Cycling through Flanders from Genk to Antwerp

04/06/2019

Cycling through Flanders from Genk to Antwerp
 

Back to Brussels Charleroi Airport...

Out of all of the airports dotted around Europe, I have probably spent more time at Brussels Charleroi Airport on the outskirts of the Belgian capital than anywhere else. Ryanair generally offer very low fares from Manchester Airport to Charleroi. This flight was no exception as my ticket was priced at just £9.99. After a direct coach transfer to Brussels-Midi station, I was ready for the 2 hour Inter-City train across Belgium to the industrial city of Genk located near the Dutch border in the province of Limburg.

Belgium might appear to be one country on the European map, but not many people realise that the country is essentially divided in two under language and cultural lines. I have visited the French speaking region of Wallonia in the past, but the main reason of the four day visit was to explore the cycling network in the Dutch speaking Flanders region with the local tourist office - Visit Flanders.

Unearthing footballing talent in Genk...

A few hours after leaving Brussels, the train pulled into Genk, a city not on the usual Belgian tourist route and formerly one of the main coal and car producing regions in Europe. Genk is best known today for unearthing footballing talent and the local side K.R.C Genk are current Belgian league champions and have nurtured the footballing talents of the current Manchester City star Kevin de Bruyne in recent years.

C-Mine - Like a scene from 'War of the Worlds'...

I had time to explore the city before meeting up with the group and walked to the nearby C-Mine Museum. This former coal mining hub has been transformed into a cultural centre and retains the 60 metre tall steel steel head shafts that loom over the complex like tripods from a scene in the War of the Worlds.

I stayed at the 4* M Hotel located in the city centre next to Molenvijver Lake and Belgium’s first indoor shopping centre and met the international cycling group for a meal later in the evening. Genk might be tucked away at the far end of the Belgian rail network and has the feel of the post-industrial region like Tameside or South Yorkshire, yet it was good to see somewhere 'real' and away from the well-trodden path to Bruges.

Exploring Belgian and Flanders heritage in Bokrijk...

There were two cycling highlights lined up for us by the Tourist Office and the first one was a short ride around an intricately reconstructed heritage village at Bokrijk. This popular open-air museum is the Belgian equivalent of the famous Beamish Museum located up in Northumberland here in the UK. Visitors are given a glimpse into life in Flanders through the ages ranging from the 17th century to the 1960s.

Visiting the park is a rite of passage for Belgian school children and the highlight for our cycling group was 'cycling through water' and a sneak preview of the new exhibition featuring works by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The quirky cycle path cuts through an artificial lake in Bokrijk and creates an almost biblical illusion of a parting of water. The recently built attraction featured on Time magazine's ‘must see’ places in the world for 2018.

A clash of architectural styles in Ghent...

We caught the train from the station directly outside of the Bokrijk museum and arrived into Ghent in the early evening. Ghent is one of the most visited cities in Belgium and famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Site historical centre. We only had time for a short walking tour and my interest in modern architecture was piqued by the controversial Market Hall that seemed to be at odds with the surrounding medieval church spires and picture postcard public squares.

The coach picked us up in the morning outside the Ibis Hotel in Ghent for the short transfer to Oudenaarde located in East Flanders. Our aim was to ride on electric bikes to the city of Kortrijk about 60km away and familiarise ourselves with the Limburg region’s excellent cycle network and detailed route mapping through the picturesque Flanders countryside.

First time on an electric bike...

The cycle network is based on the system used by miners to navigate underground and was designed by a former mining engineer; the network uses nodes and numbers to navigate at key junctions and crossroads. If the numbers are followed with an itinerary then in theory it is hard to get lost or go the wrong way! 

This was also the first time that I had used an electric bike for a significant distance. I've always been a bit of an e-bike skeptic, but after careful power management and limited use of the rather exciting 'turbo' mode, I am definitely a convert. I even climbed (some might say ‘flew’) up the Koppenberg, a famed cobbled climb and a key challenge for any rider on a Belgian Spring Classic race, sportive or ride.

Exploring Antwerp and the port city...

Shortly after arriving into Kortrijk, I was back on the train heading north towards the edgy port city of Antwerp. My hotel was located opposite the beautiful Antwerpen Centraal train station and is surely one of Europe's grandest railway terminals. The following day I explored the city centre with a knowledgeable local guide from Cyclant that are based in the city.

My main reason for visiting Antwerp was to see the impressive diamond-like Port Building by the late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid that fuses together the city's shipping past and present with its internationally famous gem industry. Stunning is a pretty accurate one word description of the building.

On the Eurostar to London...

Instead of taking the easiest and quickest way home via Charleroi, I decided to go on the Eurostar back to London before returning to Rochdale the next day. I still find it astounding that the travel time from either Paris or Brussels is quicker than getting to Manchester or Leeds from London by train!

I have now visited Belgium more times than any other country in Europe and what I like about visiting Flanders in particular is that every day can be different with towns and cities offering the visitor a distinct identity and regional flavour. The best way to see them is of course by bike fuelled on excellent Belgian chocolate, waffles and Cécémel chocolate milk!

Notes about the article

This article appeared in the Tameside Reporter (23/05/2019) and forms part of the Freewheel Holidays 'Travel Geek' series.