You’ve bought a bike and with the help of our article on cycling in Ghent, you are now a skilled city cyclist. You are ready to explore the world beyond urban cobblestones. Ghent is a city of rivers and so it is no wonder that wherever you go outside of town, you will stumble upon a river or a canal. Here are three of the best cycling routes for discovering the prettiest waterways beyond the urban area.
Each of the three routes is about 30km long which makes them all perfect for beginners. If you haven’t been on a bicycle for some time, expect a sore backside the next day. But beyond that, the routes are flat and not demanding. You are never far away from a town or a village, so there will be plenty of opportunity for beer tasting.However food might be limited, so pack a snack. There are ample opportunities for picnicking along the rivers. And don’t forget water, sunscreen and a rain jacket.
1) Scheldevalleiroute (Scheldt River Valley Route)
The Scheldt river valley route is actually a route that links Ghent and Kluisbergen in the Flemish Ardennes. It is made up of three loops, each of about 30km in length, that follow the river Scheldt as it runs from the south towards Ghent.
Scheldt, or Schelde in Dutch and Escaut in French, springs to life in France, before snaking through Wallonia, then hopping left and right across the Waloon-Flemish border for a while, and finally deciding on Flanders just before Kluisbergen. It is navigable along most of its 320km trajectory and has been an important trading route ever since the Roman times. Several canals link it to other major rivers, like the Rhine, the Maas, and in the future to the Seine.
In Ghent, the main flow of the river has been rerouted to pass the city along the outskirts (Ringvaart) before spreading out at the port of Ghent and then flowing towards the North Sea via Antwerp. This is the busiest part of the river where you can see barges making their way between the Belgian ports.
But the Scheldt Valley route is focused on the other side of Ghent: the Upper Scheldt where the river winds its way from Oudenaarde to Ghent. This is a calm area that stretches from the rolling hills of the Flemish Ardennes to the flat countryside south of Ghent.
Part 1 of the route begins and ends in Zwijnaarde where you’ll find an overview info board (next to the brasserie formerly known as De Zwarte Fles on the Dorpsplein). From there you simply follow the hexagonal red and white signs along the route. This is actually more than just a riverside route, as you will pass through areas a bit further from the river, such as the charming Merelbekse Meersen and the town of Gavere (known for the bloody Battle of Gavere which marked the end of the Ghent Rebellion in 1453).
Look out for the words Deel 1 on the board, especially around Gavere where the Part 2 joins in. The track will occasionally take you over less than smooth roads, so the route is not the best for racing bicycles.
- The map of the route and the gpx file can be downloaded from the website of East Flanders tourism office.
- The cycling path on the left (north-west) bank of the river, where the road surface is smoother, is popular with road cyclists at the weekend. You might meet large groups of (mostly) men in spandex swooshing past you – just keep to the side and let them pass.
When it’s time for a break:
- Mac Pudding in Eke is the best place for an afternoon coffee/tea and pancakes. There is nothing better than enjoying their English-style pancakes (with honey and lemon) in their green garden. They also serve beer and double as a restaurant at lunch and dinner time.
2) Leieroute (Leie Region Route)
The Lys valley route is another cycling path along a river valley. This time along the Lys, Leie in Dutch and Lys in French and English. The Lys has its source south of the Pays des Collines in Wallonia, just across the border in France. Unlike the Scheldt river, the Lys was less important commercially but it more than makes up for it by being the favourite for posh villas, artists, water sports and leisurely strolls.
Even the name itself, the Lys, evokes green lawns sloping to the river, cottage homes of Sint-Martens-Latem and a sort of English countryside feel. Don’t expect barges and sadly no punting boats, but you might see a canoe or a speedboat.
If you’re not familiar with Sint-Martens-Latem, you should know it is the municipality with the most expensive property prices in Belgium. This makes it a great spot for people watching and catching a glimpse of stately villas as you cycle along the river.
The added bonus is that this route allows you to take a cycling ferry! What on earth are ‘cycling ferries’, you might ask. Well, they are small boats that carry passengers and small vehicles across the river. Obviously, they are not officially known as cycling ferries, but are rather called veerponten or fiets-/voetveren.
These ferries do not connect roads but mostly paths and cycling routes. They are managed by the province of Flanders and operated by friendly boatmen. And, best of all, they are free. They make you feel like a child on a grand river adventure for those brief 2 minutes you are on the water.
The boats have a regular schedule every day in summer and at the weekends during the rest of the year. They are serviced by a single shipper, who usually takes a 1h-break around lunchtime.
The full length of the Lys route is 51km, however, you can shorten it by cutting back at different points (like Sint-Denijs-Westrem or Sint-Martens-Latem), or taking the train back at Deinze.
The route begins and ends at Blaarmeersen. Follow the hexagonal blue and white signs. If you decide to use the knoppunten (nodes) system, they are green and white in East Flanders.
- The route map and gpx file can be downloaded from the website of the East Flanders tourism office.
- The route overlaps with the knoppunten system, so you can personalise it at will.
- The Lys (and other rivers) ferries’ timetable is available on the website of the Flemish waterways authority
- You can take your bicycle on the train or rent one of the NMBS Blue Bikes.
When it’s time for a break:
- You will be passing through several small towns with bars and restaurants. Filter the map on this page, or keep your eyes open for fellow cyclists enjoying their glass of Westmalle.
3) Cycling with the nodes
After exploring the areas to the west and south of Ghent, it is time to turn east. Once again we meet our old friend, the mighty Scheldt. Boosted by the waters of Lys, it takes on grander proportions and you can easily imagine the busy river traffic and accompanying activities of the past.
This is a route that I put together myself with the help of the knoppunten (nodes) system (here’s a nice video explanation of that system). This makes it really flexible, so if you want to change the starting point or play around with the distances, just use the nodes’ map and adapt at will.
The route is planned as a loop, starting at Vooruit, then heading out via the outskirts of Zwijnaarde and Merelbeke almost to Melle, where you turn back and follow the Scheldt river back into town.
Once you reach the Scheldt, you will be riding on the old towpath. This raised bank had two purposes in the past: it helped to keep the river from overflowing and it was used to tow the barges using horses, when travelling upstream.
This last part of the route, cycling into the centre of Ghent via the Scheldt, is my favourite as the typical towers of the old town slowly rising on the horizon can help you imagine how it must have been to sail into the city along the water.
- Download the routes’ list of knoppunten as pdf.
- Fietsnet website helps you create your own route. You can then download it to your gps or print it out.
- If you are using a smartphone for navigation, check out our special offer below for smartphone mounts on your bike.
When it’s time for a break:
- Vooruit in Ghent has a sunny terrace and a decent basic food menu.
Have you mastered the short routes and are eager to explore more? The East Flanders tourism office has a good list of cycling routes with maps and short descriptions in English. You can filter them by length, degree of difficulty and location. Their top five cycling routes list is a good place to continue your cycling adventures.
Or perhaps you want to explore the rest of Belgium? The knoppunten system is well developed in Flanders, you can simply use the Fietsnet website to plan your trip anywhere. Just bear in mind that in different provinces the routes might be waymarked in a slightly different way.
Wallonia has recently started investing in the nodes system (point-noeuds in French) as well and the routes are added to the Fietsnet map as they appear. One of the main cycling networks in the south of Belgium is RaVeL which follows the old railway lines, sparing you from steep climbs in the Ardennes. This network is slowly being integrated into the nodes network.
Have you made an interesting cycling trip around Ghent that you would like to share with others? We would love to hear about it. Let us know below in the comments!