1988 Europe Bicycle Trip – Part 10

…continued from 1988 Europe Bicycle Trip – Part 9

[Friday] 9/2/88—I got up this morning at around 8 AM. The plan was to delay my departure for Brussells till around noon and spend the morning here in Maastricht. It’s such a pretty city with lots of things to look at. I walked around the centrum some more, there was a bronze sculpture right by the hotel that I really liked, a man with his body segmented in a stairstep fashion [here it is]. Outside of the centrum I came across an old fort. A long row of cannons faced the Maas River, and a scenic park surrounded the remainder of it. It was built in 1516 and had been left in a condition of partial decay. I actually preferred it that way rather than if it had been restored to its original condition, it had a lot more flavor to it the way it was. Maastricht is very close to Germany [right, Germany bombed an abandoned fort and left the rest of the city alone…], I suspect that the damage to the fort may have been incurred during WWII. There was a little lake in the park with lots of geese & ducks, it is apparently popular with the residents to go there and feed the birds. I got some terrific photographs of an elderly lady and a small girl feeding them. I would be leaving Holland for good today so I wanted to spend what little Dutch money I had left. I only had 80¢ and some Belgian francs, so I went to a bakery, showed them what I had and asked if I could buy anything. They took most of it and gave me two, delicious, custard-filled donuts with white icing.

By the time I got on the bicycle, it was about 11:30 AM. It was about 70 miles to Brussells, so I figured it would be a nice 6 hours ride or so to complete the trip. What actually lay in store for me that day was the most brutal, grueling, willpower-testing ride of the entire trip. It made the first part of the trip to Amsterdam seem like a piece of cake. To begin with, I immediately encountered stiff, persistent headwind. It would be a headwind that would not let up during the entire day. Under the best of circumstances, the headwind was strong enough to make 70 miles a very tiring trip. However, I was not graced with the best of circumstances either. Next was the terrain. To start with, it was rather dull. I crossed the border into Belgium shortly after leaving Maastricht, and the countryside that I encountered was mostly crops and rangeland. There was not much forest and the scenery was not too interesting. The bad thing, however, were the rather long, steep grades. The terrain was fairly hilly, though not quite like southern Holland, and that combined with the headwind made the hills tortuous to ascend. I spent much of the ride in first gear, and at times wished I had an even lower gear. The next difficulty was the weather. It was very cool, one of the coolest days of the trip. The sun came out only for very brief periods. Much of the time there was a very light drizzle, and actually rained very hard three different times. Fortunately, I happened to be in towns where I was able to duck out of the rain whenever it came. It made for a very slow ride, but I would not have been able to make any better time had I not had the rain to contend with. Because of the strong headwind and the steep grades, I was thoroughly exhausted by the time I reached each town. The towns were spaced about 12–15 miles apart, and it was all I could do to make it to the next one, find a café or bakery, and rest and refuel.

After several eternities, I made it to Leuven and refueled with an ice cream dessert. It was the last city before Brussells and I was ready to start the last leg of the trip. I had just gotten out of Leuven when the bike started riding funny. I looked down at the rear tire and it looked low on air. I didn’t think too much of it at first because I had had to add air to the rear a few times during the entire trip. But when I got off to pump it up I was it was getting very low. When I checked the tire close, I found a nail and when I pulled it out, all the rest of the air gushed out. I was never so disenchanted. Here I was, I had already travelled over 400 miles, I had only 15 miles to go, and after the brutal ride I had been experiencing today, now I have to get a flat tire. And of course the rear tire so that I have to remove all the luggage from the bike in order to take the wheel off. It was almost as if somebody was saying, “OK, he’s made it this far and been able to overcome everything, let’s dump it all on him at once and see how he does” [a little melodramatic, wasn’t I?]. I repaired the tire on the side of the  road with cars zooming by, and it seemed to be holding air so I was on my way again.

