Belgium and France
After leaving Amsterdam I decided to head towards Paris, and biked through Belgium on the way – passing through beautiful and scenic cities like Antwerpen, Brussels, Namur, and Dinant, before entering France. After being in Paris for quite a while, I followed trails going along different rivers, with one main direction and destination in mind: South to the Mediterranean!
Crossing into Belgium
My first couple of weeks of riding in Belgium would turn out much like my time Holland – rainy and cold, but with an extra twist to it. I ended up numerous times riding on very bad forest tracks. Some were virtually non-existent, being completely overgrown with plants and blocked by fallen trees. Others were just deep muddy tire tracks, from wood cutting trucks, that due to the big amounts of rain on a daily basis were more like riding through a swamp than anything else. Some tracks were even so deep in mud, that they were impassible, causing me to drag my bike through thorn-filled bushes and stinging nettles. I’m not sure whether it was due to a lack of judgment when entering these routes, or my navigation apps not being accurate, that caused me to end up on these bad routes so many times. Most times I would probably have been better off heading back to find a better route, but a combination of stubbornness and optimism kept me going even when I was really struggling in the mud. Although it was extremely frustrating to be on these tracks at times, it made me appreciate better routes much more, and for me facing challenges and overcoming them, is an essential part of any adventure.
On my first day in Belgium, as the sun was setting, I was in the Suburbs of Antwerpen, in a very wealthy area, and not knowing where to sleep I tried my luck and knocked on the door of a huge castle-like mansion with a big garden. Although I thought that a rich family were the most unlikely to open their doors to me, I thought it would be a good way to challenge my prejudices – which it definitely did. The very friendly family living there let me set up my tent in their back yard, and even invited me in for a couple of beers and to watch the big football (soccer) game between Belgium and Hungary that evening. While I was cycling through Belgium the country had a huge football fever, because they were doing exceptionally well at that year’s European Championship. People had decorated their cars and houses with lots of flags, and on game nights lots of people were dressed in the flag colors.
After leaving Antwerpen it didn’t take me long to reach Brussels. After a couple of hours of riding I was in the heart of the capital of Europe. Brussels struck me as a very international city, with a huge mix of different cultures, languages and nationalities. Brussels had many beautiful sights to offer, and I enjoyed exploring the city. Unfortunately Brussels was still burdened by the terror act that took place at Brussels airport just a few months earlier, which meant that there were huge amounts of armed policemen and soldiers all over town.
Riding along the Meuse river
While riding through Namur I coincidently found a great and scenic bicycle greenway going from Namur through Dinant to Charlesville-Mézières in France. The greenway followed alongside the Meuse river, that carves its way though the Ardennes mountains, passing small quaint villages. One of the bigger and very picturesque towns along the way was Dinant. Squeezed in between the cliffs and the Meuse, it isn’t very big, but has a cozy atmosphere and some nice things to see – like the Notra Dame church of Dinant and some amazing caves that go deep into the cliffs.
When I arrived in Paris I was soaked from the rain and pretty exhausted after covering more than 350 kilometers in 3 days, and not having a rest day since leaving Amsterdam. Despite this I was extremely happy, as reaching Paris was a major milestone for me, and something I had been looking forward to since I started my trip. The first thing I did in Paris was to ride across town to the Arc de Triomphe, and get a picture of me and my wooden shoes, as I had promised my Dutch friends (2016: Europe trip – Part 1/4).
Riding around Paris on bike proved to be a bit of a challenge. Biking conditions weren’t too good, and with fairly wide panniers, that also had a large water bottle on one side and a pair of big wooden shoes on the other, was quite difficult. Many people (especially tourists) would randomly walk onto the bicycle lane or open their car door without looking, which caused me to have a couple of minor crashes while I was in Paris.
Last time I visited Paris was about 8 years ago. While the appearance of the city hadn’t changed much, the mentality was a completely different. The city was still very much affected by the terrorist attacks that had occurred about 7 months prior to my arrival. The mentality of people in Paris reminded me of Brussels, but even more intense. There was a huge presence of heavily armed police officers and soldiers at most major tourist attractions and busy locations around town. Riding around town with my panniers, I was approached several times by suspicious soldiers or policemen carrying big guns when stopping to get a picture at a sight or landmark. On my last night in Paris I got to experience the Bastille day celebrations in the Champ de Mars park next to the Eiffel tower. Al though a great experience, this showcased even more police presence with several visitation zones around the centre of Paris.
