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.

Summer days in Switzerland

Deutsch: Raclette mit allem Drum und Dran Engl...

Raclette with all the trimmings

Switzerland is fantastic in the summer. I’ve recently come back from a week in Zürich, where I visited a friend. Almost a decade ago we lived together in halls while she was on exchange from Zürich University, and have kept in touch ever since.

As a child (and admittedly a teenager too) I imagined Switzerland was this magical, beautiful and clean land that was covered in snow all year round. Well all of that is true, except for the snow. This time it was hot, even for Zürich and the temperature hovered around the low 30s for most of the week.

We swam in the lake – so cool and clean – and enjoyed raclette and rosé. I love raclette. You just plug in the special table top grill and cook bits of meat and onion whilst melting delicious raclette cheese on a big flat spoon. Then eat them together with boiled potatoes.

Usually, my annual Swiss adventure is pretty brief but I found time to visit the national museum, the Landesmuseum, for the first time after a walk around Zürich’s beautiful old town. The museum is huge. If you plan to go and see everything, give yourself the best part of an afternoon. Interesting though, with mix of Swiss history, coats of armour, politics, fashion and furniture.

My friend and I also drove out to Rheinfall, Europe’s biggest waterfall. It was both terrifying and impressive. Terrifying because there is so much water gushing over the falls and it’s incredibly noisy. The walkway down to the bottom of falls takes you right up to it, so close you can practically touch it and your face is covered in a lovely, dewy mist. It’s impressive for all the same reasons.

At the weekend we visited my friend’s in-laws in the north of Switzerland, which is always a treat. I’ve known them for years now and they are such open and kind people. Their house sits close to the borders between Switzerland and France, and Switzerland and Germany. On the Saturday morning we shopped in the hypermarché in St. Louis, France and in the afternoon hopped over to the border to Lörrach in Germany to go to a garden centre. The Swiss franc is so strong these days it’s not surprising that so many Swiss people choose to do their shopping like this and it was definitely my most expensive trip to the country for a long time.

On Saturday night another Swiss friend had a house party and a barbecue. Her student house has a roof terrace with a fantastic view of Zürich, so the setting was perfect. It all felt very cool and kitsch. Barbecuing in the dark was interesting – one side of my burger was like charcoal and the other side was a little underdone, but it tasted ok.

I flew home with BA for the first time in years, as they were the best value. Usually if I fly it’s with Ryanair or Easyjet. Check-in and boarding were so effortless, the free copy of The Independent on Sunday was great and Terminal 5 at Heathrow was all very slick. I’m looking forward to the next trip already!

European Commission finds its sense of humour

The European Commission has created this rather amusing advert to remind its citizens to take a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) when travelling in Europe. The EHIC is completely free and entitles the holder to receive either free or discounted medical care in all European Economic Area (EEA) countries and Switzerland.