Thursday, July 5, 2018

Heading Across Eastern Netherlands to Germany

In the first 3 blog posts of this summer we took you with us on 500 km / 320 miles of cycling and sightseeing in the northwestern part of the Netherlands, shown in green on the map to the right.  Today we will move on across the northeastern part of the country, having said goodbye to our friends Steve and Janet in Naarden.  Our route took us through a few km of Flevoland Province, large parts of Gelderland, Overijssel, Drenthe and Groningen Provinces, and even a half dozen km in Friesland Province.  We've now been to nine of the country's twelve provinces, and we hope to return in August and to ride through two more, missing only Limburg Province this summer.
Location of Flevoland in the Netherlands
Flevoland is an unusual place.  It didn't exist when Louise and Jeff were born -- it was underwater.  The northernmost part was reclaimed in the late 1930's and the rest mainly in the 1950s and '60s.  It was officially made a province in 1986, prior to which Dutch schoolchildren had been taught about the eleven provinces of their country.  All the land east of Flevoland had been coastal, and it was decided that the bottom 2/3 would be an island so as to leave those old coastal cities and towns with a coast.  Below is the view looking north from Gelderland toward Flevoland.  The tall building is part of Almere, the most populous city in the province and one of the country's fastest-growing ones, since the commute from there to Amsterdam by rail is only 21 minutes, or 35-50 by car.

It's an exceptionally flat part of a country that is itself pretty darned flat.  In the past half century the Flevolanders have been able to grow some decent forests, but the vast majority of the land is agricultural and relatively treeless except for the traditional row of trees one often finds along one or both sides of a road.  All of which makes this pretty good territory for windmills -- the modern kind, that is,  As we crossed the bridge into Flevoland we were impressed by the straight line of them bordering the water, and they looked equally impressive from down at "see" level.  This wasn't sea level, however, as nearly every part of the province is below sea level.  The airport, for example, is officially 4 m down, about 12 feet lower than the ocean.  While we stopped on the bridge to take our photo two cyclists passed us, showing two different ways of staying fast on a bike when dealing with headwinds like the ones one sees in Flevoland.

We had a headwind crossing the bridge, then thankfully a partial tailwind riding past all those windmills.  But when we noticed the sign for the Naaktstrand, literally "naked beach" but more tactfully translated as "clothing optional beach," we were over a kilometer past it.  Shucks, can't go back against a headwind, can we?  We stopped for two other signs.  The first was wordless, a backpack hanging from a flagpole in front of a house.  It's the Dutch way of signalling that a teenager within has just finished high school and is "hanging it up" with his or her schoolbag.  The other sign was on a short stretch of road that connected two sections of carless bike path.  It says "Bike Street, cars are the guests."  Dutch transportation engineers use this designation when a stretch of road is necessary for both bikes and cars, but there is inadequate room to construct a bike path alongside the road.

We were now a few km east of the water separating Flevoland and Gelderland, in a part of the Netherlands we had not been to before.  We were very surprised at how extensive the forests and heath were.  The moors, or heathland, are relatively drab in late June, but in less than 2 months they will be anything but.  The large photo below is a moor we rode past now, and the smaller photo that follows was taken late last August as we cycled through other moors with the heather in full bloom, about 50 km south of here.

The forest was a help, since the wind was a bit strong and coming from the left.  A gentle side wind is not usually problematic or annoying, but a strong one is both.  But deep in the forest, the main source of wind resistance was merely that created by our forward motion, which was not a problem at all.  And in the middle of this forest we had located (on the internet) a pleasant country inn, De Zwaarte Boer.  Showers were predicted for the next day and we both felt we needed to slow down a little and to catch up on sleep, so we booked it for two nights.  Good decision.  And one that helped you, our readers, as it gave Jeff time to do some serious blog-writing.  We were over two weeks behind  in writing about our travels.

The day we left we continued to find ourselves in the forest from time to time, pleasant respites from a wind that was generally half-way between headwind and side wind, but manageable.  The day after was another story.  The forecast was for winds greater than 15 mph / 24 kph.  We could see from our excellent bike map that the more direct route to our destination would have us in the open nearly the whole way, but that there was an alternate route that was only 5 km longer.  We took it and were sheltered 95% of the way northward.  Then we turned east and had a partial tailwind. Yeah, way to go!  Oh, and did we mention how pretty the forest was?

When we weren't deep in the woods, we kept encountering windmills.  First, a little neighborhood one.  Then a more substantial one in the center of a small city.  And finally a self-correcting one.  All three of these windmills rotate the sails at the top, or cap, of the windmill.  In the first two this would be done by the miller turning a large crank down near ground level.  We've watched it done, and it is hard work.  The third one here has a small windmill at the back.  If the wind starts coming too much from the left, the blades of the small windmill start turning and cranking, rotating  the cap so that the large sails now face the wind straight-on once again.  If the wind shifts and it now comes too much from the right, that small windmill at the back will spin the opposite way, and of course turn the large one back in the correct direction.  Pretty clever!

