It’s quite alarming when the sat nav shows nothing but blue and a thin grey line of the causeway we are on, the water rippling literally inches from our wheels. Holland is flat. It’s hard to state quite how flat it is, the only inclines being slight as a bridge rises above a canal. But even these don’t take the road high enough and almost all crossings are counterweighted so the road can be lifted to allow boat passage underneath.
The cold is a shock after so many weeks of warmth (okay, maybe not on the Danube but it wasn’t as cold as this). Also a shock is the wind (which I’d forgotten about, being so long away from Wellington and with little breeze), blasting across the flat land with nothing in its way except my body. Tonight is the first time we’ve used the radiators we’ve seen throughout our stay in Europe.
As I may have mentioned, I’m a child of hills, but there are some things that go well with flat land – bikes. They and boats are the favoured transport in this part of Holland so we combine them, catching a boat with the bikes at Sint Jansklooster in the Weerribben-Wieden National Park. A friendly Dutchman tells us the origin of the lake we are on, that locals gathered so much peat the land flooded, submerging the village and creating this huge body of shallow water.
A stainless steel stylised church tower, complete with (locked) bell, commemorating the lost homes rises eerily in the middle of the lake. Like the moors of Britain, the area would revert to forest if left alone so is managed, the water level maintained, as it is now an important habitat for many local species and a stopover for migrating birds. To prove this a flock of swallows line up on a wire on their way south and geese honk in the field beside them before rising into their signature V.
The rain comes in short bursts, the water sparkling silver around us. The large islands we cruise past are floating beds of reeds, most unanchored. The reeds fall away as we chug into a channel, the sides closing in and becoming farmland scattered with small settlements. The boatman tells us ‘you have to be rich’ to buy here. The houses, all dark brown-red brick and thatched roofs, look expensive, their lawns perfectly manicured (another town Neil and I would be thrown out of) and a boat house instead of a car garage. Small windmills, leaning sideways, dot the land. Historically, wind power worked the pumps to maintain the water levels; now the windmills are redundant and rotting away. Still I can’t help singing the Mouse in a Windmill song in my head (google it – you won’t regret it!)
We have clearly left summer behind, both wearing merino layers under our bike jackets as we cycle off the boat in Blokzijl. I’m surprised when a man wearing clogs jumps out of a van. In the modern age of boots and trainers I never thought that people actually still wore them.
The Dutch certainly know how to cycle, no one wobbling as they weave in and out of pedestrians and around parked cars. Children are carried on crossbars and even, in one case, on the arm of a parent as she cycles along. I can hardly balance myself on a bike. Mind you, if I’d grown up here I might have ridden a bike more and be more competent on one now – the cycle paths are prolific and, if there’s no path, there’s a marked – and often separated from traffic – lane along the road.
Cycling these flat, narrow paths along waterways and through fields is very pleasant, the paths mainly smooth and straight. At Jonen we pay one Euro to catch a punt across a small canal, the cable used to tow it cleverly sinking beneath the water to allow boats along the canal. Dark clouds hover as we cycle into Giethoorn, supposedly the Venice of the North but initially looking like a housing estate in Stocksbridge. Then we turn a corner and find the pretty bit. And the tourists. Oh, boy, the tourists! The narrow canal is clogged with boats and crowds are so thick we have to dismount and try and push through. We finally escape and travel 100m or so when the rain hits, hard and sudden. We screech to a halt, grab rain jackets, and too late I realise I should have pulled off my gel seat – it’s like sitting on a wet sponge! As we cycle along the main canal someone hails us – it’s the friendly boatman from earlier, thinking we are heading for his ferry. But his boat takes 75 minutes and we can cycle the causeway in 30 minutes so we decline.
The next day we venture out onto the canals around Belt-Schutsloot in a canoe. It doesn’t sound too adventurous but last time we tried it, off Fraser Island, it was a disaster. I couldn’t work out why we kept veering into the bank. Eventually I turned to see that Neil was paddling the wrong side – left to turn left, right to turn right. Like reading a map (he has to turn it upside down if he’s going south) it’s one of those things that his brain can’t handle. I wasn’t sure if our marriage could handle a repeat but thankfully he seems to have now got the hang of it. Maybe as I kept yelling ‘paddle left’ when we wanted to turn right (and vice versa) until a tight voice behind me said ‘yes, thank you. I think I’ve got it now.’
So no circles, just gliding along with no current and little wind to hamper our progress. It’s very peaceful, the only sounds the small splash of our paddles, the rustle of the breeze in the reeds and the occasional bird tweet. The water we carve through is still, the reflection perfect – I can look at the sky by looking down. A couple of large birds, hawks of some kind, circle above us, lifting on thermals. We are at birds’ eye level here, the birds being ducks, and the reeds tower over us, breaking at times to open fields only a couple of inches above the water, a sure sign the level is managed or they would constantly face being flooded.
After 10km of paddling my arms tire and Neil has to keep paddling both sides to prevent the canoe swinging into the bank. As I wonder if we should have taken a short cut he yells: ‘Otter!’ Ahead of us a sleek shape slides into the water and swiftly cuts across the canal, a small wake behind it. I hold my breath, my mouth open – I wanted desperately to see an otter but knew the chances were slim. And now one is feet away from me! Ten seconds is all we get and it is gone, scrambling into tree roots and out of sight. It’s the highlight of a wonderful day.
A few days before we arrive I read that Amsterdam is the most over touristed place in the world. Our arrival at the station proves this – it’s bedlam. The streets are also packed and we struggle to find a seat outside a bar. Neil baulks at paying ten Euros for a beer, although we do get free passive-smoked weed thrown in. Later, walking through the red light district on the way back to the station, he overhears a conversation and learns what 28 Euros would buy.
The next morning we beat the crowds but daylight shows the underside of Amsterdam. Large piles of rubbish are scooped up by diggers and into waiting trucks, bags splitting and their contents blowing all over, none of the workers even bothering to try and pick it up. Baskets of flowers line the railings but the grime shows through.
Cyclists are everywhere,
bells ringing as tourists wander haphazardly into their paths, even us at one
point, so engrossed in the map we don’t hear the bell until the rider swears at
us. Thinking how often we’ve been in his position I’m embarrassed, yelling
‘sorry’ after him. We wander along the canalsides for a while, houses towering
4, 5, even 6 stories from the pavement. We turn a corner and crowds block the
road, milling around outside the house that Anne Frank lived in. As I can’t
imagine what her life here was like, I can’t imagine what the house is now like
stuffed with so many people. We retreat back to the suburbs and a local
restaurant for a delicious meal to commemorate our final night in Europe.