In Bruges

In Bruges

When I lived in London, Bruges/Brugge was a weekend sightseeing getaway with the benefit bringing back cheap beer & wine. Thirty years on, I’m hoping the experience will be more a little more cultural and a bit less mercenary. And so it proves. Loek, our Elodie bike ‘n barge tour guide, takes us on a quick circuit of the city when we arrive, pointing out the significant landmarks and buildings. Fortunately, Brugge was spared the destruction of many other medieval cities during WWII, and has most of its grandeur intact.

Brugge’s wealth originates in trade—first wool, then spices and a substantial range of other goods through the benefit of its proximity to the North Sea. It lays claim to the first mercantile exchange (bourse) dating from the early 14th century. It was (and is) the capital city of its province of West Flanders and enjoyed a powerful position in the low countries until the end of the 15th century. Its position was challenged by the rise of the other emerging cities in the region—Antwerp, Ghent, Amsterdam, and others—while the gradual silting of river access to the coast compromised its trading position. The city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But Bruges is more than the grand façade of the provincial court and the opulent city hall. Horse-drawn carriages clatter over the cobbled streets, water taxis ply the canals and ferry camera-snapping tourists around. Beyond the centre is a charming network of alleys and quiet streets, cafes, bars and boutique hotels. And that’s where we find our overnight accomms atHotel ‘t Putje. Our room is compact but efficient and has a bijou balcony large enough for a solitary smoker. (The room is non-smoking, though a surprising number of Belgians smoke.)

Intimidated by the expensive menu in the hotel’s ritzy restaurant, Cheryl and I settle for a Croque Monsieur (toasted cheese sandwich) each. The snooty waiter almost visibly sneers as we order our cheap lunch, so he gets an appropriate gratuity.

We’ve arranged to meet some of la gang from the Elodie in the city centre at 5:00pm at the “car wash,” an interesting (if that’s the right word) piece of public art that looks like…well, a car wash, the walls a mosaic of steel hexagons. First we head for the famous Beer Wall pub, which claims to be able to serve 780 different types of beer. Sadly, I only have time to try two: an award-winning unfiltered and naturally conditioned pilsener and a delicious dark Steen Brugge. Cheryl has a Kwak beer, which comes in an elegantly waisted, round-bottomed glass sitting in its own wooden holder.

John & Brenda and Drew & Heather join us for Italian food at Carlito’s, a recommendation of John’s, and as we’re leaving, the sound of rockabilly music wafts in from Charlie Rocket’s bar next door. Turns out the band is from Vancouver (what are the chances?) and led by Paul Pigat (aka Cousin Harley) shouldering a Gretsh Country Gent guitar—signed by “twangy guitar” legend Duane Eddy. Majorly cool!

Cousin Harley

 

 

Brugge off

Monday’s task is to get to Brussels for our Ryan Air flight to Venice. Midday finds us at the train station locked and loaded. The train ride is uneventful, though springing the Euro 30 or so for First Class was a good idea, based on the squeeze in 2nd.

Goodbye Bruges!

At Charleroi, we have to lug our bags across a construction site to get to the taxi stop, then stuff ourselves into a tiny taxi for the haul out to the brand new airport hotel— extremely basic but all cunningly designed for optimum efficiency. The rooms are a sort of cross between a McDonalds and an IKEA store bathroom. There’s no restaurant within a couple of miles (though there’s a TV dinner vending machine in the lobby), so we hike to a nearby gas station (across another construction site…) to buy vino and snacks before ordering in a surprisingly good delivery pizza.

Tuesday lurches into life at 04:15 so we can be ready for the shuttle bus at 05:00. We anticipated that Ryanair would find some way to hose us, and we’re proved right. If you show up at the airport without a boarding pass printed on A4 paper, there’s a charge of Euro 40 each, so we did that at the hotel. But we’ve also decided to check an extra bag, and that’s not shown on the boarding pass—so that costs Euro 80! The buggers’ll get you coming and going–but there’s no alternative direct flight… In fairness, once we’re in the air, the Ryanair experience is just like any other cheap carrier, except that the flight attendants are selling lottery tickets!

Next: downtime in Montegrotto and uptown in Venice.

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Gettting from A to B

Amsterdam to Bruges (Brugge), that is. 350km of canal paths and  bike trails, bridges and castles, headwinds and windmills, butt-busting bumps and saddle-sore asses. But we all made it!

