Cycling Holland: light, wind, water

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Windy road

Amsterdam canal 2

Judging by an almost complete absence of cycle tourists, in May at least, Holland is not high on a list of European cycling destinations. The Dutch landscape is not as obviously impressive as the scenic grandeur of Switzerland or Austria but town and country are fascinating and people are as friendly as anywhere we've been.

We cycled 510 miles over fourteen days, usually from one pretty town to the next, or sometimes the next but one, although we stayed two nights in Gouda, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Alkmaar. Much of the time my GPS indicated that we were below sea level, at one point minus 44 feet (minus 4.4 metres). The lowest point in Holland is about minus 6 metres and everywhere is famously flat, so when the wind didn't blow the cycling was easy and very pleasant on the dedicated bike paths. Our route map »

May is a good time to cycle round Holland. It's the sunniest month (August is the driest) and outside the holiday season, so campsites are quiet. With only a few weeks before the summer solstice the days are long and bright – especially bright in the Netherlands with its low horizon and vast open skies. May is not immmune to wind. It began to blow as we left Amsterdam on day 7.

We percolated northwards out of the city in the direction of Enkhuizen with a breeze blowing roughly from west south-west. In such flat country you see the weather coming from miles away and to the west it didn't look promising. "Yes!" exclaimed Sandra as she put on her Páramo Quito jacket. Hers is green and mine is orange. If there are two items of equipment that can transform a cycling tour they are this jacket and a GPS device for navigation. Two days later, cycling into a rainswept gale would have been a misery had we not been warm and dry or had to mess with paper maps.

The weather had been lovely in Amsterdam. We'd left the bikes in a secure cycle garage below the oldest stock exchange in the world and walked across town to the Van Gogh Museum, breathing cannabis fumes wafting in the air as we went. The camping ground is on the north bank of the river IJ and as we crossed back over, a cruise liner sailed into view. We wondered how this big ship could have reached inland to Amsterdam; it could not have arrived from the east via the now enclosed former Zuiderzee.

Cruise liner, Amsterdam

We imagined the ship must somehow have come cross country via Rotterdam and the big canal you cross at Maasluis as you leave Europoort (we were wrong).

Pink bicycle in Amsterdam

Not all Amsterdam sights are as lovely as the pink bicycle leaning against a tree. Bicycles abandoned in the street or on a bridge are much less attractive.

The system of Dutch rivers and canals is not easy to understand. The river Rhine flows into the Netherlands as part of the larger Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta that also flows into Belgium. The Rhine itself splits into at least three rivers, with changes of name to the Waal and the Lek (flowing west to the North Sea) and the Ijssel (flowing north to the Ijsselmeer). Those parts must be above sea level. The IJ at Amsterdam becomes the Noordzeekanaal. It crosses Holland to the North Sea via locks at IJmuiden. This is how cruise liners now find their way to Amsterdam. At one time, before the Zuiderzee was closed off from the north by the Afsluitdijk (which we cycled across last year) and the Houtribdijk (which we cycled across this year), Amsterdam was accessible by sea.

Going westwards, after the Rhine becomes the Waal it joins up with the Nieuwe Maas (New Meuse) and flows to Rotterdam. Much of Rotterdam (the Rotte river is there as well) is below sea level, protected by dikes. Many of the cycle routes in Holland are atop the dikes, which are everywhere, enclosing 'polders': large tracts of low lying land criss-crossed by water-filled ditches with a pea green surface and pretty lilies.

Canals appear as soon as you cycle away from Europoort: a big one alongside the cycle path leading inland, then a river to cross by ferry at Maassluis – the Nieuwe Maas I think. Anyway from then on it's cycling along dikes, more canals, over bridges, along tree-lines avenues, another ferry or a railway crossing, with occasional stops for coffee and apple tart.

Gouda B&B

Bed & breakfast, Gouda (2 nights)

Utrecht B&B

Bed & breakfast, Utrecht (2 nights)

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6 comments on “Cycling Holland: light, wind, water”

  1. Kern wrote:

    We like Holland very much – it is such a civilised country in so many respects. Your photos convey many of those positive aspects. Too bad there are no wind breaks!

    To date, Patrick, I think you have identified three differentiators for the popularity of Dutch cycling: terrain, infrastructure, and habit.

    I thought population density may also be a contributing factor, but when I compare Holland and England the numbers are almost identical (although England's population is more concentrated in the south). Perhaps the economics of cycling also appeal to the Dutch psyche (they do have a reputation).

    It sounds like you had a very relaxing trip this time – no bollards jumping out of the pavement, and no wet snow!

  2. Jim wrote:

    Informative read Patrick. can you tell me what price you were paing for B&B so I can compare to my own recent experience? Also why the split between B&B and camping? Was the B&B a treat or a necessity?
    Regards. Jim

  3. Patrick wrote:

    Good question Jim. Definitely a treat. The Dutch B&Bs are superb, like luxury hotel rooms. Prices ranged from 70 to 95 Euros per night (they are cheaper over several nights). The best one we've stayed at was in Nijmegen last year. We didn't fancy the Dutch hostels but the Danish hostels are excellent, if you can get in.

    Picking up Kern's point about differentiators... to take food shopping as an example. There are no out-of-town hypermarkets in Holland (we saw none) so you go into town to buy food. You live either in the town or very close by – less than a kilometre – and the town is ringed with canals with only a few car bridges and is mostly pedestrianised, and there are no car parks. That is why you see the ladies cycling up to the grocers to fill their panniers with food for a few days, and they are back again a few days later.

    It seems clear that planning policy since the war is a primary reason why utility cycling is a rarity in the UK. The car makes too much sense when the nearest affordable food is 15 miles away at Tesco.

  4. Alan wrote:

    Great report, and I'm pleased you didn't need medical assistance this time.

    Ah, those infamous Dutch winds. Don't they have hedges? They are one of the best features of British rural cycling, I think.

  5. Mary wrote:

    Fabulous report Patrick, Ive been looking forward to reading about this. I wish my other half was interested in travel by bicycle... Ah well.

    It all seems very quiet over there too, no hussel and bussel, the roads look empty. I agree Alan, no hedge... and cold winds... shiver.

    Great photos, I looked at your album on Flickr, very good pics.

    What was the temperature like patrick? I shall add its still in spring mode here, just above freezing at night too. 🙁 Fed up being cold.

  6. Patrick wrote:

    Thanks Mary. Not sure about the temperature. Not too bad. Some days a bit cool, others quite warm. If it's over 16 degrees in the daytime I'm happy. It's the wind that matters more than anything and there ain't no hedges! (in fact much of the time – on the dikes – you are raised up to the elements)

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