Friday, August 25th
I bought original flavour porridge which as I discovered this morning tastes of literally nothing except the faint trace of every pot of oatmeal I’ve cooked and/or burnt before it. A dollop of peanut butter doesn’t help. I’d almost forgotten what this was like but each spoonful is a reminder of the sacrifices you make when you exchange some comforts for freedoms.
I feel refreshed despite some lingering tiredness and after waking up at 6.30, cooking the breakfast which tasted of less than nothing as a duck wanders between the tents, I’m cycling out of the campsite towards a ferry port at Maassluis. It’s warming up already but the air is fresh and the cycling paths which lead the way to the ferry are quiet, cutting a route inland past greenhouses, sheep and neat suburban tower blocks with colourful facades.
I pull up to the port and a man with a thick gold necklace and pink polo shirt is waiting by the light. I ask him if this is the ferry to Rozenburg and he says yes in the most Dutch way I can imagine. We chat for a little as the boat pulls into the grey dock area. On board a small collection of cyclists gather at one end as a large cruise ship passes us which seems to capture the attention of everyone on board.
Two guys wheel their bikes on and I sense they are English so ask them where they are going. The crossing takes just minutes which is long enough for me to realise they are very nice but a few minutes is all I need or want to share with them. I know we’re on the same North Sea route so quickly plan an escape. Off the boat I say I’m going to get a coffee and will catch them up and I cycle away before they can catch me.
The cycle path continues over a bridge past wind turbines and industrial chimneys of some kind, before looping around down to the edge of the water, alongside a river where people holidaying have small well kept boats moored.
I stop at a supermarket in one of several tiny towns with cobbled stone streets and buy enough food to last me the day – an optimistic 90 or so miles all the way to Bruges, Belgium. The supermarket has free coffee in tiny cups and I drink mine outside as I fold the baguette I’ve bought in two and tuck the cheese and jam into my panniers.
From here it’s more cycle path which begins to busy with cyclists, most at least twice my age. It’s very pleasant if a little unremarkable, which perhaps appeals to the aging European cyclist. In many ways the ease of it, the flatness, the bridges and rivers, all remind me of Korea, but minus any degree of strangeness and without my curiosity.
Fields of cows and cabbages pass, the occasional pretty town or collection of small shops. Then I cross a large dam alongside a busy two lane road. I’m unsure if I’m in Belgium or Holland but really it doesn’t matter very much.
I find myself on a path hugging the coast again then cross onto another island called Zelande via a raised concrete wall which overlooks a road which is lined with camper vans and people sitting in deckchairs admiring the view of the sea and the sand. It’s inexplicable to me why anyone would want to sit at the side of this sad bit of connecting road in the name of fun or relaxation.
On the other side I stop at a beachy cafe and drink a coffee on the deck looking at how far I’ve got left to go.
I wander briefly on to the beach and rain starts to fall, but it passes by the time i’ve put my rain jacket on and I set off again under clear skies, some muggy headwinds, and a few more brief rainfalls.
And so the afternoon continues like the morning as I cross through what I later find out is named Zeeland (literally sea-land) a province which consists of a number of islands and peninsulas. Everything between mainland Holland and Belgium.
The landscape varies between windswept dunes dotted with wind turbines along concrete banks, idyllic and busy beaches, clusters of cafes where the smell of french fries permeates, pretty wooded areas, and a cobble stone towns with fancy restaurants and ice cream dispensaries. The bike path cuts a route through all this, sometimes right along the sea wall, sometimes through the middle of the island on forest tracks.
With a long way to go to Bruges I keep going and resist the temptation of the beaches and the sea and the ice cream and fries. I stop once for coffee at Duinoord – one of the more upmarket tourist hubs, full with people outside cafes on restaurants on rows of chairs facing the pavement watching life pass by in the sun and heat.
Eventually I reach the outskirts of Vlissingen, the last town on the final island of the chain heading West. It’s also perhaps the ugliest place i’ve seen today but in the sun and good weather nothing looks too bad.
I follow the last section of sea wall around past lighthouses, past a flock of sheep, until I reach the port.
As I wheel my bike inside i’m greeted by one of the English guys from the ferry in the morning. His name is Nigel. I knew he would be called Nigel, or Clive. I buy a coke and a ticket and we take the 23 minute ferry over to Breskens where we split off again, him to a hotel in the town, and me to Bruges, still another 20 or 25 miles away.
It’s actually quite nice to share the short trip, though i’m glad I wasn’t stuck with him all day, i’m too tired to make much conversation, especially the kind of small talk which a certain type of middle aged English person – a person like Nigel – can excel in.
Off the boat it’s along the coast again, more sand dunes, a group of people practicing some kind of yoga or tai-chi on the beach in slow motion. It’s getting late but I should make it before dusk.
I cut in land after 10 miles, then follow a bike path heading directly straight into Bruges, firstly alongside the road, and then for the last 10 miles along the Damme Canal – a narrow long strip of water lined with tall trees and reeds on the banks. It’s probably the most picturesque approach to any city i’ve had in the last few thousand miles, especially in the evening light which is now around 30 minutes from fading.
Groups of racing cyclists do laps around either side of the water, and two or three clearly insane people are swimming lengths through the murky reeds.
The canal continues through into Bruges, but I turn off as it hits the edge of the city, and make a short detour to the hostel where i’ve booked a room for the night. I arrive just before the sun sets. It’s part bar/pub, part hostel and has people outside drinking and enjoying the evening.
I check in, shower, and go to the bar and drink two large beers. I’ve cycled over a hundred miles and it feels deserved. I start talking to a young Australian guy and a girl from Berlin who are 18 and 19 respectively. The phrase “i’m too old for this shit” springs to mind. Most people in hostels in Mexico and Central America were my age or older, but here i’m definitely in the upper age bracket. A question on the check in form ‘Are you over 30?’ confirmed this.
But we spend the evening drinking together and it’s good. We venture briefly out to see if there is anything more interesting happening in the Bruges night, but or less it’s hiding down a darkened alley, in a basement somewhere, there isn’t. We go back and reluctantly go to bed.
The windows are open in the 16 bed dorm room, and noise from the drunken streets metres below floods in, mixing with the sound of snores from a bed nearby, muffled only slightly by the curtain which surrounds my bed. But somehow i’m able to tune it out as I lie on top of my bunk, wondering a little how I managed to exist like this for the first few months of the year, hostels seem unbearable places now. With that thought I fall asleep.