30 Dec 2012

Ride report: Fryslân

What possesses us to travel? Is it the boredom of our everyday routine? The thrill of being someplace new? Or the excitement of the journey?

For me, it’s often the latter. Many of the places I travel to nowadays are places I’ve been to before. While it’s always a joy to reconnect with family and friends, it’s the journey that gets me most fired up about a holiday.

I’m not referring to tolerating a journey on a fetid train to an airport (inevitably standing up), putting up with suspicious security staff and X-ray screenings, passing time by begrudgingly humouring shopkeepers’ advances in trashy airport malls selling all manner of cheap tat, and filling up on McShits because the other restaurants require a mortgage approval in principle before being seated—and all before boarding an enormous metal bird pushing physics to the limit as it climbs to the troposphere. That’s not mentioning the actual flight and the airport on the other end.

What I’m talking about is the excitement of taking your life into your own hands on a quick and nimble machine, small enough to squeeze into the gaps between cars—and on a minimal schedule. If I see a sign to someplace that looks interesting, I can just go there. If the road turns to a dirt track, I can still go. Whether or not this actually happens is a different matter entirely, however, but it’s inspiring to know that the option exists.

To the trip. Fryslân is the largest Dutch province located in the north of the Nederlands, also known as Friesland or Frisia. It is the only province to have its own language—Frysk (or West Frisian)—which is the native language of the majority of the population. The province also contains about 1/6th of all the traditional windmills in the Nederlands. My mum was born in a village near the town of Joure.

My parents had a stopover in Fryslân on their way to their summer home in Greece and invited me to come for a visit. On a sunny morning in early June I packed up the bike, complete with camping equipment, and set off from London.

When you’re accustomed to riding a bike of a certain weight, it takes some time to get used to the way it feels fully laden. It should go without saying that I tightened up the preload and rebound a half-turn from the top. The F800GS hides the weight surprisingly well when the wheels are turning, with acceleration, braking and cornering nearly unaffected. Most noticeable is how smooth and sorted the bike behaves over broken tarmac, road humps and other bumps—it glides over everything.

The side panniers also require care at first, being as wide as the handlebars but set much lower, exactly at the same level as the average car’s wing mirrors. Until you’re used to gauging gaps with a fat arse, filtering is somewhat unnerving.

I programmed Sneek NL into the GPS. Cutting through Kennington, New Cross, Lewisham and Sidcup, I made my way out of London, stopping along the way to fill up with petrol. Once the A20 became the M20 it was a typically uninvolving motorway journey in 20°C weather to the Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone.

After going through border control—which, as is typical for European overland routes, involved a nominal flash of the passport—I threaded my way round to the train queues. For reasons unknown, the trains were two departures behind schedule. After nearly 90 minutes, my queue finally began to move ahead and we boarded the shuttle.

Motorbikes generally travel in the regular-height car carriages which means your head is uncomfortably close to the 1.9m ceilings when riding a tall bike like a GS. There are also metal grates running along the centreline of each carriage—treacherous on a wet day.

Safely parked on the side stand, front wheel against the kerb, the train finally departed England for the 35 minute journey under the English Channel at a top speed of 140km/hr.

Alighting from the Eurotunnel shuttle in Calais, you are unceremoniously ejected onto the E40 motorway without even realising. Once freed from the clutches of the ghastly town of Calais, the motorway became distinctly continental in flavour with a wide central reservation filled with grass and wildflowers. The sky was almost indigo in colour with glowing white fluffy clouds dotted here and there. There was an immeasurable feel-good quality about this road, perhaps amplified by my presence in a foreign land.

The E40 carried on past Dunkirk and into Belgium with barely a sign-posting at the border. The French really do know how to build a good road.

Because of the delay with the Eurotunnel shuttle, I arrived in Brugge around 3pm and we stopped to eat at an Egyptian restaurant. I had quite possibly the best kebab I've ever eaten—lots of salad and hot sauces, and no grease to be seen. A pleasant surprise in the country of chocolate, mussels and chips with mayonnaise.

I intended to reach Sneek by nightfall so there was no time to sightsee. Returning to the E40, I joined the E17 at Gent to Antwerpen. I startled myself on the Antwerpen ring road on a sweeping right-hander—the camber of the road caused the bike to unexpectedly want to go into the next lane on the left. It was an unbelievably unnerving sensation, and one I've not experienced on a bike before or since—while writing this piece 6 months later I still have no comprehension about what exactly occurred. My only thought in retrospect is that, being overcast with flat light at that point, I’d not noticed where car tyres had worn slight ruts into the tarmac, which caused the bike to turn inconsistently. I’ll be ready next time...

