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Windmills and Wire Wheels – Cycling in Holland

1-6 A reconstructed medieval crane in Alkmaar

Holland is renowned for many things; amongst them are its cheeses, chocolates, tulips, the flatness of the low-lying topography, and its many windmills. For the cyclist, no hills to climb are a blessing and in the countryside, the ubiquitous turning windmills are a picturesque sight. Nevertheless, while pedaling along and quite often encountering generous gusts of head wind, you are reminded of the reason for their presence!

In May 2019 BC (Before Corona), my long-time cycling buddy, Adrian Wolff and I participated in an organized one-week cycling tour of the Netherlands. We had done a similar trip with the same company and the same riverboat seven years previously and the memories were so good that after far too long an absence, the decision was made to renew the experience.

An organized Dutch cycling tour is a great experience. Upon registering, you note your height (for the bike supplied) and your dietary requirements (sorry, no champagne breakfasts, caviar, or smoked salmon!) At a quayside in Amsterdam, a river boat with bikes onboard that shall be your floating home for the next week awaits you.

Our good ship, the Tijdgeest (Time Spirit) was typical of the company's river ships, measuring 43 meters from bow to stern and 6 meters from port to starboard. Built in 1897, it had been thoroughly refurbished having below-the-deck cabins with bathrooms en suite. Accommodation is understandably tight but definitely manageable so bring the minimum necessary luggage – family heirlooms such as wardrobe trunks are advisedly left at home! 

The Herring Eaters of Katwijk

On a much anticipated Saturday morning, after a midday embarking, renewing our acquaintance with our affable captain Gerrit, meeting Clara our excellent cook, Matilda the able crew and Astrid our genial tour leader, the ship cast off.As we cruised down the canals and crossed the lakes to our night mooring at the small waterside town of Kudelstaart, we sat on the prow deck with a coffee and biscuit in hand, enjoying the passing scenery and getting to know our fellow pedallers

On this tour, we were most fortunate as, instead of the maximum 31 participants, we were a small homogenous group of only thirteen riders – five couples hailing from the States, Canada, Australia, the two of us and Helmut from Germany. Ages ranged from the 50's to a group of us septuagenarians.

With a tasty and ample three course supper under our belts and after receiving our personal bikes and making the necessary adjustments, we undertook the customary evening acclimatization ride of 20 km through the nearby wetlands. The bikes supplied were typical Dutch with a comfortable upright riding position, big wheels and a rear carrier which the custom panniers could clip onto. In the intervening years, the bikes had been upgraded, being lighter, with improved gearing and consequently faster.

Sunday morning dawned and after a buffet breakfast, sandwiches, fruit and snacks in panniers were clipped securely to our bikes. Elegantly arrayed in our many hued spandex riding outfits, shoes, helmets, cycling sunglasses and gloves, we assembled on the quay. Our multicolored phalanx soon set off, ably led by Astrid in her slacks, T-shirt and sandals!

The day's route of 55 plus km (the daily average) led to the university town of Leiden – Rembrandt's birthplace – through rural Dutch villages and landscape known as the Green Heart of Holland. Netherlands is a cyclist's dream. Excellent cycling lanes crisscross the country, you very rarely have to cross a road and when doing so, since two wheels is a national culture, the motorists are considerate. Pedaling along the Dutch countryside is an incomparable, addictive experience. 'Far from the madding crowd', you ride through the fields, down long tree lined lanes or alongside canals with the water gently lapping beside you and on the other side of the path; the soothing deep green of the countryside stretching far in the distance. Breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the bucolic quiet, you from time to time encounter herds of cows entirely indifferent to your passing. There is the pleasure of seeing Netherlands off the beaten track, the infinite satisfaction of doing it under your own steam and in so doing, aiding the ecology.Come lunchtime, after finding a suitable shady spot, you all sit down on the grass, open your panniers and leisurely munch on sandwiches and fruit – who could ask for more! 

The best way to get around Amsterdam
A weekday cruise through the locks

The countryside is a delight to the eye: the Dutch take pride in their surroundings with every farm houses' front lawns immaculately manicured and the yards ordered and spotless. The villages are no different. Houses bordering on the street are decorated with flowerpots, window boxes and window frames and doors neatly painted. Not once did we encounter litter. In all honesty, I felt a twinge of envy, for many of our compatriots can take a leaf out of their book. Some years ago, Adrian and I had participated in the Trans – Israel 3-day ride from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat. At almost every stop it was impossible to avoid the litter and even in the middle of the Negev, it was saddening to see all the disposable diapers that had been thoughtlessly thrown into the roadside ditches.

A highlight of the morning was our stop at a path side tea room/artists' workshop where we enjoyed fresh coffee and freshly home baked apple tart topped with a generous dollop of fresh cream (bad for the arteries but great for the soul!). Located beside a quiet stream and with its own small sculpture garden, the place was a little patch of verdant paradise!

Before attempting the rides, you do need a reasonable amount of experience and physical fitness. That day, we encountered strong headwinds that demanded perseverance and left us tired at the end. You can pre-order electric bikes but be warned: they are not the typical Israeli version with smallish 20-inch wheels and a hand throttle that obviates the need for using your legs – they are identical to the regular models and the motor serves only as an aid to your pedaling. One very nice couple from the States, in their 70's paid the price for inexperience. The wife hadn't ridden for a long time and thought that hiring an electric bike would solve the problem. Entering Leiden, she wobbled, fell and broke an ankle, forced to return back home the following day.

