Downwind of Amsterdam
September 2003

« August 2003 « » October 2003 »

September 27, 2003

Lost in the Dunes


We got a little behind here. Two weeks ago, Saturday morning, began as Hell. In Amsterdam Centraal train station, waiting for the next train to Den Helder, I let my front bike tire deflate and spent a sweaty hour trying to get it to seal again. One Den Helder train came and went, then another. Finally, I ride and arrive just before NOON in Den Helder, get outside on the streets to test the front tire--and it starts to blow cold and rain hard. Soaked, I duck under a garage overhang and eat my raisin bread for lunch. It is one o'clock before it stops raining.

Den Helder seems to be a military town, and no wonder. The dunes guard the only practical entrance to the old Zuider Zee, which for several hundred years pretty much defined the Dutch nation. Now Den Helder is best known for the ferry (pictured) to Texel island and its nature preserve (definitely on my ride list).

The dikes are all that protect North Holland from the North Sea. The sky is a winter sky, and this...this is considered good weather here.

It was the dunes and seacoast I came here for. The trails led throught the dunes (pictured at top of this post), which were deserted and forbidding even on this relatively warm day. The coast somehow seemed stormy even on this relatively calm day.

Generally, the Dutch have arranged their lives to mitigate the noise and dinginess that overpopulation always threatens. An emphatic exception is: campsites just inside the North-Holland dikes from the North Sea. These are just as cheerless (at least to me) as they are in Florida or New Jersey. Here's an amusement for you: divide the Dutch coastline by the Dutch population. What is each person's share of beach?--about the width of your thumb. It's amazing the place can function at all.

What's even more amazing is that most of the Netherlands is open space. There is probably no true wilderness here, which is sad in a way--but at least the place is not covered completely over with sprawling suburbs and parking lots. It seems that everyone outside of Amsterdam and Rotterdam can bike to open country--not just parks--within ten minutes. It is amazing to find so much beauty, to appreciate that it has not been covered over. Separating city from non-city seems to be key to Dutch psychic survival. It works--I thought I might go stark raving in such a crowded place. Very far from it.

posted by eric at 20.35 CET | Permalink | Comments (4)

September 20, 2003

Huge Ride (but just one, thank you)

So Saturday I did the north side of Flevoland, the huge artificial island where the Zuider Zee used to be. You can see the map -->HERE<--. By custom, this ride is in red, previous rides in black.

Whence...WHEW! This 69 kilometer ride turned out to be 100 km. I had planned to follow the dikes around the west and north perimeters, but more than half the length was closed for repairs. Which explains the tortuous path on the map, and the blood pooling in my poor legs. By the way: there was no Sunday ride.

I rode the train to Almere and launched northbound in fog. I had no sooner reached the Oostervaartdijk than a sign turned me back...all the way back to the train line. I rode along the train line until I could work my way back to the shoreline in the next city, Lelystad. Again, I had to pedal UP out of the island's interior to get to the sea, at sea level. And it's amazing: these new, newly named cities have no history at all. The only history is imported (very old boats floating in a very new harbor) or just fake (like Lelystad's hilarious Batavia Stad shopping center, complete with fake guns pointing out of fake brick fortress walls at the parking lot). But I found a nice lunch spot, on Lelystad's north side (pictured).

And yes, Lelystad is obviously prosperous, though I can't imagine what these people do in this city in the middle of nowhere.

OK, one thing they do is make electrical power. Lots of it. By wind and (in the distance) with the gigantic Flevo Central power station, which is not "central" to anything. They do send some of this power to small towns in the area, but I didn't see any lines to Lelystad. They need all that power right here. For what? Because if power production sags for any length of time, the pumps stop, and the canals fill, water rises through the homes' floors and around all those cows' ankles. It's still the windmills against Nature, it just looks a little different.

And it goes on, and on and on, for kilometer after kilometer, around the long northwestern curve of the island.

The map tells the whole story. It was hot. I got sunburned, especially riding southward and into the wind away from the north dike. They fooled me twice, costing me hours and costing me the energy I would need for my Sunday ride.

