Monday, August 24, 2015

Five Provinces in Five Days

Having reached the mouth of our fifth river, the IJssel, it was time now to cross Holland to our final destination of Leiden.  As it turned out, our route took us through five provinces, starting with Overijssel, where we have been exploring Hanseatic towns.  

Our next province, Flevoland, was a Big Deal, since for us it was the last of Holland's 12 provinces.  It's also a big deal because 60 years ago it didn't exist.  Our route took us across land that was at the bottom of the sea when we were born.
A few maps and diagrams will hopefully help explain.  We were headed toward what had once been a large saltwater bay known as the Zuiderzee.  In 1932 the Dutch completed the Afsluitsdijk across the mouth of the Zuiderzee, since which time it has been known as the IJsselmeer.  All the "new land" in the map below was ocean bed prior to the Afsluitdijk.

Next, the Dutch built some enormous polders, areas of land below sea level that have been reclaimed with the use of drainage canals, dikes, and a whole lot of water pumping.

It's a fair bit of land -- the polders on the east and southeast sides of the IJsselmeer amount to a surface area roughly twice that of New York City's 5 boroughs combined.  But if you move the water up and out, a meter or two here, a meter or two there, then put a few farmers, canal builders and road builders to work, you get this:

The area we biked across was reclaimed in the late 1950s and was very agricultural.  In fact there are two roads and two bike paths here, the second road being mainly for tractors and other farm equipment.  There are bands of trees running across the landscape, and even a few planted forests.  As we entered the capital city of the province, Lelystad, we biked through a dense green belt.  Quite a change from sea bottom!

In the 1960s the Dutch began building a second dike, the Houtribdijk, this time across the center of the IJsselmeer.  When it was completed a dozen years later, the lower half of the IJsselmeer was renamed the Markermeer.  It was supposed to lead to the creation of yet another polder, but by that time the environmental movement had raised enough questions about the wisdom of doing so that the polder project was shelved, with no current prospect of being revived.  The Markermeer is today a sort of giant surge tank, available for holding excess water when floods come roaring down the Rhine, or of supplying water when short-term drought sets in.
Both the Afsluitsdijk and the Houtribdijk have roads and, this being Holland, bike trails across them.  So day 2 of our 5-day trek across Holland saw us biking its 27 km / 17 mi.  

The concept is more exciting than the reality.  It's long, no getting around that.  You couldn't see the far shore at first.  But the IJsselmeer and Markermeer are fairly dull bodies of water, with little boat traffic.  About half of the way we were somewhat insulated from the motor vehicle traffic.  With a light tailwind we mostly did 25-30 kph, about 16-19 mph.

Frankly, the best scenery of the day was an hour's ride west of the dike, when we reached the harbor of Hoorn.

We spent that night and the next in cities we'd visited before, Hoorn and Volendam, both in the province of North Holland, but this time we took a different route between them in order to visit the charming town of Broek in Waterland.  We had some challenges along the way.  The trees probably came down a few weeks earlier when a powerful storm came across almost the entire nation of the Netherlands, including where we were then 100+ km away.  We had a good map that found us an easy detour in this instance.  We don't know what the authorities were thinking when they put in the tandem-trapping gate.  We backed the bike in and lifted up the front wheel to get over the swinging gate.  The bridge was easy, so long as you weren't stupid enough to try biking over it.  Other roads more than made up for these minor blips.

The village church had a stained glass window showing the history of the church, including being burned down by Spanish troops during the Eighty Year War for Dutch independence.  Many old churches in Holland have graves inside the church itself, but it's very hard to read the gravestones since they form the walking surface of the church.  With many fewer feet trampling on them here, we could actually read and appreciate quite a few of them.  This church also had a large collection of tiles that told Bible stories, such as the Flight From Egypt at the bottom right.  Back out in the town we found a cafe quite willing to provide us with the calories we needed to finish the day, in the form of a Dutch pancake with pears and ice cream.

As you can see from the map, our route took us down the shore of the Markermeer to the eastern edge of Amsterdam.   Thanks to Holland's bike trail network, we got through easily and soon found ourselves heading into Utrecht Province on the Rhine-Amsterdam Canal.  On the way to our overnight destination of Breukelen, after which Jeff's birthplace of Brooklyn NY is named, we followed a small canal for a while, then stopped for a picnic lunch at a spot where folks enjoy watching an endless parade of boats go though a lock, at €4-6 per boat (but the looking was free).


With great luck, we once again had a tailwind out of the east as we biked 65 km from Breukelen to Den Haag (The Hague), in the Province of South Holland.  Along the way we passed a few bike tourists starting young, a family of four and a young fellow who appeared to be riding with his grandma. 

We'll start our next blog with a visit in Den Haag to one of Europe's most famous art museums, the Mauritshuis.  Jeff didn't have a very fulfilling discussion with this fellow in Volendam, but we did have some gettogethers with Dutch friends we'll introduce to you, and we'll wrap up our trip to Europe with a week in Leiden. 

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