No mice with clogs on
25 days in Holland, 557km (347 miles) cycled, 38 hours total riding time, 15 different bedrooms, one flat tyre, two bike shops for chain repairs and many, many other experiences too numerous to count! It’s been a fantastic experience, although a little painful in the derrière at times! So what did we learn during our Dutch cycling odyssey?
Holland is a surprisingly small country so it’s easy to see lots of it in a relatively short period of time. Amsterdam is much busier, more diverse and more cosmopolitan than anywhere else we visited. If you only have a few days to spend in Holland then Amsterdam is the place to go but it was good to have had the time to see and explore other places we had never heard of (and whose names we couldn’t pronounce!).
Holland feels like a wealthy country with miles and miles of well-kept land, properties and superb transport infrastructure. The cycle network is especially impressive and easy to navigate. Our cycle rides averaged 80% of the time on dedicated cycle paths, virtually all surfaced and all clearly signposted. Apparently cycle use is so extensive and widespread in Holland that bicycle manufacturers test new products here. We certainly saw all manner of bicycles equipped to carry cargo. In one town we saw two kindergarten liveried vehicles which consisted of an electric bicycle, each with a bucket seat containing six pre-school children in front. Hats off to the nursery nurses in charge of cycling that lot about!
There’s clearly trouble brewing between farmers and the Dutch government. Everywhere we went Dutch flags were being flown upside down, which is an international signal of distress or great danger, and home made banners made statements about ‘idiots’ in The Hague. It was explained to us that Dutch government proposals for tackling nitrogen emissions require a radical cut in livestock. They estimate that 11,000 or so farms will have to close and another 17,500 farms will have to reduce livestock to meet the targets by 2030. Dutch leaders are hoping to buy out farmers in order to achieve this and in such a proud agricultural nation this policy is causing much concern. It does seem odd that a country which has created so much additional agricultural land should now be looking to reduce use of it, but the environmental conscience of the country is also strong and this has created a tension. There are interesting times ahead on this subject we feel.
There’s water everywhere! About one third of The Netherlands is below sea level. The lowest point is 22 feet below sea level and the highest point is 1,000 feet above. So it’s not entirely flat, and our legs certainly felt the impact of hills in the area of the Veluwe National Park, but overall the landscape is flat land surrounded by water and enclosed by long straight roads of which the Romans would have been proud.
The land reclamation systems which drain and divert the water seem very efficient. The rivers were low here, as they are everywhere else in Europe at the moment, but the farmland was well watered. On the downside, the presence of so much water, livestock and damp land means flies. We were bitten far more in Holland than in the Caribbean!
Lelystad, built on reclaimed land, was founded in 1967 and was named after Cornelis Lely who engineered the Afsluitdijk, making the reclamation possible. The reclaimed land on which Lelystad is built is an island connected to the existing land by bridges. A number of earlier trial reclamation projects revealed that if reclaimed land was not separated from existing land by a water course then the new land would drain water from the existing land and reduce its agricultural value. Such learning has made Dutch land reclamation engineers world leaders in their craft.
The Dutch language was fairly impenetrable to our ears, though we heard similarities to German and English at times, and seeing the words was sometimes more helpful than listening. It didn’t matter though as English is very widely spoken. We were told that children begin to learn English from the age of four and all University tuition is in English. You certainly hear young people switching effortlessly between Dutch and English in their conversation with each other, and they were very keen to practice correct pronunciation speaking with us - cue John explaining how to pronounce the word yoghurt! We loved trying to work out how the words are pronounced, particularly those with multiple doubled letters.
We noticed a strong Asian influence in the restaurants and wondered how much of that comes from the historical ties to the Far East through the Dutch East India Company. Certainly there seem to be many more Chinese, Indonesian and Thai restaurants here than Indian, unlike the UK. Mind you, we also had our first ever meal in an Afghan restaurant so maybe the cuisine is just less polarised than our experience in the UK. The Afghan meal was delicious by the way.
Smoking is more prevalent here than in the UK, and in Amsterdam the smell of Marijuana is pervasive - it’s reminiscent of the Caribbean in that respect!
We’ve gained a wider perspective on World War 2 and the occupation of Holland, or rather the Allied attempts to rid Holland of the Germans. Whilst we already knew the British elements of that struggle we now know more about the Canadian, Polish and US involvement. In Otterlo we learned about ‘Operation Cleanser’. Try searching that on Google and you’ll get a load of results about preparing bodies for surgery but in the WW2 sense it was a Canadian-led offensive in April 1945 to clear the Netherlands of German occupation south of the IJsselmeer. There was even a Battle of Otterlo in which a key moment seems to have been the communication to the Allies of German positions using a secret telephone hidden behind the Barber’s shop. The Barber’s shop is still there - not sure about the telephone!
We were frustrated that Holland, at least outside Amsterdam, seems to have an aversion to use of the credit card. We’ve used cash far more here than ever we did in the Caribbean. We were told that the Dutch word for guilt is the same as that for debt (schuld) and that being in debt therefore has negative connotations. Whatever the reason, not being able to pay by credit card seemed out of step with life elsewhere and unexpected for a European country.
We heard many great examples of carillon bells across the country. In the second half of the fourteenth century clocks were placed on many city towers and to prevent the people from missing the first stroke, some small bells were played. Over time the chimes on these smaller bells became more and more sophisticated and simple melodies could be played. Usually the quarter hours play a phrase or more from a song which is played in full on the hour. We had fun identifying what the tune was going to be, anything from ‘Here comes the sun’ in Arnhem to ‘My Bonnie lies over the ocean’ in Amersfoort.
The bells in Amersfoort had the added attraction of a mechanical display of St George slaying a dragon which popped out from behind closed doors on the hour.
The architecture has been interesting to see, both old and new. There are many medieval buildings and their construction in brick can make them look deceptively new. The word ‘brick’ originated in Dutch and the abundance of clay from the banks of the IJssel and the Rhine meant that bricks were produced here as early as the Middle Ages. The higgledy-piggledy frontages to the mercantile buildings in Amsterdam are fascinating and we’ve also enjoyed the very colourful and asymmetric shaped modern buildings.
Steps - Dutch houses tend to be tall and thin, and their staircases likewise. The angle of the staircases are steep and the treads of the steps are narrow. For added excitement there’s often a twist at the top to make the highest steps even narrower. We didn’t see any mice with clogs on ‘there on the stair’ as the song goes, but I can imagine that’s because they daren’t risk their lives on the staircases.
Finally, we discovered the beauty of the paintings of the amazing Vincent Van Gogh. In Otterlo we visited the Kroller-Muller Museum, home to the second largest collection of his paintings, and we later went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to see the largest collection. It wasn’t until we’d seen these paintings in real life that we appreciated their brilliance. The colours and textures are so much richer and deeper than they appear in print that they really are breathtaking, and the way that Van Gogh’s painting style developed over the short time he was painting is quite remarkable. There were too many favourites to include them all so here is just one which also depicts a typical scene from our time in Holland.
To bring it up to date all you need to do is to replace the horse and cart on the bridge with us on our bikes!