A journey through the Côte des Blancs Champagne Route

The trip through the magnificent scenery of the Côte des Blancs Champagne Route starts, appropriately enough, along Épernay’s Avenue de Champagne. The rest of the journey from Épernay to Sézanne is just as glorious as the champagne mansions you pass leaving Épernay: rolling green countryside filled with neat rows of vines, and dotted with villages that are home to numerous small champagne producers.

Almost all the grapes along this route are of the green-skinned chardonnay variety, rather than the purple-skinned pinot noir and pinot meunier varieties that can be found in the Marne Valley. The chardonnay grapes here are considered some of the best in Champagne, many falling into the superior Grand Cru category. Here the grapes go to make some of the finest champagnes available to humanity.

Mesnil-sur-Oger, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Mesnil-sur-Oger, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Grand Cru chardonnay, Chouilly, Champagne, France

Grand Cru chardonnay, Chouilly, Champagne, France

Marcel Richard champagne, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Marcel Richard champagne, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Grand Cru chardonnay, Monthelon, Champagne, France

Grand Cru chardonnay, Monthelon, Champagne, France

Cramant, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Cramant, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Although the route is well marked with road signs, we still managed to get lost moments after leaving Épernay. We found ourselves in the small village of Monthelon and, while trying to find our way back to the route, we passed the champagne house of Marcel Richard three times. Coincidence? We thought not and decided to stop to sample some of their fizzy delights.

We took a seat in the lovely sun-filled patio and chatted to the Dutch and English speaking Belgian woman who worked there, whilst tasting five different champagnes. Marcel Richard has a couple of hectares of vines and buys additional grapes from a collective in nearby villages to make only 22,000 bottles of champagne a year. That is a tiny amount compared to some producers, but it was so good we left with six bottles.

Back on the route towards Sézanne, we were soon passing through picturesque countryside and picture-postcard perfect villages once more. This really is a spectacularly beautiful region. Before long we passed the giant champagne bottle that guards the entrance to Cramant, a village of a few hundred souls that is famous for only having Grand Cru vineyards.

The villages of Avize and Oger passed by, although not before a detour to see the champagne bottle pouring liquid into a glass on the hillside. The whole region is dotted with these slightly odd symbols of champagne making. Sometimes you’ll see old wine presses, other times large wooden barrels and, on special occasions, giant champagne bottles. They’re a bit kitsch, but a lot of fun.

Avize, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Avize, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Vertus, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Vertus, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Vertus, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Vertus, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Vertus, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Vertus, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Vertus, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Vertus, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Vertus, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Vertus, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Eventually we stopped in Vertus, a pretty little town with a fantastic church, the Église Saint-Martin, dating from the 11th Century. It was midday and hot, as we walked around the attractive streets there were no people to be seen. Eventually we found the main square, and a few people escaping the heat of the day in a couple of cafes. Refreshed we set off south once more.

I don’t remember where we were when we first saw it, the gigantic megalith-like statue standing on a ridge, but we quickly decided it needed investigating. What looked like a huge slab of sandstone turned out to be the rather beautiful Monument National de la Victoire de la Marne. Standing at 35.5 meters in height, it commemorates the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, which played out in the marshlands in the valley below.

Monument National de la Victoire, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Monument National de la Victoire, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Monument National de la Victoire, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Monument National de la Victoire, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Monument National de la Victoire, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Monument National de la Victoire, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Monument National de la Victoire, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Monument National de la Victoire, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Chateau, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Chateau, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Chateau, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Chateau, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

The battle is one of the most important of World War I, and is credited with saving Paris from capture and turning the tide against the German army. It was here that Marshal Joffre gave the order to his troops to attack or to die holding their positions. It ended victory for France, but came at the cost of over a quarter of a million casualties, including 80,000 dead. A similar number of Germans were injured or killed.

There is a small museum on the site but it was closed, so after looking around the church and cemetery we got on our way towards Sézanne. By this time the landscape had begun to change, and we’d largely stopped seeing vineyards. They still exist in this part of Champagne, but not in such densities as further north. We stopped briefly in Sézanne, which has a pretty medieval centre, and then headed for Troyes …

Sezanne, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Sezanne, Côte des Blancs Champagne Route, France

Travelling the Marne Valley Champagne Route

Seen from the beautiful hilltop village of Hautvillers, where Dom Pierre Pérignon is credited with inventing champagne in the 17th century, the lush green rolling hills of Champagne’s Marne Valley are a mesmerising sight. In a region famed for picturesque landscapes and idyllic villages, Hautvillers is a dramatic starting point for a journey through the Marne Valley.

