Why the Dutch have got it right

At risk of going on about it, there has to be something to be said about a culture where bikes are a natural extension of everyday life. Admittedly we are biased about just how much of a good thing this is given our passion for peddling, but the advantages of a cycling culture run deeper than the pure enjoyment of having fresh air rush through your hair while zooming, carbon-free, through the countryside.

Riding into Deventer, an old port town that even has parts dating to Roman times

Riding into Deventer, an old port town that even has parts dating to Roman times

Cycling solves social issues. 

The elderly: They keep their fitness, their balance, and most importantly their independence. We met a couple in their late 60’s who said they would cycle 30km without hesitation to to have dinner with their friends, and then at 9pm they would cycle home again. The average Australian would find these distances formidable regardless of age! But it gets even better. They told us that his mother (so I’m guessing she would be in her late 80’s) always makes the choice to ride her bike everywhere because she finds it to difficult to walk to the bus stop! Heroine!

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Teenagers: In car based cultures one of the common stresses of parents with school aged children is the time it takes to transport their children around. Many mums feel like they are a taxi service. Getting one kid from daycare in time to get the rest from school, then dropping off one child to soccer, zooming through the traffic to pick up another from a music lesson – this is enough to drive anyone crazy, especially if you are battling Sydney traffic.

Explaining this to a Dutch person just gets a frown of incomprehension. EVERYONE rides EVERYWHERE. Even immigrants take bicycle lessons.

High school students can easily ride 20km to school. Not just in summer either.  In fact they have no choice as school buses do not exist!
We see bands of teenagers going off to the lake together on a hot sunday afternoon. Girlfriends riding to the shops. A guy giving his mate a ride on the back of his bike. Teenagers, like the elderly, are given freedom, independence, and their own transport. It would certainly leave the parents feeling more relaxed knowing that their child is out and about on their own bike rather than worrying about them catching a ride with a rev-head lunatic who pins his masculinity on how fast he can corner his car.

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Between primary and high school students are often required to sit a bicycle test and from then on they are deemed competent to use the bicycle as their mode of transport.
Parents have more time, feel more relaxed, and teens can come and go as they please.
Its a win – win, don’t you think?

Mums with small children: I’m not sure about other mothers with small children but when I was living in the suburbs with a baby I found it hard to find the time to exercise. In the Netherlands mothers put their babies on a bike seat (usually in the front of the bike) and off they go. We’ve seen several mothers sitting in a shady spot in the country side with their little one, obviously they have ridden a bit then stopped for some morning tea. To me its an ideal outing. You can get a lot further than walking, its not as hard as running with a pram, but still great exercise. You can even buy whats called a “Mama” bike with a bike seat on the front AND the back. These come with hefty stands so that loading up the kids is safe and secure. Or even better (but pretty expensive) you can buy a bike with a bucket out the front, they even have seat belts in the bucket. Imagine getting picked up from kindy in one of those!?! Pure fun!

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It looks like incorporating bikes into our everyday life could help to reduce depression in old people, minimise teenage angst and conflict with parents, and maybe even help decreases the severity of postnatal depression! Or maybe I’m looking at it through heavily tinted rose glasses?

Of course you can’t grab the best bits of everyones culture. But I do love it how the Dutch are “all in” with cycling and I wonder if Australians could look at cycling as a wonderful form of transport rather than a nuisance on the road. We are, after all, the flattest, driest inhabited continent on earth so whats stopping us?

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Riding Dykes and Other Dutch Pastimes

Amaya snags country number 8 while we float on fluffy clouds through a cycling paradise.  The Netherlands is simply as good as it gets for bicycle touring! It is flat, the people are warm and friendly (and speak many languages including English), the food is interesting, campgrounds are ubiquitous and the weather is good (though I am told this is not the norm).  What’s more, EVERY ROAD HAS A BICYCLE PATH NEXT TO IT!!!! Please excuse my gratuitous use of capitals but how else can I express overwhelming excitement?  It is incredible! Quite literally every road has some sort of bike path associated with it.  And there are some cool, sensible road rules to go with it.  For example, one courier driver we met told the story that his boss is accepting of the occasional accident or break down, but under no circumstance can he hit a cyclist as he will ALWAYS be in the wrong.  Additionally, bicycles are free to ride both ways on a one way street, thus recognising bikes as a hybrid vehicle and something quite apart from cars, helmets are optional.

So much bike infrastructure! The way the world should be!

So much bike infrastructure! The way the world should be!

Loving cycling!

Loving cycling!

The countryside is beautiful too!

The countryside is beautiful too!

There are a steady stream of relatively fit people riding past us – everybody says hi – they look happy, they are from a wide cross section of society and not just the lycra clad urban warriors that cars battle with on Sydney streets.

