30 Apr Trip Diary – The Netherlands to Berlin
When I left you last, I’d just spent a night in the rather inappropriately named SleepEasy Hostel in Brussels, my first night under a roof that wasn’t canvas since I left home. Since then, I’ve left Belgium, made my way across the Netherlands and into Germany as far East as Berlin, a distance of around 1,100km. That’s where I am now, and I’ve got a lot to share with you.
The day was clear but cold when I left Brussels. I made my way out of the city along the cycle paths that trace the lines of the canals and rivers, towards the border with the Netherlands. Brussels had been great, if not a little hard on the wallet, but after all the hustle and bustle that comes with any capital city, I was eager to leave and return to the quiet countryside. I spent the following three days edging closer and closer to the border, stopping at the quaint little towns and villages that dotted my route and spent the nights hidden away amongst the pine forests that lined nearly all the cycle paths and roads I travelled along. One of the prettiest of these was Lier, which I rode through late on my first day of leaving Brussels. Surrounded by rivers and canals, Lier is a beautiful old town, known for its beer (the most famous is the dark beer ‘Caves’) and Saint Gummarus who is the patron saint of childless people, difficult marriages, glove makers, hernia sufferers (bet ya didn’t know there’s a saint for that!), separated spouses, and woodcutters. Gummarus founded an abbey at Lier and is celebrated on the 11th October each year, the day he was cannonised by the Roman Catholic Church.
A dog called Nera
I spent a whole day there after waking up by the canal to thunderous rain and a distinct lack of enthusiasm to cycle onwards. It also provided me a welcome break from talking to myself when I met Anne and her dog Nera that evening by the canal enjoying one of the brief dry moments the day offered. Anne’s English, despite her saying otherwise, was really rather good and we spent a good hour chatting about my trip and her love for walking the countryside that surrounds Lier. I slept well that night though it was cold. I was warmed my chat with Anne as it was more than a passing a nod.
On the 16th, after almost 100km, I crossed the border into the Netherlands and high-fived myself (quite hard to do on a bike, I can tell you) on reaching country number 4. The scenery changed and I found myself lost, sometimes quite literally, in a countryside of thick pine forests and dirt tracks. What daylight the overcast sky allowed through only made it so far into this seemingly endless world of tall trees and almost complete blackness. The creatures living here were no doubt far worse in my mind than in reality, and I didn’t see a single human being all the way through. It looked like something from a fairytale, but not the nice part, more the part where wicked characters lured their victims in. I focused on looking straight ahead.
I was only to spend three days in the Netherlands before reaching the German border, but on the 17th, after a camp in the not-so-scary woods on the outskirts of the city, I found time to spend a few hours in Eindhoven. Admittedly, most of this time was spent drying kit out in a small park not far from the high street as the last few nights had rained heavily and the tent was starting smell damp. But, I did get to wander around the main areas. Eindhoven has a somewhat unfortunate and turbulent history, but it has survived through it all. It spent the first few centuries being plundered and burnt to the ground on a number of occasions by various invaders, each time rebuilding only for it to happen again. During the Dutch Revolution, it changed hands numerous times between the Dutch and the Spanish -whose renegade soldiers burnt the place down again- until finally, in 1583, when it was claimed by the Spanish who promptly destroyed most of what was left of the city walls. Happily, things got better by the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution and the building of canals, railways, and roads, and things really took off when a certain electronics company founded itself in the town in 1891 and started manufacturing light bulbs. Today we know this company as the electronics giant Phillips. By the time World War Two had finished, Eindhoven had suffered once again with large parts completely destroyed (Incidentally the first air raid of World War Two was carried out in early December 1942 by the RAF targeting the Phillips factory).
I mention all of this for a reason. At the end of the war, Eindhoven once again started to rebuild itself and started laying out the city into what we see today. Unfortunately, not a lot of attention was given to what remained of any historically important buildings. Take the rather somber case of what was the old city hall. Built in a new gothic style in 1867, it was destroyed in the 1960s to make way for a new road-a road they then decided not to build, needlessly destroying a building that had stood for the best part of 100 years. Today, Eindhoven is a high rise city and although I’ve been told if you search long enough, you will find pockets of more pleasing architecture, I didn’t, though I was only there for half a day. By 5pm, I wasn’t that upset to be leaving. Two hours and 30km later, I’d left the place well and truly behind me and I was back out in the countryside and camped up for the night not far from the German border.
Crossing into Germany
The next day started well enough despite a frost covering the forest floor (and the inside of my tent) but by mid-morning, the rain returned and soon turned into hail. Riding a bike in a headwind when it’s hailing isn’t that nice, I can assure you It feels like tiny bullets smashing into me leaving pockmarks on any exposed piece of skin. Happily, it only lasted an hour or so until the clouds started to part and the sun started to poke through. By 2pm, I’d crossed into Germany and county number 5. I was hoping to be greeted by a sign saying something like ‘Welcome to Germany’ to take the obligatory photograph of myself against but alas there was nothing. The only way I actually knew I’d made into Germany was by the cars’ license plates denoting the origin of the vehicle had changed from NL to D. To be fair I had crossed over the border using a small country lane but I was rather annoyed not to be greeted all the same.