We’d arrived a little late to Hautvillers after a fascinating (and delicious) tour and tasting at Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte near the village of Chouilly. Fortunately, our arrival coincided with lunchtime so, after a stroll around the village and visit to the church where Dom Pérignon is buried, we snagged a table for a leisurely lunch in the shade of a tree in the main square.

Hautvillers viewed through the vineyards of Champagne, France

Hautvillers viewed through the vineyards of Champagne, France

Moet et Chandon vines, Hautvillers, Champagne, France

Moet et Chandon vines, Hautvillers, Champagne, France

Hautvillers, Champagne, France

Hautvillers, Champagne, France

Hautvillers, Champagne, France

Hautvillers, Champagne, France

Hautvillers, Champagne, France

Hautvillers, Champagne, France

As you go from village to village, laid out before you is the very essence of the French notion of terroir: the landscape, soils, climate and traditions that makes a wine unique. Terroir is very big in Champagne. The notion of terroir is a difficult one to grasp for a wine layperson, but whenever people spoke of it they did so with the seriousness of someone talking about their own mortality. It’s that important.

Covered in chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grape vines, part of the fun of travelling this fantastic route is the knowledge that sometime soon you’ll be sampling the fizzy wine that its terroir produces. In each village we passed through there were dozens of small champagne houses, most producing only a small amount of champagne each year. Much of this wine never leaves France, unless in the back of a tourist’s car.

There is a well-defined route for travelling through the main grape growing areas of the Champagne region. In almost every village you’ll see road signs pointing you towards the next charming village, or spectacular view. The route is easy to follow but we got lost a few times. The whole area is so beautiful that it doesn’t seem to make much difference where you go.

Come during the harvest in September (or possibly in October this year due to heavy rains and limited sun), and the fields of vines will be bustling with thousands of people picking the grapes. Harvesting is an activity still done by hand due to the complex rules for making champagne. Early summer isn’t a particularly busy time in the fields, but everywhere we went we saw people tending to their crops, making sure there were no problems.

Admiring these bucolic landscapes, and wandering the narrow lanes of the Marne’s peaceful, near deserted villages, it’s hard to comprehend that this compact area of countryside underpins a vast global business. It’s also hard to imagine the conflicts that have engulfed this region. It was here, in 1914, that the French Sixth Army turned and counter attacked the hitherto all-conquering German Army in the First Battle of the Marne.

Hautvillers viewed through the vineyards of Champagne, France

Hautvillers viewed through the vineyards of Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Châtillon-sur-Marne, Marne Valley Champagne Route, France

Châtillon-sur-Marne, Marne Valley Champagne Route, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Towns, like Châtillon-sur-Marne, which today lie on the Champagne Route, were on the front line of the conflict and were severely damaged. The First Battle of the Marne marked a turning point in the war. The German advance was stopped and reversed, but the French and British couldn’t exploit the opportunity to the full. The stalemate marked the beginning of trench warfare.

There was a Second Battle of the Marne in 1918, a final attempt by Germany to win the war. It failed thanks to stiff resistance from French and American forces, and the Marne proved yet another turning point in the war. The German Army was forced into full retreat and three months later unconditionally surrendered. In village after village you’ll see memorials to those who died and, in some places, cemeteries marked with uniform rows of white crosses.

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Marne Valley Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Our route took us along the north bank of the River Marne, which meanders and sparkles its way across the valley floor, until we reached the town of Dormans. We crossed the river here and, weaving our way through picturesque villages travelled back to Epernay on the south bank.

We took most of the day to drive the Marne Valley Champagne Route, but a determined champagne aficionado could take days, or weeks, to complete the circuit. At least once back in Epernay, the designated driver could relax and have a glass of something bubbly.

Going underground in Épernay

When it come to sparkling wine, there’s no substitute for champagne. Well there is, but no ship worth its salt was ever launched with a bottle of prosecco. As the saying goes, “all champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is champagne”. As a global brand, champagne is fervently protected by the producers themselves, by numerous laws, and the many onerous rules of quality control.

I’ve often been amazed at the lengths humanity has gone to produce alcohol but, quite honestly, it’s a miracle that champagne ever gets made. That it does is testament to human endeavour and perseverance.

Tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte, Epernay, Champage, France

Tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte, Epernay, Champage, France

Tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte, Epernay, Champage, France

Tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte, Epernay, Champage, France

Tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte, Epernay, Champage, France

Tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte, Epernay, Champage, France

Only the Champagne region has the right to call its wines champagne, and the region is rigidly defined. The champagne Appellation d’Origine Controlée is even more restricted, only 318 villages can claim the designation – a cause of historic acrimony amongst those grape growers who fall just outside the boundaries. Those 318 villages all have the quality of their grapes designated as Cru, Premiere Cru or Grand Cru, which affects their value.

Growers have to adhere to inflexible rules covering all aspects of getting the fizzy stuff into your glass: the number of vines planted per hectare and the space between them; pressing the grapes and the volume of liquid produced from each kilo; dates and timing of harvesting; the entire wine making process; the date of bottling and the minimum time for maturation in the bottle … the rules are endless.

The méthode champenoise, where the wine goes through a second fermentation to naturally produce bubbles and stays in the bottle until it’s drunk, is the stuff of legend. Only producers from this region have the right to use the term. Other sparkling wines can only to refer to their production method as ‘méthode traditionnelle’. Take that cava and Australian sparkling chardonnay.

To understand the méthode champenoise we visited some of Épernay’s champagne houses, toured their production facilities, and stood surrounded by thousands of bottles in their cellars as the process was explained. Each tour ended by sampling the finished product, for research purposes, obviously.

Épernay is a small town of 24,000 people, but it plays an oversized role in the history of champagne. There are dozens of grand champagne houses, but what’s on the surface is nothing compared to what goes on beneath these splendid mansions. In Épernay, the real action takes place underground, amongst the millions of bottles of champagne being lovingly nurtured to maturity.

We toured the slick Moët & Chandon facilities, the much more down-to-earth and entertaining Champagne de Castellane, and the great champagne collective of Nicolas Feuillatte, located amidst rolling vineyards just outside Épernay. The tour of Nicholas Feuillatte was a lot of fun, and they produce some extraordinary champagnes to drink with food rather than as an apéritif.

Champagne de Castellane, Epernay, France

Champagne de Castellane, Epernay, France

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay, France

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay, France

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay, France

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay, France

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay, France

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay, France

Champagne de Castellane, Epernay, France

Champagne de Castellane, Epernay, France

Ironically, bubbles in wine were considered a defect in the 16th and 17th centuries, and wine producers, including Dom Pérignon, spent their time trying to rid champagne of its fizz. Even more ironic, it was the English who started the craze for sparkling wines from Champagne in the late 17th century. France followed the trend shortly afterwards … the rest is history.

Until the 19th century champagne production was a lottery. Producers didn’t fully understand the role of sugar in the second fermentation, and much wine went to waste; huge numbers of bottles simply exploded because the pressure inside was too much for the inferior glass. Whole batches were lost. Perfecting the process took two centuries of experimentation.

Moët & Chandon, Epernay, France

Moët & Chandon, Epernay, France

Cellars at Moët & Chandon, Epernay, France

Cellars at Moët & Chandon, Epernay, France

Cellars at Moët & Chandon, Epernay, France

Cellars at Moët & Chandon, Epernay, France

Cellars at Moët & Chandon, Epernay, France

Cellars at Moët & Chandon, Epernay, France

Cellars at Moët & Chandon, Epernay, France

Cellars at Moët & Chandon, Epernay, France

Today, the occasional bottle still explodes, but the production of champagne is now a science that leaves little room for error. That extends to the blending not only of the chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, but to the testing and blending of several years’ worth of wine from numerous different estates. This ensures the non-vintage champagne tastes, more or less, the same each and every year.

This massive global industry seamlessly merges the ancient rules of champagne making with ultramodern technology and science. I’m still no expert, but I do have a far greater appreciation of what I’m drinking after our underground adventures in Épernay.

Épernay, a town with fizz

There’s only one place in the world that has an Avenue de Champagne; only one with a 3km road lined with champagne houses, where sampling the sparkling delights within is pretty much obligatory; only one place on earth with well over 200 million bottles of champagne, stored in 110 km of underground tunnels. That place is the self proclaimed Capital of Champagne, Épernay.

Champagne, Épernay, France

Champagne, Épernay, France

Épernay must count as one of the most extraordinary places in France. Less for its many opulent-looking champagne houses lining the Avenue de Champagne, than for the contents of the damp and musty cellars beneath them. Virtually all the champagne houses offer tours or tastings, or tours and tastings, making it easy to sample some of Épernay’s buried treasure.

