Tour de Belgique: Calais to Bruges on a bicycle

Dover ferry port

First day – waiting to board the ferry at Dover

Many people spend their summer holidays relaxing on a sandy beach, soaking up the sun and getting into a good book. Others go for culture, visiting historic cities, enjoying the food and drink on offer. This summer I did none of those things and decided to cycle from Calais to Bruges, alone, on my new bike. I love cycling and since moving to London I’ve found it’s the most effective way to travel around the city.

After a brief glance at Google Maps I created a rather arbitrary itinerary that would take me along the coast as far as the Belgian-Dutch border before cycling back down to Bruges. I started out on Monday, and took the boat from Dover to Calais. Cycling onto the car ferry was terrifying, the ramp was so steep and my panniers were heavy as they were laden down with clothes and snacks for the week ahead.

However, after a calm 90 minute crossing I arrived in France. “Right, here we go,” I thought as I consulted my Google Map. The first two hours of my journey were beautiful – long, winding country lanes and fields full of golden corn and poppies. I planned to arrive in Dunkirk early that evening. The scenery changed somewhat after I passed through Gravelines and to my horror I discovered that the only way to reach my youth hostel was by cycling along a dual carriageway. A dual-bloody-carriageway with cars, trucks and vans zipping by. I turned off at a side path that ran alongside some railway sidings and cycled along it for fifteen minutes or so before bumping into a man who simply told me, “non madame, you must go back”, wildly gesturing at me to do an about turn.

I got back onto the dual carriageway and was comforted by the site of a couple cycling in front of me who also seemed to be heading for Dunkirk. I arrived at my youth hostel that evening, in one piece and shattered, thankful for a hot shower.

The ride the following day was shorter and more enjoyable. Dunkirk is close to the Belgian border (about 12 miles away) and once I arrived in Flanders I was pleased to find cycle paths and proper cycling routes. I followed the “Kustfietsroute” along the coast, which was signposted all the way.

The Belgian coast doesn’t have the drama of the White Cliffs of Dover but it is very charming and thankfully for me, flat. Over the next four days I saw many beautiful windswept sandy beaches, parents taking their kids away for a break, a North Sea that changed colour from blue to grey to green and back again.

The weather was great nearly everyday and I visited so many places for the first time. My highlights were Westende (small, quaint seaside town), Blankenberge (bigger, a bit like Margate and with an English-style pier) and Het Zwin, a nature reserve on the Belgian-Dutch border.

The ride from Het Zwin down to Bruges on Friday was probably the best of the week. After visiting the nature reserve, I cycled over the border into the Netherlands (just because it was there and I could!) and stopped for a cup of tea at a cafe before heading back to Belgium. I saw a lot of farms, water and countryside before arriving in the border town, Sluis.

From Sluis, there is a canal that runs all the way to Bruges which is about 10 miles away. The route is beautiful. There is very little traffic, just pedestrians, bicycles and people fishing. The canal is lined with huge trees, cute pubs and the odd windmill and is extremely peaceful.

I arrived in Bruges that evening after cycling around 110 miles or so over the last five days. My bike didn’t break down, I was lucky enough not to get a puncture (those Schwalbe tyres were worth the money!) and between a Google Map and a cycling map from the tourism office I managed to navigate my way without getting too lost.

Belgian coast

Pretty sand dunes close to Ostend

The holiday was a lot of fun and cycling gave me the freedom to be spontaneous and see things I probably wouldn’t have seen if I’d travelled by car or train. I hope to do a similar trip next year, and might even be brave enough to tackle some hills.

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Youth on the move? Not in these parts…

The European Commission recently released this slick video to promote it’s Youth on the Move initiative which promotes opportunities available for young people in the EU. Citizens are free to live, work, study, train and set up businesses in any of the twenty-seven member states. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well it is.

I studied for my master’s degree in Belgium and paid the same fees as the local students, around €560 for the year. There was nothing inferior about the teaching or the university, as some back home scoffed, it was simply the case that funding for higher education in Belgium is different – better – than it is in Britain. However, despite all these great opportunities few young Brits seem to be taking them up. Reactions have ranged from astonishment and surprise to excitement when I tell people that they can receive higher education abroad in English at a fraction of what they would pay here, but few are seizing those opportunities.

The UK government has a responsibility to work smarter with the EU and really promote the opportunities for young people in the Union, particularly when so many are put off by rising tuition fees at home. What’s next? A generation of people that could have gone to university but simply didn’t because they were terrified by crippling amounts of debt? The concern is completely understandable but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Relocation, relocation

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Thankfully I passed my exams, assignments and my thesis so have now graduated from my master’s programme. I am officially a Master of European Studies.

I left Flanders in July and moved back to the UK. There are some things I miss about Belgium – my friends, the Speculoos, the beer, the beautiful architecture and the lovely Flemish people – but it is great to be home.

Sad as it may sound, I really missed our 24 hour consumer culture – Marks and Spencer,Tesco’s, the opportunity to go shopping on a Sunday. I even missed Channel 4 and BBC Iplayer (Belgian TV can be pretty awful – repeats of Silent Witness dubbed, anyone?) Not to mention my family and friends, of course.

However, Europe is small, and even smaller with the magic of Skype and budget airlines (but no budget Eurostar – that thing seems to get more expensive by the week!). I’ll go back to Belgium soon but for now it’s nice to reacquaint myself with good old Blighty.

Brussels: Tips from an insider

Living in Flanders has given me the perfect opportunity to discover Brussels. The city is not just the capital of Belgium, but also the unofficial ‘capital of Europe’ as it hosts many of the EU’s institutions as well as NATO’s headquarters, which are tucked away in a particularly nondescript part of the city.

Brussels is great in the respect that it is small enough to navigate on foot yet large enough to have many things to do. It is just as easy to see it on foot as it is to take the metro or tram. Neighbourhoods are diverse and Brussels truly is an international city. You meet people from all over the world here.

Brussels is also a mecca for newly qualified graduates hoping to land their dream job working for the EU, a think tank, lobby group or just about any of the other international organisations based here.

One of my favourite Brussels pastimes is a visit to the Sunday market at Gare du Midi train station. The market is huge and bustling, selling absolutely everything from flowers, fruit, veg, clothes, cheese and electrical goods. You name it, they’ve got it. There are bargains to be had and the atmosphere can be loud and exciting but make sure you’re prepared to fight the crowds.

Brussels is also home to a number of museums. One of the best is the Magritte Museum which opened in 2009. Situated in the heart of Brussels’ museum quarter in Sablon, it hosts a collection of Magritte’s best known works, including the painting of the man with an apple for a head (Son of Man) and the one with the old man’s smoking pipe that says “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (The Treachery of Images). Even the gift shop is brilliant – so many cool postcards and prints for sale. The museum is extremely popular, so if you decide to visit at the weekend it’s probably worth reserving your tickets online in advance.

With the summer coming and it’s proximity to London, Paris and many other European cities, Brussels is extremely easy and convenient to get to and the summer is a pretty good time to go – the weather tends to be perfect for sitting outside a cafe with a pintje! Definitely worth a visit.