Canal-side chic, a sunny day in beautiful Leiden

Leiden is one of my favourite Dutch cities, and one of the most energetic and vibrant in the Netherlands. Much of the vibrancy comes from the presence of Leiden University’s 23,000 students – in a city of only 122,000 people, they make their presence felt. On a late Spring day, when the sun shines and the cold winter temperatures finally give way to some warmth, the city really comes to life. Boats take to the canals, people gather in canal-side restaurants, and the streets fill with cyclists and walkers.

It’s easy to dismiss Leiden as a smaller, less touristy version of Amsterdam, but that is to underestimate its appeal. For a small city, it punches well above its weight, and has played an outsized role throughout Dutch history. This is a city that witnessed the birth of Rembrandt; was home to the Pilgrim Fathers before they sailed for New England in the Mayflower; was one of the earliest and most important printing centres in Europe; and the university played a major role in the development of modern medicine.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

As you walk around town, it’s hard to miss the role the university still plays in city life. It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious in Europe, with a history stretching back to the 16th century. Its array of alumni is as diverse as 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes; 19th century President of the United States, John Quincy Adams; and 20th century genius, Albert Einstein. University buildings are clustered around the city centre.

The university was founded in 1575 to reward the city for withstanding the Siege of Leiden – the bleakest period in the town’s history. As the most economically valuable town in the southern Netherlands, Leiden’s decision to side with the Dutch rebellion against Spanish rule resulted in an all too predictable and brutal siege. The siege lasted over a year and caused famine and widespread suffering. The lifting of the siege on October 3rd, 1574, is still celebrated today.

The university’s illustrious history is matched by that of the city itself, which stretches back to around 50 AD and the Roman Empire. Today though, it is the extraordinary economic, cultural and artistic flourishing of the Dutch Golden Age that is the most striking feature of Leiden. This period of history is reflected in the picturesque canals lined with 17th and 18th century buildings, ancient churches, medieval alms houses and several surviving windmills.

We arrived in the morning and made our way to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, a fabulous offshoot of Amsterdam’s world famous Rijksmuseum. The Leiden branch is home to one of the world’s most important collections from ancient Egypt, and has recently been reopened after being remodelled. We spent a couple of hours in the museum before walking through Leiden’s canal belt and settling down for lunch on the Oude Rijn canal.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

The weather was so warm we decided to spend a bit more time strolling around the city. We popped into the Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, and the place where tulips were first grown in Europe after being smuggled out of Turkey in the 16th century. Afterwards, we wandered through the Van der Werfpark, a popular green space that hides a tremendous tragedy.

Until 1807 Werfpark was all houses, but in January of that year a consignment of gunpowder exploded, killing at least 160 people, injuring thousands and destroying dozens of buildings. We passed by the magnificent Pieterskerk, and wove our way through the narrow surrounding streets before heading back to the train station – a satisfying day of exploration complete.

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

Leiden, Netherlands

2016, a year of travel in review

Reviewing 2016 is a bitter-sweet thing. There’s much that could (and has) been said about the last twelve months, but this is a travel blog and I’ll steer clear of geopolitics. I think of travel as a positive force, promoting understanding of places and cultures, and bringing people closer together. If 2017 is anything like its predecessor, promoting understanding is going to be important.

Viva la revolución, celebrating New Year in Cuba

Seeing Cuba before the death of Fidel Castro seemed to be the reason so many European’s were visiting Cuba at the start of 2016. That fear has now come true, with the world’s most famous politician bowing out in November. Cuba was a lot of fun, its people warm and friendly, what awaits them in an uncertain future remains to be seen.

Discovering Dutch castles

The Netherlands is not short on history, and historic towns with perfectly preserved medieval centres are seemingly everywhere. Castles, though, seem in short supply. I guess that’s down to a landscape without hills to build castles upon. Look hard enough though, and you can find a few beautiful castles dotted around the countryside.

Rome, a long weekend in the Eternal City

The Eternal City has over 3,000 years of human history and, as you walk the bustling and fascinating streets, much of it is on display. Attractions like the Vatican and Colosseum are ‘must sees’, but for my money this incredible city is best discovered by just wandering its neighbourhoods and eating the food.

Châteaux of the Loire Valley, France

The towns of Orleans and Tours are reason enough to visit this fantastically beautiful region of France, but surreal, fairytale  châteaux are the main reason people make the journey here. In the early morning light, the Château de Chenonceau is unmissable, but the history and stunning views of the Château de Chinon are even more impressive.

