GR 52 – Fantastic Trek 4 Camp d’Argent to Menton

The Auberge L’Estive du Mercantour was welcoming and very practical for back packers.

For example, it was the only stopping place we found that offered a sink for washing clothes adjacent to a washing line. The manager was delightful, eager to help and knowledgable. Our dortoir had beds for 6 on 3 bunks and we shared the room with a French couple that we had met on the trail earlier that day. They were friendly and quiet. When we first arrived they were having an afternoon snooze in their bunks. The shower was more than excellent after two days without and after a clean up and a bit of rucksack sorting it was lovely to sit in the sun on the wide veranda and take in the sun and views, and a beer.

Dinner was good the main meal being plump round sausages cooked with lentils. We shared a dish with three Frenchmen, that I encountered later on. We had lunch time picnics from most of the previous Gites/Refuges, the ones from L’Estive were the most expensive at 8.50 Euros but also the most elaborate, a bulgar wheat salad with ham and cheese packed in a plastic box. It was a significant weight addition to our rucksacks. The breakfast was more than adequate and we were on our way by 8, as usual.

The route of the GR 52 has been changed in the last few years. An old TOPO guide I have, dated 2007, has the GR 52 avoiding Camp d’Argent and going direct from Pointe des Trois Communes to Sospel. In this guide it suggests that this takes nearly 9 hours of walking, and these are usually optimistic times; no allowance for stops. There is also nowhere to stop or stay on the route and only one unreliable water station. Quite an undertaking in other words. This new route is much more practical, but the stage to Sospel is still challenging about 23km long with a total descent of around 1700m, particularly in heat approaching 30C. On the strength of this analysis our dortoir French companions consulted the Auberge Manager and decided to walk some of the way then detour and bus for the remainder.

The new GR 52 track leaves the road about 100m down from L’Estive. It then more or less follows a contour across several hillsides; some tree-lined, others open sun-scorched meadow/scrub. Eventually we climbed and reached a trackway that seemed to join some ruined military buildings with the redoubt we had seen the previous day. There were relics of WWII here in the shape of an American tank.

Stuart M3 light tank outside the ruins of barracks at Cabanes Vieilles

We encountered this track again a short while later on in the day and decided to follow it for a while because it was a good walking surface and avoided a few climbs and descents. We rejoined the Official GR 52 route at la Baisse de Ventabren (1862m) where the path leaves the track on the left. Up to this point, for some little while the valley views were on our right.

View from track in the direction of Moulinet

after Baisse de Ventabren the views were on our left and we crossed a scorched hillside

with lovely views in the direction of Breil sur Roya.

We had a better view over Breil when we stopped for our lunch in some sparse shade at Baisse de la Dea.

Breil sur Roya from la Baisse de la Dea (1750m)

After this lunch stop we walked across more open country in blazing hot weather and reached a minor airy peak with a cairn.

Mont Mangiabo (1821m)

From here the route was almost all downhill with some of it very steep. Initially, we were in open grassland. Later there was some shade from tree cover. It was a quite grueling descent and we were very pleased to see the valley start appearing.

and then to see parts of the town of Sospel appear.

When we arrived in Sospel we were just about out of water and, after crossing the river, our first thought was to buy some water. But luckily we found a water fountain and drunk long from the cold water. (I forgot to take a picture but found this on a cycling website.)

We were rather disappointed to find that we had another climb to reach our overnight stop and were really relieved to get there, even though it was 7.15pm by that time and we had been walking, with stops, since 8am. The guide book indicates that this day’s walking is 6.5 hours. We were clearly walking slower, as we had found on previous days.

Auberge Provencale our overnight stop in Sospel

This was our most expensive overnight. We had a four bed unit with two single beds and a toilet shower on one floor and another two singles and shower toilet on an upper floor. We were in comparative luxury; no need to unpack our sleeping bags or our towels. I had only reserved beds but rather than face a walk back down into town to find something to eat we quickly changed that order to demi-pension. We ate that evening on the Auberge veranda overlooking Sospel and were comfortable in t-shirts until around 10pm when we retired.

The exertions of that day, and the prospect of similar weather, distance and descent on the morrow, caused my three companions to decide to take the bus to Menton. Despite the guidebook indicating 7 hours of walking I decided that the final day, with the walk to the sea was an opportunity not to be missed.

Breakfast was a little later than normal, 7.30 and I set off walking at about 9am. The others left later after a look around Sospel town, then took a bus to Menton.

The GR trail follows the road going past the Auberge out of Sospel and leaves the road at a hairpin bend. It then climbs steeply initially along a rocky path then a track and then lots of climbing with several false summits until I reached a col. This point is marked on the map as Ruines a la Albarea (635m), Sospel is at 350m. From there it was down slightly and across a hillside and, then a climb into woods with loads of sweet chestnut leaves on the path. These gave way to fir cones as the path climbed higher, reaching the Col du Razet.

Col du Razet (1032m)

During this climb I had been passing and re-passing a group of three Frenchmen we had first met two days previously. During one stop they admitted to me that they had lost their path and just decided to follow me. At this col there was a water trough which they all but bathed in and then consulted their maps and decided to go to Castellar instead of Menton. So a while later we went our different ways.

