‘The weather’s good,’ says my Dutch friend and cycling guide Hans, ‘Let’s ride to Marken’. It is a perfect day for getting on the bike – cool and sunny, unusual for Holland. There are just a couple of small problems.
‘Bit windy,’ I suggest.
‘Gentle north-easter,’ says Hans. ‘We can ride straight into it to start with, then it will blow us home.’
‘Okay, fine. Marken.’
From Amsterdam, that means heading north into Waterland. The little ferry that chugs across from Amsterdam Centraal is free, and packed with cyclists. Two minutes later we’re on the other side, heading up the path beside the waterway.
‘This canal goes all the way to Den Helder,’ says Hans, ’75km.’
The gentle north-easter is picking up a bit. I’m trying to keep my breathing regular. ‘Oh,’ I say.
‘Marken’s closer than that,’ says Hans.
‘Stop for koffie on the way?’
It’s lovely countryside, green fields criss-crossed by canals, with pretty villages like Holysloot and Broek in Waterland. I find plenty of excuses to prise my tender non-Dutch backside off the saddle to take photos of the baby lambs, the baby hares, the baby ducks…
But while we pedal, I mainly concentrate on riding right on Hans’ rear wheel to get some shelter from the north-easterly gale that’s suddenly sprung up, coming exactly from the Marken direction. Hans’s bike is old, but it looks lighter than mine, with thinner, faster tyres, and Hans has thinner, faster legs pushing the pedals around.
We do stop for koffie in Monnickendam. ‘Koffie’ is a popular drink at cafes in Holland, but should not be confused with ‘coffee’, as we Australians know it, let alone with ‘caffe’ as the real stuff is made in Italy. Most Dutch cafes haven’t come close to getting it right, though I have found one exception – I had a perfectly acceptable cappuccino in Den Haag this week. ‘We’ve all done the barista course,’ the waitress told me, and it showed. Cafe Zebedeus – it deserves a mention.
But I digress. Monnickendam has other things going for it – lots of pleasant places to sit by an attractive little harbour.
Then we climb on the bikes and up on to the dyke, where a north easterly tornado is doing its best to stop us reaching Marken. But heads down, tails up and working together we cross the few kilometres of causeway now connecting the island of Marken to the mainland.
Marken is touristy, that’s for sure, but it can’t be blamed for that. Paris is allowed to be touristy, and even Venice and Amsterdam can get away with it. If you go there you don’t expect to be the only visitors, rubbing shoulders with colourful locals who treat you as one of the family as they go about their colourful traditional business.
Marken used to have a colourful tradition. It was settled by colourful 13th century monks, then by fishing families who wore traditional costumes and spoke a dialect barely comprehensible to mainlanders. But when the massive ‘Afsluit’ dyke to the north closed off the Zuiderzee, that was pretty much the end of fishing as the Markeners had known it. And there’s not as much call for monks as there was in the 13th century. So what else could Marken turn to but tourism? The colourful costumes are now on display in the little museum, while the Markeners themselves run cafes and souvenir shops.
Every building must be painted green and white, it seems. Put them all together and you have a tourist magnet.
‘Koffie by the harbour, Richard?’
Koffie has the same effect on the bladder as coffee. The urinals in the toilets in Cafe Marken must have been installed by the world’s tallest plumbers. I regard myself as about average height, but the little basins are nearly level with my navel. They should supply boxes for non-giants to stand on.
But relieved of liquid ballast, the ride home is a breeze. There is no wind at all, or so it feels, but when we take our feet off the pedals we’re still magically rolling along the dyke at about 30kph. Uitdam, Holysloot and Ransdorp flash by and we’re soon back at the ferry again, looking over to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station.
‘Want to do it again, Richard?’ says Hans.
‘How about next week? We could see which way the wind’s blowing, take the bikes on the train, ride back with the wind behind us.’
‘Sure. Absolutely. Beauty.’