Downwind of Amsterdam
April 2004

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April 30, 2004

The Queen and I

So I'm sitting there in the lunch hall at work, holding my cheese sandwich (of course), and someone mentions that on Koninginnedag (Queen's Day, her birthday, a national holiday), the Queen herself customarily shows up in some small, pseudo-randomly chosen, probably remote village for her big day. I ask which one this year. No one knows. One fellow comes up with the name Warffum, they don't know where it is...BUT I DO KNOW. Now this is just too, too weird, but just last Saturday my bike and I rode the train through Warffum, 30 or so kilometers north of Groningen. Someone laughs, "Eric, maybe you ought to get a hotel room in Groningen so you can see the queen the next morning." I laugh and finish my sandwich. Back in my office I log on and score a room for the night before Koninginnedag.

This is the story of how I saw the Queen.

I pack stuff in a tough bag I use for grocery shopping, and pedal to the station. The trains are full, and the closer to Groningen we get, the harder it is to keep the bike out of the way, and to shove back onto the train after I've had to step off to let people through. I ride through Groningen in the dark, find the Bastion hotel courtesy of GPS,...

...and push my bike down the hall and into my room. This is the Netherlands, after all.

It's raining the next, Koninginnedag, morning. I eat overpriced breakfast and wait. It half clears, I launch back to station Groningen and find the right track.

There it is, the very same train I took last Saturday to Uithuizen (but got off at Usquert).

I haul the same bike up through the same doors, and park it in the same stall. Now, this picture has a lot going on. First: note the distinct lack of overhead electrical equipment. Note the diesel cap at far left. We are, after all, headed for remotest Groningen province. Note the tiled-in dotted line near the spoor's edge. Dotted lines in the Netherlands have a sort of universal meaning: "it's OK to cross this line, but only if you mean to." OK, now note through the near door's glass, the little blue square. There is a bicycle with a tag on it, meaning: "park your PAID-FOR bicycle here." Very sensible--I knew what it meant the first time I saw it. Also, it is painted behind the glass, so you can see it when the doors are open OR closed. I love the Netherlands; so many little things like this are well thought through. OK, lastly note how the bike fits snugly. I can go sit down in the normal passenger compartment, but for short rides it's just easier to stand behind the bike, watching it, and most of all--conductors approve--out of the way.

I was almost alone on the train out of Groningen, but every stop picked up passengers who had driven into the area from who knows where and knew that the train was the most convenient way to get into town. I lock the bike at the outdoor station and join the crowd.

Little Warffum's population must have quadrupled or more less than an hour. (What you're seeing is pretty much the whole town.)

Suddenly there are big, honking military helicopters working the whole area's skies. This would be a supremely poor moment to, for example, shoot off fireworks in celebration. Soon the choppers are drowned out by music from the stage--American 1940s big-band, which seems extraterrestrial in this setting. And as if on a signal I never saw...OUT COME THE HATS.

Mostly ORANGE hats. (Hint: the Dutch royal family is the House of Orange.) I admit I know of no other patriotic event on the planet flying the colors: Red, White, Blue, and Orange.

Including some pretty cool home-made hats (I sense a school project).

The loud, staged music stops, and people get wound up--some of them seem to do this every year, Royal Groupies or something...

Everyone checks his camera one last time, a young TV-Noord tech way up on the crane, a retiree on the ground...

...the band stands ready...

...the MC gets everyone organized. And then the sun comes out! and well up in the town center there is wild cheering...

...and before I can believe it, they are all on us. The lovely lady at fore is Queen Beatrix, her royal family all around her, walking with her through one of her rabidly loyal little towns.

She's here! In my own silly orange hat, I jump and wave and JUMP and WAVE, and she turns!!!:


I am laughing myself silly, and I am far from alone. This is such a fine, irrationally gorgeous moment I almost can't bear it.

The family passes, the sun recedes behing clouds, and for a moment we all look at each other, and then all as one we RUN! wildly for the railroad tracks, a block away, to watch the royal train depart, down the single-track line. The police are utterly indulgent, joking with the crowds. All across the potato field are a hundred bicyclists standing, and as soon as the diesel locomotive puffs its first, they all jump and wave like maniacs, as we ALL do! for half a kilometer along the tracks, close enough to touch the slow cars--the police frown when some of us even touch the train and wave in. The royal car passes and recedes west. The gentle clanging stops, the red lights go out and the boom raises and catches, and we start to scatter, not to see each other again.

I walk up the tracks and retrieve my bicycle, walk it through town, past the few restaurants and bars filled to capacity, and in a few steps I'm out the north side on a narrow lane among potato fields. It is only noon. I have maps and enough food and water with me, the weather is perfect with wind out of the east, my big bag of stuff is safely in a locker back at station Groningen. I hop on the bike. Harlingen or bust, which will take 7-8 solid hours of pretty fast riding. Closer Leeuwarden station available, just in case.