An older couple riding the bike paths of Holland

An older couple riding the bike paths of Holland

Needless to say we are loving it!  It has also been wonderful to share this experience with Mum and Dad, who have been a great help on the road.  Amaya has adored spending some quality time with them while seeing some truly amazing things.  We entered the Netherlands with no real plan (not unusual) – maybe we’d see a couple of windmills, ride on a dyke or two and drink some Heineken.  It has been so much more than that…

We crossed the “Delta Project” which is an astonishing feat of human engineering allowing the Dutch to stop the sea at will.  Windmills abound and last Saturday happened to be the annual windmill open day – so we climbed up the insides of a windmill!!!  On Sunday we stumbled upon Hollands biggest free music festival and caught up with Amaya’s friend, Lola, who we met in France – along with her parents, Alex and Elisa who are wonderful people!  In the same city – Dordricht – we also visited a 1:1 scale replica of Noah’s Ark!  It was floating in the harbour and even came equipped with hundreds of animals (some live, most sculptures).  Very random location, but quite appropriate given the generations long battle with the sea the Dutch have had and continue to have.  To top it all off it hasn’t been one or two dykes we have ridden – we are pretty much riding them all day every day.

So, as we approach 3000 km and meander towards our final destination we are in no hurry whatsoever to leave The Netherlands.

The Delta project that will hopefully protect the dutch from storm surges and rising sea levels.  In 1953 over 4000 people drowned we the dykes gave way and the sea rushed in.  This is the Dutch response.

The Delta project that will hopefully protect the dutch from storm surges and rising sea levels. In 1953 over 4000 people drowned when the dykes gave way and the sea rushed in. This is the Dutch response.

Not an unusual experience in Holland to ride past an iconic windmill.

Not an unusual experience in Holland to ride past an iconic windmill.

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Inside the belly of a windmill!

Inside the belly of a windmill!

Amaya was loving it!

Amaya was loving it!

Elisa, Alex and Lola at the music festival

Elisa, Alex and Lola at the music festival

Amaya has a ride with Lola in the cochecito magico.

Amaya has a ride with Lola in the cochecito magico.

Dad getting into the spirit of the festival

Dad getting into the spirit of the festival

Noah's Arc!

Noah’s Ark!

It really was a massive ship! It took us an age to explore every level.

It really was a massive ship! It took us an age to explore every level.

All Quiet on the Western Front (a post from Mic’s mum)

Having experienced a 40 hour journey from when we left Sydney to going to bed in Amsterdam, AND then a 5 train traverse across Netherlands, Belgium and into France, we finally met up with Michael, Shoshanna and Amaya at Dunkerque.  It was amazing to see the long stretch of flat beach that formed the backdrop to Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the 340,000 British and French forces over a 9 day period in May 1940.

On our way to find Mic, Shosh and Amaya

On our way to find Mic, Shosh and Amaya

Found them!

Found them!

Amaya playing with her new friend, Lola.

Amaya playing with her new friend, Lola.

As we rode from Dunkerque the next day, on our first day of riding, the presence of war experiences, whether World War 1or 2 was very close. The senselessness of war is brought home so acutely when you ride through the Western Front of World War 1.

After 2 nights in the beautiful medieval village of Veurne, with its towering church tower and cobbled central square; a taste of the world’s best beer, brewed by monks at St Sixtus Abbey; and battling some cold winds we finally bumped our way into Ypres (Ieper).  Amaya really does not like the cobblestone streets that are a feature of so  many European villages, and calls out to Papa to stop the bumps!!

Mic enjoying a beer brewed by monks - 10.5%!!!

Mic enjoying a beer brewed by monks – 10.5%!!!

We were so confronted with the horrors of World War 1 when we visited the IN THE FLANDERS FIELDS MUSEUM at Ypres.  One has to wonder why in Australia, so much emphasis is placed on the 8 month campaign in Gallipoli, where eight and a half thousand ANZACs lost their lives, yet here on the Western Front 8,020 Australians were killed in one day! Personal stories were related in moving accounts.  The one that particularly impacted on me was the story told by a Scottish, Belgium, French and German soldiers of Christmas Eve when they were all singing Silent Night in their separate muddy, rat infested hell holes. The Scottish soldier told how, when he met up with the Germans, he had a photo taken of the two ‘enemies’ arm in arm. The photo was in the glass cabinet. The stories of a doctor and 2 nurses were just beyond comprehension…death, amputation, blood and gore, and the overwhelming stupidity of the conflict.

Ypres after WWI.

