An occasional journal of the Life of Reilly

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Eerbeek, The Netherlands: Connecting the Dots

It took us just two days to cross Belgium, a country that is not quite France, not quite Holland.  The landscape is flat enough, like Normandy with the river valleys ironed out.  And the language was a form of French that morphed into a form of Dutch as we migrated north, but it did not really matter because just about everyone spoke English, too.   We also seemed to have crossed the “muesli line”.  Our chosen power breakfast food was a bit elusive  in France, only randomly appearing in certain grocery stores.  But here packages stood proudly on the shelf in the first Lidl (the European discount store that defines adventure shopping -- you never know what you will find) with at least three varieties.
Somber cemeteries from both World Wars dotted our route through southern Belgium.  Many important battles were fought in the region with a great loss of life.
Our path took us through the surprisingly beautiful town of Ypres, through the countryside, and into the city of Bruges.  What was incredible is that John picked a route where we thought we would ride along the road with automobiles as we did all through France.  But once we got into Belgium, and in fact all of The Netherlands, we were on a dedicated cycle path alongside the road during our whole journey.

After almost two full months of camping, we finally had a significant rainstorm that drove us to find shelter in Bruges.  We landed dripping wet inside the tourism office, and the agent helped us find  a very reasonable B&B within walking distance of the old town for 55 euros a night.  We had a spacious room, a garage to park our bikes, and flaky croissants and perfect soft-boiled eggs for breakfast.  Our hosts had their own collection of bikes in the garage, and it was from them that we learned of the Fietsnet system.
Colorful windows brighten a dreary rainy day in Bruges.

Canals criss-cross the old town of Bruges, and foundations lie under water.

Michelangelo's Madonna and Child in Bruges.

Definitely not the prevailing attitude in The Netherlands.

A series of treehouses as public art in the Beguinage in Bruges.
If you visit the Fietsnet website or use the smartphone app, you can pick a start and end point and the application will pick a route on dedicated bike paths.  And all you need to do is write down a series of numbers on a piece of paper.  And once you start your trip, you look for little signs along the bike path with numbers in green circles.  If the circle is solid green, you are at your destination intersection.  If the circle is just a green outline it will have a number and an arrow pointing to the direction of other possible intersections that can be reached from that location.  Ingenious.  And it works because there are so many bike paths that cover the country like a web.  John did some preparation and we were able to connect the dots across Belgium and The Netherlands, exclusively on off-road bike  paths. 
A typical Fietsnet sign.

Bike trails are EVERYWHERE in Belgium and The Netherlands.  You are never uncomfortably close to a moving tons of steel.
For this last month of our trip we are connecting dots of another sort, visiting family in various corners of Northern Europe.  Our schedule is a bit tighter now, and we found ourselves with too many kilometers to travel and too little time.  We decided to travel by train to The Hague to visit the husband of my cousin has a house that he visits from Canada a few months every year.  We were not too worried about where to catch the train, since the railway web covers the landscape nearly as well as the bike paths.  We singled out a town where we could get to by mid-morning, but it required a ferry ride across a canal.  We arrived at the dock downstream from a nuclear plant and next to abandoned buildings of the village with broken windows and graffiti everywhere, a rare site in tidy Belgium.  Finally someone came by and we found out it runs only on weekends. Time for Plan B.

Another in the "old and new" series.
The next two hours we wound around the inlets of the industrial and shipping center of Antwerp.  (There was a big, wide bike path through the whole complex, by the way).  We had to cross the river to get to the inner city and the train station, and we were concerned that we would not be able to take our bikes on the bridge.  At the foot of the bridge we asked how we might get across.  Oh, just look for the building with the flags flying on top, we were told.  There you can take a large elevator down to access a tunnel and then take the elevator back up.  And this tunnel is only for bikes and pedestrians.  And it is free.  Man, I love this country!  We rolled onto the biggest elevator car I have ever seen -- it could easily hold 20 bikes and as many pedestrians -- cycled through a big tiled tube, rode the elevator up, and then popped out into the beautiful city.  And what is more amazing is that the tunnel was built in 1933, and that they recognized the need for such a connector for self-propelled traffic as far back  as 1874. 
Within the bowels of the St Anna Tunnel in Antwerp.

Flea market in the square in central Antwerp.

