This is the second time Tootie and I have toured Holland together by bicycle. The first time in 2014, if you remember, we made a big deal out of being able to ride our bicycles away from the airport, never taking any kind of taxi or public transportation. This trip we wanted to see other parts of the country which necessitated getting a jumpstart by train. There is only one major airport in Holland, Schiphol, which is fifteen miles south of Amsterdam. The airport has its own train station, so one can take trains directly from the airport to destinations all over the country and beyond.
We flew into Schiphol on a Wednesday. American Airlines did not charge any extra fee for Tootie’s oversized bicycle in a box, although both coming and going the airline attendant seemed unsure of the airlines own regulations about charging $ 150.00 each way for a bicycle. (“They keep changing these rules!” they would say.). Our other bicycle was my Bike Friday that fits into a suitcase. We put the bicycles together after arrival to Schiphol airport and checked the empty box and suitcase at the Sheraton Amsterdam Airport, where we would be staying the final night in the country, seven nights hence.
We were able to wheel the bicycles onto the train. We had chosen the medium sized city of Zwolle as a starting point on our bike ride, but less than an hour into the train ride the otherwise perfect Dutch rail system had some kind of problem. We were stopped at the train station of the also medium sized city of Amersfoort, forty miles southeast of Amsterdam. Why Zwolle anyway, we thought? Let’s just start our trip in Amersfoort, a place neither of us previously knew anything about. Rather than sit on a stopped train waiting for something to happen, we just got off the train and started bicycling through the city. We bicycled up to a central square where people were sitting around enjoying the late afternoon. I imagine the long dreary winters here encourage people to sit in the sun while it is available. We got beers.
We found a nice hotel room with a very friendly proprietor right here on this square. We had some dinner later on in the same area, then took a walk around.
Our general plan, if you call it that, was to bicycle over five or six days to the northern city of Groningen, maybe a little beyond. This is how our trip turned out.
The first day out we wanted to go all the way to the supposedly scenic city of Kampen, almost sixty miles north. This was to be our longest cycling day. Leaving central Amersfoort we passed through a city gate. Tootie uses yellow and black Ortlieb panniers on the back of her bike.
The cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is so vast and comprehensive that it is hard to accurately describe. Any street busier than a minor residential street is equipped with a bicycle path. In America, as well as the Netherlands, we of course expect every street and highway to have signs and signals to direct where a car or truck is supposed to go. In the Netherlands there is a parallel and separate system for every road directing where bicycles and small motorcycles are supposed to go, including essentially every intersection in the country. It is all designed to make a bicyclist feel safe. We saw this as we cycled north from Amersfoort.
And people bicycle everywhere, with no helmets! Families! The cycling family in front of us was not at all unique, we saw this kind of thing many times. The woman had one child in a hooded Spiderman outfit on the back of the bike (you can see the back of his little red head in the picture.) She had another smaller child in her front carrier, which you cannot see in the picture. She has a folded blue stroller sticking out of her back pannier. And she has a third child riding his own bicycle, in a hooded alligator costume!
In the town of Harderwijk, where we stopped for lunch, this father was carrying all sorts of stuff on the bicycle.
They were having some sort of street market.
Much of the final portion of the ride into Kampen was on a dike that paralleled a canal.
Kampen, population 44,000, like many Dutch cities looks like what we think of as Amsterdam, narrow tall townhouses lining canals.
There were no conventional hotels available, we booked an Airbnb in one of these old houses lining the canals. We got drinks at a table on the street overlooking the canal. We walked around.
The next morning we biked north out of town. Bicycle traffic was stopped at the red light crossing the bridge. The other side, we looked back at Kampen from across the river.
We cycled north towards the city of Meppen. This woman had one child on the back of her bicycle plus two following on their own.
It was a Saturday night and hotel rooms were scarce. Northwest of Meppel in an area called Blauwe Hand there are a series of campgrounds on inland waterways. European campgrounds are just different than American, the campground experience here is much more communal.
