Cycle touring can be less relaxing than it sounds. There are hills and headwinds, battered backsides and flat tyres, not to mention the daily search for refreshment, shelter and those all-important toilets. Then there are those spirited discussions with your partner about your map-reading skills and how you came to be lost on a major motorway. Yep, stressful.
Picking Belgium as the destination for our European bike ride is an excellent stress-removing start, and going the barge/bike route virtually wipes out any further worry.
The Flemish region in the north-west of Belgium has a fine network of quiet towpaths and car-free dykes by canals and rivers. Shady tracks cut through forests and even busy roads usually have separate bike lanes. The jaw-droppingly beautiful squares of the old towns may have bone-juddering cobblestones to negotiate, but anyway we'll want to stop, take the photos, look around and walk the bike across them. Most surprisingly, Belgian motorists are exceptionally considerate to cyclists. We feel totally safe riding here.
Our six cycling days take us from Bruges to Brussels, via Ghent and Antwerp – a creditable 40-50 kilometres a day. If that sounds strenuous, it's made more manageable because our support vehicle is a boat.
The little barge Quo Vadis (Latin for "where are you going?") is our home each evening. While we pedal between towns, it will glide along to meet us each afternoon. Anyone who wants a rest from the saddle can simply stay on board for the day.
Dutch skipper Rendert Jan welcomes us in German and English. There are only 12 twin-share cabins, so we soon get to know our fellow passengers in the communal areas. About half are German, the others from Switzerland, South Africa, Scotland, Canada, Sydney and Adelaide. Ages range from 50 to several inspirational seventy-plussers.
All seem confident on two wheels, though there are no hard-core road warriors – the riding pace will be relaxed and comfortable. A few of us, my wife included, opt to use electric bikes.
Cycling guide Peter issues maps and explains that we're free to travel our own route if we choose. Most of us ride with him each day. We enjoy the company at the café breaks and on the road there's no pressure to all bunch together.
Peter designates a "corner person" who waits to direct the peloton around every turnoff and a "sweep" rides at the back. So we can pedal at our own pace, stopping to take a photo (or a trip into the bushes!) whenever we like, knowing we won't lose contact with the bunch.
As well as Flanders' aforementioned towns, we pass through lesser-known but no less attractive places such as Damme, Lier, Dendermonde and Mechelen.
There are unexpected, quirky joys by the roadside too. We take a break at the Gekken Fietsen Museum – the museum of crazy bikes. Wim and Sabine have turned their hobby into a little business, building such weird contraptions as a tandem on which riders sit back to back, a "kangaroo bike" where the power comes from the saddles rising and falling, and a monster bike with a tractor tyre for a front wheel.
In the village of Laarne we stop for coffee and find a horse fair in full swing. Spectacular Belgian draught horses are being paraded down the street for the judges' critical inspection and our uncritical entertainment.
Around the time of each day when legs start asking "are we there yet", we emerge on a canal to the welcome sight of the Quo Vadis waiting for us. We can head to the en suite showers in our cabins while chef Frank and our skipper's wife, Ina, work wonders in the galley. The cuisine is first class and the bar has an honour system and very fair prices.
We learn that the Quo Vadis itself has a colourful history. Originally built in 1939 as a cargo barge, it spent the war years hiding under water – sunk in a Dutch marsh to prevent the German occupation forces requisitioning it. After the liberation it was refloated and refurbished. Skipper Rendert Jan's career has undergone a refit too – he was a dentist before boats and bikes took over his life.
During the day, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp are swarming with tour groups and the phrase "loved to death" comes to mind. They're popular for good reason of course, but as evening draws in the crowds thin out.
With a fine dinner inside us, those of us who still want more clatter our bikes over the cobblestones of near deserted streets, as Rendert Jan and Peter lead us to their favourite local bars.
The only decision to be made is choosing from the daunting selection of Belgian beers. No reason to stress, though – they'll all be good.
Trains run frequently between Bruges and Brussels. The trip takes just over an hour and costs from €14.70. See belgianrail.be/en
UTracks' 8-day barge and bike tours from Bruges to Brussels (or from Brussels to Bruges) cost from $1850 per person. See utracks.com or phone 1300 303 368.
FIVE OTHER BOAT AND BIKE TOURS*
1. Berlin to the Baltic eight days. Easy to moderate cycling along the Oder River, into Poland at Szczecin and finishing at Stralsund.
2. The Moselle eight days. Easy cycling through ancient wine-making country from Koblenz to Saarburg.
3. Loire Valley eight days. Easy to moderate cycling through vineyards and villages with transfers from and back to Paris.
4. Tulip tour four days. Easy cycling, out of Amsterdam, visiting highlights of Holland during the European spring.
5. The Danube eight days. Easy to moderate cycling from Passau (Germany), to Vienna and Budapest.
*Not tested by Traveller. For details see utracks.com or phone 1300 303 368.
Richard Tulloch was a guest of UTracks.