Visiting Breendonk Part I: Getting There Is an Adventure
On the night before our fourth day of biking in Belgium, we were all surprised to learn that we would be visiting a German concentration camp the next day. A few of our group were more than surprised; they were uncomfortable with the prospect. Rolf had to do some quick thinking about how to split up the group when it was time to head to Breendonk, which was the name of the camp.
I will write about the camp itself in my next post. This one will detail our adventure just getting there. And a strange journey it was!
Nothing went according to plan the next day. Harry, our barge captain, planned to set sail at 6:30 and figured it would take as much as four hours to get through the canal locks and begin transporting us to a stopping off place to begin our biking. We would eat lunch on the barge (which was unusual) and then bike for several hours through the countryside and to the small city of Mechelen. Then we would double back and head to Breendonk. Or perhaps part of the group would go to Mechelen and the rest to the camp. Or some other variation that was not yet clear.
The boat did indeed set sail at 6:30, but we breezed through the locks and then, pushed by the outgoing tide, ended up around three hours ahead of schedule. (Why this surprised Harry seems pretty surprising to me. After all, he was an experienced captain and knew all about tides. Yes, it may have taken 4 hours two weeks before, but tide patterns change.) In any case, lunch was moved up to become a mid-morning snack, and the entire group headed to Mechelen afterwards. We maneuvered on the side of highways this time, crossed the road several times to follow the bike paths, and passed what appeared to be either nightclubs or strip clubs. Did Mechelen have its own “red light” district on the outskirts?
When we entered Mechelen, we were pretty surprised. Not that it was charming; most Flemish towns were that. Nor that it was open unlike many other towns we had passed through in early August, particularly on a Monday. Mechelen was bustling and featured stores that you wanted to visit, though how to transport your purchases on the bikes might be a problem. Best of all, Mechelen had a very inviting ice cream shop! We indulged and began exploring.
An hour and half later, we remounted and retraced our path toward the barge. Reaching the canal about a half mile from the barge, we split up. About a third of the group headed home; the rest headed toward what we figured would be a depressing (but necessary) place to visit, Breendonk. Just repeating the name seems to bring trepidation or drama to my mind!
We had gone about a half-mile, when Rolf stopped to study his map. He looked troubled. He spotted two locals in front of a store and began speaking a mixture of German and English. The two obviously didn’t agree on the best route to follow to reach Breendonk, because their hand gestures indicated different directions entirely. Rolf made his choice, and we continued riding. Then we stopped some more locals in a residential neighborhood. One had no idea where we should go; the other made a suggestion. We rode on, only to reach a dead end. We doubled back and, luckily, Rolf spotted a middle aged man on a bike and posed his problem once again. The man gave a little sigh and signaled for us to follow him. He led us on a winding route through town streets, around houses (we figured he might be taking us to his house for a little refreshment), and then through a narrow dirt alley. There, a swarm of angry bees decided to attack one of our party—ME! I let out a curse in English and began shaking one stung hand while trying to maneuver my bike with the unwounded one. Not an easy thing to do! When we emerged from the alley, we spotted a sign that announced a national historic site ahead: Breendonk. We were there at last.
Most of us were laughing and sighing with relief. One of us (ME) was still feeling pain and a little indignation at his mistreatment by those bees. As we rode into the parking lot of the monument, we straightened our faces to assume a serious expression and prepared to take in another sober lesson about the evil that men have done to men.