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Detailed Travel-Report

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5,3 03.11.2020 | Stephen M. Bruges home-based tour

It’s life, Jim, but not as we knew it!

Overall
I did this tour as a follow-on to the Flanders Bike Trail tour (Rad & Reisen travelcode 050), which starts in Brussels and ends in Brugge, so the two combine very nicely, except that the Flanders tour contains an identical day ride, to De Haan. I had done the Brugge tour before, in spring 2017, so knew that the Velotel, at which I would be staying, has a number of suggested rides (now 25), so I could easily replace the De Haan ride with one of these to avoid duplication. Combining these tours also rather conveniently gave me a day for exploring Brugge (the check-out day for the Flanders tour is the check-in day for the Brugge tour, so, with no travelling required, it becomes a “free” day); one of the observations from my previous visit was that, with cycling occupying most of the day, there’s little time left for exploring Brugge itself.

Second time round, I felt I generally got more out of each day’s ride than I had done the first time. Conversely, some of the novelty value was lost, particularly cycling along excellent cycle paths beside canals, which had been an uplifting experience in 2017. This time, too, I was nothing like as lucky with the weather, with wind and rain affecting most days. The coronavirus arrangements also affected the experience, which is behind the title I’ve given this report.

It was good to become reacquainted with Brugge and the towns of De Haan, Damme and Sluis and, this time, Blankenberge and Lissewege made a deeper impression on me. I even warmed a little to Knokke-Heist! My experience of the various castles was somewhat improved and I had better luck at the Zwin nature reserve, which I’d found blocked off in 2017. So second visits have a definite purpose!

Incidentally, if you simply want a short break in Brugge, without any cycling, this tour is excellent value: booking the hotel independently will cost rather more than the price for this tour. (I checked!) If you do decide you’d like to cycle on one or two days after all, bikes can be hired from the Velotel on a daily basis.

Highlights

  • Brugge itself.
  • De Haan, Damme and Sluis, Blankenberge and Lissewege.
  • Castles. (If you want to visit them, check which days they’re open, and cycle accordingly.)
  • Zwin nature reserve.

Niggles:

  • No spare power socket at the desk in my hotel room.
  • Duplicate ride (to De Haan) in the Flanders Bike Trail tour and this tour meant I had to find something different for one of the rides.
  • Poor communication about use of the bike from my precursor Flander Bike Trail tour.

Visiting during the Coronavirus year 2020 and comparing with a stay in Germany a month or two earlier, showed that tourism in Belgium is the more difficult, in that face coverings are required in public places (under threat of a EUR 250 fine for non-compliance), although in most places, but not all, a face covering is not required when cycling. The instant you’re off the bike, though, it’s a different matter, and that’s not where my thinking goes — I’m off the bike because I’ve seen something that interests me, and that’s where my attention is, not to putting on a face covering. I found, too, the measures taken in the hotel, particularly the breakfast arrangements, were a big negative, and not one I’d experienced in Germany. My time in Germany had led me to believe tourism was perfectly possible again, boosting confidence for the Belgian tour and to place new bookings (for 2021), but the arrangements I found in Belgium, though workable, weren’t ones I want for a holiday. It’s not a case of feeling unsafe — that was never the case on this tour, and, I suspect, even at the height of the pandemic, you could have done the tour perfectly safely, for you’re out in the open and easily able to maintain multiple times the minimum distance from others. Rather, it’s the inconvenience factor arising from the regulations and the arrangements that have been put in place. Additionally, on returning home, I was required to quarantine for 14 days, so as well as the holiday experience not being all it once was, the consequences of going away are quite considerable.

Regrets:

  • I think I missed Kasteel Tudor on the Velotel’s Forest Castles ride (day 4).
  • I could easily have gone to the windmill in Retranchement when heading for the Zwin nature reserve on day 5.
  • Purchasing a ticket for the Zwin nature reserve — not worth if for a short visit. (A ticket is not necessary to cycle on the nature reserve.)

Rad & Reisen’s local agent: VOS Travel

Date of Tour: 2020-08-28/09-02 (Season 1; 6 days / 5 nights, Friday to Wednesday)

Hotel Chosen: Velotel (Category C)

Options Chosen:

  • “Category C” hotel.
  • 6 days / 5 nights.
  • Single Room.
  • Half Board.
  • 7/21-speed bike without a coaster (“back-pedal”) brake.
  • Travel documents in English.

Transfers
At the start of the tour, I was already in Brugge, installed in the Velotel, having completed the Flanders Bike Trail tour (Rad & Reisen travelcode 050) immediately beforehand. This starts in Brussels and ends in Brugge, so, in effect, I’d cycled there. To reach Brussels, I’d taken a Eurostar train from London to Brussels Midi-Zuid. From there, a domestic train service (to Oostende) stops at Brugge. The fastest services take around an hour, but slower services take over two. There are direct trains from the airport, through the Brussels stations, to Brugge. Tickets may be booked on the Belgian Rail (SNCB) website, and cost around EUR15 (half of this for over-65s) for a one-way trip. Tickets can be delivered by e-mail as PDF files, for printing or loading onto a mobile phone.

