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Winter in Belgium

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Winter in Belgium

With the arrival of November, the weather took a significant dive. Double digit daytime temperatures were a thing of the past, and at night it dipped even below zero a couple times. It was the inevitable consequence of cycling south at this pace. With Finnish genes and warm gear the cold weather still wasn’t a disaster for me, but Isabelle couldn’t really handle camping anymore. At least until she'd get to Luxembourg where a new sleeping bag was waiting for her.

This caused some friction, because I had been looking forward to sleeping outside more again. Southeast Belgium has a lot of beautiful forest areas in the Ardennes, which sounded nice for camping. In Holland we had mostly slept indoors, which usually results in very little alone time. And there is a limit to how much peopleing I can do. After a while I get exhausted and need to recharge in a quiet place somewhere out in nature.

As a solution, in the Hoge Kempen and the Hautes Fagnes National Parks in Belgium we cycled separate routes and met up in the evening. This gave me a chance to spend extra time taking photos and enjoying some important solitude.

Our first glimpse of Belgium was still colourful and pleasant.
Hoge Kempen in the morning light.

In addition to the seasons, there were also major changes to the terrain. Since Denmark there hadn’t been any uphills whatsoever, but Hautes Fagnes included a climb up to 700m. And there were many more hills ahead. This made cycling even slower, but at least the scenery was finally improving. On the other hand, autumn colours were turning brown and the landscape was often shrouded in fog.

Through the Ardennes we could travel on an old railroad that had been turned into a bicycle path. This was perfect, because Belgians don’t always seem to be the greatest of drivers. Many drive at retarded speeds, and Isabelle had a close call with a truck driver who probably thought “patience” is some kind of Calvin Klein fragrance. So the paved railway was a real luxury. Not only were there no cars, but the slight inclines meant for locomotives were very easy to handle with heavy touring loads.

Every little village has an old church in this part of the world.

When we were in a French-speaking village called Faymonville it even snowed a few centimetres one day. It didn't really affect us however, because we spent the day resting. The previous night we were looking for a place to stay when a car stopped and a woman asked if we needed help. When we explained the situation, she told us to follow her. Within a couple minutes we were taken to her hair salon where she had a studio apartment in the back.

She introduced herself as Caroline, with a heavy accent. She was like a character from a French movie, looking very chic, smoking cigarettes inside and pouring us some red wine. She wouldn't be 'ome for two days, and of course we could stay alone in her apartment and business place for the whole weekend!

So next morning I woke up and looked out the window to see snow falling. I briefly considered getting up to take photos, but just went back to sleep instead.

Merci beaucoup!

Wake up, it's time to ride!
Some of the water drops were still frozen when it was time to be back on the road.
 

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Dutch Hospitality

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Dutch Hospitality

My stay in the Netherlands was much less focused on nature than most other places so far. Partly because the country has a pretty high population density, and partly because traveling with a Hurricane leads to a huge increase in social situations. Isabelle has a lot of friends in the Netherlands, and also makes new ones easily. Especially with the very welcoming Dutch people. So lately I’ve been doing less stealth camping and more sleeping in rural areas.

In the Weerribben-Wieden National Park further north we couldn’t find any forests or open camping grounds, so Isabelle and Ilse (when she was still cycling with us) asked for tent space in the lawn of a big farmhouse. Within minutes we were setting up camp between the barn and the horse fence. A very social black mixed-breed dog called Lola came to demand scratches and seemed in need of attention, so I took a frisbee and played fetch with her for an hour. I got tired first even though she was doing all the running. When I woke up the next morning she came to my tent with the frisbee in her mouth and tail wagging eagerly.

Country road, take me home...

In Vught we met Yvette, who has travelled with Isabelle in South America. There were extra beds for us at her parents’ place. We came in from the rain and were immediately sat down in front of a table so full of Chinese food that it could’ve fed a dozen hungry cyclists. The next day we got a tour of the local forest and nearby city Den Bosch.

Clocks were turned back an hour on that same day, so when we returned to the road in the afternoon the sun was already setting. After riding only 7km we had to stop in a small village called Esch. Isabelle asked around for accommodation, and we were given tent space at the playground of the Enchanted Forest Pancake House. The owners were awesome and even offered us free pancakes when they heard about our travel plans.

... to the place, I belong ...

In Eindhoven we stopped by an outdoor gear store called Bever. We've gotten many warnings about bicycle thieves, so the staff let us roll our bikes inside for safety while we did our shopping. There was free hot chocolate for customers. When I asked for any suggestions on where to find a camping ground for a shower (these are harder to find in the off season), they told us we could use the shower right there in the store! Not exactly a standard shopping experience.

In Neeroeteren we got to stay inside again for two nights at a couple who were Isabelle's old colleagues. That was admittedly on the Belgian side, but the woman was from the Netherlands, so I think it counts as an example of Dutch hospitality. When we left we cycled to the Hoge Kempen National Park, and stopped at Café De Statie, an old train station turned into a pub café. The very friendly owners let us sleep out back on the storage room floor. It was a cold and rainy night and there were wild boars in the park, so we were happy to be dry and safe.

By that point I wasn’t even surprised to hear they were also Dutch.

... Western Europe, forest floor ...

Near Maastricht we crossed the border again for one last stop in the Netherlands in a little village called Eckelrade. The sun was setting so we asked for a place to stay. The local pastor kindly organised a small house for us nearby. Before we even got there, a woman stopped to ask about our trips and invited us for dinner with her family. And later when we felt tired and in need of extra rest days, the nice owner of our house came to inform us we could stay another night if we wanted, free of charge.

As much as I love to look at beautiful wide open landscapes, finding sunlight falling just right on the small details is really satisfying.

Perhaps you can tell from the way I’m writing this, that I can’t really find the words to describe how appreciative I am of all this generosity. It’s all been quite overwhelming in the Netherlands since the first day in Stellingen. Without exception the Dutch people have been incredibly warm, friendly and happy to help a pair of bicycle travellers in any way they can.

All I can say is a million thanks to everyone for their kind gestures. Everything from the passing smiles and greetings, to opening their doors and offering food or a place to sleep, warms my heart and gives me faith in the humanity of strangers.

And this is why I travel.

Wake up, it's a beautiful life.
 

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