Hiking Historic Skating Route

IMG_0131The Elfstedentocht (Eleven cities tour) is a historic long-distance skating tour event, almost 200 kilometres (120 mi) long, which is held both as a speed skating competition (with 300 contestants) and a leisure tour (with 16,000 skaters!). It is held in the province of Friesland in the north of The Netherlands, leading past all eleven historical cities of the province. The tour is held at most once a year, only when the natural ice along the entire route is at least 15 centimetres (6 in) thick; sometimes on consecutive years, other times with gaps that may exceed 20 years if the winter is not cold enough. When the ice is suitable, the tour is announced and starts within 48 hours.

There has been mention of skaters riding to all eleven cities of Friesland on one day since 1760. The Elfstedentocht was already part of Frisian tradition when, in 1890, Pim Mulier conceived the idea of an organized tour, which was first held in 1909 when 22 men competed. After this race, the Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden (Association of the Eleven Frisian Towns) was established to organize the event.

The winters of 1939/40, 1940/41 and 1941/42 were particularly severe,  with the race being run in each of these years. The 1940 race, run three months prior to the German invasion of the Netherlands, saw over 3,000 competitors start at 05:00 on 30 January, with the first five finishing at 16:34. The event dominated the front pages of Dutch newspapers. 

DSCN0078The Elfstedentocht of 1963 became known as “The hell of ’63” when only 69 of the 10,000 participants were able to finish the race, due to the extremely low temperatures of -18 °C, powder snow and a harsh eastern wind. Conditions were so horrendous that the 1963 winner, Reinier Paping, became a national hero, and the tour itself legendary. Paping could not make out the finishing line as he was snow blind by the end of the race, and many of the contestants had frostbite, broken limbs, and damaged eyes. 

My dad participated 5 times in the tour (’29, ’33, ‘39, ‘40 and ‘41). I don’t know how many of those 5 he finished, but I have several ‘kruisjes’ the medal that is given to those who finish the tour in one day. 

In 2017 the NIVON, the Dutch organization that develops and manages long distance paths in The Netherlands announced the creation of the Elfsteden path as hiking trail. It follows as closely as possible the route the skaters take, but since (despite wearing wooden shoes) even the Dutch cannot walk on water, the land route is considerably longer: 285 kilometers. 

The terrain is beautiful, although somewhat monotonous, flat, wide open spaces, lots of canals, rivers and large lakes. The Montana car license motto “Big Sky Country” would apply very well to Friesland.

So how do you start a 300 km hike? Well, like eating an elephant, 1 bite at the time you start with 1 step at a time. I had arrived in Leeuwarden, the 2018 Cultural Capital of Europe. There I visited the Esher Museum and saw a parade of 15 meter tall giant marionettes. IMG_0130

And stayed overnight in jail! ( more about that later).

Dutch bakeries are the best in the world, so I had delicious croissants and strong coffee for breakfast and was ready to hit the road, or the trail in this case. 

The start of the trail is on the edge of downtown, however due to the preparations for a celebration the following weekend the official starting point with the statue of a skater was closed off. I left town and headed down the route. It could not really be called a trail, because as I would discover in the following days and weeks, the route uses existing roads and bikepaths for probably 90% of the time, which meant that you ended up walking on pavement or concrete most of the way.

DSCN0080In my case walking on hard surfaces is much harder on my feet then soft surface forest trails. The weather was perfect so no need to complain and even if I did complain there was nobody listening to it anyway. As I noted earlier, the terrain that you find in western Friesland is interesting, but somewhat monotonous. Wide open spaces, green fields, either with cows ( the famous Fries’ cattle) or agriculture, mostly corn, for cattle feed during the winter. But also numerous creeks, rivers, canals, lakes and other bodies of water. No wonder this type of terrain invites skaters during cold winters. The 300 km were roughly divided into daily distances of 18 to 25 km. Not a problem, but I quickly discovered that because of the Dutch summer holidays it was difficult to find overnight addresses. As a result, on several occasions I had to take a bus or train to a city 25 km further down the route to find places to stay overnight. Right after the first day of hiking that happened, so I took the train to the city of  Sneek and the next morning took the train back to where I had left off. 

IMG_0136Oh, about the jail, yes I was in jail for the first 2 nights in Holland, but this old jail had been converted to a youth hostel, so you fortunately got your own key to you own personal jail cell. Bars on the windows, heavy metal doors that closed behind you with a thud and the lock would fall in place with a grinding noise. On the last night back in Leeuwarden at the end of the hike I stayed there again: https://alibihostel.nl/en/

In addition to the 200 km skating tour/race there is also a 250 km biking route and now the 300 km hiking route. However, while I hiked the first 2 days, a Dutchmen, who happens to be the Olympic champion open water swimming, SWAM the entire route without stopping. He did that to bring attention to the need for funding for cancer research and managed to raise over 5 million Euros during and after his swim. He did not quite make it the 200 km because after about 160 km a doctor ordered him out of the water because he had been swimming for 36 hours without a rest and he became a danger to himself. When I left Sneek on the third day of the hike he had passed by that city only an hour before me, the next city IJlst I was still only 15 minutes behind him and in Balk that evening I finally caught up with him. 

The 4th of the official eleven cities was Sloten, just like Leeuwarden, IJlst and Sneek these are 500-600 year old cities. Narrow streets, cute small houses along the canals, definitely not made for today’s modern traffic. Beautiful house fronts and few modern conveniences. Food was easy to find, overnight accommodation remained difficult to find throughout most of the 15 days it took me to hike the route. The route between IJlst and Balk was truly boring, nothing but a long straight paved bike path. However, all part of the ‘fun’.

Finally, on the 5th day the terrain (briefly) changed, from wide open green spaces to forests and different vegetation because the heavy clay that is predominant in Friesland (and most of the western and northern part of the Netherlands) changed to sand for just a short section of the route. A nice change from the wide open spaces. And a nice change from the hard wind that I had been fighting for the last several days. No rain, but boy, that wind was trying to push me back most of the day. Finally after the sandy part around Gaasterland, the trail turned to the north and I had the wind in the back most of the time. Now the trail ran along the shore of the IJsselmeer, the former Zuiderzee. I hiked through some of the prettiest cities the entire route had to offer, Stavoren, Workum, Bolsward and Hindelopen. After those the trail moved back inland and Franeker was the next city. It is famous for the 300 year old planetarium, the oldest still in operation planetarium in the world. That was well worth the visit.IMG_0134

After Franeker the trail took on its rather monotonous character again, nothing but cows, agriculture and huge wealthy farms. Three hiking days to get from Franeker to the11th of the cities: Dokkum. As I mentioned before, my dad had skated this tour 5 times in his life. I carried one of his medals with me the entire way and I wanted to experience this route because he had done it, albeit on skates. I knew it would not be the most beautiful route, but I did want to somehow experience something similar to what he had done 75-100 years ago. On the last day I walked into Leeuwarden and ended up in jail again. 🙂

There are definitely nicer, prettier long distance hikes in The Netherlands, the Drenthe path, Pieterpad, Graafschapspad to name a few, but I just had to do this one for the reason I explained before. All together a great experience, but once was enough.


IMG_0580As a child, I often visited family in Rotterdam. And of course I was familiar with the horrid stories of how Rotterdam had suffered in WWII. It’s heart had been bombed heavily – entire parts of the city had burned and been destroyed.

Having lived most of my life away from The Netherlands, I didn’t know the new city that had grown in its place. So during a recent visit to Holland, we decided to visit and explore Rotterdam. As with Amsterdam, ‘dam’ is the same word as in English. Each city’s name refers to the spot where the river was dammed and the city grew: Amsterdam on the river Amstel. Rotterdam on the Rotte river.

A ring of beautiful old houses remains along the Meuse and Rhine, an ornate hotel, an art-deco yachtclub. These old buildings lean comfortably against ultra-modern buildings. Rotterdam is Europe’s busiest port. Large ships daily bring cargo from all over the world, must as sail ships did a few hundred years ago.

IMG_0743A futuristic Market Hall towers above market stalls. You can now buy sushi and falafel here as well as eat Dutch poffertjes. Chruch bells ring among buildings of gleaming steel and glass.




