In rapid succession, we have said goodbye to the Netherlands, to Germany and even to Belgium and the horrible time is upon us that we need to look again upon the septic brexit divided isle and worry about how to fit in to the putrid place that we are ashamed to call home.
In the Netherlands we had trouble finding anyone that did not speak English. In fact, most people spoke English so well that it was nearly impossible to tell that they are Dutch. Awesome. We found out that one reason for this may be that the Dutch don’t overdub any imported movies and TV, but rely on subtitles. This may explain why most English speaking dutch people people seem to have an American accent! 90% of Dutch people claim to have conversation level English.
So if you are considering camper vanning abroad for the first time and find the potential language barrier a bit daunting, try the Netherlands first to ease yourself in! There are some Netherlands downsides – it has been the dearest place for food, drink, diesel, and camping stops, but they also rate pretty high on the world happiness index (6th in the world!)
Belgium is great for languages too – they are laid back enough to not have their own, but use Dutch and French. Many Belgians speak English too.
Contrast with Germany – which made us feel a little better about our lack of languages in blighty. We encountered very few people that spoke anything except German, so you need to get your bitte and danke sorted out!
Within spitting distance of Belgium, Our really expensive motorhome camping is on the banks of the Meuse river. It is 5km north of Maastricht city. It’s too hot for a pair of unfit fifty somethings to do very much, so we chilled out for the first afternoon trying to keep cool. The next day and the need to keep cool meant a (slow!) 10 km cycle ride to visit the Maastricht underground site and the extensive underground limestone quarries that are over 400 years old at Zonneburg caves. There is no lighting installed in the system, so the whole tour was conducted by torchlight. Never mind all the fantastic tales we could tell you about the quarries or the people that dug them, all you need to know is that for one hour, we had 12 degrees C and almost 100% humidity – it was fantastic! Traditional Netherlands dishes for lunch followed and then a very slow 10 km back through the town to the mothership. We didn’t get to see much of the town centre. Few photos from Maastricht, the caves were too damn dark!
Our campsite is about 8km outside the town. It’s a truly lovely site with huge pitches. We are still getting away without electrical hookup and are no longer worried about every watt – mothership electrical systems are just fine – no ‘Main Bus B Undervolt’ for us (sorry, you may need to be a bit of a geek for that one).
We took a long detour to come back to Apeldoorn, just a stone’s throw from Utrecht (well, 40km, but who’s counting?) The reason for this is that we discovered a really cool primate park called Apenheul, which tries to present various primates large and small without barriers. Many of the smaller primates just wander around the visitors.
Even where it would not be safe (for the apes or humans!) to mix, the park employs clever barriers to make it seem as though you are with the Apes. The highlight of the day was seeing the gorillas up close. We were in the front row and the only thing separating us from six bloody great apes was 20 feet of water. None of the primates like water much and it’s an effective barrier between species and in this case us! More than half the species are free to roam among the visitors. It was a wonderful day.
The Apenheul has a greater mission too: It’s a non profit organisation and all profits raised are invested in primate research and conservation programmes across the world.
Nearby the Apenheul are public gardens, Park Berg en Bos, including a pretty spectacular wooden tower with a great view of the surrounding forest.
East, east and a bit more east. So close to Germany, we could spit over the border. And in fact, the route sally took saw us on 40km of Germany motorway, so we have already fitted in another country! Remember folks a world without borders is wonderful!
Bourtange is about 1km inside The Netherlands and is a fortress town dating back to the time when the Spaniards controlled the area. It’s a classic 5 pointed star when viewed from above – as design that can be seen all over the Netherlands.
It doesn’t take long to look around – It’s a tiny town and most buildings are part of the museum. So our day was mainly a chill out. It was our 26th Wedding anniversary so we decided to take it easy apart for a quick drone flight.
The Campsite is north of the river, around 10 minutes walk from the free ferry to the station (pleasantly surprised to find that all the ferries are free)! The campsite has plenty of spaces but we asked for an electrical hookup and they didn’t have any spaces for a whole week that had hookup. So for a whole week we are on a campsite, but off grid. This is new territory for us – when on grid we use the electric for almost everything and save the gas.
