Time to rediscover our Dutch provinces! After months spent around the house, doing distance learning and seeing the same square meters, we were ready for a change of scenery.
So, we decided to keep it local. Not difficult, of course, as local in the Netherlands means you can travel pretty much the entire country in a day.
We made our plans quite late because, like so many people, we kept second guessing what to do, when, for how long or even doubting we should go altogether.
We love road trips! Not staying in one place but spending time together while literally traveling. The changing landscapes and light depending on the time of day or weather. It all contributes to that sense of ‘taking it all in’.
For that reason, booking rooms at such a late stage wasn’t too hard. Even though in the Netherlands, we now need two rooms each stay, to accommodate five people.
Mapping it out
With no particular plans, we decide to travel north away from the big cities that attract tourism. And as we list some fun and interesting sights to visit, our trip through five of our provinces starts to present itself.
8 days – 5 provinces
1) Dutch Kremlin and Afsluitdijk – North Holland province
About an hour out of Amsterdam we find ourselves in Winkel, where just along national road N242, Ger Leegwater exhibits his handiwork in the Dutch Kremlin. What started as a backyard passion project to recreate an onion-shaped dome, like those on the Kremlin in Moscow, has become a sightseeing highlight in the province of North Holland.
Shapes and sizes
With his experience as a sheet-metal worker Ger soon got the hang of the domes. The onions need to be displayed so Ger built a wall to exhibit them. This led to another wall, and another, and…until it became a building, and the site grows every day and every year.
The grounds now house numerous buildings, statues, a fountain and a clock-tower attracting more and more people to see this ever-expanding passion.
Ger finds inspiration in a range of architectural trends going from baroque to the Italian renaissance, and the statues are based on mythology archetypes.
The art garden (kunsttuin) Nederlands Kremlin is open every day upon appointment (during the summer season we could just turn up).
Admission is just €4 and free for kids.
The site is well laid out, easy to walk around and will take about an hour to admire. There’s a photo puzzle for kids that has them scour the garden to find the objects on the puzzle in the garden itself. It’s fun for kids and adults alike because you may just walk by the most beautiful structures.
Enclosure dam between provinces
After this visit we make our way over to Den Oever to cross the 32-kilometer dam ‘de Afsluitdijk’ to Leeuwarden in the province of Friesland.
The dam was constructed over 90 years ago to protect the low lands from high seas and floods.
The design is by Van der Lely with help of physicist H.A. Lorentz. Lely, the engineer, was responsible for the dam’s construction, while Lorentz calculated where exactly in the North Sea it had to be built.
This involved calculations, or developing measurements and calculations for water heights, strength of current and water displacement and resulted in changing the original building plans so the dam would link to Zurich.
New insights, innovative ideas
What do you see from all this? Truth be told, not a lot. It’s a road straight through the sea, with water on either side and currently, stunted traffic due to restorations.
Then why do I include it on this road trip report? Frankly because of what this dam stands for; history, engineering, and water management. Not just for the better part of the past century but also for that of the future.
They are reinforcing the structure to withstand higher tides due to rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. Plus, by adding pumping systems surplus water from the Ijsselmeer can be pumped to the North Sea. And the build of a special waterway for fish means they can spawn in their natural habitats once more. Lastly, even sustainable energy is part of the new Afsluitdijk in the form of converting salt to freshwater.
Go see this underwhelming yet impressive feat yourself. For an idea of the improvements that are underway, watch this clip.
2) Province 2 – Friesland – Breakfast on the Canals
That’s how our second day starts, on a rented dinghy on the canals of Leeuwarden in the Friesland province. As part of our family goes to pick up the boat from its mooring place, the other half orders breakfast to go.
Our 8-person dinghy provides ample space for our breakfast of fresh bagels and coffees while we enjoy the Sunday quiet on the city’s waterways.
Following one of the shorter routes displayed on motor house of the dinghy we make our way around the small city.
We’re glad we are early and there aren’t too many fellow boaters out yet because navigating some of the narrow canals is tricky.
Not overly difficult, given that these boats are rented out to anyone who signs up online without additional instructions. But as you try and get the hang of the right angle to turn a corner, it is easier when you know people aren’t observing you from one of the many bridges, while you learn.
And yes, it is a pastime to sit on a terrace in the sun watching others struggle on the water (guilty as charged).
We glide by the Oldenhove tower that resembles its leaning cousin in Pisa. During building the tower that should have become the highest structure of its time (the Dom in the province of Utrecht), it started to lean. The bend in the tower now is the result of the bricklayers trying to correct for the shifting but to no avail. And so, construction stopped and the unfinished bottom is now a sight of and by itself.
The canals take us by former weigh house, now home to a lunch café, city park ‘de Prinsentuin’ and we duck under very low bridges, scary and fun.
