Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

May 1, 2006

Belgium & The Netherlands

After reluctantly crawling out of our warm sleeping bags in the back of our van in a rest stop near Koln, we drove into the city on a quiet, but cold Saturday morning. Our mission: to put another checkmark on our life experience list, and visit the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world. We parked in a maze-like parking garage located directly beneath the Koln Dom, and walked out of the cellar past fenced-off stone footings only to end up gazing upwards at a monster-sized church that dwarfed the rest of the city. A blustery north wind blew hard past the Dom’s multiple sky scraping spires, and we scurried inside to seek any warmth we could find. But the immense stone cathedral’s chill only echoed our quiet footsteps and the swabbing mop of a lone cleaning lady doing her work. Once outside again on the square, we ran literally into a touring army of junk. Thousands of people-shaped figures of garbage symmetrically lined up in formation right there outside the Koln cathedral, one of their many stops in Europe. The purpose of the rubbish populace never really became clear to us, and instead we shivered and craned our necks to see the height of the Dom and listen to its bonging bells.

Rob next put the pedal to the metal (for him anyway) in the ol’ van as we sped north out of Koln, and I think we may have hit 80 miles an hour. He still doesn’t know that I drove between 90 and 105 mph all the way home the day before from a week long class I had to attend in eastern Germany! The landscape became very flat as we went over the border into Holland, and we crossed the entire country in only an hour and a half to the west coast city of Den Haag. We reluctantly toured every street in Den Haag looking for a parking garage which we constantly kept seeing signs for, but eventually did finally arrive at our chosen destination, the M.C. Escher Museum. It was an amazing place where birds turned into frogs, and all our logic of dimension was lost in a virtual tour of Escher’s mind-twisting world. I had the rare opportunity of seeing Rob’s brain truly tweak with his entranced contemplations of Escher’s works, all in a skinny multi-story museum that featured equally strange, but very cool chandeliers.

Just 5 miles up the road from Den Hague, was a volksmarch I’d found via my master-volksmarch listing guide at home. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring the address along, and we drove around in circles again trying to find it before we got desperate and called a friend to look it up on the internet. It turned out to be only two blocks from where we were, and being late in the day, the folks there were packing up as we arrived. They were gracious enough though to give us route directions, a start card, two prizes, and stamps in our books (since they were going to be gone when we got back from our 5 kilometer stroll.) Then armed with directions in Dutch, we promptly lost the (unmarked) trail, and instead headed to the center of town to look at a large public street map to try to make sense of all the strange names we were trying to read.

We did find most of the roads printed on our directions page, but decided to just make our own walking course instead, and a great one it turned out to be. We strolled through the quaint center of the small town of Wassenaar, and past a nice church and large, traditional windmill. But it was when we discovered and began following a long beautiful canal, that something very unexpected happened. Rob swore that he heard a parrot squawking, a rather odd sound for out in the Dutch countryside and zillions of miles from Tinum. But sure enough, we saw 5 or 6 bright-green parrots circling and sitting in a giant willow tree along the canal. Once finally back to the van, we spent our last tranquil hours of day until dusk, lazily driving along road after quiet back road past brilliant fields of tulips. And in a quiet roadside picnic area, we slept peacefully in our mobile home through the night.

We were delighted to wake up the next morning to a blue sky, lots of sunshine, and still plenty of tulips all around us. The fields were filled with flowers in every color possible, as we rode along slowly with wide-opened windows for all kinds of heavenly aromatherapy, and to catch stunning rainbow views. We eventually arrived in Haarlem by mid-morning, where we planned to park in a parking garage and take a train to nearby Amsterdam. But first, we walked to the center of Haarlem to see and visit a well known cathedral, in which is housed one of the world’s largest pipe organs and once even played by Mozart (at the age of 10). But to our surprise, the cathedral was open every day but Sunday, which seemed a bit odd seeing as how it was a church. But on our way to the train station, we did step into another church (that was open for Sunday morning service) where we were able to hear choir and organ music.

We caught the train into Amsterdam for Queen’s Day, an annual birthday celebration on April 30th for the Queen of Holland that’s basically an excuse for big time in-the-streets (and canals) partying. It’s a barely controlled spectacle of live music and public mayhem draped in Holland’s color of orange that Rob had once seen and thought that I might find it interesting. So we walked down the main shopping street in Amsterdam from Centraal Station and contemplated what kind of orange clothing, or hats, or feather necklaces we wanted to buy to fit in. But as we were contemplating getting orange sunglasses at a gift shop, we saw a sign in a restaurant window next door that read, “Closed for Queen’s Day, 29 April.” But wait a minute, isn’t Queen’s Day suppose to be on April 30th? We wandered further, and saw city work crews removing port-a-potties, and an uncommon amount of trash lining the streets. Rob finally decided that he needed to see if he could clear up our confusion by confronting our fears of the worst. A giggly sales clerk explained that today WAS indeed the Queen’s birthday, but for the FIRST time ever, the country of Holland decided that it would be better this year to celebrate it a day early, on a Saturday. “Were you here yesterday?” she asked us. “Awwww, … too bad, you missed a great party.”

