A Travellerspoint blog

May 2019

Stockholm

Stylish, storybook city by the sea

semi-overcast 10 °C
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Stepping back three weeks in time ..................After a two hour flight from Amsterdam, here we are in Stockholm, the watery capital of Sweden and the launching place for our tour of the Baltic.

I have long been interested in visiting the Scandinavian countries but It struck me while reading the Lonely Planet Scandinavia just how special the region is. It talks about how the region has a high liveability rating due to the combination of stylish cities set in watery surrounds and with landscapes endowed with an abundance of beautiful forests, lakes, fjiords and spectacular coastal and mountain scenery. Add to this that the cities have a rich history with beautiful buildings to match and it is also becomes a very appealing area for visiting.

So, we were looking forward to doing just that and also to taking our first cruise.

We arrived in a chilly 6 degree Stockholm at 9.30pm and caught a taxi to the hotel. An interesting ride as the driver drove most of the way at 140kph in the 100 zone but thankfully slowed down to 120 in the 80 zone. However, we made it safely to our hotel The Esplanade (after Keith asked him to slow down), which was a lovely throwback to times gone by. The hotel dates back to 1910 and retains much of the ambience and character of that era with wood panelling and welcoming lounges. With only 34 rooms, friendly staff, well located on the Esplanade and great breakfasts it was a great place to stay.

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On Wednesday morning we walked along the picturesque waterfront to the Vasa Museum.

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The Vasa is the sailing ship built for the Swedish King in 1628 which sank 20 minutes into her maiden voyage and laid in the mud in Stockholm harbour for 333 years before being salvaged in 1961. Because of the water conditions and being covered in mud and clay the ship was remarkably well preserved and 98. % of the reconstructed vessel is original with most of the elaborately carved woodwork being retained. The ship sank because it was top heavy and to narrow in the beam to carry sufficient ballast. Despite misgivings about its stability the King needed his new flagship to support his war with Poland and the Admiral did not have the courage to say No Sir. So after launching and making the customary gun salute to the Royal Castle, the ship was hit by a gust of wind and rolled at such an angle that water poured in through the gun portals that were still open after the Royal salute. The ship could not recover and sank within 20 minutes of setting sail. Of the 150 crew about 59 died with some remains being recovered with the ship.

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Another museum located on the island of Djurgården near the Vasa Museum

Stockholm is comprised of 14 islands connected by 57 bridges, making it a very walkable and scenic city. It’s natural assets are supplemted by lots of storybook buildings, especially in its Old Town, Gamla Stan, founded in the 13th century as a sea port for Viking trading. This small island is dominated by the Royal Palace, big but not of very interesting design, at least from the outside. Various parts are open to the public but we wanted to explore the Old Town.

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View of Gamla Stan and Royal Palace from island opposite

While rich in character with beautiful old buildings, narrow, cobblestoned streets and lots of colour, the area had lost much of its charm due to being exploited for tourism. Every second shop was a tourist shop full of cheap souvenirs. There were still some nice quieter areas in the back streets but once again what were obviously once beautiful local areas have been subsumed by the tourist avalanche.

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Quintessential Stockholm with lovely vistas wherever you wander of a beautiful harbour lined with grand buildings and boats of all sorts

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And the most important ship in the Harbour, for us at least, the Viking Sea, the large white boat centre back

The cold weather has continued (we went from Netherlands cold to Stockholm colder), with an overnight low of 4 and forecast top of 10 with not much improvement for the next week.

At 2pm on Thursday 9th May, we boarded the Viking Sea. We were greeted by friendly champagne bearing crew and sat in the Atrium lounge to enjoy the atmosphere before heading off to find our stateroom and explore the ship. Very impressive with its many restaurants, lounge areas and other amenities. There was real air of excitement on board as others did the same. Lots of American accents, some Aussies and Brits detected so far with a very multicultural, very friendly crew.

