Biking and bird-watching

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On the beach at Cayeux-sur-mer

Tricky has just spent a week at the seaside in what can only be described as an area of biking and bird-watching bliss: the Baie de Somme.  It took us a fair few trains to get there, with varying levels of bike-transporting techniques, but it was well worth the effort.

Unlike other trips, when I’ve moved on every day, this time I based myself in two different places (Le Crotoy & Cayeux-sur-Mer) and headed out on day trips with Tricky.  It was a very nice experience, particularly as I’m especially keen on coastal birds.  I’ve written before about where the growing enthusiasm for bird-watching comes from but I think the enthusiasm is getting worse….it may soon be an addiction! I spent a lot of time at the Marquenterre bird reserve, which was absolutely brilliant.  Not only did I improve my bird identification skills, I also learnt some new (pretty useless in daily life) French vocabulary.   It was exciting to see my first ever spoonbill and then my second…and then 10th…and then 40th!  The spoonbill has such a distinctive way of feeding that it would be impossible to ever get bored of watching it.  I also saw my first ever black winged stilt which has the most amazing legs (with my cyclist thighs, I am incredibly envious of the slender stilt legs!)

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Looking out from one of the many hides. It was a good job I had my binoculars with me.

This bird knowledge turned out to be pretty useful because the Baie de Somme area has created some signed cycle routes and, instead of numbering them or signing them with colours, they are marked with bird silhouettes.  So, unless you can identify the silhouette on a signpost at the speed, getting lost is inevitable!  Luckily, I didn’t get lost at all which must tell you something about the quality of the signage and my bird identification skills.  Following the trails enabled me to explore the land area really thoroughly:

 

 

but I had to abandon Tricky and get in a boat to truly experience the bay itself.  The tides in this area are interesting.  The water goes out miles and then comes back in at a speed that could easily cut you off, if you had ignored all the warning signs.  In an attempt not to be stuck on a sand bar in the middle of a bay, and to see some seals, I joined a group trip out to the edge of the bay one evening.  It was brilliant.  We rowed out in these boats:

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and then stopped and got out on a sand bank to see the seals.  As the tide came back in, the seals started to swim around our feet and then, as we got back in the boat, they swam with us back up to Le Crotoy.  It was a really enjoyable experience and an excellent place to be as the sun set over the hills.

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Enjoying the beach at Cayeux-sur-mer

After 6 days of pootling around the bay area, I headed to Dieppe.  A lot of locals had been very inquisitive about my trip and each time I mentioned that I would be taking the train back from Dieppe, they all had the same response: “it’s very hilly between here and Dieppe”, followed by a bit of a laugh.  They weren’t lieing. The paths around the bay itself are beautiful signed and designed for cyclists and I spent all 6 days cycling without my helmet and without much of a need for a map.  However, on my final cycling day, from Cayeux-sur-mer to Dieppe, it was definitely a case of ‘helmet on, map at the ready.’  My hilly ride was also accompanied by a Force 6 wind, 95% of the time working as a headwind.  But despite that, I really enjoyed it.  I stopped for coffee in the very interesting town of Eu.  It has a bit of a history with William the Conqueror and a long connection to Ireland.  After coffee I just kept pedalling through undulating French countryside until I hurtled down hill at the speed of a lunatic in to Dieppe.  It wasn’t the warmest of welcomes:

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as the bridge was up so I couldn’t get in to the town straight away but it was a really nice place indeed.

In fact, Dieppe with its ports, fantastic fish restaurants, pedestrianised centre and sea water swimming pools, comes highly recommended.  A perfect place to end a very lovely trip.

 

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Cycling along the Rhine.

