Thursday, July 18, 2013

From Dunes to Dunes

In our last two blog entries we've taken you about 600 km from the northeast corner of the Netherlands toward the sea coast facing England, just west of Haarlem. As we approached the coast we passed through a zone maybe 5 km wide of sand dunes, literally the first hills we have seen in Holland, small as they were. After riding 30 km down the coast we turned inland almost 200 km and ran into another large area of sand dunes that are nowhere near the sea, a place the Dutch call the Veluwe. We'll explain how the dunes of the Veluwe came to be there when we reach them at the end of today's blog entry.

We were surprised to see a lot of trees as well as low ground cover as we passed through the dune area approaching the sea. We reached salt water at Zanddijk, a beach town, but saw few people on the beach even though it was a Saturday morning in late June. Perhaps it's the continuing cool weather, in the low 60s?

What we did see in large numbers, because it was a Saturday, was cyclists. Quite a few, mostly 20- and 30-something guys, were participating in an organized ride. They came by in clusters like mini-pelotons, but it was not a race and one such group behind us actually faded away to the rear as we rode along. Thanks to a terrific tail wind we did several stretches at 30-38 kph (19-24 mph), with gentle undulations from the sand dunes pushing that a little lower or higher from time to time. It was a nice break from the usual steady pace on flat terrain. Even the nature was different, less tamed and more "natural."

After turning inland we went 20 km to Leiden, famous as the birthplace of Rembrandt, the temporary home of the Pilgrims who later traveled to America and the permanent home of the Netherland's oldest university, founded here in 1575. The house where Rembrandt was born in 1606 was torn down long ago, but a whimsical sculpture now marks the spot.

As for the Pilgrims, they left no physical trace of their stay from 1608-1620, but the former curator for the Plimoth Plantation museum in Massachusetts, Jeremy Bangs, returned to Leiden (where he earned his Ph.D. in 1976 researching the Pilgrims) and opened the American Pilgrim Museum a few years ago. We arrived at the small museum as he was about to close for the day, but he must have felt our connection to the study of history and he ended up spending an unhurried 45 minutes with us. His museum is quite small, consisting of Leiden's oldest home (c. 1375) at the corner and its neighbor, closer to the camera. The buildings' only connection to the Pilgrims is that they are across the street from a church where the Pilgrims worshipped, and were unquestionably around when the Pilgrims were. Dr. Bangs has restored them to what they may have looked like at that time, but the main feature of the museum is definitely the chance to talk history with him.

After he finally did lock up, he directed us to a chaotic antique store a few doors away, primarily to see the architecture as it is housed in several ancient homes that have been interconnected with passageways. At an inner courtyard he pointed out the view of the roofline, which is probably close to what a person would have seen in the early 1600s. He then told us exciting news, that filmmaker Ric Burns shot this same view for a documentary about the Pilgrims that will be on PBS next Spring.

In Leiden we had tracked down another canoe rental company, so spent an extra day there and had a terrific time paddling 3 1/2 hrs down almost every canal in town, and there are many. Big canals, little canals, busy canals -- we did 'em all! It's already one of our favorite memories of the summer.

As if canoeing down canals wasn't enough, we spent much of the next day biking 40 km to Gouda along many more, first the 'canalized' Oude Rijn River, a side channel of the Rhine, then later a series of smaller canals, sometimes on both sides of the road!

We've now seen many interesting city halls in Holland, but Gouda's is almost certainly the most whimsical. After wandering the atmospheric back streets past disappearing canals and an ancient orphanage that's now the city library, we returned to the central square for dinner in a place behind City Hall. Turns out it was Summer Festival Weekend, and the city fathers had brought in a beach and plopped it down there so the locals could have a 3-day beach volleyball tournament! Why not?

Leaving Gouda we had some more "canals to the left of us, canals to the right of us" moments, then some more kilometers up close to the Oude Rijn.

A few more kilometers brought us to a fairytale castle, Kasteel De Haar. The van Zuylen family acquired it in 1440 when it was about 50 years old. 450 years later it was a mess when umpteenth heir Etienne van Zuyler inherited it. Etienne, however, had had the good luck or good planning to have married Baroness Helene de Rothschild. Yes, those Rothschilds. They hired one of the Netherlands' most illustrious architects, who reconstructed it into a 19th century version of medievalism perfected, complete with running water and lights. We'd like to show you inside but, once again, no photos allowed. Take it from us, though, it's as elegant as anything you could visit in Newport R.I., and (slightly) more authentic.

Our next stop was Utrecht, which has (surprise, surprise) yet more atmospheric canals. It also had another tower, the Dom Toren, taller even than ones we've recently climbed in Brugge, Vienna and Groningen. 112 m (367') later we were at the top, looking down, of course, at canals!

Oh, yes, also at distant Amsterdam, but it was so fuzzy through the day's haze that it was not worth photographing. And then there was something surprising that we couldn't photograph because it wasn't there anymore -- the middle part of the church! It seems the nave was built on the cheap, without adequate bracing with flying buttresses, and a storm that reached hurricane force in 1674 blew it down, leaving the more well-built tower and transcept. Guess they didn't need it all that much, as they've managed without it now for over 300 years.

