Legging it past the tour-bus crush, Tony Magnusson quietly explores western Europe’s Low Countries by barge and bike.
It’s high summer in South Holland and I’m indulging my inner voyeur, snatching glimpses through the wide-screen windows of strangers’ living rooms as I cycle past their traditional Dutch brick dwellings. The area is semirural and some of the houses come with barns; goats doze on garden furniture and roosters crow proprietorially. It’s hard not to be a stickybeak – the Dutch are famous for their no-curtains policy. “In the Netherlands, we like to say we’ve got nothing to hide,” says Caroline, our personable guide, before adding that down south in Belgium, curtains and blinds are de rigueur. “They think we’re exhibitionists.”
Nosiness is difficult to avoid given my riding companions and I are following a path built on top of an old dyke. The elevation affords views across the famously flat farmland dotted with cows, sheep and windmills, and down onto people’s carefully tended gardens and into their homes. There are tiled and thatched roofs, stepped and scrolled gables, and board-and-batten shutters painted glossy black or red and white. Many houses appear to have their own moat, such is the profusion of canals cut perpendicular to each other. The interplay of land and water is innately appealing. Every living thing is either green or blooming and the sweet, peppery smell of manure hangs in the air.
Travelling by bike and barge from Amsterdam to Bruges is all about the journey, though the destination – one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities – and the pit stops along the way offer fascinating forays into the art, architecture and history of the so-called Low Countries. This fully catered seven-day excursion, operated by The Carter Company and a Dutch partner, equips its 32 participants with seven-speed touring bicycles (with gel-padded seats) and accommodates them in upscale digs aboard a 63-metre-long barge, MS Magnifique, renovated in 2013. Each of the 15 twin-share (some convert into triples) and two single cabins has air-conditioning, a flat-screen TV and bathroom with full-size shower.
Cycling an average of 42 kilometres per day, we rendezvous with the barge at a new mooring each afternoon before freshening up for a three-course dinner on board, a presentation on the following day’s cycle route and a walking tour through whichever town we’re berthed in. The salon is roomy, the bar has Jupiler and Leffe beer on tap, there’s additional seating on the sundeck and a hot tub in which to soak aching muscles. On our trip the black-and-white barge, with yellow smokestack, sails along four canals and five rivers, including the mighty 500-metre-wide Hollands Diep, an estuary of the Rhine and Meuse rivers.
No-one knows how to harness wind and water like the Dutch. Historically, canals served multiple purposes. They were a means of transport, a source of irrigation and a way of channelling water from marshland to create polders, or tracts of reclaimed land. As a result, more than 25 per cent of the Netherlands is below sea level – a feat of engineering made possible by the windmills that pumped out the water to create arable land and pasture. Thankfully, the wind (what the locals call “Dutch mountains”) leans more towards a gentle breeze for the duration of our journey, which is all the more pleasant for it.
Travelling like locals, on two wheels and water, means avoiding the tourist logjams and instead taking in the quiet beauty of smaller towns and hidden waterways, setting our own pace and stopping for Instagram-ops whenever they present themselves. Some in our party choose to break off and travel in smaller groups – an attractive option given the easy-to-follow routes – while others opt to have a “day off” and relax on the barge. Sharing the cycleways with friendly locals and the occasional squadron of grunting MAMIL (middle-aged men in Lycra) whizzing by in close formation, we feel as though we have the countryside to ourselves.
Admittedly, this all changes on the afternoon of day two when we arrive at Kinderdijk, a World Heritage-listed concatenation of 19 windmills dating back to the 18th century. Here, there are usually 15 or so tour-bus groups in attendance at any one time. Boasting the highest concentration of old windmills in the country, its popularity is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, the conga lines of selfie-stick clutchers has us all grateful that we chose the road less travelled. Once we’re done, it’s a gift to be able to hop on our bikes and leg it out of there. Later the same day, taking a postprandial stroll through the medieval port city of Dordrecht, with its cobbled streets, imposing 15th-century Big Church (with a 67-bell carillon) and pretty marina, it’s back to the way we like it – just us and the locals, and not a coach in sight.
Crossing into Belgium on day three, we sail through the Port of Antwerp – the size of about 20,000 football fields – in the late afternoon, before mooring overnight in Het Eilandje, a recently rejuvenated dockside neighbourhood close to the city centre. After dinner, and in spite of a deluge, Caroline coaxes us off the barge for a visit to Het Steen. The medieval stone fortress on the banks of the Scheldt River has, above an archway, a weathered bas-relief of Semini, a mythical fertility god, dating back to the second century. The deity’s crucial appendage (now missing, thanks to prudish Jesuits who disposed of it in the 16th century) was rubbed enthusiastically by local women keen to have a family. Elsewhere on the site stands a modern bronze statue of Lange Wapper, a mischievous giant from local folklore who played tricks on the unscrupulous, sometimes in drag. “The Belgians like to tell sexual jokes,” explains Caroline. “Whereas in the Netherlands, the jokes always seem to be about money or windmills.”
The next day, on our bikes and heading south under a big sky, we follow the Scheldt, passing through more farmland, wooded areas and Belgian villages, where houses are indeed decked out with blinds, curtains and roll-down shutters – no exhibitionists here. Muscular stock horses stand statue-like in lush paddocks; scattered wildflowers add dustings of yellow, blue and purple to the greenery. Following another dyke-top cyclepath, we spy a series of dilapidated fishing shacks around a pond. Sometimes the paved paths give way to cobblestones, which turn our voices juddery and our bikes into rudimentary massage devices. Conversation ebbs and flows as we slip in and out of “the zone”. Who knew cycling could be so meditative?
Lovers of art and architecture are increasingly rewarded as the excursion progresses. In Antwerp, the big drawcard is the Cathedral of Our Lady with its 123-metre-high wedding-cake spire. Brabantine late-Gothic in style, it houses major works by that master of the Flemish Baroque, Peter Paul Rubens, including his dramatic triptych The Elevation of the Cross (1610-11). Meanwhile, fans of Early Netherlandish painting – 15th and early-16th centuries – will feel as if they’ve stumbled on the mother lode in Ghent and nearby Bruges, the final two cities on our tour. These miraculously preserved, late-medieval centres of trade and commerce are home to fine-boned masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden and more.
Of course, it’s not all art appreciation and no play. Bruges also happens to be an epicentre of beer and chocolate. As well as a beer-tasting evening aboard the Magnifique, guests can explore the city’s watering holes. The rustic
De Garre (De Garre 1) serves more than 90 beers, the evocatively titled Satan Gold among them. Regarding the sweet stuff, it’s got to be The Chocolate Line (Simon Stevinplein 19), where you can pick up an inhalable-chocolate kit designed by rockstar chocolatier Dominique Persoone for The Rolling Stones. Prefer to eat your poison? Try chocolates flavoured with yuzu, bacon, cab sav, hemp or Earl Grey and discover why Persoone is recommended in the Michelin Guide.
With this sort of sustenance under your belt, you might just find hidden reserves of energy to get back in the saddle and keep pedalling… ￼
A seven-day bike-and-barge tour from Amsterdam to Bruges, or vice versa, costs about $1910 per person. Departures from July to October 2016. Visit The Carter Company.