The difference a week makes.
August moved effortlessly into September and the hoards of tourists who had been inhabiting the North Sea Coast of the Netherlands suddenly, without fanfare, vanished. One day the cycle tracks, beaches and beach-side bars were buzzing with activity along this coastline, the next an eerie quietness descended. Where did everyone go? Alien abduction? Where is Sherlock Holmes when you need a ginormous know-it-all?
Not that I’m complaining, fewer people is rarely a bad thing when you’re trying to enjoy nature. This is my first summer in the Netherlands so everything is still a little new. I hadn’t realised that such wondrous beaches existed in Northern Europe, let alone that hundreds of thousands of people would make their way here from across Europe to enjoy them.
Now though, the long decline into autumn and winter has begun; like birds heading south the North Sea’s summer visitors have migrated. The cycle tracks and beaches on the coast between The Hague and Haarlem to the north are much quieter; the beach-side bars that were host to a party crowd are closing, deconstructed and packed away until next year. Once again the coast is the preserve of local cyclists and dog walkers.
I picked up my earlier route at Noordwijk and cycled towards Zandvoort on the coast, then inland to the city of Haarlem. The journey is, to say the least, picturesque. Passing through kilometre after kilometre of rolling sand dunes, I occasionally stopped to walk over the dunes onto wide sandy beaches with hardly any people on them. I imagine in winter, with a gale blowing, these beaches will be inhospitable places. On a sunny September day, they are glorious.
Arriving in Zandvoort is something of an anticlimax after the beauty of the journey. This is as close as the Netherlands gets to imitating the horrors of Torremolinos in the 1980s. At the height of the tourist season the beach can look like a seal colony, with thousands of people packed close together. Then there is the architecture.
There is a near universal truth that architects seem to lose their reason and sense of aesthetics when given the job of building by the sea. Almost every seaside town I’ve ever visited has been home to some of the most bizarre and fearfully ugly architecture known to humankind. My general theory is that architects, inspired by the liberating views of the ocean, do their drawing blindfolded. Zandvoort has not escaped this fate.
This isn’t entirely Zandvoort’s own fault. During World War II this area was considered strategically important, so the German Army built a series of fortifications here as part of the Atlantic Wall sea defences. To do so they first levelled around three kilometres of the town along the waterfront. Zandvoort had once been an upmarket resort with grand hotels and a wealth of beautiful buildings. By the time the German Army had finished, it had been devastated.
Amidst the general destruction of Zandvoort, the most iconic moment came when the the town’s ornate water tower was blown up. There is a grainy black and white photo capturing this moment on the town’s official website. Leaving Zandvoort behind I headed inland towards my final destination, Haarlem, which, as Harlem, has given its name famously to part of New York and numerous other places.
I often sing the praises of the Dutch cycling system, but the journey into the centre of Haarlem was poorly signposted and once in the town I did several circuits trying to find the train station. This at least gave me the opportunity to see quite a lot of this historic town, whetting my appetite to return and explore more thoroughly.