And 7 hours it is, mostly behind the dikes, lots of sheep and sheep, well, decoration for the tires and chain and gears. Ugh. But fast.

Other than sheep, not much but the same old flowers...

...mud flat panoramas...

...pictoresque harbors.

To be fair, the 135-kilometer (84-mile) ride, by far a new high, had its moments. The Netherlands' north coast is cut in half by the Lauwersmeer, an ex-swamp that has been carved gently into quite a lovely (and flood-safe) interior sea. Kite-surfing is the sport of the day. Sorry I couldn't photograph them directly into the sun as they were. The orange (today of course) kites against the blue water were amazing to see.

Other than that, it was mostly sheep. Millions of sheep. The very stupidest Dutch sheep, too, along the mostly human-free Waddenzee--I rang my bell over and over, and still I could have ridden right across their wooly backs. All the way to the end of Frisia, in Harlingen, and a cold drink, and a long wait at station Harlingen Haven for trains to Leeuwarden, Groningen (to get my stuff), Amersfoort, home.

For station Harlingen Haven, this exceptionally geographically important spot in the train system, the end of the Dutch world, I expected--I don't know--something a little more impressive. Maybe a little plaque, a sign or map, something. But this is just the railhead, so they install a railblock on the tracks under a temporary walkway--and that's it. Well, OK, you know: these are the Dutch. They are all business. They are just not a sentimental people.

Except when it comes to their Queen.

Yes, now I know.

posted by eric at 23.27 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)

April 25, 2004

Short, Sweet Ride

All morning, the morning after the huge Doodstil-Nieuweschans ride (see previous post), I feel hung over. It ended up being 4 hours on the train, home about midnight. I drank 2 liters of water and crashed. By 5:30 it's light and birds are singing. No amount of coffee helps. By one in the afternoon, though, I shake it off--indeed I burst with energy. Er-op-uit!--to the station!--for a short, sweet ride along the Waal.

Off the train back at grubby little Tiel. The Tiel station has this high fence, and my bike is too long for the barriers that are supposed to accommodate it. So I swing it over the fence and set it down on the other side. Two women's eyes are wide, and I comment, "nog niet te oud" (not yet too old), and they laugh. For the right reasons, I hope. In case not, I head without delay for the big, big Waal river...



They handle apple trees very weirdly, here. They are pruned within centimeters of their lives, packed close together. I had assumed all these rows of supported plants were grapevines or berry vines until I saw the blossoms.

And I'm still not sure why, everywhere here, this particular species is pruned--nay, pollarded--back to its heartwood. The look is positively extraterrestrial.

By the time I get to the villages collectively called Herwijnen, light is getting low. A few long exposures with camera wedged into a fence, and the photo is won.

That's it. I roll a little farther along the Waal, through Gorinchem and across the canal and I find the station, buy my ticket back to Naarden-Bussum, hoist my bike up onto the train. The wrong train, someone says. I wedge past the couple kissing good-bye in the doorway, carry the bike down the tunnel and back up, and the conductor for the correct train blows the whistle just as I emerge. I shout "Meneer!" and he scowls and holds the door for me. Safely on. Change trains in Geldermalsen and again in Utrecht, home for dinner.

A bonus ride.

posted by eric at 22.42 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)

April 24, 2004

Borderline Weirdness

So...the wind is from the northwest, the forecast favors the Netherlands' northeast, the bike is fresh from its tune-up. Let's put it (and myself) to the test. The largely uninhabited (by Dutch standards) Groningen province. Three hours in train connections through Amersfoort and Groningen. I have a ticket to Uithuizen ("outhouses", not the best of omens), but I am moved to disembark (a strange word) at the previous stop, Usquert (which I've learned even the Dutch can't guess how to pronounce). The bells are pealing for noon as I pull the bike through the doors and onto the platform. I am the only person in sight. There's diesel smoke, and the train pulls away. I fire up the GPS, quickly check the tires, and start for...

This picture never fails to elicit roars of laughter from the Dutch. The sign announces your arrival in the town of Doodstil, which means "dead still" with a strong connotation of: "morbidly silent" or "quiet as a corpse". Which it is not, actually, on a sunny Saturday afternoon with the lawn mowers and weedwhackers going everywhere. Now, Nieuweschans (at the end of today's ride)--there it's dead quiet. Every teenager's nightmare.

By the way--the path above isn't a bike path, but the main roadway into Doodstil.

Groningen province is not, on the whole, exactly glamourous. Very much the feel of godforsaken silo towns of Indiana or the Texas panhandle. As they say: not the edge of the earth, but you can see it from there.

