Difficulty in Flanders: Easy– flat cycle paths and quiet roads
Difficulty in Wallonia: Medium – Less cycle routes, more cars, and some steep hills in the Ardennes.
Attractions:Fantastic Flemish cycle routes, charming villages and old pubs serving the best beer in the world
Best Time: Spring to Autumn
Belgium’s beaches are hardly impressive. Their ‘mountains’ barely climb over 500 metres altitude. Their canals and maize fields can become repetitive, and their climate has a fetish for rain. So why bother to cycle in Belgium when you can make up your own Tour de France next door? Two words: ‘bicycles’ and ‘beers’.
Belgian bicycle culture, like the Danish and the Dutch, is infectious, overwhelming. From the chic university students on rusted relics, to the Eddie Merckx wannabes on their featherweight fiets, to the no-frills commuters, to the safety vested school classes, to the prim and proper grandmas bombing it down a hill. Bikes rule the streets.
A Beer for Every Day of the Year
Beer is equally pervasive. Belgium has over 450 different varieties of beer, made by around 125 breweries. Red beers, brown beers, dark ales, Christmas beers. Fruity beers, abbey beers, swizzle swozzle squiggle beers. Bearded beers, robed beers, top fermenting swampy beers. White wheat wonder beers. Wiggle woggle wanton beers. Any beer you can imagine. It’s all there.
And when you throw in a fantastic network of cycle routes to link a cosy network of village pubs, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Bikes + Beers x Belgium = Good Times. So the idea was born, we would ease into our new lives on bikes with a cycling pub crawl.
The crawl began near Brussels, in the Flemish city of Leuven, a city injected with the vibrancy of a large university population. A city of harmony where old buildings stand beside modern sculptures; where the rundown building of a giant beer corporation becomes a squat house with live music on Sundays. A place where beer can be bought in a vending machine and the smell of hops pervades the air.
On day one we were all pedals, cycling well into the night, but on day two we awoke to fierce headwinds and exhausted legs. Forget about the racing bikers, we were even being overtaken by Grandmas now!! The indignation came to a crescendo when I lost the balance of my overloaded bike beside a steep gully. A moment of horror and then…. Oh sh… cartwheels of flesh and steel, sky and earth. A triple summersault in the tuck position and then thud… a crash landing into a bed of fiery stinging nettles. Luckily we escaped with only minor injuries, the worst being my severely bruised ego as I hauled everything out of hiding.
The first stop in our Quest for the Holy Grail was in western Flanders, at the hallowed abbey of St Sixtus. We pedaled there on canal cycle paths through Gent, buzzing from a summer festival, and Bruges, brooding with medieval marvels. But as we entered Bruge’s outer sprawl we soon became lost. Our attempt to navigate through Belgium with only a compass was failing. We stopped another cyclist and asked for directions.
Good idea! We were guided through 5 kilometres of forest to a beautiful 19th century neo-classical farmhouse where colourful gardens were overflowing with hollyhocks and ornamental grape vines, and animals had the run of the place. Chickens, chicks, a peacock, 7 cats, and some sheep. Our dogs were so overwhelmed by it all that they didn’t even bark once.
After camping inside a walled garden we awoke to breakfast and were shown some local cycling maps (available at bookstores and tourist information) that decode Flemish Belgium’s numerical network of cycling trails. We scrawled out a list of numbers, waved our gracious hosts goodbye and started cycling Bingo style, checking off the numbers from the bicycle signs. We wiggled and wormed through lush maize fields on quiet farm roads. It was nothing epic, but the sun was shining, cars were few and far between, and we had a light breeze in our sails. It was all rather pleasant really.
Beer Brewing Monks
The Trappist monks of St Sixtus are best known, not for their dogma as you might expect, but for the ‘Westvleteren Trappist Beer’ they produce. The quality of their beer is controlled by using locally grown ingredients and by using secret recipes passed down from generation to generation (or so I like to think). People are undecided on their beer. Some say it is damn fine, others say it is the best in the world. They could make a fortune by rolling into heavy production, but curiously they only produce enough to support the abbey. When another batch of beer becomes available both trade and public alike have to come personally to their gates to pick up a small allotted quantity.
