It took me some time to finally ride out of Hasselt. I had to carefully secure my backpack on the bike rack with bungee cords, get money from a cash machine, and find the tourist info office to ask about bike routes. It turns out that Belgium has beautifully labeled routes all over the place, marked with numbers on blue signs. The routes can be specifically just for bikes and pedestrians, country roads, and also clearly marked lanes alongside busier roads. I left the TI office with an excellent cycle route map.
Leaving Hasselt, I first rode along the busy Albert Canal, built in the 1930's, which connects the inland cities of the Benelux countries and France with ports on the North Sea. It was comforting to see my cycling route match up with the familiar trail marks of the GR5 off and on throughout the day.
Finally leaving the canal, I got onto sweet backcountry roads. The villages were filled with nothing but red brick houses and buildings. Stones in the south in Wallonie, bricks in the north in Flanders. Everything was so neat and tidy that I longed to rush home to wash windows and pull weeds.
I spent an hour enjoying the ancient town of Diest, which still has an old town center filled with historic buildings, such as its lively square, imposing church and 13th century "beguinage." Common in Belgium, these were enclosed, self-contained, convent like villages where widows and unmarried women could lead a religious life as secular nuns. During the day they could attend to their own pursuits, but returned to the beguinage in the evenings. It is now a museum and a center for art.
My lodging is near the small town of Zichem, in the private home of a Belgium family of four. A Dutch organization, "Vrienden op de Fiets" (friends of the bike) has a long list of people willing to host walkers and cyclists for only €20 a night. It's a great way to make a personal connection as well as save money.
I was warmly welcomed by Marjan (fluent in English) and her teenaged daughter into their lovely brick home that they have been renovating for 14 years, complete with a chicken coop in the back. Dad and son are traveling, so I get to sleep in son's room. It's such a pleasure to be in a family home and eat at a kitchen table again, after so many weeks of travel.
Marjan provided me with a delicious dinner and then an unexpected treat- an excellent hourlong shiatsu massage up in her loft, to try to help my knee. It was fantastic.
I'll sleep well tonight.