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.

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Rotterdammed

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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Sneek

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:

http://www.amsterdam.info/museums/museumkaart/
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.

Poffertjes!

 

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!