This is where Moët et Chandon, Perrier Jouet and Mercier, some of the world’s largest champagne brands, rub shoulders with dozens of lesser known labels. It sits in the middle of a region gloriously blanketed by vineyards, where each picturesque village is home to numerous small champagne producers and various cooperatives. It’s a small and friendly, yet oddly ordinary, place. If it wasn’t the epicentre of champagne lore, you’d probably pass through without giving it a second glance.

This ordinary town has a global reputation though. It was none other than notorious boozer and British wartime leader, Winston Churchill, who declared the Avenue de Champagne, “the most drinkable street in the world”. Churchill certainly did his bit to help the town flourish, midway down the Avenue is the champagne house of Pol Roger, producer of Churchill’s favourite fizzy wine.

The town was badly damaged during both World Wars, one reason why it has a lot of uninspiring architecture. Even during the conflict champagne production continued unabated, with few men available it was the region’s women who kept the wine flowing. Unsurprisingly, the German army had a headquarters here, as did the British and Americans during the liberation of Europe. Given the other options, a posting to Épernay must have been keenly sought after.

Moet et Chandon, Épernay, France

Moet et Chandon, Épernay, France

Avenue de Champagne, Épernay, France

Avenue de Champagne, Épernay, France

Moet et Chandon, Épernay, France

Moet et Chandon, Épernay, France

Driving from The Hague, we arrived late at night to discover a chilled bottle of champagne awaiting us in our city centre apartment. It was from a small producer, Fred Legras, from the nearby village of Chouilly. It seemed a little degenerate to be popping open a bottle at midnight on a Tuesday, but when in Champagne … it was delicious and gave us a taste of things to come.

The next morning we had a coffee in a nearby cafe and set off to explore the town. We wandered around until we found the Tourist Office, handily located at one end of the Avenue de Champagne. Even in the tourist office there was a champagne tasting available. Two champagne houses were offering samples, and tourists got to try them for free … it seemed rude not to.

Épernay, France

Épernay, France

Champagne, Épernay, France

Champagne, Épernay, France

Avenue de Champagne, Épernay, France

Avenue de Champagne, Épernay, France

Across from the tourist office is the home of the world’s most famous champagne, Moët et Chandon. We decided to start our tour of the Avenue de Champagne there, reasoning that it was the benchmark by which to judge the rest of our champagne experiences. Outside there’s a statue to Dom Pérignon, the monk credited with invented the process to make Champagne, and someone whose name is treated with reverence in these parts.

Moët et Chandon definitely offers a more glitzy tour and tasting than most, and it has a fully ‘pimped out’ gift shop, but it also felt a little sterile. In other places we visited the passion of the makers was obvious, and the tours cheaper and more fun. The Moët experience was a bit too corporate and, for champagne, a bit too serious … but more of our time in Épernay’s cellars later.

Cycling the River Vecht, from the Roman Empire to Brooklyn, NY

The Netherlands is a country full of surprises. The cycle route from Weesp to Utrecht, passing through beautiful countryside and historic villages, along canals and the tranquil River Vecht, is one of them. Winding its way through farmland, past medieval castles, windmills and the 18th century mansions of wealthy Dutch merchants, the Vecht is one of the best days of Dutch cycling I’ve had.

Cycling the River Vecht, Slot Zuylen, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Slot Zuylen, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Netherlands

The River Vecht connects Utrecht with Amsterdam, and then the North Sea. Over a thousand years ago observers watched awestruck as a massive Roman fleet sailed down it on the way to conquer Germania. The fleet carried three Roman Legions, thousands of auxiliaries and cavalry to crush an alliance of Germanic tribes. Instead of the expected victory, the Battle of Teutoburg ended with Rome’s greatest ever defeat.

The Roman forces were annihilated. The Legions that marched into the forests never returned. Never again would Rome seek to expand its power further east, changing forever the history of Western Europe.

Centuries later, the Vecht and the wealthy towns and villages along its banks attracted Viking raiding parties. It’s even said to feature in a Viking saga which tells of a big battle along these shores. Throughout the medieval period the river was a vital waterway carrying huge volumes of goods north and south, trade which made Utrecht a wealthy place and built the attractive towns I spent the day cycling through.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Amsterdam merchants built sumptuous mansions and estates along the banks of the river. You can catch a glimpse of them through the trees or peering through the elaborate railings that guard them. Elsewhere there are magnificent moated castles like the 13th century Loenersloot and Slot Zuylen, the latter was closed when I arrived but they let me wander the grounds anyway.

