Two clear themes were to emerge from this weekend: white-fronted geese and fancy dress. Both are a fixture of the Netherlands in early March or around then. The timing of the arrival of one depends on the Arctic weather, the other on the cycle of the moon.
Early on Saturday morning, the ageing maroon train squealed its way out of a deserted, freezing-fog bound Liège, along the Maas, the far bank of which was barely visible, and across frosted fields towards the Dutch border. The journey was enlivened by the earnest attempts of a guitar-carrying young man to drum up an audience for a festival – which appeared to be a rather intriguing mix of chansons and circus acts – taking place later in the month in one of the empty industrial units in which Liège abounds.
An efficient cross-platform change at Maastricht onto the double-deck Intercity towards
Amsterdam gave enough time to notice that the weekend before Shrove Tuesday – Carnaval – is a quite remarkable time to be in the Netherlands. At 8am on a freezing Saturday, a clear majority of those on the railway stations, on trains, in towns, and on bikes in the middle of the countryside was wearing some sort of fancy dress. At the very least, this consisted of bright green and yellow socks and hats. At the other end of the spectrum were bear suits, full ceremonial military uniforms, and reasonably convincing Luke Skywalkers. It took several hours to acclimatise to this rather odd environment and to accept that the man across the aisle on the train dressed as a lion was a sane, stolid, fare-paying citizen, who’d be back working at Rabobank on Wednesday.
Thirty minutes up the line, I alighted at Roermond, where the detritus from the previous night’s revelries was being industriously tidied away. The cycle shop next to the station hired me a bike, which as if to mark the move away from the hills of south Limburg, had only 3 gears – which proved to be so indistinguishable that I named them pretty ‘high’, ‘very high’, and ‘cycling into a gale’. The gentleman hiring me the bike was pretty much the first Dutch person I’ve ever met who seemed uncomfortable speaking English. Instead, we stumbled along in GCSE-standard German (the border is barely five miles away), in a conversation that became a bit more complex when he tried to insist that my passport was Irish. The last person to latch on to the ‘Northern Ireland’ wording in the photo page of my UK passport was the sleeping car conductor of the Kowloon-Shanghai sealed train, who was only convinced of the document’s Britishness by numerous references on my part to ‘Beckham’. In Roermond, an insistence on Großbritannien did the trick, without reference to ‘Rooney’.
Bicycle and costly bike ticket acquired, I doubled back one stop on the local train to Echt, where I had left off a month before. The fog was still sitting heavily on the landscape, although the compensation for this was a complete lack of any wind to hinder progress, which was probably just as well, given the bike turned out to give London’s Banker Bikes a
run for their money in terms of sheer weight. I dog-legged my way through the suburbs of Echt, eventually turning west on a small lane which leap-frogged a motorway and wandered into a landscape of ploughed fields and tree-lined roads disappearing into the mist. On the horizon were the levees holding in my old companion, the Juliana kanaal. With water level well above the surrounding landscape, the superstructures of barges would occasionally present a surreal sight, chugging along above the fields – empty barges high in the water racing north, loaded barges crawling south.
In those fields which hadn’t been ploughed, I came across the first of the huge flocks of white-fronted geese, recently arrived from the Arctic, which would be a constant feature on fields and expanses of water for the rest of the day. In fact, the whole landscape was alive with birds – not a hedgerow was passed without a small cloud of tits, sparrows or warblers emerging from it. Meandering across the fields, I passed through the hamlet of
Berkelaar, where some remarkable examples of striking 1970s house design nestled alongside traditional Dutch homes. Onwards, passing roadside crosses at every junction, I bounced across a field track and joined a segregated path alongside a busier road to climb up to water level in the small town of Maasbracht. Here, where the canal re-joined the river Maas, the banks were lined with endless numbers of pleasure, residential and commercial vessels, curving away to the north. On a sunny summer’s day, Maasbracht is clearly a popular riverside honeypot. On a misty March morning it was deserted – until I turned inland and reached its busy, modern market square.
