For the last 11 days Katherine and I have been in Holland. The first eight days were spent on a bike, pedaling through the beautiful countryside in the east near the border with Germany. That’s where bucolic comes in.
The bloody side is its history during WWII. This region played a major role in the invasion of Holland in 1940, then was brutally occupied by Nazi forces. In 1945 it was liberated by the allies as they fought their way from Normandy to Germany. Tripsite, my host for this trip, aptly calls it, “Holland – World War II Reflections.”
First, the bucolic part. What I saw as I glided through the countryside on my decidedly uncool lady’s bike with the upright handle bars, the best possible option for this inexperienced cyclist with the bad knee and sore butt, included: farms, fields, and orchards of apples and pears,
This area is as peaceful, tidy and clean as any place I’ve ever been. No graffiti, no litter, no homeless people. Outside of the major cities, it is devoid of grit. Not sure I would want to live in a place where there was no grit at all, but it sure is nice to hang out here for a while. It is so pristine it could be an attraction at Disneyland (“ruralland”?).
But the bucolic beauty belies the dark history. The first four days of our trip focused on the invasion in 1940 which took place in the area around the village of Amerongen. The village is near the Grebbeline, a line of defense against the invasion consisting of large low-lying areas that could be flooded, backed up by classic trench fortifications. The fighting was fierce but the Germans eventually prevailed. The staunch resistance put up by the Dutch held off the Germans for five days, rather than the one day they expected.
The German artillery destroyed many houses, barns, and villages, and a significant number of residents were killed during the invasion or turned in by Dutch Nazi sympathizers and shipped to labor camps during the occupation.
In Amerongen we stayed in a former tobacco barn, the Napoleon Schuur, which is now a boutique hotel featuring the latest in high tech and modern, fashionably-functional interior design. The historic Amerongen Castle, church and a national park, are only a few minutes walk (or bicycle ride) away. We ate breakfast and dinner every day on the patio of the café down the brick-lined street from the barn.
Amerongen is a small town, so almost everyone was friendly, especially the local butcher across the street from the Napoleon who offered us a sample of liverwurst and the local brew master who offered a sample of his very hoppy, 7.5 % ABV ale. It was like we were residents.
Other highlights included the Het Depot (“The Depot”), an art museum in Ede-Wageningen that features modern and avant-garde sculpture from young Dutch artists, and an old Jewish cemetery tucked away behind a row of houses just down the street from the museum.
After four days in Amerongen, we transferred to Otterlo, about a 40 minute taxi drive away. The history around Otterlo essentially completed the story of WWII in the region, adding the liberation by the allies in 1945 to the tragic history of invasion and occupation. This is the region where the Allies launched Operation Market Garden to take the bridges that were critical to the allied advance toward Germany. This is also the site of the book and movie, “A Bridge Too Far,” which tells the story of the ill-fated attempt to capture the final bridge at Arnhem. The Battle of Otterlo was the last big battle to take place in the Netherlands.
The highlights of our last four days were The Airborne Museum in the Hotel Hartenstein in Oosterbeek and the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery also known as the Airborne Cemetery. The museum is dedicated to the Battle of Arnhem and the hotel served as the headquarters for the British 1st Airborne Division. In the basement of the museum is a dynamic, realistic, loud and adrenaline–inducing depiction of The Battle of Arnhem. The cemetery is just the opposite – serene, beautiful and sad. Both elicited deep, if profoundly different emotions. There are many hiking trails in and around the park and town, plus an excellent museum, the Kroller-Muller Museum and Sculpture Garden in the heart of the park. The museum is spacious and beautifully laid out, so that I didn’t get the claustrophobic feeling that I often get in crowded, densely-packed museums. It also has a great collection, including the world’s second largest collection of Van Goghs. The sculpture garden was the best I’ve ever seen, with miles of trails and almost two hundred impressive pieces scattered along the paths and embedded in the forest.
Our accomodations in Otterlo were at the Hotel De Sterrenberg, a sleek, modern four star hotel that deserves every one of those four stars. We splurged one night in the excellent restaurant in the hotel and ordered the 4 course “Chef’s Surprise.” I couldn’t begin to describe all of the ingredients in those four courses, though I do remember trout, bass and duck, plus a whole bunch of other things, only some of which I recognized. Probably the most important element in the success of the trip was our guide Martin. Martin was born in the region shortly after the war and grew up hearing stories about the war and the occupation from his mother. His stories bought the history to life and added an important personal perspective from the people who lived through this history. His knowledge of the area also ensured that we took the most scenic, historic, and safe routes in the 28-32 miles we pedaled each day.
All three of us on this trip are in our 70s, so Martin, who is 70 himself, paid very close attention to how we were doing. I especially appreciated this since this was my first ever bike trip and I am still somewhat hampered by less than full range in the knee that was replaced almost three years ago. I trained hard for this trip, going for 30+ mile rides 2-3 days a week on the Los Angeles beach bike path, but if I hadn’t switched to the e-bike on my last day, I would have struggled with the few hills we did encounter in this, one of the flattest countries on earth.
Overall, it was a great trip, thanks to Martin and whoever it was who invented the e-bike.