Category Archives: cycling

Eurocycle: a holiday in Netherlands and Belgium

In August 2010, Haley and I had decided to take 2 weeks off. Haley was just about ready to chew a lump out of her computer and throw undergraduates through her 3rd floor office window, so a break was very necessary. We phoned a variety of travel agents but because it was all done in rather a hurry, with only a weeks notice, there was nothing suitable. We considered going on a cruise, but Haley decreed it was SilverSea or nothing. Cruising was off.

We both like cycling but Haley is rubbish with hills. We did not want to fly anywhere, so the obvious choice was to catch the train to Brussels and potter about on the bikes. We have gorgeous, little, folding Brompton bikes which we both adore. There are plenty of companies which will rent you bikes and ferry your luggage from guest house to guest house (Skedaddle, CTC are a few we considered). We decided we would do it alone. It wasn’t just the cost although tour companies are very much more expensive than the equivalent days in nice hotels, and don’t usually include flights to the starting point. We wanted to go at our own pace, did not really want to be sociable with the rest of the pack after a hard day’s cycle, and wanted have flexibility to change plans en route. Plus the tour companies usually offer unidentified guest houses.

The alternative is to carry everything with you. It was amazing how much you don’t actually need.

Essential kit:

  • Padded cycle shorts – We were skeptical but after the first 50 miles we found they were a godsend. We got undershort variety so you can wear normal clothes over them. It does feel like you are wearing a nappy when you walk in them. Don’t wear pants (those are British not American pants) with them. It might seem gross but trust me.
  • Sugary snacks – Kendal Mint Cake would have been ideal, but for us it was Jelly Babies. You need something which will give you enough of a boost to carry you through a few extra miles at the end of the day.
  • Sturdy pannier bags – we bought the Brompton own brand ones with bracket. It was incredible how much weight they can take, thanks to the excellent design. Much better to push it than carry it.
  • GPS – We bought the iPhone app Trails. It will cache maps (from OpenCycle map) so you don’t need to have a working cellular data network available. We would been lost without it. Literally lost. It has loads of great features e.g. recording your route,

Day 1:

  • Cycle from our house to Cardiff Central station
  • Cardiff Central to London Paddington
  • London Paddington – London St Pancras
  • London St Pancras – Brussels (Eurostar)
  • Brussels – Amsterdam (on the speedy Thalys)

The cycle through London we suspected would be the most stressful part of the journey on Day 1. Not at all. Boris has done a marvellous job of creating dedicated cycle paths and lanes, some of which even have their own traffic lights. We both felt much safer than cycling around Cardiff – with its onesize fits all, bus-taxi-cycle lanes.

The Thalys train is flame red, but be careful at Brussels International station, they might be typically belgian and switch the platform on you with 5 minutes to go and only make the announcement in Flemish and French. It was a miracle we made it.

We arrived in Amsterdam in the early evening having left Cardiff in the morning. You could have flown much quicker, but we were on holiday and the journey was part of that. Anyway trains are great.


View Netherlands & Belgium Eurocycle 2010 in a larger map

We spent a couple of days in Amsterdam doing touristy type things which you can read about on the part 1 of my Eurocycle blog (written en route using the marvelous iPad).

Day 2:

  • Amsterdam to Leiden

Leaving Amsterdam in a southern direction you should look out for the combined LF2/LF7 route. At waymarker 62 these two routes separate. We went South West on LF2 toward waymarker 68 – 01 – 39. We carried on following the LF2 until point 05, where we headed towards Leiden 05 – 73 – 74 – 70. Its a beautiful cycle mostly along canals with lots of windmills. Very friendly dutch, lycra-clad giants offered help to a lost looking welshman and his wife.

We had actually bought a map but because the first part wasn’t on it we were totally unprepared for how long it would take and arrived just after dark. I would not recommend cycling these routes in the dark because they are mostly unlit and some of the paths are veeeeery narrow, alongside canals.

We were staying with a friend in Leiden who welcomed us into the house, exhausted, slightly smelly, and in desparate need of a strong cuppa and sit down. She then made us cycle across the city to a restaurant. I very nearly dozed off in my soup. Fortunately, nobody noticed. You can read all about the journey from the blog I did at the time.

Day 3.

  • Leiden to The Hague
  • The Hague to Delft
  • Delft to Rotterdam

If you have a GPS machine or a GPS smart phone app (like the rather good Trails) handy you can download our route for day 3 (GPX format).

