GR5: Stavelot to Vianden

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More of the same, which is nothing to complain about.  Climb out of Stavelot by bike, on foot, and back on the bike towards the top.  The trail often climbs steeply out of town between fencelines, sandwiched between diverse properties.  Further up, forests and farms leave room for a more generous track or trail.  Some great roads and trails exist in these forested hilltops.  It is amazing to find so many signed routes in this county– for walking, cycling, and mountain biking.  Europe is relatively dense with people and things, but an abundance of trails and resources makes adventures like this possible.  The same is true of the vast network of forest service roads in the American west, in contrast to places like Alaska that do not invite visitors by bicycle.  Access is the word.

Access is enabled by facilities and resources.  Roads and trails are required, yet maps and signage must make them known and easy to follow.  The latter require little public funds– maps, signs, and painted blazes are cheap.  Consider that the Great Divide Route is entirely a mapped resource, with no on-the-ground facilities (excepting a few errant signs).  The former, such as paved trails, can be more costly and potentially more valuable, but they should not serve as an absolute benchmark for all projects.  More affordable facilities have the capacity to enrich communities and enliven local economies, even in small towns where money is tight.  Numerous local walking and biking routes are proof that facilities are not always expensive.  

These aren’t answers, exactly, but the questions that come to mind every day in Europe are important.  Why do we have so much money for roads in America, but very little money for human-scale facilities?  Why are many American cities decentralizing, even when we love our losing ‘Main Streets’ and we travel to Europe to photograph and remark at the history?  How long before we invest in ourselves and our communities, as one takes an interest in their own health?

Climbing out of Stavelot.



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Little used forest tracks, inundated with water.  

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Except for the 4×6′ patch of ground inhabited by our tent.

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In Burg-Reuland, on the border of Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg.  Rent and E-bike!  Lots of walking and biking tourism here.

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Drying, eating, cleaning, lubing.

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And back up.

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In Luxembourg, following the Our River.  Red and white blazes have disappeared without notice, although a half-dozen other markings take their place.  Mostly, we follow the radiant sun of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, and various local walking and cycling routes.  Luxembourg is densely crumpled, rising and falling steeply.  For now, it is saturated after months of rain.  A little more like coastal Oregon than Pennsylvania around here.

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The diversity of trail surface is astounding.  Some highly rideable and pleasant, some prickly and challenging.

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Wet from days of rain, swollen rivers serve to soothe tired muscles and launder muddy t-shirts.

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And just before the skies opened again, we happen upon a free camping zone along the road.  This is the first that we have seen like this.  The timing could have not been any better.  As soon as the rainfly was affixed, it poured.

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On pavement on our way to Luxembourg City to connect with a friend.  

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Road construction nudges us back onto singletrack, and some prickly hike-a-bike around a reservoir.  Should have taken the advised road detour.  

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After some delay, we finally drop into Vianden, marked by a castle on the hill.  Finally, sunny skies for the afternoon.

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On our way to Luxembourg City for the national holiday and all-night parties in the streets.  Partying the Luxembourgish way.  

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GR5: Genk to Stavelot

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In the Netherlands, the GR5 was an interesting ramble through town and country.  In northern Belgium, the route frequently follows managed forest tracks and local mountain bike routes, often abandoned doubletrack.  Passing near Maastricht and Liège, the routes enters the famed Ardennes Mountains, famed for being the only mountains in Belgium.  If this were Pennsylvania, which is how it looks from squinted eyes atop a hill, we would joke that these are mere hills.  But the same is true both here and there, these are steep hills approaching 1000ft in elevation range, and after riding up and over a couple I am happy to regard them as mountains.  Finally, this is real mountain biking.  The diversity of the trail has not diminished, simply more time is spent off-pavement and even off-road– yes, there is a distinction.  Some hiking required, and many challenging ascents and technical descents, but mostly pleasant riding.  ‘Bikepacking the Ardennes’ may be a ready made route, and an instant classic.

These images are from the last three days, as hills turn to mountains.  Only 1550km to Nice.  Not sure if we are going there.  Always passing through tunnels.  

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We never leave at first light, but we ride until the last hour almost every night.  The sun retires past 10PM, lingering below the horizon for another hour.  As the days get warmer, evening becomes a nice time to ride.  

