Cycling through Gelderland to Royal Buren

Not long after I arrived in the Netherlands, I heard the story of how the current Dutch King, Willem-Alexander, once competed incognito in the legendary Elfstedentocht speed skating race in 1986. The then Prince Willem-Alexander registered for the event using the name W. A. van Buren, questions of who the mysterious van Buren really was emerged only during the race. In adopting the van Buren name he was continuing a royal tradition, both Queen Wilhelmina and Queen Juliana had used ‘Buren’ to hide their true identities.

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

Wijk bij Duurstede, Gelderland, Netherlands

The name was adopted as a nod to the royal family’s historic connection to the small, picture-postcard perfect town of Buren, which sits in Gelderland countryside south of Utrecht. Buren gained its royal prestige in 1551 when the then Countess of Buren, Anna van Egmont, married William I, Prince of Orange. Known as William the Silent, he was one of the key rebels to revolt against Spanish rule of the Netherlands, and was the leading military commander in the early years of the struggle for independence. It’s a critical historic connection in the Dutch national story.

My cycle route took me from Utrecht to the town of Houten, and then past several castles, none of which are open to the public, and through small villages to the pretty little town of Wijk bij Duurstede. The town sits on the Rhine, or the Nederrijn as the river is known here, and was a critical junction in trade links across Europe. No surprise then that a castle was built here to protect trade and extract tolls. Today, it’s a ruin, although one that has a cafe inside it. It’s evocatively set in woodland and surrounded by water.

I stopped for a drink and to shelter from the sun, before exploring the town and finding my way to the small harbour. This is overshadowed by a huge windmill which straddles the road into town, acting like a gateway. Apparently, it’s considered to be the world’s only ‘drive through’ windmill. The town was decorated with Dutch flags and orange bunting to mark the day the Netherlands was liberated from German occupation in the Second World War – a recurring theme everywhere on my route.

To reach Buren meant crossing the Nederrijn. On my map it wasn’t clear if there was a bridge, and as I cycled towards the crossing I could see a ferry arriving. I speeded up so as not to miss the boat, and got there just in time. It was only when we were crossing that I realised two things: there was a €0.80 fee for bikes and I didn’t have any money. Embarrassed, I asked the boatman if I could pay with card. I could not. A cafe on the other river bank proved to be my salvation. They were happy to charge €10 for iced tea and give me the change to pay for the boat.

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Gelderland, Netherlands

Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Buren, Gelderland, Netherlands

Sterren van Weleer, rabbit statue, Gelderland, Netherlands

Sterren van Weleer, rabbit statue, Gelderland, Netherlands

Crossing the Nederrijn, Gelderland, Netherlands

Crossing the Nederrijn, Gelderland, Netherlands

Crossing the Nederrijn, Gelderland, Netherlands

After that close escape, I cycled on tiny lanes through beautiful countryside towards Buren. I could see the steeple of the 14th century Sint-Lambertuskerk in the distance, which marked my destination. It was in this ancient church in 1551 that William the Silent married Anna van Egmont, there’s a bronze statue outside of the couple with their children. Sadly it wasn’t open when I was there, and I had to content myself with sitting in its shadow while having lunch at a nearby cafe.

The town has plenty of lovely old buildings and still retains some of the city walls that protected its inhabitants. Other than the church, Buren’s ‘major’ attraction is the early 17th century orphanage building. Bizarrely, this has been converted into a museum to the Dutch military police. Buren’s not a big place, and an hour after arriving I was on my way again, following the River De Korne to the next town over where I could get a train back to Utrecht.

The oldest tree in the Netherlands, Doorwerth Castle

It’s said that, while looking at a painting during a visit to Kasteel Doorwerth, a woman suddenly felt “cold and very scared”. This terrifying ordeal is now claimed to have been an encounter with the supernatural, and it’s not the only time ghostly activities have been experienced within the walls of this castle on the banks of the Rhine, in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Such is the paralysis-inducing fear people have been subjected to, a British paranormal psychologist (whatever that is) came to the Netherlands to investigate. He’s said to have witnessed the horrifying sight of two “vapour-like mists”.

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

People seem to love a ghost story and, even on the freezing cold day I visited, the castle was busy with visitors. Given Kasteel Doorwerth’s dramatic location close to the Rhine and backed by woodlands, and a violent history stretching back to the 13th century, it hardly seems worthwhile trying to add the extra drama of supernatural goings-on. As I cycled along the banks of the Rhine I could see the castle in the distance. It looked very peaceful sat in the Gelderland landscape, but looks can be deceiving. This castle has seen a lot of action.

During Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem in September 1944, the castle was heavily bombed. Medieval building techniques were no match for modern warfare, and it was reduced to a tragic pile of rubble. It took 37 years, but the castle was fully restored to its former glory and reopened to the public in 1983. This wasn’t the first time the castle had been destroyed though. The first recorded mention of it comes in 1260, when it was besieged by the Bishop of Utrecht, who ordered it to be burnt to the ground.

At that time it was mainly a wooden building, when it was rebuilt they took the sensible precaution of using bricks. A huge defensive tower was added, as was the moat that still surrounds the castle today. I walked across the drawbridge over the moat into the lovely courtyard, in the centre of which is an ancient tree said by many to be the oldest in the Netherlands. It struck me that the tree might have been the inspiration for the  white tree of Gondor from the Lord of the Rings.

The tree, an acacia, was planted in the late 16th or early 17th century, and has a very impressive circumference of around seven meters. It’s clearly famous as people were taking selfies in front of it. After enduring sub-zero temperatures on the way to the castle, the courtyard was sheltered from the freezing wind and bathed in winter sun. I sat on a bench and warmed up a little before going inside. Oddly for the Netherlands, there was only information in Dutch, but some rooms had people in period costumes explaining things.

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Doorwerth, Gelderland, Netherlands

The castle’s not large and I was back in the courtyard in less than an hour. I got back on the bike and headed to Arnhem. It was only afterwards, sat in a cafe eating a warming bowl of erwtensoep, that I discovered a bizarre link between Doorwerth Castle and Kirkby Lonsdale, the small market town where I went to school in northern England. I was part of Bentinck House at school, named after Lord Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, a large landowner in the area.

Originally from Germany, Bentinck’s were Counts of the Holy Roman Empire. Through marriage they inherited lands in the Netherlands, including Kasteel Doorwerth. The family also had an English branch, started by Captain John Albert Bentinck in the 18th century. Despite his Dutch and German parentage, his grandfather was the British Earl of Portland and he inherited lands in England. The Cavendish-Bentinck after which my school house was named, was a halfbrother of the Duke of Portland. The connected history of Europe’s aristocracy never ceases to amaze.

A bridge too far, remembering the Battle for Arnhem

The history of Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem during September 1944, is something every British person of a certain age knows. The epic film, A Bridge Too Far, recounts the story and features a stellar cast. So visiting the sites of the battle, and cycling over Arnhem’s all important road bridge, held a lot of meaning for me. The road bridge, and the nearby railway bridge, were deemed so critical to Allied plans for the invasion of Germany that 35,000 Allied troops were committed to the operation.

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Had it succeeded the war might have been shortened by a year. After the successful D-Day invasion and rapid success in France and Belgium, the Allies had run out of steam. The plan was to flank German defences and attack from the Netherlands. The British chose to ignore intelligence reports that two German tank divisions were stationed near Arnhem. Airborne troops were ill equipped to fight tanks and support from ground troops took too long to arrive. Hoped for victory turned to tragic defeat.

I started the day with a visit to the excellent Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek, a small village outside Arnhem where much of the fighting was concentrated, and where British troops would form a defensive pocket before being overrun by German forces. The museum is based at the former Hotel Hartenstein, which was used as the British HQ. The top floors recount the backdrop of the battle, including original film footage and photographs, as well as recorded testimonies from civilians and soldiers, from all sides. It’s well done and incredibly poignant.

John Frost Bridge, Arnhem, Netherlands

John Frost Bridge, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Old Church, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Airborne memorial, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

On the lower floors, the museum has recreated realistic battle scenes from the streets of Arnhem and the trenches around Oosterbeek. After the museum I visited the Allied cemetery where many of those who died were buried after the war. It’s a tranquil spot. I cycled through the village to Oosterbeek’s old church, which was the scene of intense fighting. The church suffered significant damage, as did many of the village’s buildings. It’s a sleepy, prosperous looking place today, the events of 1944 were devastating.

My route along the banks of the Rhine took me away from Arnhem before crossing over a modern road bridge and returning me along the other bank of the river back towards the legendary Arnhem bridge. This involved cycling 20km into a headwind in sub-zero temperatures. By the time I crossed it my feet were little more than blocks of ice, the side of my face most exposed to the vicious wind was numb, my nose ran and my eyes streamed. In the town are more reminders and memorials to the battle that took place here.

