THE PIETERPAD – 500km across Holland by foot and bike

‘How exactly is this meant to be fun??’ My wife is screaming to make herself heard over the thunder and pelting rain. She fumbles to tighten the hood of her jacket, and the gale nearly rips the plastic coverings from her bike’s panniers.

I look around for shelter. There isn’t any. We’re totally exposed on a dyke by the Overijssel Canal, somewhere in the northern Netherlands. I tug grimly at the straps on my backpack and count several beats between lightning flash and thunder. We won’t be struck dead immediately. The rain is replaced by hailstones as big as, well, big enough to hurt when they hit your head.
‘We could get a train back to Amsterdam tonight,’ says my wife, trying to sound reasonable. ‘Why are we doing this?’

I don’t know why. I just decided to walk the Pieterpad. The ‘Peter Path’ is a marked route crossing the Netherlands from north to south. It’s supposed to give you a real Dutch experience. We’ve done the first 134km and it certainly has been an experience. It’s rained every day, we’re cold, we’re tired and it’s still over 350km to the Belgian border.

‘Only five kilometres to Gramsbergen,’ I say cheerily.

‘What’s so good about Gramsbergen?’ she asks through clenched teeth. I have no idea. I only booked accommodation there because the map said it was 29km from Sleen and I thought that would be a reasonable day’s walk.

We press on and find a farm shed to shelter in, and the guard dog barks but doesn’t bite. When the storm passes we cross improbably green fields to the impossibly cute village of Gramsbergen. In the kitchen of our B & B, Mrs Cuperus pumps us with tea and coffee and her pet parrot choruses ‘Mooi, mooi!’ (‘Beautiful, beautiful!’)  By next morning we’re ready to take on another stage.

It isn’t difficult, since the Pieterpad is mostly flat. The Dutch don’t ‘bushwalk’ or ‘hike’. They make a ‘wandeling’, which suggests a pleasant cross between wandering and rambling. The route can also be cycled, so my wife has brought her bike. While I wandel through forests and over fields, she follows the big clear numbers on the bitumen cycle paths criss-crossing the country. We meet up for coffee breaks and lunch; then she goes ahead to locate a B&B or small hotel, and uncork the wine in time for The Walker to arrive.

Navigation is no problem. The maps mark every field, barn and canal. There are villages every few kilometres, with encouraging red teacup symbols promising cheerful cafes. Anyway, we can often see the church spire of the next village sticking up behind those black-faced sheep.

Pictures in the Pieterpad guidebook show lightly-clad walkers strolling across sunny dykes and through dolls-house villages. They didn’t photograph any thunderstorms or icy winds. They forgot to mention that cheerful cafes may be closed until 6pm, Wednesday or Christmas.

Yet despite such setbacks we have a great time. The daily weather reports always say it will ‘remain changeable’, but the sun shines more often as we move south and the Pieterpad is as charming as advertised. We love the small scale of everything. Perfect little rectangular farms, little patches of forest and little villages with little thatched-roof houses. Even the most popular horses are Shetland ponies.

We love the skies too. On a landscape so flat, we pay attention to the clouds. It’s early spring, so we see the seasons change. We watch the first green buds appear on the trees, and in turn the crocuses, daffodils and eventually tulips start to bloom.

But for Aussies, the man-made Dutch landscape is the most interesting aspect of the trip. Every house is apparently forced by law to have an immaculate front garden with low box hedges, clogs hung up as flower pots and a ‘WELKOM’ sign by the front door. Windowsills must be decorated with symmetrical pairs of pot plants, candles or statues of storks. Every little village square must have a statue; not a heroic bust of a forgotten public figure but a small, accessible sculpture, often funny or quirky.

Then there’s all that history. In the northern province of Drenthe we visit “hunebedden”; piles of ancient boulders which were pre-historic burial sites. Near Arnhem are the WW2 sites – a cemetery for Canadian paratroops from Operation Market Garden, monuments in the forests to crews of crashed Allied planes, and Jewish cemeteries with tragic little memorials remembering local holocaust victims.
In the larger towns we visit museums like the ultramodern Groninger Museum and the quaint Niedermeyer Museum, dedicated entirely to the history of smoking and chewing tobacco. We pass though attractive old villages like Ommen and Gennep, and ones with great names like Slek, Tolkamer and Grubbenvorst. There’s never a shortage of bed and breakfasts or small hotels we can stay in.
The food is good too. Because of all the exercise we’re getting, we feel justified in eating huge slices of apple cake with whipped cream, and shovelling in litres of traditional split pea or brown bean soup.
We meet hardy Dutch day walkers, usually hearty older couples straight out of TV ads for retirement funds. Thousands of people walk the Pieterpad each year, though few tackle it in one go, as we are doing. But it’s easy to organise a day or weekend trip to do a part of it and well worth the trouble. As highlights, we’d pick Drenthe for its wild heath landscape and old farms. Or alternatively we’d suggest South Limburg for the gently undulating hills (yes, there are a few in the Netherlands) and the lovely towns of Sittard and Maastricht.
After three weeks of walking/cycling, an anticlimactic litter bin and a small stone monument beside the track tell us that we’ve made it to Sint Pietersberg and the end of the route. We ask a passing group of Goretex-jacketed retirees to photograph us. ‘We’ve just done the whole Pieterpad!’ we tell them. ‘Nearly 500km!’ ‘What’s the Pieterpad?’ they ask. Well, it was always meant to be a personal achievement.

