Thursday, June 30, 2016

On the Road to Rotterdam

After three wonderful days with Nico and Marga in Strijen, it was time to move on.  Our 4 suitcases went, like Russian dolls, one into the other into the other until we had just one large suitcase that they will ship to us in Salzburg later this summer.  We are now in long-distance touring mode, with the minimum amount of clothing we can get by with until September.

In planning what route to take from Strijen, we noticed a town with a distinctive shape about 50 km away, Woudrichem.  It was about 30 km further to the east than we needed to go, but the shape was too strong an attraction, for it indicates an ancient town with, most likely, ancient city walls.  As an added inducement was Slot Loevestein just 2 km beyond, a place our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended visiting.  And so we detoured, and were not disappointed.

Our first stop was Dordrecht, where we had hoped to do a little sightseeing and maybe even canoeing in Biesbosch National Park, just outside town.  However departure day opened with a steady rain, and it never quit.  We hung out with Nico through lunchtime hoping the rain would let up, but it didn't, and so we set out.  It wasn't an awful experience, since we were almost entirely on traffic-free bike paths or country roads where cars were a rarity, but we did make the unfortunate discovery that the waterproof covering for our handlebar bag was not in fact waterproof.  None of the electronics in the bag were damaged, but it is something we need to fix.

The next day started out dry so off we went, using the Waterbus for about 10 km of our route.  Our bike did not have much company on the rear deck.  Woudrichem was charming, but in a delicate way that did not readily submit to capture on film.  We passed a B&B and promised ourselves that we will come back for a stay and a slower exploration of this small walled city. 

A 3-minute ride on a second ferry took us to a path that led to Slot Loevestein, a castle that has roots back to the 12th century.  It evolved over the centuries as it gained the wealth to build, and as technology required it to change if it wanted to remain defensible.  The high castle keep which you see behind the cows and in the next photos
was a strong defense in the 1400s, but vulnerable to destruction by cannon fire in the 1700s, when the true defense was in moats and earthen ramparts set 50-100 meters from the castle keep.  A series of drawings at the castle illustrate the evolution, from 1361 to 1460 and 1750, which is largely what you see today (and in the 3-D model).

There was much to see, including the officers' barracks and a model of an 18th century muster.  The bed, by the way, is inside the blue-grey cupboard on the left in the middle photo.  People in those days did not sleep flat, which was considered unhealthy, but rather in a fetal position with the legs tucked up in a bed that was rarely even 4 feet (130 cm) long.  Close the doors to the bed chamber and it's also probably a few degrees warmer than in that unheated room.

The rooms in the castle proper were exceptionally capacious.  While they seem elegant in a way, they were in fact less than charming to some of the inhabitants, for the castle was used as a prison of sorts for some high-ranking figures.  The most prominent of them was Hugo Grotius, or Hugo de Groot as the Dutch know him, and The Father of International Law as legal scholars remember him.  The concept that no nation controls the high seas?  Grotius's.  He got here not because of those theories, but rather because he believed that some members of the Dutch Reformed Church should have freedom of belief when the establishment of the church considered them heretics.  His prison escape is perhaps the most famous in Dutch history, as he left for good hidden in a chest of books.  He was not a small guy, and hiding in a chest of laundry would have been a dead give-away.

After watching some young boys play soldier and one particular old guy play knight, it was time to move on to our next overnight in Leerdam, an hour's ride away.  Which was when the rain decided to arrive, and to stay for the whole ride.  Again not dangerous, just unpleasant, and distressing again since the second "waterproof" bag we put over the handlebar bag failed to keep it dry.  For a second time we had no damage to the electronics, but we don't think the third time will charm us.  We're hoping to come up with a better solution for that inevitable next time.

The original plan was to stay two nights in Leerdam and go canoeing nearby on the "rest day," but rain again altered the plans.  No, we didn't get rained on, but we did leave Leerdam after only one night and headed a day early to Rotterdam.  Good thing, as the following day was indeed wet.  But on our dry ride to Rotterdam we did get to ride past one of the Netherlands' most well-known places, Kinderdijk.  This is a collection of 19 windmills, all of them built about 1740.  Since they are more or less identical, we found them less interesting than another large collection we visited at Zaanse Schans in 2013 and described in the blog at that time.  Nonetheless, they are impressive, well preserved, and much visited.

We again turned to the Waterbus for the last dozen km to Rotterdam, and were treated to a view of the lively river traffic on this lower stretch of the Rhine, and then to the modern architecture of Rotterdam as we came into the city.

