Saturday, 12 July 2008

Saturday 5th July - Hoek van Holland to Amsterdam

Holland is the land of big skies. The moment we stepped of the boat it was striking how evenly and consistently proportioned the sky and landscape were. I'd heard that the Netherlands were flat, but I didn't expect that the only incline we would have to face at all would be when riding the ramp up into the boat! The Netherlands and East Anglia have a lot in common; a kind of eerie, primeval light and neverending horizon, where people just take things slow, smile a lot and have very green fingers. The moment we got onto the cycle path we were met with about two kilometres of greenhouses; whether they were full of cannabis plantations was unclear.


After an hour or so we reached The Hague: royal capital, seat of the Dutch government, mecca for international law and diplomatic centre of the Netherlands. However, a far more important series of introductions were due to take place there; namely, my first encounter with the wonderful world of Dutch pastries, as well as a sharp reimmersion into the ubiquitous, generic and trashy Europop so indiscriminately played on the continent. The former I couldn't get enough of in my time in Holland. As for the latter, it is sadly going to continue invading my consciousness until I get home and is in fact pounding my ears idiotically as we speak. Lyrical 'highlights' of the trip so far include repetitions of 'in the fun-shine' for 3 and a half minutes, 'summer is magic, you just have to imagine' and 'Hey now, hey now, hey now (echoing)... the dancefloor is waaaaiiii-ting'. I can't wait to see what the pilled up teenage boys making music in their bedroom come up with next...

Anyway. The other famous thing about Holland is of course it cycle-friendliness and here we were indeed spoilt. EVERY road has a separate cycle lane adjacent to it and clearly marked, whilst drivers seem to give cyclists and pedestrians priority. This is in fact enshrined in law, as everyone is classed as a road user but the cyclists and pedestrians are considered the 'weaker' ones, whilst liability is split 50/50, meaning that both parties have a clear incentive to watch what they are doing. Of course, the provision for separate road users and the calm and respectful interaction between them leads to an air of orderliness and this feeling never leaves you whilst travelling around the country. It's nice to be in a place where people (and governments) just seem to think things through first.

Nice Dutch cycle paths...

When we got to Amsterdam in the early afternoon Toby and I had plenty of time to go for a look around and do the touristy thing, whilst Iain spent some time catching up with our host, his once girlfriend Fiona. The red light district is, frankly, just weird; a really sanitised version of SoHo, somehow less seedy but more discomforting. As for coffeeshop culture, I was thoroughly unimpressed with it in Amsterdam, where it just seemed full of backpackers wanting to get stoned off their tits. It wasn't until we got to Maastricht that I really experienced what makes it so special. Our host there, Dienne, gave us the impression that it was simply an alternative to the pub, where you go to do something a little more relaxed and different than drinking and socialising in that way. In our case, we had a relaxing smoke and played board games. Try doing that with a bunch of 20-somethings on a weekend in London.

Now THAT'S bicycle parking! Charing Cross has none.

After seeing the centre of Amsterdam I can't say I was much in love with the place, but when Fiona and her brother Henning took us out for a couple of beers in a different part of town I really changed my perspective. Away from the flood of rusting bicycles, the rastafari paraphernalia and the soft porn displays, we saw a side of Amsterdam that was warm, welcoming and unpretentious. The Dutch have a magic word for this sort of thing, 'gezellig'. Like the Danish equivalent 'hygge' it is hard to translate due to the richness of its meaning, but it might well be described as a blend of feeling cozy, satisfied and warm. Against all initial expectations after my first view of the city, Fiona and Henning's hospitality made our departure from Amsterdam the next morning a 'zieleleed' one (full of sadness), yet tempered with deep 'gezellig'.

"Don't do it!", cried the other bikes.

Av. 19.2 kph, Max. 37.5 kph, Time 4.39.37, Dist. 89.42 kms

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