Tuesday 30th September 2008, Dokkum, Holland
Climate change is a myth. It doesn't change. It simply stays permanently wet. We have worked out that on average one dry day is followed by three wet ones on either side. This seems to have been the pattern for most of these travels.
So it rained most of last night and was still grey and wet this morning. There was no point in lingering longer in Bremen in such weather so Hinge and Bracket were packed away in their bags still wet and we could almost hear the rust forming on their joints.
The countryside is wide, flat and generally uninspiring around the German, Dutch border so we took to the motorway, hoping for better weather in Holland. We've had the odd half-hour without rain but everywhere is saturated and the rain soon returns with a vengeance. Around lunch time we crossed into Holland. Another first for Modestine and at least twenty-five years since we were last here.
We left the motorway near Groningen, a university town with a population of over 180,000, up in the north of Holland. We parked Modestine in the Park and Ride and took the city bus into the centre. It was a good move, giving free parking and a flat rate return fare of two euros for up to five people. We were dropped right in the main town square beside the Martinikerk.
Groningen has banned cars from the city completely, leaving buses and bikes and feet as the only means of moving from place to place. Every citizen seems to own a bike. Whereas in Germany there are neat, sedate cycle routes with their own traffic lights, here in Holland it is a free for all with cyclists weaving their way amongst the pedestrians. It is actually quite frightening and takes ages to cross the road as bikes appear from nowhere and their riders always seem to have their minds on something else. Mobile phones and i-pods are the most common, but other eat their lunches as they go and everyone has bags dangling from their handlebars. We saw one mum on her bike with four carrier bags and two children – one asleep on a seat in front, another up behind. She was weaving her way amongst other cyclists and pedestrians. We just hoped her mobile didn't ring!
Canals and the river A surround the city centre. These are crossed by low swing bridges that are opened to allow boats to pass through. We watched as hundreds of cyclists were forced to wait until one of the bridges was back in place. Immediately they sped off, straight into those coming the other way! Outside the university thousands of bikes were lined up. How did the owners ever find their own one again?
In the large market square there were stalls selling fabrics. This is so rarely seen now in England but the tradition of making clothes seems as popular as ever to judge by the speed of sales. Even we bought some fleecy blue material as cushion covers for Modestine. We managed a perfectly coherent conversation with the stall holder, us speaking English and him Dutch. It's a strange language. Some things are so obvious while others are totally incomprehensible. It has many elements of both German and English.
On the edge of the square was a man with a mechanical street organ. Punched cards are run through from the back and the music is created by compressed air. The music was so jolly people were gathered to listen and some were dancing. The Dutch are a very cheery lot.
As in northern Germany, Holland suffered damage by Allied bombing so many of the Groningen's older buildings have been destroyed. It has not taken such meticulous pains to recreate the city as it was however, so modern buildings are interspersed with ancient ones and there are even some interesting Art Nouveau buildings.
We caught the bus back to Modestine in good time for our onward journey to Dokkum where we intended spending the night. Groningen may be free of traffic, but this just seems to have caused chaos on the edges instead. It took well over an hour to get clear of the traffic congestion. It really must be one of the worst jams we have ever been caught in. Meanwhile the rain poured down continuously and has not stopped since. When we arrived we found we are the only ones here, we are in a flooded field and there are no lights to see the puddles between here and the sanitary block and washing-up facilities which need a key to enter. We've already forgotten to take it once and had to come back through the wet for it. Are we mad spending months travelling around in the rain like this? At the moment we rather think we are!
Wednesday 1st October 2008, Dokkum, Holland
We fell asleep last night to the sound of rain drumming on the roof and thunder crashing and rumbling around on the flat, reclaimed polder land that lies between here and the sea. This morning the skies were leaden and the rain still teaming down. We extended to the maximum the limits of endurance of the human bladder before donning our rubber sandals and paddling along the submerged path to the loos and showers – the latter a rather unnecessary embellishment, given the weather.
Yesterday we’d bought a bag of huge fruit buns in the market at Groningen which we ate for breakfast with mugs of tea as we waited, hoping for the weather to change. A friendly Dutchman appeared at our door to tell us he worked here and the weather was going to improve. He also told us we were only a short walk from the town and advised us to stay another day.
We took his advice and settled to learn something of Holland’s history and social attitudes until the rain stopped. Having read about its relaxed approach to soft drugs we are well honed on the differences between hash and marijuana as well as home-grown Dutch weed. Once we reach the brown coffee shops of Amsterdam (or Hamsterjam as our son Neil always called it) we’ll recognise the difference between splifs of Skunk, Haze and Northern Lights!
When we eventually ventured out with waterproofs and umbrellas, we found ourselves following alongside one of the many scenic canals where cyclists had stopped to gather bags of conkers that littered the cycle path. What do they do with them, we wonder. We passed through several streets of neat and tidy homes, each with a pretty little garden and a garage.
