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Trip Report Cycling around IJsselmeer, plus summer ferries

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Lots of people go to Amsterdam, and I did too, but from Rotterdam, by bike. The grand plan was to cycle to Amsterdam, then onwards to Enkhuizen, to take the ferry across the IJsselmeer to Friesland, cycle around there for a bit. After that, I would play it by ear, deciding in the morning where to go. Due to work constraints I had about 4 days to accomplish this in, and I must confess that taking even a fully loaded touring bike on the train is so easy, that I am not ashamed of skipping boring stretches of road to get to a destination more quickly. By the way, I'm writing this trip report as a demonstration of how people can spend their vacation in The Netherlands outside of Amsterdam: where I cycled is no more than two hours away by train. And in summer there are added bonuses, like taking ferries across the IJsselmeer, but more of that later.

Day one started early, at 7.30 in the morning as I left the house in Rotterdam. I think it's extra adventurous to leave one's own front door and simply cycle off. Which I did, taking the beautiful route along the river Rotte (from which Rotterdam takes its name) through a polder landscape that's quintessentially Dutch. Pastures, little villages, all still sleepy. It's possible to bike from Rotterdam to Amsterdam through a completely pastoral landscape: the "Green Heart" of The Netherlands. Places where I might have had coffee were all closed, strangely, and that at 10 am, so it took me until the Westeinder Lake to happen on a marina that had a restaurant where at last I could replenish my store of carbohydrates and caffeine. Onwards to Aalstmeer, and then Amsterdam. Aalstmeer is the flower capital of the world, which expresses itself as the huge flower auction and mile upon mile of warehouse locations. It was about 1 PM when I reached Amsterdam, and I made my way across town to Sloterdijk Station where I wanted to take the train to Enkhuizen.

My plan was to see whether I would be on time for the last ferry to Stavoren and indeed I was, with time to spare, arriving at about 3 PM, while the ferry was due to sail at 4:30 PM. This gave me the opportunity to cycle around the city a bit. It has an illustrious past as one of the supply stations of the East Indies Company's ships, and this shows everywhere. Now the focus is on boating enthusiasts and the city is somewhat of a yachting hub, its location as strategic as it used to be in the 17th century. Enkhuizen is also the location of the Zuiderzee Museum, a museum complex dedicated to life on the Zuiderzee before the Enclosing Dam was built and sea became IJsselmeer. Its Buitenmuseum is a reconstruction of a typical Zuiderzee village and a recreation of a life now gone, but fondly remembered, without the poverty and grime of course.

The ferries that sail during the summer months are a remnant of that past: over the last few years all but one of the old ferry connections have been recreated: Enkhuizen - Stavoren and Enkhuizen - Urk. The third one, a connection from Lemmer direct to Amsterdam has lost all viability, even for tourists. Many people use the ferries for a short hop across the IJsselmeer to the other side in the morning, returning with the last ferry of the day. And because they offer a convenient shortcut across, they're popular with cyclists such as me. I wasn't the only one with a fully loaded bike. Soon a row of bikes graced the upper deck, and passengers were snug below decks. By now the wind had increased to what is euphemistically called "a stiff breeze". So stiff indeed, that people became sea sick during the crossing. A reminder of the fact that the IJsselmeer is still a "sea" to all intents and purposes. After a crossing of two hours we docked in Stavoren.

In the Middle Ages, the city of Stavoren was a member of the Hanseatic league and had it's role in the Baltic grain trade. However, its harbour silted up and it lost its significance. Now it is one of the yachting gateways to the Frisian lakes, but not as popular as its more northerly neighbour towns of Workum and Makkum. The town's legend concerns "the lady of stavoren", a wealthy grain trader who squandered her fortune and that of the city through a foolish vow. I had decided to cycle north for about an hour, hoping to camp in Workum, in order to be better placed to explore the countryside.

Workum is another Frisian city that time forgot, formerly a market town in an agrarian economy, now mainly focused on tourism during the summer months. I camped at It Soal, a huge campsite and marina complex on the coast of the IJsselmeer. Convenient but too large for my taste.

