Saturday, June 21, 2008

Holland, Belgium, northern France

There is a documentary film I want to see about the infamous Abu Ghraib torture photos, called “Standard Operating Procedure.” The premise of the film is that the photos are revealing in what they don't show. We all saw them and jumped to the obvious conclusions--what monsters those young soldiers were--but there is a back story that is not within the photo's frame. The same is true of text. While I was in Holland I didn't write much about Holland. What I was leaving out of the text in fact loomed large in my thoughts.

The landscape is pleasant. It's very flat, and in June it's green; farmers are using lots of manure and wild roses grow on the roadsides. Canals run everywhere, and towns vie for the title "Venice of the North". The Amstel River south of Amsterdam flows brown like beer (I imagine Amstel brand beer being drawn directly from the river) and eights row in unison, slicing the flat shining water in rhythm. Their coach cycles on the towpath alongside, with a megaphone. Trees line the canal to provide shade on this sunny day. And a bit further down, there are cafes water-side, filled with chattering people.

And here's the issue--it's such a supremely pleasant, romantic place, with all those canals to stroll beside, those cafes to while away time, those cobbled streets to stroll, hand in hand.

So as I found myself pedalling back and forth and in circles, I wondered if this was what I wanted, to come to a pleasant place that would be better enjoyed with a partner? I went to the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, climbed the Belfry Tower in Utrecht, toured the Kinderdijk windmills. I was a dutiful tourist. But I was having trouble finding my travelling legs (but oh, there they were, in Gouda on market day! I knew they were kicking around somewhere).
My spirits started to lift as I got to the coast and headed south on the North Sea Cycle Route; for several days the sun shone and the wind blew strong from the north. I flew across the islands of Zeeland and the huge dams with the water white in huge whirlpools below. Finally I pedalled into Bruges; wet but content with the ride canalside.

On Saturday in Bruges, serial weddings were being performed in the magnificent Gothic Hall of the Stadhuis (Town Hall). The happy couples with their friends and relatives sat and listened to the words of the justice, and us tourists carried on staring up, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, at the huge murals and portraits and arches, holding our audioguides to our ears. Outside, several horse carriages and their smartly dressed drivers awaited each happy couple. Tourists crowded around them, craning necks for a view when the bride and groom would emerge (mostly they saw other tourists exiting the museum, blinking into the light).

Bruges is a romantic city. People come in pairs, and the tourist map identifies good places to kiss. This is all very well if you've got a partner, but if not, well, there it is, in your face. And Bruges, the old town anyway, is cloyed with tourists, and I met some restaurateurs and chocolate sellers who seem tired and jaded.

From Bruges, I cycled back to the coast, following as best I could an exhibition of calligraphic stones, a Belgian-South African project. There were forty stones between Bruges and the coast, engraved by artists with lines of poetry or sayings. One said, "kom ons pluk die lug en melk die son" (Let us pluck the air and milk the sun) which seems appropriate for an outdoor adventure.

For miles and miles in Belgium, you can cycle along a walking and cycling promenade beside the North Sea. The waves roll in and the sand stretches as far as the eye can see. Those straight beaches evoked for me the war landings, and the terror the men must have felt as they jumped into the sea. That's the view to the right; on the left, miles and miles of seaside restaurants, vying for the tourist trade.

My last night in Belgium was an unplanned one--I had been following the signs for the North Sea cycle route, very near the French border, when the road simply ended. It continued into a canal. I cycled around looking for it, then saw an inviting campground where I could spend a sunny afternoon, instead of being aggravated trying to find the route.

And that was really my introduction to France--end of cycling supremacy, back to the real world where cars growl at my heels! And even though I got irritated in Dunkerque where the cycle paths ended suddenly, tipping the cyclist right into fast traffic (like at home) and where pedestrians stroll all over the bike paths (like at home), it felt less like Pleasantville, and more like real life. And time for me to get on with it.

I spent an afternoon in Dunkerque researching my next route. I had planned to continue on the North Sea Cycle route to Boulogne-sur-Mer, but as far as I could see, it looked like a lot of the cycling would be through more seaside resort towns (endless rows of beach shelters for rent, copycat restaurants, people tired of tourists), and close to the heavy red and yellow lines on my Michelin map. So I decided to check out the Green Meridian, which I had heard about from a man who cycled with me a ways from Oostende. "La Meridienne Verte" was a millenium project to plant trees in communities along the meridian that runs through Paris, from Dunkerque to the Pyrenees. The project was meant to inspire care for the environment, including travel on foot and by bicycle. It's not a signed route, but I got a list of the communities it passes through from Wikipedia.