After Antwerpen the E14 becomes the E19—I carried on into the Nederlands, joining the E312 and E311 at Breda, the A27 at Utrecht and the lovely A6 at Almere.

The A6 runs along the dykes bordering the Markermeer and sits about 10m below sea level—an absolutely surreal section of this motorway, as it is lined with energy-producing wind turbines, each at least 100m tall, against a flat, grassy landscape.

A curiosity in the Nederlands is that the speed limit is 120km/h during the day, but goes up to 130km/h from dusk. It seems counterintuitive to increase the speed limit at night, but my relatives later explained that, due to agriculture being the main industry in the country, people go to bed and get up early and therefore traffic tends to be light after dark.

I arrived at Joure as the sun set and the temperature dropped to a slightly less palatable 11°C. In my attempt to join the A7 I managed to be in the wrong lane and was forced to head east instead of west, despite my TomTom’s best efforts to tell me I’d done wrong. This resulted in an unexpected 4km round trip to the village of Oudehaske and back to the roundabout. I arrived in Sneek at my second cousin Jannie’s home around 10pm—nearly 2 hours later than expected, and with a very sore bottom. Mental note to get a new seat once back in London.

Mums being mums I got a proper telling-off, was fed a small meal and escorted to my cousin Willy’s house, 2km away in the neighbouring village of Ysbrechtum where there was space for us to sleep.

The next morning was wet but not raining and after a traditional Frysk breakfast of black rye bread, cheese and cold meats, I set off back to Jannie’s home for another catch-up with my parents whom I’d not seen for nearly 4 years.

After lunch I explored Sneek, a town of around 30,000, founded more than 1,200 years ago. Like many Dutch towns it has numerous canals which typically run alongside the town roads, with nothing to stop someone from driving/riding straight in. Indeed, most people equip their cars with a LifeHammer in the footwell with which to break a window should the worst happen.

By UK standards, particularly London, the traffic in the Nederlands is delightfully light, making exploration of towns, villages and country roads a relaxing, almost calming experience. Some might say undemanding to the point of boredom, as the country is flat—flat as a table—but the lush fields and scenery make up for it. Despite my many hours on the bike the day before, it was a pleasure to be out on it again.

I stopped in Ouwsterhaule to see a monument built in honour of my great uncle Jetze Veldstra. During the second world war he was made to keep a list of ‘criminals’ that the Nazis were trying to locate. These people were typically farmers in a rural area who were taken away to Neuengamme concentration camp where many were murdered.

My uncle managed to elude the Nazis for several years by ensuring that people on the list were as difficult as possible to be located—but in 1945, just a few months before the end of the war, some neighbours who were in a boat in one of the canals saw the Nazis take him away in a car.

Several months went by and the villagers heard a rumour that he would be returning. Despite being very poor from the war, they contributed to a collection to prepare a feast in honour of him upon his return. However, news finally arrived that this was not to be, as he had been murdered by the Nazis.

Using the funds for the feast, a monument was made instead, and installed next to the church in Ouwsterhaule. I am sure that his story is one of many everyday people who did heroic acts during a dark time, but I also feel very honoured to know that one of my ancestors gave his life standing up to the unspeakable events occurring during the war.

In fact, about half the population of the area fled to become farmers on the prairies of Alberta Canada after the war because of how toxic life had become in the area.

Back in Sneek that afternoon, I went to a birthday party for two of my great aunts who are in their 90s (above 2nd left and far right). While they are both somewhat hard of hearing, whatever they’ve done, they’ve done it right—I’ve seen people in their 60s and 70s nowhere near as chirpy.

Also pictured is my mum in red and my other great aunt next to me in blue—three generations of my family, all with the same noses! Fingers crossed the longevity genes made it through to me as I push 40.

The next morning I rode the dykes from Ysbrechtum to the beautiful lakeside village of Terherne, followed by a loop of south Fryslân.

On one of the dyke roads a small car was floating with its back end bobbing up and down in a canal. A police car was on site and a few people were standing around contemplating. Hopefully the LifeHammer came in handy.

