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Belgium-Germany-Luxembourg day 7 (2 June 2024)

Last day, and fortunately the rain had finally faded. Away from Mons to the artificial lake Le Grand Large and then along the Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes canal – flat but into the wind – then alongside the river Escaut (later known as the Schelde, which eventually reaches Antwerp) and into Tournai. A brief sight of the five towers of Tournai cathedral from Place Paul-Émile Janson (named after the Belgian prime minster, who died in Buchenwald in 1944), then out of the city past the Pont des Trous (Bridge of Holes). Continued along the bank of the Escaut/Schelde, crossing the Wallonia/Flanders boundary repeatedly in various places, where it rather strangely wanders from side to side of the river, then along the Bossuit-Kortrijk canal and permanently into Flanders. Finally, to Kortrijk railway station to get the train back to De Panne via Lichtervelde (again only €8,30 plus €4,00 bike supplement). Rode along the coast to Dunkerque ferry port, maddeningly with blue sky and sunshine for the first time since leaving UK shores. While waiting for the ferry, I chatted to a lady from Denmark who was 30 days into the North Sea cycle route, having already ridden through Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and France, and who hoped to complete the circuit in 100 days, including a connecting flight from Shetland to Norway - absolute respect.  Distance to Kortrijk 93 km, elevation 209 m (cycle.travel estimate 105 m).

Belgium-Germany-Luxembourg day 6 (1 June 2024)

Rain again in the morning, and back along the side of the Meuse before switching to another adapted railway line, now RAVeL L150A, which climbs gradually to Mettet through some ghost stations and a red-illuminated tunnel, before descending to rejoin Eurovelo Route 3 alongside the river Sambre at Tamines. Most of the rest of the tour then used canal or canalised river towpaths, but these are not as we know them in the UK: the canals are very wide and the towpath is tarmac or concrete service road. These are also working industrial canals with large barges moving heavy materials such as stone/gravel and periodically there are loading docks where the cycle path is briefly routed around. At Châtelet there were construction works blocking the route and a few vague signs zip-tied to lampposts to take you away from the towpath. I had hoped to cross the river to visit Maison Magritte, childhood home of surrealist painter René Magritte, but the small bridge was also blocked.

Anyway, onwards and towards Charleroi. A few odd conical hills could be seen through the mist on the approach to the city: these are mounds of geological spoil resulting from coal mining activity, but have gradually become covered in trees and other vegetation. Fourteen former coal mines surround Charleroi, and the many artificial hills have been described somewhat imaginatively as “Like beads of a necklace, the terrils delicately encircle the city” (The Architectural Review, 2018). Extraordinarily, there is a website, www.destinationterrils.eu, dedicated to these industrial remains. The website includes a “find a slag heap” feature (isn’t this just “the internet”?), although it does sound better as “trouver un terril” in the region’s language. Into the centre of Charleroi at Quai Arthur Rimbaud and across Pont Roi Baudouin with its two bronze statues by Constantin Meunier (Mineur accroupi and Forgeron au repos). Stopped at the Central railway station for coffee and food and some shelter from the rain.

Leaving Charleroi and departing from Eurovelo Route 3 onto RAVeL W4, the route headed north alongside the wide Brussels-Charleroi canal where the towpath runs between the canal and the railway sidings and is quite isolated but felt perfectly safe. Discretionary valour: I opted not to explore the feature that appears on the cycle.travel map as “creepy tunnel” – a narrow unlit tunnel that goes under the railway line just south of Roux station.

At Seneffe I switched to the Canal de Centre, but I found that there was some work underway to construct a new loading dock (Quai public de Manage): no signs, just the towpath abruptly sliced and had to pick my way over building site mud to get to the next bridge. Ah well, the bike was going to need a clean anyway. North of La Louvière the Canal du Centre splits: the old canal is to the south, while the wider new (2002) canal is a little further north. Following the Canal du Centre Historique for three kilometres took me to the first of the historic canal lifts (Ascenseur № 1) at Houdeng-Gœgnies, a 15.4 metre double tank lift built in 1888 by the British company Stansfield & Clark, and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Doubling back, and continuing along the new canal brought me to the towering 73.15 metre Strépy-Thieu boat lift which can raise barges of up to 1350 tonnes – I watched it lifting one small cruise boat, the machinery operating remarkable quietly. The building itself is a tourist attraction (www.canalducentre.be).

