Monday, September 20, 2010

Aa of Weerijs-route

Late summer afternoon in Breda
Gorgeous day so I opt for the Aa of Weerijs-route, west of Breda, but due to much hesitation, I get a late start. Here I am in the Mastbos, the forest south of town. The trail to point 5 is a broad sandy path through the forest which deposits me at a clearing by a small lake where in the bright afternoon sun, it actually feels hot. I remember that feeling. I sit at a picnic table and put together a mayonnaise-heavy tuna salad sandwich garnished with olives. Suddenly I find I'm joined by an old man, then his granddaughter; then a whole crowd of people congregate round the table, taking pictures. But just as quickly they disperse and I'm alone in the sun.

Aa of Weerijs-route (ANWB map)

Now down the road a piece. I came to this spot, Meersel-Dreef in Belgium, because it was recommended to me by Yvonne Lewin, my hostess this evening right in the center of Breda. And here I am, and it's as she described it, in a park opposite a playground. It's a shrine to the Virgin Mary which a woman outside told me is home to "onze lieve vrouw." Yvonne said the place strongly evokes Lourdes and that people come here to pray for miracles. She also lamented that it was the sort of thing not found in Holland, or lost perhaps, because the Dutch had become a faithless race. To me it evokes the Virgin of Guadalupe (in Mexico City), not as tacky but the same aesthetic. The shrine is at the center of a large park with densely clustered tall trees, which creates a canopy effect and makes it feel deep in the forest and conducive to reflection and meditation. Also similar to the Desierto de Leones (near Mexico City), though that is a real forest. This one has subdivisions behind it. There is a big rock structure made to look like a grotto. In a niche above is a statue of praying Mary in white robe with a halo of text. In the center is a sort of cave entrance with a case of lit candles and a figurine of a peasant woman kneeling as she gazes upward at the Virgin. At the left is a stone font with faucets so people can cleanse their hands.

Meersel-Dreef: faith across the border
There aren't many people in attendance and they're mostly old. I did notice a middle-aged woman in bike racing lycra and helmet, and a goth girl with dyed black pigtails who later went over to her boyfriend waiting in the wings. In front of the shrine are many rows of benches. I notice a megaphone lodged at the top of the rock structure, not in use fortunately. People sit on the benches, chat, meditate, then get up and take a walk through the woods.

After having a Belgian trappist ale at the pub opposite the shrine, I decided to continue with the Aa of Weerijs-route despite the late hour. It would be tough - 40 or so kilometer loop to Breda - so I'd have to hustle to return by nightfall. But the afternoon was gorgeous.

From Meersel-Dreef I took the riverside fietspad, parallel to the road, back to point 43, then found the path to point 70, taking a bridge over the freeway. It was a long ride through cornfields, onion fields, horse pastures to knooppunt 3, where I stopped for a paté sandwich. No one around but the occasional cyclist or tractor.

Zundert, after the races
The next point to make for was the elusive 88, northwest of Zundert. In the center of the town, the main drag was lined with grandstands with a fence running in front of them. Looked as if it had been the scene of bicycle or auto races but they were taking things down. I should have asked someone what it was about but I had to keep moving. And I couldn't find a knooppunt sign, just the uninformative "fiets netwerk" indicator.

Now reading the description of the route from the ANWB classic fietsroutes guide, I realize that Vincent Van Gogh was born in Zundert: "Oh Zundert, de gedachte daaran is soms al te sterk." Google translates: "Oh Zundert, the thought (of you?) is sometimes too strong."

Traversing the Pannenhoef
But I didn't look at anything in Zundert, I was just trying to get out of it, which proved a difficult task. I kept heading down the strip (which had a number of sex shops, perhaps related to the huge Club Privilege compound on the north edge of town). I didn't realize I was heading south until I reached the neighboring town of Wernhout and looked at a map. So I had to go back up into town, past the grandstands, till I found a sign that said, "Fiets Netwerk: 3/88" and finally got on the right track.

Now I had to move fast. The sun was noticeably dropping. The route then struck north, through a stretch of forest. Here the path was a strip of asphalt, like a sidewalk, atop a sandy road, perhaps a former loggers route. The forest begins with just evergreens, then evolves into a more varied flora. Now, in the shade, the temperature drops and I have to put on my windbreaker.

Last stretch back to Breda
The stretch through the forest (88-86-87), called the Pannenhoef, goes on for about 4 km, then emerges again on a landscape of vast, neatly arranged cornfields. The sun is about to drop behind a row of trees to the west. But it's still bathing everything in its warm glow and I feel content - not hurried - to sit and finish off the pate and olives. Then it was 21-23-24-25 (one cyclist I met tapes the numbers to her handlebars). I thought to check the map at this point which was fortunate because I saw that point 25 led directly to central Breda. I'd made it! And it wasn't even dark yet. Proving I could cover 40 km in four hours, but just wouldn't have such a great time doing it.

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