Tag: Holland

Family cycling story wins at Holland Travel Writers Awards


* My story won in the Dutch City category at the Holland Travel Writers Awards, staged on Tuesday night in London. This is an unedited version of the story that appeared in Family Traveller magazine. 

It was a two-wheeled baptism of fire.

I turned out of the alleyway, freewheeling shakily on a lightweight Dutch city bike and immediately had to turn left into the path of the oncoming traffic.

As I wobbled, swerved and nearly wiped out a couple of pedestrians, I was beginning to think a family cycling trip to Holland hadn’t been such a great idea after all – especially as I hadn’t been on a bicycle in over 30 years.

But if anywhere could get me back in the saddle, then Holland could. This is, after all, a county with 17m inhabitants but over 18m bikes and 32,000km of cycle paths.

The Dutch government is also championing initiatives to promote cycle safety and traffic awareness this year. That’s why I have brought my two learner-cyclist daughters, Maya, eight, and Olivia, four, to Holland for a school-holidays escape.

Moreover, with the two of them increasingly leaving me behind on their racer and balance bikes respectively, I was hoping something of the local cycling culture would rub off on me, too.

It’s like Arthur Wieffering, the cycling-evangelist founder of The Hague’s Totzo! Cycle Tours and Lola Bikes and Coffee café, told me over double shots of Ethiopian fair-trade beans.

“Cycling is a piece of freedom. If you cycle every day, then you free your mind.”

Seaside cycling

We started our journey in The Hague, a short train journey from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

Based in Schevenigen, the seaside resort on the city’s North Sea coast, I spent the first morning introducing the girls to some Dutch culture.

Madurodam [pictured above], the miniature-village version of Holland, offered a breezy résumé of centuries of Dutch history and stereotypes – from clogs via windmills to tulips.

It was a fun few hours and while I enjoyed marveling at a scale version of Alkmaar’s historic cheese market, the girls loved the interactive exhibits and adventure playground.

But it was soon time to get cycle serious.

We joined a three-hour city-and-sea bike tour with Totzo!, exploring hidden-gem attractions around the city, such as the Palace Gardens behind the working Ordained Palace, before biking across the city to the Zuiderstrand (South Beach) district for lunch.

The girls set out in matching princess-pink cycle helmets, Maya on her own bike and Olivia in a strap-on seat behind our guide, while I struggled behind.

Maya was nervous at first cycling in traffic but she soon found her confidence, indicating and turning like a local. Olivia happily soaked up the views.

Along the way, Totzo! Tour guide Tymen Willemsen, explained why Holland was named the most bike-friendly country in Europe (joint with Denmark) according to the European Cyclists’ Federation Cycling Barometer.

“Holland’s natural geography is flat, distances between the major cities are short and there’s a well developed infrastructure for cyclists,” he said, pointing out the landmarks.

“I got my first bike aged three and started riding to primary school every day. Even today I own four bikes and only a part share of a car,” added Tymen.

“While cycling has an obvious environmental and health benefits, it’s a simple economic decision for me.”

Having negotiated the traffic, we settled into a gentle cruise along Strandweg, the long promenade beside the windswept seafront, stopping to browse gift shops and tuck heartily into a lunch of fresh fish, spare ribs and garlic-mayonnaise-dipped chips at Zanzibar Beachclub, one of a string of buzzy beachfront restaurants overlooking the North Sea.

“Yummy,” beamed Olivia, licking her fingers.

Canal city

The next day we moved on by train to Utrecht, a small, historic city built around the 14th-century Cathedral Tower and the bustling canal-side Oudegracht district of galleries, cafes and boutiques.

Our new base was at a house belonging to the Vrienden op de Fiets group, an association of some 3,000-odd affiliated guesthouses run by private homeowners, offering bed, shared facilities and a basic breakfast for around €30 per night.

Many are of them are run by cyclists knowledgeable about local cycle routes and each address has its own particular style.

