A cycling trip to Holland: the land of the bicycle

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1 – Rotterdam to Hoorn

Early September is a good time of year for a short cycle tour in Northern Europe. The evenings are still fairly light, the days not too hot, and always the chance of fine weather at the tail-end of summer. The Continental holiday rush is also over, so accommodation is cheaper and easier to find.

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Delft: cyclists, Vermeer, and pottery

Mrs Taylor and me didn't want this one to be a major event; just an easy cycle ride with places to see. We haven't cycled in Holland before but we knew it was flat with plenty of history, so it seemed a good choice. The plan was a circular route of about 450 miles over nine days: a Holland cycle tour plan beginning and ending at the mighty Europoort near Rotterdam.

We sailed Hull-Rotterdam overnight with P&0 Ferries and left our car at Chris Bailey's house not far from the port – thanks to Chris and Mrs Bailey. Meeting Chris made a pleasant start to our trip. You arrive at Europoort (photo) in the early morning as the boat sails in down one of the many channels that make up the huge estuary of the Dutch rivers Lek and Waal, which upriver are actually the Rhein before it splits east of Nijmegen. The river Maas is in there somewhere too.

All this water is a foretaste of what is to come when you cycle in Holland. Be ready for a lot of canals (and photos thereof), wet fields, and little ditches running everywhere with a flat green surface like pea soup. The Amsterdam region (for want of a better word) is mostly below sea level and if that's where you're heading you cycle east from Europoort along the river to the ferry crossing at Maassluis (photo). By mid-morning we were in Delft, a pretty town famous for Delftware pottery and the Rennaisance painter Vermeer. In Delft there is also a church whose tower leans more than the one at Pisa (photo).

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Leiden, birthplace of Rembrandt

There was no need for maps because our route for each day was pre-loaded on my Garmin GPS along with a waypoint for each B&B we'd booked in advance. The routes delivered us into the various town centres, then to find the B&B I brought up its waypoint and did a "Go To" which navigated to the front door. I still marvel at this technology, much as I still marvel at the World Wide Web.

Anyhow, we made our way to the North Sea coast at Scheveningen where the promenade is a Dutch version of Brighton, or even Blackpool. From there the Garmin took us to the Den Haag home of Friedel and Andrew who'd kindly offered to put us up for our first night in Holland. Also staying was a young Canadian cycle tourist called Jeff. A big thanks to our hosts (and I haven't forgotten to send Friedel my copy of 'I Follow the Wind' by Louise Sutherland – Friedel is researching the history of cycle touring for a book).

We changed our plans slightly on day two: the ride up to Haarlem in the tulip-growing region. Instead of cycling from Den Haag all the way up the coast along the famous North Sea Cycle Route we first went inland to Leiden (also Leyden), birthplace of Rembrandt. In the afternoon we cycled up to the coast – literally up, as the landmass here is below sea level – and north along a path by the dunes.

The sea is not visible from this long and featureless path. To see it you make your way to the beach over the main dune that protects the land (photo).

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Nature reserve in the dunes near Zandvoort

At Zandvoort, where the Formula One Dutch Grand Prix was held for several decades, we turned inland to Haarlem and navigated to our B&B located right in the centre of town. The entire population was slaughtered by the Spanish in 16th Century but this was followed by a golden age of culture and prosperity. Both Handel and Mozart (aged 10) played the organ in Haarlem's cathedral.

This B&B had a tiny courtyard at the rear (photo) so instead of dining out we bought ready-to-eat salads and beer at Albert Heijn, a Dutch a supermarket chain founded in 1887. This is not quite as old as Sainsbury's in the UK, founded in 1869. Holland is much cheaper than Denmark. Our evening meal cost less than 10 Euros and this suggests an approach where you spend more on accommodation (upmarket B&Bs in Holland are superb) and less on food by dining in. You can always sit out in the square with a beer.

Like all of the towns we visited, Haarlem has pretty canals in abundance. They're a cliché perhaps, but they're real. So are the cyclists. The universal use of the bicycle as a means of personal transport in Holland, even if you've heard about it beforehand, is quite breathtaking to see and be part of. People on bicycles are literally everywhere, and bikes are piled up on every street corner, every facade, down every alleyway. Abandoned bicycles can be seen on grass verges and in the little pea soup waterway ditches that criss-cross throughout the land. At first it seems incredible but you soon understand the fundamental reason (more later).

