Farewell, Don Hector

Me and Mrs E had cycled in the Netherlands a couple of times before – the last visit was in November, when the weather was so cold that we had to buy ski mitts for the way home, and shivered our way back to the Hook of Holland past completely frozen dykes. So, naturally, we were up for some more of that, as long as the weather was going to be kind to us, which of course it would be, in early May.

Well, not if the weather forecast was to be believed. With a few days to go, the weather across all of Europe was looking a bit bleak, and where we were heading looked like it was going to be raining all day, every day. And with one day to go (actually, on the day of departure (actually, with about three hours before we were due to leave for Harwich)), when Mrs E asked me to check her bike and I found that the hydraulic brake was completely knackered, it was beginning to look like a pretty crappy time was heading our way. 

Mrs E owns two bikes.  One is her lovely bike that she’s had for a few years, and which has transported her on a few tours before – a great bike, although, as we found out quite late on in our planning, not very good at stopping. And her new whizzy Dutch E-bike, which has enabled her to get back from a shift at work in record time, and which she’s terribly protective of. Unfortunately, the problem with the other bike meant she had to ride her pride and joy, which left us with a few dilemmas for the trip. 

Firstly, it being a nice shiny new bike that she was still working out how to use, she was very protective and didn’t entirely trust all its complex features to always work. But her biggest worry was the likelihood of being able to charge the battery every day – especially since one of the design ‘features’ of this bike is a non-removable battery, which means that the whole bike needs to be near a socket to charge. 

I had a different dilemma though. For years on our bike trips we’ve been reasonably well matched, I tend to ride ahead of her and if she needs me to slow down, the deal is that she’ll ring her bell to stop me sailing off into the distance. The first time we cycled in the Netherlands we were heading south through Zandwijk, through all manner of pedestrian traffic, and all I could hear was a regular pinging of her bell. It reminded me of Don Hector, just after Lalo tells him that he can’t find any evidence that Gus is at fault and he’s going back to plan A. Note that you need to have a working knowledge of Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul for that to make sense. If you don’t, just imagine a really impatient hotel guest hammering away at the reception bell. Anyway, Mrs E wasn’t going to be making any Don Hector impressions. Quite apart from the fact that her e-bike has an eerie echo-y bell as part of its gizmo collection, she was never, ever going to be left behind again. I knew this, because when cycling with her in the past, I’d worked incredibly hard to keep up with her, and just as I got alongside she’d press the little ‘boost’ button on the handlebars and disappeared off into the next county. 

With all of this potential fretting in mind, we got the bikes on the ferry on Saturday night, had a short sleep in a fabulous cabin, got up at 6, and by 7:30 were pushing the bikes off the ramp, in our full wet weather gear. The fww gear lasted us about 400 metres, as we realised that all the weather forecasts had been wrong – there was no rain to be seen (and there wouldn’t be any for the next 48 hours). 

So we headed up the coast, a route we knew reasonably well, heading past Den Haag and Katwijk and Noordwijk, where we had the tour’s first appletaart, and on into Haarlem, where we sat down with some impossibly beautiful people and ate a very trendy Sunday brunch. Because we were off the ferry early, we’d travelled most of the trip by lunchtime, so pootled leisurely along to Zaandijk, where we were staying that night. The route through to Zaandijk has many things to love – fabulous cycle lanes, lovely villages, lots of wildlife, no litter, and not really much in the way of people. Those that you do see seem pretty happy to see you, although the ones that we spoke to seemed a bit nonplussed when we told them that we were here to cycle across the Maarkerwaarddijk. 

A word about those cycle lanes. I’ve waxed lyrical in this blog before about the wonders of cycling in the Netherlands. And if you’re bored with that then you can skip this next bit. But the network of cycleways in this country defies belief if you’ve spent your life mixing it with traffic in the UK. In the 1960s, it could easily have gone in a different direction – the Dutch car manufacturing lobby hired an American designer, David Jokinen, to help redesign the streets of Amsterdam and The Hague to make them more car friendly. One of his plans involved concreting over one of the main  Amsterdam canals to build a six lane highway.  Fortunately, a combination of finances and pressure groups stopped this happening. Key to these groups were the Provos, semi-anarchists who were represented on the Amsterdam city council, and the members of Stop de Kindermoord (Stop Childmurder), which was set up following the death of the daughter, by a speeding motorist, of an Eindhoven journalist.  By 1975 there was a standard design manual for road and street development which not only prioritised cycle usage, but complemented it with the concept of living streets and reduced traffic speed. Fast forward to today, and cycling has just become the norm across the Netherlands.  Very rarely do you have to have any contact with car drivers, but if you do, you normally have the right of way, it’s very clear whenever you don’t, and car drivers are, to a fault, polite and courteous. As are the cyclists. It’s almost as if there’s a respect for people riding bikes, which may be a surprise to you if you’ve been used to riding a bike in, say, the UK. The paths that we went on had fantastic smooth surfaces, were often well away from the roads in beautiful countryside, had no potholes, no litter, were clearly signed and just wonderful to spend time on.

Back to Zaandijk, which was great for a walk in the evening past all the working windmills and the sort of houses that you see here and almost take no notice of, but which if they were  anywhere else in the world, would have a preservation order and a turnstile in front of them immediately. My kids, when they were young, used to play with playmobil, and I never really understood the appeal of the buildings, but I think I do now, having spent a bit of time with the real thing – the buildings are cute but functional, and look like they’ve been designed by architects who are incredibly proficient but who never let go of their sense of fun. Huge windows, over-pitched roofs, shiny doors, intricate brickwork, immaculate gardens – like a set of childs’ toys increased to adult size without gaining any of the full sized mess. 