Ypres after WWI

We rode out to Hill 60.  This was a German outpost that had been tunnelled under by Australian coal miners from the Hunter Valley.  The blast was so loud that the explosion was heard in London. We walked around the crater and bunkers and had a delightful picnic lunch on soil that had 17,000 bodies of German and Allied soldiers lying beneath – Bizarre!

Australian miners placed bombs under German positions to create this crater.

Australian miners placed bombs under German positions to create this crater.

As we returned to Ypres, we stopped at another deceptively peaceful site – 4 interlinking pools with a quaint little bridge. Again these were a remnant of past horrors. In the grounds of a mock Tudor style B&B there are genuine WW1 trenches,  spent artillery, canisters used in chemical warfare and the craters from WW1 explosions now forming the serene pools of our distant time.

On two of the evenings we were in Ypres, I went down to the Menin Gate.  At 8pm and every night since the end of WW1 (except for the years of WW2) the Last Post is played and wreaths laid to honour the 54,896 soldiers who were killed in WW1 and whose bodies were never found.

Menin Gate

The Last Post is played ever night here!

The Last Post is played ever night here!

The enormity of the carnage was really brought home when we stopped at the Tyne Cot cemetery at Passchendale. 11,965 graves are located here, making it the biggest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.  A further 34,857 names that could not fit on the Menin Gate are inscribed on huge semi circular walls.

Entrance to the commonwealth cemetery.

Entrance to the commonwealth cemetery.

Rows of Graves

‘The thought that Jock died for his country is no comfort to me, his memory is all I have left to love’, Lieutenant John Low’s fiancée wrote on 18 January, 1918.

The next two days of riding have been along back lanes through Belgium farms until again arriving at another typical medieval town of Gent.

We are gradually getting stronger although it is hard to keep up with Michael and Shoshanna’s pace. They are carrying heavier loads than us and we are amazed at their tenacity in all kinds of weather. Fortunately Sumer has arrived and the Belgium’s are embracing the warm weather with a vengeance….and sunburn!

Typical campground in Belgium

Typical campground in Belgium

Amaya and Shosh

Amaya eats a dog!

I think we will look back on this trip in two parts… before London and after London.  The week and a half we spent in London was a welcome break from the dismal weather that Europe had been throwing at us.  Not that it was any less dismal in London – we just didn’t have to cycle or camp in it!

Made it to London!

Made it to London!

Amaya loves Jonny and Helen and had been busting at the seams to see them again.  She also couldn’t wait to meet her new cousin, Henry.  The other event Amaya was looking forward to was her much anticipated 2nd birthday – and it didn’t disappoint – there were presents, balloons, a trip to the London aquarium, and, best of all, a dog cake (the closest Amaya will ever come to owning a dog).

Nose kiss for Amaya's dog cake

Nose kiss for Amaya’s dog cake

Amaya and Jonny having a wow of a time at London Aquarium

Amaya and Jonny having a wow of a time at London Aquarium

It was particularly nice to be in London without feeling obliged to do anything touristy.  Our purpose was quite simply to spend time with Jonny and Helen and their little boy.

Helen summarised our stay nicely:

Becoming a mother for the first time has had it’s challenges, but having Mic, Shosh and Amaya to stay has been wonderful. Henry has changed so much over the time they have stayed with us; becoming more alert each day, sleeping for longer, feeding for longer and growing stronger. Watching Amaya interact with him is beautiful; she is inquisitive about his moods, how he moves, his expressions – especially his serious looks. At first she wasn’t sure what to make of him, but day by day she has grown more confident around him and loves to sit near him stroking his hair and talking to him. I think it is the start of a special bond between them, and even though there are many miles that separate them both when Amaya returns to Australia, I know that whenever they see each other, there will be new games and adventures to be had.

Shoshanna's brother Jonny holding Henry while Helen reads Amaya a story.

Shoshanna’s brother Jonny holding Henry while Helen reads Amaya a story.

We are now in Belgium with my parents, Garry and Helen, enjoying amazing cycle paths, beer, chocolate and touring Flanders Field, the Western Front from WWI where too many people lost their lives in senseless bloody fighting.

Hey Grandma and Grandpa!

Hey Grandma and Grandpa!

Mic drinking what is purported to be the best beer in the world at St Sixtus Abbey.  10.1% alcohol - then we had to ride another 25km!

Mic drinking what is purported to be the best beer in the world at St Sixtus Abbey. 10.1% alcohol – then we had to ride another 25km!

Looking across Flanders Field - hill 60 is out there somewhere where miners from the Hunter Valley dug tunnels under a German munitions dump and blew it up!

Looking across Flanders Field – hill 60 is out there somewhere where miners from the Hunter Valley dug tunnels under a German munitions dump and blew it up.