Ghent to Antwerp
Ghent to Antwerp (in Red)
In the morning I dumped my worldly possessions into the two panniers. It was like living out of a paper bag. Earlier in the trip I had tried to fold everything neatly, but it didn’t seem to matter. At the end of the day it was just a tangled mass. I never did learn the trick of how to pack these things. So, like I say, I just dumped the stuff in. Of course, it was raining. So what’s new?
I started out without a set plan for the route. I just had to follow any secondary road that seemed to be going northeast. There were two major highways going to Antwerp, and if somehow I stayed between them, never crossing either, I would be ok.
Leaving Ghent I rode the slippery cobblestone streets in the rain. I thought once again about the wisdom of riding a narrow-tired road bike like mine. I kept thinking maybe I should get a hybrid bike with larger tires sometime. I had to bike very carefully on these roads, watching for holes and bumps, and I couldn’t go very fast. Moreover, the clipless pedals locked my feet to the bike, and any spill would be catastrophic.
After crossing a canal on a major highway, I spotted a little bike path on the other side. It was going the right direction generally, so I took it. I passed a man walking a dog, and I was passed in turn by several motorbikes – an unusual happening here where they were not allowed on most bike paths. The sun was coming out as I left the bike path for some secondary roads. For a half hour or so the biking was lovely. These were farm roads, and I passed horses and cows and everything smelled fresh in the growing morning sun.
I was actually hot for the first time on the trip. I stopped to take off my sweater, which was underneath my rain jacket. I left the jacket on just in case. Of course, a little later it started to rain again and I got cold. But I was making good time for a change – maybe the best overall progress of the trip. What had looked like the most complicated day was becoming one of the simplest. I had locked on to a secondary road with a bike path that went in the general direction of Antwerp.
I had put in about 15 miles when I came to the town of Lokeren. It had a nice square and a large church, and it was time for my morning coffee. I selected a friendly-looking café that seemed quite full, but when I went inside it seemed that everyone there was smoking and drinking some kind of alcoholic drink. I felt very uncomfortable, but a waiter came over and made it hard for me to leave. However, being told that the cappuccino machine was broken, I had a good excuse to leave. I went across the street to the empty café shown here on the left.
As you can see, the sun was shining when I took this picture, but as I sat in a window seat sipping my cappuccino, it started to rain hard again. It was that kind of day.
The miles slipped by effortlessly as I followed the secondary road through little towns. By lunchtime I had reached Tomse, the biggest little town on the route. It didn’t seem to have a real square, but the traffic circled a very large church with a rather unusual architecture.
There was a patisserie across the street where I ordered a croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese). The service was fast and friendly, and the food arrived with a very attractive presentation of accompaniments. I voted it the best lunch of the trip.
Now it was only seven miles or so Antwerp. The approach was along a river. Antwerp was on the other side of the river, and I was concerned about how to get across. At a meeting in London the previous year I had been talking to a European biker who had biked across China, among other impressive feats. I remembered that he had told me that one of the most difficult days he had had biking was trying to get across the river at Antwerp. He said that it had been growing dark, and he had biked up and down the river looking for a crossing. There were a couple of large bridges that did not allow bikes. He despaired of crossing until he saw another biker disappear into a building and not come out. When another biker did the same, he followed into the building, and discovered an elevator that took him down to a bike tunnel.
I saw Antwerp across the river as I biked northward, looking for a likely place for a bike tunnel. Surely it would be marked, I thought. And so it was. Here is what I encountered.
Entrance to tunnel
I took this ramp down to an underground platform. An escalator led further downward. I couldn’t see where it went, but it wasn’t working, and I hesitated to carry my bike down the steep stairs. No one else was there. Was this the right place? I came back outside and looked around. Finally I resumed biking northward. There must be another place.
I did find the building with the elevator about 3 miles from here. It was unmarked, and the only way I discovered it was to watch for other bikers disappearing somewhere. How could they build a bike tunnel and not put up signs to it?
There was a large elevator that took my bike and me down to the tunnel. The door of the elevator shut automatically, and there was no response to any button that I pushed. Was I trapped here? But there was a television camera overhead, and a sign said that the elevator was controlled externally, just be patient. I was, and the elevator took me down to this tunnel.
The bike tunnel
This was a scary moment, because as I tried to set up this picture, I dropped my digital camera on the concrete floor. I thought for sure it would be broken, but afterwards it seemed to work ok. I’m still not completely confident that every function works correctly. When you drop a camera on concrete, it’s supposed to break.
You can see a few pedestrians in the tunnel. In fact, I was the only biker, and I wasn’t sure that it was allowed to ride in the tunnel. But I did, and another automatic elevator took me up to the center of Antwerp. Neat.
I had come up in a little square. It was a short walk to a very large square, where I bought some nougat from a little stand. I had been eyeing nougat in store windows since Bruges, but until now I had resisted. Oh, it was good! I can almost taste it as I write now. Along with the nougat, I got directions to the VVV, which was on a still-larger square a few blocks away.
As you can see, dark clouds had come overhead, and in a few minutes it began to pour. Once again the VVV was pretty useless. They didn’t have any maps. They just suggested a bookstore that was on the previous square.
I walked back to the other square, but I didn’t see any bookstore. A lady walked with me to a corner of the square and pointed in a door. “There,” she said. I didn’t see any bookstore, but she directed me up an escalator. At the top of the escalator was a giant bookstore. Once again I pawed through maps and books, and eventually selected a map that would get me to the next day’s destination, Breda.
Leaving the bookstore I saw that the escalator I had come up on was one-way, and signs pointed me towards another exit. It was quite a way before I could go down, and I realized that I was in a very large shopping center. When I finally came back out in the street I didn’t recognize anything. I had locked my bike to a stand in the street. Where was it? I was lost. For a moment I felt a touch of panic. What would I do without my bike?
I returned to the shopping center, went back up to the second floor, and tried to recreate the route I had used to enter. Unfortunately, this was impossible. I came out still another exit, but this time I spotted my bike across the street. Was I glad to see it!
It was raining pretty hard, and I walked my bike among throngs of people in the general direction of my hotel, which I had discovered to be quite far to the south of where I was at the moment. This was a very large city. Maybe not New York, but maybe like Baltimore. In the heavy rain and crowded streets it was hard to do it justice. I saw museums, concert halls, and monuments. I just kept walking. In my path I passed through a part of the famous diamond district. I saw a lot of signs for diamond emporiums (emporia?), but it was after the market had closed for the week, and even if I had wanted to buy a diamond, it would have been impossible.
I had a couple of miles to go, and the walking was slow, so as the pedestrian traffic thinned I took once again to my bike for the final path to the hotel. It was another 44-mile day. Somehow they all came out to be almost exactly the same distance.
My hotel was located on the periphery of Antwerp. I had no desire to try to find a restaurant in this area, so I made a reservation at the hotel’s restaurant, Minerva, which was located further down the block. The restaurant reminded me of a California décor, sort of blond modern furniture and chrome. There was an unusual feature in the center, where the floor was glass, and stairs under the glass led nowhere. I asked the waiter and was told that it used to be a garage, and the glass covered the place where the mechanics would work on the underneath of cars. I ordered sole, and it was quite good.
Proceed to next day's biking, Antwerp to Breda
Back to Holland overview