Saturday, March 21, 2015

Amsterdam - Antwerp IV

Mastbos, Breda
I stopped in Breda for a day, mainly to get my bike repaired. Something wrong with the brake and it periodically made a dreadful squeaking noise. I had the repair done at a friendly long-standing shop, De Klein Fietsen. The charge was reasonable: €17.50. I also looked at some second-hand bikes there but was not wowed by the Montego or Gazelle that I tried. 
(original date of this entry: Sept 18, 2014)

'Shrooms abloom

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Today's journey begins gloriously through the Mastbos, the vast forest south of Breda. Practically uninhabited save for the odd jogger or dog walker. Riding over sandy paths that seem more suitable for horses than bikes. The woods are peaceful with magpies and thrushes hopping between branches, twittering, cool with rays of sun beaming through the trees. Initially I followed signs to Rijsbergen, then picked up the LF-13 mid-park. As I head southwest the highway drone increases in volume. 

Rollin' down the Weerijs
The fietspad emerged onto a country road and continued along quiet farm roads for a bit. Then I was climbing and went over the A16/E19, roaring with traffic like a gash on the landscape. The contrast is stark and shocking. I continue down farm roads, then a left down a narrow track that follows the winds of the Weerijs river. At a hairpin bend, a mirror has been strategically installed for viewing oncoming cyclists. Then I was riding beside a series of quonset huts filled with strawberries and saw a group of rough people--presumably Eastern Europeans from the bits of conversation i overheard--gathered around in front of them on a coffee break. Continuing, I encounter two beautiful young women wearing high rubber boots and we exchanged nods. They looked so relaxed, livin' off the fat o' the land like Lenny & George, that I wanted to stop and join them, but kept going. Then I entered the town of Rijsbergen, church bells clanging at 10 am, and went into the Plus for snacks. There I found the usual assortment of housewives and bored young Dutch employees and related to their plight. On this lovely day trapped in a warehouse full of crap. The Eastern Europeans were out there in the fresh air, working, the Dutch were there to consume. They were protected from the elements but out of touch with their environment so ultimately dissatisfied, cut off from their primal nature. 

From Rijsbergen, I followed the signs leading to the fiets netwerk. Now I'm at kp 87, about to turn into the Pannenhoef, a swath of greenery. Many knooppunten conveniently have a bench beside them. This seems like a quiet deserted spot but sitting here for a while I've seen all kinds of fietsers: mostly elderly couples and trios but also a local girl singing along with her iPod, an English couple in racing gear, a few solo women out for a ride ...
Southwest of Rijsbergen we arrive in an old land of woods and farms. I stopped at an old rural structure with a pokey museum about the land and nature of the region that lies between Breda and Antwerp. The day is outstanding and the old bucolic farmsteads really come into their own. 

Breda - Essen via LF-13

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Oude Buisse Heide
Now I have entered a peaceful forest, the Oude Buisse Heide. Just the occasional elderly fietser couple glide through. Just now a convoy of horse-drawn carriages and a scooter plowed through the woods before my picnic table; more hikers--an aging hippie couple; and now a trio of plump ladies on Gazelles and Spartas.

The Oude Buisse continued, a blissful ride beneath a canopy of oaks and pines, the path carpeted with ferns. The standard fietspad/horse trail arrangement gave way to a single broad trail through the forest.

Today's fietstocht had seemed daunting, around 40 km southwest, but I'm already within reach of Essen and Roosendaal at 1:50 pm, and from there it's a short distance south to Kalmthout, my destination. It seems the key is simply to depart early (duh).

"I play football with RESPECT and fun." Good for them.
Essen (3 pm). Outside a closed Sportpark. All the bicycle racks are empty so I'll lean on one by the entrance and survey the parking lot. It's a pleasant one, utterly empty, flanked by tall trees, sun dappled. I hear chestnuts dropping. I feel relaxed, getting my last dose of summer.

42  41  52  55 ➢ 95 ➢ 94

West of kp 52, I traverse an open expanse of cropfields and pastures, then more woods and reach Nispen, between Roosendaal and Essen. South of here lies the Kalmthoutse Heide, a nature reserve scattered with lakes across the border in Belgium. 

Essen-Kalmthout, Belgium

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At kp 28, west of Essen, the LF-2a (Cities route, "Amsterdam to Brussels," 340 km) intersects with the LF 13b (Schelde-Rhein route, "Venlo to Middelburg," 250 km).

Hence, with long-distance (LF) cycle routes, 'a' = east or southbound, 'b' = west or northbound.
Switching to the LF-2, I continue through fields of corn, carrots, marigolds, burrowed dirt, the sun blazing for a welcome blast of warmth between rows of shady trees and cool breezes. Finally found an excellent green steel picnic table near kp 24, just above the nature reserve, and had a proper lunch with wine. Now it's 5 pm. A spin through the heath and I'm a stone's throw from the cemetery. 

