"Captain Harry Sir", "Off the Map: Bicycling Across Siberia" by Mark Jenkins, "Why the Dutch Are Different" by Den Coates, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Belgium, Belgium Beers, Biking & crusing in Europe, Bruekelen, Bruges, Church of Our Lady, Dendermonde, Dorderecht, Fiep, Flanders, Ghent, Our-Vossemeer, St. Joris Cafe, The Netherlands, Thoel, UNESCO World Heritage Site, VBT, VBT Bicycling Vacations, Vianeh, Windmills of Kinderdijk
A year ago my ‘older’ cousin and his wife (Ronald & Elizabeth) invited us to join them on a week-long VBT bike-barge trip from Bruges (Belgium) to Amsterdam (the Netherlands). Ellen, immediately, definitely, and wisely declined as she never learned to ride a bike as a child. I was intrigued, in large part because I enjoy being with Ron and Elizabeth. So, with Ellen’s encouragement, I agreed to go.
Basically, I didn’t think much about the trip until about six months ago, when I learned Ron and Elizabeth were ‘training’ for the ‘guided vacation.’ Having only ridden twice on a bike in the last four decades, I suddenly realized I’d better get serious about being prepared. So I rode on an indoor bike throughout this past winter, then borrowed an e- bike from my son–in-law two months ago so I could ride outside. Eventually, I was riding 20-30 miles a day around Washington. (The longest single day ride on the VBT trip would be 40 miles, divided between a morning and an afternoon ride. The approximate 160 miles we’d ride on the trip was on flat bike paths along canals, on country roads, and we’d have the assistance of an e-bike.) I was encouraged I could do it all.
Then, shortly before the trip was to begin June 1, sadly my cousin Elizabeth had to withdraw because of a foot injury, and Ron understandably did not want to go without her.
A dilemma for me. I’ll spare you the details, but ultimately I decided to go anyway.
On June 1 I flew to Brussels, where I was met by a VBT representative, and together with two other VBT ‘peddlers’ we were driven to Bruges. I was not happy to learn that 15 of the 18 people on the trip all knew each other and had been together for many previous bike trips. I was concerned that I was a novice at biking long distances and might be an outsider with so many people already knowing each other. But I did know one couple from a previous trip Ellen and I had made with Ron & Elizabeth.
I spent a couple of days walking around Bruges, a lovely Belgian city Ellen and I and our daughter Elizabeth had visited previously and remembered fondly. I marveled at Michelangelo’s magnificent Madonna and Child in the Church of Our Lady and climbed and descended the 366 steep steps of the
medieval Belfry Tower for a stunning view over city. Basically, however, I just wandered by myself in the city, spending much of my time sitting at the St. Joris Cafe overlooking the main square, eating apple strudel and frites, tasting various Belgian beers, listening to the tower bells, and observing a world away from Washington, DC.
It was a relaxing and lovely start in this quiet city dominated by bicycles.
Our group met one of our guides and walked with her for about an hour to the barge where we’d board, so to speak, for the next six days. Our rooms reminded me of the sleeping compartments on a train, though slightly larger. The barge, named Fiep after the captain’s daughter, had lots of common space inside and outside, space for all of our VBT provided bikes, and proved to be a comfortable home for the week.
We were immediately introduced to our e-bikes — and each other — and embarked on a 13 mile ‘get to know your bike’ ride along the Bruges-Ghent canal into the heart of Flanders, the Dutch speaking area of Belgium. As promised, the bike paths and roads were paved, flat, and well marked. Additionally, we each had a detailed GPS system installed on our smartphones which guided us with turn by turn navigation. So even though I was a novice, this warm-up ride was easy, and I had no trouble surviving my first bike excursion.
After this ride, we spent the first night on our ‘barge,’ moored near the beautiful city Ghent. Dinner aboard the Fiep was delightfully delicious as were all of the following meals on the barge. Following this very chatty and noisy dinner, we sat on the upper deck, introducing ourselves to each other. Despite my earlier fears, I found them to be an impressive group of people. I think most of the group were 70 or older and were mostly retired. (** See my apology in the COMMENT section of this post). Everyone seemed to have a special fondness for travel, for the outdoors, and obviously for biking. Everyone, except myself, had multiple experiences with biking trips in various parts of the world. Many of the group had gone to medical school together and had stayed in touch over the years. I was soon to learn that this group of 15 were warm, inclusive, and interesting fellow travelers. In addition, there were two ‘young’ women guides (in their mid 30s) and one male ‘trainee’. All three were more than just tour guides and experienced bikers as we were to discover in the days that followed. The small staff on the Fiep, including “Captain Harry Sir,” were also friendly and were important in making our time on the barge relaxing and enjoyable.