From the Col du Razet there were increasingly dramatic views of the coast. The next stage of the walk took me across a sun-blasted rocky hillside with thistles, rough grasses, lavender, lizards and hordes of butterflies. The path goes through an old border post of the Franco-Italian border.

Remains of border post

There was another climb up to a new col.

Col de Colle-Basse (1107m)

At this point there was evidence of sheep folds and the path followed a rocky track down and across the hillside with more sea views.

After the track, it was good to enter some shade in woods onto a footpath for a climb mostly in trees. This was followed by a steep descent with zig zags to the Prairie de Morga.

Morga (810m) on the IGN map it is called Mourga

There were some houses in this vicinity and one was offering water and seats under a shady awning for tired walkers; a lovely touch, though I did not stop. Nearby there were ruins where I took this picture of the coast.

The path went down at this point to around 810m to join a track/road which climbed up the far side of a hill. This picture is taken looking back.

The GR left the track and started a long climb firstly across scrubby land and finally, near the top under some trees, to the Col du Berceau (1090m). I stopped here for lunch and was joined by another group of three Frenchmen with whom I compared notes about the walk. It was very hot, even in the shade, but the view of the coast was breathtaking.

View into Menton from the last high point of the day. The path down is just visible at the right of the picture

The descent from this col was loose and rocky and walking poles were a very useful aid.

Looking back to the Col du Berceau from the path down

Eventually, I reached a more even and less steep part and reached the Plan du Lion (710m).

Looking back from the Plan du Lion to Col du Berceau

This was a welcome interlude until I realised I needed to climb a bit again. Fortunately, it was not far and then there was a long (about 90 minutes) descent across arid hillsides with sharp, charred tree trunks and dry grasses. Under the hot sun it was good to reach a road and sit down in the shade for a short while in earshot of the motorway on the outskirts of Menton.

About twenty minutes later, I met up with my trek companions and was enjoying an orange presse in a bar on the promenade. Shortly after I was having a swim in the Med. I had started at about 9 and finished about 4 so 7 hours in total, which was just about what the guidebook said. It just shows that one person walks much faster than a group.

We finished our visit to the South of France by spending another day in Menton and then two days in Nice. All in all a wonderful trek and a lovely experience.

Menton Looking back from Italian border

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GR 52 – Fantastic Trek 2 Refuge La Madone de Fenestre to Refuge Nice

Refuge La Madone was very full that Friday night and there was a great deal of pressure on showers and toilet facilities. We were fortunate that our dortoir, with just 4 beds in line on a raised platform, was just opposite the shower/toilet; the only facility on that floor with at least three other dortoirs sharing. Neither the door on our dortoir nor the washroom would either shut or lock, but frankly this was a luxury that did not trouble us overly, the only exception being while I was showering and the door blew open. This was followed by several moments of confused, panicky activity. We arrived about 4.30 so after showering etc there was not much time before dinner. Dinner was another excellent meal which we took with a Parisian. His name was Aimen and he spoke faultless English.

Breakfast was the usual Refuge fare and very welcome. We ate around 7 and were on our way around 8am, having successfully found vacant toilets and wash basins. The weather was fine but the sun had not yet reached into the valley where we were walking. The refuge stood at the end of a road amongst a cluster of other buildings including a church, which I snatched a quick look around when I arrived.

La Madone de Fenestre Refuge (1903m) on left and church at right in background

Our destination for the day was St Grat, a hamlet of the Belvedere commune, following a recognised deviation from the GR 52 that avoids a high col. We also took it to avoid arriving at Refuge Nice on a Saturday, which I guessed would be very crowded.

The walk was a big climb to start with leading up to a very attractive high valley Vallon de Ponset.

Climb up from La Madone

Vallon de Ponset – peaceful valley with stream and small ponds

After a further climb we arrived at Baisse des Cinq Lacs and had a great view down to the lakes and across an expanse to the climb we were going to have to make to the Baisse de Prals.

A couple of the Cinq Lacs and in the distance the zig zags going up to the Baisse de Prals (circled) our high point later that day

The lakes were very attractive and we decided a good place to take an early-ish lunch. Curiously, we found a small pile of dragon fly wings on a rock as we were seeking a picnic place. Finding our way across to the climb we needed to make was a little tricky. We could see a high level belvedere track but our map and the track markers indicated we had to go down first. Reluctantly, we took the lower track which took us down and across quite a long way

The start of the climb

and eventually joined a path that is a listed GR 52 variant that climbs up to Baisse de Prals. It was a long climb made more demanding by high temperatures and growing humidity. The climb finished with sets of zig-zags. At the top there were great views back to where we had come from

Where we had come from in the direction of cinq lacs

Back down the hillside to where the paths joined

We then started a long descent of about 700m or more into the Vallon de la Gordolasque and the village of St Grat. There were lots of flowers on the way down but it was an unremitting descent and we were pleased to get to the road at the bottom and have a few hundred metres of road walking to stretch our legs a bit. However, by this time it had started to drizzle and we had donned waterproofs before we reached the Relais des Merveilles; a very welcome site. We arrived about 4.30.