At the afternoon's end, roped to the quayside, Tijdgeest was waiting for us with welcoming coffee, tea and biscuits waiting on the table. That evening it rained – thankfully for the first and only time – so all of us remained on board. Carla, as always, had prepared an excellent three course meal and we then remained in the dining room/lounge/bar to chat and socialize.

Monday dawned bright and sunny for our ride to the seaside town of Katwijk beside the North Sea. Katwijk a resort town with many hotels and holiday flats lining a road that runs parallel to the sand dunes and sea, reminded me of the Cape Town resort of Muizenberg where so many of us had spent many happy hours of our youth. It transpires that prior to World War II, the town had been a popular holiday location for Dutch Jews and now boasts a recently renovated synagogue. A highlight of the visit was coming across a statue called: 'The Herring Eaters' – a group happily enjoying that delectable fish. As a true blue Litvak (both sides of the family, I will have you know!), finding a work of art dedicated to this delicacy warmed the cockles of my heart!

Lunch break on the beach at Zandvoort

Awaiting us was our next destination, Zandvoort, the next seaside town approximately 20 km away. The path going uphill and down dale, led through a beautiful area of sand dunes thereby giving some of us Tour de France wannabes the opportunity to roar down the slopes to gather speed for the ascents ahead. Leaving Astrid far behind, we roller-coasted away to rendezvous where the path terminated at the beginning of a promenade overlooking a magnificent stretch of coastline. Perfectly complementing this beauty spot was a mobile kiosk selling a wide variety of prepared fish! Ravenous after the long ride, our group became keen customers, enjoying the fresh herring and other species from the North Sea.

Late afternoon saw us ending the ride at Haarlem where our boat was moored. The coffee and biscuits were most welcome and after the usual great supper, we went out to stroll and explore. Dutch towns have their own special ambience. The canals running through them lend an air of tranquility and the late summer nights allow residents and visitors alike to sit at pavement cafes enjoying a leisurely beer, relaxing and savoring the evening.

An integral part of the tour was the social life on board. Our group had shrunk to eleven members and this allowed us ample opportunity to get to know each other. We sat together at meals, rode together and in the evenings, in the lounge, chatted with the boat's crew to whom my Afrikaans was a great source of merriment. Even though they regarded that language as how a very small child would speak, they could understand every word. So, seizing the opportunity of a captive audience, they were regaled with songs and jokes that since my Cape Town days had remained trapped in the cobwebs of my cranium!

There are many, many memories that linger. Once, after exiting a small village, we passed by its small cemetery whose entrance was flanked by two imposing gate posts, each adorned with a prominent skull and crossbones at their head – Memento Mori – a rather grim reminder of life's transience to those passing through its portals and passersby! Opting for Carpe Diem, we pedaled on! Each day brought its own distinct pleasures from ferry rides, to exploring new towns and wandering in their flea markets, to soaking in the peace, quiet and greenery of the countryside. Astrid's post supper guided town walks were a regularly anticipated event with something new, interesting or unusual awaiting us around each corner. One morning, exiting a long leafy lane, we stayed a while to watch and chat with skilled workmen busily thatching the roof of a house. While passing through a charming village intersected by a canal with houses on both sides, we stood and observed the day trippers in their small boats moving leisurely through a series of small locks and then rode on to the local church that was serving afternoon teas, to sit outside under the trees watching the ducks in the river. When moving to a new destination and being part of the river traffic, we would often enjoy the sensation of passing under bridges and watching drawbridges opening before us. 

Windmills at the Zaanse Schans park

And then there were visits to windmills: Zaanse Schans, a popular tourist site, is a large park containing windmills, historic buildings, museums, and the obligatory souvenir shops. Spending a few hours there, we were happy to meet a large group of disabled Israeli youngsters and their escorts immensely enjoying themselves. Continuing on our way alongside the Zaan River, the day ended at Alkmaar where the Tijdgeest anchored overnight. The town square was then hosting an exhibition of wooden machines from the Middle Ages – yet another reminder of how deeply that land is steeped in history and its attempts to preserve it. Unfortunately, we had missed its famous marketing day and this cheesed us off a little bit. 

Stephen Schulman: The Dutch version of “Too big for his boots” is “Too small for his clogs!”

On another day, the windmills of Schermerhorn were on our itinerary. Schermerhorn, a small park on a canal with a museum, shop and working windmills suited us all fine as upon our arrival we were the only visitors and had the place to ourselves. We watched a short explanatory film and gazed at the huge array of carpentes' tools used in building. The skill of those artisans who without the aids of laser measuring and computer plans constructed such complex structures is to be marveled at. Climbing up through the windmill that once served as the home of the miller and his family and now is a perfectly preserved museum, was a fascinating experience. The same windmill with its sails turning, gave us an opportunity to watch the Archimedes screw at its base, turning and pumping out water. Suitably edified, refreshed and resisting the temptation to buy clogs for all the family, we continued on our way.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Too soon Friday arrived and with it, our last ride that took us along the polders of the Ijsselmeer (formerly Zuiderzee) coast towards Amsterdam. Entering the town in the late afternoon, we arrived at the quay where Gerrit and his crew awaited us. That evening marked the Last Supper where official goodbyes were said, emails exchanged and heartfelt thanks expressed for a great cruise. The following morning, after breakfast, we rolled our suitcases down the gangplank – Amsterdam awaited us.

Next year VP (Virus Permitting), another trip is in the planning!  



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Sunday, 19 May 2024

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