If a road trip is the way to explore the United States, a bike trip is the way to explore the Netherlands: the country is flat; the network of paths, both within and between municipalities, is both excellent and extensive; and since everybody bikes, biking is safe. As part of our almost-weeklong stay, mostly a visit in Rotterdam of Peter’s sister Katka and a celebration of her daughter Emma’s one-year birthday, we took an overnight bike trip to Leiden, where we had met 11 years ago. Exploring the Netherlands by bike is the way to go!
First we headed to Delft, a small town between Rotterdam and The Hague, famous for its blue-white pottery, for being the birthplace of the 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer, and for being the burial place of William of Orange.
Leaving Rotterdam’s bustle, we settled into a steady, slow pace and glided through the South Holland countryside, which often revealed the country’s contrasts: a look back about a half-hour into the ride reminded us of the major city we had just left and provided a glimpse of the pastoral scenes to come.
It only required a small stretch of my imagination to see the cow enjoys a near-sacred status in the country. From the moment you step outside Schiphol airport into the manure-scented Dutch air, to passing pastures by train or bike, to sampling the great variety of dairy products the Netherlands offers, the cow is ubiquitous. Canals of all sizes create ideal environment for birds of all feather, including this Grey Heron.
We reached Delft in almost two hours.
After a stroll around the market square we set out to find the cafe where we had our first date, on May 14, 2002. Lindsay remembered it was near a canal and a bridge; I remembered it was on a corner and near a square; neither of us could remember the name. We finally found Cafe van Ouds on a canal near a bridge, corner, and square—closed. We asked around and learned that of the elderly couple who owned the cafe, the husband had passed away a few years ago and the widow retired and lives upstairs.
Though we were happy to have found the place, it left our hearts a little blue.
Three of the things the Netherlands is best known for: canals, windmills, and biking (as I said, everybody does it).
Not to be denied by the cow, the sheep dots the countryside almost just as much.
Four and a half hours after we departed from Rotterdam, we reached Leiden. One of the first stops: the shared house at Stationsweg where we first met. Best described as a shithole, it nevertheless proves that any place can become meaningful once overlaid with memories.
Leiden sits at the confluence of Old and New Rhines, where it became a trading center (though it’s best known for hosting the country’s oldest university and for being the birthplace of one Rembrandt van Rijn).
In the old times, ships would come down the two Rhines and unload and sell their wares on the quays. The market (we caught the Wednesday edition) continues a 900-year tradition.
We strolled and strolled through the old city, which boasts the second longest waterway system in the Netherlands, after Amsterdam. At any point you’re minutes, if not seconds, away from a canal.
Then it was time to head back. The first part of the return trip took us through the fields again, but most of the journey ended up tracing a busy road.
We arrived in Gouda tired from the noise and biking against the wind. The day’s market was over and so was our bike ride: we took the train back to Rotterdam.
Tired and a little sore from the commuter bikes, not built for long rides, that Katka’s friend loaned us, we agreed to take a bike trip again when we return to the Netherlands again in the summer. Nothing beats the bike for discovering the country’s landscape, cities, and culture.
P.S.: Check out all of the photos from the bike trip as a slideshow: