Sculpture from the saddle: a cycling and art tour of Belgium

Only in bike-mad Flanders could they create an installation like Limburgs Cycling Through Water, part of an art trail designed to regenerate the region and be seen from a bicycle

A ring-necked duck swam by at eye level, the water rippling beside me without spilling over the high metal sides of the Cycling Through Water bike path.

This 212-metre concrete path is 1.5 metres deep and slices a pond in two, allowing cyclists to pedal straight through it. From a distance, the position of the path creates the illusion of people magically gliding through water. I pedalled along, steering with one hand, the other dipping into the water. Then I nearly fell over a dyspraxic Moses.

Limburg, Flanders, Belgium map

Opened in 2016, Cycling Through Water runs through a pond in the De Wijers nature reserve at Bokrijk-Genk, a small park that is home to an arboretum (one of the largest plant collections in Belgium), a botanical garden and childrens playground, plus an open-air museum with historical buildings from across Flanders, displaying traditional rural life in the region.

Part optical illusion, part bike path, Cycling Through Water has proved to be a hit with tourists and locals, and is set to be followed by similar paths around the province of Limburg, including Cycling Underground (currently under design), Cycling through the Heath (open early 2020) and Cycling through Trees, which opens this July.

Holding manoeuvre Cycling Through Water in Limburg

Cycling Through Trees plays on Limburgs mining heritage. Like a canary to gas, pinewood was used in mining tunnels cracking under pressure, it made for a natural alarm bell. Now, towering pines will surround a 700-metre-long cycling canopy near the town of Hechtel-Eksel, 20km from Bokrijk, coiling up from ground level until visitors are 10 metres high, cycling between the pines.

The morning after my Moses moment, a faint scent of cherry blossom filled the air around 15th-century Colen Abbey, on the outskirts of Borgloon, a small city of around 10,000 people. Id cycled around 2km outside the city with my guide, Lydia. In the distance, grapevines lined the hill and to my right I saw a white horse grazing on dewy grass. In the midst of this pastoral scene was a large wooden artwork called #Untitled 158 by Scottish artist Aeneas Wilder.

A doughnut-shaped pavilion of wooden slats on stilts, #Untitled 158 offers a different perspective on the surrounding countryside. Light filtered inside, the quiet of the Limburg countryside interrupted by the creaking sound of my feet on the wood. Standing next to the vertical slats, the outside world became a natural slideshow as I looked at the hamlet of Kerniel and the white horse. Its a place that invites you to meditate on life, Lydia said.

Untitled #158 by Aeneas Wilder. Photograph: Luc Daelemans

#Untitled 158 is part of the Pit project (pit means kernel in Dutch): a series of nine outdoor artworks designed to make visitors look at the landscape differently, an initiative started in 2011 by Z33, the House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt, about 17km north of Borgloon. The project, which covers 20km, was designed as a half-day bike tour,or a full day for those travelling on foot.

Looking at the piece, it seemed like an unusual-but forward-thinking way of attracting visitors to parts of the countryside that would otherwise be overlooked. Lydia then told me about Hugo Bollen, a mining engineer who saw potential in the area when coal mining disappeared in the 1980s, and urged the government to repurpose the land for cycling.

There are now almost 2,000km of numbered cycle paths throughout the province, proving hugely popular with local, Dutch and German visitors. Each route is signposted, with cyclists able to map out their route and switch easily between paths.

Memento by Wesley Meuris. Photograph: Luc Daelemans

We spent a few minutes in the cobblestone courtyard of Colen Abbey. Dating to 1438, it seemed incredibly well preserved; a few flecks of peeling blue and white paint on the wooden window frames the only evidence of decline or decay. We made our way back to Borgloon, past a row of pear trees and towards its graveyard, known as Central Burial, which is home to the sculpture Memento by Wesley Meuris.

Id read the piece was designed for rumination and reflection and made my way inside the white-steel structure, looking out at the landscape through one of its openings. The white steel towered over me, though the two gaps in the circular construction allowed light to bounce in and around its gleaming structure.

Back on the trail, the smell of manure and fruit filled the air as the afternoon warmed up, and walkers and cyclists emerged in greater numbers. My thighs got their first real test as we ascended a hill towards the village of Groot-Loon. Here I found Doorkijkkerk (Reading between the lines) by architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh (who collaborate as Gijs Van Vaerenbergh). This church is made from 30 tons, and 100 layers, of weathered steel that either dissolves against the background of the nearby village or becomes prominent depending on where the viewer stands.

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