The campervan squeezes along the narrow streets. We suck in our breath and pray that nothing comes the other way. I’m grateful that our friends discovered Blokzijl in the northern Netherlands by canal boat and told us about it, otherwise we would never have found it.
Now we sit in an old café. The owner seems as old as the building. He creeps in the darkness amidst tables set with candles and surrounded by art work in the style of the Dutch Masters. The rain and gloom is fitting with the atmosphere but somehow adds to the experience of visiting this medieval fortress built in the 1600’s. We are the only patrons.
Outside the rain quietly fills the gaps in the cobblestones spraying afar as red cape-clad cyclists pedal passed. They stop momentarily and peer in the window. No doubt we do not make a suitable display and they pedal on in the rain. Barry Manilow sings on the radio in contrast to what I see and feel.
As I finish my coffee and yet another slice of Dutch appeltaart the music changes, the radio now plays “You can be a Champion” transporting me back to Vanuatu where Facebook reminds me that I was two years ago. The song was sung loudly and enthusiastically by my Grade Six class as they graduated from primary school, many of them departing to boarding schools in more developed countries. How life changes, so quickly, and yet Blokzijl reminds me that in reality, some things never change, they just wear the markings of time.
I’m sitting in the café at the top of the Bergisel ski jump in Austria, site of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. It’s a nauseating height. The kind that even spectacular panoramic views can’t help you ignore. I feel as if the collective nerves and adrenalin of the hundreds of competitors who have launched themselves into record books have gathered in my stomach.
I order a strong espresso but it only seems to heighten the nausea, so, I order an apple Strudel in an attempt to take my mind off the scenery and onto my stomach.
Then I saw it. The reason I was so nervous. A young Austrian jumper, on the slope, preparing to jump. Perhaps I had been channeling his nerves?
Heart racing, perspiration pouring down, a quick prayer as the seconds ticked by….and that was just me! In contrast, this athlete appeared as cool as an Austrian snowflake. His lithe body bends, clips onto the two ski rails , adjusted his vest and soars.
Skis crossed, sky high and then a graceful landing down the artificial grass slope. A terrain watered and tendered like a prize cricket pitch. Visons of Eddie the Eagle flashed through my mind. I was in awe.
Thinking how lucky I was to witness this in the height of summer I make my way slowly step by step, slope by slope….down the path. Suddenly the jumper runs passed me, back to the cable car, back to the top. Unlike me, he didn’t need to stop for coffee and cake at the café. I rushed to the bottom to get a shot from below. A group of Indian tourists were gathered on the teared seating getting an informative brief from an English speaking, Austrian coach. I stop, and listen in. Discretely of course.
Huge sprinklers spray water droplets into the sky creating rainbows and sparkles like thousands of Swarovski crystals.
As soon as they stop, a tiny speck appears at the top of the jump then soars through the sky. The crowd applauds and break into a clacker of disbelief. The smiling ski-jumper takes time to approach the group, pause for a few quick photos, then its “auf wiedersehen” and back to the top. Me, well, I head down to the next coffee shop. All that exercise and energy has made me exhausted.
“Look out for the bikes” my friends warned as I left for Holland, little did they know that I was the real danger, not the Dutch! Fortunately for me other cyclists were tolerant when I erred to the wrong side of the path and cars had no option other to avoid me. In Holland, bikes rule.
The Dutch and their long term love affair with cycling has been long known but I had not anticipated the depth of use. Within days of arriving we had seen every make, model and adaptation possible; singles, tandems, trikes and tandem trikes. Babies on the front, babies on the back, mothers with babies on the front AND on the back. Dogs in baskets, flowers in baskets and flowers around baskets. Paniers and carriers carrying cargo, bikes towing trailers, pushing trailers and carrying kids in trailers. Electric powered or pedal-powered you cannot miss them. They are an intrigal part of the Dutch way of life. For leisure, pleasure, transport and sport, every age, size and shape are pedaling their way somewhere.
To cater for the masses the government has constructed more than 32,000 kilometers of bike tracks. They run alongside but separated from main roads or as cleverly signposted routes. Amsterdam alone has more bikes than citizens (population 811,000). More than 800,000 bikes are stolen in Holland every year so we are careful to lock them rather than loose them.
The bike is more than a mode of transport, it is a way of life and the trails, tracks and roads are built to accommodate them, even having bike traffic lights on some pathways.
My Dutch partner Dirk, comes from the east, a predominantly rural area. Perfectly grassed fields are carefully mowed and the grass fed to cows housed in long cow sheds. This is the farmer’s way of maximizing grass growth in a country with little spare arable land, and in keeping with the tradition of keeping the cows inside, especially during the long harsh winters. Large thatched farmhouses beside the sheds make the area one of “chocolate box” images.
A short distance away is the Veluwe National Park. An area perfect for trying out our new bikes. The riding is easy, choosing a route was difficult. Do we follow the orange signs for the Royal Route, sunflowers for artistic inspiration, clogs for farmland ? Or do we follow the river some distance, crossing the John Frost Bridge also known as The Bridge too Far and passing airborne landing sites where thousands of paratroopers dropped from the sky in September 1944? The myriads of routes are numbered with a system which also allows you to create your own itinerary taking in watermills in the Veluwezoom region, a Taste of Van Gogh at various cafes and historic Hanseatic architecture. We choose to “pick and mix” making sure we have lots of coffee and apple cake (a Dutch favourite) on the way.
If this all sounds a bit sedate cyclists can ride more difficult trails, following three of the stages of the 2016 Giro Italia or go mountain biking, although bear in mind that with a country one metre below sea level the hills are not what we would experience in New Zealand.
One of the best things is….NO helmets! This is a country where bikes rule and cars giving way to cyclists. So, dangers aside, I was soon freewheeling passed heathlands, marshlands, woodlands, farmlands, and sampling enough Dutch product along the way to make me a roly poly cheese look-a-like! Hopefully all the cycling will counteract the calories. And, if I have a few speed wobbles…so be it.
A piece of medieval history on the shores of the meandering Ijssel River, Deventer is recognized as one of the oldest towns in the Netherlands. Its ancient fairs drew merchants from throughout Europe. The fair theme still seems to continue as huge carnival structures are erected beside 500 year old cathedrals for a holiday weekend. We meander through small cobblestoned streets, some with boutique clothing and art, others with layers of cheeses, the pungent smells causing me to linger outside until beckoned in by the Cheesemaker for a taste of his wares.
I refrain from taking more photos of the pots of red and pink geraniums, climbing roses and other flowers which decorate the tables of restaurants who vie for business by showcasing artistically prepared table settings, tempting customers as they head for home.
Church spires dominate the skyline, bells ringing out every 15 minutes. A deep resonating sound, wonderful to hear. Directly across the river is a campervan park, (€15) large green spaces, peaceful (until the church bells ring) and super convenient. We set up camp and then catch the ferry (€1.50 return) back into town. The ferry-man seems suitably bored after a day of ferrying people back and forth on the five minute journey.
Deventer is not unique in it’s history and architecturally significant buildings, the riverside settlement of Elbert, rural Almon, and other Hanseatic villages make the extraordinary seem ordinary. The Lonely Planet guide to Western Europe dedicates one sentence to this beautiful place suggesting Deventer as a side trip. Personally, Deventer, along with most of the west side of Holland, has been a highlight.
Caption: Boats at rest, Elburg