As I sit here looking out my window at my unusually empty Antwerpen street, the wind is blowing fierce and whatever leaves were remaining on the trees are being detached and dancing over the grey cobblestones. Normally there is a market going on here on Sundays but the heavy winds have kept most of the merchants away. I notice people walking by wearing wool hats, heavy jackets, and clenching their arms against their torsos like the wind was accompanied by a blizzard of snow. The only thing is… it happens to be one of those odd warm November days, about 12C (54F), and dry. It reminds me of when I first moved from the USA to Antwerpen in July 2011, and I noticed for the first time, the sensitivity that Belgian people have to temperature. Before I was a blogger, I was a Facebook Noter (or whatever they are called), and my first note was entitled “They Wear Jackets in July”. Belgium is not a country of extreme seasons. By comparison, growing up in Pennsylvania, I was annually exposed to distinct seasons, from buckets of snow to blistering heat. And perhaps this explains why 12C feels manageable without winter gear. When I walked outside this morning in just a light sweatshirt, I was received with a few puzzled or aghast looks, like I was violating some union pact or setting a bad example for children. I was expecting some old lady to start scolding me in Dutch like I had just crossed the street when it was red. Yet I can’t help but be amused by how many people are wearing furry hooded parkas with the hoods up.
What it tells me is that, while I have lived here for over five years, I still retain some of my character from growing up in the northeast USA. This temperature sensitivity is not part of the Belgian character I ever wish to have. But there is one character that I have happily adopted, and that is the love for the bicycle. I use the bicycle as my main means of transportation, riding to work everyday regardless of the weather. While Belgians cling to their coats and scarves like the world is ending, they are a hearty people who bicycle in the worst weather. As I was deciding what topic to write about for my next post, it occurred to me to write an ‘origins’ type of post, similar to the one I wrote about my first Belgian beer.
What was my first experience with the Belgian bike culture? If you’ve followed my blog, you know that quite a few of my posts revolve around a bicycle ride. Well, it all started in 2006 with two short bike rides from the city center of Bruges. Both of these rides are under 25km, and today, as a more experienced rider, they would barely qualify as a bike ride. But at that time, I probably had never ridden a bike more than 20km. In my effort to absorb everything there is to do in Bruges, one of my favorite cities on Earth, I decided one day to rent a bike and ride to a village called Damme. Unbeknownst to me, this marked the beginning of many adventures in Belgium which I have experienced by bike. Now, I couldn’t imagine exploring Belgium without two wheels and a spare tube.
Funny how an idea can be sparked when you simply look out your window….
Two Short Rides From Bruges
- Damme-Oostkerke (22 km):
- Lissewege (22 km):
Riding a bike to Damme is actually something recommended for tourists to do, and this is how I discovered it. There is a canal, called Damse Vaart, which travels to Damme from the northeast Dampoort corner of Bruges. Near Dampoort is a good fietscafe, Bistro du Phare, and the Fort Lapin Brewery which I mention in this blog. The canal is an easy ride of about 5 km.
Just prior to reaching the village of Damme, look for a small parking area off to the right of the street running parallel with your bike path. There is a nice path called Wanderweg, which is not technically for bikes but is a scenic bypass around the village bringing you to the backend where the impressive Damme Church of Our Lady stands.
It is worth paying the couple euros to climb the church tower and get a commanding view of the quaint village of Damme and the surrounding countryside.
Damme itself used to be a port for Bruges starting in the 13th century when the rivers that gave Bruges direct access to the North Sea started to silt up. It had the fortified star-shape of many important medieval cities. You can still see from modern maps and aerial photos some of the original outline.
Besides the cathedral, the main square has attractive and impressive architecture highlighted by the 14th century city hall. Book lovers will enjoy the several book shops, and there are a few nice cafes to enjoy your purchases while sipping a new beer and enjoying a snack.
This is the point where most tourists return to Bruges. However, for me, I prefer to get away from the tourists, and to do this, I recommend to go a bit further up the canal to the village of Oostkerke. Oostkerke gives you a quick view of small town rural life. Blink and you’ll miss it, but even from a distance, it’s square church tower, a smaller version of the Damme’s cathedral, is impressive for such a small village. After looping back around thru Oostkerke, head back to Bruges. I must warn you that the wind is always against you on the ride from Damme to Bruges.
Lissewege lies 11km north of Bruges and can be reached by following the Boudewijnkanaal, the main canal which now connects Bruges to the sea.
Lissewege is even smaller than Damme, has a charming whitewashed main street and a 13th century Church of Our Lady.
What I like visiting a village like Lissewege is that with no tourists, you have the place to yourself and you can take your time and soak in the feeling of being in another country and in a place which seems frozen in time. My first visit to Lissewege was memorable when I walked into Den Ouden Toren pub next to the cathedral to find a bathroom. It was like those old Hammer Films or American Werewolf in London, where the foreign traveller walks into a local pub and everyone immediately gets quiet and stares at you with suspicious wrinkly bearded faces. It was as if they had never seen an American stroll in out of nowhere.
Not so far from Lissewege is a historical site which should be visited on this bike ride, Ter Doest. Ter Doest was an abbey from 1150 until the French Revolution ended it in 1796. All that remains is a barn, but this barn happens to have been built in 1250. The adjacent cafe is a great place for a beer and light meal.
Belgium is best seen by bicycle and Bruges is a city that can be appreciated on a higher level when one rents a bike and ventures beyond the medieval limits into the neighboring villages. These surrounding areas all had a significant relationship with Bruges when it was one of the most important trade centers of the world. Both Damme and Lissewege are worthwhile excursions and offer much in terms of esthetic and historical value. The short distances means they can each be enjoyed in half a day. I still remember these bike rides fondly and in some way, I cherish those memories as much as the time I’ve spent in Bruges. Today the influence of those rides has molded my preference for how I choose to explore and experience this beautiful country of Belgium.