The Dutch middle, cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute

The Midden-Nederland cycle route stretches across the Dutch middle, bisecting the Netherlands as it weaves its way from the North Sea near The Hague, to the town of Enschede close to the border with Germany. Cycle a few more kilometres east and you could easily find yourself inadvertently crossing into another country. It’s a very attractive route that takes you to small villages and towns, and through a variety of traditional Dutch landscapes.

The route is a quick and easy way to get a sense of what people mean when they talk about the ‘real Netherlands’, away from Amsterdam’s tourist hordes and packed summertime North Sea beaches. I didn’t have time to cycle the whole thing, but a day trip to Woerden before doubling back to Gouda to catch the train home was a good introduction.

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

I’ve cycled parts of the Midden-Nederlandroute on various other cycle rides, but have never done it as a route. Leaving the outskirts of The Hague behind you’re quickly into a rural landscape criss-crossed with dykes and waterways. Skirting around the modern town of Zoetermeer, I stopped on a canal bridge to admire the landscape and noticed a heron at the edge of the water.

I wasn’t the only one to notice the heron. Some young bullocks had spotted it and came lumbering over to investigate. Bullocks are not the most sensitive of creatures and, as their leader stumbled down the bank towards it, the heron decided enough was enough and took flight. The cows seemed genuinely surprised.

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

No journey in the Netherlands would be complete without a sighting of a windmill. In Benthuizen, a small village that dates from the 12th century, I came across my first of the day. The flour mill De Haas was built in 1772 and is still operated by local volunteers, and still producing flour that can be bought in the mill shop. Sadly, it was closed on the day I passed through.

Leaving Benthuizen you enter the Green Heart of Holland, an area of garden nurseries. The 13th century town of Boskoop began life cultivating fruit plants: the rustic Belle de Boskoop apple is named after the town, as is the Boskoop Glory grape variety and the Boskoop Giant blackcurrent. The town’s vertical-lift bridge over the River Gouwe is its most striking feature, but it’s famed for having hundreds of kilometres of small canals, used to drain water and create agricultural land.

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Benthuizen, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Benthuizen, Netherlands

Vertical-lift bridge at Boskoop, Netherlands

Vertical-lift bridge at Boskoop, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, Netherlands

The route took me through Bodegraven, a town founded during the Roman Empire as a defensive outpost on what was then Rome’s border with Germany. It’s a picturesque place that is also home to the Brouwerij de Molen, one of the new generation of Dutch craft beer makers.

The brewery began life in the windmill De Arkduif, or the ‘Ark Dove’ of Noah’s Ark fame, but has relocated to a modern building down the road. De Arkduif is now home to the Brouwcafé de Molen, a ‘beer-focused restaurant’ with a beer tasting room. My timing was bad, the bar wasn’t open and I had to cycle on without a tasting. They host an exciting-looking beer festival each year, which is now in the diary for 2017.

Brouwerij de Molen in Bodegraven, Netherlands

Brouwerij de Molen in Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Bodegraven, Netherlands

Near Woerden, I diverted from the official Midden-Nederlandroute and found myself cycling through the beautiful woodlands, meadows and lakes of the Reeuwijkse Plassen nature reserve. The area was formed by several hundred years of peat ‘mining’, which saw the landscape transformed by the extraction of peat for fuel and land reclamation for agriculture between the 9th and 18th centuries.

In Gouda, famed for its eponymous cheese, I caught a train back to The Hague and made plans for cycling the next section of the Midden-Nederlandroute.

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

Cycling the Midden-Nederlandroute, near Gouda, Netherlands

All at sea on the Vliet Canal

Strange and peculiar things happen more often that you’d imagine in the Netherlands. You go for a cycle through lovely Dutch countryside and, just when you’re on the way home, there’s a bizarre event taking place in some remote location. If I’ve learned anything since living in here, it’s that the country has a surreal events calendar, jam-packed full of quirky and eccentric activities that are barely comprehensible to outsiders.

These events are such a regular occurrence that I’ve given up being surprised by them. In the Waterland, north of Amsterdam, I came across a WW2 parade in a tiny village; I bumped, randomly, into a marching band on a country lane near Oudewater; and, not to forget, the truly odd sight of people floating homemade craft, modelled on the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, down a canal in the artists former birthplace of  ‘s-Hertogenbosch .

