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The Amsterdam to Bruges boat and bike cycling holiday is a seven night, eight day adventure, jam-packed with historical tales and sights of the unexpected in Holland and Belgium. It’s available either as a guided tour with the leadership of an experienced multilingual guide or self-guided under your own steam. It’s also probably one of the best cycling tours in Europe for a first-time holiday cyclist. Freedom Treks Marketing Manager Tara Rogers road-tested the tour with her husband Sean. Here’s how she got on.

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Right on Point

If you’ve never cycled in Holland and Belgium before, you might not be aware of the Junction Network (or if you want to try your Dutch ‘Knooppuntennetwerk’). Invented just 20 years ago by a Belgian mine engineer called Hugo Bollen, his cycling signposts – created specifically for recreational cyclists – are designed on a network of nodes, which simply point towards their next closest numbered junction. Following the Junction Network won’t take you on the most direct route from village to village or city to city in Belgium and Holland, but it does take two-wheeled tourists along the most scenic routes.

We found the green and white signposts easy to follow, usually situated at shoulder height on the right hand side of the road or cycle path. Thankfully, the joining of the dots – so to speak! – was made even easier thanks to our dedicated Tour Guide Tom. He gave a briefing after dinner each night, writing the following day’s sequence of numbers on a large whiteboard map in the main deck salon. His beautifully drawn diagrams illustrated notable places of interest, where we’d have our coffee break and where we’d reach the all-important loo stops!

Should you choose to go on your own (as we did on the second to last day), taking a quick snap of the whiteboard on your mobile phone is a quick way to keep the route close at hand. I copied the numbers onto a scrap of paper which I kept underneath my watch strap to glance at regularly rather than hopping off my bike to check my phone (handlebar bags aren’t provided on this particular tour). No doubt there are specialist bits of high tech equipment to do the same thing in a more sophisticated way (a round-the-neck pouch may have helped me look a little less amateur)!

Keep Pedalling Unless I Say Otherwise

Should you choose you stay with the group on daily rides, your tour leader is most likely to be very familiar with the route. As a result, those with even the poorest of map-reading skills will be content with the automated ease of cycling behind the person in front of you (one bike apart, safety now). It was a wonderful observation of group camaraderie which emerged after a very short time. A sweep is nominated on each day – don’t worry, it’s a willing volunteer – and that’s the person who will stay at the back, making sure that the same number who began the cycle that day ended it too. “CAR!”, “BIKES!”, “TRACTOR!” we’d hear warnings hollered loudly to ensure we formed a single file to avoid oncoming traffic.

We’re both reasonably active people. We live in Brighton, and I use my Japanese commuter bike to get to work and run errands. In fact, we don’t have a car, so a bike is our only form of independent transport. Even so, the close to 300 km distance was further than we’d ever cycled in one week. We were unsure of what to expect and if we’d be fit enough.

What we’d not factored in to our equation was the differing topography; Brighton – one of the hilliest cities in the UK (or so it feels on my daily commute!), versus Holland and Belgium – well known for their flat terrain. After the first day’s cycle, despite the unwelcome wind blowing in from the North Sea, we realised the cycling really was going to be exactly as it said on the tin – very relaxing, very easy-going, and very leisurely.

The classic flat countryside lent itself perfectly to day-long rides starting between 8:30am and 9:30am and ending at 5:30pm – there are some days which you can start or end at lunch. Despite being in the saddle all day long, this tour is graded easy and the cycling is perfect for all ages and abilities. Ranging from nine through to mid-seventies, it was often those at the far ends of the age spectrum who would cycle with absolute ease up front or finish ahead of those of us preferring to navigate independently. Many of the group enjoyed the luxury of an e-bike, which gave a little extra and very welcome pedal power. Back on the boat we were rewarded beach day with beautifully-baked homemade cakes (Victoria Sponge never failed to delight).

The route has been perfectly planned to show off Belgium and Holland’s prettiest parts: cycle paths through cornfields peppered with poppies; country lanes through luscious woodlands; towpaths along cottonwood tree-lined canals; grass and gravel dikes across polders (vast expanses of land reclaimed from the sea which now serve as flood plains).