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The Rhine at sunset

The river Rhine has featured a lot in previous cycle trips so I was hardly surprised to discover, a few months ago, that the only section that I needed to do to ‘complete’ the river was the section from Cologne to the Hook of Holland.  In need of a short and easily accessible trip, I headed to Cologne.  Preparation had been poor.  I hadn’t even put the front pannier rack on my bike so luggage was really minimal.  By the time the camping essentials were in, there wasn’t much room for anything else.  But, as the trip was only going to take me a week (maximum) it was quite nice to do it with so little stuff.  I bought a terrible guide book in anticipation.  I didn’t realise it was terrible until I was in situ but, really, keeping the river to my left (or right) and pedalling was possibly all the instruction I needed anyway.  I knew the route would be quite industrial at times and I was delighted to read this description in the terrible book:

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I sent it to my previous walking and cycling partner, G, who knows I love a good industrial route.  In fact, the more motorways and factories, the better!  This was her response: “OMG, waterworks, motorways and sewerage works?? It is PERFECT.  It’s like they designed the route specifically for you!  Only thing missing is a graveyard and they’d have nailed it!”

I joke about liking industrial views but I do find it quite interesting and, having studied (and taught about) the Ruhr many times it was nice to have the opportunity to visit it.  Germany is just brilliant but this section of the Rhine route was probably one of the best sections I’ve cycled along.  Firstly, the variety in landscapes is huge.  One minute you’re cycling around factories and next to busy main roads,

the next you’re in the middle of the countryside

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and 5 minutes late you’re in an old walled city, enjoying cake with the local wasp population.

The second reason that this section is brilliant is the locals.  The people of North Rhine-Westphalia are the friendliest, kindest people I’ve come across on all my cycling trips.  They allowed me to massacre their language without a word of complaint, they provided me with food and accommodation with enthusiasm, they stopped and engaged me in spontaneous conversation as much as they possibly could and, most importantly in a heat wave, they voluntarily refilled my water bottles on a regular basis.  It may be the industrial, gritty north of Germany but there’s nothing drab or dour about the people.

After 2 days of cycling in Germany, I crossed the border in to the Netherlands.

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I’m going to say something very controversial here.  I think cycle touring in Germany is much better than cycle touring in the Netherlands.  Everyone holds the Dutch up has being the Kings of Cycling and they are, but only really for cycle commuting.  For long distance cycling, the Germans are much better.  Finding coffee and toilets in the Netherlands was tough.   And the signage in Germany is much clearer and easier to follow.  This definitely wasn’t a language issue (my Dutch is on a par with my awful German!)   The Germans are also much more relaxed about paths.  The Dutch micro-manage to such levels that it’s as nerve-wracking as cycling in Switzerland.  The Germans just build a tarmac path and open it for everyone. This actually got me thinking about cycle planning.  Cyclists are always banging on about making cycle lanes and making cycling safer etc but what the Germans have done is create spaces for all vulnerable road users.  So, as well as kids on bikes and commuters on bikes, the infrastructure is used by old folk on mobility scooters, disabled people, people with push chairs etc.  Perhaps this is what the UK and Belgium should be doing?  Instead of cyclists lobbying for space, we should unite with all these other groups and campaign together for segregated paths and step-free access to spaces.  That would make it a lot harder for the car lobbyists to complain because, although it seems acceptable to be aggressive towards cyclists, they would have to think twice about abusing old or disabled people.  Such are the thoughts of a lone cycle-camper as she pedals along, putting the world to rights.

Anyway, on to the Netherlands.  It was perfectly pleasant and I visited some very interesting sights:

The only Dutch village named after a Yorkshire cash machine:

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The only drive-thru windmill in the world:

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Kinderdijk (from afar….it was way too touristy for me)

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And I finished my trip as the Rhine enters the North Sea at the Hook of Holland.  I even celebrated by having a quick dip.  As the heat wave had broken in spectacularly stormy style by that time, it really was just a quick dip.

I celebrated the end of my industrial cycle by going on an industrial boat tour of the Port of Rotterdam.  It was a perfect end to the trip, involving all things industrial and port-like:

 

I had planned to continue home through Zeeland and along the Belgian coast but the winds and the thunderstorm warnings were too much.  I tried, but retreated after being flooded out of a bus stop that I was sheltering in.  And so it was back to Brussels by train in time to prepare for the next mini-cycling adventure which starts next week and should be significantly less industrial and hopefully less stormy.

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Le Tour in Paris (and plans for mini-tours in August.)