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

Vlietdagen, Voorsburg, The Hague, Netherlands

This time, I’d been cycling through the picturesque countryside wedged between The Hague and the satellite town of Zoetermeer. It was a glorious day of cycling under a warm sun and vast Dutch sky that had taken me through small villages, along and over lovely canals, and past a row of three old windmills that are seemingly known as the Gang of Three.

These three 17th century windmills are a striking feature amidst this flat landscape of polders and cattle. Originally they were used to pump water and drain the land for agriculture. That’s all done by an electric pump now and the windmills have been turned into family homes. Windmills are surprisingly spacious inside, and I love the idea of living in one, but the prospect of near-vertical stairs when you’re going to the bathroom in the middle of the night is a bit off-putting.

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Windmills, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Looping back towards the Vliet Canal and Leidschendam, I came across a flotilla of boats crewed by cartoon characters preparing to set sail down the Vliet. This was the Vlietdagen Festival, or Vliet Days festival. The two historic villages of Voorburg and Leidschendam, separated by 2km of the canal, join forces to put on a weekend of festivities. All of which seem to culminate in a bizarre Wacky Races-style boat parade heading down the Vliet.

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

Cycling near The Hague, Netherlands

A journey through the Hoge Veluwe National Park

Even if you discount the fact that the Hoge Veluwe National Park has a world class art gallery and sculpture garden in its midst, it would still be one of the most extraordinary places in the Netherlands. Away from the North Sea Coast, there is little wilderness left in the manmade Dutch landscape; and, while the Hoge Veluwe National Park isn’t the wildest place on earth, its mix of landscapes play host to a surprising variety of wildlife.

There are numerous walking and cycling routes around the park, all easily followed, and taking you into just about every corner of this beautiful place. The park comprises heathland (awash in purple heather when I was there), forests, grasslands, surreal inland sand dunes and peat bogs. Cycling around it never lacks for a change of scenery. On a bright sunny day, it was a delight to explore.

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

There is a remarkable variety of wildlife roaming around the park, including some sizeable mammals. The park’s ‘big four’ are red deer, wild boars, mouflons, and roe deer, but you can also see foxes, pine martens and badgers, as well as lizards, frogs and numerous birds. Things weren’t always so easy for the wildlife here, this was once a hunting park for the original owners, Anton and Helene Kröller-Müller.

Perhaps I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I only saw one baby red deer, spotted in a thicket. There must have been some adult deer around, but they were clearly too well camouflaged in the woodland, or too smart to give themselves away to a passing cyclist. Perhaps these descendants of the animals imported to be hunted are concerned the bad old days will return, and no one will tell them before it’s too late.

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

I didn’t see see any animals, but the cycling alone is worth the €9.15 entrance fee. There are over 40km of cycle routes that take you on big loops around the park, and past the main ‘sights’ and into obscure corners. Even in a country where cycling is more accessible than almost anywhere on the planet, the trip around the cycle route is an uncrowded pleasure. The park may receive 600,000 visitors each year, but I saw hardly any other people.

I’m glad I found myself alone for long stretches, it was very peaceful, but given all the park has to offer it’s something of a mystery that there weren’t more people. When you do see people they are frequently cycling on one of the parks’s iconic white bikes. There are 1,800 of them stationed at the three entrances, and are free to use for visitors.

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

If you’re visiting the Netherlands don’t have you’re own transport, the Hoge Veluwe National Park takes a little bit of effort to reach. But this is a gem of a place. Visit the glorious Kröller-Müller Museum, cycle through enchanting landscapes, and bring a picnic to make a day of it.

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Hoge Veluwe National Park, Otterlo, Netherlands

Down the Vliet with the Pilgrim Fathers

The Netherlands never ceases to amaze. For such a small country it has a lot of history. History that has had enormous influence on the world. The calm and attractive Vliet Canal is one of those pieces of a much larger historical puzzle. The canal connects Leiden to Delft, where it meets another canal that links it to the Nieuwe Maas river at Delfshaven. From there it is just a short journey to the open sea.

The Vliet Canal was dug in 47AD, when this area was part of the Roman Empire. In nearly 2,000 years of existence, many boats have sailed on it, none more important for Western Civilisation than the Dutch barges that sailed from Leiden to Delfshaven in July 1620. On board these boats were the men and women who would travel across the Atlantic on board the Mayflower, and go on to found Plymouth Colony.