And so of course, this is where the industry and really large-scale agriculture happen. No one here worries much about urban ideas like "visual pollution" or "cultural heritage." There's a job to do, and these folks do it, and that's that. These sheep look at me like they have never seen a human before.

What we're doing now is riding east along the north shore. Not really a shore--there are high dikes blocking our view as we make the long curve, and at one point atop the dike is this monument to...I can NOT imagine what. I park the bike and climb. Ah--this marks the northernmost point in the mainland Netherlands. The Waddenzee beyond. Even on this beautiful day, this is a lonely spot, no matter how geographically interesting it is--no one to pay attention but a few puzzled ovine types.

Looking down from the monument--little to see inland, either.

The long, convex coast is interrupted by the huge, rural, and as yet little-developed harbor of Eemshaven. I waste too much daylight and leg stamina riding around its monstrous expanse. In the west jaw is moored an enormous, gray, unmarked battleship, around it much activity and many trucks and tanks behind the fence. The entrance is guarded by four guys in camouflage with nasty looking machine guns and even nastier snarls. They don't wave back. Ahead, two Dutch soldiers are trying to tackle a sheep that somehow escaped. Back and forth between the fence and road, they can't quite manage it. I ride past them, but when the sheep and two soldiers turn my way, I turn my bike off the path to the fence, cutting off the sheep, who is promptly tackled and carried back. For my part, I get not a look, not a simple Bedankt. They look sullen that I helped. Well, if I get that treatment, I shudder for the sheep's fate.

A lot of Eemshaven looks like this: automated freight trains and power generation and industry going full blast--not a worker, driver, or even automobile in sight. Heaven for birds, I guess, but otherwise resembling Hell.

I escape out the east side of Eemshaven toward Delfzijl, an isolated, unmemorable industrial port town of its own.

But on this sunny Saturday afternoon, the residents in the rather nice tile-and-brick city center are making the best of it, including handing unrecognizable balloon animals to the local kids. This is as good as it gets, here.

I thank the fates that I wasn't born to a town like North Zulch, Texas, or Red Level, Alabama, or Delfzijl, Netherlands.

And out the southeast side of Delfzijl, across a long bridge with no bike path, no alternate road, and a sign forbidding bikes from the roadway. This is a new and very unpleasant experience in the Netherlands. It's getting too late in the day for this, but still I shrug and walk the bike along the 50-cm/20-inch-wide bridge siding. As I emerge out the other side, sure enough there is a police car writing a ticket to a cyclist who had started across in the opposite direction. I wave to the policeman, he doesn't wave back in approval, even to appear puzzled. At least the sheep in Groningen province have sense to appear puzzled.

Away from Delfzijl, towards the nearby northeast corner of the Netherlands. Most stretches look like this, separated by fields of sheep, lots and lots of sheep. And all the, er, decorations they leave on the bike paths.

This canal crossing is unremarkable except that...those distant sheep at left are in Germany. A hundred meters or so beyond this drawbridge, Germany starts. Now, in old movies you see Checkpoints and Passport Control ("why sir, this picture doesn't look a BIT like you, now does it?--please step into this concrete room, we have some QUESTIONS for you.") and uniforms. These days, nothing. There was no one to hinder or even record my riding across the border into Germany, not even to notice it. In this strategic little glade in which countless guns have been fired in countless smoky, hellish deathfests over the centuries, I could have fired off a gun of my own now, and there would simply have been no one to hear it (OK, a few thousand sheep). So much for international intrigue. My current situation reduced to this: the German path to Nieuweschans was closer, so I crossed into Germany. I never saw a border, and I still don't know where it was.

After a while, of course, you know you've crossed over. The ugly telephone and power lines overhead (all neatly underground in the Netherlands), and those unreadable signs with little thingies over the letters (misspelled Dutch, my coworkers like to call it). The weird shape tiles. The American-style STOP signs. All quite weird. Uncomfortable. Mostly, I just want to cross back over, to the Netherlands, to home, where things make sense to me and I feel safe.

And cross over I do, though much too late in the day. Terrific, I've missed the Groningen train by 5 minutes, meaning I have a 55 minute wait in Nieuweschans, which appears to have been evacuated. Though, of course--in the Netherlands on the German border--this is simply NOT a joke one would make.