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We will lay our heads here for the next 15 nights

We spent the first night on board in Stockholm and the next day did a bus tour of the city. Although we had already wandered around the inner city, the tour took us a bit further afield, across more bridges to outer city islands and also gave us more of an insight into the social liveability of Sweden. Our tour guide told us that although Sweden has a population of just 10 million, they pay very high taxes and for that have free education at every level including university, very low cost health care, a very generous maternity leave of 420 days for each child and thereafter generous child endowment payments plus 35 days annual leave! A lot of people don’t own houses but their rents include water and heating. There is no homelessness, no beggars, low unemployment and generally a good standard of living.

After our morning tour, we set sail at 2.30pm for Helsinki, sitting on the aft Deck 7 lounge area to watch Stockholm disappear from sight as we sailed out through the Stockholm Archipelego of some 24,000 islands.

Posted by themaggiej 10:56 Archived in Sweden Comments (8)

Maastricht

Tot ziens to the Netherlands

semi-overcast 11 °C
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Maastricht

Maastricht, sitting on the banks of the Maas River, is the Netherland’s oldest city. It is located in the south of the country on a thin finger of land which juts down between Germany and Belgium. The West Bank of the Maas is the city’s main hub with a lovely old town containing 1667 national heritage buildings. It developed from a Roman settlement, the remnants of which can be seen in the city walls, the first being built in 1229. It’s cobblestoned, pedestrianised streets are lined with lovely shops and cafes, which along with a few nice squares give it an air of bourgeoise. On Sunday we did a walking tour and got a real insight into the long history of the city and its medieval buildings.

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The Town Hall

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Maastricht’s second basilica Onze Lieve Vrouwebasillek, Basilica of Our Lady, one of the oldest churches in the Netherlands built before 1000AD

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The oldest city gate in the Netherlands.

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Part of the city wall and the red shuttered building dating from 1647 that was previously a nunnery

The (normally) most beautiful and famous of the squares is the cobblestoned, tree and cafe lined Vrijthof Square in the centre of the old town. This is where Andre Rieu conducts his annual concerts. However, a big Andre fan I was devastated to arrive there to find a carnival being set up in right in the middle of it and blocking what should have been a beautiful view to the Basilica of St Servatius and St Johns Church with its 80 metre tall red tower and the 38 heritage buildings lining the other sides of the square.

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Shame!

Today I walked 3.4km from our bnb to Andre Rieu’s home. It is actually a castle and sits on a small hill overlooking the Maas, with a church behind it with a large steeple. I imagine in its day it would have been situated in a little village on the outskirts of town, but although it sits within a lovely garden with a mass planting of rhododendrons in bloom and a long sweeping stairway, unfortunately suburbia has encroached on it and spoiled the effect somewhat. However, it was exciting to see where Andre lived, but alas no sightings!

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Andre’s Primary school

While I was off doing my explorations, Keith went off to explore some of the defences that were built by the Dutch to defend the city. Because Maastricht is strategically located on the Maas River and is a gateway between north and south Europe it was attacked many times over 2000 years with control changing many times. It started with Romans in early AD who established the first fort in the middle of the town. They were followed by the Gauls, Vikings, Spanish and French over the next 1500 years.

King Willem was determined to keep Maastricht in Dutch hands and built many major defensive structures. Keith first visited Fort St Pitier on a 100m hill which overlooks the town and provided cannon and musket cover to defend the south of the town. To the west 14 km of tunnels (known as casements) were dug into the limestone hills in a zig-zag pattern. The tunnels had openings through which they could deliver a withering cross fire at the approaching troops. In later years these casements were used as bomb shelters in WW2 and shelters against nuclear attack in the Cold War.

We are staying on the east bank in an area called the Wyck, a lovely area with 17th century houses and quieter than the West Bank.

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The Wyck from the West Bank

Not only has this charming, historical city been a nice place to relax after a couple of busy weeks, it has been a fitting bookmark to our journey through the Netherlands from our starting place in another wonderful Dutch city, Amsterdam.

Tomorrow we train back to Amsterdam then catch an evening flight to Stockholm.

Tot ziens Netherlands! We’ve enjoyed getting acquainted.