The offensive that might have ended the war a year earlier, ended in failure. Allied troops would be pushed back, the Germans would launch their counter-offensive in the Ardenne, and the people of the Netherlands would be forced to endure a brutal occupation for another eight months. The consequences of defeat would be severe. Swathes of Arnhem were destroyed and hundreds of Dutch families were refugees in their own country.

Dutch civilians, under German occupation for four years, had greeted the paratroopers ecstatically, believing this was the start of their liberation. The reality afterwards was extremely bitter. The German command extracted reprisals against the Dutch with impunity and, during a harsh and unforgiving winter, Germany blocked food shipments to the occupied parts of the Netherlands. Dutch civilians were deliberately starved.

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

Allied cemetery, Oosterbeek, Arnhem, Netherlands

This became known as the Hongerwinter, the “Hunger winter” or the Dutch Famine of 1944-45. Starvation and malnutrition were widespread, with an estimated 22,000 people dying before the country was liberated in May 1945. Many of the soldiers who took part in Operation Market Garden blamed themselves for inflicting these horrors on the people of the Netherlands. The memorial outside the Airborne Museum pays testimony not only to this, but to the fact that the Dutch never held them responsible:

50 years ago British and Polish Airborne soldiers fought here against overwhelming odds to open the way into Germany and bring the war to an early end. Instead we brought death and destruction for which you have never blamed us. This stone marks our admiration for your great courage, remembering especially the women who tended our wounded. In the long winter that followed your families risked death by hiding Allied soldiers and airmen while members of the Resistance helped many to safety.

Gelderland’s glorious Kasteel Ammersoyen

Thanks to the film, A Knight’s Tale, I actually thought the Dutch Province of Gelderland was fictitious. It turns out that not only is it a real place, but it has a variety of medieval castles worthy of the film itself. I’d ventured into this eastern Dutch province for a day of cycling – Gelderland is the largest, least populated of all Dutch provinces, and makes for good cycling. First on my list of stops was the magnificent Kasteel Ammersoyen, a classic medieval moated Dutch castle that, after extensive renovations in the late 20th century, is now considered one of the best preserved castles in the Netherlands.

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

This itself is somewhat miraculous. The castle was built in the 1350s and has managed to survive over 700 years of turbulent European history. At different time the castle was fought over by Burgundian forces in the Hundred Years’ War, Spanish armies during the Dutch struggle for independence, and Napoleon’s troops laid siege to it as well. The castle was severely damaged by fire in the 16th century, but Allied bombing raids during the Second World War – a war in which it was ill-equipped to participate – did far more damage.

Today, it sits peacefully on the edge of the small village of Ammerzoden, close to the River Meuse. The river has been a major trade route for centuries, and explains the castle’s existence.  Surrounded by water, the castle has four round defensive towers, and a central courtyard. From the outside it seems pretty compact, this is deceptive as the interior is remarkably spacious, despite all the small narrow staircases you have to navigate to access parts of the building.

I’d arrived early, too early for the castle to be open, but luckily for me there was other entertainment on offer. The somewhat odd sight of a couple of dozen people dressed in medieval clothing and playing period instruments. This, it turned out, was a troupe of performers who do medieval recreations around the country, and who’d be practicing various crafts, musical recitals and combat techniques during the day. First though the troupe was warming up with a group photo in front of the castle. They stay in character during the visit, so I think I can forgive them the pre-opening use of a camera.

It was an entertaining visit, especially when I was co-opted into trying out replicas of a medieval mace and sword. I spent some time listening to some traditional music in the kitchens, before exploring the rest of the castle. A tour which I assume took me into a room in one of the towers that is reputedly haunted by a Lady in Blue. Several people have made claims that they have seen or ‘felt’ her presence, including a couple of the castle’s staff. One person has described feeling ‘uncomfortable’ in the room where the ghost is supposed to live.

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Who am I to doubt the claims of someone who felt  uncomfortable in a room, but this paranormal activity seems based on little historical evidence. No one I asked knew who the Lady in Blue was, I put the sightings down to wild imaginings of fanciful minds. Still, after this close encounter with the spirit world, I hopped back on my bike and set off for my next destination, the lovely medieval town of Heusden. There was a ferry across the River Meuse, which turned out to be free, as I crossed the midway point in the river I left Gelderland and entered North Brabant. Soon I’d arrived at the fortified outskirts of Heusden…

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

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

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…