The windturbine is in Germany. There is only a single track in each direction from Nieuweschans. A German girl wanders lost in the open-air station. She speaks no English, French, or Dutch, but I (with my one year of German, 32 years ago) finally understand that she has no way to get home. I would buy her a ticket, but the day's last train east has gone. I figure she might be hungry, but what she really wants is the police station. Which is closed. A Dutch woman walks by with her dog, and I point to the mobile phone in her purse and ask in NederDeutschEngels if the girl can call Germany. That works. I ride around town until the next train, and when I return, the girl is gone. My train arrives from interior Netherlands. The conductor gets out and walks to the other end for his return trip. I ask him, to be absolutely sure at this hour, that this is the train to Groningen, and he answers with the most unexpectedly funny remark a Dutchman has yet made in my presence: Helaaaaaaaas, Groningen.. "Unfooooooortunately, Groningen." I haul the bike on, and we start. There are three of us on the train, including the conductor. I have three hours of riding ahead of me, and I am eager just to lean on my bike and rest. But there is this Italian next to me who is desperate to explain in his 100-word-vocabulary English why he has no teeth.

posted by eric at 23.42 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 22, 2004

Three Truths

1. My apartment window is open. In the narrow street below, there is laughter. A teenage boy is tormenting a teenage girl with what looks like a peashooter. He puffs his cheeks, and on the opposite sidewalk she ducks, and her hair flies winningly. He reloads and laughs. But she doesn't run away. I hear her protest, then laugh, then protest, then laugh and look his way as though he might stop.

2. When you can't read the newspapers or understand the radio or TV, you lose interest in the far-away world.

3. The combination of Q-tip usage and steep stairs taken in a run for the phone leads to paralyzingly painful eardrums. I recommend you trust me on this.

posted by eric at 18.58 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 19, 2004

Zuider Zee Rondje & A'dam

Friday morning. I brave Amsterdam traffic to the parents' hotel--yes, the American Hotel on Leidseplein. The very hotel, by the way, where Mata Hari did her, er, business. It had taken 30 minutes the previous evening to drive from there to my Bussum apartment, so I allowed an hour this morning. It took two. We took off from A'dam, north to the port town of Marken (whence, see my Marken post of last autumn). First appelgebak en koffie, the beginning of my mothers' addiction, as it turns out. We walk around the port and then head north to Enkhuizen.

It was amusing to watch Mater walk along the mundane new harbor, and then turn the corner... the old harbor. It may have been at that moment that the parents first shared a real sense of the old Netherlands. (whence, see my Enkhuizen post of last autumn)

The Zuiderzeemuseum is worth the trip, partly for its oddness. Not least of which includes a small community that lives as they did 200 years ago, laundering from a well, repairing shoes with hand-fashioned nails...

...keeping small, gentle animals.

We were amazed to find that we had seen only about half of just the outdoor half of the museum, and even that took the entire afternoon. Absolutely absorbing.

We crossed the Zuider Zee and rounded the bend to Urk, the dark, old, somewhat morbid old island town, now part of the Noordoostpolder. It turned sunny, so it didn't give its usual rather creepy atmosphere (see post that includes visit to Urk). Unexpectedly excellent dinner, and drive back in the dark to Amsterdam.

Saturday, they brave a visit to my micro apartment in Bussum. On the walk from the train station, I pick up my repaired bicycle. I'm not sure where the time went, but we ended up walking in the woods to my favorite park bench on the Gooimeer (which used to be part of the Zuider Zee but now fresh water) near my work, and we had dinner outdoors in Naarden and watch some local idiot kids practice their soccer kicks against the cathedral walls (and occasionally against the stained glass). Then on their own they braved the train system to Amsterdam Centraal and the tram from there to their hotel after dark. They did fine--pretty adventurous for still-jet-lagged, non-Dutch-reading Americans, I thought.

The next day moving around Amsterdam in slow rains. A lot of wasted time in very slow canal boats. Something you have to do, but really hardly worth the time, especially with water running down the windows, blocking most views.

We did make it to the Scheepvaartmuseum--which, Americans, does not translate Sheep Fart Museum, but closer to Seafaring Museum. I let the parents buy lunch on agreement that I get the museum tickets...which then happened to be free for some obscure Dutch-holiday reason. Hey--I didn't know. Really I didn't.

Again, the best part of the museum is outdoors, a very large merchant ship, the highest of high-tech in its time.

From the high deck of this ship you can examine the riggings and try to figure out how things were done...

Spy on museum staff (there to be spied on)...

Even look over the side at waterbuses recklessly racing for passengers, through the Oosterdok and Nieuwevaart.

A good day, but tiresome from the slow, noisy boats we agreed to use for the day. At dinner it rained hard, and we settled for the same nearby restaurant (Hollandse Pot) we had visited just two days ago. Coffee in their room, and then my very late drive back.

posted by eric at 21.30 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 16, 2004

Blog Spam eats Raw Death

I make a point of avoiding tech talk about blogging, but for today's news I'll make an exception.

