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0,0 05.02.2018 | Stephen M. North of Holland by Bike + Boat DE HOLLAND

An Easter Delight

Overall
I did this tour in April, my first cycling tour of the year and, although the evenings, especially, could be chilly, I was glad to be out and about on my bike again after the winter months. Although there were a couple of rainy half-days, most of the time I enjoyed spring sunshine, the Dutch countryside always being a delight, and all the more so with so many bulb fields in spectacular bloom.

Apart from the countryside, the tour has a lot to offer, passing through neat little villages and towns of significant interest, sometimes very modern, sometimes historical and well-preserved for us to continue enjoying them today.

Highlights

  • Renewing acquaintance with Andrea, formerly a crew member on Theodor Körner (operating on Danube cruises), now on Angela Esmee; and with Marcel, who was the tour guide on my Southern Relax Tulip Tour on Liza Marleen in 2015, and who is continuing to prosper in the role he enjoys.
  • Tulip fields in full bloom on various days throughout the tour.
  • The morning of the circular tour in Friesland (Day 5).

Niggles

  • Bikes not up to the usual standard.
  • A couple of “watch-the-clock” days when you’re cycling to a deadline to be back at the boat for it to sail, although these were not particularly tight.
  • Token system for purchasing drinks on Angela Esmee.
  • Charges for teas and coffees on Angela Esmee outside of meal-time hours.
  • Before the tour, a warning of the possibility of midges would have enabled preparation (Day 5).

Regrets:

  • Wet weather on the first cycling day meant I took the short route from Zaanse Schans to the boat’s mooring point (and, of course, the weather cleared up!).
  • Not visiting the Czar Peter House (in Zaandam).
  • Not being at “De Witte Swaen”, in Broek in Waterland, at the moment the legend is fulfilled!

Date of my Tour: 2017-04-15/22 (7 nights / 8 days; included Easter Day)

Rad & Reisen’s local agent: Boat-Bike Tours.

Transfers:
I flew to Amsterdam’s Schipol airport (AMS), then took the train from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal (just over EUR 5). Amsterdam City Transport (GVB) bus number 48 leaves from close by the station (head for Victoria Hotel just across from the station and bus stop F is nearby) to Azartplein, where the boat was moored (a display screen in the bus shows the stops, and you pass by the boat just before the stop, though Angela Esmee may be hidden behind her sister ship, Anna Maria Agnes). A slight complication is that the bus driver can accept only payments by card and I wanted to pay cash (because I get stung with foreign currency transaction fees on my card, which is a deterrent to small-value transactions), so I had to purchase a ticket from the GVB office just outside the railway station and then activate it on boarding the bus. There can be quite a long wait to be served in the GVB office.

For the return journey, I used the reverse of this, but, on returning to Amsterdam at the end of the tour, I cycled to the GVB office and bought a 24-hour ticket, which I could use for an evening visit to the city and another visit the following morning before returning to the boat to collect my luggage for my journey home.

The Boat
Angela Esmee is around 2-3 times larger than the usual tour “barge” for Netherlands bike and boat tours, and appears to have been specifically designed for tourism rather than being a former canal barge converted to this purpose. This means the boat is less intimate than some, but somewhat more spacious: the lounge (at the front) and dining areas (immediately behind on the same deck) are separate, for example, rather than one space having to serve both purposes.

From the 2018 season, this tour is being operated by the boat De Holland. I believe this to be Angela Esmee under a new name, having been refitted at the end of the 2017 season, and possibly under new ownership as well.

On Board
For meals, guests are assigned to a particular dining table, being placed according to language spoken, which basically boils down to one of the two official languages, German or English. So, on my table, we had two native English speakers (myself and Alan from the US) and three Portuguese speakers (a Portuguese and two Brazilians) using English as a second language. Orlando, the Portuguese man, works for the EU in Brussels and is an excellent English speaker (although he denies it), thus becoming the table’s unofficial translator between Portuguese and English (as well as entertaining himself with the differences between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese Portuguese, and American and British English).

Each boat has its own system for the purchase of drinks. On Angela Esmee, there’s a machine in the lounge from which you purchase plastic coins: EUR 10 provides 4 coins, allowing the purchase of 4 drinks. Personally, I found this a nuisance, particularly on the last night, when I ran out of tokens but didn’t want to buy another 4 drinks. As far as teas and coffees are concerned, most boats provide these free all the time. On Angela Esmee, however, outside breakfast, afternoon tea and evening meal times, these are charged for at the rate of EUR 1 for each. Guests considered this rather miserly of the shipping company.