Swan Bridge and The Rotterdam Building

The Swan is a bridge spanning the river Meuse. Its official name is Erasmus Bridge, named after a Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest and social critic from 1400’s Rotterdam. The bridge is 800 meters long and has a 139 meter high pylon and is an eye catcher in the centre of the city.

Across the water is The Rotterdam, a building that resembles blocks placed upon each other by a toddler. They seem to wobble and balance as if they can tumble down at any moment. However, this largest building in Europe is solid and houses offices, homes, shops and much more. In this port city, it also resembled stacked shipping containers.

IMG_0717We visited the famous cube homes: houses that are titled on one point, and seem to have been juggled into place, landing on their sides. You can visit a show home, climb the narrow Dutch stairs as see how slanted walls and triangular windows form these cube homes into small condos. Not for anyone who feels claustrophobic.


A state-of-the-art Central Station welcomes visitors that come by train. Its huge gleaming hall seems more like an airport than a train station and houses shops and restaurants. IMG_0780

One of our favorite discoveries is the ‘water bus’. This ferry picks up passengers much like a bus but the trip down the river is much more fun. For a few euros it will take you to nearby cities, including Dordrecht. It also stops in Kinderdijk – the world famous dike lined with 19 historic windmills. You can disembark here to do some sightseeing and take a later water bus back to the city. You can even bring your (rented) bike on the ferry.


The view from our Rotterdam Air BnB

We opted to stay in an Air BnB here. There is much opposition to Air BnB accommodations in The Netherlands, especially by hotels. But I think it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges. I stay in hotels when I travel for business, to attend a conference or for a short overnight. When I stay longer I’d rather have a place to myself, including a kitchen to make meals. We found an amazing condo on the river – small but very clean and comfortable for a reasonable price. We thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this multifaceted city and highly recommend a visit next time you are in The Netherlands.

Dutch National Parks

IMG_0537National Park Hoge Veluwe, Netherlands

We grew up in The Netherlands, left for Canada more than 40 years ago, but now come back often because of the fabulous hiking. The Netherlands has more than 10,000 KM of hiking trails – most of which are well maintained, well marked, good surfaces, relatively level and with affordable accommodations. (See our earlier blog: https://globetrottinggrandparents.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/holland-hiking-biking-and-much-more/)

This time, through Air BnB, we booked a cottage in the woods at a stone’s throw distance from the entrance gates to Hoge Veluwe, one of the Netherlands’ most well known national parks. You can buy different entrance tickets: one to walk in, or one to drive in. Being budget travelers, we parked outside the park and walked in. 100 meters from the gate, the park offers free bicycles. The bikes are basic without gears and with back pedal brakes rather than hand brakes, but that in itself is a fun Dutch experience for you. All bikes have a child’s seat on the back. You can leave them at a different gate or return to the same spot after a long day of riding the many trails. It’s a great way to see this beautiful wilderness area in the heart of the country. Trails will take you through forests, across heather fields (moors) and along large windblown sand fields with a lone tree clinging to the soil.


The Dutch take anything on bikes, even doggies.

If you visit on a week day outside the peak season, changes are that you’ll rarely see another person. But don’t visit this park on a sunny weekend: there will be thousands of others with the same plan.

Bring lunch and have a picnic halfway, at one of several picnic tables. Or there are restaurants near the gates or at the park’s hub. That is also where Kröller-Muller Museum is located. This famous museum hosts an extensive art collection including Van Gogh’s and Picasso’s. To visit the museum requires another ticket or you can get in with an annual Museum Card.

For more details check out: https://www.hogeveluwe.nl/en?gclid=Cj0KEQjwid63BRCswIGqyOubtrUBEiQAvTol0aw33opZ00HbTIK6LhLql5p___pVPn9QMB4M_5YYnvsaAtev8P8HAQ

Surrounding the national park are many beautiful wilderness areas. You don’t need to pay admission to experience a good hike across heather fields. Check out towns like Otterlo and Hoederloo. National forests here offer a myriad of trails to hike for a day or for many days.


Palace ‘t Loo (Low)

We also added a visit to Palace het Loo (pronounced ‘Low’ not ‘loo’…: https://www.paleishetloo.nl/en/#2016-03-01


Entrance to the palace grounds

Paleis Het Loo is located in the heart of the Netherlands, on the outskirts of Apeldoon.  Dating back to 1684, this former royal palace has been open to the public since 1984. The furnished rooms and chambers show how the Royal Family of Orange lived and worked here for 300 years. The baroque gardens have a symmetrical design, taking the garden of the 17th century as an example, and are unique in the Netherlands. The painted ceilings, period furnishings and interesting artifacts make for a great tour. Don’t skip the stables with horse paraphernalia as well as antique sleds, carriages and cars.


A Very Dutch Experience: Boating in Friesland

To celebrate our special family time with sons and grandsons, we rented a boat in Friesland. Friesland is one of the northern provinces of the country but has a very special, individual history and culture.

The Frisian people are very independent and speak their own language. Many regions of The Netherlands also have their own distinct dishes, costumes and dances. But Friesland is the most distinct with a totally separate language and fiercely independent nature.

[If you want to learn more about Holland vs The Netherlands, be sure to click here for a good laugh and a confusing history/geography lesson: http://www.cgpgrey.com/blog/the-difference-between-holland-the-netherlands]

Friesland generally has a lot of wide open land, windblown skies and lots of water. We rented our boat from http://www.dedrait.com.
The boat was well equipped even though the company didn’t excel in customer service. But it turned out to be a great boat with lots of space. The upper back deck had lawn chairs for us to sit, sip beer and keep an eye on the captain.
 The captain, of course, was our own son who happens to be a real captain. But, my amazement, anyone is allowed to rent a boat and cruise around here. Without Alex, however, I’m sure our boat would have been returned with more dents and scrapes in the sides… At some bridges we had an inch to spare on either side.
Downstairs in our boat was a ‘living room’ with a large sitting are, a few steps down to the kitchen and a dining table where the kids played with their toys. Alex and the boys had their own bedroom with bunkbeds in the front while the rest of us had private bed- and bathrooms too. Luxury!
We boated along narrow canals, passed even narrower bridges and across wide lakes. Cows and windmills and old farm houses made it a true Dutch experience. We stopped in many gorgeous little towns, where we walked arounds and bought groceries: Sneek, IJlst, Bolsward, Joure, Grou and many more – many of Elfstedentocht (speedskating race) fame.


As per ancient custom, some of the bridges were still manned by a bridge keeper who lived nearby.

Sometimes he or she saw us and came to open the bridge.
Some times we had to push a button or get close to a sensor. As we passed, the bridge keeper would extend a fishing pole and line from which dangled a wooden shoe.
We would drop our one or two euro coin payment in the wooden shoe!
Other times we had to wait for certain opening hours. It was amazing to watch the most interesting bridges turn or pull up for boats. Even solid railroad bridges. A favorite of the boys was aquaducts on which we sailed right over major highways and watched large trucks and cars disappear underneath the water (in a tunnel).
In each marina (usually simply tied up to the quay) we paid a mooring fee which included electricity and/or water, sometimes wifi and use of a shower building.
It was an interesting way of life and a wonderful way to see a beautiful part of the country (Netherlands, not Holland :-).

The Netherlands with Children: A Small Country for Small People


The Netherlands is likely one of the best countries in the world to visit with children. There are so many special facilities and attractions for kids, that it is hard to select just a few.
It already starts at the airport: Touch Down restaurant offers pancake and chocolate milk together with the best views on planes taking off and landing from the Panorama Terrace. There are also playgrounds and family washrooms throughout this attractive airport.
Once in the country, there are restaurants everywhere with elaborate playgrounds. It is very common to find special children’s menu’s. Attractions are too numerous to mention in one article, including Artis, a well established zoo in the heart of Amsterdam or tropical swimming pools everywhere.

