The Netherlands is known as a nation of cyclists, not walkers, but with the first signs of spring, suddenly there they are, out on the highways and byways in their walking boots, rucksacks on their backs, eyes set on the horizon. Sometimes in incredible numbers, flocking like starlings and chattering just as noisily. Often alone or in pairs. Why have they abandoned their bicycles? Where are they going?
Hiking in Holland (or walking in a Dutch province of your choosing)
With the spring comes the walking season. The lucky few – or not so few (between 42 – 46 thousand in fact and the luck is debatable) – have won the lottery to get themselves a starting pass for the Four Day Marches. De Vierdaagse is a form of torture uniquely Dutch, attracting an intriguing blend of the superfit, trained military types, the diehard walking fraternity as well as an eclectic group of people who just want to be able to cross it off their bucket list. All are set on the masochistic feat of walking distances ranging from 30 to 50 km on 4 consecutive days in the hottest part of the year. Long before it was popular to run marathons, train for triathlons or proclaim oneself an Iron Man or Ultrarunner, the Dutch invented something that would tax anyone but can be achieved by anyone willing to train – and some who don’t. Something for a future blog post.
And so you see them, usually in ones and twos, striding along the dikes or yomping through the nature reserves. Just like the Couch to 5K programmes for beginner runners, there are training schemes to get novices past the post, building up to the full distance. Many people train by taking part in several of the umpteen organised walking events that take place in the Netherlands every year. On 18 April I finally got to take part in one of these events that has been on my ‘to do list’ for many years, walking in the Rode Kruis Bloesemtocht. I have to admit, when my husband and I first came to live in the Netherlands, we thought walking with as many people as possible was a pretty odd idea; we walked to get away from the masses. Now, I’m definitely a convert to the Dutch way of walking. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I say!
Red Cross Blossom Tour – Rode Kruis Bloesemtocht
Arguably one of the most beautiful and well-organised walking events every spring is the annual Rode Kruis Bloesemtocht, the Red Cross Blossom Tour. I read about it years ago in the ANWB’s De kampioen tourist magazine and have been wanting to walk it ever since. The attraction? The walk passes through the fruit-growing region the Betuwe in the centre of the country, just as the trees come into flower. The route leads through the orchards on paths that are not usually open to the public, alongside the meandering river Linge, crossing it on pontoon bridges built for the occasion by the army. So this Saturday, I finally got my wish and took the train to the starting point at Geldermalsen and signed up to walk 15 km.
(continued below the photo gallery – click on one of the photos for a slideshow)
The weather was perfect with blue skies and white fluffy clouds, a cooling breeze stopping it becoming too hot and sticky. When I got home, I discovered that 31,515 walkers had taken part, choosing distances ranging from 8 – 40 km, some of them reserved for Nordic walkers (the ones with the ski poles, but no ski and no snow).
Walking for charity – for the Red Cross
I can really wholeheartedly recommend taking part in the Bloesemtocht. All proceeds go to fund Red Cross holidays and other projects for disadvantaged people such as those with mental or physical handicaps, chronically sick people who need extra medical care and others who are liable to have few social contacts. The Dutch Red Cross runs special holiday centres and river cruises on the specially-adapted boat J. Henri Dunant.
What made it a really lovely experience was the feeling that most people were taking part just as a pleasant way to pass a Saturday rather than a sporting event, often with whole families walking together or with groups of friends, some dressed up in matching outfits or festive hats and garlands. At several points along the route there were places to stop for a snack, to rest and listen to some musical entertainment. Brass bands were much in evidence, though they were almost always having a break just as I passed, for some reason. I took a video on my phone of one jazz band, the Happy Notes Society, at one of the resting places (see below). One particularly beautiful Irish-inspired singer accompanied by an accordionist was singing when I reached bridge 4, but the video I took doesn’t do justice to her voice, so I’m not going to post it.
To be honest, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t as much blossom as I’d expected, but the spring has been really cool this year and the beautiful weather more than made up for it. I did see beech woods carpeted with yellow celandine, palest pink Lady’s Smock / Cuckoo flowers (Cardamine pratensis) next to the paths, a grove of daffodils and a magnificent magnolia tree covered in flowers, all of which would have been over if the weather had been warmer. There were also a few farms, a bee and honey information centre and a spectacular windmill to visit en route, for those who started early enough to stop everywhere on the way. I did visit the bee centre briefly and had a look at the glass-sided hive where the queen bee had been marked with green. I always find that sort of thing fascinating. The windmill on the way was also open to the public, but I didn’t visit. Given there was a stiff wind blowing, the sails of the windmill were creaking away and turning at quite a rate and the flags and bunting were making an amazing fluttery flapping sound.
The scene could only have been more Dutch if everyone had been wearing orange and walking in clogs, pushing bicycles and carrying a bunch of tulips. Gezellig, jongens! (Fun, guys!)
The rewards – a medal and a stamp in my ‘walking passport’
Like many Dutch walking events, you can opt to receive a medal when you have completed your walk, often with a little number on it if you have taken part in the event more than once. Some of the medals are fairly boring, but the Bloesemtocht is organised by the Red Cross, so the design on the medal is picked out in red and I couldn’t resist. I also paid an extra euro for the privilege of having my wandelpaspoort (walking passport) stamped to show I’d taken part. If you are so inclined, you can use your wandelpaspoort to tot up the total distance you have walked during official events. Childish pleasures, but oddly satisfying. As an adult, I think you need all the medals, stamps and gold stars you can get!