My 2nd go at travelling internationally, I arrived in Amsterdam at around 1 pm, thankfully on Friday but I had to start my trip on Thursday, which is a rookie lesson I had to learn. I had August 31st as the date I knew I wanted to arrive here to give me an extra day before starting the Traveleyes trip but I did not realise I actually needed to start travelling on August 30th in the US to get here on the 31st.
So thankfully the Traveleyes tour manager called to confirm some other details and when I was looking at my emails, sitting at work at 10.30am, I realised I had a flight planned for Thursday rather than Friday. So after rushing home, I caused my guide dog some anxiety by rushing around, going up and down stairs, getting all of my clothes packed, sorting her stuff out. So now I am settled in a hotel in a Dutch farming town called Volendam. It is very much a farming town, I can stand outside and smell the farm life out there, which is really cool, that’s part of what I am here for to see things I wouldn’t get to see in the US like Windmills and castles and that kind of thing.
Traveleyes had organised a taxi and I was picked up in a beautiful black luxury vehicle and taken to the boat. I felt like a million dollars.
Around lunch, I met up with the rest of the group and we got something to eat at a restaurant near the pier. Once we returned, we got settled into our cabins and enjoyed our first meal.
The Sarah is the name of the boat we are on which has a crew of four people including a chef. Given that bike and sailing tours are popular here, the bikes are located on the ship’s top deck for easy access.
After our safety briefing, we took our first ride as tandem pairs. The bike themselves are heavy cruising bikes where you sit more upright than I’m used to on my road bike with drop bars. But surprisingly, most of the single bikes used here and in Holland had that upright design, unlike the diamond American style where you lean forward. Also, most of the local’s ride bikes with chain guards which protect their clothing. I guess we will stick out like awkward tourists with our cycling kits. So far, a beautiful start to the trip.
Today was the first official day of cycling through the Dutch countryside and ending through Utrecht which is a very busy city along the Amsterdam Rhine canal. (29 miles)
Our first stop was to a traditional Dutch milk and cheese farm This particular farm has been in the same family since the 16th Century. It runs an 80-cow milk production and offers a bed and breakfast.
As we road through to Utrecht, we came across hordes of local cyclists for various festivals along our route. While the country is known for cycling as a means of transportation, it is also known for a complicated system of canals. We had to stop a few times to wait for the bridge to open after allowing taller boats to pass through.
Two surprising experiences today were a first for me. First, we visited the Museum Speelklok which featured mechanical instruments such as the small and large hurdy-gurdy and pianola which all are independent musical instruments that do not require a musician. One had three violins and a piano and the other used a rudimentary computer to operate an organ, symbols, percussion, and wind instruments. These were used to reduce the cost of hiring actual musicians.
Finally, to our overnight destination in Vianen, we used a system of old locks to raise our boat to the higher water levels of the canals approaching the city.
Today you can notice a marked improvement in the tandem teams as they do their starts and stops. Cycling as a tandem pair, starting to ride and stopping a ride can feel a bit chaotic. The pilot must communicate when we start moving. They may need a push from the stoker. There may be some random car pulling out in front of a tandem which can feel like a large ship on wheels. But today we started giving 1 minute and 30-second warnings for the seven teams to get going. This helped a great deal in keeping us together.
I wish I could bottle up this sense of discovery and curiosity I feel when I’m on holidays like this. I feel this tangible sense of ingesting new memories and pieces of information that hope I will never forget.
Today we pulled out from Vianen and biked through the lush countryside where you could see cows and sheep grazing and laying about. We then arrived at Royal Leerdam Crystal which is a glass and crystal factory which still uses the old methods of glass blowing. The 100% male workforce use long hollow tubes to pick up the hot molten crystal from a vat and place it in a mould where they continually move the tube while blowing into it to push the glass against the mould. Now I know the difference between glass and crystal whenever I go to someone else’s house. Because it is too expensive to have in my own home.
After completing our 25-mile trek, we sailed off to Heusden which is a Dutch fortified city. I had my first creme brûlée to celebrate my activity partners 59th birthday.
Today we had a bit more relaxing day if you consider riding a bike relaxing. In my case, I am crazy enough to consider a day on my bike invigorating.
We had a later start after it rained most of the night. While it has been only 65-70 degrees, the humidity has been quite high.