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Mornings are equally nice– cool and full of excitement for the day.  Change is the essence of this route, and scouting the next turn keeps us busy all day.  Shopping for food, picnicking, and swimming revive our muscles and our interests in riding.  Belgian beer, chocolate, and waffles keep our energy levels high for the next climb.   More than a few locals have been interested in our curious ‘touring bikes’.

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We share the route with a few others, including farmers, cattle, cars, hikers; nettles, raspberry brambles, deer ticks, tall grasses, overgrown trees, mud, rock, roots; and very infrequently, other cyclists.

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The Ardennes are wonderful.  Growing up in rural New York, I hunger for these kinds of landscapes.  Touring in the Rockies the past few summers and living in New Mexico, I had forgotten about humidity altogether.  Mud and nettles; rocks and steeps; cities and steps all got together. 

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Many stone buildings do not have provisions for exterior plumbing, which can make it hard to find unattended water sources.  Cemeteries are a safe bet.  In the mountains, streams are always found in the valleys.

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Camping has almost never been easier.  Much of the trail passes through public forests.  A bench, like a picnic table, is a nice feature.

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In 2009, the GR5 marked its 50th anniversary.  

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Here, our descent to Stavelot–  a half-day in the life of a GR5 thru-biker.

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 A tunnel completes the route to town.  Both natural and manufactured features make the GR routes exceptional.  The footpath shares this tunnel with a small stream.

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Riding south, hoping to reach Luxembourg City this weekend.  A friend from Tacoma performs with The Paperboys at midnight on Saturday.  

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Bikepacking Europe

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Thus far– less than a week, really– bikepacking the GR5 route has been a rich experience.  I use the term bikepacking loosely, for at times we are amidst city bicycle traffic, overdressed for the occasion.  At times, we encircle local forests along dirt doubletrack– roads to rural homes or geometrically organized forest service roads.  And sometimes, we are riding singletrack– walking, horseback riding, or sometime even mountainbiking trails.  The promise of the GR and official European walking routes is a diverse overland experience, easing from city to country several times daily, from pavement to dirt at will.  These are not wilderness trails, exclusively.  They are not exclusively singletrack.  They are always different.  For Europeans that dream of famed bikepacking routes across the globe, such as the Colorado Trail or the Great Divide Route, do not overlook the opportunities out your front door.  Coloradans and Californians should be jealous of the routes that exist here, for several reasons.

An expansive network of local and long distance routes: With the North Sea behind us, signage now points towards Nice, over 2000km away.  This location near Bergen op Zoom is the intersection of the GR5/E2, GR11, GR12, and GR17.

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Signage, guidebooks and maps are copious.  Lael and I are following red and white blazes marking trees, signposts, electrical boxes, buildings, and fences.  Most of the time this is all we need,  Occasionally, signage is faded or damaged and we are sent looking for the route.  With the right approach, even these wild goose chases are part of the fun.  We consider it like a treasure hunt for grown-ups.  Guidebooks are available.  Local maps and guides are always available at libraries and tourist offices.  Wandelnetwerk (walking trails) on the left, fietslus (bike trails) on the right.

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While we are simply following a red and white breadcrumb trail, major junctions also have public maps.  Most often, these maps show major cycling routes or local walking trails.  Even without the GR5 route listed, we can identify nearby towns and roads should we need to navigate locally.  This map actually shows the GR routes that pass through Bergen op Zoom.

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Wet weather has cordoned the camera to a dry corner of my framebag, but the riding is great!  Well-drained singletrack and doubletrack through lush forests is countered with visits to small towns with libraries, markets and bakeries.  We awoke this morning to sandy riding along these inland dunes; this afternoon, we go searching for the Westmalle Abbey, one of only seven genuine Trappist breweries in the world.  During the day, we visit two libraries to dry off and write home.

While backpacking Europe has become expensive, as the price of hostels, lodging and rail passes have increased, bicycling or bikepacking Europe presents an affordable way to travel.  Following rural routes, we find plentiful campsites in picturesque settings.  Our major daily costs are food and wine.  As we enter Belgium we add beer and chocolate to the list.  The variety of cheese, wine, and cured meats expands as we near France, and the prices decrease.  We eat better here than anywhere else, and it doesn’t cost any more.

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And unless you like the look of pit toilets, stock tanks, and barbed wire, European bikepacking offers more exciting architecture than the popular routes in the States.  We asked directions through this area and were told to turn left at the “great white house”.  Turn left here.