Those people with physical handicaps may be interested to hear of a Welsh lady and her husband who were on the tour. Her handicap meant she was unable to balance a normal bike, but she had brought her own cycle, a recumbent tricycle (hers was from the British manufacturer, ICE, though several other companies also have excellent models), which, every day, the crew offloaded and reloaded onto the boat. Although this particular trike could fold (as do most modern designs), the crew was quite happy to leave it unfolded and seemed to positively relish handling the unusual steed.

The Crew
There are around 10 crew members on board, divided into two broad categories: sailing the boat and running the “hotel”. As seems to be the general case on bike-boat tours the crew will absolutely fall over themselves to ensure you have a great time, and this crew was no exception.

Tour Guides
We had two tour guides, Margriet and Marianne, or “M&M’ as they liked to call themselves. Essentially they were the representatives of Boat-Bike Tours’ (the company actually running the tour, what Rad & Reisen calls its “local agent”) on the boat. They gave the daily briefings (Marianne tending to give the English ones) and cycled along the route each day. On some evenings, such as in Stavoren and Enkhuizen, they provided evening walking tours. I always found them cheerful and enthusiastic, even in the face of guest stupidity which might justify otherwise.

Bicycle
On the first afternoon, sailing crew members Nick and David were handing out the bikes alongside the boat, where there was room for short test rides. The bikes are not up to the quality of those generally issued on tours; with hindsight I’d describe them as “adequate”, but no more. The rear brakes of the bikes are of the coaster type (ie operated by putting backwards-pressure on the pedals) and the only hand-operated brake is the front one, on the left-hand side (I’m used to it being on the right); there were no other options in my bike size. The first bike I tried made a horrible grating sound, so I rejected that and tried another. Usually, I’m quite content with the bike handed out to me. This time I was really concerned about it, thinking there was an accident waiting to happen here, either in traffic or when descending, when my instincts would be all wrong for this bike. So, although my own insurance covers bicycle accidents, I decided to take the optional EUR 10 “no quibble” insurance offered by Nick and David.

As it happens, I had only one “dicey” moment and that was in Enkhuizen, well into the week, in traffic, when the vehicle in front stopped unexpectedly and I almost went into the back of it. On the first day, cycling in a group, we proceeded at a sedate pace, giving time to get used to the bike and feel more comfortable about riding the thing.

I made adaptations to the bike to make it more to my liking, fitting a bracket for my handlebar bag and another one for my GPS. I would have liked to fit my water bottle cage, but there were no bosses for this, so my water bottle had to go in the rear pannier bag. I also needed to increase the saddle height a couple of times, but that’s a trivial adjustment.

Maps and Cycle Navigation:
I took ANWB Fietskaart (cycling maps) 3, 12 and 13, and FalkPlan Fietskaart 2, 3 and 12. But, really, I needn’t have bothered, for a very good quality map of the entire area cycled is handed out on the boat, one per cabin. The knooppunt system is used for navigating and, at each daily briefing session, a sheet is handed out showing the knooppunts (and other points of interest) for the day’s ride. Orlando showed us the Belgian web site https://www.fietsnet.be, which presents a map with all the knooppunts on it. By clicking/tapping each knooppunt you will pass through, you can create a track for your GPS device or smartphone to give you directional information while on the ride. It works across the entire Belgium/Netherlands network.

Day 1 (Saturday): Amsterdam
On boarding the boat, I immediately ran into someone I recognised: Andrea, a crew member on the Danube Impressions cruise some two years earlier and now serving on Angela Esmee. I think she was as surprised to see me as I was her, but it really made my day to see her and spend a few minutes remembering times on Theodor Körner and discovering what had brought her even further from her native Slovakia.

This was Easter weekend, and we entered our cabins to find little chocolate rabbits in coloured foil had been placed on each bed.

Day 2 (Sunday): Amsterdam to Zaandam, via Zaanse Schans (Easter Day)
A few metres from the mooring point a free ferry took us across to the northern bank, onto quiet roads, and very soon we were into open countryside. For the first hour or so, we cycled as a group, with the two tour guides, to give time for people to get used to navigation by following knooppunts. After a coffee stop, we made our own way to Zaanse Schans, the major attraction of the day. Here it started raining (on and off for half the afternoon), enough to provoke me to an early departure and a decision not to do an optional loop, but to head straight to Zaandam and the boat, by which time, of course, the rain had cleared. In the evening I took a walk into Zaandam with Alan and Orlando from my dining table.

