Before I travelled to the Netherlands, I talked to several people (in real life and on-line) about renting a car in the country and driving around. While everybody acknowledged the excellent train system and bicycling possibilities, I was also told that as long as I stay out of Amsterdam, driving in the Netherlands is a fine way to get around and really explore some places not easily reachable by other means (plus, I'm lazy and out of shape so long bicycle rides were a bit less appealing).
There were two examples of Big Engineering I wanted to see: the Afsluitdijk, which divided the former Zuiderzee into (part of) the Waddenzee and IJsselmeer, and the Delta Works, a series of dams, dijks, canals, and other structures that protect the province of Zeeland and important places further inland such as Rotterdam from flooding during large storms in the North Sea. In Dutch, -zee usually seems to indicate seawater (i.e., salty) and -meer a lake (i.e. freshwater). The IJsselmeer is a huge, shallow lake and since its creation nearly 80 years ago has had some areas walled off and pumped dry to create new land. Zeeland is a large and relatively sparsely populated province that would be almost unhabitable were it not for the protections built after a devastating flood in 1953.
I went with Andy to Schiphol airpot early Saturday morning - it's easier to check out of a hostel and ride the trams and trains with another person, even if both of you are carrying luggage. Andy headed for the departure lounges, but I turned left and entered the rental-car zone. Six car-rental companies operate counters at Schiphol, and because the Hertz desk had a small queue (and because their website had strongly implied much higher prices for walk-ins compared to on-line reservations, which I didn't want to do through the wi-fi at the hostel) I went to Europcar. I expect all of the companies had very similar prices and cars and at this point I'm not interested in being proven wrong - besides, no price quoted on a website ever carries over to real life in my experience. There's always *something*...
Anyways, arranging the rental was pretty straightforward. They gave me a choice of three cars in the second-smallest size class (smaller cars are much less comfortable, and cost trivially less to rent); I went with an Opel Corsa because we don't have Opel in North America. Of course, Opel is just a brand within General Motors, but there are different cars from even the large multinationals in Europe compared to North America (though the differences are less than I expected). As I expected from a rental, an Opel Corsa is more "driving appliance" than "proper car". It was boring, but massively reliable and thoroughly practical. They offered me a satellite-navigation system to rent for something like 12 Euros / day, but I'd brought along my Garmin GPS unit (named Serena) and downloaded their map of Europe before my trip. As an aside, despite the high cost of that map (about $100 through Garmin's website), it was very worth it. Not just for my driving around, but also getting lost in Amsterdam and other cities while walking.
It took me a little while to figure out the car, mainly the goofy windscreen-wiper controls and the very grabby clutch, but I was underway on Dutch motorways pretty quickly. Needing breakfast, I fumbled with Serena after I got off the motorway and found a small shopping plaza, I think in the town of Zwanenburg. At 9:00am, shops were just starting to open, and I helped a young man practice his English when I bought some ham-and-cheese pastries to enjoy just before the rain resumed. The pastries were very tasty, and the local crows watched me eat but politely waited until I was done before swooping in for the crumbs.
Once I got the car figured out and Serena fastened to the inside of the windshield, I poked around a bit and discovered I was pretty close to Zuid-Kennemerland National Park. The name "Parnassia", which is one of the park entrances, just sounded enchanting so I told Serena that's where I wanted to go, and I was off.
Getting out of Zwanenburg involved a short drive along the Zwanenburgdijk. Narrow roads like this one, with zero shoulder and frequent traffic-calming devices, are abundant in the Netherlands.
Once past the traffic and roundabouts of suburban Haarlem, I quickly reached the edge of the Park.
Zuid-Kennemerland National Park is built around the near-shore dune system, the ecology of grazing animals (semi-wild horses and cattle) on the scrubland vegetation in the dunes, and the broad beach at the North Sea. Parnassia is a small facility consisting of a restaurant with patio and a modest sandy walk down to the beach, with close access to trails leading through the dunes. The weather at the time of my visit was exactly what I was expecting when I saw on the map that I was close to the North Sea: rain, wind, grey. Perfect.
The structures on the horizon in the middle of this picture are on the breakwater protecting the entrance to the Noordzeecanal.
