belgium

Flanders Fields

The transition from the hills of the Ardennes to the flat coastal plains of Flanders was my last significant change in terrain on continental Europe.  Next (and last) up will be more rolling hills.  In Kent.  In England.  Tomorrow…

Getting out of the hills was a welcome relief for my legs.  But it’s been accompanied by a rise in temperature into the realms of ‘uncomfortably sweaty’.  It also didn’t improve the Belgian road surfaces.

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Most places with bad roads that I’ve ridden tend to be trying to improve them.  In Belgium, they just put up a sign saying ‘Knackered Road’ (above), and leave them to deteriorate.  It’s amazing that the country produced Eddy Mercxx, and other world-class cyclists.

Flanders is famous for two things: the cobbled classics of the spring cycling calendar, and the horrendous death and destruction of the First World War.

It used to be famous (in medieval times) for wool, importing the raw material from England, and producing cloth for sale elsewhere in Europe.  Many of the towns became wealthy, with hugely impressive town centres, like that in Mons:

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But, as I first noticed in Mons (still in French-speaking Belgium), the old buildings here are just a little too straight and well-preserved.  A little too perfect to be truly old.  I noticed the same thing when I got across to Ypres (or Ieper) after crossing into the Flemish part of the country.  Most of the towns in this part of the world have been rebuilt.

There are hints as to why this might be spread all across the Flemish countryside.  Little green signs pointing to rows and rows of headstones in carefully-tended cemeteries.  Millions of of young men from Europe, North America, Africa, Australasia and Asia died in these fields a hundred years ago.  Four years of mechanised trench warfare, where the front line moved just a handful of miles at the cost of millions of lives.

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At Ypres, the Menin Gate is built into the old city walls.  But it looks like it could just as easily be a monument from the centre of London.  It has the names of around 50,000 British and Empire soldiers on it.  It was intended as a memorial to those who died in the area, and who had no other grave.  50,000.  Just the British and Empire troops.  Just in the area of Ypres, and just those with no grave.

And, despite the apparently endless list of names on the Gate, it wasn’t big enough.  The list continues elsewhere.

All quite grim.

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Thankfully, the roads (very, very flat and not falling apart – above), and the absolutely stunning weather allowed me to shake off the depressing history of this area a little today (Tuesday).  As I headed toward my final stop in continental Europe, the port of Calais.

Probably, like most Brits who began travelling before the Channel Tunnel was constructed, Calais has been familiar to me for a long time.  It’s the French end of the shortest ferry crossing between England and France, and has the most frequent cross-channel ferries.

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For many people of my advanced years and older, the sight of the Calais from the boat, with its colossal town-hall tower (below), was their first sight of ‘abroad’.

Maybe it’s fitting that it’ll be the last sight I have of ‘abroad’ for this trip, as the ferry pulls out towards Dover tomorrow (Wednesday).  It’s time to float over to the last country on the round-the-world trip.

Back to the UK.  Back home…

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The Ardennes

The German Army discovered that it was not especially easy to cross the Ardennes forest in late 1944.  The area was the site of the last major German counter-offensive of World War 2, an offensive which was hampered by the tightly-packed trees, steep hills and narrow valleys of the area.

I’ve spent the last few days confirming their findings.  Even without overwhelming opposing military forces shooting at you, it’s much tougher than it looks on paper.  There’s a reason that some of the hardest one-day races on the professional cycling calendar take place in the area.

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I was still on relatively flat land as I left France on Thursday (after a rain-inflicted extra rest day on Wednesday).  I was happy to be heading back into Germany on the 14th July.  I still remember how difficult it is to find anything whatsoever open in France on Bastille Day (after nearly starving to death on Day 2 of the round-the-world trip in 2014).

The price you pay for a gentle re-introduction to Germany (in the Saar valley, at least), is plenty of heavy industry (above), rather than delightful views.  But, as the hills started to rear up, and I approached the border with Luxembourg, it started to look much prettier.

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I crossed into Luxembourg at the village of Schengen, where it was finally possible to get a photo with three countries in (above).

The photo’s taken from the German side of the bridge.  The left bank is Germany, the right is Luxembourg.  And the village on the hill in the background is in France.  Needless to say, as all three countries are in the Schengen area, crossing the border is as simple as finishing crossing the bridge.

Luxembourg is tiny.  After breakfast in Schengen, and still absorbing the horrible news that was starting to come in from Nice overnight, I crossed the country before lunchtime.

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As well as being essentially a giant duty-free shop (every petrol station sells bulk tobacco and alcohol, as well as dirt-cheap fuel), Luxembourg is where the Ardennes really start.  As I got closer to the Belgian border, the landscape became more forested, as well as corrugated by what felt like hundreds of small hills.

It actually feels a lot like riding the bike at home: lots of small, sharp climbs, with equally short descents.  So you don’t really have time to recover before you’re heading uphill again.  It’s taken a bit of getting used to, as I’ve become accustomed to either flat plains or majestic mountains in the last few weeks.

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And, as I entered Belgium, the sky clouded up, too.  Just so I really felt at home, there was even a little bit of drizzle.

Maybe because it has felt so familiar, or maybe because the forested nature of the countryside means that impressive views are few and far between, both Luxembourg and Belgium (so far) felt kind of pleasant but not super-special.  And that impression’s not helped by the standard of the roads in Belgium, which might give the UK a run for it’s money for the ‘worst in Europe’ award.

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Still, I find myself this evening, in the small town of Givet, on the Meuse river (above).  It’s a really nice little town, surrounded by some of the last of the Ardennes hills.  But it’s not in Luxembourg or Belgium – I’m back in France for about ten kilometres.  So that’s France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and back to France in three days’ riding.  Small world.

But it’ll be Belgium for me again tomorrow.  Out of the hills, and on to the flat lands which lead to the English Channel.  The last few days outside the UK.

I really am nearly finished now.  The good news is that the hair’s starting to grow back, slowly…