“Try some Chamois Butt’r,” said Barbara, with a knowing chuckle. “It’s for your buns, though, not your bread!” I was instantly all ears about this special cream that cyclists claim has magical powers when it comes to easing sore butts. Barbara had taken pity on me after watching me ever so gingerly get on and off my bike. It was day three of a week-long cycling tour through Flanders, a region encompassing parts of Holland and Belgium, and my derriere had begun to protest in earnest. I gratefully applied the supposed wonder balm and hopped back on my bike, hoping for the best. I don’t know if it was a psychosomatic response or whether it was the fact that my rear end had become sufficiently calloused, but the stuff actually worked. And I no longer needed to engage in what I called, “one cheek on the seat” style of riding.
A sore butt was the only complaint I had during my European cycling trip – a trip awash with many memorable sights and experiences. As I had never been on a cycling adventure, I chose my destination based on a few factors: flat terrain (no Pyrenees for me!), plenty of historic sites and picturesque scenery, a country with a reputation for good food and a notably cycling-friendly populace.
I began my journey in Brussels, a cosmopolitan city that oozes charm from its pores with a mix of modern and traditional elements and French, Flemish and German influences. Among its many districts is the famed Grand-Place, once described as the “most beautiful theatre in the world.” This iconic square with its imposing Gothic and Neo-Gothic style buildings, cobblestone streets, bustling market stalls and colorful splashes of flowers at every corner is a treat for the senses. People here appreciate fine food, fashion and art, and they covet their leisure time. Sitting at one of the ubiquitous outdoor cafes in summer is a frequent pastime; one which I quickly became enamored with because of the opportunity it presented to people watch. The food, though, is reason enough.
In this gastronomic city, as well as throughout the region, you’ll find most every type of cuisine. I felt free to indulge, as cycling thirty to fifty miles a day and doing a fair amount of walking gave me the license to eat heartily. It’s the country’s famous Belgian waffles, “frites” (fries), chocolate and beer that get the most notoriety when it comes to culinary specialties. Chocolate shops abound with eye popping confections lined up like trophies in the windows. Their wafting aromas seduce you as you stroll the streets. These compete with the smell of crisp fries from the chip stands and the sweet, warm scent of baked dough from the waffle carts. And then there’s the beer. Nothing comes between Belgians and their beer. There are hundreds of different types and each has its own unique glass embossed with the beer’s logo. Do as the locals do and savor them slowly, appreciating each brew’s individual characteristics and flavors.
From Brussels, I went to medieval Middleburg, Holland, which is where my Austin Lehman Adventures’ “Flavors of Flanders” cycling tour officially began. Some days our ride took us through the bucolic countryside, past traditional Dutch windmills, artisan cheese factories, pastoral farms and tiny hamlets. Other days, we biked along the canals, through forests, atop the dunes and next to the sea. Our guide Tom drove the support van and would magically appear at various stopping points on the route, with snacks, water and a perpetually warm smile.
It’s important to note that many cycling tour guides typically don’t ride with their groups unless the group is large and warrants two leaders. Cyclists are given route directions, distances and maps at daily briefings, along with information about notable sights along the way, pre-determined lunch stops and any other pertinent data. Guides drive along or in the vicinity of the route and periodically check on their group to ensure that no one gets lost. They’re also available to lend assistance with bike repairs if needed. Additionally, they transport the luggage from hotel to hotel, make dinner arrangements, join the group for most meals and attend to all other details of the trip.
I admit, I was a bit taken aback when I learned I would have to read maps and follow directions, as opposed to mindlessly following a guide. But, no one rides alone. Participants band together in small pairs and trios and help each other find their way. Within my trio, we each took turns being in the lead, though we all paid attention to signs, landmarks and mileage to keep one another on track. By the time the week was up, I felt a sense of pride at mastering the ability to follow the route while remaining upright on my bike – no small feat for a directionally-challenged klutz!
One of my favorite places along our route was Bruges, Belgium’s Cinderella city. This romantic, canal-laced town is a jewel box, overflowing with historical treasures. Horses and buggies clip clop down the cobblestone streets, bells ring from the multitude of churches, boats and preening swans glide through the waterways and outdoor cafes beckon you to rest your weary feet, after taking in all the fascinating sights. And believe me, there are many, from museums with extensive collections of medieval art to ancient churches containing tombs of past nobility. This is a city that begs to be walked, though you should first hop on a boat tour to gain a feel for the layout of the place before exploring it on foot.
Bruges’s well-preserved medieval architecture is among the most impressive in Europe. Imposing red brick buildings, gabled facades, towering spires and ornate guildhouses (once occupied by the various trades that helped establish Bruges’s prominence during medieval times) will wow you as you explore this miniature Venice. Before leaving, make sure to climb the 366 steps of the 260 feet tall Belfry in the Market. You’ll be rewarded with awesome views of the city and beyond.
Though Bruges was a definite highlight of my cycling tour, some of the smaller villages were equally enchanting, such as Damme and Veere, with their sweet cottages, immaculate gardens and old Gothic style town halls. These peaceful havens were far from the hubbub of city life and as I cycled through them, I felt closer to the people. Riding a bike allowed me to make a more personal connection with the culture. And I was able to do it at my own pace, with the ability to stop and smell the tulips.
It was interesting to note that cycling is a way of life in this area of the world, with everyone from children to senior citizens sporting a bike. They use it as a significant means of transportation to get to school and to work. And they cycle to the stores to shop and do their daily errands. I saw women in high heels, men with briefcases and children with their schoolbags all riding bikes. Bike paths abound and drivers are respectful of cyclists. People I encountered along the way were friendly and always willing to lend assistance when needed.
The final stop on the tour was Ghent, another city that earns top marks in the charm department. With its famed churches, museums and Gothic and Renaissance style buildings and monuments, it, like Brugge, is an historical wonderland. Take a carriage trip through the ancient heart of the town at night when the inner city is illuminated and you’ll feel like a character out of a fairytale.