The Elodie, a converted canal barge, has been our floating home for the last week. Last Sunday (May 29) Cheryl and I joined Dennis & Anita, John & Brenda, Don & Bettina, Marty & Jane, Hans & Pat, Bob & Sue and Drew & Heather for our cycling journey from Amsterdam to Bruges. As Belgium has two languages, and Bruges is in the Flemish part, it should really be Brugge, but…

Cheryl ready to ride

Monday takes us through the ritzier waterfront outskirts of Amsterdam to Breukelen, which became Brooklyn when transplanted to “New Amsterdam” in the colonies. It even has a bridge. This is picture postcard country–fields of swaying tall grass, meandering streams, hedge-lined trails and Yes! Windmills! Though as the season was well finished, not a single tulip.

Tuesday dawns windy and wet, so Captain Michel thoughtfully moves us from our overnight mooring point in Vianen to Schoonhoven, cutting several soggy kilometres off our day’s ride. Though Schoonhoven is famous for its silver craftsmen, and the canal walkways are lined with jewellers, I escape with my wallet intact!

The day’s highlight, though is Kinderdijk, a long finger of land lined with windmills from the 1730s, and while many are now converted to residences, one has been preserved in working order. Most impressive is how these engineering marvels were crafted mostly from wood, using hardwood pegs for gear teeth. The sails are equally impressive, wood frames with fabric covers, adjustable for wind speed and with curved ends to reduce wind spillage. Cool!

Kinderdijk

Wednesday’s ride takes us southwest from our stop in the charming port of Dordrecht across open land to Zierickzee. Much of the ride is in open country, on exposed dijks and over a 6km long bridge–almost all of it into a howling headwind. Did I mention it was also our longest day at over 60km?  We regroup in Bruinisse and refresh with their famous mussels (and fries, natch). From there, we head west toward the North Sea, and while slow and strenuous, the ride takes us alongside  one of the prettiest stretches of open water, the Oosterscheide. Zerickzee itself is a delightful mix of history and waterfront charm.

Many of the towns in this part of the world mark the water levels in the 1953 flood when a storm surge overwhelmed the dijks and barriers, flooding large parts of Holland and Zeeland and taking more than 1,800 lives. To reduce future risks, the Dutch built a dam across the Ooosterscheide entrance with hydraulically operated gates. Thursday’s route takes us over the 9km long barrier and, thankfully, the wind is now from the north and at our backs. It’s an impressive structure, of course, a long line of hydraulic installations and the huge rams that will close the sluices in the event of a surge. Not to mention a four-lane highway, bike lanes, and maintenance roads on top.

Home for the night is the wool trading town of Middelburg. I didn’t realize how important the wool trade had been in this part of the world–though we’ve seen plenty of sheep! And I wonder if the similarly named town of Middlesborough in the UK, another important wool trading city IIRC, were in direct competition. Probably. Our guide, Loek, takes us on a walking tour of the town in the evening, and the affluence at the height of the wool trade 300 or so years ago is obvious in the extravagance and confidence of the architecture.

Middelburg

Friday’s ride took us south again, out of Zeeland and into Belgium. As we rolled across the flat Flanders fields with poppies dotting the hedgerows, I couldn’t help thinking of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost fighting for mere metres of soil here, including my biological grandfather, Stanley Sherlock. His loss wasn’t something the family talked about much, because my grandmother married his brother Charlie. Not surprisingly, Charlie turned out to be a disappointment. Tough to measure up to someone who is no longer around, and made the ultimate sacrifice.

I resolve to spend a few days when we have our rental car in France in July to see if I can find Stanley’s grave…

The ride is pleasant enough, a country ramble across open fields of potatoes, carrots and cereal crops, but it lacks the organization, infrastructure  and prodigious aquatic engineering of Zeeland and Holland. Not quite boring, but definitely less interesting.

We rendezvous with the Elodie in Sas van Gent,  a small town just north of Gent city and still in the Netherlands. We have to cross the “border” on board the Elodie, which takes us into the city centre. Our berth is less than salubrious, right in the downtown immigrant area Belgium is playing Turkey, and the Red Crescent supporters are out in force. Oh yes, I forgot. Soccer.

As one-time Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly famously said, soccer isn’t a game of life and death: it’s more important than that, and the Turkish supporters seem to think so too. Cars roar around, horns blaring, groups of young men walk the streets with Turkish flags, shouting and chanting. And the match is being played in Germany!

I’ve seen soccer crowds turn violent very quickly and decide to head back to the Elodie…

Saturday is our last riding day, and we need to cover the 42km to Bruges. We’re mostly following the canal, though we do make a few excursions across open fields and find a delightfully unspoilt beer house, the owner just like a favourite aunt and her bar the living room of a house. A Jupiler, ice cold, hits the spot on what has become a hot day. Then after our roadside sandwich lunch, Loek finds a smart restaurant where we can use the “facilities.” A rebellion breaks out, and we stop there for another beer. I try a Westmalle Trippel Trappist beer–8.9%! It’s really good.