Posted by themaggiej 15:23 Archived in Netherlands Comments (10)

Den Bosch - Nuenen - Thorn - Maastricht

Southern Netherlands in a Nutshell

overcast 11 °C
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Utrecht to Den Bosch

After a sunstantial breakfast of fruit, yoghurt, muesli, omelette, breads, cheese and ham (again with enough left over to make sandwiches for our lunch) we set off at 9.00am as we had a big, 76km day ahead. Although a cold morning, it was fine and we found our way easily from our B&B back to the LF7 markers.

After about an hour, we came across a stunning 15th century city gate (remnant of a former castle) as we approached the little town of Vianen.

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As we entered we discovered a lovely town square lined with cafes and outdoor seating
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And beyond that, the weekly market
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We thought we were back in France, as this is so typical of many town centres we’ve been through.

However, as there was a stall selling stroopwaffels
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And another selling tulips, which at €5 for 3 bunches meant we had to be in the Netherlands, and definitely not in Australia where they are considerably more for just ONE bunch!
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This lovely building was also in this delightful town square
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Leaving Vianen behind, we were once again back to our much liked canalside riding, where the banks are lined with pollarded willows, where cattle, sheep and horses graze in lush green paddocks and yes, J&P, there are sometimes swans.

These pollarded tree trunks are typical along canals through the Netherlands. Nina told us that they are willows that are traditionally pollarded to promote growth and are then harvested for their thin, strong branches used in the old times to help construct dykes but today more for fodder or for wood.

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These have regrown and waiting for their next ‘haircut’
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J&P, this one’s for you!
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Love riding through this countryside on these lovely bike tracks
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All the houses in this dear little town were displaying national pride with their King’s Day decorations still in place. The heart on the ground in front of the tulip panorama is made of clogs.
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Lunch stop

When we passed this at 1.28pm, we realised why we’d been feeling so cold
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and why, despite pedalling hard, I was still wearing a parka and three merino underlayers
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Another part of our day’s journey took us through a very nice village built on the polder below the dyke on which we were riding.

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This house also built below the dyke and the house in the background against the dyke. The espaliered ‘hedge’ is very typical of houses in the Netherlands. I believe they are often linden trees.
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Unfortunately the landscape gradually changed and we seemed to leave the watery canal landscape behind as we cycled towards our evening destination of S- Hertogenbosch, or Den Bosch as it is commonly called. This was the first Dutch town to be declared a city in 1184, and was the heartland of Catholicism. The city’s most famous building, the Sint Jeans Cathedral, dating from 1220 is its crown jewel. Big and imposing, it was impossible to capture it all in a photo, but it is a highly decorative and impressive building, despite currently undergoing restoration and swathed in scaffolding.

The town boasts lots of historical buildings, a centuries old canal system and an impressive fountain Drakenfontein which stands in front of a row of lovely mansions from early 20th century.

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Part of the Den Bosch skyline showing the spires of the Town Hall and the Sint Jeans Cathedral
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The Town Hall
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We had another lovely B&B for the night, not far from the Centrum, with a very hospitable hostess, who along with her daughter and grandson who were visiting from Amsterdam, made us feel very welcome.

Den Bosch to Nuenen

A more leisurely day today as we only had 61km to ride.

We have been very pleasantly surprised at the quality and quantity of the breakfasts we have been provided with and today was no exception. On opening the door at 8 o'clock we were greeted by three generations, mother, daughter and grandson, each carrying a tray of goodies. They were delightful people and so hospitable. The photo speaks for itself.

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Our hostess had set the table beautifully while we were out the previous evening, just as our mothers and grandmothers would have done with butter knives and lovely fine china cups and saucers. Look at all the lovely cutlery and the egg warmers!
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This was to be one of the few highlights of the day as for most of the ride we pedalled a twisty, turny, route through farmland, semi- built up areas and the busy uninteresting city of Endhoven.

This was one of the few nice scenes I took today
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It seemed like a different country to the Netherlands we have got used to this last ten days with no pretty canola lined canal paths. The only redeeming feature of the day was a long tree lined canal after Endhoven which reminded me very much of some of the canals of France we have ridden along, so I thoroughly enjoyed this section and the pretty reflections on the water.

