Archive for September, 2014|Monthly archive page

Tandem Tour 2014: Lommel to Maastricht

Lommel_MaastrichtThis is a ride for people who like flirting with national borders; in this case between Belgium and the Netherlands. It is rural and navigated by long avenues and canals. The route takes riders across the border, I presume, in order to visit the historic town of Thorn (below right).  It is called “the White Town”; seemingly, there are 105 protected white houses in the town. The church is also impressive. It is a good place for lunch, too.DSCF0727

After Thorn, it is back into Belgium and due south towards Maastrict. En route riders pass through Maaseik. Maaseik boasts a large central square (below, left) a museum and a couple of churches. It is the birthplace of Flemish painters Jan and Hubert van Eyck whose DSCF0730statues are in the central square.

It was late afternoon when we left Maaseik. We refuelled with ice-cream and burned it off along the Zuid Wilemsvaart (canal) and crossed the border again at Smeermaas. In search of hotels on the approach, we ended up in the main square, Vrijthof, that was hosting the annual raucous food festival. The raucousness came from the huge volumes of alcohol being consumed after the eating. Despite that, we found a quiet room in the adjacent Hotel Du Casque.

Maastricht is busy. The shopping streets on the western side of the river are largely car free. There is not much that isDSCF0732 unique from any other significant town across Europe with the possible exception of the Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen (bookshop) in an ancient (1294) Dominican church (right).

DSCF0746The east side, however, is modern but conversely more eclectic. It is home to the fantastic ceramic centre (left; when staying in Maastricht, visitors pay tax on hotel rooms for all of the museums and some public buildings like this one). There is some exquisite pottery inside to view. There is also some peculiar items like the tank teapot (right). DSCF0745

It is also home to the ‘drogerie’ with the most wonderful window Ceramique_restaurantdisplay and a vegetarian restaurant as good as any (left). And not forgetting the railway station with its ceramic sphinx (below right).DSCF0739


Tandem Tour 2014: Quirks

Brugges: the Wash Casino. Erm…casino, betting, gambling, chance, losing money, uncertainty. Or winning…other people’s laundry in a winner-takes-all situation. I think this may be a launderette to avoid?  DSCF0596
 DSCF0731 Maaseik – lamp-posts that double up as speakers pumping out ‘easy-listening’ music.
 Maastricht – the perfect shop window?  DSCF0753
 DSCF0718 Public toilets are always at a premium when travelling. We took refuge in a park for lunch where some retired people were playing boules. The unmarked white box had to have some purpose. Low and behold, there is it was. A fully functioning flush toilet.



Tandem Tour 2014 – Ghent to Lommel

Ghent_LommelI have often heard the mantra that providing that one wears the right clothes, the weather should not matter. Those who say this either have a budget beyond mine and are supplied by NASA or they never really experience a full day of heavy rain on a bicycle. We exposed ourselves to a full seven hours of riding in increasingly heavy rain in order to reach the small town of Boom, 110 kms east of Ghent.

This is river and canal riding at its best. The river is the Schelde and it becomes increasingly imposing and navigable. The Schelde does not actually flow through the centre of the city, but the cycle route joins it at St Amandsberg. There is a fantastic moment riding along where one has one of those, “do you see what I see?” moments (right). It is an old Sabena airliner that has come to rest in a factory yard.

DSCF0673There are two occasions on this stretch when the path takes riders over the river by ferry. Our experience in Germany is that ferries just, as-and-when, cross the river between set hours in the day. This is not so in Belgium, at least on the Schelde. Seemingly, they run a half-hour service. But more importantly, they can be requested. On two occasions, the ferryman, saw us waving (it was raining after all) and immediately collected us. The ferries are passenger ferries only. And they seem to run between places that are not exactly centres of population. They are also free (though the ferrymen were delighted to receive a good tip). What’s more, one finds the ferries bunched in pairs – situated perhaps a couple of kilometres apart. Essentially, they are operated by one man.

DSCF0687So we crossed the river at Mariekerke (left) having been unable to work out how to get the ferry across to nearby Sint Amands. Mariekerke is nothing more than a village, but it did have a welcome Gasthaus where we could get some hot food and warm up a shade. In fact, it was fantastic. It was a Monday afternoon and the place was hosting an afternoon lunch for a group of elder burgers. They were having a ball. And cared not a jot for us.

The second crossing was a little more complicated. The Schelde is joined by the Rupel, adjacent to both is a busy canal (Zeekanal) with a series of locks. Finding a closed gate that was crossable took us a little while. And then came the ferry. We flagged it down, it came, we went across. At the other side the path to the left goes to Schelle (and Antwerp) and right to Boom. Boom was our preferred end point for the day. And we found the only hotel in town.

