Sunday, August 2, 2015

Eerbeek, The Netherlands: Connecting the Dots

It took us just two days to cross Belgium, a country that is not quite France, not quite Holland.  The landscape is flat enough, like Normandy with the river valleys ironed out.  And the language was a form of French that morphed into a form of Dutch as we migrated north, but it did not really matter because just about everyone spoke English, too.   We also seemed to have crossed the “muesli line”.  Our chosen power breakfast food was a bit elusive  in France, only randomly appearing in certain grocery stores.  But here packages stood proudly on the shelf in the first Lidl (the European discount store that defines adventure shopping -- you never know what you will find) with at least three varieties.
Somber cemeteries from both World Wars dotted our route through southern Belgium.  Many important battles were fought in the region with a great loss of life.
Our path took us through the surprisingly beautiful town of Ypres, through the countryside, and into the city of Bruges.  What was incredible is that John picked a route where we thought we would ride along the road with automobiles as we did all through France.  But once we got into Belgium, and in fact all of The Netherlands, we were on a dedicated cycle path alongside the road during our whole journey.

After almost two full months of camping, we finally had a significant rainstorm that drove us to find shelter in Bruges.  We landed dripping wet inside the tourism office, and the agent helped us find  a very reasonable B&B within walking distance of the old town for 55 euros a night.  We had a spacious room, a garage to park our bikes, and flaky croissants and perfect soft-boiled eggs for breakfast.  Our hosts had their own collection of bikes in the garage, and it was from them that we learned of the Fietsnet system.
Colorful windows brighten a dreary rainy day in Bruges.

Canals criss-cross the old town of Bruges, and foundations lie under water.

Michelangelo's Madonna and Child in Bruges.

Definitely not the prevailing attitude in The Netherlands.

A series of treehouses as public art in the Beguinage in Bruges.
If you visit the Fietsnet website or use the smartphone app, you can pick a start and end point and the application will pick a route on dedicated bike paths.  And all you need to do is write down a series of numbers on a piece of paper.  And once you start your trip, you look for little signs along the bike path with numbers in green circles.  If the circle is solid green, you are at your destination intersection.  If the circle is just a green outline it will have a number and an arrow pointing to the direction of other possible intersections that can be reached from that location.  Ingenious.  And it works because there are so many bike paths that cover the country like a web.  John did some preparation and we were able to connect the dots across Belgium and The Netherlands, exclusively on off-road bike  paths. 
A typical Fietsnet sign.

Bike trails are EVERYWHERE in Belgium and The Netherlands.  You are never uncomfortably close to a moving tons of steel.
For this last month of our trip we are connecting dots of another sort, visiting family in various corners of Northern Europe.  Our schedule is a bit tighter now, and we found ourselves with too many kilometers to travel and too little time.  We decided to travel by train to The Hague to visit the husband of my cousin has a house that he visits from Canada a few months every year.  We were not too worried about where to catch the train, since the railway web covers the landscape nearly as well as the bike paths.  We singled out a town where we could get to by mid-morning, but it required a ferry ride across a canal.  We arrived at the dock downstream from a nuclear plant and next to abandoned buildings of the village with broken windows and graffiti everywhere, a rare site in tidy Belgium.  Finally someone came by and we found out it runs only on weekends. Time for Plan B.

Another in the "old and new" series.
The next two hours we wound around the inlets of the industrial and shipping center of Antwerp.  (There was a big, wide bike path through the whole complex, by the way).  We had to cross the river to get to the inner city and the train station, and we were concerned that we would not be able to take our bikes on the bridge.  At the foot of the bridge we asked how we might get across.  Oh, just look for the building with the flags flying on top, we were told.  There you can take a large elevator down to access a tunnel and then take the elevator back up.  And this tunnel is only for bikes and pedestrians.  And it is free.  Man, I love this country!  We rolled onto the biggest elevator car I have ever seen -- it could easily hold 20 bikes and as many pedestrians -- cycled through a big tiled tube, rode the elevator up, and then popped out into the beautiful city.  And what is more amazing is that the tunnel was built in 1933, and that they recognized the need for such a connector for self-propelled traffic as far back  as 1874. 
Within the bowels of the St Anna Tunnel in Antwerp.