In a southeastern suburb of Utrecht, just outside the historic city centre, Marjolein Jacobs’ home of four simple but homely rooms is like something out of Pippi Longstocking.

A giant papier-mâché butterfly hangs on the wall and the story of the Princess and the Pea is scrawled across the landing. Over glasses of apple juice in the living room, a swing hanging from the ceiling, eccentric-aunt Margolis made us feel at home.

“I like to talk to people, I love to hear the stories the guests bring with them. This is a guesthouse, not a B&B,” she said, hands tucked into her purple apron and woolly-sock toes peeping through her sandals.

“I’m not here to make money. We want to feel we can share things together,” she added, an old record player belting out a scratchy seven inch of Tight Fit’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight behind her.

We set out the next morning to pick up our bike for the day, a traditional Dutch ‘bakfiets’, or ‘cargo bike’.

Our sturdy three-wheeler came with a large cargo box at the front for Maya and Olivia to sit inside. It was plain boxy brown but some come customised with decorations of flowers or mascots and a canopy.

The girls seemed a bit unsure at first about our new mode of transport, Maya somewhat embarrassed by looks from passers-by as dad swerved clumsily around the narrow, canal-side streets and struggled with a hill start at traffic lights.

“Everyone’s looking,” she moaned, cringing under her helmet. “Soo embarrassing.”

After a while, however, I got a feel for the bike and really appreciated the greater stability of the sturdy front section while Olivia happily curled up on the cushions for an in-transit power nap as we followed the canal towards the fringe of the city centre.

I had stocked up in advance on picnic food at a local branch of the Albert Heijn supermarket train and steered us steadily out along the River Vecht towards the fairytale castle of Slot Zuylen, located in the village of Oud-Zuilen.

Brightly painted houseboats bobbed in the gentle waters beside the well-marked cycle lane and birds were singing overhead in a cotton-wool sky.

I could feel a new sense of cycling-Zen calm starting to drift over me and, after a morning of vigorous peddling, munched hungrily on the spread of bread, cheese, cold ham and fruit, all washed down with pink lemonade.

Family friendly

Over the week we had started to master the art of Dutch-style cycling but, as a single parent with two young children in tow, how family friendly did Holland prove to be overall?

Generally pretty good. Everyone speaks English, costs are reasonable compared to home and everything works.

As a local on the number one tram in The Hague said to me: “If you have a problem here, it’s a first-world problem.”

I was impressed some places we visited incorporated thoughtful touches for kids, such as little booths in the restaurant at Madurodam in The Hague to watch cartoons while the adults finish their food.

The Keuken Restaurant & Deli in Utrecht encourages kids to eat up their food with the promise of a visit to the kitchen to make their own ice-cream for desert.

Given the girls’ ages, we were hardly out late. But, generally, if we headed for dinner about six, then we could plan the next day, the kids could do some coloring between courses and dad could unwind over a couple of local wheat beers.

Then we headed back to the accommodation for a couple of chapters of Charlotte’s Web and lights out.

Even relying on public transport posed no problem. We only splashed out on a couple of taxis in a week and connections were universally easy to negotiate.

I did find myself a couple of times struggling into a crowded train carriage with a child on each hand a heavy bag strapped across my back.

But, while the majority of people simply stared intently at their phones, one generous soul did give up their seat for the girls to sit down on both occasions.

Heading home

On the last day we took the bakfiets for one last spin, cruising the canal-side cycle lanes to the Dick Bruna House, the museum dedicated to the creator of the children’s character Miffy, or Nijntje, (‘little rabbit’) as she is known in Holland.

The Utrecht-born illustrator published his first Miffy story in 1955 and Miffy celebrates her 60th birthday next year – Utrecht also hosts the Grand Depart of the 2015 Tour de France.

Olivia loved listening to Miffy stories on headphones while Maya got busy at the craft table, colouring in a series of Miffy cartoon strips to hang in the gallery.

