Sunday, June 28, 2009

Nether Nether Land

Day 3 was the best day of the trip. I left my campground in Delft and cycled south to Maassluis, which is on the river that leads to Rotterdam. Rotterdam is the biggest port in Europe.

Looking Towards Rotterdam

Here's the bridge where I met the river in Maassluis. Do you see the sign on the left of the pole saying "1953"?

I assume that was the water level. In 1953, there was a spring tide that combined with a storm to cause major flooding. Quite a bit of the Netherlands is actually below sea level and nearly 2000 people drowned. The Netherlands responded by building a series of giant defenses called the Delta Works that run between the islands of Zeeland (or "Old New Zealand", as it should be known).

This is where I joined LF1a (the North Sea Cycle Route) which runs along the top of those barriers. I took the ferry across the river and headed south.

Heading into the Town of Brielle

Heading onto the First of the Delta Dams

The Netherlands - possibly the only place in the world where men can picks flowers for a living and not be mocked.

As I headed south, it reminded me of some of the land around Wanaka, with that baked Central Otago earth. It was pretty hot and I was cranking along so I was plowing through the drinks. At this point, I really needed a descrete pitstop, but there were bloody cyclists everywhere. Here's that high population density thing coming back to bite me.

The further south I went, the drier it got.

I arrived pretty late at my destination: a town called Middelburg (the capital of Zeeland) on the lowest of the islands. I had measured the distance with Google Earth at about 70km, but the guy at the camping ground in Delft said he thought it would be 150km. The guy in the camper on the other side said the same thing. It turned out to be 147km, so I guess we were all wrong.

This Could be Rotterdam...

My plan before I left was to spend my first day exploring Delft and the Hague, and my second day exploring Rotterdam and Kinderdijk. But everything takes longer than you would expect. It was lunchtime on the Saturday before I reached Delft, so I didn't get to Den Haag. I'm a little disappointed at that. I hear it's so nice that several African despots and former Yugoslav leaders who visited there decided never to leave.

For my second day, I took the train from Delft to Rotterdam. I wanted to see the art gallery, and visit the nearby town of Kinderdijk, with its 19 windmills. My Lonely Planet guidebook told me that to get to Kinderdijk, you go to a station in south Rotterdam, and then catch a certain bus. However, when I got to the bus stop I found that you need to buy the bus tickets at the central train station. So I just set off walking. It was a pretty long way (3+ hours?), and I got fairly sunburnt on the way.

Central Rotterdam

At one point, I got totally turned around by curving motorways and ended up walking completely the wrong way. But a nice Dutch couple gave me directions. This was a feature of the Dutch - I've never been to a place where the people were friendlier. No, not friendlier - nicer. I draw the distinction at "friendlier" because whenever I passed people while cycling, I would call out "Hello!", and after a lot of attempts I never got a response. There was a degree of reservation. But when I arrived in Delft, I got lost and an old guy on a bike offered to cycle across the town to show me the camping ground, and people everywhere went out of their way to help when I needed directions. And that was A LOT. I think the Dutch are just the best people.

Anyway, I finally found my way to the windmills.

Windmills at Kinderdijk

Now, you might be able to translate Kinderdijk to "Child Dike", and are perhaps put in mind of the story of the boy who put his finger in the hole in the dike to stop it leaking. Actually, that story (from "the Silver Skates") was written by an American who never visited the Netherlands. The Dutch don't know the story, and are a little bemused to hear of it - the same way that the Austrians react to "the Sound of Music".

Kinderdijk is a cluster of 19 ponder windmills, designed to pump water from the boggy land.

It turns out you can get from central Rotterdam to Kinderdijk by water taxi very easily. Stupid Lonely Planet.

Central Rotterdam

It was quite late by the time I got back to Rotterdam, so I didn't get a chance to see the art gallery. I went back to Delft, roamed around, and bought some satay croquettes for tea.

Canal Reflection

To Holland: for Pot and Hookers

A Delftware Pot

Dutch hookers

I wonder if I'm the first person to take the Friday midnight ferry to the Netherlands, who didn't come home on Sunday with bloodshot eyes and a venereal disease? Anyway, Delft is famous for 2 reasons: It was the home of Johannes Vermeer and it was (and is) the source of the Delftware pottery, with its distinctive blue on white colouring. It's also known for a massive explosion in 1654 that levelled a quarter of the town, but since it didn't explode while I was there I focused on the first 2.

First, I went to the Vemeer Centrum in Delft. The Dutch Master only painted between 40 and 60 paintings in his life, and only 35 of those are known now. He left no written records so knowledge of his life is very limited. His work was locally appreciated in his lifetime, but because he painted so slowly, his large family was left in debt when he died. One of his paintings was given to the local baker to settle the family's bread debt.

The Centrum isn't bad - it has reproductions of all his works. But it seems a little lacking in detail. I guess that's a sign of the lack of overall knowledge about Vermeer. One interesting snippet was that he stayed in the town while most artists drifted away. The Centrum charts the decline in the number of local taverns beside the decline in the number of artists.

I then did the Royal Delft Pottery tour. Over the last 400 years, there were a number of factories, but there's only one left now. The pottery is still handpainted by experts who spend years learning their trade.

Delftware Plates

They used to make decorative tiles as well as pottery, so the factory had layouts of various tile patterns to act as an inspiration to clients and decorators.

Even the toilet at the factory was decorated. It was so pretty, I felt compelled to pee in the sink.

When I first walked into Delft from the campground, I went past a tall apartment building. On top of it was a large nest. Something big was periodically flapping about in it. I suspect it was a stork.

Stork's Nest

So, that was my first day in Delft.

Where is he Now?

See if you can guess this one:


That's right, Mongolia. I mean, the Netherlands.

It was time for another trip. On a Friday evening, I rushed home from work, grabbed my bike and headed to the station. I took the train to Harwich on the east coast, where I caught the midnight ferry to Heok van Holland for a week cycling through the Netherlands and Belgium to France.

View from the Ferry Deck, at Almost Midnight

To get onto the ferry, they lined us up by vehicle. As the only cyclist, I was lined up at the back of a large mob of motorcyclists. You have to ride over a spiralling overramp, so all the motorbikes roared off across it, while I sweated my way up the ramp in my granny gears.

The ferry was fun. You get your own cabin with bathroom and toilet. We arrived at Hoek van Holland (Hook of Holland) at around 7am. I headed for Delft, which is the town where the artist Vermeer lived and painted.

The cycling in the Netherlands is fantastic! It's flat, and there are dedicated offroad cycle paths everywhere. And the junction points have maps so you can see where to go. Excellent.

A Dutch Cycle Map

A Dutch guy I spoke to at a camping ground told me that the law in the Netherlands is basically that if there is an accident involving a car and a bike, the car driver is always held responsible, regardless of the circumstances. It works brilliantly. The traffic is extremely considerate and so people cycle everywhere.

I was a little surpised to read that the Netherlands has one of the highest population density rates in the world. You wouldn't know it by cycling around the place. There is green space everywhere. It was quite reminiscent of home.

On the way to Delft I got a bit lost and found myself on the wrong side of a canal. I rode along the bank and found a bike ferry. You wheel your bike on board and then turn the crank-handle and the ferry crosses the canal on a chain. It was actually fairly hard work. I was spinning that wheel like an America's Cup grinder for about 10 minutes.

Bike Ferry on a Canal near Massland

It was about 50km to my camping ground in Delft and then it was time to explore the town.