Published: August 10th 2012June 23rd 2012
Wheels and water
There's no shortage of either in the Netherlands
It had all seemed so simple when I came up with the idea - having finished my UK working holiday in May but elected to delay the start of my Canadian working holiday until July so that I could remain in Europe for the duration of the European football championships, it had occurred to me that I would have the best part of three weeks to fill in between the end of my week in Tenerife (unfortunately no photos and very little recollection of the events of that week means no travel blog!) and my eventual flight to Vancouver... so what better way to spend that time than by taking my bicycle (which had been left with friends near London for the previous six weeks) on the ferry over to Holland and cycle around the Netherlands for seventeen days!?!
My reasons for choosing the Netherlands as my destination were many and varied. First of all, having never been on a bicycle trip of longer than four days before, it seemed a perfect way to introduce myself to the obscure world of long-distance bicycle touring by heading to the one country that is surely less challenging - both physically (due it's
pancake-flat topography) and mentally (thanks to it's elaborate network of designated cycle routes) - to cycle around than any other on earth. Another reason was the people themselves - I have long considered the Dutch to be my favourite nationality of all. Add to that the delicious (mostly Belgian) beer and ubiquitous tasty deep-fried snack foods that are so readily available everywhere, as well as some of the most beautiful women in Europe (if not the world) and the case for visiting the Netherlands was already strong.
But what really tipped the scales in favour of a jaunt around the Netherlands - and had provided the original spark of inspiration - was the chance to once again ride the 'orange wave of euphoria' that accompanies any major football tournament in which the Dutch national side takes part, as I had experienced first-hand two years ago while staying with my Dutch girlfriend at the time during the Netherlands' magnificent run all the way to the final of the World Cup in South Africa. To be swept up in such a tidal wave of support and celebration as seemingly every man, woman and child in the country dresses up in orange
Quaint town square
Historic Dutch scenery
and parochially cheers on their heroes is a truly wonderful experience - one that English folk will presumably never get to experience - and one that having had a taste of before I desperately wanted to sample again. And to top it off, if their form over the past couple of years was any sort of guide, then the Dutch were surely in with a genuine chance of winning.
Now fast forward to the first week of the Euros, which I spent in Tenerife with four English mates (yes I do have English mates - though god knows how or why) lying on a beach by day and then drinking beer and watching football by night, during which the Dutch managed to lose both of their opening two group matches - leaving them teetering on the brink of elimination with only one group match remaining. My disappointment at this most unexpected turn of events was tempered somewhat by the knowledge that not only were the Dutch still in with a chance of qualifying for the next round if they could just win their final group game against Portugal, but that I would be in the Netherlands by the time
Typical Dutch polderland
that game was played on the sunday night.
Then the 'weekend from hell' happened. First I was not allowed onto the plane for my flight back to London with my English mates because I had mistakenly neglected to get a simple visa stamp on my boarding pass, leaving me stranded in Tenerife with no option but to fork out 120 pounds for an alternative flight to a different London airport much later that day; and then another 80 pounds for a one-hour taxi ride all the way from that airport to my mate's house in Harlow. And when I somehow still managed to make it to the train station by half-past-six the next morning - despite having had only two hours sleep - for my train into London and then out to Harwich (from where I was due to take the 10am ferry to Holland) I was informed that due to a problem with the National Rail service the trains would not be running all the way into London, and that although there would be replacement buses available I would not be allowed to take my bicycle on them.
So the best I could do was to change
Coastal lookout on day one
my reservation to the overnight ferry that would be leaving at 11pm that night - by which time the problem with the trains would have been sorted out - and hope that a) I would still be able to watch the Dutch match and b) the Dutch would beat Portugal by at least two goals (and Denmark would simultaneously lose to Germany), thus allowing the Dutch to progress against all odds and keeping the dream of a fairytale Dutch tournament victory alive. And for a fleeting moment it seemed as if my prayers might be answered. Watching the fist half on a television at the ferry terminal in Harwich, the Dutch were soon in front 1-0 (as were the Germans in the other match) and there was no doubt that once onboard the ferry I would have no trouble finding somewhere to watch the second half. Unfortunately by then it was 1-1; and things were only getting worse. By the time the final whistle sounded the score was 2-1 to Portugal, the Dutch had lost all three of their group matches (a feat only matched by the Republic of Ireland) and my adopted European national football team - on whose
Impressive feat of engineering
Part of the massive Delta Project
successful campaign I had based my travel plans for the next two-and-a-half weeks - had been eliminated from the tournament before my ferry had even left the port in England!
