Visiting Holland by bicycle is not only about seeing well-known European cities, but also lesser-known parts that wouldn't be typically discovered by tourists. Discover the country that keeps a "war" with a non-usual enemy: the sea.
The Netherlands is widely known as Holland, but actually Holland is the name of two of the most important regions of the country: Septentrional Holland and Meridional Holland. These are two of twelve provinces into which the Kingdom of the Netherlands is divided administratively. From the Dutch “Hol-land” we can translate “Low-land” or “flat- land”. This is an important detail to consider in the context of the trip, as we will see, as there are very few hills. We are travelling in a flat country that borders on Belgium at the south, Germany in the East, and the North Sea at its septentrional part. There are also territories belonging to the Dutch in the Caribbean, the Dutch Antilles and Aruba.
Throughout the years the Netherlands has stood out as a place of a particularly liberal character, in comparison to its European neighbours. Issues like prostitution, euthanasia, abortion, same-sex marriages and soft drugs are all treated differently here. Coffee shops are under legal control by the Dutch government and persons aged more than 18 years are entitled to purchase quantities of hashish of up to five grams for consumption either on premises or at home. It is forbidden to use the drug in public areas, and the use of hard drugs is also forbidden.
The country is host to number international institutions such as: the International Court for Ancient Yugoslavia, International Justice Court and Europol (Criminal Intelligence Agency of the European Union).
Get ready: you will travel around an entire country on two wheels! The trip, depending on the physical fitness of the cyclist, should take from eight to fifteen days.
Bear in mind that you most likely will not find yourself alone while travelling. Everywhere you go, you will see how the Dutch love cycling - they have cycle paths in every city that continue all through the country. Be sure to say “Goede morgen” (good morning) or “Dag!” (Hi!) when you meet a Dutch person. Even though the vast majority of Dutch people speak fluent English, it is always nice to greet people in their native language. It is also common to find Dutch people who can speak German, Spanish or French. Television is broadcast in the native language, as it is in Portugal and Scandinavian countries- a good example that could be followed by other European countries.
Although the tour of Holland is circular, we wanted to create a starting point- so we selected The Hague. Our reason is that in 2003 we completed this trip, having lived one year as Erasmus students at The Higher Institute of European Studies, so we know it quite well!
As with everything in Holland, The Hague is a little unusual. Historically, it is the political capital of the country and is host to the royal chambers, foreign embassies, and the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the official capital is Amsterdam.
The Hague is the third most populated city in the Netherlands, after Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
The Binnenhof. It is the impressive Dutch Parliament building; the central political venue for the Netherlands- it is worth visiting at night while it is lit-up. The building also contains the Mauritshis- a splendid art museum of classic Dutch paintings- including masterpieces such as Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt and the Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer.
The Gemeentemuseum. It is a gallery displaying paintings and sculpture from the last two centuries. A must see for contemporary art lovers- here you will find the largest collection of Piet Mondriaan.
Madurodam. It is a miniature city that includes replicas of all the major buildings in each city in Holland.
Scheveningen. It is the most crowded and touristy beach in the Netherlands. It is located just twenty minutes by bike from the city centre. It is a lively and interesting recreational site. On sunny days we can sit outside the cafes and restaurants by the seaside walk, visit the aquarium or the famous De Pier- an unusual structure from which there is a panoramic view of the area. The nightlife here is also great, with numerous pubs, discos, karaoke and the famous Holland Casino.
The Hague has around seven hundred parks and forests that are spread out all around the city and which are perfect for a nice bike ride. The most important is the Haagse Bosch (forest of the Hague) where inside can be found the Huis ten Bosch (forest house), a baroque construction from XVII century decorated with big frescos and is the residence of Queen Beatrix .
Finally, in July, The Hague holds the ParkPop- the largest free open-air concert in Europe, featuring international music groups. and Jazz lovers should not miss a three-day stop-off in August at the North Sea Jazz Festival. This is one of the biggest jazz festivals on the continent.
This little historical town is located just an hour and a half by bike away from The Hague. There is a road all the way there that has a cycle path alongside the bank of a canal. Then we come to the Bend Tower that welcomes us to one of the oldest and well-conserved cities in Holland. Delft is surrounded by canals, and is famous for its blue porcelain. At the weekend, there is a traditional market in the town square.
This, the second largest city in the country, is remarkably distinct from the other cities thanks to its modern architecture. After the Second World War, Rotterdam was devastated and had to be re-built. As part of this, a number of innovative building projects were introduced. Nowadays we encounter a style that deviates from traditional Flemish motifs. Instead, there is a modern style- owing to the work of such architects as Rem Koolhas. The city is at the banks of the Rhin and is connected to the North Sea by way of the Europort, the biggest European port and second biggest in the world- after Singapore. We also recommend a visit to the Kunsthal, where there are good modern art and design exhibitions.
Gouda’s cheese is very famous and attracts many tourists each year. It is sold every Thursday at the traditional cheese market place in the central square. The council is also located here.
This is the most central city in the Netherlands and is the fourth largest in terms of population. It is particularly nice to walk alongside its many canals or to visit it well-known cathedral. It is a lively student town and the largest university in the Netherlands is located here (57,000 students). Modern architecture lovers should also visit the Schroder House of Gerrit Rietveld, built in 1924. The building is a startling piece of architecture with its straight lines influenced by the “De Stijl” movement that had its origins in Holland.
