Neither of us had been to Belgium before, and had little knowledge of what to expect. Some of this mainly French-speaking portion in southern part of Belgium was as we had assumed it would be, but there were also a few surprises. We’d known key parts of many European wars had been played out here, and reminders of this were everywhere. The citadelles and elegant châteaux were the stuff of tourist brochures, but the gritty tiredness of Liège was a surprise to us, as was the overwhelmingly industrial character of the Meuse river between Liège and Namur.
21/09/2013: 98 km Across the High Fens to Liège
We tucked into our last German breakfast and set out past reservoirs on a climb toward the border. Still following routes shown on our German cycling map, and crossed the High Fens in Belgium on rough tracks. Here in the fens, the importance of wetlands is recognized.There is a long term project to eradicate an introduced tree species that became invasive, and which if left unchecked would alter the water table and transform fen into forest.
I was looking forward to easier communication in the local language that I assumed would be French. Arriving in Eupen, I felt relief as I asked a woman for directions to a bookshop and conversation flowed easily. Obtaining information would be simple here. She was a francophone, but to my surprise the lasses in the bookshop were German speakers who preferred to switch into English than into French. We’d arrived in an area which had been part of Germany before WW1, and where the language still thrives several generations later. I guess it was no surprise that the bakery was a delicious microcosm of the local Belgian cultural mix; take your pick of éclairs, strudel, or speculoos. All are delicious.
We found our way into Liège on a rail trail the Belgians call a “Ravel”, and made our way to the hostel. It was late, we were tired, and it was full. We stayed nearby in an overpriced establishment in a rough area of town. To be fair, quite a bit of Liège felt edgy, or perhaps it was simply culture shock after Germany with its tidy window boxes. We made sure we had a reservation for the hostel for the next day.
22-23/09: In Liège
After moving our kit into storage at the hostel, we walked to the citadelle. As we strolled, we saw an orienteering meet in progress, and stopped to chat. Our own Greater Vancouver Orienteering Club currently has two active Belgian members, and despite the fact that there are about 2,000 active orienteers in Wallonia, we connected with someone who knew our Vancouver Belgians and who went as far as to invite us to stay if our route were to take us near her house.
24/09/2013: 87 km Along the Meuse and Chateau de Jehay to Namur
Map of Belgian cycling routes in hand, we set out toward Namur along the Meuse. This was not the idyllic German riverside cycling path. Rather, it involved periodic dodging of heavy equipment as we passed work sites where mechanical shovels moved processed scrap metal from containers to barges. We would stop to see when it was safe to pass these operations, and always got cheerful thumbs up from operators. There were also quite a few other touring cyclists using this route alongside what is more of a canal than a river.
We left the river to visit the Château de Jehay, a private estate for several centuries now in the hands of the province of Liège. On first arrival, the garden was closed, but we chatted to three Flemish road cyclists. When they heard we were from British Columbia, conversation turned to the famous Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, because apparently his son Axel Merckx now lives in Kelowna. We were told the back story of Eddy Merckx from the Belgian viewpoint: not only has his halo lost its sheen because of doping scandals, but Eddy’s parents were rumoured to be Nazi collaborators.
The château buildings were undergoing renovation, but with walked in the fabulous gardens, with a highlight being a lovingly restored garden of edibles, neatly laid out in a formal Italian style. Imagine rows of ruby chard and brussel sprouts as graphic art. Beautiful!
Further along the Meuse, we stopped in Huy for ice cream and coffee. We sat beside six-year old who, when hearing we had flown to Europe because there was water between it and Canada which would make cycling difficult, advised us very logically that we should have ridden BESIDE the water. Surely there is always a cycling path beside the water? We felt his logic was solid, considering where he lived.
At the hostel in Namur we met a 67 year old retired PE teacher, a keen cyclist and who gave us tips for our onward route. Lads from a rather noisy school group at the hostel kept calling out “Bonjour Madame” as I passed, so I stopped to chat and made the mistake of calling them “les gamins.” I was firmly corrected and informed they would prefer to be addressed as “jeunes hommes.” They must have been about twelve or thirteen.
25-26/09/2013; in Namur
Namur sits at the confluence of the Meuse and the Sambre rivers, and the point of rock that just between the two has been inhabited for a thousand years and fortified for the last five hundred or so. We spent most of our first day touring this.
The next day Jiggy was to arrive by train to join us. We checked out of the hostel and the errand of the morning was for us both to get our scraggly hair cut, and for Chris to get his beard trimmed. It was over two months ago that Louise did our hair in Finland with a pair of kitchen scissors borrowed from the Australian orienteering team.
With our newly minted short backs and sides, we went to meet Jiggy at the train station, realizing that it was sixteen years since we’d last seen each other.
Watch this space for a guest post by Jiggy!