(but that’s a good start, say Rob and Nigel). We were an odd trio of cyclists, me on a fairly heavy town bike rented in Bruges, Rob (who’s previously featured in accounts of cycling in Taiwan and Yorkshire) on his folder and Nigel on a carbon-fibre Audax bike that he’d have liked to sleep with at night, but it worked very well – partly because the infrastructure is so good and there’s a positive Dutch-style cycling culture. This meant that even where the cycle tracks weren’t perfect we could still feel safe and keep rolling along because we were confident that drivers would give way, in a way that they certainly wouldn’t in the UK. The infrastructure felt like a slightly cheaper version of the Dutch gold standard, ie even the best segregated tracks were only three metres wide, not enough for cyclists to overtake in each direction simultaneously. Watch out for the Omleiding signs – if they say that a cycle route is closed for construction and you should follow a diversion, just do it – there really won’t be a way for cyclists to sneak past.
Renting a bike worked fine for a trip involving 50-60km a day at most, and that largely along wide canal towpaths and the like. It was a sit-up-and-beg (or sit-up-and-look-around) bike with seven gears that I called my momentum machine – pretty good in a straight line but not particularly manoeuvrable (similar to the Vélib bikes I rode in Paris a few days later); it was better on the all-too-common cobbles than the folder, but still not comfortable. Apparently (according to an article Rob once wrote), Dutch-style sit-up-and-beg bikes are great for women for certain anatomical reasons, but I don’t know why men would bother with them. There’s no denying the women look great, though, as they sail past with legs fully extended. My bike didn’t feel as if it had a long-distance saddle (or maybe I just don’t have a long-distance bottom), but I’d be happy to rent one for a week again – you should bring your own panniers, as in Taiwan (probably a good rule anywhere), and a U-lock.
We went from Brugge (the local name for Bruges…) to Gent (the local name for Ghent or Gand), Antwerp, Mechelen and Leuven, over three easy days of cycling, and it was delightful, following canals and railway lines, with windmills, grebes and storks, lots of grannies on e-bikes whizzing past us and other elderly couples pottering along slowly on their elderly bikes. The excellent new routes alongside the railways to the southwest and south of Antwerp are branded Fietsostrada, as in autostrada (F4 and F1 respectively) – in Britain we might call it a Bikebahn. There wasn’t much time for museums and art, so I filled in a few gaps when I returned my bike (by train – €5 for a bike ticket) to Brugge.
Luckily there was plenty of time for beer, with the odd lunchtime/afternoon refresher, and more detailed research in the evenings. Everything you’ve heard about Belgian beer is (probably) true – there’s an amazing variety, and it’s all stronger than we’re used to in Britain. You’ll be given a beer menu organised by type and/or region, but the first page will probably list a few draught options (van’t vat), which will be the local mainstays. If you want a refreshing pils after a warm days cycling (and yes, we did drink Stella Artois, though only within a kilometre or so of its brewery in Leuven) it will be cheap, but the more interesting beers cost a bit more, at about €4 for a 33cl bottle. Interestingly, there seems to be no link between alcoholic strength and price.
The easiest option tended to be a blond, ie a pale ale but with more strength and character than in Britain (ie they don’t just throw in lots of hops); other choices are amber, red, brown, wheat beers and the famous Belgian fruit beers. Some are abbey or Trappist beers, which should be fuller and smoother, but there’s no guarantee of that. Then there are the real local specialities, lambic and gueuze – lambic is made using only natural windborne yeasts just southwest of Brussels, and it’s remarkably sour, so it may have fruit added, be matured in the barrel for up to three years, or be blended to produce a gueuze.
Every beer is served in its own specific marked glass – although the system fell apart on our very last drink together, when Rob’s exotic peach beer came with a bog-standard Chimay glass.
Likewise, everything you’ve heard about Brugge being full of tourists and Gent being the undiscovered but more authentic and exciting alternative is true – we were all blown away by the canals and towers of Gent, and by the feeling that it was a real working city rather than just a tourist honey-pot.
In the cathedral of St Bavo in Gent the wonderful and very important (in terms of the development of northern European art) altarpiece of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers is being restored panel by panel, but the missing ones have been replaced by photographs that are so good you really wouldn’t know (and the bottom left-hand panel, the Just Judges, is in any case a reproduction, the original having been stolen in 1934). At the Fine Arts Museum you can watch the restoration work through a glass screen – it’s just been announced, having removed layers of paint added in earlier ‘restorations’, that the lamb has a much sterner expression than was thought (in addition a 1951 restoration effort had left it looking as if it had four ears). In June 2020 a new visitor centre will open to show it off properly.
Various big museum projects will be coming to fruition in 2019, it seems. In Brugge the Gruuthusemuseum is closed for renovation until May 2019 and in Antwerp the Fine Arts Museum is closed while they build new galleries in the central courtyard – it looks as if it’ll reopen in 2019, but until then many of their treasures are visible in other venues across the city. In Leuven the Treasury in the chancel of St Peter’s church, famous for its two paintings by Dietric Bouts and a copy of Roger van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, is closed until September 2019 – but the treasures are on view in the chapels off the nave. In addition, the Caermersklooster or former Carmelite monastery in Gent will open in January 2019 as the Kunsthal Gent, run by local art groups.
On the other hand, a new city museum opened in 2018 in Mechelen, in the Hof van Busleyden, once home of Hiëronymus van Busleyden, a friend of Erasmus. It tells the town’s history from the Burgundian period, when it was pretty much the capital of northern Europe, to the present day, and also displays art and shows how the law was applied to art between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.
On the cycling front, the Wielermuseum or Cycling Museum in Roeselar has just reopened, after a three-year closure, as Koers, which means Race – not really what we do, but still it might be interesting.