Holland strikes us as a country where almost everybody is middle class. They have a comfortable little country, full of comfortable little towns which in turn are full of comfortable little houses. During the Second World War they were an occupied country so were not bombed by Germany as Poland was. Nor did they seem to suffer as greatly as Germany from bombing raids by the Allied forces. Arnhem and Rotterdam are obvious exceptions of course, but in general, many of the churches and lovely 16th and 17th century gabled buildings in Holland have survived intact.
Dokkum is the oldest recorded Dutch town, first mentioned in 754. Its layout has changed little over the centuries though its fortifications have now been dismantled.
Our experience in the town today has been very pleasurable. We have met and spoken with lots of different people, either in English, or sometimes with them speaking to us in Dutch, which we can frequently understand but have to reply in English, which seems to be understood. This area is Friesian and in addition to Dutch, many people also speak Frisian which is more similar to English than Dutch.
We are not here by chance. Devon has a glorious history of famous seafarers. When it comes to saints though, they are thin on the ground. One exception is St. Boniface, born in Crediton near Exeter back in the 670s. In November 2005 we found a chapel dedicated to him at Lourdes while in June 2007 we found ourselves in the German town of Fulda where he is buried. Please follow this link to read about his life and then come back here to continue From there he travelled widely throughout Germany with an entourage of supporters attempting to convert pagan tribes to Christianity. He, and fifty-two of his followers were murdered here in the town of Dokkum in 754. Since then the Friesian population have converted to Christianity and the town is full of Boniface links. There is the Boniface town trail in English which we followed. It provided an excellent way of seeing the main sights of the town at the same time. Of course everything dates from long after the time Boniface was here but there are at least two churches, several statues, a remembrance garden, a chapel and a couple of wells, all bearing his name.
The town museum also has a special gallery dedicated to the saint and his missionary zeal. It traces the results of the murder of Boniface on the development of the town. The curator called his colleague to show us around as everything was in Dutch. He told us he spoke brown coal English. Seeing us puzzled he explained it was a Dutch expression and meant it was like coke, good enough to work but with all the essence removed. Both men were really friendly and seemed very envious when we told them of our travels and why we were here. They even recommended a good restaurant for us to try in the town.
The museum also had material on the history of Dutch lace and its use as decoration on clothing. Looking at some of the paintings it was obvious how important it was for affluent ladies in the 17th century. There were many examples of christening robes, lace bonnets and cuffs as well as black lace for mourning widows on display. Downstairs a small group of ladies were busy at a lace-making workshop. We asked if we could watch and they seemed delighted at our interest, even those who spoke no English happy to show what they had been doing and the technique involved. This lace was in bright colours however and intended for broaches. The best were a couple of colourful butterflies that could be included in a bunch of fresh flowers. Such a lot of detailed work though!
Of course we have not been free of the rain while we have been exploring Dokkum, but generally we have managed to seek shelter. We did get saturated as we searched out the statue of St. Boniface holding his bible above his head in a futile attempt to protect himself from the force of the sword falling upon him. We had it rather better. We simply held our umbrellas above our heads in a futile attempt to protect ourselves from the force of the torrential rain falling upon us. Running back to the shelter of the town we were forced to wait for several minutes as the canal bridge rose up to allow a leisurely barge to float slowly along the canal.
Huddling in a doorway we watched the rain slashing violently against a nearby shop window. Realising it was a "koffie of eethuis" we went inside to while away the rain over a lunch of schnitzel and salad accompanied by a CD of the pop group Wet Wet Wet! You have to believe it, it's true!!!
The day has passed so quickly. We have crossed countless little bridges, seen two magnificent old windmills and admired so many gabled canal-side house and attractive civic buildings. The one thing we have not done is visit the interior of the churches. Dokkum has such a sensible policy. It keeps them locked! Ian does not necessarily share my opinion but after gorging on the richest possible ecclesiastical fruitcake over the past few weeks, it is a refreshing change to explore instead the everyday streets of an attractive Dutch town, watching its residents going about their daily lives. We have received more friendly smiles and cheerful chats here than we have anywhere since we left Scandinavia.
On our way home this evening we were attracted into a canal-side coffee house. Here we asked if we could try the famous Dutch pancakes. They came, huge and thick, with apple puree and sugar and a couple of cups of coffee. The staff were very friendly, bidding us welcome and hoping we'd enjoy our stay in the town. Such charm creates a most pleasant impression of a country.
Next we called at a supermarket to restock our food cupboard. We were spoilt for choice with such a huge array of meats, fish, cheeses, vegetables, salads and ready meals. The prices were all perfectly reasonable too. That's one benefit of the euro. It's easy to compare costs from country to country. So far prices seem similar to Germany except for diesel which is a little cheaper in Holland.
As we returned to the campsite the rain started again and as we write there is thunder and lightning outside in the darkness.