Today’s route was multinational. We started aiming to cycle round Flanders but it was impossible to cycle past the famous Dutch city of Maastricht without paying a visit and after that some minor navigation errors saw us spend the afternoon following the valley of the Maas (Meuse) on the Dutch side rather than the Belgian side. Practically that made little difference apart from giving us a taste of Dutch cycling infrastructure, and from the perspective of history we were actually in Limburg the whole way because both Belgium and the Netherlands have kept the name as a legacy from the medieval Duchy of Limburg which was one of the many historical references for the area. Briefly Limburg was all Belgian – for just 9 years up until 1839. Today it is split down the middle by the River Maas and the huge AlbertKanaal which enables shipping to bypass the erratic path and variable levels of the Maas.
The day started cautiously because we had heard the rain hammering down on the hotel roof all night and the streets of St Truiden were dull and wet, as were the first of the country lanes along our way.
However as we pedalled east towards Tongeren we were cheered by warm, drying sunshine and more of the quietest country lanes you could imagine, we had them almost to ourselves.
It wasn’t long before the tidy streets of Tongeren invited us to an attractive market square, dominated its church and a 19th century statue of warrior king Amborix of the Belgae tribe who gave their name to Belgium. It is such a fantasy statue you almost have to laugh out loud, the impossibly wide moustache looks like a model for Astorix the Gaul. However the cafes in the square were a very welcoming spot to enjoy the view, so we forgive the poetic license in the statuary.
Leaving Tongeren was perhaps better than arriving because by now the sun was drying the roads fast and we had a lovely route out, first on a car free path popular with other cyclists and walkers, then we climbed up to an open plateau with wide views back to Tongeren and through kilometre after kilometre of the Haspengouw orchards, laden with fruit ready for picking.
I have found out since we got back that the Belgian fruit growers are in crisis because much of their fruit is sent to Russia and the import ban on EU produce as a result of the Ukraine tensions means that they have no markets this year. It seems astonishing to this that much of that wonderful fruit might be uneconomic to harvest. If we had but known, because the thought “I don’t know how I managed to cycle past all that fruit without pinching some” was uttered by one reprobate in the party, although we might both confess to some boyhood fruit theft if pushed on the subject.
We dipped and climbed gently through attractive small towns and villages until we reached the valley of the Mass where the road dropped steeply down to the side of the AlbertKanaal and then across a suspension bridge with wide cycle paths over to the Dutch side.
I don’t actually know where we officially crossed the border, a set of minor roads and cycle paths led us through attractive water meadows right into the heart of Maastricht.
But as a cyclist you can just tell. Even outside town the bikes are bigger and much more upright, with many more women riding. And every bike seems to be perfectly equipped with some well used panniers or a crate for shopping. It’s not true that every road in the Netherlands has a perfect cycle path as some people think, but when they are there they are wide, well-engineered and take priority at all the side junctions.
When we hit Maastricht itself we initially seemed to be in the sleepy Limburg of the Belgian side of the border. The attractive cobbled streets seemed quiet and welcoming.
Then bang. We dropped right into the heart of a busy modern city on a shopping Saturday. It was packed as if the Christmas sales were on, an effect that completely threw us. Fortunately we were able to retreat out of the throngs to the terraces along the river where the atmosphere was less hectic although there were still lots of people were taking lunch and enjoying the river bank.
Prominent of course were the cyclists and the bicycles, this is unmistakably a Dutch cycling city even if levels are not at the level of the leaders like Utrecht and Amsterdam.
That was also clear when we decided to leave town, heading North along the Maas. I must admit I was a bit mesmerised by the massive cycle lanes alongside the main roads North because somewhere along the way I missed a turning and we continued on the Dutch side rather than heading back into Flanders. That was ok because we found some nice quiet roads and pretty villages but I was also reminded of the scale and ambition of Dutch civil engineering as occasionally we rode below the level of one of the huge canals that fed into the Albertkanaal.
Our last landmark was the attractive village of Berg an de Maas where we planned to cross back into Belgium on the small car ferry to spend the night.
We actually had the pleasure of doing it twice because once we crossed we found that we had booked an on line hotel that was actually 7km back into the Netherlands. (Lesson learned; never trust that “close to” setting without checking)
So we retraced our steps on the big wide bike lanes into Geleen, a relatively modern Dutch town. The hotel fitted its setting as a non-descript chain hotel but the staff were really helpful, the room was functional and the shower hot!
So it may not have been the most exciting of final destinations but over dinner we reflected on the contrasts of the day, starting with the tiny farm tracks of Flanders, the hustle and bustle of Maastricht and finishing on the big broad cycle lanes of the Netherlands. There certainly hadn’t been a moment to be bored and we had both enjoyed the many changes.