Ghent to de Panne

Distance: 109.2 km
Time: 5 hours 26 minutes
Average speed : 20.1 km/h
Total distance: 755.51 km

slumming it — horsing around — headwinds — sand dunes — where’s the sea?

The last time we stayed in Ghent was late in 2008, and the town centre was relatively quiet, it being winter. This time, on opening the hotel door and stepping out onto Korenlei (yes, we admit we’re not really slumming it on this tour!) the waterfront was crowded with many hundreds of visitors, enjoying the fantastic views on a summer’s evening. It’s a stunningly lovely vista, whatever the time of year.

We originally selected a restaurant on Graslei, opposite the hotel. It was full, though, and like each of its neighbours sported a small queue outside. The waiters seemed somewhat disinterested in the concept of booking a table, so we switched to Plan B, involving refreshing glasses of Rochefort 8 (for the captain) and Cava (for the stoker) in a nearby bar, before repairing to another restaurant near the Belfort. Fortune has favoured us with good restaurants throughout our trip so far and “Passion” was no exception. We were served by a waiter who was keen to explain that he was French French as opposed to Walloon French, but had been happily living in Flanders for decades. He was keen to sing the praises of Ghent (and let’s face it there is plenty worth praising), particularly when compared to Bruges. This being fully discussed, we ate a very good meal of Ghent Stoverij (captain) and Rabbit (stoker). Oh, and a very good Beaujolais. It’s a tough life…

Today was to be our longest day in the saddle, featuring a journey of more than 70 miles in a north westerly direction, past Bruges towards the coast at de Panne. We set the alarm for an early start, and ate breakfast in a lovely room overlooking Korenlei. It was a gloriously hot morning, and the sun sparkled attractively on the water outside. After breakfast we rescued the tandem from the underground car park, loaded up and set off alongside one of Ghent’s many canals. Mindful of the distance we had to cover we set a fast pace from the start, and covered the forty-three kilometres to the outskirts of Bruges in a couple of hours.

Today we decided to have a mid-morning stop, and “Minnewater”, due south of Bruges city centre, was the perfect place. We cycled on the cobbled roads for a few hundred metres seeking a café (it being Monday, most of them were closed), before emerging near the popular spot where “horse and cart” tours around Bruges usually commence. Settling down at an outside café table with a huge bottle of mineral water we watched the horses being fed and watered at the end of each trip. It must be a tough life for them, particularly in the summer, and when leaving for the start of a new tour each horse seems to struggle on the slippery cobbles.

We didn’t want to hang around for too long (and we’re spending a couple of days in Bruges after our cycling tour), so we set off again fairly swiftly, hoping to accrue a further thirty or so kilometres before our lunch stop. The Ghent-Ostende canal towpath provided our route out of the city, and a good surface led to a consistently fast pace. It was scorchingly hot, though, and after an hour and a half we were flagging somewhat and in need of refreshment. We headed into the centre of Gistel and found an open café (hurrah!) where beer was taken and croquettes were consumed.

With seventy-five kilometres under our belt we knew we had another forty remaining – about two hours at our average speed today. The zig-zag route, however, kept pointing us into an increasingly strong headwind, which sapped our strength somewhat. By now the sun was blazing at full power, and we were glad to have replenished our water bottles at Bruges. The cycle tracks were buzzing with people as usual, particularly as we approached the North Sea coast near Nieuwpoort.

The last few kilometres were spent among holiday homes, caravans and sand dunes, though we never quite caught sight of the sea (we intend to rectify that omission this evening). Eventually we dragged our tired bones and other sore parts to our hotel in the town of de Panne, a short distance from the border with France. It’s a lively, pleasant spot and we’re looking forward to our evening here.

Tomorrow is our last cycling day – it seems to have arrived all too soon. We will be heading more or less due south towards Ieper, only forty or so kilometres away.

Here is today’s track:

Ghent to de Panne