Thursday, October 24, 2019

East Vlaanderen to Limburg (pt 6)

Sint-Truiden markt
The street market in Sint-Truiden was a real eye-opener. All the abundance of Europe on display … the supermarket pales in comparison. There was even a tobacco stall! And a giant seafood vendor with beautiful girls in aprons doling out mussels from stacks to wizened women. I got a pickled herring and a chicken cutlet, plus some of the land's famous apples.

(original date of this entry: Aug 25, 2018)
I spent the morning cycling up and down hills from Brustem to Aalst to Kerkom--about 5km-- before it occurred to me that I was going in the wrong direction. Anyway, now, after going back to my start point at Brustem, this time lagging behind a group of dozens of family members on a cycle jaunt, then navigating my way through a deserted construction site, I am finally moving in the right direction--up a woodsy lane to an apple orchard. The day is blustery--big clouds moving in on the sun. A storm is passing north of here and it could rain a bit. Chilly and windy.

So I've lost time but, based on yesterday's ride, I am confident this one will be excellent as well. And now the sun's out again.

LF-6 Sint-Truiden to Maastricht

> kp 161
The hills are getting higher, the climbs longer, the descents more dizzying as I approach Limburg. Or I suppose I already am in Limburg, Belgische Limburg. The clouds part for the warm sunshine, the wind propels me onward. This is bliss. Yet aside from that family group this morning, I could count the cyclists I've seen on the fingers of my right hand, all of them racers. If Limburg is the fietsparadijs the tourist board boasts it to be, not many know or care. Which is alright with me. This is my fietspad today.

I've seen a fair number of cars though. Also just now a little band on pokey motorcycles wearing grim expressions under their helmets. These hills roll so I am climbing (usually in 1st gear), then flying down. A bit nerve-racking but once you get into the rhythm of it it's alright. No need to go fast key as I ascend these hills. Finding my speed, then locking into it.

In Limburg you can actually enjoy vistas of the surrounding countryside, rows of apple trees threading the hills. Strangely, the only person I've seen in hours, a dog walker, just passed with … a border collie. Are animals here to give us messages?

Stables at Tongeren racetrack

Bilingual pub
Seems I've embarked on the best part yet: the Jekervallei running east of Tongeren to Maastricht. Some kinda green corridor along the Jeker, aka Geer, river. All places have two names here as it is the taalgrens between Vlaanderen and Wallonie. I just experienced this linguistic phenomenon in a pub by the racetrack--for trotters, ie, jockeys who ride behind their horses. I watched them running round the track from this side. The vintage pub with wood ceiling, orange globe fixtures, solid wood tables, was populated by fans (with racing forms) and jockeys alike, one of whom was a girl of 15 or so. Like them, I suppose, I'd ducked in from the rain, though in a moment sun poured through the windows. The geezers in front of me drinking cokes were conversing in French, and this was also the language used by the fellow over the loudspeakers at the track. An unanticipated cultural experience. I'll now move on up the valley; the trail is flat here. 

It's continued to threaten rain, might be tapering off now though there are still big clouds on the horizon. It's that sort of day where the weather keeps changing. Now, toward kp 114, a forest corridor opens on flat green fields.


Then coming into Sluizen I followed the LF-6 route to kp 87, climbing a steep hill to emerge on a vast field of nothing, then realized I wanted to continue up the Jeker/Geer valley so flew back down to Sluizen, following signs to kp 114 -> 407, which winds through the whole valley. It rained again, then stopped, though it remains quite cool. I now follow a woodsy stretch along the Geer. Despite the errors and weather, this is a brilliant tour by any standard. And at 6:30 pm, the sun shines once again. 

Jeker valley
Jeker to the Maas
The river, which "has its source in the Luikse Haspengouw, streams through the flatland by the town of Tongeren." At Bitsingen (aka Bassenge), the valley was made deeper to join the Maas valley. The river meanders through a string of villages, ducks floating at still bends, hills rising on either side to enhance the valley effect. At kp 432 I continue up the valley, a splendid stretch. I rode along a ledge above meadows, the sun an orange ball to my left. Then I reached the final village of the valley, Eben-Emael. 

Over the Albertkanaal to the Netherlands
The trail traverses more rural splendor, then drops me at the Albertkanaal, the broad waterway that crosses Vlaanderen. I suppose this is where the Jeker drains into it. It was already 8:30. I sent a text message to my Vriend op de Fiets, Helena Swart, saying I'd be late. "Geen probleem," was her kind reply. I took the bridge over the Albertkanaal and suddenly everything felt familiar. I was back in the Netherlands: the surface of the fietspad, the fietspad signage, the volume of fietsers. I like Belgium but its continental complacency sometimes annoys me. This is where I belong. 

As dusk fell, I was cycling a green corridor beside a community, then reached a busy road. Crossed it and I was rolling over the cobblestones of old Maastricht on my way to kp 1. What a sublime sensation to cycle upon the Sint Servaas bridge over the grand Maas river. It was Saturday night and many people were strolling into the center of town, speaking different languages, against a backdrop of deep blue, pink-tinged skies. I headed south along the main thoroughfare, somehow found the way over the freeway/railroad and found the Heeg district with the subdivision that contained Poelgaard. My host, Helena, was very kind and welcoming. I had my supper—the remains of my pickled herring sandwich—and we conversed. I learned that she lived in Turkey for 12 years and raised her children there. Continued...

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