Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Biking Northeastern Netherlands

Our first ten days of biking in the Netherlands saw us zig-zag through its most northeasterly 2 provinces, Groningen and Friesland, plus a thin slice of a third province sitting just below them, Drenthe. We have a lot to say about the experience of biking in Holland, but will save it for a separate blog entry a few weeks from now to allow us to base our conclusions on more experiences and on more of the country. The short version, however: it's fantastic!

We entered the Netherlands through its most northeasterly point of entry, the town of Bad Nieuwschans, then headed 25 km south to spend a night in a fort, Vesting Bourtange. Since it was so close, we chose a scenic route that was twice as long and learned, the hard way, about Dutch wind. It's great when it is behind you, which it was for about 5 of the 55 km. Not sure if tiredness from fighting the wind or the 40% chance of rain the next day was the main factor, but we easily decided to stay there a second night, and consequently had a thorough and unhurried visit to this wonderful place.

It was a real fort, although almost half the walls had been leveled and half the moats filled in during the century prior to the 1970s, when it was restored back to the way it looked in 1742. The model indeed accurately shows how it looks today, with every moat and wall back in place, the houses where they've been for centuries.

The fort was first built in 1593, during the Eighty Years War between the Dutch Confederation and the Spanish Empire. Its construction did indeed force the Spanish to withdraw from the entire northeastern part of what is today the Netherlands. It was a major player in defending the Netherlands until the early 1800s, by which time it had become obsolete.

Our lodgings were in an officers' barracks that the tandem is resting next to, and our room had an almost-authentic box bed. The difference was that ours was long enough for even 6'4" Jeff to stretch out flat. In the early years of the fort it was still considered unhealthy in Holland to sleep in a horizontal position. Box beds were often only 4' long, and you slept in a partially seated position! And we thought it was tough because the person on the inside of our box bed couldn't climb out in the middle of the night to piddle without waking up the person on the outside!

It misted a little the next day, but never enough to stop us from exploring the fort, inside and out. As you can imagine, our nights were very quiet. Actually, the whole visit was remarkably quiet, since it's not really heavy tourist season until July, and the cool weather we had the prior week and all through our stay in northeastern Netherlands (mid 50s and low 60s day after day) had kept the early tourist crowd quite thin. We were the only overnight guests in the lodgings and one of the few couples dining at the two restaurants on the main square. This is still a village, with year-round residents, so it was not deserted, but certainly quiet once the modest crowds of day visitors departed.

When we changed plans to come visit Holland for six weeks, we were in need of a guidebook. Thanks to modern technology, we were able to purchase a Lonely Planet guide and load it on our mini-iPad. It has led us to many interesting places. One that turned out to be rather under-whelming, however, was our detour to Drenthe Province to see some Hunebeden. These are rock formations that are older than Stonehenge, built between 3,400 BC and 3,100 BC, but waaaaay more basic. The first photo is of one along a bike path, of average size. The next two photos are of the largest one, next to the Hunebedcentrum museum. Archeological digs have established that they were connected with burial ceremonies, and that pots and hunting tools were buried with the deceased, but even the bones have decomposed over so many centuries, so little more can be said of them. Perhaps they were more impressive when smaller stones filed in the gaps between the large ones, but Stonehenge or the Pyramids they're not.

As we rode through the countryside we couldn't help but notice the sizeable and sturdy brick barns that are the custom here. Many stand yet, as barns, but many others have homes attached to the end nearest the road. Some were quite simple, others so elegant you had to look hard to find the barn attached to the back. When we stopped to photograph the one in the third photo below, the owners came out smiling, thinking we had stopped because of the "Te Koop" ("For Sale") sign. After we explained that we were bicycle tourists from Seattle simply admiring their house, they hid their disappointment well, and chatted with us in English for several minutes. In fact, we've talked to a number of folks here in northeastern Holland, and they all seem surprised but pleased to hear that we are visiting their little country "for SIX weeks???!!!"

Houses in the towns of course do not come with barns behind them. The two on the left look remarkably like those we saw all over East Friesland, the neighboring province in Germany. The Dutch tend to be more decorative in their architecture, and the house on the right looks more at home here.

Another architectural element we're not at all used to seeing is thatch. Here is some in close up from a recreation at the Hunebedcentrum of what folks might have lived in 5,000 years ago in this area. It is still used quite a bit -- we see thatch houses and especially barns every day. Here are just a few examples:

We are staying mostly in small family-run hotels in small towns, similar to the one we loved so much in East Friesland. They almost always have their own restaurant, at additional price of course, and a breakfast buffet that is included in the room price. Eggs, either scrambled or boiled, are nearly always there, along with croissants, bread, rolls, ham, cheese, yogurt, and much more. As cyclists, we love these hearty breakfasts, and -- remember, this is Holland! -- where else can you find not one but two kinds of chocolate to sprinkle on your yogurt and granola to sweeten it!

You actually need a big breakfast to deal with Dutch stairs. Perhaps it's a legacy from shipbuilding days, but we have hardly found a staircase in the Netherlands that was not extremely steep and with narrow stair treads that are a terror to Big Foot Jeff, particularly on the descent. This staircase below that we passed on the street hopefully gives you the idea, except that it goes straight. In hotels they add a twist or two so that you go up pretty much vertically.