Continuing westwards from there, I took a detour to visit the Saint Symphorien WW1 cemetery – unusual in having graves of both British and German soldiers – I am told that there is a particularly poignant memorial service each 11 November with representatives of both German and Commonwealth armed forces. Among the gravestones is that of the first British soldier killed in the conflict: John Parr (aged only 17). He was a bicycle scout sent to Obourg to locate German forces in this early mobile phase before the conflict became entrenched. Another grave is that of George Lawrence Price (from Nova Scotia and later Saskatchewan) who is believed to be the last Commonwealth soldier to be killed (at 10:58 on 11/11/1918). Other memorials are for recipients of the first WW1 Victoria Cross (Maurice Dease) and Iron Cross (Oskar Niemeyer). After the cemetery, the route took me along a lane with the most ancient and vicious cobbles I have yet encountered, impossible to ride, and quite difficult to walk. Finished in Mons, a place I must revisit (ideally for the Ducasse de Mons festivities), its Grand Place really buzzing on the early Saturday evening. Distance 132 km, elevation 356 m (cycle.travel estimate 280 m).

Belgium-Germany-Luxembourg day 5 (31 May 2024)

Raining again at the start, and following the extension of yesterday’s cycle route on a rougher track. Here it is L163 and is designated as “Pré-RAVeL”, a splendid statement of intent: this is not yet to RAVeL standard, but will be. Raining heavily in waves, the route meandered northwards to La Roche en Ardenne, a very pretty town that I would want to revisit in sunnier weather. Stopped and into Bourivain Patisserie/Café for coffee and tarte rhubarbe. Stepped outside to ride on, saw the rain continuing heavily, and shared laughter with the lady in the patisserie as I darted back inside for a second coffee – “bon courage” when I finally did depart. The cycle route crosses the Ourthe several times, then follows the river valley onwards, alas the cycle path beginning to resemble the adjacent river in flowing with rainwater.

Departed from the Ourthe at Hotton, and climbed up out of the village to another military cemetery, the rain fortunately easing briefly. The Hotton Commonwealth cemetery is unusual, as it is from WW2, and there are graves of paratroopers and airmen. At the back of the cemetery is the single memorial to James Short who had been gardener at the cemetery from 1949 until his retirement in 1978.

The raining finally easing, and onwards through Marche en Famenne, then a big climb up and over to Ciney, before a gradual descent to the Meuse valley and Dinant. Crossed the Pont Charles De Gaulle and along Rue Adolphe Sax to La Maison de Monsieur Sax, once home to Antoine-Joseph Sax, the inventor of the saxhorn, saxotromba, saxtuba, and (cue Baker Street) the saxophone; many people stopping to take photos with his statue. Continued along the lively Dinant waterfront to Le Rocher Bayard (Bayard’s rock), a cleft in the cliff said to have been created by Bayard’s hoof (the horse last seen leaping over the river downstream at Namur). This was also the furthest point reached by German forces during the December 1944 counter-offensive. Distance 130 km, elevation 1190 m (cycle.travel estimate 980 m).

Belgium-Germany-Luxembourg day 4 (30 May 2024)

I had thought to ride further into Luxembourg (another 140 km), but weary from yesterday’s effort and with more rain forecast later, I used cycle.travel to generate a more direct route to Bastogne. So out of Clervaux back along the river, then climbing to Boxhorn and across the rolling agricultural landscape: a mix of grassland, wheat fields and some woodland, something like Salisbury Plain but at 520 metres elevation and without the military activity. As the route crossed the invisible Luxembourg-Belgium border this briefly took me along an overgrown farm track (No criticism, C.T can only work with what OSM gives it, but oh, those Belgian nettles do sting) before popping out onto another fine RAVeL cycle path, this one Ligne 163 which runs all the way to Bastogne. Branching off, I headed towards Recogne to see the German WW2 cemetery: six names per gravestone, many just as “ein Deutscher soldat”, and with an appropriately solemn chapel.

Doubling back, a nonchalant fox with lunch trotted across the road in front of me, before I followed L163 all the way into Bastogne then to the war museum and Mardasson memorial (www.bastognewarmuseum.be). Lunch in the buzzing war museum café, then took the audio-guided tour around the museum, I was particularly taken by the (presumably replica) land mines set under glass in the museum floor. Plenty of General McAuliffe-themed souvenirs in the gift shop.

