Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Zeebrugge to Antwerp, 13th to 15th September 2011

Zeebrugge: my last view of the sea for 2000 miles

My first stop was Antwerp, as my mate Sven had said he would let me doss there. It was about 120 km from the ferry port at Zeebrugge, and with disembarkation at 09.30, that gave me plenty of time, especially as Sven wouldn't be home until 10 pm.

But the huge storm which had made leaving port at Hull a slower affair than normal had slowed the crossing, as had an engines failure during the night. It was 11.30 before we limped into port on the continent. Still, the huge westerly wind was at my back and I flew along. I had a brief stopover in the chocolate-box (and chocolate-smelling) perfection of Brugges, but only very brief, as I had miles still to go, and an appointment to keep.

I would have made better time if my map had made clearer the difference between roads I could cycle along and motorways. I didn't cycle along any motorways (that day), but I did add many unnecessary miles to my journey.

By pure fluke I discovered that there was a cyclepath alongside the motorway into Antwerp, which I rode along until about 7pm, when I started to think that I wouldn't get to Antwerp that evening. I stopped in Sint-Gillis-Wass to text Sven and let him know I wouldn't be there that night and to buy a few beers at a supermarket. The girl at the checkout pegged me for a cyclist straightaway, but our conversation was short-lived (I'd got as far as telling her I'd be camping in a field that night) and interrupted by a phone call from Sven, who assured me that it was only 15 km from Sint-Gillis-Wass to Antwerp and it'd be daft for me to stop. Feeling tired but reassured, I pedalled on.

30 kilometres later, I was still riding through fields and Antwerp seemed very far away. I nabbed a couple of pears which were hanging over a fence, and switched on my lights. I hadn't planned to ride at night at all, but there have been times when I was glad to have my lights, and this was the first.

Twilight in Antwerp. I was at the wrong side of the river and couldn't see any signs of where to cross, except the motorway tunnel, which I knew I wouldn't be able to use. I collared a gaggle of handy locals and explained that I needed to get to the main railway station, and...

"You want to know how to cross the river?" they finished for me.


They looked to their right, at the official-looking building in front of which I'd stopped.

"You could use the tunnel...?" they suggested.

The building, it turns out, was the lift for the cycle tunnel under the Schelde, which is far too broad and busy a river to have many bridges. Had I missed the signs for the tunnel? No, there weren't any signs. Locals just know, everyone else has to aim and hope.

The tunnel itself was magnificent. The lift was huge and instead of having floors, it displayed the depth below sea level in metres, which added a sci fi element to the descent, as did the polished brass fittings, dating from an era when engineers set out to make things which were decorative as well as functional. In my head I could hear James Mason as Captain Nemo counting off the metres to the lower level.

Antwerp cycle tunnel

There were only two other cyclists and a jogger in the lift, and as the other two ignored the No Cycling signs, so did I. I expect everybody does. I wanted to shout something and hear my voice echo back at me in the tunnel, but a mother was walking the other way with a pushchair and a toddler. As she was already looking at me a bit askance, yelling my name at the top of her voice would likely have freaked her out even more.

The central station and Sven's flat were easy enough to find. I was amused to hear Geordie accents in the streets, but as it was too early for me to be feeling homesick and they sounded a bit pissed, I ignored them.

Sven's flat was a typical European house share with a comforting laissez-faire attitude, interesting denizens, a dizzyingly steep ramshackle staircase up to it, and odd objects littered about the place, such as the double bass abandoned by a previous tenant.


When Sven came in, we had a couple of the beers I'd brought and then we went around the bars of Antwerp. Sven lent me one of his bikes, a single-speed with no brakes except a back pedal brake. Even though it was after eleven, the bars were bustling and showed no sign of lagging. I'm still used to the eleven o'clock licensing laws in England, which still have the effect that everyone is pissed before eleven.

Since I hadn't eaten, I was pissed before eleven that night as well. I remember eating some fries with gravy in the street, ordering drinks in approximate Dutch, touring around the red light district on the bikes and nearly getting in a fight with a short, fat, Dutch Freddie Mercury lookalike. I also remember the hangover, which guaranteed that I'd be spending at least another day in Antwerp.

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