Another full day of rain was forecast, so we decided to stay on for a second day and take the train to Antwerp. Wise, in many respects. Architecturally it is magnificent, and the magnificence starts with the railway station that is more like a church than a railway terminal (right)DSCF0697. There is a hierarchy of lines – the intercity trains depart from the ground level; regional trains for floor -1; and the trains to Boom from -2!

Antwerp is the home town of Peter Paul Rubens, the celebrated 16 Century artist. His paintings are everywhere, not least in the churches dotted around the city. His house, where he retreated DSCF0709after his prolific and highly lucrative years with his bride who was considerably younger than him, can easily be found. I’m not sure why we did not visit, especially being so wet. Instead we wandered around and visited the old town and waterfront (left).

It was back on the bicycle to Lommel the next day. The sun was shining and the rest day had been welcome. Bearing in mind our final destination was Aachen, the logic of going to Lommel was not strong other than it being the recommended route. The route continued with the river and canal theme (right). DSCF0714

We were taken to the vibrant little town called Lier. I have never seen such a cluster of bars in such a small place before. I trust Saturday night is lively. In the sunshine of the day, however, it is relaxing and the coffee is supplied to order. The town has a few curious pieces of architecture. A DSCF0717very striking clock (the Zimmer Tower, left) watches out over the bars, and an enormous central square seems to be looking for an event.

From Lier – where we arrived in late morning – it is canal towpath. Long, straight and quiet. The next port-of-call was Turnhout. The route does not actually pass through the town, but we took refuge in a popular waterside café to refresh, determined to ride late to reach Lommel.DSCF0720

The Kanaal Dessel-Schoten heads for the NE corner of Belgium and  over Lommel which hosts a Centerparc and offers two other camping options.

We crossed the canal onto the N746 route hoping to find either a campsite or a modest hotel. On that route we found neither. Once into the centre it all got very confusing as the town was hosting a funfair, so it was very difficult to orientate ourselves. In the end we had to ask and got directed to a hotel heading out west. Details can be found here.

DSCF0724Refreshed after a shower, we opted for a close-by restaurant. A Tapas. And what a Tapas it was. The menu seemed expensive, but the system goes like this. One chooses a main course and the restaurant supplies a series of tapas that complement the main course. It was magnificent. A father and son operation with authenticity (father is Spannish). The chef brought one of the courses to us. We finally had a picture outside the restaurant as we left. Well recommended.

Tandem Tour 2014 – Brugge to Ghent

Brugges_GhentThe route between these two cities for the cyclist is magical. In the first instance it follows the N50 (Baron Ruzettelaan)  due south (the Youth Hostel and bicycle shop are on this street). At Steen Brugge it turns south east and hugs the Ostende-Ghent Canal. There are tracks on both sides and plenty of café/bakery opportunities for refreshment. There is also a mixture of meadow and woodland landscapes with their microclimates.

One of advantages of riding a bicycle the likelihood of encountering DSCF0613objects that come from an earlier, albeit modern, era. So, whilst stocking up on food in Bellem, I spotted an old oil company sign that framed a picture for me (right).

The approach Ghent is also along a canal. The key decision is when to leave the canal and head into town (for us, we were keen to find the tourist information centre). A bit of local knowledge was sought from a restaurant masquerading as a hotel (another feature of Flanders) and in we went along Hoogstraat. The Tourist Information Centre is located adjacent to the castle (Gent Gravensteen).

DSCF0669We opted for the campsite (Blarmeersen) which is part of a very large sports complex in the South West of the City. It is relatively easy to find if the canals are used as a guide. It took us about 30 minutes or so to cycle. On the way we had 50c extracted from us by a group of girls who essentially acted as gatekeepers to the path. 50c for a glass of apple juice or water, or no passing. A small price to pay for apple juice and, again, that invaluable local knowledge. The campsite is the terminus for one of the bus routes into the city. One thing I am not keen on is getting back on the bicycle to cycle in to town. Once the tent is up, for me, that is it, mobility is provided by some mechanical traction until the next day.

We took a day out in Ghent to visit the fine art gallery in the Stadtpark (Museum voor SchoneDSCF0615 Kunsten, right). The contents of the gallery will be the subject of another post. Suffice to say, it hosts influential and historically important paintings from some of the region’s most famous artists.

Tandem Tour 2014 – Dover to Brugges

Tandem_Tour2014_Day2Our ferry was scheduled for 12 noon from the East Dock. Bicycles areDSCF0578  treated as vehicles and riders have to queue rather illogically with cars, trucks and motorcycles (below right). It is hazardous getting to the queue.

The crossing is 90 mins. The ferries are essentially floating motorway service areas. Functional. Dunkerque is an extremely cycle-unfriendly port. The disembarking trucks are driven with some abandon. There is no separation for cycles and no signs on how to avoid joining a motorway!

