We’ve spent one whole day in Hamburg, partly to soak in the mood of the city in the rain, partly to try and find the one piece of camping gear we failed to obtain beforehand – a CEE electric plug, which we could use on continental sites. We eventually found it the next day near Bremen, but by Sod’s Law, of course, we never had to use it again all the way to England. Hopefully it will come useful when we get back on the main land 🙂
From there we drove south-west, towards Holland, through Saxony, which looks just like rural Southern England. Flat, green, fertile, with fair country houses of red brick or half-timber, thatched or neatly tiled. It seems, just like the Vikings in Scotland, and Frisians in East Anglia, the Saxons were searching for a land most like the one they had come from. I can only assume Denmark will look like Yorkshire.
Dummer See is a large, almost perfectly round lake in the middle of all this green and pleasant land, roughly half-way between Hamburg and Amsterdam, so we make our stop there. The season is still far away, so with most facilities closed shut, and with the weather more suitable for November, it feels we’ve come here in the middle of winter. The only sign of it being May are the maypoles, decorated with flowers and ribbons, standing in every village and even in the middle of the campsite, and the fresh strawberries and white asparagus being at the roadside stalls.
Leaving Dummer See, the car splutters to a halt and refuses to move. A summoned mechanic discovers the reason for this – and most of our other engine troubles so far – to be a loose wire at the idle pressure valve. It never ceases to amaze (and slightly frustrate) me how almost all the problems with this car can be solved with pliers, a set of screwdrivers, some masking tape and a good wrench.
Rain, rain, wind, cold, drizzle, cold. That’s the succession of weather patterns over these four days. Everything in the car is soaked through, and fighting the headwinds on the motorway uses up all of our fuel and patience. It’s 10 degrees C when we drive into Amsterdam, and a furious, lashing rain. In the middle of May! The forecast for the next week is giving us some hope – there’s a warm front coming into England from Tuesday.
John Holt’s “Police in the Helicopter” playing in the campsite reception tells us we’re in the right place to finally relax and unwind 🙂 We spent another full day in Amsterdam, following our by now usual itinerary of “Amsterdam’s best”: a falafel in Maoz for lunch, pancakes for dinner, a smoke in a coffee shop, a glass of beer and jenever in a bar and a good cup of java in an indie cafe. Personally, I get a lot more relaxed from drinking the coffee than from the joint, but I put that down to lack of experience as a smoker 🙂 (also, it’s a damn good coffee)
Netherlands is where we start sight-seeing properly. We’ve never been outside Amsterdam/Schiphol area before. Heading for the Hook of Holland ferry, we stop first at Delft. As postcard-perfect doll-house quaint little Dutch town as you can imagine, criss-crossed, naturally, with a myriad of tree-lined canals, with the main square ensemble preserved in its entirety: the cathedral, the town hall and the weighing house are all in place, reflecting in each other’s stained glass windows. We drink another coffee – of course, the Dutch would have good coffee, having once owned the island of Java… what don’t they have…?
Rotterdam looks just like we imagined. A big, modern, vibrant harbour city. By luck we turn first into the district inhabited by immigrants from the former Dutch colonies: Suriname, Indonesia, India, the Antilles… Over half of Rotterdam’s inhabitants have “non-Dutch” origins – hardly surprising, considering the city’s sea history. The mix of peoples and cultures here is a completely new and different to that found in London – I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Suriname or Aruba before – and here it’s also mingled with a nascent Chinatown. As a result, the supermarkets store every food imaginable and the bars and restaurants offer meals from every corner of the world.
We find the more central part of the city later, with the shops, the skyscrapers and the old harbour museum of antique ships and port gear. The area around the old docks is the one that’s suffered the most in the 1940 bombing – of which the anniversary is nearing – and here is where Zadkine’s famous “Destroyed City” monument stands, by the waterline.
Our last night before crossing the Channel we spend on the Hook of Holland. The causeway road leading to it passes through the greatest continuous expanse of greenhouses in the world. For a moment, I’m sure we’re driving through a fake village of model houses, scattered between garden centres, narrow canals and fields of glasshouses, but no, this is where actual people live. The houses and gardens of Westland are impossibly immaculate, even though they have to nestle sometimes on a tiny strip between a motorway and an agricultural equipment warehouse. It’s like a model train village built out of ready-made kits by somebody with severe ADHD.
The campsite is by the sea, and it’s the first beach we see this year. It still feels like November as we climb the wind-swept dunes between a closed beach bar and a shut-down marina. The beach here is another world-first: this is where the ever-industrious Dutch have constructed the Zand Motor: the Sand Engine, a way to build up the South Holland coast with sand using the power of waves and currents.
We may have driven around thousands of miles of British coast, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen a beach like this one. A flock of sheep is grazing on the dunes (as everywhere else in Holland: sheep, cows, goats and horses roam freely around every empty piece of grassland); a couple of surfers and a group of horse-riders meet half-way in the waves; an Indonesian-style beach bar lies closed and half-covered in sand like some forgotten Bali ruin; the sand motor churns to the North, the refineries and harbour cranes labour to the South, tankers and coast guard ships pass along the horizon to the West.
And, as if all that was not enough excitement for one evening, as we head back to the campsite, six airplanes come roaring out of nowhere, pass over our heads in a tight formation and treat us to a free acrobatic spectacle against the setting sun.