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Canal, Haarlem

Day three: to Hoorn via Edam. From Haarlem, close to the North Sea, we cycled eastwards across NoordHolland to Edam on the opposite coast. This is not really a coast but the banks of the Markermeer, a huge man-made lake that together with the Ijsselmeer forms the largest lake in Northern Europe (technically a reservoir). This tract of water is associated with the better known Zuiderzee which was once an unstable inlet of open sea, prone to disastrous flooding. In 1932 a 30 kilometre long dyke – the Afsluitdijk (photo) – was built to enclose it and the resulting 'lake', fed by the River Ijssel, gradually turned seawater into fresh, with a water level higher than the adjacent Wadden Sea. If you stand on top of the Afsluitdijk you can see how the lake is higher and the water green, compared to the blue of the sea a few tens of metres away.

This was a Sunday and the cycle paths were full of families out on their bikes, enjoying the fine weather, as we did. More dykes, more waterways, windmills and big open skies. Simply lovely (photo). Edam is as picturesque as you'd expect. Hoorn too, with a pretty harbour that in the Medieval age was home to a mighty merchant fleet. Cape Horn, incidentally, is named after the town – a reminder that the Dutch, along with the British, once ruled the world's oceans.

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The harbour at Hoorn

Our B&B at Hoorn was run by Hans as part of his house, located on an estate a mile or so from the centre. He promised one of his famous Dutch breakfasts for the morning, then we rode into town and dined outside at a pleasant waterfront restaurant. The next day (the breakfast was everything he'd promised) Hans told us this would be the last day of summer and to expect stronger winds from the east. This day – day four – was our eastward crossing of the 30 kilometre long Afsluitdijk and 62 miles in total, but we casually brushed off the wind news. After all, Holland is flat.

Next: Hoorn to Deventer »

For the record: our B&B accommodation in Holland:

Tussen de Lakens, Wietzke van Oene, Lange Lakenstraat 17, 2011ZB Haarlem
Tel: 0235 321521 / 0621 591002

c/o Hans van der Heiligenberg, Koperslager 67, 1625al Hoorn
Tel: 0229 242682 / 0646 468702

De Alde Smidse, c/o Coby Dijkstra, Noardein 93, Oppenhuizen
Tel: 0623 360779 / 0515 559678

B&B Polderpoort, c/o Mrs Schouten, Henk Steenbeekhof 33, 8264BZ Kampen
Tel: 0623 026590

J.A. Van Zanten, Groenestraat 12, Deventer (budget accommodation)
Tel: 0570 615249

De Lentehof, Laauwikstraat 22, 6663CK Nijmegen
Tel: 0653 539439 / 0243 601024

A.J. Besseling, Sumatrastraat 65-67, Dordrecht (budget accommodation)
Tel: 0630 543513 / 0786 148364

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26 comments on “A cycling trip to Holland: the land of the bicycle”

  1. Garry wrote:

    I'm glad I've read this, Patrick, and looked at all the photos. I'd put off going there for years, because I thought it was too flat, and I'm definitely not going there now! It is not only too flat, but three flat and four flat!

  2. Patrick wrote:

    LOL – There's a hill near Maastricht apparently, down in the south. But seriously, Holland is beautiful, flat though it may be. We can't wait to go again.

  3. John wrote:

    Garry, If you don't go to Holland to meet the Dutch you will be missing out.

    Great write-up Patrick.

    Thankyou

  4. Mary wrote:

    Patrick, what a star your Sandra is. THere is NO way I could of cycled after that injury. No way what so ever... Im far too much of a drama queen, and crikey she had a dislocated shoulder not to mention broken ribs! She reminded me of Mad Max where the injured hero stitched up his own arm, and carried on regardless.

    Glad the pair of you had such a good tour considering Sandra's crash. I do hope she is on the mend and will not suffer too much lasting injury.

    Great story as always and fabulous photos. I too, reckon us tourers often end up doing too much cycling and not enough exploring of towns and hamlets.

    Holland is on my list to do one day... I think it would be a good spot to try as part of my cycling into Europe plans (these are 'one day Ill do it ' plans).

  5. Patrick wrote:

    Thanks Mary (and John). I'm sure you'd enjoy Holland, despite what Garry said. It's so different from cycling in the UK, which in itself is a reason to go and see. But it's also very interesting, geographically and historically – much more so than Denmark IMO. Denmark is a lovely place for physical cycling and we'll go again, but every Dutch town is interesting in a different way, which is why we'll plan more stops on the next trip.

