Cycling is Life in Flanders
Perhaps more so than any other society,
cycling is in the DNA of the Flemish. It permeates the whole of society, from young children riding their bikes to school to CEO’s biking after work. This has led to a culture and infrastructure that revolves around, and caters to, cyclists. There are almost 7,500 miles of bike routes in this small region of Belgium, 50% of the population bikes weekly and 16% of all journeys are made by bike.
Recently JAX FAX had the opportunity to join a 5-day cycling trip in Flanders. And while I enjoy bike riding, and ride a modest 5-10 miles at a time, I was not sure what to expect of 5 consecutive days on a bike, averaging 30 miles per day. Knowing we were using battery assisted bikes was a bit of a comfort, but I still had a lot of questions. What to wear, what the terrain was going to be like, and how “assisted” the bikes were going to be, among others. Well, without giving away this whole article, let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised.
After arriving into Brussels airport, we took a quick 15 minute train ride to our starting point in the town of Mechelen. Here we checked into our hotel and received our orientation from VOS Travel, our bike rental company. They did a thorough job of explaining how the bikes worked and they would also be transferring our luggage between each city.
Our hotel in Mechelen was on the premises of the city Brewery, the Brewery Het Anker (www.hetanker.be) (Author’s note: although this was not a Flanders beer tour per se, beer is also part of the Flemish culture and played a recurring role in our trip, which was a bonus for me.) The hotel rooms were even beer themed with touches like night stands made from cases of beer stacked together with glass tops.
Naturally, our lunch at the brewery included a tour and sampling of a variety of their beers. This fortified us for our next stop, St Rumbold’s Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in the mid-1400’s. At almost 300 feet tall, the tower rewards those willing to climb its 538 steps with spectacular 360 degree views from the top.
Day 2 – Mechelen to Antwerp – 32 miles
The next morning we set out early for the first leg of our cycling adventure which would take us about 32 miles north to Antwerp. Flanders has nine Iconic Cycling Routes and we would be doing part of the Art Cities route. Note: although the routes are well marked with sign posts at frequent intervals, it is still a good idea to advise your clients to download the route and put it into their GPS. We had several occasions where if it were not for the GPS, we would have missed turns. The signs we were following along the way read Kunststedenroute.
The ride to Antwerp was relatively level and meandered through the countryside and along a section of the Rupel river. The bikes turned out to be very easy to operate, offering a range of battery assistance letting the rider decide how much, or how little, effort they wanted to exert. It should be noted that you still have to pedal, just without as much effort. We maintained about a 15 mph pace on a medium assistance setting.
On the outskirts of Antwerp we stopped for lunch at a local pizza restaurant, then continued into Antwerp and checked into the Yust Hotel (www.yust.com). The rooms were clean and comfortable, making full use of the space with an elevated bed, sitting table and chairs, and a fully equipped kitchen.
Antwerp is an easy city to explore using public transit and the Antwerp city card. The city card gives free access to public transportation and allows free entry into a variety of museums, monumental churches and yes, even breweries like the De Koninck brewery located next to the Yust Hotel. (Are you starting to see a pattern here?)
Tourists visiting the pretty Grote Markt of Antwerp will be impressed by the extravagant 16th-century city hall and guildhalls that surround the historic main square. They then take a closer look at the central fountain, which for those unfamiliar with local legend, is quite a peculiar sight: a naked man in the act of throwing a huge severed hand. The Brabo Fountain (Brabofontein in Dutch) is a tribute to the mythical Roman soldier Silvius Brabo. According to legend, there was once a giant named Druon Antigoon who built a fortress along the Scheldt River. The giant forced passing boats to pay a toll, as well as anyone crossing the nearby bridge. If the travelers refused, Antigoon cut off one of their hands and tossed it into the river.
For your clients that appreciate craft cocktails, the bar Dogma’s is not to be missed. This bar has been voted one of the top craft cocktail bars in Europe and for good reason. The drinks are creatively delicious and the staff is self described “pleasantly disturbed” and intent on the clientele having a good time. Hint: try the Bloody Mary here. It is so good they even bottle it for retail sale. And if all that isn’t fun enough, there is even a hidden speakeasy, Chicago, for corporate events and private parties.
Day 3 Antwerp to Dendermonde – 33 miles
Our ride the following morning started through the city of Antwerp and then into the surrounding countryside with views of city skylines and meadows of sheep. Since this trip was in mid-October, dressing in layers was necessary. A good light weight, waterproof jacket is recommended, along with a couple layers of shirts. By late morning only a tee shirt was needed and the rest could be stored away in the saddlebags the bikes were equipped with.
