Our passage through Belgium could have been like this: After the security check, we crossed the border, walked to Bruges, did some sightseeing, hiked along the coast, one of the shortest in our trip, and arrived at the French border. The end.
It was far more exciting than that, as you can imagine. The seven days in Belgium were packed with beautiful landscapes, wonderful hikes in excellent company, and even included an interview for a magazine.
We departed from Sluis in the early morning of day 210, and soon reached the border. As expected, a van with official looking men was standing next to the barrier at the path along a canal, so we got ready to show our IDs and explain our motivation to enter Belgian territory. We approached, but the men didn’t seem to notice us. We passed the van and realised that they were workers from the municipality, fixing something at the canal. They weren’t the least interested in us and only talked to us, when we asked one of them to take a picture of us at the supposed border line. That was all, we had arrived in Belgium!
The Damme canal, built under Napoleon’s rule to allow the efficient transport of his troops, was an amazing setting for our hike and even provided some fun and excitement, when we had to cross it on a self-service ferry. The hiking trail was superbly marked and the fact that it was part of the E9 was highlighted on every sign.
We made a lunch stop in Damme, a town which had served as a port for Bruges in the Middle Ages and still preserves its ancient splendour.
Our objective for the day was to reach Bruges, however, so we walked on until we saw its skyline in the warm afternoon light. This town, extremely rich and powerful until the 16th century, had spent 400 years in obscurity, before it was re-discovered in the 20th century, thus preserving its breathtaking medieval center. We had long wished to visit Bruges, so we couldn’t resist and walked a few kilometers more to admire its narrow lanes and beautiful squares, before finally dropping the backpacks in the youth hostel.
The stay in the youth hostel was sponsored by the Belgian hiking and cycling association Grote Routepaden, who have been interested in our project from the start, and supported us in different ways. They kindly offered to arrange accommodation in Belgian youth hostels on our route, put us in contact with a passionate E9-hiker, who would join us for a walk on our last day, and they met us in Bruges on day 211 for an extensive conversation about our experience of hiking the E9 long distance path. It was great meeting Gie Beirnaert, President of the association, and Peter Cristiaensen, chief editor of the hiking magazine Op Weg. Here some souvenirs of our meeting:
The following two days were spent in great company: Claude, a former workmate of Moiken, had flown in from Switzerland to join us for hiking and exploring the area of Bruges. We started early at the youth hostel and walked to his hotel, from where we had a beautiful hike together, passing canals, parks, fields and small villages. Our lunch break was in the most surprising inn: Inside the tiny stone building, they served a small number of daily specials and snacks. The food, as tasty as it was, had the sole purpose to accompany an impressive selection of 80 Belgian beers, 9 of them fresh from the tab! Unfortunately, we could only try a total of three of them, because we wanted to make it to the end of the hike safely, but we often think longingly about this menu with ten pages dedicated to beer. In the coming days, we were able to sample some more fantastic beers, see how many you know of those:
Hiking part done, just before the rain really started pouring down on us, we took a bus back into town and enjoyed a wonderful dinner in the evening.
We learnt a lot about Bruges during a very interesting and entertaining city walk the next day.
On day 214, the two of us were on the road again. After some more hiking through the countryside, and getting completely wet in the first half of the day, we reached the sea and thanks to the strong wind, our clothes were soon all dry again!
We followed a good hiking path through the dunes – an attempt to walk at the beach was soon aborted due to the storm – and gathered all our courage to enter a small ferry boat to take us to the central area of Ostend at the other side of the port. The short voyage went well, and we could rest a bit in a modern youth hostel, courtesy of the Belgian hikers. Our friend Gigi arrived in the evening to keep us company during the following days.
Our happy hiking group grew rapidly, day by day. On the way to Nieuwpoort, Gigi, José and Moiken walked through the port town of Ostend and admired the fabulous, slightly decadent, Royal Galleries at the North Sea beach, before wondering who could have allowed building huge apartment blocks along the promenade, keeping the beach in the shadow most of the day. Then we followed the path through a green park, wavy dunes, and along another of the many canals of Belgium. This one, together with the main river Yser, and a handful of other canals converging into the same bay, has been of strategic importance during World War I, when the area was flooded to stop the Germans from occupying all of Belgium. No floods disturbed our walk, on the contrary, we arrived in Nieuwpoort with beautiful sunshine. We had a small picnic at the scenic quay at the Yser, and walked the last few kilometers to our lodging. For dinner, we ended up walking the same number of kilometers back to the quay, as it was there where all the restaurants were located. Only a few of them were open, though, on the first day of December, so we were more than happy to find a friendly pizza place. There we met our other hiking companion, Bart. He had been following our adventures already for quite a while, and didn’t mind driving many hours to walk with us for one day.
Bart has walked over 2,500 kilometers on the E9 already, mostly in the countries we were still to pass, and it was a great pleasure sharing this tiny bit of the long distance path with him. We had a fantastic day together, with a lot of sun, walking on the beach, through the dunes, and of course enjoying a couple of fabulous beers in the end.
We said goodbye to him, our friend Gigi would still take us to the French border the next day.