"You pick a cold day..." - Mid-winter across Europe - CycleBlaze

December 27, 2006

"You pick a cold day..."

Hoek van Holland, Scheveningen, Wassenaar, Leiden

Leiden in the winter gloom. Note that this view follows the requirement that all pictures of Holland should show reflecting water, a windmill, wooden ships and an appealing bridge.
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It is not for all of us to have a bike made from a tree. Some, more doubting than others, might wickedly suggest that such a thing wasn't possible. But they'd be wrong.

In the town of Alkmaar is a man who makes wooden bikes. Or at any rate wooden frames. He is Dutch and therefore he is called Jan. Every nation has its range of suitable names - all Americans are called Tex, Hank or Hiram, few Belgians are called anything but Willy and any Dutchman proud of his heritage is known as Jan.

To get to Jan's house, though, meant catching the ferry from England. I don't live in England; I live in France. But family duties sometimes become obligations and so I was in the sceptred isle just long enough to appease relatives and to plan my speedy escape. Which was why I was on the ferry from Harwich to Hoek van Holland and why, at night in the middle of winter, the immigration official was surprised to see me.

"You pick a cold day to come cycling in our country", he said as warm air wafted through the half-open window of his little cabin. It was below zero. Our frosted breath made a little cloud which blew up and over the illuminated blue signs.

I hadn't pitched up in Holland just to see Jan. I'd gone to meet a friend called Erie, a Dutch girl I met on an ill-fated ride across America (see "Halfway (not intentionally) across America" and shed tears if you have tears to shed). She'd stayed with me for three days while American doctors expensively examined my bottom and now I was going to stay with her.

Hoek van Holland means "Corner of Holland", and that's where I was. Not "the corner of the Netherlands", however, because Holland is the name just of the two most western central provinces. That's what pedants insist. You'll notice, however, that the Dutch tourist office has given up the unequal struggle and publicises the entire country as "Holland".

And so from my little corner of darkness, I rode around the Hoek until I found the coastal path that runs just out of view of the sea and I set off in what remained of the morning darkness.

Holland has the least number of national holidays of any country in Europe - Italy halved its national holidays a decade or more back and still has more than anyone else - and it soon became clear that most of the nation had decided to stay in bed in their own time, for there was no sign of anyone going to work between Christmas and the new year.

The path, well surfaced and gently rolling, edged past estates of greenhouses. Their exterior was whitewashed and the interior brightly lit, not because radishes crave sunshine but because the lamps give heat that the winter couldn't provide.

After a while the greenhouses disappeared and the first Dutchmen appeared. Dawn had come and, with it, people walking dogs, people jogging, people doing nothing much at all. Not many of them, it's true, but at that time of the morning it was remarkable that there were any at all.

In the second world war, Holland had hoped to stay neutral as it had been in the first war. Hitler, however, wanted to send his troops south to and through Belgium to cut off the retreat of the Allied armies already threatened by the German advance through Luxembourg. Holland didn't care to let the Germans through and said so. When the Germans then suggested they'd flatten every Dutch city one by one until the Dutch changed their mind, the Queen had no alternative but to surrender. But even after she had surrendered, the Luftwaffe flattened Rotterdam anyway.

Things had been quieter in the first war but neutrality meant Holland became a nest of spies from all sides. When a German spy became too much of a nuisance and then denied his Germanness, the Dutch would get him to say "Scheveningen". It's not an easy word to say if your first language is English but it seems that if you're German then it's virtually impossible. And another spy would be hauled off to his doom.

Scheveningen is the vacation resort just to the west of The Hague, which is Holland's seat of government. The bike path vanishes when it gets to Scheveningen and for a while I was left to make things up for myself. I'd like to suggest this was trickier than it was and that only my talent as a world explorer saw me through. But the truth is that provided you don't suddenly see the sea is on the right when all along it had been on the left, you can't easily go wrong.

Erie works in The Hague. She writes laws and rushes off every so often to the parliament building to hobnob with politicians and ministers. Her most recent law, changing the face of Dutch health care, was cited in the Queen's speech.

She - Erie, not the queen - was waiting for me in a hotel just outside Wassenaar, where I was to turn off to the right. From there she would be my pilot fish, leading me through suburban streets (via an atmospheric café and two hot chocolates) to Leiden.

Leiden is Holland's big university city. If you follow everyday Dutch pronunciation and drop the final N, you pronounce it Lay-duh. So far as I could remember, I'd been there just once before. It was back at the end of the 1970s, when the Tour de France started there. The overall organisers planned a time-trial through the streets, which are cobbled and at that moment awash with rainwater. The local organisers, it seemed, had sold advertising around the course or perhaps somewhere else, and that advertising was a contention between both sets of organisers, the French insisting that the Dutch didn't have the right, the Dutch saying that they did.

The race was held, for the sake of form, but it was also cancelled in the sense that the French ruled that it wouldn't count towards the overall result. This was a decision that not all the riders got to hear about, especially Holland's own main team, sponsored by the British company, Raleigh. Its manager had set his heart on one of his riders winning on home ground and so all the Raleigh riders went off at breakneck speed round the slippery cobbles while the rest put on an impressive but nevertheless cautious show.

Raleigh won, of course. The Tour de France has never been back to Leiden since.

Leiden: lively town, beautiful city
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Today's ride: 59 km (37 miles)
Total: 59 km (37 miles)

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