Sunday, September 6
Today we were riding to Ghent, until we got a much, much better offer. Pat, who had been our lovely, generous host and tour guide in Mechelen, invited us to Sunday brunch at her home. How wonderful. We pedalled down the street and were welcomed into Pat’s beautiful home in the centre of Mechelen. I was somewhat overwhelmed with thoughts as we sat there. I gazed around the rooms, thinking how lovely it was and how beautifully Pat had used and styled the space. Then, I started to think how unfamiliar the surroundings had become to me. I actually said to myself, ‘There’s a kitchen! There’s a fridge! A stove! A dining table! Look, there’s an armchair!’ True, those thoughts actively went through my head! For the last six months our environments have been a tent or a hotel room and apart from a few days spent in a guest house in Edinburgh, we have not experienced an actual home, for such a long time. It was so, so nice to be in those surroundings, in a gorgeous, comfortable, homely space, it just struck me how unfamiliar it had become. It was quite special to be there! Pat made us the most delicious brunch of broccoli soup, a sensational salad and supremely tasty vegetable pizzas. It was so good of her to cater for the vegan at the table and it was a superb lunch. It was wonderful food, delightful company, non-stop conversation and all in a lovely home. Special, very special. Thank you so much Pat.
After saying goodbye, we pedalled off in the direction of Ghent. Having had such a wonderful, long and leisurely brunch, we decided to implement Go-Slow-Sunday and rather than try to make Ghent, we would just ride a short distance to a campsite. We decided to ditch the idea of the Sunday pub meal too, because nothing could top what we’d just eaten at Pat’s. We rode along a path beside the road, with the day becoming windy and chilly, so we counted down the kilometres to our destination.
After weeks of the weather or location forcing us into hotels, I was getting very keen to return to our little tent. Steve had found a campsite 16km from Mechelen, that also had trekkers huts, so if the weather was really bad, we had the option of taking to a hut instead of the tent. We wheeled into the site in the wind and under grey skies and Steve asked the question, “What do you want to do, tent or hut?” I looked at the sky, it was chilly and it was windy and it was going to be a cold night. “I’m happy to pitch the tent,” I replied. I really wanted to get back to our own space. So that’s what we did. We pitched the tent and finally, after way too long, we were once again residents of the Nylon Palace!
After organising ourselves we had a better look at our surroundings. It seemed that our reintroduction to camping was going to happen in a very dodgy campsite! The toilet block was a small, wooden hut containing four toilets. Only one of these four had a door that locked, the others all had holes in the doors where the lock should have been. Hmmm, a bit dodgy. Then, no hot water in the bathroom. Hmmmm, another notch on the dodgy scale. Oh well, first world problems! So, after placing my bottle of anti-bacterial hand gel in an easy to reach location, for the duration of our stay, we settled in. It was chilly and as we sat eating our supper, I was having difficulty bending my arms, due to the multiple layers of fleece and puff that were encasing my joints. Then, an early night, just so we could get under those quilts and into the warmth of their fluffy embrace.
It was a super Sunday, that capped off a wonderful weekend. We spent it in a lovely city, with delightful company and finished with a special brunch in a lovely home. Lucky, lucky us. Our final destination took us down a peg on the comfort scale, but…toughen up campers! It was so good to be back in our tent, in our own space, even if we were pitched in the middle of Camp Dodgy. This adventure is all about swings and roundabouts and riding the ups and downs. It’s all part of the memorable experiences and I don’t mind riding the downs, because they make riding the ups even higher and more special. Giddy-up!
Monday, September 7
Well, we made it through the night at Camp Dodgy and I even made it back alive from my dark, midnight stroll to the wooden toilet shed with the unlockable doors! We woke to a chilly morning, with some drizzle thrown in for good measure and for the first time in quite a while, Steve decided to wear his legs. We packed up, with Steve in his puffer jacket and legs and me in my multiple layers of whatever layers I could fit on top of each other, then loaded up the bikes and set off into the grey.
There don’t seem to be as many bikes here in Belgium and we rode 16km in 56 minutes before we saw another person on a bike. The first hour of riding was beside a busy road, but we had our own path, so that was good. Something else we’ve discovered again, are some very angry dogs! We are back to having dogs snarl and lunge and shout at us! We haven’t had dogs like that since Spain, but here they are again! The dogs we met did not like the look of us at all and all they seemed to see, was a moving lunch entree and I think they would have happily sunk their fangs into our legs!
