Monday, August 30, 2010

Alternatieve Elfstedentocht - Day 6

Leeuwarden: truly delightful town. Quite unexpected combination of style, gritty back alleys, cafe-lined canals, historic houses and urban renewal. By night the canal tunnels are illuminated purple. I'm sitting by the Waag, the old weighing house, with a broad cobble-stoned plaza in front. I'm finding it difficult to tear myself away. Maybe one more coffee.

Nieuwestad, Leeuwarden
Not surprisingly, it's a bit more diverse than the rest of Friesland. I've seen North Africans and blacks on the streets. No one seems to work on a Monday except for those in the clothing shops. Here in the Nieuwestad, middle aged women and their daughters gawk at the windows of V&D, Vodaphone, H&M, Pearle Opticians and Hema, while a continuous flow of cyclists ride happily along the broad paths that flank the canal: a young man in jeans jacket and jeans, a pair of black youths, a teenage girl in jeans and tank top does a 180, a shaved headed man in his 60s rides with his grandson in the back seat behind the saddle. No cars. My macchiato arrives with a pair of small almond cookies and a glass of water. Sporadic sunshine. Perfect people-watching locale. Can't tear myself away.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Alternatieve Elfstedentocht - Day 5

Café t' Hoekje, Ferwerd
At the Café t' Hoekje, in the town of Ferwerd, actually the starting point for the Day 5 route, though I didn't stay there because all the vrienden were booked for last night. Instead, I stayed in Hallum, about an hour ride from here against a stiff headwind.

Coffee and apple pie with whipped cream, mmm. A quaint "brown café" with a hint of its past grunge in the form of rugs for tablecloths, plank floors (now polished), heavy paisley curtains and oompah music on the radio. A kern (county seat, I guess), Ferwerd is about the size of Hallum, a village of maybe 1000 people yet, like other communities around here, it seems dead.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Alternatieve Elfstedentocht - Day 4

Harlingen harbor
Day 4 of my Friesland trek looks to be a beauty. The town of Harlingen is quite picturesque - long canal/marina chock full of yachts. The town is the departure point for ferries to the isle of Terschelling and on this Saturday morning the terminal was packed with families, which made me glad I'm going along the remote northern coast of Friesland.

Last night stayed in the fabulous home of Tinake (the "ke" being an affectionate suffix, just like the Spanish "ito"), with a deck built out over a canal. My room was a dormer at the top of the house approached by steep narrow steps.

Alternatieve Elfstedentocht - Day 3

At northern edge of cute harbor Stavoren, where I ate some herring and bought a lensatic compass. Many sailing craft on the waters here, very busy at the marina. The greenish waters have a gentle chop. I have 50 km to go and it's noon. The day is outstanding.

Idyllic spot en route to Bolsward.
By a lazily moving canal, eolic windmills in the background. I just had my lunch in a village called Parregea (Parrega in Dutch), but this spot, en route to point 5 and Bolsward, is better - a solitary bench alongside the canal, shaded by gnarly trees, a thin thread of pavement for a fietspad, a little drawbridge down the way. A few pleasure craft pass by occasionally, the random cyclist. 

I feel a bit of pressure to cover all those kilometers before dusk: more than 50, actually, since I started at Laaxum, about 6 km before Stavoren, the day's official starting point.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Alternatieve Elfstedendtocht - Day 2

I spent most of the morning shopping in Sneek: got my front tire's tube replaced, got a sweater (needed one this morning, no longer), some dried fruits, nuts and chocolate.

Now I am at a picnic table southeast of Sneek at or near a place called Twellingea (or in Dutch, Uitwellingerga). The fietspad was paralleling the highway for a while and momentarily deviated from it here. Altje, my vriend last night, told me this bit of the road was not too interesting but I'm just enjoying the ride.
"11 Cities Route" -  Day 2 (ANWB map)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Alternatieve Elfstedentocht - Day 1

The landscape west of Leeuwarden
From the train, truth be told, all of Holland looks pretty similar - at least what I've seen so far. Flat fields, cows, insignificant attached pale brick houses, lakes and marinas, little old churches with black spires, rows of identical elders lining canals, the scent of cow dung. It's only when I'm out on the bike that I can appreciate the rustic beauty of the place.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Plateauroute: Day 2

Outside Gulpen, Monday morning
I've just set out from Gulpen after a nice big breakfast prepared by the zaftig Tina, who runs the J Ploum household. The Ploums are relative newcomers to the vrienden scene. Joseph told me they had all this room upstairs going unoccupied and a friend had told Tina that all the cyclists and hikers that stayed over at her place were nice, friendly people.

