Going Dutch!

Touring the north and west of Holland

An abridged version of this article has been published previously in the Caravan Club Magazine

Those who have toured with their caravan through Europe will almost certainly have come across the Dutch - intrepid campers for whom (unlike the French) distance seems to be no object, and who have been called the 'Nomads of Europe'. But what of camping in Holland itself?

Several times we had travelled through the Netherlands en route to Germany, spending a day or so there. Perhaps, we thought, two weeks in Holland would explain why the Dutch are so keen to go elsewhere, whilst we took advantage of their flat countryside and cycle-friendly road system for more cycling and less time in the car than usual. We decided to find out.

Our trip - with none of the sites booked in advance - would take us north in stages from the Hook of Holland, across a long dyke encompassing what used to be the Zuidersee, and into Friesland. From there we would return south for a final stay before heading back to the Hook.

The daytime crossing from Harwich to the Hook - as one of a number of caravans travelling on what is otherwise a freight ferry - was excellent. With free meals in both directions and all of the important ferry facilities on board we decided that we preferred it to a more regular crossing!

The first two nights were spent at a site an hour or so north of the Hook, at Duinrell. Arriving there late in the afternoon after our crossing we realised that all was not exactly as we had expected - the caravan pitches were located within a busy pleasure park, not unlike a small version of Alton Towers! In the event this turned out to be a very well equipped and run site; site fees included free admission to the various attractions and a discount for the swimming pool complex, so we stayed on for another day to take advantage.

The local area provided several attractive places to visit - Den Haag is close by, and we particularly liked Haarlem with its old, central square and church with a magnificent wooden lantern tower looking down over the city.

This is one of the principal bulb growing regions of Holland, but for us it was the wrong time of year to be able to see all those wonderful colours. We paid a fleeting visit to the world's largest flower auction at nearby Aalsmeer - an immense building open to visitors early in the morning - but we were too late, it had closed for the day!

Holland is one of the most densely populated countries of Europe and this is particularly noticeable around the major towns and in the south. Soon we were continuing our journey north towards what we hoped would be a quieter part of the country, heading for the town of Hoorn.

Like many caravan parks in Holland the site on which we stayed at Berkhout, near Hoorn, is mainly a location for static caravans used for holidays or weekend getaways. The overall appearance is very different from that of similar sites in this country, and we pitched in an area reserved for tourers, well secluded from the more permanent residents.

Hoorn proved to be an excellent touring base for several days. Nearby Edam, famous for its cheese (pretty town, but a little touristy in parts), Vollendam (with a beautiful harbour and many tall-masted boats), and Marken (a former island now connected to the mainland by a long causeway with numerous boats in and around the harbour) were all worth a visit. A short drive away at Enkhuizen the Zuidersee Museum shows the local way of life in times past, and the effect of the building of a twenty mile long dyke (or dam) to enclose what, up until then, had been a large expanse of sea. Prior to the building of this Enclosure Dam (the Afsluitdijk) in 1932 to protect the north of the country from flooding, Enkhuizen had been a prosperous port on the Zuidersee. Suddenly, finding itself on the 'wrong' side of the dyke and cut off from the sea, traditional ways of earning a living, like fishing, were a thing of the past.

The museum is reached by boat, crossing what used to be open sea and is now an enclosed (but very large) fresh-water lake. We toured old cottages, shops, and streets and watched demonstrations of trades and crafts such as the cooper (barrel maker) and blacksmith. People dressed in traditional costume added a touch of colour. An excellent day out - tiring though, with plenty of walking required to see everything.

Our other excursion from Hoorn was to the island of Texel, one of the Wadden Islands strung along the north-western coast of Holland. A little over an hour's drive took us to the car ferry at Den Helder. Here we left the car and wheeled our bikes onto the ferry alongside many, many others (remember - this is Holland!) for the twenty minute crossing to Texel. The Wadden Islands were formed originally from sandbanks in very shallow water, and provide a natural haven for many types of wildlife - Texel is one of the major bird habitats of Europe.

