After living in the Netherlands for a few months, Phil and Hayley are getting some mountain withdrawal symptoms. We are beginning to miss the hills and mountains that we grew to love when we live in Hong Kong.
So last weekend, we decided to head to Belgium to get a dose of hills on the bike. Even though those hills are tiny compared to what we used to, we figured that would fix the problem for now. In fact, we decided to head towards Nationaal Park Hoge Kempen in Limburg Province of Belgium, which is not too far away from the Maastricht, the Netherlands.
With the exception of the fact that Hoge Kempen is the first National Park in the Flander regions of Belgium, we pretty much didn’t know what to expect. We just wanted to explore some random places. That day we ended up cycling over 100 km, which was the first for both of us.
The Land of Château, Castle and Elf
From Maastricht, we cycled out of town and then crossed the river, where we arrived in Belgium. Not far from the river we entered the national park from the south side. At the edge of the national park is an old château called the “New Castle Pietersheim”. In the Dutch language, “kaastle” is really an old stately home, at least that is what we understand. The château was originally built for the Merode family in the 1910s and then rebuilt in the late 1920s after a fire destroyed the building. Now it is turned into a posh restaurant and hotel. I have to say it is a very beautiful building.
Behind the château, there is a ruin of an actual Castle Pietersheim. It was a medieval castle which was constructed in the 12th century in a ring shape with a moat surrounding it. Unfortunately, it has since fallen into ruin. Nevertheless, it was an interesting bit of history. The ground is open to the public, however, there was a wedding inside the castle on the day we there. What a cool place to have a wedding!
The grounds surrounding these castle is also publicly accessible on foot, by bike or even on horseback. We even found some elves running loose in the woods and according to the signs in the park we had to catch them all!
Entering the Deep Dark Woods
Soon after we left the old castle, we entered the deep dark woods of the Hoge Kapmen National Park. It is a massive park with “normal” cycling path as well as dedicated mountain bike and horseback trails running deep in the woods. Had we got the horses, we would be cantering around, that said I would have fallen off a horse within five canter steps like what happened to me last Christmas.
The Industrial Past and Present
One thing that surprised both of us was the coal mining history of many of the villages that we cycle pass. We always have associated Belgium with beer, chocolates and old historical towns, but never with mining. There was even a memorial in the centre of Maasmechelen Village to commemorate people who died in various mining accidents throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Apart from the memorial, many old mining community buildings have been kept in the villages. There were even two old mine shafts left outside a village to serve as a historical reminder. Of courses, there were also many disused railways dotted inside the national park.
Nowadays, with many old mines being closed many of the heavy industries are now located by the river. Barges would moor up next to these sites and have their materials loaded up or offloaded.
Final Stretch: Powered by Frieten
Of course, no visit to Belgium is complete without having a portion of frieten with mayonnaise. As we cycled down the road, Hayley spotted a food truck and asked for chips. After clocking up over 75 km, we were hungry and getting quite tired so we couldn’t care less the amount of calories we were piling up. We ordered a large portion and it turned out it was at least 2 or 3 times larger than what we would normally get in the Netherlands. This reminded us the American size portion, but we were glad that we had those frieten as they gave us the boost of energy to complete the remaining stretch home.
- Getting to Maastricht: Direct trains from Eindhoven (1 hour) and Amsterdam (2:30 hours) runs frequently to Maastricht
- Cycling to Belgium: Pretty much a no fuss event, you probably wouldn’t even notice it.
Have you been out for a long bike ride? Or been out in a national park on a bike? What was it like? Comment below and we would love to hear from you.