Relais des Merveilles (1600m)

The accommodation was excellent, highly recommended. We had a dortoir with 6 bunk beds for the 4 of us and while we were told others might join us, nobody else arrived. The Relais was a hotel as well and the food was excellent. Dinner was melon with Parma ham and salad, blanquette de veau, cheese and isle flottante. The accommodation was very clean and just outside our dortoir was a large lounge with a woodburning stove and large screen TV. The stove was very welcome because it rained heavily in the evening and temperatures plunged. Breakfast was also of a much higher standard than we expected and the whole demi-pension was a bargain at 51 Euros per person.

As usual we had breakfast at 7 and were off around 8. It was not going to be a long day and we set off leisurely up the road to where it ended at a large car park/camp site which was already very busy and bursting its capacity. Cars were arriving and retracing their path to park by the side of the road.

The track followed an attractive, peaceful stream

Stream with many rock pools

Cascade de l’Estrech

and later a magnificent waterfall. We carried on climbing beyond the waterfall and had a rather glorious view back down the valley.Eventually, just before we reached a hanging valley, we walked through the Mur Des Italiens (Italian Wall), the remnants of an old border post between France and Italy. The border was moved at the end of WWII. This is what we were told by another walker but I have read on the Web that “According to oral tradition, this chicane was built of dry stones to protect the county of Nice from the Austrians.” Whatever, it came as a rather startling sight in an otherwise desolate landscape.

After entering the valley we crossed the stream we had followed all morning on a sturdy wooden bridge and started climbing again until we reached the barrage wall of Lac de la Fous. As we get closer I was astonished to see a group of three chamois walking on the almost vertical smooth concrete barrage wall, apparently licking the salts from the surface.

Passing the barrage wall there was a great view across the lake to Refuge Nice, our destination for that night.

Refuge Nice (2232m) in glorious isolation

We still had a walk around the lake, a tricky stream crossing beneath a magnificent waterfall, and then a short climb to the refuge but there was a coffee waiting for us and a chance to sit down and really take in the local views.

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GR 52 – Fantastic Trek 3 Refuge Nice to Camp d’Argent

Our sleeping arrangements in Refuge Nice comprised a small cubby hole with 4 beds on two bunks. The space between the bunks was too limited to accommodate any gear so all that had to be stowed in the open area beyond the cubby hole, which was part of a much larger dortoir with beds to the right and the left and above us. It sounds quite claustrophobic but in fact it worked quite well. It was busy and showers, that required a paid-for token for 3 minutes of hot water, and toilets were in much demand. The food was very good and the location and surroundings could not be beaten. Dinner was pea soup, veal, cheese and pudding. After dinner bouquetin came down to the area close to the refuge and during the day I saw marmottes, chamois, ravens, wheatear, dipper, pipettes and alpine choughs. There were also masses of attractive flowers.

We were up early for breakfast and ready for off at 8am. The day would involve two major climbs and two descents. It was the most remote and desolate region of the trek and included the Valley of Wonders (Vallee des Merveilles) a rugged area famous for petroglyphs (rock carvings) believed to date from the bronze age. The first stage involved an ascent from the refuge

The route up and away from Refuge Nice

essentially following a stream to a large lake, Lac Nire. After, there was a minor col before entering the Vallon du Mont Chamineye beneath the eponymous peak at 2921m. There were several snow patches (neves) in this valley and the next one and we often spied chamois playing or resting on the snow. There were a number of small lakes in this valley some with icebergs

The valley was followed by a steep and quite long climb up to the high point of the trek the Baisse du Basto 2693m. Looking back the valley appears quite desolate.

Looking back the way we walked up

The climb was just over 300m but it was very steep at the end and quite eroded and loose at the very top. This was signified on the IGN map by a red dotted trace, always a warning sign! From the top we could see our route forward down 300m or so and then up about 200m to la baisse de Valmasque (2549m) our final col for the day.

La baisse de Valmasque between the peaks in centre right

We passed more lakes with snow

and had to traverse quite a large snowfield before the ascent proper.

At the top I spied a chamois ambling past

and there were fantastic views behind

Lac Basto in the direction we had come from. The path up is on the extreme right and we came across the scree from the right hand side. The path on the rhs of the lake is not ours.

and in front into the Vallee des Merveilles.

Looking ahead into the Vallee des Merveilles

The descent into the valley was quite steep and stony but offered amazing views into what struck me as a very special and atmospheric place. We saw several marmottes as we walked through the rock strewn valley floor with large glacier-smoothed rocks everywhere.

 

The rock carvings in this valley and its surroundings were first described and studied in detail by a Brit at the end of the 19th Century.  In 1967 a Frenchman catalogued over 10,000 such carvings and now the whole area is very closely monitored and controlled  to protect these artefacts. Amongst other controls, visitors have to keep to defined paths and must not use walking poles with metal tips.

