Sevilla by train from Brussels

In September we attended the wedding of our good friends Victoria & Karel in Sevilla. The obvious transport mode would have been the airplane, have tons of delays and cancelations and arrive all stressed out. Instead we adventured the other option: going by high-speed train, enjoying the scenery of France, from mountains to the mediterranean and all the way south through Spanish nature. We read books, played with August, slept, ate our picknick, meditated, talked, played games and dreamed away…

The trajectory was simple but expensive: 275 EUR per person one way.

  • Brussels – Paris Nord (D1 – 29 EUR)
  • Paris Gare Lyon – Barcelona (D1 – 122 EUR)
  • Barcelona – Sevilla (D2 – 124 EUR)

We booked the trip via sncf-connect.com (where you should get a “carte avantage adulte” to get more discounts!). You can do this exact same trajectory in a single day, leaving Brussels around 6h30 in the morning and arriving in Sevilla around 22pm in the evening. The connections are tight but possible if there’s no major delays.

There’s also an option with a night train between Paris and Perpignan, but since we had August, our one year old baby with us, we chose to split the trip in two each time and stay for the night in Barcelona. It was a good opportunity for Tine to see some friends back and take a rest.

To enjoy the trip we took the baby carrier (draagzak) instead of the stroller. We spent a lot of time in the bar car where August could play on the floor with a couple of simple toys, or sleep in the carrier on our breast.

Since the journey was quite long, spread over two days, we decided to stay longer than just the weekend and added a yoga retreat in Suryalila and a visit to Cadiz. For those who enjoy veggie food, yoga and nature: this is heaven! We stayed in the glamping tents, did yoga every morning at 8am, enjoyed the best all-inclusive veggie buffet I have ever seen, read books by the pool, went for walks and just enjoyed life at its purest.

Our highlights in Sevilla:

  • Real Alcazar
  • Catedral de Sevilla (and the view from its tower)
  • Setas de Sevilla
  • Plaza de Espana
  • Restaurants: El Disparate (& rooftop); Espacio Eslava

Our Highlights in Cadiz

  • Torre Tavira (amazing view and camera obscura guided tour)
  • Restaurante Contraseña
  • Breakfast in Restaurante Café Royalty
  • Jardines de Alameda Apodaca

For August we brought most of his stuff in our backpacks and bought extra milk and food in the local bio stores in Sevilla. To sleep we have a little 2″ baby tent that is way more portable than most of the travel beds for babies. We would certainly recommend this instead of a normal travel bed to anyone that likes to go on adventures. The baby carrier came in really handy, but when we arrived in Sevilla we did have a stroller that my parents brought along in their camper.

Stay tuned for our next adventure: The night train to Briançon with little August along… we are very curious ourselves if August will be able to sleep or will keep the fellow travellers awake all night…

How to get lost on purpose in Flanders

To keep it fun we won’t tell you where we went for this trip. All you need to know is that we packed for 3 days and started walking from our apartment in Brussels. The rest was just purposefully getting lost in Flemish nature along the GR routes.

During the quarantaine we suddenly spotted the famous white-red GR sign in the King Baudouin park in Brussels. That’s when we decided to follow the signs for multiple days without looking at a GPS or map. It was all about the trail and not about the destination or a schedule to stick to. Don’t worry, these GR routes do not go straight from point A to point B but take bends and turns all the time to keep you in the fields. Not knowing your destination makes sure there is no goal for the day, no hurry or rush to get somewhere. It’s just about walking, reading, eating and sleeping.

What we felt was hard to describe, but I want to give you a glimpse just to convince you that it’s totally worth trying yourself. The GR routes have been carefully designed as long distance walking routes that go through as much nature as possible. Once in a while we crossed a village or the suburbs of a city, but very quickly the road turns left or right straight back into the fields and nature.

We’re planning to repeat this concept multiple times in the coming weeks continuing the GR where we left it, or with other routes, e.g. Compostella and other GR routes we saw crossing Brussels.

