Change was necessary. The ship announced that all must use a bus to get out of the harbor and that the bus would take us to the town center/train station at Zeebrugge. We followed instructions and exited the bus at a church across from the Zeebrugge train station, about three miles from the pier. The bus attendant advised that we should take the road immediately fronting the church all the way to the town of Brugge, ten miles away, and that we could ride around Brugge or take a canal boat ride thereafter. We found bike trails the whole way. It appears that bikes even take precedence for money in Belgium and that bike paths have precedence over cars on almost all the roads. The network of bike paths was amazing.
We started off from the train station and filled the tires at a gas station about a mile up the road. The Belgian air pumps were unusual and it took me a few minutes to realize that one bar is 17.7 pounds per square inch of air and that 3.5 bars was about 55 psi as I desired. The bike paths are marked in red on both sides of the road and are totally adequate. Bikes had precedence at traffic circles and the drivers were very polite. I loved riding in Belgium. The day was colder than the day before in Le Havre, 50 degrees Fahrenheit. We were dressed as the day before with both in shorts, I in a sweatshirt, and Marilyn in her Alaska parka and gloves. The sky was overcast on our way to Brugge and the wind was slightly behind us. On the way back, the sun came out, but the wind in our face made it feel colder and my hands on the handlebars were uncomfortable. By the time we reached Brugge, I was thoroughly chilled and needed a respite in a restaurant to get comfortable again.
This part of Belgium reminded me of the horse country in Virginia outside of Washington DC.
The area is clearly very prosperous with clean modern houses, some very large, and gardens aplenty. Marilyn marveled at the tulips. This is a farming area with cows and sheep, goats and horses. The fields were beautiful. Some were already planted and green with growth up to 6-12 inches already. The animals in the field were very well kept and comfortable. Most of the cows were lying in the fields and watched us as we passed. The smell of farms was definite but even struck me as a clean smell here. There appeared groups of houses on the road after every two or three farms along the way. I don’t know whether it is the custom to live around the fields or to live in one of the groups of houses nearby. But some of the houses were also very large, nearly mansions with circular driveways. I believe the cattle, sheep, and goats were used for milk and wool and a few may have been used for meat, but I don’t know how the horses were used. A few canals and small waterways crossed the highway 371 here but no bridges were necessary except for the major highway crossing. Even here, a bike path accompanied the road as it went over the overpass.
This is windmill country. We spotted a dozen windmills in one area near the harbor and passed another dozen along the road about halfway between Zeebrugge and Brugge. These were slow-rotating monsters with three bladed rotors which came no closer to the ground than 30 feet. I could imagine birds ramming into them accidentally, but these windmills would not tear apart a bird like an aircraft propeller. I didn’t hear any noise coming from the rotors either. I sort of liked their overall appearance.
We passed a few small groups of stores along the way and even one large shopping center with a sporting goods store as its anchor. I stopped for a bathroom break and found this to be the largest sporting goods store I had ever been in. It even had a bicycle repair area. The bathrooms were also interesting. There was a single entrance for both men and women into the washroom area. Separate doors inside led to three different unisex bathrooms, one for physically challenged people. A woman walked out of the room I chose to use. I wasn’t uncomfortable with this design.
The road to Brugge was 10 miles long. The urban area around Zeebrugge lasted about a mile and the urban area around Brugge began about three miles out with commercial buildings gradually becoming more prevalent. We entered a new urban area about a half mile from the city center. Here, there was construction ongoing and we followed the road to the right along a canal we needed to cross before a resident stopped us and directed us to a personal/bike bridge.
This was an interesting affair with thirty steps leading up to the crossover in three stages. Accompanying the steps was a track for the wheels of the bike so that one needn’t carry the bike up but could push it instead. I went up first and instructed Marilyn to wait for me to come back to push her bike up for her. When I got to the top, I turned to find Marilyn walking up herself and a man beside her pushing her bike up for her. At the top, we followed him across the canal as he pushed Marilyn’s bike, then turned down another version of steps and bike tracks. At the bottom, he continued along the walls of a building for 100 feet or so to come back at the extension of the original road we were riding on. He instructed us to go straight ahead to a government building then negotiate our way through a path around it and on another half mile to the market at the center of the town of Brugge. We thanked him and followed his instructions into the old town.
Here, we found an older part of town with narrow, cobbled streets and a mix of stores, ranging from posh high end retail establishments to more quaint, older stores like apothecaries and antique stores. The town was built around several squares; one with a huge church with stands set up for some special celebration in the coming weekend. Horses and carriages waited for tourist passengers. We saw at least a dozen chocolate establishments. A few cars negotiated the narrow one lane streets but bikes were nevertheless well tolerated on the streets busy with people walking.
We parked the bikes at the first square and checked menus at several of the dozen restaurants. We chose Brasserie Raymond for lunch. It was expensive but very satisfying. I was very cold from the ride and took ten minutes to warm up. The wait staff bustled around us with menus, bread baskets, and olive assortments. I chose the local Brugge triple beer while Marilyn had the house Merlot wine. The people around us were well dressed and willing to spend money. On one side, both patrons had whole lobster. On the other side, two women had the house special of soup followed by spareribs. A father and his 14 year old daughter next to them had steaming bowls of soup followed by fish for one and meatloaf for the other. What we thought was wine in a glass for the young girl turned out to be cola. Everyone else had wine from bottles and carafes. The waiters sliced the bread for the tables at a block with the knife affixed like a paper cutter. Special house pate was delivered to accompany the bread along with butter and a very fruity olive oil. We first ordered a Spanish ham and salami plate along with an asparagus plate with shrimp, mussels, and scallops. We turned off the asparagus plate when the ham plate turned out to contain more than we could finish. The food was excellent. We finished with a Dame Blanc dessert with hot chocolate sauce. I licked the spilled chocolate sauce off my forearm while the women at the next table recommended the Chocolate Light shop as the best in the world. I went to the rest room to complete the removal of chocolate from my forearm and met the gentleman from the table on our other side. He checked that I was an American and then told me of his only trip to America in the early 1950s when he took training in mine warfare in the Boston area. We had a pleasant further exchange for about five minutes and left after several handshakes.
We unlocked the bikes and followed the instructions to the Main Square and then beyond to Chocolate Light. Here, we found a serious chocolatier which sold chunk chocolate from individual countries along with truffles and filled fine chocolates along with chocolate designs in pure chocolate, including ones shaped in letters of the alphabet, special brick sets, etc. We chose several 4 inch letters of the alphabet for our family and a brick set for ourselves. This, too, was not inexpensive. But the chocolate coins we took for tastes were excellent.
We then remounted the bikes and headed back to the Zeebrugge train station to meet the bus. The sun was out, but the cold wind made the trip less comfortable. We stopped at a post office to mail the chocolate to our family. The post office provided a box but would accept only Visa credit cards or Euros, neither of which we had. My attempt to acquire Euros from a nearby teller machine was unsuccessful so we retrieved the chocolate and left unfulfilled. We argued a bit on the way back, each pointing responsibility at the other, but forgot our enmity by the time we met the bus.
At the bus we waited with several other cruise passengers. At least three of them sought information about the bikes and how they could emulate us on their next cruise. Back at the ship, another set of fellow passengers sought the same info. I am convinced that bicyclecruising is a growing concern.