After about 10 miles I could see another storm rolling in up ahead. It looked like a monster and I knew I didn’t have long to find shelter. I saw a frituur up ahead so I ducked in there and ordered up some frites and a Jupiler. Then it hit! The rain came down in sheets, and then it started hailing. At the rate I was going, it was going to be a close call to get to Bill’s house before dark. When I finished the frites, the rain had stopped and for the first time all day the sky looked mostly sunny. I hoped there would be no more delays. I got back on the road (by the way, I do mean the road! The bicycle paths once entering Belgium were almost nonexistent. There would be a nice path for small stretches, much of the time there was simply a wide asphalt shoulder directly on the road, and the majority of the time there was not even that, I had to ride on the edge of the actual traffic lane [and to think now I routinely take the right tire track in the lane]). It didn’t take long for me to get soaked. Even though it wasn’t raining, the traffic rushing by continually sprayed me and the front wheel from my bike sprayed onto the frame by my feet, completely waterlogging my shoes. At this point, I really didn’t care anymore, I had encountered so much adversity that my only thought was to make it to Brussells in spite of everything.

I finally got to Brussells around 7 PM. Believe it or not, the worst part of the day was yet to come! I thought I knew the way back to Bill’s house. I found the main boulevard connecting the east part of the city to the south part. I figured all I had to do was go south on the street until I recognized the area around the Forest where Bill lives. I was on the right track, I recognized his office building and knew I didn’t have much farther. Then things began to look unfamiliar and I began to fear that I had passed up his area. I stopped at a bus stop to look at the maps (which were no help) and a lady waiting there spoke just enough English to tell me to turn left at the next street. Wrong! As it turned out, I hadn’t gone far enough and if I had gone just a little bit farther I would have reached the forest and known exactly where I was. Instead I turned left, and so began the most frustrating wild goose chase of the entire trip. To make matters worse, my rear tire was slowly beginning to lose air again, and it was getting close to dusk. I couldn’t find any maps other than the bus stops, nobody I stopped to ask how to get to the forest knew what I was talking about, and I couldn’t find a telephone anywhere. Because it was starting to get dark, I eventually lost my sense of direction and gradually became totally and utterly lost. I wound up in a residential area and I figured I better get help quick. I came upon a rather posh-looking French restaurant and decided to go in and ask for a telephone, regardless of how scummy I looked. The maitre-d was very nice and pointed the way. Wouldn’t you know it, Bill was not home! So I went up to the maitre-d and asked him if he could draw me a map to Avenue de la Floride. He discussed it with an attractive woman behind the desk, then the woman told me that it was nowhere around here. She spoke with a very heavy French accent, but I was still able to converse with her easily. I was not surprised to hear that I was way off course by then, and I replied, “I’m really lost.” There must have been some desparation in my reply, or I must have looked awfully pitiful, because after further discussion with the maitre-d, she asked me if I would like to put my bike in her car and she would take me there. They had another restaurant that was not far, she said, and she needed to go there tonight anyway. I was stunned by such a gracious offer of assistance and accepted without hesitation, thanking them profusely. She took me right up to Bill’s doorstep, and I was very happy about it because it had gotten totally dark by then, my tire was totally flat, and the drive from the restaurant to Bill’s house was a rather long one. My legs were totally shot and I couldn’t have faced the prospect of several more miles of riding.

When we arrived at Bill’s house, I again thanked her and offered to pay her for the trouble. She stiffly refused, explaining to me that she was the owner of the restaurants (Prince d’Orange) and that I should tell my friend to try them sometime. It had been an unbelievably brutal day, but that act of kindness combined with the fact that I was finally at Bill’s made me feel real good inside. Bill was still not home so I let myself in with the key he had given me, put on some Black Sabbath at a suitably deafening volume, and jumped in the shower. Bill came home shortly, he had given up on me arriving that night because of the weather and late hour, and had gone to the train station to check about bringing my bicycle to the airport. I relayed my tale of horror and then we went out for dinner. It was getting to be an emergency situation and I didn’t want to spend much money (which is hard to do in Bill’s neighborhood) so we ended up at a Mexican restaurant that had an all-you-can-eat buffet for 695 fr. ($17.50). Yes, that’s inexpensive in that neighborhood! The food was very good and featured a do-it-yourself shish-ka-bob, quite unlike most Mexican food I’ve had. The atmosphere, however, was very crowded and noisy. It did the job, however. We got back to his house, put on some music and talked. I had fun with him that night, it was good to see him again after having been on my own for the past week. When I went to bed, I told him not to expect me up early in the morning ’cause I was really exhausted.

To be continued…

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 1988, 2013

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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