So on Wednesday, June 18, I headed directly south on the meridian line, and for the past three days, I have been travelling minor, almost car-free roads through gorgeous countryside. Finally I felt my breath come hard in my chest as I climbed hills and rolled down them on the other side; this is the first time in three weeks that I've had to exert myself. The scenery captivates me; the light over the fields shimmers and there are those crows that Vincent painted! My road has wound in and out of towns, through fields stretching wide; golden wheat on one side, green corn on the other, and masses of red poppies on the verges. I imagine soldiers traipsing through these fields in the world wars, finding shelter in farmers' barns; that's the context in which I know this countryside but now, there is the single track roads without cars to cycle on, and the pristine red brick rose-covered houses in the towns. There are not many services along this route so when I see a cafe I pull over right away. On Thursday I found "Au Bon Coin" cafe/patisserie at a crossroads. When I walked in (dripping from the rain) there were four customers. Two were nursing half full mugs of beer; a third had a new glass of rosé, and the fourth was checking out the wine selection. It was 9:38 a.m. This kind of surprise is what makes me want to keep pushing those pedals to see what awaits me around the next corner, or up the next hill. And I love the French sendoff: "Courage!" they say as I pedal away to the next unknown.

My route plans have changed daily with my whims, but I think it is safe to say that from Amiens I will continue south to l'Ie de France, then to Orleans where I plan to join the Eurovelo6 route which follows the Loire, Saone, Doubs, Rhine and Danube rivers to the Black Sea ( will show you a picture, with animated bicycle, of that route).

Amiens, 1082 km

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I left Dunkerque this morning, plunging into the northern French countryside to get away from the busy highways and resorts of the coast. Today's cycling has been through rich fields of green with purple flowers and the scent of lavender. I feel like I've been moving through a live impressionist painting, and I am indeed getting closer to Vincent's wheatfields. Now heading directly south on "La Meridienne Verte"which takes me through communities on the meridien that runs through Paris. I'll have to post more later, becquse Iù, still leqrning the French keyboqrd qnd itùs hqrd for ,e to hunt qnd peck!

Saint Omer, 935 km

Friday, June 13, 2008

Finding the Way

If I had a GPS locator on my body that allowed you to follow my progress on a map, the result would look like the work of a demented etch-a-sketch artist. So far, I have zigged and zagged from Amsterdam southeast to Utrecht, southwest to Gouda, southeast of Rotterdam to the Unesco World Heritage Kinderdijk windmills, northwest to Delft and Den Haag, and now south on the Nordzee (North Sea) cycle route. In a cafe in Middelburg, when I told the cafe owner where I had been, he assumed I was doing it without a map (but . . . I'm constantly consulting my maps, and note the plural!). All the major highways between the cities I have been to have fietspads beside them, so I could have travelled fast and direct if I wanted, but I have a strong preference for the scenic route, which is less obvious.

To add to the challenge that exists for anyone trying to find the scenic way, I have a poor sense of direction, I daydream, I'm chronically unobservant, and I just want to ride without the hassle of route finding. These factors all work against me making significant forward progress, especially when you add in the enticements of a new town's cobbled streets leading to koffie and apple pie, or a paved path leading through a leafy wood along a lagoon. No matter how much I kid myself, I will never quickly find my way out of a leafy wood--I haven't yet. And the same goes for a town. I'll just check it out, I tell myself, and then get back on the route. Ha! Deluded again. And as I start to sweat because I'm passing the same landmarks for the third time, I remember my new toy: GPS to the rescue.

What a gift to daydreaming, direction-challenged, just-wanna-ride cyclists everywhere. I've got mine mounted on my handlebars and I've used it every day. On my ride during the day, it lets me know, any time I want, "u staat hier." The marker shows me which direction I am travelling in. If I know the address I'm travelling to, I can mark it and tell the GPS, "go to". It calculates the way from wherever I am, and recalculates if I don't follow its instructions exactly (if, for example, I take the bike path instead of the road). At the end of the day when I'm tired, I'm even more prone to miss directional signs. On my way to the Utrecht hostel, the GPS made its discreet attention-requesting sound, which it makes when a turn is coming up: "be deep be deep!" I looked down at the screen and I had a message in big black letters: "make a U-turn". I had missed the sign for the turn-off. Not "make a U-turn, you dope, you idiot, you are going in exactly the wrong direction again," which would sound a lot like my inner voice, but simply "make a U-turn [and U will be fine]." It's as reassuring as the Garmin phone tech support people, who always listened to my map software problems, then said in their soothing midwest American accent, "Sure, I can help you with that."