We also started seeing a type of house we've seen before while biking through this northeasterly part of the country, but not elsewhere.  It consists of a rectangular house of modest size with an enormous barn attached to the house at the back.  Quite often it appears that some or all of the barn section has been converted to living quarters for the two-legged residents from the four-legged ones the barn was doubtless built for.  We can't quite picture a farmer putting in sun roofs for his cows.

We were now in Hunebed country.  Hunebedden are stone structures that appear to have been either graves or memorials to the dead.  As the tourist literature constantly reminds one, they are "older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids of Egypt."  This one that we chanced by was built about 3,000 BCE, plus or minus a hundred years, average for hunebedden.  Which does indeed make them older than the competition, but in every other category -- size, complexity, beauty, etc., hunebedden come in dead last, pardon the pun.  There are 52 in Drenthe Province and 2 others just outside Drenthe in Groningen Province, and some folks go from one to another "collecting" the full set, as it were.  Since there are no rocky outcrops in or near Drenthe, the biggest question is where the big stones came from.  The answer appears to be that they were dropped by the Ice Age glaciers that once covered northern Europe.  Similar boulders can be found in places like New England and Wisconsin, where they are called "glacial erratics."  So though hunebedden means "beds of giants," the reality is that these are not exactly giant tourist draws like the aforementioned British and Egyptian challengers.

A much bigger draw was a hotel we stayed at, De Bonte Wever, the Colorful Weaver.  It has 183 rooms in a building that is still being competed, and it was absolutely jammed with folks.  It has a full gymnasium (which Louise used twice, when we arrived and again the next morning), not just a closet-sized room with a few weights and one machine.  But the hotel also has an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, a bowling alley, a jungle gym for kids, minigolf, and more.  After reading this prior to making our reservation, we expected to be bowled over by supercharged kids with their parents racing to keep up.  Instead we were almost run over by a swarm of white-haired seniors.  That's only half the restaurant, by the way -- the other half is behind the six steam tables and salad bars in the distance.  It was curtained off for a few bus tour groups -- of seniors.

We think the reasonable prices both for the rooms and for the all-you-can-eat buffet have something to do with its popularity for customers who are probably not here for the jungle gym.  It reminded us in some ways of gambling casinos we have used for lodging (and NEVER for gambling!) as we've biked around the U.S., but without the smoking or, well, the gambling.  With careful self-restraint, we steered clear of the fried food and mostly clear of the ice cream bar and actually managed a very healthy dinner.  If you want a good place to stay in Assen, you can bet on this one.

There is probably not a single day we have biked in the Netherlands (and we're up well over a hundred days of it now in four prior trips plus this one) that we have not ridden for part of the day on a brick path or road, invariably in the same pattern of bricks criss-crossed at 45 degrees to the road direction.  How these are built has not been a pressing question, but one we seem to have gotten an answer to nonetheless as we ignored a "detour" sign in Drenthe.  It appears to us, but we're guessing since the workers were done for the day and no instruction manual was at hand, that folks stand on that platform at the front of the machine and pluck bricks from the pile and place them in the pattern, and the machine does the rest. 

Then again, like archaeologists trying to figure out how things were done hundreds or thousands of years ago based on a few artifacts, we might we totally wrong.  If we come across another one of these contraptions in action, we'll report back.  The third photo, incidentally, is a section of road a few meters away that they finished laying and then covered in sand.  The sand gets brushed into the cracks between the bricks and keeps the whole thing level and stable.  Brick roads are a little bumpy, but better and safer than many streets we've ridden in the U.S. with potholes, cracks and frost heaves.  The light material on the edge of the bricks is cement with holes that allow for drainage.  They function also as rumble strips and as something the outer wheels of a car can drive on when giving maximum room for a car or cyclist going the other way.

Our final night in the Netherlands for now (we'll be back in about a month) was memorable.  It was a revisit to Vesting Bourtange, a fortress constructed in the 1590s to force the Spanish out of Groningen Province during the Eighty Years War.  It cut off a narrow route through this once marshy land that the troops needed for supplies, and so they did leave, never to return.  The fort remained in service for more than 250 years after that, but its most glorious moment was already over.

After being decommissioned, the buildings remained but the moat was largely filled in to create farmland.  In the 1960's, however, it was decided to return it to what it looked like in the 1740s, and the moat was re-dug.  Since we're talking about Dutch people doing this, you can be sure that the moat was properly filled with water and has stayed filled.  The windmill was rebuilt and also the tiny red guardhouses in both photos below.  The large red building in the second photo is not a guardhouse.  To put it somewhat subtly, the Dutch were good even in the 1700s at hydraulic engineering, but not yet at sanitary engineering.  This was the best they could come up with.  Happily, it has been rebuilt but is not available for use just now, or at any foreseeable time.

