BITS OF BELGIUM: LEISURE CYCLING IN FLANDERS AND WALLONIA
Anyone who has cycled in the Netherlands or Denmark will know very well what excellent cycling infrastructure looks like – and those countries are not alone. Belgium has much to offer, too. From the flat west to the eastern hills and deep valleys, there’s a host of relaxing rides for exploration and exercise, not to mention some of those lovely Belgian specialities at the café stop. OK, cycling infrastructure is not always quite so “Dutch” as you might like, but never fear, beating out some miles or toddling along, there’s a fantastic cycling culture …. and you can cycle pretty much traffic free all the way along the coast. Steve Dyster spent some lazy days sampling Belgian beer …. sorry, cycle routes.
I’ve done a lot of riding in Flanders in the past. Apart from the southern Bergs, often with cobbled ascents and descents, the landscape varies from flat to very gentle. These low hills were the scene of slaughter and mayhem during the Great War. I’d been drawn by an interest in history and explored the area by bike a number of times (Salient Cycling, for example). There are cycle routes dedicated to the Great War, the Vredesroute around the Ieper (Ypres) salient being just one.
This time was different. My wife and son do not share my enthusiasm for, what they refer to as, “graveyard tourism.” They did not foil me completely, but there had to be more to cycling this time. So, we parked up the van a few kilometres outside Ypres and went to look round.
First thing is that cyclists are expected to use cycle tracks. Big, fast club groups don’t seem to, but mere mortals do. Outside of towns and villages, there’s generally a segregated cycle track on at least one side of busier roads, whilst there’s a network of country lanes to enjoy, too. In towns, you’ll mix with the cars, although many one-way streets allow cycling against the grain. Even so, don’t worry. The Belgian’s have cycling in their hearts – almost everyone will have ridden a bicycle for the pleasure of doing so, as well as utility …. and they have a good few lycra-clad racers, too. In my experience, the Belgian’s are a pretty laid-back lot, and relations between cyclists and motorists seem all the better for it. When you get a shout that there’s a cycle lane on the other side of the road (they are generally not directional) … and you will … it’s almost certainly to be a friendly one.
Once we escaped the water park close to our camping spot, we headed down into Ieper. Approaching the first major road junction, on the cycle track to almost circumnavigate a roundabout, was a cautious affair. Unlike the locals, priority comes as a surprise - even if you have been there before. There’s a feeling that it is an ambush laid by motorised assassins. Then the vehicles slow to a standstill and you pedal serenely on. Why would you not cycle, even into busier places?
True, Ieper (Ypres) is not a big city, and not all cycle tracks are segregated, but even at busy junction you feel safe. The law protects you, and drivers seem to understand where you are going and why. Cycling ‘home’ in the evening was such a pleasure that, next morning, the two of them even came to visit a couple of Great War sites. Then they set me loose for the afternoon, for a tour round some more obscure places. All dotted amongst the pastures and copses that make for such pleasant cycling. No, to the east of Ieper it is not flat, but the hills are kind and short.
Brussels, much, much, much bigger, does not have the same reputation, amongst Belgians I know, as a cycling city. Even then, it did not look too bad. Even so, historic cities such as Ghent (Gand) and Brugge (Bruges), and Leuven (Louvain), are perfect for cycling into. Our access to Brugge was along the Ghent-Oostende Canal, and thence into the city centre
Tourist hot-spot is an understatement for Brugge on a summer’s day – and most other days of the year. Not being able to find cycle parking space may be a good sign, but the cobbled streets need a bit of care, especially with so many pedestrians admiring the sights. They are a minor hazard compared to one or two very narrow streets where, for the only time on our trip, impatient drivers and wandering day-trippers made cycling life rather lively.
Heading to the coast, we camped near Nieuwpoort, just on the opposite side of the River IJser, just as it runs into the sea. This is Belgium’s only estuary, and the only real interruption on the coastal cycle route which generally runs traffic free along the sea front. True, Belgium’s North Sea shore is holiday central. Sandy beaches and a seafront almost entirely built up; unsurprisingly there are restriction on cycling in certain places at certain times (although there seemed to be some laxity in their enforcement). Granted you might encounter pedal-propelled horse, tigers, dragons, mermaids, fire-engines, steered by enthusiastic kids, or wonderful quadricycles, sometime whole trains of them. All marvellous in my opinion, although I didn’t get to go on the one with the lion rampant as its figurehead. Life is rarely fair.
Resisting temptation to throw a tantrum, we all took advantage of the compensation for all this busy-ness: almost every fourth building seems to be a café, bar, or ice-cream and chocolate shop.
Turning inland from the campsite along the adjacent River IJser cycle track offered access to lanes heading inland, but no one wanted to join me in visiting the ‘Long Max’ site or the German cemetery at Vladslo. However, the trip along the canal side track to Veurnes was more attractive. Whether it was the typically Flemish market square and belfry or the Begianesque number of cafes and bars that seemed to take it over, was the main attraction, I’d not like to guess. Really good leisure cycling.