So our week-long bike ‘n barge trip winds up with a tour of the beautiful old city of Brugge, its magnificent town square, soaring church towers, opulent courthouse, busy waterways, and narrow cobbled streets.  350km, two punctures, two minor crashes (no injuries) and a whole lot of fun!

 

 

 

 

More: www.bicycle-tour-holland.com, www.mytripjournal.com/cherylsgrandtour

For lots more pictures, click on “galleries.”

 

 

 

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Europe 2011

E-Day minus 2

It’s true! In just over 48 hours, Cheryl and I climb aboard the big silver bird to start our Sixties Summer Sabbatical in Europe. Over the next three months we’ll be:

- Cycling from Amsterdam to Bruges (with a canal barge for company)

- Relaxing in a spa town in Italy, Montegrotto, near Venice

- Two weeks cruising on the Wind Surf, visiting Croatia, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the west coast of Italy, ending in Nice–with 109 of our closest personal friends

- Three days in Paris, staying in what looks like a large closet on the third floor with no elevator

- Riding a motorcycle around Wales (me) while Herself flies to Iceland for some intra-sabbatical work

Bikewriter and Herself

- Two weeks of R&R in Vernet-les-bains , between Perpignan and Andorra in the Pyrenees’ foothills, with easy access to Barcelona and the Costa Brava

- Cooking school in the Dordogne

- Riverboat cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam on the Danube, Main, and Rhine Rivers

- That’s all folks!

You can keep up with our adventures by following this blog, which I intend to be mostly image-driven, and by reading Cheryl’s blog at mytripjournal.com/cherylsgrandtour

————————oOo———————-

A Good Omen

San Jose 2, Vancouver 3. Vancouver wins Western Conference, advances to Stanley Cup Final…

———————–oOo————————

Day 1: Three strikes–but not out…

May 25, 2011: YVR-LHR-AMS

Just arrived in Amsterdam (10:30pm) a day late and a dollar short.

We got to YVR on Wednesday afternoon to discover that Cheryl had left her expensive iPod earphones at home, so had to buy some more. Strike one.

AC845 to LHR was uneventful, but arrived late. Then the luggage was equally tardy, meaning we had less than an hour to get from T3 to T5 for our LHR-AMS flight. Didn’t make it. The cost of rebooking on the next flight out (4:00pm) was…well, let’s just say it was more than a weekend in a luxury hotel… Strike two.

Giraffe cafe at Heathrow. Cheryl gives her cup of tepid water and tea bag the thumbs down.

 

Thunderstorms over LHR and AMS meant our incoming plane was late arriving, so we were even later leaving. We touched down here at around 21:30 local time, caught the train to Amsterdam Centraal and a cab to Charlotte’s Garden House at 1009 Prinsengracht. Got unloaded to discover I’d left my backup camera in its bag in the back of the taxi!  Strike three.

Fortunately, we’d had the presence of mind to buy a couple of bottles of wine on the way…

Sky full of foreboding...

... so a very wet and windy Heathrow...

 

New Rules

New Rules for commercial flights, based on today’s experience on YVR-LHR (AC854) and LHR-AMS (BA400)

  1. A good time to go to the washroom is when the seat belt sign is on, because then you get to avoid the rush
  2. A flight that took 8 hours in the 1960s now takes 9 hours. This is progress
  3. The seat belt sign always comes on right after your meal, when you’re busting for a pee. This is so the flight attendants get to sit down for a while
  4. “For your comfort and safety” translates as “for our convenience”
  5. When the flight attendants are reviewing the aircraft’s safety features, it’s cool to pretend to be doing anything other than paying attention. But if the excrement ever hits the air-conditioning, I want to know how to get the hell out!

    ...resulting in lengthy delays...

  6. Carry-on bags that are designed to fit overhead bins lengthways also fit sideways and take up much more space. And space on an airliner is like a gold claim, so you better grab as much as you can.
  7. Rules like: not going to the washroom while the seatbelt sign is on; not using electronic devices during takeoff; and not taking oversize hand luggage on board should be considered suggestions, not rules. That is, based on the number of people who completely ignore them.
  8. The rules only apply to other people

    ...but better than being on the M25!

Breaking News!

The taxi driver arrived at 00:30 with my camera!

 Day 2: Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s first lesson is…don’t step off the sidewalk without looking for bicycles! There are easily as many bikes as people in the central district, and they hurtle around at high speed. Everyone is a cyclist—mothers with baby seats, delivery guys with vast luggage racks, extended bikes with pickup-like beds in front, pedicabs, trikes… Most look like they were made from truck parts, but they whizz around with amazing alacrity. No surprise that the Dutch are great at football—they probably have the best tuned legs anywhere.

