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Postcard from The Netherlands

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Explorers Awheel

Cycling through the Netherlands with my kids


By Dave Thomas


Almost forty years ago I read Explorers Awheel (Garry Hogg , 1938) a classic pre-war children’s story about exploring the Southwest of England by bike. It had belonged to my father and was written in the year he was born. As my children (Luc aged 12 and Nienke aged 10) have grown up here in the Netherlands I’ve been waiting until they were old enough to undertake a similar adventure with them. And this summer, in a glorious almost rain-free slot of two weeks, we realised my dream.

Dutch-Belgian-Border-at-AchelWe took a modern approach to exploring awheel. No one-man tents and braving the elements each night. Instead, we made use of Vrienden op de Fiets a network of several hundred addresses in the Netherlands and beyond where cyclists can enjoy bed and breakfast in private homes. It is cheap (20 euro per night for adults and 10 euros per night for kids), hassle-free and gives a sense of adventure (where are we staying tonight, papa?).

Just like all good adventures the planning is half the fun. First choosing the addresses to stay each night and then using the 1:50,000 scale cycle maps from Falk  to plan the route using the cycle node network. The more detailed 1:50,000 maps are vital for finding addresses out in the sticks, and for double checking where you are when the cycle node network fails— like it did in the Betuwe region.

BronkhorstMaps in hand and cycle bags full we hit the road early on a Saturday morning. We ticked off our nodes much faster than we expected and arrived at our lunch spot two hours earlier than planned. Daughter Nienke decided that three beers a day for papa was a sensible limit. Needless to say such rules did not apply to ice cream of course. Our meandering route to Belgium over five days took us from Dronten over the Veluwe to Zutphen, through the Achterhoek and behind Bronkhorster-beerP1000293Nijmegen to North Limburg and then through Brabant to Achel (my first homage to trappist beer). After a week with friends camping near Turnhout (they took our camping stuff) we sped back home in 2.5 days so that the kids could start school again.

We opted to stay in outhouses and barns to enjoy more privacy. In Doesburg we stayed in the owners private museum sleeping among a collection of books, toys and other paraphernalia. In Brabant we spent a night in a sumptuous converted barn fit for a king only to be served a breakfast next morning that MacDonald’s would be ashamed of. And in Zeist we had a two-floor small house with all mod cons to ourselves. Our favourite place by far though was our first night at Coby’s. We stayed in a simple outhouse surrounded by an idyllic cottage garden and our hostess was the epitome of warm Dutch hospitality.

All that pedalling is good for the appetite and as our journey unfolded we ate ourselves around the world: Greek, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, French and Flemish but also good old pancakes and ‘patat’. The pièce de résistance? A superb lunchtime salad at a French restaurant  in Harderwijk with ingredients so good that a dressing was superfluous.

Cycle-meadowCycling through the Netherlands is like a narrowboat journey along Britain’s canals. Off the beaten track, seeing things at a slower pace and from a different perspective. We stumbled across the smallest town in the Netherlands (Bronkhorst). Blink and you would almost miss it! In the Achterhoek we passed vast caravan parks reminiscent of those on North Kent coast between Reculver and Herne Bay. The farm we stopped at for lunch in North Limburg had a parking area for horses and a grazing meadow for bikes. In Brabant I discovered you can eat ‘patat’ with piccalilli (wonderful) but finding any cafes open for lunch can be tough. Behind Nijmegen we zigzagged across the Dutch-German border glad that the only long steep hill we encountered was down and not up. And in Baarle-Nassau we savoured our last morsels of Belgian hospitality looking across the street at our bikes parked in the Netherlands.

Coby's-placeYou don’t have to go far or even encounter hills to get a sense of adventure, show some grit and feel elation when you’ve pulled it off. Working with my children, pushing their limits, and seeing them rise to the challenge. All thanks to a long-forgotten tale that my father handed down to me when I was roughly my daughter’s age.