My little wiggle around the Netherlands – not Holland, that is the name of just one part of the country – was quite lovely. There were plenty of Warmshowers hosts, and barely a metre ridden off bike lanes out of my own choice. It also had the glorious benefit of being filled with people who could speak English almost fluently that were incredibly blunt, allowing for almost anything to be discussed.
The first part, saw me go through The Hague and long tulip fields on the way to Amsterdam. It was only a few days short of peak tulip season, which considering my ability to generally miss things by weeks or months was impressive. Ideally I’d have been there a little later, because as well as the absolute best tulip time I would have also been there for King’s Day, something that we have no equivalent of in the UK, when the city of Amsterdam especially becomes a giant party with the canals being so full of boats that you don’t need the bridges to cross them. Apparently this isn’t the case all over the country, and in fact I was in Maastricht a couple of days before it was to be celebrated but my host told me that it wasn’t worth staying as nothing happens in Maastricht. If you look at a map of the country it makes more sense, with it being located in a part that just would raise calls of gerrymandering if it were a congressional district and really seems like it should be part of Germany or Belgium.
Even knowing about Amsterdam being famous for it’s bike lanes, I was rather surprised to see the sheer flow. Having queues of 10+ bikes waiting at traffic lights and being in a city where there where I counted more bikes than cars was impressive. The infrastructure even stretches to having triggers in the bike lanes to set off the traffic lights rather than having to press a button – although they were also there conveniently located at bike height. The other big thing is the almost complete lack of helmets on adults on bikes unless they were on a road bike. I think it’s a great thing, and there’s no way that the bicycle would be so popular in the country if it were like in Australia where you are fined if you don’t wear a helmet (a law that has seen cycling shrink since it was brought in). Quite a few people are now using e-bikes, with a top speed of 20-25kmph, but the faster ones that come in are going to require helmets considering they can go at 40. This does lead to being overtaken by lots of grannies who barely seem to be riding – not great for one’s self worth.
Cycling implementation isn’t however perfect, and I was shocked to find that a lot of the ‘bike-lanes’ of the country were on pavements. When they are like that in the UK, I think it’s poorly done, and generally ride on the road instead. Being so much more ingrained in the Netherlands maybe it works better, as every time you get to a junction you have priority as in an accident it’s almost always assumed to be the fault of the motor vehicle.
I’d been to Amsterdam as a kid, but the limit of my memory was a very small hamburger that ended up being much tastier than I’d thought it would be. I only spent a day walking around the canals, and eating plenty of cheese and stroop waffle samples in the many shops aimed at tourists. I was lucky to be in the city on the day of a ‘free walking tour’ that I found by browsing Couchsurfing. There was only myself and a San Franciscan banker, who had recently quit his job for a year to explore the world and although he was in his 40s was full of wide-eyed joy constantly being amazed at the age of things and seeing things that he’d only seen in movies. Being such a small group, and with a typically-blunt Dutch guide meant that pretty much any question could be asked as we were shown around the famous red-light district, and coffee shops, and heard about the Dutch fondness of turning a blind eye to things with a prime example being weed. It is legal to buy, and smoke, but not sell. You are only allowed to have a small number of plants, but definitely not enough to produce all that is sold and consumed in the country, but it’s just ignored. Prostitution on the other hand was cleaned up dramatically a few years back ensuring that tax forms are filled in, and workers are registered, which has hopefully dramatically reduced the number of girls brought in against their will.
While Amsterdam is the most famous Dutch city, I actually found Utrecht to be more interesting. It has the same canals, not surprising considering how much Dutch history is the story of their fight with nature – and the heroic boy sticking his finger in a dyke to save his town, but with a lot fewer tourists. It’s also got one of the more distinctive cathedrals that I’ve been to with the tower and body of the church being separate thanks to being bombed during the second World War. The fact that it was possible to buy a bottle of wine called Tour de Dom 2015 didn’t harm either (German and Dutch both call a cathedral ‘Dom’ and this year’s Tour de France starting by the cathedral in Utrecht). As well as pancakes, which I’d eaten in Amsterdam, two apparently very typical Dutch foods are herring and chocolate sprinkles – writing that I do wonder how they taste together – and they were both tried in Utrecht. Gitta, my host, is a big fan of sprinkles and apparently a very common Dutch breakfast is sprinkles on bread. I tried making sprinkles on toast, but it just made her think that toast is what we English do because we have bad bread. Quite possibly. Herring on the other hand was eaten at the market, and ended up being much nicer than I’d expected. That might not be saying much, as I was kinda thinking it’d make me choke, but it was quite delicious really.
The other major city on my tour was Rotterdam, which was definitely not the same. It had been destroyed in WW2 and is now a city filled with fascinating modern architecture. I’m sure my sister would find it fascinating. I was satisfied with a quick walking tour of it having visited Kinderdijk in the morning. It is a UNESCO site with lots of windmills, is the prettiest thing nearby and was definitely a delight to see all the tourists riding around it. That of course lead to a few close incidents from tourists who hadn’t ridden forever tried swerving into me, but I’d had that already in Amsterdam so I was ready.
One thing that I had reinforced in the Netherlands, and Rotterdam in particular, is the feeling of not being Germany. In England we like to think of Germany as one of our main football rivals, but for them it’s definitely the Netherlands. I don’t speak any Dutch and so when I was reading a Dutch sign out loud, as if it were German, my host immediately let me know how unimpressed he was with my actions. It wasn’t quite to the extent of Korea v Japan, but there was definite dislike there.
Highlight – Bike lanes everywhere, ease of communication, finding that Dutch Pay wasn’t that common, e-bikes making cycling more accessible
Things to work on – A mountain range or two would be appreciated, not being overtaken by as so many pensioners on their e-bikes.