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Cycling in the Netherlands: Amsterdam, Haarlem & Leiden

Updated on July 29, 2014

There are more bikes than people in The Netherlands. If a number of them weren’t being ridden at any given time they’d be stuck for storage space. I was happy to put one of Amsterdam’s rental bikes into service during my first trip to the country. I planned a three city tour starting and finishing in the capital and taking in more sights and scenery along the way.
The world’s first cycle path was laid in the Netherlands in 1890. Now they criss-cross the country providing a variety of safe, scenic routes. Like Dutch bikes which have no gears or handbrakes (you break by backpedalling), the cycle network is simple but effective. Navigation is easy once you set off but finding information on routes and distances beforehand was more tricky.
The rental shop had no maps but I was directed to a specialist shop where the shopkeeper unfolded several, leaving crumpled expanses of land scattered about her tidy shop. Finally she found one that covered the area I wanted. ‘You can follow the numbers,’ she said.
When I looked at it later it presented most of the country daubed with green numbered spots. It looked as if joining them would produce a picture of Van Gogh eating Edam next to a windmill.

Haarlem

I only needed a map of Amsterdam for my first trip to the neighbouring town of Haarlem. Once I reached Haarlemerweg, which runs to the north-west of the city centre, the route was regularly signposted along the cycleway. Following the signs marked in green led me off the main road and along a path lined with woodland, ponds and streams. Halfway there I found the onward path closed and no alternative route indicated. I met a group of Dutch cyclists who were going the same way and joined them until we picked up the route further on. I approached Haarlem alongside the motorway, through car parks and industrial sites but there were still designated cycle paths allowing a swift, safe journey to the centre.
Once I passed the gateway of the old city wall I was cycling through streets lined with old houses surrounding the Gothic Cathedral of St Bavo with a 50-metre high steeple, bell tower and, inside, a magnificent Müller organ with 5000 pipes that was played by Handel and Mozart.
With its architecture, canals and windmill Haarlem has all the features of a traditional Dutch town. It also has a thriving nightlife. The locals love their beer so much there’s a church devoted to it. The Jopen brewery has converted a church into a brewpub where it serves beers ranging in strength from 4 to 40%! When I was there it was the annual Haarlem Jazzstad. It features music of all genres blasted out from stages around the city centre.
To the west of the town lies Zuid-Kennermerland National Park. Cycle paths run through an expanse of dunes and woodland that are home to a variety of wildlife. Highland cattle that have been introduced to the area roam the land and wallow in lakes. Beyond the dunes golden beaches stretch for miles along the coast.
Haarlem’s size and proximity to Amsterdam make it an easy day trip from the capital by bike but I headed south to Leiden.

Leiden

I took the coastal route heading first to Zandvoort. Signposts from the city centre led me into the national park along a woodland path and through the dunes. The path ended abruptly on a busy road on the edge of Zandvoort. I followed signs to the city centre where I picked up coastal route LF1. I continued to the seafront and left the town as suddenly as I’d arrived. Leaving the street I went through a gate and freewheeled down a path into a wilderness of rolling green dunes. The path was set inland which sheltered it from the wind but not from the downpour that continued for the next two hours. I passed Noordwijk aan Zee and might have stopped at this seaside resort for a paddle if the weather had been better. When I reached the next town, Katwijk aan Zee, signposts guided me inland to Leiden where the sun was waiting sparkling off the waters of the canals.
Visitors are immediately impressed by the beauty of Leiden’s canals and architecture which inspired its most famous son Rembrandt but it hides even more attractions. 100 poem murals are painted on buildings around the town. They are by poets from around the world. The murals display the poems in the original languages and plaques give translations in Dutch and sometimes English.
Hidden behind the busy streets are 35 groups of almshouses (hofjes) arranged around beautiful courtyards. Stepping through the doorways takes you back to 17th and 18th century Leiden. The courtyards are quiet and well preserved with immaculate gardens. The doorways are marked with panels giving the name and a bit of background but you walk straight past them if you don’t know where to look. The tourist information centre sells a pamphlet for €2 which guides you round the ones open to the public taking in the other main sites of the town as well.

Back to Amsterdam

From Leiden I returned to Amsterdam and the route is well signposted. After about 15km I reached a treelined canal that took me through villages and open countryside then through an underpass beneath the runway of Schiphol Airport. Jumbo jets taxied in front of me and came into land over my head.
Tranquility was restored as I reached the suburbs of Amsterdam. Cycling along another stretch of canal I came to a windmill with its sails turning in the breeze. It was the Van Sloten Mill, which still pumps water from the surrounding area. I joined a guided tour with the miller who explained the mechanisms that drive the Archimedes’ Screw at the base lifting water to a canal that carries it back to sea. The job keeps him fit. A wheel on the balcony is used to turn the sails in the direction of the wind. ‘I run in it like a hamster,’ he explained and gave a short demonstration. I had a bit of exercise to do myself cycling into the centre of Amsterdam but not before I’d enjoyed the view over the city on a fine summer’s day listening to the sails creaking gently.
This route can be covered in three days but a week will give you time to explore all the places along the way. Each stage makes a good trip on its own and can make up part of any number of routes long or short. There is always a cycle path to follow, usually separate from the road. If the place you’re heading for isn’t signposted then it really is as simple as following the numbers. The green circles on the map, I learnt, are points on the cycle network known as knooppunts. When you’ve found one a sign directs you to the next in whichever direction you are heading. The Wizard of Oz couldn’t have made it any easier! Join the dots any way you like and create your own stunning picture of the country.

Additional Info

The Molen Van Sloten is open daily from 10am. Admission €6. www.molenvansloten.nl

Bikes can be rented near train stations and numerous city centre outlets in larger towns.

Dutch bikes or city bikes have no gears and the brake is operated by back pedalling. They are fine for getting around town and short excursions but for longer trips upgrade to a touring bike with gears and hand brakes. I made good use of my gears cycling over the sand dunes.

Bike theft is common especially in Amsterdam. Make sure you use the locks provided with your rented bike and consider taking out theft insurance.

Cycle routes are indicated with white sign posts and red lettering. Where there are two routes green lettering indicates a route through parks and countryside.

If you don’t feel confident heading out on your own join a guided tour. Many rental outlets offer day tours and several tour operators offer one or two week long trips including accommodation.

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