Belgium, Bruges, Bicycles!

By JIM MCGURN

Bruges is a jewel of a city, best seen from the saddle of one of those magnificent, bump-flattening roadsters so typical of the flat cities of Northern Europe. A cycle ride through the cobbled streets of central Bruges offers you skylines of stepped gable roofs, charming bridges over the web of canals, and enough mediaeval public buildings and churches to make even the venerable Bruges bicycles seem hopelessly modern. And everywhere you look are haphazard clumps of parked bicycles. Thousands upon thousands of steeds at rest. Bruges comes as close to being a cyclist's paradise as any European city can be.

Leave the city centre and you come to a peaceful tree-lined cycle path which follows the ancient walls and moat in a grand circle round the city. Or 15 minutes pedalling takes you out of the city and into level but far from boring cycling country. Quiet country lanes take you out alongside the canals (which become ideal for long distance skating when they freeze over in winter).

Bruges resembles Amsterdam in many ways. Cycling still thrives in these flat Dutch-speaking cities as part of their common Dutch/Flemish culture. But Bruges is less crowded than Amsterdam, less on edge. And you can't slip easily out of Amsterdam as you can out of Bruges for a ride in the country. In fact, Bruges makes an ideal centre for a cycling holiday, especially if you like easy-riding. Also, getting yourself and your bike to Amsterdam is anything but easy. Bruges lies only 14 kilometres from the ferry port of Zeebrugge ('Sea-Bruges'), and there are good, quiet cycling routes between the two.

You can't really appreciate Bruges unless you hire one of those hefty, all-steel bicycles which the locals use: go-anywhere, flatten-anything jobs. Their well-raked forks and wide handlebars give Bruges cyclists a 'sit up and be king' kind of air. The only lightweight touring machines you'll see belong to passing tourists, who soon get the message when their unsprung saddles and narrow-section wheels hit Bruges' ubiquitous cobblestones.

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