Cycling the River Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Loenersloot, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Loenersloot, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Netherlands

This history was in my mind as I cycled along, and it was the sight of an old fort that dragged me back to reality as I left Weesp along the Rijnkanaal. This was one of the many fortifications of the Dutch Waterline, the vast water-based defensive ring that protected Amsterdam. Built in the 17th century, the Dutch or Hollandic Waterline was still in use in the late 19th century. This area is dotted with evidence of its existence.

I stopped at Fort bij Nigtevecht and discovered it has been converted into a peaceful place where you can create a memorial to a dead relative. I had a long chat to the lovely woman who managed the fort, before heading on a loop through the countryside to the picturesque villages of Abcoude (where a marching band greeted me), Baambrugge and Loenersloot.

Cycling the River Vecht, Loenen aan de Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Loenen aan de Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Loenen aan de Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Loenen aan de Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Loenen aan de Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Loenen aan de Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Loenen aan de Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Loenen aan de Vecht, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Breukelen, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Breukelen, Netherlands

I crossed the Rijnkanaal on the way to the absolutely delightful Vreeland, home to a Michelin Starred restaurant, De Nederlanden. I was quite hungry but hadn’t booked and was wearing shorts, so I carried on to the equally lovely Loenen aan de Vecht, with a windmill at the end of a picturesque street. Finally, I ended up in the central square of Breukelen, a village famous for two things: it’s the birthplace of Rutger Hauer; and it gave its name to Brooklyn, New York.

I finally crossed the Rijnkanaal again and cycled towards the centre of Utrecht, but not before making one final detour to medieval Slot Zuylen. Today the Rijnkanaal has supplanted the Vecht as the region’s most important waterway. While the Vecht is home to small leisure boats, the Rijnkanaal is plied by large commercial boats heading, ironically, to Germany and further east. What the Romans would have made of that is anybody’s guess.

Cycling the River Vecht, Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Rijnkanaal, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Slot Zuylen, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Slot Zuylen, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Slot Zuylen, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Slot Zuylen, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Slot Zuylen, Netherlands

Cycling the River Vecht, Slot Zuylen, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam

Summer days have been few and far between so far this ‘summer’. Those we have had seem to arrive on week days rather than the weekend, when I might be able to enjoy them rather than observe them from my office window. Rain has been a constant companion for too long, and as I write it’s pouring down outside. We did get a couple of days of sun recently, a good opportunity for a stroll in Amsterdam.

When the sun does come out Amsterdam really comes to life. People head to the parks and boats take to the water in a frenzy of sun worship. That’s just what happens in northern Europe after a long miserable winter. It makes wandering the streets, absorbing the culture and atmosphere all the more enjoyable.

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

This is a city that harbours more that 6,800 buildings that are protected as national monuments, many dating from the16th and 17th centuries. All of this majestic architecture is built on ninety islands, criss-crossed with 165 water ways and connected by 1,281 bridges and counting. Exploring these fascinating streets is always an adventure, always turning up something unexpected.

Despite its global fame, Amsterdam is a compact place – a small big city. From the old city centre and the UNESCO World Heritage listed canal belt, many of the most interesting neighbourhoods and best parks are easily reached on foot or cycle. The streets are alive with art, architecture and activities, and full of photo opportunities.

The only downside of summer is the upsurge in tourism but, if you want to get away from the crowds, stay out of the old city centre and make for outlying neighbourhoods, De Pijp, Westerpark and the Jordaan. Or head for the wonderfully named Spaarndammerbuurt, where I found myself wandering quiet streets dotted with trendy bars and restaurants trying to find the Museum Het Schip.

The Spaarndammerbuurt is pretty new to me, but is famed for its expressionist public housing projects, and is considered the high point of the Amsterdam School movement of the 1920s. A radically progressive intellectual and architectural response to the squalid living conditions of the urban poor, the Amsterdam School created affordable housing that was also spacious and beautifully designed.

The Het Schip is one of the movement’s most important buildings, the museum a homage to this period in Amsterdam’s history and the social and political forces that gave rise to it. It draws a steady stream of architecture and history buffs to the area, including me.

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

The arrival of summer also heralds a flourishing of festivals across the Netherlands, no more so than in Amsterdam which hosts more than 300 each year, mostly in the summer months. Whether it’s the city-wide Pride or small foodie festivals, there’s something for everyone. Much of the entertainment is free and often in the open air. All we need now is a little more summer sun…

The superb, surreal world of the Bosch Parade

If a visit to ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Bosch Parade proves anything, it proves that the world needs more enthusiastic amateurs. The parade is a celebration of wild imagination and DIY building skills. Each year, individuals and organisations interpret the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and translate them into preposterous floating artworks. Over a weekend, their creations take to the water to entertain thousands of onlookers.

