by Lee Foster
Bicycling enthusiasts tend to yearn for a country where the bicycle is the daily and regular means of transportation, both for utilitarian and pleasure trips. In this imagined country there would be bicycle paths joining all towns and extending into remote country areas. Moreover, the bicycle would be used and enjoyed by all segments of society, young and old, impoverished to affluent.
Terrain in this country would be varied, but without steep ascents. An excellent public transportation system, probably by train, would graciously carry the cyclist and bicycle anywhere he or she wished to go.
Such a country does exist and is known as the Netherlands. I recommend it highly for a bicycle vacation.
Where else, for example, can you find an extensive one-way Rent a Bike system, similar to our Rent a Car organizations? At over 1,000 places in this small country you can rent a bike by the day or week. On several occasions in the Netherlands I have caught a train from Amsterdam down to Arnhem, rented a bike, and then bicycled in woods and uplands of the great national park, The Hoge Veluwe, taking in the famous Kroller-Muller Museum with its 270 Van Gogh paintings.
The helpful Arnhem tourist office, the VVV (unpronounceable words meaning tourist office), gave me the varying types of support I sought. On one occasion I wanted only good maps. On another occasion I set up a complete week’s tour, arranging hotels on a scenic circuit. They can even see that luggage is carried for you from hotel to hotel. The flexibility of the Dutch biking system is a virtue. Excellent campgrounds are available throughout the country for the self-sufficient biker. Fine country inns and youth hostels await the bicycle traveler in all budget categories.
A Nation on Bikes
In the Netherlands, it is said, there are 1.1 bicycles per person, and the population is now 16.6 million people. This is an extremely high number of bicycles per person. The figure becomes meaningful when one realizes that bicycling is not mainly an activity for children, as it has been in North America, but for everyone. It is usual and normal for the Amsterdam banker to ride a bicycle to work. Given the layout of the city, could a better mode of transport be imagined?
On Sunday afternoons in the countryside you frequently meet older couples bicycling through the woods and fields. All this is possible because bicycle lanes here are an integral part of the transportation network, rather than a late addition to automobile-centered roadways, as is generally the case elsewhere.
Bicycling contributes substantially to the overall healthfulness of the people. The Netherlands is unique because the terrain is flat, but not dull. Careful use of land brings a surprise at every turn. An abundance of water blesses the countryside with a lushness seldom seen elsewhere. Centuries of human use give the farmlands an appearance of well-groomed fecundity. In the Gelderland province around Arnhem and in another favorite bicycling province of mine, Drenthe, there are miles of woodlands, heather, and small lakes, called fens. A standard three-speed bike, or even a bike with no gears, is entirely adequate for this topography.
Though I prefer renting a bike at my destination, you can also fly your own bike to the Netherlands with increasing ease. Some airlines realize that the bicyclist is a potential customer in significant numbers, especially on flights into Amsterdam from the U.S. Check this with your airlines ahead of time to comply with their requirements.
Once you arrive in Amsterdam, you’ll be immersed in a world where the bicyclist doesn’t have to fight for the right to use the streets.
Biking the Countryside
Once in the Netherlands, where should you bicycle? Beyond Amsterdam, here are the two regions that I have found particularly pleasing.
First, consider the Arnhem area. I took the train from Amsterdam south and east to Arnhem, embarking point to the extensive forest-park, The Hoge Veluwe. The park is the setting for a famous museum, the Kroller Muller, which has Van Gogh paintings and many other modern artworks. With the help of VVV Arnhem, I arranged a few days of bicycle riding in the countryside.
The area has an appeal for all ranges of bicycling competence and for the diverse styles of bicyclists. Wildflowers in the spring and summer create a rainbow of colors on the veluwe, as these upland fields are called. Abundant bird life, such as merels, can be seen and heard. The Netherlands has long been famous for the quality of light in its landscapes, with luminous skies a primary subject in the paintings from the golden age of the 17th century. The bicyclist on the veluwe has ample opportunity to experience the full range of greys, pinks, and whites that compose these skies. Suddenly it become apparent why light on the landscape, light in the skyscape, light itself, became the primary subject in paintings by Vermeer and his celebrated contemporaries.
Second, I recommend Drenthe province. From Amsterdam, I took the two-hour train ride to this northeastern province. I got off the train at the provincial capital, Assen, and spent a few days riding the 300 kilometers of bike trails and numerous back-country roads.
In Drenthe I enjoyed the lush agricultural fields, used both for crops such as potatoes and for the grazing of cows. Grass grows so quickly and thickly here that a small acreage supports a large number of the famous Frisian-Drenthe cows that have a worldwide reputation for their milk and their breeding stock.
I enjoyed bicycling to the prehistoric stone burial mounds, called hunebedden, scattered throughout the Drenthe region. Of the 51 sites, the largest is at Borger. It’s an awesome experience to witness these large boulder burying-houses or giants beds, as the word translates, which Stone Age or Bronze Age men built to commemorate their dead. As a communion with the enduring, eternal aspirations of man to create some significant expression of what life has meant, the hunebedden are as moving an encounter as the Acropolis in Athens or the pyramids at Chichen Itza in Mexico.
Also in Drenthe, at the village of Orvelte I saw a preserved Saxon farm from medieval times. West of Drenthe, in the province of Overijssel, I visited the village of Giethoorn, which has no roads, only canals, to carry on all human activity. Compare it to Venice, but with a more rural and intimate feeling.
When I think of a European bicycle trip, the Netherlands ranks first in my choices. The flat but intriguing terrain, the bicycle paths and roads, and the integration of the bike into all aspects of life are tantalizing considerations.
If you Go: Bicycling the Netherlands
For more information, contact the Netherlands Board of Tourism at www.goholland.com.