We had never visited the Netherlands before this year. We had not even had a cheeky cheap-flight weekend to Amsterdam before 2022. Of course, we meet Dutch people in France, Spain, Italy etc. They are keen campers, often speak excellent English and like to chat, but this was our first chance to see them on their home turf.
Part of the reason why we have previously skipped the Netherlands was about ferries. We have been loyal customers of the Hull to Zeebrugge ferry run by P&O. This service ceased in 2020 and after the appalling way P&O treated their staff earlier this year we don’t plan to use them again. For the first time we travelled with DFDS from Newcastle to IJmuiden [the IJ isn’t a typo and it is pronounced eye] an overnight ferry that takes you within a few kilometres of Amsterdam. From IJmuiden it is an easy drive into Germany and after some weeks pottering around eastern Germany we opted to head back towards IJmuiden and spend the final week of our time away exploring a little corner of the Netherlands north of Amsterdam.
I hastily learnt a few words of Dutch before we reached our first campsite but I only ever had to use these to be polite. The receptionists at each campsite spoke English, as did the assistants in supermarkets, waiting staff in cafes and pretty much everyone else. Their competence in a second language humbled me every day! It certainly does no harm to learn how to say hello, please, thank you and sorry but I was relieved I never had to get my tongue around all those Dutch double vowels and say much more.
The Netherlands is home to ACSI and each of the campsites we stayed at was part of the ACSI card scheme and offered a discount in the low season and they were all good value. We were there towards the end of June and there were some campsites that had moved onto high season but still plenty of choice of places to stay. Each campsite was also well organised, handing us leaflets about the local area and, most importantly for us, had local cycling maps.
To say the cycling in the Netherlands was blissful is really an understatement. For this English cyclist I felt I must have entered a parallel universe where cyclists, pedestrians and car drivers all moved around in transport harmony. Most cycle lanes were segregated from cars but were often shared with pedestrians. Occasionally on a country lane we had to share a road with car drivers but the mass of cyclists ensured the cars had to drive carefully. At junctions, cycle route signposts used a numbering system that was mostly easy to follow and I was impressed by the superb way the Dutch ensured smooth cycling.
I expected the Netherlands to be crowded as there are over 17 million of them packed into a smallish country but the areas that we travelled in were often rural and green and we were pleasantly surprised by all the wildlife we saw. Hares lolloped around fields, geese were everywhere and sitting on our pitch at the campsite at Lelystad on the shores of the Markermeer, a vast freshwater lake that was once the sea, we were entertained by a flock of sparrows who flew bravely in for crumbs, some even sitting cutely in the Blue Bus’ doorway.
Cycling around the Oostvaardersplassen, a large nature reserve by Lelystad, we followed the dyke around the Markermeer, joined by terns flying and diving overhead. On the pools and reeds of the Oostvaardersplassen a marsh harrier caught our eye and as we were accompanied by a cuckoo call. Taking the well-signposted cycle paths inland, I was excited to see a grass snake slithering off the path just in front of my bike and disappearing among the giant hogweed plants. To top the day off, we pulled into the visitor centre and sat on a bench watching a stunning pair of sea eagles circling overhead, catching the sun as they tilted their wings.
We were once again on the Markermeer when we camped by the elegant town of Edam, this time on the opposite shore. Here there was plenty of bird life too. Geese called as they flew overhead, oystercatchers screeched along the shore and swallows swooped around the ‘van. We both really took to Edam, it is a charming town that was perfect for wandering around and stopping for a relaxing beer. It has pretty canals, wooden bridges, smart houses and, of course, cheese shops and seemed a charming [but expensive] place to live in.
I enjoy a chunk of well-matured gouda but wasn’t prepared for the Dutch enthusiasm for cheese. We were inducted into this passion at Alkmaar’s cheese market. This is held on Fridays and has a lively and festive atmosphere, with the baffling traditions explained in Dutch, German and English. The most exciting part of the event is watching the cheese bearers, wearing colourful straw hats and white trousers and shirts, vigorously carrying large round cheese around the square on wooden barrows and others tossing them onto a wooden cart. The Dutch visitors loved it and couples enthusiastically queued up to be weighed on the large cheese weighing scales and have their photograph taken. I felt we had arrived at a truly special and buzzing occasion and yet this happens every Friday!
Parking a campervan in the Netherlands was fairly straightforward. We didn’t meet any of those dreaded height barriers and only had to pay to park in Alkmaar and at Zaanse Schans, where the windmill photograph at the top of the page was taken. Zaanse Schans is a large and fascinating open-air museum with enough windmills to satisfy everyone, many of them still working. The museum sits along the banks of a river and also has cheese making demonstations and delightful wooden houses. It is only about 25 km from IJmuiden so perfect for your last day in the Netherlands before the ferry, if you are travelling back to Newcastle like us. It cost us €11 to park for the day and entrance to the museum is then free, although you do have to pay if you want to look around some of the windmills. They had a dedicated space for motorhomes and campervans and we had plenty of room to park. If you arrived here by bicycle you would save on the parking charge.
We used the DFDS Newcastle to IJmuiden ferry, an overnight service that suited us well as Newcastle is only a few hours from home. IJmuiden is just north-west of Amsterdam. The ferry is comfortable and with evening buffet and breakfast it cost us about £700 return in 2022. It arrives in IJmuiden in the morning giving us all day to drive to our first campsite. We found the roads across the north of the Netherlands to be excellent with no tolls and no traffic jams. I enjoyed exploring the Netherlands so much I am sure we will be back to visit other parts of the country in the future.