If you want it or not, when you see a sign you start setting a goal or expectation of where you think you’re going. That’s where the GR is great: it suddenly turns left or right and your expectation soon becomes unrealistic. You’re forced to keep your expectations totally open.

Prepare for 3 days: check the weather, dress appropriately and take a light backpack with the following with you: tent, mattress, sleeping bag, litres of water, picknick (more on that later), pillow, lamp, book and toiletry.

We chose our camping spot around sunset, so that we did not bother other people too much. The first evening we camped on a small plot of grass on the side of a forest, the second night we camped on the side of an open field where our tent could not easily be seen the next morning. If you like sleeping a bit longer the next morning then it helps to chose your spot in a place it will certainly not bother anyone. If you are hungry, find a nice place to sit and eat. If you’re sleepy, find a nice place to set up camp and sleep.

We would wake up around 8 or 9, have breakfast, read a bit and start walking. We took evening walks after dinner because they give beautiful light and help digest your food.

Camping in the wild at such is an interesting activity: it stretches all of your daily routines or processes. It’s not easy at first, since even the smallest or most basic process such as brushing your teeth or going to the toilet don’t go the usual way. It’s good to question yourself and your most basic needs, it gives you fresh insights and stretches the brain.

To make it a good trip enough water and good food is important. Some basic recipes of our all time favourites are the following. To keep the food fresh it’s best to take a small cooling bag in your backpack:

  • Cucumber salad with canned sardines in olive oil
  • Orange, fennel and canned mackerel salad in olive oil
  • Couscous with raisins (pre-prepared and deep frozen to eat on the second day)
  • humous (pre-prepared and deep frozen to eat on the second day)
  • Boiled eggs
  • Granolla mix with seeds, dried banana, grains and oatmeal (make in re-usable packaging per breakfast). If you just add water to it before eating it the water and oatmeal becomes ‘milky’.
  • Oranges and grapefruit

Practically, any type of salad that is easy to make on the road. The canned fish with oil allows to have an on-the-go dressing so you don’t need to take any sauces or oil with you. Try to avoid any food that gets bad when pushed in a backpack: e.g. no bananas. If you need water or a shop for something you miss: ask people, don’t take out your phone or gps.

In the afternoon of the third day we took our gps to see which railway station we could go to within 2 hours of walking. That’s where we left the GR route behind, walked along the water to the station and railed back to Brussels.

Paalkamperen in Belgium & other concepts that make cycling trips better

Next to sharing a cycling route, I want to share a couple of logic principles that I realised while cycling around in Flanders during my last trip. Find the three key concepts at the end of the article.

For this trip I randomly searched a route to go from Brussels to the desolated village of Doel. Then I continued to the closest camping spot and from there the next day to another campsite not too far from Brussels, so I could make it to Grimbergen on time for Christmas evening.

Planning the trip, I soon saw that on day 1 I could follow a very long part of the Schelde river, and on day 2 I could follow the Dender. In between I found the network of old railroads that are now cycling routes.

Day 1: 95km. After leaving Brussels, it takes a couple of kilometers before you end up in the countryside, but as soon as you reach the banks of the Schelde in Briel it’s all nature. You cycle past Sint-Amands on a perfect trail that continues for kilometers.

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Depending on the time you have, you can take a straight route to Doel from Temse, or continue until Kruibeke. Before arriving in the desolated city of Doel, you cycle through the Port of Antwerp, along railroads, cranes and industry. In rainy weather it has something moody but beautiful.

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From far away you see the nuclear power plant of Doel as a landmark on the horizon.

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A couple of kilometers further you enter into the main street of Doel. There you find almost all houses locked up and spooky. This is where a controversial story starts of the extension plans of the Port of Antwerp.

