It was quiet at 8 in the morning on Belgian national day as we manoeuvred our bikes onto the tram, down the steps to the metro and up the escalator to platform 14 at Gare du Midi where we caught a train to Liège. However, the train soon filled up with a variety of scouts.
We only had 7 minutes for our connection at Liège – bikes off the train, up the escalator, across the walkway in this beautiful new building and down to platform 6. No chance. But the river of scouts was going that way too, and we flowed with them and onto the train that cuts through the Ardennes towards Luxembourg.
Parties of scouts jumped off at all the stations – Coo, for example, where I once camped with our son and was questioned closely because we have different surnames; Vielsalm, known from the Battle of the Bulge; Gouvy, the last station in Belgium (see below).
Not many people crossed the frontier. The frontier was identifiable. On the Luxembourg side there were more tunnels on the railway, painted buildings rather than plain brick, and a different language regime. (Luxembourg seems curiously relaxed about language. Drauffelt station follows Clervaux, with no effort to express each name in another way. Place names like Alzette-sur-Esch mix Latin and Germanic words. Announcements on trains are in German and French; people speak Luxemburgish on the street. A few years ago I was invited to eat with a north Luxembourg family , father a cattle dealer, who spoke all these languages plus, as mother tongue, a patois. A daughter, working in the finance sector in Luxembourg city, also spoke Dutch. None of them spoke English.)
We got out at Ettelbruck, three hours after leaving Brussels, in the middle of the country. Good lunch on the terrace of the Lanners hotel. Apart from the kiosk at the railway station, there was nowhere to buy a newspaper.
Off we went east on the bike path, 34 km to Echternach.
Sunshine, river Sûre grey where the sun shone and brown where it didn’t. Plenty of other cyclists, pleasing flat cycling.
After a while, though, the path climbed up to run alongside the N10, the main road. We stopped at a roadside bar in Dillingen – three older men smoking with slow beers outside, a tense young man with a beer at the dark bar, two women chatting and serving, an inside room set up for a stage show. We looked at google maps. Lets go across to the German side, we said, the road looks quieter. We crossed at a cobbled bridge.
(For Brits, our frontier the sea in every direction, this idea that that’s Germany “just over there” is fascinating. What must it be like to grow up with another country closer than the next town?)
It was quieter in Germany, with so few cars at first that it didn’t really matter that there wasn’t a separate cycle path. (Most of these cars were Luxemburgish and most of the rest were Dutch.) What did matter was that unlike the Luxembourg side, it wasn’t flat. And later on, cars crowded in too. Eventually we doubled back into Luxembourg. We rode finally into Echternach, on a shady path that once more left the road aside, past memorials to American divisions fighting their way across the Sûre in February 1945.
Echternach had many bars and restaurants, decent food once again, once again only one kiosk, at the bus station, and many shops to let.