Like every over village and town, Maasbracht was still covered in election posters, the regional polls having taken place on the Wednesday. Nationally, these had led to a setback for the new centre-right coalition government, denying it a majority in the veto-enabled upper house, whose composition is determined by the regional parliaments. Here in Limburg, traditional heartland of the Christian democrat CDA they had been forced into joint-largest party status by Geert Wilder’s populist, Islamophobic Party for Freedom (PVV), on whom the national coalition relies for
confidence and supply. Studying the regional results map on the previous night’s Eurostar journey, I was mildly alarmed to find that the route I was taking through Limburg followed a corridor of PVV-held constituencies.
Leaving Maasbracht, I again quit the main road and passed between half-timbered, white-washed farmhouses and into a landscape of apple and pear orchards, the trellised trees bare, but with the first signs of buds starting to appear. This bucolic scene contrasted with the cooling towers of the huge Claus gas-powered power station, half hidden behind a coppice. Veering east, I skirted the edge of the power station enclosure on firm tracks, busy with dog-walkers and joggers. Briefly entering the woods, I paused beside an irrigation channel to listen to two woodpeckers, only occasionally visible, engage in a tapping competition either side of the track. Returning to metalled roads in the scattered village of Weerd, I swept past huge farmhouses and villas, following signs to a cyclebridge. This turned out to be a wooden bridge tacked onto the side of sluices
controlling the flow of water from a series of reservoirs feeding the Lateraalkanaal Linne-Buggenum, another artificial cut-off of Maas meanders. Across this, a road led across the bed of another, empty, reservoir, recent higher water levels evidenced by low trees whose tops were strewn with rubbish.
Climbing to cross the canal just beyond its entry locks, a view – somewhat obscured by the mist – opened up of a vast landscape of lakes and reservoirs stretching ahead along the Maas valley. The next 3 kilometres were spent skirting these lakes on a minor road, bird-filled hedgerows on one side, a narrow lakeside nature reserve on the other. Slowly, the mixture of ancient and
modern towers of Roermond appeared across the lakes. Passing under a motorway, I looped round and joined a road which shared its viaduct across the lakes and river and into Roermond itself. Entering the town through a network of insanely neat cycle paths and subways alongside an out-of-town shopping centre, I was soon plunged into narrow streets lined with merchants’ houses. The town’s main square, alongside its cathedral, had been turned into a fairground for carnaval, with fancy-dressed dignitaries looking on from the town hall portico. The tourist information sold me a cycle atlas and CD-Rom set, and a bakery sold me a coffee. Somehow I resisted the vast, and tempting looking apple tarts.
Leaving town, a missing sign catapulted me onto a busy narrow main road without cycle provision – a very unusual experience in the Netherlands. I was so busy moaning inwardly as to what I paid my taxes for that I missed another turn and had to double back over a railway bridge. This was followed by a further error – choosing to take the point-to-point signed route rather than the Maas Valley cycle route, thus leading to a lengthy exit from town through an industrial estate, composed largely of a Finnish paper plant, Roermond’s skyline receding behind towers of compacted paper waste. Eventually, I emerged onto more goose-haunted floodplains, passed under the Maastricht-Amsterdam railway line and turned onto a track paralleling it. The top of a small hill was decorated by a rather incongruously large road sign urging road users to be aware of badgers – I saw several more of these signs, but no actual creatures – though the low, sandy hills certainly seemed a likely habitat.
A little beyond I came to the pretty riverside village of Asselt, the first building of which
was the jumbled 11th century church of St Dionysus, perched above the Maas. Attempting to photograph a large bird of prey in the surrounding trees proved unsuccessful (squeaking bike brakes are a good warning of your presence), but the resulting exploration around the back of the church revealed a flood marker which demonstrated the river waters had reached the church at least twice in the last century. The rest of Asselt was composed of deserted riverfront cafes and an empty marina. The only sign of life was a couple with a huge tripod mounted camera, rather incongruously using it to photograph crocuses.
Beyond Asselt, the landscape was particularly beautiful, with fast-flowing streams meandering through meadows, and roads lined with pollarded trees. I passed through the hamlet of Wieler and then criss-crossed through woodland on a series of tracks to emerge in Hanssum, where goats and chickens grazed on the village green. Beyond the village, another track headed north-east, paralleling the Maas, now below me in a sandy valley. Along this track I encountered the first traditional Dutch windmill of this journey, its sails
still turning and pumping water from the river below to the fields of vegetables on the other side of the track. Through the edge of Bessel, tracks continued, now twisting through orchards – a lovely experience, though no doubt one which would be even more beautiful a month later once blossoms had emerged. Stopping at a junction to check the map, I watched a hare lolloping gently across the fields, and moments later admired a merlin perched in a tree beside the track, all enhanced by brief glimpses of the sun through the cloudbank.
