Friday, August 14, 2009

Amsterdam , Antwerp, Brussels and Willemstad

Saturday August 8th; Amsterdam to Vianen
The day dawned cloudy but mild. The sun would come out later and warm things up for “shorts weather.

We wandered back into town and found a hotel with a good buffet breakfast to start our day. Then we packed up and walked to our boat, the Lena Maria. Arriving at 9:30 we were permitted to drop off our luggage but could not board the boat because the previous group had just departed and cleaning was in progress.

Once again we were off on a city walk. This time we visited the Jewish quarter and a lively street market. Kath found a shawl and a coin purse to hold her Euros and then we settled down at a street café for a coffee. On our way back to the boat we stopped at the beautiful city library where we would find an incredible building and free internet. It was a modern, vibrant place and, on the top floor, Kath discovered a modern café with views of the harbor and city. We grabbed a quick lunch and then headed for our great adventure.

The cycling group consists of
Jerry and Linda Cufley
Keith and Kathy Simmons
Linda St. Clair
Mike DeLange
Geoff Tilford and Viv Hawkey
Steve and Kathy Dennis
Jeff and Lorena Daggett
Sherm and Mary Williamson
Bill Denzel and Colleen McKee

They are an adventurous lot and should provide good cycling companionship. Klaas Otter and Lia Van Zaal will be our guides and Hans and daughter Nina provide the crew.

After lunch we eased from our downtown moorage and made our way under a bridge and into a wider ship channel. Once past the cruise ship terminal we sailed into a wide and busy canal that headed south toward the Rhine River. It’s impossible to keep track of the rivers and canals we pass through as they seem to go in all directions and most don’t appear on the map. But we trust the skipper knows where he is so sit back and enjoy the ride.

After about an hour we pulled to the channel edge and hauled our bikes to the shore for our first big (10 mile?) warm up ride. After a brief “fitting out” we followed Lia down a series of bike trails and roads. Since it was our first day in the Dutch countryside our heads were on full swivel. I suspect we will grow used to the beautiful, flat fields, bordered by narrow canals and even narrower drainage channels.

Saw our first windmills. They are real, not just photos captured on tourist postcards and china bowls. We are told some are used to pump water and some to grind grain.

The “bike paths” vary. Some are narrow paved roads, some are striped lanes on both sides of narrow roads and some are just paths. But the bike is respected by drivers and bikes are everywhere. Even pleasure boats on the canals have bikes on board and, in one case, on a bike rack on the stern. There may be more bikes than people; it wouldn’t surprise me.

After going in many directions, through countryside and small towns, we ended up in “Breukelen” the namesake for Brooklyn New York. The main street was lined with street cafes so we settled in for a local beverage and relaxed after our arduous ride. It was quite pleasant in the sunny square.

The Lena Maria was nearby so we finished our ride, reboarded and prepared for dinner as the boat resumed its run to Vianen where we would spend the night. We tied to a metal catwalk on a small side channel off the main canal.

Following dinner the guides gave us an outline of our riding plans for the next few days followed by a walk through the small town. Since it was after 9:00 the city was quiet but clean and pleasant. As opposed to Amsterdam, the buildings were all two story giving the city a nice scale. Then it was off to bed on a darkened Lena Maria.

Sunday August 9; Vianen to Dordrecht
I’m not sure if we spent the night on the banks of a river, a canal or open water. The various waterways crisscross the countryside passing through locks and under bridges of all shapes and sizes. We only did a single lock the first day of travel and Klaas indicates we are now in “fresh” water. Fresh it might be but I would not relish swimming in it. Both the salt and fresh water have a coffee color that does not invite swimmers.

Since Sunday was the first “real” day of cycling the group was eager to begin. After a good Dutch breakfast the bikes were moved from the boat to the narrow metal causeway, where we were moored, and then up the dike to a gathering place on a grassy knoll. The plan for the day was to bike as a group about eight miles to a decision point. There the cyclists could decide on either a long (48 mile) or short (30 mile) option. As it turned out, when the time came, Klaas discouraged the long option and the group stayed together for the entire day.

