Some Favorite Rides
Where should you go for a day out on the bike? Here are some of my favorites.
Schelde River in the Temse Area
Probably the best place near Brussels to enjoy a bicycle ride - on fine pavement without cars, through nature preserves and farmland - is along the Schelde and Durme Rivers.
Head up the A12 towards Antwerp. Exit for Puurs and then follow the signs for Puurs (the McDonald's has been rebuilt after the attack by the "animal rights" people) and then Temse. Just before the Schelde bridge (road and railway) turn left and park in the lot near 'T Sas pub. The bike path at this point follows the road across from the pub. It returns quickly to the dike towpath in both directions
The cycling in either direction is fabulous. Wide, fine pavement along the dikes, with fine nature, no hills and NO cars. Going right (downstream) you have 7 km to the Wintam lock at the end of the Willebroek canal. Going upstream it is 10 km of fine nature, with short sections of river front road in Mariekerke and Sint-Amands, before the prospect of riding by a highway is faced. There are several nice pubs along the way, including one right on the dike in a nature preserve.
If those distances are not enough, drive across the bridge and take the first exit for Tielrode. Just past Temse church is a left turn that is not well marked. In Tielrode follow the signs to the ferry (Durmeveer). There is a large parking lot, and pub.
West on the north bank of the Durme is a fine 8 km of paved towpath to Waasmunster bridge. You can come back on the south bank if you don't mind a few hundred meters of riding on quiet roads.
For even more km, and just as delightful, cross on the pedestrian/bike Durme ferry and head for Dendermonde (19.5 km). This is pure paved towpath - bike path, except for a few hundred meters in Driegoten.
Temse is a great place to eat. Check out the restaurants and taverns on the waterfront. Eel is a local specialty. But be warned: croque monsieur has little resemblance to what is so typical where people speak French. Here they start with thick slices of fresh bread, farm ham, and cheese that has never been in a factory. The platter will also bear a hearty salad. (Various times in 1998.)
The Ronquières Loop
A little more rigorous is the Ronquières loop - 29 km. Most of the route is paved, albeit a bit rough in places. It takes you through nature preserves, ancient farms, by 15 locks, and to the unique Ronquières incline. Some climbing is required, but in small chunks. Anyone with any experience cycling should have no problem doing the entire route. (But I would not recommend it for small children on small bikes - they would find the going a bit difficult in places, and there is never any protection between the path and water.) Take your bird book and binoculars - there are lots of birds, particularly in the spring and fall.
Drive south from Brussels on the E19 and take exit 20 (Feluy). Turn right at the bottom of the ramp and drive north about 6.5 km to the tower of the Ronquières incline. Park in the lot to the right and unload the bikes. (Or perhaps first tour the visitor center, open Easter through October. The incline is an interesting and unusual canal structure.)
Start your tour to the north, down hill. The best views of the incline are from the west side. Ride (or walk you bikes) along the path paralleling the incline. At the bottom, cross the bridge and turn right into the village of Le Chenu. At the south end of the bridge across the old canal (by the Cafe Tour de Glacée) turn east on the right side of the old canal and along lock 27. (The first lock is actually 28, below the Ronquières bridge.) You will stay on this (generally west) side of the old canal the entire distance.
Just after you start up the canal you pass a "village" of canal barges that have been turned into residences. Then you are in the country, with mostly farmland and nature preserves as you meander through the countryside and climb some 56 meters at a total of 15 locks. The path is of variable quality, with surfaces of cement, asphalt, cobbles and gravel. (The gravel sections are often the easiest riding.) Each lock (but one) has a lockkeeper's house with a lock number, making it easy to keep track of where you are.
A couple of km south of Seneffe the canal turns to the right. The original canal went straight ahead at this point to the tunnel. After the right turn you reach a lift bridge, with a marina on the other side, and then the new canal. Stay on the right (north side) of the lift bridge and continue on the path back north.
After about 5 km you reach a guard lock - a single gate that can be dropped down into the canal. About 3 km later the canal goes on an ever-higher embankment and then a bridge to the top of the incline - with no safe way down. To get down safely, watch until you start seeing street lights along the canal ahead. When you can see 5 lights, you will reach a rusty trash bin. From there is a path down to the road. 800 m on the road brings you back to the parking area.
Some history: When the Brussels-Charleroi canal was built (1826-32), it followed the Zenne/Senne river valley from southern Brussels to Tubize, the branch Sennette to Ronquières, and its branch the Samme to the ridge in the Seneffe area. After a few km along the plateau, the canal followed the Pieton down to the Sambre by Charleroi. The locks were built to the standard of the time, for narrow barges 4 m wide and a capacity of at most 300 tonnes.