We chose to visit a larger zoo called Ouwehands Dierenpark.
Ouwehands has roomy pathways through various parts of the zoo that each have a specific theme like ‘jungle’ or ‘bears’. Almost every section has an extensive playground so that you are not just walking from one animal to the next but kids can climb, swing and slide everywhere. In fact, the zoo includes one of Europe’s largest indoor playgrounds, complete with a pirate ship, sand and water playpark. A small train takes you around a portion of the zoo – all at no additional cost. When you arrive at the zoo you can rent, for a small fee, a wagon to pull the kids in all day: http://www.ouwehand.nl/english
We also visited a park we remembered fondly from the past: Apenheul: http://www.apenheul.com  
Apenheul features monkeys and primates of all shapes and sizes. The unique feature is that the smaller monkeys are not in cages but loose throughout the park.They might sit on your shoulder or swing from branches just inches away.
However, this time around the park was incredibly crowded, making it difficult to even walk on the paths and to see any animals. This was due to the fact that holiday time in The Netherlands is very concentrated. Most people get a specific time of the summer during which they can go on their annual holidays. Two of the three regions overlapped during August so 2/3 of the country still had school holidays and were making the most of the last warm summer days. 
A major attraction for kids in The Netherlands is Madurodam: http://www.madurodam.nl/en/
This miniature city features well known Dutch buildings and scenes, roads, trains, even a ‘working’ airport – all built in miniature. You can hear a street organ and see lights inside houses. We chose not to visit this site, this time around, because we weren’t anywhere near the vicinity and a
lso because our grandsons, at 3 and 5, are a bit young. You can’t touch much in this ‘eyes only’ attraction. But when our own kids were around 9 years old, they absolutely loved it and it was definitely worth a visit
In The Netherlands you can rent bikes everywhere: at hotels, at train stations and, of course, at bicycle repair shops. You can rent bicycles with a child’s seat on the handlebars and/or on the luggage carrier behind you so that you can ride with two children on your bike. But you can also rent a bike trailer in which the kids can sit. Or, best of all, you can rent a ‘bakfiets’ in which the children sit in a wooden container in front of you, in seatbelts:
Overnight accomodations can also be specifically attractive to children. We stayed in one resort, a park with cottages close to the beach in Noordwijkerhout. They are part of this chain: http://soleil.topparken.nl/en/
The bungalow had everything we needed, complete with dishes and bed linens, a fridge and dishwasher. Outside we had our own lawn with lawn furniture. The restaurant had both an indoor and outdoor playground. And the resort had an indoor swimming pool with waterslide, included in the price of staying overnight. When we ordered a children’s menu, the kids also receive their choice of gift ( in our case felt markers and a pirate gun with gold coins).
All in all a very successful place to visit with children!

Amsterdam for Smarties

This city of over 800,000 people has enough dummies. So let’s look at how to enjoy this world renowned historic city as a smart tourist.
Did you know that the city has the same number people as it has bicycles? Ever wondered what over 800,000 bicycles in a city look like? When they rent them to tourists, amazing things happen – as you can see on any bike lane or intersection in the centre of this busy city. It’s a miracle that not more people get killed each day as they jump in front of bikes, get hit and run over… It’s fun to sit back and watch the Dutch as they maneuver traffic, traffic lights, speeding trams and hordes of pedestrians all while carrying children, instruments, groceries, and dogs on their bike AND while texting!Rather than jumping on a bike right away, it’s a good idea to get a sense of the layout of the city’s spiderweb-shaped centre by jumping on a boat. Taking a canal cruise will give you a feel for the water, the narrow roads, the tall houses and the history of this world heritage site. I learned all sorts of interesting facts, such as word origins, historic facts about trade and taxes and politics, as well as useful information on where to eat and which museums to visit. There are different companies to choose from and their cruises are slightly different. We used this one: http://www.amsterdamcanalcruises.nl and enjoyed the personal headsets and the tour of not just the inner city canals but also across the IJ and past the Scheepvaart Museum (ship industry).

Because we had our extended family with us, on this particular trip to Amsterdam, we rented a house rather than a hotel room or hostel. The house had typical narrow staircases up three floors and offered 3 bedrooms and a kitchen, allowing us to make our own meals. A blue AH is the symbol for Albert Heyn, one of the largest supermarket chains in the Netherlands. They usually offer fresh bakings as well as many ready made meals. So lunch and supper were easy. One of the smartest thing to bring from home, is a small fold-up shopping bag! Grocery stores here do not pack for you and you have to pay for each plastic bag! I have one of those nylon bags that tuck into a tiny pouch – great for groceries, markets, books and extra on the airplane.
UnknownTo get around Amsterdam, and indeed the entire country, the smartest thing to do is to immediately get an OV Chip card. OV means public transit: https://www.ov-chipkaart.nl/home-1.htm
If you will be traveling throughout the country, be sure to read this: http://www.amsterdamtips.com/tips/ov-chipkaart.php
Initially you have to pay 7.50 euros to obtain the card but it pays off since each ride using the card is almost half the cost of paying for individual tickets. You can use this card like a credit card by putting money on it and paying for all public transit: trams, busses, trains and more. You can even rent OV Chip bicycles using this card, at certain real stations.

Another smart thing to do is to plan your travel by using this website: http://m.9292.nl/en (Notice that these websites are in English!!) Here you enter your starting point, your desired destination, date and time of travel and voila! The site presents you with all options and easiest ways of getting there. If a schedule in Holland says that the train will depart at 10:32 AM you can pretty well bet on it to depart at 10:32 and not a minute later.

If you will spend more than a day in Amsterdam, you might want to invest in a museum card:

This will allow you unlimited, and faster, entrance into many museums including the fabulous Rijksmuseum with its Rembrandt paintings where you can spend more than a day; also the Van Gogh museum, Anne Frank House and many more.

So, what’s keeping you? Come and visit Amsterdam and, while you are here, be sure to spend more time in this hospitable, interesting country below sea level!

Holland: Hiking, Biking and much more

  Tulips came originally from Turkey in the late1500’s to the Netherlands. So it seems only fitting that we, newly arrived from Turkey, immediately set off to visit Holland’s most famous garden: the Keukenhof. In fact, on our last day in Turkey we visited the palace of the very Sultan who gifted the first tulips ever to arrive in the Netherlands. What started with one bulb is now a major export industry. The Dutch brought tulips to countries around the world, including to Canada as a perpetual gift for hosting the Dutch Royal Family during the war. An enormous show garden, the Keukenhof has thousands of bulbs blooming at any given time in the spring. Beds are planted in such a way that there is a multitude of color, and fragrances, through the spring. We admired rows and rows of hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and other bulbs. 

There are even special buses running to this major attraction from Schiphol airport. We caught one and within a half hour we were dropped off at the entrance. Fast and easy. If you visit Holland in the spring, be sure to include a visit to this world famous garden. See: www.keukenhof.nl

Transportation in Holland is pretty impressive. If you ever plan to travel here, you might want to do the following: buy a OV chip card which you can use for all public transport.

You start by buying the card at the airport or at a train station, or at supermarkets or newspaper/book stores. Throughout the country are special posts where you can upload credit, swiping your creditcard and then your OV chip card to load credit onto it.

Each time you travel by tram, bus or train, you swipe your OV chip card when you board and when you disembark. Upon leaving the bus or train, the reader will show your cost and your remaining credit. Simply upload as needed.

This is a fantastic system since it makes public transportation seamless. Just don’t forget to check out. Trains have a large number 1 for first class on the outside, or a 2 for the regular, economy class. Trains also now have many ‘silence’ compartments, in which you cannot have loud conversations or be on your cell phone! A wonderful bonus. And while public transportation in the Netherlands is efficient, it is not cheap.

To plan any trip, across town or across the country, access this website: www.9292.nl  You can select any date, place and time here to see the most efficient way of getting somewhere. We bought a SIM card for our iPad so that we can access this great service anywhere in the country.

I like alliteration, which is why I used ‘hiking’ and ‘Holland’. But, technically, we are not in Holland right now. We are in the Netherlands. If you’d like to know the difference, besides the simple fact that Holland refers to the provinces of North and South Holland and that the Netherlands means the entire country – check out this funny video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eE_IUPInEuc&feature=youtu.be

Today we traveled by train and bus from Amsterdam to the province of Drenthe – a beautiful, rustic part of the country with sleepy villages, gorgeous old farm houses and heather fields with flock of sheep. Here we will spend some time hiking the Drenthe Pad, a beautiful long distance trail.



Right now, we are circumnavigating the province of Drenthe, which is in the north eastern part of the country. The Drenthe Pad is a hiking trail of some 325 KM. And it might well be one of the best kept secrets in the world of hiking.