After leaving Paris I set my course south, and for a big part of the way I followed along different rivers. I started by following the Seine going out of Paris, and rode along the Canal du Loing until I reached the Loire river around the city Briare.
After leaving the family I continued along the Loire river for some days, till I reached Digoin. From there I headed west towards the city of Mâcon and the Saône river. Riding from Digoin to Mâcon wasn’t very far, but turned out to be pretty tough. The terrain was very hilly and despite not going very high there were a lot of steep climbs, forcing me to walk a lot with my bike. Also the temperatures started to get quite high – between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius. Luckily there were some great views, and I got to stay with a cool Warmshowers host in a beautiful little town called Cluny. From Mâcon I was able to avoid most hills by following the Saône south to Lyon.
On Sundays finding food was often a struggle for me. Most supermarkets were closed on Sundays, and some smaller towns seemed completely shut down, with almost everything being closed. In Denmark most supermarkets and shops have very long opening hours even on Sundays. Once I learned that it was common, in most places in France and Belgium, for supermarkets to be closed on Sundays, I would normally buy extra food Saturday, and carry it with me. But while on the road it’s easy to loose track of time and the day of the week, so quite a few times I forgot, and didn’t realize it was Sunday until I went to a supermarket, and saw that it was closed.
The l’Ardeche and Rhône regions
From Lyon I followed a bicycle route going along the Rhône river all the way south to the Mediterranean. The route was part of the EuroVelo bicycle route network, which meant there were lots of signs to follow on the route and riding conditions were great. If you’re unfamiliar with the EuroVelo network and you’re going to ride in Europe, it’s definitely worth checking out (http://www.eurovelo.com/). Riding on the Eurovelo route I met more fellow bicycle tourers in a few days, than I had met on my entire trip so far. Within a couple of hours after leaving Lyon I had started riding with a brother and a sister from Belgium who were also headed south. This was the first time on my trip I had met bike tourers who were headed in the same direction as me for more than just a few hours. We spent some days riding together, and took a days detour west into the Ardèche mountains. Riding and wild camping together with others was a nice change for me, and especially made the time around camp more fun.
On the first evening camping along the Rhône river I decided to go for a quick swim. Although the water looked quite tempting, it was actually an incredibly dirty experience. From it’s spring in the Alps, the Rhône runs through some big cities like Genève and Lyon, which made it quite dirty and filled with trash.
Because of bad weather the Belgian siblings I was riding with decided to take the train, and I continued on by myself. The next day it didn’t take long before I was riding with a bunch of other bike tourers.
Riding together with a peer from northern France i visited a old town called Viviers, which turned out to be one of my favorite places on my trip. It a had nice laid back vibe to it, without a lot of tourist buzz. Walking around town was almost like entering a time capsule, with lots of buildings dating way back to 12th century.
Towards the Mediterranean
Since leaving Lyon I had had several different travel partners. And although I enjoyed the company, riding with others meant that I was going quite a bit slower than I wanted to. After parting ways with my latest travel partner at Montelimar, I decided to skip the greenways and go as direct as possible towards the Sea to make up for the previous days being slower. This day I ended up riding more than 150 km, but after exiting Pont-Saint-Esprit I rode almost entirely on the highway, with only a single car lane and cars passing with +80 km/h. I made it to just a few kilometers outside Aigues-Mortes (and less than 10 km from the sea), and spent the night camping by the river.
Reaching the Mediterranean was the next big milestone for me after Paris, and I was extremely happy to have made it so far, and enjoyed some time to relax at the beach. Arriving at the Mediterranean was a bit of a culture shock. After riding through mostly rural areas with very few or no tourist, I was suddenly surrounded by tons of charter tourist and a society that revolved around that industry.
From the beach town Le Grande-Motte i followed along the coast outside Montpellier towards Sète and Agde. One section of the road going to Sète was a one-lane dirt road sorrounded closely by water on both sides. Before entering the road there was a sign showing when the road was safe to ride, as it was flooded at certain times during the day. After reaching Agde I decided to ride a bit away from the coast, as the infrastructure around the beaches and harbors was quite annoying. I passed through Béziers and then headed south towards the Pyrenees.