EPIC Group Travel Writers: Rollin’, rollin’ by the river

Bicycling through the countryside.

We rode on the smoothest of trails on a “bike and barge” trip that exceeded expectations. Averaging 30-mile daily rides, from Bruges to Amsterdam, we rolled through picturesque countryside while our barge made pace with us.

No map in hand, nor GPS, and no directional disagreements with spouse. We simply followed our pied piper, Mike, on six-hour jaunts. Fields of corn and hay, sheep at the trail’s edge, horses and swans beyond and a few tricky intersections. We rode past gardens tended by owners who waved as we wove around old stone homes with flowers spilling over window boxes. Another dike, a canal of houseboats, streams popping with cattails. I felt not one more snapshot of beauty could be absorbed.

Breaking up our days with plenty of pit stops would make an experienced bicyclist snicker. This was not that kind of trip. Our group consisted of mostly retired firefighter couples and new friends, ages 58 to 76, who welcomed opportunities to stop and learn. Old Belgium cities of Ghent and Antwerp fed us with breathtaking cathedrals and history of the 1300s -1600s. Bells rang in the belfries of town squares. I wondered if they were rejoicing in their survival from the wars.

A windmill along the route.

Mike provided commentary as we passed windmills, castles, art sculptures and remains of German bunkers. Afternoon breaks at patios for coffee or ice cream shops— lovely June weather. Some days ended with beers and frites in local pubs —that’s how compelled we were to strengthen the Euro. Mike’s enthusiastic nature went beyond — he often took small groups on evening strolls off our barge and into a village or medieval city to see landmarks.

At day’s end, the barge beckoned us at its new spot on the river. Quick hands helped roll our bikes up the gang plank to the bow, and we were grateful.

“Hey!” one of our friends bellowed one afternoon. “Who put these big rocks in my panniers?” (Another snicker from the “innocent ones” whose pranks added spark to the stress-free days.) We morphed into a family of odd sorts… sharing bicycle tips, clothes, sunscreen and champagne.

We looked forward to late afternoons on the forward sundeck. Hard not to be happy when you’re watching a sunset, when your body feels good and when you’re not cooking the dinner. Some napped, while others produced photos of the day. A beer-tasting contest, terribly important debates about Belgium chocolate, and grateful days of simply hanging.

Ready to roll.

How smart is living in this region of the world, we pondered — where foresight in building green transportation like light rail and thousands of bike paths helped shape smart communities for the past 50 years. Even small ferries connected our bike paths across canals — free of charge. Parents with their youngsters, older folk with fresh produce and puppies in bike baskets, working women in skirts ‘n high heels — not one wearing a bike helmet like us, except for the wee ones. The locals simply smiled as they waited for our long stream of Americans to pedal through intersections.

“Bike back! Car up!” we first yelled to each other — a safety measure to move over. (Admittedly, the poor rider behind me would have appreciated a hand signal or my call, “Stopping!” one morn.) Later, Mike embarrassingly reminded us that everyone is used to traffic coming all directions. I think he meant, “You Americans — stop talking.”

The personalities of our four-person crew were charming. My husband said they made our trip. Our captain Henk not only deftly navigated us through locks and channels, he welcomed us to stand at his bridge controls and learn. Henk provided friends’ bands for a few evenings of dancing and performances. His first mate, Vera, a 38-year-old woman who quit her engineering job for the outdoors, could swing a rope up around the locks’ posts like an seasoned sailor, and she could dance with abandon — pulling us in to join her.

One evening, a tender memory ensued after a small band was dismantling their equipment. Someone in our group asked what the Dutch National Anthem sounded like. In seconds, the crew formed a straight line, like proud 9-year-olds, puffed out their chests, and sang three verses of their anthem with such heartfelt emotion that many of us welled up in tears.

Our talented German chef, Markus, and his sous chef, Agnes, created tasty four-course meals every night, adding charming stories about his menu. The breakfasts were also satisfying. And before we left each morn, they brought out cheese, meats, sandwich makings for our lunches to go. Smart. Markus chastised us for throwing away the smallest of recyclables. Every morning he carried a bag of recycled items off the boat, while bringing back fresh fish and vegetables for the nights’ meals.

A group photo in front of our barge.

Our barge, Sailing Home, was impressive and immaculate. With its green hull and polished wooden decks, railings and wainscoting, it was homey, with soft chairs for reading spaces, a charming bar, and long tables to mix up our eating arrangements. Our snug quarters below had twin beds, two port windows and attached bathrooms with large showers. Cell service was inconsistent. With limited WiFi, some scoffed at this dilemma, and others shrugged with “that’s travel, buddy.”

Many commented how well they slept after a day’s ride. Others shared how reasonable this trip was – only $1,000 each for a week including meals, but not the booze. Some friends were not cyclists and learned too late to bring padded bicycle shorts.

One of our participants arranged our adventure six months prior, after obtaining enough takers through emails. We were thrilled with Cycle Tours and Sailing Home, the barge. Finally, after riding into lively Amsterdam, we saw many barge sizes and styles at the port. They range from luxury barges with chandeliers and spa pools to a few that provide working experiences. Online choices abound. Bringing one’s own bike is an option, but we were pleased with the provided new hybrids and panniers.

On our last evening aboard, I watched my husband and a few others surround a large map with our chef, Markus. They were as animated as kids with new bikes. I slid over just as Markus was pointing to a route he was to be taking shortly: the Moselle River valley trail through wine-country of Germany.

“Kommen Sie mit! Ohh, the beauty!” he declared. At this point, they would have followed him and the barge into the Sahara.

— By Rita Ireland

Rita Ireland is a long-time Edmonds girl, a mom and was a very happy teacher for over 40 years. Her travels on bikes, hikes, tuk tuks and Cuban ’57 Chevies keep her safer than those mountain bike trails her husband wants her on. Rita is also a regular participant of EPIC Group Writers’ Travel Writing Wednesday, held on the second Wednesday of the month, 3:30-5 p.m., at Savvy Traveler, 5th Avenue South, Edmonds. For more info on EPIC Group Writers, go to www.epicgroupwriters.com.

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