The trail is well marked, in most places. A yellow/red symbol is nailed to posts or painted on trees almost everywhere. But the comprehensive trail guide and map issued by NIVON: (http://www.nivon.nl/wandelen/detailpad.aspWandelpadID=28&GroepsID=180&GidsenID=10)

is a valuable addition. As far as I know this guide is only in Dutch but with the map and the signs anyone should be able to follow the trail. The terrain is relatively flat which makes it easy. And it is very varied: from ancient, sleepy villages you enter a quiet forest, cross a sandy path and walk along the moors (fields of heather which will bloom in August), then along a farm field, back into the woods. On the next heather field you might encounter a large flock of sheep, with or without a real live shepherd and his dogs.

Today, just when I said “We haven’t seen any kind of wildlife!” a large deer slowly crossed the path. We heard woodpeckers and met a large flock of curious sheep with their newborn lambs.

In a country of 33,889 square kilometers of land (13,084 square miles) and a population of nearly 17 million, the Netherlands is among the most densely populated countries of the world. However, on this trail we hiked for the last two days without seeing a soul until hours after we started. Yesterday, we saw two people all days. It is rare in this country not to see a church spire, or power lines or hear traffic noise. On this trail, there is complete silence except for the singing of many different types of birds. It is probably one of the few areas in the country where you can still get completely lost and wander.

For 19 E p.p. this was our home for the night

Usually most hiking trails here have an abundance of benches, picnic tables or little restaurants with a patio. In Drenthe you can walk 20 KM and not see one. But the wild swans on the lakes make up for not being able to order a coffee.

We have walked from town to town and stayed in either B&B’s or local hotels. If you are planning a hiking or bicycling trip in the Netherlands, and there’s no better place to do either, you should join this organization: Vrienden Op De Fiets (Friends On Bikes): http://www.vriendenopdefiets.nl/nl/ (or .en for the English version).

This fabulous network across the country offers accommodations in private homes, much like B&B’s, but at a cost of E19 p.p.p.n. including breakfast. Accommodations are typical Dutch hospitality. No need to reserve long in advance, depending on the time of year, you can often phone the day before. Rooms can vary from a simple spare room to your own whole cottage. We’ve always had clean rooms, comfortable beds and a great breakfast. But – you can only arrive on foot or by bike. If you rent a car, you can’t use this organization. Annual membership fee is 8 euros and that includes the complete catalogue of 5,000 addresses and contact information.

After having walked some 60 KMs this week, from village to village, we have arrived in Appelscha, Friesland. This is just across the provincial border.

Lucky for us because not only does each region here have its own dialect and culture, it also has its own speciality foods.

Now we enjoy Frisian sugarbread (gooey bread with lumps of sugar baked into it) AND Drents raisin bread (weighs as much as a brick).

Not only do the Dutch brew Heineken and Grolsch, they also produce many local beers ranging from dark to blond to fruity.

For this weekend we found a place to stay 2 nights, basically for the same price as the Friends On Bikes network plus dinner. The hotel had a special super deal that includes an elaborate breakfast and dinner. Since the forecast was for rain, we decided to stay in one place for two nights.

Instead of walking tomorrow’s section of the Drenthe Pad, we rented bicycles. The Dutch have state of the art bicycles, including tires that will not pop anymore. Cost for a full day bike rental is 7 to 8 euros. We cycled through the village, across farm fields, national nature reserves, forests, a wild bird sanctuary and historic fields of peat moss. No less than 60 KM! Now, in addition to sore backs and feet, we also have sore butts and knees….Halfway it started to rain. We donned our rain capes – thank goodness we did not carry them for 2 months without ever needing them! I never felt more Dutch than pushing the peddles across a windswept bike trail through the fields.

Those bike trails are amazing. Our route for today looks like this: 60 – 65 – 72 – 73 – 79 – 91 – 84 – 65 – 60. Sounds like a secret code, doesn’t it?

But it’s all you need to find your way across the country. It’s a mind boggling system of (mostly) paved or concrete bicycle trails. At an intersection you will see a small sign with a number, either the number of the path you are already on, or pointing to the next number you need to follow. Simple. Just don’t miss one. At major crossroads there is a large regional map showing you all the routes so that you can easily change or adapt the route you are on. Ingenious.

And the best part is that most bicycle paths are away from roads or other traffic. Just you and nature. It’s a system of hiking and biking trails that the Netherlands can be proud of. And that more countries should adopt.

160 KM of hiking. Ten days. Fifteen kilo packs. Two blisters.

We did it.

And it was fun.

Mostly it was fun because we took it easy. We slept in, had a lazy breakfast and still headed out on the trail by about 9 AM each day. No rush, no race.

We stayed with the ‘Friends On Bikes’ accommodations which are just like B & B’s and allowed us to stay in different Dutch homes, meeting interesting people.

 We also stayed in a few small hotels and we enjoyed roaming the villages, visiting the bakery, sampling typical regional dishes.

Holland may be a small, densely populated country but in Drenthe it is still very green and very quiet. There were days when we barely met other people on the trail.

We visited the very cute village of Orvelte, which is more like an open-air-museum with its historic farms. There is a glassblower, an antique store, a cheese maker and much more. We toured a historic farms full of furniture and household items of at least a century ago. The tour included a very nice movie about the village and life as it has been here during the ages.

This village is high on our list of recommendations, but only during the shoulder seasons. In high season it’s supposed to be very, very crowded!

Several times while hiking across the moors and heather, we met large flock of sheep. No shepherd, just a very special local breed of sheep on skinny legs and with long tails. These sheep help keep down any invasive species and promote the growth and expansion of the heather.

We also found large Highlander steers and cows with enormous horns on our path. The drawback of hiking in April was the fact that farmers were spreading manure. The smell was often overwhelming. We only had 2 days of rain so can’t complain. It was a sunny, early spring in Holland.

Concentration Camp Westerbork

On one of our last days of hiking we entered the Westerbork concentration camp area: an area where Jews were interned and from there shipped to extermination camps by the Germans during the war. It is an impressive and, of course, very depressing area but important to be preserved as a reminder of the horrors of war. While we were there, hundreds of school children visited the Museum.  See: http://www.kampwesterbork.nl/museum/index.html#/index

One of our favorite events was being in a small village (Dwingeloo) while an age old tradition was going on: Palm Pasen or Palm Sunday, the week before Easter. The children of the town all showed up for a parade with wooden crosses, decorated with garlands of candy and flowers, crepe paper and topped with a rooster made of bread. When I was a child I made the same cross and joined a similar parade. It was fun to see this tradition continue. We completed about half of the Drenthe Trail and hope to hike the remainder soon. Next time I will carry much less weight and will make do with fewer clothes etc. The best piece of clothing I brought on this trip was a large scarf. It served as blanket in the plane, as shawl when it was cold and as head or shoulder cover in churches and mosques.

 Our last night in The Netherlands is spend in a very futuristic hotel at Schiphol Airport: http://www.citizenm.com

Decorated in black and red, the lobby feels as if you walk into the future. The staff and technology reminds me of a Mac Store, the compact rooms of IKEA. One remote controls the blinds, lights, temperature and TV. Our view from the kingsize bed is directly onto the runway! The hotel states that:

citizenM is a new breed of international hotel, welcoming the mobile citizens of the world- the suits, weekenders, explorers, affair-havers and fashion-grabbers.

Hhmm… wonder which catagory you would put yourself in?

For now, we are headed home after an amazing two months of exploring. We can’t wait to hug the grandbabies, play with them and show them what we brought back.

A real sign spotted in a Dutch forest!

Hiking The Pieters Pad, Netherlands North to South, 500 KM

The Pieterspad runs from the northern part of The Netherlands all the way to the southern tip. It might be a small country, but this trail is some 500 KM. It is relatively flat, well maintained (by volunteers) with good signage. There is affordable accommodation along the way. Read on for our experience, complete with links to more details.

Day 1

The first day section went well. Got up at 7, had a great breakfast downstairs and got ready for the day trip. I took almost nothing because I was coming back to the same hotel that evening. The forecast was for some very light rain, so all I took was water and a raincoat, and the camera of course.
First to the train station and the train to Winsum. (Pieterburen has no train connection). In Winsum I found the bus to Pieterburen and got there around 11 am.
Found the start of the trail when I saw a direction sign that stated Pietersberg 464 km. (an old sign because the trail has been updated since and is 498 km) !