To bed then, and up for breakfast looking over the mist, to just about make out the windmills on the other side of the river:

We were headed for Enkhuizen this morning, via Hoorn, and planned to cycle over the Maarkerwaarddijk in the afternoon, ending up in Lelystad for the evening. On the way we saw yet more fabulous cycle paths, borders of grass and cowslips and elderflower along uninterrupted and unpopulated paths, and pastoral scenes of springtime that made Mrs E go aah in all the right places. We saw ducklings, goslings, lambs and foals in quick succession, so much so that Mrs E titled the road ‘post-natal avenue’ – she was a woman very much in her element. 

The Maarkerwaarddijk was a big deal for us, and almost the whole point of the trip. Mrs E has a thing about bridges – a few years ago we took a trip to Malmö, just so that we could go across the bridge that  connects Denmark to Sweden, which we did, four times in total. We’d originally planned to cross the Afsluitdijk to the north of here, but the mileages didn’t quite work out. There’s not much in it – the Afsluitdijk is 32 km long, and the Maarkerwaarddijk is 30km, so they’re both pretty sizeable pieces of engineering. 

Both dams were designed and built  by Cornelius Lely, who figured that the Zuiderzee would be a safer place for all concerned if it was closed in. This had a massive impact on geography, ecology, fishing and farming, made the resulting massive lakes into fresh water (I’ve no idea how), and massively reduced risks of flooding. The only reason I know any of this is because we’d made good time across to Einkhuizen, so decided to grab a coffee in the Zuiderzee museum, which has its entrance just before the Maarkerwaarddijk. Before we knew it, we’d bought tickets to go and look round the museum, and were told that it was just a 20 minute boat trip away. A little bit unsure about delaying our ride, not to mention leaving all our gear unlocked on the bikes, we still went over, and on the on the other side of the boat trip found a living museum, full of Dutch artisans in aprons and clogs, a full blown wedding in progress, loads of buildings restored to the 1900s, and an indoor museum which told us everything that we ever needed to know about the Zuiderzee. Just fabulous. 

And just a quick boat trip back to find our belongings still attached to our bikes, and to start the two hour journey over the dam   

Which was, of course, also fabulous. Huge sea lakes on each side of the road, great crested grebes that seemed to be located at exactly 50m intervals, and heads down for 30km. Unfortunately, heads down was about right, as we also had the company of about 5 million sand mites who were constantly swarming into our path, and mouths and eyes and ears. Horrible. They eased off after about 90 minutes though, and we had the last few miles of the road sweeping away from the dam and round into Lelystad, to ourselves. 

Into Lelystad, named after Cornelius Lely, and, in keeping, seemed to be full of big buildings made out of concrete. It was a bit of a shock after the nature trail we’d been on for the previous 50 miles, but very friendly, and we soon found ourselves sat down at a slightly bizarre all you can eat sushi techno-buffet, where we knocked back about half our body weights in won ton soup, sushi, fried seafood, noodles, and anything else that looked good on the menu. As a result, we both felt pretty sick for the next 24 hours, but we were on holiday and determined to get our moneys worth.

Up in the morning for a short ride to Amsterdam, which was just as well, as it chucked it down with rain all day. The sort of thing that would make a cycling holiday really hard work, unless of course you had an electric bike, which at least one of us did.  No shortage of water in general – as well as tipping it down from above, we had the Markermeer on our right for most of the journey, and sometimes to our left as well. Into Amsterdam then, and able to mix with lots of other cyclists, and to the Social Hub hotel, ostensibly a student hotel but with fabulous rooms, great food, really lovely staff and great facilities. The sort of place that no student deserves, of course. 

We’d got to Amsterdam early because we had a booked slot to visit Anne Frank’s house, which was suitably sobering, and made our way back out into the rain feeling a mixture of depression and inspiration. 

Wandered around Amsterdam in the evening, still marvelling at the architecture and having the sort of discussion that you have when you’re in a  city that you love (how would we manage if we lived here, could we afford to, what would we do with the dogs, would anyone ever come and visit etc etc) then back to the Social Hub, where lots of happy young people were chatting and working and playing fussball, despite it being way past their bedtimes. 

We expected rain the next day but again got lucky and headed out of Amsterdam to Katwijk, and down through the dunes towards  the Hook. We happened across an Ernest Hemingway themed cafe (as you do) on the side of a lake, where we recharged ourselves and Mrs E’s bike, then diverted into The Hague for some light retail therapy. The route out of The Hague took us past all of the embassy and ambassador buildings, which made us feel like we were cycling in Beverly Hills, and soon we were back on the coast, buying up a load of food in Lidl and then hauling it, our bikes and luggage onto the boat. A very civilised picnic in the cabin, a catch up on Teemu Pukki’s emotional farewell to Norwich City (me) and the German occupation of the Netherlands (Mrs E), a brief sleep, positioned so that when we woke up in the night we could see the stars out of the porthole, and a 0530 wake-up, and we were ready to head home. 

I’m writing this, having got back this morning to a lively reception from the dogs, and the day before I drive up to Scotland for #1’s stag weekend. This will, apparently, involve some drinking, some hi-jinks and some cycling. But it’s really going to have to go some to match the last few days. Proost!


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