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.
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.