Touching down at Schipol Airport, I mentally prepared myself for a whole new existence out of the camper. I was looking forward to living in a house, seeing the familiar faces of my family and the comforts of “home”. What struck me right away was the order of things. It looks so clean and nice. Everything seems to work here, and the order not only creates a more quiet place in my mind, but it also feels quiet. And peaceful after the chaos of the Peruvian roads. The order of everything was like a bucket of cold water over my head on a hot day…startling but not unwelcome.
Road along the dyke in Waalwijk
We stayed with my parents in a rented farm house in the town of Waalwijk, not far from Eindhoven. I don’t know too many people who have spent much time in the countryside of The Netherlands, but this county is so much more than the city of Amsterdam. I grew up around here for close to 6 years, returning to the U.S. when I was fourteen. The old villages are quaint and serene; canals cut through the land at every turn and its green. Lots of green. Green meadows spread out between the houses, dotted with cows or sheep as far as the eye can see.
The smell of the cow manure hit me as soon as we got to the farm house. The are so many cows in this country that outside of the cities, you can't escape the smell. The smell permeates the air and it brings me right back to my childhood. For some reason it doesn't bother me at all. Maybe other kids reminisce their childhood with smells of Mom’s apple pie or fresh cut grass, but for me…it’s cow shit.
Morning coffee with my cow friends
Sunset behind the dyke
We had 10 great days hanging out with my parents and visiting family. I've been back several times over the years but I haven’t been here with both my parents since 1998 – eighteen years ago. Not much has changed, which is nice. We had a little surprise party for my parents' 80th birthday and it brought everyone together for an afternoon of celebration.
A trip down memory lane to our old house in Belgium and the air base where my dad was stationed took up one day. Another day was spent in Alkmaar to visit the oldest cheese market in Holland. The rest of the days were cafe lunches on canals or in 17th century town squares. And of course, visiting the family.
Cousins Day with Sascha, Manon, Tante Mia, Ben and Dutch Donna.
John did a lot of driving here on the "'autosnelweg" (auto fast road in Dutch). - very aptly named. They drive fast here. A little different for him than chugging along broken roads in a huge rig in the mountains of Peru. He drove 1400 km that week, getting a good feel for the country. I did a little driving here, too. After my parents headed back to California, we decided to explore the little towns of Friesland for 4 days, and a car was the fastest way to get up there. I really love the little Fiat 500 car and wanted to test drive one. They are so cute and compact - perfect car for the Dutch roads. Or wherever. So I convinced John we should rent one for the hour or so drive up and back from Amsterdam. We took the long way, driving north on little roads not much wider than a bike path. We had lunch in Edam, a village famous for its cheese. Cruising through the little towns we continued along the banks of the Ĳsselmeer, a huge freshwater lake that was created by a 32 km dam to hold back the sea and create more land. We drove over the long dam road, past the giant locks that hold back the sea, and made our way to Friesland.
Friesland is one of the 11 provinces that make up the Netherlands, and it's one of the more unique. It has its own language, called Fryslân, and the largest chain of connected inland lakes in Europe so it's a big draw for water sports. I ventured to this strange land by the North Sea when I was thirteen. With my cousins Sascha and Manon, we took the train to a sailing camp here for 2 weeks. Back then there was little Dutch spoken and no English.
Friesland is also a perfect place for cycling from town to town, which I thought would be a fun way to show John the area. On a recommendation from my aunt, we decided to tackle some of the towns on the Elfstedentocht (Eleven cities tour). The full route is almost 120 miles long and was created as a speed skating competition in the winter. It follows a circular route along frozen canals, rivers and lakes through all eleven historical cities of the province. It goes off only when the ice along the entire course is at least 6 inches thick. It's held sometimes on consecutive years, other times with gaps that may exceed 20 years. When the ice is suitable, the tour is announced, the place goes into a frenzy, and it starts within 48 hours. There hasn't been a tour since 1997. So now the route is mostly used as a bike tour and we did a southern loop starting in the town of Bolsward.
We checked into a really lovely hotel called the WeesHuis (a former orphan house) that dates back to 1553. They had bikes for us, and we could keep our bags in our room while we biked over to another town for the night. We packed some overnight stuff, hopped on the bikes, and off we went. We rode 60 km over 2 days (which apparently isn't all that much according to Dutch standards), cruising through old farms full of cows and sheep, past windmills and through beautiful 400 year old villages. Sounds of the frogs and sheep followed us. Every few hours, a required stop for a coffee, or lunch and a beer was made. We rode through 8 villages, finally understanding where the term "steeple chase" comes from as steered toward the steeple of each town's church on the horizon.
At one point we biked through a green field and came up to a "pont" (small bike ferry). The woman operating it lived on a river barge next to the ferry with her husband. They were so surprised to hear we were from California and told us that last year they had a Canadian on the ferry...a REAL Canadian, she said. As we cycled away, we heard her call out to her husband, "They are from California and one of them speaks Dutch!" Very funny.
We spent the night in the town of Wokum, and after a shower and a delicious meal at our little hotel, we passed out. The next day we hit 3 more towns and then peddled back to the Weeshuis in Bolsward for our last night.
Here is our 2 day, 8 village, 60 Km tour through the Elfstedentocht...in 2 minutes:
The Weeshuis Hotel. Beautiful...
Our room had a terrace that opened out to the owner's donkey pasture.
They were friendly...a little TOO friendly so I had to decline their request to come inside.
The Dutch ride far...and fast. We got passed by lots of people on our ride - people much older than us too.
I wanted John to really get a feel for how I grew up here and he loved it. It was perfect 4 days. And a perfect end to our stay in the Dutch countryside. The rest of our time in Europe will be in the cities. I'm pretty sure we'll still feel they are orderly compared to our life back in Peru.