After a wet day spent mostly indoors, which we'll get to in a moment, we took a boat tour of the Port of Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe and currently around 6th place worldwide.  Our tour was only 45 minutes and by no means covered the whole port.  When we left Rotterdam by bike, we were still not even with the furthest point in the port after two hours of riding!

Still, it was a great chance to see some of the considerable activity, including a maritime training ship going by, and hoists lifting containers off ships almost as easily as a kid picking marbles off the floor.

One of the highlights was a float past the S.S. Rotterdam, a 1950's ship that was once the flagship of the Holland America Line.  It was built for transatlantic service, but later functioned as a cruise ship before retirement and replacement with another ship bearing the proud name but better-designed for cruising.  The retiree is far from retired, however, and now functions as a hotel, restaurant and conference center.  Around the corner is the Hotel New York in a turn-of-the-20th century building that was once the world headquarters of the Holland America Line.  (Their new headquarters?  Why in our home town of Seattle!)  Behind the hotel is another batch of striking new architecture.  Just beyond them is the Erasmus Bridge, a striking cable-stayed bascule bridge.

Not all the modern architecture is on the water.  Near our hotel is one of the oddest collections of homes we have ever seen, the Cube Houses.  They were designed by architect Piet Blom to represent trees, and the collection of houses a forest.  They went up in 1974.  One other group was built a few years later in another Dutch town, but it just hasn't caught on.  Across a large plaza from them is the Markthal, or Market Hall, with numerous shops and restaurants inside, parking below, and apartments all over the outside.  It is a striking building, a cathedral of commerce.

We'll close with two museums we visited during damper parts of our stay in Rotterdam.  The Maritime Museum had a helpful cut-away model of a container ship and a nice exhibit on old ships turned into new homes, similar to Seattle's floating homes.  We then toured an old ship that has not been remodeled, showing how the master and mistress of the ship lived on board as it carried cargo up and down the Rhine from the late 1800s into the mid-1900s. This wasn't recreated history, this was the real thing.

We'll end with Rotterdam's excellent art museum, Boijmans van Beuningen.  The curation was particularly good, with insightful commentaries on the artworks.  For example, they pointed out that painters in Holland's Golden Age, the age of Rembrandt and van Ruisdael, never seemed to notice the windmills that we now consider one of the main icons of Dutch culture.  It was only in the late 1800s that painters like Paul Gabriel considered them not only worthy of notice, but even as the focus of an artwork.

The museum has at least two Van Gogh's but they are not your typical ones.  These are from his time in and around his hometown of Nuenen, before he awoke to the colorful palette of the Impressionists, although you can see that the bold brushstrokes are already there.

One of our absolute favorite genres of Dutch painting is the wintertime scene with skaters.  This painting by Aert van de Neer from about 1660 is almost devoid of snow, although the folks are clearly skating on a frozen canal.  It does however capture that eerie color of winter.

We'll close with what is probably their most important and well-known painting, Pieter Breughel's Tower of Babal,  painted in 1565.  One's first impression is that it's not a bad painting, until you get very close.  Then the detail blows you away, the multitude of people captured with the slightest twist of the paint brush, the grandeur of the structure made even greater when you appreciate how tiny people are next to it.

We avoided Rotterdam on our first two visits to the Netherlands, thinking it would be too big and uninteresting.  We now stand corrected.  It is much more modern than any other city in Holland, but just as charming in its own ways.  And just as devoted to cycling and good eating.

With our departure from Rotterdam we now will head north along the North Sea coast, exploring a mix of places we've seen before, and many we haven't.  Tell you more in our next entry.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Great Welcome to Holland

8 weeks after leaving Seattle we boarded a ferry to take us from the UK to Holland, the start of our grand trek across what we anticipate will be about 2,500 km of the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria.  Since British trains are fairly unfriendly to tandem bicycles, we took our bike apart once again and packed it into our suitcases.  The two largest suitcases have the bike, the bike panniers, and most of our bike clothes.  The carry-on sized suitcase and the small duffel have the rest of the clothes we will carry on the bike in the panniers, plus extra clothes for our longer stays in London and Cambridge, which we will also need for the 2 weeks we will take in September to travel across the US visiting family along the way.  Not seen in the photo are the small backpacks we were wearing that have most of the electronics and a few more items of clothes.

