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netherlands

Dutch Hospitality

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Dutch Hospitality

My stay in the Netherlands was much less focused on nature than most other places so far. Partly because the country has a pretty high population density, and partly because traveling with a Hurricane leads to a huge increase in social situations. Isabelle has a lot of friends in the Netherlands, and also makes new ones easily. Especially with the very welcoming Dutch people. So lately I’ve been doing less stealth camping and more sleeping in rural areas.

In the Weerribben-Wieden National Park further north we couldn’t find any forests or open camping grounds, so Isabelle and Ilse (when she was still cycling with us) asked for tent space in the lawn of a big farmhouse. Within minutes we were setting up camp between the barn and the horse fence. A very social black mixed-breed dog called Lola came to demand scratches and seemed in need of attention, so I took a frisbee and played fetch with her for an hour. I got tired first even though she was doing all the running. When I woke up the next morning she came to my tent with the frisbee in her mouth and tail wagging eagerly.

Country road, take me home...

In Vught we met Yvette, who has travelled with Isabelle in South America. There were extra beds for us at her parents’ place. We came in from the rain and were immediately sat down in front of a table so full of Chinese food that it could’ve fed a dozen hungry cyclists. The next day we got a tour of the local forest and nearby city Den Bosch.

Clocks were turned back an hour on that same day, so when we returned to the road in the afternoon the sun was already setting. After riding only 7km we had to stop in a small village called Esch. Isabelle asked around for accommodation, and we were given tent space at the playground of the Enchanted Forest Pancake House. The owners were awesome and even offered us free pancakes when they heard about our travel plans.

... to the place, I belong ...

In Eindhoven we stopped by an outdoor gear store called Bever. We've gotten many warnings about bicycle thieves, so the staff let us roll our bikes inside for safety while we did our shopping. There was free hot chocolate for customers. When I asked for any suggestions on where to find a camping ground for a shower (these are harder to find in the off season), they told us we could use the shower right there in the store! Not exactly a standard shopping experience.

In Neeroeteren we got to stay inside again for two nights at a couple who were Isabelle's old colleagues. That was admittedly on the Belgian side, but the woman was from the Netherlands, so I think it counts as an example of Dutch hospitality. When we left we cycled to the Hoge Kempen National Park, and stopped at Café De Statie, an old train station turned into a pub café. The very friendly owners let us sleep out back on the storage room floor. It was a cold and rainy night and there were wild boars in the park, so we were happy to be dry and safe.

By that point I wasn’t even surprised to hear they were also Dutch.

... Western Europe, forest floor ...

Near Maastricht we crossed the border again for one last stop in the Netherlands in a little village called Eckelrade. The sun was setting so we asked for a place to stay. The local pastor kindly organised a small house for us nearby. Before we even got there, a woman stopped to ask about our trips and invited us for dinner with her family. And later when we felt tired and in need of extra rest days, the nice owner of our house came to inform us we could stay another night if we wanted, free of charge.

As much as I love to look at beautiful wide open landscapes, finding sunlight falling just right on the small details is really satisfying.

Perhaps you can tell from the way I’m writing this, that I can’t really find the words to describe how appreciative I am of all this generosity. It’s all been quite overwhelming in the Netherlands since the first day in Stellingen. Without exception the Dutch people have been incredibly warm, friendly and happy to help a pair of bicycle travellers in any way they can.

All I can say is a million thanks to everyone for their kind gestures. Everything from the passing smiles and greetings, to opening their doors and offering food or a place to sleep, warms my heart and gives me faith in the humanity of strangers.

And this is why I travel.

Wake up, it's a beautiful life.
 

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Hoornaar

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Hoornaar

Remember the couple from that camping ground in Norway during a three-day downpour? They live in Holland in a small village called Hoornaar, so we paid them a visit. A replacement for my broken SSD drive was waiting for me at their address. Originally I thought we’d stay maybe a night or two, but upon arrival it turned out that various activities had been planned for us, so there’d be no hurry to leave.

Jan is a retired headmaster of a Christian school with a calm demeanour. Corrie has the kind of helpful and caring personality that you might expect from a housewife from the sixties. She conjured up amazingly delicious dinners every night we stayed there. They have been married for over 50 years, and I can see why.

I was expecting space for our tents in their garden, but instead we were given a whole summer cabin to ourselves. Later I learnt that Corrie had never allowed overnight visitors to this cabin until our visit, so it was quite an honour to stay there. It was a quaint little place by a small river lining the beautiful countryside houses. “Romantisch”, our hosts pointed out.

Hoornaar in the morning.

They had endearingly old-fashioned views, where Isabelle was expected to take care of all the cooking and other kitchen activities. And yet this was combined with unabashed curiosity about the status of our travel partnership after having met only two weeks earlier. In fact, quite a few people seem to share this interest and are asking if we’re going to cycle around the world together as a couple now. Personally, I think it seems a touch early to be considering such a thing.