We were almost at the end of the valley when we met one of the site wardens who checked that we knew about the restrictions applied to the area. We confirmed we did and she offered one of us rubber tips for walking poles so they could be used. We asked about the carvings and she offered to show us a couple. I was surprised by how small and indistinct two if them were. I could easily have overlooked them. The other clutch known as The chief of the tribe” were larger but still rather underwhelming.

By Philippe Kurlapski – Private work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=792995

We thanked the warden warmly and walked on, later meeting her colleague who walked a while with us and retrieved the rubber pole cups. The day was hot and it was a relief to spy the lake

Le lac Long Superior with Refuge Merveilles on the right hand bank about 2/3rds down

and the refuge.

Refuge Merveilles (2130m) with lake behind

The refuge was not completely full but was crowded. We were put in a dortoir with 10 beds, 5 over 5, we were assigned the top bunks. But in the end only 8 beds were occupied. There was no hot water and the only shower near our dortoir had an appropriate warning notice attached. The evening meal was good but a little crowded. Breakfast was the standard fare and we were off, ready to walk, around 8am.

During this day the countryside became more gentle and we had our first convincing sight of the sea. We started by climbing to the lake that provided water to the Refuge. We first encountered the barrage wall

and walked past the lake above the barrage. We continued climbing passing more small lakes until we reached the Lacs du Diable

Lac du Diable with Pas du Trem in the background, the Pas du Diable was behind me

and beyond the Pas du Diable (2436m).

View ahead, into gentler country from Pas du Diable with the Med in the distance

This was a hot day, high twenties or even 30C I think, and it was a long walk to our next stop. The views were striking but a lot less dramatic than heretofore. In the more open countryside we struggled to find some shade for our lunch.

Approaching the Baisse de St Veran

After the climb on the side of the hill in the photo above we had the disappointment of a descent and another climb to reach the Col des Trois Communes.

Pointe des Trois Communes with the redoubt on the top of the hill 2080m

The view back down hill was a fabulous one with our track slowly disappearing into the mountains.

The redoubt was built in 1897 and was the first military building to use both stone and reinforced concrete, though the reinforced concrete was only used on the Italian facing walls. Around the area there were several remnants of military buildings including this barrack block we passed a little later.

The redoubt was the site of fierce fighting in April 1945 (http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/en/redoubt-3-communes) and there is a memorial close by to the French forces involved.

There were another  2 or 3 kms to go before we reached our overnight stop around 4.30pm. The walk was mostly on tarmac down to a place called Camp d’Argent, no doubt a name derived from the old military ruins thereabouts. There were still impressive sights to gaze at.

View towards the Med

Our overnight stop was L’Estive (1737m) a very comfortable Gite just opposite a ski drag lift.

 

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GR 52 – Fantastic Trek 1 St Martin Vesubie to Refuge La Madone de Fenestre

Some years ago I walked the GR5 route covering the whole way from just north of Lake Geneva to Nice. On the last week or so we met a couple from Austria, Gerald and Anne, who walked with us for several days but chose, after St Dalmas, to follow the GR 52 to Menton. I really respected and enjoyed their company and kept in contact for nearly a year after. But Gerald was being treated for leukemia and I fear it beat him soon after and the contact was lost. Since then I have wanted to try this alternative trek, in part to recall Gerald’s memory. And this year I did. To be absolutely honest we did not follow the entire route for some practical reasons but we think we caught the best bits at the best times. This is my record of the trek taken with 3 colleagues L, E and D, with many thanks for their company and shared enjoyment and wonder.

We used a combination of IGN maps, blue series TOP 25, and the excellent Topoguide 507 Le Mercantour (16th edition 2015). Please be aware that the GR 52 route has been changed and our, somewhat older, IGN maps show a different route from the guide book. In this case the guide book tallied with the excellent “on the ground” markers. Another very useful aid to route finding is the use of numbers on route signs, generally at path intersections. These numbers are repeated in the guide book and on IGN maps. Generally, route finding is simple and the red/white (for GR routes) and yellow paint splashes (for other main paths) are very prominent but the numbers give great reassurance (one example below).

Sign at Col des Ladres with yellow-backed number 428 denoting path intersection recorded on IGN maps and in guidebooks

In order to get to the GR 52 route quickly we flew from the UK to Nice and took a 730 bus from the airport to St Martin Vesubie. There are only two buses a day, morning and evening, but the fare is only 1.50 Euro and it puts you down in the village centre ready to start walking on the morrow. I had made reservations for all our overnight stops beforehand and deliberately avoided staying in what I thought would be the “honeypot” Refuges over the weekend.

On arrival at Nice airport we had a couple of hours to kill before our bus was due. We used this time to establish precisely where the bus stop was. This was not quite as straightforward as I expected and turned out to be outside the airport on a dual carriageway. Once that was established we had a coffee while a very energetic thunderstorm passed over. We found the bus stop and waited anxiously as the timetable arrival time passed by with no sign of our bus. About 25 minutes late it turned up, just about full up. The driver told us to put our rucksacks in the luggage compartments. The ones on the kerb side of the bus were full to overflowing so we had to venture into the traffic side of the bus, which we did slowly and nervously. It was rush hour! The driver lost patience and jumped out and strode into oncoming traffic to open the up and over doors. We stowed our stuff and took the few remaining seats. We were now at least half an hour behind schedule and the driver threw the bus around to make up the time. As we climbed out of the Nice suburbs and onto narrow mountain roads it became quite hairy. But we arrived safely and just about on time.