2018 has been a year of big changes.  The last few months, in particular, have been very busy.  This may, in part, explain the lack of blogging.  3 weeks ago I ‘retired’ from teaching and, since then, I’ve spent 6 long days painting and 6 days packing and unpacking and I am now installed in my new flat.   The other days of the 3 week period involved 3 days visiting family in Vienna and 6 days working through the seemingly endless list of bureaucratic and practical jobs that need to be done when clearing out and handing back a rented flat.  I now seem to be a recognised face at the local dump!

Retiring and moving all in a 3 week time period has been exhausting but not as exhausting, I imagine, as the last 3 weeks have been for the cyclists on the Tour de France. Watching the tour has provided excellent background entertainment as I’ve been working through the jobs in the new flat but the absolute highlight was taking a day trip to Paris yesterday to watch the race ‘in the flesh.’  This was something I’d organised months ago little realising firstly, what a treat it would be to have a day off from retiring and moving and second, that my long-time cycling hero Geraint Thomas, would be in the yellow jersey.

It was a fantastic day.  We (my Irish friends M & L and I) wandered slowly from the gare du nord to the Louvre

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M and me outside the Louvre.

and then went for excellent coffee and cake.

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Excellent apricot tart.

After that, we returned to the hub of things to stake out our pitch on the rue de Rivoli.  Then, joined by another Irish couple who had been attracted by our flag, we waited almost 5 hours for the cyclists to come past.  I really should have invested in a UK or Welsh flag!  Anyway, we entertained ourselves by talking to others and making occasional forays for ice-cream and toilets.   We also persuaded a passing policeman to take a photo of us with our flags and hats.

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The joy of watching the tour in Paris is that you get to see the cyclists come past 8 times.  The first circuit saw them all together but then each circuit revealed great changes: a breakaway group involving Taylor Phinney with the most enormous black eye, a push to the front by the wonderful Peter Sagan, a little wave from G himself (I swear it’s true but may have been because we were next to a Welsh flag), the ever improving position of Dan Martin…  It was such fun to watch it happen and to see the peloton making ground on the break away group.

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Sagan and G in the same shot: not bad for a camera phone!

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Zooming past.

The final circuit was the best, though, as the groups had split up completely and we were treated to individual riders coming past and even stopping (like this chap here)

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to hug his parents and grandparents, who were not far from us.

It was a really lovely atmosphere, the weather was perfect and it was a brilliant way to end my 3 weeks of madness.

In other news, I can finally reveal that I will be getting to do a bit of cycling myself in August.  For various reasons, not much had been planned and that means that I’m going to have to stay close to home as booking train tickets for the bike at such a late date is rather difficult, not to mention expensive.  So, limited by being able only to take trains that don’t need advance bike booking, I’m off to finish the Eurovelo 15 (the Rhine river route) in a few days, with a plan to cycle from Cologne to the North Sea and then West through Zeeland and all the way along the Belgian coast.  Then, I’ll return to Brussels for a few days to see visitors and then I’m going off to explore the Baie de Somme with train tickets booked to Abbeville and back from Dieppe.  It’ll take me along the Eurovelo 4, last seen on my semi-disastrous trip to Prague, but hopefully with more signposts and less drama this time.  That’s the joy of living in Brussels – even when trains with the bike are limited, I can still plan a Tour de Germany, a Tour de the Belgian Coast and a mini Tour de France!  Keep your eyes open for blogging updates.

 

 

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From West to East across Belgium

It’s no secret that I love Belgium.  It’s also pretty obvious that I love cycling.  So, when asked by my colleague M-A to help organise the annual work cycling trip, there was never going to be any doubt that it would be in Belgium.  After our successful trip last year , in Flanders, this year we headed South and cycled across Wallonia.  Very keen readers of this blog might remember that, some years ago, I vowed never to cycle in Wallonia again.   After a series of cycle path disasters, this is what I wrote :

“However, we did decide that, from now on, Wallonia won’t be seeing us on our bikes.  It’s nothing against Francophone Belgium, it’s just that their cycle paths are absolutely diabolical and we value our bikes too much to trash them on those paths.”