This trailer was for rent for US$ 88.00 a night including fees on Airbnb. It was hot outside, the windows of the trailer had been completely shut, there was no air conditioning, and we had arrived in the heat of the day. Initially at least, Tootie was not pleased!
She felt a little better later on when we bicycled a quarter mile down the road for early evening drinks at Elly’s Beach en Bistro, with its Caribbean / Hawaiian themes. Little kids were playing in the sand but we had been bicycling outside all day in the sun. We sat inside at the bar.
Refreshed, we went back to our trailer and chilled before walking to a restaurant at another campground across the road. What American campground would boast of the quality of its semi-fancy restaurant? This was likely the best meal we had in the Netherlands. We ate outside to watch the sun go down over the water. I got steamed mussels as an entree.
The next morning we cycled north a few kilometers to the town of Giethoorn. There was a bike path along a canal.
Giethoorn is indeed a lovely town. It describes itself as Little Venice. When they were built these houses were only accessible by boat.
I now realized that for the two and a half days since we had left Amersfoort we had not seen anyone who physically looked African or Asian or Middle Eastern nor had we seen more than two vehicles with something other than “NL” Netherlands license plates. (At the campground I saw two SUVs with German plates. Germany is less than fifty miles away!)
We had no inkling that Giethoorn is a genuine tourist attraction. As we bicycled into the area on a Sunday morning there were large groups of Asian and Middle Easterners renting boats.
We found a place to get our morning coffee and a croissant. We propped up our bicycles against a fence.
Some of our cycling later that day was through forests. It was nice to get out of the sun. Of course there were bicycle trails on all the roads.
We had chosen our day’s destination to be the smaller town of Dwingeloo, from a recommendation from a guidebook. We were determined to have a picnic lunch and stopped at an Aldi supermarket to stock up. Just like in the USA the Aldi prices were super low and selection was limited. Their fresh bread was actually quite good. Totally unlike the USA, in this small town where there looked to be plenty of parking spaces, the Aldi supermarket had many more bicycles than cars parked out front.
Dwingeloo was actually a lovely town. Instead of a town square it had an uncharacteristic town common, a green space at the center.
We found a nice hotel in the even smaller town of Lhee, just a mile from the center of Dwingeloo. The next morning we decided to make one long push all the way to our destination Groningen, a distance of forty-something miles. We passed through the mid-sized city of Assen, whose main claim to fame is being home of a huge pro motorcycle race once a year. The center of the city was fetching.
Later on and out of town we stopped along the canal for a picnic lunch.
Groningen is population 260,000 including about sixty thousand students at two major universities. Bicycling through the suburbs on the south side on a hot day, this family was headed towards the water.
There were other families cycling as well.
We ended up staying two nights at the Martini Hotel shown above. Later that night we walked around. There was a carnival going downtown.
It was really striking that after five days in rural Netherlands we had really not seen more than one or two African / Asian / Middle Eastern faces. Rural Netherlands is like rural areas in many countries, not very diverse. Once we came into the college city of Groningen, the ethnicity of faces changed dramatically.
Some have written that Groningen is the most bicycle friendly city in the world. There are very very few cars in central Groningen, but I did not see a light rail system either. There are indeed buses, but almost all of the traffic is bicycles. I surmise that the government has made the rules for driving a car on the streets in central Groningen so onerous that people just give up and travel by bicycle. What if there was a user-friendly bicycle path between Durham and Chapel Hill NC? What if it allowed motorized bicycles as well? This would cost much less than the proposed four billion dollar light rail. Meanwhile, it was fun to just watch people on bicycles in Groningen.
We were leaving Groningen in mid-afternoon for the train back to Schiphol airport near Amsterdam. That final morning we bicycled a twenty mile loop in the countryside northeast of town. Bicycle paths are cut across the flat countryside.
Back in Groningen we had time for a nice lunch at a sidewalk cafe before boarding the train for the two hour ride back to the airport. It was easy to store the bicycles on the train.