As we make it out of the centre we steam towards the yellow and blue Slauerhoff Bridge. The bridge is twenty years old and the fun part lies is how it allows for passage underneath. The arms lift a slab of 15 x 5 meters of the road up and then twist it out of the way.
After our boating adventure we do some strolling around the city, have dinner and relax.
3) Walking the Salt Marshes – Groningen
With our energy high we take the scenic route along the Dutch coast on our way to Pieterburen. We have lunch along the Lauwersmeer and then make our way over to go ‘Wadlopen’.
At low tide you can walk the salt marshes along the coast and between the mainland of the Friesland and Groningen provinces, and the islands above them.
Though there are day-tours, we just want to get a sense of what this activity is all about, and so booked a 3-hour walk.
Low tide doesn’t exactly mean dry and everyone taking part is to wear ankle-high shoes. Instead of trying to find everyone a pair in the shops we decide to rent ‘dive shoes’ as part of the package.
Besides the shoes, you’ll receive a list of what clothes to wear. The company will refuse those who hare not properly kitted out. We luck out and with a beautiful day of sunshine, our shorts and dive shoes are just the ticket.
A quick slice of ‘appletaart’, a cup of coffee and a last-minute bathroom break and our caravan of cars is off to our start point. Over the dike and onto the grasslands towards the flats shimmering in the distance.
Soon we are stepping through the ankle-deep tepid salt water of the North Sea. Our guide tells us about how the Dutch gained additional land, what shellfish we can find and how to catch it, what glasswort looks like and how to consume it. Good to know, the sheep that roam the marshlands during the spring and summer months may relieve themselves over it, so harvest wisely.
And then we get to the fun part. To get muddy, dirty and wet is half of the fun-promising disclaimer of this activity. At certain spots the water is up to your thighs but the ‘magic’ happens under water level.
With every step, you sink down to your calves into a very slick, sucky kind of loose mud. And you’ll find yourself squealing, giggling, laughing, and sliding. No matter how young or old, or tough or confident you are in regular circumstances – here you’ll giggle trying to keep your balance.
It also is the point from whereon in you don’t care anymore. Everyone is suddenly free to splash, and won’t desperately try to stay dry or upright anymore. It’s liberating.
The mud sticks to your glasses, your face, your legs and it’s fine. Our kids were running, falling, sliding looking for crabs, chatting to others, and basking in the sun. Others played tag and rolled around in the mud. Yes, belly diving and speeding on the mirror of water.
Glorious! If you like something more active to do during your holiday, I highly recommend wadlopen! After two hours of wading through the lukewarm and beautiful marshes, we washed out our dive shoes and returned them to make our way to our next hotel in Groningen city and province.
Wadlopen in northern provinces
There are several options depending on the season, age, time and activity level. Numerous companies along the coast offer tours. We booked ours here.
4) Exploring GRID and the Forum in Groningen City
If you’ve never been to Groningen, the capital of the province by the same name…go! it is one of the nicest cities in the Netherlands. It’s well-known as a university city and has a lovely, positive vibe. Where, quite frankly, Leeuwarden underwhelmed, Groningen always surprises again.
On our road trips we try to strike a balance between being active and satisfying the cultural senses. With kids around you simply don’t want to end up visiting museums on a daily basis regardless of how beautiful they are.
That’s why we opt for the small and interactive GRID – the Graphic museum Groningen. The exhibition is not massive but the machines are. We see the different fonts used in any type of printed communication, how books were made; letter-by-letter and line-by-line, we even operate a stapling machine.
One of the coolest was the Intertype machine, an intricate block of metal that set lines of text in lead. It was a computer of its time.
Dropping letters and sentences
The operator would type a sentence and with each stroke, a mould for each letter dropped down. Once the entire sentence was finished, including punctuation marks, piping hot lead was pressed against the inverted molds.
Then the final product; the sentence in lead, was moved to join the other sentences of the text at the bottom. Meanwhile, the machine transported the separate letter molds, hanging from a rod, back to the top and moved it along to the side.
Each mold had a particular set of notches and grooves which determined where it’d drop off. It would slide off and back down into its rightful place so it could be used again. For a better idea of its workings, watch this, or better yet, go visit GRID.
Forum in Groningen
After a quick lunch we then wander around Groningen, where we just have to visit this modern behemoth: Forum. It was finalized in November 2019 and what a fun, attractive and well-thought out place, this is!
Forum in my best school Latin – ;’A place where people meet’. Any guesses why we call online meet-ups a ‘forum’? Yup.
The building itself is indeed just that – a place where people meet. Once you enter this tower windows rise from the ground floor up to the very top, light streaming in on either side. The floors connect through a mishmash of crossing escalators. No symmetry, connections.
