Gregg’s Journal: Holland and Belgium Bike & Barge Trip
Holland and Belgium Bike & Barge 40th Anniversary Vacation April 18-24, 2011
After an eternity of little tasks that need attention before a week out of the office, I leave Bristol at mid morning for my flight departing from Montreal for Amsterdam, a familiar city after all these years. My first memory of Amsterdam is a post 9-11 meeting and re-negotiation with Jossie where we needed to negotiate new costs in order for both companies to survive. We have maintained our partnership with Jossie these many years later, with pleasure.
As we fly high above the Netherlands, I see so much water. Like a sponge. Canals everywhere. Major container ship highway heading into Amsterdam. Reflection of the early morning sun off the Ijsselmeer Lake in the distance. Everything is geometric.
Railway to Antwerpen. Smooth. Quick. Flat. Geometric fields. Rows tilled with precision. Straight rows. Green outside. Random patches of vibrant tulips. A lonely tractor in a vast sea garden of dirt.
Antique Antwerpen rail station. Seventy five degrees. Gorgeous. Sunny sidewalk cafes. Little kids filled with excitement. Deserted buildings. Renovated buildings. Town square and massive Cathedral filled with original Rubens. Fun rendezvous with my daughter Sarah, who arrived from France, at 2:25 PM sharp. Coffee in a cafe, then we hail a cab for a ride to the Willemdok where we meet the barge Iris. After greeting Jossie, Lenny, Gertie and Phyllis (able and passionate Iris team) we walk into the city square to greet the enthusiastic group for a beer at a sidewalk cafe, then dinner at a traditional and authentic restaurant, once home to a successful merchant. As a group we walk the kilometer back to the vessel underneath a remarkably clear and star-laden sky. Then to bed for welcome night’s rest.
Theo, our veteran 10 year trip leader, leads the group out of the city through a tunnel 90 feet underneath the River Scheldt, to the other side. This tunnel was built in 1933 and, some say, was bombed in WWII only to be rebuilt in 1948. It is a key pathway to civilization for many. Soon the awakening city bustle succumbs to quiet neighborhoods and bike paths, through quaint and tranquil villages, farmland and nature preserves, and along the River Scheldt. By mid morning we are in a small village named Kruibeke where a folk market is set up. Local farmers, butchers, fishermen, and merchants come to sell their wares and produce every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. This is a hearty and traditional European event that I look forward to every time I visit. Sarah bought some Gouda Oud (strong, aged Gouda cheese, preserved with a fine, barely-noticeable, layer of salt) to share with the group for a snack. Soon after, with my interest in maps and navigation, I was delighted to visit Rupelmonde (mouth of the river Rupel) where the inventor of the modern scale map, Gerhardus Mercator was born and raised.
After a day meandering through the countryside, we arrived in Temse for a picnic lunch on the river bank. Some folks embark the barge at this point to enjoy an afternoon cruising the river, relaxing with a book, or taking a nap. I was tempted…!!
We cruised into Dendermonde in time for a beer and a shower before we hustle off for an excellent 40th anniversary wine tasting. Then back to the barge for a wonderful dinner of duck and other traditional Dutch/Belgian specialties.
On Thursday we ride 25 miles (the long option-there is a shorter option as well) along the river, through local farmlands and along bike paths and tow paths, until 12:30 PM when we get onboard for lunch and an afternoon cruise to Ghent. It is a wonderful transition at this time of the tour to get off the bike and watch the world go by while dining on Gertie’s fine cuisine. Shortly after we arrive, we are greeted by Astrid, skipper of a little canal boat, who will take us into Ghent center and offer a tour through the historic canals. This provides an excellent overview of this amazing, historic and vibrant medieval city (67,000 students in the city of 250,000). Afterwards we have a few hours to explore the churches and castles, or shop, or drink beer at a local cafe with everyone else on this lovely spring afternoon. We then have a wonderful dinner at Brasserie Pakhuis, a super restaurant in a renovated traditional warehouse.
Our last day of riding was one of my favorites. The weather was supreme: light breeze, clear skies, bike paths, farmland, spring blossoms of fragrant trees, bushes and flowers. Although there were 14 and 24 mile options, I chose the 37 mile option, I could have gone forever. The churches and chapels along the way, the villages, the Flemish countryside, and the panoramas…..all offering me a yearning to, once again, return to the Netherlands and Belgium.
Arriving in Bruges was simple and, again, on sidewalks and bike paths. The distinction between riding in the countryside, empty and peaceful, to the lively city, bustling and alive, was enlightening. After a quick visit to the city center I returned to the barge for a fabulous farewell dinner prepared by Gertie and the crew. I had salmon while others had the filet. They entertained us with five different wines and port, and an amazing array of Belgian chocolates and cakes. Very, very well done for this 40th anniversary tour with old friends and new friends.