We could not have landed on a better to place to start exploring Europe than the Netherlands because everyone here speaks English! Ever find it confusing how the terms Dutch, Holland, and The Netherlands are all used to describe this country and the people? Admittedly when we arrived, I had no idea which term was the correct one to use. Over the course of our travels through the country we were able to piece it together. The Netherlands (Nederland in Dutch) is the proper name when referring to the whole country which is made up of 12 provinces. When speaking about the people of the country refer to them as Dutch which comes from the language they speak. What we found to be most interesting is that all of the Dutch travelers we met in Panama and Costa Rica would say they were from Holland. So, what and where is Holland then? In Amsterdam, on our free walking tour, we learned the answer to this question and the intriguing history behind it. In the early 1800’s Napoleon Bonaparte left behind a significant impact on the country. To begin with, he created the Kingdom of Holland and appointed his brother Louis Bonaparte to rule in his interest. The name Napoleon picked is interesting because Holland was just one of many provinces of the country at the time, but it was by far the most affluent and powerful. Remember learning about the Dutch East Indies trading company years ago in school? The province of Holland contains Amsterdam which is where this trading company was headquartered providing tremendous benefit to the economy of Holland. So, I suppose you could say the name just stuck when describing the country because it is reminiscent of the glory days when the Dutch controlled the seas.
Napoleon was a greedy guy, so it comes as no surprise that some of the other lasting changes he made in the country were instituted just so that he could collect taxes from everyone. First, he needed to know where everyone lived so he had every street named and house numbers assigned, vastly improving their postal system. At this time the Dutch did not have last names, so Napoleon also made everyone select a last name so that he knew who you were and where you lived when you didn’t pay up!
Our journey through the Netherlands started in Utrecht, what I would call a quaint suburban city. We stayed here with our friends Aless and Daniel who were the best hosts we could have asked for! Aless met us at the airport the morning our redeye flight landed (which neither of us slept a wink on because we were so excited!...and they had a lot of free movies 😊). She put us on the right train with directions to their place which was amazing because in our sleep deprived state who knows where we may have wandered. To get over our jetlag we spent a few mellow days soaking in all that Utrecht has to offer, covering every square inch inside “The Single”. The locals refer to the canal that wraps around the city center of Utrecht as The Single. We felt at home here and were very happy to be in a quiet area coming from the hustle and bustle of New York City. Quick shout out to Rachael’s improv group VERN we saw perform while in NYC. They were captivatingly hilarious, check them out at www.thepit-nyc.com if you are ever in the area. Fun fact while we are talking about New York City. Did you know it was once known as New Amsterdam? Evidence of the original Dutch control is seen in names around the city like Harlem (named after Haarlem), Brooklyn (named after Breukelen), and Greenwich (named after Grenen wijk) to name a few. New York City began as a Dutch colony around 1624, later captured by Great Britain and renamed New York in 1664 in honor of the Duke of York. The name and fate of New York were cemented in 1667 with the Treaty of Breda giving up the claim by the United provinces of the Netherlands of New Amsterdam in exchange for a British controlled island in the East Indies to secure their monopoly on the spice trade.
On one beautiful morning we went for a run around the single and saw a young couple exploring the canals in a kayak. Guess what we ended up doing the next day! Our bike Sherpa Aless dropped us off the next morning to rent a kayak while she volunteered on a farm where she wrestles goats. Taking in the countryside from the water while paddling up the canal was serene. The tranquility was only broken by the intimidating stares we received from the locals swimming in the canal...
Bryan had a traumatic experience as a young child with geese while feeding them in a park. Never run out of the food for the geese when they have you surrounded! Always have an escape plan ready for when you throw that last piece of bread and throw it with all your might. You will need every second head start you can get on those feathery demons.
We also saw some funny black duck-like birds that would dive like a submarine in the water and pop up some 20 or 30 feet away without warning. One of these little guys surprised us when he disappeared and popped up right next to our kayak about a minute later!
Our turn around point for our kayaking trip was a pancake house right along the canal and is where we devoured our first Dutch pancakes we had heard so much hype about. So, we paddled up and carefully took turns crawling out of the kayak and onto the bank above.
Pancakes in the Netherlands are quite honestly an improvement over how we do it in the states, sorry IHOP, I mean IHOB (so stupid). One pancake is enough to fill you up because of how huge and dense they are! They also magically layer into the pancake the sweet or savory topping of your choice. Epiphany on how to describe this! Its like a crepe and a pancake made sweet and savory breakfast love. After lunch we paddled back downstream to meet back up with Aless and visit a nearby cherry farm with the juiciest cherries I have ever had.
