Here is the first article in a long running series of adventure guides hereby named 020’s Itsy Bitsy Guide. Each guide will discover new places which haven’t already been covered in the Itsy Bitsy Guide.
Welcome to 020’s Itsy Bitsy Guide: Cycling in the Netherlands.
In August last year I bought a bike – not a highly expensive bike, just a run-of-the-mill kind of hybrid bike from Raleigh, which set me back about £170. I added on a basket (£20) and a bike rack (also £20) and there I had it, a bike, which could take me places I had never been to before all on my own steam. My cycling trip destination was France, which saw me cover about 330km in about 10 days. Not too much you may say, but for someone who had not cycled in almost a decade and a half it was an accomplishment (without the bum sores).
By the time this August arrived my bicycle had proven to be a valued friend and was ready for a new trip.
I learned a lot from my last trip due to my inexperience but this year’s trip was going to be much more smooth. No longer would I be travelling with a not-so-waterproof backpack, a tiny €8 tent and a sleeping bag tied with ockey straps to my bike rack. On this occasion my bike would ride in style with a pair of sexy Ortlieb panniers and bike-rack bag to match, a durable and spacious tent and a cosy sleeping bag with a hood to keep me sleeping through those close to zero temperatures.
Let’s go Dutch
My destination for the trip was the Netherlands and to get cycling there I caught a 7-hour long overnight ferry from Harwich, Essex to Hook of Holland. I travelled with a friend and the return journey on the ferry cost £153.00 for the two of us and it included a journey for our bikes and a surprisingly modern and clean inside-cabin to rest our weary heads. A ferry to the Netherlands seemed a better option than catching a plane to avoid airline’s pre-flight bike loading requirements. Also, it is better to arrive at a ferry port in a small town than navigate an exit out of a busy city airport.
If you are unfamiliar with the Netherlands and not part of the bike enthusiast circles then you may not have heard that this flat country is cycling paradise. Road after road, town after town and city after city you will find endless cycle paths fit for kings. If safety has been something that has stopped you embarking on a cycling trip then the Netherlands can cure all those phobias. You will be amazed when you find motor traffic continually giving way to you and general pleasantness directed your way from carbon-emitting road users. Here you are not treated as an annoyance but an equal user of thoroughfares.
My diary to you
This article is to offer you a guide to cycling in the Netherlands. Possibly you are new to cycling or maybe you can cycle the distance I did in a day – either way there should hopefully be something you can find of use. If it is your first time and you have a week to spare and decide to arrive by boat then perhaps you can follow my route for a few days of your trip.
Hook of Holland – The Hague (distance about 20km)
Cycling from Hoek van Holland to the seat of government centre, The Hague was a short and enjoyable ride (or drive, as Dutch people always called it), passing by sand dunes and tomato plantations. The Hague is full of museums and if that is your thing then it is advised to stay a night or two. I found its centre to be open-spaced and modern but lacking the feel of other Dutch cities I had already seen and love. I guess business is bucks here and unfortunately World War II saw the death of many old buildings.
The Hague to Delft (distance about 10km)
An interesting point of the trip was when we left The Hague and cycled through some outer suburbs, which were more akin to Harlem than Holland. Delft on the other hand is everything that The Hague is not, small, narrow streets full of inspirational buildings, heavy tourism, flowing canals, quaint shops and traditional Dutch culture with clogs included. The artist Johannes Vermeer spent his entire life here, one of his most famous oil on canvases being The Girl with the Pearl Earring.
We did not spend a night in Delft but I definitely advise to do so if you have time. A place to go on a romantic weekend or just to take in some Dutch culture without having to venture all the way into one of the cities.