So far I have not had to climb much heading west out of Gulpen. It would be difficult to imagine a more tranquil spot than the one I've chosen to write this, at the bottom end of a meadow along a pebbly lane underneath spreading elms. A mist lingers over the scene and a cool breeze carries the fragrance of cow dung. The fietspad to Maastricht stretches out before me.

Plateauroute - Day 1

Van Tienhoven windmill near Wolfshuis
Morning in this suburban subdivision in Velden. Not sure if Mevrouw Kusters is going to bring up my breakfast or if I need to go downstairs. The ceiling is inclined, following the shape of the tiled roof and the rear window faces the rear of other tiled roof houses. It's quite overcast but it appears that the rain has stopped.

On the Plateau route. Nice so far though there's way too much traffic. I hope the ANWB* has some more tranquil sections in store for me. I'm now taking a break at point 68, the van Tienhoven windmill (1855).  There's a patch of grass at the base and a couple of rustic split-log benches, perfect place to have my roast beef sandwich, grapes, chocolate. It's around 4:30 pm. This being a plateau, it took some work to get up here. Heading east out of Maastricht you take the Old Akerweg, go under a great tunnel, through some 'burbs, then out in the country -- cornfields, pear orchard, horses. There's a steep climb before 't Rooth (and that's the t'ruth), so I dismounted and hoofed it. 'T Rooth is a former mining village where they excavated for marl (a kind of limestone). Now it looks like a cluster of weekend retreats fronted by fields.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Maasvalleiroute - Day 2

De Borggraaf castle, Lottum
The trail from Lottum to Broekhuizen
Beautiful morning, bad start. After taking my breakfast at the Van der Brandt residence - toast, cheese, ham, hard-boiled eggs, two cups of coffee, yogurt and orange juice - I lit out. First I went looking for the Borggraaf castle mentioned in my fiets guide. I found it, I think, a low, thick-walled brick structure surrounded by a moat. Then I went looking for point 90, but this time I somehow missed the turnoff and kept going toward Horst. I realized something wasn't right so I turned around and went back into town. But the sign for 90 pointed in the same direction. Maybe I hadn't gone far enough? Turned around again, went further this time. I knew I had not seen a John Deere outlet or crossed railroad tracks yesterday. This was frustrating. I rode back, perhaps 2km, found a map and realized I should have turned (right coming from town) on the Hombergerweg, then I was back at the dung-scented turnoff, back on the dirt road to the Schuitwater. This time I turned right, toward point 56. Before long, I was riding along a brick surface trail through the woods. Yay! I've just reached a picnic table by a big cornfield, where the Haasendonkerweg meets the Rodevennenweg. People coming toward me with their dogs, shouting at them. Maybe they are the ones who've parked their Porsche mini-van here. I hope they'll drive it away. Many people are out riding, mostly old folks.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Maasvalleiroute - Day 1

I'm finally off on a "serious" bike journey, namely the Maasvalleiroute. Since there are so many options, I just picked one out of a hat, and now I'm headed for the province of Limburg. Interestingly, I've yet to venture so far from Amsterdam, even though it's a journey of just two hours. But now that I've made the move, I feel I should take a longer journey. I was only planning to take the weekend but I have no immediate need to return to Amsterdam, and I should take advantage of that.

So I'm going to the town of Blerick, in northern Limburg. I'm on the train to Eindhoven, where I'll need to change for a train to Venlo. I paid the full fare, including the €6.50 to put my bike on the train, though they never check it seems.

The train has already passed Utrecht. I notice a flat field of black blotched cows, a highway off to the south paralleling these tracks, greenhouses, an ivy-covered little brick house. I see that the clouds, so gray and thick over Amsterdam, are here parting a bit to reveal some patches of blue. An agglomeration of houses, perhaps the start of a village, the train slowing down, factories, a church spire. A lumber yard, its corrugated metal buildings covered in graffiti. Arriving in 's-Hertogenbosch at 10 to 2. Seems like a prosperous town: modern brick buildings.

I notice the small Asian woman across the aisle periodically talking into her cel phone. She's browsing through a thick, battered notebook, not unlike this one. The train whistle blows, we're off.

Easy connection at Eindhoven, now heading further east toward Venlo. More table-flat lands, functional pale brick homes. Helmond. Mostly clipped hedges, attached homes, McDonald's. The sky is again overcast but it's warm and summery.

I don't think these conductors care if you've got your bike. Well, it's called an honor system. There's nothing wrong with abiding by the rules of this fabulous rail network.