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If you do not know the story, just search for ‘Doel’ in Wikipedia. A long story short (sorry): the whole village had to disappear to construct a new dock for large ships, property has been bought and villagers left. The construction permit was not granted and plans were not executed. Very few people stayed, but some new people live there now, with very low rental prices. Nevertheless, the place is very desolated and looks like a ghost town.

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After visiting the village, I cycled to the camping spot of “Bivakzone Stropersbos”. Just before entering into the woods, I warmed myself with a good diner in De Boshoeve. It had been raining all day, my feet were soaked and in the tent it wouldn’t get any warmer. DSC04519

The campsite is located in the middle of the forest with rivers and lots of water surrounding it. It had been raining for days in a row, so I was lucky to find 2 square meters that were not muddy to pitch my tent. With a good winter sleeping bag I managed to stay warm during the rainy night.

Day 2: 60km. On the second day I followed the old railroad to Sint-Niklaas. From Dendermonde to Okegem, I took the route following the Dender river. This route is at least as beautiful as the one next to the Schelde.

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I camped at the campsite of Neighembos with views over the Dender valley. It’s located in the back of a private garden, but with an SMS reservation you can stay there for free.

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The open air toilet certainly has its charm, but on rainy days you don’t stay there very long.

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Day 3: 40km. It sounds like a very short route, but with ripped plastic bags in my shoes and wet feet for three days in a row, I was happy I wasn’t at the other side of Belgium. Again a good lesson learned: proper gear does help. Either rain covers for the shoes, or rainproof shoes.

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Cycling around in the neighbourhood is fun: villages with the names of “Woestijn” (= desert) and “Drie-Egypten” made me frown, but the place is beautiful.

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On my way back I circled around Brussels to go to Grimbergen.

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Before getting to Grimbergen I discovered one of the most beautiful views on the skyline of Brussels: de Heirbaan in Meise. While cycling through nature you see all the landmarks of Brussels in a tiny version next to you, which makes Brussels look very small.

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To conclude, this was a nice route, getting lost on my tour bike, camping in nature and reading books in the tent while it’s raining and 3°C. I’ll do this route again during the summertime.

The three concepts that can make your cycling trip a blast, no matter if it’s a one day trip or a full week holiday:

1. Paalkamperen: plenty of beautiful nature camping spots spread over Belgium. You can use them for free all year round. If you start planning a cycling-camping trip, it’s a good way to start planning around some good sleeping locations. All of them have a dry-toilet, a dedicated camping zone, some have a fire pit or a bbq. Check out the map on bivakzone.be. A similar system exists in The Netherlands.

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2. Old railway lines: you might have found out yourself already that all over Europe old railway lines have been converted to cycling paths. Most of them cross nature in a safe and efficient way, so if you use them for longer distances it ensures you of a nice trip. Check out this overview for Belgium or if you want to try it out in another country: UK railway lines. If you would rather cross Europe on even longer distances, than make sure to have a look on Eurovelo. You can find routes that go straight from Brussels, over the Alps all the way to the heel of Italy (Eurovelo 5).

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3. Canals: take a map, see if there’s a waterway and chances are big there’s a nice cycling path next to it. I cycled along the Schelde and Dender rivers for hours. It’s fast and it’s beautiful.

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Bicycle flirting with the Dutch border: Hasselt – Maastricht – Heijenrath – Liege

If you are looking for a short weekend escape that requires no planning at all: take your bike on the train to Hasselt and start cycling. Pay 4 Euro per bike and ask the train responsible to open the door for bicycles and you just roll-in and attach your bike in the dedicated spot. Our plan: Hasselt – Maastricht – Heijenrath – Liege.

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Cycling through the historic center of Hasselt is worth it. We left on a Friday evening, so we stayed one night in Hasselt. The next morning we cycled to ‘Wandelgebied Bokrijk/Kiewit’ where you can cycle through the water. What is most special about it is that you seem a lot smaller for the swans and ducks… and they seem at ease to get close or just float along while you are slowly cycling through.

