Our day today took us from the beautiful but busy medieval town of Brugge up into our third country, Holland.
So far our journey has been much harder than expected, our easy cruise across the lowlands of Belgium and Holland has not happened and instead we have found ourselves dealing with a number of bike issues and much hotter than expected temperatures. We knew that it was likely to get hot, and we knew at some points we would be in very uncomfortable weather, but we were not expecting it to be over 30 degrees as soon as we started! We have adjusted our methods in order to wake up early and start cycling before it gets really hot, but even at 9am it has been above 25 degrees so there is little part of the day which remains cool enough to be comfortable. Sheena’s fair skin is particularly vulnerable to the strong rays of the sun, and even with the liberal application of factor 50 her skin is like cling film under a grill (ok, its not that bad!). Sunscreen, high temperatures and exercise makes for a sweaty and greasy time making it uncomfortable. Sam’s hairiness combined with the sweat and regular movement of limbs leads to other heat related issues that are best not mentioned. All in all our first week has been us finding our feet and sorting out how to work together in order to make progress and not be too uncomfortable.
Cycling in Holland is extremily pleasurable, the countryside is filled with everything we consider Dutch and much more than we are sure many people are unfamiliar with such as a national obsession with tiny ponies. Any field containing animals has at least a 75% chance of containing the smallest ponies we have seen, and it seems unique to the Netherlands as we haven’t seen them elsewhere. We are also unsure what the Dutch do with them, presumably they are for tiny people to ride, but we all know how tall the Dutch are…. So far we have not seen any being ridden, maybe they are the secret ingredient in bitterballen?
Of course its flat, the biggest climb we have done so far was up out of a tunnel that went under a canal. It was tough. Some of the motorway flyovers have been at least 20 meters.
The Netherlands seems to be the best run, neatest and friendliest of all countries in Europe. We have not seen a single abandoned building, run down area or grubby piss smelling alleyway anywhere – even the tower blocks are all in pristine condition. The people all look fit and healthy, the houses whether modern and old are all so stylish, and we have not seen one child being yelled at – such a far cry from where we have been for the last few years. Peering into houses reveals tastefully furnishings with no 42 inch televisions in sight. Weekend days are spent together and absolutely everything is closed on a Sunday, people manage to find things to do other than shopping! Everyone has been so friendly to us, from cyclists pulling up alongside asking where our final destination is, to campsite owners letting us stay for free and waitresses who get into trouble for spending too long talking to us.
Everyone is familiar with the Dutch acceptance and use of cycling as a main form of transport, but the lengths they go to facilitate it and allow its use is amazing. The array of cycle oriented engineering is mind boggling and sometimes confuses the hell out of us. Roundabouts with cycle lanes circumnavigating them where cyclists have priority, or junctions where cars have to stop for bikes regardless unsettle us and result in us annoying drivers as we stop to make sure they stop and prompting some form of wave from them instead of just heading over. We have used bike only ferries, one huge one with space for over 100 bikes in the bottom, and another with space for just two across a small canal/irrigation channel.
Sticking to a budget is perhaps the hardest aspect of cycling here, there is a village usually every 5 if not 10km, and each one usually has somewhere selling amazing sliced meats, cheeses and fruit – hard enough to resist at the best of times, let alone when you have the ravenous appetite of a cyclist. Dutch cheese! Forget all that cheap proceed edam crap, these guys must keep all the good stuff they make for themselves – amazing aged cheese sold cut off large wheels sold by grinning men in dungarees and funny blue hats. And then there are stoopwaffels, a round biscuit filled with caramel which perfectly fits on our stove to heat enough to melt its middle making a heavenly end to any meal we cook. We haven’t eaten out here, our budget doesn’t allow it, but the supermarkets are without a doubt the best we have ever been to. Albert Heijns shelves are filled with so much tasty goodness, it is so hard to leave sticking to just what we need and not what we want. Good beer, good food, amazingly open and friendly people – its difficult to imagine a more perfect place to start our trip.