Next we walked to the ruins of an old fortification to see the sheep that graze around the area. The fort (Rijauwen) was built in 1871 and was used as recently as WWII.
Lauren tried several times to pet some of the sheep roaming around, but after chasing a couple young sheep away she got a protective BAAAA from a mama sheep that said petting hours are over!
We quickly fell in love with how easily and quickly we could get around on a bike in the Netherlands. We even learned how to ride with two people on one bike thanks to Daniel! Our first weekend we biked around 25 miles with Aless and Daniel to the Kastel de Huur and through some of the countryside. We both loved exploring this castle, and Bryan especially because it was his first castle!
It was built in the 13th century and over the course of several centuries fell into a derelict state. At the end of the 19th century the castle was rebuilt as closely to the original as possible but was also upgraded to include luxuries like central heating, electricity, hot and cold water, and a modern kitchen. These were luxuries that even the queen did not have at the time!
The interior of the castle is luxurious even in this day and age. Bryan was fascinated by the complexity of the many tapestries hanging on the walls of the castle. We learned that ornate tapestries were selected for the walls because they demonstrate the wealth and prominence of the Baron even more than commissioning a painter to decorate the walls. What was so fascinating about the tapestries is that the looked like a painting when standing just a few feet away!
After exploring the castle, we enjoyed some coffee and apple pie. Daniel informed us that this is a very typical (and delicious) snack to have along a bike ride in the Netherlands.
On our last weekend with Aless and Daniel, they planned a full agenda of sightseeing for us, so we could take in as much of the Netherlands as possible during our stay! Saturday, we spent biking a course Daniel plotted for us through the picturesque countryside. The whole route was about 60 kilometers (37 miles) which honestly was a little bit intimidating since we had not ridden much at all in the past several months. The landscape is so flat that we could always see the next town coming in the distance, marked by a tall church steeple or a windmill. It’s amazing how easy it is to get out of the city and explore the country by bike and there were so many people were out there doing the exact same thing. Check out the video of our bike ride to see the countryside and some of the little towns we passed through on our way. Daniel found us THE best ice cream shop in one of the small towns we stopped in. When I ordered my ice cream I tried to pronounce blood orange in Dutch (bloedsinaasappel) and got a good laugh out of the girl behind the counter with my attempt, but hey she knew what I was trying to say so I must have not been too far off!
On Sunday we went for a drive through more of the countryside and to a couple of towns not within biking distance. We drove through areas of old sea floor which are still below sea level and protected by a series of earthen dikes. Enkhuizen was the first town we stopped in and was a fishing village long ago.
Here we learned about another very typical Dutch treat. A true Dutchmen will eat a whole raw herring by holding the tail and chowing down face first. The herring is only soaked in a brine for a few days so it’s like their version of sushi. I did not eat one face first, but I did get talked into trying a piece of the herring which I expected would just be like sushi. Everybody in the Netherlands raved about their herring, but honestly it was not for me it was just a little too fishy for my taste.
After trying the delicacy, we got to see how they once to lived here long ago when we visited the open-air museum. We went back in time and saw the simple and innovative method they used to make rope long ago. Basically, they would take several small pieces of twine and twist them into 3 separate pieces. Then they would twist the 3 pieces of twine all fixed together at one end and at the other end connected separately to a crank. The crank would be turned to twist up the twine until it all twisted/tangled up together to form rope! We also watched a man work methodically on a fishing net. In a day one could hope to knit a section of net about the size of a bath towel and the nets they used on the boats were huge! It must have taken them months to knit one fishing net!
Ever wonder how exactly windmills were used to pump water out of low lying areas? Probably not, but we are weird, and we wondered how they did it many years ago. The windmill would turn a screw with a trough so that the water would just work its way up the screw to the higher elevation where it would spill out and runoff.
When we saw that they were smoking herring like they did in the old days, Daniel didn’t take no for an answer and made me try some more. It was much, much better when smoked and I actually enjoyed it this time.
After Enkhuizen we headed to another small town called Marken which not so long ago was in island in the Zuiderzee (a shallow bay of the North Sea). In the 1941 a dike was built connecting the island to the mainland. The many years of isolation on this island protected the town from the changing world around it. We walked around this tiny village and decided to grab a beer in the old port. From our table at the pub we listened to locals singing along in a large white tent assuming all the while there must have been a local festival happening inside. I also tried the biterballen which is a typical Dutch snack with beer, but Lauren couldn’t try because it had meat in it :P. It tasted kind of like a cheesy risotto ball, not my favorite but I would have it again.