Friday, September 14, 2018

Back to the Netherlands and Two Visits With Our Dutch Friends

It's been a while since our last blog post because we've been so busy.  Sorry about that.  In today's post we'll bring you up to speed on our final two weeks in the Netherlands, part of it on our own and part of it spent in two 3-day weekends with our tandem friends Nico and Marga.

We left Bruges on a gorgeous canal trail that followed the route trade used to take to reach the city.  Over time it became shallower and harder to navigate from sediment at the same time that trading ships were getting bigger and deeper, and Bruges lost its preeminence as a trading city.  In the long run that was arguably a good thing because the city remained a museum piece, and it's now one of the hottest tourist destinations in Europe.  But the residents at the time of that decline almost certainly didn't think much of the short term effect.

In one of the cities we passed through we encountered a Kermis.  The word is derived from the Dutch for 'church mass,' a festival a town in the late Middle Ages might have on the feast day of the saint the church was named for.  But since it was a celebration, various fun activities were also organized.

Today there is zero religious connection, and a Kermis is simply a carnival festival usually held for 4-5 days once a year, although larger cities might have a Kermis for longer or even have two in a year.  They're kind of corny and hokey, but for kids, they're an event that is much anticipated as the traditional week approaches.  We've run into over half a dozen in the course of our five summers of poking around the Netherlands, and decided it was time to throw into the blog a few photos of a more-or-less average one to show you an aspect of Dutch culture that rarely gets noticed by tourists.

Come back to this square a few days later and it will have lost all its magic and reverted to the way it looked before the Kermis, and will continue to look like for another 51 weeks.  As for all the rides, they're probably not too many kilometers away, in yet another town or city having its own special weekend.

We were on our way to meet our Dutch friends in the city of Middelburg, but we had two places to visit before that.  The first was the town of Colijnsplaat.  It is not on anyone's list of tourist destinations, not even a Dutch person's, but it was special for us because of its name, which it shares with our good friend Thyce Colyn since "ij" and "y" are to some extent interchangeable in Dutch names, particularly over time as one or the other form has gained or lost popularity.  In fact the Dutch Prime Minister in the 1920s and '30s was named Hendrikus Colijn, and Thyce Colyn has told us that he's heard in family lore that he is somehow related to this illustrious ancestor.

Colijnsplaat nowadays is known to most Dutch travelers as the western anchor of the Zeeland Bridge, a 3-mile (5-km) long bridge that helps keep the province of Zeeland (marked in red to the right) connected, made up as it is of many large islands and one large slice of mainland that would otherwise be part of Belgium.  For a few years after it opened in 1965, the bridge was Europe's longest.  Like almost all bridges in the Netherlands, it has a bike path, though we didn't choose to take it, at least not this year.  Wrong direction.

Like all good towns in the Netherlands, Colijnsplaat has an old windmill.  In fact, it has an "Old Windmill" from 1727 and a "New Windmill," built in 1864.

Colijnsplaat has an extensive harbor, said to hold 500 boats.  One of the boats will take you out searching for harbor seals on a 2 1/2 hour tour for only 12 euros.

A large dike protects the town today.  In the second photo below you can see a sign on the dike advertising the town's annual festival that celebrate's its Celtic past.  As you can see, it's a pretty good-sized dike.  The third photo shows how the road today now gently climbs up and over the dike.   In 1953 the dike was not as high and the route from the harbor to the town passed through the dike at a gate, not over it.  When high water was expected, heavy wooden beams were lowered in slots on each side of the gate to close off the opening.
When the water rose on January 31, 1953, however, it was no ordinary event.  All over Zeeland Province and even beyond, alarms went out shortly after midnight that there was a serious danger.  Summoned by sirens, phone calls, even visits by the town crier (yes, they still had such a person) going door-to-door, a group of the strongest men in Colijnsplaat assembled at the wooden barrier.  The water was already more than half-way up the height of the barrier on the ocean side, but the risk was not the water pressing against the barrier but the waves than occasionally smacked with great force into the wooden beams.  The police chief and mayor were afraid a large wave might crack the barrier, in which case the North Sea would come gushing down the main street, wiping out every person and house in its way.