Upstairs we all posed for pictures – alongside Miffy, ‘natch – on the medal podium.

Maya took the gold for her superior cycling, Olivia the silver for her expert balance biking and dad picked up the bronze for some shaky cycling but, at least, not being drunk in charge of a bakfiets.

Sir Chris Hoy may not have anything to worry about just yet but, after a week of cycling Dutch style, we’re more than just back in the saddle. The Atkinson girls are now cycle savvy.

What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.

Liked this? Try also A walk in Mondrian’s artistic footsteps.

Story of the week: A night of sustainable clubbing in Rotterdam, Holland


* Image from www.sustainabledanceclub.com

Midnight in Rotterdam and the city is exploding into life.

The bikes are stacked four deep outside the opening-night party at nightclub WATT, located between a rain-lashed public park and a fast-food Asian restaurant on a gritty downtown avenue.

A shaven-headed bouncer checks the guest list and twitching teenagers gabble into their mobile phones. Tonight WATT looks the archetypal cool new venue for Rotterdam’s hedonistic clubbers, who power the city’s reputation as the European capital of electronic music.

But, behind the scenes, WATT has another agenda as the trailblazer for the green-clubbing movement.

Run according to sustainable principles, it sets out to reduce energy consumption by 30 per cent, water consumption and waste production by 50 per cent compared to a typical dance venue.

Green power

Earlier that night I have an exclusive preview of the club before the punters arrive.

Entering from the boulevard-style reception, it comprises four main sections: the main hall with capacity for 1500 clubbers, a more intimate, jet-black basement for 300, two relax roofs with chill-out space for smoking (banned this summer in Holland) amongst ferns and plants, and the Lulu Café with 20 covers at street level and an all-day menu.

Green initiatives include a rainwater-flush system for toilets, renewable energy sources and LED lighting, and a zero-waste bar serving organic drinks in recycled plastic cups.

The key feature, however, is the energy-generating dancefloor in the basement, whereby the movement of the dancing clubbers is converted into electricity by an electro-magnetic generator under the floor.

By midnight the club is heaving with a heady cocktail of hardcore clubbers awaiting a set by Paris-based Teenage Bad Girl, a multi-cultural mix of local teenagers attracted by the broad music policy from techno to R ‘n B, and curious locals who remember the club’s former incarnation as a venue for gigs by Underworld and Johnny Cash.

As I hit the dancefloor, busting my best moves in the sweaty basement, the sound of Euro trance pumps from the sound system.

When a MC dressed as a hip-hop nun, rapping the words “Hallelujah” over the beat while two DJs with towering afros deftly work the decks, the gauge at the side of the dancefloor glows green, indicating that the up-for-it crowd on the dancefloor have pushed power levels to maximum.

“I like the idea of a green club but I’m here more for the cool design and great music,” says Rotterdam-based multi-media design student, Tarona Leonora. “I wouldn’t come if it was just a green club.”

“But the way you can make a difference to climate change by coming clubbing here is, well, pretty cool.”

Sustainable living

I first came to Rotterdam when WATT was still a series of architectural drawings.

In rabbit-hutch offices behind a petrol station on the fringe of town, I joined Stef van Dongen, Director of green-entrepreneur consultancy Enviu, to peruse the blueprints for the world’s first venue to use the Sustainable Dance Club (SDC) concept he devised.

He spoke of enlisting clubbers as the foot soldiers of a new sustainability movement that combined youth culture with a commitment to sustainable living.

Things have clearly changed since our last meeting when, the next morning, I head across town to Enviu’s new open-plan offices, the bass-driven thud of deep house still ringing in my ears.

Inside water bottles hang like recycled chandeliers and cartoon-style murals sprawl across the bare walls. In keeping with the company’s green ethos of ‘upcycling’, old water cooler refills have been turned into a recycled filing cabinet.