Our stop for the first night was in Gite La Rougiere. The Gite was just off the town square, a little difficult to find and basic but cheap at 18 Euros pppn for the bed only, though there were basic self-catering facilities. We shared a 5 bed dortoir (2 bunk beds and a single) for the four of us; in other rooms there were two other guests, one of whom had just walked the other way on the GR52 starting in Menton.

Gite La Rougiere, 3 Av Kellerman, St Martin Vesubie

There was plenty of choice of eating places that evening though I made a bad menu choice “Reblochon poulet”. I expected some veg and should have asked but what appeared was a bowl of liquid cheese with submerged chicken bits, many of which were distinctly pink. Luckily there was bread as well, but the meal was boring and I worried about possible future effects of undercooked chicken. I am happy to say that this didn’t come about.

Next day we were up fairly early and left with our packs to take breakfast in the town square and buy some items for lunch in a local supermarket.

Pleasant town square of St Martin

It was a lovely sunny day and not too hot. A quick visit to the tourist office established that all the cols we intended to use were clear of snow. This first day of walking was deliberately gentle and took us to Boreon where we would join the GR52. The path was for a short way along a road which became a track and then a rocky path. We stopped and had lunch in the shade by the side of a stream. Much of the latter part was through trees by the side of a river/stream until we came out into the open just over a drinking water reservoir.

Dam of Reservoir at le Boreon

At this point it clouded over and started to rain but it did not last long and we kitted out in our rain gear needlessly. We walked down to the road right by Parc Alpha an animal park that among other things breeds wolves. We popped into the entrance briefly, mostly to use their toilets, but did not go into the park itself. Our Gite was just up the hill and we arrived at 2.50 just 10 minutes before they opened.

The Gite du Boreon was very clean and comfortable. We were assigned a room with 2 bunk beds. It was quite adequate but a little sparse for room to unpack sacks and hang up washing. Dinner, part of the demi-pension, was great with a quiche and salad starter, sausage and lentils main and fromage blanc with fruit.

Our next stop was a CAF refuge La Madone de Fenestre. There are two main route options. One involves crossing the high Col des Ladres; the other, slightly longer avoids this high col. Based on advice from the Tourist Office and the Gite Guardian we opted for the high route and took an early breakfast at 7 and were away by 8. The guide book indicates that this route will take just over 3 hours of walking. We found these times to be very optimistic when walking as a group and in this case we were about 8.5 hours on the trail. There is over 1000m of ascent and 500m of descent involved.

The day started out sunny but quite cold and we used our fleeces to good effect. Later there was some cloud and it became much warmer but there remained a cool breeze. The GR 52 track and markings run right past the Gite and you start climbing straightaway. The early part goes through woods crossing pretty streams 

and passing a private refuge, in a sad state of repair. A short while later the path opens out and the path divides with the two routes to La Madone separating at the Pont de Pierastreche.

Pont de Pierastreche in bottom right with path to Lac du Trecolpas to the left. Tete de Trecolpas dead ahead

There was a long steady climb, through more trees to start with then across rocky hillside to reach another signpost just before Lac Trecolpas.

There was another bit of climbing before descending slightly to the lake.

Lac Trecolpas

From the lake there is another 300m or so of ascent across rocky terrain to reach the high point of the day the Col des Ladres

From where the Lac du Trecolpas appears quite tiny

and the onward path a little daunting

After a long descent our Refuge was in sight and we could look forward to a hot drink and shower.

Refuge Madone de Fenestre just appearing

 

 

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Flanders by bike and boat Part 3 Antwerp to Brussels

The harbour in Antwerp was a bustle of activity in the morning and our boat was underway early to take advantage of a bridge opening, necessary for us to get back to the river. Despite the boat heading to leave the city, the cycling party headed back to the city centre. A group of 20+ bikes is not easy to negotiate a busy city in the rush hour and we had some very hard stares from, pedestrians that clearly thought they had priority and that we should get off and walk. But we had to follow our leader.

Our first stop was Groenplaats Square

with a statue of the artist Rubens and a great backdrop of the Cathedral. Onwards, bothering more pedestrians, we stopped off at a superb shopping mall called Stadsfeestzaal. My picture does not really do justice to the grandeur of this place; if interested please take a look at the website http://stadsfeestzaal.com. Next we cycled through the old diamond quarter of Antwerp, though in truth there was not much to see there. Finally, in Antwerp we visited the Central Station and what a wonderful edifice that was; marble everywhere and great sweeping staircases with vast ornate roofs.

Inside Antwerp Central Station built in 1905

We left Antwerp by the side of the railway line, then travelled through countryside until we found another railway line which we followed into Lier. While in the countryside we found an unusual self-service fresh milk outlet. We could not resist stopping to sample a cup.

