AMSTERDAM AND SOUTHERN HOLLAND BY BARGE AND BIKE
By Alan Hart, travel editor
One of the beauties of a cycling holiday in Holland is that you could virtually climb a pair of stepladders and have a panoramic view of the whole country. During a week-long trip the highest hurdle I had to overcome was a humpback bridge.
Even the proud Netherlanders laugh at the flatness of their beloved landscape. In the south-east near Maastricht where Holland’s highest hill soars to a paltry 322 metres above sea level, they ironically refer to the area as The Dutch Alps.
So if you’re in training for the Tour de France a bike trip to these lowlands wouldn’t suit. But if, like me, you prefer to cycle at a leisurely place, then there’s nowhere better.
And to make it even easier why not have your own barge to take you to all the best places ?
Manchester-based freewheel Holidays specialise in activity breaks, offering more than 200 tours with 45 dedicated to walking and 150 to cycling.
My journey began with a cheap flight to Amsterdam and a 30-minute train and free five-minute ferry ride to my floating home for the week.
The “Sir Winston” was built in Scotland in 1943 to deliver torpedoes to Royal Navy submarines. By 1958 she had emigrated to Holland, working as a cargo boat carrying minerals and sand.
In 1963 she was converted into a passenger barge and extended in 1974 to include a restaurant and replace her portholes with sliding windows in the cabins .
Now the 80-metre vessel holds a maximum of 68 passengers and 12 crew, supervised by genial Captain Jaap Lamme, from Zaandam. Our skipper, a sprightly 76, has held his captain’s licence for 52 years and knows every nook and cranny on Holland’s waterways.
Each morning after breakfast on board, we were provided with a packed lunch and straddled our seven-geared hire bikes for a new adventure. In the next five days we travelled on cycle paths through the prettiest parts of the southern Netherlands.
Our barge chugged from Amsterdam to Zaandam, Delft, Gouda, Utrecht, Rotterdam and Schoonhoven.
Amsterdam was a small fishing village on the River Amstel in the late 12th Century but grew to become one of the most important ports in the world during the Dutch Golden Age 500 years later.
Its ancient buildings reflect the capital’s history as they move from Gothic through Renaissance, baroque, neo-Gothic, and art nouveau to art deco. They sit on the banks of the canals which are its lifeblood.
It boasts museums which house the works of their world-renowned artists such as Rembrandt and Vincent van Goch. Nowadays it is perhaps better known for its red light district and the coffee shops where cannabis can be smoked legally.
As we entered the 3rd Millennium, Rotterdam was the busiest port in the world. It has recovered from its destruction by the Luftwaffe in 1940 and became known as The Gateway to Europe. According to its citizens, they work to provide the money which is frivolously spent in Amsterdam.
Delft is famous for its blue ceramic pottery, the painter Johannes Vermeer and its association with the Dutch Royal Family, where The House of Orange began.
Much of the city was destroyed in 1654 by The Delft Thunderclap when 300 tons of gunpowder exploded, killing more than 100 people and wounding thousands. It prospered again and its winding cobbled streets are packed with tourists.
Utrecht has recovered artefacts dating back to the Stone Age and was the site of a fort until the Romans abandoned it in 275 AD. Now it is Holland’s fourth largest city.
Gouda is famous for its cheese market: Schoonhoven for its silverware, its clock-making and the storks which nest on its rooftops.
But while these urban areas all have a colourful history, it is the patchwork quilt of fields surrounded by water which give the Netherlands its unique scenery.
The bikes took us alongside canals and dykes which were the homes of herons, great-crested grebes, coots, oyster catchers and a wide variety of wading birds.
We passed dozens of traditional 19th Century windmills as we covered about 130 miles during the week.
Maps were issued to show us the way and many followed them with confidence. Mere mortals like myself preferred to stay in the main peloton where we could get lost together and correct our mistakes as part of the bonding experience.
My one day off from cycling was spent in the spectacular gardens of Keukenhof, near Lisse, where the sheer scale of their dazzling displays of tulips in late April is truly breathtaking.
I learned that it all started when the Sultan of Turkey gave tulip bulbs to an Austrian ambassador who passed them on to Dutchman Carolus Clusius in 1593. He began the fashion for tulips in Holland, from where they are now distributed throughout the world.
There are more than 3,000 varieties and their names range from American rock star Janis Joplin, Swedish pop group Abba and soccer legend Johan Cruyff to the British children’s TV favourite Teletubbies.
Back on board ship after three-course dinners, the passengers swapped yarns about their travels over drinks from the cosy bar area.
Casual clothes were the order of the day throughout, ending with Pirates’ Night, where the crew had plunged enthusiastically into the ships’ dressing-up box.
FACTFILE: Alan Hart travelled as guest of freewheel Holidays. The Amsterdam and southern Holland bike and barge self-guided cycling tours start from £519 per person for eight days on a full-board basis with bike hire. For more info visit www.freewheelholidays.com or call 0161-703-5819.