The Netherlands (7th), a wee bit of Germany (8th country)

It was amazing!  As soon as we crossed the border from Belgium into Holland the road changed completely!  In the space of a metre the change was dramatic.  We had been driving on a bumpy concrete road complete with potholes at regular intervals and then poof!  New smooth tarseal, wider lanes, road signs that are big and clear with no graffiti, the grass alongside the roads neatly mown and every 100 metres a little sign told you the name of the highway and how many kilometres we were from the start of this particular road.  We had arrived in The Netherlands where everything is neat and tidy.  And the countryside as far as the eye can see is completely flat.  I read that Holland’s highest point is 321 metres and is at Vaalserberg in the province of Limburg down south.  We never saw it, most of what we did see didn’t vary 50 metres.

Every 100m there’s a sign to tell you which road you’re on!

It was emblematic of Belgium to blight the Dutch sign with graffiti

We stopped for lunch in Eindhoven and spent a few hours walking.  We found the DAF museum but didn’t end up actually going through it.  In 1959, DAF started selling the world’s first car with a continuously variable transmission which is belt driven, they were designed and built in Eindhoven, hence the reason there’s a Museum here in the first place.  Also this city is well-known for being the centre of the Phillips brand of products.  It was founded in Eindhoven in 1891 by Gerard Philips and his father Frederik and is one of the largest electronics companies in the world, employing around 122,000 people across more than 60 countries today.  That’s all I know about Eindhoven, other than it’s also the home town of our good friends the Verbokkems back in Wainuiomata, NZ.

Eindhoven has really interesting buildings

I’m always so happy to see these canals still in use

Even on narrow roads they cater for the cyclists in Holland

To keep off the motorways, and not yet having figured out how to programme our new TomTom to do that automatically for us, we would look at the map and just pick small towns in the general area we wished to go.   This was the reason we arrived in Grave, a lovely little dorp beside the very wide River Maas.  Even though Grave received city rights in 1233, today it’s a tiny village but it had the most upmarket shops in it!  We couldn’t find a lowly grocery store or anything similar until we spotted a small petrol station just on the outskirts of town that also sold bread, milk, etc.  Lots of cafes around and smart dress and shoe shops but little else.  We parked up for the night here and I was delighted that this little village had free WiFi all over town for visitors’ use.  Very generous.  The lines of bicycles parked beside the bus stops were extraordinary.  The river/canals are used as another means of transport all over Holland and it is interesting to see all the barges filled to the brim and wonder what was under those covers.  Not many trucks on the roads when you have all these waterways at your disposal.  We stood and watched bats flying around a street light, I guess they were bats anyway, they wouldn’t sit still for me to see properly, the locals watched us fascinated at our reaction as they dive bombed us.   

A typical garden in Holland, another thing you can keep neat and tidy

The River Maas at Grave

We were travelling up alongside the German border, sometimes on the German side but mostly on the Dutch side, aiming to drive right up to the north of Holland before turning south again, slowly making our way down to ‘s-Gravenzande.   My parents were both born in this small village, which is a little way inland from the Hoek of Holland.  My sister Gerda had encouraged us to join her and her husband Barry in ‘s-Gravenzande during the last weekend of September.  It is her hometown as well, as a matter of fact.  Barry had recently finished taking a group of New Zealanders around Germany, as a tour guide specialising in retracing personal family histories in what was the old East Germany.  Gerda joined him at the  end of that tour and they were on another, this time with just two more NZ’ers going around Germany, London and Canada.   Before coming to the Northern Hemisphere I had never had any inclinations to visit Holland, the land of my relatives, but while in the UK I had begun to warm to the idea.  When Gerda emailed me and suggested we met them there all of a sudden I wanted to go.  Having Gerda and Barry join us would solve a couple of my initial misgivings, that of speaking the language and meeting all these relatives for the first time.  The Browns have been here frequently and so know the language and the people (they had lived for one year in Germany years ago when their children were young and later while conducting tours to Germany they often popped over to see the rellies).    I can understand some Dutch but I’ve always been slow in speaking Dutch, maybe all those times my relatives laughed at my attempts has something to do with it.
Stopping off in Zevenaar for a spot of lunch we tasted the yummy Dutch chips served with mayonnaise for the first time.  So delicious!  These proved too delicious for Dennis who bought them all the time, although he did try unsuccessfully to get people to cut down on the mayonnaise.  I went into a butcher’s shop here and had to wait for ages for one of the three people serving to get to me.  It was interesting to hear the conversations though, as I waited.  It so reminded me of my own Mother, talking about what sort of meat she would cook in the shoo pan at home.  It was a Friday and all the housewives were out buying the weekend’s meat and groceries.  Gerhact, vless, etc.  There was lots of cheeky banter going on as well between the staff members and the shoppers, very funny.  When finally I was asked  for my order she couldn’t believe I only wanted one rookworst ” They were usually sold in threes,” she told me” and what else would I need for the weekend?”  They were all so friendly, what a great change from Belgium.  The rookworst was extra yummy, a bit more spice than what we have in NZ.