Of course it's also possible to ask other cyclists or passersby for directional help. I never know, however, if the person I asked is going to want to take a look at my map, necessitating possibly the extrication of reading glasses from a pocket, and then I'm fumbling in my handlebar bag for mine too. So asking for directions can also be time-consuming. Before I know it, it’s time to find a place to camp and I've only gone about 50 kilometres.

On the North Sea Route I've had a reprieve from route finding. I've been following those blessed signs--LF1a Nordzeeroute--ever since I found the coast near The Hague. Dutch taxes have been well spent on those industrious sign workers. The signs have been reliably posted at just about every possible juncture, and the route has been mostly on dedicated cycle paths on dikes and polders (reclaimed land), and through forests and dune areas beside the North Sea--places where I can in fact, just ride. I had another gift, sun and strong tail winds for three days. I could just pump along with music in my ears, taking in the scenery with a grin splitting my face. Even though the weather turned to heavy rain for my ride into Brugge/Bruges, I still had tailwinds most of the day and riding canal-side was pleasant.

So I have several times ended up where I didn't expect, but now I've arrived in Brugge. I will take some time out for a rest, see the city, and regroup for the next part of the tour. I'll probably stay on the North Sea Route until Boulogne-sur-Mer in France, but experience is telling me I can't predict exactly which way I'll go or where I'll end up.

We've all made mistakes that seem to lead us astray
But every time they help to get us where we are today
and it's as good a place as any
and it's probably where we're best off anyway

Wailin Jennys, "Heaven When We're Home"

Brugge/Bruges, Belgium, 719 km

Monday, June 9, 2008

Word of the Day

Fietser, fietspad, fietsenstallen, fietsroute, fietsnetwerk . . . fiets, fiets, fiets! Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle!

I was so confident that I'd find one of the legendary bikepaths to take me to my first hostel that I exited Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport with my bike ready to ride. I saw a signpost with that lovely word, the only one I knew in Dutch: "fietspad". I took off on the wide red pavement, feeling special wheeling along on my own cycling road. After a little while, it occurred to me that I didn't actually have a clue where the fietspad was leading. I returned to the airport and eventually found a cyclist to redirect me on the correct bike path, which was in the opposite direction.

You'd think that I'd fit right in here, but in fact I don't. I'd be more inconspicuous on my shopping bike, a ladies' ten speed with upright handlebars and a chronic chain noise. However, my tires would have to be half flat. I'd be wearing a flowing dress and stylish sandals. And my shopping panniers--they'd be the big flowered square ones, probably in red or pink. What really sets me apart, though, is that I wear a helmet. It's not that the Dutch are not keen on safe cycling. I cycled through an intersection in Utrecht where there were three beefy policemen ("Politie"), handing out tickets to cyclists for traffic infractions. I met a fellow from Belfast who told me he was cycling home from the pub on his fiets one night and got pulled over for not having lights. Next he told them to f#@! off, and they realized he was drunk cycling. He spent half a night in a cell at the police station. The fine for the lights was 20 euros, and 60 for the drunk cycling.

Helmet wearing is very uncommon. I've seen a few racing men wearing them, but they're also wearing multicoloured lycra. I've seen only two women wearing helmets (also riding fast), and not a single child. I have cycled without mine, but I was conscious of my head being as fragile as the watermelon in the ICBC seatbelt ads.

Is the Netherlands a cyclist's paradise? Almost. . . Where else would you find, as I did in a small town, a road wide enough for two lanes for cars; instead, there was a single track for the cars, and a red cycle lane on each side of the road for the cyclists. Still, there are a lot of cars in the Netherlands. I am never far from heavy duty highway traffic. At least cars and pedestrians stay off the bike paths. On my way out of Utrecht I had to stop as a car was blocking the fietspad, waiting to turn left on the main road. He saw me and backed up very suddenly to get out of my way. He hadn't seen the woman walking behind his car and she just about went under.

