Thursday, January 2, 2014

Lomas de Limburg - Day 1

And now we're in Belgium. Well, literally spitting distance from Holland, and our vriend op de fiets, Wiell Nicholaes, is from Haarlem. The countryside here is lovely if unspectacular, not unlike the hills of New Jersey. From Wiell's garden we see gently sloping fields and to the northeast a wooded mountain, which must be the Vijlenerbos, "the largest contiguous deciduous forest of Limburg."

(original date of this entry: August 23, 2013)
Our original plan was to come here to Sippenaeken, then do the Vijlenerboschroute, a 23km circuit around the slopes of the nearby forested mountain, ending up in the town of Mechelen, where we're planning to spend the night. But due to the extremely steep terrain, we're revising the plan and may just take the 8km bit of the circuit to Mechelen via Epen, which skirts the western edge of the forest. It doesn't matter. The weather is warm and beautiful. The Nicholaeses are wonderful hosts. 

Yesterday we caught the 10:08 train to Maastricht (we were late in arriving to Amsterdam Central station but then the train departed late too), an almost two-and-a-half-hour trip, which for the Netherlands is a major journey. The train was packed almost the entire way. 

Maastricht central station
Arriving in Maastricht we discovered that the bike shop in the train station (stations in every significant town have one) charged much more for bike rentals than others I've seen: 15 euros per day, as opposed to €7.50-8.50 in Groningen and Apeldoorn. They showed us the bikes: high-end Gazelles, all-terrain numbers with many speeds and lots of gadgetry. They were asking for a cash deposit of €100 each. This all seemed excessive, and I asked them if there was another shop around with cheaper bikes. There was one, called Courtens, past the main square. Even though we were running late, I opted for this alternative. 

We stashed our bike bags in a locker at the train station, then walked west to the Maas, which looked grand and quite broad on this hot sunny day. The elaborate central bridge has a wide central lane for bicycles and raised side lanes for pedestrians. At the west end you enter the city's main shopping zone. Around the corner was a VVV where I picked up a fiets map of South Limburg and Alice got directions to the bike shop. It was a ten-minute walk further to Calvariestraat. At Courtens the rates were a bit cheaper -- €12.50 per day -- but they were only asking for a €20 deposit. And I liked the bikes better, 8-speed Spartas, unpretentious machines with good suspension. The shop manager, a guy named Geert with a goatee who'd lost half his teeth, was nice to us and we were glad we didn't settle for the station bikes.

Cruising the Maas

We rode back up through Maastricht. It was now quite warm and we needed a drink. We stopped at a place called Zondag along the street to the station. t was too hot to sit at the street side terrace so we moved inside the cozy cafe. Alice was tired and sweaty but after drinking a beer felt game for the journey.

Pieterplassen harbor
Nearer the station we got some nice Limburg cheese from a vendor in an organic cheese market. Then we got our things from the locker, changed into comfy cycling wear and made for the Maas, taking the east bank of the river toward point 2. My recollection of Maastricht from my last journey to Limburg (three years ago) was dim but I did recall the arched bicycle bridge I was now looking at, such an elegant structure with big barges going underneath it and cyclists drifting over it. Soon the trail deviated from the river and continued south down a busy road. Lots of cyclists and scooterists plying this path on this hot Friday afternoon. The landscape opened up on the right to reveal some lakes--the Pieterplassen--and we could see a fortress and factory taking up hills on the opposite side of the little boat harbor. We bought some strawberries from a vendor at the side of the road whom Alice chatted with. She also had little plums and bright red gooseberries. The woman lived nearby in Oost-Maarland.

Photo by Alice Klaassen
Here the route turned straight west (at 75) through pastures where loads of steers muscled for position around a watering trough. We passed a little harbor, the Jachthaven, then skirted the village of Eijsden along the riverside. People were sitting at a riverside cafe here. "It looks like The Village," commented Alice, referring to the artificial community in the 60s British TV series The Prisoner, which we'd been watching. Dutch communities have that scrupulously planned atmosphere, though I think they function more effectively than their counterparts in England where people are more individualistic and scoff at planners' efforts.

Past Eijsden we turned eastward and were going along peaceful tree-lined country roads bordered by pastures. By now it had clouded over but was still quite warm. At Mesch (point 100) we had the choice of heading for Libeek hugging the Belgian border, or crossing the line into Belgium toward point 431 -- Belgium, I realized, has its own knooppunten network, which are three digits and were shown on my Zuid-Limburg fiets map. Without thinking about it I stuck to the Dutch side, following the route I'd planned and which I was now reading off the little knooppunt list that dangled from my handlebar. Suddenly we were climbing precipitously and Alice dismounted and walked her bike up the hill. The incline was indicated on my map by arrows, with three arrows representing the steepest climb. Most of the other cyclists on the road were racers in helmets and lycra outfits, and they charged up the slopes with determination. We moved ponderously with our eyes on the crest where the ride would turn into downhill joy until the next agonizing climb. I rode, going slightly faster than Alice on foot. It was slow going but in the first of eight speeds the Sparta could be pedaled steadily. I thought about how if my three-year residence in Austin had any significant benefit, it was that I'd gotten accustomed to riding up steep hills, particularly in my daily commutes up to my office in South Austin and up South Congress to the Continental Club and the HEB supermarket.