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To make things worse the weather turned cold after Endhoven and we rode in light drizzle for the last hour into Nuenen. Once again we were lucky that the heavy rain started once we were safely inside.

Again the accommodation is excellent with a lovely room and separate lounge and dining room for the guests with bar. This is the twilight view across fields from our B& B. Very calming!

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Nuenen was the home of Van Gogh from 1883 to 1885 and the community has capitalised on this connection by establishing a Van Gogh Museum and a Van Gogh riding route.

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His parents house where he resided while in Nuenen is just across the road from the museum and next door is the home of Margot a lady with whom he had another failed relationship leading to her taking rat poison - she survived but the relationship did not. Throughout the village there are many talking posts where you press the button and hear something of interest about Van Gogh and his time in Nuenen.

Nuenen to Thorn

This was to be our longest day, so we were on the road by 9am, fortified by a great breakfast to put us in good stead for those 81km. The forecast was for mainly fine weather with a top of 12 degrees, but with no sun and a bit of wind chill it felt cooler than that.

The ride had few highlights as in the main we went through farmland and small towns. The Dutch are a very neat lot, and while we have enjoyed riding by their neatly tended gardens and homes, it is just not the same without canals, windmills and tulip fields.

However, after 20km, we did have a surprise when we suddenly went from forest into a large parkland of dry sandy grasslands. Our initial reaction is that this may have been the original edge of the sea before they started to reclaim the land, as the ground was very sandy and undulating like sand dunes. Our subsequent research has revealed that it was 1500 hectares of natural heathland called Strabrechtse Heide.

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Oh, what a change of scenery!

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Galloway cattle and sheep grazing in the Strabrechtse Heide

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Then just as quickly as we entered it we were once again out and back into the forest which surrounds the 1500 hectare heathland.

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Much of our cycling has been on quite country roads and as shown in the following photo these roads often have bike lanes on either side with just one lane for cars in the middle. Bikes have priority on the rare occasions that traffic comes from both directions - the cars have to give way. Just imagine how that would work at home!

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Elevenses - a chance to check the map and enjoy koffee mit appeltarte

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Then, finally a nice canal to ride beside

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And a nice spot for lunch before back to the forest again

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Once again as we approached our destination light rain began to fall, so we were very happy when we arrived at the cobblestoned streets of Thorn and easily located our B&B. It was about 4pm by then and, although it was freezing outside, (and raining by the time we checked in and changed), we were anxious to get out and have a little wander around this small, attractive village known as the white village for its white washed brick houses in the centre of town.

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Arriving at our B&B. Our hostess is a collector! This collection of blue and white porcelain features pieces not only from Delft, but from many other countries such as Portugal, Poland and Asia. Two of the walls are covered in an amazing variety of pieces.

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The item on top shelf, 3rd item from left, is actually a 3D shell type map of the Netherlands. The place we are heading to, Maastricht, is at the bottom of the ‘tonsil’ on bottom RHS. It is surrounded by Belgium on one side, and Germany on the other. Our route tomorrow will take us into and out of Belgium a couple of times.
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She even had a wonderful collection of blue and white tea towels!
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And the main square of Thorn

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Thorn to Maastricht

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After a pleasant night in a comfy B&B, we set out from Thorn on another bitter morning, but as you can see from photo below the sun WAS trying to shine on us.

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Along the way we rode along dykes surrounded by farmland and cattle grazing in green, green pastures, past fields of asparagus, through towns and along river banks and canals. As you can see from the photos, there were some threatening clouds which, despite us pedalling hard and not stopping for elevenses, eventually caught us. Fortunately we were able to shelter under a bridge from the sleet and bitter winds which passed quickly and we didn’t get too wet. Sounds like fun?

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But ...... we made it to Maastricht in reasonable condition despite those big black clouds and later found out that it had actually snowed today in Maastricht and that temperatures are 10 degrees cooler than average for this time of year.

Our ride this week has been a great extension to our barge trip and of furthering our exploration of the Netherlands, but we are pleased to be in Maastricht and are looking forward to a couple of days of R&R. Hope you enjoyed our journey.