After 1945 it was decided to expand the capacity of the canal to 1,350 tonnes. Studies showed that it would be cheaper to built an entirely new canal between Ronquières and Seneffe, rather than widening the existing canal and building new locks. The new canal, opened in 1968, was not only 5 km shorter than the old, but replaced 16 locks with one incline to move barges up/down 68 m (223 feet), plus one lock. The result is said to have reduced transit time between Brussels and Charleroi by seven hours.
The old canal was then decommissioned. Only the lower two locks were left operational - the gates were removed from the rest and walls and cascades installed to maintain water level in the various sections. Part of the area was declared a nature preserve. The result is a wonderful cycling area, even if the paths could be better maintained. (July 2000)
Nete River and Canal
This is a great area for children or beginners, with some fine countryside, nature preserves and wetlands. The basic loop is 14 km, which can be easily extended to 23 km or more. This is entirely wide bike path, mostly in excellent condition. You do not need to worry about cars except for a couple of places where you cross roads.
An easy starting point is the Nijlen bridge. Take the E19 to Mechelen north and follow the signs for Lier. At Lier take the ring road around to the north side of town. Where the ring ends turn left and follow the signs for Emblem and Viersel (N12). About 3 km past Emblem turn right towards Nijlen. After crossing two bridges turn sharp left. Cross the Bailey bridge over the river, then turn left on the canal embankment under the bridge. There is a parking area.
Ride back across the Bailey bridge and turn left on the bike path along the Nete River. You have a lovely ride of nearly 7 km through fine countryside, with a few nice estates. After 3 km there is a wooden footbridge - you can turn back down the other bank if you wish. Otherwise in another 3 km you find an old lock which is now beside the river - a memorial to the days when this was a commercial waterway. Just past the lock is a weir with a bridge. Cross the bridge and turn right. In about one km, after passing under the E313 highway, you reach the Albert Canal.
Turn left along the south bank of the Albert. You pass a sand and gravel operation, and then a motocross track. Past the track the land to the south has no trees - probably sand from the excavation of the canal. In the spring the bushes have yellow flowers - gorse. On the canal there may be waterskiers.
A little less than 4 km along the Albert brings you to the town of Viersel. Then you reach the Nete Canal. You must turn left, to a lock. For a break, cross the canal and turn right along the road back to and along the Albert. In a few hundred meters the road curves away from the canal and there is a nice restaurant/pub.
To complete the loop, continue south from the lock. You can ride on either side, but if you plan the short loop stay on the left. In 3 km you are back at your car.
For more distance, continue south on the east bank of the canal. In 4 1/2 km you reach an unusual sight - the Nete River goes UNDER the Nete Canal. Just past that point you can turn left on the east bank of the river and back north to the Bailey bridge and car. Along the route is some fine nature preserve and wetlands. Past the first highway there is a pub and then two fishing clubs before you reach Nijlen bridge.
To cross the Nijlen road you have to climb up and down stairs, and there is a short unpaved stretch at the bottom of the stairs on the north side. If you want to avoid that, follow the road to the east along the bridge approach, cross the highway and follow the road on the north side of the bridge approach back to the Bailey bridge and your car.
A further extension would be to continue south from the point where the river crosses under the canal for about one km to a railway bridge. There is a bike path along the bridge on the north side. On the other side, follow the road under the railway and then turn right on the bike path to cross the rail bridge over the canal. A few hundred meters after that bridge you cross to a road - you are in Lier. Turn left. This is a great town to explore by bike.
Brugge - Damme - Sluis
Another great ride for the smaller ones. The canal connects three cities with substantially complete walls, all with windmills, yet most of the 15 km is in fine countryside. The riding is completely flat, and the pavement good to excellent.
To avoid the traffic around Brugge, exit the E40 at Aalter (exit 11) and follow the signs for Knokke. Along the way you pass Maldegem, which has an operating steam railway museum - standard and narrow gage. At Hoeke turn left after crossing the canal and park by the canal. (This is about one hour from Brussels.)
Hoeke is near the northern end of the canal, about 3.5 km from Sluis. If you are not sure about people's endurance, you might go south first, on the west/north bank. At the Brugge ring cross the road and the canal and turn left to visit the windmills. Coming back you may be able to visit the windmill on the south edge of Damme. Then cross the canal and visit the village of Damme - particularly the town hall and church. There are several fine restaurants and pubs, as well as craft shops.
Sluis also offers numerous places to eat. Most of the earth town wall remains, and is topped by a path that is fine for cycling. The windmill is by the south gate.
Copyright Dan Gamber, 1998 - 2004
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