Pedalling through the petals, an experience much like tip-toeing through the tulips but on big-ass bikes weighing at least forty pounds. An umbrella and a basket of blooms out front and voilà, we would have passed for a peloton of Mary Poppins!
My hubby and I recently took a vacation from our year long French vacation and, with four friends from home, rented such hefty steeds for a week of self-guided cycling through Noord-Holland, the northwesterly province of the Netherlands. If you aren’t a fan of climbing (or have a love/hate relationship, like me), the area is perfect for exploring by bike. It is as flat as a pannenkoek (pancake), with more than half of the region being below sea level, reclaimed by the ingenious engineering of the Dutch who discovered centuries ago that living underwater was not a viable option.
Our cycling route was circular, through a watery wonderland of windmills, tulips and Edam cheese – by the way, the cheese is named after the town, not the other way around. It started and ended in Amsterdam, a city I adore!
I swear...the French fries there (in all of Holland, for that matter) are the best in the world! The Dutch love them with mayo. We indulged in far too many, justifying our consumption with the old “calorie in/calorie out” formula – after all, we were on a bike trip. Thankfully, I’m really bad at math!
With boat-lined canals crisscrossing the city, the magnificent architecture and museums packed with masterpieces – Amsterdam is truly magical. Near-naked prostitutes beckoning from cannabis-clouded lanes add a seamier element, which somehow appeals to my inner curiosity. The city is upbeat and free-spirited, with an energy I always find contagious.
I first visited in 2007. Then, the infamous Red Light District, with its women of the night, sex shops and live shows, covered a much larger area and was, ahem, far more risqué. I wanted to know what happened...see, I told you I was curious. Google advised that nine years ago the Dutch government initiated a scheme to force closure of many of the brothel “windows”, leaving valuable real estate available for re-development. Now restaurants, pubs, cafes and shops take the place of the carnival of vice that was once there. Even sex-trade workers can become victims of gentrification!
On my first morning in the city, I stepped out of our Amsterdam hotel onto the cycle path and was almost flattened by a lovely blond commuter astride a sturdy, black cruiser-bike. Helmet-less, wearing a long, flowing skirt and envy-inspiring boots, she had her iPhone to her ear and was moving fast - oblivious to me, a mere pedestrian. I soon realized that was the norm. It was my first cultural epiphany – cyclists reign supreme in the Netherlands. It’s a nation in love with travelling on two wheels.
There are reportedly 881,000 bikes in the city. That’s more bikes than people – and four times the number of cars. The bike parking garages are mind boggling, multi-level affairs, housing a sea of bicycles locked to anything stationary. Apparently it’s a situation of lock ‘em or loose ‘em! My second epiphany came with the realization that no one wears a helmet, not even the kids. We were immediately identifiable as foreigners because we were the nerds with helmet-head.
Thousands of kilometres of cycling paths lace the countryside. Every Knooppunten (intersection) has been assigned a number and is linked to a network that covers the entire nation. It’s “Route-Finding for Dummies” at its best – just follow the white signs with green numbers and arrows. Easy-peasy, ja!
With four GPS’s, three full sets of maps, all that awesomely descriptive signage and six brilliant minds (perhaps a wee overstatement, considering...), we still managed to get lost leaving Amsterdam. We ended up on a ferry crossing a large body of water which was nowhere on our list of instructions. The men of the group assured us – in a very manly way - it was not them, but the instructions that were wrong.
Our timing of this adventure was a balancing act – weather vs. tulips. It was mid-May, close to the end of the flower season (I know – I’m a bit behind in my blogging). We hoped to be early enough to see the blossoms, but late enough not to freeze our butts off on our bikes. Our first day dawned damp and c-c-c-cold - about 12 degrees, overcast and threatening rain! Don, ever resourceful, looked like “The Man from Glad”, with plastic bags warming all (well, almost all) extremities. Thankfully, we got only a mere sprinkle and the rest of the trip proved to be a mixed Dutch bag of weather – not balmy, but no more rain and even some sunshine.
The landscape was scenic and oh...so typically Dutch – flat, impossibly green and the epitome of pastoral perfection, with every house, garden and farm carefully tended and much loved by its owner. Webbed with canals and dotted with thatched farmhouses and ancient windmills, I took a poll of our group and, in no particular order, here are a few of our favourite memories:
Riding atop dykes with sweeping views of the North Sea; the stark beauty of the wind-swept dunes and never-ending beaches of Texel Island; idyllic harbours and quaint, little historic villages; cheese stores stocked floor-to-ceiling with tawny rounds of Edam; a woodland meadow carpeted with a tangle of wild bluebells; black and white, spotted cows grazing next to inquisitive, wooly sheep (which obligingly mugged for my camera); and OMG...those cream-filled buns from a country bakery in a windmill.
Wait, there's more: the taste of freshly caught, just smoked fish from a local market; slaloming along a twisting forested trail on those bad-boy bikes and ahhh...those quaint, hand-operated, wooden draw bridges. And lest I forget, the fattest, most affectionate piece of pork walking on four legs – her name was Bacon.
Not a favourite were the swarms of small, mosquito-sized bugs that plagued us intermittently while riding. We learned quickly when approaching a dark cloud to keep our heads down and and our mouths shut (not easy pour moi). They didn’t bite and were only prevalent for a couple of days near certain types of roadside vegetation, but I must admit, the splat, sting and pop of them hitting my sunglasses, face and helmet (respectively) was disconcerting.
The best part of our trip was – drumroll please...the tulips! They did not disappoint! Our timing was impeccable – we hit full bloom. A week later and all those beauties would have been tragically gone – their lovely heads mowed off to improve the strength of the valuable bulbs below. I have never before seen such a stunning display. As far as the eye could see, there were rainbow fields of flowers - big blocks of beautiful, brilliant colour!
At first glimpse, I felt compelled to get close - to smell, to tiptoe - but there was a canal separating me from all that gloriousness. Undaunted, I climbed across on a wooden lock that was used to control water levels. All went well until the return trip. I must have inadvertently kicked something and water started gushing into the canal while I was perched on top of the outflow. I tried frantically to shut the valve, but to no avail. I could think of no alternative but to jump on my bike and flee the scene. I took comfort from the fact we didn’t hear any reports of flooding in North Holland.
The week can only be described as “gezellig” – a word that defies translation and encompasses the very heart of Dutch culture. Literally, it means “cozy”, but to the Dutch it goes way beyond that. It’s an all-encompassing word that includes everything from relaxing and fun to sociable and convivial. It connotes an atmosphere which allows good times with good friends to happen. And happen they did...in one week the six of us achieved a complete and happy state of gezelligness!
One final fun fact – the Dutch are the tallest people in the world! National statistics cite mega-consumption of milk and cheese and excellent prenatal care as possible causes. Personally, I think it’s the fries!
Until next time, mes amis! Here’s to a summer filled with gezelling moments. . .