Now and then, Gentle Reader, you may have noticed certain disgusting comments in this blog site--for example: adverts for enlarging, well, the point of the matter. These unwelcome comments are called Blog Spam, by which cretins try to persuade Google that their sites are widely popular or something. Since November I've had to spend dozens of hours cleaning out this filth as fast as it appears.

Tonight I installed MT-Blacklist, which does two things. First, it let me clean out ALL the blog spam. Second, new spam is blocked from this site. Best of all, it won't affect your commenting in the least (might even make the screens appear faster)--so COMMENT!!

MT-Blacklist was written as a public service by one Jay Allen, an obviously talented and altruistic programmer. His site modestly allows for contributions, and as soon as MT-Blacklist automatically deletes its first junk comment off Downwind of Amsterdam, I will send the man some rent money.

Let's hear it for the good guys.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled...

posted by eric at 22.55 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)

April 15, 2004

Keukenhof is Paradise

So, the parents flew over from the US for a week. This being April, we had to start with flowers.

This post is about our first day roaming, near the North Sea between Haarlem and Den Haag, and our discovery of paradise.

Now, everyone's heard of the Netherlands' tulips. Well, I'm here to tell you: the springtime here is for real, and not just tulips. It's beyond description, so I won't much try to describe--I'll give you photos and you can decide for yourself. This post will take a while to download. And some of the photos are available by clicking where you see "(large format here.)" Now, these pictures are large, and if you click for them, you're on your own with download time.

We lunch semi-outdoors in Haarlem, and cruise south. We stop at the first flower field we come to. I click away on my fully charged camera, and the parents burn film and the digital camera, too. Pretty soon we see that it's hopeless--but on we click.

This handsome guy from whom I stole half my genes thought this field was already worth the long trip. HA--they hadn't seen anything yet.

The space between where we abandoned the car in delight and where the church steeple rises is filled with row after row of flowers. You can get this picture in large format here (you know to right-click the downloaded picture, to capture it to your computer, right?)

The farmer didn't seem to mind our wandering though his livelihood.

Wherever you drive along the most ordinary roads, the fields just go on and on like this. (Large Format here.)

...and on and on...

...and on.

After a half hour or so of looking up close, looking across the fields, coming across yet more fields, and the aromas--OH, the aromas--it was, well, intoxicating. You wanted to run to the next fields around the corner, but also you didn't want to leave the one your were in. But there was much more to see.

...I say...mama...mama...there's MUCH MORE TO SEE. Come on, come on!

I had heard of this place called Keukenhof. The traffic toward it was heavy, and I began to fear the theme-park worst. Ha.

Keukenhof is paradise.

It's paradise.

(large format here.)

(large format here.)

(large format here.)

(large format here.)

I can't remember when I have fallen in love with a place so rapidly and irrevocably as I fell in love with Keukenhof. I could show you dozens more photographs, but it just wouldn't do. I have never seen a place so full of obviously experienced photographers--not even at a shuttle launch or an air show--and most of them walked away from each shot knowing they had not captured it. Sooner or later, a photographer comes to realize that the very best, most special shots are precisely the ones that cannot be had.

But it's important to try. So we continue...

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(large format here.)

You have to take a break from it. I walked through the enormous indoor orchid exhibit, simply for a change of scale. This gentleman from whom I stole half my genes communed with feathered ones. And mama...where in the world has mama... I look everywhere.

There she is, in a daze, the kind of daze we all found ourselves in about every five minutes, all afternoon. She doesn't respond. Mama, we have to go now, they're closing. I say ... mama ... mama ... they're throwing us out...

And we did leave. It's hard to leave paradise. I don't know when any of us will return.

posted by eric at 23.27 CET | Permalink | Comments (4)

April 12, 2004

The Whole Canal

The coffee kicks in and I wake up just in time to wake up to haul my bike off the train and catch the glory of Amsterdam Centraal station. It's time to attempt the entire length of the Amsterdam-Rijn canal.

East Amsterdam through which I ride first, to find the canal's north end, is not exactly of legendary scenic value, but there are a few nice things.

You can bike to one of the islands in the IJ and look back at Amsterdam Centraal's north (water) side.

You can admire this guy's steady watch over the busy IJ.

And in the middle of industrial, freeway-interchange nowhere, the bike path takes a hard right turn so as not to continue into the canal. The maps show bike trails along the canal's entire length. Despite its name, the canal actually continues beyond the old Rijn/Rhein river, across the Lek river, to the Waal river at the town of Tiel.

You can see the Amsterdam sneltrein exiting the bridge's left side. I had ridden over that bridge an hour before. This bridge over the Rijnkanaal was one of the first Netherlands landmarks I recognized, almost a year ago.