Arrived in Blerick, which is really just a sister city to Venlo on the other side of the Maas (French version: Meuse). I knew I needed to go to Grubbenvorst but unsure how to get there. In the station parking lot, I saw a big group of tough-looking white boys firing up a spliff. Instead of asking them, I asked a handsome black man sitting on the curb a short distance from the boys. He had no idea where Grubbenvorst was. So I just got on the bike and looked for the river to get oriented. I could see the spires and smokestacks of Venlo, then a bike sign pointing to Grubbenvorst and point 6. I headed that way, finding myself on a street through a suburban neighborhood, then alongside warehouses. I asked a  middle-aged man on a bike if it was the way to Grubbenvorst and he cheerfully assented. Before long I was going up a country road shaded by stout trees. There were plenty of folks out for a ride and the occasional car or motorcycle. I realized that Lottum, my destination, was just 7km away so I had to kill some time before reaching my vrienden.*

* The Vrienden op de Fiets (Cycling Friends) is an amazing network of 3700 B&Bs for cyclists in the Netherlands as well as Belgium, Germany, France and a few other European countries. There's a nominal membership fee.

I'm now sitting across from what appears to be a Christmas tree farm, by the entrance to a path through the woods, the Sint Jan Sleutelbergbos. On the other side of the xmas tree farm is a track where single-car light rail trains zoom past. In Holland, I often feel as if I've entered a portal to a more environmentally aware future.

One problem I've been having cycling lately is that my right ankle and foot continue to throb and ache. The toes on my right foot seem to stiffen, as if rigor mortis has set in.

Rose bush fields outside Lottum
Lottum. It's true that the place is surrounded by rose bush fields and greenhouses full of rosebush seedlings. The Rose Festival is held Aug 6-9. There is some kind of rose house that is probably a tourist attraction. The town center is comprised of quaint low brick houses.

I am at a bend in the road pointing to knooppunt 90**, and it smells like cow dung. At this point, the path turns to packed gravel. A pack of racing bikers, with their helmets and lycra suits, just whipped around the bend. A tractor roared up the road toward the greenhouses. I'm wondering who cuts all these roses. I don't see any immigrants.

** The Dutch bicycle network is connected by a series of numbered points. Signs lead you to the next point in your route.
Knooppunt markers

A shower and strong wind soak me momentarily. The gravel road to knoopunt 90 was lovely and tranquil, going by untended fields, along a still creek full of lily pads. Instead of going on to Horst, I decide to take a walk around the Schuitwater, a little nature park. A path takes me to a large fallow field, and lots of rabbits dart across the path. Also got a brief glimpse of a deer. I returned along the same path, then found a more interesting trail through the woods to the other side of that lily-laden creek. Later I realized that the two linked up and I could've made a nice loop.

Back in the village of Lottum I went looking for the fort described in the fiets guide but found only a mock wooden fort that appears to be the stage of rose festival events. In fact, the village's main esplanade where I now sit is full of covered pavilions, still dormant. Compared to a Mexican village of a similar size, it's dead. But there is an absolute calm about it, and I'm glad I chose Lottum as a place to stay.

I've just had dinner at the Eethuis 't Pumpke, a little joint run by two adorable Asian women - mother and daughter. I guess they're closing now. They've just rolled up the retractable awning, and water spilled off of it like rain. I had the Bami Especial - spaghetti with a fried egg, a slice of lunch ham and three satés on skewers covered in a rich peanut sauce - and it was lovely to sit out on the terrace in the perfect evening air, facing the dormant pavilions on the esplanade. The stillness is only interrupted by the occasional car tearing along at breakneck speed, or kid on a bicycle stopping to pick up a carry-out order. I had two Heinekens. There's another slightly more formal place on the church end of the plaza but I found it unappealing because a group of surly drunks had occupied it since my arrival, and as I came back down into town they were making a stupendous racket.

Lily pads outside Lottum
There's just something extraordinarily pleasant about being at this particular vriend this evening. I've got my own little cottage (later a small family arrived), now sitting outside in front. The air is the most perfect temperature imaginable, just slightly cool with the faintest of breezes. The cottage is beside a pleasingly unruly garden. Beyond that is a small campground where some RVs are stationed. An occasional door closing, a remote car or the distant barking of dogs are the only sounds.

All this, for just €18.50! My hosts are very nice, Johann and Jenni. He speaks a bit of English, she speaks none so we were conversing in Dutch, sort of, me summoning what I could from my meager vocabulary. I like how each of these housing situations is unique in its way. This one has a semi-hostel feel. I have access to a kitchen where I can make my own coffee and breakfast in the morning or grab a beer or glass of wine (€1).