Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A trip to the Netherlands

I’m on my way back from a four-day holiday weekend in Holland. I’m becoming an Aeroflot frequent flier, having flown six international legs in just the last month. An extra five hours has been added to my already 18-hour journey by a change in the flight schedule of the local Kyrgyz airline. They must not have had enough passengers on the 8:45 a.m. flight to Osh I was scheduled for. So they put them all on a 12:35 flight to Jalalabat, which will then continue on to Osh.

That forced me to go into Bishkek to get some sleep. And on a positive note, I found a new hotel on the edge of the city where I got a nice nap in a small but clean bed, a hot shower, a fridge and a TV for $7.50.

It’s been several years since I’ve spent any time in the Netherlands and I really enjoyed my time there. As my boyfriend said, “This is what modernity is supposed to be,” – a clean, comfortable life with attention paid to community health and exercise, public space, social welfare and true individual liberty. Although it’s expensive, I think it would a nice place to live. Even from the plane I was impressed by the neat, orderly layout – from manufacturing plants that looked as clean and sleek as toys, to tall and narrow spinning windmills, castles, greenery, water and public spaces.

We spent the first two nights in Deventer, a Hanseatic League small town with a quaint central area, a wonderful collection of shops, and a surprisingly untouristed feel. Our hotel was a cozy and elegant room located in the back of a café and general store. Decorated with dark old furniture and yellow fabrics, it was bathed in the glow of daylight streaming through the third-story windows. The coffeeshop, where we had our breakfast, and in the hallways, antique cookie boxes and coffee grinders lined the walls. There we tried the local specialty and a popular accompaniment to tea – Deventer cake, a dark bread sweetened with honey.

On our first day we strolled the square, watched Liberation Day celebrations, listened to an old-fashioned musical box, walked along the canal, and took take-out Chinese back to our room.

The following day was my favorite of the trip. We took a train to the nearby town of Apledoorn, rented bicycles, and biked to the Hoge Veluwe National Park. It is the largest national park in the Netherlands. In 1914 it was purchased by Anton and Helene Kroller-Muller, a German couple. In 1930 it was given to the state. Racks of free white bicycles that can be used to ride through the premises form a unique aspect of the park.

It lacked the stunning scenery of some of the world’s famous national parks. But it made up for that by the fun of cycling along the paths and through different landscapes, the quaintness of the white bicycles we passed, and the marvelous Kroller-Muller museum, which opened in 1938 to show Helene’s art collection. It was a spectacular collection, including a sculpture garden and an ensemble of Van Gogh’s so powerful that I’ve never before been so struck as to the difference between a reproduction and the real thing. The colors and textures powerful enough to strike me to the core.

We biked all the way across the park, through forests, plains and best of all – an area of desert-like sand dunes that appeared suddenly at the edge of the forest. We then cycled to the town of Arnhem, passing homes, public parks, bicycles, Pannekoeken pancake cafes, and remarkably few stores along the way.

I saw a greater variety of bicycles than I’d ever seen before – singles, doubles, satchels across the back, baskets on the front, a child seat in the rear, a baby seat in front (protected by a windshield), carriages pulled behind, and even what I called a wheelbarrow bike, with a large, open square at the front of the bike, large enough to carry a few seatbelted children, a stroller, a few bunches of fresh roses, and even the groceries. I loved the well-marked bike routes, the bike lane incorporated into every road, the tiny average size of cars, and t he clear priority people put on fuel conversation, public transportation and using bikes and feet as a major mode of transportation, even when there are kids. We saw numerous families, all biking together, the kids on one of the various seats, or from a young age, moving quickly on their own bike.

We spent the next two days in the more touristed area just west of Amsterdam, the home of the infamous tulip fields. During the first day, we wanted through the streets of Haarlem, a 17th century town. We visited the large, old church, with one of the biggest organs in the world, and drank beer in a personable pub, where children drank sodas while their parents imbibed beer and an old man played live jazz on the piano.

The next day we rented bicycles once again and bicycled to the famous Keukenhof Garden, a wonderful 69-acre park full of colorful tulips and other spring flowers born from over six million bulbs planted each autumn. We arrived near the end of the season, which goes until May 20th. So the nearby fields, which a month ago would have been rainbow beams of color, were now largely empty. But we could imagine the scenery in the fields by seeing the specially planted tulips in the park.

The weather was very variable. It was generally chilly and windy, but the sun shone frequently. While we were at the park, we were hit by a heavy hail storm. Five minutes later, the sun had returned. We were just grateful that the storm came while we were within reach of shelter, instead of out in the countryside on our bikes.

What really surprised me was that despite the distances we traveled by bike, we passed very few stores or other commercial outlets. Unlike in America, where there seems to be a Seven Eleven on every corner, in Holland we had to travel quite a ways to find a gas station where we could buy a drink. While I like the convenience of being able to buy what I need, I also appreciated the long stretches of greenery and residential areas, and the lack of gaudy, cheap stores selling junk food.

Before leaving Holland, I stocked up on cheese and flowers, and hoped I’d be able to return someday to explore more of the bicycle paths. One disadvantage of traveling in Europe (versus in developing countries) is that everything is so organized and navigable that it’s hard to meet locals. It is often the struggles in travel that bring me into contact with the local residents. Since we had no difficulties in Holland, we had a nice time, but didn’t have a real conversation with anyone there. I’d like to return someday to see some more of the country, and to learn more about the people who populate it, and who promote the way of life I find so attractive.

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