I've heard from many sources that bicycle theft is rampant, and the people at my first hostel lent me a second lock to use when I went into the city. While I was strolling around Amsterdam on my first day, I saw two rough looking guys sitting in a public square in two plastic chairs. One was sawing at a bicycle chain, which was still attached to a bicycle. He and the buddy were talking. Then he stopped and put the saw in his backpack, laughing. The next day I bought another bike lock, almost as heavy as the chain I lug around at home. In Utrecht, I came across a major bike theft awareness event. A minister of the Dutch government was there to be photographed by dozens of journalists while she had her bike registered and locked correctly to a bike rack.
The police had brought thousands of found but unclaimed bicycles to put on display. The campaign ( was to promote bike registration and correct locking techniques, but as the minister was giving her speech, I was thinking how ironic it was that the bike racks provided there for the hundreds of bikes parked were those useless ones that you insert your front wheel into, and to which it is impossible to lock your frame. I had just spent a bit of time finding an open end of a rack where I could lock my frame. On my first, most nervous day in Amsterdam, I took my bike to the central train station's fietsenstallen (bike parking) where for a euro and 15 cents, a guard watches closed circuit TV at the gate. Anyway, I'm not surprised bikes get stolen--very few of them are properly locked, and the bike racks can get so full that it can be difficult to get your bike in at all. (Every bike rack has at least one bike with a flat tire--does Holland have a problem of abandoned fietsen?)

Anyway, it's been a daily wonder to travel on the fietspaden; my only desire is for information on the routes in English. There are dozens of maps and guide books available at the ANWB (General Dutch Cycling Association, which is equivalent to our automobile association and serves car drivers as well), but they are all written in Dutch, which make them inaccessible to me. I even found an atlas which I could use with my GPS, if I could read the explanations. Knowing "fietspad" and "u staat hier" ("you are here", another favourite of mine when seen on the map at a fietspad intersection), is not enough Dutch for foreign fietsers.

The Hague, 471 km

Next post: How it is that I've cycled almost 500 km, yet I'm only at The Hague?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The to do list

Something tells me there must be something better than all this . . .
Wailin Jennys, "Heaven When We're Home"

The dream: cycle in Europe, through ancient towns and valleys, past castles and monuments, amongst cultures that have shaped history. Listen to other tongues and how people express themselves; see other ways of living. Live outdoors, eat well, be well in body and spirit. Seek vocation; meet people who will show me possibilities. Write; reflect. Be open.

The reality/the nightmare: The "to do" list. My monstrous, three-page, single spaced "to do" list haunted my weeks before departure. The mystery about it was that when it got down to two pages it got stuck at that length. Every day I toiled like Sisyphus from waking to sleep, and every day lots got done, and the same amount again got added to the list. Each task was a cancerous growth, sprouting associated tasks. Eventually the list became one page for the last two weeks, the length it stayed until my last frantic day. I couldn't sleep the night before for worry about the size of the list! If I hadn't managed to kill it before, how could I now, even with my plane's departure as a deadline?

Well, I didn't kill the list; three items remained at 12:30 a.m. the morning of my departure, which was 4:15 a.m. from my house. One of them was to set up the blog site, which I could do from any computer on the internet--if I read Dutch, that is. Thanks to advice from Susan in Doha, you are reading this now.

I still feel somewhat traumatized by the preparations, so will not go into detail about all the little set-backs which caused such anguish. Just suffice it to say that a lot of it seemed to involve hanging on the phone, cycling through endless menu choices and then hearing, "we are experiencing higher than normal call volumes . . . " You know, the kind of thing that makes you want to scream when you've got lots to do.

So you're wondering, what was she doing all that time? I had to research my routes and gather information; I had to gather the things I needed for my trip; I had to get my bike overhauled; I had to rent out my house and pack it up to make room for the renters. In retrospect, it looks straightforward. I, however, am a perfectionist, and manufactured hundreds of details. I was also a Brownie, and I learned well our motto, "Be prepared." (I never went on to Guides, where I think they had more fun, putting their preparation into good use on excursions and adventures.) I decided I needed a GPS, and a solar battery charger, and a PDA and mini keyboard to write with; a mobile phone . . . and I had to learn how to use all these devices. I realize that my extensive preparations are a clear sign of neurosis. Contrary to some people's idea of me that I'm brave, I'm not. (The nurse at the Vancouver travel clinic said, "oh, you're so brave!" I was about to say, "oh, I'm not," when she finished, "I could never cycle downtown." I could only stare in stupefaction, trying to compare my familiar 20 minute cycle into Vancouver with the thousands of unknown kilometres I was heading off to.)

In fact, I'm scared blind about having to find my way by myself, as I have a very bad sense of direction. I worry about where I will stay at night. So I prepare and prepare in the Brownie's belief that if I'm prepared enough all will be well.

It's a long and rugged road and we don't know where it's headed,
But we know it's gonna get us where we're going
When we find what we're looking for, we'll drop these bags and search no more
Cause it's gonna feel like heaven when we're home
Wailin Jennys, "Heaven When We're Home"

Gouda, 315 km

Next post: my favourite Dutch words . . .