We arrived on Tuesday and already by Wednesday afternoon I was being interviewed for a local newspaper. The reporter was one of Jan’s old students. Again we took questions about whether we were a couple already, with Corrie fanning the flames mischievously. Our picture was taken by a veteran photographer who, among many other subjects, had shot the queen of the Netherlands more than a thousand times. Going from the queen to us is quite a career drop. I tried to look regal to make him feel better. Judging by the photo, I looked more like the court jester.

On Thursday Jan gave us a photo tour of the surroundings. In the morning we went to Kinderdijk, a famous UNESCO site of an area with 19 windmills east of Rotterdam. In the afternoon we saw the Biesbosch National Park, where Jan shared a lot of interesting information about the history of the area. After another great dinner, I went with him to a meeting of the local photo club.

Kinderdijk with the ND1000 filter.
Weather at Biesbosch was too grey for landscapes, so we took macros instead.

Speaking in front of an audience is a pretty scary thought to me, so I was anxious at first when Jan asked me to show some photographs and talk about my trip. On the other hand, it was also an excellent opportunity to get out of my comfort zone, so I was eager to give it a try. No reason to let such fears control your life, after all.

There were about 20-30 people at the club. When I introduced myself in front of the group, they suddenly remembered that there was a microphone around somewhere. I guess my voice doesn’t exactly fill a room. I did a slideshow of two dozen of my more or less favourite photos of the trip so far. I talked about the shooting or processing workflow of each photo, and pointed out where I’d made mistakes.

Past the initial nervousness I started to get into the whole thing and actually enjoyed it. Afterwards I spoke with several of the members and overall had a great time. I felt an excited rush long after we had left.

We were supposed to leave the next day, but it had been such an eventful and tiring day that we decided to rest and stay for one more night. We could’ve happily stayed for weeks, but winter is coming and it’s better to keep heading towards the southern climate. So on Saturday we said our goodbyes to Jan and Corrie. Their last gift was a fresh copy or the newspaper article: “Tomi Rantanen cycles around the world.”

 I’ll never forget their friendship and hospitality, and hope we’ll get to meet again some day.

Jan, Isabelle and Corrie before our departure.
Throwback to the previous spiderweb field.
 

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It's Always Sunny in the Netherlands

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It's Always Sunny in the Netherlands

I’m just gonna go ahead and be honest here: Not all places are equal. There were a lot of good things about Germany (the excellent bicycle lanes for example), but overall I just didn’t enjoy my stay there. Crossing into the Netherlands turned everything around.

Farmland seemed more idyllic, architecture more beautiful, the traffic less hectic. Even the weather improved and the sun came out. People were suddenly much more laid back and helpful, and they spoke English almost everywhere.

Despite being a very densely populated country, there were still some forests and nature to be found. In one tiny forest between two farms Isabelle woke me up because the light was great for photography. Which is one of the very few things I don’t mind waking up early for. There was a thick layer of fog and the sun was about to rise. I packed up my stuff quickly and cycled on alone taking photographs in the misty yellow light. After an hour I found an overgrown pasture with thousands of spiderwebs and I stayed there until Isabelle caught up with me for breakfast.

Cycling without a destination on a morning like this is the best thing in the world.
The entire field was full of spiderwebs everywhere you looked.

Later that day we rode through the Dwingelderveld National Park, with bicycle lanes going through an old forest painted with autumn colours. On the other side of the forest the landscape suddenly turned into something resembling the African savannah.

Here be lions.

Isabelle’s old work friend Ilse joined us in Wittelte on her bicycle. She's a funny Dutch girl who took the role of our local tour guide for four days. My experience of the Netherlands improved even more, with someone showing us around a few of the more hidden places, translating signs and explaining the local history. Mid-October brought a record heatwave and excellent camping weather.

In Giethoorn we cycled in "the Venice of Holland”, a village nestled among small canals with fairytale houses everywhere. It was so quaint and idyllic that the entire village looked like one huge museum or film set. Further evidenced by the signs in Chinese telling tourists not to walk inside the houses, because people actually live in them.

We stopped to sit at the terrace of a nice restaurant, where Ilse ordered lunch and pancakes in Dutch. I found out why she and Isabelle are friends, when my dessert was brought in by a line of smiling waitresses with sparkly fireworks wishing me another happy birthday. It looked like they were about to break into song, but probably thought better of it because I was sinking so far into my chair I almost broke the backrest.

"Act normal", I said.

"Act normal", I said.

Isabelle, Ilse and Kira, all ready to start the day.

After Ilse left us we had an evening of uncharacteristically bad weather. The headwind was awful, it rained horizontally, and we couldn’t find a place to stay. Camping was out of the question, so at sunset we started knocking on doors again. Outside a small village we tried a couple farmhouses without any luck. The neighbourhood seemed to be getting more and more expensive, and we came to one place that was really more of a mansion, probably costing millions. There was a fence around the premise, with a keypad and security camera by the gigantic black metal gate.

Clearly not the kind of place that would welcome two soggy Scandinavian bicycle bums looking for a place to sleep after dark. It would be a waste of time to even try, I thought. I looked around to share my assessment with Isabelle, but she was already ringing the doorbell, fixing her hair, and motioning me to come in front of the camera: “Try to look non-threatening!”

