Jill and I signed up to do a one week bike and barge trip from Amsterdam to Maastricht in the Netherlands with Pegasus Bike Tours. Amsterdam is in the western part of the Netherlands about halfway between the northern and southern boundaries, while Maastricht is in the extreme southeast corner of the country, sandwiched between Belgium and Germany.
Contrary to popular belief, Holland is not synonymous with the Netherlands, although Holland is frequently used, and largely accepted, as a designation for the country. In reality, Holland consists of North Holland and South Holland, which are two of the twelve provinces in the Netherlands.
The distance from Amsterdam to Maastricht by driving is about 132 miles (220 kilometers). One can easily drive between the two in under three hours. We are going to take six + days to ride between the two cities, meandering extensively along the way. Our itinerary is:
- Riding Day 1: Amsterdam to Weesp – just a get acquainted/warm-up ride (15 km)
- Riding Day 2: Weesp-Utrecht-Vianen (62 km)
- Riding Day 3: Vianen– Gorinchem–Heusden (41 km)
- Riding Day 4: Heusden – Cuijck (40km)
- Riding Day 5: Cuijck – Arcen (48 km)
- Riding Day 6: Arcen – Venlo – Roermond (50 km)
- Riding Day 7: Roermond – Born – Maastricht (42 km)
If you do the math, this results in a bit over 300 kilometers of bike riding, or 43 kilometers per day. In other words, pretty light-duty riding. Especially since most of the Netherlands is nearly as flat as the proverbial pancake. The trip is advertised as a sightseeing tour of the Netherlands by bicycle, as we will stop frequently to view the sights, visit castles, gardens and picturesque villages. By night, we will be on a Dutch barge – the Lena Maria.
Day 1 – Wednesday
We left our house on Bainbridge Island at noon to catch the Island bus to the ferry. From the ferry, we walked to the Pioneer Square Light rail station to catch the train to the airport. Our trip to Europe got off to an inauspicious start as Jill, in a semi-frantic effort to catch a just-arriving light rail car, failed to swipe her Orca card prior to boarding the train. We were seated in the front of the rear-most car. As luck would have it, a security officer boarded the train at the next stop and proceeded to check everyone’s ticket, working his way from the very rear of the car forward.
Jill turned to a fellow passenger, muttered that she had not purchased a fare and asked the lady if one could just pay on the spot. Her traveling companion, answered that no, that was not an option. The fine was $124 for not having a valid fare. Luckily we were just arriving at the next train stop and the officer had not yet worked his way to our seats. So Jill and I grabbed our bags and hastily exited the train. Jill then dutifully paid for her ticket and we re-boarded the next train a couple of minutes later. So, all in all, we escaped disaster and the rest of the trip to Europe was without incident.
I should mention that we had originally booked a low-budget flight to Amsterdam via Iceland Airlines with a stopover in Reykjavik. One day before our scheduled departure, we received a text from IcelandAir stating that due to “operational issues”, our flight to Amsterdam had been re-booked on Delta Airlines with a non-stop flight to Amsterdam. Yay! The Delta flight was full service, plus we had two seats right next to each other (window and aisle). Unfortunately, though, neither Jill nor I slept very much on the flight, so we arrived in our usual tired state.
Day 2 – Thursday
Our flight landed in Amsterdam (Schiphol airport) about 1:00 PM local time as scheduled. We took the very convenient train from the airport to Central Station Amsterdam. As our hotel was only about 0.5 km from the train station, we rolled our bags over the cobblestone sidewalks to the hotel without much difficulty or effort. Crossing a street, one must be ever mindful of the often silent or nearly silent trolley cars, bicycles, motor scooters and cars zooming by.
Normally I resist taking any sort of nap after landing in Europe under the belief that this type of approach helps in adjusting to the time change. This trip, however, both Jill and I took a short nap after checking-in. I set the timer for 30 minutes, though, and it worked quite well. We both slept – just enough to recharge a bit. We felt energized enough to explore the neighborhood and try some of the local beer. My newfound conclusion is that a short nap may be the better way to go, as we both stayed awake until 9:00 PM and slept pretty well through the night.