After satisfying our curiosity by seeing a robed man disappearing behind a gate, we settled into a café across the road for a much hyped taste test. Unfortunately the café was severely lacking in either warmth or intimacy. We took seats outside on some plastic chairs, underneath umbrellas covered in crass advertisements, and being hungry cyclists we perused the menu. How dismal. They have all the hype of the best beer in the world but you can’t even get a bowl of nuts or a nice meal. We settled for a bag of flavoured potato chips and three courses of beer instead. (Interesting side note: although Belgium is known for their great fries, don’t even bother trying to get beer and fries together. Bureaucracy and licensing laws forbid it!)
Like most of the Trappist beers, Westvleteren comes in three strengths: 6°, 8°and 10°. Not exactly light beer, but in Belgium 7% and 8% beers are not uncommon and 10% or 11% beers aren’t exactly rare. But despite being so strong, the flavour is not compromised. Mmmmm.. very sharp and clean, the flavour is there and then it is gone. Where did it go? Come back flavour! The beers went down smoothly, very smoothly. Maybe a little too smoothly for such potent beers on empty stomachs. By the time we setup our tent that night we were stumbling around a darkened field like loons.
Crossing the Western Front and the Language Frontier
We continued on through Ieper, which these days looks quite innocuous, set into open countryside, but if you were around there during WWI it would be quite a different story. Ieper (then known as Ypres), while being a town of relatively little strategic importance, was fought over for practically the entire length of WWI, devastating it in the process. Poor Belgium. Throughout history Belgium has often been the nerdy kid at school that tried to stay out of trouble, but was constantly beaten up and abused by the bigger bullies around him.
As we crossed ‘the language frontier’ from Flemish Belgium into French speaking Wallonia, we were immediately funneled off a tranquil cycling route onto busy roads. ‘The Language Frontier’ of 1962 effectively divided Belgium in half, from west to east with the aim of distinguishing between the French and Flemish speaking communities. It was intended to diffuse tensions, but it didn’t work, nor did the 1980 redrafting of the constitution to provide the regions with social and cultural autonomy. To this day language and politics in Belgium is a very messy affair, with talk of separation always in the background.
Wallonia greeted us with string of hot days which had us drenched in sweat and seeking the shade. I noticed a lady washing her car, so I tried out a bonjour and asked for some water. Smiles, no problem. A hesitant footnote to the conversation paid dividends when “Tour du Europe a velo avec chiens” led to an offer of a place to camp and a sampling of five of Wallonia’s finest beers.
Over dinner we enjoyed Bush, Belgium’s strongest at 12%, and St Feullien a top fermenting corked beer with floating particles that has been brewed by the same family since 1873. Unlike most consumables, beer and alcohol still seem to be exempt from listing what ingredients go into their product. A good test of a beer’s purity is to check the label. Chances are if they aren’t listing their ingredients they have something to hide.
Into the Hills: The Ardennes
We headed south on rollercoaster roads towards the French border and the land of Chimay, the second Trappist brewery of the trip. Unlike at Westvleteren, the Trappist monks of Abbey de Scoumont have made Chimay’s three colours of beer (red, white and blue) into a big, money-making operation. Down the road from their fancy abbey of detailed stonework, minimalist sculptures, manicured lawns and flower beds you can sample some of their beers and cheese. The verdict: very tasty! It seemed it was even good enough for many wasps to commit suicide in.
Leaving late we headed through the forested hills of the Ardennes, and happened upon an old railway trail (Ravel 2, which spans over 100 kilometres between Mariembourg and Hoegaarden) which had us zooming along flat, shaded paths towards the bustling town of Rochefort. We tore into a pizza and braced ourselves for the next contender for the holy grail of Belgian beer.
Ooo la, la! Wow! Rochefort 10° Trappist beer, where have you been all my life? It is possible there is a better beer somewhere in the world, but it’s not likely. Don’t believe me? Get on your bike and find out for yourself.