Just north of the bridge at Breukelen, a few bicyclists waited for the ferry to the west side.

I couldn't see anything to cross for--I think they just enjoy making the crossing part of their day out.

All day, the ferry captain has to dodge fast barges of many thousands of tons. Even one mistake...

The big boats take the canal at different speeds, and passing can be exciting. At times you'd swear they were racing side-by-side. I don't know what happens if one of these monsters strikes the dijk: this canal's north end is open to the IJ and the open Markermeer, so a dijk breach would be really awful.

On the north side of Maarssen: old men watching young men at sport.

The first flowers are out, a good omen for my parents' coming visit. In the distance, the first glimpse of Utrecht (the Netherlands' third largest city).

South of Utrecht, the canal suddenly turns rural, long symmetric stretches, long barge-accommodating curves. What you can't see is the rough, teeth-shattering pavement of the bike paths in this vicinity.

A ferry ride across the Lek, a few dozen kilometers in shifting winds, and a few wrong turns, and east of Tiel I reach it: the end of the road. The end of the canal. I'm now deep in central Netherlands for the first time.

The sun is getting low, the canal stretches to its south end, the Waal river flows by left to right.


One last look around. The panorama is HERE. And I head upwind and into Tiel, by all appearances a dreadful little town, and its modest, well-hidden train station, and back home. A good day. I've seen the canal's entire length, and not a lot of Dutch, even, can say that.

posted by eric at 23.02 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 10, 2004

Stavoren Urk Kampen

The rancid memory of my birthday mostly suppressed, I ride along the Zuider Zee coastline, through three classic towns.


Today's is a very visual post, plenty of worthwhile pix; but please pardon the download time. I'll hold off on the bike map update until after Monday's ride.

On the train just south of Heerenveen, we speed by the very buildings where my faithful bicycle was born! Bless you, BLESS you, Batavus workers!

Connect in Amersfoort, a long Intercity train to Leeuwarden, then backtrack south to Stavoren--three long hours. I was expecting a typical Dutch railhead station: restaurants inside and around the station, maybe a ANWB store for maps, and a WC. My first clue otherwise was when the Leeuwarden-Stavoren train was one car only. My second clue was when the last other person got out at Hindeloopen station.

The engineer/conductor/security man let me off and shut the door against the cold. I watched him pull away, my face to the north wind. Welcome to Stavoren.

I turn to face south. Nice toys.

I ride along Friesland's south coast. At one point the dijk rises very high, and there is a monument. Rode Klif--yes, Red Cliff. Zuider Zee Sailors of 500 years ago used it as a landmark, actually imagined it to be a volcano. The sign said that most of the cliff was gone now; indeed I didn't see any red dirt. Then I realized that any red dirt was covered over when they completed the dijks. I shrugged and coasted away, down the hill. But in the canal beside the road, the water was crimson.

I can't quite imagine what people out here do for a living. If the Frisians gather this kind of wealth in family farming, it's the Netherlands' best-kept secret.

Nature calls. And stretching my legs before returning to my bike, I remark on how very much like inland Florida the Netherlands can look. This sort of landscape feels very, very much like home to me. Mountains are nice, but for other people. Myself--I can breathe in a place like this.


This ride eastward along Friesland's south coast is choppy, with never a chance to develop a pace. A kilometer of bike path, two kilometers of road into the wind and then out of it, a small village in a valley, then more bike path or farm road. A couple of hours of this, and then I can see the town of Lemmer.

You'll be forgiven if you've never heard of Lemmer--I didn't recognize its name even after mapping today's trip. "Oh, Lemmer--that's a town?" It's OK, I'm not sure most Dutch could place it on a map. But it used to be a happening place, Friesland's southernmost seaport. Now it's full of Germans driving too fast through parking lots. It seems dirty, now, and somehow just a shade dreadful.

It's sad to see other countries aping the worst of the US, like the pictured. The drawbridge raises, the boat floats through, everybody waits patiently and politely in the best Dutch fashion--and then you see the huge ads on the bridge's underside, in your face. One moment you're in a place that makes sense, that works as a whole, and the next moment you're in Blade Runner or something. I really hate this.

Though, OK--I admit their church's steeple is among the very most attractive.

I have inherited my father's inability to resist harassing a flock of birds. Lemmer haven in the background.


Out the south side of Lemmer, I pass out of Friesland and onto the Noordoostpolder, a blocky, manmade peninsula. I squeeze through a gate with all sorts of warnings on it, and onto the dijk path. Aside from the town of Urk, I do not pass another person for the next 35 kilometers, in either direction. Utterly alone. A real contrast to noisy, crowded Lemmer, and a real luxury in the Netherlands.

