"When a Dutchman suffers from insomnia, he counts bicycles instead of sheep, whereas a foreigner, bewildered by that mass of whirling wheels, cannot sleep a wink." Paul van Vliet Dutch cabaret artist Holland, 1977
Haarlem is raining bikes and brollies. Brollies on bikes, trolleys on bikes, dogs, cats and kids on bikes. Raincoats in motion -- liquid trails of plastic -- rain-splattered sun glasses.
The roofs are weeping too in this 16th-century city as half a dozen bike-only streets converge on the Grote Markt. The cafés and pancake stalls in the old market place have turned into a giant outdoor umbrella around its Gothic cathedral.
The Dutch have lived with it for far too long to let wet weather stop them in their tracks. The flower stands are doing a flourishing trade as well-watered cyclists stop mid-passage to buy blooms. Business is usual, too, for the bike messengers and bike removalists, the under-cover bike-parks are full, and bikes are a wall fixture on nearly every bar, café and cheese shop.
As soon as the sun pops out, the city will turn inside out, flooded with chairs on the terrace of every restaurant and brasserie. With an average 50 days of sunshine a year, you may not need your sunglasses too often in Holland, but something to counter the effects of motion sickness will help.
With 15 million people and at least one bike each compressed within 59,600 square kilometres, the Netherlands cries out to be explored by pedal and petal power. Here's a strategic game plan if you want to wheel your way through the nation while spring flowers have it awash with colour. The lay of the land Flat, flat, flat as a bike tire, the Netherlands reaches its mountainous peak at the Vaalser Berg in the southeastern tip of Limbourg, or as a book of aerial photos of Holland puts it, this is where "the landscape becomes more pronounced," climaxing at 292 metres! Haarlem's attractions Haarlem, located about 24 kilometres west of Amsterdam, is like most of Holland -- it was made for the bike. The cultural and commercial capital of Northern Holland is a colourful market city, renowned for its distinctive brick houses, the Grote Kerk church and the summer jazz festival. The annual flower parade from Noordwijk to Haarlem will take place this year on April 21.
A short ride from Haarlem lies the bulb-growing territory that extends from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport to the North Sea Coast. Its showcase is the historical Keukenhof park with its floral exhibitions and its six million spring flowers in bloom until late May. During the flower parade, dozens of floats tour the region for a week in late April, finishing up in Haarlem for a weekend of music and dance.
Haarlem lies in the middle of an enormous polderland, once eight metres under the sea. It was drained in the 1880s and is now the lowest lying land in the country.
"When I tell visiting American businessmen that we are now driving through the bottom of the lake, they start to panic," laughs my guide Franz Steenwinkel. All round this small dynamic city, it is flat -- apart from the 27-metre ripples in the earth of the neigbouring Kennemer Dunes, a forested green ribbon spreading along the coast between the sea and the hot-houses.
In spring this area is alive with cultivated and wild flowers, around the suitably named village of Bloemandaal with its Saxon-style villas, eco-markets and bakeries and famous Botanical Garden, specializing in dune species. Get wheeling The best way to see the Netherlands in spring is by bike. Both windmill and wheel-power have gained maximum efficiency, and those on two wheels or more are given a privileged status from birth to death.
"Cyclists have the upper hand in Holland," says Karen Steenwinkel, a photographer in Haarlem, as bikes swerve audaciously, but indifferently, in front of cars.
"They can do anything they like -- go through traffic lights, cut in front of you -- and they are always in the right." As she speaks, an entire family pass by on the way to school in their convertible, weather-proof bike-mobile.
Like every other Dutch driver, Karen doubles as a cyclist for at least half of her life. Deltas, dikes and bikes. The Dutch are born on all three, in the latter case no doubt some times literally.
The country is criss-crossed with tulip roots and cycle routes -- the latter the Netherlands's Board of Tourism call "Routes to Relaxation," for flower lovers perhaps "roots to relaxation". Long-distance routes Beyond the big cities, blooms and bikes can be enjoyed simultaneously along the long-distance cycle routes known as LF routes. The North Sea Route, LF1, covers the 360 kilometres between Den Helder in the north and the French-Belgian border in the south. Most other journeys are circular, starting and ending in the same place, with little change in altitude.