And, typically, two days later, we have lost a couple of bars on the habitation battery level and then we noticed that the solar system was not working. It turns out that it’s only a fuse that has blown, so this is replaced and that takes us down another rabbit warren and the discovery that we don’t have a manual for the solar controller. But we are up and running and will look up the code on the controller when we can get someone to give us the manual!
On the plus side – taking two days for the battery to lose a couple of bars without any charging is a good sign, so for the next few days, we use the van just like when we are on hookup – normal laptop use, plenty of TV, wifi access point etc, and the battery just bends the pin on ‘full’ at the end of each day, so no issues there as long as we get the sun for a few hours a day! At our next stop we even charge the bike batteries and the drone, again with no issues at all, so we are going to try staying off hookup for an extended period now. When we are on paid sites it will save between 1 and 5 euros a day, which will all add up over time!
Meanwhile, back in Amsterdam: Over the next few days we pick our favourite attractions and go check them out. They ranged from the Bodyworlds exhibition, to boat rides, to Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Heineken museums. A few things were booked up too far in advance, so we didn’t get in to see the Anne Frank house. And a few things were shut when we visited like the fluorescent museum.
The campsite is a 20 minute walk from the ferry over to Central Station and a 10 minute walk to the Metros station, so as they are so close, we never did get around to getting the bikes out.
We lucked out with the Monaco GP: it just happened to be playing at the restaurant we lunched at, so that was the afternoon gone (and a large bar bill!).
The Van Gogh museum was great. It’s a real shame that they have a no photos policy – it puts a downer on the day that we cannot record our trip.
Our first experience with a bike parking garage! What a great idea and for up to a day, it’s also free. It’s actually painless, so we don’t really understand why there are so many bikes up on the street when there is a problem with bike thefts in Utrecht. At the door, the attendant puts one of those tamper evident stickers on the bike and gives you a little keyfob. You don’t get the bike back without the keyfob. Simples! And you keep the fob and sticker attached for your next visit. We have not yet worked out if it is a national system and we can keep the same sticker and fob for Amsterdam.
Actually, bike theft has been something we thought about in the last few towns. Many of the bike locks are pretty rudimentary, so we wondered if theft was an issue. Its the first time anyone mentioned it – the Utrecht campsite reception told us that theft is a big problem in town, so told us to use the parking garage.
The campsite is fine. It’s in a park/sports complex and looks out over a lake. There are many geese that make the campsite their home, so watch out for goose poop ( A rake is provided!) There are plenty of parking spots away from the lake, but we figure that a little bit of goose shit is a fine price to pay for looking over the lake.
The site has very mixed reviews – There are many cabins around the site which are very run-down. It’s clear that they are gradually being re-roofed and refurbished, but some reviewers don’t seem happy with this. Toby likes abandoned buildings, so he probably would have happily paid extra to nestle among the yet-to-be-completed buildings!
It’s a surprise that people are surprised by the campsite – it’s been like this for a long time and has a clue in the name – Budget Camping Utrecht. We almost always research each campsite carefully – we look at google maps so we know what direction we are approaching from and if there are likely to be any narrow roads or low bridges, so we have a rough idea of the area and a campsite like this sticks out a mile on google maps – it’s clear to see the roofless buildings.
Anyway, enough about the domestic arrangements! Utrecht is the last stop before Amsterdam. We have been thrashing around across the country a little to make sure that we had been in Gouda for the Cheese market. Now we can chill out for the weekend.
We arrive on Friday nice and early and get set up and get on the bikes to the town centre. The main thing we want to get done today is the Dom and the Speelklok museum. Both are fab! Toby found the Speelklok museum through a you-tuber that he follows: Wintergartan. Mechanical music machines, some of them of epic proportions. Great stuff!
Next day and it’s a long cycle ride out to the new military museum and a ride in a tracked troop transporter. T attempt to get a look at Enigma memorabilia failed again. This museum is supposed to have a copy of one of the German code books that were used for the daily machine settings, but no sign of it 🙁
We arrived at Gouda around midday Wednesday. Being in the middle of the town, having only 30 spaces at only 8€ per night, we knew it would be popular. We got the last spot! It’s more of an aire and is in one part of a car and coach park.
Some campers that arrived after us and parked slightly outside the (poorly marked) camper area got parking tickets/fines and were asked to move on, so we really lucked out (again!)