The path eventually emerged from the orchards and followed the river bank, to arrive at the southern terminal of the chain ferry crossing the Maas to Kessel on the opposite bank. The bright yellow ferry soon arrived and two cars and myself were quickly loaded. There was a short delay leaving as we gave way to a large barge named Faraday heading downstream. Disappointingly, it turned out to be powered by the usual diesel engines rather than something more befitting its name.
€0.60 lighter, I alighted on the north bank and headed through the elongated small town of Kassel, the long road to its market square lined with comfortable nineteenth century bourgeois houses. The riverside castle dominated the market square, where the large number of bicycles outside the bar demonstrated that this was where the carnaval action was. Two large cut-out ladybirds by the door of this establishment were clearly the Venlo-region symbol of ‘party over here’.
Wanting to make the most of the sunshine, I resisted the temptations of Kessel’s watering holes and pushed on out of town, across a main road and up a little lane to the village of
Donk. Whilst the village itself was unremarkable, the name felt appropriate to me – I had just hit what could be described as the mid-afternoon donk, where rests were becoming much more frequent. The road came to an end at the edge of the huge Heldense Bossen woodlands, which had contained underground barracks and other facilities for resistance fighters during the German occupation. Tracks led through these silent woodlands, interspersed with ploughed fields. A final stop for an energy boost from some almond biscuits purchased in Roermond was enlivened by the local horses taking a particular interest in my snacks, but they were to be denied anything but crumbs.
A final short on-road stretch led to the day’s destination, the small town of Maasbree, which turned out to be a more pleasant and characterful place than the Venlo dormitory town I had expected. Nevertheless, its accommodation options were non-existent, and Venlo looked an altogether more interesting place to spend the evening – as far back as Maastricht, extra trains to its carnival festivities were on the departure boards. The bike was parked up in the church square and I took the bus for the 6km into Venlo.
None of the guide books have anything much to say about Venlo – it has the distinction of having been pretty much destroyed by both sides during World War II – and for much of the time it may well be a nondescript sort of place – albeit one graced with the sort of municipal socialist red-brick post-war architecture the appreciation of which in Britain seems to be pretty much limited to me and the former borough of Greenwich, who adopted it for their fine town hall. Today, however, its small pedestrianised centre was heaving with exuberantly dressed carnaval-goers, ramming the bars, squares and streets – Colonel Gaddafi was a particularly popular fancy dress theme in this town. Those parts of the streets that weren’t crunchy with plastic cups were sticky with spilled drink – indeed, walking through town reminded me of walking into the carpeted sections of the LSE Students’ Union Bar before I turned it into a venue fit for a world-class university/poncy wine bar* (*delete as your political stance determines). I did feel a little under-dressed, but did at one point manage to persuade someone to lend me their orange wig. This was achieved by pointing out the shared House of Orange heritage of our two nations, although I’m not sure the original wearer was sober enough to understand the finer points of my historical argument. Or indeed, if they actually spoke particularly good English. The wig wearing was for a mercifully short period and photographic evidence thankfully lacking. And if I have one complaint about Venlo’s carnaval: it takes far too long to get a drink. And
if I have one complaint about my education: no-one ever taught me the Dutch words to “Country Roads”. Maybe if I’d gone to Eton…
The next morning I was woken by bright sunshine. Actually, I was woken by someone in the hotel kitchen throwing every fork in the world into a bucket containing all the other forks. But then I noticed the bright sunshine. Having not realised that on a Sunday to get half of the buses to Maasbree to run requires a call beforehand to the depot, I was left with 30 extra minutes to admire the steady steam cleaning of Venlo’s town centre after the previous night’s festivities.
