31 August, 2015

Belgian Waffles & Bike Tours (Brussels, BE)

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Having visited other Belgian cities (well, mostly Bruges) several times over without having stopped to see Brussels, we decided to pay a visit to the capital city on our anniversary weekend. We booked our accommodations at the Hotel Metropole, a charming Art Noveau building that retains much of its pre-war styling, and signed up for both a bicycle tour of the city (the best way to site-see) and a chocolate tour, because Brussels lays claim to having the best chocolatiers in the world.

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While Brussels has many of the same problems as other cities, like lack of cycling/pedestrian infrastructure, and many of the same problems as other European cities, small, winding cobblestone streets, they have put forth some effort into remedying this by creating car-free* pedestrian zones that span several city blocks. If you look close enough, you’ll notice these were once motor vehicle roads, but the city has installed creative seating, permanent recreational items like outdoor table tennis and Bocce courts, and an “open library” where people are encouraged to trade books amongst themselves. While there is no distinction between pedestrian and cycling portions of the promenade, it is wide enough that collisions didn’t seem to be a real problem.

*Taxis are permitted into the car-free zone during certain times to pick up hotel guests, but they need special permission from the business to whom they are catering.

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Our first afternoon was pleasant, we got some fish and chips that were probably the best I’ve ever had (pending our visit to London in a couple months), and a Belgian waffle that had such a sheer amount of toppings that it was almost impossible to eat without embarrassing yourself and those around you.

The next day we set off to attend our tours. The forecast called for rain, and it did in fact rain. All day. Non-stop. While the Mrs. and I brought our water-repellant rain jackets, it was evident soon enough that they were inadequate in keeping us dry. Thankfully, the weather wasn’t especially chilly, so riding our bikes while completely soaked wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. The tour itself was a lot of fun; our tour guide was a Canadian who came to Belgium to study, and we met some people from the States who were in Europe on an extended business trip.

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Our tour took us through several different parts of the city, starting in the Grand Place, which is the heart of historic Brussels and where many of the festivities take place, to the Mannequin Pis, more widely known as the fountain comprised of a little boy peeing, and to the headquarters of the European Parliament and the EU. We learned about the interesting history of Belgium and how its culture and architecture had been shaped by its various occupiers over the years, although France’s contribution seemed only to be the French language and destroying several beautiful buildings in the city center. C’est la vie. 

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Around the middle of the day, we stopped at what our tour guide described as “the best frites [french fries] in Brussels”, so the Mrs. got in line to buy some while I grabbed a table inside the pub across the street. Getting out of the rain was nice, but the frites weren’t anything special. The La Chouffe I ordered, however, was delicious as always.

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As our tour wrapped up and the rain kept on, we returned our bikes and awaited the start of our chocolate tour. Interestingly, the tour guide for this tour was also from Canada, because it was in fact the same woman. She had a change of clothes, however, whereas we we did not. So the chocolate tour was a little chilly for the two of us, but we managed to do okay.

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After a full day of touring the city, we dried off in our hotel room and relaxed a bit before an unsuccessful venture to an Indian Food Festival, which sounded promising but was pretty disappointing. We did eventually eat Indian however, securing a table at a restaurant nearby. After dinner, the rain had stopped so we took a walk around the lamp-lit city, listening to the sounds of the Brussels nightlife and looking for a place to sit and have a drink ourselves. Ultimately, we settled for the terrace of our own hotel.

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On our final day in Brussels, we checked out the RenĂ© Magritte museum, which we both really enjoyed. Another artist the city lays claim to is HergĂ©, the cartoonist behind The Adventures of Tintin. You can see several large paintings throughout the city done in the style of a classic comic like the one in the photo above, paying homage to the city’s cartooning heritage.

I would definitely recommend Brussels Bike Tours for anyone wanting to get the most out of their visit to the city, and the cost is only €25 (though as you’ve seen, it is rain-or-shine). More information is available at brusselsbiketours.com.

 

- Bicyclist Abroad

 

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20 July, 2015

Railways


Many people romanticize rail travel, even though the age of billowing steam and luxiurious passenger coaches has long since passed. Still, taking the train can be a good way to get to your destination in Europe without having to deal with traffic, or worse yet, finding a place to park your car. Here in Germany, the national rail line, or Deutsche Bahn as it is known, is fairly accomodating of travellers on bike. In neighboring Netherlands, you can also travel with your bike fairly easily, but it is a bit more complicated.