Day 3 (Monday): Zaandam to Alkmaar, then boat to “Den Helder”
It was a bright morning, so, having curtailed the stay at Zaanse Schans the previous day, I stopped off, even though, officially, many places didn’t open until 10:00. In no time at all, then, I had established my traditional place amongst the riders from the boat: well behind everyone else, although I did see Margriet accompanying an early straggler. It was a “watch-the-clock” day, when it’s necessary to be at the destination in time to be on board the boat for its afternoon sailing. Adjustments had been made to shorten the route because tides(!) made the departure especially critical. In the briefing prior to the ride, we had been given guidance on the times at which we should be at various points, one key one being at the site of three working windmills, shown as “Schermerhorn” on the day’s route sheet. I found myself arriving here a few minutes after the advised departure time, but the cycle path allowed for fast progress. I was on board in good time and up on the sun deck, ready for the cruise.

We waited and waited, but the boat did not depart! The message came round that one of the bridges we needed to pass under could not be raised and engineers were working to fix it. In the end, we set off hours late; instead of reaching the port of Den Helder, the boat had to berth near Sint Maartensvlotbrug. It was a sunny evening and we were right next to tulip fields, so several of us took the opportunity to go ashore and look around the area until the chilly April evening forced us to seek the warmth of the boat.

Day 4 (Tuesday): Texel Island
We sailed from the overnight mooring-place, through Den Helder, home port of the Netherlands Navy, with some very nice frigates on display, then on to Oudeschild, a harbour on the east coast of Texel island. There was a cold wind and it was raining heavily when we arrived, giving some doubts about the wisdom of going cycling, but a fair number were undeterred. It was Andrea’s day off and she was determined to go out, so we had arranged to cycle together, though I found she was not particularly well equipped for the cold conditions (no gloves! — fortunately, I had several spare pairs, much too big for her, but better than nothing). For this day, I considered our roles to be reversed, with Andrea as my guest, so we abandoned the official route and headed off where she wanted to visit, Den Burg, the main town on the island being first on her list.

Within an hour, the rain subsided and it became quite sunny, but still with a noticeable wind. Just outside Den Burg, there’s a roundabout (“traffic circle” to American readers) which Andrea usefully remembered for our return trip in the afternoon. Having “done the shops” and purchased presents for relatives and friends, we were off to De Waal, initially taking to the main roads, then thinking better of it and reverting to cycle paths. There’s a museum in De Waal which had been recommended and we found several other people from the boat were there.

Our final destination for the day was the beach resort of De Koog, on the Atlantic coast of Texel. We navigated simply by following signs on the cycle paths, rather than using a planned route with knooppunts. On arrival, we locked-up our bikes and had a quick look round town, eyeing-up possible places for lunch. Then we were back to our bikes for a short cycle on a road across the dunes onto the beach itself. Visits to the seaside had been a regular part of my childhood, but it dawned on me Andrea came from a land-locked country and I could see the seaside was quite a novelty for her. It was a revelation to see her enthusiasm for it all, dodging the waves, collecting shells and drawing in the wet sand. We tried cycling along the beach, found it pretty much impossible, but had gone far enough along to have to push our bikes up the dunes onto the roads behind, Andrea teasing me with several calls of “Do you want me to help you with your bike?”, or “When I’ve got mine to the top, I’ll come back and get yours!” (Hey! What are you talking about, Andrea — I’m ahead of you!) We cycled along the dune roads for a bit (there’s a motor home and caravan park in the shelter of the dunes) and then made our way back to the road we had used from the town.

It was a “watch-the-clock” day because the boat was due to sail to Den Oever, back on the mainland. I think Andrea was also due back on board before the guests’ deadline. With the entire width of the island to cycle, we were getting to the point where we definitely needed to watch the clock. We headed first for Den Burg, in the middle of the island, then worked our way through town, Andrea recalling, “We need to find that roundabout”. We did find it and from there we were on the right road for Oudeschild.

Day 5 (Wednesday): A round-trip exploring Friesland from Stavoren
During breakfast, the boat sailed from Den Oever to Stavoren. We cycled through Stavoren and along the southern coast of Friesland. Although we hadn’t started particularly early, a low sun just breaking through cloud gave the sense it was just after sunrise. There were sheep and cattle grazing in the fields, noisy waterfowl busying themselves in the irrigation channels and reeds and wild flowers along the grassy banks; I felt completely immersed in nature. I was enjoying myself so much, finding a great deal to photograph, my position well behind everyone else becoming established very quickly.