Flea market in the square in central Antwerp.

Where's John?  In the train station in Antwerp!
Antwerp is a beautiful old city -- big massive structures and a large market square.  The inside of the train station was a renovated building of grandeur, of metal and glass and stone.  We sat and ate our lunch and watched people and trains go by, modern transport in a historical space.  A couple of hours later we arrived in The Hague, then merged with the many commuters on their bikes across town to Peter’s doorstep.  There we spent four nights and lived the life of an urban Dutchman.  We walked from his 100-year-old townhouse to fulfill all our needs -- bread from the bakery, cheese from the cheese shop, tea from the tea merchant.  One very long day we took the train to Amsterdam to visit the Rijksmuseum.  What an alive and vibrant city!  And bikes everywhere -- if I had to live in a big city, this is the one I would choose.
Perhaps the most photographed corner of The Hague.

John and Peter on our day trip to the dunes nearby to the Hague.

The btrain station both in Amsterdam and The Hague had pianos where anyone passing by could sit down and play.  It was amazing how wonderfully ordinary citizens could play.

Canals!  Boats!  Amsterdam!
A cargo-hauling bike, a design we saw frequently in the cities.  We saw a woman going down the street with a washer in one of these.  She was moving too fast for me to get a picture!
Rush hour in Amsterdam!
Two more days of cycling and connecting the dots took us across the Netherlands.  One day we clocked our longest day on this trip -- 104 kilometers -- all before 3 pm.  All I can say in our defense is that it is flat.  We spent a night at the home of some new friends, a Dutch couple we met traveling in France that invited us to their home.  We swam in their pool, ate their food, drank their wine, slept in a real bed.  It was nice (thanks Gerard and Giesela!)
Cows, green, and flat defines the countryside in The Netherlands.

Ho hum, just another lovely bike trail along a canal.

The second largest collection of Van Gogh paintings are in the Kröller-Müller Museum in The National Park De Hoge Veluwe.  The town of Otterlo at the west entrance has over-sized reproductions along the road.

Heath and grass of De Hoge Veluwe, bisected by what else but a lovely bike trail!
Just within sight of the German border we had one more punctuation point of Dutch kindness.  Rain forced us to seek shelter to eat our lunch under the canopy of a closed hair salon in a tiny little town.  The family across the street saw us and invited us over to their garden shelter.  We said thank you, no, we are done and ready to move on.  We went down the street a ways and the rain went from nothing to heavy within seconds.  We turned around and retreated to the salon once again.  This time the patriarch of the family walked over and insisted we come to their house.  We were set up in an enclosed patio, and within a minute we had steaming cups of coffee and tea in front of us and little cakes if we wanted them.  We had a nice chat and by the time we finished our drinks the rain had stopped. As much as we enjoyed traveling in France, we still marvel at the generosity of the Dutch people.  But even more The Netherlands has a true bike culture and that everyone rides bikes and knows exactly what a traveling cyclist needs.  And that is said with an exclamation point, and not just a dot!
We didn't see any wild roosters, but these signs coincidently occurred next to cattle guards.

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Bonnie said...

Sounds like you two went to BICYCLE HEAVEN! Hugs, Bonnie

Giesela said...

Dear Doris and John,
We enjoyed reading your view and perception of our country! We loved to have you over in our house and we think of you both now that your trip has come to an ending. We hope that you find everything back in good order. You can start to love and look at your base with different eyes because of all of the impressions abroad.
The sun is shining in Eerbeek as it was during your visit.
Welcome home to your OWN place 😘
Giesela and Gerard

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