The bike path is marked on the maps as "Fietsers bij gedogen", the last word sending me rushing to the dictionary. Ah--it means roughly "cyclists are tolerated/suffered". And there are sheep everywhere. I ring my bell over and over to chase away the sheep and the lambs, some no bigger than a small dog. And the pavement is in, well, various conditions. At one point it gets so rough that I give up and have...

...lunch! The blue bottle cap is from my ever-accompanying Spa blauw bottle. In the tray is Elitehaver, which as far as I can tell translates to "elite oats" or "elite chow." Very high energy. And I-- please--don't eat the daisy! (well ok, it's a dandelion.)


I lug the water bottle up the dijk to see what's on the other, lower, inland side. Not much.

Onward. Westward, then southward, around Friese Hoek (Frisian corner) to...

Rotterdamse Hoek. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with Rotterdam. This is one of those places that stand out vividly on a map but when visited are so different than one might expect. It is simply a bit of curvature at the intersection of two dijks. Now, the curve is almost a kilometer long, but that's it. There is a tower for foghorns and what looks like an automated weather station, a bench into which is scratched "Rotterdamse Hoek", and (of course, this is the Netherlands) a small trash bin with arm's reach. That's it, that the whole thing.

Everything on the tower says "Go away."

The picture at the top of this post was taken from the bench at Rotterdamse Hoek.

Due south for more than 10 kilometers. There is a windmill every 125 meters. This is looking back northward. (Yes, the wind is at my back--no accident.)

And there it is. Urk. The Dutch at work refer to Urk as being a "real Dutch town", some even consider it "the most Dutch" town. My curiosity is definitely piqued.

Before the dijks were completed to form the Noordoostpolder, Urk was an island. Centuries of fishermen braved the terrible cold, wet, isolated, and ferociously windy--and even worse of course out on the ships.

Overlooking the sea is this memorial, one of the very most interesting and unexpectedly moving small spaces I've encountered in my life. All along the low border wall are inscribed the names of Urk fishermen who have lost their lives at sea--hundreds--right up to 2003. Urk is not sentimental: they've left space for more names. And in the center, the statue of a woman with wind-blown skirts who has already turned away in despair at her news, but who can't help but take just one last look back at the sea.

And on the hill just behind the seafront, the old church and its oversized cemetery. Laatsterustplaats means just what it looks like: last resting place, with skull and crossbones over it. A place right out of Dante.

Urk's harbor itself is a little less strange, but it looks more like something out of Norway. Which, I guess, tells you something about the weather. This has not been a town for wimps.

But it's later than I'd hoped, and I cycle eastward on the north edge of the Ketelmeer, along the south dijks of the Noordoostpolder. I cross over the bridge into Overijssel province and toward Kampen and the first train station in 90 kilometers. This was been a test: there are other rides I want to make where I have to be long distances from train stations for hours at a time. How to gauge the health of my bike, and of my legs. How much water and food to carry, rain gear, etc. The killer ride will be along the southernmost North Sea, Maassluis to Middelburg, 130 km (well beyond my current ability). But today was a step.

And Kampen greets me with gracious bike paths like his one.

HEREis a panorama of Kampen's riverfront. (I did the best I could in the very dim light.) A genuinely pleasant, nearly Medieval town. It used to be on the Zuider Zee, but now it's blocked off by Flevoland from the Ijsselmeer, and beyond that it's cut off by the Afsluitdijk from the North Sea. As the saying goes: God made the earth; the Dutch made the Netherlands. But not all places and their heritages fared equally well.

Postscript I: On the last train segment, out of Amersfoort, a conductor stared through the door glass into the next car and into his radio whispered something ending in "problempje": little problem. The next thing I know, seven NS employees are wrestling a big passenger to the floor. He had no valid ticket, which is only a minor offense, but for some reason he felt imprortant to take these guys on. It happened right at my feet--I kept my bike between me and the excitement. At Hilversum station, they bodily throw him off, the police take him, the doors close, and the rest of us move on. The efficiency was startling.

Postscript II: Back in Bussum I realized I should have taken the south way home to avoid Cafe Cameleon's Saturday night mayhem, but things were strangely quiet and dark. No one home. Papers plastered to the windows. The very next morning on TV-NH, I catch the last few words of a report on Cafe Cameleon's fate, but I must have missed what really happened. Could be anything. One's imagination runs wild...

posted by eric at 22.04 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)

April 3, 2004

the beginning of the end

Rain threatening all Saturday morning, low clouds blowing across the sky just overhead, wind lashing all the tall, skinny, still-bare trees. A fine spring day.

Sunday promised to be worse, and I wasn't up for another museum, and I sure did not want to waste away in the apartment all weekend. I'd rather chance a ride today and waste away tomorrow with sore legs. The bike map showed a monster gap in my North Sea rides. The wind is out of the south-west--perfect! Load up and ride to Naarden-Bussum station, through Gouda (of cheese fame)...