Central Amsterdam is laid out in a ring of canals, each lined with narrow lanes that would have been towpaths at some time, I’m sure. Cars can get around, but it’s not easy, and as cars share the bike paths, progress isn’t any faster, and parking is at a big premium. We’re staying on Prinzengracht, a little way out of the centre of town, but right on one of the ubiquitous canals.

It’s easily noon before we manage to get away from Charlotte’s Garden House, but as we’re just a short walk from both the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum, we make those our first destination. We managed to avoid being run over by bicycles, but there were a few close calls. Every intersection is a challenge because there are two sets of lanes to cross—cars and bikes. Then at major intersections, you need to watch out for the trams as well. Altogether, crossing the road requires the use of all sense.

Charlotte has been kind enough to leave us a couple of free passes to the downtown museums, but the main part of the Rijkmuseum is closed for repairs, though a core part of the collection is housed in an annex next door. Unfortunately, they forgot to reprogram the audio guides we rent from the desk, so they turn out to be not much use. Cheryl and I never did find half of the exhibits. But we find a delightful espresso wagon outside selling coffee from a Piaggio three-wheeled van—with a waterfall in the back!

Next to the Van Gogh museum, and we decide to skip the audio guide… As is inevitable with any pioneering creative endeavour, much of Vincent’s art seems to me to be a work in progress (as I’m sure he would have admitted). But it’s through experimentation that boundaries are broken, and great work results. Some of the final Arles work from 1889-90, like The Cornfield, is breathtaking in its scope and mastery.

We decide an R&R break is needed, so we stop in at the museum café. I choose a Trappist beer (7%!) and a cheese sandwich, while Cheryl has a frittata and a glass of wine. The food is freshly prepared, scrumptious and of the highest quality. It also comes in manageable proportions, sparking the inevitable debate about how in North America we’ve sacrificed quality for sheer volume in our food. It’s been a long time since I ate bread as fresh as we have with this meal—in a museum café!

It’s almost time to meet up with La Gang at the Restaurant de Reiger (Heron) near Ann Frank’s house.We investigate the tram, and find out it’s just E2.60 to get downtown, so we catch the #5 from the Museum to Dam Square and walk the few remaining blocks. At the canalside is an old geezer feeding the birds, including a pair of herons that could easily have dropped in from the Reifel sanctuary in Ladner, BC. Apparently, the American BlueHeron is a close relative, but not identical. Could have fooled me.

We meet most of our bike ‘n barging buddies at De Reiger—Brenda & John, Bob & Sue, Dennis & Anita, Marty & Jane, and Drew & Heather—though Don & Bettina are still in London, and Pat & Hans are visiting relatives in Haarlem. My pan fried duck breast is exquisite, and Cheryl’s sole fillet looks as good as she says it tastes. Looks like we’ll be enjoying a pretty fun ride on the Elodie—party poopers will be thrown overboard!

Forsaking the tram, Cheryl and I stroll the canalside walkways back to Charlottes and settle in for what we hope will be a quieter night…

Day 3 Amsterdam again

 The second night of jet lag, I find, is the worst. I spend most of the preferred sleeping hours on ceiling patrol, listening to the skeeters circulating above my ears. I wake at 7am, 8, 9, 10 and 11 but still can’t force my eyes open—Hmmm…

 So after a late brunch of leftover bread and cheese, it’s almost 2:00pm before we emerge and head for an exhibition I’ve seen posters everywhere for: Best Press Photographs 2011 at De Ouwde Kerk (Old Church) near Dam Square. The audacity, courage patience and determination of the photographers who captured these astonishing images is inspiring and almost overwhelming. As one editor once told me were the first two rules of photojournalism, “f8, and be there.” Those guys were there—right there: Somalia, Afghanistan, Congo… Amazing.

 On Cheryl’s last visit to Aamsterdam in March, she left a few items in her room, which were promptly returned to her by courier—to Vancouver! So we stopped in at the Radisson to thank the housekeeping staff.

 Time for some “attitude adjustment,” so we repair to a bar for a beer, and an order of crostini. Cheryl orders a “light beer,” which turns out to be a Belgian Duvel at 9% alcohol! The crostini includes carpaccio, salami, chevre, shrimp, all dressed with basil, rocket, tomato and balsamic vinegar. Yumm!

 Back to Charlotte’s via more canals, and Cheryl is still peckish, so we head back to Rembrandt Plein and find an Italian restaurant. Now sufficed, we stroll (or maybe waddle) back to Charlotte’s. It’s been a long, short day, and tomorrow we start cycling!

Posted in Europe 2011