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There are 11 major walking trails in Europe, designated E#.  For example, we are following the E2 route, which coincides with the GR5.

Additional resources on European routes in this Wikipedia article.  France has the greatest network of trails, with over 64,000km of walking trails.  Major routes listed here.

We have also followed some of the North Sea Cycle Route, a mostly paved route which encircles the North Sea through the UK, Scandinavia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.  Finally, the EuroVelo association has developed some excellent long-distance cycle routes across Europe, mostly paved or graded surfaces.  Lael and I have ridden some of the popular EuroVelo6 in the past, and found it to be well-signed, selecting interesting routes with low-traffic volumes.  The opportunities are endless.

Hunting the GR5

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The GR5– locally called the LAW-5, Deltapad, or the E2– is an elusive dream.  Once on the trail, as a hunting dog on the scent of something good, we keep our eyes peeled and our noses to the ground.  If we can keep our tires and eyes pointed toward the next red and white blaze, the rewards are great.  When we lose the trail, which has happened thus far with some frequency, we simply follow the next logical signed cycling route, bike path or walking path.  Perhaps the best part about following the GR5 is that we never ride with traffic.  And when we lose the trail, we still aren’t really riding in traffic.  Some routes follow dedicated cycling lanes alongside a street, but even this is hardly ‘in’ or ‘with’ traffic in this country– drivers and cyclists are equally respectful of space and life and the dance between the two never raises an eyebrow.

But our focus is on the GR5, a long distance walking route from the North Sea in the Netherlands, to the Mediterranean at Nice, France.  Between these two points are Belgium and Luxembourg, and a whole lot of time in France; the route includes the Ardennes, the Jura, and the Alps; and the entire trail is signed with red and white blazes, as are other GR trails, while guidebooks and maps are also available.  It has only been a few days, but so far the diverse riding has done nothing but put smiles to our faces.

We left Hoek van Holland along this signed GR route, although it seemed to be going another direction.  We abandoned in favor of cycle paths and a place to stay in Rotterdam.  We would return to Maaslius to reconnect with the route.

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At Maasluis, a ferry crosses the Maas river.  As we disembark, we spot red and white blazes and spend the first km along neighborhood singletrack.  Much of the riding reminds me of riding as a kid.

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The GR5 follows paved and unpaved cyclepaths, as well as established walking routes (like unpaved walkways near the city), and sometimes very small lanes.

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Camping opportunities abound, especially along the waterfront.  This waterway was in use by many recreational canal boats.

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The trail is locally called the ‘Deltapad’, or delta path, named for the delta region of several rivers that drain continental Europe into the sea.  The trail follows a lot of grassy doubletrack along dikes and dams.

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No reason to buy a map in the Netherlands.  Signs, numbered routes and point-to-point routes makes navigation easy.  I have a basic map of the country for reference.  Mostly, we travel without a map, which is liberating.  Public map displays serve to keep us traveling in a uniform direction.  Still, while chasing red and white blazes we have made at least a few circles.

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Mountainbikeroute (aka VTT, BTT, or MTB) is an exciting word.  Some Dutch singletrack along the GR5, near the Voornes Duins.

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To a coastal overlook, like California or elsewhere we have been.

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Where to sleep?  This looks good.

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Butter, salt, shallots, tortellini, and herring in tomatensaus.

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The next morning, we wind through dunes and coastal forests, making a full loop back to this point.  Retracing our steps, we find exactly where we went wrong.  Retracing our steps was a little muddy.

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And sandy.

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Finally on our way, the trail leads to the beach, which was partly rideable in the intertidal zone.  Thinking of the Pugsley, or even those bold 29+ wheels I built for Cass’ Krampus.  Just a little more rubber would have helped.

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Within a few moments, we are back in town.  Historic canals and churches one minute, sandy forested singletrack the next– nothing to complain about.

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It has been a wet week along these coastal islands.  Still, more dry than wet is the realization that time is better spent outside, than staring at the weather channel.

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Our camp last night atop a sandy hill, tall pines breaking wind from the Nordzee.

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We’ve lost the GR5 for a moment, realizing that we had followed another walking trail.  We will rejoin the route in Bergen op Zoom, headed towards Maastricht, NL through Belgium.  Three and four dollar bottles of organic wine end every day.  Coffee and stroopwafels begin the day.

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