As soon as I left the village the wind hit me straight from the south but since the temperature was still in the 20’s it felt great. The first impression was the wide open spaces that the Groninger landscape offers. Rich dark clay soils have made these farmers rich over the centuries. Most of the farms are huge, several thousand acres and the most modern machinery was harvesting the potatoes and sugerbeets on every second field. Wherever there is no agriculture dairy cows crowded the fields by the hundreds. Well known Fries and Groninger cows which have been exported to around the world as breeding stock. I was euphoric, finally on my way, planned two years ago when my brother was still alive. We had planned to do this together after we finished the Camino the Santiago 13 years earlier. Unfortunately cancer did not allow him to to it and he passed away a year ago.

The first 3.5 km to Eenrum I soaked in the surroundings, typically Groningen. The first village was again typical northern Holland, small old houses around a large church.

For details and sections see: http://www.pieterpad.nl/etappe.htm

Day 2

Past Eenrum through Mensingeweer, again a small typical northern Holland village, most of the trail follows a narrow asphalt path through the countryside. Fortunately no major roads although occasionally I cross one. Most of the trail follows a canal or stream of some sort.
During the 3 hours it takes me to get to the final destination of the day: Winsum, I meet, maybe, 6 hikers going the same direction and 4 coming the other way (heading north, is it their last section of he entire trail, or just a day hike??).
It is quiet even though it is a Saturday. The directions through Winsum take me through backyards and around the church but I find the railway station without a problem.

Even though the skies have been threatening the entire hike, the moment I enter the railway station, to get back to Groningen, the skies open up and it pours buckets for a few minutes. Back in Groningen (15 minute train ride) it is dry.
My feet are not doing too bad although I can sure feel them, but I wonder how things will go when I put another 25 pounds on my back. My shoulders will handle it no problem, but what about the bottom of my feet? So far so good. I can surely feel my feet, but at least no blisters.
Tomorrow I’ll be taking the train back to Winsum to walk into Groningen and that is 15 km. I’ll definitely need to take some rests while walking. This first 10 km I never rested, (as I trained) which probably was not the smartest thing to do, tomorrow I will need to take my time.
More tomorrow. Now first a good dutch beer!

Day 3

Winsum – Groningen (in reverse)
The second day of my long distance hike started poorly. Woke up before 6 AM and it was pouring rain outside my window at the Martini Hotel in Groningen. By 7 AM I had breakfast and when I was ready to start walking at 8 AM it was actually DRY!
First I had to find the Pieterpad trail because the hotel is not located along the route itself. But at that time in the morning on a Sunday you can shoot off a canon down mainstreet and not hit a soul. I wound my way through town, through parks, littered with the left overs of late night parties, and finally found my way to the trail outside of town. Immediately I missed one of the signs and ended up walking an extra km before I had found the trail back.
Most of the trail is marked with small red/white signs, but some are faded and/or missing. It is not like the Camino de Santiago which you can hike without a guide because the markings are so well done. But once I got moving I made good progress through wide open fields. I had decided to walk this section of trail from south to north because the very detailed Dutch weather forecast (http://www.buienradar.nl/) showed me that it probably would dump less rain on me than if I had taken the train first back to where I left off yesterday (Winsum).

I hardy saw a soul on my way out of Groningen and during the first hour. The other advantage (to the promise of less rain) was that I now had the constant (strong) wind in the back instead of against me. This was the fist day I used hiking poles and it sure did make a difference. Now instead of blisters on my feet I had blisters on my hands (just kidding). The only problem is that one of the poles has a rubber cover missing at he base, so I sound like a pirate with a wooden leg. Everything went smoothly until it went swimmingly.

Dark clouds had been gathering but I thought those were moving away from me. How wrong I was. Suddenly it was pouring rain and not just rain, but HAIL!  Three days ago the Dutch weather had set high temperature records in the low 40’s. As soon as I went for a walk, it had to hail, not fair! Anyway I happened to find a car port and stayed under it for 10 minutes for the worst to pass. Onwards through green fields as far as the eye could see, cows were eying me suspiciously.
Since there was not a village or hamlet in sight I just kept walking and because everything was soaking wet I could not sit down anywhere to rest. The rain had stopped after a while, but once in a while I had to put my poncho on to more or less stay dry. Finally after 3 hours and probably 14 km I got to a village where I found a cafe and a coffee and a tosti to sustain me for the rest of the day. Another 5-6 km and I made it to Winsum where I missed the train by 5 minutes and had to wait 55 minutes for the next train back to Groningen. That gave me plenty of time to read about the next sections of the trail. Today ended up being about 20-22km. All in all not a bad day, thanks to the poles I had little or no trouble with my feet and I have confidence in the 21 km for tomorrow (with backpack). I have made overnight reservations in the next two villages and look forward to exchanging the wide open spaces (with the damn winds) to forests in Drenthe. (the second province of the five I will be hiking through).

The Road to Zuid Laren

Well, another day done of the Pieterspad! I am sitting in my B&B room in Zuid Laren, 20+ km from Groningen. Most of me hurts, my feet, my knees, my shoulders, but I made it.
The weather was great, could not have asked for a better hiking day, sunshine a little wind, but not too hot. After an early breakfast (7AM) I first mailed a pound of unneeded balast so I did not have to carry that. Then it took me close to an hour to hike out of the city and get into the countryside.
Lots of water everywhere, I walked along a canal for about an hour, past lakes and streams. Got to the next village: Haren and was looking forward to a nice cup of coffee there. BUT this is Holland and on Monday morning just about everything is closed. No coffee anywhere to be had. That was not too bad but what about lunch? I decided to make a detour through another village in hopes of finding a cafe or restaurant open for lunch. Big mistake, nothing was open, so except for an apple as a snack I had nothing to eat and had to find the trail back again.
Just when I did, I noticed a snackbar that was open and at least had something to eat and a badly needed rest because I probably had done 15 km by then. That was about the point where the landscape changed. For the first 2 and a half days I walked through green fields and wide open spaces with few trees (Groningen), now I crossed into the next province (Drenthe) and within a few kms it turned to forests, smaller fields, different agriculture and small (er) scale farming. Much prettier and friendlier to look at. I love Drenthe where I spent quite some time with Rob during our last trip together. Also last year Margriet and I managed to spent a day there biking through lovely heather fields and forests.
As a matter of fact when we were in Holland with the four of us about 20 years ago we biked through that same area (Dwingelo), watching a real  the sheep herd with a shepard. The next 4 days I’ll be walking through Drenthe and since the weather forecast is good I look forward to that very much.
Just before I reached the final destination there was a sign to ‘hunebedden’. Those are 5,000 year old graves of the first inhabitants of Holland, huge piles of huge rocks under which their dead were buried. A very short side trip took me there. I had seen those once before, 55 years ago when I toured Holland with my parents.
Got to the B&B, but first found a bar open and had my well deserved beer for the day.
My feet are fine, no blisters, but my neck is hurting from the pack. I need to adjust it because it does not seem to fit well.
Time for a shower!

And then I discovered that I had left my converter plug in the wall at the last B&B ! Of course that meant that my computer could not be recharged, nor my shaver. The last one was OK, but missing the computer was a bummer. So, here goes from memory and some notes in a booklet.

Day 4 the path went from Zuid Laren to Rolde. The day started out very frustrating because I went all over town (more like a village) to look for a new converter. Yes, lots of them for sale, but all from Dutch to whatever other system in the world, not the other way around. Then I tried to put some money on my phone card, but that did not work. Finally I discovered that the old phone had bitten the dust, so ended up having to buy a new phone. After all those troubles it was 11 AM before I managed to leave town and start out on the trail.
My mood soon improved when I saw what I was going to be hiking through. The environment / terrain for the next three days was going to be absolutely gorgeous. Day 4 was sunny and pretty soon I was crossing a heather field as far as the eye could see. Because of the rains from last Friday the path was a bit muddy in places, but not a real problem. I stopped for lunch at a pannekoeken restaurant. By 3 PM, after about 18 km, I ended up in Rolde, a small village in northern Drenthe where the beer tasted great. Nice small hotel where I managed to do some laundry.

Day 5: left Rolde early in the morning for Schoolo 19 km down the trail. Because the nights are starting to get a little colder the dew on the grass, trees and everywhere else looks like diamonds. Normally the Dutch are not eager to share their feelings with strangers, but within the first 2 km 2 people passing me by did not just say ‘goeie morgen’ but added ‘wat een prachtige dag he?” (what a beautiful day eh?) It sure was. I managed to capture the sunshine through the trees in a great picture.