Essentially, we had to guess how to get to Dunkerque (such contrast with Rotterdam with its dedicated tracks and countless direction signs). Our advice, turn left off the first roundabout and go the wrong way up a one way road for DSCF0581about 50 metres. Follow the now two-way road (Route des Dunes) along the canal (on the left) and turn right on to Route de Mardyck along which a cycle track crosses at the junction of the D601). Dunkerque is signposted and eventually comes (right).

We then rode north towards the coast. The beaches are sandy and vast. The promenades all along the coastline are busy and not particularly easy to navigate in the summer season. There are plenty of potential campsites. We again picked the wrong one (at Zuydcoote – I have written a separate post about the places we stayed here). We left wiser than on arrival. We had breakfast in a bar in the nearby small DSCF0587town of Brays Dunes before crossing the border at De Panne and rapidly made it to Oostende. It is a port masquerading as a seaside town. The railway station is architecturally notable (left).

The Belgians share with the Dutch the ‘Knotten Punkten’ navigation method. Cycling by numbers, in a nutshell. Follow the arrow to the Punkt, and then follow the arrow to the next Punkt that forms the route that is to be taken. Fool proof. Largely. So, we ignored the direct route to Brugges and followed the route given in our guide, the Bikeline Flandern-Route. That took us back to the coastline through Blankenberge. DSCF0593We finally stopped at an extremely picturesque small town called Lissewege (with an enormous church) where we found a hotel and an eatery (right).

Next morning, I discovered that we had a broken spoke on the rear. In Brugges, then, it was necessary to find a bicycle repair shop. From Lissewege we passed through Dudzele and Damme (where a bakery and bar provided breakfast and coffee) before entering Brugges from the north east. We kept a keen eye out for cycle shops. in the rain.

Cycle shop owners know each other. “I cannot do it, but I know who will do it for you”. OK, but then being unable to find said workshop and stumbling across another shop, albeit without a workshop, and finding out that the original DSCF0597recommendation was not recommended…we finally found Bike World (on the N50 heading south out of the city). They are brilliant. Whilst they could not do it immediately, it was ready by 11 the following morning. They fixed the out-of-synch gears as well. All for 20 Euros. Down the road was a youth hostel. That is where we stayed. And spent the afternoon/evening in Brugge.

I’m not going to write too much about Brugge. It is picturesque, historic and full of tourists. DSCF0598And fast-moving horses and carriages. The main square boasts fine examples of classic DSCF0600Flemmish architecture and civic grandeur. But we had decided to crack on and immerse ourselves in the nearby historically competitor city, Ghent.

Tandem Tour 2014 – Hastings to Dover

Tandem_Tour2014_Day1In previous years we have used the ferry between Hull and Rotterdam. This time, having moved to Hastings on the south coast of England, we decided to cycle to Dover and make the short crossing to Dunkerque en route to Belgium. At £10 each, with DFDS, it is a bargain.

Getting to Dover, however, illustrates just how far the English are from providing safe and enjoyable cycle routes. For example, the Royal Military Canal (right), flowing from Rye to Hythe (see map, above left) is an obvious potential route for the DSCF0573National Cycle Route 2. But alas, no. Private land ownership means that the cycle route has to weave around – albeit quiet roads – only being granted access in the approaches to Hythe (below left).

We had to cheat on our first day. We were unable get away before 1400. We took the train from Hastings to Ham Street towards Ashford (the Class 171 trains used on that route can accommodate a tandem with ease).

Once into Hythe, the cycle route takes riders on to the promenade which is wide enough to share comfortably with pedestrians. And then through Folkestone where, unfortunately, it is necessary to join a busy road that climbs out of the town in the East. The route then provides a dedicated track up to a quiet road (B2011) that runs parallel to the busy A259. DSCF0575 It provides a rewarding view over Folkestone by way of compensation.

Past the Battle of Britain memorial, through Capel le Ferne downhill in to Dover. If wanted. However, we followed the coast path which is a shade rough but worth the effort. We’d booked a B&B just outside Dover on the B2011, so we had to make our way back. There is a route under the A20 and a non-public road down. The gradient is significant. Unfortunately, it ends with a locked barrier. For single cyclists it is unproblematic. A fully loaded tandem, unfortunately, has to be unloaded in order to thread it under the barrier. The B&B (Farthingloe) was, however, adjacent.

A mixed 35 km for our first half day.

Tandem Tour 2014: where we stayed

The August summer of 2014 was, to say the least, wet. It was also cold. I have to admit that these factors made us think carefully about camping. So, here, chronologically, is where we stayed: (I’m constructing this as I publish the pages describing the tour more generally).