Guidebooks (in Dutch, but with self-explanatory maps, accommodation listings, and Dutch/English glossary): Pieterpad (two volumes) pub. Nivon www.nivon.nl

23 Comments

Filed under Cycling, Hiking, Holland, Travel, Travel- Europe

23 responses to “THE PIETERPAD – 500km across Holland by foot and bike

  1. you have a nice blog, i enjoyed the article.

  2. Joe Wheatley

    Richard,

    I really enjoyed your blog. My job has brought us here to the Netherlands and we spend our weekends riding the trains to and from our Peiterpad walks. Since we live in Limburg, we started in St. Pietersberg and have now made our way to Hardenberg. This has been a special experience for both of us.

    Joe and Trudy Wheatley

    • It’s very encouraging to get a nice comment like that, Joe. We zipped through Hardenberg on the train a week or so ago, and thought what a long way it was from lovely Limburg – so you’re doing well. I think if I ever do the Pieterpad again I’ll do it on the bike. There’s a route laid out they call the ‘Fietserpad’ – just as long, just as pretty and interesting, but faster! Enjoy the rest of the journey – Drenthe is particularly nice, and wild by Dutch standards. Richard

  3. harlan

    Thanks for the description of you and your wife’s walk, I really enjoyed reading about it.
    Considering a trip to Amsterdam and maybe a couple of days of walking across Holland.
    Thanks again!!!
    Harlan

    • Nice to be noticed and thanks for visiting, Harlan. If you only have a couple of days for walking, maybe Limburg in the south or the Kennemer Dunes in the west are the best – at least they have a few hills to break the monotony.

      And if you want to cover more territory you can always rent bikes.

      Hope you enjoy it whatever you do – it’s a beautiful country.

      Richard

  4. Diane glass

    Hi richard. I am going to be visiting a friend teaching at the Hague next spring and we plan two weekends of bike trips. Possible taking train out and bike back or vice versa. What were the dates of your trip? I am not going until mid April and want to catch tulip season which is typically the last week of April. You did not mention the tulips, so I am thinking you might have been there the end of March or earlier in April. Di

    • Hello Di, and thanks for the queries. We did the Pieterpad in March (so it was cold!). Yes, the end of April is tulip time. Bike and train is easy in Nederland – just check to see which way the wind is blowing, then ride with it at your back and take the train in the reverse direction. It costs 6 euros for a day train pass for the bike, though you have to avoid travelling with a bike at peak hour. Sometimes they let you do it, but if you get a cranky conductor and a crowded train you could face a long ride home! I’m sure you’ll have a great time whatever happens. We’re hoping to be back in Amsterdam in April/May too and looking forward to getting back on our touring bikes. Enjoy it all!

  5. Hello Richard
    I am curious about the apx. cost of a nights stay along the way. Did you know from a guidebook where you were going to lodge for the night, or did you just find a place when you arrived?
    Thanks!
    Mia

    • Hi Mia,

      A non-glamorous hotel along the way cost us about 65 Euros per night for a double. B&B was about 30 Euros per person per night. We usually just rang ahead on the morning we were setting out, because we didn’t know how far we would get. That was fine in March, though in holiday periods it may be busier and bookings would be needed. Hope this helps. Cheers, Richard

  6. Thank You so much for the information. I will be heading out and walking in Holland in about a week, so your quick response is very appreciated.
    Cheers,
    Mia

  7. Julie

    Hi there
    Stumbled across this post and found it very inspiring! Thanks! One question for you: is the PieterPad trail or paved road? Thanks again!

    Julie

    • Thanks for the visit and the query, Julie. Sections of the Pieterpad are on paved roads, (usually very quiet ones), but it also leads through woods and farmland on rougher trails. For those who prefer cycling to walking, someone has marked out a ‘Fietserpad’ (cycle path) which roughly follows the same route but sticks to the bitumen. The guidebook is by Pol van Mill (published Uitgeverij Elmar BV). It will be in Dutch, but maps and accommodation addresses are universal. Available at bookshops and outdoor shops in the Netherlands. Enjoy it!

  8. Pingback: HET PIEPERPAD – 1000km, pedalling on potatoes | Richard Tulloch's LIFE ON THE ROAD

  9. Pingback: Budget travels – Economical travels » Bicycle Touring in the Netherlands

    • Thanks for the link.

      Yes, I enjoyed walking the Pieterpad very much, and if I did it again, I’d certainly do it on the bike, following the Fietserpad.

      Things change a little too slowly for my taste while walking through the Netherlands. If you get caught in a small town with no accommodation, 5km walking to the next one is hard work. 5km on the bike is easy.

  10. Andrew Parker

    Well done guys. We are also considering doing the same as you. Me walking and my wife cycling. We would probably do it slightly different in that we would start right at the coast and walk the little bit extra at the end to the Belgian border. We are Ballarat people but spend a couple of months in Europe every (their) summer.

  11. Sandra H

    Hi Richard,
    I’m glad Debra referred me to you and your blog. I love reading your vivid and humorous descriptions re the Pieterpad experience. Being in my 60s, I’d most likely opt for the bike ride on a proper Dutch bike. I love the high handles and the dignified way the Dutch ride about their business. I think your wife is very sensible, clenched teeth and all.

  12. Ben

    Hi Richard,
    Nice post. I’m planning on doing several walks around Europe. Hoping to avoid accommodation for the most part though. Do you have any idea if it’s possible to camp all along the Pieterpad? Assuming rain gear and all that of course…

    Cheers,
    Ben

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