This is my first blog of my trek from the north of Holland to the south of France. I thought I would start, by way of introduction, with a typical Q&A based on many conversations I had with friends and family before setting off at the beginning of June.
Q: So what are you doing? A few weeks walking in Europe?
A: No. I'm treking 1,500 miles through 5 countries in about 3-4 months.
Q: Oh, that's quite a long way (by implication too far for me to travel, ''he'll never make it'')
Q: So, you're doing it in a group?
A: No, just me although I do have some people joining me on route for a few days / weeks.
Q: But you know what you're doing. You've got a plan. You know the route, you've got things booked..?
A: Sort of. I have some guide books for the whole trek with maps, directions, accommodation listings etc. Except that two of them are completely in Dutch.
Q: Do you speak any Dutch?
A: Er, no.
Q: Any Flemish?
Q: Any French?
A: Yes, I haven't spoken it regularly for six years but at the time
I could get by pretty well.
Q: Yes but didn't you manage to convince your French landlady that you had a gun in your flat and that the flat was on fire?
A: Well yes but that was just a misunderstanding.
Q: So... you think 12-15 miles a day. Have you done a lot of training?
A: A few 3-4 hour walks around Sheffield at the weekend.
Q: Is that the full distance you have to walk each day.
A: Er, no.
Q: And was that with full kit?
A: No... (cue either silence as people are too polite to say that I'm screwed or we enter a protracted conversation about what kit I should / shouldn't be taking with me)
Q: So on the whole you feel well prepared?
Q: Have you taken some time off from work to do this?
A: No, I quit. I felt it was time to move on after 6 years with the Council.
Q: Is that wise given the recession? (A purely rhetorical question as the inferred answer is that he's a bloody idiot, "he'll never work again'', ''who would employ him, I know I wouldn't'')
A: We'll see, I'm sure
I'll find something when I get back.
Q: Well it is very brave of you (a commonly used euphemism to mean crazy)
Q: So, just why are you doing this walk?
A: A number of reasons... I need a new challenge, I want to get fit, I would like to speak some French to a decent standard. And I want to raise money for charity.
Q: Which charity?
A: Pump Aid
A: They fund clean water projects in Africa
Q: Oh (depending on what type of person you are there is either a discussion about the merits of the charity compared with other worthy causes or a debate as to whether a different charity would give me a better chance of pulling whilst en route)
Q: How much are you looking to raise?
A: A pound per km. 2,400 in total.
Q: Oh, I'll sponsor you (this is followed by a long period of no contact).
N.B. If you want to sponsor me you can do so at: www.justgiving.com/matthewmellor
I concluded a while ago that I wanted to go coast-to-coast, starting in Holland but I had decided after a tip off to abandon the traditional GR5
route and instead do the 486km long Pieterpad, which goes north to south from a place called Pieterburen by the North Sea to St Pietersberg, which is on the Dutch-Belgian-German border near Maastricht. After that I will rejoin the GR5 as it goes through the Ardennes and into Luxembourg.
I had hoped to post this first blog entry a couple of weeks ago but public internet access is a hard thing to come across. This entry covers the first section of the Pieterpad as far as Vorden and some of my early impressions of the Netherlands. For those of you who want to follow my precise route it has been:
Day 1 - Pieterburen to Winsum (11km), overnight in Groningen
Day 2 - Winsum to Groningen (19km)
Day 3 - Groningen to Zuidlaren (21km)
Day 4 - Zuidlaren to Rolde (18km)
Day 5 - Rolde to Schoonloo (18km)
Day 6 - Schoonloo to Sleen (24km)
Day 7 - Sleen to Coevorden (21km)
Day 8 - Much needed rest day!