2016 is the 500th anniversary of the death of ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s most famous son, Hieronymus, the medieval artist who redefined the meaning of the word “surreal”. We came to ‘s-Hertogenbosch (also known as Den Bosch) to visit the excellent 500th anniversary exhibition of Bosch’s work, during which we found out about the Bosch Parade. We just had to come back to witness the weirdness.

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

This being the Netherlands, the whole parade takes place floating down a canal, guaranteeing that the participants are likely to get wet. This being summer in the Netherlands there was a strong chance that the spectators would get wet as well. As if pre-ordained, it rained. It takes more than a little rain to dampen Dutch spirits though, and it was a day full of fun.

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

There were many highlights, but for me the sight of a half submerged house with a saxophist and two dancers on its roof was a favourite. We Leven Vrolijk Verde (literal translation, ‘We Live More Gay’) evokes not only the terrible floods that have cost many lives in Dutch history, but represents Bosch’s depictions of Purgatory in his work. I’m still not sure how they managed to avoid the water.

The Cloud & The Fall of the Rebellious Angels seemed to be a 3D visualisation of a scene in one of Bosch’s paintings depicting the Fall of Man. To be honest, that seemed less important than the ability of a host of people in wetsuits to navigate a giant cloud made out of balloons down a canal … and to get it over (not under) a foot bridge that was in their way.

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

A giant bat-like demon made its way slowly towards the crowds powered by a woman laying on top of its wings. It looked both difficult and uncomfortable, but at least she was above the water and, barring a disaster, would arrive dry at the other end. Which is more than could be said for the people in red wetsuits piloting a ferocious blast furnace down the canal.

As the flames leapt higher its crew plunged themselves into the water. This, I assumed, represented people falling into the fires of Hell, a central theme of Bosch’s most famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delight; and the terrible fire that destroyed ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1463, a hugely influential experience for Bosch. In fact, it was something to do with the Tower of Babel and modern day scientists. Who knew?

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

On this particular anniversary at least the 500 Crowns (made by 500 retired Dutch people) was easily understandable. As were the two boats-cum-art installations which featured live music. Leviathan was carrying a choir which had sensibly decided to wear waterproofs; the second boat, called Fair in Hell, had a full band and rogue trumpeters roaming the banks playing mournful tunes. It was all rather magical.

That night we headed into ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Grote Markt to watch a beautiful animated light show depicting the life and work of Hieronymus Bosch. We joined a crowd of people as the buildings on one corner of the medieval square where Bosch once lived became a cinema screen. It seemed like a fitting end to a perfectly strange day.

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

A visit to Woudrichem’s ‘Mustard Pot’

Historically speaking, many Dutch towns and villages depended on fish and fishing for their livelihoods, and fish still play a big part of the Dutch psyche. There’s a reason the national dish is a pickled herring washed down with chopped raw onions and gherkins. Some of my colleagues claim this is the ideal hangover cure, but frankly I’d need to be drunk rather than hungover to eat that particular national delicacy.

As I walked around the charming medieval town of Woudrichem, it was clear fish were big here too. The coat of arms is two fish on a gold shield, and the town’s flag also features a fish. Head to the lovely compact old harbour, now a national monument, and you’ll find it packed with traditional Dutch fishing boats, including Aak, Stijlsteven, Skûtsje and Katwijker.

Sint-Martinuskerk, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Sint-Martinuskerk, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem is a place of fewer than 5,000 people. It sits at the confluence of the Waal and Maas Rivers and, along with the nearby medieval castle of Slot Loevestein and the fortified town of Gorinchem, formed a key part of The Dutch Waterline defences. As part of the Waterline, the town had to be prepared to flood the surrounding countryside, and only a little recent development has taken place outside the original walls.

To reach Woudrichem I’d cycled the short distance from Slot Loevestein, and taken a small passenger boat across the Bergsche Maas. In this region of many waterways, boats are a common form of transport and this was my second, but not final, boat of this cycle ride.

En route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

En route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

Beach on the river,en route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

Beach on the river,en route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

En route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

En route to Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

Crossing the Maas River to reach Woudrichem, Netherlands

The town was probably founded some time in the 9th century, changing hands over the centuries as the fortunes of the feudal nobility fluctuated. One remarkable incident, more for its name than anything else, took place in 1419. The Zoen van Woudrichem, or Kiss of Woudrichem, was a peace treaty negotiated between the female ruler of Woudrichem, Jacoba of Bavaria, and her uncle, John VI of Bavaria.

