeer – a huge artificial lake in the middle of the Netherlands – with about 50 other very soggy cyclists. On the pier, everyone started putting on rain gear, and we all looked a bit fed up with the weather.

Ferry from Enkhuizen to Stavoren

The rain had been nearly steady for the past 4 days. All the campgrounds were soaked, and most cyclists were too. Later, a friend informed us that 2011 was turning out to be the wettest summer on record in over 100 years – it certainly felt it! The brief sunny moments we’d seen right at the beginning of our trip, seemed like something from last year, not last week.

Riding through a sunlit woods

Still, at some point you have to make a choice. Are you going to ride on, fed up and grumpy, or will you make the best of it? We chose the second option, and tried to adopt some of the bracing attitude that Paul de Vivie showed, when he was bike touring in the 1800s.

After a long day on my bicycle, I feel refreshed, cleansed, purified. I feel that I have established contact with my environment and that I am at peace. On days like that I am permeated with a profound gratitude for my bicycle. Even if I did not enjoy riding, I would still do it for my peace of mind. What a wonderful tonic to be exposed to bright sunshine, drenching rain, choking dust, dripping fog, rigid air, punishing winds!

We covered our heads with wide-brimmed hats to keep the rain out of our eyes. We sang silly songs to distract ourselves from the strong winds and rain, and we happily stopped for a chat when we came across these two Brits on a ferry. They’re riding to Copenhagen on a Dawes tandem, with a heavy homemade trailer!

A Dawes Tandem & Homemade Trailer

In a brief rain-free moment, we paused to snap a picture of our bicycles by the water’s edge.

Santos Bikes by the IJsselmeer

And when the rain started up again, we thought about buying a very Dutch saddle cover, decorated with bright colours and flowers. We didn’t get the saddle cover (a shower cap works just as well), but we did take shelter from one rain storm in a camping shop. We walked out with a new towel to replace the one we’d lost somewhere, and some camping bowls to replace our smelly X Bowls.

Flowery Bike Seat

And then, we jumped back in the saddle again, looking for a bit of sunshine somewhere down the road.

Friesland

Yorkshire. Er… Holland. Our ‘Staycation’ Bike Tour.

Posted July 11th, 2011

We’re advocates of not planning a bike tour too much. Remaining open to the serendipity and unexpected opportunities that life on the road brings is, we think, one of the best parts of bicycle travel.

But this summer, we may have left a little too much in the hands of fate. Our idea was clear. We wanted to travel by ferry from our home in Holland to Newcastle in northern England. We’d then spend 7-10 days cycling south through Yorkshire’s beautiful moors and dales to Hull, hopefully across some backroads and country tracks. From there, we’d take another ferry back home.

Yorkshire Dales Beautiful Yorkshire. Photo by Chantrybee

It sounded blissfully easy on paper, and ferries being a slightly old-fashioned mode of transport, we didn’t worry too much about booking ahead. As it turns out, we should have worried a bit more than we did. The sticker shock of over €600 to get the two of us and our bicycles to England and back was a bit more than we were willing to swallow. For a tour of several weeks, maybe we would have done it. For a week, it was hard to justify.

We looked at discount websites, tried varying our dates, considered a few route variations and even – briefly – thought about going by plane, train or bus. We considered numerous kind offers from readers (including one incredibly sweet offer to lend us bikes, so we could fly without the hassle of packing!) but in the end, we decided to abandon ship. Our trip to Yorkshire would have to wait until next year.

So, with over a week of holidays booked for the end of July, now what? Again we turned to the drawing board, and our readers.

“Where would you go?” we asked, and we received many tempting answers. Everything from a Berlin-Copenhagen trip (this one really tempted us), to the Eiffel mountains of Germany (also highly recommended by our cycling neighbours), and a journey along Norway’s coastline.

In the end, however, each trip had its own reasons for not fitting in this year so we decided on the simplest option possible: a ‘staycation’ bike tour of the Netherlands. We’ll cycle out our front door. We’ll probably take a train home, but it won’t cost much and we can decide at the last minute when and where to hitch a lift home.

This is what our rough plan looks like now. It’s a healthy 660km and it fulfills a quirky desire to cycle along the borders of the Netherlands (at least halfway – maybe next year we’ll do the rest).

2011 Bicycle Tour of Holland

Like all good things, ‘the plan’ may change. That’s no problem though. Now that we’re sticking close to home, we can once again go with our whims. We’re also pleased because the money saved on transport means we’ll have a nice ‘luxury fund’ for lunches out and other treats. Even better, we’ll get to explore the treasures in our back yard that we haven’t seen yet, rather than rushing off to destinations afar.

As we’ve found out many times this year already, you really don’t have to travel far to have a good time on a bicycle tour. We plan on proving that theory once more, at the end of this month.

Posted in Netherlands

The Joys of Big Adventures, Close To Home

Posted April 12th, 2011

Stopping for a restWe’ve always believed that big adventures can be found close to home.

You don’t have to cycle around the world to have a good time, and one of the best “big adventures” we’ve discovered in the last couple of years is the S240 or Sub 24 hour Overnight bike camping trip. It’s pure joy, easily condensed into an evening.

It’s simple. Dead simple. There are no packing lists, or worrying about how much food to take. We typically take our tent, a sleeping bag and mat, a pillow, some picnic foods (cheese, salami, bread, olives, etc…) and a thermos full of tea, plus a bottle of wine if we’re feeling extravagant. We throw a toothbrush and a camera in the handlebar bag and we’re off (here’s another S240 packing list)

You don’t have to meticulously plan a route. After all, less planning = more chance for adventure! Anyway, whatever you forget or can’t figure out doesn’t matter much. You’ll be home the next morning.

It doesn’t have to be far either. Go down the road, slip your tent in the woods or visit a campsite you haven’t yet been to. Ask a farmer in the next village if you can pitch a tent in his field.

These mini-adventures are great for working out the kinks of bike touring. Do a few of them, and you’ll soon discover if your sleeping mat is comfortable enough, or if your stove is really easy to use. And they’re a fantastic break away from the routines of a hectic lifestyle. A bike ride plus a night of camping is the best stress relief we’ve found yet.

On our last S240, we headed out along the canals and green fields near our home in Holland.

DSC_6499

We stopped to admire the windmills.

DSC_6443

And we laughed at the spring lambs, playing in the fields.

DSC_6446

We found a place to pitch our tent (a paal camping site – legal and free camping in Holland).

DSC_6467

And we cooked supper, while watching the sun sink over the canal.

DSC_6481

The next morning we stopped for apple cake and coffee.

Coffee. Apple Cake. Heaven.

We hung out at the market, and drooled over the cheese. We also had our panniers filled by a kind Iranian man, who heard we’d cycled through his country and starting pulling food off the shelves of his shop. We didn’t get his picture but he sure put a smile on our faces for the rest of the day.

Cheese Stand

Almost back home, we watched as 3 girls made their way along a bike lane (we love living in a country where it’s safe enough for everyone – even kids – to cycle everywhere).

Three Little Girls On Bikes

Not a small amount of adventure for just 15 hours away from home. We were never further than 30km from our house. How about you? Where’s your next mini-adventure going to be?