...and disembark in Den Haag. The Hague. 'S-Gravenhage. All the same town. In one of Nestled among the pictured buildings, war criminals from the world over learn their fates. The Queen's home town.

A rather American-looking and American-paced city, by Dutch standards. I'm not sure I get the joke behind the zebra clock, though. Even zebras are punctual here? Black and white, to honor Toleration Nation? Anyway, this is a far cry from Anna Paulowna station.

There's an ANWB store nearby, and I need some maps for future rides. I ride over. Most ANWB stores are just a few aisles, but this one is a large, open rotunda dominated by a large-multistory building. ANWB shield on top. I realize this is the ANWB headquarters. And they STILL don't have all the maps I need--can't be bothered running inventory once a year.

And back at the bike shelter the sky splits open and dumps serious rain. For 30 minutes. For nearly an hour. At the first lessening, I head for the station to wait it out or just buy a ticket back home. But by the time I wheel around the station plaza, it lets up. Patches of blue in the sky. I'm still soaked, but I'm going to be soaked on the bike or on a train, so I head north, to Wassenaar and the North Sea coast. Updated bike map HERE (82 kB), this ride and last Wednesday evening's short ride to Sloterdijk in red.

Just at the north edge of Den Haag, I cross a wide American-style divided highway, and at a wide gate entrance are two policemen casually lugging machine guns. I veer right and wave--they wave back. Far enough away, I stop and check the map: Huis ten Bosch. House in the woods. The Queen's place.

It must be interesting to live on the south side of Wassenaar. You bike up a path, and every driveway has a small, polished, discreet sign something like: Residence of the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea. A small home the size of an airline hangar. Many, many other nice houses too, like the pictured. Check the wind: you'll be pleased to know that my ride is from left to right, not the opposite.

And at the end of Wassenaarse Slag, near the North Sea coast, the landscape turns positively lunar. The soil is so poor and salty that nothing can live. Dune country, but not the lush, Van Gogh dunes of farther north.

These dunes offer nothing to see, and they go on and on. Beautiful in a terrible sort of way.

Eventually the dunes give onto Katwijk, which I may have to add to my favorite Dutch cities. It is hard to imagine a beach town--quiet, gently laid out--more different than crappy Scheveningen only 10 km away.


On the north end of Katwijk is this panorama: the disconcerting mouth of the Rijn (Rhein) river. All the history, all the legend, all the towns with Rhein in the name, all the industrial might along its banks--and it is dumped this way into the North Sea. Well...the Dutch are stupendous engineers, not sentimentalists.

And a few km farther north, Noordwijk. Supposedly a twin beach town to Katwijk, but you know how twin towns are often different. Katwijk is what a Corsican beach town would look like if it had money, lots and lots of old, private, quiet money. Noordwijk, though, looks like it's trying to be as tacky as Atlantic City. I joked to the Dutch at work that I even expected little Noordwijk to get a casino before long, and they groaned that I was probably right. Oops.

North of another, more heavily built beach town Zandvoort ("sand castle", pictured in far background), the dunes turn grassy, taller, and quite beautiful.


I debate with myself about taking one last back and forth down a dead-end gravel bike path, far west and against the wind, to the North Sea. I had gotten a late start today, later still due to the rain in Den Haag. And I am still a long way from Driehuis station, which I must make if I am to close the gap in my bike map, if I am to see the whole coastline. It is dark enough that pictures are difficult, and taking the last path up and back will cost me an hour. I'm not sure how late the trains run in rural Driehuis. Then--I am probably never going to be on this particular bike path again. I turn west. I have to ride slowly and cramped, and my sore legs struggle to pedal against the coastal wind, I'm balancing on soft gravel, then shoving the bike up the steep last beach dune 15 meters / 50 feet high, up through the very soft sticky sand. Just when I think I won't make it, the whole thing opens before me. No one else around, the sun breaking through the cloud bank and onto the water.

You can see the wheel track. That's as far as I got. I want to watch, but I really, really have to turn back, and soon. I pace, and then I tear myself away. This was a kind of endpoint. I'd gotten as far as I could get, and the rest of the trip is somehow just a returning home. I wrestle the bike back towards where I came from and push hard through the sand. How was this trip so short? For a long time, I had ridden as though the ride would never end, but soon it will be all packing and timetables and rushing and waiting in lines. I want to stay here, and I look back over my shoulder for a last look. This place can stay and be its beautiful self, but I have to go.

And what's true of this ride is also, now, true of my stay in the Netherlands.

posted by eric at 23.46 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)