A wet day

August 7, 2013

Distance: 58.7 miles                     Climbing: 1135.2 ft

We woke up to a little drizzle and our camp neighbors dogs. Since I am always missing our dog, Lucy, I tried coaxing the dogs into our tent for a snuggle. I got one in for about 30 seconds before they ran off to their own people. It was at least nice to be around friendly and cute dogs again.

Chandler and breakfast

Chandler and breakfast

Nice lane an early morning bike ride

Nice lane for an early morning bike ride

The day did not go as planned. We were hoping to extend our time in Holland, but got caught in an terrific rainstorm. We spent a lot of time in our garbage bag skirts again. We made a few stops, hoping the the storm would pass over us, but we weren’t so lucky.

Our first stop was for pizza, which was delicious. There second stop was to investigate the Axel water tower. The tower is tall, like 60.6 meters tall, and visible for a long ways off. Chandler and I had a few guesses as to what the building was before reaching it and determining its use.

The Axel water tower

The Axel water tower

That's a tall building

That’s a tall building

The tower was built in 1936, but has not been used for its designated purpose for a number of years. Today, it is used as an art exhibit, water resources learning center for kids and the roof hosts peregrine falcons nesting and breeding area. Wanting to get out of the rain, but more to see the falcons, we climbed the 250-odd steps to the very top. Maybe the falcons had the day off, because we didn’t see a thing. Unfortunately, since it was so cloudy, there wasn’t much of a view either.

Don't fall

Don’t fall

We tried to stay as long as possible, but eventually there was nothing left to see. We put our rain skirts and jackets back on and climbed back onto the bikes. The rain continued on and so did we. In the evening, it lessened to a drizzle and we could bring out the camera again, just in time for the Ghent castle.

Ghent castle

Gravensteen

Statues

Statues

The castle was built in 1180, with a renovation in the 1880s, and looked like it was out of a story book. I almost expected knights to be patrolling the walls with maybe a princess or two that needed rescuing. The city of Ghent had a lot of interesting, old architecture. We ended up seeing quite a bit because we got a little lost, or took the long way getting out of the city.

Belgium also has a few free campsites, apparently inspired by their neighbors to the north, so we planned on spending the night at one of those. We found that Belgium is not as easy as the Netherlands… The bike paths sometimes just end leaving us on major highways with no shoulder. In some towns, all of the stores will be closed, even at 3pm on a weekday. The free campsites listed on websites sometimes do not exist. We ended up camping in the corner of a field tucked away from view. It was raining pretty good, so we just ate a quick dinner of crackers, cheese and beer and hit the hay.

When shortcuts go wrong

August 6, 2013

Distance: 58.2 miles                     Climbing: 1151.6 ft

It was drizzling when we woke, but the excitement of a new country did not deter us from getting up. We were headed back to Holland for another free campsite, but we had to cross the greater Antwerp area first. Leaving the campground, we pedaled along a canal, similar to what we had seen in Holland and enjoyed a lovely bike path.

Rainy road

Rainy road

Our route quickly took us to the bustling port area near Antwerp. At first, everything was great. There was lots to look at and we met some fellows biking on their way to work. We had a great bike path, which was nice because there were a lot of giant trucks on the road.

Some company on the way

Some company on the way

It never ends

It never ends

Conex

Containers

We rode along side the guys for a few miles before they turned off for work and the bike path merged with the road. This wasn’t a problem because there were bike route signs leading the way. Eventually, the bike route signs led us to a dead end. A friendly cyclist waved at us from another nearby road that we should go his way. We quickly realized we were in a complicated maze of drawbridges and locks. The traffic pattern was constantly in flux as ships moved through the locks and the bridges went up and down to accommodate them. We made it across the first bridge and were approaching the second, when the gates closed and the bridge went up in the air to let a barge pass, so we had to follow the canal until we found another one that was down.

Can't go that way

Can’t go that way

We made it a little further before being dead ended again. We scoured the GPS map for a while and saw that all the traffic crossed the huge waterway through a tunnel. We looked for a bike lane, pedestrian path, anything, but it quickly became clear this was a motor-only tunnel. The bike lane on the map showed that we should go over a railroad bridge, which didn’t seem like a good idea, but we didn’t have much of an option. So, we found ourselves waiting for at a closed set of gates in front of a raised railroad bridge. The road didn’t look very used, and there wasn’t any signage to indicate when or if the bridge ever went down.