Delft to Rotterdam (distance about 16km)
Rotterdam is the second largest city by population. Many of us already know it is a major hub for shipping; unfortunately this is where our knowledge usually stops. It has a rich culture, helped by its large intake of immigration – almost 50% of those dwelling here are not natives. This is a great spot to get your bike fixed if you have any niggling problems because Rotterdam is a place to party, eat good food and drink great local beer. Check out Bazar (Witte de Withstraat 16) for some particularly good Turkish food at happy prices and if you would like to spend a little bit more then visit Lulu’s (Parkhaven 20) for an Asian mash-up covering just about every popular Asian type of food served under chilled music and comfortable cushions and good looking staff. If you wish to stay in a room for then night then there are plenty of hotels ready to house you for the night which provide security for your bike in their cycle lock-ups.
Rotterdam to Gouda (distance about 24km)
Cheese on toast may get your stomach rumbling after a long cycle so make sure you drop into the square on market morning (Thursday) and taste the wares. Even buy a little to take on your journey, nothing nicer than stopping off for a picnic by a canal in the sun. Gouda’s market square is the largest of its kind in the country. If you arrive at night time no need to worry, visit any of the take-away restaurants or sit outside any of the cafes in front of the town hall.
Gouda to Utrecht (distance about 37km)
Utrecht is an amazing little place and definitely one of the highlights, the town comes with the usual canals, good looks and charm and plenty of buzz from cafes and bars. It has got a warm student feel to it which helps keep the social scene ticking over but with a Dutch style. There is plenty to look at and lots to do even if it is just a stroll down unknown streets on a mission to discover something new.
Utrecht to Bunnik (distance about 8km)
We decided to stay at a caravan park in Bunnik so that we could camp. Bunnik is nothing to write home about however there is a youth hostel full of character, which is also a place worth staying and apparently the oldest youth hostel in the country. If you plan to visit a few of the restaurants and nightlife that Utrecht has to offer then Bunnik is a good place to base yourself and your tent.
Bunnik to Wageningen (distance about 40km)
Taking this route will see you through forests and some elegant villages worthy of a stop-off and a cup of whatever it is that keeps you peddling. Wageningen is in the Gelderland province and sits on the Lower Rhine and a recently historic town as this is where Germany surrendered to the Canadian troops, which ended World War II in the Netherlands.
Wageningen to Arnhem (distance about 20km)
The first thing that struck me about this town was the lack of tourism. As a direct consequence the people seemed extremely friendly and more than willing to help out with directions and smiles (minus a man working in the stationers). A city that can tell a story or two having major archaeological finds here, as well as also playing a major part in World War II (Operation Market Garden). Being a city and friendly to boot, use this town to refuel in some of the good food on offer. We tried Indonesian.
Arnhem to Nijmegen (distance about 20km)
Near the German border and considered by many as the oldest Dutch city, this little gem is supposed to be the warmest part of the country. Shame nobody told God that before we arrived. Starting on the third Tuesday of every July they celebrate International Four Day March Nijmegen which is essentially 4 days of walking. You choose the route you would like to walk, ranging from 30-50km a day. It is more a party than a walk and festivities will see you clambering for the headache tablets before your walking boots each morning.
Nijmegen to Berg en Dal (distance about 6km)
If all the partying gets too much or history starts to become a blur then cycle south to Berg en Dal (Mountain and Valley) which has a couple of camp spots. This is where the Netherlands (which means lowlands) becomes hilly and your legs will be required off from their lunch. Luckily however there is a huge hill leaving Berg en Dal to put a little wind beneath your wings.
Berg en Dal to Kranenburg, Germany (distance about 9km)
Okay, so we just wanted to bloat and say we cycled to Germany – so that is precisely what we did. I polished up my German and we crossed the border into Kranenburg and it was evident all was not right in Kansas – I mean Kranenburg, the locals did not speak English like they did west of the border.
English speaking or no English speaking however, the Germans know how to make a functional and clean caravan park, produce good food in their on-site restaurant and produce the most excellent beer we had tasted on the whole trip.