But, I don’t believe in holding a grudge and I had also heard lots of great things about how the Eurovelo 3 across Belgium had recently been completed so I was keen to give it a go.  The idea was to follow the river Meuse from Dinant (as close to the Belgian-French border as we could get by train) all the way to Maastricht, in the Netherlands, where the Meuse has become the Maas.  The group this year fluctuated in number but was around 13 for most of the time, with the majority being Belgians.  Exploring Belgium with Belgians is a joy and a delight.  I’ve talked before about how modest Belgians are about their country and it was really lovely to discover new places and to be able to point out how gorgeous Belgium is.

Things started very well.  Firstly, we had a very bike-friendly train and we appeared to be the only passengers.  Then, C had bought an enormous box of homemade brownies with her and, finally, our first stop was for coffee and pastries at the cafe opposite the station.  Is there a better way to start a cycle trip?

On day 1, we cycled from Dinant to Namur.  The path was lovely, the weather was kind and we had a nice stop at the Annevoie Gardens, which were very pleasant indeed.

In the evening, we ate vast amounts of food in a restaurant and then some of us went of a nice guided night tour of Namur with B, our resident historian.  I have learnt that, when faced with a historical question in Belgium, the best answer is usually ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ and, much to my amusement, in Dinant and Namur, this rule seemed to hold good.  (Luckily, no-one ever asks me to clarify the exact Duke I’m thinking of…)

Day 2 was always going to be a big day and it certainly didn’t disappoint.  We headed from Namur to Liège, following the Meuse all the way.  Again, the path was well signed and pretty good and we got to see some great sights along the way:

– Huy (famous, amongst cyclists, for ‘le mur’.)

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– A nuclear power station (where we had a group photo moment and alarmed the security guards.)

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– A very creative approach to merging pylons and cycle paths.

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– The very industrial suburbs of Liège (here we all are in Seraing, with industrial scenery in the background.)

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We ate very well, but very slowly and with limited choice due to our group size, in Liège and then, instead of a historical walk with B, some of us were led astray by M and headed into ‘The Square’, an area of Liège famous for its student nightlife.  I think it’s a long time since anyone over the age of 20 has ventured into the area but we carried it off with aplomb and had a few drinks before tiredness hit, we headed back and left the locals to dance/drink the night away.

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The oldies, out and about in downtown Liège.

After our crazy night, we had a relaxed breakfast in the sun before we headed off on day 3 for Maastricht.  On the way, I thought I had spotted Lenin:

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but it turned out to be Albert I, a former King of the Belgians (oops) and we cycled up an enormous hill (yes, really…in the Netherlands!) to be able to enjoy this view of a quarry.

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We arrived in Maastricht in the early afternoon, checked in to our hotel and then enjoyed some free time in the city.  We had a final meal together in the evening and then the trip was pretty much over.  Day 4 involved a short cycle to Visé and some trains back to Brussels.  I did this section alone as I had a visitor arriving and needed to get back.  The downside of this, aside from being lonely on the train, was getting stuck in a lift in Liège station whilst running for a tight connection.  Luckily the lift was totally made of glass so I was able to scream and hammer on the door in order to be rescued.  I suppose, as we had had NO DIVERSIONS at all on the whole ride, a small moment of panic had to be provided somehow.

Plans are already afoot for next year and, I’m pleased to say, also involve exploring beautiful Belgium.

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Getting the travel bug back

Years ago, I had a real travel bug and went to all kinds of exciting places but, as the years have progressed, my love of cycle touring buried the travel bug and my urge to get on a plane and go somewhere unusual disappeared.  However, it seems that the bug was just suppressed, not eliminated, because, when I recently had the opportunity to go to Armenia to support my school orchestra, I jumped at it.   And now that I’ve come back from Armenia, I’m delighted to report that the bug is virulent again and I’m already mulling over possible future travel options.