“Around 130 clubs and festivals, including ones in New York, Cape Town and Sao Paolo, are interested in being direct customers of the SDC project; a larger group have taken the idea but are going it alone in developing the technology,” says Stef as we sip coffee in Enviu’s office, a bevy of young, green-savvy entrepreneurs busily answering phones and preparing presentations around us.

“With the first club now open in Rotterdam we hope to foster competition nature between clubs around the world.”

“When a new and more sustainable club opens, the others all have to play catch up,” adds Stef, whose next project is to send a flotilla of green-fuel hybrid tuk tuks to Indian in early 2009.

Hard cash

Rotterdam Council chipped in €200,000 to WATT’s total €5m cost as part of its affiliation to the Clinton Climate Initiative to accelerate greenhouse gas emissions reductions, while the European Union contributed €450,000 to stimulate cultural events in the city.

But does hard economic reality of running WATT as a business really live up to the pre-launch green hype?

After all, at present the 60m sq dancefloor only generates 300 watts of power – just enough to light up the coloured LEDs set into the floor tiles.

Professor Han Brezet of the Delft University of Technology, who patented and designed the energy-generating dancefloor in collaboration with Enviu, is sanguine.

“The opening of WATT is just a small step and the technology still has a long way to go,” he says. “But I think WATT will make a big difference in the context of changing mindsets.”

“I’m a scientist,” he smiles, “but also an optimist.”

What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.

This article was first published in The Guardian in 2008.

Liked this? Try also A winter warmer at Rotterdam’s best cafe.

Just back: Family cycling in Holland


Easter holidays and we’ve been away.

The girls and I spent last week in Holland, combining a family cycling trip with visits to Maurodam [pictured above] in The Hague, the Miffy house in Utrecht and a Brothers Grimm guesthouse from the Vrienden op de Fiets group of cycling-friendly homestays.

The stories will be out over the coming months – check my Twitter for updates.

Meanwhile, to get a flavour of the trip, here’s a Flickr album of images and a Vimeo page of video clips.

And a parting quote from Arthur Wieffering, the cycling-evangelist founder of The Hague’s Totzo cycle tours and Lola & Bikes cafe:

“Cycling is a piece of freedom. If you cycle every day, then you free your mind.”

* Update: The first piece from this trip is out now in National Geographic Traveller. Read the story, On your bike: a family cycling holiday in Holland.

Story of the week: Following the Dutch cheese trail


* We’re back. Back-end technical issues kept us offline for a few weeks but Story of the Week returns today.

As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.

Think cheese. You probably think of artisan producers in France or the Alpine-pasture produce of Switzerland – but Holland?

All those plastic-wrapped blocks of supermarket Edam are hardly going to whet your appetite. Yet a Dutch producer is currently the world’s big cheese.

Vermeer, a Gouda cheese produced by the company FrieslandCampina, took the top prize at the last World Championship Cheese Contest in America (the next contest is 2014).

“Sadly, much of our exported cheese is young and lacking in flavour,” says leading Dutch cheesemaker Henri Willig, himself a former winner of the contest for his Polder Gold goats cheese.

“Yet proper Dutch cheese has a unique flavour given the soil, the grass the Fresian cows feed on, and the milk they produce. It is creamy with a hint of sourness.”

 Cheese trail

There are currently some 150 cheesemakers along Holland’s burgeoning cheese trail, ranging from big companies like Willig and Cono to small-scale artisan producers.

Much like travelling the route des grands crus in French wine country, you can drop in and visit the farm (it’s good form to buy some produce to take home). Larger producers offer tours and gift shops for cheesy souvenirs.

I’ve come to the rural heartland of North Holland, a region traditionally associated with dairy, sheep and flower farming, to follow the trail.

During a self-drive weekend of bucolic villages, slow-paced life and a chance to consume my own body weight in cheese, I want to explore the rural traditions that are the cornerstone of cheese making in Holland.

Driving north from Amsterdam, the countryside opens up to reveal a steam-ironed landscape of grazing pasture, demarcated by slow-flowing dikes and polders, land beneath sea level pumped dry of water by windmills.