Lier was a very pleasant surprise; an attractive town with plenty to see, at least plenty for the hour or two we had there while we had some lunch. The Beguinage is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Beguinage in Lier. A beguinage, from the French term béguinage, is an architectural complex which was created to house beguines: lay religious women who lived in community without taking vows or retiring from the world.

There is also a complex multifunctional clock in the Zimmer Tower. One notable feature of the clock is no doubt the slowest moving dial in the world; one revolution takes 25,600 years.

There were also some quite impressive artworks seemingly randomly placed like this one

Sheep sculpture

We took a ride around the town before we left and passed the market square and town hall and belfry (or belfort).

After leaving Lier we rode almost all the way to Willebroek along dykes. We stopped for a coffee break in Duffel and by this time we were more or less on our own, though we spied other members of our party now and again. By this time the cloud was gathering and thunder and lightning starting up. We had a short sharp shower but then it dried up again. Just before we reached the boat we caught a ferry, though many of the others missed it and cycled further on to cross the river by a road bridge. Later we had to use another bridge to get to our boat. This was a lifting bridge (I guess there is probably a technical term for it) and the entire road is raised to allow boats to travel beneath it.

We arrived at the boat around 4pm for coffee and biscuits. By 5pm it started raining very heavily and continued into the evening. Good timing by us.

There was a tradition that some of the guests helped with serving dinner and clearing away. Throughout our trip various ladies had volunteered. This seemed rather sexist to J (an Amercian) and me so for this night us two men did the serving, attracting quite a few ribald comments in so doing. That evening we served tuna starter, chicken ratatouille and home-made ice cream. Dinner was followed by beer tasting and a sing song interspersed with German jokes.

Our final day of cycling was to be one of the shortest, about 37kms, but we still started at just about the normal time 9am. It was a day of high drama with a cycle malfunction causing us to lose contact with our guide for several hours. We set off by taking a detour by the side of a lake set out for rowing races. Somewhere, along these tracks a puncture happened and the guide decided to walk with the bike to our stopping place, a town called Mechelen. There was a repair shop there and we cycled ahead having arranged a rendezvous in Mechelen town square. Mechelen was a real surprise and very attractive with oodles of old buildings. The Cathedral is particularly impressive.

St Rombold’s Cathedral

The tower was unfortunately not open when we were there. On the other side of the Market Square is the City Hall, where I nearly got included in wedding photos!

There were a couple of more quirky things like the street signs

and a statue of young Beethoven

While we waited for our guide to rejoin the party we took a coffee in the City Square. Once we were all back together with a complete set of functioning bikes we set off to rejoin the boat. We were due there at 2pm so we could cruise into our berth in Brussels and still have time to do a bit of sightseeing there. The cycle route was mostly along canals but the troop became a little spread out. My partner and I and the party back-marker were last back, and we felt that the everyone was waiting for us, almost with engines running.

In Brussels we decided to visit the Atomium, quite near our berthing place. We took a bus there and back.

That evening was the Captains dinner and Franco excelled himself. Prosciutto with crab and fish followed by salmon with cod and broccoli, then pork fillet and potato and profiterole base with  custard – delicious.

Next day after breakfast we said goodbyes to all our new-found friends and walked through the City via the Grand Place to the train station to catch the Eurostar. A brilliant holiday enjoyable in many different ways.

 

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Flanders by boat and bike Part 2 Ghent to Antwerp

Our mooring in Ghent was functional rather than picturesque but the day dawned brightly and after breakfast we were quickly on our bikes and retracing our route towards the centre of Ghent. We decided to go solo for this day and our friends from the USA decided to join us. We rode alongside a busy road to start with then went under a motorway. We were soon in the suburbs and left the city behind. We rode alongside the River Scheldt. Our route finding was pretty good although we did start off on the wrong side of the river, going past a large wildlife reserve with several lakes. Our first stop was at Laarne with an impressive castle.

Laarne Castle origins go back to the 12th century

There is a wide boulevard heading from the Castle into the village. When we arrived there we caught up with the main party enjoying a drink and a rest in the sun outside a cafe. e joined them for a short time before they set off again.

The next section was mostly farmland but with many plant nurseries, preparing to harden off plants on massive hardstandings. We also passed a herd of alpacas and another herd of deer and also a zoo with caged monkeys. Our lunchtime destination was a collection of lakes known as Donkmeer where we were able to sit around in the sun, have a beer and eat the packed lunch we had prepared at breakfast time on the boat. This was a very pleasant location

The restaurant gardens at Donkmeer

Once again most of our party were there before us and after they left we were able to watch them ride, in single file, around the edge of the lake. We followed on after finishing our lunch and caught up with them at another stop – the best waffles south of Iceland – according to our guide. I must admit, with ice cream and on a hot day, they were pretty amazing.

Waffles all round

After that we took a ferry across the Schelde (in Dutch and Scheldt in English) river, which we achieved en masse.

