It was the weekend and the sun was shining. This has been such a rare event recently that I dragged myself out of bed early. I took a train to Woerden, the start point for a lovely cycle ride that took me through traditional Dutch landscapes to the small town of Oudewater. Then, turning south, I headed to the cheese town of Gouda, from where I could catch a train back to The Hague.
Oudewater, of which (or should that be witch?) more later, was my main destination. Oudewater holds a unique place in Dutch and European history. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the town’s Weigh House was the only place in Europe where you could be weighed to prove you weren’t a witch. Strange but true.
First, I had to navigate a cycle through the countryside of Utrecht Province. Cycling through the Dutch countryside can often feel like you’ve wandered into a tourism advert or onto a chocolate box. The landscapes seem too perfect, too manicured to be real. In reality this is a landscape crafted and shaped over centuries by agriculture and an epic battle against water.
Canals and water channels criss-cross the landscape. Polders, the low-lying strips of farmland that the Dutch have artificially created by draining the land of water, line up in neat rows. Dykes, preventing this hard won land from flooding, are everywhere in evidence. There is very little that is natural about this landscape, but that doesn’t stop it being picturesque.
As the saying goes, “God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland”. Polders, which make up about 20 percent of the landmass of the Netherlands, are proof of the massive effort it has taken to create the modern Dutch landscape. For perspective, without all this effort, some 65 percent of the Netherlands would flood on a daily basis; and my daily cycle to work would probably require a canoe.
Look at this region of the Netherlands on Google Earth and you’ll see that it’s almost entirely made up of polders. An intricate patchwork of green strips interspersed with thinner strips of water. Some of the farm longhouses with thatched roofs are 200 or more years old, many are listed as national monuments. This is classic Dutch farming country, the Netherlands that you don’t get to see on a weekend trip to Amsterdam.
It’s well worth the effort to explore if you have the time…and exploration is easy. I never stop admiring how good the network of cycle paths is in the Netherlands. Not only traffic free on many routes, but with a supporting network of signposts and distance markers. It’s basically impossible to get lost for long in the Dutch countryside.
Cycling is definitely the best way to explore and experience the Netherlands, made all the easier by the flatness of the land. I sometimes find myself shocked to be cycling uphill, although to be fair the uphills are usually only bridges. The flatness of the land also means that you can spot the spires of churches from miles away.
I could see the towering spires of Oudewater’s Sint Franciskuskerk and De Grote of Sint Michaëlskerk from a long way away. They seemed to be beckoning me towards a coffee, a snack and a chance to prove I wasn’t a witch…