Our next stop, for three nights, was the capital and largest city in Groningen Province, the city of Groningen. Like a number of old Dutch cities, it has a canal that completely circles the oldest part of the city, with active canals heading off in various directions, including one that will take you 30 km out to the North Sea. After looking at the canals from above as most tourists do, we tracked down a canoe rental place and had a delightful 2 hours ducking under low bridges and seeing the city from the water. There are many houseboats, about half of them converted from old sailing barges that still have their leeboards, those paddle-like boards that can be rotated down into the water to substitute for the lack of a keel when you decide to hoist up the sails.

Another highlight, literally, was climbing the Martini Tower, the steeple of the St. Martin's Church. It's actually the third tower: #1 collapsed and #2 was levelled by a bolt of lightning. This third version started going up in 1469 but got shortened to a mere 69 meters by a fire before they finally got it right in 1627. It's been 97 m (315') ever since. As we looked first south at where we'd just come from, then north where we were headed the next day, we were hard-pressed to see a singe hill.

We filled up the rest of our 2 off-the-bike days with walks about town admiring this or that fanciful and/or ancient house, and with a fantastic meal at a restaurant recommended by our guidebook. That's our well-fed chef enjoying the fresh air before the crowds started arriving for dinner, with yet another intriguing church in the distance.

From Groningen we headed north to revisit the North Sea, but stopped a few kilometers before it to visit Menkemaborg, a 14th century manor house that was altered and improved about 1700. It is entirely surrounded by water and guarded by lions at the drawbridge, though on closer inspection they seem more afraid of visitors than visitors are likely to be of them. No photos allowed inside the house, but the society that now preserves it gives a photo tour of the rooms on its website: They certainly are impressive. We wandered about the gardens and got another view of the rear and side, and of the Schathuis, now a cafe but previously the coach house, butchery, brew house and living quarters for the manservants. And how about those hedges that are hiding the moat!

At last we made it to the North Sea Dike -- but, surprise, not to the North Sea! It's still a few kilometers off to the right! Though we did not actually see it, we understand that the transition from land to sea is quite gradual here, with the North Sea looking more like the North Mud Flat until you get beyond the barrier islands that lie another dozen km offshore. As in East Friesland, there is a part of the dike that is paved and ready to take a pounding from the surf in a bad storm. We could have biked on it, but it is heavily slanted, sort of like being stuck on the turn in a velodrome. We stuck to the level trail on the south side of the dike. The sheep guards are easier to ride a bike across than cattle guards, as the rails are closer together, but the sheep didn't always cooperate in keeping to their side of the trail.

Before there were dikes, one method of protecting a community from high water in a storm was to build mounds, called "terpen." Most have been torn down, but one that remains in the Dutch province of Friesland was in the small town of Hogebeintum, topped by a church that dates to the 11th century. A local woman gave us a private tour, and it was fascinating, for it was our first introduction to an old Dutch tradition -- burying local nobles under the floor of the church! Looking in from the back of the church, one sees the pews looking forward, with the pulpit to the right side. Up where the altar was in pre-Reformation days were special pews for the two families of local lords, and in front of those pews were the graves of their ancestors setting the tone, if not the aroma, for the whole congregation. The practice was finally banned by the Dutch government, but not before some churches had completely paved their floors with gravestones of their dearly departed nobles and notables, as we found out in later church visits. We didn't stop at every church we passed, like this lovely next one a few towns from Hogebeintum, but we did look at them in a new way, and were not at all surprised only a day later to find both side aisles in the main church of Franeker to be entirely covered with graves.

Our guidebook urged us to visit the capital of Friesland, Leeuwarden, so we duly complied and were introduced to yet another old Dutch institution, the "Waag," or "weigh house." Towns were rewarded for service to the king by being granted the right to erect a Waag, which then brought buyers and sellers of goods, especially cheese, to these towns. The Waag often then assumed a role of inspecting cheese for quality a well as weight, giving a town with a Waag even greater "weight," pardon the pun, in the world of trade. Leeuwarden's was in the center of town, and quite attractive as Waags tend to be. The canals were quite nice too, as you can see.

We'll close this blog with one last canal photo in the charming seaport of Harlingen, on our next-to-last day in NE Netherlands. We would like to forget the last day. A few days earlier, we had booked a hotel in Enkhuisen, a 44 km bike ride followed by an 80-minute ferry ride across the Ijselmeer. The weather forecast had since turned foul, and we did those 44 km in a steady rain, headwinds of 15-18 mph, and temperatures in the mid-50s. We had everything for warmth and weather protection on, but nothing can actually keep you dry on a day like that.

We reached the ferry terminal 20 minutes before sailing, enough time for Jeff to get really cold, with no bike exercise to stoke his engine. By the time we got onto the boat he was in deep trouble, and the skipper realized it and provided a most unorthodox solution -- he brought Jeff to the engine room, where it was in the mid-90s. Jeff wrung out a pint of water from his top layers and warmed up enough to rejoin Louise as the boat got under way. Needless to say, we had a festival of hand-washing every item of bike clothes on arrival, with things hanging up to dry from every hook and rod we could find in our hotel room.

Enkhuisen is in the province of Noord Holland, and we'll continue the story there in our next blog entry

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