Technically there was no kissing involved, for some reason the use of the word ‘kiss’ meant ‘reconciliation’. Even then the reconciliation didn’t last long. The two warring factions of the same family were soon at loggerheads again, forcing another ‘kiss’ to take place in Delft a few years later.

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Sint-Martinuskerk, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Sint-Martinuskerk, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

At least that dispute didn’t result in Woudrichem being burned to the ground, which is what happened during the Eighty Years’ War. In 1572, Woudrichem sided with William of Orange against the Spanish in the opening salvos of the struggle for Dutch independence. When Dutch Forces arrived in the city in 1573 they realised that it was indefensible. Instead of allowing it to fall into Spanish hands, they burnt it down.

The town was rebuilt and the defensive walls strengthened once the Netherlands became independent. Most of what you see today is from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, but Sint-Martinuskerk (St. Martin’s Church) is older than that, and it is the church that has gained the nickname, the Mustard Pot. During a storm in 1717 the church lost its spire, leaving the stump which has become known as the Mustard Pot.

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Old Harbour, Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

Woudrichem, Netherlands

The ferry to Dordrecht, Netherlands

The ferry to Dordrecht, Netherlands

After strolling the quiet streets and stopping for a drink in one of the central cafes, I got back on my bike and headed along the Groenendijk, taking me on a beautiful journey along the banks of the Merwede river to a ferry crossing south of  Dordrecht. Once over the river it was a quick 30 minute journey to Dordrecht’s railway station for the train back to The Hague.

Medieval Slot Loevestein

Sitting strategically at the confluence of the Waal and Maas (Meuse) Rivers, the moated medieval castle of Slot Loevestein is a beautiful sight glimpsed between the trees. The first castle to stand here was built between 1357 and 1368; it has been added to over the centuries until the building that you see today emerged in the 16th century. It evokes the era of chivalry like little else I’ve seen in the Netherlands.

Castle Loevestein aerial view, Netherlands (courtesy of dogsfamilypark.blogspot.nl)

Castle Loevestein aerial view, Netherlands (courtesy of dogsfamilypark.blogspot.nl)

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

After a morning in the fortified town of Gorinchem, which sits downstream on the opposite bank of the Waal, I took a boat to reach Slot Loevestein. As we powered out into mid-river, a Dutch man started chatting to me. He told me that my fellow passengers were refugees from Syria, who’d braved the sea crossing to reach Greece before finding safety in the Netherlands.

His wife was teaching them Dutch to help their integration. There were two families, with young children, and this was the first boat they’d been on since they’d risked their lives to escape the brutal war in Syria. They were enjoying themselves enormously, and I couldn’t help but think that for every piece of hateful anti-immigrant, anti-muslim propaganda, there were good people doing good deeds. It was an uplifting encounter.

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

In the medieval period, whoever controlled Slot Loevestein controlled both the Mass and the Waal Rivers, as well as swathes of the countryside around this area. This allowed the castle’s owners to extract tolls from ships, a very lucrative business. Its early owner, for which it’s still named, was Dirc Loef van Horne, who was granted the castle and lands by Count Willem V of Holland.

In the aristocratic politics of the medieval Europe, the castle saw sieges and battles, and changed hands several times as the fortunes of its owners fluctuated. Things got even more exciting during The Dutch Rebellion in 16th century, when the castle and the nearby fortified towns of Gorinchem and Woudrichem were critical to wrestling control of the Lowlands from the Spanish.

The Dutch Rebellion is also regarded as part of the larger religious wars that erupted across Europe following the Reformation. In 1570, the religious wars came to Slot Loevestein during an extraordinary incident involving eight Calvinists who gained access to the castle dressed as Catholic monks. Once inside they killed the defenders loyal to King Philip II of Spain and waited for reinforcements.

Reinforcements never came and the Spanish retook the castle shortly afterwards. The fate of those Dutch rebels who survived the assault was grim. Many were broken on the rack before being beheaded, while the corpse of the Dutch leader, Herman de Ruijter, was burned and beheaded posthumously. The castle fell to the Dutch once again in 1572 and would never be under Spanish control again.

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

While Slot Loevestein remained an important military outpost with a garrison and a large gunpowder store, it also became a prison in the 17th century and was home to numerous ‘enemies of the state’, particularly religious dissidents. Most famously, it became the prison for Hugo de Groot and his family – famous because Groot escaped the prison by hiding in a book chest and being carried to freedom inside it.

