Den Helder & Texel
When we left our friends in Utrecht we headed for a small town in the north west of the Netherlands along the coast called Den Helder. We came here primarily to explore the island of Texel, but we ended up liking the tiny town of Den Helder too. Our Airbnb host had some bikes for us to use and we took full advantage of having them. We rode all around Den Helder and found a little road on the ocean side of the “big green dike” protecting the coast of the town where we could ride with a great view of the ocean and islands off the coast. A light house down the coast screamed for our attention so we decided to bike in its direction and ended up at a bar nearby where we grabbed a beer to soak in the ocean view.
The next day we set out early on the bikes to catch the ferry to Texel. All was well until a local shrieked at us because we were biking in the wrong direction down a very narrow bike trying to find our way to the ferry…oops! We struggled finding our way to the ferry entrance because there was absolutely no signage to help us out so we mostly just followed other people hoping they were also heading to the ferry. We stepped on the ferry with only about 30 second to spare before it took off on the 20 minute voyage to Texel. This gave us just enough time to tap into their wifi (since the wifi at our AirBnb had quit working the night before) so we could find a good bike route around the island. Graceful is not how I would ever expect to describe a ferry until our ride on this one. We didn’t even know we had arrived until they made the announcement, and everyone scrambled back to their cars and bikes.
Our bike ride around the island was a beautiful landscape of farmland dotted with little towns along the way. We picked out our bike route so hastily that we really didn’t know what to expect aside from a beach at the turn around point and a few towns along the way. In Utrecht we saw a beer from a brewery located on the island of Texel. Wouldn’t you know it, the route we picked took us right by the brewery. Obviously, we had to stop in for a beer tasting! After fueling up we hopped back on the bikes headed to the next town in search of the one vegan friendly restaurant along our route, all the while hoping they would be open. Several times we have arrived at restaurants that we researched online only to find a hand written note saying they are on vacation for the month. What is more frustrating is that they never seem to post this important information on their websites or on their Facebook page! Fortunately, luck was with us and they were open!
After lunch we headed to the beach town where we had to walk our bikes when we ran into the center of town which was a pedestrian street with a bunch of shops and restaurants. While walking we were blindsided by a cowboy on his horse singing in front of a restaurant. I was lucky enough to be recording at the time and caught a little bit of his song on film for your enjoyment so check out the video with this post!
The whole day the wind had been blowing pretty steadily in our faces, but wow did it pick up as soon as we crested the sand dunes and had a view of the beach. We planned to spend some time at the beach, but with the endless squall it was not very enjoyable. Nobody was swimming and we had a feeling we knew why so we decided to put our feet in the water just to find out how cold it was. Not quite as cold as we feared, but there was still no chance either of us were going swimming.
Our ride back took us across some unique landscapes and through some small “forests.” We learned they have a different definition for a forest here in the Netherlands, a grove of several trees constitutes a forest. By far the coolest landscape we saw on our 40-kilometer (25 miles) bike ride were the massive sand dunes we biked across on our second attempt to find a nice beach to relax on.
We hoped that maybe, just maybe the wind wouldn’t be as severe at the southern end of the island as it seemed to be blowing from the north and the coastline here tapered back towards the mainland. Yeah, we were dead wrong about the wind, still aggressive as ever. What was even more surprising than the relentless wind, was that there were people on the beach in the nude! We were freezing in the wind and fully clothed! On our short walk down the beach we could see the lighthouse and some other structures from the mainland popping up on the horizon.
On our way back to the ferry we stopped in the last small town along the way to get our blood sugar level back up with some coffee and apple pie, yum! The ferry ride back took us by surprise again as we were halfway back before either of us realized we had left the port. Seriously scary smooth this ferry could sneak up on Chuck Norris.
Up until this point, our experience with trains in the Netherlands has been exemplary so we were surprised when we were kicked off two trains during our transfer in Amsterdam. Apparently, there was an issue with the route between Amsterdam and Rotterdam which passed by Schiphol airport. Lucky for us we didn’t necessarily have to go this way, it was not so lucky for the many people scrambling around trying to make it to the airport for their flights. After two failures to launch we decided to just go around the problem by riding back to Utrecht and then on to Rotterdam.
Rotterdam was our home base for exploring the nearby town of Delft and the political capital of the Netherlands, Den Hague. We knew before coming to Rotterdam that it would be very different from all other places we have visited in the Netherlands because of the city’s unfortunate history. Rotterdam was bombed by Germany during World War II to coerce their surrender. The Dutch would say this bombing was unnecessary as there was already a cease fire negotiated and the terms of the surrender were being negotiated. Nonetheless a deadline was set by Germany for the surrender and the clock ticked down too close to this deadline because of how slow the communication was between the two sides. On May 14th 1940 Germany sent 27 bombers from the south and 60 from the north to level the city. German soldiers in Rotterdam popped red flares as a sign on friendly fire on the South of the city in an attempt to call off the attack because they knew the Dutch were going to surrender. All but three of the planes saw this smoke and diverted. Perhaps the German soldiers on the ground did not know there were another 60 bombers coming from the north or maybe they didn’t have the resources to pop flares on the north side of the city. The attack by the 60 bombers lasted 15 minutes and completely destroyed the historic city center leaving only a few buildings standing. The Netherlands formally surrendered the next morning as the next city on Germany’s list was Utrecht. After the bombing it was decided to raze the entire city center and start anew, and therefore Rotterdam is the only modern city in the Netherlands. It took about four decades for the city to fully rebuild and get back on its feet
Naturally, we explored the city on bikes. We cycled through the large park (Kralingse Bos – which they call a forest) in the city where they had a phenomenal high ropes adventure course for kids, it made us want to be 10 years old again! Central to the park is a placid lake where we saw dozens of sail boats stirring about in the breeze. Nearby the park is a small neighborhood on the outskirts of the city center that survived the bombings, nestled away from the hustle and bustle. We found the neighborhood charming, quaint, and small as we biked through it in about 10 minutes.
