Bicycle Diaries from Amsterdam

Even for non-riders, the city is easy to navigate through its well-equipped cycle paths that zip along its expansive parks, quiet lakesides and leafy neighbourhoods.

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Amsterdam is considered one of the world’s top three bicycle friendly cities.

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Early in the pandemic, as Europeans are emerging gingerly to spend the summer days by lakes and cafes, my husband and I grab the opportunity to hop onto a plane to escape the silence of Geneva, swooping into Amsterdam for a break because we can navigate the city on two wheels, thus greatly reducing our chances of being cooped up in trains or buses.

We head to the central district of Amsterdam after dropping off our luggage at our stay in Badhoevedorp bordering Amsterdam to pick up our bikes. At the shop, the hipster owner offers us two tall, black Dutch bikes with their typical pedal brakes that weigh a tonne (to withstand the force of wind), but not having cycled much in years I opt for the only available regular bike with hand brakes and leave my husband holding the Dutch bike.

The arrival of summer means long, stretched evenings and to make the most of it we hoick a leg over the crossbar and thread our way to the urban oasis of Vondelpark. On our way, we are greeted by rows of 17th-century gabled houses, quiet street corners with restaurants serving dinner to a few patrons, the urban quiet punctured every now and then with a burst of laughter here, a sudden greeting between neighbours there, and sunflowers the size of two human faces peeking over garden walls. We zip through the gates of Vondelpark and a new world opens up.

 

Bicycle Diaries From Amsterdam

Along Vondelpark’s quiet lanes, stop to take in the tulips (right); The route along Ringvaart canal (left) is just as gorgeous.

 

Cycling slowly through its generous, leafy lanes with the wind in our wheels, and the cool shadow over our heads feels like the perfect expedition to undertake on a sweltering day. There are groups of people playing cards and chatting, the restaurant looks fully occupied, and young families eat their picnic dinners by the many ponds that dot the park’s perimeter, face masks forgotten. We pick a quiet spot by one of the ponds to catch a break from the saddle and eat a hotdog-and-beer dinner from a nearby stand. Down the slope a young family has just finished their meal. As the parents lie on their backs while rolling some post-dinner cannabis into a joint, the children are let loose for a closer inspection of the mallards that approach them, their emerald backs under the setting sun shining with brilliance.

 

Easy Riding

Badhoevedorp borders north Amsterdam and lies next to the Ringvaart canal. There are houseboats lining the length of the canal and sitting on the deck of our apartment while eating breakfast the following morning, we watch people emerge from their living rooms and jump straight into the brown waters to wash off the night’s sweat. I tempted to follow suit but the day’s itinerary has us covering more ground on two wheels and so we start on our ride to Amsterdam Bos before the day begins to burn.

Bicycle Diaries From Amsterdam

Cherry Blossom season (top) at the Amsterdam Bos is the perfect setting for a ride; Cycle to Haarlem (bottom), a historic neighbourhood, and spend a few hours dazzled by its architecture.

Completely flat, the Netherlands is a paradise for cyclists, even amateurs like this writer, with its trademark red-painted cycling tracks running along the length and breadth of the country. I have in the past demurred at going on bike trips to hills around Geneva in the fear of not making past the first five kilometres up an incline let alone summit it on two wheels. But cycling in and around the outskirts of Amsterdam feels like a flatland fantasy revealing itself, where I average almost 50 kms a day and survive to not resent the saddle after the first day of body soreness. We are lucky that despite being a hot day, the wind never deserts us when we’re on our bikes making it particularly pleasant. We pedal into Amsterdam Bos by the Nieuwe Meer, one of the largest city parks in Europe, and meet a forest right on the edges of the metropolitan. At an impressive 1,000 hectares, the Bos is three times the size of the Central Park in New York, and around 200,000 trees that populate its vast expanse were planted by hand between 1930 and 1970. Riding along wooded trails, we pass lakes with people out on their canoes, horse farms where children learn to ride, a lonely heron in a bog standing on its one leg waiting for a prey in the harsh afternoon light.

We realise that our call to embark on a cycling holiday during a raging pandemic hasn’t been an entirely stupid one. What appears to be a discovery is the bike’s unobtrusive nature. You can cycle past crowded cities or dense forests without being noticed, especially if you’re keeping to the tracks, but emerge with an intimate experience of the landscape you’re in. The mundane, the cheerful and the aberrant show up on guarantee if you care to look.

 

Life By the Canal

The following day we venture into Haarlem, 20 kms away. Our route takes us flying past windmills, large industrial greenhouses growing flowers and produce—the Netherlands is one of the world’s foremost exporters of agricultural and horticultural products, its exports worth at €95.6 billion in 2021—and of course long-running canals. We stop for lunch at the canal side where we watch locals bring out their boats to enjoy the summer sun and the relentless draughts that send a chill down our spine with annoying regularity. Music, laughter, chatter, whooping, the air thick with the smell of cannabis all come at us from the Spaarne river, where the waterborne Dutch appear to be truly at home.

On our final day in the Netherlands, saddle-sore and weary, we decide to give the cycles a bit of a rest and take the train to Delft, where on disembarking we hire another two bikes to get around its flower-filled, narrow lanes. We stop at Vermeer Centrum Delft that houses all of Johannes Vermeer’s 37 paintings at scale. We find the two-level studio almost to ourselves and take our sweet time to stare at the “Girl with the Pearl Earring” and “The Milkmaid”, his most well-known works. We head to the Royal Delft Museum next and have a guide walk us through the factory and introduces us to the Delft Blue-making process. White clay is everywhere, in large square blocks, as are the high-powered kilns where it’s moulded for paint. We watch master artists quietly at work with paintbrushes on earthenware adorning the moulds with their quintessential blue on white motifs.

Dusk arrives and we cycle back to the station stopping on the way to witness an incredibly tall couple celebrate their wedding in front of the Old Church and halt mid-street to let a family of ducks cross a thoroughfare. We close the curtain on our vacation quaffing beer, as I feel inspired to return home and ride more often.

 

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  • Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.

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