We took a tour of a family micro-brewery where they use only natural ingredients to brew some 20 speciality beers. Due to the warmer conditions, which are temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius or 77 degrees Fahrenheit, they cannot brew out of concern for building ripe conditions for microorganisms. Someone in the group asked why not just put in air conditioning and have more breeding days. The best answer I’ve heard was “cause I like having holidays!” There is a true sense of doing hard work, but there is also balance here in returning to things you love like family, singing which we could hear in a local rehearsal hall last night, sailing, or cycling.
We then cycled through the vast and endless country land, where the livestock roam freely.
In the town of Ravenstein, there was a hidden gem. A local architectural expert created a vertical tactile map of the town. The visitor centre was surprised and at some level overwhelmed by the idea that this creation they’ve had for some 25 years would help the town come to life for some 15 blind and sighted visitors. The best thing is that the creator, who’s now 80 years old, will find out how much this meant to us.
Physically, I am enjoying myself but I am in serious need of some shammy cream and a massage.
This was our longest day yet. We completed 30 miles of more small Holland villages and farms. But I was able to wake up early and meet the captain on the bridge for setting out for our morning sail. I was surprised the find out that much of the navigation is computerized, but he can drive using the wheel. Because I’m writing this, we survived my first boat driving experience. The ship we are on was first commissioned in 1927 as a barge and was converted to a passenger boat in 2003.
Our trek was a bit more technical today with gravel, sand, uneven pavement, barriers, and everything you can imagine.
We visited a beautiful garden in Arcen where you could see a small waterfall and aromatic roses. We are too late to see the tulips, but the roses were just as nice.
One aspect of riding a tandem with a total stranger is the incredible and intellectual conversation you can have with the pilot. Today I expanded my vocabulary with more British terms, discussed the socioeconomic challenges of gypsies, and racial issues. I am thankful to have my pilot who can talk just as much as me.
A sista is tired, but a good kind of tired. Holland is one of the largest exporters of food, both plant and livestock. Riding for miles, it’s very easy to understand how this is true. The land is flat, lush, and has access to fresh water in nearby dykes and rivers.
Today like the others, we passed sheep, cows, birds, and even one pig. But today, we saw more vegetation like kale, cabbage, tomatoes, and apples. So much so that you can easily smell the product in the air.
Near mile 15, we passed a beautiful and breath-taking metal artwork of an earth goddess and a female warrior. The artwork towers to easily 50-75 feet in the air.
Finally, we completed our 30-mile trek to Roermond a historic town that still shows signs of Roman influence.
A lot of the time, the special moments come from hitting the major highlights on the itinerary. However, it’s in the simple moments of sharing a fist bump after a hard ride, hearing a childhood family memory that comes to life after hearing the language of their childhood or finally realizing we are all fighting our own personal battles even though we are thousands of miles away from one another.
Though I’m becoming a bit tired, I feel alive.
Today started out very rainy, but we have to complete this trek. I didn’t have a raincoat, but thankfully one of the participants had a rain cape I could borrow, though I’m not sure if I looked human. We have been blessed to have great weather with little wind, but for the morning portion of our ride, we had to push against strong winds sweeping through vast fields.
We travelled from Roermond to Thorn, where we sampled Limburgse Vlaai which is a tasty pie filled with fruit with a harder topping. I definitely needed all of the hills to burn that meal off. And yes, there was some climbing on this trip as some parts of Holland are below sea level and many of the bridges are tall which allows for the large ships to pass.
For a time, we cycled into Belgium and saw a bride and groom being presented to their friends after completing whatever happens in Belgium government buildings after weddings. The entry into Belgium was a little anti-climactic because the only change I noticed was the signs changed from white with black writing to blue with white print. From what I understand, in Europe travelling from one country to the next is not as big of a deal as I had thought.
While in the town market and hearing about the history of where we stood, I sadly realized that we had trekked through much of the lands fought over in both world wars with Holland neighbouring Germany. Many town markets and monuments had to be rebuilt. Remnants of the walls keeping others out remain but have little purpose. Unfortunately, in our own country, we are still locked in the mindset that we can build physical walls to separate each other that other countries have learned from over the centuries.
We made it to Maastricht which was our final town. This completed our 270-mile tour of this naturally beautiful country.
The crew put on a wonderful celebration for us as our last meal aboard.