Feeling gloomy about the prospect of yet another missed spring trip to the cycling Mecca of Oudenaarde in Belgium, Hubs and I took an alternative pilgrimage – to the final resting place of the man widely credited with inventing the pedal cycle.
Die-hard readers will recall that I chronicled the first time I discovered the cycle route bearing his namesake – the Kirkpatrick MacMillan Byway – and that in a small way it filled the void of our missed Belgium trip last year. Feeling in need of something of a vacay, we thought we’d pick up a repeat prescription of pseudo-Flemish pedal vibes this weekend.
Perhaps we were being a tad fanciful – we stepped out of the door into warm rays of sun but they quickly gave way to dark clouds, hail storms and a bitter cold air. Hailstones as vicious an onslaught as the Battle of the Firth and Clyde canal, and air so cold that your gloved fingers hurt, and when you breathe it in you get an ice-cream headache that leaves your nose streaming for the rest of the day. Most unbecoming of a sweet spring in the rolling pretend-Flandrien countryside…
Our 40-mile meander recollected of Belgian holidays past in a few other ways though – the short, sharp, winding hill climbs at Springfield and Terregles, lined with houses excessively adorned with garden ornaments, evoke memories of the start of the Côte de Saint-Nicholas, which was the final hill climb of a Liège-Bastogne-Liège sportive a number of years ago. And Belgian country houses may have their architectural quirks, but Dumfriesshire has an excessive number of perma-vacant back garden tennis courts (not once have I ever seen one in use! Even before the lockdowns! Not even during Wimbledon! Never!).
A Belgian-inspired bike ride is nothing without encounters with adorable farm animals and wildlife. Although when we passed Quintana’s usual field the herd were no longer there, we did elsewhere meet a lovely wee lady with big black eyes and a very wet snout. We named her Claudia 😍
We arrived at the cemetery in a flurry of hail. Those same crows were crawing from the same fat nests at the entrance, but the branches that supported them were swaying formidably in the strong wind. You may think it’s a little morbid to visit a cemetery on a weekend ride with thoughts of holidaying but it really is a beautiful, peaceful place – a small clearing sheltered at two sides by a copse, and looking out over the wide and tranquil river Nith on another. The clearing is filled with spring flowers in bloom. We didn’t hang around too long as the chill had gotten to our fingers, but just long enough to pay our respects to KM before the wind picked us up and swept us east towards our lunch destination.
Another thing you can’t omit from a Belgian-style bike ride, is fries. So hallowed is the humble fry, a Flemish restauranteur once told us, that in certain parts of Belgium you can’t call your food establishment a ‘restaurant’ until you have completed a special qualification in the art of cooking potatoes. Luckily I’d recently discovered that a local takeout food van does a pretty banging French fry that compares favourably with the Flemish delicacy (you could even say they put the fries in Dumfries… 😏). While Hubs and I both agreed, while eating our fries in a nearby animal hide and watching the tree sparrows, woodpeckers and nuthatches on the feeders, that the chips could not compete with Bistro Fredje Friet (arguably the best frituur in the whole of Belgium), they were indeed passable as a ‘restaurant’-worthy chip.
The final essential for any Belgian reverie, is chocolate. Though nothing in comparison to the Neuhaus Easter display at Gijselinck Luc, where we might spend many a spring Oudenaarde afternoon drooling over counters of handmade craft chocolate delicacies while digesting our post-ride asparagus on toast with gin and tonic, Hubs did come to the rescue with a Nakd PEANUT CHOCOLISH. What a day to be alive…
14 March, 2021