Triplogue - Belgium and Holland

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Brugge skline

29 June 1997, Dunkerque to Brugge, Belgium, 82km

I awoke in our walnut-sized hotel room to find that my throat hurt. Grumpily we made our way downstairs for what was anticipated to be yet another meager continental breakfast. Our expectations were not unsatisfied. On the way out the door of our room Andrew discovered he’d lost his wallet. He tore apart everything in the room looking for it and was decidedly panicky as we went in search of coffee. Though the breakfast was not fulfilling the fact that the hotel administration had found his wallet quieted Andrew. It wasn’t exactly raining as we lowered our bikes down two flights of stairs but a thick mist coated everything with water.

By the time we started riding it was raining lightly. France seemed to have a hold on us, we even had difficulty leaving Dunkirk. A huge Sunday market blocked the route out of town so we had to zig and zag to find a way out. Dunkirkians had wildly different opinions about the distance to the frontier of Belgium. Estimations ranged from 40 to 2k. The actual distance turned out to be the average.

The terrain in Belgium was flat, flat and flatter. It seemed strange to have a panorama from any point. I had the sensation that on a clear day I could see Amsterdam. The weather remained dreary as we pedaled into Veurne for a late lunch. The rain had stopped falling but the air was so moist it was difficult to distinguish from the rain. We had trouble finding a banking machine that would take our cards and were thoroughly frustrated when we seated ourselves for a midday meal. At lunch the center square came into focus for me. I started to notice the rich details of Belgian architecture. This town had been headquarters for the Belgian military during the first war and severely bombed during both. The public works project restoring the cobbles in the square and the newer brick half way up the church tower were the only reminders of that era.

Following lunch we wove our way through fields of wheat, corn, cows and sheep. We passed happy cyclists on paths constructed just for us. What a change from Britain, we felt at home on our bikes. Andrew recalled his childhood experience in Brugge and painted a glorious picture of the town. It was a painless entry, pathways for bicyclists invited us into Brugge.

Of recent construction, (compared to most European cities founded in the eight century), Brugge’s dramatic skyline of jagged facades, gothic towers and red tiled roofs was a welcome sight after 80k riding. A warm bath readied us for a walk about the center and a dinner in a charming restaurant housed in the ancient cellar of a former convent. We went in search of Brugge night life only to find it was not to be on a Sunday night.

1 July, Brugges to Antwerp, 113km

We couldn’t have picked a better day to take a break from riding and to explore Brugge, since the weather was perfectly miserable. I spent most of the morning doing laundry, and went museum-hopping with Fred in the afternoon before a nap and watching Hong Kong be absorbed into the People’s Republic of China on CNN. We returned to a nearby queer bar for cocktail hour, but it was pretty beat. Just as the night before, all the Flemish-spouting locals treated us as if we were invisible, showing not so much of a glimmer of interest or friendliness.

When we awoke the next morning it still looked majorly ugly outside our window, but we were committed to pushing on towards Antwerp. Getting out of town was a piece of cake. All the main roads in Belgium seem to have bike lanes, and we were soon surrounded by cows and trees. I am always struck by how quickly European cities cede to countryside, with hardly any of the nasty endless suburbs that characterize American towns. It should be said, however, that there doesn’t appear to be much countryside in Flanders, which is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. Most of the day’s ride was through a sort of brick corridor of villages that lined our route.

It wasn’t long before we were pedaling through the vast industrial wasteland around Gent under drizzling skies. I spotted a brightly-colored frites hut amidst all the grayness, and thought it would be a good place to have lunch and seek refuge from the rain. Frites (the Belgians would never call them French fries) are truly the pinnacle of Flemish cuisine. They are always hot, tasty and copious, and may be accompanied by any number of exotic-sounding sauces. Determined to sample every variety before leaving the low countries, Fred and I ordered Samurai sauce this time, and it was delicious. We munched our fries and watched the skies open up outside, thankful for having found shelter.

The downpour didn’t last long, though, and soon we were riding over the brutal cobblestone streets of central Gent. It’s an old market town with lots of fine old buildings, but possessing little of the appeal of Brugge. We visited many of the sites from our saddles --the market square and city hall, the quaysides, the castle formerly inhabited by the Dukes of Flanders—before stopping at the cathedral which houses a famous polyptych (like a triptych but with more panels) by Van Eyck. At the center of the painting is a holy, smug-looking sheep bleeding into a chalice, surrounded by hundreds of adoring onlookers. The details and the colors were exceptionally vivid and I wondered how the painting had endured the centuries so beautifully. The rest of the church was a treasure trove of more triptychs and over-the-top architectural details. I could have spent hours there, but Fred was outside with the bikes, waiting for it to be his turn.