I passed through the cemetery (the modern one) with a hunnebed (a 5,000 year old grave) next to it. Somewhere along the trail through a bog they had constructed 5 ‘overstapjes’ (wooden steps) to get over a fence that kept the cows in. Managed to miss one of the red/white markings and ended up walking an extra km., no problem when the weather is great and the surroundings peaceful. I passed a home for the severely mentally handicapped and noticed several of them acting rather strange along the trail. I ended up walking with a couple of lady hikers who were a little afraid of the patients.
The B&B was another km from the trail, no problem if you only need to hike a short day hike, but tomorrow is one of the longer stretches and to add a km just to get back to the trail is not great. However I had no choice because the village had 1 bar and 1 B&B so I managed to improve the economy of the village considerably that day in those two establishments.

From Van Coevoorden to Vancouver!

The footsteps of the ladies who started the trail.

Day 6
One of the longer day hikes: 24 km from Schoonlo to Sleen. The forecast was for rain, but it stayed dry all day and what a day it was. Beautiful forests, nice heather fields, lots of variety and few people.
I passed the memorial for the two ladies who, in the 70’s and 80’s, not only came up with the idea for the trail, but made it happen and described it for 90% of the route. Later a hiking/nature club took on the responsibility to maintain and promote the trail. The two ladies reminded me a lot of my mother and her friend Aunt Tine, who also hiked together for much of their lives.
A little further down the trail was a monument for a British bomber which crashed and burned during the second world war on its way back from a bombing run into Germany. Some teenage boys collected pieces of the plane and built the memorial after the war. Now it has been adopted by a school class nearby and is being maintained by the children.
I ended up in a gorgeous reconstructed bakery in Sleen for the night. Woke up in the middle of the night from rain pelting down on the roof!

B & B was beautiful, nice people, great breakfast: http://www.magischdrenthe.nl/nl/agenda2/bedrijven_overnachten/agenda_id,84 

Day 7  – Sleen – Coevorden (21 km)
The rain that fell hard during the night obviously was not enough for mother earth because when I stepped out the door the next day at 9:00 AM it was still pouring. I had a large poncho that even covered my pack, but since it is all plastic it does not breath, so within an hour I was soaking wet on the outside from the rain and on the inside from my own sweat. It turned into a bit of a miserable day because it rained off and on for much of the day. Yesterday the forecast was for rain and it stayed dry, today the forecast was for dry weather and it rained most of the day. I only know of 1 job where you can be wrong more than 50% of the time and still keep your job: weather forecaster.

Usually I love backcountry trails, either grassy areas or sandy, anything but pavement. Today was almost all pavement and since it was so wet, it was not too bad to be walking on pavement since the grassy and sandy paths would be turning to mud. Fortunately there was a place halfway where you are allowed into a shed or workshop and where you can make your own cup of coffee and just leave an euro. Often the trail goes through areas without a cafe or restaurant for 10 or more kms and they have arranged for someone to allow hikers into their shop. They have set it up so that you can heat water and make yourself a cup of coffee. Nice arrangement.
The last few kms that day were a killer. After getting soaked for most of the day, you just want to get to that B&B or hotel and get out of your wet clothes. I made it to Coevorden by 4 PM and into a shower (a warm shower in the hotel).


The next day (the 8th) I gave myself a rest day and stayed in Coevorden. It is an old city started back in the 12th century as the business center for the north eastern part of the Netherlands. An old castle has been totally renovated and now you can stay overnight in it. Beautiful old houses and cafes. A 17th century defensive wall surrounds the old part of the city and there is a Cafe Vancouver. I never knew this, but the forefathers  of Captain Vancouver (for whom Vancouver BC is named) were originally from Coevorden (van Coevorden). More Dutch connections than I ever knew about. That day I managed to do some laundry, tasted several local beers and hit the sack early.

Section 8

Etappe (Section) 8
Last section before I meet up with Margriet, who arrives from Canada a week after I did. 19 KM from Coevorden to Hardenberg.
Up and away early, fairly uninteresting agricultural areas, large farms with the farmers spreading manure on the fields so it stinks to high heaven most of the way. Whenever the huge tractors with manure trailers are racing by, you better make sure the ‘mud’ flying of their tires doesn’t hit you.
It was quiet as could be because not only is it Sunday, but this is a very fundamentalist christian area where people hiking or people doing anything but go to church are frowned upon. Nowhere a cup of coffee to be had except this time at a horse stable to make your own. I hightailed it to Hardenberg because the B&B owner had to be at church again by 2 that afternoon. So I almost ran the last 5 km and made it before the 2:00PM ‘curfew’. The only beer I could find in that town on Sunday was at a Chinees restaurant, but it was a beer. The B&B was a nice and quiet place until the next morning when at 6:00AM the workers started to repave the brick road below my window.
As a result of being awoken early I caught an early train to Dieren where I was meeting Margriet, but ended up sitting and waiting there for a while. We found each other at the train station and then the B&B she had reserved. Enjoyed sitting on a patio and eating in the centre of this very old village with cobblestone streets and churchbells.

From Sheep Shit to Castles

Kasteel Vorden. Our room is top left windows!

Our B&B in Dieren was an old ‘koetshuis’ (a carriage house). We had lots to talk about to catch up after a week and a half apart. The B&B owner loaned us a couple of bikes and we set off the next morning to Hoog Keppel to visit my mother’s grave.
First across the Oude IJssel river with a small, 2 car ferry. This ferry is attached to an anchor upstream and by maneuvering the boat under a certain angle he forced the ferry across the river without much mechanical help. We cycled across a dike lined with sheep. They did not move aside for us so we had to steer around them. The sheep shit was at least tire-deep in several places. But loved the views across green fields to steep church steeples of villages in the distance.
After about 5-6 kms we left the dike and entered the Achterhoek, the region of south eastern Gelderland. Through farm fields and forests we made our way to Hoog Keppel where we checked on Oma’s grave. Last year we had planted 4 small bunches of heather on her grave, but those had been replanted a few feet away and had grown into a huge heather bush. We left things as they were and said our goodbye’s again.
Back via the bike path along the main highway, but soon we got tired of that and found our way back to the dike with its sheep shit. Back on the ferry and to the B&B were we returned the bikes.

If you are interested in bicycling around The Netherlands, the possibilities are endless. You can buy arrangements that include bikes, hotels and meals. Or you can follow trails in any part of the country, with a great signage system and trails. Not sure if this site translates, but lots of cycling information here: http://www.lekkerfietsen.nl/nl/routes/)

By 2 PM we were at the railroad station with our packs, for the half hour train ride to Vorden, the next stop for the night. First we walked through the village of Vorden and had a few beers at the hotel my dad used to stay at when we worked on the old farmhouse my parents had bought back in the late 60’s and which they tried to renovate. It did not work out because my dad’s health deteriorated quickly and they had to sell it again. In 1971 he passed away.
When I went to pay the bill for our lunch and drinks, someone had paid it already for us. We never found out who did. Mysterious but funny!

Off to the castle. Margriet had made arrangements to stay overnight in a real castle. Kasteel Vorden was originally built in 1207, destroyed during the 80 year war with Spain (sometime in the 16th century) and rebuilt shortly after. Pictures are needed to describe the place. Anyway we slept in a canopy bed somewhere up in the castle and felt like royalty.
Wednesday (Sept 5th) Margriet joined me for the hike to the next place Zelhem. Breakfast at 8:30 and on the ‘road’ by 9. The ‘road’ this time was more beautiful forest trails and secondary roads through small farm areas. The forest trails were largely unpaved, sandy paths. Just like in Drenthe, the Achterhoek became very popular with retirees from the western part of Holland who bought up old uneconomic farms and renovated those beautifully. The outsides had to be kept original looking, but new roof, new double pane windows, new doors (all in the old style) and modern interiors made the old places into very livable homes for the rich. There are fewer and fewer of the old farms being operated as farms, most have become retirement homes for the rich and well to do.
It was a relatively short day with only 16 kms, but M’s pack was not easy to carry, so even though everything went well it was not the easiest hike for her that day. The B&B we got to was run by a very nice painter and her family (4 kids). After a rest and clean up we went into to town for some groceries and supper.