Cheese and biscuits for lunch and then out for a wander around the town for the afternoon. The cheese market is Thursday so we chilled out. Actually, there was some kind of children’s fair in the town, so it was pretty boisterous and bustling. We looked over the canals and side-roads. It’s a really pretty town. Then back for that chill-out (beer).
The next day and we wander back into town to see the famous Gouda cheese market. Actually, it was a little disappointing. There is a lot of cheese on sale, make no mistake about that, but it seems mainly to be a tourist attraction rather than anything else. Although there are many pallets of the 16kg rounds laid out in front of the weighing house, there doesn’t actually seem to be much selling and buying going on of the large cheeses. The bartering system used to be called ‘handjeklap‘. Instead there are many stalls selling many different spins on one of the most popular cheeses in the world. We end up with three truckle sized cheeses, garlic, mustard and walnut. Important to remember that Gouda got its name from the town the cheeses were sold in and not the area they were produced – so no region protection for ‘Gouda’ cheese.
We looked at the incredible Sint Jan Cathedral – the stained glass windows are some of the largest in Europe. They were removed and hidden at the start of the second world war to protect them from the Nazis.
The rest of the day was soaking up more of the town and plodding more of the pavements!
Okay, it’s The Hague if you want, but we think it’s better to use the native name! Our campsite is to the northeast of the town close to Scheveningen. The facilities are good, but it’s expensive and, for example, you still have to pay for showers and washing up and the pitch is only grass. It’s on the site of a former recreation park, and it’s a little odd that we drive round an old running or cycling track to get onto our pitch.
The first day we head out to the coast at Scheveningen, where there is a wonderful pier complex. A massive crane is moving an old pill-box so we watch that for a while. From a large tower at the end of the pier are bungee jumps and a huge zipline are set up back along n the pier, but they are expensive, so we don’t bother!
When we were researching things to do we found a Jukebox and car museum, so we went out to see that, but the address turned out to be a housing estate. We looked it up later and we don’t actually think it exists, which is odd as there are loads of google hits, but never mind!
So instead our backup was the Louwman museum, which turned out to be a great backup. It’s one of the best car museums we’ve ever seen. It’s more of a private car collection that’s open to the public. It covers the late 1800’s all the way up to the noughties. There are many unique and famous cars here for example Elvis’ last cadillac, Churchills Humber Pullman, Genevieve of movie fame and others. There are over 200 cars and in particular this forms the largest collection in the world from 1910 and earlier.
Many of the cars are original and unrestored, and many still take part in classic runs such as the London to Brighton and the Mille Miglia.
We were pleased to see a 1900 Benz Duc Victoria: Owned by Doctor Wakefield in Horley and used to visit his patients! Our home town!
We had to fit in a graveyard visit while we were in the Netherlands, so it was over to the Cemetery Begraafplaats Kerkhoflaan and the quite interesting Apparent Dead House. These were not unusual in Victorian times when medicine was a less exact science. Basically, the recently deceased were laid out and dead watchers were employed to look for signs of life. They used feathers, mirrors and even attached bells to arms and legs. The watchers would come to the aid of the ‘suspended animation’ if any alarms rang, or after a suitable period, the now definitely dead would be interred.
We had to go and look at the Panorama Mesdag. This is a 120 meter long and 14 meter tall panoramic painting dating to 1881 and based on photos taken from the dunes outside Scheveningen and painted by Hendrik Willem Mesdag. At the time, these panoramic paintings were really popular – like a form of VR we suppose. The painting is housed in a purpose designed building, the viewers ascend a staircase to a central viewing platform to see the whole scene.
Within five years of its completion, advances in photography and the early days of film killed the popularity of Panoramas. Within a few years the company went bust and Mesdag purchased the whole building and his panorama. This is the oldest surviving panorama (or cyclorama) still in its original location.
We also went to the world renowned to Mauritshuis Museum and saw some of the works of the Dutch masters, for example Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring.
We spent half a day at the Escher collection in Het Paleis – the former home of Queen Emma. The palace is stunning on its own account. The basement cafe still boasts many original features of the kitchens. The rooms have fantastic (contemporary) chandeliers. We took many pictures of the prints. After a while we had to stop as we would have been there the whole day!
