Halloween ride to Northern France and Flanders

Like many of our vacation rides, we decided our destination the morning we left, as we’re packing bags and pumping tires. This time our starting point depended on where we could get tickets for on short notice. Only some TGVs take bicycles that haven’t been taken apart and put into a bag. And spots are limited to about four bikes per train.

We left Saint Germain-en-Laye Saturday afternoon, the last October day before the switch to winter time. No tickets available to go with bikes to Lille, so we opted to go to Arras and ride north from there. It would be a hotel trip, so no camping gear.

At the St. Germain RER A station we get all our bikes and bags down to the platform, got on the train. It looked like we would make our train with ease. But after a few stops, the train stops at Rueil-Malmaison, “everybody off” because of track work and demolition uptrack. So we got our bikes downstairs, and rode the five or six kilometers to Nanterre Prefecture then hauled the bikes down stairs, escalators, elevators, to take the train the rest of the way to Chatelet station in Paris, and then take the RER B to Gare du Nord.

We made the TGV at Gare du Nord with no more than two minutes to spare. Luckily the conductors let us get on at the first car and put our bikes in their compartment behind the locomotive for the 50-minute trip to Arras.

In Arras,  as we were looking for our hotel, a blonde lady in a Mercedes blasted through a red light as we were about to enter a crosswalk. It looked a lot like she gave us the finger.

Like Lille, Arras was part of the Spanish Netherlands until the early 1700s and has links to Flanders in Belgium.  The town has a system of ancient tunnels that the allies used during the German siege in World War I. It is surrounded by military cemeteries in the countryside, which we visited about 10 years before when we lived in Lille. This time we didn’t visit those, the cathedrals, the bell tower, or museums. Essentially, it was eat, look around the big places, sleep, and start riding.

Our hotel, Les Trois Luppars, was on the Grand Place

Hotel Les Trois Luppars in Arras

What is a “luppar”? I haven’t been able to find out yet. Nice old wooden building, family-place with a closed court yard where we could leave our bikes. Two other touring bikes were in there.

At a restaurant on the Place des Heros, we ate moules a la maroilles–mussels with a stinky cheese soup–cold beer, ice cream. Then we walked around the Place des Heros, got some merveilluex cakes at a boulanger, to power the next day’s ride.

Tourist office on the Place des Heros Arras

Tourist office on the Place des Heros Arras

It was a fairly warm night for late October, people sitting at tables drinking beer and eating plates of fries in front of the bars and friteries.

I was exhausted from carrying bicycles and bags up and down stairs. Gave up trying to arrange my stuff or decide which way to head the next day. Henry wanted to watch the boxing. The TV sound limited to 20 percent.


Grand Place in Arras, photo by Henry

Sunday morning, first day of winter time, easy to get up before 7 but we still didn’t leave before 10. We descended into the vaulted brick-ceiling basement for a big breakfast. We emerged from the hotel into the foggy, chilly morning. The hotel owner warned us not to leave our bikes unattended, or they would “disappear.” Riding out of town, we stopped briefly to look at the facade of the cathedral, the Abbey of St. Vaaste.

Felt that lift of adrenaline for the first day of a ride, heading away. In the fog between towns you could only see a few meters into the fields. The new road, a mystery.

Turned our lights on for the ride through little towns like Sainte Catherine-les-Arras, Vimy, a sign for the Vimy Ridge Canadian War Memorial from WWI, which we visited nine years ago when Henry was on the trailgator.

This is the north. It’s hard up here. War memorials and depressed towns that used to live on coal mining and industry, now have close to 20 percent employment or more.  Near Lens we passed big mounds or hills, made from mine tailings.. stopped at a hypermarket to eat lunch in view of one.

A man finishes his beer, gets on a motor bike with his boy, and rides away.

Passed through suburbs of Lens, Sallaumines, Loisons-sous-Lens, steer clear of Henin-Beaumont, one of the five or so French towns that have elected Front Nationale mayors. Women in head scarves, with dark-haired, grim faced men. And then hard looks from a pair of flaxen-haired women on the sidewalk.