We left Leiden quite early and had a very enjoyable lunch in the Hague during the heat of the day in a square just behind the Binnenhof. There were lots of business men and women, all looking the trendy mix of professional and fashionable, and us in our cycling gear looking grubby.

Delft was our next destination and is a beautiful place with a gigantic Nieuwe Kerke (New Church). It is rather strange because it was built as a Lutheran cathedral, so unlike every other cathedral or large church I’ve been in there is no focus towards the east end where the high altar would have been. Have an ice-cream and sit in the square gazing at the Kerke at one end and the equally stunning town hall at the other. It was so hot, my ice-cream made a bid for freedom down my inside leg. Most embarrassing.

The cycle to Rotterdam was less pleasant because we were rather tired, hot and my knee was playing up. We may also have gone the wrong way once or twice which is never good for morale. Our hotel was a corporate, businessman type of hotel with no soul and certainly no room service. Despite lots of pain in my knee, we hobbled off to find dinner in this industrial city. You have to look really hard for something nice, but eventually found a charming deli which turned into a restaurant at night.

Day 4:

  • Rotterdam (Netherlands) to Antwerp (Belgium)

The next day my leg was so bad we had to change our plans and catch the train all the way to Antwerp. There we had a marvelous time, staying in a gorgeous boutique hotel (Hotel Julien) and catching up with the adventures of the little giantess (an annual city-wide artistic spectacular).

Day 5:

  • Antwerp to Dendemonde
  • Dendemonde to Ghent

When it was finally time to move on we left quirky Antwerp on the faithful LF2 just outside Antwerp castle and the statue of the giant who used to rule the city. The weather was decidedly grotty and as we cycled warily through the industrial part of the city that the cycle path dragged us through, the rain came down. We had light-weight waterproofs but quickly these became drenched and rather cold. We stayed on the LF2 until the town of Schelle, then we jumped onto the LF5. One of our friends, Sarah (who blogs over at One Small Step) recommended the Temse to Dendemonde route, and she was right – it was a beautiful cycle. Make sure you jump over the river and have a look at the little market town of Temse.

The route we followed on the map (again thanks to OpenCycleMap.org), by the waymarker numbers, was:

  • 57-59-41-42-43-33-32-70–30-34-31-54-01-02-03–75 for a pop over the bridge to Temse and back to 03–04-05-06-08-76-67-ferry to-68-57-56-99-89

My knee was totally knackered by the time we got to Dendemonde so we elected to take the train the rest of the way to Ghent. Sadly Ghent was a bit of a let down after all the fun to be had in Antwerp. There were some pretty bits but most of the city seemed to be under heavy re-construction.

Day 6:

  • Ghent to Bruges

You can download our route part of day 5 and all of day 6: Temse to Bruges for your GPS thingy (GPX format).

…more coming

Day 7:

  • Bruges to Brussels
  • Brussels to London St Pancras
  • London St Pancras to London Paddington
  • London Paddington to Cardiff Central
  • Cardiff Central to our little house
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Eurocycle 2: Amsterdam to Leiden

We were supposed to be taking the train from Amsterdam to Leiden but early in the afternoon we realised that we had a couple of hours to spare where we either just wander about the red light district a bit more or we make an early start and cycle to Leiden. Incidentally the red light district is quite unbelievable. Aside from the posters advertising what you can do for €5/10/15 and where, there are the ladies of the night who sit behind glass doors reading a book, filing their nails, or just looking bored in their underwear. It reminded me a bit of Coronation Street. I don’t think I saw one that was under the age of 40, and wasn’t desperately ugly. Perhaps the younger and more attractive ladies would have taken a shift later in the night. I suppose it was just after lunch, and the hours work better for someone with s family.

Before we left Amsterdam we saw a woman cycling with a child in a seat perched on the handlebars, another hanging from the pannier rack on the back, reading a newspaper, whilst crossing junctions and fending off trams and pedestrians. Thats a multitasking mother for you.

We set off for Leiden,  thinking it couldn’t be more than 40 Km from looking at the map.

First lesson of the cycling holiday: cycle paths can be twice as long as the road between 2 places.

The ride was quite easy at first. It took us along canals, and windmills. All rather picturesque. There is an international cycle route network through Netherlands, Belgium, france and germany called LF routes. These are a cyclists dream; clearly marked, mostly off-road, paved, scenic. They are like a game of pass the parcel, which delivers little presents at each turn.