Rob was quite in shock and was feeling big time as a failed tour planner. Nowhere in his research for Queen’s Day on the internet did he ever see that the actual celebration day would be different. And we ended up comparing our time in Amsterdam to celebrating the 4th of July…..on the 3rd of July instead. Either way, we had missed the huge party, and were left instead with streets empty of everything but non-ending piles of trash. We did still wander along the canals in a city that despite our misfortune, is extremely unique and filled with great ambiance no matter what day it is. And we made up for what we thought we’d experience, with just as good mouthfuls of one-of-a kind Dutch cheese on delicious fresh baked bread, and continual tastes of windmill cookies (speculaas) and addicting stroopwafels.

With half a day still left for all sorts of exploring, we trained back to Haarlem to start our drive toward the southern Dutch islands. But our first encounter was with an amazing cathedral that surprised us on the way out of town. It was a very large church with tons of beautiful decorations and displays inside. I fell asleep during our afternoon drive afterwards, only to wake up on top of a huge dike later. The scattered farmhouses on one side of the dike were lower than the water level of the North Sea on the other side. And the landscape all around was bizarrely flat, with the exception of the dikes, and every one made me curious to see what was on the other side. We drove on gorgeous small country roads from island to island, and with the ending of the day nearing, we then had only mission on our minds: to find a campground where we could pay to take a shower.

We found several campgrounds, as this area was pristine and somewhere anyone would want to escape to. But we had strange difficulty finding anyone to talk to about taking a shower. The so-called “mini-campings” were always along side of farmhouses, and the reception for each was in the farmhouse. But three times in a row, we couldn’t get anyone to answer the door, and in one case an old lady only spoke Dutch and didn’t seem to understand our strange attempt at sign language. But we eventually pulled into a long driveway that ended next to a mountain of smelly, steaming cow dung. And just as we were about to turn right around and get the heck out of there, a friendly Dairy farmer covered in grime appeared and agreed to let us use his campground shower for 1 euro each.

We drove off quickly after showering hoping that none of the barn smells would stick to us, and waved to the farmer out in his field rounding up some cows. It was a beautiful evening, and we just kept driving along tiny roads, canals, and huge flat fields that were either thick with grass, or perfectly tilled into long straight lines. In the unobstructed expanses, it was easy to spot jackrabbits, pheasants, sheep, cows, ducks, and swans. In fact, we really did see an amazing amount of pheasants and swans, so many, that we lost track counting.

We spent the night alone on the slanted side of a miles-long asphalt dike facing the sea, and fell asleep to the sounds of crashing waves. I woke up in the middle of the night to the periodic eerie flashing of a nearby lighthouse during high tide, and the south winds were kicking up. And since tides there vary by as much as 10 meters, the water seemed considerably closer to us in the sliver moonlight. And I swear, that the wooden pilings that had been much taller than either of us when we went to sleep, were covered up completely and it looked as if they’d never existed. As I fell asleep again, I thought for a minute, that if the water would rise enough, it would carry off the car. But of course I was too tired to do anything about it right then in the middle of the night, and in the morning, the pilings were again visible with the low tide, and the van hadn’t moved an inch.

A steady hard rain was the mood for most of the next day, and we saw a lot of it. And so did many Dutch bicycle riders, who braved the wind and rain as if they were out on a sunny summer loop. We tried to catch a ferry over the fat mouth of the Schelde River to Belgium from Vlissingen as Rob had once done with his bike, but he failed to remember that the ferry only transports bikes and people, not cars. So we had to drive out of our planned way to get to the other side trough a tunnel instead, and with that change of direction, simply headed on to the city of Antwerpen for a glimpse of the famed cathedral there.

The van by this time was running on empty, having last filled up back in Germany just before the Dutch border with $2.53 a gallon military gas coupons. We quickly came upon three gas stations, but where you could only get gas if you had a special Belgian credit or ATM card, because the convenience store doors were locked and there wasn’t anybody inside to pay cash to. And by the time we found another gas station that we prayed shouting was open, we were running on nothing more than fumes. But that gas station was closed also. Our credit and ATM cards were denied over and over in loud unknown Dutch words scrolling across the pump, and we became completely frantic and officially desperate with the fact that we couldn’t get any gas anywhere.

So, Rob approached the first person nearest him getting gas with a card that seemed to be working, and found out that all Belgian gas stations were closed that Monday because it was a national holiday. Incredibly it seemed, unless you had a local card that would work at the pump, you couldn’t get gas. And typical credit cards that most everyone has from other countries, doesn’t work. Well, Rob had no choice at that time, but to do what I was suggesting all along. He asked the man he was talking to, if he could pay him cash for the amount he would put on the man’s card to fill our tank. The guy was a bit reluctant at first having to speak broken English, but his wife in the car got out and talked him into it. We filled up our tank for about $85 ($6.25 a gallon), and then finally headed onwards to Antwerpen. About 10 miles later (after our car would have run out of gas, for sure), we passed another gas station. This one was open!