Presently, I arrived at a monument to the so-called “Battle of Warns” (the town a little distance inland), a great victory for the Frieslanders in their pursuit of independence. Further along, the coastal road bears inland and there’s a turning-off to return to the coast, passing by a cemetry where there’s a monument to the crew of a crashed B-24 Liberator bomber from December 1943. (Throughout the week, there were frequent encounters with monuments or graveyards to crashed bomber crews, with crew members coming from a variety of nations covering the globe.)

Before turning off the coastal path, it’s possible to take a stop at a little café, then comes a section through some woods. In the briefing, we were told of an option to shorten the route, but I continued through little villages and alongside waterways and fields until reaching Workum, the largest town on our route, with a square and attractive buildings round it. A good place to explore for a while.

Leaving Workum, the route continues past more fields, with colourful bulb fields on the outskirts of the coastal town of Hindeloopen. Passing through the town, the cycle path then follows the coast all the way back to Stavoren, through fields with gates and — we had been warned by Marianne in the briefing — midges! Masses of them! I wished I had known before the tour, for I would have packed a midge net. I think most people did not hang around here and rode pretty quickly for Stavoren. On reaching the harbour, there’s a shortcut back to the boat, saving a few minutes of cycling right round outside the harbour.

In the evening the “M&Ms” led guided walks round Stavoren, Marianne conducting the English-speaking one. There was a lovely sunset over the harbour as we set off (I’ve seen several photographs submitted to Boat-Bike Tours’ annual photography competition which I’m sure were taken that evening). One thing Marianne showed us was the statue of The Lady of Stavoren, which looks out to sea. The legend is printed in several languages, including English, on the plinth of the statue, so I feel no need to relate it here: look it up, or book the tour!

Day 6 (Thursday): Medemblik to Enkhuizen, via Hoorn
During breakfast, Angela Esmee sailed from Stavoren to Medemblik, mooring at a rural spot near the steam museum (“Stoommachinemuseum”) a short distance from the town.

Two cycling options were offered today: cycling directly to Enkhuizen along the coast, or cycling the opposite way, into Medemblik, then cross-country to Hoorn and finally along the coast to Enkhuizen. People who want to visit the Zuiderzee outdoor museum in Enkhuizen are probably best advised to cycle there directly. I had been to the museum on a previous tour, which had had to by-pass Hoorn because of bad weather, so chose to cycle the longer route, via Hoorn.

The route took us alongside the harbours of Medemblik and twisted through its streets into the neighbouring villages of Opperdoes and Twisk, essentially a one-street village. Leaving Twisk we were into bulb fields with strips of tulips in many colours. We passed the churches of Midwoud and Nibbixwoud, through more tulip fields, purples, whites and yellows predominating here. Then Hoorn beckons, the major stopping-off point of the route.

The route comes through a main square of Hoorn, with the Westfries Museum located here, then works through to the harbour area to take up the coastal path, where birdlife is plentiful. Shortly, a working windmill comes into view, with more colourful bulbfields behind it. Dotted all the way along the coastal path there are little villages with their churches, occasional houses and a backdrop of tulip fields and a constant presence of water fowl.

I arrived at the boat with sufficient time before dinner for some exploration of Enkhuizen and I was keen to visit a town I’d been to several times previously but don’t really know. In the evening, the “M&Ms” led guided walks, Marianne taking her group of English speakers to an area I hadn’t been to before, in the direction of the Zuiderzee Museum.

Day 7 (Friday): Volendam to Amsterdam, via Marken and Waterland
Again, we had a breakfasttime sailing, the boat mooring at Volendam. I recognised the very place I had waited for other people in my group on a cycle-camping tour of the Netherlands in 2014, and, when our bikes were off the boat, I couldn”t resist returning there to relive the occasion. Then, everyone ready, the call was given that we were off, cycling as a group for a cheese farm a short way along the coast at Katwoude.

Here, we were greeted by people in traditional dress and given an introduction to the cheese-making process. Despite being close to the village of Edam, it is Gouda cheese which is made here, and when I asked why this was so, I was told in no uncertain terms that “Edam is a dying cheese!” (So, you have it from the Dutch themselves, though, perhaps not a disinterested Dutchman.) The demonstration over, we were led into the shop area, with samples of many different flavoured cheese (some completely surprising) on offer to help tempt the euros out of the pocket.