To my astonishment, the gate opened and a grey-haired man in his sixties came to the door. He didn’t speak English, but seemed unafraid and willing to help, and the words “tent”, “rain” and “roof” are universal hand signals. He opened the door to the barn and we were thrilled to have a nice clean dry floor to sleep on.

Then the wife walked in, introducing herself with a smile. She said this won’t do at all, and ordered us inside the house into a spare room, which she used as her painter's atelier. She didn’t speak English either, but chattered away with such bubbly friendliness that we managed to understand most of what she said regardless.

We changed into dry clothes and she returned with tea and an evening snack before we called it a night. In the morning she made us a huge breakfast better than in most of the expensive hotels I’ve been to in my life.

In the end, I still don't know much about the couple, except that they were willing to trust two complete strangers by letting them into their home. And that is a beautiful thing.

Some leaves are more quick to accept change than others.
 

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Hurricane Isabelle

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Hurricane Isabelle

After a number of bike trips almost entirely done solo, I have become accustomed to doing things my way. When traveling alone, there’s no need to wait for anyone or to make compromises. The more this has become a habit, the more hesitant I’ve been to allow others to join me. I would never commit to a long trip with someone without trying it out first. Sharing the road temporarily with a tourer I meet along the way is much easier, because we both have our own gear and can separate again at any time.

I met Isabelle towards the end of my stay in Germany. She's a freckle-faced blue-eyed adventurer who rarely stops talking. Kira is the quieter one, usually sitting behind in her trailer smelling the world go past. Although I had many doubts about whether it would work, we’re getting along quite nicely. We complement each other well. She is fearless in all the ways that I am not, asking people for help and knocking on doors when campsites are unavailable, whereas I’m more at ease with dark forests and some other aspects of touring life.

I made sure there was some forest camping too.

This became evident early on. Close to the town of Papenburg in West Germany, we were surrounded by wide open farmland with animal fences, which isn’t exactly great for camping. We were wet and cold from the rain, and the sun was setting. My strategy of dealing with the situation was to stare at my phone screen looking at Google Maps satellite images for some trees to hide our tents, while Isabelle was looking at the windows of farmhouses for any friendly people returning a smile and a wave.

I was all proud about finding a forest only two kilometres away, but she was already chatting (without a common language) to the family living in the second house we passed. They did seem suspicious at first, but eventually we were led to the empty barn, safe from the weather. We made our beds on the straw and were invited to the house for evening tea before going to sleep.

In all the years I’ve travelled, I have literally never done this kind of thing. Since starting in June I had slept in a tent for four months straight. I was quite impressed.

One squeaky mouse was running around at first, but settled down when we wanted to sleep.

And there was more. A couple days later, on October (cough)th, it happened to be my birthday. I don’t like to be the centre of attention, so rarely tell people when this occurs. But I had to explain why I was in no mood for pasta and tuna, and wanted to eat something special that day. I told my new travel companion not to make a big deal out of it. She said sure, and then proceeded to tell everyone we met.

It may look like a lot for a Cocker Spaniel to pull, but this one's pretty spicy for her size.

In the late afternoon we came to an idyllic little town called Sellingen in the Netherlands. While shopping for barbecue goodies and pancake materials, a man who looked like the owner of the store asked if we are on holiday. Paraphrasing Isabelle's usual cheerful self: “Hi! We are cyclists! We come from Scandinavia! I am so cute! I have a dog! We have no place to camp! It’s his birthday!”

The man made a couple phone calls in Dutch and explained that the camping grounds were closed, but he arranged a place for us in one of them anyway. The owners would pick us up shortly, and we could wait in their son’s bar/cafe in the meanwhile. We went there, heads spinning from the helpfulness, and the bar owner walked over to shake my hand, “First of all, happy birthday!”

Everyone continued to be super friendly and we got free drinks while we waited, and I received a heartwarming video call from my brother and niece back home. So all in all, it was an excellent day already. Then the camping ground owners showed up, a hippy-looking couple with bright eyes and that look of joyful wisdom that people have when they’ve lived right and aged well.

We were led to a quiet place in the woods, a camping ground with plenty of space. The woman explained they could fit 60 people but only took in 15 because everyone deserved their space and privacy in nature. After some of the claustrophobic caravan clusters I saw in Germany, this principle sounded just heavenly. Since we were the only ones there, they gave us the use of a cabin and showers, free of charge. It was my birthday, after all.

Kira contemplating the many duties of a dog's life.

Amazing. We spent the evening high on life, cooking pork steaks and chicken fillet with salad and cheese-stuffed grilled paprikas. We drank wine by the fireplace while sharing stories of our adventures. There were even actual beds to sleep in. Kira snuggled up next to me, then started snoring with the volume of a much larger dog.

I won’t soon forget the generosity of the people in Sellingen. And it turns out that touring with company isn’t so bad either.

Autumn leaves in the morning.
 

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