Tonight has been chuffing cold! I have now crawled into the tent at the campsite a few kilometres south of Maastricht wearing four upper layers of clothing, a beanie on my head and a Buff around my neck. I’m just about thawed out.
Today’s résumé… Good breakfast at the B&B in Borgloon. I chatted to the young owner as I munched through muesli and various other offerings. He had bought the sizeable 17th century building five years ago when it was in a poor state of repair and had transformed it into a rustic boutique establishment (although he didn’t use either of those adjectives). I expressed surprise when he said there was still work to do; the creaky old floors needed replacing. I thought they added to the charm of the place but he clearly didn’t.
Back in the small main square of Borgloon just outside the B&B, I spent a few minutes studying the cycling map of the ‘cycling paradise’ that is Lindburg. As I had done yesterday, I circled a series of numbers that plotted a journey from where I was standing to Maastricht. I’ll spare you the numbers themselves (sorry to disappoint) but just as I had done yesterday, I followed them and it all worked out perfectly.
(At that point last night, I fell asleep… Here’s the rest of the story.)
There is actually a downside to following the numbers and that is that you don’t really pay attention (in terms of the place names) to where you are at any one particular time. However, you are free to spend a little more time just having a good look at the area through which you are travelling. Belgium – certainly the part of Flanders that I have been cycling across – is a very well kept place, much more so that the parts of Flanders nearer to the French border. Prior to this trip I’ve always put Belgium down as being a bit of a scruffy continental twin to Britain but that really isn’t the case. It’s much more like Luxembourg and The Netherlands with good quality housing – well designed, well built and well maintained – with attractive urban areas surrounded by some very pretty countryside. I suppose it’s a reflection of just how different the two parts of Belgium – Flanders and Wallonia – really are. Given a choice of living further south near the border with France or in the Dutch speaking areas, I think I’d choose the latter region every time.
As mentioned in the post about cycling day 40, my seven country crossing of Europe was about to become an eight country crossing of Europe through the addition of The Netherlands. The original plan was to stay further south in the French speaking area of Belgium and then straight into Germany (that’s the Eurovelo 3) but the move to a more northerly route, prompted by Kevin Mayne’s location just south of Brussels has been fortuitous (for the reasons just set out above). The thin bit of The Netherlands that pokes out at the bottom with Belgium to the west and Germany to the east has been (and will be) my home for 24 hours or so. I abandoned following the ‘knooppunt’ (what a great word!) numbers about 10 km from the border near Maastricht in preference to the more direct route along a long straight road heading due east. Fuelled by some very sweet liquorice allsorts from a service station it was only a matter of half an hour before I arrived at the Albert Canal which I initially assumed to be the border. No signs telling me that of course – just as there had been no signs crossing from Spain into France and then along the canal from France into Belgium – just a high bridge spanning the man-made gorge. A war memorial on the western side of the bridge with the names of Belgians carved into the stone but both the Belgian and British flags flying above it. Curious. To the south of the bridge one of seven (in the world) ‘Peace Flames’. A wartime bunker on the western side had been incorporated into the design of the modern bridge as had a smart terrace below the bridge giving panoramic views of the canal for diners at the smart restaurant located there too. It was a strange mixture of attractions. But no border crossing signs.
I eventually crossed the bridge, pausing to read the panel about the sentences quoted on the bridge itself but which had a Second World War connection. The paragraph, written originally in German, didn’t quite make sense when translated into English. A little bemused, I trundled to what I though was The Netherlands. Same signs, same system of knooppunts, still mostly Belgium number plates… Check Google Maps. Ahh! The border crossing was not the bridge but a little further to the east where there was… still no international border crossing signs! What’s wrong with all you people in charge???!! Surely it hasn’t become politically incorrect to tell me that I’m now in a different country! Each region of Europe proudly proclaims that you have just arrived there, but have countries gone soft on the idea? I can live with not being stripped searched or not having my passport stamped but a nice little ‘Welcome to The Netherlands’ (etc…) sign wouldn’t go amiss. I haven’t seen one since arriving in Gibraltar!
To Maastricht! Limburg in Belgium might have called itself a ‘cycling paradise’ but The Netherlands really is (and doesn’t really need to proclaim the fact). Until yesterday afternoon, I had never cycled anywhere before where I felt as though the cyclist was on an equal with the motorist. Wonderful! Even a little confusing as I was being provided for as a cyclist in ways that I wasn’t expecting. My expectation was to fathom an intricate way onto the bridge across the Meuse but no; there was a separate circular cycling lane to do just that. At the roundabouts, about just as much space given over to two wheels as four. Traffic lights for cyclists not just as an after thought that people feel free to ignore but lights which have been included as part of the transport plan and that cyclists without exception respect. Amazing. This really is cycling paradise! The rest of the World, especially (and alas) my little corner in the UK, has a lot of catching up to do.
(My third attempt to get this written; I’m now back in Maastrict albeit on the more modern eastern side of the river Meuse.)
Maastricht itself was a little more modern than I imagined it to be. (Was I expecting something like Bruges?) But a wonderfully relaxing place despite all the shoppers in the streets. I’m glad to see its not just the British who have elevated shopping to a leisure activity. Not easy pushing Reggie along the narrow streets (no cycling allowed!) whilst josing for position with the Ditch masses. I found the tourist office who gave me a list of three campsites. The one a few kilometres to the south was the nearest so I headed off in that direction.
Great location for a campsite by the river and joy of joys! A second campsite with a ‘free camping area’ (the first being back in Orléans). One tent was already erected. It looked familiar. I erected mine and headed off back up to Maastricht to rejoin the shoppers and simply delight in being able to cycle around and not feel like a persecuted minority! A significant chunk of my time was, I’m afraid, spent in an underground supermarket first choosing items to later eat at the campsite and then queuing to pay for them. Say what you like about Tesco, Sainsbury’s and the like (although, while I’ve got the opportunity, next time you go to Aldi or Lidl for your cut price apples, do bear in mind that you are undermining your own pension fund which is invested in companies like Tesco whilst at the same time supplementing that of a rather wealthy German family [what’s that got to do with cycling across Europe?]… Stop interfering square bracket person; it’s my website and I’ll say what I like!)… but (you may have to read the start of this sentence again) the continentals really haven’t mastered the art of minimising queues in supermarkets. For the nth time on this trip I spent more than 15? 20? minutes waiting for my time to come. It did, eventually…
A quick beer – “what do you recommend?” I asked, “what do you like?” the waiter responded, “something blond and light” I replied and was delivered a blond beer… with 7.2% alcohol! – before a cycle (wobbly) back to the campsite.
The free camping area had busied somewhat; I was now one of five touring cyclists.
“Didn’t I see you in Orléans?” enquired the guy with the familiar tent? He had; his name was Javier, he is from Buenos Aires and although I never spoke to him in Orléans we should have as we have something important in common; his destination is also Nordkapp! An important ally in my quest north? Potentially. I shared my food with Javier who was good company as I shivered in the increasingly cold evening. Perhaps he will come to my rescue in northern Norway when I have consumed my emergency packet of rice. It was an investment in the future! We hope to meet again over the next couple of months.