WWII history via biking in the Netherlands
Bucolic. Picturesque. Charming. Clichés, perhaps, but in my 50 years of world travel, I’ve visited few places where those words are more appropriate. The Netherlands is one.
Last summer, I pedaled for several days through the beautiful countryside in southeastern Netherlands, near the border with Germany. It’s hard to believe that such a peaceful place was the site of some of the fiercest fighting of World War II.
This region was the first line of defense against the invasion by the Germans in 1940. After several years of brutal occupation by Nazi forces, the Allies liberated the region in 1945 as they fought their way from the beaches of Normandy to Germany.
Tripsite, the company that hosted me on this trip, aptly calls it “Holland: World War II Reflections.” There were four of us on the tour, including our guide, Martin, a local who grew up hearing stories about the war from his mother, who lived through it all. All of us were in our 70s.
What I experienced as I glided through the pastoral countryside was probably the most effective blood pressure “medicine” I have ever taken — enough exercise to raise my heart rate and burn off some calories, plus scenery that would chill the most hyper Type A personality.
Our daily excursions of 30 miles, more or less, took us on mostly flat, shady bike paths on leafy lanes and country roads, along the tops of dikes overlooking canals and rivers, and through villages of red-brick gingerbread houses.
The scenery was serene, pristine and tidy — fields of flowers; grand homes and castles; ponds, lakes and rivers; and some of the healthiest farm animals I’ve ever seen.
Battlefields and barns
The natural beauty of the area belies a dark history. The first four days of the trip focused on the invasion in 1940, which took place in the area around the village of Amerongen.
The village is near the Grebbeline, first constructed in 1745 as a line of defense against invading armies. It’s a vast low-lying area that could be flooded, backed up by classic trench fortifications.
Unfortunately, the Grebbeline was not able to withstand the Germans’ modern artillery and bombs. The Dutch put up a valiant resistance, however, holding them off for five days, rather than the one day the Germans had expected. More than 5,000 Dutch soldiers and civilians lost their lives, and many houses, barns and villages were destroyed.
The occupation added to the toll, as Nazi sympathizers turned in their neighbors and had them shipped off to labor camps.
Despite that bloody history, our stay in Amerongen was quite pleasant. Our accommodations were in a former tobacco barn, the Napoleon Schuur, which is now a boutique hotel featuring the latest in high tech and modern, fashionably-functional interior design.
The historic Amerongen Castle, church and a national park are only a few minutes’ walk (or bicycle ride) away. We ate breakfast and dinner every day on the attractive, airy patio of the Restaurant Hotel Buitenlust, a café on a cobblestone street near the hotel.
Museums and cemeteries
Highlights of my first four days in the region included the Het Depot (“the Depot”), an art museum in Ede-Wageningen that features modern and avant-garde sculpture from young Dutch artists, and an old Jewish cemetery tucked away behind a row of houses just down the street from the museum.
After four days in Amerongen, we moved on to Otterlo, a quiet town about a 40-minute taxi drive away. Otterlo’s history essentially completes the story of WWII in the region, namely, the liberation by the Allies in 1945.
This is the region where the Allies launched Operation Market Garden to take the bridges that were critical to their advance toward Germany.
This is also the site of the book and movie A Bridge Too Far, which tells the story of the ill-fated attempt to capture the final bridge at Arnhem. The Battle of Otterlo was the last big battle to take place in the Netherlands.
The museum is dedicated to the Battle of Arnhem, and the hotel served as the headquarters for the British 1st Airborne Division. In the basement of the museum is a realistic, loud and adrenaline-inducing depiction of the Battle of Arnhem.
The cemetery visit was just the opposite: tranquil and beautiful, but sad. Both sites elicited deep but different emotions.
The cycling took us through forests, villages and the city of Arnhem. We climbed more hills than in the first four days, so for this section of the trip, Martin advised me to opt for an e-bike, which provides battery-powered assistance on demand, helping me ascend the long, steep hills.
I had trained hard for this trip, going for 30+ mile rides several days a week on the beach bike path in Los Angeles. But if I hadn’t switched to the e-bike, I would have struggled to get up the few hills we did encounter in one of the flattest countries on earth.
I took the last couple of days off and joined my wife, Katherine, in exploring the area around Otterlo on foot. It was a good decision.
Otterlo is located a short walk from the National Park De Hoge Veluwe, and we found many hiking trails in and around the park and town.
The excellent Kröller-Müller Museum and Sculpture Garden are in the heart of the park. The art museum is spacious, filled with natural light and beautifully laid out. It also has a great collection, including many Van Goghs, second only to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The sculpture garden was the best I’ve ever seen, with miles of trails and almost 200 impressive pieces scattered along the paths and in the forest.
Our accommodations in Otterlo were at the Hotel De Sterrenberg, a sleek, modern four-star hotel that deserves every one of those stars.
We splurged one night in the excellent restaurant in the hotel and ordered the four-course “Chef’s Surprise.” I couldn’t begin to describe all of the food in those four courses, though I do remember trout, bass and duck, plus a whole bunch of ingredients that I couldn’t recognize or even pronounce.
The most important element in the success of the Netherlands trip was our guide, Martin. His knowledge of the area ensured that we took the most scenic, historic and safe routes each day, and his stories bought the history to life, adding an important personal perspective to what we saw and experienced.
And I’m especially grateful to Hosea Libbey, inventor of the e-bike. If it wasn’t for him, I might have spent way too much time puffing and grinding my way up gentle hills rather than enjoying scenery as bucolic, picturesque and charming as it gets.
If you go
Tripsite’s week-long bike tours through the Netherlands range from $1,200 to $2,700. Check tripsite.com or call 1-800-951-4384 or (570) 965-2064.
Nonstop flights from Washington to Amsterdam in March start at $585 on KLM Airlines.
More information on WWII history in the Netherlands is available at holland.com/ global/tourism/holland-stories/liberation-route.