From the ferry we hopped onto a Dutch train for a 45 minute ride to a town outside Rotterdam, where our Dutch friends Nico and Marga were waiting for us with their thankfully large car.  We were then their houseguests for three wonderful days.  Soon after lunch we reassembled our tandem and headed out for a short ride.  The next day we rode 20 km to see their son and the countryside to the west of their home town, and on the third day we took a 50 km loop ride that really showed off their part of Holland.  Here we are on a bicycle ferry -- one of several dozen all over Holland -- with their folding tandem and our take-apart one, once again all put together.

Jeff learned to love tandem biking from his blind friend Pete Dawson, and Pete became such a good friend he was Best Man at our wedding.  Jeff also spent a few weeks living with Pete, so learned a bit about how you manage life without sight.  It was interesting to revisit the issue with Nico, who lost his own sight due to a childhood illness, after having limited sight for his first few years.  Technology has had a huge impact on him, and he is one tech-savvy guy.  Check out his braille reader!  When he gets an email he can have a mechanical voice read it to him, or he can read it in braille on the reader.  If he writes something he can double-check his work in braille.  It's so central to the ease with which he manages his life that he has multiple devices, including this smaller one he takes with his Mac Book, and another that has a memory.  He downloads the hymns for his church each week, and has the text of the hymns play out for him in braille as he joins the rest of the congregation in song!  He could also download a good novel and read it during a dull sermon while seeming to pay full attention, but that's not actually the Nico we saw during our visit.

Our great shared love of course is tandem riding, and that longer ride took us to Willemstad, an historical town that has a fine old windmill we rode past, and many newer ones churning out electricity.

Although one sees modern windmills in most of the Netherlands and also in some large wind farms offshore in the North Sea, it still only accounts for about 8% of their electric production.  Solar is only a fraction of a percent, but Nico and Marga are doing their bit.  When we asked about the solar panels we saw on the roof of their garage, we learned that they generate almost the exact amount of electricity they use in a year, but of course all in the daytime and mostly in the summer.

Near Willemstad we stopped to read a sign about that hill standing behind Nico and Marga.  It marks one of many places in the SW of the Netherlands where a dike failed in the Watersnoodramp, or "water disaster" of Feb. 1, 1953.  A trifecta of bad luck -- a particularly high tide, an especially low pressure system, and a storm surge from that low pressure system -- combined to create a tide that was up to 18 feet above mean sea level in some parts of the Netherlands, particularly in the Province of Zeeland.  Nico told us how his Dad was at home that day in Strijen, which is 50 km / 30 mi. from the main part of the coast.  A neighbor burst in and told him to run to a high place, having just heard the warning herself on a radio.  They ran, and then looked down at a wall of water that ruined his house and thousands of others.  In the Netherlands over 1,800 people died, including 44 even in Strijen.  Later that day we stopped at the cemetery in their small town to see the memorial to the flood victims there.  It is a moving place, with hedges cut to represent the waves and a stark sculpture of a flood victim later recovered, dead, from a tree.  As if that isn't enough tragedy for this community, nearby is a second memorial to the victims of the Holocaust from their town.  The Star of David is deliberately broken to represent how the Jewish community was shattered by this brutality.  As elsewhere, hope for the future is expressed in the saying "Never again."

On our second night with Nico and Marga we had a wonderful serendipity.  Jeff's daughter Rebecca had been sent the week before to a large indoor farming conference in Amsterdam.  She is director of research for Illumitex, a company that makes grow lights for indoor farms and greenhouses, both of which are large industries in the Netherlands.  After he conference ended she and Jeff worked out a plan for her to stay in Rotterdam and to take the Waterbus to Dordrecht, a city close to Strijen.  We met in front of De Crimpte Zalm, a seafood restaurant located on Fish Street (Visstraat), with carvings of fish in this 1609 building since it was once part of the fishing industry.  Inside we had a wonderful meal and lively conversation.

Well, we consider ourselves lucky indeed to have made the acquaintance of Nico and Marga last year while tandeming in Germany, renewed with a ride in Leiden near the end of last year's trip.  With our stay this week, we have created quite a good friendship.  Perhaps the most surprising part was when Nico mentioned how much he liked card games.  "How do you play cards?" wondered Jeff.  "With a decks of cards I've marked with braille," said Nico, and we sat down to teach them our favorite card game, Oh Hell.  After a minute or two of explanation, both Marga and Nico said "Hey, we already know that game, but it has a different name in Dutch."  Know it they did, and Marga took first and Nico second place.

It's now time to move on, and we'll tell you in our next blog entry about our ride a short ways up the Rhine to see some old towns and a 12th century castle, then to Rotterdam, and finally on up the coast as we make our way to northern Germany.