The last thing I expected was a glorious finish to the long ride, but the town of Kampen delivered. Into the nearly medieval town, church bells playing crazily and echoing through the narrow brick streets, and across the glorious bridge over the River IJssel. A climax with soundtrack worthy of Hollywood, but better: very real. If I hadn't needed to lean on my bike to stand up, and if I hadn't been far too dehydrated for it, I might have burst into tears. Hard to get to as Kampen is, I will revisit. Wow.

posted by eric at 21.14 CET | Permalink | Comments (3)

September 15, 2003

Far East, then Far West

Updated map -->HERE<-- (100kB). The new trips are in red, previous ones in black.

"Far" is, of course, a relative term in the Netherlands. Still, I rode the train east on Saturday and west on Sunday, and the weather could not have been more perfect. This account of my weekend may seem a bit obsessive, but the weather calendar is definitely running out here--and evening rides during the week are already out, as dark is coming on just too early now.

Saturday came early, and noisily. Working on Saturday?--this was unexpected...though if anything would get a Dutch city employee to work weekends, it would be cleanliness--schoonheid.

A quick train ride east to Harderwijk, the same station from which I started last weekend. A stop at the same stainless-steel Swiss-bank-vault toilet. Rather than pull my stuff out of the bags, lock the bike, etc etc etc, I just rolled the bike into the room with me. Some odd looks after, when the bike clicked back out the vault doorway but hey, I had paid my 50 Eurocents. And it's not like my bike used the toilet.

Harderwijk has a very nice harbor and city center. The dome behind the docks is the Dolfinarium. I thought: dolfins this far inland? But (slap on the side of my head) this used to be a salt-water port.

Just north of Harderwijk on the Veluwemeer. You never know what these people will be up to.

A charming little peninsula into the Veluwemeer channel made for a nice lunch spot. Most of the schippers (from whence the English word skipper) greeted me the same way: "Hooi" (from whence Ahoy).

And the rest of Saturday was spent pedaling northeast to the Kampen bridge, over which from Flevoland to the mainland, and meandering along the Veluwemeer "coast" to the Nunspeet train station. Typical Dutch countryside, very easy to get used to.

But I'm saving your time and attention for Sunday's ride--an eventful day, almost the perfect day.

From the start, everything was going my way on Sunday. The plan was a good one--on the train just 12 km to Weesp and pedaling along the canals and through a corner of Amsterdam, then north along the old Zuider Zee as far as I felt like, then whenever I got tired, cut away from the coast to the nearest train station. The forecast was for sun, 20C, a slight breeze from the south (watch out for Dutch weather forecasts--a "north wind" is a wind out of the south towards the north).

Along the canal north out of Weesp, I really wish I'd worn gloves. But soon the canals into Amsterdam were just gorgeous, and some seriously luxurious boats were plowing it in both directions. It took several bridges to get past Amsterdam's less elegant sections, and at the far end of the last drawbridge, I was dumped unceremoniously onto the coastal road I wanted. Within 5 minutes I was in Durgerdam.

Durgerdam, looking to the north. A hidden, unexpected pleasure, and yet a completely ordinary Dutch seaside village. This is the upside of Dutch life.

From about the same spot in Durgerdam, but looking south. An example of the Dutch downside: industry is never very far from view. Power lines run across the canals and over the bucolic polders and above the weird, to-all-appearances stoned sheep that graze while laying on their sides. And always a lattice of jet trails overhead. You are always--but always, whether indoors or out, city or countryside, day or night--within hearing of automobiles. All the modern tall white windmills are pleasant in their way, but for every windmill there are hundreds of metal towers to transport their power. Face it--the Netherlands by its very location and how it came to be is, and always will be a High Maintenance society.

To become more unphotographable than it is, Uitdyk would simply have to move underground. Blocking our view here is the old, in fact by now the ancient Zuiderzeedijk which keeps the Zuider Zee (at right) from inundating well-below-sea-level North Holland (at left). Now, Uitdyk houses had to be built with this dike rising at the back doorstep--literally within a meter from their foundations--and with the 300-year-old highway running at their front door. You step through the front door, your third step puts you in the path of cars, trucks, and worse, bicycles. There is hardly room before the front door for a mat. On the bright side, some kid has the World's Easiest Newspaper Route.

Dutch don't need encouragement to put litter in its place, but it never hurts to make a game out of it.