When we set out in the morning our most anticipated stop of the day was the hip indoor market in Rotterdam. In search of lunch we walked by every stand in the market tasting samples here and there until we decided on Indonesian. It was a pleasant surprise when we learned that this was the opening day for this stand and lucky for us the food was absolutely delicious. If we lived here this would have become one of our regular spots. Some of you know about Lauren’s passion for farmers markets, but none better than I! I knew full well there was much more exploring to be done after the market interior because of the enormous open-air market amassed outside which we saw when we pulled up. This was much more than just a fruits and veggies farmers market. In addition to the produce, nut, fish, cheese, and meat stands there were stands for hobbies, antiques, toiletries, crafting, bike parts, and more! The market was our favorite part of Rotterdam. If I only had a couple of weeks for vacation and wanted to visit the Netherlands, honestly, I would not put Rotterdam on the list because it is just a city, but if you do visit then we positively recommend checking out the market while you are in the city.
The market was our favorite part of Rotterdam. If I only had a couple of weeks for vacation and wanted to visit the Netherlands, honestly, I would not put Rotterdam on the list because it is just a city, but if you do visit then we positively recommend checking out the market while you are in the city.
Delft is only a 15-minute train ride from Rotterdam and turned out to be one of our favorite little towns that we visited in the Netherlands. The town so quintessentially characterized the Netherlands to us as we took in the charm of every street we walked down. Delft is known for their Delftware, the ceramics of the Netherlands, a tradition which started here many years ago. During the days when the Dutch East Indies trading company was bringing back spices and porcelain from China they quickly learned in delft how to imitate the artistic decoration of the Chinese when the import supply was interrupted in 1620. The imagery decorating the delftware was often more typical of the Netherlands than of China, including scenes with windmills, or fishing boats.
We let our feet be our guides in Delft as we meandered around the small town. As luck would have it our feet (and Lauren’s intuition) led us to a working windmill that we were allowed explore! Talk about a kid in a candy store! We had so much fun climbing up the several levels and watching the dozens of wooden gears turning in perfect harmony. In speaking with the workers of the mill we learned they were all volunteers making the flour that is used by the local bakers, how cool is that! One of the volunteers told us all about how the mill works and how they must constantly monitor and adjust the pressure of the grinding plates depending on the wind speed and the type of grain being milled. I could tell Lauren really wanted to buy some of the flour that was made here, but sadly we had no way to use it in the teeny tiny kitchen at our Airbnb.
Next our feet walked us through some picturesque alleyways, over several bridges crossing many canals, past a big beautiful church, and stumbled us upon the perfect vegan place to grab lunch. After lunch we did some window shopping of the delftware and marveled at how meticulously they would craft it in the back of every shop we visited.
In the town center we discovered a large plaza bookended by a couple of beautiful buildings and lined with store fronts. In the center of the square was a vibrant farmers market in full swing, Lauren is getting her fill of farmers markets in this country! Delft is small enough to explore in a day, but all the while on the train back to Rotterdam we were wishing that we had made Delft our home while in this region of the Netherlands.
Delft is small enough to explore in a day, but all the while on the train back to Rotterdam we were wishing that we had made Delft our home while in this region of the Netherlands.
Den Hague was described to us as the political capital of the Netherlands which we are familiar with from living just outside of Washington DC for many years. Knowing Den Hague is a bigger city, we came more prepared for our day trip because we wanted to check out the nearby beach (Scheveningen) too while there.
A quick aside…
Freedom from the daily grind and work stress has again allowed us to take appreciation of the little things in life, which when noticed, can have a profound positive impact on your attitude and outlook. I am aware that this is a somewhat dramatic statement especially with the example I am about to pair it with, but just let it sink in a little bit with your morning coffee while you read. Speaking of coffee, and more importantly the snobs we became before departing on our trip because of our best and dearly missed friend, our Chemex; we are constantly on the hunt for a normal American cup of coffee (not a watered-down espresso!). Much to our satisfaction, the morning we arrived in Den Hague we searched out a café and happened upon one that offered filter coffee and even better yet….from a Chemex! Praise be to the coffee gods 😊.
Now that we are all well caffeinated, the highlights of our day in Den Hague were Het Binnenhof (the parliament buildings), the Peace Palace, and the Scheveningen beach. In the morning we meandered through the city center and enjoyed some window shopping along the way. This is certainly a great area for shopping and especially for fashion. We had some budget friendly shopping fun with Bryan trying on suits from the store where he had his wedding suit made, Suit Supply, showing Lauren how well they fit off the rack.
We found the best view of the parliament buildings to be across the pond right next to the building. The courtyard of the parliament building was less appealing to us, but they jazzed it up with an ornate fountain in the middle!
During our free audio guide tour in the visitor center of the Peace Palace, we learned much about the interesting history. Andrew Carnegie was instrumental in helping the dream become reality as his 1.5-million-dollar donation funded the design of the building and the start of construction. His donation was not nearly enough to fund the entire project, but it got the foundations in the ground while they continued to fundraise from a multitude of countries and individuals. In a nut shell, the peace palace serves as the international arbitration court between countries helping to resolve conflicts and avoid war.
Scheveningen beach by Den Hague was infinitely nicer than the beach we visited on Texel only because there was a normal amount of wind at this beach! We walked down the two-level pier that was about 3 football fields long, stopping along the way to check out the shops and take in the views of the beach. We were told this is a popular beach and one of few in the region, so we were not surprised to see the beach quite crowded in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week.