Glory of Green
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Stories from the Great Outdoors

 

Finally, we’ve had really terrible weather in Belgium – and it’s lasted for a whole week-end (at least). I heard a lot about the gloomy rainy Belgian winters before we moved here, but it hasn’t been that bad at all. White fluffy snow has even happened. I’m born in a part of Norway where the raincoat is known as the true folk costume, and we’ve had to use a saw to get out of the alley after a stormy Christmas night. I miss wind – and rain coming down horizontally. The first thing we did when it started blowing up, was to head for the coast. Logic being: If it’s bad in our back yard it’s probably worse out there. Kids left with friends and we headed out to pedal against the wind. Everybody was happy.

International  travel 

When we visited Doel a little while ago, we could see signs inviting us to go cycling along the Shelde river in direction of the North-sea, and now we went back to try it out. Looking at the map, I realised we would pass into the Netherlands. I love those kinds of trips, always getting a strong feeling of how artificial the nation states are constructed on our common planet earth. We didn’t bring passports.

With one wheel in Belgium and one in the Netherlands...

Along the dike

The area north and west of Doel is full of small roads criss-crossing fields and wetlands – and a possibility to follow the dike along the river. First stop was a British memorial site, stating: “To the glory of the British anti-aircraft batteries and the R.A.F. along the Scheldt” – gloriously placed next to the nuclear power plant and some high voltage electricity towers. 

As far as I understand the story, it used to be placed in the city of Doel, but due to the planned expansion of the harbour it was removed from its original site in the cover of darkness one night back in 2011 and relocated to its present gracious lot. The bench on the side is not at all helpful.

Outside the dike lies the river, the giant harbour – and on the Dutch side: The Drowned Land of Saefthinge. Until 1584 a town called Saefthinge (and even a castle) could be found here, in a landscape that is now a giant swamp where the Sheldt meets the salty sea water. Most of the land around the town was lost in the All Saint's flood of 1570 (the Allerheiligenvloed). There’s a legend tied to the flood, but I’ll save that for a later post.

We were met by undeniably closed grinds when we tried to detour into the swamp – the high straws waving all around us and the path looking like an alluring way out of civilisation. However, Internet had already informed me that tides can be unpredictable in this area and as we didn’t want to be washed off and blown to sea, we decided to respect the boundaries. Also, the area is very fragile to damage. 

Around the Visitors Centre there are two short hikes that you can do safely without getting too wet, and we’ll come back and try those in more spring and less wind – with kids. We found a watch tower, though, and it was nice climbing up to get a better view of the swamp.


The hills of Belgium

I once heard what I believe is a proverb about the wind being the hills of Belgium. If it’s not, it should be. How is it possible to bike a circuit and somehow feel that you are pedalling against the wind (or hitting it from the side) for about 18 out of 20 kilometres? 

I did a very approximate calculation of the length of our ride – but I can assure you it was no Tour de France – and still I felt like a flat tire when we got back to the car. I’ve never biked this slow. It was like a never-ending steep hill going up, up and then up. It was even tiering for the arms and the entire body, trying to keep the bike from blowing off the path. What a great work-out! Mentally hills are much more challenging to me. This felt like a battle with the elements – and that, I love.

Light and lines

For a photographer-buff, I recommend taking a ride or hike in this area. Water, clouds, wide open fields and swamps makes this a wonderfully shifting landscape. The grass is green, the straws yellow, the sky varying and the harbour rusty and colourful in the horizon. If you have a drone, I envy you. The water has carved beautiful streams through the dry land.

The whole region has a bit of abandoned feel to it – not confined to the village of Doel, as I’ve covered in an earlier post. On the Dutch side we found a cute Shetland Pony, though, willing to chat and pose. The kids are always a great excuse for fussing over cute animals – when they’re not there, I’ll blame it on the camera.

Other practicalities

Doel lies right next to Antwerp and less than an hour drive from Brussels. You can even take the train to Antwerp and start your ride there. Bring wind-proof clothes!

If you want to see more of the Drowned Land of Saefthinge, there are guided tours into the swamp from April to October. Dogs are not permitted. Watch the birds instead.