In fact, the Netherlands consists of nearly 20% water and 26% of it is under sea level, meaning no shortage of windmills, pumping stations, dikes and locks on the tour. There are 1048 windmills in Holland – we didn’t get to see them all! – but on day two we visited an impressive collection of nineteen 18th century windmills at Kinderdijk, a protected UNESCO World Heritage site.

In rural suburbia, we cycled through the most immaculate villages and towns, delighted by thatched cottages with gardens bursting with foxgloves, Dutch barn houses with miniature moats adjoining dainty canals, pet goats lazing in outhouses on stilts, noisy cockerels with glossy plumes the colour of autumn. In striking architectural contrast we hadn’t expected to see so many fiercely minimal houses, dripping with modernity and perfect angles, cast in cement, steel and glass.

The tour also routed through industrial areas, most notably as we sailed into Antwerp on day three, a busy commercial port (second only in size to Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest shipping harbour). The imposing scale of the vessels alongside us on the Scheldt River was by now rather unusual though; we’d grown quickly accustomed to gentle sailing along quiet canals, occasionally passing the odd small shipping barge or passing slowly through docks expertly navigated in and out of by Roy our Captain.

The Boat

The Magnifique is a fine 63m Dutch passenger barge. She was refitted in 2010 to accommodate up to 40 passengers in her 19 cabins, all below deck. Each cabin was slightly different, but all were tastefully decorated with maritime walnut and brass fittings. They were also spotless, cleaned every day single-handedly by our energetic stewardess Mika (floors mopped, beds made and en-suite bathrooms – toilet, basin and excellent shower – sparkling). Storage varied from cabin to cabin; our Superior Twin Cabin had plenty: a wardrobe with hanging space and five shelves, a bedside cabinet, bureau and bathroom cabinet. We heeded the advice to bring luggage in soft bags – hard cases would be difficult to stow underneath the cabin bunks.

Mealtimes are a casual, sociable affair. Whilst on some boat and bike tours guests are allocated a seat for the week, dining was far less informal on the Magnifique. As there were only two of us, we dined with different guests each night; however, most groups tended to keep the same seats for each mealtime.

Dinner consisted of three hearty courses; fear not that you’ll go hungry. I assure you, for every calorie we hoped we might burn off from our daily cycling, we ate double thanks to Chef Raymond’s delicious and creative cooking. The final evening’s barbeque was a wonderful surprise – dining alfresco in the warm summer sun, freshly prepared salads served buffet style, tender steaks perfectly grilled. All but one of the 7 nights are catered, and we decided as a group which night we’d eat off the boat – usually Antwerp or Bruges.

The breakfast buffet was usually served around 8am, continental style with cereals, yoghurts, fruits and freshly baked breads. Hot scrambled eggs, bacon or sausages were often but not always available. If you’ve a sweet tooth try hagelslag a typical Dutch topping much like chocolate hundreds and thousands which you pour liberally on to buttered toast. You’d make your packed lunch at breakfast too, helping yourself to the selection of hams, cheeses and rolls along with a drink carton and snack wrapped in a paper bag.

We were given a complimentary drink with dinner on the first night after which alcoholic drinks are available from the bar: Jupiler Pilsner and Leffe Blonde on tap (€2), and a selection of wines and spirits (€2.50). Drinks are placed on a cabin tab, which you settle at the end of your stay (in cash, there are no card facilities on board). Tea, coffee and hot chocolate were complimentary until 4pm.

It’s worth noting that although there is Wi-Fi on board with 50mb data free each day, it runs on a mobile connection which was mostly non-existent and patchy when available; a good excuse to pack away the laptop or tablet and grab a book instead. Or, as we were lucky enough to do, discover the hidden talents of fellow guests. I enjoyed a portraiture class with an American-artist based in Barcelona, a mini-manicure in a pop-up nail bar with the youngest female passenger, aged 11 from Chicago, and enjoyed a wonderful display of highland dancing on our final evening courtesy of light-footed guests from Aberdeen. (I shan’t mention the dance moves as the evening progressed to Oops Upside Your Head, which took Tom quite by surprise, describing it later as “a strange memory of lying in a row on the floor pretending to be in a canoe”.)