    Holland is easier to get to as well.

    Sandra's arm is now in a sling and she's due a shoulder operation next week to repair the ligaments and put the bone back in place. It's sticking out a bit. The surgeon said her arm is now held on only by muscle – I think he was impressed. Sometimes there's little choice but to carry on regardless. How do you get your bike and luggage back to the UK, for example, unless you ride it back?

  6. Chris wrote:

    Thanks for sharing the story and photographs. I suspect Holland will be the destination for our next tour (Mrs Bailey doesn't do hills – or camping), especially as we're fairly close to the port.

    I hope Sandra gets some relief from the evident pain she was feeling. I was reminded of Karen Briggs, a judoka from Hull, who regained her world title in 1989 despite dislocating her shoulder in doing so. Ouch.

  7. Hilary wrote:

    Great write up. I hope Sandra is on the mend, she did really well to finish the trip. I know exactly how it feels to see your partner spreadeagled and it really is the most horrible, sickening feeling. Stange how accidents always seem to happen in the most inoccuous places!

  8. Kern wrote:

    Great ride, great writeup. Condolences to Sandra and hopes for a speedy mend.

    Someone needs to buy Garry "ANWB Routegids Mountainbike Nederland" for Christmas.

  9. Alan wrote:

    Gosh, what a great story! I trust you are rebuilding Sandra's strength with chocolate cheesecake or her favourite comfort food. She was a total heroine.

    Interesting final thoughts, too, on Dutch cycling. Photos and videos I've seen had only had sit-up-and-beg styles, but I wondered how representative that was.

  10. Aidan Gloe wrote:

    I've just come back from a similar trip cycling in Holland. It's fantastic! No really, it's fantastic!

    I rode up the coast, over the dunes in the photo, to Haarlem, then stayed in Heemskerk. Then rode to Edam, then across to Naarden. Then caught the train to Gouda.
    Next day I rode Gouda back to Hoek van Holland. Had a brilliant time, and am already planning my next trip.

  11. Tim Beadle wrote:

    I see you've been reading Copenhagenize. But have you been paying attention? :p

    "If we're debunking flat myths, have a look at the list of the Most Bicycle-Friendly Cities in the world that we compiled here at Copenhagenize.com, based on trips by bike / modal share. Many flat cities feature on the list but there are cities that have a hilly topography. Gothenburg, Aarhus, Tokyo, Stockholm, Bern AND a high modal share for bicycles."

    http://www.copenhagenize.com/2007/11/debunking-flat-countrybike-country-myth.html

  12. Patrick wrote:

    I paid attention during my tours in Denmark and Holland but I didn't have time to measure anything like the %-age of trips. I stand by my comments. I agree there may be a cultural dimension but it springs from the basic geography: flat terrain, with maybe a few hilly pockets.

    The north of England where I live is hilly – not Alpine but rolling hills and valleys, and very few towns that are flat. No-one cycles here on a Dutch bike because they won't work in this landscape, and no-one cycles up hills with their friend on the rack or towing trailers full of luggage.

  13. Tim Beadle wrote:

    It's not (just) about the type of bike! Proper infrastructure is the key, not how flat or hilly it is! If you need more gears, fine, but the infra will help you go up hills without feeling like you need to be Andy Schleck so you don't "hold up the traffic". Conflict-removal in this way is even more important when speed differences are higher, e.g. on hills.

    Britain had a bike culture until the 1950s, when cars started being catered for in a big way, as they were in the Netherlands and Denmark. Except in NL/DK, they turned things around when the 1970s oil crisis hit and they realised they were throwing something away of value. Thus they re-established the bike as the best way of getting around, and between, places.

    David Hembrow's blog for more:
    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2010/06/attitude-towards-cycling-infrastructure.html

  14. Patrick wrote:

    Mark Wagenbuur's post (on David Hembrow's blog) explains how protected cycle paths in Holland go back to 1905. Then: "What has been a growing tradition in the Netherlands for over a hundred years can be adopted by other countries too." It's just ludicrous. Is the UK going to start a 100-year programme of ripping up streets and trees and push buildings back to accommodate cyclists? I don't think so.

    Flat ground and Dutch bikes go together. Riding a bike on a level path is effortless so more people choose one to get from A to B. It's even easier than walking and the bikes are simple with almost no maintenance and an easy riding position – hop on and go – all with luggage racks. Flatness has to be a factor, then policy follows because the audience is already there.