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We did not visit Bokrijk (still on our to-do list), but the woods are fully accessible and nature is stunning. If you’d like to you can easily spend the day just there. But we had a plan to visit the Dutchies across the border, so we continued.

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From Bokrijk to Maastricht the route is rather easy if you stick to one rule: stay on the left side of the Albert canal. Some applications send you to the right side, but on most of the route this side is locked with high fences and obstructions… we ran into them multiple times. On the left side of the canal the road sometimes takes a bit of a detour around some buildings or a yacht club, but overall you’ll find your way. Parts are in nature, other parts are intriguing heavy industry.

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These ships are not necessarily very low emitters, but the below ship transports 156 20-foot containers at once. That means that the same amount of trucks has been kept of the roads. These kind of inland-ships can transport from 50 up to 300 containers at once. So it does play its role in making the transport of goods more sustainable.

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Next to being a lovely sight, the sheep also serve a real purpose along the canal: deplete the soil so that scarce plants can again stand a chance of survival. The feces of too many sheep are helping to deplete the soil faster.

After less than two hours cycling we arrived in Maastricht. In Maastricht we had lunch in the old fire brigade building ‘Brandweerkazerne’. We cycled around to visit some of the highlights such as the beautiful Frontenpark, Bassin, the red Sint-Jans church and square,… and strolled around in the famous bookshop in the church ‘Dominicanen’.

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When the evening started to fall we head on to our final location of the day deep into nature: Heijenrath. A small village surrounded by impressive nature waiting for you to hike, cycle and camp. We stayed at Hotel Heijenrath since towards the end of November the weather is not that pleasing for camping… but there’s a super cheap campsite behind hotel Kreutzer to make it a low-budget weekend. (The campsite does have some holiday homes and sad caravans, but with the sun that should look less depressing).

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The evening brought a good dinner. The next morning brought a morning walk before breakfast and a big hike after breakfast. The village has multiple loops to hike through the forests and hilly fields.

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After losing three hours to repair my bike and tape 5 holes in my inner tier we head off towards Voeren. Sinterklaas and the marching band made our afternoon into a true feast.

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All through the route you criss-cross over the Dutch-Belgian border and see these stone border marks as on the below photo.

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We had dinner in Blackthys Hotel Voeren and saved this location for a next time. Food was really good and the village and surroundings look very pleasing to spend the weekend and go for a hike. After that we cycled back to Wezet where we took the train to Liege and back to Brussels. If we would not have lost the 3 hours we could have easily cycled along the Maas river of the Albert Canal to Liege. In our next trip we would also consider adding a visit to the Eben-Emael fortress.

Biketravel from Ieper to Boulogne-s-Mer

Looking for a nice bike trip to the sea? The roads from Ieper to Boulogne-sur-Mer take you through flanders fields, green valleys and impressive views on the sea. We took this trip together with Louis’ cousin Olivier whom grew up in Poperinge.

On Friday evening we took a direct train from Brussels-South station to Ieper. If you take a regular bike you just need to pay a 4 EUR ticket for your bicycle and try to catch the train responsible to see where you could best park your bike. In the newer trains there’s a dedicated spot with a special door for bikes and wheelchairs only, in older trains you might have to lift your bike up high and park it in the entrance of the train.

To go from Ieper to our camping spot on the Kemmelberg we took some detours, drove through the village of Kemmel, the park with the city hall and had dinner on the terrace of De Hollemeersch. We pitched our tent into the wild and enjoyed a good night of sleep (50°46’29.9″N 2°48’05.9″E).

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On saturday morning we bought our breakfast in the old bakery “d’ovetote” in Dranouter, where they still make bread in a wood based oven. And of we went into France: Belle, Hazebroek, Ebblingem, next to the water to Arques, a flat tier and then to Saint-Omer for lunch in the rue Louis Martel.

