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Photo Essay: Autumn Cycling In The Netherlands

Posted October 24th, 2011

If we had to pick a favourite season for bike touring, autumn would be it.

Summers are too hot, and the bike paths too crowded. Spring is too wet, and winter too icy. But autumn? It’s perfect. Who could argue with a ride along a misty, tree-lined road like this, on a Sunday morning in late October?

Beautiful Sunday Cycling

All around us, colours are popping – not least in the ripe corn, just waiting for the farmer to come and pluck it off the stalk.

Corn

The beauty of the surrounding landscape, and the good company, give us plenty of reasons to smile, as we ride along nearly deserted bike paths.

Alicia

Darkness falls early in October, so by 5pm we’re setting up camp. We’re the only tenters in a huge campground.

Setting up camp

We spread a phenomenal amount of food out on the picnic table. Will 3 people really eat all this? Yes, as it turns out. It’s going to be cold tonight, you know – below freezing. We need insulation! From this pile of food, we make a vegetable curry, rice, smores over the campfire and an apple desert. Yum!

We do eat a lot of food for 3 people...

Before supper, however, we cut wood for the campfire and laugh – a lot. Some of us (Andrew) end up working more than others. Well, there should be at least a few benefits to being 6 months pregnant!

Sawing Wood - a team effort :-)

As night falls, we stoke the campfire, roast marshmallows and talk, until only coals are left, and we wonder if autumn will be kind enough to give us just one more weekend like this, before winter really sets in.

Campfire at the natuurcamping in Sellingen

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

A Bike Tour In Spain: Reaching The Peak

Posted January 8th, 2011

As our trip winds down, we inch up the last big hill at a snail’s pace to reach the high point of our journey – literally.

High point

It’s not so high compared with the world’s great mountain ranges but the steep grades and constant ups and downs of Andalucia’s roads have tested our legs as much as the Himalayas. Frankly, our muscles feel like jelly after so much climbing so we are proud to reach this point.

We’re also amazed at how quickly we’ve reached the last few days of our trip. Where did the last 3 weeks go? Then again, 3 years on a world bike tour went pretty quickly too. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that shorter holidays are even more fleeting.

This journey may be nearly over but we still have a few memorable adventures in store. The best one comes as we are cycling through a town and hear the whistle of a pan flute coming from a motorbike. “What is it? What’s he doing?” we wonder. He’s clearly trying to sell something, going slowly past all the houses and tooting his flute, but what? Then Andrew spots the grinders on the back of his motorbike.

“He’s a knife sharpener! Quick! Let’s catch him!”

We chase the man up the hill and wave him down, breathless. We have a cooking knife for chopping our vegetables and for months now it’s been dull, dull, dull. We are thrilled to hand it over and watch him do his work. A few local people gather to watch as well.

The Knife Sharpener

The Knife Sharpener

Grinding the knife

He works hard at making our knife razor sharp for a good 5 minutes and for this pleasure he charges us all of €2.50. “You just don’t see stuff like this at home in Holland,” we both say, thrilled at our good luck to run across this knife sharpener’s path.

Mud also continues to haunt us. It doesn’t help that Friedel’s shoes are very old. We bought them in Thailand. They’ve seen thousands of kilometers of cycling across Asia, Australia, New Zealand and North America. Now, when she steps in a muddy field, trying to get to a wild camping spot, the mud not only squishes up the outside of her shoes but through cracks and to the inside as well. Maybe it’s the end of the road for these shoes.

Muddy shoes

And we explore the city of Carmona, just outside of Seville. When Julius Caesar was around, it was considered the best protected city in Spain because of its fort and strong city walls. We climb the fortress for a view of the rooftops.

Carmona Rooftops

And the glimpses of ordinary life down below, like laundry hung out to dry.

Carmona Laundry

We visit the deserted main square (it will probably be bustling with activity tonight), with its cafes and bars.

Carmona Square

We stand amazed in front of this toy shop, which has dolls piled higher than the door and even on the owner’s truck parked outside! The inside of the truck is jammed full of stuff as well.

Toy Shop

And admire the many mosaics and colourful tiles, especially outside of local bars. This one advertises the sherry that is famously made not far away and drunk by the barrel in this part of Spain. It’s not uncommon to see people having a glass of sherry with their morning coffee.

Sherry

Soon, it’s time to go home. After a night’s sleep, we cycle in the dark to the nearest train station and get on board. We are tired.

Tired Friedel

Now it’s back to work. Back to comforts like hot showers and soft beds. Back to dreaming about the next bike tour.