En route to Dendermonde, it is necessary to cross the Scheldt river and ferries for bikes and pedestrians are readily available, running every half hour. Once in Dendermonde we checked into the B&B Abalona
(www.abalona.be). This hotel has rooms that open up to a landscaped courtyard with a long fountain. The rooms are spacious with freestanding soaking tubs. Dinner that night was at an excellent restaurant, Fleems, that offered wine or beer pairings with the meal. This town really serves best as a stopover point to break up the ride from Antwerp to Ghent. Ambitious cyclists may opt to skip this stopover and ride straight through to Ghent.
Day 4 Dendremonde to Ghent – 27 miles
Most of this morning’s ride followed the river Scheldt, providing for a level ride and beautiful views of small towns along the way. Just before reaching the city, the river heads north into Ghent. In fact, Ghent was once a major trading port since it runs right through the center of the city. Much of Ghent’s social life revolves around the river banks with its many bars and restaurants. Hop on, hop off boat excursions are another great way to explore the city. One word of warning for cyclists, the trolley tracks on the streets of Ghent can be treacherous. Care must be taken to cross them, at least at a 45 degree angle, or risk getting a tire stuck and taking a tumble. It happened to one of our colleagues.
Ghent is the historic heart of Flanders and is referred to as the medieval Manhattan, and Europe’s best kept secret. It is an easy city to view by foot or bike and around every corner is another medieval architectural “wow.” I particularly enjoyed our tour of the Castle of the Counts, which is the only remaining medieval fortress in Flanders with its walls and towers virtually intact. The audio tour of this castle includes a museum of medieval weapons, spectacular views from the ramparts and an insight into life during the Roman occupation.
Our hotel in Ghent was the centrally located and modern Yalo Boutique Hotel (www.yalohotel.com/en). Rooms here are modern design rooms featuring large windows or terraces overlooking the medieval rooftops of Ghent. Amenities include Nespresso coffee machines, retro radio/record players, rain head showers in the bathrooms, alchemist amenities and minibar.
For meals in Ghent, lunch was at (yes, you guessed it) the DOK brewing company. This casual restaurant/brewery featured picnic table style seating, a wide variety of food stations/choices and of course an extensive beer menu. Dinner was at the Café Theatre, a restaurant known for their beef carpaccio among others specialties. For after dinner fun recommend the historic Pub De Dulle Griet, established in 1430 and boasting more than 500 kinds of Belgian beer. Be warned though, if you want to drink your beer in a genuine coach glass, you must give up a shoe which is then suspended in a basket to ensure return of the glass. www.dullegriet.be/en
Day 5 Ghent to Bruges– 30 miles
This morning we were joined by a representative from Bruges tourism for the ride to Bruges from Ghent. What was most impressive, and a testament to the Flemish love of cycling, he rode to Ghent that morning to meet us before joining us for the ride back!
The ride from Ghent to Bruges had varied terrain including use of some public roads, trails through the forest and bike trails. This is one section of the route the GPS with directions comes in handy as turns and signage can be tricky.
Bruges, the capital of West Flanders in northwest Belgium, is distinguished by its canals, cobbled streets and medieval buildings. In 2000 it received the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage city. Its port, Zeebrugge, is an important center for fishing and European trade. In the city center’s Burg square, the 14th-century Stadhuis (City Hall) has an ornate carved ceiling. Nearby, Markt square features a 13th-century belfry with a 47-bell carillon and 83m tower with panoramic views. It was here at a food truck in Markt square that we had our first taste of traditional Belgian Fries, with Mayo sauce of course!
Our afternoon was spent wandering the city streets admiring the architecture and sampling all things Belgian: chocolate, waffles and beer! After checking into the Martins Brugge Hotel we had dinner the Michelin rated restaurant L.E.S.S. What followed was a sumptuous 6 course meal with wine pairings.
Flanders is the perfect destination for your cycling enthusiast clients and those who enjoy moderate amounts of exercise. The terrain is mostly level, the climate is mild, and distances between major destinations are manageable. What I would recommend for an itinerary is days of cycling broken up by full days in the major cities. Our abbreviated itinerary only allowed for half-days to explore the fascinating cities of Flanders.
For more information, the Visit Flanders website has a section devoted entirely to cycling routes and helpful information. Visit it here: www.visitflanders.com/en/discover-flanders/cycling