We splurched on our stay in a real medieval castle but wanted to experience it once. The room was nice but old (of course), bathroom fabulously modern, breakfast was OK but not amazing. Just a great experience: http://www.kasteelvorden.nl/overnachten.html

In Dieren we stayed in Koetshuis B&B, very nice people, OK room, great breakfast, nice location:

Don’t Get Lost!

Today I am walking from Zelhem to Braamt, supposedly about 18 kms – if I didn’t get lost..
The morning starts out great, a friend we hadn’t had seen or heard from for 40 years (!) came to join me this morning. He lives about 50 kms away from where we are now and a few weeks ago we had managed to reestablish contact. He showed up at the exact arranged time and we first had a cup of coffee before we took off. In spite of the constant talking we did for the next hour we managed to find the route OK.
Margriet came along in his car later on and drove him back to Zelhem where Margriet would stay another day and he returned to Borne because the next night he had to drive to Schiphol since his plane to eastern Africa left at 7 AM in the morning. He was off on a 25 day camping safari through Kenia and Tanzania! (he also just returned from bicycling to Vienna to celebrate retirement 🙂

I continued along the trail (alone again for the first time in 2 days). The path wound through forests and small farming areas. Suddenly, the forests ended and I entered the “land between the big rivers”. Three big rivers, the Rijn, Maas and Waal all come close together and run to the North Sea, but enter the Netherlands from the east and south and run relatively close together through a large low lying part of the Netherlands. The land is flat, open and houses large farms. Few trees, just grassland, corn fields and sugar beets.

The trail is relatively easy to find most of the time. The guidebook, parts 1 and 2, has a map (1:50,000) with lots of detail and shows the trail clearly. It even indicates which sections are paved and which are not. In addition there is a description of the trail location, one for travelling north-south and one for those who travel the trail from south to north.
(To order the guide: https://nivon.hexspoorwms.nl/webwinkel/0/0/1/5981)
Last but not least the red and white markings on trees and sign posts at every intersection sure help a lot. A red and white cross means ‘no go, wrong way’. A red and white block indicates the correct route and often a red and white arrow indicates the direction of the trail. Usually the markings plus the map are enough to keep you on the right track. Occasionally the trail is not very even and, of course, I had to learn the hard way that reading the map while walking is not the smartest way to make progress. After I had twisted my ankle twice I learned my lesson and stopped when I had to study the map or read directions.
After 18 kms or so I reached the end of the day’s trail, but the B&B at which I had a reservation was another 2 or 3 kms off the route. Unfortunately, the directions had not been very good and I wondered around for a while before I found the right place.
It sure did not help that the address was ‘Oud Doetichemse weg’, because there is also a ‘Doetichemse weg’ and to make matters worse there is the  ‘De oude Doetichemse weg’. Three very similar street names in one village is bad, but the same three names can be found not only in Kilder where I had to be, but also in Zeddam (a small village nearby), in Braamt (another small village nearby) and in the city of Doetichem a few kms down the road. It was a true miracle that I did find the right place eventually.

(Note from Margriet: he actually phoned me and I got on Google Maps to find out at which intersection he was standing and where the B&B was located so that I could tell him which direction to walk. When I asked why he didn’t just ask a passerby, he said “I did twice! But I can’t understand them!” People in each region here he such strong dialects that it sounds like a different language… 🙂

Who Said Holland is Flat?!

Time flies! Today was going to be a long day of 24 kms. It started out great. At 8:15 I was on the trail and moving, as a matter of fact moving up hill. That was a surprise !
I had traveled a fair amount throughout Holland when I was a consultant for the Dutch Camping Council back in the early 70’s, however I obviously had not been to Montferland, the area south of Doetinchem and east of Nijmegen, because I had no idea it was so hilly! I did not expect it but used it to work up a sweat by hoofing it through the area.
Gorgeous forests, narrow trails and nothing but trees and hills. I thought I was back in Channel Ridge on Salt Spring… However the surprise and fun was short lived when at a forest reclamation area they obviously had cut a tree with a trail marking on it. After 2 hours I knew I had missed a turn off and was horribly lost. It took me more than an hour to find my way out of the forest and ended up in Germany. The border between Germany ad the Netherlands in that area is quite vague and I never noticed that I had wandered across the border. When I finally emerged from the forested areas I noticed signs like ‘autobahn’ and ‘kaufen’ which are definitely not Dutch words. I asked a few folks for directions, neither of the 2 people I asked spoke German or Dutch but only English, go figure.

After an hour (and an extra 4-5 kms) I found the trail back and started making progress again. The terrain became rather boring, large farms, paved roads and now I was entering the ‘big rivers’ area again. I walked along dikes for hours and finally came to a ferry that took me across to Millingen on the Rhine, the city where I had made a reservation for the night. Today I finally met some other hikers on the trail who were traveling more than just a few days. One couple was on its way from Amsterdam to Rome. There is always a bigger fool to be found.If you are interested in reading another blog about hiking (including The Pieterspad) here’s a fun one:http://richardtulloch.wordpress.com/2009/12/26/the-pieterpad-500km-across-holland-by-foot-and-bike/ And if you want to keep hikinghttp://www.bootsnall.com/articles/11-10/8-of-the-most-unique-walking-paths-in-the-world.html

From Groesbeek to Gennep

Yesterday we had a “rest” day. Instead of hiking we bicycled to a large  Canadian war cemetery.  A total of 2,600 Canadian soldiers and airmen are buried there. Most of them so young, just teenagers in some cases. Very emotional to know that these guys came across an ocean to fight people they did not know and to liberate people they did not know.  No wonder the Dutch are maintaining there graves meticulously and hold a major celebration every May 5th (Liberation Day) and pay for thousands of veterans to come and join in the celebrations each year.

The owner of the cabin we have rented for a couple of nights, drops by. He wants to talk about Canada because he is applying for an immigration visa to the States and wants to know what we think of life on the other side of the ocean.  I have met quite a few Dutch who want to emigrate to Canada recently, but not to the States. Apparently it still sounds like the land of milk and honey to many in spite of the economic situation.

Monday morning we are off to Gennep.  Margriet is joining me.  First a friend gives us a ride to the beginning of the trail section we’ll be hiking today, otherwise it would have added another 5 kms to our hike.

We get dropped off at an operating Dutch windmill, looks great.  We dive into a forest after a few hundred meters and that is the landscape we will be hiking through for the first 7-8 kms. Wow, I’ll never say again that the Netherlands is flat everywhere. We are climbing hills which the Dutch call mountains (a major exaggeration) but which are still some 200 feet or more and fairly steep. We are walking through a German ‘walt’ (forest) and have a coffee break on the border.
Another couple of hours (and lunch) we get to Gennep. This city has been in the middle of the fighting during the last winter of WW II and hardly a building in the entire city survived the German shelling and allied bombing.  Fortunately the beautiful city hall from the 1600’s has survived as well as an old church, everything else is no older than 60-65 years. We climbed a church tower with an interpretive display. Hard to image tanks rolling through these very streets.

Since it was a relatively short day hike we spent much of the afternoon sitting on patios at the market, a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.   The weather forecast is not good for the next several days, but knowing the past track record of the Dutch weather forecasters I am not too worried. (famous last words!)

September 11 + 12

Sept 11 /12 (Gennep – Vierlingsbeek – Swolgen)
Last night I had no internet so I’ll report on the last two days.

Sept. 11: We stayed in a ‘garden shed’, nice but build for dwarfs and since I am 6’4” I bumped my head and other body parts numerous times.
We had breakfast with 4 ladies who had stayed in the same B&B and who were going to the ‘Floriade’, the largest horticulture exposition in Europe which is held every 10 years in Holland.
Most B & B’s are fairly inexpensive, around 20 to 30 euros p.p. per night.
We are also member of Vrienden op de Fiets (Friends on Bikes), a country wide organization offering accommodations in people’s home: a room and breakfast for 19 – 21 euros p.p. See: http://www.vriendenopdefiets.nl/index.php/en/

Before setting out, we waited for a bus to bring a friend who was going to join me for a day of hiking while Margriet would take a bus to Someren to spend 3 days at a house of friends who are on holidays. The friend, Lies, arrived on time, we said goodbye to Margriet and left town heading south. It would be a short day of 17 kms. However, the first hour the skies were threatening, the second hour it started to rain a little and the third and fourth hour it poured. It sure did put a damper on the day’s fun. But in spite of the rain we had a great time catching up on 40 years of memories. It also helped that we saw some of the most gorgeous landscape I had been going through until now. Beautiful hilly terrain with moors, forests, wild goats and not a soul around.  Lies was scared of the goats, so I had lots of fun teasing her about the (non-existing) dangers of goats, and she ran.
We got to Vierlingsbeek soaked to the bone. Found a café were she changed to dry clothes and we had something to eat. By early evening she caught a bus back to the railroad station and home in Rotterdam.

