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.

Windmill 2

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.

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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.

How we Bicycle Tour with a Baby – some frequently asked questions.

Where are you riding?

We are riding from Barcelona, Spain to the Baltic Sea in Germany and then down to Berlin. Check out our rough route.

How long will this take?

We don’t really know but we estimate about 5 months.

How many kms in total?

5000km give or take 1000 🙂

How many kms do you do per day? 

40-60km depending on how evenly spaced towns are.  This is about 3-4 hours or riding – it is much slower with all our luggage and toddler.

It isn't always easy to manoeuvre the trailer around through the bike paths.

It isn’t always easy to manoeuvre the trailer around the bike paths.  We had to unhitch the trailer for this one – Amaya slept on!

Where do you stay?  

We mostly camp unless it is pouring with rain and then we might treat ourselves to a cheap hotel.  So we are obviously carrying sleeping bags, tent, cooker and sleeping mats.  We also use warmshowers.org, which is a fantastic hosting website for cycle tourers. Thanks to all the amazing people who have put us up!

Cool campground on el camino de Santiago in Spain

Cool campground on el camino de Santiago in Spain

She is a natural camper!

She is a natural camper!

This WAS a peaceful campground in Dinan, Brittany until we were invaded!  There were plenty of other spots they could have parked!

This WAS a peaceful campground in Dinan, Brittany until we were invaded! There were plenty of other spots they could have parked!

Where does Amaya sleep?

She sleeps on a sleeping mat next to us.

Amaya asleep

What do you do for food?  

We prepare our own.  We have a small cooker (Trangia that runs on metholayted spirits).  Our menu will adapt to whatever food is available. One of our go-to meals is pesto pasta with tuna fish, onion capsicum and zucchini (anything tastes great after a day of cycling!)

Amaya helping with the cooking!

Amaya helping with the cooking!

Sometimes supermarkets are difficult to find or worse, closed!  We rode up and down the street a few times before finding this one.

Sometimes supermarkets are difficult to find or worse, closed! We rode up and down the street a few times before finding this one.

Lunch stop

Lunch stop

Is it dangerous?  

Yes. Our biggest concern is being hit by a car or truck.  We just hope this doesn’t happen.  Accidents can happen anywhere even when one isn’t attempting something adventurous.

Do your bums get sore?

No.  We have buns of steel  – heh! No really, they don’t. We have Brooks saddles which are made of molded leather and are super comfortable. Our padded bike pants help too I’m sure. So while our legs hurt everyday – our bums are happy.

The first 400km were agony but they are a dream now!

The first 400km were agony but they are a dream now!

What kind of bikes are you riding?

We are riding custom built Surly bikes.  They are touring bikes that Michael has spent a lot of time getting just right for our journey.  The baby trailer is a Burley d”lite and is affectionally called “el cochecito magico” (magic buggy).

Shosh's Bike

Shosh’s Bike

How heavy is Mic’s bike with the trailer?

Including Amaya (but not including Mic) we estimate the whole setup to be 80kgs.  Not particularly easy up hills!

Mic's bike and el cochecito magico

Mic’s bike and el cochecito magico

Is it challenging with a 2 year old?

Yes, but it would be regardless of whether we were riding or not.  I think this question warrants an entire post.

What does Amaya do in the trailer?  

She sings songs, reads books, sleeps, plays with her toys and looks out the window.  She loves it!  Check out the clip below for a small insight…

If there are any other burning questions feel free to ask in the comments 🙂

Celebrating the number 2 in Brittany!

So we are sorry about our silence of recent date – we have been enjoying some amazing weather in Brittany and have been too busy cycling to blog.  Unfortunately this all came to an end about a week ago when the heavens opened and we (with the exception of Amaya) were significantly drenched.

Since the mechanical elephant of Nantes we followed a stunning canal deep into Brittany.  We passed castles built into cliff faces with witches hat turrets, enjoyed coffee in ancient town squares, camped in a forest where legends of King Arthur are told, scoffed crepes, wound our way along the flat tow path of the canal, passing river barges going up the locks, and cherishing the car free environment with the birds providing the soundtrack.

