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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…