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Geghard monastry

Armenia is an amazing country.  It has gorgeous scenery, lovely people, fabulous food and was, without doubt, the most hassle-free place I have ever travelled.  Except for one dodgy experience (and the guy probably wasn’t even Armenian) no-one pestered me, no-one tried to get me to buy tacky souvenirs that I didn’t want and no-one tried to exploit the fact that I was a tourist from a rich country.  Being able to walk around without being pestered was a revelation.  In contrast, within 5 minutes of being back in Brussels I had already been asked to fill in a survey for the train company and had 2 people asking me for ‘spare change’.  However, there were a couple of things missing in Armenia:  cycle lanes and cake!  Regular readers of this blog will know of the importance of both in my life.  I didn’t have a bike with me so bike lanes weren’t so essential but, even if I’m not cycling every day, cake on holiday is essential.  So, my 10 days in Armenia essentially turned in to a search for interesting Armenian cake.

In Yerevan, I found an enormous teapot

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Modern sculpture at the Cascade.

and a kiwi

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More modern sculpture (and a cake free cafe in the background).

but no cake.

So I took the brand new electric train to Gyumri

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Setting off on the electric train (mount Ararat in the distance).

but the only thing I found in Gyumri was some very dry cake

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and some very welcoming Armenians.  You can watch this youtube link (if you speak Armenian) to see just how excited they were by the visit of our school orchestra.

I returned from Gyumri on the traditional train

20180401_110921which was very cheap but not the most comfortable way of travelling for 3 1/2 hours.  However, I did get to see the scenery and meet some local Armenians so, in that respect, it was much more enjoyable than the electric tourist train.

My next search for cake took me to Etchmiadzin.  I went there on the local minibus.  It cost about 30 cents but it was a bit of a squash.  The locals were very sweet to me though, and very sweet with Harold (my French horn).  They even looked after him at one point when the squash in my section of the bus got a bit much.  In Etchmiadzin, I found the centre of the Armenian Orthodox Church

and I also found the wonderful Komitas.  Look him up – he has an interesting story.

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Komitas

But the cake I found was slightly disappointing

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Slightly disappointing cake.

So, it was back to Yerevan for 3 days to see more of the city and continue my quest for cake.  That evening, I went for a fabulous meal with the women accompanying the orchestra but the cake/dessert, although the best so far,  was not great

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The next day, I saw the Blue Mosque

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where I met a couple of very friendly Iranians who invited me to visit them in Tehran (very tempting) and I found the best coffee that I’ve ever had

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Gorgeous coffee from Haldi, but no cake options.

but still no cake.

I then went on a day trip to Khor Virap, a monastry on the Turkish border.  It was stunning.

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On my final day, I went on an organised trip to see Garni and Geghard and to learn to make the Armenian traditional levash (bread).

And, after a brilliant last day of visiting Armenia, I finally found it – brilliant cake!

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Caramel and walnut cake – yum yum!

My trip to Armenia was totally brilliant and, joking aside about cake, I would thoroughly recommend it.

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Wonderful Yorkshire

I’ve made it very clear (in the manner of Mrs May) that I have no intention of returning to the UK when my contract here ends.  Working in their education system doesn’t attract me and my friends are too widely scattered for me to be tempted to any particular town or county.  But, despite all that, there is still one massive pull back to the UK and it’s my home county of Yorkshire.  Yorkshire is stunningly beautiful and the good folk of Yorkshire are kind, honest and decent people.  I love returning home to the soak up the accent, the humour and the kindness.

Ten days ago, I headed to Yorkshire for the weekend.  Obviously, the main attraction was visiting my Mum but I planned my visit to fit around the Yorkshire Rhubarb Festival, held in Wakefield.

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Did you know that Yorkshire is the world leader in forced rhubarb?  Do you know the location of the Yorkshire Rhubarb Triangle?  Until recently, I had no idea that Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb even has EU Protected Designation of Origin status.  It’s a really important part of the Yorkshire heritage and it tastes gorgeous.   Having grown up in Leeds, I always assumed all rhubarb was pink and sweet and grown in sheds by candlelight but apparently that’s not the case.  Since moving abroad, I’ve discovered that rhubarb can be thick and green and stringy too.

Pink rhubarb galore            The local Boots had rhubarb in the window!