I found him engaged in conversation with two young bicycle taxi drivers. They were part of a brand new youth employment program based on high-tech pedal-powered vehicles reminiscent of the becaks of Java. They said business hadn’t been so great so far, but they looked mighty stylin’ in their yellow machines, which had wheel bases identical to the city’s tramways’, thus minimizing the jarring effects of cobblestones. When they said that the road to Antwerp would be hilly, we thought they were kidding. But there were actually some rolling hills between Gent and Antwerp, and the scenery and weather were beautiful. Fred didn’t seem to be appreciating it, however, as he grew increasingly cranky as we neared Antwerp. I guess he needed some food in his belly, and we had no local currency left with which to buy any. After asking several clueless and monolingual locals where we could find a ferry across the river to Antwerp (riding into town through the tunnel just didn’t cut it for me), a friendly Flem on a bike appeared out of nowhere and produced a ferry schedule. He told us to follow little bike trails "around the church, and then around the moat of the castle, through the woods to the riverbank." The ride was as enchanting as it sounded, and soon we were aboard a (mercifully free) ferry with several other fietsers (the only Flemish word I picked up, meaning "cyclist").

The ride into town was predictably unattractive, though there was a fietspad (bike path) the whole way. Antwerp and its suburbs –like Hoboken, which we were pleased to cycle through—are a sprawling mass of Flemish efficiency. The old part of town was a glorious collection of old guild halls arranged around asymmetrical squares. There were restaurants and cafes everywhere, but not a single hotel to be found in the historic center. I guess Antwerp is not a major stop on the tourist trail.

We finally found lodgings near the railway station, which worked out nicely, since we were steps away from the homo district and my intended dinner destination: an Indonesian restaurant listed in the Spartacus guide. Gay Indonesian food being my idea of gastronomic perfection, I rushed to call and make a reservation before washing off the day’s layer of grime. The reservation was unnecessary, however; we turned out to be the only customers in the place. Our server was an outrageous and perfectly anglophonic drag queen from Yogyakarta. Her name was Georgie and she explained that she owned the restaurant with her Belgian "husband" and had lived in Antwerp for over twenty years. Her hairdo was inspired by Tina Turner’s and she had selected apricot as her nail polish color. We spoke in a mixture of English and Bahasa Indonesia as she brought out plate after plate of our tasty Rijstafel (the Dutch interpretation of Indonesian cuisine) and recommended venues in which to continue our evening out.

The last time I had been to Antwerp I had made a pilgrimage to a leather bar called "Milwaukee," but apparently the place no longer existed. Instead, we walked up and down a street packed with identical little gay bars. None of them really struck our fancy, however, and we made the terrible mistake of turning into a side street full of windows framed in pink neon. In each was an overly eager African whore, tapping on the glass and urging us to come in. Most of these girls were quite beautiful, but the overall scene was definitely depressing, so we headed back to homo street. After Fred to return to our hotel, I met a couple of Flemish guys called Peter and Paul (yes, Belgium is about as Catholic a country as you can find). Paul didn’t speak English and seemed more interested in his beer anyway, but Peter was extraordinarily articulate and enthusiastic, not at all like any other Flemish people we had met. He was a cyclist, too, he said, and he told me of his bicycle journeys before launching into a defense of his faith. He was both a practicing homosexual and a practicing Catholic, and while he sees the inherent paradox in this, his religion remains an important part of his life. I could have baited him on the subject for hours, but it was really feeling like time for bed…

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Hey! Taxi!

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John and Nelly grinning sheepishly

2 July, Antwerp to Stettendam, Holland, 92km

It seems like we are starting our days later and later. My limbs seem to get oh-so-heavy at the thought of leaving the warmth and safety of our resting place. The weather has a lot to do with it, neither of us is wild about the idea of riding in the rain. This day begins gray but dry.

We pass into Holland soon after beginning our ride. Andrew had planned a rural route but we made a wrong turn and went through ugly suburban border town to ugly suburban border town before making the crossing. Even though it wasn’t scenic it was almost pleasant, what a difference it makes when there are bike paths.

