The next day, Sunday, we went on an all-day bike tour of the castles in the area. I like to think of it as the West Flanders Castle tour. In all, we stopped at 8 castles. They varied in their “castleness”, some looked more like a grand Maison, while others were more noble, there were medieval castles as well as “newer”, 19th century varieties. Quite a few were converted to restaurants/events centers, while one was a larger, multi-night group event, team-building nature park kind of place.
The Beisbroek Castle was a unique stop during our tour. It falls into the “Grand Maison” category but it has a public observatory and planetarium. In its 242-acre nature park there are statues depicting each of the planets spaced proportionately from the sun statue. It was an interesting stop.
The Wijnendale Castle was the biggest of our tour. The right half of the castle is the private summer residence of the owners, and the left side is open to the public. We decided to take the tour and, after crossing the moat, entered a nondescript room that gave the history of the castle. The original building was built by Robert I, count of Flanders, in the 11th century. It has since changed owners a lot until it finally went to the current owners. The building we toured “only” dates back to the 19th century restoration. Although the outside looked impressive for a medieval castle, we were more impressed with the castles of the Loire Valley, but hey – who can compete with French castles?
The Castle d’Aertrycke made a good first impression. It’s quite a bit newer than Wijnendale and more elegant looking. As I was taking some pictures of the place, I noticed that the first floor was a restaurant. We weren’t dressed for the occasion – it was elegant looking – so we admired it from the outside. After a few photos, we circled the small lake and discovered some pleasant views of the castle. This place has an interesting story. In 1865 a guy by the name of August de Maere acquired the “Lost Cost” estate and in 1869 he had the castle built. By 1897, he was raised into the nobility and had D’Aertrycke added to his name – and that’s how the castle got its current name.
With the exception of a short period after the first world war, the estate remained owned by the family. ‘Xavier de Maere’, the last owner of the castle, was the Deputy Commander of the Belgian South Pole expedition between 1958 and 1959. After the death of his mother, who last lived in the castle, he made an agreement with the West Flemish provincial government for the partial opening of the castle to the general public. Today, the castle is a luxury hotel with a restaurant and a convention center.
The last stop on our trip was at Loppem Castle. This one was the most striking building of the bunch, with its tall tower and steep roofs. It is also a relatively young castle, built in 1856 by some Baron and his wife, Countess of something. King Albert I and Queen Elizabeth stayed in the castle back in 1918. Like so many others, Loppem Castle hosts both private and public events. One can also tour the castle and its art collection. Unfortunately for us, it started raining on the way to this castle and although we had our rain jackets with us, we were too wet to be in any mood for a tour, so we admired the castle from the outside.
You can see more of my castle photos here
We also made two bike tours to the North Sea coast. We didn’t spend any time on the beach, as the weather didn’t allow it, pleasant but not sunny beach weather. Actually, there wasn’t anyone on the beach, but we still enjoyed seeing one of Belgium’s most popular vacation destinations. Our route for day 1 took us via Zeebrugge to Knocke, and our second round was via Blankenberge to De Haan (“the rooster”.) The beaches have a promenade with the beach on one side, along with some fenced private beach bars/lounges and on the other side is a wall of buildings. It reminded me of a cliff face, except this was man made. One hotel after another, with a street tucked in every few hundred meters. What also caught our attention was the sculptures along the entire promenade, spaced every few hundred meters. Naked male and female forms depicting things like love, freedom, flight, etc.
As we were riding back to Bruges on or first trip, the sky was looking more and more ominous. Eventually, a light rain started. We played it safe and put on our rain gear. Then, as if Mother Nature was waiting for us to react, it soon poured down in buckets. We were desperately searching for a place to wait out the storm, but were in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t even find a bus stop. She was having a good laugh at us and decided to make it a bit more amusing, so she added in some wind. The rain started coming down diagonally. When I reached up to hold the hood of my rain jacket, water poured down my arm and under the jacket sleeve. Laugh it up Mother Nature, you bitch, but you won’t break us down. On we pedaled. Eventually she gave up and the rained stopped by the time we reached Damme. We were looking forward to this town as we heard it was a well-known culinary location in West Flanders. As you might imagine, we were too drenched to dare going into a restaurant so had a quick look around the town’s main square, then continued on our journey. By the time we were back in our room, we looked like two drowned rats. Our shoes took 2 days to dry out.
Another highlight of our trip was a day in Gent, the third largest city in Belgium. Whereas Bruges is a sleepy medieval town, Gent is a vibrant medieval city. It grew from its humble beginnings as a settlement at the confluence of two rivers into one of the largest and richest cities of norther Europe by the late Middle Ages. Today it is a port and university city. It was magnificently old looking, just what one expects to see when thinking of a centuries old city. We admired the castle, the historic buildings along the canal in the downtown area.
We concluded our vacation with an overnight visit with a friend of ours who lives in a village just north of Brussels. He was once Kathrin’s boss and had made several visits to Frankfurt. He is a big fan of America, and especially American Baseball, so we instantly hit it off and have kept in touch after his time at Condor ended. It was nice to catch up with him and his wife, and see what life is like for them in his hometown.