The library located within the building caters to all ages with books on every level and interactive corners for the smaller kids. A massive hammock is tethered and acts as a floor between the first and second floor. Here they can climb on and over, relax lying down with a book, or spy on those below them.
Seats, chairs, work stations with connections for laptops and so on, can be found on every floor. For those missing the traditional library feel, it’s here too. With the big, comfy armchairs, the books with colourful backings row after row, top to bottom alongside the walls and red carpet on the floor.
Top of the world – errr… province
Keep climbing past the cinema, Storyworld: the Dutch museum for comics, animation and gaming, the Forum shop, the smartlab, the medialab.
Up even further to pass by restaurant NOK – little tongue in cheek as NOK means top and that’s where it’s located and then up to the rooftop terrace.
Here at 45 meters high, a drink in hand, enjoy the view over the city and in good weather, part of the province up to the islands like Schiermonnikoog.
5) Fortress Bourtange and Dutch Dolmen – Drenthe
After a good night’s sleep, we make our way to Fortress Bourtange.
Today is about the very Dutch highlights – like fortresses built in the Middle Ages and massive boulders stacked together.
Bourtange is one of those names I grew up with but have never visited. This mini road trip to the northern provinces is thus, just the ticket.
From swamp to settlement
The fortress was built over the span of several centuries. Initially on top of some peaks in what used to be a swamp, and as the landscape changed and became drier, the settlement grew. This, in turn, meant raising and widening the walls to provide the necessary security for its inhabitants.
During the 80-year war with Spain, Bourtange happened to be in a very strategic place to stop them in their march. It’s location along a trades route thus actual road meant that the northern provinces remained Dutch.
80-year war with Spain
By enforcing the battlements and watch towers and adding the outward ‘points’ around the centre they created the now characteristic 5-star compound.
The star-shaped allowed for effective defences. When troops attacked the star- shape forced the enemy to split in smaller groups. Trapped on three sides the attackers thus became easy targets for the defenders. Add to that the canons and Bourtange had become one of the places where the Spanish invasion was stopped.
Medieval or what?
Bourtange looks the part; 5-star fortress, buildings within the inner circle, cobbled streets, a church but it’s not original.
Over the centuries the enforced walls were demolished to make way for farmland. They filled in the moat and all signs of the fortress disappeared from the landscape.
By the 1970s however, as more and more people left the area, the townspeople decided to rebuild the fortress. The surrounding land bought back from farmers, the original plans dug up again and transferred to modern measurement, and the building started.
A job well done – in scope, in adhering to the original size and feel and the perfect tourist attraction for the area now!
Boulders or dolmen
Just 36 kilometers down the road, in the province of Drenthe, another Dutch phenomenon – the Hunebedden. At times thought to have been built by or for giants. It’s an idea that prevailed throughout Europe as most of the names of similar structures, refer to giants in some ways.
Of course, it’s easy to understand why people thought of giants; the stones are massive. Given that no machinery existed to move this mammoth boulders who else but giants could have done so?
Remains the question of why? Why did they build row upon row of stones, balancing another on top? And if it wasn’t giants, how did people move such heavy building material?
Well, why and how did they use these? Simply because it was the convenient choice, the boulders lying around for the peoples that roamed Europe between 3350 and 3050 AD. By rolling the rocks onto and over tree trunks they could be moved and placed together to form a burial ground. The height of the structure at the time allowed for the Hunnes to walk into and underneath its roof.
Smaller rocks and sand were used to close the oblong space thus creating a cemetery of sorts. As such it is disrespectful to climb or sit on these big boulders.
Now, all that is left are the immense rocks, and only in a few provinces in the country. Lots of these burial sites were demolished for any number of reasons; changing beliefs, clearing the area for farming purposes, or the stones were used as building material for big structures like churches.
Going to see the Hunebedden is one of those cultural things that underwhelm. Whether it is the masses of people trampling their way around them, visitors obliviously sitting or climbing on them, or the ever-present selfie-taking crowds who tend to forget that once they’ve taken their best shot, others might want pictures too but without them in it. I don’t know, but the history, the ingenious ways people managed to move these ginormous boulders and what it meant to them just don’t shine through. Pity
6) Walking around WWII’s Camp Westerbork – Drenthe
After a night in Stadskanaal, back in the province of Groningen and the closest place to find a room for the night, we cross into Drenthe again on our way to see a ‘watercourse’ forest. Its name obtained because of the studies into the watercourse solutions and builds.
We will have to come back for that however because realizing where we are, we decide to change course and make it to what was once Kamp Westerbork during WWII.
At this late time, we can’t get tickets for the remembrance centre but we can visit the former camp grounds and walk the surrounding forrest.
It’s a beautiful day, the sun is out, nature at its best with trees waving in the light wind, butterflies scattering from flower to flower. Wildlife around us and quiet.