Kranenburg, Germany to Plasmolen (distance about 13km)
This part of the trip became quite hilly. A lot to see over the handlebars though, cows, horses and even miniature horses. These trails are gorgeous and we had plenty to see and do, stopping off to take snaps on the way. There was a camping site set on a small lake in Plasmolen, which became our home for the night. We tried the Italian restaurant, which sits on the main road just outside the main village.
Plasmolen to Eindhoven (distance about 62km)
Before we reached Eindhoven we passed through the town Nuenen, which features in a Vincent Van Gogh painting.
If you plant to take this route then get to Eindhoven early, it is a large town and has a street full of bars to kickstart your night, it has the highest density of bars in the Netherlands.
We unfortunately got to Eindhoven pretty late, it was Monday Madness in town obviously and there were streams of students in different coloured t-shirts and the bars all seemed to be offering alcohol for prices you would expect in Prague. We decided to cycle out to Molenvelden, 12km east of Eindhoven and camp there for the night. Fortunately we found Molenvelden by complete accident at 3am in the morning.
Eindhoven by train to Harwich (costs about €23 one-way)
The trip was at its end and we decided to spend a night in Eindhoven’s centre camping inside a nice room of a classy hotel, taking advantage of its great food, many bars and the weekly morning market.
An English Dutch Country Garden
Keep an eye out for unusual garden ornaments throughout your Dutch trip, particular in this region. If you are a keen gardener then the Netherlands is the place for you. Throughout all my travels I have never seen better gardens on average than here, Dutch people take such care of them. I suppose with the high rainfall average they can spend more time grooming their gardens rather than watering them.
Camping in the Netherlands
Camping is just one of many ways to get a good kip on a cycling trip. Fortunately there are an abundance of campsites however the locals seldom know where they are so make sure you bring a guide along with you.
Our first night we were lucky enough to stay in Rotterdam at a friend’s house (thanks Rob, that’s one hell of a couch you have). Due to a late night and an even later wake-up call we left the city a little later than we had hoped for and found ourselves peddling in the dark on our way to Gouda. Do not bother to find the camping spot which is listed in the Lonely Planet Guide for Gouda, we did try but never found it however found a different camping spot about 8km away in a town called Haastrecht (about 6km from Gouda). Unfortunately when we arrived at Camping Streefland it was way past midnight and nobody was at reception. We were desperate and decided to camp in the gravel car park as it appeared to be the driest place due to the continual rain that had fallen throughout the day. About half way into putting our tents up the owner of the campsite appeared and took us to a barn and said we could sleep there the night instead. What a nice old fellow.
Make sure your tent, if you have one, has many waterproof parts as possible. This country will definitely put anything waterproof to the test – buy the best, which is tried and tested. Nothing worse than a wet tent.
Albert Hein became our supermarket of choice but there are plenty of others too. Every small town has a supermarket or too and all offer a wide selection of cheese, bread and whatever else you are used to finding in a UK supermarket. Some items are good value, some less although most fruit and vegetables do seem to taste better than what we get form equivalent stores at home.
The Netherlands has its fair share of evenly distributed rain throughout the whole year. It is elementary to conclude then – you will need to bring suitable attire with you. Get wind-proof jackets and quick drying gear.
Arriving in the country you will notice that there are bikes just about everywhere and every age group is riding them. Bike racks lines street corners, shopping centres and transport hubs. They are all full. There are so many bikes that nobody really knows the true count however back in 2006 it was recorded that an astronomical 760,000 bikes were stolen in this small country alone. Nine out of 10 Dutch people over 15 years of age owns a bike.
In Amsterdam in the 1960s an initiative called The White Bicycle Plan started. It was a large-scale bicycle program offering the free use of bicycles for short trips. The idea was that someone else would pick up the bike that you left behind. After about a month most of the bicycles were stolen and the rest were found in canals. In 1993, here in sunny England a similar program started in Cambridge, however all the 300 bikes were stolen within the first day. “I was just on me way back with it officer, I promise”.