OK. This is the part where you turn green with envy. Look...I'm sure you had a very nice last Sunday, wherever you were--but this is where I read a few pages of Pascal and watched sailboats meander in and out of Marken harbor.


Marken used to be an island in the Zuider Zee, and now is joined to North Holland's mainland by a modern causeway. And from the north end of Marken projects a 2-kilometer long jetty to protect all the expensive boats and houses behind it. (If you're following on the bike map -->HERE<-- (100kB), it is the projection pointing at Edam.) I looked for a bike path to follow it out into the sea, thinking that would be fun. Ha.

They say "Never say never." And in fact there are very few things I can say I will never do again. I will never go to my high school graduation again (OK, it's true I missed my first one). I will never asparagus to my lips again or kiss ******* ****** again. But most of all, I will do my best never to even accidentally find myself following the Markendyk bike path again. Pictured is said path. Lovely? Perhaps, but what you cannot see are the flying insects. I wondered why I was the only biker out there. And the trail was hell on the bike's wheels, and grass and thorns whipped both legs the entire length. But I admit--the visuals were fantastic.

My stubborn streak took me to the jetty's end.

And down on the rocks at the very end of the massive breakwater I finally found a place away from the insects. I rested, regained my balance, caught up on water consumption, and watched dozens of boats gracefully rounding the jetty. Beyond them lies the town of Volendam.

Back down the jetty to Marken proper was into the wind, so the insects were even worse. I had to ride slowly enough to keep enough breath to keep my mouth closed--or else. And it was into the sun. And across the sunlit path ahead of me glistened hundreds of threads, every few centimeters, for the whole 2000 meters' ride back. The pilot filaments of spiders' webs, and every one had to be new, as I had just cut them all 20 minutes ago. And you should have seen the bike's front.

Riding inland, riding up the Gouwzee coast, rounding the bend back east, I was getting roasted. All I remember of that area is its having all the shade of the Sahara. It had just occurred to me that I had gone beyond wanting a rest to needing a rest, when an elderly lady riding in the opposite direction shouted something including the word "ongeval"--accident. Immediately a blaring ambulance passed, and just ahead, the police had the road blocked where it turned sharply, closed it even to bicycles, an extraordinary measure. I faced either 10 extra kilometers under the blazing sun, or pushing the bike up the steep edge of the dike and following its crest until I could get beyond and back down to the road. So up the dike it was. Seaward, a beautiful view of the Marker jetty whose I had just cruised; but inland, across the road and well below me, two terrible signs. A yellow medical helicopter, and a hundred meters beyond the corner in the road, stopped only by the rise of the solid dike, was what used to be a motorcycle.

Below me in the polder, the helicopter wound up and the blades whipped faster and faster, and in the rich green grass below it a disc of wavy disturbance expanded and expanded more. The machine struggled into the air, lifted over the dike and out over the water, and was gone.

I never saw any accident participants or such, and I didn't seek them out. I probably could have done. But this is not that kind of blog, and I am not that kind of photographer. The camera stayed in the bag. I followed the dike around its corner, well above the abandoned motorcycle. I was rewarded by a wonderful chair-shaped rock...IN THE SHADE. Karma! Half a liter of water, 1000 calories of trail mix, and thirty minutes' shade and breeze later, I was a new man. But still there was fatigue from yesterday's ride, and the nearest train station was not close. Nothing to do for it but get started. An hour later I coasted up the ramp of a train station with the unlikely, even un-Earthly name of Purmerend Overwhere. I had no sooner bought my one-way tickey back to Naarden-Bussum than bells clanged booms dropped and the train squealed up. Someone even pushed the "Deur Openen" button for me. Karma.

The ride was long. Almost every evening it's getting dark perceptibly earlier, and at some point the air cools abuptly, like opening a refrigerator door. My favorite chair sits by the window and I fall into it. Sunday is a big night for billiards across the street, and someone over there is a David Bowie fan. Maybe it's just that I'm just weary, but warm coffee seems to soothe the muscles of my legs.

posted by eric at 19.42 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)

September 10, 2003

New, Improved Bike Maps

You will see a large, new, improved map of my Netherlands bike exploits if you click -->this<-- (off-page because it is a large file, ca. 100K).