Sept 12:
Back on the road by 8:30 AM this morning. Now it was a 21 km hike. Again the skies threatened all day, but luckily not a drop all day. First several kms along secondary roads, and canals until I came to the ‘Boschhuizer Bergen”, not really mountains, just sand dunes, but absolutely some of the finest landscape Holland has to offer. The last 10 kms was again along more forest paths, secondary roads and cycling paths. Holland is absolutely the best country to go cycling, everywhere you’ll find the best possible routes for cycling. Plus signage, maps along the routes and a network of routes throughout the country.

By 3 PM I made it to the night’s stop: Swolgen. A small village I had never heard of. Found a great B & B in an old school building: http://www.bedandbreakfast.nl/bed-and-breakfast/swolgen/bb-schoolstraat-8-vof/4737Six more hiking days and I’ll have eaten the entire elephant.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Saturday (Sept 15), we had stayed with friends in Someren (40 kms from the trail). Had a great visit, and they were nice enough to drop us off back on the trail that morning.
As a matter of fact they did us a huge favor and dropped off our packs at the B&B where we would be staying that night. Made a big difference not to have to haul our luggage all that way!
We left Venlo and within an hour were back in the forest. I seemed the entire day was nothing but forests. Along the Dutch/German border through Germany itself, very well maintained forests and paths. At one point we stood on a burial hill from before the beginning of the first century (800 BC).
We walked along roads that had been developed many centuries ago. We also stood on the market place in villages where most, if not all, of the buildings around us used to be hundreds of years old, but had been destroyed in the fighting of WWII and now had been rebuild in the last 75 years. Most steeples of churches along the Maas had been blown up by the Germans in their retreat so the Allied forces could not use those as viewing towers. Everything had to be rebuild around here. Many cemeteries also remind you of the war of only a few decades ago.
After about 22-23 km we arrived in Swalmen, a small village where we were picked up by the owner of a B&B called the Pelgrims’ House and where we would be staying for 3 nights. Had a great supper and evening there.
Sunday morning the B&B owners dropped us back at the spot where we stopped the day before and continued to Montfoort, another 24 km. This time we skirted the city of Roermond, probably a nice city but not part of the route. For a few km we traveled on a 2,000 year old road build by the Romans, just imagine that you are walking on the same ground the Roman armies traveled over, mind boggling.
After today only 3 more day hikes to go. (about 60 kms). Margriet asked me if I had accomplished what I set out to do this hike. Well, when I do finish it I will have accomplished what I promised my brother before he died and that was that I would walk it for the two of us. I had a chance to think about a lot of things however the big question: when to retire? is still unanswered. I also met up with some good friends along the trail, Lies, Wim, Maurice, and the last day Frank will join me. I look forward to that.

Montfort to Sittard

Monday morning Margriet joined me for the 24 km hike between Montfort and Sittard.  Since the B&B was about a km off the trail it turned into one of the longest hikes for her of those days that she joined me.
The terrain started to become a little more hilly but still mainly forest, corn fields and dairy cows. It is amazing how much corn is being produced in the Netherlands since we left 35 years ago. It used to be that you saw grain fields everywhere. Almost all of those have been replaced with corn fields in the last few decades. Apparently the eastern European countries can grow grain cheaper and the Dutch have changed their agricultural production to corn for cattle feed.
Since it was Monday we did not expect to find anything open to get a coffee, but we lucked out when we noticed, around 11 AM, a café with an open door. A meeting was taking place and when we asked the owner if we could get a coffee she agreed even though she was officially closed.

This section of the trail took us into Germany and immediately the language and architecture was different from just a few km back.  We entered the city of Sittard (one of the largest cities in Limburg) via a nice creek valley and ended up on the market in the center of town almost without having to content with the outskirts of the city. The market place was surrounded by nice cafes with seating outside and we thoroughly enjoyed the beer and food that could be had there.
Later in the afternoon we were picked up by the owner of the B&B we stayed at that night and taken back to Montfort for the night.

The Longest Hike

Typical houses in the southern part of Limburg

This day was going to turn into the longest day trip of the entire hike because the next overnight was at a friend’s house several km beyond the end point for this day trip. So it turned into about a 27 km hike.
For that reason, Margriet decided to take all the luggage via public transportation to the next overnight place.
We both took the train back to Sittard, a 10 minute, 2 euro ride, and Margriet stayed on the train while I got off and started hiking again. Thanks to having only a day pack it was easy going. I put on my ipod music and marched to the tunes of Shania Twain and Abba up and down numerous hills.
For 10 minutes it rained, but in spite of the heavy overcast this was it for rain all day. The terrain got more and more hilly the further south I got into Limburg. Some section were really getting steep, but again, without a pack, it was quite doable and my training on the Channel Ridge hills sure paid off.
The scenery was absolutely breathtaking most of the way. After a couple of hours I got to a restaurant in a castle (it is for sale!!) where I had lunch and then kept going for several more hours without stopping.

I reflected on the difference in the content of backpacks between 45 years ago and today. We used to have clothes but also a heavy sleeping bag, an air mattress, a tent, cook stove, food etc. Nowadays the backpack is filled with a Macbook Air, Ipod, headphones, cell phone, electric shaver as well as all the chargers and different plug-ins required to keep the electronics going…

A km before I got to the house of the friends we would be staying with, Margriet met me at the top of the last hill. It was great to catch up that evening with friends we had not seen for a long time. And I can recommend Grimbergers beer!

(Note from Margriet: after the train to Sittard, I went to Valkenburg. But, thanks to the World Cup Cycling many roads were blocked, whole cities inaccessible and even bus routes changed. I couldn’t get to Terblijt where I had to take our two big backpacks. Tried different bus options but nothing worked. So, I walked into a fancy hotel and asked if I could leave the packs. No problem. Walked into the centre of town to do my banking, shopping, etc. Back to the hotel and asked for a taxi. The taxi turned out to be a limousine. Fancy and comfortable way to get my packs to Marianne’s house! Had a great dinner and visit that night.)

The Final Stretch!!!!

Margriet, Frank, Marianne, Kees – the last day!

Wednesday, the last day on the trail, only 12 kms left of the 425 I was going to do this hike.
Not only Margriet joined me for this last hurray, but the friend we were staying with as well as a good friend who drove more than 2 hours from his home early in the morning to join us for the last stretch.
Again beautiful scenery along narrow roads, old limestone farm houses, wineries, fields with cows. We love the history and to see dates like “1678” or “1711” on the facades of farm houses is thrilling. We also walked along the caves of southern Limburg, dug to mine stone for buildings.
Soon we walked into Maastricht, the capital of Limburg. A nice old city along the Maas river with century old city walls, churches and a famous market place: het Vrijthof. Just south of the city was the final destination: the Pietersberg. A bit of a climb and by noon we managed to get to the top of the ‘berg’ (hill). Of course we had to take some pictures, and stopped for pannekoek lunch a km back down the trail. There I also received an official certificate testifying that I had walked the whole trail.
 It had been threatening to rain much of the morning and as soon as we got on the bus back to town it poured but we stayed dry inside the bus. If I had the time I would not mind walking the same trail all the way back to Groningen where I started.  It has been a terrific experience.

All together I have been very lucky with the weather, only on 3 days it rained and not even all day on those days, perfect hiking weather all along. No blisters, no problems with the feet, sure, once and a while I was hurting, but that is part of such an undertaking from time to time. But to be able to do this at 65 years of age I am very thankful.

From the end of the Pieterpad it is possible to keep walking till you get to Rome or Santiago de Compastella in Spain. Only about 2,000 kms separate you from southern France.

Some day I hope to do that too and connect with the beginning of the Camino de Santiago where I started my pilgrimage 12 years ago.