“Hallo! May I help you?” The middle-aged man in the neat trousers and buttoned up shirt jumped off his bike to run over to us as stood hunched over our map in the middle of a country cycling path.
We were hopelessly lost in the backwaters of a Belgian hamlet but the well-dressed local quickly dispelled our confusion and pointed us in the right direction before jumping back on his bike with a cheerful “enjoy your stay”.
It was not the first time this had happened and it was not the first time we had been gobsmacked at the kindness, consideration and helpfulness of the inhabitants of this small EU nation. In fact, this, in a nutshell, seemed to be Belgium – a country of fabulous food, beer and most importantly people who run through traffic just to help a bewildered looking tourist.
And to top it off it was a downright cyclist’s utopia too.
Dedicated bike paths ran alongside just about every road and on many occasions, cyclists got their own path entirely. To top it off drivers were courteous, roads were flat and while there was little to see in between villages in the way of scenery, the towns themselves were a charming blend of history, gothic churches, bustling market places and rich culture.
Our first taste of this strikingly beautiful and historic architecture struck us in Bruge – a must see on any traveller’s Belgium itinerary and a town full to the brim with food, beer and cyclists.
We meandered through the cobble stoned streets on our (blissfully) unloaded bikes, taking in the museums, the frit shops (Belgians double fry their chips and often serve them with mayo or curry sauce) and the tranquil canals before heading back to our campground The site itself was loaded with bike tourers and the next day we headed towards the equally popular uni town of Ghent with a third companion – Matt from Cardiff.
A thick fog hung over the neighbourhood as we headed roughly east via quiet country lanes before stumbling on a dirt forest track which the GPS insisted would lead us most of the way to Ghent – some 50km away.
The sheer sense of safety had led us to jokes about what the Belgian police must think of a tough day on the force (cat up a tree?) and mere minutes later a police car came ambling up the forest track to pull up beside us.
For one wild minute I wondered if they were on the hunt for an escaped convict but when the window came down the serious looking officers asked: “Have you seen two horses?”
“Ah, no,” we answered.
“Well if you see two horses please call the police.”
When the vehicle was out of ear shot we burst out laughing before peddling along the quiet path (which remained convict and horse-free).
Ghent seemed to be full of life where Bruge was more serene and after setting up camp in a highly priced site (the type that attracts super sized camper vans and offers archery in the back paddock) we cycled into town via the river and became abruptly lost.
Hordes of fit locals ran, cycled and power walked along the river, which was full of rowers, but the city itself was a confusing hub of small alley ways, heaving main roads (where you had to compete with hundreds of other cyclists, cars and a couple of trams) and towering buildings.
There was not doubt where Bruge was all about the tourists and the history, Ghent was all about the multi cultural and active locals but with hunger gnawing our sides we soon gave up on exploring the city in favour of an early dinner (served with a side of mosquitos) and bed.
I was keen to move on the next day in a bid to head north for the fashion capital of Belgium – Antwerp – but after sitting on my kindle and spectacularly breaking it that night we decided to stay another day and find a replacement e book while seeing the sites. While the city redeemed itself the following morning (it’s sense of fun and life was contagious) there were no kindles to be found and we returned to camp to gear up for the next leg.
A disorganised start meant it was 11am before we rolled out of the fancy pants campsite and thanks to our poorly scaled map and Scott’s temperamental GPS we ran around the city in circles for a good two hours before a kindly local took pity on us and set us on the right course.
Late afternoon was fast approaching and we were a pitiful 30km out of Ghent meaning Antwerp would have to wait for tomorrow. We stumbled across a basic site (that charged just 10 euro a night) in a surprisingly swanky town at 6pm and feasted on some alarmingly cheap meat balls with couscous before the hot Belgian sun set.
Antwerp lay a mere 60km north and the following morning we managed to roll out of the site at 9am before taking to the LF2 cycle route which ran predominantly along canals and rivers.
The sheer scope of the cycling infrastructure frequently baffled us and when we crossed a cyclist and pedestrian only ferry (free of charge) to arrive at a charming village called St Armands we wondered just how this tiny nation of a few million people could be so forward thinking and offer such excellent services for walkers and cyclists when Australia, with its 24 million people, couldn’t even manage to run a consecutive cycle lane in a major city for more than a kilometre.
