The Netherlands is one of the most cycle-friendly nations on earth. But what if you can't read a map?
Is it possible to cycle without a map in the Netherlands? I didn’t know, but I was going to put it to the test. I had no map, no app, but I’d read the Dutch cycle signage was second to none. Could it really be so good that I would be able to cycle all over the province of Zeeland without ever getting lost? We’d soon find out.
The plan was to cycle the west coast of Zeeland, a gentle 25 mile spin. A quick Google map check, a few scribbled notes (just in case) and I was off with my teenage son Patrick. Within yards we’d hit our first cycle path and red sign. After that, the signs appeared regularly. This was easy! And so was the cycling. The paths were surfaced and smooth – mini highways really, with markings down the middle along with 'give way' and 'stop' signs; even bicycle traffic lights.
After a while we abandoned the red signs and followed the LF 1A North Sea route - A for southbound, B for northbound. Did the Dutch think of everything? The way was rougher now through forested dunes, and surprisingly hilly. Nonetheless we soon reached Domburg and our ‘back-up team’ (read café scouts), and again in Zoutelande and Vlissingen.
I started to take notes from my Google map but soon gave up. Were they really necessary? Reaching the beautiful village of Veere was a breeze, and we headed off to Middelburg with ever increasing nonchalance. Maps? A waste of time. Then we hit a diversion – for bicycles! It took us round the back streets of Middelburg, running out somewhere close to the centre. For the first time the signs had failed us, but a passer-by quickly sent us on our way again.
Homeward bound, the signs disappeared again in the suburbs, but I was fairly confident we were heading in the right direction with the sun on our left. The compass on Patrick's mobile confirmed that we were indeed heading north and soon we were back in signage land.
Why bother jotting down directions, I wondered – the Dutch cycle signs were better than our British road signs. We met up with our ‘back-up team’ for koffie en cake in Hamstede and again in the pretty town of Zierikzee. A three-mile push over the blustery Zeelandbrug (bridge) and we were on the home straight. The signage hadn’t let us down once.
Just outside Colijnsplaat, we came upon a new kind of signage: the junction routes – a network of numbered cycle junctions with occasional maps. I consulted the map and read out our route numbers while Patrick keyed them into his mobile. And we were rolling – rolling along dike; rolling through wetlands as birds wheeled overhead; rolling over spilled carrots in a farmyard; rolling ever faster to beat the dusk. And we counted the numbers down as we followed the polder lanes home.
This was to be our last cycling day, with the plan to pack in 40 or so miles. I’d given up on making notes for the journey. At Wissenkerke, we found our first cycle map and Patrick took the numbers down. Soon we were in Kortgene for our usual mid-morning Koffie en cake, the proprietor chatting away in German to me about his vinyl collection. I was falling in love with this country.
Goes was our next stop – and we were going well until our cycle path disappeared skyward with the drawbridge. We thought about trying a wheelie jump as the drawbridge dropped down again, but chickened out. Leaving Goes behind with its pretty waterfront, we found our next junction map as we turned west along the Veerse Meer, this time on the south side. I studied the map, imploring Patrick to take the numbers down, but he wanted to keep moving. “We just need to keep the dike with the coast on our right,” he argued.
Things began to unravel as we cycled deeper into the polders in a maze of lanes that twisted and turned at sharp angles. My already poor sense of direction was failing me completely now. Each junction was signed and numbered – but the numbers were meaningless. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why had I listened to Patrick? Without a map or app, or at least a note of the numbers needed, the signs were worthless.
We stopped a farmer who sent us back in the direction we’d come, woefully telling us we had a long journey ahead. But soon we were back on track, spinning the wheels as fast as we could across the polders, racing the winter sun while scattering heron-like feathers from the dikes, making it home before darkness. Just.
Cycling without a map in the Netherlands is mostly easy – just don’t get too blasé. But routeing aside, I had fallen in love with this country, from the café culture to the bicycle culture. Here I could live the cyclist’s dream.
The Netherlands Bicycle Fact File
The word for bicycle in Dutch is ‘fiets’. You’ll see it everywhere!
Almost everyone in the Netherlands has at least two bicycles.
In cities like Amsterdam and The Hague 70% of all journeys are made by bike.
In the university town of Groningen, the central railway station has parking for 10,000 bikes.
In the Netherlands the main mode of transport for 31% of the population is the bicycle (in comparison to Britain’s 2%).
After 1971 when 3,000 people were killed on bikes (450 of them children), the Dutch built a vast network of cycle paths – currently 32,000 kilometres worth.
Bikes have priority over cars – at roundabouts, in narrow urban streets, at crossings. In the Netherlands the bike is king or queen.
To plan a cycle trip, you’ll find everything you need to know on this comprehensive website.
Vrienden op de fiets (friends on bicycles) offer cycle-friendly accommodation.
There’s a wide network of bike friendly hotels, restaurants and cafes, recognisable by their ‘Fietsers welkom’ (cyclists welcome) signs, where cyclists can fill up water bottles, use a bicycle pump or repair kit, charge e-bikes and purchase (unnecessary) maps.
Helen Moat has won several travel writing competitions, including runner-up x 2 with The British Guild of Travel Writers and highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing competition. She is currently writing the Slow Travel: Peak District for Bradt Guides.You can find more of her travel pieces on her blog.