Hello Maastricht. Goodbye bikes!
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Below is some data from the GPS of our 460 km travelled between Haarlem and Maastricht.
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Posted by themaggiej 13:11 Archived in Netherlands Comments (7)

Alkmaar - Landsmeer - Utrecht

Our Netherlands journey continues

semi-overcast 12 °C
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Haarlem to Alkmaar

On Sunday morning we had an early start as we needed to catch the 8.30am train to Haarlem to meet our bike tour operator and pick up bikes for part 2 of our Netherlands adventure. This will be the real adventure, as we have decanted our basic necessities for the week into panniers, leaving our remaining luggage with Holland Bike Tours in Haarlem before setting off for 7 days of independent cycling.

We caught our train ok but almost couldn't get off at Haarlem as a very officious ticket inspector, who arrived in the carriage moments before the train came into Haarlem, hauled us over the coals for not printing out our e-tickets in accordance with the fine print terms and conditions. I insisted we were getting off, so he alighted with us and held up the train for 5 minutes giving us a lecture on the platform. Not a good start to the day!

However, our nice tour operator Emiel from Holland Bike Tours was there to meet us at the station. He took us to his bike shop and spent an hour getting us prepared for the ride, including making sure our bikes were set up correctly and running through the pre-programmed GPS, maps and other equipment he provided.

We eventually commenced our 70km ride to Alkmaar in drizzling rain at about 1030. We had only gone about 1km before Keith and the GPS had a disagreement about which way to go. After several false starts we got the hang of reading the GPS and we were on our way. The outskirts of Haarlem was just as interesting and scenic as the inner old town. Lovely houses set in beautiful tree lined streets and gardens. After Haarlem we rode for about 15km through green parkland forests and small towns before catching a ferry across a river to the coast behind this sand dunes.

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Leaving Haarlem through beautiful forested bike path

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This large group of ducks just waddled across the road to the lake as cars waited for them to pass.

We then rode another 15k along excellent bike paths through the dunes about 500m from the sea. About 10k south of Alkmaar the sand dunes were replaced with ideal soil for tulips and other flowers so as we rode we would pass through these explosions of colour.

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Galloway cattle beside the track in the dunes

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Lunch stop during stop in rain

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A couple of the beautiful tulip fields we passed along the Tulip Route

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Lush countryside - what lucky cows

Our original plan was to go past Alkmaar by about 10k to the start of the bike path known as LF 7 Riverbank Route.. which we will follow for 385km south to Maastricht, near the Belgian border.

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However, near Alkmaar the weather started to turn for the worse so we cut the corner straight to our B&B near the centre of Alkmaar arriving at 1630 and just beating the rain. 53km km cycled today.Our host Willem was there to meet us and show us to our very well appointed suite in his rear garden. A quick change and we set out to explore the very historic town of Alkmaar before dinner at a restaurant recommended by our host.

Alkmaar is known worldwide a the cheese city for its Friday cheese market, but for us, visiting on a Sunday, it not only represented yet another lovely Dutch town of character with its canals and a lovely old town centre, but it also was where we enjoyed our first taste of Dutch B&B hospitality.

This beatutiful building is the Weighing House. It dates back to 1390 when it originally had a religious purpose but later as the cheese industry grew it became the place wher cheese was weighed.

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Alkmaar to Landsmeer

After constant rain overnight we woke to a cloudy but fine day. Our host provided an excellent breakfast with enough leftovers for lunch which was really helpful, particularly as many food outlets close on Monday. Our tour guide notes indicated the ride from Alkmaar to Landsmeer, just north of Amsterdam, would be 51km and total up downs would be 20m ie very flat. Also the wind was forecast to be light north easterly which would be mainly behind us. A good day for riding.

The bike paths as usual were excellent and well marked with the LF7a signs which is the north/south bike path. The track took us through lovely forests, very lush green fields and often followed a lakeside, river or canal. It seemed that wherever you look in Holland there is water and lush green fields or forests.

