Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Biking Back to Amsterdam

As anyone who's written a blog knows, it's sometimes hard to keep up.  Our biggest challenge has not been the time but rather computer access.  We can write entries on our little iPad Mini and even post them to the blog, but putting photos in the blog requires a computer, which we don't carry with us on the bike, not even a laptop.  And unlike what people say about Playboy, we think most readers access us for the photos, not the articles.
In the U.S., most public libraries will do the job, though some have security features that disallow the first step of the process: uploading the photos from the camera or the memory chip.  In Europe, the percentages reversed, hence our many delays.

On August 15 we boarded the Holland America Eurodam for the trip back to the States, and continuing the blog then became a practical impossibility.  The ship charges 75 cents a minute for internet access, and slow access at that.  Sorry, readers, you're valuable but not that precious to us!  And once one gets a few weeks behind in a blog, it sometimes is hard to get back in the swing of it.  So please accept our apologies for this late conclusion of our European adventure, which ended over 2 months ago.

Today's post will take you with us back to our final bike miles in Holland, with subsequent posts highlighting our cruise ship route back from Amsterdam.  It was really two cruises linked together: a 12-day circuit of the Baltic, then a 16-day crossing of the Atlantic to New York City.  Do check out those posts as soon as we have them up!

If you're here to see pictures of our tandem, today's blog will have to suffice, as the tandem was back in its two cases for the boat trip and then was shipped home to Seattle as soon as we hit NYC, to leave us less encumbered as we Amtraked it across the U.S. visiting family.  Our first photo today is of our trusty bike with a "fietsers pontveer" or "bicycle-only ferryboat" heading across the canal to pick us up.  Our trip back to Amsterdam was fairly direct, only a day and a half to cover the 99 km from the ferry terminal in the Hook of Holland by a reasonably straight route.  But this is Holland and scenery keeps popping up, such as this canal scene complete with Dutch cyclists and a classic Dutch windmill, then our narrowest path of the summer.  It went on like this for about 3 miles/5 km, but luckily we only encountered two bikes going the opposite way, with us giving way once and the other bike pulling off before we did the other time.

We showed you a do-it-yourself ferry a few blogs back.  Throughout the Netherlands we had seen many do-it-yourself drawbridges, and this time finally saw someone doing-it-themselves.  Before you start trying to lift it and again after you're done, don't forget to open or close the latches that keep the bridge from opening on its own and stranding someone on the latch side!

We were now less than a dozen miles, as the crow flies, from Amsterdam, but thanks to good Dutch zoning you could only tell by scanning the horizon.  We had good trails like this to within 3 or 4 km of our hotel, then rode trails with their own bike traffic signals most of the rest of the way.  It was almost as easy as riding into a small country town!

The main reason for our push to Amsterdam was to get together with friends Louise and Masaharu and two of their sons, a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter.  They all headed to England the next morning for the wedding of son #3, so we're glad we were able to catch them just in time, and that they were able to fit us into their busy schedule.

While not quite so memorable, we did take one last opportunity to have some good Dutch pancakes for lunch.  Don't think it will be anytime soon that we see a menu like this again!

Once the tandem was disassembled and in its cases, we could relax and get busy checking off two items that have been on our bucket list for a decade: visiting the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum, two of the greatest art museums in the world, and only a few blocks apart.

From our efficiency apartment we crossed a canal with a view of the Rijksmuseum a kilometer away, but headed instead to the Van Gogh Museum.  Hours later, we marveled at all we had seen, from Van Gogh's actual paint palette to the largest collection of his paintings in the world.  Whew!  Here are a few of them.


Van Gogh was deeply moved by Japanese prints, and the museum showed several examples of his paintings and sometimes the work that inspired it.


Only a masochist would attempt both museums on one day, and he would do an inadequate job of seeing them at that.  So the next day we tackled the Rijksmuseum, which only reopened in April after a 2-year renovation.  It has an enormous collection, largely of Dutch paining.  But this small country is a giant in art history, so there was more than we could actually see in one long day.

The building itself is an architectural work, and especially with the renovation it set the artwork off admirably.  Of course the museum's most famous work is Rembrandt's Night Watch, but there was much, much more to admire, such as a roomful or two of massive paintings commissioned by civic groups; humorous 'genre' paintings like the next one of a naughty boy who has had his come-uppance from Saint Nicholas; maritime paintings galore, with one gallery including a model of a 17th century warship; and 4 Vermeers, 10%+ of the world's supply of 38 works commonly attributed to him.  We've shared two that involve the receipt of love letters.

In several of the galleries, a noteworthy painting had laminated commentaries available in several languages, giving background to the painting and pointing out interesting things to look for in the painting. Luckily, one of the featured works was this detailed winter scene, a perenial favorite theme in Dutch art.

We'll close with this painting from 1645 documenting the visit of a Dutch family to the tomb of William of Orange, the "father of the fatherland" of Holland.  It's an impressive tomb, and one we photographed on our own visit to the Niewe Kerk in Delft a few weeks earlier, though with a fairly different perspective.

It was not the last reminder that day of our lengthy travel around the Netherlands.  As we exited, there was a familiar sound.  It was a Russian street musician we had spent pleasant quarter-hours listening to twice before, in Haarlem and in Leiden, both about a month earlier.  He plays impossibly complex classical pieces, such as Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, on this button accordion.  With his rich sonorities echoing in our minds, we headed off to our apartment for the last home-cooked meal we will enjoy for the coming month, and a final packing of our things for our late morning boarding of the Eurodam.

