First of many country signs
When we began researching the trip the ferry was really the only option for us. We didn’t want to fly anywhere as our experience of packing our bikes and flying with them boxed up on our trip to Spain had shown us how stressful it could be. It took us 4 hours from getting off the plane to cycling away from the airport – and we weren’t able to secure any boxes for the return flight so had to bubble wrap and duck tape the bikes up, and then hope for the best. Because of this we made a promise that next time we bike toured we’d travel anyway but by plane so that we wouldn’t have to endure this level of chaos!
Hull was the best place to leave from as it was 2 hour drive from ours and we had been there before on a previous trip with friends to Zeebrugge, Belgium. At first we planned to land at Zeebrugge again, but as we had been there before and had visited Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels, we decided against it…we also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tour in the Netherlands! Having previously only visited Amsterdam once for a friends birthday years before (and only really seen the inside of Irish/English pubs – don’t ask!!), we changed our route from Zeebrugge to the Hook of Holland, near Rotterdam. The Netherlands (we hoped) would mean proper segregated cycle ways, courteous drivers, and most importantly it is flat so we could get used to the bikes and the extra weight! This also would mean seeing the Tulips in full bloom (yay!). Everyone said how spectacular this would be so we plotted a route north from the port especially for this reason: heading along the coast and weaving our way between villages and the tulip fields.
Going the long way round after failing to find the ferry across the port
After exiting the ferry to a grey and drizzly morning, we spent 20 minutes trying to find our way out of the port. There apparently is a ferry to take you across the estuary…but we didn’t manage to find it so had to go the long way around. Straight away we were onto a cycle path: the difference from the UK infrastructure and the Netherlands was evident in the clear signage and the well maintained roads and paths. Where we live we have some cycle paths on the edge of the roads but they’re normally full of debris and drainholes that you have to navigate carefully in between the potholes filled with rainwater.
Dutch signage. No chance of getting lost with this – just follow the numbers to your next destination! (Although we failed to find the ferry)
So with our heads around how to use the Knooppunt cycling maps we were on our way. We managed to buy supplies for lunch/dinner (avocado sandwich #1) and dinner/tea, then cycled to The Hague.
The weather cleared up by the afternoon so we were able to stop by the sand dunes for lunch – this way up the coast is part of the Eurovelo 12 North Sea Cycle route which takes you through Scotland, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Here we found the only downside to the Knoppunt maps: not all of them have campsites located on them. We got to The Hague and were wondering if there was anywhere to wild camp before we finally found a map at a junction with one on!
On this campsite we met a man and his son who were cycling from Zeeland to Amsterdam over a week. This was his son’s first bike tour but his parents had cycled to Singapore 15 years ago! That was the great thing about the Netherlands: everyone was a bike tourer! During these early days describing the trip and explaining that this was Day 1/2/week 1, etc, wasn’t really that big of a deal to most people. Being in the Netherlands it wasn’t so far away that people were shocked when you told them where you had cycled from. It wasn’t until Germany that people began to gasp: ‘From England…by BIKE?!’.
The next morning (which took us hours to get ready especially in the warm weather) we spent the afternoon exploring Leiden a very pretty and quaint town which looked quintessentially Dutch with canals, beautiful buildings, and cobbled streets – and our first experience of cycling over cobbles on full loaded tourers! Painful.
Perfect Dutch architecture
After our first lazy afternoon we went to stay at one of the Netherlands legal free camping spots. These are normally in woodland areas, are indicated by a post in the ground, can usually hold three tents, and only allow people to camp for up to 3 days. When we planned our route we noted where some were and wanted to use them if there were any in the area. https://sites.google.com/site/paalkampeerders/kaart. There are also some spots in Belgium but they seemed to be mainly in the west of Belgium and our route did not take us near any.
The next morning we got up bright and early to pack up and visit the tulip fields. Everyone we spoke to about The Netherlands seemed to have witnessed the fields in bloom and gushed about how beautiful a sight it is. Eagerly we cycled back towards Leiden to begin a cycle route that we had found online which would be an easy 30km of Tulipness finishing near the Keukenhop Gardens (the most famous place to view the flowers). As we began we were puzzled that we couldn’t see anything, and as we peered over fences into fields we saw that the ground was dotted with petals…the tulips had been cut down. All that was visible was the stumps and a few lone bunches. Annoying!!