The Hofwijck on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Hofwijck on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Voorburg on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Voorburg on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

These English religious dissidents would become known to posterity as the Pilgrim Fathers (were their no women?). They’d been living in Leiden for eleven years after fleeing what they saw as religious persecution. When they left Leiden on their way to establish what would become Massachusetts, they sailed down the Vliet Canal to Delfshaven, before boarding the Speedwell to England and then on to the New World.

I doubt any of the Pilgrims thought it a significant moment in history, and no one seems to make much of a fuss about it today either. Cycling along the Vliet, past grand houses and lovely polder landscapes, there is hardly any mention of this history other than a small statue in Leiden. It’s a lovely cycle though. Starting in Voorburg, a historic suburb of The Hague, I followed the canal all the way to Leiden.

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Leidschendam on the Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

I stopped in Voorburg to admire the Hofwijck, former home of Constantijn Huygens, a renowned 17th century Dutch politician, and of his son, Christiaan Huygens, whose study of the Rings of Saturn led him to discover Titan. A few kilometres further along the Vliet is the small village-cum-suburb of Leidschendam, which has a picturesque centre next to some locks on the canal.

Leidschendam has a human history that dates back to the Romans, but it was the canal that made it a prosperous place in the medieval period. Several windmills were built near here, and the 17th century Salamander windmill still sits on the banks of the Vliet. The Salamander was a sawmill, you can tell by the elongated building that forms its base – long enough to get a tree inside.

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

The Salamander windmill, Leidschendam, Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Next to the locks in Leidschendam is a very odd sculpture. I don’t know what it’s supposed to represent, but one of the three figures has a dog on his arm, another a sail boat, the third has a misshaped globe on his head. Either that or a potato. Try as I might, I’ve not been able to discover anything about this entertaining trio. If anyone knows anything about it, send me a message.

The rest of the 10 or 12 kilometres to Leiden is along the canal, you don’t pass through any more villages but you do pass lots of boats and through some attractive Dutch countryside. It’s not a long journey, but it is calm and peaceful, and right on my doorstep.

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Sculpture in Leidschendam, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Vliet Canal, The Netherlands

Giethoorn, the Venice of the Netherlands (apparently)

I went to Giethoorn because a colleague who’d visited told me it was a “lovely little village”. The village website temptingly describes it as “quiet”, “serene” and “remote”, a place where the loudest sound is the “quacking of a duck”. I’m sure Geithoorn is wonderful under normal circumstances, but a sunny weekend in August is far from normal … at least I hope so for the sake of everyone who lives there.

There’s no doubting Giethoorn’s appeal. Beautiful wooden houses, with thatched roofs and perfectly manicured gardens, are built on dozens of narrow canals. There are no roads through the village and the only footpaths are too narrow to walk in anything other than single file. In the past, farmers moved their livestock by rowing them around in boats. As advertised, there are a lot of ducks, some of them even quack.

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Much of the surrounding countryside is a national park and is criss-crossed with cycle and walking routes. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the calm and picturesque landscape as I cycled from Meppel to Geithoorn, but my arrival in the village was a rude and unpleasant awakening. Tourists, from all over the world, had overrun the village.

I never thought I’d say this, but Giethoorn was almost as touristy as Amsterdam’s central Canal Belt. There weren’t any British stag parties but, like Amsterdam, there were boatloads of tourists careering around like lunatics. I stood and watched with a mixture of shock and bemusement as dozens of tourist boats, crammed into tiny canals, crashed into bankings, into bridges and into each other.

Church in Meppel, Netherlands

Church in Meppel, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

Dutch countryside near Giethoorn, Netherlands

It was mayhem on the water, and it wasn’t much better on land. Large, noisy groups of domestic and foreign tourists crowded down the narrow paths, and across even narrower bridges, creating pedestrian bottlenecks and traffic jams all around the village. That didn’t stop self righteous and aggressive Dutch cyclists from trying to cycle through the crowds – a display of wilful disregard for their fellow human beings.

On days like this, it must be impossible for residents to do even the simplest of tasks. I saw a lot of “For Sale” signs, perhaps a dozen houses in total. In a village this size that’s an awful lot of people trying to move away. I watched the antics of tourists, and realised that if this was what summer in Giethoorn was like I’d not want to live here either. Not for nothing are there ‘Private’ and ‘No Entry’ signs in a variety of languages.

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

I’d planned to visit the museum, ‘T Olde Maat Uus, a well preserved example of a traditional farm and fisherman’s cottage where there were people in period dress reenacting life from 150 years ago. This is normally catnip to me, but the whole place was swamped with tourists and tour groups. I made a mental note to come back in the depths of winter.

Geithoorn itself dates back to the early 13th century. The name means Goat Horn, because goat horns were discovered buried in the peat near here. Peat was a major industry for the village and, in the surrounding area, there are dozens of man made lakes created by the digging of peat for fuel. The village canals were dug so the peat could be transported more easily by boat.

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Today, this village of 3,000 people is connected by around 180 bridges, joining the many parcels of land that form Geithoorn. That probably gives Geithoorn more bridges per capita than almost anywhere else on the planet. Sadly, that achievement looks likely to be rivalled by the village’s tourist to resident ratio.

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 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.

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.

Cycling through the bewitching Dutch countryside

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.

Oukoopse Molen, cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Oukoopse Molen, cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

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.

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Oukoopse Molen, cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Oukoopse Molen, cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

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.

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

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 through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

Cycling through the Dutch countryside near Oudewater, Netherlands

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…

Zierikzee and the longest bridge in the Netherlands

Timing is everything in life. On my cycle around Zeeland my time, and luck, were up. I’d had nothing but glorious weather, cycling under blue skies and a hot sun as I toured Zeeland’s coast and interior. That was about to come to a dramatic end. After leaving the mighty storm barrier of Oosterscheldekering behind, I headed into a strong, and getting stronger, wind en route to the ancient fishing village of Zierikzee.

Out of time. The Scheldt estuary from Zeeland Bridge, Zeeland, Netherlands

Out of time. The Scheldt estuary from Zeeland Bridge, Zeeland, Netherlands

I was looking forward to seeing Zierikzee and then to cycle across the Zeeland Bridge, at 5km in length the longest bridge in the Netherlands. I can report from first hand experience that half way across the Zeeland Bridge is no place to find yourself during a thunder storm. This is especially true when the rain is monsoonal and lightning is streaking across the sky. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I reached Zierikzee after struggling for 20km into a headwind along the banks of the eastern Scheldt. After a full day of cycling it was exhausting stuff, and I was glad to arrive in the late afternoon for a rest and some food. I passed through one of the town’s medieval gates, it was immediately apparent that this was an historic town.

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee dates back to at least the mid-12th Century. It was a fishing village before becoming one of the towns of the Hanseatic League. Thriving on trade and fishing, it suffered a sudden decline in the 16th Century. That doesn’t seem to have prevented the town from constructing a wealth of beautiful buildings.

I parked the bike and went for a walk around, conscious that I wouldn’t have much time to explore before needing to get going again. It was another 25km to the town of Goes (there really is a town called Goes), where I’d get the train back to The Hague. The old part of Zierikzee is wonderful and, because I’d arrived in the late afternoon, there weren’t many other tourists.

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee’s central square is an attractive open space ringed by cafes and restaurants. I found a table overlooking the harbour and ordered up some food. I was only in the restaurant for 30 minutes, but in the time it took to eat a sandwich and sample a local beer the weather had changed dramatically. Big ominous-looking clouds had swept in and rain was definitely headed my way.

I’d have liked to spend a little more time wandering Zierikzee’s atmospheric streets, but I was now in a race against time and the elements, a race I was never likely to win. I cycled towards the Zeeland Bridge and, in the hope that the rain would hold off until I was on the other side, set off across its dramatic 5km distance. There were fabulous views down the estuary to the Oosterscheldekering.

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The rain started to fall in big, heavy drops that grew in intensity until I was soon cycling into a torrential downpour. Thunder roared overhead, lightning illuminated the sky and the wind howled. I entertained myself making up newspaper headlines about the death of an idiot who decided to cross a bridge in the middle of a storm. It seemed like an eternity before I reached the other side.

The rain and lightning were extraordinary, so I took shelter under the bridge and waited. The storm eventually passed and somewhat bedraggled I set off again for Goes. It turned out that this was a false dawn. Ten minutes later the heavens opened again and I found myself wondering if people actually drown while cycling in Zeeland.

The Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Scheldt estuary from Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Scheldt estuary from Zeeland Bridge, Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Zeeland Bridge, near Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

The Zeeland Bridge, near Zierikzee, Zeeland, Netherlands

Goes is supposed to be an interesting town to visit, but I was soaked and my only interest was to not be there. I eventually I found my way to Goes train station and…wait for it…went.