A taxi from Brugge station to the Velotel is around EUR16.00.

For my return from Brugge, I did take a train from Brugge to Brussels Midi/Zuid. At Brussels Midi/Zuid station, I didn’t see any signs for “Eurostar”; instead, you need to follow signs for International rail or Channel rail.

Materials Supplied
About two weeks prior to the tour, I received an e-mail from Rad & Reisen attaching the following documents:

  • “Practical information”. It turned out this was the first eight pages of the complete tour document received at the hotel. This provided details of how to reach Brugge by various modes of transport and then instructions for each of the Brugge hotels. After this there’s a section about the rental bikes, cycling directions between Hotel Navarra and NH Hotel Brugge — they’re only about a kilometre apart (the main route instructions do not include directions for Hotel Navarra) and a couple of pages giving historical/background information about Brugge.
  • Hotel List. Obviously, for this tour, there’s jsut one hotel.
  • Receipts and vouchers. Mainly, these confirmed receipt/provided proof of payment for the tour, for the hotel, half board option and for the bike hire. So, useful documents to have available (I loaded them on my mobile phone) should there be any query at a hotel.

At the hotel, I received a package left for me by VOS Travel. The package consisted of the following items:

  • The plastic wallet in which it’s all contained, which, using two supplied Velcro strips, is intended to be attached to the handlebars of the bike. (I used the map holder on top of my handlebar bag instead.)
  • An instruction sheet (in Flemish) on how to assemble the plastic wallet into a holder.
  • An A-5 size ring-bound booklet containing the route instructions. The first part of this is the “Practical information” received previously in PDF form, the remainder the detailed route instructions.
  • A Brugge city map.
  • A very good fold-out map of the area to be cycled, scale 1:50 000, with the four cycle routes marked on it, a different colour for each route.
  • A sheet describing the precautions taken to tackle Coronavirus.
  • A sheet with a map of Brugge depicting the parts of the city where face coverings are compulsory.

When to go
One observation I made when reviewing the structure of the three hotels’ booking seasons is that the most expensive period is during the hottest months of the year, which may not be the optimum time to visit if you’re going to be spending substantial hours of the day cycling, though, for this tour, a good deal of the cycling is along tree-lined canals, which could offer some relief from the worst of the summer heat. The NH Hotel’s booking season is anomalous in that it is divided into three price ranges with two peak periods: a high peak in late spring, then June drops down to the base level (and, thus, may be a good time to go), followed by a not-so-high peak for July and August, the two months expected to be hottest.

Booking for a start in late August secured me the lowest price band and (I thought!) a good chance of reliably warm, but not too hot weather. Booking for later still might have offered the possibility of enjoying some autumnal colour, but at greater risk of less suitable weather. In reality, it turned out August was disappointing weather-wise, with a named storm passing through in the lead-up to the tour. For 2020, it would have been better to have delayed for a couple of weeks.

Bike
At the start of the Flanders Bike Trail tour, when the bike was handed over, I asked VOS Travel’s representative if I would be using the same bike for my follow-on tour in Brugge. He assured me I would, so, at the end of the tour, I kept on using it.

The bicycle had suspension forks and was equipped with a 21-speed derailleur gear system, hand-operated V-brakes, a rear rack, a propstand and hub lighting system powering both front and rear lights (which I left permanently switched on, as daytime running lights). Also, typically for these bikes, there was a frame lock to secure the rear wheel when the bicycle wasn’t being used. A chain guard prevented getting lubricant from the chain on you or your clothes, but tended to be a little noisy, especially in some gears. I noticed the handlebars were curved back quite a bit: perfectly comfortable, but I did find this impeded extremely tight turns (U-turns) because the handlebars would hit my body. A bicycle computer was also fitted, which, if you remember to reset it at the start of each day’s journey, enables you to match distances to those in the route instructions.

To this set-up, I added a water-bottle cage and brackets to carry my handlebar bag and GPS. Because I’d received no pannier bag, it was lucky I had a second luggage bag (a rucksack) to carry the extra bits (waterproofs, my own pump and repair kit), although because it does not have rack fastenings, I had to bungee this to the top of the rack, complicating access to its contents.