And if you click -->here<-- you will see a close-up of Naarden and Bussum (also about 60K).

posted by eric at 21.33 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

September 9, 2003

First Bike Map (please don't laugh)

VaVega, friend ol' buddy ol' pal, what a great idea.

Thanks to her, Gentle Readers, I can put up my first bicycle map. The following is as far as I've gotten so far. You can't see the detail around Naarden and Bussum--this may call for a close-up map of 't Gooi in later versions.

As with all things on this blog, this will get better with time...but I didn't want to wait. We may have fun with this: besides a local closeup from which 't Gooi residents will be able to make out the city layouts, I may also eventually be able to make a "movie" of the building coverage. Stay tuned...

posted by eric at 20.45 CET | Permalink | Comments (3)

September 7, 2003

Best Bike Trip Yet

It was time. The time had come. It was Time this morning to brave taking the bike on the train, to pedal farther from home.

Today's forecast was rainy, as all day yesterday had in fact been. But when I crawled out of bed there was dense fog, and cable TV's pitiful little weather-radar showed nothing serious blowing in from the North Sea. So I packed up the huge Spa Blauw water bottle, the camera, GPS, book (in case I miss a train connection), and I just bolted off to Naarden-Bussum station. Used the automatic ticket dispenser to buy a round-trip ticket to Harderwijk, on the "real-land" side just off the "manufactured-land" island of Flevoland. Bought a Fiets Dagkaart (day ticket to take the bike on the train). Lugged the loaded bike down and back up the stairs to the waiting island in the middle of the station. The train came.

Now there does exist, against all received knowledge I expect, a Method to my Madness. NS (Nederlands Spoorwegen) people don't really like you to take bikes trains, hate it in fact, and they only allow them in certain places, and not at all during rush hours quaintly named "spits". Not only that but you need to know RIGHT AWAY which door to wheel to--before the doors open for sure, and preferably even as the cars are gliding past you to their (very brief) stop. Worse, you have very very little time to make your move, the light is poor in the stations, and worst of all--there are several different kinds of train, each with different markings and doors. NS, meet Sade.

So Tuesday at Amsterdam Centraal I stared at trains and at passengers boarding and exiting with bicycles. Enlightenment required about an hour, and it went like this: after testing and discarding several seemingly reasonable hypotheses, I settled on two sure-fire means of identifying a correct door: (1) a little white placard with a bicycle. This might be anywhere around the door, but whatever the train type, it is always right under the "1" or "2" for the class. This is not good enough, however, because the train zips by you very fast, and the placard is not always too readable for a distance. Thus means (2): in the middle of the train car is a pair of doors, a boarding area, and a window on each side. If one of these windows is wider than the other (and wider than all the other windows), THAT is where you run with the bike. The only exception is a intercity (express) train where you go under the driver's cockpit, which is high up like that of a 747.

So this morning--the train rolls in, I find my door right away--piece of cake--haul the bike in and park it, sit. Oops!--the floor is not actually flat, and the bike's kickstand doesn't keep it stable as the train shrugs left and right between tracks, entering and leaving each station. I find that by backing the rear wheel next to my fold-down jump seat and turning the front wheel crosswise, I can stabilize it even while sitting down, and the front wheel is out of the entering and exiting passengers' way as well. Another mystery solved. I rode that way to Amersfoort, pumped up the tires during the connection, and then on to Harderwijk.

Where I needed a toilet. Ah, but this is an enlightened station--they have one of those automated toilets...maybe I'd better explain. Dropping in the 50-cent coin opens this automatic, cataclysmically huge polished stainless steel door, heavy and utterly intimidating, like something out of Cheyenne Mountain or a Geneva bank. Reading the Dutch sign inside, you learn that you have 15 minutes (hopefully it doesn't take 16 minutes for you to interpret it, because in typically efficient Dutch fashion, you get 15 minutes, not 15 minutes and one second. You learn that at 12 minutes from coin-drop, an alarm sounds, at 14 minutes the alarm becomes insistent, and at 15 minutes the door locks and the sanitation cycle starts whether you are in there or not. Leaving the hygeine of some of the other long-distance cyclists aside, I don't think enduring this would improve one's health.