Monks invented the pumping technique and farmers developed it for agriculture from the 16th century. Colourful village festivals, based around the agricultural calendar, developed soon after and, by the time Vermeer painted The Milkmaid in 1658, many towns across northern Holland had their very own cheese market.

My first stop is the city of Edam, home to a historic cheese-weighing hall.

William of Orange first granted Edam the right to trade cheese in 1576 and the town still hosts a cheese market during summer months, although these days it’s more about show than trade.

Cheese shops around town [pictured above] stock examples of the three traditional Dutch varieties of cheese, namely Edam, Gouda and cumin-spiced Leiden. Local restaurants also support the cheese-chomping mania with my dinner that night featuring a Messenklever Edam and a Bergens Blonde, all served with fig compote.

The next day I head to Beemster, the oldest polder in northern Holland, dating from 1612. The reclaimed region, parceled out in a rectangular grid and dotted with farms and merchants’ stately mansions, is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Farming Museum highlights the importance of traditional technology in man’s battle with the water to maintain the quality the diary-farming pasture, using dykes and windmills to control the water level.

Pilgrimage site 

The Holy Grail for the cheese cognoscenti, however, remains the town of Alkmaar, where Waagplein, the central square, has hosted Holland’s most important cheese market for centuries.

Alkmaar had a weighing house for cheese as early as 1365. On a single day in 1917, some 365,000kg of cheese were sold at Alkmaar with trade lasting into the early hours of the morning. The market survives only on Fridays between March and September these days, combining an element of visitor-drawing theatre with genuine trade.

The members of the Cheese Carrier’s Guild, dressed in starched-white uniforms and sporting jaunty straw boaters with rival colour sashes, compete to showcase their cheese-lifting skills.

Responsible for weighing and transporting the cheese, they run through the crowd with handcarts, drawing whoops form the crowd as they manhandle a huge round-shaped Edam in an elaborate show of strength.

Around the perimeter of the square, meanwhile, pairs of cheese traders bargain according to a complex ancient ritual. They exchange a series of singsong handclaps while negotiating the price, slapping each other’s hands in turn during the trade and only stopping to clinch a normal handshake once the final price has been agreed.

After the show, I explore the traditional weighing hall, now a museum dedicated to the story of cheese making with displays tracing the history of cheese making from medieval agriculture to 20th-century artefacts. Pride of place is given to a series of ancient kaasschaaf, thin, cheese slicers used to cut into and slice the cheese for sampling.

No self-respecting cheese connoisseur round these parts would be seen using a knife to slice their cheese.

Ancient cheese warehouses still survive amongst the wood-panelled buildings, medieval courtyards and quiet canals around town. A series of bright, cheery posters plastered across ancient buildings encourage people to consider cow wellbeing at all times.

“Allow them to roam free in the pasture,” they proclaim.

Cheese shops on side streets off the main square ply the traditional styles of Dutch cheese, but also increasingly sell an array of the new flavours currently en vogue amongst next-generation cheese-consumers – pesto, stinging nettle and paprika amongst them.

New flavours

“Personally, I prefer the creamier flavour of Dutch cheese to other European cheeses, such as French or English,” says Helen de Gier, a sales assistant at the Notenbranderij shop, talking me through a counter heaving under the waxy skins of brightly coloured cheeses.

“It’s the combination of softness with sourness.”

I come away with several varieties to take home, including an exotic black truffle cheese. Better still, after a tranquil weekend exploring rural Holland and sampling the new breed of artisan flavours, I’ve seen the light about the true taste of Dutch cheese.

I’ll never buy another plastic pack of supermarket Edam again.

* This story was first published in the Independent on April 16, 2014. Read the edited version at Follow the cheese trail across the Netherlands. Liked this? A similar piece won a travel-writing award in 2013. Read more at Dutch Lifestyle Travel Writing Awards.