I now have time to finish writing this post, so here is the new and unabridged version:
So I decided to postpone Paris and start riding towards Brussels instead. I had planned to meet some of the flatmates here today, on the sixth, and wanted to take my time traveling Belgium instead of riding through France and then rushing my trip up here to meet them. So here is how I managed to get from London to Brussels:
The first day of riding was entirely through english countryside with beautiful weather. I slept behind a pub right before entering Canterberry, they had a nice field back there and the owner said he would be more than happy to let me camp on the property. The next day I rode a bit slower and took my time walking the streets of Canterberry for a little while (Yes, the same as the one from The Canterberry Tales). There are plenty of old buildings, churches and ally-ways to get lost in here, It is one of my favorite towns that I have found in England. I have discovered that the best way to ride a bike on cobblestone is to try and hum a favorite tune while riding, it comes out all jarbled and fun.
I was able to make it all the way down to Dover and catch a ferry to Calais on the coast of France. I took a later ferry in order to stop into my last English pub for a while and share a pint with the locals in Dover. Consequently, I arrived in Calais a bit late and ended up sleeping behind a hotel, no one even noticed I was there. It was on a small patch of grass, tucked behind some trees: a small hide-away in the middle of the city. I didnt quite make it out of bed at sunrise, but about the time all of the owels decided to go to sleep that morning (there are a surprising amount of owels, or at least what sound like owels, in Calais).
I spent Saturday morning walking around Calais. I should have just kept riding, as I quickly grew board with the place, especially after experiencing Canterberry the day before. Calais kind of reminds me of the Jersey shore, except everyone speaks french. I left that afternoon for Dunkirque. I spent the night on some farmland there.
In London I spent a long time researching bicycle routes on the computer that would take me to Dover from London. I didn't have a map, but if I stayed sharp I could generally follow the route, losing track at somepoints but always finding my way back quite easily and without much detour at all. Once in France, I didn't have a map or any real idea of the routes here. All I had was a compass, which is what I quickly discovered is all I really need to get around. If I stay on small roads and head in the dirrection that I generally need to go, by the end of the day I start seeing signs that take me to the town that I set off for in the first place. I really enjoy travelling this way, it is not technical, I do not have to check a map every hour or so; I just ride towards the sun in the morning, and away from it in the evening, and check the compass when it's cloudy.
Sunday I spent riding through Norhern Belgium. Belgium is bicycle crazy! There is a bicycle shop in everytown, and everyone loves cyclists. EVERY major highway has cycle lanes alongside of the road, If you want to cover alot of ground fast, this is a great way to go. If the weather is nice and you would rather take your time riding in the countryside, there is an entire unofficial, cycle specific, mini-highway network that covers almost all of the farmland of northern Belgium. All of the paths are extremely well maintained, have bridges, traditional road signs, and signs at every intersection telling the towns in each direction and how many kilometers away they are. Cyclists and walkers use this mini-highway system everyday to commute to work or school, go to the store, or see friends several towns away; it is a fantastic system.
Sunday night I walked into a family-owned Belgian pub, it was quite a cold night. I explained I only knew English and where I had riden from. Within minutes I was presented beer and hot soup, and a warm place to sleep. After much thanks, I started off early the next morning. I was determined to get a lot of ground underway, but as chance would have it, I punctured a tire a few kilometres down the road.
I walked into the local bakery in Zarren and asked where I could find the velo-shop. Of course there was a bike shop just a block away, the lady at the counter told me how to get there. On my way, I passed a man named Jim who was out walking his chuahua. We started talking, he said that his father fixes bikes for a hobby and would gladly fix my puncture free of charge. Of course I could not decline his offer and followed him to the house.
Forgive me for not remembering her name, but upon arrival a woman presented to me coffee and bisquits and asked me to have a seat in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Silveer, her husband, was fast at work in the mini bike workshop he had in the garage. Curious to discover that I was riding a fixie, and impressed that I had such an old bike in good condition, he had patched the puncture within a few minutes. The woman, Jim, and myself were laughing and exchanging stories in the kitchen. As my second cup of coffee was being poured, Silveer had noticed that my crank was slightly loose, as I had slightly stripped the inside when riding. Without saying a word, he had attatched a new crank to my bike and transfered my pedals before I had finished my second cup of coffee, completely fixing the slight wobble that had been getting worse over the past day of riding!
We all took photos of one another (which will be posted soon), exchanged hugs, and then I was on my way, with a smile on my face. I am still marveling at how a punctured tire could turn into one of the best highlights of my day! That night I camped a little east of Ghent, on the side of the road. I made some couscous, lentils, and vegetables on my little stove (which is still on of my favorite things that I carry). I even had belgian beer with dinner! I went to bed early and woke up early, a man named Raf was walking his young one in a stroller on the road when I woke, He invited me to his place to warm up with coffee and breakfast. Belgian people are incredible! Raf and I talked for a bit, let me use his computer, and offered me a place to stay if I was ever back that way.
I spent most of that day in Ghent. I love Ghent. It is a university town, so there are young people everywhere. There are tons of good places to eat, lots of very old buildings, and bicycles have completely taken over the town! There are more bicycles in Ghent than I have ever seen in one place in my life. In one market square, you will see THOUSANDS locked up or just sitting there. One person I talked to said that it is best not to own a bicycle in Ghent, most people just find one that is not locked up, ride it to where they need to go, and then leave it for the next person to take. The streets are literally flooded with them.
Aalst is a midpoint between Ghent and my destination: Brussels. I decided to spend that night in Aalst. I rode into town, found the first two guys that looked about my age and asked: Hey do you happen to speak english? -A little bit - Would you happen to have a floor I can sleep on tonight? - One sec... phone call... My friend's parents are out of town for 3 weeks, you can stay with him.
That night all of us met up to play poker and hang out. I tried my best to stay up late with them, but I was now accustomed to waking with the sun, after my first hit of a joint I thanked them all and they let me retire in a back room. Late the next morning I woke, it was sooooo nice to sleep-in, especially in a warm bed. The awsome guy I was staying with let me take a much needed bath at his place, we cooked some food, and then I was off to Brussels. Before leaving Aalst, the guy I was staying with (he asked me not to share his name) set me up with a student to stay with in Brussels for a couple nights: Toon is his name, he is also a cyclist and a wonderful person. He let me sleep on his couch the last two nights, cooked me a chicken dinner, and told me places to check out around town while he is at school. Today I am off to hopefully meet again with some of the flatmates from London (whom I still promise to introduce you to), they should be ariving in Brussels shortly.
...and that is how I got here!
I have pictures that I will post soon, the computer that I am at now will not let me do so.
Miss you all & Much Love