Wakefield has long suffered from being in the shadow of Leeds and seems to be actively seeking a new identity.  Being the world rhubarb capital might just be its USP. The clever people at the Experience Wakefield office have decided to try and promote rhubarb, and local food and drink more widely, at the annual rhubarb festival and it was a real treat to be there.

The streets were packed with Morris dancers (do a you tube search if you fancy laughing at the English!) and food and drinks stalls.  More importantly, the streets were packed with people.  Mum and I bought some rhubarb:

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It was the beginning of ‘The Beast from the East’, hence Mum looking like she’s hiding her true identity!

and we bought some Yorkshire Halloumi:

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Best halloumi ever, made by a very enterprising local Syrian lady.

and we bought a little present for my brother:

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A surprise jar of something spicy!

We then warmed up with a very nice coffee before heading home to make a rhubarb, orange and polenta cake, recipe courtesy of good old Waitrose.

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Very nice cake indeed.

I would have considered that I had had a good dose of Yorkshire with the story so far but the final, wonderful, Yorkshire moment was found in a free “Yorkshire” magazine that I was given.  Apparently, hygge is too last year and too Danish….it’s all about Yugga these days.

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Any county that is bold enough to create a new word and an identity based around being the global super power in forced rhubarb is a county of which to be incredibly proud!  I leave you with the Yorkshire guide to Yugga:

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and wish you all much happy yugga-ing!

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In praise of Belgian lumberjacks.

A heron hiding                                    A cycling selfie

After spending the whole day inside yesterday, working on speculative CVs, nationality paperwork and flat buying stuff, I was absolutely determined to get out on the bike this morning.  Luckily, the sleety rain had stopped overnight and the sun was almost shining so, once I had dressed myself in the warmest (and weirdest) selection of cycling clothing I possessed, I was ready for the off.  I had initially planned a 50 km cycle to Mechelen, via the National Endive Museum but, on seeing the temperature, I decided to do something a bit shorter.  Cycling in temperatures of 1°C is never a warm experience and, within 10 minutes of setting off, I knew a shorter ride had been a good decision.  I hurtled around the forest with increasingly frozen thighs and feet and made it back just in time to jump into a hot bath with a large mug of tea and a good book.

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After months of only being allowed to commute, Tricky enjoyed a decent ride.

The forest was looking lovely but was definitely suffering from the effects of the two serious storms we’ve had in January.  Debris from Thursday’s storm was still scattered all over the paths and a number of trees had clearly not made it through the winter.  I counted about fifteen in total that had been newly felled, either by the wind or in anticipation of the storm.  One of the impressive things about my forest, and my local woodlands, is that the trees are never removed.  The paths are cleared but, as much as possible, the tree is left where it fell and becomes a home for the local wildlife.  In the first storm, a tree fell down on top of my local orchard, bringing down the orchard fencing and blocking the footpath.  The next day, despite the weather conditions still being horrible, 6 men in hi-viz jackets and helmets spent the whole day clearing the path, sorting out the tree and re-fencing the orchard.  Considering how long other things take to do in Belgium, this lumber-jacking is very impressive!

In other news (as I realise it is some time since I blogged), I have made a firm decision to stay in Belgium when my contract ends in August.  As my landlady has decided to sell my flat, this means that I need to find a new flat before the end of July, a new job before the end of August and a new nationality at some time too.  It’s quite a challenge I’ve set myself for 2018 but, if 2017 taught me anything, it was to expect the unexpected.  Whilst the unexpected in 2017 was pretty bad, I’m optimistic that the unexpected in 2018 will be good.  And, if it all goes belly up, I’ll just set off around the world on Tricky in September!

Just to finish, here are some photos to cover the last few months of no blogging:

December

  Christmas involved a trip to Austria where we met Father Frost (he’s Russian), walked in the snow and ate cake.  Mum and I met a camel in Germany on our way to Austria.

November

 

Trips to  Abu Dhabi and Masdar City in the UAE (something that the geeky Geographer in me loved!) and to Copenhagen.

October

Hiring electric bikes and visiting the new Green Bridge (Ecoduct) over the Brussels ring and…

…the annual field trip to France.

 

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