From Den Haag, the timing is just right to catch the Thursday cheese market at Gouda.
The campsite we have found is wonderful. It’s along a long narrow road next to a canal. There is a steep slope down to the campsite but the mothership manages it ok. (it’s more tricky getting back up the slope when we leave after two nights, but with a run-up and a little wheel-spin we manage it!) It’s a little disconcerting having the campsite much lower than the canal level, but we soon get used to it. So much of the Netherlands is lower than sea level, it’s just normal here!
We cycle into the town and the first thing we spot when we dump the bake near the central station is a bunch of university students building a house from cardboard. The doesn’t sound too exciting we hear you cry. This house is a model of a house that will soon be built as part of a regeneration project not far from the station. The model seems to be not far off 1:1 scale and will be over 18 meters tall! When we arrive in the town they have the roof nearly complete. A few hours later we come back that way to grab the bikes and they have another story finished. It is already huge! But we never did get to see the finished building.
The windmill in the town is also open on the day we visit and we are lucky enough to see it running. This mill is for flour production rather than pumping water. Although the wooden parts have been replaced, they are authentic replacement parts and the mill runs today just as it did hundreds of years ago.
One thing that we noticed about the mill here and those at Kinderdijk is that they are manually steered into the wind. A large ships wheel type affair is used with pulleys to turn the mill as the wind changes. Our knowledgeable guide tells us that self steering mills were around in the UK at that time that the majority of Netherlands mills were built, but the technology never made it across the North Sea to the Netherlands.
He also tells us that the Netherlands windmills Have non-linear sail geometry that never passed across the North sea in the other direction, so maybe WTO terms would stifle innovation as well as kill national production.
The windmill is particularly tall because it still needs to catch the wind when it comes from the town which was two or three stories tall. The stairs inside are more like ladders and are nearly vertical. It’s a fun 10 minutes climbing up the inside of the mill to the platform, which is still only about halfway up the windmill!
For our last day in Delft, we go for a long cycle ride and the weather is glorious, so rather than restaurant food, we buy picnic items and have a great meal next to the canal (only a mile from the mothership!)
We were intending to stop at Alblasserdam for just one night to let us visit the famous Kinderdijk windmills, but the site is so wonderful that we stayed for two extra nights and made it our base for visiting Rotterdam by water bus rather than cycling in from a closer campsite.
The base is a motorhome Air in Alblasserdam. It is next to the water and nestled between two huge factory buildings for the local mega-yacht company. We think that they actually make ultra-yachts as apparently mega-yachts are not exclusive enough anymore! Outside their factory is the Luna B. It’s about 100 meters long and we think is around €500M. We emailed the factory to see if they allow visits or run tours, but no response. We guess that we are not the right clientele! Not even a response. Tuggers 😉
On the afternoon of the 7th, Toby’s Birthday we get the bikes out and cycle out to Kinderdijk, just about the best set of Netherlands windmills you will find!
Built in around 1740, The main interesting think about the 19 (n-n-n-n-nineteen, nineteen) windmills, is that they were not for milling grain. Instead they powered (and some still do!) pumps for draining the polders (low-lying tract of land enclosed by dikes). It’s a lovely afternoon and it’s really busy. We also treat ourselves to the wonderful Dutch pancakes, poffertjes. These lovely morsels are fluffy pancakes served with icing sugar and butter. Nom nom. Charlie already has a pan back home. We must persuade him to get it out again when we get home!
The next day, Selinas Birthday, we take the river bus downriver to Rotterdam town. Europe’s largest port, it lies at the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta. Although there are boat tours of the new port, we instead stuck to the town centre. The architecture is amazing. Much of the town centre was razed over three days in early May 1940 when the Luftwaffe bombed it, eventually forcing the Netherlands to capitulate. So most of the town centre is quite modern.
We went to look at the SS Rotterdam, keel laid in 1958 and the last of the great Dutch ‘ships of state’. We also saw the cube houses, the big bridges and had (an Italian!) lunch in De Markthal which manages to marry a new market building with high class housing.
One day in Rotterdam was about a week short of what we needed, but that’s all we had, so fast river bus back down to Alblasserdam and get the mothership shipshape for the short drive to Delft.