Still, I had a seventeen day holiday to look forward to, which I was keen to get underway as I woke bright and early the next morning... only to get down to the vehicle deck and discover to my horror that there was torrential rain falling outside, knowing that I had one hundred kilometres worth of cycling ahead of me before I could take shelter in my hostel for the night. It was monday morning (18th June), and my nightmare weekend was complete!
So after emptying the contents of my backpack, donning an extra two layers of clothing (one for warmth, the other for protection from the rain) and then re-packing the rest of my belongings, I was finally ready to take my first tentative pedals on what would be a long and arduous journey... only to be told by an immigration official when I left the ferry that I would have to wait inside the terminal building before I could clear customs - though for what reason
Making navigation easy
Cycle route signs near Neetle Jans
I had absolutely no idea! And so, noticing that all of the other cyclists and motorcyclists were also waiting undercover outside the building, I waited. And waited. And waited. And one by one, every one of the other cyclists left - until I realized that I was the only person left! So eventually I wandered over to ask the woman at the check-in counter what it was that I was supposed to be waiting for, only to be told that she had no idea either, but that the customs office had already closed for the day - so as far as she was concerned, I was free to go! Well, if it was good enough for her, then it was certainly good enough for me!
Thankfully, by the time all of this had taken place and I had figured out exactly where it was that I was supposed to go - which involved first taking a fast ferry across to the other (south) side of the harbour at Hoek van Holland to hook up with the LF1 North Sea Coast cycle route - the weather had cleared, allowing me to temporarily ditch my waterproof gear. So after filling up
on some of my favourite Dutch deep-fried snack foods at a nearby seafood stall, I eventually made my way across to the opposite side of the harbour, where I was confronted by a seemingly never-ending industrial estate that seemed like some sort of post-apocalyptic world - not exactly the bucolic Dutch countryside I had imagined; though hardly surprising given it's proximity to some of Europe's largest sea ports, which no doubt contribute massively to the Netherlands' economy.
Negotiating my way through a series of roadblocks and detours, I finally found myself in more natural surroundings, where a ten-metre high viewing platform in the midst of some beautiful Dutch coastal scenery provided not only a perfect 360-degree panorama of the coastline, but also quite possibly the highest point above sea level that I would reach over the duration of my cycle trip! This is, after all, a country where half the land sits at or below sea level; and where the only hills of any size are tucked away in the south-eastern corner of the country near the border with Belgium - an area that I wouldn't be visiting on this trip.
Continuing past the incredible engineering feat of
One of many sights in Middelburg
the Delta Project - where a series of massive dykes have been constructed, linking Zeeland's three separate fingers of land, in an attempt to prevent the sort of catastrophic flooding that has cursed the Netherlands throughout it's history - I spent the rest of the afternoon following the North Sea coastline under unexpectedly blue skies all the way to my first overnight stop: Stayokay Domburg, where the hostel is housed inside an authentic 14th-century medieval castle, complete with turrets, a moat and a drawbridge!
From Domburg I had another 100kms to cycle on the second day, this time passing through the attractive Zeeland capital of Middelburg - with it's beautiful canals and various different styles of bridges - before following the LF13 Schelde-Rhein Rivers cycle route the rest of the way to my second overnight stop at Bergen op Zoom. At least that was the plan. Unfortunately though I ended up following the northern bank of the massive Westerschelde shipping lane for far longer than I was supposed to, and by the time I discovered where I was - after stopping to ask a local couple for directions - I had already crossed the border into Belgium, without even
A bridge too far...
The bridge that took me into Belgium... by mistake
realizing it! It's never a good sign when you see a street sign pointing toward the country that you were supposed to be in all along...!
Day three brought a slightly shorter day's ride - only 80kms this time - and a change of scenery to begin with, as I cycled through a shady forest on my way out of Bergen op Zoom before emerging out into the more typical polderland (strips of lush grassland split by canals and used as pastures for grazing) that is so characteristic of the Dutch countryside. Eventually I made it to my third Stayokay hostel in as many days on the outskirts of Dordrecht, in the midst of the scenic wetlands of Biesbosch National Park.
My fourth straight day on the bicycle brought a more relaxed 60km ride to Utrecht, my favourite city in the Netherlands and one I have experienced more of than any other city in Europe due to the fact that my Dutch ex-girlfriend Saskia lives there. And though the weather for most of the day was less than perfect - hardly a surprise in the Netherlands - that only made my arrival in Utrecht feel even more welcoming,
Scenic spot for a break
Taking a breather on day three
as I immediately headed straight to my favourite bar, Kafe Belgie, to enjoy a couple of frosty glasses of their house specialty Kamikaze pale ale; before catching up with not only Saskia but also a mutual friend of ours named May who also happens to be living in Utrecht and whom we met whilst staying at the same hostel in Melbourne almost three years ago.
340kms down... 660kms to go!
There are more photos below