On the shelves of the Butcher’s Shop

Now that I look at them again, I think I should have tried them

We were driving through the neatest countryside you ever saw.  Many, many dairy farms mostly with Friesian cows, acres and acres of maize for silage, neat farm houses with large veggie gardens, no litter along the road sides at all and next to no people!  We have always heard from Dutch people in NZ about how crowded Holland is, the cities must be chokka  of people because the countryside seems to have very few.  Any road we ever drove over in Holland was perfect, no potholes whatsoever.   Upon reflection we realised that there are no overhead power lines in Holland, not even high voltage ones.  I saw one lady out with a large outdoor vacuum cleaner sucking up stray leaves from her immaculate garden.  Looking at this scene of orderliness and neatness, even on the farms, explains a lot about my relatives in NZ who were always so neat and tidy, bordering on the fanatical I used to think but now I realise it’s quite normal here.

These Dutchies are so green they plant trees on their overbrigdes.

Looks a little like the wagtails we loved in England

When we reached Delfzijl, right up on the North Sea, they were having a Music Festival all weekend.  There were many brass bands (with clarinets and other woodwind instruments included) all along the streets in the shopping precinct, doing a great job of entertaining the crowds.  (Reminded me of how keen my Dad was on playing in the Brass Band and how he would conduct an invisible band when listening to recorded music or the radio in the lounge at home.)  We parked up for the night on the shore of a waterway that had the busy port of Delfzijl to our right and the North Sea out past the breakwater on our left.  The River Ems forms the border with Germany.  On the other side of the river from us was an aluminium smelter and another huge factory manufacturing chlorine, even they looked as neat as a pin.   I wasn’t feeling too bright, having developed a stomach complaint, so went off to bed early.  The brass bands had a massed concert not far from us that evening, we could hear the music play till midnight.   A Pipe Band played Amazing Grace, after other more traditional Scottish reels and finally the Last Post ended the evening’s entertainment.  I thought it odd to hear that in The Netherlands but the crowd obviously loved it.   Definitely has the feel of autumn in the air, about 14 degrees today.  We decided to spend the Sunday in this spot as well and took a bike ride around town then up the breakwater.  Turned out it was much further than it looked and we clocked up 10 kilometres before we got back to the van, feels good to get some exercise though. Sitting on the rocks reading beside the water, I struck up a lengthy conversation with a Dutch chap who was out taking his dogs for a walk, accompanied by his family.  He was shocked to hear that we had slept the night in this spot.  He had never heard of such a thing,” we should be in a campsite”.   I assured him that I felt quite safe and that I had a big burly husband with me, but he wasn’t convinced.  I don’t think he was that worried about our safety while we were in Holland, it just wasn’t the right thing to do, freedom camping beside a river.  He was even more upset when we told him of our plans to drive to Istanbul.  He really became quite serious and told us that it was dangerous to drive through places like Romania and Bulgaria, “They are so poor, it’s terrible”.  He told me that they had shifted up from The Hague (Den Haag) to raise their children in the country, and they lived about 15 minutes drive away.  They had come to this spot yesterday for the first time in the eight years they had lived here and had seen seals, so they came back today to see if they were still here.  No wonder he had that reaction about our travels when it had taken eight years for him to explore this far.   That night we had a great storm, thunder and lightning coming in waves from the North Sea and so windy it buffeted the van all night.

