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


A Sander said...

Hi Catherine
I so enjoy reading about your travels. Your descriptions really capture the flavour of a place. I can just see the lavendar fields and the crows. The Green Meridien sounds like a great way to go. Are you camping or staying in hostels?


Kris said...

This very interesting - keep writing, Catherine and cycle safely. Here is an article on Monet's "Waterlilies."

Catherine said...

Stats for Anne! To June 30, Camping, 18 nights; hostels 11; hotel, 1, chambre d'hote, 1