After out stop in Utrecht, the next compulsory visit is the national park of “De Hoge Veluwe”. Located near Arnhem, which has an excellent system of cycle paths, is a unique confluence of art and environment. The Kroller-Muller museum is here and includes diverse sketches and paintings by Van Gogh as well as a nice garden with statues. The park has 5500 hectares of woodland paths. Within its environs we can give our own bikes a rest and use one of the bikes provided there for us, free of charge. There are kids bikes and adult bikes that can be taken from one point and then left off at another. The only rule is that that the bikes are not to be locked- so that everyone can use them at any time during the day. If we are fortunate, we might see some of the park’s fauna- including deer, wild boar, squirrels, but they rarely go near the visitors. There are some areas for camping within the park making it a great spot to stop and have a cheap night’s accommodation, while enjoying the surrounding environment.
Amid windmills, canals, tulips and clogs we go north until we come across fields of black and white spotted cows. This marks the beginning of Friesland (Frisia). This is the ideal place for lovers of the environment. Frisia maintains its native language and old traditions. It inhabitants make a living by farming and fishing. Life here is especially quiet. Frisia is the most isolated place in the Netherlands. We can still find people here who do not speak English- making it an anomaly in the context of the Netherlands. While we cross through many cosy villages and charming places particular to this region, we approach the famous dam.
The forty-two kilometre long dique Slachtedijk is an impressive feat of engineering that reminds us of the daily fight the Dutch are engaged in to maintain control over water. It serves also as a bridge with a road and cycle paths that link the cities of Lorentzsluizen and Den Hoever. When we crossing this bridge, we have the exterior sea on one side, and the interior sea on the other. Though it is hardly perceivable, between the two sides there is a difference in height. Effectively, the actual sea is slightly higher than the interior sea- the dam prevents this water from flooding a significant part of the country.
The polders are on of the most characteristic symbols of Holland. This is the Dutch term that describes land that was previously underwater. The Dutch have mastered the art of retrieving land form the edges of the coast, and at building blockades of sand and dams to restrain water. Currently, there are a few polders being built at the Frisia islands- where it becomes difficult to differentiate between the beginnings of land and the end of the sea.
Once we have crossed the bridge, we have some options as to how we will continue our journey south. We can stop in the touristy village of Volendam, travel by the coast, or visit Alkmaar and enjoy the traditional Dutch architecture of its many historic buildings. Otherwise, we can go to Haarlem, the city from which the New York neighbourhood took its name. Whatever way we choose, we can be sure to find a comfortable cycling path that will take us all the way to the nation’s capital: Amsterdam.
From the moment we arrive, it will become obvious how easy it was to pedal through the country. The thousands of tourists on bikes, the trams and buses and the beautiful scenery of the city may distract us- so be sure not to lose concentration while cycling!
Amsterdam is the official economic and tourist centre of the Netherlands. The city is placed between the interior sea and the banks of the Amstel River. In Amsterdam, we can walk through the romantic canal-side streets, enjoy internationally renowned museums, see the peculiar Flemish architecture dating from the XVI and XVII centuries, and enjoy a wide range of leisure and entertainment facilities. The nightlife is vibrant and especially interesting- whatever your tastes are. There are coffee shops, pubs, and discos- something for everyone. Make sure your bike is always well locked, using two locks and securing both the wheel and frame. The areas surrounding train stations are the most dangerous places to leave bikes overnight. In all major Dutch cities there is an underground syndicate that sells stolen bikes. So take care, otherwise you may find yourself buying your bike again- minutes after it has been stolen!
Dam Square. This is the city’s main square. Here you will find the Koninklijk Paleis (royal palace), Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), National Monument of Dam, and the wax museum of Madame Tussauds. The Nieuwendijk and Damrak streets that go toward the Central Station are the most crowded of the city.
Van Gogh Museum.The most renowned of all Dutch painters has a dedicated museum here in Amsterdam, with the largest collection of his works in any one place.
Rijksmuseum. a museum of classic art, which includes masterworks of Rembrandt-another Dutch artist of brilliance.
Red Light District: Colloquially called Wallen, this is the neighbourhood dedicated to prostitution. This practice is legalized and regularized in all of Holland and this quarter, located in the old area of the city, is cited in every guide as a major tourist attraction. Warmoestraat is the most visited streets in Amsterdam. In spite of being the most famous, it is not the only one of its kind. Other main cities in The Netherlands have their own Red Light Districts.
The only typical Dutch detail that we missed out on during this trip is tulips. We should have passed a few fields of tulips during the trip, but in Keukenhof, just a few kilometers north of Leiden, we have “The most beautiful spring garden of the world”. If we travel between the months of March and May, we will be able to appreciate all the beauty of the most famous flower of Holland and get to know it many varieties.
From Leiden to The Hague there are only a few kilometres. Schipol airport is not very far, and the dense railway network allows us to take a train from any city. But since you have cycled across an entire country, why not continue the journey home in the same manner? Try it; it is not so difficult ;)