Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Netherlands (Photos) (4)

All of the little villages on the shores of the Ijsselmeer have a canal that ends in the heart of the village.
Corpulant and beautiful - Traditional Dutch 'Schokker' type yacht.

A New Zealand tent and pannier bags in loose affiliation with a Dutch bicycle is a potent combination.If there is one country on the planet where modern windmills don't seem out of place it is The Netherlands - they complement the old traditonal windmills that are part of the traditional image of Holland.A typical scene - bicycles everywhere - these are some of the many millions of bicycles to be found in The Netherlands.
An iconic symbol of The Netherlands and the way that much reclaimation of much land from the sea was achieved.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Cycling In The Netherlands (3)

This traditional Dutch 'Botter' yacht is the ''Groete Bear'' and the harbour is Volemdam. These boats are virtually the same as the traditional fishing boats of old. They are big and fat (great cargo carrying capacity) shallow draft and flat bottomed ( good for sitting up right on the sand banks of the Waddenzee) and have twin leeboards rather than a central centreboard (saves space in the cabin, less expensive to build and provides for a strong tight hull)

To date I have completed a couple of trips and are now completing a third. The first was to Amstelmeer in the North. The second from Schagen in the North out to the coast and down through Castricum back to Amsterdam. The third trip is the one I am on at the moment, which goes around the inland sea - the Ijsselmeer.

The land is very flat, great for biking but does not have the grandeur or drama of the New Zealand landscape - it relies on what the Dutch have created for its charm, and charming it is - soft mellow coloured red brick houses with high pitched roofs, traditional designs, window baskets of flowers, little picket fences, narrow lanes, cobbly streets and the patina of history that only these old countries have. The quality is one of peace and quiet (for me anyway as I am avoiding the big cities, I simply get lost in them) and a unity of scenery - there are no dramatic differences in styles of houses and scenery, rather differences in quality and complexity. Leafy lanes, easy cycling and a misty sun shining through a Turner painted sky makes for mellow feelings, a sort of roominness of the soul.

On this trip around the inland sea the cycling route takes me between small towns through farmland on small bike tracks or narrow roads beside ditches and canals that every so often open out unexpectedly into much larger expanses of water - the highways and byways of canals, large ponds and lakes. Riding through this landscape I often see a sail, white or mellow red apperently sailing through a field of barley or corn such are the pervasiveness of the waterways. The canals have rushes which bend gently in the soft breeze and there is bird life everywhere, ducks, swans, herons, crows, and on the larger expanses of water Autumn flocks of migrating birds are beginning to gather.

After riding for say 10 or so kilometres you reach another little picturesque town set well back from the inland sea and joined to it by a canal which leads up to a yacht harbour right in the centre of the the town much like my home town Whangarei in New Zealand, but much smaller and more intimate. For me the joy is seeing the traditional Dutch yachts which have evolved from the traditional working vessels of a bygone age. These stout fat rotund little boats (and the not so little ones) are a joy for me to see - they are built in wood and in steel with traditional gaff rigs and soft mellow red tan bark sails - very nice indeed.

There is also an authenticity about these little harbours and villages. Although the little shops cater for the tourist market it is easy to see that their life is centred on servicing the needs of the local population - the comings and goings of the many boats (which hold up the traffic as the bridges are raised to let them through) are part of the heart beat of these small areas - there is nothing here that is a pastiche.

One other element that binds together and gives continuity to the visual impression of this country is the cycling - The Dutch bike everywhere. It is the most amazing thing to behold, the old, the very old, the young the middle aged, children, families together - biking everywhere - all the time - and good bikes, very good sturdy sensible bikes, traditional and strong with sensible handlebars, most with carriers and pannier bags and all ridden with an ease of purpose - all such a wonderful adaptation to a flat landscape. If the Dutch had failed to drain the land I am sure they would all have grown mermaid and mermen tails as a way of adapting.

The camping / tenting is going well, although it is a mixed blessing - the mixed bit is that it is not much fun constantly sleeping on the ground - a bit rough really, but other than that I am coping reasonably well with it. I am glad that I purchased a two person tent (despite the extra weight) as I can get most of the contents of my panniers next to me in the tent at night, which is handy and makes things secure. There seems to be camping grounds everywhere and the cost is reasonable - to date nothing over Ten Euros (NZ $20) per night.

The camping grounds vary in how they provide amenities - some camping grounds have no toilet paper in the toilets, others do, some have free showers, others you have to put a Euro in the timer thingy. In one camping ground I had to buy special tokens to get things to work. All of the camping grounds have a central building which includes toilets, showers and washing up facilities but none have cooking facilities such as kitchens as is often the case in New Zealand - So any cooking that I do, I do on a great little gas cooker that I purchased - it has a little trigger that makes a spark to light the gas and is very efficient. I mainly use the cooker to make a cup of tea and are not cooking a lot at all. As I am not eating all day long and biking a lot I have lost some more weight and my jeans are now pretty loose and I am onto the last hole on my belt - overall the tenting has worked out really well and it would be impossible to do this bike route unless you did the tenting - despite the tentings obvious limitations in terms of comfort - so its all a bit of a trade off.

