Gent - Bruxelles - The land of the Belgians and Luxembourgeois - CycleBlaze

March 12, 2011

Gent - Bruxelles

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Today I had to get to the capital - considerably further, and it wasn't going to be perfectly flat. Nevertheless, I had a good bit of time in the morning to check out Gent.

Gent is both pretty and surprisingly grand, too
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Spire with replacement dragon figure
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An even more impressive carillon
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The original copper dragon that used to sit on top of the spire. You can see how big it is close up.
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Don't mess with these guys
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Dancing demonic figures
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View over the skyline of Gent
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The mysterious door back to present-day Gent
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The slightly battered Hawk was still going strong. Yes I did carry that eff-off lock around the entire way - on the plus side, it did keep my bike safe when secured outside in Brussels.
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I worked my way out of Gent by following another waterway: the river Scheldt. This is a (somewhat more) natural one, so not quite as arrow-straight, and got me out of the Gent ring-road with little trouble. I would follow this for about 10 miles from the edge of Gent; cross over the river where there was (apparently) a ferry crossing; then head across country to the town of Aalst. From there the rest of the journey would essentially be through Bruxelles suburbs.

Some of the bike paths were still very straight and flat though. Good surface mind.
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Strange corporate art by the side of the Scheldt
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To my relief the ferry at Schellebelle was operating. It was a blazing hot day, though, and since it was lunchtime I treated myself to a bite to eat and an extremely macho pink fruit beer at the cafe before I crossed. Fruit beer is usually a bit sweet for me, but this was just right: how refreshing it was to sip this by the canal is an enduring memory of this stretch.

The jetty for the ferry at Schellebelle
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Crossing the Scheldt on the ferry - you had to request it by calling it over
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Away from the river, it was then a pretty uneventful and quiet ride through the country lanes to Lede. After I left Lede, I joined busier roads: the N442 and N9 to Aalst. The road was single lane and had a decent shoulder - but it also had a truly useless "cycle path" alongside consisting of the pedestrian pavement with a few signs put up. It was punctuated with lampposts and bus stops, and had a totally uneven surface, so obviously the road was preferable.

The traffic didn't seem to take too kindly to this, so I had a fraught few miles into Aalst with honking traffic and me trying to cause maximum annoyance by beaming and waving at them like they were my long long friends. It's childish but it is also quite amusing. I can find nothing to suggest I wasn't allowed to cycle on that road - it wasn't exactly a motorway.

At any rate, I was glad to get into the centre of Aalst, where I took another break.

Leave the New Cat alone! Town centre of Aalst
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From here I would cross the backroads to the amusingly named village of Asse, from which I'd have a good run avoiding the E40 and E19 ring road around Bruxelles. Things were much more easy-going and navigation went surprisingly smoothly.

Jeeps in the countryside
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An old windmill
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Crossing the Brussels "M25" equivalent and seeing the city for the first time
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Before I knew it the dense urban area was around me and I was passing through the peripheral districts of Bruxelles. I kept navigating South East by compass, and didn't have too much trouble finding the centre.

Bruxelles neighborhoods
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Rather impressive architecture around a police station
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I checked into my budget hotel South West of the grand place. It wasn't a bad place for the price, but didn't have anywhere for my bike. I was feeling pretty blasé so just locked it up outside and went for an explore.

Another sweet tower
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The grand place
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Still a better bike than mine
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More Oxford-esque stone
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Seems an elaborate way to relax
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Sections of the Berlin wall. I'm sure JFK would appreciate the sentiment, if not the likeness
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I went for a wonder around the European parliament. It's always quite impressive (if empty) so I tend to seek it out any time I'm in Brussels, but I also had a special mission: to attempt to get into the Wiertz museum. 

Wiertz was a Belgian 19th century artist of the patriotic battle-scene school. He also had a taste for the macabre, so produced lots of wonderfully gothic skull-filled still lifes. In his hay-day he was considered to be the greatest Belgian artist of his generation: so when he made a deal with the government that he would turn over all his largest canvases to them, on the only conditions that they display them in perpetuity in a dedicated museum, they were quick to take him up on the offer.

Unfortunately history, and critical opinion, has not been kind to Wiertz. He now is considered thoroughly mediocre: but the Belgian government are still bound to keep a museum dedicated to his work going. It's housed right next to the EU parliament, where it opens for the exact minimum hours they can get away with. Unfortunately this meant it was shut when I got there.

These photos are rather poignant given recent political events.

The EU parliament
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Europa, and the EU parliament, are actually on a street named after Wiertz
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The Wiertz museum keeps very irregular opening hours
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Back of the EU parliament
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Brussels is surprisingly imperial: almost like a miniature Paris. The grand architecture looks great, if slightly cold and imposing, at night.

Grand boulevard
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Impressive multicolour fountain
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I had some dinner, and then decided I'd earned a few Belgian beers. First I hit up the chess café Le Greenwich, full of people concentrating over the game and simultaneously drinking a surprising amount of alcohol. A very cool place to have a drink. My guide lauds it for its "fabulous antique ceramic urinal", but I don't honestly remember that.

I then moved on to a wonderful, cavern-like place near my hotel (possibly Monk). This had a fantastic (and good value) range of Trappist beers on offer. Right off the bat I got chatting with the very friendly and jovial Vladimir, who was a professor of Russian up at the university. We had a good couple of drinks together, and I told him about my plan to get to Luxembourg in broken French (and at this point, broken English). He gave me his address and made me promise to send him a postcard once I got there. As we wobbled back up to the street, he seemed very insistent I should be careful on the mean streets of Brussels. Needless to say I got back to my hotel without mishap (and my bike was still there, too).

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Today's ride: 64 km (40 miles)
Total: 198 km (123 miles)

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