Notice the flood mark above Dennis’ head, in Delfzijl. No wonder they have extensive dikes and flood gates all around town.

What a busy port Delfzijl is

The following morning we drove a little way south to the city of Groningen but when we got there I decided I was too unwell to leave the van.  It was a miserable day, weather wise as well, with pelting rain almost all day.  Dennis found a good park with a canal on one side and a large shopping complex with a cinema on the other.  I spent the day either tucked up in bed or running off to the loo in the cinema.  It’s not very often that I even feel sick but I was a write-off that day.  I blamed it on the Belgium mosquitoes, but really who knows?  We ended up staying in that spot until the following morning.  We drove through the city and decided to just keep on with our original idea of basically following the coast down south.   One thing did delight Dennis though, about Groningen – we found a patch of weeds growing on a traffic island!  They weren’t robust ones but there were five or six stray plants actually looking embarrassed to be there.

The Friesian flag

We were so impressed with Friesland.  It is very flat (highest point is at 45 metres  above sea level) but filled with amazing agriculture whichever way you look.  Mainly dairy farms with their beautiful cows outside, even a few sheep here and there, maize either about to be harvested or in the process of being harvested, then onions, brassicas, beetroot, sugar beets and carrots grown in the rich, sandy soil.  At regular intervals there are ditches that eventually empty into larger canals, helping to drain the farmland.  Being so flat gives the feeling of an enormous sky.  Once again everything is so neat and tidy, Dennis is getting a bit grumpy about this endless neatness and would like to see just one farmer with a mess out the back of his sheds!  There are a lot of horses grazing the paddocks around Friesland as well, presumably for the farmers’ children.  I later learned that along with Friesian cows they have their own horses as well.  A few old windmills and plenty of the modern variety in action.  It is a common sight to see a huge tall shed for housing the animals over winter with the house attached at one end.  We stopped off at the small village of Dokkum for a coffee.  What a quaint place.  It’s close enough to be a commuter town for Groningen, which I guess is where most people were, other than the older folk and young mothers with prams who were also enjoying the town.  

Beautiful, old houses in Dokkum

Picking up sugar beets

The large skies reminds me of what I missed from the Wairarapa when we shifted to Wellington 12 years ago

What a cute place Dokkum is

It was common to see farmhouses attached to the barn but the Fries barns had such steep roofs.

We stopped off at Harlingen-Havens in the late afternoon, right on the wharf, I couldn’t imagine being able to park on a working wharf in the UK or NZ.  It’s fascinating  to watch all the barges coming and going from the sea and through the canals, as each bridge spanning the canals were raised and lowered in turn, to let them through.  We had been wondering where they got all the gravel for their concrete, road works, etc from and then found the answer when we saw how many barges were loaded with the stuff.  Well, almost the answer, we could see how they got the gravel but not where it came from exactly.  Beside where we had parked was a North Sea gas terminal and over the water from us they were using it to fuel the Power Station.   There was also a ship building yard here with one huge seagoing ship tied up beside us, this one looked very nearly finished and there was another one of the same design started in their huge shed over the water.  Next to that shed a beautiful super yacht was just getting some finishing off work done inside it.  I tackled another load of hand washing and as I pegged out the last very wet item in came the thunder storms again and I was left looking a bit silly with all this wet washing and no where decent to dry it.  Our campervan resembled a Chinese laundry for the evening but it didn’t help much.  The thunder was amazing, quite unlike anything I’ve heard before.  It rolled around the sky and we felt like we were sitting in the middle of the storm, with the noise curling around us, with each peel going on and on rather than especially loud. 
While driving through this wide open countryside, so flat and featureless I have come to more of an appreciation of how some Dutch immigrants find NZ so overwhelming.  I remember when I was a child in Nelson, a Dutch family immigrated and the woman could not settle in NZ.  She found the hills and mountains so frightening and oppressive.   Anyway, they returned to Holland but in a few years they eventually came back to Nelson as they realised that life in New Zealand was going to be a better option for their children.  One of their daughters was one of my best friends and she told me her Mum basically just had to learn to live with her discomfort.