Day 2 started conveniently with coffee and two pains au chocolat. There is something to be said for large campsites with their own supermarket after all. After that, it was a short stretch to Workum for another coffee on the market square. Sunday is still the day of rest in most of the country, and from large church that is located on the same market square came the sound of "Genevan Psalmody", a style still very much favored in the calvinist Netherlands. But here we are in Fryslân, a province that until the 18th century was a separate nation and to this day speaks its own language, Frisian, and fiercely maintains its own customs. "Death Above Slavery" reads its national monument at the Red Cliff, and it represents the Frisian spirit well. My plan for the day was a meandering loop through It Heidenskip, on to Heeg, then the villages above Sneek, then Sneek, where my family is from. It Heidenskip is an area of huge swathes of pasture, punctuated by remote farmsteads. Most of these are more easily reached by water than by the roads, that are long and seem to go nowhere. Biking through wasn't possible until a few years ago, when two ferries started operating to connect It Heidenskip to Gaastmeer.

I love this landscape. It's a huge expanse of variegated green, cows in the pasture, all framed by a spectacular sky, everything broad, amply proportioned. It's a cultured landscape, man made, but mellowed by time like an old and well used tool. With the westerly "stiff breeze" in my back I sped to Heeg, a fishing village that used to have its own landing in London, because Frisian eel was a delicacy for which the Heeger fishermen sailed especially up to London. Now, like many other villages on the edge of a lake, it's a tourist hub for inland yachting. The distinguishing feature of this is, that it is possible to sail from village to village. Many people hire boats for this and in summer the entire lake country is teeming with yachts.

After a fuel break (do you want your apple cake with or without whipped cream?) I cycled on to another Frisian mini-city, IJls, world famous because a famous brand of speed skates is made there. After lunch, I decided to add a few villages to my loop back to Sneek: Oosthem, Folsgare and Ysbrechtum and so reached Sneek, largish market city at the heart of the lakes. It was in its post - regatta slumber, recovering from a spring break - like week of mayhem and festivities. Pizza (carbohydrates) and sleep at the Ysbrechtum mini camping.

Day 3 and the plan was to cycle to Lelystad, through the Noordoostpolder and part of Flevoland: both areas were manmade in the first half of the 20th century to increase the arable land surface. This became especially important after many farmers from Zeeland lost their land in the 1953 disaster. From Sneek I made my way to Lemmer, an uneventful ride, and then turned due south in what no longer could be called a stiff breeze but was now something stronger than that. I didn't have to cycle right into the wind but it was close, so I was grateful for every row of willows that could serve as a windbreak. Noordoostpolder was built to a rational plan, centered around cycling distance: every village is 5 km from its neighbour, so for all inhabitants cycling distance to get to shops or community service need never be more than 12 km maximum. Of course this was before the car's popularity and now villages like Rutten and Creil are empty of shops, sometimes an ATM is all that remains, as people travel to Emmeloord, the central market town, to do their shopping.

Stark and empty as it may seem, this is a beautiful landscape too. Huge wheat fields stretch as far as the eye can see. And it is good to remember that all this expanse, was once the sea bottom. Battling against an increasing headwind I finally reached the island of Urk, one of the islands that was closed in by land as the polder was drained. It still juts out into the IJsselmeer as a relic of former days, but Urk fishing is till famous worldwide. Huge fishing trawlers are being constructed in its harbour, and Urkers fish as far as the coast of West Africa. After a re-fueling stop (with whipped cream) I decided to plough on to Lelystad and take the train home from there. This was indeed into a headwind, but the first stretch was easy enough, turning west along the IJsselmeer coast to Ketelbrug, the connection between Noordoostpolder and Flevoland. As I made my way across a three mast schooner was waiting for the bridge to be raised: a beautiful and majestic sight. Having crossed Ketelbrug, another ligt stretch until route signs had me turn onto Visvijverweg, a long road of many kilometers leading to Lelystad.

I dropped a gear, then another, and stopped halfway to drink and rest, but it still took me two hours to cover a distance of 15 km to Lelystad and my train home. And yet, plenty to take in, a landscape on an even more grandiose scale than that of Noordoostpolder, all 1970s engineered rationalism, all starkly beautiful. I sighed with relief as Lelystad's surrounding forest loomed: finally a chance to get out of the wind. Unlike mountains, that offer a reward on the descent, a headwind is a constant and mentally draining companion. But it's all just time and distance, and soon I was able to load my bike onto the train home.

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