Biking across countries

Biking across countries

Ghent is a beautiful little university town in Belgium. Having settled down here to start the next phase of my life (a Masters in Photonics, incidentally from the interview that happened during this post), all I could think of was how close Ghent was to the border between Belgium and Netherlands. “Can we really bike to another country?!” was the reaction from each of my newly made friends Imad, Esrom and Tanbir. “Yes! We’re just 20 kms from the border!” was enough to get them excited for the trip.
Saturday was the day of choice for the ride as Sunday would be a convenient rest-day after the ride. Unfortunately, our Saturday turned out to be a wet one. Since it rains pretty much everyday in Belgium, we chose to go ahead nevertheless! We wanted to make sure our tyres had enough pressure before embarking on our journey. Ghent is very cycle-friendly and the corporation has placed bicycle pumps at different places in the town. Our bad luck continued as the pump closest to us was out of order. And being the weekend, pretty much every other option was closed. As we were randomly biking around looking for any clues, we came across an old gentleman working away in his workshop. Very eager to practise my Dutch, I went and asked him if he knew any bicycle pumps in the neighbourhood. Strangely enough the man spoke French, not Dutch. We resorted to the universal language of signs and it apparently worked. He had a pump in his own workshop and he generously filled up all our tyres. We thanked him with a Merci! and wide smiles and we set off!

We quickly got out of the city and we were racing down the John Kennedy laan towards Netherlands. After about 7 kms, Tanbir’s cycle had a flat tyre. We had a quick meeting and decided it was best to  turn back. I must admit we were glad to return since the weather wasn’t at all enjoyable. Our trip ended as quickly as it began. But the story doesn’t end here!

Two Saturdays later we started off once again! But this time we were only three in number since Esrom had other things to do. This time we made sure that we were better planned. We had our bikes ready the day before and we also had a new destination – Terneuzen, because we wanted to get more out of our trip than just a visit to the border! Ternuezen is a town on the shore of the estuary of the river Schelde where it flows into the North Sea. The temperature was a perfect 17 degrees Celsius and the sun was up and shining brightly.

Cycling out from the medieval streets in Ghent into the industrial surroundings around the port of Ghent with smoke billowing from factories and busy trains shuttling goods, was a delightful little time travel! After around 10 kms though, we were bored by the monotonous surroundings and we decide to turn into the border village of Zelzate. The village bore a sleepy Saturday-morning look and everything was closed except a family-run Frituur (fries shop). After a delicious snack of Belgian fries, we raced off to the border.

At the border!

At the border!

With all three of us hailing from the Indian subcontinent, we weren’t very happy calling this a border. The Schengen borders, or rather the non-existence of the borders was fascinating! All there was, was just a board saying ‘Netherlands’. A quick photo shoot and then we crossed over to the other side of the border. The Dutch government thought bikers would not enjoy biking along a boring highway and made them meander through villages instead. And right they were! Through we were diverted away from our planned route, we quite enjoyed biking through the countryside. We biked through paved and unpaved roads, passing through pretty villages, greenhouses, green fields and of course windmills – lots of them, both traditional and modern. Since we didn’t have a map of this new route, we carefully followed the road signs and reached Ternuezen safely around four o’ clock in the afternoon. We grabbed some lunch and went to the sea front.

Bike path at Terneuzen

Bike path at Terneuzen

The sea front was beautiful with a cycling track right along the coastline. We had a happy picnic on green grass with a great view of the blue waters of the estuary and seagulls hovering around us. Taking advantage of the long hours of sunshine, we stayed back and enjoyed the sea breeze well past 6 pm.

On our way back, we were busy discussing our wonderful day and we didn’t pay much attention to the road signs and got lost. With darkness approaching, we started to argue which was the shorter way to get back on track. Helpful locals guided us back to the border, and we had a feeling of being back home when we saw the board that said België. The lights on the highway switched on suddenly as if welcoming us back home. As we rode back to Ghent, I noticed the Big Dipper in the sky. For the first time in my life, owing to the northerly latitude, I was actually seeing it as a dipper and not an inverted dipper that one would see from India.

The big dipper

The big dipper

The terrain is fairly flat in Northern Belgium and Netherlands, which makes even long rides fairly easy and non-tiring! After having pedalled almost 80 kms, we reached the familiar streets of Ghent and hi5ed ourselves goodbye for having cycled to the Netherlands!

More photos from the trips : 

First unsuccessful attempt

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