There was a little box with a button on it next to the gate, and we kept daring each other to push it. After about 20 minutes waiting for something to happen, Chan went over and pushed it, and we heard ringing over a speaker. A man answered and luckily spoke a little English. We asked when the bridge went down and he said “I don’t know. When there are no ships, maybe 10 minutes, one hour, many hours. Maybe 20 minutes.”

Well that wasn’t encouraging.

If the bridge didn’t go down we’d have to backtrack miles upon miles upon miles. Chandler and I HATE backtracking. We would rather go a hundred miles out of the way than retrace a few miles. We decided to give it 30 minutes before we gave up. Thankfully, the bridge lowered right as the time was running out and disaster was averted.

Will it ever lower?

Will it ever lower?

The railroad bridge turned out to be fine, we just had to be careful to avoid the tracks set into the pavement. We followed the bike route signs and ended up in a quaint little village. We looked at the bike route map and saw there was a bike ferry that would bring us to the other side to continue the route we were one. So we brought our bikes down to the dock and waited. And waited. And waited. We could see the dock on the other side and there was no one over there, and worse there was no ferry over there either. Chan walked back to land and spotted a tiny printout listing what he interpreted to be ferry landing times, on Saturday and Sunday.

It was Tuesday. So we backtracked.

Power plant

Power plant

It wasn’t all bad, we got to see a nuclear power plant and ride through a bunch of industrial development, and half the bike paths were torn up since they were burying some sort of pipeline. Oh wait, that part was not fun.

When we caught a glimpse of Antwerp we were both happy that we weren’t skipping it after all. The skyline was nothing short of stunning. After all the frustration, we were going to treat ourselves to pizza!

Antwerp

Antwerp skyline (photo doesn’t do it justice)

Antwerp was loaded with really cool architecture and seemed like a great place to lose a day wandering around. However, night time was creeping up and a hotel splurge not in the budget so we ate up and carried on.

Clock tower

Clock tower

We had the interesting experience of taking our bikes down a very old escalator to access a tunnel. It was a little frightening as the bike is really heavy and I had to balance it while holding the brakes with a death grip. We were able to ride through the pedestrian tunnel leading from the city north under the waterway that had thwarted us earlier. We noticed a giant elevator on the other end and opted to take that than relive the experience in reverse.

Escalator fun with bikes

Escalator fun with bikes

Once out of Antwerp, we headed just across the border back into Holland. There was another free campsite near an old fort. We arrived just as the sun was setting. It had been a frustrating ride, but we had kept our cool and saw some interesting stuff. We were glad to have another mellow (and free!) place to unwind and relax. A Belgian couple, who had spent the day geo-caching, showed up, so we were able to socialize a little.

Rolling into Belgium

August 5, 2013

Distance: 30.5 miles                    Climbing: 534.8 ft

We woke up with the sun shining, in great moods and excited about the day ahead of us. We were going to another Trappist brewery, Westmalle and the land of chocolate and waffles: Belgium.

Chan is ready

Chan is ready for the day

The road leading away from the campsite was covered in sand, making it slow going. Chandler was able to power through it, but I ended up having to walk my bike. Thankfully, the sand didn’t last too long.

Where's the bike path?

Where’s the bike path?

We crossed over into Belgium almost without realizing it, except that the bike path ran out and we were suddenly sharing the road with traffic. We also noticed a small section of a tall electric wire fence. This barrier, called the Dodendraad or the “wire of death”, was installed by the Germans during WWI to prevent Belgians from escaping into neutral Holland. The fence was electrified with 2000 volts to ensure instant death. The fence we saw was a replica and a visual history lesson. It definitely served as a reminder to us that we were in an area that had been witness to a major war.

The wire of death

The wire of death

After our history lesson, we continued on to the brewery. The monastery did not allow visitors, unless you were making a purchase. So, since most monasteries in the area make their own beer, cheese and soaps, we figured it was time to buy some cheese.

