Monday, August 9, 2010

Maasvalleiroute - Day 1

I'm finally off on a "serious" bike journey, namely the Maasvalleiroute. Since there are so many options, I just picked one out of a hat, and now I'm headed for the province of Limburg. Interestingly, I've yet to venture so far from Amsterdam, even though it's a journey of just two hours. But now that I've made the move, I feel I should take a longer journey. I was only planning to take the weekend but I have no immediate need to return to Amsterdam, and I should take advantage of that.

So I'm going to the town of Blerick, in northern Limburg. I'm on the train to Eindhoven, where I'll need to change for a train to Venlo. I paid the full fare, including the €6.50 to put my bike on the train, though they never check it seems.

The train has already passed Utrecht. I notice a flat field of black blotched cows, a highway off to the south paralleling these tracks, greenhouses, an ivy-covered little brick house. I see that the clouds, so gray and thick over Amsterdam, are here parting a bit to reveal some patches of blue. An agglomeration of houses, perhaps the start of a village, the train slowing down, factories, a church spire. A lumber yard, its corrugated metal buildings covered in graffiti. Arriving in 's-Hertogenbosch at 10 to 2. Seems like a prosperous town: modern brick buildings.

I notice the small Asian woman across the aisle periodically talking into her cel phone. She's browsing through a thick, battered notebook, not unlike this one. The train whistle blows, we're off.

Easy connection at Eindhoven, now heading further east toward Venlo. More table-flat lands, functional pale brick homes. Helmond. Mostly clipped hedges, attached homes, McDonald's. The sky is again overcast but it's warm and summery.

I don't think these conductors care if you've got your bike. Well, it's called an honor system. There's nothing wrong with abiding by the rules of this fabulous rail network.

Arrived in Blerick, which is really just a sister city to Venlo on the other side of the Maas (French version: Meuse). I knew I needed to go to Grubbenvorst but unsure how to get there. In the station parking lot, I saw a big group of tough-looking white boys firing up a spliff. Instead of asking them, I asked a handsome black man sitting on the curb a short distance from the boys. He had no idea where Grubbenvorst was. So I just got on the bike and looked for the river to get oriented. I could see the spires and smokestacks of Venlo, then a bike sign pointing to Grubbenvorst and point 6. I headed that way, finding myself on a street through a suburban neighborhood, then alongside warehouses. I asked a  middle-aged man on a bike if it was the way to Grubbenvorst and he cheerfully assented. Before long I was going up a country road shaded by stout trees. There were plenty of folks out for a ride and the occasional car or motorcycle. I realized that Lottum, my destination, was just 7km away so I had to kill some time before reaching my vrienden.*

* The Vrienden op de Fiets (Cycling Friends) is an amazing network of 3700 B&Bs for cyclists in the Netherlands as well as Belgium, Germany, France and a few other European countries. There's a nominal membership fee.

I'm now sitting across from what appears to be a Christmas tree farm, by the entrance to a path through the woods, the Sint Jan Sleutelbergbos. On the other side of the xmas tree farm is a track where single-car light rail trains zoom past. In Holland, I often feel as if I've entered a portal to a more environmentally aware future.

One problem I've been having cycling lately is that my right ankle and foot continue to throb and ache. The toes on my right foot seem to stiffen, as if rigor mortis has set in.

Rose bush fields outside Lottum
Lottum. It's true that the place is surrounded by rose bush fields and greenhouses full of rosebush seedlings. The Rose Festival is held Aug 6-9. There is some kind of rose house that is probably a tourist attraction. The town center is comprised of quaint low brick houses.

I am at a bend in the road pointing to knooppunt 90**, and it smells like cow dung. At this point, the path turns to packed gravel. A pack of racing bikers, with their helmets and lycra suits, just whipped around the bend. A tractor roared up the road toward the greenhouses. I'm wondering who cuts all these roses. I don't see any immigrants.

** The Dutch bicycle network is connected by a series of numbered points. Signs lead you to the next point in your route.
Knooppunt markers

A shower and strong wind soak me momentarily. The gravel road to knoopunt 90 was lovely and tranquil, going by untended fields, along a still creek full of lily pads. Instead of going on to Horst, I decide to take a walk around the Schuitwater, a little nature park. A path takes me to a large fallow field, and lots of rabbits dart across the path. Also got a brief glimpse of a deer. I returned along the same path, then found a more interesting trail through the woods to the other side of that lily-laden creek. Later I realized that the two linked up and I could've made a nice loop.

Back in the village of Lottum I went looking for the fort described in the fiets guide but found only a mock wooden fort that appears to be the stage of rose festival events. In fact, the village's main esplanade where I now sit is full of covered pavilions, still dormant. Compared to a Mexican village of a similar size, it's dead. But there is an absolute calm about it, and I'm glad I chose Lottum as a place to stay.

I've just had dinner at the Eethuis 't Pumpke, a little joint run by two adorable Asian women - mother and daughter. I guess they're closing now. They've just rolled up the retractable awning, and water spilled off of it like rain. I had the Bami Especial - spaghetti with a fried egg, a slice of lunch ham and three sat├ęs on skewers covered in a rich peanut sauce - and it was lovely to sit out on the terrace in the perfect evening air, facing the dormant pavilions on the esplanade. The stillness is only interrupted by the occasional car tearing along at breakneck speed, or kid on a bicycle stopping to pick up a carry-out order. I had two Heinekens. There's another slightly more formal place on the church end of the plaza but I found it unappealing because a group of surly drunks had occupied it since my arrival, and as I came back down into town they were making a stupendous racket.

Lily pads outside Lottum
There's just something extraordinarily pleasant about being at this particular vriend this evening. I've got my own little cottage (later a small family arrived), now sitting outside in front. The air is the most perfect temperature imaginable, just slightly cool with the faintest of breezes. The cottage is beside a pleasingly unruly garden. Beyond that is a small campground where some RVs are stationed. An occasional door closing, a remote car or the distant barking of dogs are the only sounds.

All this, for just €18.50! My hosts are very nice, Johann and Jenni. He speaks a bit of English, she speaks none so we were conversing in Dutch, sort of, me summoning what I could from my meager vocabulary. I like how each of these housing situations is unique in its way. This one has a semi-hostel feel. I have access to a kitchen where I can make my own coffee and breakfast in the morning or grab a beer or glass of wine (€1).

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see somebody taking the time and effort to share such an adventure.