Much of the island's past was connected to sheep farming. As we pedalled along quiet roads and cycle tracks in bright sunshine we passed many examples of the strangely-shaped Texel barns (pointed, and facing into the prevailing wind to offer maximum wind protection to the sheep), and we stopped for a while to watch farmers shearing their sheep.

We reached Den Burg, the island's main town, in time to enjoy a quiet lunch sitting outside in a pretty side street before continuing on to De Koog, a town on the western coast of the island now devoted mainly to visitors. Magnificent flat, sandy beaches extended for miles. We cycled slowly back alongside green fields and under a blue sky, returning on a ferry at the end of the afternoon (no booking necessary). We felt weary but it had been a great day out.

Friesland, home (we assumed) of the Friesian cow, was to be our next area to visit. From Hoorn this meant travelling the length of the Afsluitdijk, the dyke that had been constructed to contain the Zuidersee. An interesting drive with the sea on one side and the lake (which looks much like the sea!) on the other - there is even a large grassed parking area halfway across where we were able to stop for lunch and look down upon the dyke from a tall viewing tower.

As we drove the last few miles towards our chosen site at Tzummarum we were surrounded by some of the wind turbines that operate in this part of the country. The larger turbines were usually arranged in clusters of up to a dozen, but smaller examples were attached to individual farms, presumably to provide some or all of the electricity for that farm and its neighbours. Very much the new Dutch windmill for the modern age!

Tzummarum is a village close to the northern coast, surrounded by picturesque countryside. Cycling on the quiet roads or near to the sea dyke was a pleasure, the local bar was very welcoming, and there were several interesting places to visit nearby. At Sexterium we toured a working, traditional windmill and at Dokkum we watched the beginning of a festival cruise by several hundred small boats through the inland waterways of Friesland. We had never realised that there were so many boats, of all shapes and sizes, until our trip to Holland! Towns nearby include Harlingen, with an attractive port area and restaurants alongside the canal, and Franeker where we watched a road-cycle race one evening that brought the town to a standstill.
A little further afield lies Giethoorn, originally an isolated settlement built by a religious sect of flagellants, with many of the houses (which are still inhabited) on small, man-made islands. Now sometimes known locally as a 'Little Venice', it is conserved as a tourist attraction. An interesting and very pretty place to visit for an hour or so - visitors can choose to tour the area either on foot or by small boat.

After a few days we travelled south to Noordeloos, a convenient final base within a reasonable distance of the ferry for the return trip. This was a very peaceful and relaxing place, one of an association of farm-based campsites that have all the facilities of showers, electric hook-ups, and so on but no pool, restaurant or shop. Fields all around us were criss-crossed with drainage ditches, used instead of fences to separate crops and livestock. Livestock here included not only cattle but also horses - we were surprised throughout our trip by the number of elegant, sleek horses we saw being reared and trained.

The nearby village of Noordeloos is beautiful, with a narrow river winding through its centre flanked by pretty houses and crossed by a series of small, pedestrian bridges. This area of Holland retains many more of the traditional style windmill than we had seen in the north, with a number now being used as unusual but appealing houses.

At nearby Kinder Dijk nineteen large mills, used originally to pump water out of the low-lying surrounding fields, are spread for a mile or so alongside a waterway. Although these days the water level is controlled by modern pumping equipment the mills are maintained in working order. With their structures kept freshly painted and some of their sails dressed in canvas this is a spectacular sight, especially if any of them are turning when you visit.

Nearby Groot Ammers is home to a colony of storks. On the day we visited the reserve it was not open to visitors, but we could see a number of storks perched on their ungainly and rather untidy nests and others soared in the sky overhead. A few miles away one swooped down in front of us as we cycled along - amazing how large they are close to!

Throughout our time in Holland we saw few others from the UK, surprising because it is an ideal touring opportunity for those seeking something just a little bit different! For those that want to cycle as part of their holiday it is wonderful - hills are virtually unknown, and cyclists are treated to protected paths and tracks almost everywhere.

© GDS 2002
Back to Caravan Menu
Windmills, old and new
Fish smoking and traditional dress at Enkhuizen
Sheep-protecting barn on the island of Texel
Waterway and footbridge at Noordeloos
Stork at Groot Ammer
Cheese display at Edam