River

River

Westmalle monastery

Westmalle monastery

We rode up to the building and rang the doorbell. A little old woman answered the door and ushered us into an office. While Chandler purchased the cheese, I was able to scope the place out a little by asking a nearby monk if we could fill our water bottles. He immediately took me to a spigot in a courtyard with statues and manicured grass. I was hoping to see more, but its was more than most get.

They didn’t sell beer at the monastery, but there was a nearby official cafe. This place was a little more low key, and reminiscent of one of those tacky, generic brunch restaurants in the US. So the atmosphere was a little weird again… The beer was pretty tasty, but boozy and pricey enough, that we only enjoyed one each. Chan got a blend of the tripel and the dubbel (which they called a half and half) which was nice, but we couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed with our so far rather anticlimactic pilgrimage to the home of Trappist beers.

Enjoying the triple

Enjoying the triple

We called it an early day and cycled to the nearest campground. It turned out to be affordable and have an area for just tents, with everyone being a cycle tourist! We spent the night chatting with several of our neighbors late into the evening.

La Tourist Trappe

August 4, 2013

Distance: 32.5 miles                    Climbing: 626.6 ft

We woke up early and everything was quiet. The campsite was pretty trashed by the kids, with beer bottles scattered around. They had taken our camp stools from next to our tent, which Chan eventually found near the smoldering fire. We made breakfast, then Chan got in a little passive aggressive revenge by experimenting with a new technique of cleaning the pots and pans: banging them together really loudly. It didn’t clean the pans at all, but it did rise some miserable groans from the tents, so he chalked it up as a relative success.

So many bike routes to choice from

So many bike routes to choice from

Feeling much less grumpy, we cycled off towards the only Trappist brewery in Holland. There are only 8 Trappist breweries in the world and we had been anticipating Belgian beer since arriving in Europe, so it wasn’t even a question if we were going.

To be an official Trappist brewery, there are a few rules that must be followed. The basic rules of being a Trappist brewery are that the brewery needs to be within the walls of the monestary and be brewed by, or directly under the supervision of monks. Also the main purpose of the brewery needs to be to generate income to support the monks. Sounds pretty cool, let’s go drink some beer!

Entrance to the monastery

Entrance to the monastery

Beers on tap

Beers on tap

We arrived at the La Trappe brewery with high hopes. The tour didn’t start for awhile, so we grabbed a table in the restaurant and ordered a couple beers. The bar/restaurant area was really nice, and although we were in an monestary, we felt like we could have been at any high-end beer bar, so the atmosphere was a little weird. Chandler had the Dubbel and I went with the Blonde. The beers were really good, but being typically Belgian-style, pretty boozy. We finished our drinks just time for the tour, which ended up costing 10€ per person. We thought the price was a bit steep but assumed the tour and free drink would be worth it. Boy, we were wrong.

The tour started with a movie in Dutch with English subtitles and the beer. Half the group spoke English, and all of us that did were on the 10€ tour. Apparently there was another higher-end tour that they stuck us on with, and they all spoke Dutch and got 95% of the attention. The tour guide would go on for about 5-10 minutes talking about a part of the brewery in Dutch, then give us literally two sentences in English. We’re used to this, and yeah it’s our fault we don’t speak Dutch, but it wasn’t a free tour and the half of us that spoke english were definitely treated like second-class riff-raff.

On top of all this, the tour guide knew almost nothing about the actual production of beer. She showed us a big room and said “this is where the beer is made”. Chan asked a few basic questions about the process, and she just told us the recipe was “secret” in a coy way. She was just a public relations bobble-head who clearly didn’t care if we learned anything about Trappist brewing.

The focus was on a bunch of propaganda bull but about how green the monastery and brewery have become, as she showed us a dozen solar panels on the roof. In the end, we discovered that the La Trappe brewery is owned by the Bavaria Corporation, so everything suddenly made sense. We later found out that their “Trappist” title had been stripped from them a few years ago, and only recently reclaimed after they reformed some of their dubious practices.

A bit of the brewery

This is where the beer is made. No questions.