    Now there's a whole cottage industry of cycle bloggers making wicker baskets and writing how they're setting such a wonderful example for the rest of the world. It's all a bit tiresome.

  15. Kern wrote:

    I had not previously considered terrain as an "enabler" for mass cycling but it makes perfect sense. Another factor is population density. The Canadian prairies may be flatter than a pancake, but you won't have a problem finding a spot in a bike rack.

  16. john wrote:

    I too had a great family trip to Holland this year near Leiden. We took our two boys aged 6 and 11 and over 10 days road 345 miles, on a variety of day trips. We enjoyed it so much that we are to return next Spring to youth hostel.
    So what if the country is flat. For me it is about being on my bike, touring some great countryside and not having to go to work! Sure if hills take your fancy go to the alps, but dont knock Holland for being flat. The people were great, I enjoyed the cafes and whilst the food is not as famous as the French or Italian cuisine, it certainly went down well!
    The towns are very pretty, and it was refreshing not to have to worry about ignorant motorists. I look forward to revisiting the Scottish Isles on my bike and touring other parts of Europe in the future, but I cannot help feeling that I will always want to return to Holland because the culture is so bike freindly. I am envious of that way of life, and there are many reasons why we cannnot hope to emulate that. Hills are a factor of course, but I suspect there is a far deeper cultural attitude that many in Europe share, and sadly we seem to lack.

  17. Tim Beadle wrote:

    Wow – who would have thought one expat Brit was a "cottage industry"? I rather like David's tell-it-like-it-is approach, because it shows us what's possible, if only we'd look across the North Sea for inspiration. And I don't know how many times I have to say it: bike use is higher in many other places than the UK, some of which are hilly, because they've made protected space for bikes.

    Yes, Dutch and wider European culture is more civilised than the UK on many levels, but it's still something to aim for. Sharing the road with motor vehicles isn't exactly going so well at the moment. Adopting the European 5th Motoring Directive (strict liability for the heavier party in collisions) would help.

  18. Patrick wrote:

    David Hembrow is just one of the many -izer cycle bloggers blowing the trumpet and poking fun at the UK, not to mention several others actually in the UK who spend their time posting photos of poor bike facilities everyone already knows about.

    Your suggestion for the Motoring Directive is more constructive and I agree with it. It's affordable too. Where I don't agree is that Dutch and Danish-style bike paths completely separate from the roads and with their own sets of lights etc is realistic for us, except as an occasional token gesture.

    One thing the UK can be proud of is bridleways. I'm not aware of another country with anything like it. Not much use for utility cyclists but wonderful all the same.

    @john... that's an outstanding performance by your two boys! You're right: great countryside, pretty towns, and very nice people. We'll be returning next year too.

  19. WestfieldWanderer wrote:

    Flat country does not necessarily make good cycling country. Try riding for hours into a relentless headwind (quite common in that part of Europe). Plenty of hilly parts of Europe have a much higher modal share for cycling than Britain: Gothenburg, Aarhus, Stockholm, Bern, Helsinki. No, the lazy British are very good at making excuses. That's why they find people who repeatedly and conclusively debunk those excuses "tiresome".

  20. Patrick wrote:

    WestfieldWanderer wrote: Try riding for hours into a relentless headwind.

    LOL

    Try it with a dislocated shoulder and two broken ribs. That is tiresome!

  21. Thanks for the nice peace you wrote on our Shop in Medemblik.
    I found it by Google, hope the brake of Sandra still is ok.

    See you next time in our Shop.

  22. alan oldfield wrote:

    Great report, even read your Dad's diary [bit of a war buff]. Saw some of the places we visited on our Holland tour last year, especially Leiden. Ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland really good, both new ships. get off ferry, turn left, and up the L1!
    We off to Eastern Holland for two weeks in June, like the look of your b+b's through 'guest' book site, will consider joining that this year.
    Hope Sandra now recovered and back cycling.

  23. Patrick wrote:

    Sandra is fine now, thanks, and I'm pleased you enjoyed the war diary. I hope you have a nice trip. If you go to Nijmegen, De Lentehof B&B (Tom) is top notch.

  24. philip wrote:

    just planning a similar trip for July, great blog, thanks!

    only difference is that i'm going on a recumbent trike.

    any advice on how easy it is to find the way from the europort hull-rotterdam sailing, to the maasluis ferry?

    not my first time, cycling in the Netherlands, love it there/ the culture

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