Reflections: Haarlem to Den Haag

Life is like riding a bicycle – in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving. ~Albert Einstein


However much I might like to imagine myself otherwise, I am no light packer (…nor is my father, nor was his father before he). I enjoy having options. I am practiced at the art of justification: extra guidebooks, art supplies I might need, a second pair of slacks here, and an extra pair of shoes there. So when I hoisted my rucksack onto my back and set off on my bicycle down the road to Haarlem, I did so optimistically, reminding myself that I had purchased a “lightweight” backpack, or humming as a distraction from the uncomfortable sensation of tipping over slightly whenever I came to a stop.

My arrival in the city of Haarlem must have amused many of the Dutch folk sipping espresso and buying trinkets and herring in the Sunday Grote Markt. Having glided victoriously into the vast picturesque square, I nearly ran over several shoppers, unceremoniously plopped all of my belongings on the street (right in the middle of a bicycle path no less), and then snapped a picture. Before I could finish arranging my camera angle, my bicycle toppled over from the weight of my panniers.

GroteKerk at Haarlem's Grote Markt

The bend in the River Spaarne

From the polder lands to the east, Haarlem announces itself by its Renaissance church spires. Coiled around the River Spaarne, the city of 150,000 people epitomizes the seventeenth century prosperous Dutch city. Gabled brick townhouses nestle beside still canals, which are crossed by dainty wooden and brick drawbridges. The Spaarne, a brief walk from the city’s church square and central market (still a cloth market on weekdays), structures the city and creates postcard impressions at various angles along both sides of the river.

Despite the city’s historic appeal, Haarlem offers few lessons in bicycle infrastructure design compared with Amsterdam. The city’s paths and lanes connect well locally and regionally, but differ little from those of Amsterdam. Indeed, Haarlem felt in many ways almost suburban, a lovely place to sip your Sunday coffee in the market square, but no hub of activity.

Rails and Dunes

Leaving picturesque Haarlem behind, the next day I resolved to ride south along the North Sea towards Leiden. As I have mentioned in previous postings, the Netherlands has two systems of bicycle signage. The first, which is marked in green (and often referred to as LF-Routes) offers guidance for the country’s popular bicycle touring excursions. The second, marked in red, denotes regional and local directions. Red typically indicates the fastest route, whereas green offers the more picturesque.

Now, despite having looked at my map several times and read that I was supposed to follow green route LF1-A, I have a weakness for these red signs. There is nothing quite like them in the United States, let alone most other European countries I have visited. The sensation would be equivalent (at a diminished scale) to biking through Boston, Massachusetts and finding directional signs pointing towards Worcester, Providence, Lowell, and Lynn, with a relatively direct and reliable bicycle path towards each. The route to Leiden had been so carefully plotted, so direct. I could not help but follow the signs.

Eventually, tired of the monotony of the railroad tracks running beside me, I decided to pull over to check my map. I had bypassed the lovely dunes and cycled halfway to Leiden! Under most circumstances, I might have trudged forth, but on such a lovely day, I yearned for a glimpse of the sea. So I backtracked, lugging my backpack to the seaside town of Zandevoort, where I celebrated the sea with a platter of fried kibbeling.

When I had imagined the sand dunes of Holland, I had pictured something not unlike the dunes of Cape Cod, or even the Rockaways. What I found, however, was a full on dunescape, a micro-mountainous expanse of crater-like sanded hills shielding the whole province from the sea and its strong winds. Even as my pack began to wear on me, the landscape pressed forth, unrelenting in its simple beauty.


The North Sea from a high dune

By the time I reached Leiden in the late afternoon, Haarlem seemed a distant memory, even though I could probably have bicycled straight back before sunset. I was not due in Leiden until the day after, but I chose to rest there, drink some coffee, and make my decision about where to stay the night.

Again the red signs enticed me. Den Haag (The Hague), though not originally on my itinerary, laid only 15 or so kilometers to the south. I entertained the prospect of hopping onto my bicycle, propelling myself forth another 15 kilometers to my third city in one day- to pull another distant skyline towards me- this one even grander than the last. That grain of thought, of possibility, epitomized the sense of freedom of movement that makes the Netherlands bicycle infrastructure so attractive. The country exists at human scale. To grasp the next city, to press forth through your own power and effort from one town to another without the hindrance of cars or the impediment of topography; that is the opportunity that Holland presents, and the sensation I one day hope to restore to America.

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