That same quiet that hangs around those grounds where a watch tower, a train carriage and a dead-ending part of rails help remind us what suffering took place here.
One of those places you have to have visited to help remind us of how not to treat fellow humans regardless of their nationality, skin colour, beliefs or any other real or presumed differences. Full from the intense sensations around this place we travel on for our stay in Zwolle, the capital of the province of Overijssel.
7) 52-km Cycle tour over ‘De Veluwe’ – Gelderland
On tour to and through our next province: Gelderland. Today, though overcast and threatening, we’re cycling. We make our way to Vierhouten where we’ve rented bikes for a day on de Veluwe.
Who can say they’ve experienced the Dutch way of life if they haven’t cycled?
Indeed, no one. And so, as an activity it can’t be skipped on a Dutch road trip.
Especially, to explore one of the biggest national parks of the country that straddles . It boasts forests, dunes, and heathland where deer, wild boars, foxes and the woolly Highlanders thrive.
Cycle route Nodes through the province
The rental company has a few routes that we can follow and we decide to take the 40 km version with us. Our kids will immediately point out though that that’s NOT what we ended up doing. And of course, they are right.
These routes are created using a node-system. Everywhere in the Netherlands, in every province, these cycle route nodes can be found. You either follow published routes or create one using the website. We ended up, doing both, adding an extra few kilometers one way, and taking a few off another, resulting in over 52 kilometers. The kids were not amused. Oh well, let’s call them life experiences, shall we?
There are many villages around the Veluwe with their own cafés, restaurants or pancake joints to rest the legs and indulge in local treats. Besides the nature, quiet and new sights, those are your highlights.
Much like our end of cycling early dinner next door to our bike rental place. This smoked salmon sandwich was absolutely delicious. Tired but content after that feast we head to Arnhem.
8) Arnhem’s Aardvark and Rosendael Castle’s Cheats – Gelderland
Here we spend the night right next door to Arnhem’s Aardvark. The animal made of red stone -lies flat on its back in the Bartokpark. It’s a droll view, the hindlegs in mid-air, the ears flopped to the ground on either side of his golden party hat.
The statue is 30 meters long and weighs 150,000 kilograms, and was a gift from the nearby Burgers’ Zoo to the city. The artist (Florentijn Hofman) responsible for the design is also known for massive yellow ducks you’d normally associate with your bathtub.
The aardvark makes for great pictures, fun discussions and even better climbing.
The city itself has a very nice feel to it, and is now on our list for a long weekend away, sometime soon.
Castle Rosedael in province of Gelderland
On the last day of our week-long Dutch road trip, we visit Rosendael Castle. A beautifully restored castle that has housed families for over 700 years until the forties of last century.
The castle and donjon are in pristine shape to show off the life between the 1900-1940s. The furniture, paintings and the decadent marble champagne fountain all help cement the image.
What the place maybe more known for is its grounds. In earlier centuries, more formal gardens with stricter lines and dedicated areas like rose gardens and such. Afterwards the grounds were redesigned along the landscape style that still gives it that well-kept but now more natural feel.
There are several areas with sculptures and fun additions, like the tea cupola or the arty shells gallery that’s the background for the castle’s cheats. These have all been part of the garden since 1721.
So, what are these cheats? They’re fountains. Tiny little fountains spurting up from the ground when you least expect it, thus having provided surprise and laughter – and wet clothes – for almost 300 years.
It is one of the reasons why the grounds of Rosendael Castle are worth the visit. Not only, does it have the cheats, there also is a ‘bare-feet-path’ to feel the different ground coverings yourself. Besides that, try the suspension bridge here too. Walk slow and by yourself, your feet may stay dry, any other way…all bets are off.
Ponds and fountains
Walk the grounds and see how the series of ponds at different levels were built so that gravity and water pressure ensured the fountain spouting in the main pond.
A week through half of our provinces
Our road trip flew by and though it was a little more involved because of the Corona measures, it was fantastic. We got to see some cool new places, take part in Wadlopen, cycle over the Veluwe, sniffed some history and simply spend time together as a family.
One of the things I realized during this trip is that the Netherlands, and its separate provinces, each actually have their own traditional foods. And they’re quite interesting too.
So, over the next couple of months I’ll be writing about some highlights of each province and post the recipes of two of their traditional foods. Whenever possible, I’ll include what I thought about the dishes or snacks once I made them.
If there is one thing we learned, it’s that tourism doesn’t necessarily means far-flung countries. Getting reacquainted with your own can be just as interesting.
Where I can easily say ‘country’ with regard to the Netherlands (it’s so small!), maybe for you it’s getting to know your city, your territory or your province or state.
Whichever it will be, go explore and tell me; what is your local tourism highlight?