We left one bicycling nirvana for another as we entered Holland. At the border the town immediately turned more charming. The buildings brick and slightly smaller, streets cleaner, and, if possible, even more cyclists. Quickly we found ourselves in the Dutch Alps reaching altitudes approaching twenty-five meters. We risked a nosebleed and stopped for a picnic lunch in the forest.

Soon we learned the best way to navigate our way through the Netherlands. Pick the towns that you want to pass through on a map and follow the white signs with red letters that tell cyclists how to get to those towns. Within a few kilometers Andy was touting this new methodology and marveling at the road planner’s routings.

Ducked into a hipster café in a rural Dutch town (Bergen op Zoom) for coffee while the rain pounded the pavement mercilessly. Thus began our day in the rain. At first it was merely an annoying drizzle but it gradually developed into a constant drench. Stopped into a snack shop for an order of fry’s (our new preferred snack) this time with a peanuyty Saté sauce.

One town later we were ready to stop for a day, regrettably the nearest hotel was behind us and neither of us are big on backtracking. We bit the bullet and decided to ride in the rain for another 25K to our planned destination. Ten kilometers down the path Andy spotted a sign with his "favorite word in the English language" on it, "motel." Within a few minutes we rolled our bikes into our private motel-hut. It had a living room, two sleeping lofts, a dining room, kitchen, satellite TV and a bathroom that was apparently stolen from the smallest motor home on earth. Showering while using the toilet and washing your face in the sink was possible.

Coincidentally, as we checked in, someone was using our exact same computer to download their e-mail at the bar (the only option as there were no phones in the rooms.) John, the owner of the computer, and his girlfriend Nelly were on a two month vacation in Europe. John, a retired two-star officer of the Air Force, lives a fairy-tale life. Traveling and boating while managing his remote business and investing. Nelly and John are living my dream life. We hit it off immediately. We shared a bottle of wine, conversation, dinner and breakfast the next morning.

There was only one dark moment (besides the weather), in an e-mail that night I found that my uncle was gravely ill in Texas. He is the husband of Anita who you may remember from our tales of the lone star state. I find myself very sad and worried for him and his family. This day is dedicated to them.

3 July, Stettendem to Delft/Amsterdam, 55km

Many years ago I shared an apartment in Paris with a little Korean-American girl named Erica, who was the tiniest bit naïve. When I returned from a weekend in Amsterdam, I told her how I rented a bike and rode out into the countryside. "What was it like?" she asked. I told her it was full of tulips and windmills and dikes, to which she replied with horror, "Mean ones?" Apparently her only contact with dikes were of the militant Yale variety found in New Haven. In any case, we spent much of today riding on dikes again; we were bikes on dikes.

This morning was like waking up on another planet. The sun was shining and everything was green and glorious, and we realized with glee that a strong wind would blow us all the way to Amsterdam. After a long and leisurely breakfast with our new friends John and Nellie, we made it to Brielle –yesterday’s goal—in record time. Brielle is a charming an interesting old town, heavily fortified by star-shaped city walls, with a network of canals lined by old crooked houses. We stopped long enough for incredibly awesome strawberry tarts at a salon de thé. After a couple of failed attempts, we found our way out of town, crossing a bridge over one channel of Europort/Rotterdam (the world’s largest) and then a ferry across another. I was thrilled to see that most of the traffic on the ferry was other fietsers, and the steady stream of container-laden vessels was quite a sight.

The ride to Delft was fifteen kilometers of pedaling perfection. The wind was right at our backs, allowing us to cruise along at an effortless 30 kilometers per hour, along canals, past windmills and fields of flowers. Everywhere we looked bicycles were part of the landscape. The locals pedaled lazily along on their hulking black beasts, many of them wearing a distinctly self-satisfied smiles. Are the Netherlands a utopia for bikes? I think so.

Delft was bustling from the frenzy of consumerism than constitutes Market Day. It looked like an attractive little town –sort of a mini Amsterdam— but the jam-packed streets and squares made me feel a little claustrophobic. While munching on a sandwich on the crowded market square, Fred said he felt like training the remaining 60 or 70 km to Amsterdam. At first I thought I’d bike up, but the idea sounded too tempting, and soon we were on our way to the train station. The place was a mess due to an accident on the rails (which we later learned was two trains hitting each other head on near Leiden). We had to be rerouted through Rotterdam, tripling the length of what would normally have been a 30-minute journey. Still, it was nice to be able to take an agouti nap and eavesdrop on the Britannic glamour princess cutting decorating deals over her cell phone in the seat behind me. She sounded just like Edina on "Absolutely Fabulous."