Let's pictorially descend those 465 steps and share one more highlight of Utrecht with you, B&B De Verrassing. It's the farthest white house on the right, looking down the street toward the Dom Toren, and its owner Mary was a charming host who made our stay in Utrecht extra special. She brought us the usual great Dutch breakfast we get almost everywhere, but brought to our spacious apartment on the top floor. For two nights we had our own kitchen and were able to cook healthy dinners. Dutch restaurants are quite good, but like most American ones, focus too much on meat or fish and not enough on vegetables. For two nights, at least, we were able to reverse the focus.

With complimentary tickets from our B&B owner, we visited the Museum Catharijneconvent, an outstanding museum of religious art. We usually move quickly through such collections in large museums but spent some time with it here -- not much choice, really -- and focused on some of the less religious aspects. A challenge here and in many museums in Holland is the absence of information in English about the art works. We can tell you that the photo to the right is of the back of the doors that covered a 1535 triptych, showing the benefactors, but understanding more of the commentary that we photographed awaits radical improvements in our ability to read Dutch. A special exhibition, however, had a 20-page handout available in various languages, and the second photo is of a work 40 years later putting members of two well-to-do Antwerp families and prominent friends of theirs, in 16th century dress, in company with Moses!

From Utrecht we headed once more almost due east, but on the urging of our Lonely Planet guidebook, did so via the small city of Amersfoort. Good choice. It still retains many medieval buildings such as the three city gates pictured below. It too has a church tower that tempted us, but we would have had to wait too long until the next escorted climb up. Like Utrecht, the tower lost its adjoining church, in this case the entire rest of the structure. It had ceased being used as a church and had become a munitions manufacturing and storage facility. In what was surely the largest "Bang" ever heard in Amersfoort, it disappeared one day in 1787. It wasn't until the early 1900s that the rest of the rubble was cleared away and the area turned into a now-charming town square.

Our final destination on this almost 200 km ride eastward from the sea was Hoge Veluwe National Park. The word "Veluwe" is possibly related to the English "fallow," in the sense of unproductive.  The Veluwe is the largest sand dune complex in Europe, roughly 20 km E-W and up to 60 km N-S, created when continental glaciers 150-200,000 years ago moved around sand deposits from the Rhine and Meuse Rivers. In part because of the good hunting in the area, the wealthy German industrialist Anton Kröller and his wife Helene Kröller-Müller started buying large chunks of it in 1909 to create a hunting domain for him, and for her to build a museum where her large art collection could be displayed.  While the park covers some of the most classic Veluwe land, we knew we were in the Veluwe itself when we started seeing sandy roads next to our thankfully paved bike trails.

Thanks to the Kröller-Müllers, a large part of the Veluwe has been preserved, with a world-class art museum in the middle of it. We stayed in the town of Otterlo, just outside the park, and cycled 30 km around it. Since the sand dunes do indeed create that most un-Dutch natural feature, hills, we were glad not to have our luggage on the bike. A small portion of the park consists of dunes of drifting sand without covering vegetation, in various patches here and there. A somewhat larger area is what they call "moors," actually sandy areas with a thin layer of grasses and other low ground cover plants. Despite the sandy soil, about half the park is covered in large brush and trees, albeit the scruffy kind one finds in sandy areas.

To minimize car traffic, parking is pricey, with cheaper lots at the three entrances and a fleet of 1700 free white bicycles for unlimited use within the park. Here is the "parking lot" at the museum, which is only 3 and 5 km from the two closer entrances to the park.

Helene Kröller-Müller received excellent advice in her art collecting, and particularly focused on Vincent Van Gogh when his paintings were just beginning to have a market. In 17 years of collecting, she purchased over 11,000 art works, including 91 paintings and 180 drawings by Van Gogh, the second-largest Van Gogh collection in the world.

She was quite partial to pointillist artists, and we saw several good Seurats such as Le Chahut from 1889-90 on the right, and two works by an artist we don't think we've seen before, Maximilien Luce.  His first one below is Paysage de Paris, vue de Montmartre, the second Terrain a Montmartre, Rue Championnet, both done about 1887.

And then, the best part saved for last, the Van Gogh collection.  So many beautiful ones.  We'll share four with you:

The Sower, done at Arles in 1888

The Garden of the Asylum at Saint Remy 1889

Bridge at Arles, 1888

Cafe Terrace at Night, Arles 1888

When we changed plans this summer to bike in the Netherlands, our friend Cordelia strongly urged us to visit a friend of hers in Antwerp Belgium, who had heard about us from Cordelia.  And so we turned our bicycle in a southwesterly direction and biked along and across the great rivers of Holland, the Waal and the Maas, and into Tournhout, Lier, Mechelen and Antwerpen, Belgium.  We'll tell you more in our next blog entry.

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