We first took the LF7 to, then LF2 to Leiden. The map we’d bought didn’t have Amsterdam on it so we were sort of guessing that Amstelveen was close by, it turns out to be about 14km of cycling away. Hmmm

The day was overcast but warm with a slight breeze, almost perfect cycling weather. We’d come prepared and donned our padded cycling shorts (does one wear with or without underwear?), but for the sake of decency had normal looking overshorts. No-one needs to see my wobbly parts, especially wrapped in lycra.

We stopped at several little towns for no more than 5 minutes each. They were all very pretty and we could have happily stopped for longer and had a coffee and something sticky but the clock was ticking. We had left Amsterdam at 3.30 and we expected in Leiden to meet a friend at 6.30.

Something we didn’t really consider was that we would need to cross the canals at several different points by ferry. I had expected these would be akin to chartering a boat or water taxi, and cost a kings ransom. We crossed canals 3 times and it cost us a total of 80cents. It was so cheap I would have considered doing it a few more times for shits and giggles. One ferry appeared to be a main commuter route and although the trip took only slightly more  time than it took me to get my camera out and take a photo (much to Haley’s irritation at holding people up), there was a queue of about 15 cars waiting to be whisked across the water.

The countryside is consistently beautiful. Maybe it was a selection effect but there were no rough areas in the towns we passed or rusting trolleys in the canals, or even youths idly shouting abuse at us. When we paused to look at our map, several Dutch passers-by stopped and offered friendly assistance in perfect English. I was slightly alarmed when we stopped at a bike shop to buy an emergency waterproof, that the shopkeeper had never heard of the LF2.

One of the blessings of cycling in Netherlands (in addition to the extremely smiley helpful people) is the flat terrain, but that also means it can be windy. Travelling south on that day, the wind always seemed to be in our faces. To keep our strength up we ate jelly babies 2 at a time. Those little, fat, multicoloured, surprised looking, icons of our childhood were our lembas bread sustaining our spirits.

Haley said to me when we realized it was 7pm and we still had 12km to go, after a particularly windy patch:
“I hate you, I want to die. I have a sore arse, my thighs muscles are solid and there is a baby crying somewhere”
“Have a jelly baby and get back on, look here’s a red one” I said in a comforting tone
She sniffed and said “ok – I think the red ones have fewer E numbers anyway”
And we ploughed on.

We arrived at Leiden after a cycle of just over 60km, slightly before 8pm. Several smug people overtook us on the path into the city. They clearly had gone less than 3 miles but they nonchalantly sauntered past, making us feel ever more knackered.

I was hoping for a sense of triumph when we finally rang Kate’s doorbell (I got the wrong one to start with, apologies to the elderly neighbour with the dirty nets). There was just a feeling of tiredness, relief that we’d made it and not ended up in a ditch and hunger. Hunger and a craving for an ice cold glass of beer.

The end of day one. We really should have done more stretching before and after. And check that we knew how far we would be cycling.

If you would like maps and directions for this journey, have a look at our general Eurocycle page.
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Eurocycle 1: Cardiff to Amsterdam

We’re setting ourselves a bold venture. To travel from Cardiff to Amsterdam and back again on trains and bikes. This isn’t really that bold because 3 train rides and 6 hours+ hours later and we are in Amsterdam. The tricky part is the return journey because the travel back to Brussels (where we take the Eurostar back to Blighty) will mostly be done on bike.

We travel by air quite a lot for work and decided that as well as the associations with going somewhere gastly and talking to arrogant and slightly boring people, we wanted to be a bit more environmentally friendly.

So bike and train it is.

We took the 8.25 from Cardiff central to London Paddington Surprisingly this is an ‘off-peak’ service for an unsurprisingly high price. We also had 4 very jolly early-teenagers next to us, who sounded like they were the Pevensies on their way to an Enid Blyton convention in Narnia.

“Anyone for cards?”
“I should say”
“Shall we say it’s Old Maid”
“Rather”
“Crikey, Lucy! You’re a rotten cheater”

Cycling through London was something we were a little worried about because of the traffic. Thanks to the excellent TFL website we found a low traffic route from Paddington to St Pancras, which mostly took advantage of the London cycle network of dedicated cycle lanes (not the rubbish taxi/bus/road sweeper/horse-drawn cart/temporary “I’ll be really quick” parking/bicycle lanes we suffer in Cardiff). We downloaded the route (in GPX format) to the good old iPhone using a nice little app called Trails, from the TFL website.