When a lookout spotted a wave coming, the men leaned with all their weight, and another 3 rows of men leaned against the ones next to the barrier.  This was no boy with his finger in the dike, it was brute force against brute force.  Again and again the barrier held, but the men were in grave danger, and near exhaustion.  Then what could have been a catastrophe morphed into a miracle that saved them and the town.  A large ship broke free from its moorings and crashed sideways against the dike, missing the gate but creating instead a breakwater directly in front of the gate.  This miraculous barrier robbed the oncoming waves of their energy.  The gate was no longer being pounded, and it survived the crisis.

Elsewhere in the Netherlands over 1,800 people and over 50,000 farm animals died, 10,000 buildings were destroyed, and another 37,000 damaged.  It remains the worst natural disaster in the Netherlands in the past century.  Next to the harbor in Colijnsplaat was the memorial to its escape from danger, thankfully not a memorial to scores of victims like so many other Dutch towns have put up.

 It wasn't meal time so we didn't check out the main restaurant in town and instead followed the cyclists down the main street leading away from the harbor, wiggled through town and found the bike path at the edge of town that began our route back to our hotel.

It was a fairly straightforward route back except for one tiny detail.  Or more precisely, one tiny bridge.

Our next destination on the way to Middelburg was the ancient city of Veere.  It dates to the 1200s when a ferry began operating there, hence the name ("Ferry" in Dutch).  From the mid-15th century to the end of the 18th century, roughly 260 years, it was the main port for trade between Scotland and the Netherlands.  You get a sense of the prosperity that brought as you approach town and see the size of the Groote Kerk.  Here, we're viewing it from a set of locks that a group of boats have just left, headed for the open water.

There is a Scout center nearby and we saw a large group of German Scouts hanging out in town, plus many other tourists.  On the web it's claimed that the town attracts 4 million visitors a year.  Given the activity in the harbor, a good number of those might well be by boat.

It's easy to see why Veere is popular, given the water views, the cannons (one of which appears ready to deal with the seagull population), and the quaint buildings.

At last we reached Middelburg and connected up with Nico and Marga.  Three weeks earlier this seemed like an unlikely event, even though it had been planned 6 months earlier, as Nico had taken a detour to the hospital.  But he was mostly recovered and eager to get back on their tandem.  So we cut the speed a little, cut the miles a little, and had three great days of riding.

Our base was the provincial capital, Middelburg, but we had done the tourist routine 4 years earlier so this time we focused on riding out to and along the coast.  We rode south to the city of Vlissingen, or "Flushing" as British sailors and merchants have called it for centuries.  It lies at the mouth of the Scheldt Estuary that connects Antwerp with the North Sea, and as a result it found itself deeply involved in fighting in late 1944.  In June of that year the Allies had landed in Normandy and fought their way across France and Belgium to Antwerp.  They desperately needed the port of Antwerp as a place to offload the enormous amount of food, ammunition and other supplies the troops needed as they pushed on toward Germany.

However, the Germans had fortified both sides of the Scheldt Estuary, and were not about to leave.  A statue in the Vlissingen harbor is dedicated to the Canadian, British and Polish troops that ultimately seized the territory from the Germans.  Nearby was a rare surviving example of a Biber ("beaver") submarine, a midget sub the Germans developed late in the war for coastal defense.  It looks like a fearsome weapon, a 1-man sub with two powerful torpedoes.  In fact, it wasn't.  It had a variety of design shortcomings, the training for the submarine operators was far too short, and the operators sank more of each other (11 in one accident, 14 in another!) than they did of the Allies.  The 324 Biber deployed in the Scheldt area sunk a grand total of one Allied ship, all of whose sailors were rescued.