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After that the trip continued through the fields and woods all the way to the coast of Boulogne-sur-Mer via Coulomby and Bournonville. This route was mainly on double roads where you can advance well, but you share them with quite some cars. So for the way back we proposed another (way more calm road).

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A good brake to eat bananas + muesli bars and drink liters of water is of course mandatory. And Tine was enjoying it!

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Since we did not really do a lot of preparatory route planning, we searched on google maps on the way where we could take the smaller routes and enjoy driving through the fields, in between the typical hedges next to the road.

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And while approaching Boulogne-sur-Mer the impressive tower of the cathedral is welcoming you. Just before reaching it you enter the fortified city center into the narrow streets. It’s a beautiful old city center worth taking the time to visit.

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…but since we wanted to camp we did not stay there, but continued another couple of kilometers to camping Phare d’Opale Tohapi. The road google maps sent us to, did not exist, so we headed to the beach to drive (big tires) / pull (thin tires) our bikes to the next road.

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The campground itself is rather a trailer park, so nothing special, but on the side there’s some camping spots with a 5-star view to the sea and village (picture below). Good enough for a safe camping spot and a good shower. After a little more than 110km we pitched the tent, skipped the shower and went for aperitif!

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The village of Le Portel is not the most beautiful one, based on a meters high concrete dyke that could survive every climate change water rise, but it had some good restaurants and nice atmosphere.

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The seafood restaurant to go to is “Le Portelois”, it has a cosy terrace on the dyke and good food! No tourist trap here.

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By coincidence we were there on the evening before the 14th of July festivities, and thus shared the village with thousands of other French people that were celebrating.

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It seems like 14th of July (Bastille day – the French national holiday) is celebrated as intense as new year, with impressive fireworks that lasted way too long.

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On Sunday morning we bought a good baguette and cheese to have breakfast in the old city center of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Tine had her coffee, and so we were well prepared for another 100km back to Poperinge.

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We were expecting google maps to send us back on roads with cars like the day before, but we got a slower and way more beautiful route proposed. It was a blast: small grass and stone paths through fields and valleys, from village to village! In short we took the following route. Passing by Liques, Tournehem-sur-la-Hem, Nordausques, Volkerinkhove, Wormhout, Herzeele, and Houtkerke on the border between France and Belgium.

We celebrated 14th of July with free lunch and beer from the villagers of Tournehem-sur-la-Hem.

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A good drinking / evacuation break once in a while, combined with a short prayer on the road, gave us enough energy to continue.

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We never saw more flemish lion flags than in the North of France, also called “Flandres”. All the villages there have really flemish names. The older local villagers in that part of France speak West-Flemish and French, a very odd thing to discover. And no better place to discover this than with a Picon in the bar of Gisele in Houtkerke. The bar got stuck in time somewhere in the fifties.  The owner is more than 80 years old and only speaks french patois or West-Flemish.

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After a good lemonade we hit the road to Poperinge and finished our trip by taking the train back to Brussels later that evening. A nice and intense weekend. Don’t make this your first bike-tour, but if you’re used to some cycling this is an impressive trip!

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A 5-day kayak tour in Belgium

During the summer of 2015 I was looking for a kayaking holiday starting from the heart of Brussels. At that time I was a member of a kayak club in Anderlecht and could use one of their tour kayaks for a full week. It was certainly a good idea to take some basic courses on safety techniques and what to do when you flip over.

The plan was simple: enjoy nature and kayak through the Belgian backland. So that’s what I did: I kayaked from Tour&Taxis in Brussels to Deinze, over the canal, Zenne, Dijle, Rupel, Schelde, ringvaart and Leie.

My kayak was filled with my camping gear, water, boiled eggs, fresh fruit, muesli bars, some canned food and a bottle of wine. For the kayaking part I took a good map, a well charged mobilephone with gps and a cart to put my kayak on to walk around the locks.