Back on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand

Squeezing in a couple of days to explore the sights, sounds and smells of Bangkok’s fascinating streets at the end of a working trip, brought me face-to-face with Khlong Toei, a food market with the power to amaze and churn your stomach simultaneously. Add a trip to Thonburi and a visit to some temples, and a weekend passes quickly.

The wonderful world of Hieronymus Bosch, Netherlands

The work of medieval Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, is strange and sublime in equal measure. To mark the 500th year since his death, the small museum in his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch managed to bring most of his surviving works together for a blockbuster exhibition, and created a wonderful Bosch trail around the town.

Learning the méthode champenoise in Champagne

To truly understand the méthode champenoise you have to go underground into the the hundreds of kilometres of Épernay’s champagne houses. To fully understand where the fizzy stuff comes from, you have to explore the champagne routes that weave their way through the beautiful countryside between Reims and Troyes.

48 hours in Seoul, Korea

Exploring Seoul could take a lifetime. A visit to the Love Museum made me realise that understanding Korean culture could take several more. Seoul is a pulsating and friendly city that, from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave, seems to hold you in its grip. Explore ancient palaces by day and modern nightlife districts by night.

Bruges, the Venice of the North

A well-preserved medieval centre, beautiful canals and magnificent churches, makes Bruges just about as picturesque as it’s possible to get in Europe. It also happens to be home to some good museums and is the epicentre of Belgian beer culture. With over two million visitors annually, try to come outside the main tourist season.

Brisbane, Australia’s new world city

Brisbane came as a complete surprise. I arrived for a conference thinking I wouldn’t like it, and left thinking I might want to live there. The picturesque river front has an urban beach and a fun atmosphere, there are bohemian areas with microbreweries and great restaurants, and weather that cultivates a vibrant outdoor culture.

Spending a night on Whitehaven Beach, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island in the middle of the Great barrier Reef, is perhaps the most exquisite strip of white sand anywhere in the world. The near-pure silica of the sand is matched only by the brilliant aquamarine blue of the water and a beautiful location amidst 73 other islands.

Exploring Granada’s fascinating Moorish history

Spain’s Andalusia region is filled with extraordinary historic towns and villages, but few can rival the sheer majesty of Granada and the former stronghold of Moorish Spain, the Alhambra. Throw in a beautiful old town filled with maze-like streets, and a tapas culture second to none, and Granada is a place to top any bucket list.

A Christmas Carol in Dickensian Deventer

It’s hard to believe as you walk down the picturesque and medieval-looking Walstraat in Deventer, but thirty years ago this street in the historic Bergkwartier was run down, unloved and impoverished. It’s even harder to imagine during the annual Dickens Festival, when the area transforms into 19th century London, and hundreds of local inhabitants wear Victorian dress and become characters from the novels of Charles Dickens.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Deventer’s Dickens Festival is unique in the Netherlands. It’s deservedly famous (around 140,000 people visited it this year), yet no one I know could tell me why a small Dutch town has an festival dedicated to a Victorian-era British novelist. The official website gives few clues as to how and why this 26 year-old tradition stared, and online searches were equally unhelpful.

What is clear, is that Dickens never visited Deventer, and there seems to be no known connection between him, any of his work and the town. This lack of connection troubled me. Why was there a weekend-long Dickens Festival in a small town in the eastern Netherlands?

Walking down the Walstraat during the festival a couple of weeks ago, I stopped to allow a gang of street urchins past, and found myself chatting to a man wearing a checked waistcoat, lounge coat and bowler hat. Under normal circumstances this would be a warning to quickly move away and possibly call the authorities. These, however, were not normal circumstances. A fact underlined as the black-robed Ghost of Christmas Future walked past.

My new acquaintance knew the history of the festival. Thirty years ago, when the area was decaying and run down, someone bought the whole of Walstraat and renovated its buildings and surrounding area. Shops and businesses were encouraged to move into the street. The crowning glory of this regeneration was the launch of the Dickens Festival to promote the area nationally and internationally.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

This information raised more questions that it answered. Who was this mysterious benefactor, and why did he choose to launch a Dickens Festival to promote the area? Answering these questions is probably less important than the fact that it was clearly a brilliant idea: one which has contributed to reinvigorating this historic area and left behind a strange but wonderful cultural legacy.

As you walk around the streets, scenes from daily Victorian life merge with scenes straight out of the pages of Dickens’ novels. This is a fantastic event that brings alive a sense of Christmas far removed from the traditional (and overly commercial) Christmas fairs that have proliferated across Europe.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

At one point I passed a group of carolers performing on the street, inside the church a band played and sang songs. A dandy with a perfect lipstick kiss on his cheek tried to attract the attention of passing women, and glamorous Victorian ladies promenaded through the cobbled lanes. A family did laundry the hard, traditional way, and another street band knocked out crowd-pleasing sing-alongs, like the Wild Rover, Cockles and Mussels, and the Leaving of Liverpool.

Passing the church, a couple of working women wearing bonnets appeared, blackened teeth, laughing drunk and what sounded like whooping cough. The two of them roared around the crowds, acting out a scene more fitting for Hogarth’s Gin Lane. It was brilliant. As they entertained the crowd, I had to remind myself that they weren’t actors, but people who lived here. That’s what makes the Dickens Festival so special.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

A winter wonderland at Deventer’s Dickensian Christmas

Every year, over a weekend in December, the historic Dutch town of Deventer plays host one of the more unusual events the Netherlands has to offer. The medieval centre of this lovely old town is transformed into the 19th century world of Charles Dickens. The novels and characters Dickens is so famous for, are brought to life by over nine hundred of Deventer’s inhabitants, who parade through the streets reenacting scenes from the novels dressed in period costume.

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

This little slice of Victoriana is a lot of fun. Now in its 26th year, it  attracts more and more people every year. Deventer is home to around 100,000 people, and over the Dickens Festival weekend the population more than doubles. Around 140,000 people are estimated to have visited this year. That makes for a bit of a crush in the narrow streets, and makes getting there early worthwhile.

The route through the streets is flanked by stalls selling glühwein, wintery food like roasted chestnuts, and Dickensian souvenirs alongside more ‘traditional’ retail opportunities. As you wander along cobbled streets, scenes from Dickensian life unfold before you; or, in the case of the half dozen people cycling around on Victorian bicycles, hurtles at you in a homicidal manner.

Victorian couples promenade through the streets, wishing each other a “Merry Christmas”; bands of chimney sweeps and Oliver Twist-style pickpockets roam around trying to extract money from people; troops of school children parade through the crowds with their fearsome looking teachers; choirs gather near the church to sing carols; parents push period perambulators down cobbled lanes; and street urchins sit in doorways looking woeful.

It all adds up to one of the most unique and entertaining Christmas fairs I’ve visited. It’s certainly a big improvement on the majority of fairs, which seem to be inspired only by commercialism. What makes it so special is that everyone in costume is a local resident. You regularly see people emerging from their houses in full Dickensian dress, or popping home after a circuit of the festival streets.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Street urchins, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Street urchins, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

While a lot of people simply parade through the streets as generic Victorians, some are easily identifiable as Dickensian characters. Many of these perform scenes from the novels throughout the streets. One of these mobile plays is the funeral of Little Nell. I kept coming across the funeral cortege, pushing a coffin while the mourners wail and cry. Every so often they stop, open the coffin and reveal the ‘body’ inside.

Elsewhere, chimney sweeps run through the lanes, soot-covered faces and brushes in hand, or can be spotted on rooftops. The ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future walk silently through the streets. The Artful Dodger and his gang lurk amongst the crowds. Queen Victoria makes an appearance flanked by British soldiers in their red uniforms. A shepherd herds a flock of sheep through the streets – the sheep ate the Xmas trees. It all makes quite an impression.

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

GLOW, a festival of light in the Dutch winter

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

Eindhoven isn’t exactly on top of many tourist itineraries and, despite having a couple of truly excellent museums, there are few compelling reasons to make the trek here. It doesn’t have much in the way of a well preserved medieval centre like many Dutch towns, and if you want to see canals lined with glorious Dutch Golden Age buildings, you’ll definitely be disappointed. Eindhoven is no Amsterdam.

Once a year, however, Eindhoven puts on a must see event, the GLOW Light Festival. The town is the birthplace of electronics giant Philips, it was here that they developed their lighting business manufacturing lamps and light bulbs. Today, Philips is the largest manufacturer of lighting in the world. Although they no longer have their headquarters in Eindhoven, this heritage lives on in the GLOW Light Festival, of which they are one of the founders.

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

The festival commissions artists from around the world to build some magnificent light sculptures and installations in multiple locations across Eindhoven. We went to it last year and loved it. This year was GLOW’s tenth anniversary and we managed to visit on the one night of the week-long festival when it wasn’t raining – the weather is one of the hazards of hosting an outdoor event during the Dutch winter.

The festival follows a route through Eindhoven, with light installations transforming public spaces around the town. Whole buildings, including the modern city hall and the ancient church, Sint Catharinakerk, become canvases for light projections. This year the 3D projection on Sint Catharinakerk was themed around the weird and wonderful work of Hieronymus Bosch, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of his death. It was spectacular.

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

Other highlights of the tour included three giant inflatable ‘light people’ perched precariously on the top and side of an office building, called Fantastic Planet; the Tunnel of Light in the centre of town; the Axioma projection on the city hall; and the ‘Knock Your Socks Off’ projection on another building.

There were 29 exhibits on two distinct but connected routes, in total the route was around 7.5km and on a cold night we were thankful for the regularly positioned gluhwein stalls. While the Science Route was predominantly Dutch artists and (presumably) scientists; the City Route brought Dutch artists together with others from a variety of countries including Australia, France, Spain, Germany and Finland.

Last year over 700,000 people visited GLOW. If our experience trying to get a hotel room on the opening night is anything to go by, even with the bad weather this year will be even more popular. Deservedly so, it is a fabulous event to illuminate the dark winter nights of northern Europe.

It’s not all light and fun however. One of the installations that made a big impression, were 500 items of children’s clothing with names on illuminated by unltraviolet light. These represented the one child a week that has died from abuse in the Netherlands over the last decade. We hadn’t realised this until a volunteer saw us looking at it and came over to explain.

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

GLOW Light Festival, Eindhoven, Netherlands

Zwarte Pete, a tradition in need of change

It seems like anybody in the public eye who expresses an opinion opens the door to a firestorm of hate on social media. Your chances of being abused are increased if you’re female or a person of colour. If you’re a black woman commenting on the annual Zwarte Pete debate in the Netherlands, not only can you expect racist and misogynist abuse, you will also receive death threats. Videos showing you being lynched, Klu Klux Klan style, will be circulated online and viewed by thousands.

I always thought the Dutch an open-minded and tolerant bunch. Yet this has been the response to a well-known black Dutch TV personality who expressed an opinion on Zwarte Pete. In the three years I’ve lived here, my views on Dutch tolerance hasn’t changed much, after all they put up with me. My eyes have, though, been opened to the fact that, like in Brexit Britain and Trumpish America, there’s a sick undercurrent of xenophobia and misogyny.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

I know most Dutch people think Zwarte Pete is a piece of harmless fun for children. I know many say that Zwarte Pete is a positive role model, one their children want to emulate. I know a lot of Dutch people feel their culture is being judged, even threatened, by anyone who questions the ‘tradition’ of white Sinterklaas and his black sidekick, Zwarte Pete. That just seems illogical to me.

Zwarte Pete is a racial stereotype that draws a straight line to the slave trade via the Scramble for Africa; a stereotype used to legitimise European superiority and rule over other peoples. Given that the Dutch played a major role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and were one of the last European countries to ban slavery, Zwarte Pete is a tradition that needs to be challenged in a modern, multicultural society.

I went to see my first Sinterklaas parade in 2014 and was shocked by people ‘blacking up’. It was like being transported back in time, and not in a good way. I skipped 2015 but, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go to the 2016 event. I’d heard that the debate had progressed and, rather than blacking up, Zwarte Pete would become Blue Pete, Purple Pete and Orange Pete. Maybe in some parts of the Netherlands that’s true, but in The Hague we had traditional Zwarte Pete again.

Traditional Zwarte Pete is little more than a Golliwog caricature. The Golliwog is a symbol of a racist past, one I remember from my childhood in England. Created by American author Florence Kate Upton, Golliwog books sold well in Europe, including The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. The Golliwog is described as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome”. Later he transformed into a kind, fun and friendly character. That sounds a lot like Zwarte Pete.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

There is some movement towards reforming the tradition. Many in the parade had makeup that looked like soot, the story being that Pete came down a chimney, a bit like Santa Claus, and that’s the reason for his black face. There were even some dancing chimney sweeps (they were the most entertaining thing in the parade). That seems like a workable compromise between traditionalists and reformers.

Traditions can change, and some things are best left in the past. So here’s to continuing the debate, and the evolution of Zwarte Pete into something that isn’t offensive. Saying so is likely to cause offence to many who defend the Zwarte Pete tradition, so thank goodness I’m not on Twitter.

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

Landscaped art at the Kröller-Müller Museum

It’s hard to imagine that a museum housing nearly ninety paintings and one hundred and eighty drawings by Vincent van Gogh could, somehow, be overshadowed by something other than works by Vincent van Gogh. The Kröller-Müller Museum is, after all, home to the second largest collection of van Gogh’s in the world. Yet that wasn’t why I’d made the train journey to Ede-Wageningen and then cycled 15km to get there.

In fact, I didn’t even visit the indoor galleries, they will have to wait for a return visit. My main reason for visiting the Kröller-Müller, was to wander the 25 hectares of beautifully landscaped gardens filled with more than 160 modern sculptures from artists including Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Jean Dubuffet, Oscar Jespers and Barbara Hepworth.

K-piece, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

K-piece, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Cube, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Cube, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Jardin d'Email, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Jardin d’Email, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Jardin d'Email, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Jardin d’Email, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

I also wanted to visit because the museum is located in the heart of one of the Netherlands’ most beautiful areas, the Hoge Veluwe National Park. Which, for the Netherlands, is as close to ‘wilderness’ that you’re likely to get. The combination of a world class art collection set in a landscape of heathlands, forests and sand dunes, makes this an extraordinary place by any standards.

The Kröller-Müller is one of Europe’s largest open-air sculpture gardens, the works set within landscaped parklands that get noticeably wilder the further you walk from the museum buildings. The whole experience is part serious art gallery and part treasure hunt. On a warm, dry day it really is a special place to visit. I spent a couple of hours wandering around, hunting out as many sculptures as possible.

Kijk Uit Attention, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Kijk Uit Attention, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

The view from Kijk Uit Attention, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

The view from Kijk Uit Attention, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Square Sculpture, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Square Sculpture, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Mobile Home, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Mobile Home, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

It’s hard to pick a highlight from the whole experience, but Kijk Uit Attention by Krijn Giezen, stood out. I’m not really sure walking up a gigantic staircase counts as art or exercise, but the whole experience was pretty breathless and intense. The stairs go up a wooded hillside before emerging out of the top of the trees and extending upwards. At the top, it feels like you’re floating in the air, hovering over the landscape below. The views are stupendous.

The museum and its collection exists today because of the vision of one extraordinary woman, Helene Kröller-Müller. She acquired one of the largest private collections of the 20th century, with around 11,500 artworks. She also made purchases that were considered ‘bold’ by contemporaries, including her accumulation of van Gogh’s work. It’s said that her passion for van Gogh put his name on the map, and significantly contributed to his fame following his death.

Helene was a visionary, no doubt, but the financer for her collection was her controversial husband, Anton Kröller. He built a vast business empire, and was one of the most powerful men in the Netherlands. Until, that is, the whole thing collapsed shortly after the First World War. Thousands of investors lost everything, a major Dutch bank was brought to its knees, and, although there were accusations of fiddled accounts, he was never held accountable for his actions. Sound familiar?

The hot sunny day I visited, other visitors were few and far between. Maybe that was because it was a weekday, but the reality is that for most visitors to the Netherlands (and quite a few Dutch people), the Kröller-Müller isn’t on their radar. It may only be an hour and a half from Amsterdam, but this is something of a blank space on the map.

Needle Tower, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Needle Tower, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Needle Tower, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Needle Tower, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Needle Tower, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Needle Tower, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Although there is public transport to the doorstep (or a fantastic cycle from Ede-Wageningen train station), the psychological barrier of getting there without a car is significant. As is the fact that, although the wonderful museumkaart gives you free access to the museum, you have to pay a fairly hefty entrance fee of €9.15 to enter the park. If you don’t have a museumkaart you can double that for the entire experience.

That said, you can spend the whole day here amongst glorious nature and equally glorious art. That combo of the museum and national park is value for money, and I’ll definitely be returning.

Tent Project, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Tent Project, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Floating sculpture, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Floating sculpture, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Palisade, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Palisade, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Phylloytaxis, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Phylloytaxis, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Brick Sculpture, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands

Brick Sculpture, Kröller-Müller Museum, Sculpture Garden, Netherlands