My father used to keep the ditches clean using a scythe, it’s still a major job but they use fancy equipment today

Driving over the Asfsluitdijk is pretty amazing.   This is a man-made dike separating the North Sea and the Zuider Zee, which was then a seawater inlet.  It’s 32 kilometres long and 90 metres wide and stands 7.25 m above sea-level.  It was constructed between 1927 and 1933 by an average of around four to five thousand workers every day, relieving some of the unemployment following the Great Depression.  They dredged the bottom of the Zuider Zee for all the sand and clay required, and then topped it off with basalt boulders and mats of willow switches.  The motorway and railway lines on top link the province of Friesland with North Holland.  Over the years the inland lake, now called IJsselmeer, has turned into a fresh water lake.  Fishing nets are strung up on poles in the lake with fishing boats moving from one section to the next.  It truly is spectacular, when you consider the work gone into creating this dike.  Living with so much land under sea level must give you all the motivation you need to build these structures.

Huge sluice gates are incorporated into the Asfsluitdijk

They even had sheep grazing the North Sea side of Asfsluitdijk

Remarkably productive farmland carries on until just a couple of  kilometres out of Amsterdam.  We were driving along the motorway leading into the city, watching for a sign to indicate where the Park and Ride place might be and before we knew it, we were in exactly the place we were trying to avoid, driving right into the centre of the city!   It happens so fast, before you know it we were driving through a narrow lane with a busy open market in full swing at the end of the street.  Horrors, now what?  We came to rest behind a delivery van parked up on the pavement and Dennis tried getting some sense out of the TomTom while I tried controlling my breathing.  It really is very stressful to realise you are completely lost and on top of that worrying about the Low Emission Zone, if they have one or not, if so have I missed the sign or will we come across one around the next corner?  The delivery chap got out of his van and loaded up a great pile of fresh bread on his trolley then turned and saw us sweating, behind him.  He was so helpful.  He immediately came over and asked us what was wrong and we got in quite a conversation with him.  He was an Arab I think and told us he had been in London and had similar difficulties over there.  He actually reprogrammed our TomTom and explained where the nearest Park and Ride place was and was delighted to hear we were Kiwis.  Finally, we succeeded in parking beside the Sluiterdijk Railway Station.  What a bonus to find out that the 8 Euro parking ticket was valid for 24 hours (which meant we could sleep here) and also includes our train fares to and from central Amsterdam.   So off we went to the city and loved it.  We walked the streets for six hours, just soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the sights.  What a beautiful place but watch out for the cyclists.  They actually do think they own the place and tear around at a great rate of knots.  You have to be so careful when crossing roads as we automatically look the wrong way first and are forever walking into the path of bicycles or worse still, silent  trams.  Lots of the narrow lanes beside the canals have a road way, full of cyclists and the odd car, parked cars and what we think should be the pavement is actually the cycleway and they come at you very irate and very fast ringing their bells furiously!  So you can’t win, they take over the roads as well as the pavements.   Walking through Amsterdam we were so surprised to see a Pie Minister, this is a yummy chain of shops in England selling the most delicious pies.  We just had to sample their wares to compare them to the excellent ones in Oxford and yes they were good here too.  The following morning we went back into the city as it was still within the 24 hour ticket allowance.  The system of ticketing and security here in this overground and underground train system was so lax compared with London.   After buying a ticket you just walk onto the train, there’s no turnstile, no scanning device, no one looks at your ticket, in fact if you are that way inclined you don’t need to buy a ticket at all, just walk on through and enjoy the ride.   Really very strange.  The second day we planned  to take in a couple of Art Exhibitions.  The first one, FOAM (Fotografie Museum Amsterdam) was billed by the Lonely Planet Guide as a must see – a photo exhibition featuring people like Annie Leibovitz, which I was really looking forward to.  It was thoroughly disappointing to find out that they were in the process of renovating the building so instead of the promised two floors of photos there were maybe 20 photos in a temporary display area.   The second one, I’ve forgotten the name, was too expensive and we were running out of time at our parking place so we carried on in our quest to walk through every street. The Amsterdam canal system is the result of a comprehensive plan, developed on four concentric half-circles of canals with their ends emerging at the IJ bay.  Construction started in 1613 and proceeded from west to east, across the breadth of the layout, rather than from the middle and out.   The land sits just two metres above sea level so all these canals perform a vital function for the capital city of Holland.  Yes, Amsterdam does have loads of cafes where cannabis is sold, they mostly look quite seedy and creepy and the smell is awful, wafting out of the doors, quite a turnoff for us oldies. We also actively managed to not see the Red Light District.