This is a very tight crop of a picture I took looking straight out to sea from Parnassia. The offshore windmill farm I saw from the airplane is just visible here, along with what I think is a tender ship.
The gulls (Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, Larus fuscus, I think) seem to like weather like this even more than I do.
After my wanderings near Parnassia, I tried to pay for parking at the automatic booth. It did not accept coins, nor any card I happen to possess. In my fumbling to get the machine to return my ticket so I could pay at the exit gate, I accidentally called the attendant. He was able to sort me out, and take my coins when I got to the exit.
My goal was neither bracing North Sea weather nor tasty pastries, so I set Serena towards the town closest to the Afsluitdijk on the south side, Den Oever, and returned to the Dutch motorways. Normally on my Sunday Drives I just leave my GPS on wanderings mode, showing the map and my position & velocity but not giving directions to anywhere in particular. In the Netherlands, I mostly chose destinations and had Serena give me directions, which was very useful both for getting to interesting places like National Parks, and for freeing me from navigation decisions when passing through small towns with many bicycles, traffic lights, and pedestrians to watch out for.
I got off of the motorway as I approached the dijk (the A7 runs right over the Afsluitdijk) and found a quiet side road near the dijk that protects Den Oever and the adjacent village of Ooserland from storm surges coming through the Waddenzee.
The N242 is a smaller road than the A7; I think the N-series are comparable to most 2-digit highways in Canada, while the A series are freeways; I refer to the A roads as motorways following the British convention for talking about big highways without stoplights (apparently I am alone in this habit).
I think this illustrates the difference: this is the A7, which is divided highway with a central grassy median.
My car for a few days: an Opel Corsa, in dull-as-dishwater dark silver. Still, it handled reasonably well, was comfortable, and never failed me.
Looking west along the shore of the Waddenzee
Playing with depth of field.
After my little diversion at the Waddenzee, it was time for the main event: the Afsluidijk. Really, it's not too visually interesting, as it's a straight dijk that runs for 32 kilometres and is as close to perfectly level as any human-made structure. Fortunately, there's a monument and some other facilities near the middle.
A view of the Afsluitdijk and statue of Cornelis Lely, the primary architect of the dijk.
The freshwater-side of the Afsluitdijk, showing the top layer of stones applied to the dijk as it was constructed. Every one of those stones was fitted by hand, though they were transported to the site by machinery.
Looking northeast from the overpass. It really is a rather boring bit of scenery, but its history makes up for it (in my opinion).
After going full-tourist on the Afsluitdijk, I continued across. I wanted to get off the A7 as quickly as possible, but I made a few wrong turns and missed exits before I could make my way back to the shore of the IJsselmeer.
A farm in Friesland. Lots of Dutch farms look like this, from what I saw. The Netherlands has some of the world's most efficient and productive agriculture, according to some sources.
Wandering around, generally heading towards the water, I eventually found myself on the road that runs along the base of the dijk that separates Friesland from the IJsselmeer. Unlike most of the other dijks I drove along in the Netherlands, I could not find any place open to the public to climb over and see the water.
Many of the churches I saw were not located within a town or village, and instead were surrounded by agricultural lands.
Having satisfied myself with the Friesland shoreline area, I perused my maps and set my GPS for Weerribben-Wieden National Park. This took me out of Friesland and into the province of Overijssel, but for atmosphere's sake I played with the car's radio until I found a station that might be broadcasting in Frisian. This is the local language, which is supposedly quite distinct from Dutch; I have a tin ear or something because I couldn't really tell the difference.
The Dutch are masters of bridge-building; every possible design appears in some form, somewhere in the country. I quite like this wooden structure, one of a pair, that crosses the A7 near Sneek.
I accessed the park at its north end, through the town of Ossenzijl. Dutch roads always seem to provide just enough time to adjust and mentally switch modes from motorway driving (pay attention to the cars, drive faster than 100km/h) to town-and-country driving (pay attention to the bikes and pedestrians, keep it under 50).
I'll talk more about the park in a future post about the wonderful national parks of the Netherlands that I visited. I only spent about 20 or 30 minutes at Weerribben-Wieden, mostly because I wanted to press on with my big drive - it's a beautiful area, and I'd be happy to spend several days there.