Purple sprays: Kalmthoutse Heide

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Down in the Kalmthoutse Heide; a more remote peaceful spot could not be imagined. It's 6:35. I'm at the edge of the town of Kalmthout and my hosts seemed mellow about my arrival time.

It is perfectly still; from a distance I can hear the clank of a large machine. It's warm enough in the shade, sunbeams through the trees. Reaching Belgium was a milestone. I had cycled from Amsterdam to the Belgian border. The landscape was less interesting: big fields of crops and more than a few cars, trucks and mega-tractors on the roads. I wondered when I would finally reach the heath. Then the landscape softened and I started seeing sprays of purple. I had finally penetrated the reserve, swamp laced amidst the heath and gnarly deciduous trees. I'd come about a grave and found a splendid forest reserve by a town right next to the cemetery. I could easily spend a day here but have a reservation for Antwerp tomorrow evening.

At the bottom of the heath reserve, I took one of the hiking trails (bikes ok), with its own knooppunt network, so I've hit 2➢1➢70, skirting the Stappersven. I was sitting at the edge of the lake on a bench but the sun was too hot so continued to this one, separated from the lake by a patch of forest, a stagnant creek going through it. Pines too, with little cones scattered across the sandy path. A woman just rode up and asked if I'd seen a blauwe kinderfiets. Nope. 

Waiting in Kalmthout, Belgium
In Kalmthout I stayed with Christianne and Jos Kips. Jos, a stout kindly elderly man with a white beard; Christianne, a perky bird-like woman with dyed 'do who administered my stay. Both spoke to me in Dutch and English. Christianne brought me a glass of water and I sat down at the dinner table with Jos. Right off I explained my mission: to locate the tomb of Esther Plutzer--my mother's older sister who died of at age 9 of polio in Antwerp. My mother, Dorothy, was too young to have known her.

Kalmthout cycling friend Jos Kips
Although my mother's family lived in Antwerp, her sister was buried in Putte, Holland. Why was that?  It appears that in Belgium you cannot occupy your grave for eternity, but only temporarily--25 years guaranteed--and this is not acceptable under Jewish law. The Netherlands, however, provides a "final resting place." So in the 19th century, the Jewish community of Antwerp purchased land for cemeteries just across the border in Putte. It is estimated there are some 10,000 graves in three cemeteries here. Jos lamented the fact that the remains of his father would have to be transferred to another site eventually--he knew not where--but shrugged his shoulders as if to say, What can you do? That's the rule here.

Jos took an interest in my mission and got right to work on his computer. He quickly found the contact in Antwerp for Shomre Hadass, a Meneer De Lieuw. I spoke to him on the phone, gave him the details and in a few moments he'd found the location of the grave: in the children's plot of Machsike Hadass. To confirm, he recommended I speak to someone over there. Then he said, Shanah Tovah, and I giggled and said, "Likewise." 

The second number I called, at Machsike Hadass, could not locate Esther Plutzer's gravesite at first, but after I provided a few more details, they came up with it, and it was exactly the same as the first one. All of these guys spoke English, and they all had that abrupt tone of Hassidic Jewish men. It was as if to say, "There are important things to do and you're taking up my time with your request, but I'll see what I can do."

Jos told me that over the course of his career as Quality Control Manager for Godiva chocolates, he had had frequent contact with the Jewish community of Antwerp. He spoke of them as of an exotic race of strangers. In order to produce kosher chocolates, the manufacturing facilities had to be inspected by a rabbi. These were good men, Jos affirmed, if strict and inflexible. The restrictions they prescribed could not be altered. (The halal enforcers were, in contrast, more willing to negotiate: traces of alcohol in the candy were acceptable, for example.) So he didn't mind contacting them, explaining what I was trying to do, which was an enormous service to perform for me and I felt deeply grateful.


Kalmthout definitely felt different from a Dutch town: more rundown, more traffic, more French perhaps. Searching for dinner proved daunting. I went to the fritjes joint that Jos & Christianne suggested ("very Belgian") but the place looked even viler than its average Dutch equivalent: the orange and red processed meat sticks and discs in the display case appeared to be decomposing. The pair behind the case, a stout mom with unruly black hair and her wide-eyed daughter, seemed to be expecting me, as Christianne had phoned ahead and mentioned my preference for stoofvlees. There was a sort of dining area at the rear, a dim room with tired booths, but no diners. The girl grabbed a plastic tray as if to start dispensing the wilted fries that lay in a stack over the fryer. These girls were sweet but I had to decline. "Looks great," I lied, "but I was really looking for a restaurant." I chose Toscana just up the road, a mediocre pizzeria: a dull salad, cracker-crust pizza with anchovies and a Palm beer came to €15. Continued ...

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