Found some outside Keukenhop Gardens
From here the only place to see them would be Keukenhop Gardens but when we arrived it turned out to be the Disneyland of flowers. Coaches crammed the car park and crowds of people hustled and bustled around the entrance. €16 each to see some flowers?? We don’t like them that much and we couldn’t take our bikes in with us. So we took some photos of the only tulips around and left for Haarlem finding a campsite near the seaside town of Blumenthal am Sea.
After a couple of days by the beach (fueled by frites and La Chouffe coffee!), we headed north to Amsterdam via the well preserved Zaanse Schans windmills. The countryside inland was beautiful: flowers, meadows, fields, and lovely sunny warm weather. It reminded us of the Cheshire countryside.
Lunch at a windmill
Zaanse Schans windmills
Amsterdam really surprised us with its beauty. Having only been once in the winter and seeing mainly the seedier side of the city, we weren’t expecting that much from it compared to the small picturesque towns we’d cycled through so far. We couldn’t have been more wrong! We stopped at a campsite over the river from the main station and took the commuter ferry in. It was nice to be able to cycle without our luggage and feel like we were a proper ‘Amsterdammer’ as everyone on the ferry had their bikes with them. Although Amsterdam is packed full of cyclists it never felt stressful getting around. The main areas are busy with loads of tourists but the smaller canals that lead off from these were really quiet until the end of the day when people are going home. It’s nice to just sit on the side of the river and watch the commuters bumping along the cobbles on all different kinds of bikes. We met up with someone we know from the UK who has lived in Amsterdam for a year and is on his 3rd bike as bike theft is pretty high in the city! But he told us that the more unique your bike is the less likely it’d be stolen as it’d be harder to sell on. Despite this we still double locked our bikes – imagine losing your bike so soon into the trip!
From Amsterdam our plan was to head through Utrecht before turning south to Drunen. We had noted a free camping spot in a forest near Zeist, just outside of Utrecht. This took us all day to get to as finding our way out of Amsterdam proved difficult! At one point we argued and Becky cycled off…only to have to go back a couple of minutes later as Scott had the route on the GPS…
We finally got to the forest at 9pm (after an emergency McDonald’s chip stop for energy!) and spent around 45 minutes trying to find the camping post. Google provided nothing and the website for the free camping just said to look for the post. The forest was massive! After cycling up and down tracks and round in circles we decided to camp up behind some bushes and hastily set up the tent before making our tea in semi-darkness. We were both tired and a bit edgy not being in the ‘official spot’ and then were woken up at 1am by a dog barking ferociously somewhere nearby! The next morning we found the tent and bikes covered in a thin layer of frost and had to make breakfast with all our winter layers on: gloves, merino wools, wooly hats! Becky warmed her feet and hands over the stove! We also found the free camping spot down the one forest road we didn’t look down!
We headed off after warming up hoping to get to Drunen by the afternoon but no matter how long we pedaled we were still miles away. We were relying on the green Knoppunt signs rather than the blue – not realising that green routes were scenic (ie longer) and blue was the more direct route. A place that would be 20km away was in fact ending up being 50km. We stopped outside Leerdam on a campsite near a river and decided we would continue onto Drunen the next day. By this time the weather had changed completely and was now boiling hot.
The route to Drunen took us along canals and across smaller rivers which meant taking the local public transport boats. At one point we left a boat cycling within a group of school kids on their way home: playing music through their phones and chatting away about their days. We both compared it to our own school lives of having to walk or get the bus home from school. I know which one I’d prefer!
Beer stop on our way to Drunen
We chose to visit Drunen as it has the ‘the largest sand drift in western Europe’ http://www.holland.com/global/tourism/destinations/provinces/north-brabant/loonse-and-drunense-dunes.htm in the national park. We spent a couple of days there exploring the area and did a little bit of mountain biking in the woods around the dunes.
