by Papa Bear

My wife and I spent 10 days in the Netherlands in September, primarily in the area near Amsterdam. For her it was to attend a meeting of an organization she belongs to. For me it was as a tourist and allowed me to spend the time learning about and enjoying a country I had never been to.

Yes, I did a little running, but that was almost an afterthought. I characterize this experiences as being about canals, trains, bicycles and dunes, in no particular order. Of course that means I left out windmills, churches, museums, dikes, statues, restaurants with great food, Peace Palaces, town squares, hidden churches, Market Day in Leiden, De Rosse Buurt, etc., etc. You could probably think of more. But I decided to concentrate of a few things and leave it to you to go there and check out the many other things. And yes, I would also enjoy going back to enjoy this beautiful country again.

Papa Bear

Canals: For drainage, for commerce, for defense and for relaxing

msterdam is a very old city, going back to the 13th century. It is said one of the original canals was formed when walls were built along the Amstel River to prevent flooding. A part canal / part street, the Damrak, follows the original course of this river from the harbor south to the town square. As the city grew, land was drained and canals served to carry drainage water to the harbor.

As time went by, dikes were built to keep out the tides and the canals served the function of commerce in bringing goods and people to and from Amsterdam and other coastal cities to the low lying countryside. Much of the form of Amsterdam with its concentric rings of major canals intercepted by small radial canals was built in the 17th century to promote residential development, commerce and defense. But to this day, drainage is an important function of these waterways. The windmills pumped, and the canals flowed in the never ending battle against the water.

The canal shown in the top picture of this report (also the thumbnail to the right — click on it), with the flower decked bridge and grand estates, is the Singelgracht canal, which became the outer limit of the city during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th Century. The Rijksmuseum, a stately building housing many masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer, sits on the south side of this canal. It was my favorite spot in my short visit to the city. Look at the picture and you can see why.

But in the current day, my impression is that the canals have become the locus for relaxation and elegant dining. I just want to sit by them, to walk along them, to eat next to them, and to travel by boat on them. We didn't get to do that on this trip there were just too many tourists competing for space on the tour boats. I guess I'll need to find out when the off season is.

Trains: clean, fast and cheap!

rains? What's so special about trains? Well, trains can be pretty ordinary, but in the Netherlands they are modern, fast, and they go everywhere. It would be as if the whole of New York State had service as good or better than Metro North. They will take you 5 miles to the next town or 300 miles to Paris or Frankfurt. I would say the long haul trains are on the level of Amtrak's Acela, only faster and cheaper.

And the fare system is universal from local trams (aka surface trolleys) and buses to high speed intercity trains. You just wave your card when you get on and again when you get off and it all gets figured out. Warning: don't forget to wave the card when you get off or you'll be charged for the furthest destination. Sort of like losing your ticket on the thruway. Think of it like a combination of a Metrocard, a Metro North ticket and an EasyPass.

We took trains from Haarlem to The Hague, then to Leiden and numerous times to Amsterdam, plus local buses, trams and metros (subways) along the way. This excellent transit system, plus the emphasis on bicycles for local trips, illustrates the Netherland's attempt to cope with the the issues of energy use and pollution.

Bicycles: they are everywhere and are used by everyone!

ne of the first things you will notice when you get to the Netherlands, is the bicycles. They are literally everywhere. All the roads (excepting the major highways) have bike paths, usually on both sides. And these are not like the pathetic bike paths in New York like those along First or Second Avenue. These are really separate from both the travel lanes and the pedestrian sidewalks. The intersections and the traffic lights are built with the bikers in mind. And everyone uses bikes. From kids just big enough to ride to grandmothers. And folks are (generally) not out biking, they are going somewhere — by the most efficient method. Almost everyone commutes to the local train station by bike. And the train stations have bike parking lots to accommodate them. Some roads have a single car lane for two-way traffic, but will have a bike lane on either side.

Helmets? Never saw one while I was there. Folks are adept and don't fall down and cars would have a hard time hitting them given the layout. Little kids? Groceries? No fancy child seats, baskets or panniers, but usually just wooden bins. You frequently will see a couple of little kids in a bin riding in the front of a bike.