Come join us in our next blog entries for a quick float around the Baltic!

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Short Week in Long Melford

In early 2009 we were cycling on the South Island of New Zealand when we ran into Lin and Bernard cycling a similar route, but in reverse, on a tandem.  We chatted for quite a while comparing notes, trading advice, exchanging email addresses, and taking the photo on the right.  Sure enough, in the next three weeks we managed to get together with them four more times in four different locations.  They live in the Manchester area and have taken tandem trips around UK and occasionally on the continent on their own tandem, and urged us to come across the pond some time with our tandem.

We stayed in touch with an email or two per year, in case our paths should cross again.  Earlier this year when we decided to add a loop in East Anglia, we asked them if they were interested in doing any riding with us there.  We got back both an enthusiastic "Yes" and a suggestion that we rent what the Brits refer to as a "self-catering cottage" for a week.  Soon after, we had a reservation for a two-bedroom house in the small town of Long Melford, in a corner of Suffolk close to Norfolk and Essex counties.  It was a wonderful experience.

Long Melford was a good base, a reasonably typical town with its shops on High Street (the British equivalent of Main Sreet for us Americans) and footpaths along the edge of town.  One even had a new style of stile we hadn't seen before.

The area all around Long Melford was the richest part of England from the 1300s to the 1600s, thanks to the wool trade.  As prosperity then moved to the Midlands with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, East Anglia became something of a backwater, but one with towns left full of beautiful Tudor homes and shop buildings built during those glory days.  It's hard for us to say just when the tide turned, but East Anglia is once again wealthy, this time from tourism plus an influx of those who want to enjoy its rural charm and quaint villages full-time, as residents.  Thanks to careful zoning, it has succeeded in maintaining both.

As it turns out, it was also an area Lin and Bernard had rarely visited, and they were as eager to explore it as we were.  Since they and their tandem arrived by car, we had the option of driving to places we could explore on foot, as well as do loop rides by tandem from Long Melford.  We split our six days together into 3 of each.

One of our first destinations by bike was nearby Lavenham.  It is widely praised in guidebooks as the best of the old Wool Towns, yet there was not the least sign of tourist kitsch, no T-shirt and souvenir shops, no ice cream parlors.  No, just ancient and amazing buildings, many looking like classic Tudors, others in unexpected colors, many in outrageous angles.


Bernard had brought along a full set of Ordnance Survey maps, similar to American USGS topo maps but even better at designating low-traffic roads ideal for cycling.  Since they are topographic maps, they also helped us avoid the worst hills and anticipate the others.  On our three days of riding we explored the upper Stour valley made famous by the paintings of John Constable,

explored small towns like Clare with its 14th century Ancient House in the town (the plaster decoration, called "pargetting," was done in 1473), ruins of 13th century Castle Clare looming above the town, and a now-abandoned Victorian train station on the edge of town,

rested at the old Clare Priory torn down by Henry VIII in 1538 but reopened in 1953 by Augustinian monks,

managed to find a pair of fords (and to walk around both, since riding them is dangerous if they're slippery, as they often are),

and to stop from time to time just to admire a beautiful home, a handsome horse or a clever mailbox.

We stopped to poke into a remote country church in the small village of Edwardstone and were stunned to see a sign telling us that John Winthrop was born nearby, was baptised here, and was a parishioner until he left to become the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.  Louise's Cutter family ancestors joined Winthrop in Boston in 1640 and later moved only a dozen miles further out to Weston MA, where Louise was born.  With added interest, we explored the church, and found a trio of poignant memorials:  one each for the large number of men from this small place who seved in WW I (the "Great War") and WW II (the names of those who died in war are embossed in gold), and an ancient brass engraving to a couple who died twelve days apart and left a remarkable dozen children behind.  One of them, Benjamin jr., in fact, joined Winthrop on the trip to Boston.

By car we visited the Thomas Gainsborough home, now a museum devoted to his art.  The town had a statue of him, but no photos were allowed inside the museum.  He became wealthy as his generation's best portrait painter, but he preferred landscapes, the first British artist to do so.  Indeed, he exerted a strong influence on John Constable, who grew up 50 years later only 30 miles away.
But we mainly drove in order to reach starting points for interesting hikes, of which we had several.

Besides the usual delights of a late summer hike in the East Anglian countryside, there were a few out of the ordinary sights, such as a pile of used horseshoes behind a former farrier's shop, and a bunker built during WW II when there was concern the Germans might land on the coast 25 miles from here and advance up this peaceful valley.

Perhaps the most striking landmark we hiked to was the Chappel Viaduct, where Bernard posed for an intriguing portrait.  We hiked up to the north end of the viaduct where there is a station that doubles as a railroad museum and as an active stop on the line that brought us back to Lin and Bernard's car.

The week went by in a whiz.  As Lin and Bernard headed off  by car to the UK Tandem Rally on the opposite side of England, we retraced with our own tandem some routes from earlier in the week plus a few new ones as we made our way back to Harwich.  We had our second (and final) flat tire of the summer, and an amusing road obstruction.   The road crew somehow found a way to move aside and let us pass.

From Harwich we reboarded the Stena ferry to Holland.  We'll take you back to Amsterdam and to two of Europe's finest museums in our next blog entry.  Thanks for joining us, Lin and Bernard on our week in East Anglia.