Sand dunes: lovely to look at…nightmare to cycle over
From here we headed to Horst in the south east to stay with our friend, Guido, and his family. We got up and ready in record time (2 hours!) and were going to cycle straight to Horst but Becky suggested taking a route via Eindhoven so we could visit a town just outside where their friend Tracey had lived in as a teenager…big mistake. By the time we got near there it was getting late in the day and the Garmin predicted that Horst was still 129km away(?!) So after taking a photo of a map with Veldhoven on it we followed a new route (65km this time) via Garmin but it tried to take us on a motorway! After this disaster we decided to follow signs instead of GPS and we were on our way to Horst through the countryside for hours and getting lost surrounded by blueberry and asparagus farms, so finally arriving at Guido’s at 10pm!! In total we’d cycled 115km and were absolutely knackered. Beers and food kindly provided helped us feel human again.
Trying to find our way to Horst
The next few days staying with Guido was luxury. A comfy bed and great company – after 3 weeks on the road alone together it was nice to have conversations with other people! Guido is European billiards champion and we were lucky to see him in action at a tournament. Guido drove us to a match near Utrecht (a journey that took us 3 days was 1.5 hours in a car!). It was actually really nice to be indoors in a cool dark room as we’d had the sun blasting directly into our faces the previous days while pedaling south!
After Horst we visited Roermond, a large town with a beached lake. It was so hot and the campsite we found was so great we spent a couple of days there enjoying the unseasonal hot weather.
After leaving Roermond our next route would take us across to Belgium via Maastricht and the Dreilandenpunt: a place where the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany meet. Our first country crossing!
Or so we thought… we were following route signs when the cycle lanes vanished and the signs changed colour. It was only when the road names changed from Straat to Strasse that we realised we’d crossed into Germany without realising it! No signs had indicated this. It felt odd. We weren’t prepared for a new country and we only knew a handful of German words! We spent a couple of hours in the German countryside before we were once again in the Netherlands.
Lost in Germany
12km outside of Maastricht: it was getting late and we were getting tired and hungry. Stopping by a park to see if were able to find a place to camp a couple stopped to chat to us as they could see we were lost. Jan and Reet then offered us a camping spot in their garden! This was our first (but not last) help from strangers that would always appear at a time of need! Jan has walked the parts of the Campino-Santiago route 9 times! And is planning a week walking the route in northern Spain with his daughter later this year. We’re hoping that we will be able to meet him.
Unfortunately the day we got to Maastricht was the day the weather was awful: really cold and pouring with rain. We were recommended a place that sold amazing coffee so pushed our bikes through the puddles and around the crowds of tourists in the pedestrian-only area to the café. It was well worth being drenched! Housed in an old Dominican church is Boekhandel: a shop with beautifully decorated ceilings and crammed wall to wall with books. A mezzanine enables you to view the interior of the building in all its glory. But we had to stand outside and go in one at a time to appreciate it because of all our gear. Damn!
On the way out of Maastricht we couldn’t find anywhere sheltered to make our avocado sandwiches but Scott spotted a table and chairs under cover at a fire station. He knocked on and asked if we could use them, but instead they invited us inside to dry off, made us coffee, and gave us energy drinks! Thanks Maastricht fire station!
From here was our last stop in the Netherlands: Vaals, before we reached Dreilandenpunt. It was here that we reached our first and only hill! We stopped halfway up to visit an American war memorial. 20,000 white crosses line the landscape marking the graves of soldiers who lost their lives during WW2.
After a long hard slog up the remainder of the hill we got to the campsite and as the rain was still pouring down we had to make our tea in a tractor shed.
The next morning we left the campsite and up the very steep 4km hill to Dreilandenpunt and across to Belgium.
Becky making a break in the pelaton
First country done!
- Super flat so you could cycle miles and miles each day (if you liked)
- Although we tried to speak Dutch, when we tried everyone would speak back to us in perfect English…after saying ‘my English isn’t very good’
- Perfect cycle paths and roads. At one point the road surface was so incredible it felt like it wasn’t real. As if it was a movie set.
- Loads of campsites to choose from
- Everyone is willing to stop and help – a lot of people would actually cycle with us to show us the way!
- Amazing long distance cycle routes
- The wind!!! Flatness = wind!
- Most campsites not providing toilet rolls or hand wash?!
- Scooters being able to use bike paths and people on them not making us aware of their presence. They’d zoom up and cut passed us through tiny spaces. This scared us a few times!