Bicycling in Belgium

"Now I understand why Belgian cyclists are the best in the world," says N., marveling, inspecting the street surface. N. loves the Tour. He loves bicycles. He admires Eddy Merckx. And N. is seeing pave.

Pave. (Say it: PAH-vay.) Cobblestone streets. With three-quarter-inch-wide gaps that suck down hesitant wheels, granite surfaces to slick up in the lightest rain. Pave is a jaw-breaker of a ride. Seriously. My jaw hurt from the clenching to prevent my teeth rattling.

Pave under construction
A woman rides pave, drinking a hot cup of coffee. A man pedals quickly, preoccupied, both hands busily texting. Commuters casually puff their cigarettes. Two small boys in school backpacks chatter as they downhill steep pave, one boy on the saddle and one boosted on the handlebars. We think of the Tour riders protesting this year's pave stage on their rain-slippery, bladelike tires. I squat down and run my hand over the surface of the stones. My god, the scope on this planet of what is commonplace.

Oh, yeah. We're gonna ride.

We don't ride in Brussels. Not as many people do, from the looks of it, compared to Bruges and Amsterdam. Brussels is a dressed-up city. People were accessorized. Brussels made me wish I'd brought an actual handbag with me on this trip.

We wait for Bruges.

Bruges! Canals and bell tower and gingerbready architecture and horse-drawn carriages and everywhere, bicycles. Centuries-old buildings to pedestrian scale for miles and miles. Like being in a big dollhouse of a city full of cheese shops, bakeries, and Jupiler signs. Bruges is NOT a dressy place. Because everybody is on bikes. Bruges people look a lot less fussy about a wrinkled trouser leg or slightly windblown hair. Nobody wears a helmet.

We rent bikes at the Train Station Bike Rental. The rental guy's English is colloquial, and he's super friendly. He's selling us something in a competitive market, but also he seems like a happy guy. Meeting a happy guy at his work is a nice way to start the day. I don't care if it's Belgium or Kansas City, I don't really want to ride a bike that some sour malcontent puts me on. Happy rental guy fits us on our city bikes and shows us how the horseshoe-shaped locks work. The lock clamps onto the back rim and immobilizes it. You don't have to lock the bike to anything. Just leave it locked in one of the hundreds of available bike racks in the city and walk off with the key in your pocket.

The rental guy shrugs when I try the women's frame and say I'd rather have the men's. This is evidently not a common request. The women's frame is awesome if you're wearing a skirt, because you can swing your leg through the frame to dismount. I am not wearing a skirt. And as always, the women's frame makes me feel like I'm sitting in a kindergartner's desk.

The bike rental guy agrees with Rick Steves that riding out to Damme is a nice way to spend a morning. Take the road that rings the city; the turn to Damme is four windmills past the train station.

A picture of rightness in the world
What you should know about riding bikes in Bruges:

You will be carrying a map. It is not to scale. It is close to life-size. The streets in Bruges are actually only a sixteenth of an inch apart. If you are patient and have a keen appreciation for the ridiculous, you will love riding in Bruges. You are going to miss a LOT of turns. You are going to yell things at each other like "TURN HERE!" "HERE?" "NO, BACK THERE!"

And then you will pretend to be doing something you will call "navigating" in a fruitless trapezoidal pattern, when what you really want is a place where two cyclists can pull aside and look at the map, which is something that Bruges is not set up for because the Brugeoises know where they are going. And you will be looking for this respite from traffic while your teeth are mercilessly clack clack clacking and you are yelling "WAIT!" and your riding partner is yelling "WHAT? LET'S TURN HERE!" And all of this is out of this world wonderful, because you are RIDING A BICYCLE, in traffic that watches for you! without a helmet! in street clothes, no lycra! completely free! in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Anyway, Damme. This is the bike path to Damme on an October morning:


Pretty, yes? We saw a group of roadies in full kit. We saw people walking their dogs. We saw people fishing in the canal. We saw a sign by the side of the path, 70 KM. We were in no danger of breaking that speed limit, and it really didn't dawn on us what it was there for until the SUV passed us. On the bike path. That was a road. Wacky Belgians.

Pedaling around Damme took all of ten minutes. Damme has a church and some overpriced restaurants, but wonderful huge clean restrooms in the visitors' center. The visitors' center is on that count not to be missed.

Back to Bruges and the dental shatter gentle lilt of pave. We pedaled to the church to see Michelangelo's Madonna and Child. To the grocery store where we had bought our Mort Subite Kriek the night before, then to Minnewater to picnic and watch the swans and watch tourists watching the swans.

Circuitous route around town, up and down narrow streets, and the wrong way down a heavily trafficked one-way and no place to turn around. We pedaled into the main square with a city bus coughing ten feet from my back fender and me yelling at N., "Go! Go! Go!" and him yelling back, "What? Where? What?" and me yelling "Holy crap! Go! Go!"

Some of the most fun on a bike, ever. But Belgium will require a part 2, and not just because riding from Ghent to Bruges would be a blast. See, I still haven't had the heart to tell N. that we missed seeing the Eddy Merckx memorial metro station in Brussels. Sweetheart. Next time.


Foodie said...

Did you see that movie "In Bruges" - just rent it and tell me what you think.

Ann Pai said...

I think if Harry and Ken and Ray had spent a lot more time on bicycles, they might possibly have been maladjusted in less conclusive ways. Incidentally, we didn't go to the top of the tower because it was too foggy that day to make the climb worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to eat the gingerbread buildings. And then just go back to Europe. What a cool way to experience cities conducive to biking.