The cycling took on a pattern that is likely to continue for the balance of the trip. We followed city streets, bike paths, both wide and narrow, and paths along the edge of roads. In all cases we received preferential treatment from the auto drivers. There were several long sections Lia described as “cart paths” that consisted of two strips of pavement the width of a cars wheelbase. While the pavement strips were perhaps 18 inches in width, they felt narrower and kept us on alert lest we wander off into the grass on either side.

The trail side scene changed constantly. We cycled through neighborhoods of all types, apartment areas and, most often, farm country. Some paths were on top of levees or beside canals or drainage channels of varying widths. The big challenge in Holland is too much water and the network of channels, canals, rivers and ditches seems to do the trick.

I read that God created the earth, but the Dutch created Holland. That seems to be the case.

A Word About Water in Holland: Waterways are important for commerce, recreation and reclamation.

Rivers and canals link the world to Holland and the rest of Europe. Ships can sail from the North Sea to the Rhine River and central Europe along the larger waterways. A steady stream of cargo vessels was at work on every large waterway we passed. Smaller vessels ply the narrower canals as well.

Recreational boaters make use of all the water ways they can fit into. Since it was holiday time in Holland, the waters were alive with yachts of all shapes and sizes. The frequent winds make this a sailor’s paradise.

The dikes along the waterways provide a built-in bike trail system that weaves its way around the country.

But perhaps the most important role of the waterways is drainage. Much of Holland has been reclaimed from the sea by diking and then pumping the water out of the low areas. That water makes its way to the sea via the labyrinth of channels, canals and other waterways in this low lying country.

Since it was Sunday, everything but a few restaurants was closed for the day. While the Sunday closures can be a hassle for travelers there is something pleasant about suspending active life for one day a week.

Late in the morning we approached what I believe was a river where we paused for coffee at the Hotel Belvedere. We could observe the river traffic and the ferries shuttling up and down the river. The “work” traffic was limited by the Sunday religious traditions but there were still a few boats around.

Following coffee it was back on the bikes, down to the ferry and across the river.

We stopped at a picnic spot in the yard of a couple that restores used bicycles for shipment to third world countries. The setting was pleasant beside a small canal with a farmland vista across the way. We finished the day passing through the World Heritage site of Kinderdijk. While I didn’t fully understand how it all worked, the area consisted of a series of windmills in a row that were used to lift water from the area and dump it into the sea. From there it was a short run to a second ferry that took us across another body of water to Dordrecht.

We found the Lena Maria tucked in a narrow canal in the heart of the small town. We shared the canal with a group of beautifully restored old river and steam boats. We were now in salt water with minor tides taking us up or down three or four feet.

A Word about the Lena Maria: The Lena is a long, low slung boat with twelve, two person cabins below, near the water line, and a spacious salon on the upper level. We gather, eat and read on the upper level. The large windows give us an excellent view of the world passing by. The statistics, according to Hans the captain, are:
Length: 45 meters
Beam: 6.6 meters
Draft astern: 1.4 meters
Draft forward: .6 meters
Cruising speed: 16 km/hr

About six years ago Hans purchased the vessel as an old freighter and converted it to passenger duty. He also removed 15 meters amidships to get to the 45 meter length. Ships over 45 meters require a crew of four; the Lena only requires two.

The cabins have two bunks and bath. Small windows bring in a dribble of fresh air. It seems the windows are so low that we could ship water if we encountered a large wake. So far no cabin flooding! Hans is proud of the fact that the water system on board can deliver hot water to all showers at once. That is a feature we appreciate as well.

Monday, August 10: Dordrecht to Zirikzee
The group split in two this morning. Seven chose a short course of 30 miles that began with a boat ride. The others left at 8:15 on a long course of about 60 miles. We chose the short course.

The long course group was headed north and west beginning with a pass through Rotterdam. From there they hit the coast, passed through a large area of dunes, visited a huge flood control project and, eventually, arrived at the Lena. They were on the road from 8:15 am to nearly 7:00 pm.

After the long group departed we had a relaxing time on the boat while the captain and crew did a bit of grocery shopping in town. Leaving at around 9:30 we passed under a small draw bridge and joined the flow of industrial traffic on a series of large waterways, ending up at the beautiful little town of Willemstad. Its small boat harbor was bustling with holiday activity with sail and power boats of all sizes. It looked very much like Friday Harbor on a summer weekend.

