Wednesday 3rd August: I sit enjoying an aperitif in a nice square in Lille on a warm evening. I’m here ready to head to Calais tomorrow to get home. So, where have I been and what have I been doing since I was in Berlin some days ago ? I’ll tell you !
On Friday 29th July I caught a train in the late afternoon from Berlin to Mainz, where I was graciously hosted by Lucas, a cycling friend I met some years ago when cycling in Germany. It was good to catch up. I arrived late, but we had the morning following to take a nice brunch in Mainz, and then he showed me to the station where I got the train to Sankt’ Wendel to stay with various friends there and to enjoy a concert that they were doing. The concert was at a little town on the River Mosel / Moselle (so many places have both German and French names here, I guess testament to the fluid borders and cultures and languages over the centuries) at the twinned towns of Traben-Trarbach. A very pretty place and a lovely river. I might look at cycling it one day. The Mosel / Moselle is a wine growing area, with lots of vineyards on the steep slopes. I’m not the best fan of these white German / French Mosel / Moselle wines. I find them a bit floral and fruity, even the dry ones. I prefer something like a Spatburgunder / Pinot Noir style.
I left Sankt Wendel on the Sunday 1st August, and tracked up towards Luxembourg, where I stayed on the Sunday night. The route took me through the Ardennes and its forests, scene of the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, and past the famous Bastogne (cf Band of Brothers !). Luxembourg is a nice place, very prosperous looking and terribly well kept. My kind of place. However, it was also terribly expensive, but I guess the Luxembourgois must be earning a lot of money in order to live there in such style. Still, very nice.
Within an hour of leaving my hotel on Monday 2nd August, I was in to Belgium. Which didn’t look as well kept as Luxembourg, and the prices lowered a notch or two as well. Belgium is pretty good for cycle infrastructure on most roads, but continuing along some of the forest roads I had to be careful of Speedy Gonzales Belgiques. I think that’s how you spell it. The second half of the day was through an area called Pays de les Vallees, which meant that I was crossing diagonally from one valley to the next. Hard work, downhill to a little river then uphill, a couple of kilometres on the flat, and then downhill again and then uphill, to be repeated numerous times. So, by the time I got to Dinant on the River Meuse / Maas (this time names in French and Dutch/Flemish), I was happy to find my quirky little hotel with run down brasserie below which provided the various needs of life after a day of cycling - beer and food.
The part of Belgium I have been in for a few days is French speaking Belgium / Wallonia. The other bit, further north, is Flanders and Dutch/Flemish speaking. Belgium is an odd country, an artificial creation, following the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon. I think that Belgium emerged from that, and was made up of a variety of disparate peoples speaking different languages, mostly Dutch/Flemish and French, plus a few other German speakers. I’m not sure they ever really got along, and don’t seem to do so now, but a modus vivendi seems to have prevailed and the place has survived. Notwithstanding being invaded and occupied by the Germans in 1914 and 1940. Wallonia and Flanders, the main constituent parts of Belgium, seem to rub along, but retain very individual character, customs and languages. The French speaking Wallonia, to be honest, is just like being in France, which I guess many of them would prefer to be. The Belgians are very Catholic, they were atrocious colonial masters in central Africa, along with the Dutch in the East Indies, but they have now wholly bought in to the European agenda.
Tuesday 3rd August, I was able to leave my hotel on the banks of the Meuse / Maas and cycle along its banks for a number of miles before joining an old train track that took me to a cycle path along a canal to Mons. Most of the day was perfectly pleasant cycling along river, rail track and canal. I’ve discovered in Belgium that there is a big network of old train tracks that have been turned in to cycle paths. Also, in Belgium that they have some huge canals that crisscross the country (think four or five times the width of our canals in England) with cycle paths alongside. A nice hotel and restaurant on the outskirts of Mons sufficed to satisfy all my needs that night.
Wednesday 4th August I again found myself along the canals for the most part, as far as Tourney, then some nice French and Belgium cycle lanes in to Lille. Today was a short day of cycling in order to get to Lille so that I can catch a train to Calais in the morning and make my way over the Channel and then back home by train from Dover. I would have cycled that last day to Calais from Lille, but I have to be back for a funeral and am short a day, so train it will be. Lille is pleasant, more so than I seem to remember it, with a nice smallish cathedral.
Now what to look forward to ?! Well, there are some nice things on the horizon. Firstly, a jaunt down to Glyndebourne for the opera to see Handel’s Alcina, and then Richard III at the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon. And then after that I think it will be a quiet rest of the summer.