Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fietsen In Friesland

Along with tulips, clogs, windmills and cheese the Netherlands is famous for being both the most densely populated country (of any consequence) in Europe, as well as the most intensively cultivated. Given these two pressures on space I imagined the country to be a duotony of cities and fields. The towns of the Randstand - the super-conurbation where two thirds of the population live and that spreads in a crescent from Utrecht in the northeast via Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam to Dordrecht in the southeast - are certainly visually rather samey: sober brick buildings with a historic core both surrounded and bisected by canals. And for most visitors this is the only image they will get of the Netherlands. I wanted to see the other half too; the polders reclaimed from the clutches of the North Sea, the unending flat lands, the most productive farming area in the world. It's amazing to think that such a small country could be the world's third-largest agricultural exporter (by value). I pictured it to be some grim, soulless, bio-factory.

Typical dutch country house with its own, ultra-green patch of garden and bijou canal.

So off I headed towards the small town of Joure in the southern corner of Friesland. My choice of location was partly dictated by various sights I wanted to visit in the area, but also by the availability (or lack thereof) of Couchsurfing hosts (it is generally quite easy to find hosts in larger towns and cities where CS members number in the hundreds or even thousands, however in smaller towns you are often lucky if there are any members at all). Despite its size it is the home of the international coffee brand Douwe Egberts. Although the head office has moved out there is still a large factory in town, so that when the wind is in the right direction the town smells particularly pleasant, a rarity for the area (more on that in a moment). Eelco and his parents had been signed up for quite some time but had not been contacted before I came as very few tourists make it to that corner of the country, and of those that do most are just passing through.Nevertheless they were both interested and interesting and I learnt a little about Frisians and their culture (it seems that no country is too small to have its own minority with its separate traditions and language). When I told them I wanted to visit a couple of places in the area they offered to lend me a bike for the day as public transport in the countryside is both patchy and infrequent.

It is said that you don't truly see the Netherlands unless you get on a bike and there is certainly more than a grain of truth to that. The majority of commuting in and around cities is done by bike and the infrastructure in place to accommodate them (cycle lanes, cycle maps, stands, permission to ride against the traffic flow in one-way streets, etc.) is second to none. Bikes are so all-pervasive that if there is any one Dutch word that will stay with me it is fiets (bike). The fact that the country is as flat as a proverbial pancake certainly helps as well. Since most bikes are used within a city environment for short distances and in all weathers the city bike is the model of choice. For someone like me who commute(d) to work in London by bike such models are anathema due to their heavy weight, low speed and lack of gears, and are derided as "granny bikes", although they are, of course, practical in certain circumstances. So off I trundled with a vague idea of direction. It took a little while to get used to the more upright ride position, and longer still to the brakes which are applied by backpedalling (I have just realised how much I adjust my feet and pedals as I ride).

My first stop was the country's second-largest national park (though that's not really saying much) which is a wetland fen to the south of Joure. This is the perfect time to visit such a place as the many waterbirds have just returned from their wintering grounds and are going through their mating rituals and building nests. You would think that nature is calm and tranquil place, but tell that to the pairs of low-flying geese going off like foghorns and the jabbering ducks. I then headed back northwards and suddenly discovered one of the reasons why the Dutch have so many windmills: the flat landscape is no barrier to the northerly wind which whips in off the North Sea. And so the lack of hills when cycling is more than compensated by the intense headwinds. The first 40km were a piece of cake, but the next 40 were a constant struggle compounded by the absence of gears especially as I had to reach a pumping station at a specific time for the daily tour. OK, I know what you're thinking, a pumping station does not sound like a particularly exciting proposition, but when over 20% of the country is below sea level then they are a matter of survival. Despite my hardest efforts I arrived about 15 mins late and they were already in the process of closing down. As I collapsed from a mixture of exhaustion and disappointment (and a touch of ham theatrics I have to admit) the elderly guide took pity on me and gave me my own personal tour of the station. The Woudagemaal was built in the 1920s and is steam powered, but is still called upon every year during the spring floods to protect Frisia, and ensure it doesn't return to the sea, at a rate of 6 million tonnes of water an hour (in weight equivalents that's 1.5 million elephants every hour).

The steam-powered Woudagemaal is still used to pump water out of flood-prone areas of Friesland.

As big a draw as the national park and the pumping station was the Dutch countryside. The dense network of cycle-paths means that by bike you can get right into the middle of the land and see it up close and personal. The immediate thing you notice are the canals which are literally everywhere, surrounding even the smallest dwellings and irrigating the smallest fields. It struck me that they are like negatives of British hedgerows: they help delimit the landscape and provide an abundance of habitats for birds (ducks, coots, moorhens, storks, geese, swans and all other waterfowl) and smaller animals, it's just that in Britain they go vertically up whereas here they go vertically down and so also have the added bonus of not obstructing your view. But the monstrous superfarm scenario that I had feared failed to materialise and instead the farms were surprisingly small, although the intensive farming revealed itself through more subtle signs: the sickly-sweet smell of silage with a not-so-subtle undertone of manure, the intensely vivid green of the grass (due, I was later to find, by fertilisers being injected straight into the ground - apparently it's less environmentally damaging as they are less likely to run off into the waterways), and the industrious tractors going about their business. Indeed, almost a picture-postcard (albeit a flat one) of bucolic charm.

Drying haystacks marching off into the horizon typify the Dutch rural landscape.

I'm glad to have been able to have seen the rural half of the Netherlands, the less-visited, more relaxed half. I think it would be difficult to get a complete picture of the country without experiencing, at least in part, its green heart.

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