 DSCF0577 Farthingloe B&B. Inexpensive. Run by a couple who are friendly and very accommodating. Some of the rooms have shared bathrooms. Former base for Channel Tunnel engineers. Bed very comfortable. Free Wifi. Breakfast is ideal for cyclists – they aim to provide as much fuel as is needed, even for vegetarians. The Guest House is at worst 30 minutes away from the ferry terminal. No dedicated cycle parking.
 Espace Loisirs is a chain of campsites. This one is located in Zuydcoote close to the Belgian border. It is on the upper-end of camping charges for cyclists, in this case, 24 Euros. The camping area is small relative to the mobile homes and situated well back from the entrance. It has a washing machine and dryer (uses tokens available from reception). It has a bar (where you might find the receptionist if arriving after 1900). The showers are mixed and cost extra. There are no toilet seats.  DSCF0583
 DSCF0612  Youth Hostel, Brugges (Baron Razzetelaan, southern approach to the city). Private rooms or dorms. Breakfast included. Approximately 25 Euros per person for a room. Wifi in common room.
 Camping Blaarmeersen, Ghent. Very big site. Reception open until 2100. Possible to hire a wooden hut. Space for tents generous. Does not drain very well in very wet weather. Washing machine, dryer and spinner. Bar/restaurant. Does not serve breakfast until 1000. Closes at 2200. Close to a motorway, so a little noisy. Easy access to the City on half-hourly bus. Around 25 Euros per night for cycles. Showers included in the price.  DSCF0672
 DSCF0713  Hotel Domus, Boom. It is the only hotel in town. Former nunnery. It is fantastic, but not cheap. Big room. Bath, shower, washbasin, toilet. Breakfast included in atmospheric breakfast room at the rear. Free Wifi. Secure cycle parking. Easy access to Antwerp using train.
Hotel Lommelhof is a delightfully unmodernised 70s hotel. 90 Euros gets a double room and breakfast. The reception closes at 2000; but there is a key drop facility for late arrivals. So, phone ahead if you want to stay here and will arrive late.There is secure parking for bicycles. Free wifi.  DSCF0725
  Amrâth Hotel Du Casque, Maastricht. We kept the price down by not taking breakfast. Room right at the top had a fantastic view over Vrijhof Square. And despite the food festival, soundproofing kept it quiet. Really nice art decor hotel.Small garage (see picture, grey door on right) where it is possible to store bicycles reasonably securely.

Free wifi.

What to do with an old tram shed in Berlin

The new academic year starts in a few days’ time. The time immediately before is conference season for us journeyman academics. I’ve been to two.

DSCF0775One way of judging (or being judged, if one is an organiser) is the mid-conference dinner. Last week, at a conference in London, this was held on a cruiser on the Thames. It cost extra. A nice spectacle, particularly those unfamiliar to London. A great opportunity for photographs (left), especially in balmy weather.

The food was a bit…

I’m now in Berlin, one of my favourite European cities. This is an academic corporate-sponsored conference. The venue forDSCF0788 the dinner was inspired. The entrance to the Classic Remise on Wiebestrasse in the North West of the city is modest. Once inside, it seems like a museum, but in actual fact it is one huge second-hand car sales showroom. Everything is for sale, at a price. The VW camper (right) is so valuable, that one has to request the price. It has been beautifully restored.

Clearly, these being vintage cars, supply is limited. But it does seem that, within reason, one could buy – and presumably sell – anything here. Tucked away on a platform, I saw a Ford Capri MkI. Naturally, there are many BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes of various vintages. But American cars also feature. There were three Ford Mustangs as well as a lumping 1930s Lincoln. Magnificent and obscene in equal measure. The resource that went into building it, to meet with GM’s ‘cars as disposable fashion accessories’ industrial design and business approach, must have been huge.

DSCF0792Now I am a white van man (there were a few vintage Citroen vans in various stages of refurbishment), hence prioritising an image of a VW camper over a Porsche. More interesting, however, was the building. I would not have guessed its origin without a trip to the toilet. And, there, on the wall, were some pictures of the very same building with trams peeking out like horses in a stable (left). When first built in 1901, it was Europe’s largest tram shed ‘Wiebehallen’. It is the work of the Berlin architect, Joseph Fischer Dick, who seemingly specialised in these structures. The current owners have been faithfulDSCF0785 to the building. Whilst the tracks are no longer there, the entrance arches are all numbered. The roof glass and steel frame remain. As do the authentic lights (albeit with modern bulbs).

The food was also good.

Marlboro persists with Maybe campaign

2014-07-15 14.27.16Marlboro seems to be capitalising on cleaner packaging design. It started in the summer with the “Red is here” announcement (left).

This has now migrated to the “Don’t be a Maybe” campaign which has a new impetus with the “I changed the Game” man. Which game, we might ask? It looks like some sort of desert endurance. The brand is global, so there must be easier ways of getting a fix. A shop, perhaps!

DSCF0762With the new packaging, clearly, endurance man is not always necessary. It is enough to push for more nicotine, tar, carcinogens and cold outdoor shelters (if you are lucky) outside pubs, offices and hospital waiting rooms.