Where's John?  In the train station in Antwerp!
Antwerp is a beautiful old city -- big massive structures and a large market square.  The inside of the train station was a renovated building of grandeur, of metal and glass and stone.  We sat and ate our lunch and watched people and trains go by, modern transport in a historical space.  A couple of hours later we arrived in The Hague, then merged with the many commuters on their bikes across town to Peter’s doorstep.  There we spent four nights and lived the life of an urban Dutchman.  We walked from his 100-year-old townhouse to fulfill all our needs -- bread from the bakery, cheese from the cheese shop, tea from the tea merchant.  One very long day we took the train to Amsterdam to visit the Rijksmuseum.  What an alive and vibrant city!  And bikes everywhere -- if I had to live in a big city, this is the one I would choose.
Perhaps the most photographed corner of The Hague.

John and Peter on our day trip to the dunes nearby to the Hague.

The btrain station both in Amsterdam and The Hague had pianos where anyone passing by could sit down and play.  It was amazing how wonderfully ordinary citizens could play.

Canals!  Boats!  Amsterdam!
A cargo-hauling bike, a design we saw frequently in the cities.  We saw a woman going down the street with a washer in one of these.  She was moving too fast for me to get a picture!
Rush hour in Amsterdam!
Two more days of cycling and connecting the dots took us across the Netherlands.  One day we clocked our longest day on this trip -- 104 kilometers -- all before 3 pm.  All I can say in our defense is that it is flat.  We spent a night at the home of some new friends, a Dutch couple we met traveling in France that invited us to their home.  We swam in their pool, ate their food, drank their wine, slept in a real bed.  It was nice (thanks Gerard and Giesela!)
Cows, green, and flat defines the countryside in The Netherlands.

Ho hum, just another lovely bike trail along a canal.

The second largest collection of Van Gogh paintings are in the Kröller-Müller Museum in The National Park De Hoge Veluwe.  The town of Otterlo at the west entrance has over-sized reproductions along the road.

Heath and grass of De Hoge Veluwe, bisected by what else but a lovely bike trail!
Just within sight of the German border we had one more punctuation point of Dutch kindness.  Rain forced us to seek shelter to eat our lunch under the canopy of a closed hair salon in a tiny little town.  The family across the street saw us and invited us over to their garden shelter.  We said thank you, no, we are done and ready to move on.  We went down the street a ways and the rain went from nothing to heavy within seconds.  We turned around and retreated to the salon once again.  This time the patriarch of the family walked over and insisted we come to their house.  We were set up in an enclosed patio, and within a minute we had steaming cups of coffee and tea in front of us and little cakes if we wanted them.  We had a nice chat and by the time we finished our drinks the rain had stopped. As much as we enjoyed traveling in France, we still marvel at the generosity of the Dutch people.  But even more The Netherlands has a true bike culture and that everyone rides bikes and knows exactly what a traveling cyclist needs.  And that is said with an exclamation point, and not just a dot!
We didn't see any wild roosters, but these signs coincidently occurred next to cattle guards.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lens, France: Clouds Over Normandy

It seems that gray damp weather arrived in Normandy about the same time we did.  After two months of  easy traveling we encountered the wettest days since our time in the Alps.  Unfortunately, overcast skies make for dreary photographs, which is disappointing and uninspiring.  But it does save time not stopping to dig out the camera when something catches my eye while rolling down the road.

We traveled through northern Normandy and its neighboring regions of Picardi and Nord Pas De Calais.  These were our last days in France, and my memory bank is filled visions of miles and miles of rural country, fields of corn, wheat and potatoes, pretty black and white cows, and small agricultural villages.  Below are a few curated images to tell the story of some of the highlights we saw along the way.
Occupying the most northwestern corner of Normandy is a mecca for anyone visiting the region -- Mont Saint Michel.  Situated on a flat coastal plain it is visible from far away.  The iconic profile is unmistakable.

A new causeway that allows the tides to circulate has recently opened.  Sand has been depositing around the mount for years, and this engineered solution will allow water to completely surround the rock at high tide as it did for many centuries.

Goods were hauled to the abbey up this rail.
At the top of the rail is this wheel which was installed around 1820 when the abbey was used as a prison.  Think of prisoners walking inside the wheel like a hamster to power the pulleys to haul materials up the rail.
I continue to be fascinated by really big fireplaces.

We were there at low tide, and it is a popular activity for modern-day pilgrims to approach the abbey from the bay as was done in the past,

These pilgrims approached by bike!