Lomas de Limburg - Day 1

I stopped at a little shrine at the crest and soon Alice appeared on foot with a dejected expression on her face. Being accustomed to riding table-flat Amsterdam, she wasn't at all used to the famously hilly terrain of south Limburg and she didn't like it a bit. She complained of being short of breath and worried that her heart was pumping too fast. I had tried to prepare Alice for the rigors of cross-country touring on our last ride through the Veluwe but I had not counted on the terrain being so steep. I wondered if we should've done a few more lowland trips before diving into this bout of climbing. On my one previous trip through this region in summer 2010 I had to climb a few hills but they weren't as drastic as this point, a bit farther south by the Belgian border. I was starting to worry that Alice wouldn't make it or at least get extremely cranky about it. We sat at a bench in front of the shrine and ate our Limburger cheese and sheep cheese on bread with salad.

After Libeek, we flew down hills to Mheer, then it was another arduous climb to Noorbeek, where we stopped to sit on the main plaza opposite a posh hotel cafe. In the dizzying descent that ensued we hardly had time to appreciate the marvels of this mountain retreat but Alice remarked that the old country houses were as lovely as anything she'd seen in Holland. It seemed, at the same time she was griping about the hills of Limburg she was starting to appreciate this slice of Holland that she'd only had glimpses of as a girl. Here you had views of the surrounding countryside, forest and pastures from a higher vantage, unlike in the rest of Holland, though even here the altitudes were not too significant, in the 200-300m range.

This being Alice's second appearance on Netherlands Bikeways, it seems like the right time to introduce her. Alice Daniels Klaassen is a Dutch woman born in May 1962, five years after I was. She is the offspring of a Surinamese father and Dutch-Jewish mother. She has a child's wide-eyed amazement of the world sharing a jaded world-weariness. She's a long-time Amsterdammer with an apartment alongside the Kostverlorenvaart -- the final stretch of the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal -- though she hails originally from Rotterdam and, like me, has lived abroad for long periods, in Greece and Indonesia for instance, and had a checkered career, working as an artist's model, dishwasher, second-hand book assessor and airline security officer, and she's about to embark on a career as a freelance pedicurist. She has studied art and painted many vivid canvasses, mainly inspired by the French painter Chaim Soutine. An Amsterdammer who dislikes Holland, she is naturally a cyclist though not necessarily an avid one; cycling is her mode of transport though you could say that about millions of Dutch citizens. As I've said, she is not really into "recreational cycling" -- she's more of a long-distance walker -- but she's trying it out for my benefit.

Beusdael castle
From Norbeek we briefly crossed the border (at Ulvend, point 430), then found ourselves at a crossroads with the option of going to Slenaken (Holland) or De Plank (Belgium). I chose the former and we flew downhill to Slenaken, the gateway to a high forested zone. By the time we reached Sinnich we were thoroughly exhausted but we were approaching our destination, Sippenaeken, with just one number point to go: 92. At the base of a road that wound inexorably upward we ran into a lone, curly-haired mountain biker who informed Alice that we had to scale two mountains before we reached Sippenaeken. Trucks came down the road via a switchback -- it was so steep that they could be heard but not seen low-gearing it down toward us. We pushed on, walking our bikes despondently beneath a dense canopy of woods that between trucks was utterly silent. Finally I emerged ahead of Alice on a sort of plateau, and a brownish sign said Sippenaeken. But we saw only a castle in the mist. This was Beusdael castle, quite an impressive structure though neither of us had the energy to appreciate it. In front of us was a mound-like hill covered with pastures. We had entered open farm country but we still had to ascend one final hump -- the "second mountain" -- which we did, then descended more knackered than triumphant into Sippenaeken. By now, around 8, it had cooled down considerably and the downhill breeze against our sweaty bodies gave us a chill.

The town of Sippenaeken, Belgium, was nothing more than a row of suburban houses along a single road, Rue de Beusdael. There didn't seem to be any cafes or restaurants. We had phoned our vriend op de fiets, Mevrouw Nicholaes, from Norbeek to say that we might turn up late. A garage door rose and there she was, a slight, gnomish figure with a head of white hair. Wiell Nicholaes. She welcomed us and was highly sympathetic to our state of exhaustion.

Cycling friend Wiell Nicholaes at home
We put our bikes in Mevrouw Nicholaes' garage and took our stuff to our room, a cozy den with a back door opening on a wonderful terrace where four metal tables stood amidst trees, plants, bird feeders and views of the wide open plateau and hills beyond. This completely made up for the boring suburban street. I asked Wiell if we could get a beer around and she said there was a cafe nearby but anyway she had beers in the fridge and could even offer us provisions for a small repast: a package of mushroom soup and a can of franks. Alice made for the shower which refreshed her and calmed her down. She was actually delighted to be amidst such pretty countryside. Wiell lit candles and placed them at the rear table for us, and we brought our soup and beer out there. Continued ...

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