Cycling out of Maasbree, I squeezed my way past a long series of pipe replacement works and emerged into the open countryside, dotted with glasshouses, the first of which revealed itself on closer inspection to be growing courgettes. Later in the day these were followed by tomatoes, strawberries and peppers, all in full bloom in March thanks to the wonders of hydroponics. Stopping for the first drink of the morning at a crossroads, a group of properly equipped cyclists raced past, wishing me “Prost!”. Unfortunately they were travelling too fast for me to enlighten them that it was only fruit juice. Zig-zagging across the countryside on small roads, I passed scattered houses, every one of which was operating as a little smallholding, with mini goats or chickens in the gardens. One, at a crossroads just outside Koningslust, had a very young wild boar trotting around in the dappled sunlight.
Suiting its royalist name, the neat village of Koningslust had gone very big on the carnaval monarchy thing, with practically every house carrying the images of three sets of
temporary rulers. Head of these was Prince Uto I who not only had a huge placard in the front garden, but also had had his street renamed in his honour. Beyond the village, a fifty foot high McDonald’s M rather incongruously perched above a pine forest, guided me to a motorway interchange, where dedicated traffic-light controlled crossings took me swiftly past the usual detritus of such locations: fast-food restaurant, petrol station and motel. Wonderfully, this was followed by an almost immediate dive into the deciduous Schatberg woods, with meandering cycle paths which eventually brought me out by another incongruity – the car parks and roller-coasters of the Toverland theme park.
A further pair of roads let through more woodland and emerged just south of the village of Kronenburg at a secluded, water-fowl filled pond, surrounded by cottages and a strange island the shape of an early ironclad. Beyond Kronenburg, the forests temporarily melted away and there followed a much more empty landscape of ploughed fields, with occasional bright yellow Intercities speeding between Venlo and Amsterdam were the distinguishing feature. A couple of kilometres across this plain I arrived at the village of America, prompting the inevitable “I’ve cycled to America” joke, for the benefit of Twitter. Barring a small Statue of Liberty, the sleepy village didn’t seem to play too heavily on its name. Indeed, the surprising appearance of a petanque court in the village square, squeezed between the chuch and level crossing, suggested its name could just as well be ‘France’.
Further woodlands followed, interspersed with bird-of-prey haunted clearings, eventually breaking clear of the trees to cross a windy plain with the skyline of Venray on the horizon. My route took me clear of the centre of this town, apparently famed in history and the present for its mental institutions. After breasting the only incline of the day – a motorway bridge – I descended through an industrial estate which combined some very dull and some actually quite striking units. In a small drainage ditch, a healthy-looking heron looked decidedly non-plussed by its surroundings. Past Venray’s out-of-town railway station, I meandered through the outskirts of the town. This revealed a superb example of how to build a social housing estate, with smart new architecturally-interesting houses set around grass, trees and waterways, every street named after a Dutch feminist.
Leaving town on a small road paralleling the motorway, I passed Venray’s woodland
cemetery and crematorium, busy on a Sunday afternoon and emerged at a main road well-supplied with segregated cycle lanes. Turning north to reach the village of Smakt, I encountered a roadblock staffed by a friendly man in an elaborate hat, who informed me that the road was closed for the little village’s carnaval parade and directed me to the short alternative route along the other side of the railway, which afforded me a good view of the floats and festivities. At the far end of the village, I encountered most of the village’s population heading towards the carnaval, all in some form of fancy dress. I was particularly amused by the kid dressed in a costume of toilet roll innards, with a sign round their neck saying “Roll-model”. Hoorah for bi-lingual jokes! Between Smakt and the almost joined village of
Holthees, I crossed a stream with a sign by the bridge marking the entry into the province of Brabant, meaning that the first province of the ride was complete (as a long, thin province on the north-south axis, it was just about acceptable to have taken 4 days to complete Limburg!).
Holthees turned out to be a beautiful little village, with a whitewashed church and some odd dinner-table-and-ladybird themed metal sculpture. Past a large farm and water-meadows, I soon arrived at the rather isolated station of Vierlingsbeek, having just seen the south-bound branch line train depart and knowing I therefore had a 30 minute wait ahead. It turned out that I was the only person wanting to use expensively-refurbished station, with passing loop recently installed, on a March Sunday afternoon. Just me, some rabbits and all the birds in Brabant and Limburg on a sunny platform. There may be Dutch words to “Country Roads”, but are the Dutch words to “Adlestrop”?