When you wish to bring your bike aboard a train in Germany, you purchase fare for yourself and then separate fare for your two-wheeled companion. This is known as a Fahrradkarte or a bicycle ticket. Typically, they are €5-6  and are valid for one day of travel. This can be done online, at a ticket counter, or at a kiosk on the platform, wherever you are purchasing your own train ticket. Some of the long-distance trains, such as ICE lines, usually require a bike reservation as well. On a local train, you'll just need to locate the train car with the bicycle emblem, and bring your bike inside.

As I mentioned, if you're travelling in the Netherlands, it is slightly more complicated. This is because there are several different lines operating on the Dutch railway network, some of which charge extra for a bicycle and some that do not. NS, the primary state-operated line, requires a bike ticket whereas on Veolia you can roll your bike onto the train no questions asked. This policy, of course, can lead to many bicycles in a car at once, and as victim to it I once ended up having to stand with my bike in the bathroom for the duration of my journey. (The real victims in this case were those that needed to use the bathroom I occupied.)


So, depending on where you are going, you may end up transfering onto several different lines, and its best to know beforehand whether or not you require a bike ticket. The ignorant American technique only works 67% of the time, otherwise you'll end up paying a fine.

Another distinction you might find interesting is that on Germany railways, you can drink a beer or any beverage you'd like, whereas on Dutch trains, public consumption of alcohol is expressly forbidden.


Either way, one shouldn't shy away from utilizing a country's train system when travelling via bicycle. It really shortens the time between two waypoints and gives you a chance to relax, talk to others, and adjust those things on your bike that you've been meaning to for the last 40 kilometers. And even if you find yourself travelling by train without a bicycle, many major hubs have them available for rent. Germany offers the Call-a-Bike in every major city, and the Netherlands have their OV Fiets avaiable at just about every railway station in the country, usually for less than 10 a day.

Of course, cost is always a factor, and in some cases a train ticket might set you back more than you can afford, so be sure to keep an eye out for special deals. These are offered at different convenience stores or online. Also, travelling in groups is almost always cheaper than travelling alone, so if you've got two or three more people headed to the same place, a group ticket may be a very affordable option. And if you're planning on spending a long period of time riding the rails, a pass might be your best option. Here are some links that will help you out on your journey:

http://www.raileurope.com/index.html [All of Europe]
http://www.eurail.com/europe-by-train/itineraries
http://www.bahn.de/p_en/view/index.shtml [Germany]
http://www.ns.nl/en/travellers/home [Netherlands]

- Bicyclist Abroad












06 July, 2015

Fiet in the Sand (The Hague, NL)

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I'd never really heard of the Hague until recently when some friends suggested we spend the weekend there. "Where's the place?" "Somewhere on the coast." "Alright." went the conversation. Looking then at a map, I see that it is indeed a coastal city south of Amsterdam. Amsterdam. That's all you ever hear about when people talk about the Netherlands. Anyway, we packed our bags and drove out to the ocean to see what this place is all about.
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Basically, the Hague is the Dutch version of Atlantic City, minus all the casinos. Well, Scheveningen beach, anyway. There is a boardwalk, lots of restaurants and bars and places to shop. The beach is sandy and mostly clean, save for a shard of glass here or there, but no hypodermic needles or anything. The particular weekend we were there, the beach was populated by dozens and dozens of volleyball nets, and the rest of the people seemed to be taking part in a giant square-dancing festival. Just when you span the globe to escape American Country Western music, it sneaks up and fills your ears with its twangy warbles.

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The rest of the city is all business, though. In fact, the Dutch Parliament and the International Criminal Court are both located in the city, amongst other governmental and business establishments. You also have your centrums, lined with cafes and bakeries, through which you may want to stroll in a leisurely manner. Like almost all Dutch cities, the bicycle infrastructure is quite robust, though there were a few times it just seemed to disappear beneath you and you had to share a road with trolleys and automobiles and guys "walking" their dog.

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The hotel we stayed at rented out bikes (or fiets as they are called in Dutch... get the title now?) for €16, good for a 24-hour period. That's a pretty nice deal. They were Gazelle M.P.B.s and for a city bike, very responsive. We rode them down the boardwalk, stopped for ice cream, wandered through the town some more and basically saw most of the Scheveningen area. I would have liked to spend the rest of the day riding, but we had dinner reservations and not everyone shares my enthusiasm for getting lost via bicycle.

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When we return to the Hague in the future, I’d certainly like to check out the other parts of the city. But the main attraction, like most seaside towns, is the ocean itself and we were happy to enjoy a couple days taking in the sight of it.

- Bicyclist Abroad


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