Xmas promises should never be taken too seriously, so I was somewhat surprised when my parents followed up on my bleary eyed suggestion of a cycle tour of the Netherlands. The idea was to embark on a pilgrimage to the haunts of Dad's youth - the more mature party members as tour guides and us youth as packhorses. Giddy-up!
There is no better way to ease yourself out of jetlag and into holiday mode than a few days cruising the fleshpots of Amsterdam. There are more coffee shops, art galleries and museums than pubs on the West Coast. And to make life easier, most Dutch people speak English (some arguably better than we do) making it easy to order a beer or any other sensory indulgence you feel the need for.
The Dutch are to cycling what Nashville is to country music and Amsterdam is a kind of nirvana for urban cyclists... dedicated bike paths crisscross the city and everyone rides a bike. Thousands of singlespeed clunkers line up outside railway stations patiently awaiting the return of their masters, and along suburban streets bikes are shackled to anything that doesn't move. The network of cycle paths covers the whole country and is so extensive that you could easily map out four or five different 500-600km tours without retracing your tracks. Detailed maps and descriptions of cycle routes are (paradoxically) available from the Dutch Automobile Association (ANWB). They also have the good oil on camping - a favourite pastime for the Dutch. Prices are reasonable and the facilities over-the-top. Alternatively you could score a Natuurkamping card (through the ANWB) - and enjoy smaller, more rustic campgrounds.
Amsterdam is the obvious place to start a tour of the flat lands. We did three ten-day trips ... the first through the small fishing villages north of Amsterdam, the traditional cheese market in Alkmaar and then up into Friesland. The second took us into the centre of the country, taking in De Hoge Veluwe National Park and the Kröller-Müller Museum with its amazing collection of 20th Century Art (including 278 Van Goghs). We then headed out into the castle region of the Achterhoek near Germany and back through Utrecht - a University town that rivals Amsterdam for canals, funky back streets and outdoor cafes. Our final tour took us south to the islands of Zeeland and Oude Tonge - homeland for the van Dorsser clan.
Flat land riding is not everyone's glass of Heineken, but with facilities like these it's difficult not to be seduced just a little. Returning to reality, we pedalled south for a few days into Belgium and then east into the Ardenne region for a week or so. Goodbye bike paths and hello hills. The Ardenne is a series of semi-forested plateaus divided by rivers and rising to a high point of about 700m. Belgium is one of the most fought over pieces of dirt in Europe, and because of its topography the Ardenne has seen some pretty ugly battles ... the "Battle of the Bulge" being the most notable. Museums and memorials dot the area giving budding historians ample opportunity to bone up on one of Europe's blackest hours. The cycling is amazing, nice quiet roads and woody scenery. Most villages have cheap hotels. Although campgrounds don't litter every intersection, there are enough around to make camping stress free. Mountain biking is popular - the small town of Houffalize hosted a world cup race last year.
Consumption is never far from one's mind when cycling, and the food in Belgium is fabulous - combining the best of Flemish and French cuisine at reasonable prices. Fortunately a couple of hills a day keeps the battle of the bulge at bay. The Ardenne is famous for game dishes but not a haven for vegetarians. Choose from hare, venison, wild boar, duck or pheasant. Ardenne ham is also world famous and there's plenty of amusement with smoked sausages of all shapes and sizes. And of course there is Belgian beer. We ain't talking Lion Red here, it's the full noise variety available in a multitude of flavours, styles and potencies. Most is brewed by men of the cloth in monasteries dotted around the hills. I can leave the raspberry numbers myself but give me a Trappist and I'm a happy lad.
If none of this spins your whizzer, there's always chocolate. With an annual consumption of around 600,000 tonnes, it's no surprise the Belgians have figured out how to make the good cake. Even if you don't fancy it yourself, sending a box home to mum should keep you on the Xmas card list.