The ferry station on the far side of the river Scheldt with the ferry

The final ride into Dendermonde was mostly along the towpath cycle route, being passed repeatedly by Lycra-clad groups of Tour de France types whooshing by. Finally we crossed the water at a large dam and entered Dendermonde where we rejoined our boat.

Once all were on board we set off for a couple of hours of cruising along the picturesque Scheldt river to Sint Amands, about 15-20 kms away. The trip gave everyone a chance to sit in the sun whilst having  drink and. if wanted, take a look at the wheelhouse  We berthed before a great dinner featuring chicken with cheese and herbs, salmon with artichoke and strawberry birthday cake, my partner’s’s birthday cake with a firework.

That evening there was a short walking trip into the town and to Sahara Stones (there is a big clue in the name). It was an artist’s studio housed in a self-built unique house reminiscent of the architect Hundertwasser. The owners displayed a novel parking arrangement, designed to be a criticism of local officials, I think. The artist majored on collecting and cutting, polishing and mounting stones collected from the Sahara. They were amazingly impressive.

Breakfast next day was followed by a “Lucky dip” organised by Franco the cook. The prizes were a variety of chocolate bars to supplement our do-it-yourself packed lunches. The guide promised some “short cuts” on the route to provide more time to look around Antwerp, our destination for the day. With this promise we decided to join in with the group and not guide ourselves. It was cool to start off but rapidly warmed up and turned into a warm, sunny, spring day. The guiding arrangements went swimmingly to start with, cycling along then over the river into Temse.

Temse church in the town square

We waited around here for about 20 minutes. The toilet break was slightly confusing with different entrances and signage but nonetheless, welcome. But, I think we could have had less of a wait. Temse was previously a major port and shipyard and there was evidence of this in sculptures and remains that we rode past.

After leaving Temse the group was badly strung out and the “sweeper” and back markers completely lost contact. The party was split in two. I think the main cause was a large statue of a naked woman, which caused a few people to linger longer…

We knew we  were going to stop for lunch at a Chateau somewhere and we had a map, so just carried on regardless, thinking we were following the guide and the rest of the party. After 30 minutes or so we arrived at an impressive house in grounds and stopped to look and take pictures

We gathered round to try and agree what we should do and tried to phone our guide, without success. Things were getting fraught when suddenly the guide and the rest of our party appeared behind us. By good fortune we had stopped at our lunch spot and the guide had taken the others down a detour, without telling us. All ended well and we took tables at an open restaurant for lunch. After that hiatus we stayed in a group as we rode through pretty villages mostly alongside roads until Antwerp was clearly visible across the river.

Much to my surprise we crossed the river by going underneath it in the Saint Anna tunnel: 31m deep and just over 500m long. We went up and down with our bikes in large lifts and rode through the tunnel. It was a novel experience and features in a youtube clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7Cz1y5yodI). The video probably provides more idea of what was involved than these pictures, but still…

Through the tunnel by bike

Crowded in the lift

We arrived in the centre of Antwerp at about 2pm and left bikes in the usual huddle looked after by our guide. The buildings around the Market Square were quite tremendous.

Antwerp City Hall, building started in 1561

The fountain in front of the building depicts Antigon a mythical Roman soldier killing Brabo a giant that guarded the river charging boats to pass by. If they did not pay he tore off one of their hands and threw it into the river. This reputedly provides the origin of the city name ‘handwerpen’; throwing the hand in Flemish.

Buildings on Grote Markt in Antwerp

We walked round the Cathedral, strolled around the old part of the city and visited the Medieval Castle on the bank of the river

Antwerp Castle (Het Steen) with the statue of the giant Lange Wapper

An old barge in Antwerp harbour

then took a beer in the sun. After the beer we collected our bikes and rode back to the river and along to the harbour area where we found our boat alongside many others.

After another excellent dinner there was an optional walk into town to a bar/restaurant called the 11th Commandment that offered a brewery and a menu with pages of different beers, most with quite high alcohol contents. On the way back our Captain and special guide for the evening took us down the oldest and narrowest street in Antwerp followed by a stroll through the red light district. As a final event we took a set of escalators to the open roof of the MAS building 10 storeys up,

MAS Museum aan de Strom opened in 2011

a new, impressive, curly-glazed building right on the harbour, for a night view over the City.

 

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Flanders by boat and bike Part 1 Bruges to Ghent

This was one of the most enjoyable holiday trips we have had. We bought the week long trip from Rad & Reisen and it involved travelling from Bruges to Brussels by bike and staying overnight on board the Quo Vadis (Latin for ‘where are you going’). We cycled around 220 kms in 6 days of cycling and took in the countryside and many picturesque Flanders towns and cities. The food on board was superb, the company friendly and relaxed, and the weather was mostly excellent for cycling and sightseeing.

We joined the boat in Belgium, after using trains from home to London, Eurostar to Brussels and another train to Bruges. It was an early start for us, up at just after 4, but all connections worked perfectly and we had time on arrival at the boat to drop our luggage and take a tour around Bruges before our on-board tour briefing. There were 24 guests: us two Brits, two from the USA and the rest from Germany. So all briefings were first in German followed by an English version. Our tour guide Gunter had excellent English, as did the boat crew: four Dutch people. This support party is pictured below.

