People in Belgium cycle a lot, at least in the Dutch speaking part of the country. If we treat Flanders as a country cycling there would be comparable to that in Denmark. Only the motives for cycling differ. The Danes cycle mostly to work and schooling, the Dutch cycle for any reason, but the people in Flanders cycle slightly more for recreation than to work1. That explains why the Province of Limburg tries to pamper their recreational cyclists with three major innovative attractions to further improve the experience of the recreational cycle ride.
The province of Limburg in Belgium (not to be confused with the province of Limburg in the Netherlands)2 feels they are number one in cycling tourism. The representative of the Province, Igor Philtjens, who has tourism in his portfolio, explained why his province invests in such highbrow initiatives. “To stay number one in cycling tourism we need to innovate as well, we do that by intervening in the landscape on strategic places to further improve the interaction between cycling and that landscape.”
In June 2019, the second of the three major cycling tourist attractions was opened; Cycling through the trees, which already drew international attention. An elevated 3 metre wide one-way cycle path takes riders on a gentle slope to the tree tops, 10 metres above ground level. The incline is just 3 to 4 percent so almost everybody can conquer the slope. This means the circular path (in a diameter of about 100 metres) had to become quite long. Including the descend, the path became 700 metres long to be precise. The path was built on 449 poles of weathering steel. The railing has a net to make sure people stay on the path. The attraction was an instant success. In the first four weeks after the festive opening no less than 70,000 people rode through the trees! On average a little over 2,000 people use the ring every day now. Update 24-11-2020: In 2020 Cycling through the trees won the Dezeen award for Infrastucture project of 2020.
I cycled to this tourist attraction from one of the nearest intercity train stations in the Netherlands. I took my own bicycle in the train to the station of Weert in Dutch Limburg and from there I rode almost 45 kilometres to the forest in the municipality of Hechtel-Eksel. The ride was very comfortable. The tree ride itself is quite a nice experience although the many people stopping and taking pictures at the top (and at the entrance) made cycling a bit of a challenge. What I really missed was a location where you could buy a drink or a snack. There wasn’t even an ice-cream stand. It was a hot day and I had used up all my water. According to Google Maps the nearest sandwich shop was in Pelt, a 37 minute-ride from this attraction, which turned out to be closed. When I asked people where I could have lunch the response was: “Nowhere sir, it is Tuesday. Everything is closed on a Tuesday.” Fortunately I found a supermarket where I could get a bottle of water that I emptied in one go! Maybe this is the Dutch merchant in me, but I would expect at least a mobile food vendor near this attraction! For my way back I chose a different Dutch intercity station, Eindhoven, at a similar distance of about 45 kilometres. In the end I cycled 90 kilometres to visit this tourist attraction, but the only money I spent was in a local supermarket. I’m sure that is not what the province had in mind when they co-financed this project. So there is room for some improvement there.
My cycle route from Weert (NL) via “Cycling through the trees” (B) to Eindhoven (NL).
Three years ago, in April 2016, the first of the three major attractions was opened: Cycling through water. This project is located east of the Limburg capital Hasselt and it was too far to cycle to both projects on one day. I could have cycled to the Cycling through Water project from Maastricht, which would be a 75 kilometre round-trip, but I decided to integrate a visit in my summer holidays. After a round trip via Germany and Luxembourg (by rental car) I spent one night in a hotel in nearby Genk with my partner. I’m sure I made up for not spending anything on the other attraction and the Tourist Board of Limburg can be pleased. However, on the day of our visit we found out that we should have reserved bicycles at the rental facility near this attraction. There weren’t any bikes left for that day so we had to walk about 6 kilometres (round trip) to get to the actual site of Cycling through Water.
This cycle route, right between two fish-ponds, already existed, but it was originally on a dyke. That embankment was replaced in a spectacular way by a sunken concrete trench. It is 212 metres long, 1.6 metres deep and 3 metres wide. This leads to a cycle path with the water line at eye level. It is a nice sensation to look the swans and ducks in the eyes. The animals seemed completely used to that already. Unlike the people, who were taking pictures from the path. Just like the other project in the trees this caused some congestion, especially since this path is bi-directional. Although both ponds were never connected before, there is now an underground crossing for amphibians. These animals have the ability to move uninterrupted by the path between the two ponds. The province boasts that this is a unique experience, that exists no-where else in the world. That is not completely true. I already showed you on my blog before, that Haarlem also has a cycle path below the water level. I’ll admit that there is a huge difference between 30 centimetres or 1.6 metres, but the path in Haarlem is a cycle path below the water level nonetheless.
Since its opening, the interest in Cycling through Water has been huge. After three years, an average of 800 visitors per day explore the path, with highs on Saturday and Sunday. There are no less than 5,000 cyclists on top days. In 2018, Time magazine mentioned this project in its “100 destinations to experience right now” a list of the world’s greatest places to visit. There were awards too: Cycling through Water won an award in Australia and America and the project was a competitor for the Landezine Award.
Experience cycling in Limburg (Belgium)
360-degree ride Cycling through the Trees
Another ride Cycling through the Trees
The third and last attraction of this project will be “Cycling through the heath”. This will be a 300 metre long elevated wooden cycle way that crosses a road, which is reconstructed and narrowed for this project. Cycling through the heath connects two parts of a vast nature reserve. You will be able to experience the purple heather from above. That project is expected to be finished in the first part of 2020 on the heath near Maasmechelen, south-east of the capital Hasselt. You can already see a video rendering of what that will look like.
1. Modal split cycling; country and motive
Netherlands Denmark Flanders Work 25% 19% 12% Education 53% 38% 33% Business 9% 6% 4% Shopping 30% 12% 16% Recreation 23% 14% 13% Total 27% 15% 14%
From: Fietsmobiliteit in Nederland, Denemarken en Vlaanderen, 2016, by van Goeverden, C.D. (TU Delft Transport and Planning)
2. Why is there a Belgian Limburg as well as a Dutch Limburg?
When the map of Europe was redrawn, in 1815, at the Congress in Vienna, many areas of the Netherlands were joined in a new state. They included territories in present day Belgium and Luxembourg. Most of the new provinces in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands had been counties with similar names, but not the province of Limburg. That was a construct which joined several territories that formerly had no real connections. The name came from a fortress south of Liège that also had no ties with the new province. This joining was short-lived. With the Belgian independence in 1830 the new province was already split again, which was formalised in 1839. The present-day Belgian part of Limburg roughly represents the former County of Loon, that had no real historic ties with what became Dutch Limburg. The status of that Limburg was disputed between 1839 and 1866. Germany was in the process of becoming one state and some politicians (even in the Netherlands) would have liked East-Limburg to become German. It was therefore a special member of the German Confederation. It was only in 1866, when the German Confederation collapsed, that Limburg became the 11th province of the Netherlands, which was confirmed in the Treaty of London in 1867.