Milk me, oh please, someone, milk me!

The green and gray of Normandy.

A foggy day visiting the American cemetery at Omaha Beach.  It is hard not to leave without a deep sadness.


In a village near Omaha Beach, a rebuilt church that was damaged by Allied bombing prior to the invasion.

A sign in front of the church shows the damage.

A pleasant surprise -- sunshine and the town of Bayeaux.  We saw the wonderful 1000 year-old tapestry while we were there.

Bayeaux also has a huge cathedral that stopped us in our tracks when we turned the corner and saw it.  And we have seen LOTS of cathedrals.

Thank goodness for leafy trees to protect us from the rain!

Bridge over the Seine with a lane for bicycles and tractors, oh my!

Wind power in the wheat fields.

We came across many cemeteries, this one for Commonwealth soldiers killed in WWI.  This was the area where the western front was stalled for three bitter years of trench warfare. 

We intersected this army of power lines, six towers abreast, heading from the coast in the direction of Paris.

We had two days escape from the rain in a hotel in the scruffy former coal mining town of Lens.  Here the Lourvre opened a satellite museum two years ago.  Where the Lourvre in Paris is an all-you-can-eat buffet, this is the tasting menu where you can savor every bite.
Free audioguides are provided that give scholarly descriptions of various objects in the collection.

Just a few select pieces are on display, like these statuettes from an Egyptian tomb.  The limited number of pieces allows individual ones to have more impact.

I am fascinated by the design of this ceramic bowl from Irag, dated from between 800 and 900 AD.  It was one of the first examples where tin was used in glazes to a solid white color.

I also can't get over the beauty of these tiles from Turkey, dating from the year 1577.

The sun peeked out under the clouds on our last evening in Lens on the building across the street from our hotel.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sévignac, France: Tour de France, Stage 8

When it comes to sports, we tend to be participants of the non-competitive type, rather than spectators.  But we are at least aware of that big event, the Tour de France, and that it crosses the Pyrenees, goes through the Alps and ends in Paris.  A fellow bike tourist we met at one campground showed us a map of the route published in the local paper.  To our surprise we learned that the 2015 event would start in the Netherlands, cross Belgium, and traverse Normandy and Brittany in France before flying to the south for the mountain stages.  And with a slight modification to our route and a couple of extra days we could intercept it.  So it was decided to pause our own “Tour de France” and try and witness the other one.
Le Tour is coming to town!
We were closest to Stage 8, which would cross through Brittany from Rennes to Mur-de-Bretagne.  A bit of research online offered some pointers on how to watch the race, as well as detailed maps and arrival times at each of the towns along our chosen stage.  If you look at this chart, the arrival time of the cyclists is estimated based on speeds between 40 and 44 km/hr.  (For the record, our touring bikes never achieve that velocity for more than an instant.  Even going downhill.  A really big hill. With a tailwind.  Never.).We had to stall a couple of days, so we made a quick ricochet to the coast to visit St Malo, but on our way we traveled a portion of  the route to pick an optimal viewing spot. 
Bike art!

One too many croissants for this lady.
There was no question when we were on the route.  There were signs indicating when the road would be closed for the event.  And banners and fluorescent-painted bikes and signs and decorated hay bales.  The Tour de France spirit was elevated in the countryside.  And we found the perfect picnic table, under a shade tree just outside of the town of Sévignac, which we planned to claim on race day.  Sévignac is a typical quaint country village, located at the intersection of two roads, with a nice church, a school, a restaurant or two, and a couple of dozen homes, and surrounded by cornfields.  No doubt the Tour de France coming through was as exciting for them as it was for us.
The local school shows their spirit with this banner.
On race day we were in Sévignac by 10 am.  The picnic table was already taken by a contingency of fans, so we went a bit further and found a grassy patch in the shade with a clear view of slight s-curve where the riders would drop down a gentle hill into town.  We staked out our ground, each bike acting as a barricade on a 10-foot section of roadside, and sat down to do some reading and crossword puzzles as we waited.  People began to trickle in and line the streets with their lawn chairs and ice chests.  Not unlike my memories of getting a spot on the Rose Parade route when I was in high school.  A policeman was positioned at a side street to keep cars from entering onto the route.  The occupants of the house across the street were setting the table on the terrace with tablecloth and wine glasses.  The two couples next to us were playing games on a folding table.  It was a calm and patient waiting game, so characteristic of the French.
A fine day for a pannier piq-niq!
When the church bell struck noon there was a unanimous action.  Everyone brought out food and started eating.  The cork was popped off of wine bottles across the street.  We laid out our tablecloth and had a “pannier party” like we have do every day of our tour -- bread, cheese, fruit.  Our neighbors discreetly looked at what we were eating.  We did the same in their direction.
Some people come prepared...the cop is not amused, however.
The road was now officially closed, but there was a constant stream of official looking cars.  The riders were due to arrive about 3 pm.  About two hours ahead the caravan arrived.  The Tour de France has many official sponsors, and they have the privilege of  priming the crowd by tossing out freebies.  I have read that fans come out more for this than the race itself.  For about half an hour groups of vehicles sped into town, decorated like parade floats but made of plastic and traveling at 60 miles per hour.  The vehicles were driven by what looked like teenagers, some staring straight ahead like robots,oblivious to the fans on either side trying to get their attention.  Others were wired with headset microphones and were yelling out what I imagine were slogans in French.  And others would slow down, find a face in the crowd, and with a flick of the wrist throw out a trinket.  And the fan would jump on it like a half-starved dog after a bone.
The caravan is here, the caravan is here!