Where Ghent was like a trendy but wild teenager, Antwerp seemed like its more refined older sister with remarkable architecture and a colourful “big city” personality.
We stopped just on the outskirts to buy some food and begin the hunt for a campsite when a cyclist pulled over to ask if we needed help. We told her we were hunting for a campsite and she promptly pulled out her phone to aid the search.
After Google reaped a nearby result the friendly woman called the number and began a fast conversation in Dutch with the owner. After just 30 seconds she paused, looking astonished before saying “nae, nae, nae” and burst out laughing.
Holding a hand over the phone she said to us: “They offer camping, but only for naked people.”
It turned out our new Belgian friend had unwittingly called a naked camp site which kept us laughing for the next hour as we cycled into the heart of Antwerp city on the hunt for a northern (fully clothed) site.
Just 5km from the camp ground we were forced to cross the river via an underground tunnel built exclusively for cyclists and pedestrians which was accessed via an enormous lift.
It felt like the world’s strangest but most exhilarating criterium as we hooned along the tunnel at top speed among dozens of other cyclists and a few brave pedestrians.
At 6am the following morning we forced our tired bodies out of the tent and into the foggy pre-dawn gloom in a bid to tackle an epic 100km sprint to Rotterdam – almost directly north of the city.
As much as I’d fallen head over heels in love with Belgium I was excited to hit another country and I was especially excited to see the Netherlands – a country famed for its progressive cyclist culture.
After more GPS mishaps (followed by an outburst of colourful language) we didn’t hit the Dutch border until 11am and our first clue that we’d in fact crossed it came in the guise of a jump in the number of cars with NL number plates and a couple of sex shops.
While the cycling lanes were impressive we were immediately let down by one fact. Navigating the Netherlands by bike was difficult. Unless you understand the cryptic code used to identify different routes it’s near impossible to figure out which path to take. It also seemed cyclists were banned from all major roads meaning you were forced to take the longer and more cumbersome route to any town.
At 3pm we stopped for some frites with mayo at a basic corner shop just north of Roosendaal having pumped out a meagre 60km. According to the GPS it was still 60km until Rotterdam and we both felt utterly shagged.
The sheer desire to reach the magic 100 milestone got us back on the bikes and we chugged along country lanes heading vaguely for Rotterdam with the major arterial roads buzzing noisily to our right.
At 5.30pm we had managed to get to 90km but as Rotterdam looked another 40km away the hunt for a closer campsite ensued.
By this point the surprising heat, coupled with the usual aches and pains of being in the saddle for several hours (sore arse, knees, legs and shoulders) was beginning to take its toll and we both pushed on slowly in weary silence in a bid to reach Dordrecht , some 15km closer, where we hoped we’d find a campsite.
Several wrong turns and a frustrating sprint through the city later we found a cheerful site just as the odometer clicked to 110km.
Another two minute noodle feast simply wouldn’t do so after we’d knocked up our still soggy and wet tent (thanks to severe morning condensation) we walked to the nearest hamburger joint and scoffed down a mega meal and a milkshake before returning wearily to our tents.
From here the next stop was to be Amsterdam but getting out of a warm sleeping bag when it’s cold and your legs feel like lead is about as fun as climbing Everest in your knickers so we hit snooze on the alarm and rolled back over for a sneaky day off.
The only problem was we’d planned to meet a friend in the nation’s capital the following day which meant the only way we’d make it in time was to jump on a train. We were secretly stoked to have another day’s reprieve and when Amsterdam whizzed into view via our slick train we only felt faintly guilty.
Bikes flooded our vision when we emerged into icy winds from the train station and thousands of colourful bicycles were staked metres high in storage and holding containers nearby while lycra clad peddle pushers whizzed by on fancy bike specific roads.
We crossed the harbour in search of one of the city’s campsites and instantly were bowled over by the beauty and impressive architecture of the city. Green paths, wide rivers and well sign posted bicycle lanes took pride of place in what was the heart of the CBD and we found our camp ground in just 15 minutes.
This green utopia was just a stone’s throw from the city’s attractions so we prepared to set up camp for two nights giving us time to explore before the next leg – a slow meander further north.