In Bruges

A windmill stands proudly on the bank of the canal, overlooking one of the many gates into the city. As we pass through the gate we are greeted by a marching band. Not a bad first impression.

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We were heading home now, back south towards Calais and the ferry back. The Netherlands had been good to us. Maybe the weather hadn’t been as kind as it could of, but we’d met some lovely people, eaten more cheese than science had thought was possible and visited some really diverse and interesting places.

Being able to get around so easily on a bike had been fantastic, with none of the traffic worries of riding in the UK. We’d discovered delicious Dutch baking along the way, like their German cousins, the dark breads are full of flavour and general yumminess.

We hadn’t got to all the places we’d wanted to visit. Our plan to visit the island of Texel was abandoned when a violent storm rolled in off the North Sea, trapping us in a beachside bar for a few hours before we finally braved the run back to a van that was rocking so much it almost brought on a bout of sea sickness. There was no way Rosana was getting on a boat.

We ran out of time to visit Amsterdam and the Hague and they, along with other vast areas of the map will have to wait for another time.

Breaking up the journey home we had crossed into Belgium and were now in Bruges, another city full of canals, another contender for the title of Venice of the North. We’d arrived at Camping Melming the previous evening in the most torrential rain and sat on our pitch for some time waiting for a break in the weather to get ourselves set up, as had our neighbours.

But the weather gods had smiled on us and we walked the short distance into the city under a mostly blue sky. The marching band welcome was nice enough, but there was better to come. Men and women dressed in stunning masquerade fashion paraded the streets, posing for photographs with passers by. Costumes were extravagant and colourful but contrasted with expressionless painted masks giving them a gothic aura.

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The marching band seemed to follow us into the centre of the city, which was getting a little embarrassing. We dived into a coffee shop to try and lose our tail.

In the Martin McDonagh’s 2008 film ‘In Bruges’, Harry (the chief gangster) describes Bruges, in amongst a great deal of profanity, as a fairy tale city with fairy tale buildings and that’s a perfect description. Bruges is a beautiful city, old and incredibly well preserved. The narrow medieval streets, distinctive old buildings and a plethora of canals combine to create a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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It is, therefore, understandably quite busy with tourists, although not as busy as we’d feared it might have been.

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Chocolate shops line the streets, their delicious looking treats dressing the windows and luring you in. The gaps between chocolatiers are filled with lace shops, Bruges other speciality. We stopped for lunch in the oldest Fritterie on the market square, one last chance for chips and mayo before we returned to a world of chips and ketchup. An afternoon snack of waffles kept our energy levels up, while suicidally strong Trappist beers took care of hydration.

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We only had a day and it wasn’t nearly enough to see everything we wanted. We left the city long after darkness had fallen, agreeing that Bruges deserved a return visit to take in everything we had missed.

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But our time was up, it was time to head home.

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Cheese with Everything

The Dutch love their cheese and nowhere was this more evident than in Alkmaar.

We dropped the van at a campsite on the outskirts of the the city, where the owner clearly knew the rules and put us next to another Westy, then cycled along well maintained cycle routes into the centre.

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It’s a medieval city, pretty and very lively. Narrow lanes bustle with people and the canal side cafes are full with shoppers and tourists.

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In the centre is a large market square, the Waagplein. Each Friday during the spring and summer it hosts a very special cheese market. It’s not a real cheese market in that you can’t actually buy the cheeses, but a tourist attraction showing how cheese was traded in days of old. It is an incredibly popular show and draws great crowds to the city. Cheeses are graded and weighed, transported on two man sleds. Barges bring the cheeses into market and traders exchange special handshakes to agree on a price. All the while the quality inspectors sample the produce, although in this show they share that role with the eager crowd.

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The market is a fun spectacle and it’s not really a problem that the cheeses are not for sale as Alkmaar has many cheese shops (and unsurprisingly a cheese museum). On Cheese Market Day, real cheese market stalls set up around the perimeter. Both shops and market stalls encourage you to ‘try before you buy’ the many different variations of cow, sheep and goat cheeses. Trying to decide which cheeses to buy is hard, but delicious work. Who knew that cheese and cumin was such a wonderful combination? Of course, if you tire of cheese (if that is indeed possible?) there are always alternatives, such as the chips with mayo or the pancakes…

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Venice of the North

Time for an admission of guilt. We broke Westfalia Law.

We pulled into the campsite on the outskirts of Giethoorn and found a nice little spot surrounded by bushes, not that we are antisocial or anything, it just looked like a nice spot and was furthest from the road. Fully settled in we wandered in the direction of the town and it was only then that we noticed them, a pair of Westfalias, next to each other as per Westfalia Law. We were criminals, outcasts. With our heads hung in shame we avoided eye contact and carried on towards town.

