With a length of almost 5,300 km, the EuroVelo 3, also known as the Pilgrim’s Route, leads from Trondheim in Norway to the pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and passes through Belgium on the way. You could say it's too long for the average cyclist, and, in practice, most people only ride a part of the EuroVelo 3, with the option of continuing the journey a year later.
The Belgian part of the Pilgrim’s Route was completed in 2019, and it seemed to us to be a great opportunity for a compact cycling expedition - from the Drielandenpunt (Three Country Point) near Vaals to Erquelinnes on the French border - in four days, about 210 km by bike.
We arrived at the “Three Country Point”, where the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands meet. This was actually a Four Country Point at one time, while the neutral nano-state of Moresnet still existed. Moresnet could not retain its sovereignty, however, and was annexed to Belgium after WWI. The village of Moresnet still exists however, and is now mainly known for the enormously high viaduct that seems to float above the village.
The region south of South-Limburg, the Land of Hervé, is well-known for being far from flat. The climbs themselves are not difficult, but the fact that another climb immediately appears as soon as you reach the top of one of them makes cycling a sometimes exhausting activity. Fortunately, Line 38 comes to our rescue; a former railway line that now belongs to the Walloon RAVeL network, a network of paths for ‘slow’ traffic.
Line 38 leads you in the direction of Liège, along a beautifully flat road. There’s no climbing anymore, which is in fact quite logical, because the path was an old railway line. There’s a lot of traffic on Line 38 nowadays. Skaters, racing cyclists, children, hikers: they all make their way along the RAVeL path. There are trees everywhere along the path, and we could also see the giant factories near Aachen from afar.
Liege via the EuroVelo 3
As a result, we approach Liège very quickly, and it announces itself early on with all kinds of suburbs. The city has a drab industrial image, but it also has some colour in its cheeks thanks to all kinds of incentives. A fine example of this is the city's beautiful, crystal-like railway station.
But Liege is also still dotted with huge, vacant factory buildings, and is thereby a playground for lovers of industrial heritage. Nature is very slowly conquering these locations, with beautiful flowers and plants growing between the concrete, and trees can now be seen on many factory roofs.
Here too, the EuroVelo 3 leads us comfortably through the urban bustle via a cycle path. A large part of this is along the river Meuse, with a few bridges and shortcuts; we hardly ever have to wait at crossroads or for traffic lights.
Suddenly, I hear the exclamation “Shit!" My cycling companion Raymond has come to a stop, and I can see the problem: there’s a piece of broken chain dragging behind his bike. And, of course, we don’t have a chain tool with us to fix it. It takes a couple of hours to find a bicycle shop and for Raymond to have it fixed and be back on the road. But he can’t pedal hard anymore: the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
On patrol along the river Meuse
The next morning, fog swirls up over the Meuse, or La Meuse in French. It's 5:30 in the morning ... I'm very much a morning person in the summer. The Meuse is anything but a dead river, and we can see a whole school of fish foraging below the surface if the water. And, fortunately, the steep walls of the quays along the river are not an impregnable barrier for anyone who accidentally falls in. Steps have been built in every fifty metres or so, which gives you a feeling of safety when you’re walking along early in the morning.
The Meuse remains our companion all the way to Namur. This tourist location is our ‘cappuccino city’. We stop at the same café we visited three years earlier, during our trip to the source of the Meuse. On the other side of the river, the city centre of Namur flaunts its sturdy citadel as its crown. Namur is also the place where we say goodbye to the Meuse. We switch to another river here: La Sambre.
The former mining town of Charleroi
The Sambre is a narrow, blue ribbon that leads us to the next industrial city: Charleroi. We know the reputation of this city: a former mining town, and once the beating heart of the industrial revolution in Belgium. And although the decline of this industrial zone has been underway since the 1990s, Charleroi still has a lot of industry. We pass one factory after another along the Sambre.
The cycle path takes us straight to the heart of Charleroi. And there we immediately see something of the revitalisation of the industrial city: a large, modern square with a modern building. The building is supposed to make the old centre more attractive. And it is nice, but the marvellous Novotel hotel where we will sleep tonight is even nicer. We take a meal in a trendy restaurant a bit further on, in Quai 10. After the basic pasta meals we’ve been having for the past few days, we really enjoy the dishes there. What could be better?
On to Erquelinnes
We said goodbye to Charleroi the next day, and rode through a backdrop that seemed straight out of a science fiction movie. Crumbling brown factory buildings, derelict land, rubble and metal pipes. It was as if a bomb has exploded here. But there were some dots moving about in this landscape, and people are actually still working at some of the factories.
The Sambre flows in between this backdrop, and there is a neatly paved cycle path along it. We take some photos of this impressive industrial scenery. These are also historical highlights, although not many tourists come here. These are beautiful pictures for enthusiasts, however: it just depends how you look at it.
The green countryside finally surrounds us again, and we once more follow that blue ribbon; France is quickly approaching. In Erquelinnes, the end point of our tour, we find our way to the railway station for our return trip. But it’s totally deserted - is this station still operational? Raymond doesn't believe it. Paint is peeling off the walls here and there’s no train to be seen. A little further on, he asks people for directions to the railway station, who then take him back to the abandoned station. They point to the platform on which we are standing. Is it here after all?
He only begins to believe that this really is the right place when a train does indeed stop there. The French border has been reached, and we load the bicycles on the train for the return journey. It's only then that I realise we've ridden on slow-traffic paths for almost all our entire trip through Belgium. And that’s something quite special.
On October 1st in Valencia (Spain), Wallonia, the south region of Belgium, won the 1st prize of European Greenways Excellence Awards organized for the tenth time by the European Greenways Association. Let’s discover more about this beautiful section !