Day 9 - Coevorden to Hardenberg (19km)
Day 10 - Hardenberg to Ommen (21km)
Day 11 - Ommen to Hellendoorn (21km)
Day 12 - Hellendoorn to Holten (16km)
13 - Holten to Laren (15km), overnight in Deventer
Day 14 - Laren to Vorden (14km)
Each day follows pretty much the same routine. Breakfast is around 8-8.30 and is almost always the typical Dutch breakfast. This means bread, cold meats, cheese, hard boiled eggs, a variety of jams and perhaps uniquely chocolate sprinkles. This is washed down with lots of coffee and orange juice. I 'force' myself to eat as much as I can to 'fuel up' for the day's walking. After a quick stop at a local supermarket to buy lunch - yep you've guessed it bread, ham, cheese - I usually walk 10km in the few hours before lunch. After that, my pace slows considerably as fatigue and injury take their toll and depending on the distance I still have to cover, I limp into my destination anytime from 2pm onwards. I then head to either a cafe/bar for a well earned drink or the VVV and try to find somewhere to stay. After a shower and doing running repairs to my feet and body, I either wander around the town/village to get something to
eat or I crash out in my room too tired and sore to move. Then I get ready to do it all over again...
The walking has been more varied than I thought it would be - after all Holland is just flat, right? A nice easy stroll. Not a bit of it. The landscape and the nature of the walking has changed quite a lot from the flat, farmland of the north with its canals and straight roads to more woodland and moorland as I've move further south. I've even come across some hills! The worse days by far have been the ones where the majority of walking is on long, straight roads or cycle paths than stretch as far as the horizon and which grind you down both physically and mentally. There is the physical impact days like this have on the knees and feet but it is the boredom of passing field after field with just my own company that has been hard to endure. On the other hand, there has been some very enjoyable walking, especially towards the end of the two weeks which has gone through wetlands, forest, morland and some nature reserves. I've
even come across a few hills which have been a welcome diversion.
I was in a pretty bad way after the first few stages as my body struggled to cope with... well exercise really. My back and knees are ok now, especially as I posted a few things home to try to reduce the weight of my pack. My only complaint now is my feet and in particular the blisters. At one point my feet looked like a teenager's acne covered face. Nice. Each evening I go through a process of 'bleeding' each blister and trying to patch myself up as best I can. It's certainly not all glamour this travelling lark. However, I am in a position to finish each day's stage, which is a relief. The other issue I've got - if I being frank - is that I smell pretty bad. After each stage there is that very distinctive combination of sweat, insect repellent and suncream. Lovely. Its made worse by the lack of laundry facilities en route - so after 2 or 3 days my clothes are able to walk by themselves!
I've not come across that many people doing the Pieterpad itself -
probably about 10 couples in total and 1 student. Most walkers I do meet are older couples or groups who are doing sections of the walk as and when they get chance or people doing local day walks. They are all polite and I occassionally have a short conversation about the route or the day's stage but otherwise I walk on my own with my i-pod for company.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the trek so far has been the variety of places that I've stayed. There are very few hostels in the east of Holland and hotels are too expensive. So I have been relying on B&B's and staying in people's private homes - there is a list of places which provide rooms for walkers and cyclists over the summer months. The weirdest place I've stayed was a converted animal shed next to the main house, which retained some original features like the sheep pen and a trough next to the bed . Perhaps the real discovery of the trip has been an organisation called 'Vrienden op de Fiets' or 'Friends of the Cycle Way'. It produces a handbook that lists the contact
details of hundreds of members across the whole country, where you can get bed and breakfast for a maximum of 20Euros a night, cheap in comparison to the alternatives. Indeed in Deventer, I ended up staying in a luxury apartment block with a great view over the river and a balcony outside my room with views back over the city.
The people I'm staying with have been very welcoming and I'm ususally greeted with a coffee and a chat before been shown to my room. Most seem to be interested in what I'm doing and keep asking me 'why'? I think I may be the first Engelsman they've come across doing the Pieterpad and seem genuinely please at the thought. A lot of them are keen walkers themselves and have done bits, or in some cases all, of the Pieterpad themselves.