Captain RJ in white shirt with guide Gunter on the far right

Our pre-dinner walk around Bruges took us to the market square, very busy on a lovely weekend afternoon

Bruges market square with the Provincial Court

Also in the Market square is the Belfry. Often mistaken for a church tower, it is actually a medieval bell tower.

Bruges Belfry (Belfort van Brugge in Dutch)

My father brought home from the second world war a painting of a canal with a tower, the dead spit of this Belfry in the background. I was really chuffed to find the spot where the painter must have been seated to paint my picture. Up until then I was never sure that the picture was of Bruges. Now, I am sure it is and I know precisely where it was painted.

Returning to the boat we had a welcome drink followed by a delicious dinner (salad, beef with veg and ice cream, melon and sponge) and a briefing, first in German then in English from our guide. The boat remained in Bruges overnight so an evening excursion around the city was possible but we had done ours that afternoon so we stayed on board.

Next day there was a substantial breakfast bar and the chef Franco was offering fried eggs to order. We were invited to make our own packed lunches from the food on the buffet.

Soon after breakfast we were away around the old Bruges City walls and out by the side of a canal to the small town of Damme, passing by a couple of windmills including this one

Windmill by the side of the Bruges-Damm canal

which was open and looked as though it could, at any time, start working. Shortly afterwards we crossed the canal and came to Damme town square. 

Most of us were very grateful that the Tourist Office had public toilets. We stayed in Damme just long enough to hear the musical church clock strike eleven then set off along the canal again.

Our next destination was Blankenberge. We travelled through farmland and our guide pointed out the speciality cows of the region the Bleublanc, known in English as the Belgian Blue. It is very distinctive in appearance with “short legs and a large arse” (a description courtesy of our guide). They are also a breed that routinely has to be calved using Caesarean section. We had a slight panic when we lost a member of the cycling team then lost our guide, but we managed to reconverge at Lisseweg where we encountered hundreds of walkers. On the way to Lisseweg we rode by the side of one of the largest canals we found all week and big canals demand big bridges and this is one of the largest I have seen. It seems to be for a duel carriageway motorway crossing the canal.

Subsequently, I discovered that all the walkers were part of an International 2-day walking festival. Certainly a major event with military support, refreshment tents and even musical accompaniment

Military Band at Lisseweg

At Lisseweg we had our only problem with signage. In general the cycle ways are extremely well signposted and the guidebook we were given was excellen. But in this one case someone had reversed the sign which caused a deal of puzzlement.

We decided to go solo, without the guide, from Lisseweg to Blankenberge. Faced with hundreds of hikers coming the other way we had quite a few indignant stares as we sounded our bells to avoid collision, since many of the walkers were staring at the ground or talking continuously with colleagues. The day had turned quite chilly and with a raw breeze coming off the sea Blankenberge was probably not at its best. When we arrived we rode along the prom looked at the empty beach huts and the pier

and quickly looked for a place to get in the warm and have a hot drink. Later, we met our guide and agreed to travel back to Bruges independently. Before we left Blankenberge we decided to ride along to the Marina, a vast new area where we found a shelter and had our lunch. On our way back to Bruges we, once again, met dozens of walkers going the other way, but soon we left them behind and eventually arrived at our boat in Bruges.

Back at the boat we had time for a hot drink and cake then just time to clean up before a steak dinner and an optional evening excursion into Bruges to see buildings floodlit and have a chance to try some ridiculously strong Belgian beers.

Lovely old building on the Burg in Bruges

Next day was overcast and during breakfast the boat travelled to Moerbrugge where we started our bike ride. We set off in fine rain that increased later but dried up in the afternoon. We stopped for a coffee in Aalter by which time we were all quite wet. The ground was wet and slippery and my partner had a fall as we stopped. We all crowded into the cafe and guide, Gunter, produced some cream good for bruises, while we had a coffee and cake.

There was no stop for lunch as we aimed to get to Ghent in time for a look round. We did stop for a strange bike museum though, where we had an opportunity to try out some very unusual bicycle creations like a side by side tandem, a tandem with no pedals that you propelled by bouncing up and down on the saddles (when one was up the other was down). It was a fun interlude.

A short while later our boat passed us while we were cycling alongside the Ghent- Bruges Canal. We encountered quite an unusual and airy toilet on our way into Ghent.

We arrived in Ghent about 2pm and congregated by St Baaf’s Cathedral where we were able to leave our bikes and look around on foot. We went round St Baaf’s and saw the Rubens paintings and the carved altar. It was quite chilly and we were pleased to find a cafe where we had a type of self made hot chocolate, hot milk in a cup and a bowl of chocolate chips to add to taste. There were masses of photogenic buildings but the only one I took was of the Ghent Belfry.

Gent or Ghent Belfry right by hot chocolate stop

We were all back to our bikes in good time for our final ride to rejoin the boat for a warm shower and another excellent dinner. There was an optional night time ride into and around Ghent but we declined the offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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