Happily, the rest of the coast rides focused on the sea, and only that.  In the first shot we're looking SW to the distant coast of Belgium.  It's an odd shoreline but a common one in the Netherlands, since the dike is essential to keeping the North Sea out of the low-lying fields and towns that abut it, and the asphalt topping on the seaward side of the dike helps keep it from being washed away in a storm.

The last photo illustrates what a Dutch town does when its church is destroyed in war, in this case during the 80-Year War of Dutch independence in the 1600s.  The tower remained, and it began to be used as a lighthouse, with a proper lighthouse tower added in 1852.  You can also infer from this photo and the ones that precede it that the elevation of the town is pretty darned close to sea level.

The wind, incidentally, was a little bit of an issue.  It was 15-18 mph (24-30 kph) each day, and came from the SW each of the days we were there.  We arranged each ride to be generally northward while along the shore, where we were fully exposed to the wind.  Luckily the locals are quite aware of how strong the wind is here, so close to the North Sea, and the inland routes are often buried in vegetation.  That was the theory, and in practice it did in fact work out that a large part of our riding "against the wind" was in fact somewhat sheltered from it.  That said, given that we did not have our panniers on the bike for these rides, it would have taken a far stronger wind to seriously interfere with our rides.  A slightly bigger impediment to our riding was our first mechanical issue of the summer, a broken spoke.  Of course it was on the rear wheel, which is more of a nuisance since you have to deal with the greasy chain.  But messiness aside, it's not a big deal for Jeff to replace a broken spoke, little different in time or difficulty than fixing a flat tire.

We were now down to the last week of our trip.  The plan was for 4 days of riding on our own (Nico and Marga had headed back home by car), then three days staying with them in their home 30 km south of Rotterdam.  We decided to get to know two more islands in this corner of the Netherlands, Schouwen-Duiveland and Goeree-Overflakee, as we made our way toward our friends' home.  In both cases we found a hotel for two nights, which meant that for each island we had a day of riding without panniers.

On the way to our first island we went past the Delta Project, an enormous flood barrier meant to avoid another disaster like the one in 1953.  The initial plan was to seal off much of Zeeland from the North Sea, but environmentalists convinced the government that that would be a biological disaster, and it was re-engineered to be a barrier that only comes down when a storm surge threatens to batter the coast.  The water inland from the project continues to rise and fall normally with the tides, and the consensus seems to be that the Delta Project has provided adequate protection with minimal environmental damage.

For our first two nights we had a hotel room that overlooked the quaint harbor of Brouwershaven, once busy with boats importing beer from Delft,  but now limited to pleasure craft.  On our pannier-less ride the next day we visited a nearby city with a very different look, Zierikzee, whose castellated city gate was most impressive.

That ride also took us on a number of wonderful bike paths along the island coast.  In the second photo you can see a field of red up ahead.  What was that, we wondered as we approached it.  When we got up close we discovered it was a bountiful harvest of red onions that were drying out in the sun before being packed up for the supermarkets of Europe.  A little further on were strips of brilliant color, similar to the tulip fields of the Netherlands or of the Skagit Valley in Washington State, near our home in Seattle.  But tulips bloom in April, and this was August.  On closer inspection we decided we had come upon a gladiolus farm.


Our second island was a study in contrasts.  The far western end had a complex of beaches and dunes protected as part of a national park.  A viewing platform gave us a high spot to look down  at the paved trail from the southwest and the unpaved hardpack that continues the route through the dunes to the northeast.  Directly north across the water is an industrial park at the mouth of the Rhine.

Elsewhere, even close to the water behind the dikes, the island was overwhelmingly agricultural.  Breaking up the open spaces were seemingly endless straight lines of trees marking ruler-straight roads.  Most of these were relatively low-traffic roads that were great for cycling.  The one busy road thankfully had a bike trail parallel to the road and a very safe distance from the fast-moving traffic.

