‘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