By evening, I’d made my intended camping spot for the night, the river Rhine around 50km from the border. It had looked promising on the map, the whole area along its banks was coloured green making me think I’d find a quiet, hidden little spot for the tent. But, I couldn’t find anywhere. The problem with the map I’d been using up to this point was that forest and farmland where both denoted by the same shade of green, a decision I’d very much like to talk to map makers about! Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, could I access any of the patches of forest that lay either along the rivers banks or in the fields beyond. The problem was that all the land was being farmed and that all the fields were fortified with, in my opinion, a style of fencing that suggested each field contained gold or that the sheep within pooped diamonds. It was impossible to find a way over and even if there was a break, the ditches that ran along the roads proved near impossible to get the bike over.
A night as a troll
By 9pm, and well and truly wishing the map had a complaints hotline, I’d given up searching and sat on the banks watching the sunset deliberating my next move. Before the light faded, I decided to seek alternative housing for the night and backtracked 5km to a bridge I’d seen earlier. The only problem and the reason I’d discounted it earlier was that the bridge was too low for me to put the tent up. I spent that night huddled in the sleeping bag on the damp floor, watching the barges ferrying their cargo up and down the river. I’d drift off for a few minutes only to be awoken by either the cold or the low rumble of a barge’s diesel engine as it slid past. At the first sign that night was over and the sky started to turn from black to grey, I’d had enough of the cold and restlessness that had plagued me throughout the night and got up. That morning actually dawned clear, the first time in the trip when I hadn’t seen a single cloud in the sky. Unfortunately, someone had forgotten to power up the sun, as there wasn’t a single degree of warmth to it. That, combined with a strong northerly wind, ensured a freezing start to a day after the coldest night I’d had so far.
Over the next four days, I continued my eastwards journey with the weather following what was now a familiar pattern of dry starts with cold winds turning to rain by mid-morning and then freezing nights. I followed cycle paths and quiet country lanes through areas of huge farmlands, all which seem to be exclusively reserved for growing rapeseed (despite being quite literally the only crop I saw for days, Germany ranks only fourth in the world in production terms, producing around 6.2 million tonnes a year), its distinctive brilliant yellow flowering stretching from one side of the horizon to the other. By the afternoon of the 21st, I’d arrived in Bielefeld (known for the rather wonderful Sparrenberg Castle and home to the food giant Dr. Oetker) where I’d arranged to meet up with Adrian, a friend I’d met during my two years living in Australia. That evening, he treated me to my first beer of the trip, and the first meal that didn’t require picking out the remains of unidentifiable insects. Such is the joy of outdoor cooking. I spent the remainder of the night camped up in his garden, lost in that wonderful hypnotic state that overcomes all humans when sat staring into the flicking yellows, reds and oranges of a campfire, grateful for the first warm night of the trip.
On to Berlin
Over the next week, I slowly made my way towards Berlin, much of the time encased in that rather curious type of drizzly rain that is almost invisible but still drenches all it touches. The scenery remained pretty much the same, farm after farm filling my view in all directions pocketed with some of the most beautiful villages I’d come across so far. One memorable day around the 27th I rode through no fewer than twenty such villages, all spaced a few kilometres apart and all containing buildings of such intriguing grandeur and beauty for a place seemingly lost to the outside world that I found myself circling around their cobbled streets just to take another look. As I drew closer to Berlin, the landscape took on a more recognisable appearance as villages turned into towns and then mini cities. Eventually, I joined up to Highway 1, which took me almost into Berlin itself. It’s imperative to note here that despite my map again telling me otherwise (I really would like to talk to these people), cycle paths are not continuous along Highway 1. At any moment, you can find your comfortable three-foot wide cycle path abruptly ending in the most bizarre locations and being thrust in with all the heavy traffic making its way into the capital, a somewhat exhilarating experience.
On the 29th, just 24km from the centre of Berlin, I rode through the city of Potsdam, which is really rather beautiful. It was designed and planned around the ideas of The Age Of Enlightenment, an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century, and through a balance of architecture and landscape was intended as “a picturesque, pastoral dream” to remind its residents of their relationship with nature and reason. And, quite a good job they have done too. As I cycled the city, crossing the many bridges that span a series of interconnected lakes that surround the city, I was glad to see that it was actually possible to combine large numbers of inhabitants and nature without one destroying the other. It’s also littered with cultural landmarks, in particular, the parks and palaces of Sanssouci, which I only got to view for a short period. This is the largest World Heritage Site in Germany. Many Berliners come here at the weekend and easy to see why.
Early the next morning, after camping alongside one of the many lakes, I cycled the final 20km into Berlin, joining the thousands of people who take to the city’s parks and cycle networks on a Sunday morning. I was all of a sudden surrounded by a swarm of runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, and walkers, all making the most of the dim sunshine that occasionally broke through. I’d arranged to meet up with more friends in Berlin who had, rather generously, agreed to host me for a week, which made my stay in the capital much more wallet-friendly. Since they were away for the first few days, I met up with a friend of theirs who showed me to the apartment and let me in and it is here, with the comfort of central heating and the obvious benefits that come with a modern house (a warm shower for one), that I write to you now.
Over the next week, I intend to transform into a proper tourist and explore what this city has to offer. But, that’s for another blog.
This post covers trip dates from 14th – 30th April, 2017
You can see more photos from this part of my journey by visiting the gallery page or by clicking here
Edited by – Emer Garry