A short cycle through western Europe (Part 4)…

Belgium…

We weren’t sure what it would be like crossing the border from Holland into Belgium. We were both very naive. Would there be some kind of patrol? Some kind of gateway? We doubted it, what with the open borders. But we at least expected something.

imag0037We were travelling along some small country lane which was shrouded in thick woodland either side. It was impossible to tell what country we were in. I kept referring to the map, checking our position, waiting for some sign to tell us when it had happened. But it never did. And we were quite disappointed by it. All of a sudden we were in Belgium, with nothing but the different car number-plates to show us that we were.

The first big town along the route was Turnhout, another place of which we knew nothing. There was a huge camp site just a little way out, on one of the big rivers, which we stayed in for a couple of days, seeing out the wild storms which passed over us in the nights; listening to hedgehogs rustling through our empty cans in the moments of calm. Busking in the town was good. The people really enjoyed it. Some danced. Some sang along. Everyone smiled. People were taking our photographs, asking us questions, and coin after coin was being chucked into the guitar bag.

This good fortune followed us into the next town too, which was called Geel. We were playing in the main square, doing quite well, when one of the restaurant managers called us over to enquire if we might like some food. Obviously we did. And not just some food; lashings of Belgian cuisine, along with a few bottles of their most-fabled beers, all in exchange for some songs.

dscf7027In the northern part of Belgium everybody still spoke Dutch. But once we crossed the midway point, just south of Tienen, everything changed. It was instantaneous. All the road names were in French, the names of the towns too, and the conversations of the people. And it was lovely. Not that I’ve got anything against the Dutch language, just that, to my ears, and Adriana’s, the sound of French being spoken was much more smooth and lyrical.

We had some intense days cycling, traversing deeper inland, past the pear orchards. The hills were rising up once again beneath our feet. And there weren’t many cycle paths either, so we were on busy roads. The cycles were going well; we’d been free from any serious malfunctions; just the odd puncture or two, which were soon patched up. Rags had begun whining a little in the back of my trike though. It was fine when we were on the paths and taking our time, he could just trot alongside us, investigating sniffs as he went; but on busy roads, which we were trying to journey through as fast as we could, he had to stay in his box; and after a few hours it got rather uncomfortable for him.

dscf7011This was when we realised that the trip wouldn’t last as long as we had hoped. Rags whimpering and sulking in the box really brought about an unhappy atmosphere, it was a big downer on things. It didn’t seem all that bad; I mean his box was plenty big enough, and it had plenty of cushions for him to lay on; it even had a small USB fan to keep him cool, which ran off a dynamo on my front wheel. But for him, being confined was just excruciating. He started to really hate it, even on short trips of an hour or two. But without a safe, segregated track to ride on we had no other option than to leave him in there.

The money was also going down. Being in a foreign land makes you lose your wits a bit. It’s easy to do things on the cheap in the country that you’re from, the country that you are familiar with; but when you don’t know where the cheap shops are, or how to speak much of the language, you end up forking out for everything.

We were in no way ready to stop the trip, but we had come to the conclusion that we weren’t going to make it to Italy, or the Alps. France wasn’t too far away though, so we still had plenty of miles to pedal through yet, plenty of things to see and do. And we were quite looking forward to a nice bottle of wine.

imag0041The last place we visited in Belgium was Namur. It was a very busy city, especially in the unpleasant, sticky heat, which was magnified by the amount of chugging exhaust pipes. We didn’t bother busking in it, but rather found ourselves a really nice camp site to stay in a little way out into the steep, steep hills. It was here that we came across a great diversity of peoples, all travelling from different lands: English motor-bikers, Spanish cyclists, German hikers, Italian drunks. On the last day, upon leaving, we came across a petite French lady journeying on a tricycle with two small children in the front. It was quite a sight to see, with the two wee ones giggling and laughing in amongst all the luggage, whilst mum struggled up the hills.

As with the surprise of Hadrian’s wall, we were about to stumble onto yet another well-travelled path. We were so lucky that without any planning we just happened to steer onto it. The hills where we’d been staying proved awfully tiring. The effort of straining upwards with our huge masses of weight, in the heat; sweating, cursing, trying not to fall over; it all proved a little too much. So we headed down towards the nearest river, to see if we could follow it some way, and avoid the inclines.

What we found was incredible, a really stunning discovery. La Meuse- one of Europe’s largest rivers. A wide, blue, meandering stretch of glistening water, surrounded by steep banks with beautiful trees jutting up either side. At first there wasn’t much of a path beside it, but the further along we rode, the more accommodating it did become…

Enjoy this story? Then you might like my book, ‘At Home in the Bushes’. It’s about a year I spent cycling, wild-camping & busking around Britain. You can order your copy for £10 now!

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