Travel

CANALS AND KILLER BIKES

Fields of tulips grown for their bulbs

Fields of tulips grown for their bulbs

Diary: When the tulips paint Holland in multi-coloured stripes, it’s time for a quick visit, but there are obstacles to overcome.

The week ends with a return to a semi-United Kingdom suffering from several great losses. Those of you au courant with Brit news will be fully aware of the excitement of the past week (a Conservative majority in Parliament, a feisty wee SNP lass kicking Labour out Scotland, the loathsome Labour leader and the nicer Lib-Dem leader quitting), but friends across the pond in North America might have missed the Nigel-related news. First, Ukip leader Nigel Farage failed to get elected as a Member of Parliament and resigned as party leader, when his gang received almost a third of the popular vote but only one actual seat. Such are the inequities of the first past the post system. Second, quietly tucked away in a corner of my morning paper, was another crushing piece of bad luck. Nigella Lawson’s US cooking show has been cancelled after three seasons due to falling audiences, a fate (hem, hem) all TV show hosts dread.

Bicycles everywhere

Bicycles everywhere

However, the rest of the week was great fun. Much against my better judgement, we’d taken a cheap Easy Jet flight from UK to Amsterdam. Surprisingly, we enjoyed the 55 minute hop over the North Sea and because of the time difference, arrived two hours after we left. Braving a bendy-bus ride into the centre of the city, where we are to meet our Dutch friend, we’re dropped at a deserted bus station under construction. With Google map in hand we set out along a canal to our host’s residence. Two minutes later we see him loping towards us, wearing a pair of bright orange cords. Hugs all round and we’re soon ensconced in his canal-side flat.

Cyclists whisk by the Cafe Chaos

Cyclists whisk by the Cafe Chaos

Now I should mention that in the four minute walk, no more, from the bus station to the flat, we’ve crossed two hump-backed bridges, walked along two canals, and escaped death by bicycle more than a dozen times. Our host warns us to be aware at all times, as the bikes have right of way. This is truly the land of canals and killer bikes. Until one has lived through it, one can’t imagine how many bicycles there are in Amsterdam. And though there must be rules, they are not self-evident to visitors. There are one-way streets clearly marked, which cyclists seem to be able to ignore with impunity. There are separate bicycle lanes with bikes going both ways on both sides of the road. There are sidewalks with motorised and electric scooters charging in both directions. No one wears a helmet. Kids ride on handlebars. Dogs ride in baskets mounted in front. For pedestrians, the only truly safe place is in the middle of the tram tracks, until a tram comes along.

Looiersgracht, the pretty little canal outside our flat

Looiersgracht, the pretty little canal outside our flat

In the whole of the centre of Amsterdam, within the four rings of canals, there doesn’t seem to be one traffic light except for trams. They occasionally stop at a light and pedestrians cross. But the bikes continue to rampage past in either direction. Even getting off our tour bus, more of that later, we are warned to beware of the bicycles.

With only four days in the city, including travel days, we have planned our excursions carefully. As it is tulip time in Holland, we feel a trip to the flower fields is essential, but the  best way to get there seems to be on a guided tour bus. We sign up and suffer the indignities. At the depot we are gathered in front of a sign for Keukenhof. Then we are led like sheep through the traffic and warned to be wary of the bicycles which assault us from every side. There’s a rush for the bus and at least we get on the top deck but not near the front and the good seats. The young and the fit have grabbed the good seats ahead of the halt and the lame. A 45 minute ride takes us past the flower fields, where we admire acres of commercially grown tulips. The countryside is painted with garish stripes of yellow, pink, red and purple as the tulip farms show off their glory. As soon as the crop is at its peak, we are told by our chatty tour bus guide, who is fluent in five languages, the flowers are chopped off and fed to the cows and the bulbs harvested when ready.

Keukenhof colours undiminished by the rain

Keukenhof colours undiminished by the rain

The Keukenhof gardens are only open two months of the year, and even though we arrive in the midst of a thunderstorm, they are clearly magnificent. They claim to show off 800 varieties of tulip and seven million bulbs. Whatever, the display is spectacular and if one does nothing else in Holland during tulip time this is a must. We shelter in the restaurant until the worst of the storm is over and then venture out along paths lined with tulips of every shape and size.