Day 3 – Friday
Today is Friday – our first full day in the Netherlands. The day dawned sunny and beautiful. After enjoying an in-room Nespresso, we were charged up and ready to go. To breakfast, that is! Within a couple of blocks of the hotel we found a breakfast place doing a fairly brisk business. We sauntered in and were immediately seated. Jill and I both ordered the vegetarian breakfast. What a mistake! No – not because it was vegetarian, but because it was enormous! We could easily have gotten by with splitting a single order. Oh well, now we know better.
After breakfast, we decided to do the Rick Steves Amsterdam Walking Tour. The tour starts at the Central Train Station and has about an hour of talk time. We easily spent about two hours walking the tour, though, taking our time to browse and enjoy the sights. It was a delightfully warm day and we were soon in T-shirts.
Following the walking tour, which ends nearby, we bought tickets to the world-famous Rijksmuseum. The museum is immense and even though we spent several hours there, we didn’t have the time or energy to see most of the exhibits. We focused mostly on the works of the Dutch masters – many of which are truly amazing creations. Not only is the quality and realism notable, but the scale of some of the paintings is mind-boggling. Anyone visiting Amsterdam should surely budget some time to visit this outstanding museum.
After the Rijksmuseum, we wandered around the streets a bit more before stopping for a bear break. We had discovered Affligem beer the previous evening (a Belgian beer) and decided we both really liked it. Affligem beer supposedly owes its origins to six knights who gave up fighting in order to form an abbey in 1074. The abbey monks began brewing beer around 1129, per the earliest known recordings. Today, a lot of Affligem beer is evidently sold and the label is owned by Heineken International.
Day 4 – Saturday
Today was the start of the biking portion of the Bike and Barge tour. We checked out of our hotel about 9:00 AM as we had to be at the Amsterdam Oosterdok, where the Lena Maria barge was docked, by 10:00 AM to meet up with the other tour members who were planning on visiting the World War II Resistance Museum. It turned out that everyone participating in the tour (all 23 riders) had elected the optional museum visit.
Ralph Nussbaum, our tour leader, grew up in Amsterdam and his father had been active in the resistance. Needless to say, visiting the museum was an educational and poignant experience. I learned things that I had no idea had occurred – just a few years before my own birth.
Back at the Lena Maria, we departed about 2:00 PM for Weesp on a very hot afternoon for the Netherlands (91 degrees F). We all then suited up and headed out for our first group ride The purpose of the ride was to “dial in” our bikes. That is, get the seats and handlebars adjusted for maximal comfort. We also reviewed the Dutch biking rules and practiced riding on the bike paths and roads.
As I had spent considerable time in the Netherlands during my working career, I was familiar with Holland’s world-class biking network. In the Netherlands, bicycling is heavily encouraged and supported. Independent bike paths are ubiquitous. Quite often a biker does not need to worry about sharing pavement with a car, as the biking path is physically separate from the road and even the pedestrian pathways. This is not always the case, however, so it was important to learn the rules of the road in terms of who has the right away an what the various signs and symbols mean that one is likely to encounter on a ride.
Even though it was warm, the ride was pleasant and the sights were delightful. We even saw our first windmill. Below are a few shots from our first Netherlands biking experience.
Day 5 – Sunday
This turned out to be the longest ride of the week – from Weesp to Vianen, which is 62 km. Most of the group actually rode a shorter course of 47 km, but eight of us chose to follow Ralph on an “extra credit” ride of 15 km.
The day was much more comfortable temperature-wise; about 75 deg F by mid-afternoon. This part of the Netherlands was notably pristine. Everything looked to be in exceptional order – lawns impeccably mowed (where there was grass), flower beds meticulously trimmed, houses in excellently maintained condition, etc. Several of us commented on how prosperous and exemplary this part of the Netherlands appeared.
Nowhere did we see signs of run-down or abandoned buildings. Nowhere did we see garbage and liter strewn about. The view from our bike paths was almost Utopian. Mothers riding their bicycle with a baby in a front compartment. Young school children riding around together. Occasionally one sees a couple holding hands while riding together side-by-side on two bicycles. Many “old” people (men and women alike) ride bicycles in the Netherlands.
The highlights of today’s ride were a stop in a small cheese-producing farm just before lunch and mid-afternoon stop and walking tour in the Centrum of Utrecht. Centrum, as one can easily conclude, means the town center and is very typically the older, often medieval, location where a town first grew. Also quite typically one will find the remains of walls (where they still exist) in and around the centrum. The Utrecht Centrum is quite old and actually dates from Roman origins.
Day 6 – Monday