Didn’t see the Louvre-Lens, the second biggest museum in France.. At the Sunday market at Noyelles, a vendor asked me, “how many kilometers,” and I said “100.” I meant that’s how far we planned to go. He grinned but looked dubious.

Riding along the Deule Canal

Riding along the Deule Canal path

North of Lens, at Pont-a-Vendin, we left the road to get onto the Deule Canal path going up towards Lille.

Small town along the Deule

These canals used to be used to haul coal, with horses on the paths pulling the barges by rope. Barges still haul sand, gravel, other commodities, but not coal, and they are self-powered. One long barge that passed looked to be run by only one guy. No one at the wheel as it powered up the straight canal.

On the towpath, in places the asphalt stopped or had collapsed into water leaving a treacherous edge. We held to the right, away from the water.

deule grass track.jpg

We made good progress. Some people fished with giant poles in the canal. The poles are so long, the fisherman rest the ends on rollers, to help move them quickly.

a51 It was the day before Halloween. Cars parked here and there but we didn’t see many people until we started approaching the edge of Lille. Adults with children in Halloween costumes appeared on the path. A line of people to enter on old railroad car converted into a culture center…

Seemed like a small thing at first..Then more and more people on the path and we came out under an interchange and I realized we were very close to Lille and would need to leave the canal path to continue north to Belgium.

We wandered around a packed parking lot looking for a way out. More groups with little children in Halloween costumes heading for an event behind that railroad car we’d seen.

Back on the road, at Santes, a guy on a scruffy mountain bike asked where we were headed, where we’d come from. I stopped to take a picture of this place.

Le tandem restaurant.jpgThen through little towns approaching the Belgian border, Englos, Ennetieres-en-Weppes,  edge of Premésaque, at La Chapelles-d’Armentières we stop for a Haribos infusion. The sun is getting low and it’s not even 4pm. That’s cycling in fall. We ride along the busy national road that runs from Lille to Armentières.


Town hall in “poor but proud” Armentières, a town near the Belgian border.

From Armentières we’d hoped to ride along the path that follows the Lys river, and eventually cross over into Belgium to Kortrijk. Maybe Comines or Ypres.. But the temperature was dropping and it would be dark soon. No hotel room to be had that night in Armentières. So we got on the train for the 15-minute ride to Lille.

We arrived at Lilles Flandres train station and rode in circles a half hour to find our hotel, the same high rise we stayed at the night we left the city about eight years ago…at the city’s edge, across from the entrance to the Lille Europe train station.

Later we took a quick tour of memory lane, looked up at our old apartment on 32 rue Anatole France, the little park where Henry rode his bike in little circles.

We ate moules frites at Brasserie de Foy near the Place Rihour and Place General de Gaulle…Then we walked around Vieux Lille, saw Henry’s old school, St. Paul’s.

In the morning we met two bikepackers from California–Oliver and Brian from San Francisco and Los Angeles–on the outdoor terrace at the Paul’s Boulangerie and café across from the Bourse and Opera. They were on lightweight bikes, headed out for a fast ride to the Ardennes.

We took a bumpy ride over the cobblestones of Vieux Lille to the park that sits like an island across the Deule and smaller canal..

It was fall, so these spring flowers weren’t out…I took this photo when we lived in Lille. At the park’s center is the 400-year-old Vauban Citadel, now used by NATO. The Lille football club used to play at the little stadium at one edge, but they’ve moved to a bigger modern stadium in the suburbs. On Sundays we’d buy roasted chicken and bread at one of the markets, then ride into the park to eat at a picnic table..

We took a twisting bike route bridge that goes over several highways before dumping you on the wrong-way side of La Madeleine… We followed the sidewalk until we found our way back to the Deule bike path, headed toward the Belgian border…

Before Wambrechies we turned off the path to take a bike lane northeast via a busy highway through the towns of Bondues and Roncq. Apart from huge tractor pulling a trailer that brushed very close to us, it seemed safe enough.

We’d been up here years before. But now Henry on his own bike, on his own power.. not pulled by a bar.