Unloading my bike off the train at Centraal Station, I was engulfed by a huge cloud of marijuana smoke on the platform. Yes, we had made it to Amsterdam. I led the way through busy streets to where I thought brother Marty’s hotel was and we found the place without a problem. Mars and Siri showed up shortly after we got settled, full of stories from their own road trip from Aix-en-Provence and up through Switzerland and Germany. The distance they had covered in so little time seemed unfathomable to me, and then I remembered one of the advantages of motorized transport.

We had another rijstafel dinner at a popular place across the street. While the food was far superior to our meal in Antwerp, none of our servers was in drag. Nevertheless, drag is what we did to Marty and Siri after our meal, to a trendoid queer café called Havana. We snagged a big round booth there and consumed multiple beers and talked about everything and everyone while our young bespectacled waiter flirted shamelessly with Fred. Later, it felt luxurious knowing that the next day there wouldn’t be any riding to do, and that we had nothing planned. It felt almost like a vacation…

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Backdrop provided by the Dutch Tourism Office

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Les Cyclistes Lefebvre of Antibes

7 July, Amsterdam to Zwolle, 132 km

Traveling alone in a foreign place, without the crutch-like comfort of a fellow traveler and compatriot, makes you feel much more like an alien. It had happened so suddenly, too. One minute we were packing up our bike bags and thinking of the day ahead, and the next Fred had decided to investigate flying back to the States for his uncle’s funeral. When he came back a few minutes later, he said he had only 90 minutes to catch his flight, and that he’d be gone for a week. Yikes, I thought, how am I going to fare all by myself?

It felt a bit odd at first, but soon I grew to enjoy the freedom of it, and the intensity of being alone with all of my thoughts and feelings.

It wasn’t easy getting out of Amsterdam, due to the overabundance of bike paths leading in every direction. They took me along canals and suburban streets, through socialist-style housing developments and scraggy forests. After thirty kilometers of pedaling, I saw a sign indicating that Amsterdam was only 16 km away by bike, which only served to make me feel stupid, unprepared, and helpless in my solitude. I crossed a massive bridge over a huge inlet called the Gooimeer onto the artificial island of Flevoland. Then I was in the polders again, part of the third of Holland that is reclaimed land, below the level of the sea. I followed an excellent fietspad that was like a freeway for bikes along a massive dike (I didn’t catch her name), and was delighted to find that the wind was at my back again.

In Almere Haven I sat down for a lunch of beer and frites (I figured I had only two days before Germany, and I wasn’t sure to find frites there) and talked to an older French couple at the table next to mine. They were on bikes too, and were staying nearby at the house of a Dutch family who were at their place in Antibes through a housing exchange. They invited me to join them at their table and told me all sorts of stories, like how they lived on a remote island in the South Pacific for three years ("way too long") and how Monsieur Lefebvre in his youth had spent a couple of summers hitchhiking his way across the USA. As he balanced his bulk onto the seat of his machine before pedaling away, I thought how much easier it is to meet people when you’re alone. Still, I missed Fred, and wondered what he was thinking in the air above the Atlantic.

After many more miles of rather boring dike riding, I crossed another bridge back to the mainland, where I promptly got lost. I was off the edge of my map, you see, and the familiar little red-and-white signs indicating bike routes were nowhere to be seen. I had to rely on directions given to me by old widows in Dutch on how to get to Putten.

From Putten I followed a glorious series of fietspads through a huge (and hilly!) forest to Elspeet and Epe. It was here somewhere that I saw two men actually wearing wooden shoes, and I almost fell off my bike from the thrill it gave me. One guy was working in his garden and another was walking back from his mailbox with a newspaper. And their shoes were most definitely wooden.

As the sun sank lower in the sky, I wondered if I would actually camp this night, but finally opted to push on to the larger town of Zwolle, where there would be a hotel. I had had enough of radical departure from the norm for one day.