We encountered another great Dutch institution, the weekly market.  Many are quite similar to the sorts of farmers markets we have in the U.S., with lots of fresh local produce and perhaps a few local craftspeople.  But in many towns, especially smaller ones, there are other merchants who sell things like shirts, underwear, craft supplies, hardware, buttons and sewing notions, exotic herbs and spices, and much more.  In fact we bought a birthday greeting card from the one in the second photo.  It may end up being the only birthday card that grandchild ever gets that's written in Dutch.  In any event, these traveling stores fill a useful niche, and bring these sorts of goods close to small-town residents as a healthy alternative to having to drive great distances to big stores in far-off big cities.

Another great Dutch institution of course is the canal.  There are thousands of canals of all sizes in this little country.  We thought after 5 summers of biking here that we'd seen pretty much every way of crossing a canal -- but we were wrong.  We came to a spot where boats enter and exit through a narrow passage connecting the open water and a small harbor.  There is a gate similar to that on a lock that can be swung closed in the event of a storm surge or exceptionally high high tide.  Otherwise boats can freely enter and exit.  But it was decided to have a Knoopunt bike route cross the opening.  How to do this?  The answer is a bridge that slides out on demand.  A cyclist who arrives when the bridge is retracted simply presses a button and waits a minute for the "traffic signal" for boats to go from green to red.  Then the walkway slides its way across the opening.  A few minutes later an alarm bell goes off, guard gates descend, and the bridge slowly retracts to allow boat traffic to resume.

Our last day of riding with panniers saw us soaring east with an 18 mph tailwind, as the bandanna is demonstrating.  It took us past a solar-powered e-bike recharging station.  Very cool!  And as we prepared to pop into a supermarket we learned from a hook near the front door what dogs say when they speak Dutch.  Hey, we're always excited to learn more about the Dutch people, their bike culture and their language!


We reached Nico and Marga's on day 85 of our European adventure.  We hoped to get in two days of biking with them, but after an incredibly dry summer, we found ourselves having to wait out a full day of rain.  Instead we played the card game "Oh Hell" using Nico's braille-marked deck of cards, and as usual Nico beat the pants off us sighted players.  The weather improved in the evening and we went over to their son's place, a century-old home that their son and daughter-in-law are slowly but surely renovating.  We got the grand tour, and at one point Jakobus clambered over the scaffolding to show us the original stone tiles on the roof.  He explained that they're so heavy that they're not fastened down, which actually helps let air get under them to dry out any moisture that gets past the tiles in a rain storm.

The next day the weather stayed dry, and we got in our bike ride past the sugar beet factory where Nico used to work as their accountant and record-keeper, with the help of computers that could read for him. It closed almost a decade ago, and all that's left behind him is the smokestack.  His office used to be right behind his right shoulder, where there's now a layer of broken bricks.  There have been discussions, but no one has been able to come up with a plan for the land that satisfies the sugar beet company and the local government.

On Sunday morning we got to see Dutch formal bike attire as Nico and Marga left for church.  The small case slung over Nico's shoulder is his braille keyboard.  He programs in the text for each Sunday's hymns, and then he can read the words and sing along with the rest of the congregation as they hold their hymn books.

With that, our summer's biking was over.  As we packed up the bike we checked the bike computer -- 2,980 kilometers.  We originally thought we'd do a little over 2,600 km, but near the end got excited about the possibility of hitting 3,000, as we did two years ago, but it was not to be.  Nonetheless it translates to 1,850 miles.  Not bad for a couple of 70-somethings!  We stayed off the bike 25% of our days, and for the days we did bike we went anywhere from 6 km to 72 km (45 mi.), averaging just over 45 km (28 miles) per day of actual riding.

But this is not the end of our trip, only that of our wonderful tandem, Little Red!  From here we head to Brussels for one day, then Scotland for two weeks and one more week and a half to work our way from New York City back to Seattle via family and friends along the way.  Those stories will hopefully soon follow.