On leaving the cheese factory, we were back to cycling individually, with several different route options available, the longest being to go out to the former island of Marken and then retrace this path back to the main route. This is the one I chose.

First, however, came the town of Monnickendam, with several impressive buildings and an interesting harbour area, followed by the coastal route to the narrow strip leading to Marken, waterbirds, as ever, present along the route. I spotted Angela Esmee some distance out, making her way across IJsselmeer to Amsterdam. Naturally, I was still cycling towards Marken as a stream of people from the boat were cycling back from it, some stopping to tell me what a beautiful village it is. Already I could see that, with a string of houses visible across the lush green fields. I cycled out to the lighthouse at the end of island, where I sat and had the packed lunch I’d prepared on the boat, noticing a boat plane (a WW2 Catalina, I thought) passing overhead several times. The village itself was delightful, bedecked in bunting in preparation for King’s Day, which was only a few days off.

As I was leaving, it was my turn to encounter a group of cyclists just arriving, with a familiar person at their head: Marcel, tour guide on my Southern Relax Tulip Tour two years earlier. He told me he had, in turn, bumped into Marianne, who had told (warned?) him I was back in the country. We had a few minutes catching up, then he had to return to his duties with his group.

Not too much later, I arrived in Broek in Waterland, a village we had been told we must visit. After a quick look round, I came across Orlando, who advised me to try the pancakes in “De Witte Swaen”, which was nearby. “The best in the world!” he told me. Inside, I became aware of the legend of The White Swan, a tale of the eventual victory of true love against great adversity. It is not well-known, so I will give an account of it here.

The Legend of the White Swan
There was once a beautiful maiden of milky-white complexion and golden flowing hair. She loved a handsome young man in the village where they both lived. But the wicked witch wanted the young man for herself and resented his love of the beautiful maiden. So she placed a spell on the maiden, clouding her memory to forget her lover and life in the village, and used powerful magic to transport her to another village a long way off. But, because the maiden had no home in the new village, every night she would transform into a beautiful white swan and live with the other birds on the water. In the mornings she would transform again into a beautiful maiden, with no memory of her other life as a swan.

The villagers noticed the magnificent swan on the waters and took a white swan for the village coat-of-arms, with one of the villagers naming his pancake restaurant De Witte Swaen. As is the case in legend, the maiden found herself drawn here and during the day, in her human form, took up work serving the customers. If you visit De Witte Swaen in Broek in Waterland, you may find yourself served by a beautiful maiden, as fair as any amongst the living. When you pay for your meal, look at her reflection in the screen on the till: you will see the image of a swan, a sure sign of the truth of the legend, but, if you ask her, she will, of course, deny it all.

One day, the legend foretells, her true love, who has been searching every village, will find her, and his kiss will break the spell, restore her memory and allow them to live happily ever after. Imagine the moment! Perhaps you will be lucky enough to be there when it happens!

On leaving Broek in Waterland, it was essentially a cross-country route into the northern outskirts of Amsterdam. I bumped into Marcel and his group again (and was a little concerned he appeared to be heading in a different direction from me, although, presumably also aiming for Amsterdam). But there was nothing to be concerned about and, presently, I found myself on the right path (“Nieuwendammerdijk”) in the vicinity of Vliegenbos, accompanied by loads of other cyclists heading the same way at the end of the working week. We had been told a couple of different ways to make our way back to the ferry we had used, in the opposite direction, on our first cycling day; I was alerted to the turning off I needed to take by the volume of other cyclists making this turn (on to “Nieuwendammerkade”) and followed the path round to the ferry point. Angela Esmee was waiting across the other side.

Day 8 (Saturday): Amsterdam
I did not need to leave Amsterdam until around midday, so was able to store my luggage in Angela Esmee’s dining area and use the 24-hour bus pass I’d bought the previous afternoon to get into central Amsterdam for unencumbered sightseeing and then again to collect my luggage for my eventual departure.

Photographs
I have toyed with the idea of providing a photograph of the quite striking, modern frontage of Zaandam (Day 2), or one of the numerous tulip fields we passed through, or of windmills.

However, I mentioned the sunset of our evening in Stavoren (Day 5), so I feel I need to stand up some evidence of this, although my own photograph was not a competition favourite.

And I think the view approaching the village of Marken (Day 7) also deserves a photograph, so that is my second picture.

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