It was Oct. 31, we passed through a town named Halluin.  We saw two girls in a motorcycle crash, one girl unconscious, one crying over her as people tried to console her. A few minutes later a middle-aged white guy sees me in the crosswalk and speeds up his SUV.

At Menin we crossed into Belgium then started along a canal bike path again, on our way to Kortrijk.  Belgium has a system of numbered bike routes.


We stopped for lunch, watching the many cyclists and occasional motorcycle go by. The cows came up to watch us eat.

Stopped to take this picture and didn’t realize that we were in Kortrijk and should have crossed the bridge here..Finally figured it out and went back, and got a hotel room at the Ibis in the center of town.

Kortrijk was a wealthy flax and wool producing town in the Middle Ages. It has some nice old towers over the Lys river.

 Picture by Henry M.

I didn’t yet know it when we were there, but Kortrijk is home to Kristof Allegaert, the math professor who won this year’s Transcontinental Race from Geraardsbergen, Belgium, to Istanbul, riding 3,875 km in 8 days and about 15 hours.  That’s more than 400 km a day.

Not sure what kind of pitching they meant. Fatigue setting in. The hotel was a few kilometers away, but we rode around in circles until we found it. Got our bikes inside the luggage room, the bags into the room with a view of the big Schouwburgplein, Theater Place, below. The town has many pedestrian shopping areas but it was a holiday and most things were closed.

Seen in Kortrijk, Belgium

That evening we wandered around looking for a place to eat. There were cafe bars full of young people, and a few very quiet places with white-haired diners. Many restaurants on the Grote Markt , the big place of the town, the menus outside were in Dutch,.. nothing in French or English. Ended up at Louis’s Burger Bar under a big mural photograph of Chicago.

Off one of the side streets near our hotel found a bakery with menu in French to get some bread for morning. Got up before 7am, still end up leaving after 10am, even without getting breakfast.. Back to same bakery for cakes and coffee. A young cyclist in racing gear stopped to ask to borrow my pump. I asked him for directions to Tournais.. the Wallonian city across the border from Lille.

I’d bought tickets for a train from Arras back to Paris that afternoon. We needed to get back to Lille, catch a local train to Arras, then pick up the TGV there..

We end up doing a lot of map checking.. We started out following the highway bike lane through Zwevegem like he told us, but maybe he meant Wevelgem… We turned off on this country lane which looked so promising but that took us in the wrong direction.

The bike lanes were good just about everywhere in Flanders,, but I hadn’t done any route planning and it turned out to be easy to get lost.

Eventually I gave up on getting to Tournai. So we’ve still never seen that Walloon city, although we lived so close to it in Lille for two years.

We wound around the little country roads, through Moen, Sint-Denijs, followed what we thought was a bike route to the edge of farm fields… turned back, and came out in Kooigem on a highway heading toward Tournai.

As soon as we crossed into Wallonia the road surface turned bade. The bike lane was potholed and littered with glass. We crossed over the Espierres canal, looked down and saw a bike path headed west..Two minutes later we’re on it, headed toward France.

Runs from Spiere in Belgium to Roubaix and Lille in France

Stopped a little ways later at a cafe at the lock bridge at St. Leger. Henry wanted fries before we left Belgium, but you had to order a plate to get fries.. The serveuse suggested filet américain, which turned out to a seasoned patty of raw hamburger, with tangy little pickles and salad.

Unfortunately, this path abruptly stopped, fenced off, at Roubaix’s edge.

France has cool bike lane signs, too. But they don’t always go keep their promises..

Back on the road, in France, we passed through Roubaix, where we picked up the bike path that follows the tram to Lille.

Past Parc Barbieux, Marcq-en-Baroeul,..at the edge of Lille, a guy on a recliner wanted to show us the way to Lille Flandres..

The newspaper Voix du Nord building on the Place de General-de-Gaulle in Lille.

On Place du General-de-Gaulle. People dump dishwashing soap and into this fountain and jump in to celebrate their weddings, graduations.

Back in Lille, ride over.On Place du General-de-Gaulle. People dump dishwashing soap and into this fountain and jump in to celebrate their weddings, graduations.

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