Gimme some stuff!
I moved up the road to try my luck along a less fan-dense stretch.  Maybe my bright-yellow bike jersey helped, but I found a swivel of the hips and raised arms with hands wiggling got some stuff tossed my way.  But most of the time the stuff directed at me landed at the feet of the kid and his father a few yards behind me.  I do admit, however, to crawling into a watery ditch to fish out a plastic-wrapped madeleine.  I looked down towards John, and he was in the spirit, waving and bending down, picking up merchandise.  He gave me a big thumbs up.  His mother, never one to pass up something free, would have been proud.
For thosse of you who are not sure what a madeleine looks like, here is a really big one.
Most of the stuff was standard marketing trinkets -- notepads, magnets, hats, tote bags.  Lots of packages with coupons, the best being ones for free bread.  How French.  We ended up saving only a couple of items, since we did not want to carry them for the next couple of months in our panniers, and giving the rest to our neighbors and the kid and his dad.
With the caravan excitement over, the crowd patiently waits for the main event.

The crowd settled down to wait the remaining hour and a half for the main event.  The party across the street brought out dessert.  I ducked into the cornfield to answer nature’s call.  I was not the only one, as evidenced by patches of damp earth found between the rows.  Official looking cars continued to drive by, some honking, some waving like they were royalty.  And then, just a few minutes before the cyclists were due to arrive, groups of support vehicles with racks of bikes and wheels went by.  At least three helicopters hovered and slowly moved closer to us.  I positioned myself, camera in hand, on a high point on the edge of the road.  They were on their way.
Waiting, waiting...

This race day, Stage 8, that we chose to watch was 192 kilometers total, and by the time the riders reached us they had traveled 79 kilometers.  The last half of the stage would have some hills for the riders to climb, but up to the point where we were was quite flat terrain.  So when they appeared at the top of that gentle hill they were in a single pack, moving like a single linear whirring object.  There were some lead vehicles, a pack of riders (we are still not sure if these were competitors or not), a big gap, some motorcycles, and then the pack of riders in their bright jerseys, filling the width of the roadway.  Not a chance of picking out the guys wearing the yellow or polka-dot jerseys.  From our roadside perspective it did not seem like they were moving that fast, although they were, or that they were working that hard, which they must.  I had time to squeeze off only a few photos of them coming, arriving, and going.  A few more chase vehicles with bikes went by, and within five minutes it was all over.
Here come the riders!

The pack buzzes by.

Gone in a flash!

The crowd  folded their tables and chairs and packed their ice chests and began to collapse into the street.  We sealed our panniers and prepared to ride a couple of hours to our next campground.  Curiosity overcame one of the gentleman next to us, and he came and asked if he could lift one of our bikes.  We had a nice laugh, John telling him in his best French where we have been so far on this tour, he asking how far we go each day, which is about a third of what those riders that just went by do in an afternoon.  We mounted our bikes and rolled down the street.  What only could be explained as an excess of fan energy, the few remaining spectators gave us a cheer equal to that bestowed on the Tour de France riders.  We raised our arms in victory.  We have become fans of the other Tour de France.

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