Wallonia and the Ardennes
The east, especially the south-east part of Belgium is very different. Wallonia is French speaking, and is home to the high rolling hills and deep, often, craggy, valleys, of the Ardennes. Once away from Liege and Namur, there are no large cities – Arlon and Bastogne being the main centres. There’s some great cycling infrastructure – although it has a more leisurely purpose, in my opinion. River valley routes are common, with on-road routes branching into the hills. Not all main roads have cycle paths, though drivers, in my experience remained courteous and sympathetic to late middle-aged men struggling out of the valleys.
Jo Verwimp, an acquaintance of mine, wants to get more cyclists to appreciate the beauties of Wallonian cycling. He complains that too many British people never get further than Flanders. That’s a mistake I was pleased to rectify.
Cave systems, historic towns with castles, more or less derelict, on riverside cliffs, and thickly wooded river valleys are the setting for a big outdoor-pursuits scene. You’ll find off-road cycling as well as road and leisurely cycle tracks. Choice is the most difficult thing. As ever, for the cyclist, just getting out and exploring will reveal lots of pleasant surprises, as well as the gems, such as Dinant and La Roche en Ardenne, featured in the guide-books.
One of Jo’s favourite routes is the RaVel leisure cycling route along the River Meuse. With more than its fair share of beauty spots, often thronged by waterborne visitor in tourist boats and canoes, we decided to head for the smaller River Ourthe and its valley. With its own share of tourist sites, but on a smaller scale.
Those familiar with the Netherlands and Flanders will know of the Knooppunt system of number points for cycle routes. Well, they use that in Wallonia, too. So, we made up some routes form our campsite in Bomal-sur-Ourthe and explored. The highlight was undoubtedly the narrow streets and old stone buildings of Durbuy. Chateau, waterfall, hidden away cafes were busy, but uncluttered by tourists. We’d ridden along a top-notch riverside track, through Barvaux. Glimpses of the river combined with sections alongside sheer rock-face.
The surface was excellent. It is one of Wallonia’s RaVel routes, aimed at relaxed cycle touring. Mind you, things weren’t quite so smoothly surfaced when we headed north form Bomal. Much rougher and eventually more suitable for MTB technical riders than tourers. Mind the scenery was just as spectacular – if not more so.
Things got better eventually, and the sometimes routes are ‘under development.’ Infrastructure development just seemed to be a little behind Flanders. Mind you, the Flemish have easier country to deal with, in my opinion.
Getting out of the valleys, needless to say, makes things a bit more strenuous. It is not always possible for even the signed routes to stick to a valley. In my opinion, it’s a good thing. Change of scenery, bit of a climb, no problem for the moderately fit and a cinch on an E. Bike.
The open countryside was pretty: the country roads almost empty. There were the usual surprises, too.
For all of this, I will take Je Verwimp’s advice and head back to Wallonia, and explore much more. Likewise, the rest of Belgium. I find it such a friendly and relaxed place to ride a bike, for leisure, for challenge, on or off-road. There really is something for everyone. And I’ll get my go on the bike with the lion figurehead!
A word about maps and things
All of Belgium is covered by maps from www.fietskaart.be.
Cycling maps for the Dutch speaking areas are plentiful. In fact, for Flanders, they are almost so numerous as to be confusing. I used the Sportoena maps and the Recreatif en Grensoverschrijdend Fietsroute- Networke maps (see above). Four of these cover the northern and western provinces of Belgium, plus a chunk of the southern Netherlands and a bit of Wallonia. You can get maps like these from good map shops.
Then, in Flanders, there are more detailed local maps covering smaller areas. You’ll find these in tourist officies, such as the Cloth Hall in Ieper (Ypres). I find these very clear and helpful. For shorter excursions, you may also maps of individual rides, using the Knooppuntt system. They’ll generally be shorter rides to a place of interest and include a café stop. In fact, the bar near the big Australian memorial sites around Polygon Wood, a few kilometres form the centre of Ieper (Ypres) sponsor one such map. Guess where the refreshment stop is?
There seems to be less choice of maps for Wallonia. However, there’ll be more soon, no doubt. I used the Falk 37 1:100 000 Fietskaart. This covers the Ardennes and surrounding parts of Germany and the Netheralnds. Sheets 30-38 cover most of Belgium.
Of course, there are masses of routes on-line. Why not start with Jo Verwimp’s Route.You pages?
It is also worth noting that maps for the Vennbahn Route (Aachen to Troisvierges) also cover parts of eastern Belgium, especially the German speaking regions around Eupen and Malmedy.
Some maps have suggested routes and scannable codes for .gpx files.
The Ardennes spreads into France and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, too.
Belgian railways are great with bikes, except for some express services – especially those that cross international borders. The Belgian network is extensive and fares are cheap.
PUBLISHED MARCH 2020