It's hard to describe how big a difference this culture of bikes is compared to any notion I carried with me from New York. But, as they say, a picture is worth 1000 words.

Here's a picture of a New York City bike rental station: And here's a picture of a bike parking lot for Amsterdam's Central Train Station: To use a word I usually like to avoid — Awesome!.

At Last, Some Running: over the Dunes in Zuid-Kennemerland National Park!

hen I planned for the trip to the Netherlands, I thought I would have opportunities to do some short runs near where we were staying and perhaps fit in a long run or two — after all, we would be there 10 days. Well, it didn't happen. First there was little time available considering the many "must see" and "must do" things that presented themselves. And secondly, the layout of the cities and towns were not particularly conducive to running. Yes, there were sidewalks and bike paths, but they were quite crowded with pedestrians and bikes. It seems everyone but a few of the population biked, and those few who didn't, walked. I think the only ones who drove cars were American tourists ( — only kidding).

But I did get to do a long run — twice! It turns out we were staying with my wife's friend, Ellie, in Bloemendaal, a place about 15 miles west of Amsterdam, a little north of Haarlem. Bloemendaal is about 4 miles from the North Sea and between it and the sea is a large National Park — Zuid-Kennemerland National Park — consisting almost entirely of sand dunes. Over the centuries these dunes supplied fresh water to Amsterdam and also protected the cities from flooding from the sea. Before the park was created, much of the area was undeveloped except for some large estates owned by the wealthy. The coming of the National Park protected this area as a watershed and as a unique natural environment. And because the area was laced with old roads and paths, these were designated as bike paths, hiking (and running) paths and equestrian paths. There are only a few areas accessible by auto and almost the entire park is slowly reverting to it's original natural state, including native flora and fauna. The next picture gives a good sense of the area. It was taken from a high dune about ⅔ of the way across to the sea. Click on the picture for a larger version.

And here's an excellent link with lots more information on this valuable resource:

Our hostess, Ellie, is an avid walker and suggested following a hiking path over to the North Sea and back, which was supposed to be about 12 kilometers, and which took about 4 hours round trip to walk. This seemed great, and I studied her map and took off early Sunday morning for my run. Unfortunately about halfway through, just before I should have reached the North Sea, I lost the trail and got disoriented. At first I asked walkers and bikers I encountered how to get to the sea (everyone spoke English, thank goodness) but after going this way and that, I gave that up and tried to ask how to get back. Unfortunately I didn't know the (Dutch) name of where I started, so that didn't work. Finally I recalled that there was a soccer club at the park entrance (actually more of a drinking club whose members occasionally played or watched some games on the field in front of the club) and if I asked how to get to the "football club", I was good. Eventually I got back safe and sound, with plenty of pictures and called it a day.

A week later I got to have a "do-over", only this time I took a map. I saw some beautiful areas, met some very tame "wild" animals and lots of nice folks, saw the sea, and got back fine and dandy. The mileage (see the route map below) was between 9 and 10 miles, but the dunes made that the equivalent of a good deal more. After finishing and studying the map I realized I was very close to the sea when I had given up on the previous attempt, but in retrospect I'm glad I did it twice. If you ever go to Amsterdam, find this place and take a nice run. But remember to get a map and take it with you.

I put together a photo album which shows the main points along the way. It's worth a look (it comes up in another window in front of this one). Here it is:

Here's a map of my route. Click on the map and you'll get an interactive Google Map.

A word on our itinerary

e spent 10 days in the Netherlands (not counying the "red eye" trip from JFK the night before day 1). The amount of tourist + running activity I did could probably fit into 6 or 7 days. The rest involved various things we did associated with my wifw's meeting. Our major activities that were of general interest were 1) a visit to The Hague and the Peace Palace, 2) a visit to Leiden for sight-seeing and to experience market day. 3) 3 trips to Amsterdam for sight-seeing, museums, etc., and 4) two long runs over the dunes, plus a number of lunches, dinners, walks in the woods, etc.

You could probably fit an equivalent amout of activity into a week's visit, but since the largest cost is almost always the air fare, I recommend you spend as much time there as you can afford to allocate. But of course that advice pretty much applies to any vacation.