We left feeling disappointed and that we had wasted money on the tour. It really would have been better to not gone on the tour and bought a six pack at the grocery store and read about the tour online instead. The biggest peeve was that the beer was pretty good. Oh well.

Bike path paved, road not

Bike path paved, road not

We spent the night at another free campsite. As we rode up, the only thing we hoped for was that it would be empty or occupied by adults. We were happy to discover that we were the only ones there! The site ended up being really nice with a fire pit and trees for our hammocks. We went to bed early to catch up on lost sleep.

Best way to relax

Best way to relax

Our bikes

Our bikes

Silence is golden

August 3, 2013

Distance: 31.5 miles                     Climbing: 918.6 ft

We woke up late to another beautiful day. After taking down the tent, breakfast and packing everything away, we noticed a sign. Apparently, there was some sort of a trail that headed out onto an island we were next to. We weren’t planning on going to far, so figured going on a little walk was a good idea. The walk was short and led us to a waterway with a little hand ferry. We immediately took the opportunity to play on it. Ah, how easily amused we are at times!

Bringing the boat it

Bringing the boat it

Taking us across the river

Tugging us across

Chan

Chan looking good

Eventually, we pulled ourselves away from the toy and got on the road. We kind of ended up just plowing through the miles. We didn’t have any specific places to visit along the way, so just headed to the next free campsite in the general direction we wanted to go.

Lovely scenery

Lovely scenery

Another tunnel

Another tunnel

We got to the free campsite and there was another tent set up right next to the water pump, so if we tried to use the pump, it would spray the tent. We thought that was a little strange, but set up our tent, the solar panel the charge the tablet and made ourselves at home. As we made dinner, a young man biked up to the tent and explained that the water was not safe for drinking. A few of his friends then cycled up and set up another two tents. They were friendly and explained that the first friend living at the campsite for the summer. Oh ok, interesting. When everyone was done getting situated, all three boys left. We set up our hammocks to relax for evening.

End of the day tasks

End of the day tasks

Pretty bike

Pretty bike

Solar charger

Solar charger

We were both really tired and fell asleep before 10pm and before the boys returned. We heard them come back sometime later, but weren’t too worried. WRONG!!! They were fine at first, they made a bonfire and weren’t too loud. Occasionally, one of the boys would yell out “HELLO” and then laugh hysterically. We were both so exhausted that we would wake up for a moment, but then fall right back to sleep. Around 1am, another kid motorbike came and started to rev and rev and rev the engine, right next to our tent. I was just about the get out of the tent and give these teenagers the stern adult talking to about keeping quiet, but then it was perfectly quiet again and I fell back to sleep. The random shout/laughter continued through most of the night.

Next time, we won’t stay at a free camp so close to the road or a town.

Atlantic at last

August 2, 2013

Distance: 45.3 miles            Climbing: 1082.7 ft

The morning started with a trip to the beach. The beach was super crowded and we had to walk a while before we reached a stretch with fewer people. Chandler opted to go for a swim, while I was a chicken and took pictures instead. I grew up swimming in the safety of clear, chlorinated water and have a healthy fear of the ocean, so the water was a little too cloudy for my taste.

Seashells

Seashells

Chandler the brave

Chandler the brave, still wearing his “t-shirt”

Lucky for Chan, there were showers to rinse off the salt water after his little dip. Then if was off to the Delta Works. In 1953, a storm surge breached the levee system protecting low-lying land in Zeeland (this is the “old” Zealand, with a more recent namesake in the southern hemisphere). The breach resulted in massive flooding which destroyed lots of property and killed almost 2,000 people. This disaster spurred research and funding to build a defensive system to prevent future catastrophe- which is now known as the Delta Works. The idea behind the system is to block the mouths of estuaries to reduce the effective length of the shoreline. Since regular dams would impede shipping traffic and cause massive ecological damage, the primary means of protection are storm barriers which are usually left open to allow ships and water to flow freely, but can be closed when a storm is expected. These barriers eliminate the need to build massive levees along the waterways inland, as the surge will be blocked as close to the ocean as possible.

Great road for cycling

Great road for cycling

We pedaled along the water with plenty of interesting things to watch. There were many boats, of all sizes, in the water. We were passing through a bit of an industrial area, so we got to watch a number of cranes loading up cargo ships.

We reached the Maeslant Barrier in the early afternoon and were happy for the break, it was getting hot. The barrier is unique in that it is usually sitting idle on dry land. The barrier sits at the mouth of the River Scheur which is extremely busy with shipping traffic heading to Rotterdam, so a barrier that impedes the waterway was undesirable. The gate has two symmetrical arms on either shore which can be floated out into the channel until they meet, then their buoyant compartments are flooded and the whole thing is sunk so that it rests on a special concrete platform on the river bottom, with a portion remaining above the water level to block the surge. It is basically a massive semi-portable dam! The system is designed to operate in order to block the one in ten year storm surge: 3 meters above normal sea level. Our pictures didn’t really do it justice- it may be better to look at it in the satellite image version of our route map above.

The Delta Works

The Delta Works

We had another fun discovery of Holland today. There are huge tunnels under the canals for traffic, some specifically for motorbikes and bicyclists. The tunnels went far underground and were surprisingly long and chilly.

Entrance to the tunnel

Entrance to the tunnel

There's no end in sight

There’s no end in sight

We made it to another free campsite. We had to go through a few gates and pastures, dodge a couple sheep, but eventually found the right place. We thought the last place was nice, but this place was better. We had a water pump, fire pit, picnic table and a beautiful view. It was so nice to sit down at a proper table to make dinner, instead of chopping veggies on the ground or my lap. We finished the meal with our favorite Dutch treat, stroopwafel. These delicious snacks are two tiny wafers or waffles stuck together with a tiny layer of caramel. I think we have each eaten our body weight in them and are happy to be cycling.

Road block

Road block

Perfect spot

Perfect spot

Dessert

Dessert

Ride to the coast

August 1, 2013

Distance: 34.2 miles                Climbing: 823.5 ft

The sun and sheep were out to greet us in the morning. There were very few clouds in the sky, so we expected a hot day. There had been little bouts of rain almost everyday, so we were looking forward to nice weather.

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Curious sheep

The cycling was lovely and stress-free, as usual. While we were always on a bike path, there were times when we were right next to traffic and times when the path would veer away.

Fireweed

Fireweed

One of the interesting aspects of being in Holland, is being aware that we are below sea level most of the time. It is strange to be riding through fields next to a canal and have it be above you, held in by miles of levees. Sometimes, the water level is clearly higher than the roofs of houses. It makes me think about how much possible destruction could occur if a dike broke or overflowed.

IMG_6370

Canal

In the middle of the day, we reached a town, decided to go through it and pick up some food. The first thing we noticed was the church. Not because of it’s grandeur, but because it looked like it was about to fall over. I have never seen something leaning that badly. We read later that the Oude Kerk of Delft started to lean during construction in the 13th century due to poor foundation conditions. Today, the top of the bell tower is more than 6 feet off from plumb, but the towers above it were apparently built vertically to straighten things out.

IMG_6371

I hope it doesn’t topple over

In the parking lot, I also saw a very amusing bumper sticker. Wish I had a stack to hand out to people sometimes.

New favorite bumper sticker

New favorite bumper sticker

Once resupplied, we continued on our way. We were heading to Hook van Holland, where Chandler wanted to see the Delta Works. Even though we didn’t have far to go, we didn’t get there until the evening. We scouted out for campgrounds, but all we found was a campground that resembled a dog run surrounded by chain link fence for somewhere in the ballpark of $30. We opted to find a place to free camp. Luckily, there was a large, forested park nearby and found a spot quickly.

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Chan leading the way

We began to unpack when we noticed an awful smell. A rabbit had died nearby and I had managed to step in dog poo. Taking both as a bad sign, we left for another spot. Chandler found a much better area, but it required pushing our bikes through a thick patch of pricker bushes. We set up camp as the sun was setting and made dinner in the dark. Thinking we were so clever and well hidden, we were surprised to hear voices coming closer. Apparently, some drunk teenage boys climbed over some barbed wire to go exploring and discovered us. We couldn’t understand any of there Dutch except for the word camping. I think we scared them more than they scared us. Thankfully, they said hello and left us alone for a quiet evening.

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Campsite critters