Easter weekend saw me take on a whole new sort of adventure. Since Christmas I’ve been commuting longer distances by bike and began to think about a longer trip on two wheels. Given that my longer commute still isn’t very long I wanted to pick a route that would have enough challenge but was also not too ambitious. As a cautious Carol I know that if I spectacularly fail something once it’s unlikely I’ll be trying again for a long time – not a great life tactic I know but one I’ll bet is pretty common!
I thought a strategy of a long flat ride to somewhere with lots of things to eat and drink would be the best option, I’d heard tell of a great cycle network in Belgium and had never visited Bruges so quickly the destination was decided; the fact that Bruges is probably one of the most famous chocolate producing towns in the world and that the trip would take place over Easter weekend was no coincidence!
With destination decided I looked at transport options. Deciding that the long cycle should be on the continent I booked train tickets to Dover and then found that we could take the ferry to Dunkirk instead of Calais shaving 30 not particularly scenic kilometers off the route distance. Online rail booking sites couldn’t cope with a multi-leg cycle reservation journey but booking at a station was easy and ended up being incredibly good value – £30 return for me and my bike from Bristol to Dover.
Cycling from Paddington to St Pancreas was a surprisingly easy as there is good cycle path down the backstreets which is well signposted. A quick picnic purchase and onwards to Dover. Having left after work on Thursday I was enjoying a drink in Dover by 9pm. A big thanks to the excellently situated Premier Inn for allowing bike storage in their laundry room. I wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again on any European adventures.
VIP ferry passengers
The next day saw me on a VIP cycle through the port of Dover, again really well signposted through the port. As a cyclist I boarded the ferry first and was sat comfortably in the saloon before any of the other passengers (apart from the other cyclists who, on Good Friday, were numerous).
Arriving in France the VIP treatment continued as the cyclists were also first off. However, the cycle route out of Dunkirk was much less clear and a few navigational difficulties ensued. There are a few link roads that have you along with all the traffic from the ferry but after a couple of roundabouts you can turn off onto more amenable roads through – look for the D601 to Loon Plage which takes you though a little village to pick up the cycle path towards Grande Synthe and Dunkirk town. To my dismay I only worked out that Dunkrik Ferry Terminal is approximately 25km south of Dunkirk on the ferry thus extending the planned ride by 1/4!
The route up to Dunkirk and onwards to the Belgian border was mainly on roadside cycle paths. There were very few cycle specific directions but google maps on bike setting did a reasonable job.
Knoopunten – the cyclists best Belgian friend
Once in Belgium though things really reached a whole new level of cycle routing, one which I only truly mastered on our return journey. Throughout Flanders and extending into other areas of Belgium are cycle paths which you can navigate by the delightfully named Knoopunten. Each junction has a choice of routes, the number filled in in green shows where you are and you then select which number you need to go onwards. The very useful website Fietsroute.org has a cycle planner which will generate a list of numbered points for you to follow. The screenshot below shows our return route and I can vouch that all numbers were present and correct. Being able to quickly check a screenshot rather than draining a mobile battery using google or checking a map made for really efficient cycling. The route up to Bruges starts down a farm track just at the Belgian border with the D60, while variety is the spice of life had I used these on the way out I would have been introduced to the Belgian cycle paths much sooner.
The route to Bruges
Eventually I joined the off road paths just outside Veurne, which, had I been visiting earlier in the day would have made an excellent lunch stop. From here the route headed North along canalside paths with very little traffic. Sunshine and a small tail wind made cycling a pleasure. Belgian cyclists were extremely friendly and as soon as there was any puzzling over the map someone would offer help. At one point a local escort appeared as if by magic help navigate around Niewport.
From Veurne it is straightforward to follow one canal north to Niewport, tour over a few fields then pick up another (or perhaps the same canal) to the north of Niewport and then at Passendale turn right to follow a third (?second) canal into Bruges.
Bruges and Ghent
Bruges is a beautiful city, the photos probably do it more justice than my words can. It is very, very touristy but quiet pockets can be found such as a walk out to St Anna’s windmills. Lovely bars and pubs abound to drink delicious Belgian beers in. A tell tale sign the beer consumption had gone to far was when a 7% beer was referred to as a ‘light refreshing afternoon beer’. Some favourite drinkeries included Cafe Rose Red, Comptoir des Artes, Cafe Cambrinus and Cafe Terrastje. I also enjoyed a fantastic cocktail at Groot Vlaenderen and loved them even more for not judging me in my one non cycling outfit, packed for practicality rather than style, despite it being a rather fancier than it appeared from the outside cocktail bar!
Bruges is very compact and after a day of wandering and no major interest in 16th Century Flemish art we decided to take a day/afternnon trip to Ghent. An easy 20 minute train ride from Bruges, Ghent was a lovely contrast, it still has a beautiful historic center but manages to combine old and new with some wonderful modern architecture alongside its history. There are also many museums to explore, with more variety than Bruges. We took a trip to the delightfully named S.M.A.K; a modern art museum near the station. A trip to the gallery and a potter round town with some great chips along the way made for a lovely contrasting day out.
The return journey
Having spent some time figuring out the Knoopunten the return journey was much less navigationally challenging. However, the weather was less on our side although atleast the rain was blown in by a tail wind for most of the cycle south. Given that it was a bank holiday our eating options were limited and we were incredibly grateful to our B&B hosts for having made us an enormous packed breakfast. The looming deadline of the ferry crossing and the inclement weather certainly sped us up and we managed to cover the 100km in 5 hours meaning we caught an earlier ferry, just as well as our VIP treatment was not repeated and we waited nearly 45 minutes to disembark at Dover meaning we only just made the train connection back to London and onward to Bristol.
Lessons learned and helpful tips
Book your cycle reservations for UK train in person at a station
Dunkirk ferry terminal is NOT in Dunkirk
Trust the Knoopunten
I was lucky with the wind but bear in mind a lot of Belgian cyclists will quote ‘in Belgium the wind is our hills’
Belgian beers taste better in Belgium but my does it taste good there!
Building cycling into a holiday really does encourage eating and drinking all the things…
Cheers! I’m already planning my next European cycling adventure – all suggestions welcome.