Since we arrived in Italy on 13th July, we’d cycled through Italy (obvs!), Slovenia, Austria, Italy again, Switzerland, France, Germany (for about 24 hours), and Luxembourg. Cycle paths were plentiful, the roads we rode were (almost entirely) quiet with (almost exclusively) patient, courteous drivers. While there were times that weren’t entirely idyllic (looking at you, Lake Lucerne – you might be darn pretty but that road is LOUD!) we felt like we’d been pretty well treated by Europe. Could it get any better? While we were in the area, we felt obliged to head North to the much lauded ‘cycling mecca’ of Holland to find out what all the fuss was about. Actually, we only managed to spend a measly three nights in that particular country due to poor planning on my part, but it turns out that Belgium has very much followed suit with its cycling provision. Who knew! Not we 😉
There are cycle paths pretty much everywhere. Traffic free along canals and railway lines. Along the sides of any road bigger than a residential back street. And they actually guide you around junctions and roundabouts without chucking you back into the traffic and requiring you to ‘nip across’ several lanes just to make your turn (UK cyclists are probably nodding their heads and smiling wryly at this point). It’s pretty flipping great. And, of course, everyone cycles.
That’s all great, obviously, but the really cool thing which you may not have heard about is the clever navigation system. Forget, for a minute, that you have a fancypants GPS which does everything for you and imagine the old world of paper maps. Consider for a moment just how many times you would need to look at the map if you’d cycled all the way across Europe. You’d be pretty happy to have a break from that!!
In both Belgium and Holland, some clever person came up with the ‘node’ (knooppunt) system. It’s genius. Imagine a random point in the middle of the countryside. Let’s call it node 33. All cycle paths and cycle-friendly roads which lead to node 33 have signs which say ’33 this way’. Now imagine a second point a little way away from node 33. Let’s say it’s node number 70. If you get to node 33, there will be a sign saying ’70 this way’. And so on.
So, you look on the cycling map from the comfort of your home, and string together all the points which link together to take you to your destination. And you write them down, eg 3, 5, 10, 32 etc. And then you get on your bike and follow the numbers! Easy peasy.
In this digital age, naturally there is a website to help you plan your route in advance. You can still be old school and write the numbers down (as Ed did for a couple of days!) Or you can plan your route using the system, and download it as a GPS file (as I did as backup ;))
Sounds a bit too good to be true?? Well there was a time when our route required us to cross a river using a ferry…..which wasn’t running.
Fortunately, there’s always a handy map to help you re-route.
Problem solved! Albeit with a slight detour.
One area of our European adventure which could have been better is most certainly the camping experience. Don’t get me wrong – there are LOTS of campsites. Mostly good, sometimes great, and often cheap (especially municipal campsites in France – check them out if you’re looking for a budget option. Our most recent stay set us back just 9.50 euros for both of us). But for someone who really does struggle with restricted personal space (a trait only discovered on this trip), the noise and the hoards of summer holidaymakers really did detract from the otherwise therapeutic outdoor experience. Many cycle tourists choose to wild camp but, as I’ve mentioned before, I am very square and far too worried about ‘getting into trouble’, given that it’s illegal….well….pretty much everywhere. So with that as an absolute last resort, I suffered greatly until the end of peak season, at which point I breathed an enormous sigh of relief, and Ed found his life was suddenly marginally easier 😉
I’m rambling. But here’s the thing. A big highlight of our time in both New Zealand and Australia were the plentiful opportunities for quiet, rustic camping. Who needs facilities when you have the place to yourself??
Sigh. I knew Ed would love to wild camp, yet the prospect made me horribly anxious. On the other hand, camping with noisy company was likely to drive me entirely round the bend. I felt backed into a corner (first world probs, hey!) until I discovered the concept of ‘pole camping’.
Pole camping. What on earth???? Well let me enlighten you. In both Belgium and Holland, various organisations who manage areas of woodland have set aside small areas for use as informal campsites. At the most basic level, they consist of a pole which marks the centre of a 10m radius within which you may camp. If you get lucky, there might be ‘perks’ such as a groundwater pump, a tent platform, a fire pit or even a toilet. They are absolutely, 100% free. And rely on campers being responsible, eg taking their rubbish home and not having fires when they shouldn’t…..alas we saw evidence of both offences, and implore people to please follow the rules and keep these places open for everyone to enjoy! Thank you 🙂
We planned our route through Belgium and Holland based entirely on locations of these ‘bivakzones’ or ‘paalkampeerterreinen’ (apologies to my Dutch friends for guaranteed spelling inaccuracies!). And it was GREAT. Five sites, with three in an uninterrupted run. We felt like real adventurers again 🙂
It was just great. The icing on the cake and probably the highlight of our ride through ‘the low countries’. All credit to Travelling Two and Mom Goes Camping, whose excellent posts alerted me to this great opportunity!! If you’d like to follow in our footsteps and take advantage of this great ‘wild’ camping opportunity in Belgium and Holland, we found this site to be the most useful. It’s in Dutch but open it in Chrome and it will translate it for you 🙂
While Belgium and Holland may not have the wow-factor scenery to compete with the likes of Italy and Slovenia, they certainly have a lot to offer the cyclist. The locals are very friendly, to the extent that we could barely stop without someone chatting to us (hi to Dirk, Francois, and the other nice man whose name I didn’t catch!) We’ll choose to overlook the occasion where someone reported us to the police for camping illegally….actually we were just drying the tent out….fortunately the nice police lady didn’t take much convincing, given that it was about 1 in the afternoon!
They also have lovely old towns, beer and stroopwaffels.
So get on over here!
Spoiler: I’m writing this from CANTERBURY, UK. Yep, we’re back in blighty!! It’s nearly over….not quite sure how we feel about that…..