Van Gogh flower mosaic

Van Gogh flower mosaic

Van Gogh is the theme this year and I admire a mosaic of the artist created from flowering plants. It turns out this is as close as I’ll get this trip to his work. From a windmill we look over striped fields of commercial harvests. It’s almost too much to take in.

Working windmills at Zaanse Schans

Working windmills at Zaanse Schans

The next day we are on another bus to see more windmills and a fishing village. A cheese factory and clog workshop are also promised. The windmills at Zaanse Schans are worth the price of admission and the reason I’ve come to the Netherlands. In a row of specialist mills devoted to sawing lumber, pumping water and grinding cocoa beans and spices, the latter sparks my interest.

Of 30 thousand mills that once dotted the landscape, only one thousand survive and in this village a half dozen or so have been brought together from various locations for us to admire. The spice mill is closed on our visit so I have to be content with a demo at the saw mill, where old Jan gives me a personal tour and young Emma, aged about two and clinging to her dad’s leg, seems immune to the sharp saw blades chomping through the logs driven by wind power alone.

Driven by the imperious timetable of the tour guide we are soon back on the bus and off to Volendam, a vibrant fishing village where the cheese factory is boring and too touristy by half and lunch in a fish restaurant excellent. The wind is getting up and a black cloud marks the sky as we get onto a ferry for the trip across the great inland lake to the island of Marken, now connected to the mainland by a long causeway. While we cross the choppy waters of the lake, our tour bus makes its way around to meet us on the other side.

Traditional fishing boats at Volendam

Traditional fishing boats at Volendam

Fortunately, the storm holds off and we are led (did I mention our sheep-like behaviour?) to a clog workshop. Actually, this is the highlight of the day for a fan of “How It’s Made.” In five minutes the technician turns a chunk of wood into a rough formed shoe. Low end of the day for me is sitting on a nail sticking out of the bench I’ve chosen, ending up with pricked pride and backside. Then it’s back on the bus to Amsterdam.

Huge line ups for the Rembrandt exhibition at Rijksmuseum

Huge line ups for the Rembrandt exhibition at Rijksmuseum

On our last day we’ve decided to see two of the many art galleries and museums that dot the city. Our first target is the Rijksmuseum, or city museum, where a major exhibition of the works of Rembrandt are on display. I’ve been looking forward to this for months, but it’s a bust. Although out pre-booked passes allow us to jump most of the queue, the exhibit is so packed with folks that it is impossible to enjoy the works on display. I push my way to the front to admire some of his most beloved oils, but his tiny etchings and sketches are invisible behind the crowds. The curious thing is that no one is looking at the art. They’re all listening to the audio explanations on their I-phones or reading the text in their guides.

Thanks goodness our hosts have been prescient enough to leave us an English language guide to read in advance. Traffic control much needed here. I dare say some of the works are magnificent, but this is no way to see them. Afterwards we set out to see the adjacent Van Gogh exhibition, but the line up outside is so long we decide to blow off the tickets and head out for a leisurely lunch instead.

A woman bathing in a stream by Rembrandt, 1654, National Gallery, London

A woman bathing in a stream (Rembrandt 1654) on loan from the National Gallery, London

Afterwards, we have time for a pleasant tour of the canals on one of the many tour boats. The tour descriptions is only present on an audio track, but from time to time our competent lady skipper stops the boat to give us an extra insight not available on the pre-recorded  guide. We give her a nice tip.

Our brief visit over, we spend the last of our Euros in the well-named Café Chaos opposite our flat, while the killer bikes rush by inches from our table. Of the first dozen I count, not one looks up or down the road they are entering to see if someone is coming. Nor do any of them, motor scooters included, take note of the one way sign.  And there’s not a helmet in sight. Right beside our sidewalk table, a car parks deftly beside the canal. In some places low barriers have been erected to stop cars plunging into the canal, but here there is nothing. On top of that the driver has to get out on the canal side. Luckily he’s stone cold sober and it’s still daylight. When I settle the bill, the bartender tells me about one car a week has to be fished out of the canal. It’s a fitting postscript.

 

Featured image: A swath of colourful tulips at Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands

Featured image: A swath of colourful tulips at Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands

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