We spent part of the next day touring by a small boat through the canals of Ghent and then a few more hours wandering on foot through this enchanting town. In the afternoon, mostly in a steady rain, we biked along a river and through the countryside and a few small villages to the outskirts of Dendermonde. By the time we finished our 20 mile ride, I was soaked as I foolishly had not put on my rain pants. But I was pleased to have survived the distance and the weather without any difficulty. In the evening, our guides led us through a beer tasting session. There are 370 breweries in Belgium with more 1500 beer brands. We were limited to tasting just nine of them.
The next day we admired the charming square of the centuries-old city Dendermonde as we began our longest ride of the trip, 40 plus miles. We biked through the countryside and ferried across the Sheldt River before stopping in Basel for lunch. We continued through farmland and tiny villages and met our barge in Antwerp, Belgium’s second-largest city. I was delighted to find that I was having no issues with any aspect of the biking and realized that the superb GPS app could allow me to ride more slowly than most of the group without fear of getting lost. For the remainder of the trip, I pedaled more slowly, stopped more often, and took more time to appreciate all I was seeing.
On a non-biking day, our guide introduced us to Antwerp, the “Diamond City” and the home of Peter Paul Reubens. While I generally don’t spend much time in churches, I spent probably an hour almost mesmerized by the four Reubens (The Elevation of the Cross (triptych, 1609-1610), The Descent from the Cross (triptych, 1612), The Resurrection of Christ (triptych, 1612), and The Assumption of Mary (altarpiece, 1626) in Cathedral of Our Lady). I wandered a bit in the old city and enjoyed waffles with ice cream and chocolate sauce before returning to our barge. We spent the afternoon cruising along quiet canals and into the small town of Tholen in the Netherlands. That evening we were divided into small groups and spent several hours in the home(s) of local Dutch families.
The following day involved a 30 mile ride, at least 25 of which were in rainy, chilly weather. We rode through the town of Tholen, along small country lanes, and stopped in the village of Our-Vossemeer, the ancestral home of the Roosevelt family. I rode leisurely, stopping particularly to admire the old fashion windmills and the plethora of new wind turbines. We ended in the town of Dorderecht with its crooked church and buildings. It’s one of Holland’s oldest towns and the birthplace of the state of the Netherlands. Fortunately, I had remembered to wear my rain pants, and thus the rain was only a minor inconvenience and didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the day.
The next day brought a 38+ mile ride in great weather. The highlight was A UNESCO World Heritage Site – the 19 windmills at Kinderdijk. The Dutch have a long history — more than 1000 years — of using windmills not only for power (e.g., grinding grain) but importantly for water management. As much of the country is below sea level, windmills were built to pump water out of the lowlands and back into the rivers beyond the dikes to deal with flooding issues. This day was particularly lovely, cycling through small towns and back roads with many dairy farms and numerous canals. We ended in the medieval town of Vianeh.
Our final day of biking was a mere 28 miles, starting in the little town of Bruekelen and across its white drawbridge, the original “Brooklyn” Bridge. We admired the large 17th-century summer mansions and country estates built by wealthy Amsterdam merchants. Following a picnic lunch next to a windmill and the River Vecht, we rode single file with the guidance of one of the trip leaders the final eight miles along the Amsterdam-Rhine canal all the way into the city of Amsterdam. That was the only portion of the entire 169 miles we cycled that presented a challenge. But we all made it without mishap.
Ellen had flown to Amsterdam a day or two before our group’s arrival there and joined us for the late afternoon and final evening dinner on the boat. We remained in and around the city for five days, and you will get the benefit of her photography of Amsterdam in another post. In the meantime, here is her photo of our group of 18 and our three guides.
My major takeaways:
- Delight and pride in being able to bike comfortably long distances without difficulty, even in the rain. I might even do more biking in the coming months.
- Enjoyment in exploring Belgium and the Netherlands from the perspective of a bicycle, a boat, and on foot.
- Indulgence of being largely on my own without my usual need to be too concerned about others.
- Stimulating conversations with the Dutch trip leaders, their backgrounds, lifestyle, and various vocations. They were far more than just guides.
- Enjoyment of dinners, discussions, and riding with others of my age group who have chosen to be actively in the world. My initial concerns about being added on to an in-group of 15 were definitely unfounded.
- Learning about the the people of the Netherlands (and the difference between Holland and the Netherlands), starting with the informative book Why the Dutch Are Different by Ben Coates.
- In the notes I jotted down each evening, I listed 12 times I forgot something or needed help, starting with our drive to the airport when Ellen asked if I had my iPhone (I didn’t and needed to go back into the house to get it). Just some of the other assistance necessary included such things as forgetting evening pills, wallet, helmet, rain pants, backpack, getting my new earphones to work, help with getting the map app started each day, and daily reminders not to trip over the slightly raised doorstep entrance onto the barge.
- VBT is terrific at all aspects of what they do – planning and executing bicycle vacations.
- It was a wonderfully restorative week, and I owe thanks to Ron and Elizabeth, Hal & Rona Goodman, the other participants on the trip, the VBT organization, and particularly its guides. And certainly, Ellen’s and my sister’s encouragement was key.
Reading on the way back to DC: