The Realm of a Thousand Islands

The Netherlands’ capacity for surprise never ceases to amaze. For a small country, it has a fascinating history … and a lot of it. I’d read about the extraordinary history of the area north of Alkmaar, known as the Realm of a Thousand Islands, but it has taken me three years to get around to visiting the region, and the lovely Broeker Veiling Museum in the tiny village of Broek op Langedijk.

The Broeker Veiling Museum tells the story of the region and its people. The first thing I learned was that the Realm of a Thousand Islands should really be called the Realm of Fifteen Thousand Islands. That is the remarkable number of patches of land, known as polders, that were reclaimed from the marshland by digging canals and building dikes. The sludge from the canals was used to create raised areas of dry land.

Windmills near Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Windmills near Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Realm of a Thousand Islands, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

The soil proved extremely fertile and, despite the hardships of farming in such difficult terrain, this soon became one of the Netherlands’ most productive agricultural areas. Here, amongst the tiny plots of land, incredible numbers of cabbages, onions, carrots and potatoes were grown. In a single year, it produced around seven million cabbages, red and white. Unsurprisingly, the area became famous for its sauerkraut production – and the smell of rotting cabbage leaves in the canals was overwhelming.

All those vegetables had to be sold to someone. Until the late 19th century, farmers sold directly to traders on the canals. In 1887 though, the world’s first sail-through vegetable market and auction opened in Broek op Langedijk. Originally open air, eventually a market building was constructed over open water. Boats sailed in, buyers would check the goods, and then the boats would go into the auction house for a Dutch Auction – where the price starts high and gets lower until someone bids.

The area was particularly famous for its potatoes, which thanks to a microclimate grew quicker than elsewhere. The harvest of the first potatoes, the Langedijker Eersteling, was announced on the radio and was celebrated around the country. The farmer who harvested the first potatoes was rewarded with cigars and his name in the local paper. Make no doubt about it though, farming here was very hard work.

The area got the nickname of the Realm of Hard Work for good reason. Farmers not only had to travel by boat between their plots of land, which were often long distances from each other, but virtually all the farming had to be done by hand. The plots were too small for mechanisation, and the tough labour in the fields was added to by the fact that the canals had to be regularly dredged (by hand) to stop the area becoming marsh again.

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

I started my visit with a tour of the museum and a walk around the gardens, followed by visiting the indoor floating market. Inside were boats, some with ‘produce’ in them. It’s a big space and as you walk around there are recordings telling you the history of the market. The market connects by water to the auction house, where once a day there’s an auction of local vegetables to tourists – it’s fun, even if understanding the Dutch commentary is challenging.

After you’ve visited everything a boat ride takes you on a trip through what remains of the Realm of a Thousand Islands. It’s a fascinating ancient man-made landscape. As the area became uncompetitive in the 20th century, most of the original plots were lost to other development. The small area that remains is cultivated by hobby farmers who are growing traditional and non-traditional crops. The produce is still sold, but these days it has to be organic.

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Market, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Auction House, Broeker Veiling Museum, Broek op Langedijk, Netherlands

Cycling on water, crossing the Houtribdijk

It’s not every day that you get to cycle across one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World – even if it’s only one of the Seven Wonders according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That though is what I found myself doing as I cycled along the Houtribdijk, a 30km-long dike that connects the new Dutch town of Lelystad to the ancient Dutch town of Enkhuizen just to the north of Amsterdam.

The Houtribdijk forms part of the immense Zuiderzee Works, a series of dams, dikes, locks and sluices begun in 1932 with the construction of the Afsluitdijk. Intended to protect the Netherlands from floods that periodically devastated the country, the Afsluitdijk transformed the Zuiderzee from a large saltwater inlet of the North Sea into a freshwater lake, the IJsselmeer. It also began a large-scale land reclamation programme that added an extra 1,650km2 of dry land to the Netherlands.

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The city of Lelystad, my start point, was built in the 1960s on land reclaimed from the water. Today it’s home to 75,000 people, and sits about 3 metres below sea level. It would be fair to say that Lelystad’s very existence depends on the Afsluitdijk keeping out the waters of the North Sea. The Houtribdijk was built at the same time as the city. When it opened in 1975 it sliced the IJsselmeer in two, creating a new lake to the south, the Markermeer.

The original plan had been to drain the Markermeer and reclaim another 700km2 of new land. That was derailed by growing financial and environmental concerns in the 1980s, so the Markermeer remained a lake and has become a vital recreational area and wetland habitat. As you cycle along this enormous hydraulic engineering project, the vast expanse of grey-blue water seems to stretch forever, merging seamlessly with the horizon.

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah's Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah’s Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

I cycled from Lelystad’s train station to the shore of the Markermeer where fishing boats and pleasure boats mingle along the shoreline. Improbably, in the harbour was a 70m long ‘replica’ of Noah’s Ark – I’m not sure how you can have a replica of something no one has ever seen. The Ark is billed as the first floating biblical theme park. It’s spent the last five years touring Europe, but is now back in the Netherlands.

Leaving that absurdity behind, I passed an actual replica of a 17th-century Dutch East India Company ship, the De 7 Provincien. In the background was the magnificent Anthony Gormley sculpture, Exposure, of a crouching man looking out over the water next to the Houtribdijk. I was soon on top of the lock system that allows boats to transfer between the two halves of the lake, and I could see the dike snaking into the distance.

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

The cycle lane starts alongside the N302 main road, but soon drops down below the road so that you’re cycling alongside the water, and the 8,500 vehicles that pass along the dike each day are several metres above you. It’s quite strange, but very peaceful as you can’t see or really hear the traffic. Boats pass by as you cycle along, and after a couple of bends in the road the route becomes arrow straight.

I reached Trintelhaven, an ‘island’ in the middle of the dike with a small harbour, car park and restaurant. It also has a small beach. Carrying straight on I finally popped back up onto the top of the dike and I could see my destination, the beautiful medieval town of Enkhuizen. I didn’t have long in Enkhuisen before jumping on a train towards the equally attractive town of Hoorn.

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Dutch springtime, a festival of flowers

Just south of Leiden lies one of the prime flower and bulb growing regions in the Netherlands. It’s an area filled with daffodils, hyacinths, irises and the most famous of all, tulips. If you’re lucky enough to fly over this region when your plane comes in to land at Schiphol Airport, it looks like a giant patchwork quilt of brilliant reds, purples, pinks, yellows, oranges and whites. It’s a magnificent sight, and one so famous that it draws people from around the world to see it.

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

It’s equally impressive seen from the seat of a bicycle as you travel from village to village through the region. Over the last few weeks I’ve been regularly cycling through this area as part of my training for a cycling sportive. It’s been lovely to cycle through the flower fields, passing vibrant blocks of colour as different types of flowers arrive and then disappear only to be replaced by another variety.

There’s something appropriate about the arrival of the flowers, a multicoloured marker of the end of winter and the onset of summer – a welcome explosion of vibrant colour after a long winter of grey skies and brown fields. The splash of colour lasts only a few weeks, during which millions of flowers are cut and exported around the world. Surprisingly, many flowers are not sold, but simply discarded in favour of harvesting the bulbs.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

These days, flowers and bulbs account for a significant portion of Dutch agricultural exports. To put that into context, Dutch flower, bulb and other plant exports make up around two-thirds of total global exports. Not bad for a country with a tiny amount of agricultural land, most of which is below sea level. It’s a trade that has transformed the Dutch landscape, and although you get flowers year-round, April is ‘Peak Flower’.

It makes for quite an unusual tourist experience. Thousands of people flood into countryside which, for the rest of the year, is completely devoid of tourism. It’s an entirely new form of ‘tulip mania’, although these days tulips don’t cost the same as a house in Amsterdam. As you cycle around you can spot people crouching amongst the flower fields having photos taken, while nearby farmers are spraying, harvesting or checking their flowers.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Flower fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Many tourists visit the (admittedly extraordinary) Keukenhof gardens, which are home to over 7 million flowers. Keukenhof tends to get extremely busy, and a more relaxed, interesting and free way of getting to see the flowers and the communities that grow them, is to hop on a bike and meander between this region’s villages. If you’re lucky, you may come across flower-related festivals taking place, or flower mosaics that are entered into local competitions.

On a good day, and the weather at this time of year can be very hit-and-miss, the fields are almost luminous, lending an other-worldly feel to the Dutch landscape. It’s an experience to which photographs don’t really do justice so, if you have the chance, it’s well worth making the effort to see the flowers up close and personal.

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

Tulip fields near Leiden, Netherlands

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