Our lodgings were in a former officers' barracks.  We had an upstairs room that was spacious and comfortable.

This was a big improvement from our prior visit, in 2013.  At that time we had a downstairs room, which was also spacious but not as convenient.  Until the 19th century, it was widely considered to be unhealthy to sleep horizontal.  Like good Dutch citizens, the officers slept in a sort of sitting position, as demonstrated in the back of the picture which follows.  The bed in our downstairs room was once only as long as the part of the pink bedspread you see.  Although it's now long enough, the design leaves something to be desired for a couple that have a hard if not impossible time making it through the night without a trip to the "necessary."  Not sure if it's worse being the one doing the climbing or the one being climbed over, but it does not do good things for one's sleep in either position.

The second photo of course is part of a reconstructed barrack room for four regular soldier's, and the third one of part of the quarters for the fort commander.

Bourtange is a very quaint place.  It's part museum, part regular town with folks who live here and work nearby, about 80 within the walls and another 200-300 close by.  Because of the star shape of the fort, the area within the moat is full of acute-angled corners.

A most unexpected building for us was the synagogue.  This small farming community which probably never had more residents than it does now had 81 members of the synagogue in the 1890s.  By the 1930s this had declined to 55, still a healthy percentage of the town.  The Nazis carted them all off to be murdered in death camps.  One source on the internet says two survived in hiding, another says five.  The synagogue was not burned down on Kristallnacht, the day in 1938 when hundreds of synagogues in Germany were, since Bourtange is 2 km from Germany and the Dutch were not ruled by a racist madman.  During the Occupation, however, there was little they could do.

After the war the synagogue sat unused.  But a decade or two ago the Jewish community of a nearby small city worked with the government to restore it, and services are again held there, though not often.

You enter through a small museum.  Some of the items are odd, such as this Star of David light bulb.  What most caught our attention, however, was this lush velvet item with silk embroidery.  The sign next to it said it was a prayer shawl ("gebedsmantel"), but I checked with my cousin Betty who is very knowledgeable about Jewish culture and she says no, it is a covering for the Torah, which is always "dressed" for storage very beautifully to show respect for the holy literature.  Similarly, the congregation all rise when the Torah is removed from this covering to be read from.  Then, jarringly, a shameful piece of fabric in another case:  a yellow Star of David saying "Jew" in Dutch, which the Nazis made all Jews in the Netherlands wear prior to when they went from humiliating the Jews to killing them.   A local family saved it so that we would never forget.


The main part of the synagogue, the shul where services of prayers and Torah readings were held, was beautifully restored.  Cousin Betty explained for me that the signs list various prayers that would be said, depending on the time of year.  It appeared to her that the last service had been on the fifth day of Passover, two and a half months ago.  So the synagogue is truly only used occasionally, but at least it has come back to life.

A different small museum displayed artifacts found on the grounds of the fort.  It brought back ancient memories for Jeff.  During a summer between grades in high school he took a National Science Foundation course on Anthropology and Archaeology.  For six weekends and then two full weeks in 1963, he and his 30 fellow-students went to an archaeological dig on Staten Island.  A tavern had sat beside a pond during the period of Dutch rule that ended in 1664 when the British took over.  The tavern continued to operate into the late 1700s.  His group's task was to dig where the tavern had been, and in the area of the pond.  They found the tavern foundations and a few special objects such as coins, but the most commonly retrieved object was clay pipes.  Or rather fragments of them, since they were tossed into the pond when they broke, as they frequently did.  The Vesting Bourtange collection matched perfectly with Jeff's recollection of the bags and bags of them he and his friends collected.

The windmills we showed earlier in today's blog turn to face the wind by rotating just the top of the windmill.  At the fortress they have reconstructed an earlier type that once served the community.  As you can see, the entire building rotates!  The steps you see on this one were probably not there, with access most likely to have been by a climb up a ladder once the whole building had been turned to face the wind.

The windmill had already closed for the day but not the horse mill a block away.  Not sure why Bourtange had both, but it did.  You can see in the first photo how the horse would have been hitched to push the pole around and around.  In the second photo you get a better sense of how the horse's circular motion was geared to rotate the grinding stone over to the side.  As we admired the wooden machinery, a family of baby birds sat on a ladder nearby, watching us and waiting for mom to appear with some food.  She did, twice, but so quickly that catching her on film was an impossibility.  She and her offspring gave new meaning to 'eating on the fly.'

And fly must we as well.  In the morning we took off for Papenburg, Germany, where we'll continue the story in our next blog entry.

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