Looking at my maps and my GPS, I decided I had spent too much time on really big roads that don't show much of the country, and I discovered a nearby road that runs along the top, rather than on one side, of a dijk with the badass name of "Hammerdijk". Of course I had to drive it. It turns out this road/dijk is approximately the border between the provinces of Overijssel and Flevoland.
Driving along the top of the Hammerdijk.
Another presumably-high-efficiency Dutch farm, just over the border in Flevoland.
I don't know what was going on here with this little stone hut and the freakin' cannon on the dijk, I suppose I should have stopped. Farmers displaying their stuff prominently near roads seems to be fairly universal though, so perhaps instead of a plow or an old combine, this farmer has a Napoleonic (?) bit of fortifications. The signpost indicates two roads that meet on the Hammerdijk, Kerkbuurt and Blokzijlerdijk. The name of the road on the top of the dijk apparently changes along its length, perhaps the beligerence indicated by the cannon had something to do with this?
As I think I mentioned previously, many roads are narrow enough that even small cars must move into the bicycle lane when encountering oncoming traffic. Here on top of the presumably-centuries-old Hammerdijk, such narrowness at least makes sense.
Having satisfied myself with some dijk-driving, I set course for Almere. The province of Flevoland, which contains Almere, is largely composed of large polders constructed after the IJsselmeer was created. My Lonely Planet guide describes the province as:
"Flevoland, the Netherlands' 12th and youngest province, is a masterpiece of Dutch hydroengineering. In the early 1920s an ambitious scheme went ahead to reclaim more than 1400 sq km of land - an idea mooted as far back as the 17th century. The completion of the Afsluitdijk...paved the way for the creation of Flevoland."Then the book goes on to describe Flevoland's cities as "grindingly dull places, laid out in unrelieved grid patterns." and doesn't mention Almere, a city of nearly 200 000 people, at all.
The shore of the IJsselmeer is lined in several places with large arrays of windmills.
I arrived in Almere, travelling mostly on high-speed, bordered motorways (borders of trees block out much of the road noise from surrounding areas, but conceal those areas from view from the motorway), at around dinnertime. Many businesses in the Netherlands close earlier than I'm used to, such that approximately nothing was open by the time I found a parking meter in downtown Almere. Some sort of festival or event was just packing up in one of the main squares, and the local McDonald's was full of children. Even here, so far from the usual tourist areas, the employees understood my English (smiling and waiting for the machine to show me numbers makes things easier).
I ate at McDonald's, rather than looking for something more "authentically Dutch", in reaction to my Lonely Planet guide. If I'm going to be in a cultural wasteland, I might as well dive fully into this dull grey nothingness. Having said that, I have no problem with McDonald's or their food; you get what you expect, at least. Plus, I was at the edge of a large mall in a concrete jungle built from recently-drained seabed within the past few decades. Throw some grime on everything and add a few flying cars and it would be a great stand-in for Blade Runner.
My Lonely Planet guide was more-or-less correct about most things, even if it sometimes takes a condescending tone, so I relied on it again and chose a bed-and-breakfast in Amersfoort as my first choice for the evening. I didn't want to drive in any big cities (parking is death), but I put together a vague plan in my head to try for Amersfoort first, then look for a motel or something in Utrecht if accomodations were very busy.
Serena was able to locate not only the B&B in its four-centuries-old building, but also the best way to enter the old town center of Amersfoort. The B&B itself was not very well marked, not with big signs or other clear indications that I was naively expecting for a place that charges money to sleep there. I found a big black door that seemed unlikely to be for a simple residence, and I knocked. I was let in, and at the desk made the happy discovery that they were far from full even on this lovely weekend, and their prices were quite reasonable - about 70 Euros for my own room with a shared bathroom (shared with nobody else - they were much less than 1/2 full) and a place to park my car down the street.
Having woken up very early after a noisy night of limited sleep, I was more tired than I expected when I got myself settled into my room, and I crashed on the very comfortable bed at some embarassingly early hour. The evening light was lovely, but I couldn't pull myself together enough to explore the town. Instead I resolved to spend as much time the next day here before moving on with my explorations.