So what are my impressions of Holland? Well, all Dutch people - and I say all because I won't be able to effectively stereotype them unless I make sweeping statements - are welcoming, friendly and polite. Most speak excellent English although a couple of times I've stayed with people who knew a few basic English words but
which proved to be no big problem. Everyone seems to be active - walking, cycling and the like - which is probably why there are so few fat people. This makes it fairly amusing when I get mistaken for being a Dutchman, which happens a fair bit. As I said, most Dutch people are thin and athletic - I'm... not. They're tall - I'm 1m81. Nearly all men are clean shaven and well turned out. I've got a scruffy traveller's beard and wear the same clothes day in day out, which you can smell metres away. And they speak Dutch. Despite looking very blank and helpless when spoken to in Dutch, it's only when I reply in English do people accept I'm a foreigner.
It also turns out that the Dutch are a bunch of walking fanatics. If you thought that they just like taking recreational drugs, talking in funny accents and wearing orange you would have only a limited understanding of the country. The Dutch are very active and have a real enthusiasm for walking and cycling. Everyone has heard of the Pieterpad and this brings me some instant respect in their eyes. However, this does not last
long because by Dutch standards I'm a novice - I don't walk very far each day and I don't walk very fast. Lots of people, of all ages, walk regularly and will cover over 30km a day. In fact they even have hard core walking festivals. I've been 'invited' a few times to do the International Four Days Marches by people I've been staying with. Essentially, it involves walking between 30 and 50km a day for four consecutive days with a festivals and music in the evening. So you walk more than a marathon each day and then go and then drink and dance in the evening before doing it all again! You have to be crazy to do it - in 2006, 2 people died from the heat! Thankfully, I hear you have to take a fitness test to get in these days, so that should see me alright.
I thought I would finish with some high points from the first couple of weeks:
Staying in the house of a guy in his sixties who looked like the professor from back to the future. His son runs a B&B and when he
his full he sends the extra people to his parents! The man was a bit of a walking nut and only let me in when he saw my boots where the same as his and he proceeded to show me his boots where the soles had been warn away from doing 10,000km of walking! I on the otherhand had barely done a few hundred in mine. This was my first indication of how keen the Dutch (certainly the older generation) are on walking and I have since had to learn how to 'talk the talk' as much as 'walk the walk' when staying with such enthusiasts.
Coming across a place called La Taarterie in the village of Sleen where I was befriended by a wonderful couple who put me up in their caravan. The wife loves baking and wants to set up her own cookery school and cake shop in their farm building. The husband's role seem to be to source a wide range of beer and spirits during frequent trips to Germany. So they ended up feeding me with some wonderful home cooking and we spent the evening during beer and brandy, and smoking cigars watching the sun
set over the countryside. It was really nice to have some good company after a week of putting up with just me! The wife seemed inspired by my travels and wanted to take a month off to walk the Pieterpad. The husband was unmoved and said he wasn't given up his holidays to the big beer festivals across Europe and she could do what she wanted. Very sensible. The village of Sleen was also hosting the local festival for the first time in seven years, so everyone was out putting up arches across the road, cleaning everything (including the lamposts!) and I found out that children got time off school to practice leading cows through the village - after all you don't want it to all go wrong on the big day.
The stretch of the Pieterpad between Ommen and Hellerdoorn. This is where I came across my first hill in Holland and it was a very scenic stage taking in forest and moorland before finishing in Hellderoorn which is a small town that has been around for a thousand years or so. I stayed with some more friends of the cycle path people sitting outside late into the
evening with their log fire. It was very pleasant.
And the lowest point? Getting into Coevorden after a particularly hard day along unforgiving roads where every single part of me ached and my feet were a patchwork of blisters. It was at this point I seriously contemplated using the shower seat but I feared that I wouldn't get up again. In fact I was at such a low point that I almost ended up reading a Jeffrey Archer novel. Thankfully, I recovered my sanity after a rest day and was able to pull it together.
Next entry, part 2 of the Pieterpad, which takes me to Maastricht and the end of Holland.
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