Continuing my 2016 tradition of visiting Europe’s most desirable city breaks (better get them in now before visas become part and parcel of European travel) I headed to Holland for a post-uni treat. Although the student loan entered the red weeks ago and I am now as dependent on my mum for financial support as a twelve year old, this holiday proved to be a pretty cost effective way of seeing another country. I stayed with my friend Ant in his father’s home in Schoorl, a small coastal village about an hour outside of Amsterdam. Removed from the tourist hub, with its glamorisation of prostitution, abundance of coffeeshops and museums, and canal-side photoshoots, I was given the chance to see a side to Holland usually experienced only by those who know the country for more than its vices.
In true Netherlands style, our first port of call was the local bike rent shop. With the decision to opt for a cheaper old fashioned back-pedal bike and my fitness levels at an all-time low, I was a little daunted by the prospect of living like the Dutch and travelling everywhere by bike. My fears were soon allayed however by the total awareness and respect for cyclists even beyond the major cities. Cycle paths take priority over pavements and cars stop for you at almost every crossing. The brilliantly flat ground also meant that a lack of gears didn’t come as too much of a hardship. Travelling by bike meant that I was able to experience some memorable places. Amid Holland’s leafy countryside, there are impressive sand dunes which people from all over the Netherlands come to visit year-on-year, something which I would not have experienced if I was just a tourist hunting out legal highs in Dam. With perfect weather, the light dappled beautifully over the scene and made for wonderful pictures. The beach, too, came as quite a surprise. As with the rest of Holland, the beach is perfectly kept, with fine sand, clear (albeit very chilly) waters and a shoreline running for miles. Idyllic is the only word suitable here.
Travelling from the train station at Alkmaar to Schoorl, I was struck by the wonderful architecture, characteristic of the Dutch. Lining the roads were houses of all shapes and sizes, some with thatched rooves, others with daring modern designs and my favourites looking like they had come straight from the pages of a child’s fairytale book. The odd windmill along the way convinced me that I wouldn’t have been eccentric in thinking that everyone still wore clogs too. Traditional markets, far more impressive than the acclaimed flower market in Amsterdam (which I would deem commercial and repetitive), offered a variety of products, the best being the cold sausage and cheese. The produce was local and it was nice to see the face behind the business which is difficult in a city like Amsterdam when there is a ‘Cheese and More’ shop on every street corner. Ant introduced us to one of his favourite restaurants ‘Duinvermaak’ for some of the best savoury pancakes I have ever tasted – a cross between the fluffy American and a crêpe. The atmosphere was relaxed, friendly, and by calling in advance, they produced a vegan pancake for my friend; the personal touch really counts.
In many ways, I was able to equate the neighbouring town Alkmaar with my own English hometown St Albans in its proximity to London yet relative peace and quiet from the frenetic madness of a major city. Although walking the streets felt very similar to treading the cobblestones of Amsterdam, our day in Alkmaar had its own character and charm. The canal cruise took us on a forty minute journey around the local area, the guide offering historic information in both Dutch and English. Interestingly, all of the bridges are particularly low so each time we approached one, every passenger on the boat ducked to the floor to avoid banging their heads, revealing another small yet interesting quirk of the town’s development. Their cheese market weighing ceremony is not one to be missed if you want a bit of traditional entertainment and are a cheese fanatic like myself!
Schoorl and Alkmaar do not cater to tourists in the same way as Amsterdam. They do not have signs pointing you to the nearest sex museum and they can be pretty quiet in the evenings. But they do offer something different, with a special, unique charm. Although I love Amsterdam, there is something to be said for the suburbs too.