I emerge in two minutes flat, just to be safe, short-sleeve shirt on, long-sleeve shirt packed away. And the best bike ride yet starts! Southwest along the old Zuider Zee coast, treeline of the new Flevoland just visible in the fog, a kilometer across the narrow Veluwemeer.

Along the way, someone thought it would be nice to put up this memorial to the center of the Dutch way of life. My pale (but rideable, nyah nyah nyah) imitation crouches beneath.

Still foggy halfway from Harderwijk to Nijkerk, looking across the Veluwemeer to Flevoland.

When the Dutch want to discourage you and your boat from entering an area, they don't mess around. No mere suggestions like little floating lines and buoys for these hearty sailors--if it can't rip out the bottom of your boat, it doesn't really count. And you Florida readers can settle down--the bird spreading its wings to dry is not an anhinga but just a demented cormorant.

Across the 301 bridge near Nijkerk, the farthest distance I had managed before today. Then northeast along Flevoland's coast. I veer away from the "approved" bike path...

...and follow the long winding dike that keeps Flevoland (at left) from returning to the sea (at right). Folks, this picture is level. You have not lost your balance. Yes, the land at left is much lower than the sea at right. Welcome to the Netherlands. Anyway, the dike is grassy and the pedaling is slow, but I don't see another soul for almost an hour--and that's my first time in the Netherlands outdoors for that.

Please note in the above picture that the leaves have started turning color. In fact, my parking lot at work has maples all in dark red and is ankle deep in fallen leaves. I think it's going to be a long time before our trees are green again.

Gracious. I just wrote "our" trees. You know--that's happening more and more.

OK, so SOMEONE in the Netherlands has a sense of humor...

A hazy sun finally emerges, and I pass by the small waterfront town of Zeewolde and find a shady spot for lunch. I don't even sit down--the legs feel good, the heart and lungs feel just right, and it was still cool. Perfect.

And even a little lunchtime guest, trumpeting quite softly in the reeds.


Continuing northeast along the water I see clouds building to the north. This is not good--they had predicted rain for today, after all, and now I see the convection was in fact starting. So even my utterly novice train-bike-train planning was paying off: instead of continuing northeast along the Flevoland side (no train lines nearby), I was in a position to cross over and continue northeast as long as the weather held out--on a parallel out of Harderwijk along the mainland side, and most importantly parallel to a train line with a station every 10 km or so.

I rode through deep countryside, sometimes the bike path narrowed to a long rut between barbed-wire fences at each elbow. Occasionally I passed a "modest" farmhouse like this one.

But in an hour or two I pooped out and got nervous about the weather at the same time. I turned southeast to Nunspeet. And no sooner had I dropped a 2-Euro coin in for a one-way ticket to Harderwijk (from which I still had my return ticket), then a little boy shouted to his parents: "Kijk! Ik hoor de trein!"--Look! I hear the train! And I checked the schedule, it was in fact the train to Amersfoort. I handily spotted a bike-legal door, clambered in.

Setting up my first real NS test: the NS Conductor! IS ALLES IN ORDE? Fortunately she came by after we passed Harderwijk so I could leave my little one-way ticket out of it. I presented my return ticket with my most pleasant ritual "Alstublieft"--[punch punch] and the same with my Fiets Dagkaart [punch punch]. Tickets were indeed in order, and my bike out of the way and secure too. She was very pleased. Not bad: I had passed from mere experimenter to a Fiets-Trein ambassador to the ever-suspicious NS crews. On her way back through she even asked if I was tired "vermoeid" (just try to pronounce it), and I responded that I had done "zeventig kilometer", 70 km. She made a ritual impressed look, smiled, and didn't bother me again.

And that was pretty much it. The "stap over" (connection) at Amersfoort was interesting--the trains were facing each other as through waiting for each other, which is common here, and in fact I did just step across. I realized suddenly that I had boarded without even glancing up at the signage. Well, it was in fact the Amsterdam Centraal sneltrain, and I got off in Naarden-Bussum, lugged the bike down and up the stairs again (this part will be a drag), and cycled the 4 minutes to the apartment.