Many of the villages on the sea have drawbridges, some of which have been around for hundreds of years. The route took about 2 hours, with straight stretches approaching 90° bends, followed by more straight stretches and bends, and the odd village in between.

On the way back, I stopped at the house that my mother was born in (pictured)—it is still in the family and now owned by one of my third cousins.

The house is typically Frysk-style with the barn attached at the rear. This format of home is still popular in the area, enabling farmers to see to their livestock without having to go outside during the colder months.

Living in the city, I took this rare opportunity to see the cows up close and the rumours are true—they are not the brightest creatures but they are quite sweet in their own way... and pong like nothing else.

One last stop at my uncle Foppe’s for a quick visit and I headed back to Sneek.

We had a Sunday dinner of Dutch-localised Chinese takeaway—tasty but unlike any Chinese cuisine I’ve experienced. This was followed by the ubiquitous and delicious groentesoep met balletjes, or Dutch meatball soup.

Afterwards I said goodbye to my parents and went to my cousin’s house to pack up the panniers and get a good night’s sleep.

The next morning was miserably grey and rainy. Not just a drizzle, but proper rain. I set off around 9am with London programmed in the TomTom, retracing the route I took on the way to Sneek.

I had accidentally left the waterproof liner for my jacket in London but had a full waterproof boiler suit which I put on under my jacket and over my trousers. The rain was torrential—despite the good weather protection of the F800GS my legs, feet and gloves were soaked within 2 hours.

One thing I didn't consider was that travelling on a Monday on the continent means double the volume of HGVs, as they are prohibited from traveling on Sundays. As anyone who rides a motorbike is well aware, riding among HGVs on a motorway in a downpour rates among the least favourable riding conditions.

Approaching Antwerpen, the traffic was gridlocked, although there was a reasonable amount of space between the lanes to filter through on the bike. Antwerpen is possible the coldest, least inviting city I've come across in Europe when seen from the ring road, being a 10-lane motorway of misery running through the industrial districts. The wet weather didn't add to the charm.

The rain did subside somewhat when I arrived back in Brugge where we stopped for lunch again (at the same Egyptian restaurant) and bought handmade chocolates for my friend Renate who was cat-sitting for me.

When I put the TomTom back in its cradle for the final push back to Calais, it refused to come to life. I opened the sealed SD card slot at the bottom, and it peed out about 50ml of water. RIP TomTom and the £400 it cost.

I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s so hard to revert to road signs when navigating a city you don’t know well, and somehow I got myself properly lost trying to return to the E40. After nearly an hour I managed to find it.

The journey to Calais was perhaps the worst of the trip. The rain started up again but this time it was accompanied by enormous gusts of wind coming off the North Sea 5km away—almost strong enough to blow the bike into the next lane.

Passing HGVs became something of a sadistic affair—pushing left approaching the rear to keep from being vacuumed in by the turbulence, and pushing right approaching the front to keep from being blown outwards.

Just as I was arriving at the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais the weather cleared up. I was about an hour late for my scheduled shuttle but it seems they take no notice of the time when it’s a bike. Being somewhat shellshocked from the storm, I forgot to remove my helmet at border control and the chap made a slightly snide remark about being none-the-wiser after seeing my passport photo.

Crisis averted and after slithering into the carriage on the wet metal ramp, I took the opportunity to freshen up in the train loo. My fingers looked necrotic having been wet all day in my gloves and warmed by the heated grips.

Coming out at Folkestone I headed up the M20 back to London, the weather once again warm and sunny with a few fluffy white clouds—ironic given the UK’s reputation for weather.

About a mile from home I had my only near miss of the trip—a car decided to change lanes without doing a life-saver and came within inches of hitting me. Statistically most accidents happen within 2 miles of home and it seems there is plenty of truth in that.

On reflection, I had a fantastic time travelling—shame about the shit weather on the way home but it’s all part of the adventure. It was quite special to find out so much about my family’s past and I came home slightly less naïve than when I left. I think that’s one of the point of travelling.

As for the bike—through all the rain and wind, plus riding 1,200 miles in 4 days, it behaved itself, doing its job without protest. It had more than enough power and torque to get the job done, and I averaged around 55mpg overall.

Of course it’s more entertaining to throw around with me alone on it, but it was still much more enjoyable than it had any right to be while fully laden. I can’t think of higher praise for the engineers who designed it.