Klaas led the group on a series of narrow paths around a fortress in the city and then we began our journey to Zirikzee. The first leg of the trip was on a frontage road next to a busy motorway. This was far different from the narrow lanes and canals we had seen the first day. But soon we were able to escape the busy road and move to smaller roads and paths that skirted farm fields.

The area is much less developed. The fields are large and houses less frequent. This area was devastated by the great flood of 1953 which might account for the lack of more intense development.

We lunched in the town square of Oude Tonge and then visited a street side restaurant for a cup of coffee. Our afternoon path took us over Grevelingendam Dam, one of many massive waterworks in this country. The dam not only controls flooding but connects two large islands. Since this is holiday time for much of Holland the beaches before, on and after the dam were busy with clam and mussel gatherers. Once across the dam we stopped in Bruinesse at a large lock to watch the holiday boaters pass through. To date we have seen several large locks, most of which dwarf the Government Locks in Seattle.

About ten miles from Zirikzee we passed the “flood museum.” It is located at the site of the first major breach in the dike that precipitated the great flood of 1953. To quickly plug the dike before the next flood season arrived, the Dutch imported huge concrete floats from England. They had been constructed for use as artificial harbors during the invasion of France. They were floated to Holland, put in place, and sunk to create the new levee. Some are still in evidence and the museum itself is located in one of the old pontoons.

Zirikzee is a busy yacht harbor, like Willemstad, packed four and five deep with pleasure boats. We found the Lena at mid-dock with several small craft tied to her port side. This is a lovely little town and we wish we could be here when town was open. (Things close at 6:00 pm)

Fair weather held the entire day. Clouds grew as the day went on but it was warm and no sprinkles were encountered until near the end. The long group received a bigger dousing as they arrived later.

A Word About Guidespeak: We have begun to understand the guidespeak. Here are some examples
Q: How far are we?
Guide: About half way.

Q: How far are we going today?
Guide: About 30 miles.

Q: May we do (fill in the blank)?
Guide: No problem or
We shall see or
We will tell you about that later.

Guide: Go, go, go!

Viv, our friend from the UK has added a few lines as well
It was quite nice, really

Tuesday, August 11; Zierikzee to Middelburg, about 27 miles.
The weather turned sour overnight and rain carried over to daylight. Sitting at breakfast we were not sure if we wanted to commit to a day in the wet. But the rain stopped before we left and the rest of the day was dry.

Leaving at 9:00 we wheeled into town, by the outdoor market and stopped at a hotel where we sampled a local specialty, the “bolus.” It is best described as a compact cinnamon pastry; very good. We took extra time to walk through the market before heading out.

The morning was spent slogging into a steady headwind as we peddled west across Zeeland on top of and beside levees and dikes. Like yesterday the land is pasture or open wetlands, preserved for wildlife.

Before crossing the Stormvloed Sea Dike, one of the last and greatest of the sea barriers, we stopped in a sheltered little resort area for lunch. The sea barrier was an 8 km ride that included a dam and several small islands. The sandy beaches on our right, or sea side, attracted summer tourists and kite boarders. With the wind abeam the ride was very pleasant and less work than in the morning.

Now on Walcheren Island, with the wind at our back, we flew through more developed countryside to the town of Veere. The place was alive with a market, tourist boats and crowds of people. The market offered local foods and crafts and the vendors were dressed in traditional attire.

A final half hour brought us to Middelburg, the capital of the province of Zeeland. The Lena was in a wide channel with modern buildings on both sides; not nearly as charming as Zierikzee. The train ran along the far bank but it was quiet and did not impact sleeping. We skipped the evening walk into the old town but those that went reported a beautiful, vibrant place complete with a festival.

Wednesday, August 12; Middelburg to Antwerp
Today we travel to Belgium. After considerable research by the guides we were offered three options for travel.
Long Course: travel with Klaas about 60 miles, west then south then east to Antwerp.
Short Course: stay on the Lena traveling though canals to a point closer to Antwerp and then riding the last 30 miles into Antwerp.
Train Course: board the train in Middelburg and arrive in Antwerp mid morning.

We opted for the Short Course. Breakfast was early (7:00 am) for the long course and train people. We sent them on their way and then cast off for our trip north, east and then south down a canal to Hansweert. A lazy morning on the boat is a welcome diversion. We will get our riding in during the afternoon.

