Drew Gray, one of our volunteers at Lang Toun Cycles, recently toured the Netherlands by bike. Read his blog to find out about this exciting journey.

How do you plan a two-week cycle tour of a country you don’t know very much about other than it is generally flat and reported to be a cyclist’s paradise?

Where to go, what to see, how many miles could we reasonably cover each day carrying 20kg of clothes, camping gear, spares, tools and contingency food?

My wife Elana and I are not new to cycle touring but we had little knowledge of the Netherlands. Our local library had a couple of books which were useful. We also had a friend who had lived and cycled there for some years, whose suggestions proved invaluable.

The trip took a lot of organisation.

I started by booking our overnight ferry from Newcastle to Ijmuiden and the return two weeks later. That gave me the broadest parameters to plan a circular route that would take in as much sightseeing and leisurely cycling as we could manage with stops for exploring, lunch, coffee and refreshments along the way. I settled on an average of about 40-45 miles a day, which seemed reasonable.

The Fietsknoop (literally: Bicycle Buttons) website and phone app helped with planning. This was easy to use once I got the hang of it. There are thousands of cycle paths throughout the country, all of which interlink. Each junction has a unique number, known as a button or node.

It’s simple to plan a route is simple. Once complete you can save and transfer it to the phone app. This has GPS to guide you along the way. The real time voice instructions from the app sound vaguely reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher but with a Dutch undertone. For that reason we referred to our virtual guide as ‘Maggie’.

Setting off

Our planning was complete. Our panniers were packed for two weeks on the road. We were a little apprehensive but it was time to drive to Newcastle and board the ferry. The point of no return, as it were.

We arrived in Ijmuiden about 9am. We had a good breakfast onboard and with Maggie’s help headed due south. We followed the coastal cycle route through the National Sand Dunes Reserve towards the historic towns of Leiden and Delft where we camped.

The cycling route was idyllic as we wound our way south on the paved cycle path through the dunes. Magnificent views of the North Sea to our right and endless sand and sparse desert-like vegetation to the left.

As we returned to more populated areas the historic buildings, canals and greenspaces of the small towns create a very tranquil welcoming atmosphere. It was tempting to stay longer, have another coffee and piece of traditional apple tart and slagroom (whipped cream).

Sadly we needed to move on to our next destination and campsite for the night. So on towards Gouda and then Kinderdijk, a world heritage site and icon of centuries of windmill based water management. Then it was on towards Utrecht, to find our campsite for the next three days.

Over the first three days we covered over 130 miles. Maggie faithfully kept us on track. She warned, “Are you still on track?” if we missed a turn, and “Welcome back on track” as we corrected our mistake. A few days with short excursions around Utrecht were a very welcome leg rest.

Kasteel de Haar in the Netherlands

The next morning a short ride took us into Utrecht to explore the city. We parked our bikes at the largest bicycle park in the world.  This can accommodate 12,500 bikes – And it’s free! The following day we visited the Kasteel De Haar, largest ‘castle’ in the Netherlands. Completed in 1912, it was built on the site of the original (circa 1391) castle. It is essentially an extravagant summer home of a wealthy baron to lavishly entertain guests. The castle has some 200 rooms and 30 bathrooms!

On leaving Utrecht we navigated our way through the wooded cycle paths of the Utrecht National Park to reach our next campsite. We spent the next few days traversing and enjoying the tranquility of green space. We headed east and then north into Flevoland and through acres and acres of reclaimed land used for farming.

Heading into the wind

As we turned north, we became much more aware of the constant 10-15 miles per hour wind coming from the North East. The Netherlands may be flat, but you should expect wind in the land of the windmills! Heading into it with our loaded bikes and tiring legs was hard work at times but it was warm and dry, so we were still smiling.

We pushed on towards the Lelystad. This meant cycling along the 17-mile-long dyke crossing the Markemeer – a huge shallow lake. We cycled into the ever-present headwind before reaching the harbour town of Enkhuizen with its beautiful white sandy beaches and on to our campsite for the night. An exhausting day!

Over the following days we made our way west and then south through the North Dunes Reserve once again and then all the way back east to Edam and Vollendam.

Edam was another of the lovely small towns we had become so accustomed to visiting. Vollendam was not for us though, it seems to be a very popular and busy short escape for Amsterdam residents. We quickly looked around then headed for the ferry from Vollendam to the island of Markem. From there we cycled on to our campsite on the south eastern outskirts of Amsterdam.

A typical Amsterdam scene

The next day we took a rest from the bikes and jumped on a tram into Amsterdam to explore the city. We took the obligatory canal trip around the city. We visited another underground bicycle parking area. This had 7,000 bicycles and zero cars. Again, it was totally free.

We explored the famous Dam Square with its quirky range of coffee shops and bars – as well as the other variety of shops that Amsterdam is well-known for. 

The following morning we were back in the saddle. We headed east on a 35-mile loop to encompass a visit to the unusually shaped and walled garrison city of Naarden, which dates back to the 15th Century. Our route back towards Amsterdam took in the scenic lakes of Nardermeer and Groote Meer. Finally we stopped off at Muiderslot Castle.

Homeward bound

Sadly, our tour was coming to end. All that remained was to head back to the ferry terminal at Ijmuiden via the picturesque town of Haarlem. We had been cycling for 13 days, stayed in eight campsites, covered over 460 miles. We lost count of the number of coffees and apple tarts we consumed. We met many lovely Dutch people who were only too glad to help and have a chat. We saw some wonderful towns, canals, and castles and cycled along miles of paths lined with trees and wildflowers.

As we approached the ferry terminal Maggie announced, for the last time, “end of the route”.

Tot Ziens Maggie, dank u wel. (See you Maggie, thanks a lot!)

Drew Gray

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