The previous post ended with comments about Barge Navigation. It also included comments on the Compiègne Armistice Memorial. Indeed, the itinerary of our Paris to Bruges journey could not avoid constant efforts to comprehend more fully both the Great War and the subsequent conflict.
Having started the trip to Europe with an arrival in Amsterdam – including a visit to the Anne Frank House – awareness of European battlefields was inescapable. But, of course, there is more to travel than recognition of man’s inhumanity to man.
A constant theme of European travel is the relentless endeavor to construct Christian edifices. They were central to the life of every city. In Chiry-Ourscamp we found both the skeletons of abandoned houses of worship and also vibrant places of contemporary religious observance – evocative reminders of an age of faith.
In Saint-Christ-Briost we found an unexpected spot of interest: neither war nor worship, but a lovely fish hatchery with a restaurant. Both local wines and local beers. And, more navigation choices.
Most of us do not drink during a ride – but this ride was different. Unlike the usual 50 kilometer rides, we encountered a truncated / extended option. Remember the Barge Navigation post – canal traffic? Canal delays had caused shorter barge travel and a nearer destination for the night.
So, the options were: eat, drink local beers and walk by serene lakes filled with fish; or, grab a quick bite of food and ride an extra loop into the hills.
Below is an image of a serene lake.
The following day was a Rest Day. Why, a non-bike rider might ask, a Day of Rest?
Several reasons: a break for the crew of the barge; a time to let tired legs heal (even the Tour de France has rest days); more importantly – do laundry in a genuine Laundromat.
Our rest day town was Péronne: a collection of fine restaurants (remember: a day of rest / no cooking for the crew); and a stellar Laundromat. Since Péronne is in the area of the Battles of the Somme, it has an extraordinary Museum of the Great War.
The museum employed an innovative format to display the uniforms and the kits (weapons and accessories) of the soldiers of the various armies (French, German, British, American, Australian…). Instead of a vertical manikin dressed in a specific uniform, there were rectangular depressions in the floor containing uniforms with guns, writing implements, food containers, .… It was as if someone had exhumed not bodies – but, the artifacts of soldiers. A display that recalled shallow graves. Looking down upon the empty uniforms of soldiers from 100 ears ago was as evocative as witnessing a field of crosses.
- Courtesy of The Atlantic (web article)
Cobblestones vs. Cobblestones
Although, as a general rule, bicycle travel is much more common and much safer in Europe than in the United States, all bike travel is a transportation retrofit. Cities and road systems were designed to support pedestrians and horse-drawn conveyances. Bike riders are not pedestrians. Nor, are we able to compete in terms of speed and effectiveness with vehicles. Much two-wheeled travel is recreational, not dependable transportation.
When automobiles became affordable for the masses, the bicycle became the odd-man-out in most urban environments. Consequently, even in Europe, the pathways that bike riders travel are varied: from bike-only lanes commingled with motorized vehicles to separate allocated segments of a sidewalk… and surfaces vary: from smooth paved roads to gravel textures on bike-only paths to dirt trails through a national forest…
On this trip we encountered everything. Several riders noted that despite the relatively short daily distances (50 kilometers) and relatively flat terrain, there should have been a footnote expressing the need for technical skills. That is, single-track mountain biking techniques and curb jumping prowess for urban transitions.
One form of surface is unique to Europe: cobblestones. Riding on this unique surface is recognized as a separate and highly regarded ability. We encountered the signature event that celebrates this quixotic endeavor: an 85 kilometer race on cobblestones.
The Paris–Roubaix is a one-day professional men’s bicycle road race in northern France, starting north of Paris and finishing in Roubaix, at the border with Belgium. It is one of cycling’s oldest races, and is one of the ‘Monuments’ or classics of the European calendar, and contributes points towards the UCI World Ranking.
Even without bouncing on cobblestones, bike-and-barge life can be difficult. The illness that made its way through the group continued. Some of the ill folks recovered and went back on the road. Some folks who appeared invulnerable succumbed to a day or two in sickbay.
The advantages of “sickbay” were conversations among the community of invalids – and, chances to read and write in peace.
Modes of Travel
On a bike-and-barge trip, two relatively unusual forms of transportation combine to form a symbiotic touring technique. For people who “live on the canals” (think captain of the barge), there is another combination: car-and-barge. Although it is possible to zip into town to shop for groceries on a bicycle, obtaining food for approximately 30 people is best done in a more substantial vehicle. It is not too difficult to imagine a barge with space for 30+ bicycles on the top deck, but the idea of a car on the stern is a bit odd. Think: load & unload every day. Bicycles every day (good exercise), car on occasion…
For tourists, part of the marvelous history of Europe is centuries of art and architecture. But, Europe has a history of innovation in virtually every form of transportation, including hot air balloons. The picture below captures an interesting intersection of methods of transport.
Our most unusual transportation mode was underground mine train. Although most of our travel was in small towns or picturesque countryside, France and Belgium played a vital role in the industrial revolution. Like significant parts of America, European regions form a “rust belt.” The mines, built when the reliance on coal as a source of fuel and power was vital, are now closed. To understand fully the role played by this historic moment, there is a Mining History Centre, located at the heart of the coalfield, at Lewarde in the Nord département of France.
As mankind proceeds into an increasingly post-industrial age, issues of employment and re-use of old facilities requires societal re-engineering. Multi-national perspectives seem invaluable.
Fortified with the last stop at a French pâtisserie, we crossed into Belgium.
As we approached Belgium, our guide explained that the once-significant passport crossing had been replaced with a mere sign to demarcate the border.
“I was sure this was the place,” he said as he circled back. Several long loops. No sign. Gone.
An absence can have great significance. 100 years after the Great War, the border between France and Belgium is unmarked.
Our first city in Belgium was Tournai – with a lovely modern fountain amid a vast selection of food and Belgian beer within the old city square.
Our barge was moored on the Scheldt (Escaut) river for the night. It had squeezed through the Pont des Trous, a vestige of medieval architecture, during our ride.
It was in Tournai (or, a nearby town (delays in blogging can skew one’s memory)), that we encountered another type of delay. We were informed one evening that breakfast, always at 8:00 am sharp, was to begin at 8:30 am on the following day. “Why the delay?” a rider asked. “The bakery in this town does not open early enough to buy bread in time for the normal breakfast,” we were told.
Of course, I thought: day-old bread – normal in the U.S. – is a sacrilege in France or Belgium.
It was that way many years ago:
And, it will be that way after the last bike rider is gone.