Bastogne is also the turning point for La Doyenne or Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest of the “Monument” major one-day cycle races. It was first won by Léon Houa in 1892 in a time of 10 hours 48 minutes. The 254 km was completed by Tadej Pogačar in 6:13 in April 2024.

Stopped overnight at Hotel Wagon Léo, with its excellent brasserie partly constructed from an old railway carriage (with Bastogne-Nord station signs). Highly recommended. Distance 40 km, elevation 481 m.

Belgium-Germany-Luxembourg day 3 (29 May 2024)

An early start, and drizzling or raining on and off throughout the day. Immediately onto the Vennbahn (Fen Railway, see www.vennbahn.eu), another repurposed railway line which is now a 125 km smooth surface cycle path, badged as RAVeL Ligne 48. The RAVeL, or Réseau autonome des voies lentes (autonomous network of slow ways, see www.ravel.wallonie.be) is the Wallonia network of walking and cycling routes, often converted railways, and in my limited experience seems to be at its best in the east of Wallonia (provinces of Liège, Luxembourg, Namur) and is perhaps less well sustained in the more industrial west (Hainaut), but it is a fantastic achievement.

The Vennbahn route climbs gradually, 1-3% gradient (what cycling commentators call false-flat), and early morning cycling commuter traffic soon gave way to an empty path, shared only with several slow-moving fauna. As the morning drew on, several pairs of older touring cyclists in wet-weather gear passed in the other direction towards Aachen. A couple of groups (2x5) of young racers, all dressed in black Castelli clothing, overtook me in a chaingang. There are a few small cafes along the Vennbahn, but none were open – perhaps weekends or in the summer holiday – so I struggled for food supplies.

Tim Byrne’s wonderful YouTube channel “The Tim Traveller” has a video about the history of the Vennbahn. The fen railway was built by Germany, but passed to Belgian control after WW1. In places, this gives a sliver of Belgian territory with Germany and a sequence of German exclaves on either side. The smallest exclave, at Rückslag, is just one house. South of Roetgen, one house appears to be in Wallonia, while all their neighbours are in Germany. At Mützenich the border exhibits a peculiar fold – is it just me, or does this look faintly, ahem, anatomical? After WW2, Mützenich was briefly a hotbed for the smuggling of coffee between Belgium and Germany (see Wikipedia), the anti-smuggling efforts becoming violent, and 47 village residents were convicted – the past truly is a foreign country.

The Vennbahn rail track is still in place alongside most of the northern section of the Vennbahn, and there are sidings and modern train shed with water pump at Roetgen, suggesting that there is still some steam train activity here, although it was deserted as I rode through. After the last of the exclaves, at Leykaul, part of the rail line has railbikes in the summer (they were all parked and padlocked as I passed) – these are four-wheel carts propelled by two pedallers with up to two passengers (see www.railbike.eu).

At Bosfange I took a detour from the Vennbahn in order climb to the highest point in Belgium. Until 1919 La Baraque Michel was the highest point, at 674 metres, but following the redrawing of boundaries it has been usurped by the Signal de Botrange at 694 metres. Alas, I discovered that the café/restaurant and the Baltia viewing tower were both closed due to ongoing building works, so back down and continued across the upland, exposed to the prevailing wind making this hard going. Desperate for coffee I looked to stop in Sankt Vith (Saint Vitus) but everything seemed to be closed, so carried on in steadier rain to Lengerlach and the Belgium-Luxembourg border, where the railway formerly went through a short tunnel. However, when the bicycle path was being constructed, the tunnel was found to have been colonized by bats (“at least 13 species” apparently), so the tunnel is gated but with an electronic display board nearby.

Cyclists are therefore routed up and over, which gave an opportunity to complete the set of Benelux highest points (I know, yawn…) by visiting two just into Luxembourg. Two, I hear you ask? Until 1997 this was believed to be Buurgplatz at 559 metres, and is marked with a tower. Amusingly, new GPS technology revealed nearby Knieff to be one metre higher, and this is marked only with a painted stone.

After Sankt Vith the landscape noticeably changes, with steeper-sided wooded river valleys, and the Vennbahn terminates at Trois Vierges. From there to my overnight stop at Clervaux, on a fold in the river Clerve. In retrospect, this was too much to have ridden in one day, and I would recommend breaking the route at Monschau. Distance 162 km, elevation 1204 m (cycle.travel estimate 1060 m).

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