As military technology evolved, Slot Loevestein became obsolete for anything other than storage or as a prison, but it stayed in military hands until 1952. Today it’s in private hands and is a popular destination for tourists. The day I arrived it was hosting an antiques fair which filled the grounds surrounding the castle. One of the stalls was selling old regional maps of Britain, including one of the place I went to school.

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

The castle is part of the excellent Museumkaart scheme, which meant it was free and I was given the ‘Keys to the Kingdom’, an electronic key that gives access to the museum and triggers numerous digital information points around the castle. It’s a great idea, especially if you’re a child … which all adult males become when walking around a medieval castle.

The fortress town of Gorinchem

Something extraordinary happened on my way to Gorinchem. I’d taken the train to Dordrecht and was cycling down a quiet tree lined road when I was suddenly hit heavily on the back of the head. Turning around while trying not to fall off my bike, a large Crow was descending upon me for a second attack. It looked angry. Very angry. I waved my arm around my head and peddled faster. It was enough to scare it off.

Crows have large and powerful beaks, and the back of my head had taken the full impact. I cycled a little further before stopping to check whether my attacker had drawn blood. Thankfully, it hadn’t. Still it was an unsettling experience, although I have to admit that this was not the first time a bird has attacked me.

Many years ago I was walking in the English countryside when a Buzzard descended upon me. I knew nothing about it until the heavy beating of wings above my head made me spin around. I didn’t know, but it was nesting about 300 metres away and saw me as trouble. Similarly, crows regularly attack humans if they see them as a threat to their young. Once again, it seems like I was a victim of bird-related circumstance.

Gorichem, Netherlands

Gorichem, Netherlands

Fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Leaving Gorichem by boat, Netherlands

Leaving Gorichem by boat, Netherlands

Far more aware of the threat of arial attack, I cycled on alongside the Beneden Merwede. The river was heavily swollen by recent heavy rains, but there was still a lot of river traffic on this main trade route between the Port of Rotterdam and Germany. This is a region of water, where there are more water taxis and ferries than there are bridges; on a bright sunny Sunday the 25km cycle to Gorinchem was fabulous.

Virtually unknown outside of the Netherlands, Gorinchem is yet another lovely Dutch town with a beautiful centre and dramatic history. Founded over a thousand years ago, it developed into a strategically important fortress town. In the 17th and 18th centuries it formed a vital link in the Dutch Water Line, a series of fortified towns that protected the newly independent Dutch Republic.

Today, the star shaped fortifications that protrude into the surrounding water from the old town walls, are a sure sign that this was once a place of military importance. Across the water from Gorinchem are two other key parts of the defences which I was planning to visit as well: Woudrichem, and the medieval castle of Slot Loevestein. First I had to explore Gorinchem and work out how to get a boat across the river.

It was still early and little was open in the town, but there was a steady trickle of people going to the Sunday service in the massive Grote Kerk. I decided to join the town’s dog walkers on a stroll around the old defensive walls, which have been turned into a public park. The old defences have fantastic views over Boven Merwede river, and take you past a couple of windmills and the old harbour.

Walking the old fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Walking the old fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Walking the old fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Walking the old fortifications, Gorichem, Netherlands

Man and fish statue, Gorichem, Netherlands

Man and fish statue, Gorichem, Netherlands

Old harbour, Gorichem, Netherlands

Old harbour, Gorichem, Netherlands

As I made my way back into the town, the streets were slowly coming back to life. A few of the restaurants in the picturesque Groenmarkt had opened, so I had a coffee and asked the waiter where I could get the boat to Slot Loevestein.

Gorinchem’s an attractive place, but this facade hides some grim historical realities. During the 16th century religious wars that pitched Dutch Calvinists against their Spanish Catholic rulers, Gorinchem was captured by Dutch rebels known as the Sea Beggars. The year was 1572, the height of the Dutch Revolt which started the Eighty Years’ War for Dutch independence.

Grote Kerk, Gorichem, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Gorichem, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Gorichem, Netherlands

Grote Kerk, Gorichem, Netherlands

Building poem, Gorichem, Netherlands

Building poem, Gorichem, Netherlands

These were brutal times, the massacre of Dutch towns at the hands of Spanish troops wasn’t uncommon. So when the Sea Beggars found Catholic clergy in Gorinchem they were rounded up and put in prison. The Martyrs of Gorinchem, as these eighteen people would become known, were transported down the river to Brielle where they were executed.