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The route I took looked exactly like on the map below. Important to mention that at every lock you have to take your kayak out of the water, walk around the lock complex and find a spot to safely get into your kayak again.

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Day 1: Brussel – Klein Willebroek

I loaded the kayak on the dock next to Kanal and Tour & Taxis in the morning and started paddling in the direction of Antwerp. Past Vilvoorde I took the dock on the right side and had to lift my kayak out of the water for a first time. 5 days of food, camping gear and the kayak itself is quite a weight, so I was happy to put the two wheels under the kayak and roll it through the grass, over the road and back to the water.

An hour later I remembered there was a very important point: don’t follow the old Zenne until next to Mechelen or you’ll get trapped in a concrete canal with a small damm/turbine. I checked on my gps every couple of minutes and realized well in advance where I had to turn right not to kill myself.

In the beginning of the afternoon I arrived in “Zennegat”, a place where 3 canals come together. It has a super cosy bar (Zennegat 13), so I charged my phone for the first time and toasted to myself with a beer.

And that was the easy part without having to take into account the tidals. As from now I would have to calculate the most optimal moments to kayak and have the tide pushing my downstream (instead of paddling against the tide). Around 17pm I decided that 8 hours of paddling was enough for the day and put my camp next to a desolated working dock in Klein Willebroek. With a little drizzling rain I waited for my girlfriend to join me by train and bike and tell her all about how my arms heart but the nature is so beautiful.

Day 2: Klein Willebroek – Sint-Amands on the Schelde

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Eventhough I realized it would still take a couple of hours before the tide would be beneficial, I decided to take a quick breakfast and start paddling towards the schelde. If you stay well on the side of the rupel you can actualy benefit of the stream turning backwards onto the riverbanks. So that’s what I did.

Putting sunscreen every two hours I reached the Schelde just on time to still get the tide along and shot down towards Sint-Amands. The picture just above is the idilic arrival at Sint-Amands. It’s a poetry village with a couple of small restaurants. It feels like arriving in a fairy tale. I camped next to a cycling path just outside of the village. Next time I’ll go to the same place for a nice biking tour!

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Day 3: Sint-Amands – Ghent centre

The third day is where I changed my original plans from going to dendermonde to continuing until Ghent and then on the beautiful Lei river. And that’s where I started improvising on the route.

I had to paddle for about 10-12 hours to get to Ghent and arrived just before sunset facing an impressive 10m high lock wall without any spot to get out of the water. After getting yelled at by the lock responsible to “go back where you came from with your toyboat or drown, I couldn’t care less” I turned around full of adrenaline.

In the pitch dark with my headtorched I paddled back looking for a spot where I could go on land. Since it was next to a road there was not a single square meter to pitch my tent. So I rang at the front door of people with some grass in their frontyard. Yes, I could camp there and of course they could charge my phone. Lucky me. After paddling more than thirty kilometres that day I fell asleep immediately.

Day 4: Ghent – Sint-Martenslatem

After spent the early morning relaxing and reading in my tent I set of for another day full of adventure. Early afternoon there was the huge lock of Merelbeke. Steep riverside walls of 6 metres high lead to some brain stretching engineering techniques with a long rope and the wheels under the kayak. It took me two full hours to get back into the water just behind the lock.

So with less time left to paddle I decided to go slow and enjoy the pictoresk views of the Leie. In the evening i pitched my tent with a view on 11 cows and a boat. I enjoyed the last bit of my wine, meatloaf, tomatoes, parovitta, mozarella cheese and tomato juice. My healthy kayakers lunch dinner since 4 days, also called “pica pica”. For desserts I ate two balistos and some speculoos.

Day 5: Sint-Martenslatem – Deinze

The last day of my trip I went as slow as possible to just enjoy the scenery. I paddled for a couple of hours and arranged my pickup with my parrents at lunchtime: Gasthof Halifax, a lovely terrace with views on the Leie. A nice celebration to finish the adventure!