We hit the town of Dendermond and the path changed to one beside the river and that was great. We powered along and it was a really nice ride, with the river beside us and the barges chugging along. We did have company though…a huge black cloud was looming in the distance. We stopped for elevenses on a bench by the river and watched the river traffic chug past.
We also saw a few road cyclists go past, looking like the real deal, professional cyclists we thought. As we sat, that big black cloud was getting closer and it was ready to have some fun with us. We packed up in a hurry, got back on the bikes and sped off. We managed to stay ahead of it for a while, then it caught up and dumped on us. Darn! Soggy again! We rode on, got some distance between us and that dastardly cloud, then it would grin wickedly, “Don’t think you can get away that easily!” it would smirk. Then it would catch up with us and dump on us again! Grrrrr, wet again! That was how the ride progressed, with us playing a game of chasings with that big black cloud!
When we managed to get away from it, we took the chance to stop for a very, very quick lunch break, but I had no sooner chomped on a rice cake, than it found us again and…down came the rain again! Right, that’s it…off we go and just power pedal until we reach Ghent! We sped on and arrived in Ghent, riding through the streets, just as that cloud discovered us again and gave us some “welcome to Ghent” rain. Fair go mate! You’ve had your fun! Leave us in peace now!
We searched for a hotel and finally located one, which also turned out to be a bit dodgy, once we’d checked in and found our room outside and up two flights of very steep and narrow stairs. The bikes have been housed in the garden shed, so they at least have somewhere to stay after their 64km ride. After a quick shower to warm the bones, we set off into the streets of Ghent. We are only in Ghent for one reason – my favourite poem. I love Robert Browning’s How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, (the part where the horse dies gets me every time! I challenge you to read it without moving to the edge of your seat, or beginning to move like you are that rider, in the saddle, frantically delivering the news that could save Aix!), so I just had to see Ghent for myself. (Mechelen is also mentioned in the poem, so now I’ve been to two places it mentions!)
Ghent is a big city, but was another place that didn’t feel busy or bustling. There were also many more bikes than we’d seen so far in Belgium. The buildings were beautiful, the streets cobbled and lovely and the surroundings historic. We happily roamed and gazed up down and around, taking in the sights of the city.
Then, how’s this for a coincidence…we were walking through a square and saw a couple standing and taking photos. The man saw us and made a gesture of recognition, then we looked more closely and it turned out to be a couple, who had been in the same group as us when we toured the De Wit tapestry manufacturers in Mechelen! What are the chances of us being on the same tour, on the same day, at the same time in Mechelen and then meeting up in a completely different city, on the same day, at the same time and in the same spot in the whole of that big city! We laughed, gave a couple of “small world” exclamations and got chatting. The man was from Mechelen, but his partner was from Taiwan, where they now live and he was showing her around Belgium for the first time. We said we would continue to keep an eye out for them in our travels here! They said, if they ever travel to Australia, they’ll be looking to see if our paths cross again! Amazing! That was a coincidence to beat all coincidences, I reckon!
During our roaming, we had something happen that wasn’t so good. Very sad actually. Our camera died! That fantastic camera, that has done an awesome job of recording our daily experiences and months and months of elevenses, started doing some strange things, then eventually just died. Very sad. The remainder of our roaming photos had to be taken with a smartphone and we may now have to find a replacement camera. Not something we had anticipated having to do.
We had another terrific day, with some nice flat riding, even if we did get a bit wet and windblown, then some enjoyable roaming around a beautiful city. Another day of memories collected. I shall finish this post with another literary conclusion and leave you with that favourite poem of mine, as I sit here in the city of its subject, Ghent.
How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix by Robert Browning
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.
Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turned in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit,
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit.
’Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Düffeld, ’twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So Joris broke silence with ‘Yet there is time!’
At Aerschot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare through the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each butting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray.
And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;
And one eye’s black intelligence,—ever that glance
O’er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on.
By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, ‘Stay spur!
Your Roos galloped bravely, the fault’s not in her,
We’ll remember at Aix’—for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretched neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.
So we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
’Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And ‘Gallop,’ gasped Joris, ‘for Aix is in sight!’
‘How they’ll greet us!’—and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets’ rim.
Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,
Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;
Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.
And all I remember is, friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ’twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.