Tour de northern France: a new cycling trail in Flanders

Dixe Wills
Photograph: Olivier Leclerq/Getty

I’m sitting down to a picnic breakfast at a sun-flecked table beside the River Lys in Flanders. Consulting my map, I write the following numbers on something approximating a waxed luggage tag: “22-37-71-34-33-32-31-30-08-01-33”. I put the map away, slip the tag around my bike’s handlebars and I’m set for the morning. I’ve never been to this part of Flanders before – it’s the lesser-known French part, on the northernmost tip of the country, bordering Belgium – but I’m now confident I can cycle today from my table in the riverside town of Saint-Venant, through Haverskerque, across the Nieppe forest, down into Merville and finally into the town of Estaires.

Welcome to French Flanders’ ingenious new cycle network. Launched earlier this year, the catchily titled Réseau Points-Nœuds Vélo (literally Network Node-Points Bike) comprises 830km of minor roads and cycle paths covering the Vallée de la Lys, the Monts de Flandre hills and a small slice of southern Belgium. The clever bit is its hundreds of numbered signposts – or “node-points” – each directing cyclists to the next numbered signpost. All riders need to do is pick up the map (€8), note down the node-point numbers on their chosen route and pedal away. The map also highlights restaurants, breweries, museums, attractions, campsites and eco-lodges, and shows the distances between the node-points, which makes tailoring your own Tour de Flandre extremely simple. And once you’ve set off, there’s no need to consult the map again, or worry about your phone dying.

Less than three hours after setting off from London, I picked up my hire bike (eeuwenhout.info) at Bailleul, one of the many small towns and villages within the network served by a railway station. On my three-day circular tour I would cover 180km, starting with a gentle climb into the low hills of the Monts de Flandre.

It was lunchtime when I rolled into Terdeghem, a village of neat brick cottages and the Het Kerk Hoek, holder of the much-prized Estaminets flamands marque, awarded to authentically Flemish restaurants and bars. I think it’s fairly safe to say that, like the rest of Flanders – which loves its beef, chicken, mussels and cheeses – it has yet to receive the memo about veganism. However, it’s wonderful how far cow eyes and a sad inflection in the voice will get you. In no time, I was tucking into a beautiful platter of locally grown crudités, complete with little pots of dressings, sauces and a compôte, along with a 3 Monts beer. “Brewed just 3km from here,” according to the barman.

It was the first of many Flemish beers I sampled. At the Bellenaert eco-brewery in Outtersteene, where all the energy comes from renewables, I learned a little about the nuances of bitterness, density and colour. Flemish beers are usually fermented a second time in the bottle, which gives them a delicate crispness.

I also discovered that the Flemish have a sceptical attitude to Mondays, and opening hours in general – my attempts to visit the museums dedicated to life on the French/Belgian border and bees were rebuffed by musée fermé signs. However, I had more luck when I breezed along the few kilometres (“59-23-27-22-33”) from Terdeghem to Cassel.

Perched on the saddle between two hills, and sprinkled with gorgeous Flemish architecture, Cassel is said to be the inspiration for the nursery rhyme The Grand Old Duke of York, and was voted France’s favourite village in a TV competition last year. On the beautiful old Grand’Place I popped into the Musée de Flandre to unearth something of the region’s history. It was rather bloody: the area was fought over by Burgundians, Dutch, Spanish, French and Germans (though not all at once). However, its people did inspire Pieter Bruegel the Elder, so there’s that.

I was just about to leave when I heard Harpo’s 1975 smash, Movie Star, being played outside by a marching band, striding over the cobbles. And then came another. And another. I had stumbled upon a competition – six brass bands from local villages taking turns to roam around Cassel’s Grand’Place blasting out three-minute renditions of popular classics, from Abba and Aha to the White Stripes and, well, AC/DC. Until you’ve heard Highway to Hell played by 30 mild-mannered, uniformed village folk, you cannot truly claim to have lived.

My days rolled away as I bowled languorously along quiet back roads. This is farming country: the path alongside the River Lys from Thiennes to Haverskerque made for a pleasant off-road stretch, while the track through the Nieppe forest provided a sylvan interlude.

Accommodation in the region is plentiful: I spent my first night in a Cabane Rando, a rustic wooden pod the shape of an A-frame tent (€25 single occupancy, €46 double); my second in what looked like a charming folly converted into an elegant little gîte (sleeps 4 from €110), where I listened to a pair of owls calling back and forth across the woodland garden; and my final night in Flandre Lys eco-lodge (sleeps 4, €36) at a fetching little pleasure boat marina on the Lys, where my thrillingly lofty bedroom was reached by a ladder.

Over the next two years, the network will expand north to Dunkirk, and one would hope that it’s only a matter of time before this brilliantly simple idea makes the leap across the Channel. For this surely is the future of cycle touring: the days of the old-school map are numbered.

The trip was provided by Nord Tourisme (jadorelenord.fr, in French only), which sells the Réseau Points-Nœuds Vélo map (€8); it’s also available from tourist information centres. Rail tickets were supplied by Rail Europe: London-Lille from £58 return; Lille-Bailleul €14.40 return. Bicycle hire at Bailleul was provided by Eeuwenhout (eeuwenhout.info, Dutch only), which can deliver to the station: electric bicycle €30 a day/ €175 a week

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