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Leaving Alkmaar beside a lovely canal and a beautiful forested track

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Along the way

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Along the way

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Lunch stop by river watching cargo boats and tugs

The only major tourist attraction on the way south was the row of working mills at Zaanse Shans which we had visited this during our stay in Amsterdam. It was still enjoyable to see the giant colourful sails (they had acquired some orange sails since we last saw them, no doubt their nod to King’s Day) turning gracefully in the wind as we approached from the opposite direction this time.

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I couldn't resist snapping pictures of the animals along the way so here are a few. One shot I missed was a farmer leading a small flock of sheep and lambs along the road - he was holding a pail which I presumed held feed to keep them following.

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We see a lot of ducks and birds along the way enjoying the wetlands.

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The final run into Landsmeer was through lovely wetlands only 3km out of Amsterdam.

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We arrived at Collette's B&B at about 4.30 after 53km of cycling. Our host was a young Finnish guy married to a Thai lady and they had recently come from Vietnam where he was studying at a college run by RMIT. As it happened his parents were visiting from Finland and his sister from Portugal was passing through. All part of the passing parade of nationalities you encounter when travelling which adds so much to the experience.

Landsmeer to Utrecht

With a 67k day ahead we decided we had better make an early start particularly as we had to go through the middle,of Amsterdam.
Our lovely host Vili arrived right on time at 8 o'clock with our breakfast accompanied by his visiting father who was carrying a tray as well. After a great breakfast with enough leftovers of bread, cheese and ham to make sandwiches for lunch, we hit the road at 9. Our fears of riding through Amsterdam were unfounded.

The bike track into Amsterdam Central first meandered through lovely wetlands then joined a well marked and easy to follow bike path right into the middle of town where we caught a free ferry to the back of the train station. From there we followed the LF7a markers through the busy city till the Amstel river hung a left and then we were on our way out of town on a quiet road beside parkland and leafy neighbourhoods - about 10k in 45 minutes.

The rest of the ride to Utrecht was just as easy along a very picturesque path that always had water on our left or our right. With light winds and a very flat bike path we were able to comfortably sit on 20k per hour. At elevenses as we stood on a corner checking which way to go, we met a very kind gentleman who suggested a bakery on the canal for coffee and apple tart. What a wonderful suggestion it was! While there we watched a canal employee manually wind the adjacent bridge up and down to allow a boat to go through. Most bridges can be electronically activated when boats want to pass through but in some villages the old traditions have been maintained.

About 20k from Utrecht our route took us along a most beautiful leafy area beside a canal with lovely villages and km after km of magnificent chateau like houses built in the Dutch form of architecture. It was a very pleasant run into Utrecht.

We made very good time (for us), to arrive in Utrecht at 3.30 but it then took us 30minutes to find our B&B. The bike path took us right through the middle of the old town which was very busy with tourists and locals despite the temperature being about 10 degrees. We found our street ok but then it disappeared at the same time as the canal disappeared under the city square. Eventually we found that the canal and our street popped up about 100m further on. From there it was easy to find our home for the night next to the canal. Vincent our host was waiting for us and showed us to our room which was, of course, in the loft with three flights of spiralling, very steep, staircases (as the Dutch do!). But it was a very nice, spacious and comfortable room with views over the canal.

A quick change and we went out to explore the historic old town centre. Vincent had recommended several places to eat which we couldn't find, but we stumbled across a very warm and cosy French restaurant near our digs which served very traditional French food and wines at good prices. After French onion soup Keith had a delicious beef bourguignon. Then back to our loft to plan tomorrow's ride.

Utrecht is the Netherland’s 4th largest city and centuries old university town. Once it’s religious heart, it boasts the country’s tallest church tower, the Dom, which dominates the medieval core of the city. It is ringed by a loop of attractive tree lined canals lined with cafes and terraces, providing much atmosphere. After our very enjoyable ride to get there, we enjoyed our short stay in equal measure. A very nice small city.

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Operating the punt on the way

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Lunch stop by a canal

Then there were the beautiful houses lining it

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Not sure what this large building was but very impressive

Arriving Utrecht
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The Dom from viewed from a canal. Shame about the scaffolding!

Posted by themaggiej 13:02 Archived in Netherlands Comments (6)

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