"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.
"Landscapes vary enormously from vistas of newly-reclaimed land afforded by the 32-kilometre Buitenplaatsenroute in Flevoland to the bracing spin through spectacular dunes provided by the 56-km Duinroute in North Holland," promises the bike blurb from the Netherland's Tourist Board. The Gelderland route The Gelderland Valley route takes cyclists across the Hoge Veluwe nature reserve, a pristine wilderness and wildlife bird sanctuary. Peaceful and green Gelderland has more bike routes than any other province, with a total of 33 itineraries.
The Parc Hoge Veluwe, Holland's largest national park, is worth a visit for both its nature and culture. A system of "white bikes" (free for the borrowing) allows you to ride at no charge between its forested slopes, stopping to visit the wonderful Kroller Muller museum where Van Gough's Sunflowers is housed.
Natural inside and out -- the surrounding province is also dotted with brasseries and pankuiken (crêpe) houses for before-and-after fuelling, and cherry stalls picturesquely marking the countryside along the way.
The Hoge Veluwe and the Kennemer dunes near Haarlem lie at opposite ends of an ancient dune chain, which puts most of the hills in Holland to shame. They are two of the few real wild patches of the country, renowned for their vegetation and elevation.
"Areas where the land rises" emphasizes my guide book, "are in Gelderland, the Veluwe, up to 321 feet [98 metres] in Overijssel, Salland, 231 feet [70 metres] and Utrecht, the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, 210 feet [64 metres]
In an easy morning's drive we cross the entire Netherlands, 159 kilometres through the provinces of Utrecht and Salland to Arnhem and Gelderland.
The trip is broken up by exclamations from my friends, "Look, this is another small mountain we are passing now!" as we cross a barely discernible hump.
It must be the "do-it-yourself-mountain" of Arnhem Land, which Dutch cabaret artist Paul van Vilet refers to tongue-in-cheek. The do-it-yourself depending on the effort you put into imagining it as more than a hill.
Okay -- so we cheated seriously -- and did this part by car. Just because it's small doesn't mean you have to do all of Holland by bike, but the opportunity is there. Transit for bikes Transport, too, is made for cyclists. The Dutch take their bikes on trains, planes and automobiles. And if you want to cover some of the terrain by train, over 300 stations allow you to take bikes on board.
If you go
Bike transport. If you are taking your bike with you, make sure you let the airline know at least a week in advance. Once in the Netherlands, you can take bikes on trains for 10 guilders ($6.45) one way or 17.50 guilders ($11.30) for up to an 80-kilometre journesf //y. Eurail and Europass holders can usually carry bikes on to most trains in Holland free of charge, or for a small fee. Rail passes may be purchased on-line at http://www.railpass.com. Bike rental. You can rent bikes at some 300 stores in Amsterdam alone and at the depots of some 100 train stations in the Netherlands for approximately 7.50 guilders ($4.85) a day. Give them the full once over. They come in all shapes and sizes including standard, speed, tandems, mountain bikes, kids' bikes and with kiddies seats. The catch is that they must always be returned to the place where they were picked up from, so you have to do a round trip. Bike paths. There are 10,000 kilometres of designated bike paths or fietspaden in the Netherlands, on a very organized and clearly-marked network. These appear on the ANWB 1:100,000 scale maps, which you can pick up from the 350 tourist information offices (VVV) in the country, along with information on bike routes and accommodation. Look out for the Netherlands Tourism Board's (NBT), booklet Cycling in Holland, with its suggested routes and other information. Organized Bike Tours. The NBT in association with the VVV offices offer good value cycling holiday packages around the country. The European Vacation Tours and Groups ( http://www.europeanvacation.com) organizes self-guided biking tours throughout Europe, including the Netherlands. The pedal tour begins and ends in Amsterdam via a circular route and takes in a great deal of countryside along the way. The cost is from $1,185 (Canadian) depending on the time of year and number of travellers. The price includes accommodation with private facilities, breakfasts, four dinners, seven- or 21-speed bikes with panniers and repair kits, luggage transfers, local contacts and detailed notes and maps. Amsterdam-based Cycletours Holland ( http://www.cycletours.nl) runs seven-day bike and boat trips, on canal boats, from $100 (U.S.) a day, including all meals, accommodation in up to 12 independent hotels bikes and guided rides of 17 to 50 kilometres a day, though you have the choice to go off for solo rides. Best season. Holland only has about 50 really sunny days a year, but the best months to go are between May and September. Foot-and-mouth. For updates on possible travel restrictions because of foot-and-mouth disease, go to http://www.netherlands-embassy.org and click Agriculture. Information. (888) 464-6552 or http://www.holland.com.