I kept having to stop and look at the iphone which slowed us down but it meant we did t get lost or end up decorating the wheel arch of an articulated lorry.

If you plan on taking a bike on Eurostar, make sure you’re prepared. We have lovely little Bromptons which fold up to an incredibly tiny size, so Eurostar will let us take them on board in a bag (£3 car tire bag from Ikea works excellently if you don’t need to carry it long distances) and not charge. If you have a larger bike you’ll certainly have to pay £20 per bike and you might have to suffer you bike follow you on a late train if you haven’t booked a space for it. That’ll put the kibosh on a tight schedule so plan ahead!

We alighted at Brussels and got the expensive express train to Amsterdam. We had a bit of a fright because we lugged all our things up to the advertised platform in plenty of time, then 10 minutes be fire departure heard an announcement in Dutch containing the word Amsterdam… I began to smell a Belgian rat and low and behold the blackguards had changed the platform on us. We just caught the train then had to turf 2 grotty French teenagers out of our seats.

Amsterdam station is very close to the red light district, as we found when we were taking ‘the scenic route’ to the hotel. Watch out for that. Although at a little before 7pm there was not much too it other than a few DVD shops and stoned students wandering about trying to look sober.

I’ m not sure what I was expcecting if Amsterdam but there are canals and cyclists and rather s lot of both. Cyclists rule the city in a strange sort of anarchy: no road markings at junctions, ability to cycle against the flow of motorized traffic, competition with trams in some roads and only a bike bell saving them from serious maiming.

More crazy amsterdam cycling tomorrow…

If you would like maps and directions for this journey, have a look at our general Eurocycle page.

Cardiff Bay cycle route

As residents of Cardiff, me and the wife love cycling to Cardiff Bay at the weekend. The route we choose is mostly alongside the River Taff, on a route called the Taff Trail which runs from Brecon all the way down to Cardiff Bay (and the mouth of the river). We’ve only ever done the bit between Cardiff and Castell Coch which is about 1/6 of the total route, but the round trip is an easy 10 miles for a lazy Sunday afternoon. I’m not entirely sure our little Bromptons (the kings of the folding bike world) would cope with the rougher terrain further north.

A few years ago I signed a petition for Sustrans (short for Sustainable Transport – a great organization that promotes the use of bikes) to get a bundle of lottery money to extend some cycle routes. I remember one of them was a bridge over the river Ely (a small less popular river which along with the Taff, feed Cardiff Bay and the Severn Estuary). It looks like after all this time the bridge is complete and last Sunday we thought we’d have a cycle across it from Cardiff to Penarth and back over the Cardiff Bay barrage into the Bay proper.

The image is kindly provided by Open Cycle Map (if you want to find a cycle route anywhere in Europe, this is your first port of call – it is truly amazing!). I’ve added a blue dashed line to extend the other cycle paths (grey dashed).

Its a very easy cycle about 6 or 7 miles if you do the round trip from town and you don’t have a big lunch (or there isn’t a match on in the Millennium Stadium).

A couple of hints:

  • The Taff Trail ends a little bit short of the Bay in a rather unappealing road. You have to cross this road and look for a teeny tiny blue sticker on a lamppost to continue of the new, Bay route (winding to the left of a housing estate – its not as bad as it sounds!). If you get onto the road which passes the police station and with the unmistakable armadillo of Wales Millennium Centre ahead of you, you’ve gone the wrong way.
  • When you are on the Bay route, the signs are a often obscured so have your eagle eyes on. Below is an example of one. If a change of course happens there is a rather small arrow on the sign, if not carry on going.

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  • Travel around the Penarth Marina and definitely go across the Cardiff Bay Barrage. If you’re lucky there will be boats in the lock. Its really rather interesting, in a pleasantly nerdy way! (The image below is when the lock gates are up, not a scene from Inception)

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  • When you get into the Bay, have a coffee in the Senedd (Welsh Assembly Senate building). It was very expensive to build, but since you paid for it enjoy the view! It looks like there is a strange tree in the middle but its all part of the environmental heating/cooling system.
  • Finally, travel past WMC (basking in the glory of the beautiful opera house) onto the little traffic island. There is a small cafe called Kemi’s. You must, must, must have lunch there. Kemi is not only an excellent cook, but one of the friendliest people you could meet. Plus her cafe has the best view across the bay

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