Impossibly beautiful cycling

Impossibly beautiful cycling

An amazing castle in a city called Joselyn along the Nantes-Brest canal.

An amazing castle in a city called Joselyn along the Nantes-Brest canal.

Amaya continued her passion for graffiti along the canal

Amaya continued her passion for graffiti along the canal

We had both been anticipating this section of our journey and it didn’t disappoint – this is France at its best.  It has been one of those experiences where we wished we could somehow take away more than just our memories and a few photos.  If only there was some way of capturing those moments in a more substantial way and transporting them with us…

She is really burying her nose into that flower!

She is really burying her nose into that flower!

This was a cool campground in an old guys backyard - total cost of 3.80 Euros!

This was a cool campground in an old guys backyard – total cost of 3.80 Euros!

Meanwhile there have been a few causes for celebration: Amaya’s second two-year-old molar finally poked through, her age caught up to her teeth on the 15th, it has been two months on the road, we made it to Roscoff which marked the end of our 1300km cycle path that we had been following since entering France, and we passed 2000km!

Sometimes we even find it hard to believe that we have managed all of this through simple pedal power!  That we have actually transported ourselves from Barcelona to Brittany on bicycles!?!?!

Excited to have made it all the way to Roscoff on our 1300km cycle path.

Excited to have made it all the way to Roscoff on our 1300km cycle path.

Cycling through a beautiful forest on bike paths

Cycling through a beautiful forest on bike paths

We are now in St Malo where we are catching a ferry to Portsmouth and then visiting Jonny (Shoshanna’s brother) and Helen and their new baby, Henry in London.  We then make our way back onto the continent and meet up with my parents  and ride through Belgium and Holland for a few weeks and then up into Germany and the Baltic Sea and down to Berlin.  Fortunately there is a lot of cycling ahead of us.

Lighthouse St Malo

Cycling up from the small ferry into St Malo

Cycling up from the small ferry into St Malo

We played for hours on the beach with the fortified city of St Malo all around us.

We played for hours on the beach with the fortified city of St Malo all around us.

Les Machines de L’ile

Our journey reached 1500km as we rode into Nantes, which turned out to be a magnificent city.  It is the fifth largest in France with a thriving cultural and artistic vibe.  It is a bicycle friendly city where activists paint bike paths on roads if they don’t exist already.  We stayed with Romaric and his family which was a treat in itself, as Romaric is the manager of a beautiful botanic garden (Jardin des Plantes) and a keen carnivorous plant enthusiast.

A beautiful botanic garden

A beautiful botanic garden

Giant seat in Jardin de Plantes

Giant seat in Jardin de Plantes

Without doubt the highlight was “Les Machines de L’ile”, an impossibly fantastical creation of Jules Verne type creatures.  There is a Heron with an 8 metre wing span that flies and carries passengers, a larger than life study ant, carnivorous plants, and then there is the Great Elephant!  A monstrous mass of metal 3 times the size of an actual elephant.  Really it is something that needs to be experienced to comprehend – hopefully our amateur footage does some justice.

We were all pretty pumped about the elephant!

We were all pretty pumped about the elephant!

Mic kept a safe distance! Getting trampled would certainly end our bike tour!

Mic kept a safe distance! Getting trampled would certainly end our bike tour!

Riding the beast!

Riding the beast!

Standing atop!

Standing atop!

Don't worry she didn't really put her hand int!

Don’t worry she didn’t really put her hand in!

Machines Machines

The giant Heron.

The giant Heron.

Amaya was apprehensive at first but soon warmed to the beast and added it to her growing collection of amazing sights and endless possibilities.

It also turns out that Shoshanna is not the only person in France complaining about the weather.  It has been the wettest May on record and shows no real sign of giving way to sustained brilliant sunshine.  Please think of us as we inch our way into a very damp Brittany.  For the moment though we are enjoying the wonderful hospitality of Patrick and Patricia in their lovely old house along Le Canal de Nantes.

Shelter from the rain

Shelter from the rain

Enjoying a scrumptious breakfast with Patrick and Patricia.

Enjoying a scrumptious breakfast with Patrick and Patricia.