During breakfast on Sunday morning (so, at the start of day 3 of the Brugge tour), someone from Reception came to see me, holding an envelope and pannier bag in her hands. “You haven’t collected the key for your bike,” she told me. “But I already have the key for my bike. I was told I’d be using the same bike as I had from Brussels to Brugge,” I protested. “But I will take that pannier bag, because I wasn’t issued with one in Brussels.” She said she would contact VOS Travel and find out if I could continue using the first bike, or had to switch to the second bike, which would mean I’d have to transfer the accessories I had fitted. Back in my room, I received a telephone call from Reception and was told I’d have to switch bikes because the first bike wasn’t insured for my use on this tour. (I was surprised to hear of any insurance, for I’d always thought I had to insure myself for bike use/damage, not that it was included in the hire fee.) So, anyway, I switched bikes. (My first bike was still in the Velotel’s bike garage when I finished the Brugge tour.)

In the bike garage, there are two long lines of bikes, so you have to look at the numbers on their rear mudguards to find the bike with the number matching the bike’s key number. The bike was similar in specification to the first bike: suspension forks, hand-operated V-brakes, rack, propstand, Shimano hub-generator, though, on this bike, it powered just the front light, the rear light being battery-powered. So, I had no worries about travelling into Brugge in the evenings and staying until after lighting-up time. Unlike the first bike, the handlebars were not raked back and the chain guard did not scrape the chain in any gear. Also, as well as the frame lock, this bike had a chain loop which could be locked into it, enabling you to lock the bike to some immovable object nearby. I found the bike comfortable with well-adjusted gears and effective brakes. I noticed it was, in fact, the same bike as the one I’d had on this tour in 2017.

Navigating the Daily Routes

  • The route instructions are the main source of information. The knooppunt system is used, translated as “Cycling Point network”, although the description given is poor, in my opinion, as it doesn’t explain that you know you’re at a knooppunt when you see a signpost with its number at the top of the signpost in white lettering on a green background with directions to adjacent knooppunts underneath in green lettering on a white background. (The front of the supplied map shows a signpost which would be seen at knooppunt 14.) In-between knooppunts, direction signs are the number of the knooppunt you wish to reach in green lettering on a white background with an arrow indicating the direction to take.
  • The supplied map. Should you find you can’t take the route described in the route instructions (sometimes the cycle path is closed because of construction work), the map may come in handy for working out how to proceed. As far as cycle maps are concerned, be aware that knooppunt numbers were changed in the Brugge area in March 2017, turning all earlier cycle maps into sources of confusion. If you have a cycling map from before this time (check the knooppunt numbers on the cycle path round the outskirts of Brugge with those on the supplied map), ignore it, and stick to the provided map.
  • GPS tracks. The pre-tour information for the Flanders Bike Trail mentioned that GPS tracks were available on application from VOS Travel. I e-mailed the address, asking if tracks for the Brugge home-based tour were also available. The following morning, I received set of tracks for each tour. Examining them, I saw that they sometimes deviated from the written route descrption and were not always aligned to the pathways as accurately as they could be, so I modified them to address both these matters.



    I find my GPS doesn’t give anything like the advertised battery life, and even less so when it’s navigating, so I tend to use it for this purpose only if I think I’ve wandered off track. Sometimes, also, as already noted, the provided GPS track doesn’t take the same course as the one described in the route instructions, which can be a source of confusion.

Cycle Clothing
My expectation for weather in northern Europe in late August is for warm or even hot weather and mostly sunny days. I caught a period of unsettled, showery, weather, with the tail-ends of a couple of Atlantic storms bringing higher than usual winds blowing across the region. So, in addition to the cycle clothing for the expected warm weather, I was glad to have packed some clothing for cooler weather, for it was these items, together with rain wear, which I was wearing most of the time. Despite this, when the sun does shine, it is still powerful, so precautions against burning are necessary.


Continuation

Because of its length, this travel report has been split into three separate parts.
This, the first part, covers general information.
Part two covers the hotel (Velotel) and days one, two and three.
Part three covers days four, five and six.


Photographs
I’m allowed to submit two photographs with each part of my report, so, since this part does not include any of the days’ rides, I thought readers would be intrigued to see examples from my unique, acclaimed, non-award winning photographic collection Rubbish bins of Brugge...

My first photograph is of a black bin in Brugge’s market place. Bin afficionados will notice it is of modern appearance and will be fascinated by the hallmark on its top. Normal people may spot this is in the part of the square where horse-drawn carriages line up waiting for customers, with the Belfry behind.

My second photograph is of a green bin of what appears to be a much older design. Bin afficionados will notice the hallmark on the side of the bin and the lock for emptying it, observing that bins here may be prone to overfilling. Normal people may note this is the horse-carriage turning place at Minnewaterpark in Brugge, where horse and horse-woman take a break between rides.

  • Booking handling 6
    Travel documents 5
    Per-Tour information 6
    Accomodation 5
    Board 4
    Route description 5
    On-site assistance 5
    Route-character 5
    Bicycle + equipment 6
    Price-performance ratio 6
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