The cathedral in Antwerpen was beautiful, even in the rain, and there was plenty to see inside. We wandered around a while looking at the artwork and artifacts and trying to stay warm. After bumping into a mob of Japanese tourists getting a guided tour using wireless headsets, dodging other picture happy fiends with cameras (ok, Rob being one of them), and being herded through the official gift shop to exit the church, I felt like I was living in the parable of Jesus throwing out the moneychangers. But we are turning into cathedral connoisseurs, and this one was worth seeing, for sure.

Our hour-long drive to our next destination of Brugge, Belgium was in an utter downpour, and we wondered hard before getting there, how it might be possible to take a walking tour of the city, without actually walking. Well, we parked in an underground parking garage, fortified ourselves with a short but sweet nap in the back of the van, and then layered up with raincoats and headed out into the muck. The first thing we came upon in the famed medieval city, was a huge cathedral (surprise) that we immediately rushed into. Rob was sure delighted to hear the organist practicing with several French horns for an upcoming concert, and to seek shelter from the heavy blowing drizzle that badly spotted his glasses. We were content to simply wander around the vast dry inside, looking at stuff and feeling the deep vibrations from the larger pipes of the organ, until Rob suddenly stepped into a ray of sunshine beaming down from a lofty stained glass window. Sunlight?

We peeked outside the mighty wooden front doors, and the black clouds were being swept away by a much happier blue sky. The daylong deluge had indeed ended, and it was now a perfect time for a late afternoon discovery stroll around town. So, we found the first Belgian chocolate store we could find, and munched our savory way into a maze of cobblestone streets and lazy canals. The city of Brugge is a delightful mix between Venice, Amsterdam, and Rothenberg, with its medieval roots well intact. The natives in this part of Flemish Belgium speak Dutch, but signs for visitors were also posted in German, French and English. We ate at (don’t laugh) an Italian restaurant on the main square, and watched the horse-drawn carriages ferry tourists around past the blowing flags of the stately grand palace and elaborate city hall. And then after standing in the midst of the plaza doing 360s and eating just a few more Belgian chocolates for dessert, we left town with full bellies and contented hearts, and a severe sugar high. We sped along the highway for our last glorious hour of daylight, until we found a wonderful dark and deserted rest area along the way in which to sleep, and where we were able to take refreshing hot showers.

The next morning was foggy, but was sure to burn off within the early morning hours and be much warmer than it had been the previous days, and very sunny too. We sped west and south towards home through the Ardennes region of Belgium, during which all signs suddenly switched from Dutch to French. Along the way, we turned off onto hilly back roads, and stopped at a cave complex in Remouchamps with the self-proclaimed “longest subterranean boat trip in Europe”. But with a two-hour wait before the next tour would start, we decided instead to head on down the road to the town of Coo, where we contemplated taking a nine-kilometer above ground kayaking trip. The guy in the Kayak shop spoke only French and a little Dutch, but did convey enough to us to explain that he’d pick us up in two hours at a marked bridge. So he gave us paddles and lifejackets, and also tossed in a two-man kayak for good measure.

We were a little nervous about capsizing or just getting severely splashed on, because we didn’t have wet weather gear for our entire bodies. And the water wasn’t exactly warm, and we thought we understood that in places we perhaps would need to get out and pull the kayak along if it got hung up in rocks in shallow water. But our Ambleve river ride was a blast, and we maneuvered the kayak through rapids, past boulders, and followed two great blue herons along almost the entire way. At one point, we came upon a simple rope bridge tied between two large trees over the river. So we paddled to a shore and beached ourselves, and played around like monkeys over the water for a while. I had always wanted to try to cross a river with only one rope for my feet and one rope to hold on to, and it was quite manageable and even kind of fun. It’s crazy though, because you’re constantly flailing and bouncing around all over the place, and always doing your best to just keep your balance and standing upright. Quite a workout!

All in all, we did successfully avoided falling into the river, from either the rope bridge, or during the rest of our kayaking trip. Rob was completely soaked though by the end of our downstream paddle, just from continually reaching into the water and splashing himself in the face. It was a lovely sparkling day in the Ardennes, and he said the smell of river water in his nose made it all the better. We topped off our four-day Belgium-Netherlands odyssey by changing into dry clothes and making a visit to a tiny café in earshot of a toppling waterfall. We ordered hot chocolate and Belgian waffles. I wanted only a sprinkling of powdered sugar on top of mine, but Rob’s was smothered with mixed fruit and a thorough covering of whip cream. Our trip back home offered all of the beautiful scenery that Germany always has to offer, and it warmed up enough, that we even had to turn the air-conditioner on. The bright light-green leaves of spring are now everywhere, and the promise of another splendid European summer seems to have been made. What other adventures may be waiting in the wings, … what other stories will be told?

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