Zwolle was another star-shaped fortress of a town. It felt elegant and bourgeois, with fine houses and shops. At the only hotel in town, the innkeeper said he had just one room left, up four narrow flights of stairs. After schlepping all my bags up (not to mention all the kilometers I’d ridden), I felt too exhausted to do anything besides watch new images from Mars on CNN.

8 July, Zwolle to Ter Apel, 114 km

I saw a lot more of Zwolle the next morning. After procuring toothpaste and envelopes at a store called Hema (Dutch for "Wal-Mart"), I found my way to the post office. At first I thought I had entered the wrong building, for it didn’t look like a post office at all. It was cozy and colorful, equal parts gift-and-card shop, kiddie playground, travel agent and bank-for-smurfs. Best of all, the employees were friendly and helpful and spoke perfect English. I considered bringing a picnic lunch back just in order to bask in the warm ambiance of the place, but decided to get on my bike and ride again.

Zwolle was much easier than Amsterdam to navigate my way out of, along a canal full of houseboats that looked like floating trailer homes, then past a lake with a beach and enough bike parking for what looked like the entire population of Holland. And then I was in the countryside again, at least until I got to Ommen, where some kind of festival was going on. All the bikes that should have been parked back at the beach were on the street in Ommen. It looked like China. I hastily postponed the lunch I planned to have there, and pedaled eastwards along the Vecht river through the most gorgeous scenery I came across in Holland, full of forests and chateaux and interesting rural architecture. I wasn’t alone in my appreciation of the area, however, as there were scads of cycle tourists everywhere. I marveled at how nonchalantly they would dominate the roadway, thinking nothing of riding four abreast and laconically weaving into oncoming traffic. I remembered reading once of a law being passed in Holland which states that any accident between a car and a bicycle is automatically the fault of the motorist. While such a law is clearly designed in the interest of me and my fellow cyclists, I understood how open it is to abuse.

Unfortunately, the wind was in my face today, and I quickly realized that I would need copious amounts of fuel to deal with it. Lunch was in two parts: a cream puff with strawberries and coffee in Hardenberg and the now-traditional frites-and-beer in Coevorden. My belly full, I followed country roads to the ugly town of Emmen. Either it’s a new town built to fit a "socialist utopia" blueprint, or it was totally destroyed in the war and rebuilt as quickly and cheaply as possible. In either case, it looks like Godard’s "Alphaville", with bike paths. My map showed a bike path to the north of Emmen leading through a forest and past a series of glyphs denoting "megalithic remains." It wasn’t exactly on my way, but it looked intriguing. The monuments ended up looking remarkably like the icons used to represent them on the map –a sort of table formed by stacking a big rock on two smaller ones. Stonehenge it was not, but the path through the forest was nice, as was the deserted road that led me towards Ter Apel, a weird modern "village" arranged in quadrants that formed a perfect square on the map.

One of these quadrants was the town campground (they are everywhere in Holland), organized around a square lake (at least it looked square on the map; in reality it was surprisingly pretty) and run by an elderly drunk woman who gave me serious red carpet treatment when she learned I was American. She paraded me about the campground telling everyone where I had come from, set me up in a prime location on the lake, and arranged coffee for me in the caravan/tent of my neighbor, who happened to be her cousin. It took me longer than it ought to have to set up my tent, and I wondered if anyone could tell that I was doing it for the first time. I made enormous efforts to appear casual throughout the process, like a seasoned camper. More than once the neighbor came by to remind me that coffee was ready, to which I’d respond, "I’ll only be a minute", before grappling with the poles and flies and stakes once again. Looking up from what I was doing from time to time, I was pleased to see kids riding their bikes all over the campground in wooden shoes.

The neighbors were from Groningen in the North of Holland and were exceptionally kind. They came every year to spend all summer, and had even brought along their lawn ornaments and potted plants as decoration. Hans and Greta (not their real names) had brought along their studenty daughter Ilse who looked way too much younger than her parents to be anything but adopted, as well as their granddaughter (not Ilse’s), who was already asleep. We talked extensively of the state of bicycling and bicycle theft in Holland (each member of the family had several tales to tell here) and ate cake. I left them after a while, though, eager to get clean and stretched before darkness set in at ten-thirty.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that coffee had been a mistake. It took me ages to get to sleep, and I had to get up twice during the short night to pee. And just before dropping off each time, I realized with a little shudder of horror that I’d be spending most of the next day… in Germany.

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Hay hauling near Zwolle

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