People of the World

I’ve always considered myself a slightly more independent traveller. The thought of being herded around as a group, anxiously following an upturned umbrella held by an overly enthusiastic guide has never appealed. I don’t know what it is about the anxiety of looking like a tourist when I’m in a new place. To me it feels like a big flashing sign above my head that says ‘I’m an outsider, I don’t know where I am, please feel free to rip me off!’

Our newly-acquainted companions from Adelaide, Australia felt the same. They’d converted to organised active holidays around five years ago, and they too weren’t keen on the idea of being herded around, but after experiencing a guided cycling holiday before, and coming back for more, it was a comforting early sign. Phew. It wasn’t going to be that kind of guided tour!

The dynamic of a group of strangers all getting on is of course more luck than rocket science. However it did help that we actually had a rocket scientist on board, along with an artist, a helicopter charterer, an antiques dealer and a veterinary surgeon. There was never a shortage of interesting stories, and luckily for our group, laughter (fellow companions if you’re reading this, a sincere and heartfelt thank you, officially, for making the week so very special). We parted with enthusiastic musings of another cycling holiday in Europe together.

Time for Tea, Art And Tales of Folklore

Cities and towns were mostly explored on foot (with the exception of Ghent on day five, when we cycled into the city centre with two free hours to sightsee on our own), usually during morning or afternoon coffee breaks. Sometimes stopping in a quaint town square, often with a delightful bakery (De Bourgondier in Damme was a particular favourite), or independently run coffee shops such as Theeschenkerijwatertanden in Jaarsveld on day one which wouldn’t be out of place in a West London suburb.

The other opportunity to sightsee was during the optional after-dinner guided walk. Wherever we were Tom’s wonderfully-animated and imaginatively-detailed tales brought alive the surroundings. From the legend of mythical giant Druon Antigoon slain in Antwerp to the mermaid captured by fisherman from Damme, immortalised on a number of weathervanes in Zwin, we simply wouldn’t have enjoyed the places we visited purely by reading about them from a guidebook. Without him, we’d have also been pronouncing cities incorrectly too. Ghent is not in fact a short single syllable, but more guttural (“ghhheeHHHNT!”) and replaces the ‘oooo’ in Bruges with a roll of the ‘r’ and add an ‘ahh’ – “Brugg-ahh!”).

If there was just one place of interest I could visit, I’d choose the Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp (or, if you want to practice your Dutch, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal). One of the most impressive Gothic structures in Europe, building began in 1352 and took 170 years, and although it was never as such ‘completed’, it opened for worship in 1521. It’s home to an incredible collection of original sixteenth- and seventeenth-century works by Flemish Masters including Massys and Floris, commissioned originally by the city’s guilds to decorate the cathedral’s altars. Most notably, the art collection includes four Baroque masterpieces by Rubens, including the Raising of the Cross. It costs €3 to get in.

The only thing we might have done differently? Add on two nights in Amsterdam pre-tour rather than just the one we booked. With a delayed flight of 172 minutes from London Gatwick to Amsterdam Schiphol, our day of sightseeing in Amsterdam ended up as a few hours of ‘night-seeing’ before boarding the Magnifique the following afternoon.

We chose not to book any post-tour nights to stay in Bruges as the itinerary included two nights’ stay in the West Flanders capital. We’d never been to this stunning city, but there was the perfect amount of time to explore this compact city, steeped in medieval heritage, intricate canals and historic buildings built into the city’s waterways.

Our train back to London by Eurostar was scheduled to leave at 7pm (allow an hour by train from Bruges to Brussels au Midi, €6.40 one way). We were able to leave our bags on the boat and enjoy Bruges all day. If the weather’s fair try Juliette for brunch and then escape the crowds. We relaxed peacefully in Astrid Park, a beautiful secluded space with ornate bandstand and manicured gardens on the grounds of a former Franciscan monastery.

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