Footnote 1: Wow. I'm doing this again next weekend. Maybe both days. It's not just the freedom of getting farther from home. It's also being able to start and stop the day in very different places. Obviously. But less obvious and even better: Since trains stop at most stations every 30 minutes (much of the Dutch world revolves around 30-minute cycles), I don't even have to plan where to end the day. I can just ride until I get tired, find the nearest NS station on the map. Incredibly liberating. And I don't really even lose much time. Rather than wasting the first hour at home catching my breath at the end of a ride, I can just be on the train. This evening I rode home from the Naarden-Bussum station almost refreshed. What a system.

Footnote 2: The cumulative GPS map of all the routes I've cycled over here is getting very interesting. You can make out Flevoland's curving southern coastline and the mainland shores just opposite. Pretty soon you'll be able to make out all Flevoland and what's left of the Zuider Zee. Maybe I'll post a map on this site if I can figure out how--comments anyone?

But mostly I can't wait to take advantage of this really powerful new way--train, bike, train--to explore this country.

posted by eric at 22.31 CET | Permalink | Comments (3)

September 1, 2003

Foreign Police, Flapping Blankets, and Bulls

Bet it's the first time those words have been put together...

Yes, today was the day--my turn to be "interviewed" by the Nederlandse Vreemdelingenpolitie, the Foreign Police. The summons came a couple of weeks ago, in a polite but firm letter designed not to be ignored. The promised outcome of the interview: bedrijfsdocument afhalen, literally "haul off a residence permit". Oke, dan.

Drive from work around Bussum to the Bussum Zuid station, take the stoptrein to Hilversum, a five-minute ride. Lunch downtown Hilversum, window shopping since I was early and it poured rain and the foreign police were only two blocks away. The rain stopped just in time. The sign inside the open door read Neem uw nummertje en a.u.b. door de deur...take a little number and through the door...something. I took one of those little pull-tab numbers and took a seat in the waiting room. The three doors all read spreekkamer, speaking-room. A Russian woman (by her newspaper, the newspaper someone's carrying is always the best indicator of nationality) came out of one room, and the door shut. A waiting French woman offered "alstublieft" and I just went in. Offered my passport, the woman behind the desk took it somewhere, returned to hand me a card the size of a US driver's licence and cheerily offered, "Daag" which in this situation would be Dutch for "we're done here, you can get the hell out." You don't have to tell me twice. My "interview" with the fearsome Dutch Foreign Police was not more than 5 words in not more than 45 seconds. I went outside. It was beautiful. The permit is good for three years, I'll be here one. Just a Dutch driver's licence (don't ask me to spell it in Dutch), and that will be all the bureaucracy. All. OK, that's worth a Heineken.

A few short bike rides recently. The best was the shortest, just around Naarden, the water-encircled fortress town.

I found a nice place to bring a chair and maybe read or write on nice days, of which we will still have a few.

I don't want to rub it in or anything, but the weather here is just gorgeous--if you like it cool. As I write this it is the First of September, and I have a blanket on my legs. The windows all closed against the north wind.

Standing firm on the spot from which I took the above two photos, I turned to see, flapping in the breeze, this blanket. It was hanging there, on public grounds, for no one's benefit that I could tell. Except mine, I suppose. What worries me (not really) about living here is that little pleasures, anonymous considerations like this, like flowers hung on a fence for no American-style business purposes whatever, the utter lack of billboards (except a few on the major motorways which I avoid anyway), are beginning to make quiet sense to me. No wonder people here can think--they don't always have "BuyBuyBuy" screamed at them. "Hey, it's a nice Sunday afternoon, why don't we hang a colorful blanket in the middle of nowhere?--Ja, that works!" Don't analyze it--if it seems OK and no one will get hurt...try it. I wonder if the ever-practical Dutch don't feel they should secret away their odd flights of fancy. But the flights are there if you look. And it's generally an invitation rather than a pushing. It's very easy to get used to.

OK--I warned you about this, a few days ago, on this very blog. I thought I was so smart to pedal down to Hilversum one evening, to see in advance where the Foreign Police office was. These guys got there first. I didn't whistle, but I did just pedal between them as non-threateningly as I could. Nervous about escaping them should it come to that?. I remind Gentle Reader that one of the first sentences they teach you in Dutch 101 is "De stier rent."--The bull runs. Well, the bulls were not much impressed. Which was fine. Obviously I lived to inflict more of this on you.

posted by eric at 21.54 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)