My 10-day journey went without incident; nobody seemed to even stare at my bike. They seemed a really trustworthy nation as a whole. However, bring a good lock or two with you and make sure you use them. Obviously the bigger the city the bigger the risk associated with the safe-keep of your bike. Many of the bikes being stolen are not being stolen to sell onwards; they are being used to get the new owner home.
These thieves will take the easiest bike to get themselves to their destination, make sure yours is not that one.
Panniers – ORTLIEB’s Back-Roller Classic QL1 (http://www.ortlieb.com/)
Look after your belongings, you brought them with you for one reason – you will need them. Make sure you get trustworthy bags to hold them all in.
Panniers – they hang down the side of the bike rack and these were an integral part of my journey. Not only did they protect by being waterproof, they were also portable so I could easily unclip them from my bike rack in a matter of seconds (ORTLIEB’s Quicklock system) and take them with me into my tent when retiring at night.
I chose ORTLIEB because I heard they were hard-wearing and it paid off, they survived the many times my bike fell over while playing the balancing act on a tree.
The ORTLIEB panniers come with an over-the-arm strap too and stitched in reflectors to increase your visibility. If you are brave enough, instead of choosing the normal black-coloured panniers, get a pair of brightly coloured panniers and stand out on the road.
I decided to go with an extra bag to deposit my tent and sleeping bag. I chose ORTLIEB’S Rack-Pack, which sits on top of the bike rack and clips into the panniers so there is no chance of it falling off. I kept clothes in my left pannier and consumables in my right so as to never be too far from a snack or a piece of warm clothing.
Tent – Black Diamond’s Oasis 3-person (http://www.bdel.com/)
Do not skimp thinking you will get lucky – even if it does not rain there may be times when you have no alternative but to camp on wet ground.
I brought the Black Diamond Oasis along because it is strong, durable, covers 3 seasons, has good ventilation, easy to erect using just the 2 poles and at 2.6kg it was an easy decision to make. There are smaller tents on the market but I like to have a bit of space to leave my bags and enjoy a meal inside if needed.
Go for something easy to put up and what is strong – it is a horrible feeling when you are two days into a trip and a pole cracks or a zip stops working.
Sleeping bag – The North Face’s Wasatch (http://www.thenorthface.com/)
I usually spend enough time in my sleeping bag to warrant quality, I remember all too well the time I spent driving across the northern states of the USA during a cold October and stopping off to sleep the night on lonely highways. I spent the first few nights freezing in an inadequate sleeping bag until I purchased one of good quality.
This journey I took The North Face’s Wasatch 3-seazon mummy-style sleeping bag, which kept me warm during the cold nights. This is the type of bag needed for a typical western European summer but if you decide to carry on camping (ahem) then perhaps you should look at North Face’s warmer sleeping bags.
If you have room, invest in a mattress too.
Shirt – Columbia Sportswear’s Silver Ridge Shirt (http://www.columbia.com/)
A handy top to bring with you which will help protect you from minimal rain and also protect you from the sun’s rays during those sunnier moments.
Who else is cycling the Netherlands?
The mass of cyclists who you will be passing by in the countryside is predominantly older Dutch couples and racing teams practising for their next big event. Cycling in the Netherlands is not a place to expect to find new love (although it could happen). In the towns you will pass by pretty much anyone with a pair of legs (or just one leg in some cases). The Dutch are a courteous bunch and offer smiles as well as handy directions.
Luckily the Dutch do not dub their TV. They learn English at school and hang on to it by watching plenty of English-speaking television therefore they are continually having to read subtitles whilst listening to the English language. It is not just the young who speak English – speak to a bunch of 70 year olds on the street and a majority of them will too.
So in a nutshell, cycling in the Netherlands is pretty simple, it will increase your fitness, open your mind and leave you with a lot of fond memories from a country worth revisiting. It doesn’t take a lot of organising before you set off, just buy the tickets, grab the right gear and off you go.
If camping is not your type of thing, there are plenty of youth hostels, bed & breakfasts and hotels to keep you warm.