Amsterdam Railway Station

Typical architecture of Amsterdam

Amsterdam has a style all to itself

An excellent solution to biking into town with the children

Beautiful canals all over the city

The bike storage area at the Amsterdam Railway Station is three stories high! I’ve never seen so many bikes in my life.

Such an iconic scene

Our overnight stay at Sluiterdijk Park and Ride was in a rather noisy spot but we are used to it now.  The train above us is a double-decker one.

I had this idea that the long black and white photo that my parents had in their lounge, depicting an idyllic scene of about a dozen old-fashioned Dutch windmills nestled  in a series of canals, was taken in Volendam.  So Dennis drove me north from Amsterdam, about 15 kilometres up the western side of IJsselmeer, looking for this familiar scene.  IJsselmeer is now the lake, but it used to be the Zuider Zee before they built that huge dike separating the North Sea off.  When we got to Volendam I went and asked in the Information Centre where all the windmills were only to find that I had it completely wrong.  Volendam is famous for being a pristine little fishing village entirely aimed at tourists, not our cup of tea at all.  The place I was after was in fact Kinderdijk, 12kms south of Rotterdam, probably 80kms away from where we were.   We did wander around the town and managed to get caught in a shower of rain though.  All this pristine neatness is doing Dennis’ head in.

Volendam did have one windmill

The have restored several of the old fishing boats to take the tourists out on the Lake.

Tacky, tacky wares for the gullible tourists in Volendam

No matter how hard it rained at Volendam, Dennis was not going to lower himself to dress in an oversized condom!

Enough of looking for windmills, we were back off towards the coast again, travelling the ring road around Amsterdam and moving west.  We passed beside and underneath Schiphol Airport.  Wow, what an amazing place.  Driving along a busy motorway, four lanes each way, each side of the road there are jets parked up and then all of a sudden a jet taxis in front of you, where the runway spans the road!  It is quite bizarre.  We found a huge truck stop near Schiphol, the biggest one we’ve seen yet.  It probably had 100 trucks parked up for the night and another section for cars.  They also had a two-storey restaurant complex for the drivers, with free WiFi.  I made the most of that and spent a few hours working on the blog.

How odd to find yourself driving underneath the runway.

Next morning we drove down to Scheveningen, a small fishing village, with a long stretch of sandy beach along the North Sea.  When the weather is nice this beach is very popular and apparently it’s difficult to find a spare metre to lay out your towel.  The weather was quite windy and cool on this day so no crowds but we watched 10-15 kite surfers having great fun, while we supped our coffee in the comfort of our van.  We stayed here for lunch as well before driving the 20 odd kilometres down the coast, through Monster to ‘s-Gravenzande.  Gerda had arranged to meet up with us outside Mum and Dad’s old Church later that afternoon.  I was so excited!  Excited to see my sister and brother-in-law after maybe 15 months and then to at last meet up with our relatives as well.

Potat – and this is with the reduced portion of mayonnaise