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Included in the international version of Monopoly, Giethoorn is also known as the Venice of the North, although they are not alone in laying a claim on that title. The older part of the village is car free, navigable only by canal or path. The narrow paths shared between pedestrians and cyclists and so tight is it in places that it’s a surprise not to see lifeguards on duty, ready to pluck a soggy cyclist or a floundering pedestrian from the depths.

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It’s clearly a popular place because it was the first time the VVV had charged us for a map, a map we could easily have lived without really – it’s a small place and easy to find your way around. Various canal boats tried to tempt us with cruises along the canals, but we opted to walk despite the dark clouds threatening rain.

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It was a pleasant afternoon’s wander around the canals, crossing the many bridges and being accosted by over confident ducks. We stopped for a coffee in a cafe that juts out into the adjacent lake and watched people pootle past in their boats for a while.

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We timed our return badly and got caught in the rain. Our only option was to shelter in a bar, a bar which was rather ironically decorated in car number plates.

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Heavens Above

In Franeker there is a planetarium. Many towns and cities have a planetarium and they’re very interesting places, showing us the heavens above and instilling the desire to be an astronaut in many a small child.

Franeker’s planetarium is different, more special. It’s the oldest functioning planetarium in the world. That it was constructed by a man who worked as a wool carder, turning bundles of fleece into workable yarns, makes it all the more remarkable.

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Back in 1770’s the general populous where having a bit of a panic. Many believed that a great conjunction of the stars would result in a heavenly star crash, a collision that would throw the Earth from its orbit and into a fiery death plunge towards the sun. It was a worry.

Eise Eisiger didn’t believe this would be the case and set out to show that come the 8th of May 1774, they’d be a few oohs and ahhs, but other than that, life would continue as normal. The model of the solar system that he created in his Franeker living room is absolutely fantastic and it’s not just for show, the collection of cogs, gears, levers and pendulums is incredibly accurate, with the planets orbiting the sun in real time.

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His model finishes at Saturn, which can be forgiven as this was the furthest of the planets known at the time. He didn’t stop at the planets though, adding various other chronological and astrological displays.

For all this genius, Eisiger didn’t foresee just how long his planetarium would remain in use and the date display does require a new set of years to be added every now and then.

By the Seaside, Not By the Sea

We were parked outside Roadhouse Checkpoint Charlie in the middle of the Houtribdijk, a 27 kilometre long dam that crossed what was once the Zuiderzee. Mrs TomTom was adamant that we were floating in the water and was being quite insistent that we got back on the N302 before Davey Jones claimed us for the locker.

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Our visit to the Zuiderzeemusem had taught us that in years gone by, life around the Zuiderzee had been a harsh one. Storms and flooding would reek havoc on the coastal communities. Rising sea levels and erosion of the peaty soil combined to make matters worse.

In 1932 the Afsluitdijk was completed, a 32 kilometre long dyke that cut the Zuiderzee off from the North Sea. The resulting lagoon was renamed IJsselmeer, Lake Ijssel. The dyke served to protect the communities that lived along its shores, although it killed off the fishing industry. In 1975 the more southerly Houtribdijk was completed and this was where we now sat. To the north east of us was the IJsselmeer and to the southwest the newly created Markermeer.

Both have roads crossing them and we thought it would be fun to cross them both, and take in some of the lovely old villages along the way. The guide book listed a few places that looked interesting. We wouldn’t have time for them all so we picked a couple at random.

Volendam was nice enough but very touristy with far too many trinket shops. In many ways it was like a little seaside town, except these days it’s lakeside. Like many popular places in the Netherlands, Volendam had a cheese shop masquerading as a museum. Cheese is incredibly important to the Dutch, eating considerably more than the european average. And it’s not surprising, their cheeses are excellent, not at all like the rubbery Dutch cheeses from the local supermarket at home. We stayed for the demonstration that was being run for a visiting bus tour and learned a little about cheese production. We may have purchased one or two cheeses as well. Possibly more.

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Markem was pretty too and much quieter. It was also mostly closed. We found a restaurant for lunch that offered views over the little harbour and braved an outside table despite the dark clouds on the horizon. Entertained by the sparrows who were trading cuteness for breadcrumbs, we watched the sky darken and thought about where to head next.

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With rain forecast for the next few days we were looking for something with a roof. With a destination in mind we headed north to cross the Afsluitdijk.

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