Linda, Linda, Mary, Viv, Kathy and Steve will join Lia for the ride. After a late breakfast we took a tour of the wheelhouse and saw the world from that elevated position. The boat looks very long from that vantage point.

We arrived in Hansweert at 11:30 with enough time to catch the noon ferry across the Schelde. This allowed us to avoid the north shore industrial approach to Antwerp. The Lena deposited us on the canal bank above the town and we hurried across the levee, past the locks and found our small ferry waiting. The ferry is for passengers and bikes only and carried only three other passengers, all with bikes, on this run. It was a charming little vessel and the crew was very friendly.

After an hour of travel we left the ferry and began our move south and east. Along the way we visited the home town of Lia’s grandmother, I was bitten by a cute little donkey and we wandered along country roads toward Hulst.

Arriving in the Hulst town square we ran into the five men of the “long course” who were having coffee at a café. Following a brief shopping respite the combined group of 12 began what I called a “make believe” trip the last 20 miles to Antwerp. The guides pretended they knew where we were and we pretended to believe them. But, in the end, we found our way along narrow dirt tracks in the forest, paved city streets, down elevators and though tunnels to the berth of Lena in the Willemdoc harbor of downtown Antwerp. The six train travelers had just arrived so all could tell tales of their days adventures.

A Word About The Dutch Bike: For our travels in Holland we rode “Dutch” bikes. Nearly everyone in the country rides Dutch bikes. Bikes are everywhere. When kids are too young to ride a bike they enjoy small seats in front or back of their parents. Some use the wheelbarrow style bike with a wooden bin for small children up front. Old and young ride Dutch bikes.

Ours are new quality bikes; Klaas says they would cost around $1,000. They are built for flat, wet country and for carrying good loads. They include lights, fenders, racks for panniers and cushy seats. Some local bikes have but a single speed, ours have seven. They are well built, heavy rigs. In a conflict with a small car I do believe the bike would win. I tried to pick up my bike the first day and thought it was fastened to the pavement; the stern was quite a lift. But they are a time tested machine and serve well in this relatively flat country.

The big cities are a cycle jam. Train stations sport multilevel bike parking garages to handle the volume and provide some level of security.

Our bikes are equipped with a rear wheel lock. As we later found out, that will only slow a thief, not stop them. Locals carry a massive chain and lock for strapping their bikes to something permanent; a rail, post, etc. Klaas says there are 16 million bikes in Holland and one million are stolen each year. Some are kept and some are just ridden and then dumped.

According to the guides Amstermdam canals are three meters deep; the first meter is water, the second mud and the third is stolen bicycles.

Thursday, August 13: A Day off in Antwerp
Suspicious clouds greeted us on our first day off of the bikes. With the Lena safely tucked in the Willemdok boat harbor, near downtown, we were free to roam Antwerp or any other Belgian city within reach of the train system. We elected to go south and visit Brussels with the Daggetts. We walked about a mile through a still waking old city and boarded our train at central station. Less than one hour later we were on the rainy streets of Brussels.

After days of no hills we found ourselves doing a bit of climbing. The train station, many of the older government buildings and the palace are on higher ground. It is not a hilly city by Seattle standards, but somewhat less “bikeable” than the cities to the north. We spent the time in town gawking at old buildings, visiting the palace and cathedral and just enjoying the sights.

By 5:00 pm we were back in Antwerp where the Daggett’s gave us a tour of the city based on their Thursday visit. It is a beautiful old city with handsome squares and people places. Following a delicious Italian dinner we headed for the Lena on a route that took us through the “red light” district. Some of the early shift girls were on display in their streetside windows but, seeing none to our liking, we were soon back at the quiet Lena in the gentrifying Willemdok area.

Part of the group, which had been out celebrating Bill’s birthday, returned and, after a very brief “catching up” time, all retired.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a fact-checker at National Geographic TRAVELER magazine. I'm working on a story in which the writer mentions Lia Van Zaal but not the company she works for. Do you know what company she works for? I appreciate it!

    Please reply as soon as you can.

    Meg Weaver
    Senior Researcher
    National Geographic TRAVELER magazine