I have bought food from supermarkets and this is not a problem despite the fact that I can't read Dutch and take a while to find things - fruit, trail mixes, buns, rolls, cheese, museli bars seems to work well with a hot meal from time to time in the little towns along the way.

This is a good time to be biking here because it is the end of the season and not too hot. From what I can gather, a couple of months ago they were getting temperatures of 30 degrees which would have made the biking exhausting. The downside of this time of year is that there are not a lot of other bikers on the trails so I have had little contact with other travellers except for a couple of Swiss riders the other day - having said that, the Kiwi accent seems to amuse many, and when shopping I usually end up in some sort of exchange with someone, and the other day when getting some lunch of fish etc a local asked where I was from, which ended up with a lunchtime conversation with him which was interesting as he had been to New Zealand a number of times working on merchant ships.

When I have completed this Isjlemeer trip I am going to get a suitable map and head down to the Zeeland area which is close to the Belgium border and take a look around there - there are lots of harbours and lakes and interesting places to explore, or I might head north again and take a ferry out to Texel which is one of a string of close offshore islands in the Waddenzee (northern sea) - I haven't decided yet - probably do both - what I won't be doing is heading for big cities as I have a tendency to get lost - the cycling tracks with their numbers are a secure way to travel (having said that I have still taken the wrong turning a couple of times and ended up riding an extra 20 kilometres on an original 60km ride.

So, generally speaking everything is going well and I am continuing to enjoy myself - it is certainly a good way to travel if you want to soak up things slowly. Its so very different than whizzing along within the bubble or cocoon of a car - when you cycle you embrace the landscape, you linger, you don't just get the sights, you taste, you feel - you get the sound and the smell of things as well.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hazy Days in Holland (2)

I have been in The Netherlands now for eleven days. I have a second hand bike that I purchased for 250 euros and have already completed a couple of trips. One trip north to the Amstelmeer in the and another out to the coast and back to Amsterdam through quaint picturesque towns and villages.

This is a land of canals, ditches, dykes and water - there is water everywhere. This really is the land of the "Wind in the Willows" and "Swallows and Amazons" - every corner of my cycling path reveals more canals, lakes and broad reaches of water, little boat mooring areas and always people on the water boating or on the cycle paths cycling through the lazy, hazy days of this wonderful September Indian Summer that has Holland in its grip at the moment. The light is the light of Rembrant and Vermeer, soft, atmospheric and mellow - I have certainly left the sharp, hard light of Northland behind.

This is also a land of bicycles and cyclists - it is a way of life - there are people everywhere cycling - old and young - and on bicycles that I remember from times past, nice big sturdy bikes with sensible seats and riding positions, very sensible the Dutch - and for the cyclist this is about as close to Cycle heaven as one can possibly get this side of the that great Bike Rack in the sky.

There is a national cycling path system second to none. Finding your way around is a kind of painting by numbers - you follow the path from one point to another by following the appropriate numbers which are well marked along the way - its impossible to get lost.
The Dutch people that I have met along the way have been extremely friendly, helpful and curteous - the Kiwi accent brings a smile and a laugh to the faces of some, which actually helps with the personal connection, if you are asking directions to a camping ground or to a place to eat.

As I write I am riding the Zuiderzeeroute which is a classic bike route which follows the borders of the Zuiderzee which is now a huge inland sea cut off from the North Sea by 30 kilometre long dyke - there is a strong wind blowing off the North Sea which makes the rushes and reeds bend and sway in the wind - the Ducks, Coots and Herons go about their busy business and so I will be on my way - I will keep you posted.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I Head North To The Netherlands (1)

An earlier trip to the Netherlands 2006 - Somewhere close to Volendam, north of Amsterdam.

Someone once said that "We are not here for a long time, so we might as well have a good time" - I quite like that saying - So having recently retired (and to also prove my maxim 'Carpe Diem' is not just a whole lot of hot air), I will this Friday the 11th of September begin a series of aeroplane flights that take me to The Netherlands. I will be away for 6 weeks on a cycle ride through The Netherlands and Belgium.

This trip is something that I have been quietly planning for some time. Lately the pace has quickened and I have completed an overnight camp, purchased some more cycling gear to pack into my panniers, pored over some maps with a magnifying glass (don't laugh, at 58 a magnifying glass is a serious piece of equipment), read a couple of guide books and completed much internet searching. So on Friday I shall place my destinations, expectations and resolutions in my shirt pocket, clamber aboard a big steel bird and head northwards.

The Netherlands and Northern Belgium (Flanders) have amongst other attractions, two that are important for cyclists - both these areas are as flat as a pancake and both are cyclist friendly places with dedicated cycle tracks alongside the roads and special cycle only routes. When you combine this with the huge cultural and historical interest of both countries taken at a leisurely cycling pace (I am praying for a Northern Hemisphere Indian summer here) you have the potential for an interesting and attractive holiday - I shall keep you posted.