A cycling trip to Holland: the land of the bicycle
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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