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Holland’s Hidden Treasure

I’m convinced the Dutch are brought into this world, not in the conventional way – kicking and screaming like the rest of us – but pedaling busily into life on toddler-sized bicycles, bells ringing, chubby little legs and feet knowing instinctively just what to do. The passion for two-wheeled activities is legendary in and around the vibrant streets of Amsterdam, even if the chaos often spells danger for unwitting pedestrians.    

Where better to let your feet find the pedals again than De Hoge Veluwe National Park, a sprawling 5,500 hectares of wilderness, coupled with an impressive 42 kilometres of bike paths that branch out like arteries across the park’s varied and alluring landscapes. Tucked deep inside the heart of it all is the prestigious Kroller-Muller Museum, home to one of the largest collections of Van Gogh works outside of Amsterdam.
An hour’s train ride east of the capital lies the city of Arnhem and one of the several entrances the park provides for its many perennial visitors. Ownership of the entire area is now in the hands of the Netherlands government, but was originally owned and occupied by the Kroller-Muller family in the early 1900’s. Their joint vision was one of bringing together culture and nature for the common good.

Early spring in the Netherlands makes it an ideal time to visit. It’s chilly this time of year, but the smell of Scots Pine after early morning rain leaves an unmistakably sweet redolence in the air that more than makes up for the temperature.

The museum, finished in 1938, became the park’s showcase for the impressive art collection of Helene Kroller-Muller. After acquiring a substantial collection of Van Gogh works, they were kindly gifted to the state and the museum was established.

Many great pieces by Picasso – and of course Van Gogh – adorn the walls and the temptation is to linger in the halls, taking in the ambience of decades of artistic toil, but the park at large, complete with trails that appear to lead off into the never-never, are simply far too enticing to delay a minute longer.

It seems almost fitting that Amsterdam’s fleet of old white bikes (witfiets) have found a home here amongst the forest, drift-sand and heathland that make up the landscape of the Hoge Veluwe. Pick one up at one of the three locations provided – if hordes of other like-minded bikers haven’t pinched them already – and prepare to get lost among the trees. They are also free, which is always a factor dear to the heart of many a seasoned traveller.

Ride steadily towards the middle, looking out for the signs pointing to the Museum and the 25 hectares of surrounding sculpture gardens. Occasionally the staff here have been known to move sculptures around, placing them in odd, unimaginable areas of the park to surprise riders along the trail.

Jean Dubuffet’s enamel garden

The terrain, for the most part, is flat as you might expect in Holland, but now and then narrow paths, broken randomly by the groaning roots of surrounding trees, rise up and require us to stand and pedal just that little bit harder. Breaking clear of the woods every so often, the cycling trails, overlooked by verdant treetops peppered by the wind, give way to wide open spaces and lengthy views void of a single soul.

Largely man-made, the park takes on varied guises: dense woodlands of Pines and Europe’s unique drift-sand or “wandering dunes.”  In 2001, staff undertook the job of resurrecting the sandy landscape after falling winds, vegetation and self-seeding Pines threatened to cover it once and for all. 50 hectares of Pine was cut down, exposing the underlying sand once again. Word is, the dunes are on the move once more and staff couldn’t be happier! The evidence is all around us as we ride: warped and wind-beaten pines grow almost horizontally, branches reaching out like tentacles into the morning air.

St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge – the former home of the Kroller-Muller’s – stands proudly at the northern end of the park near the entrance at Hoenderloo. Taking its name from the patron saint of hunters, guided tours of the lodge are free and if requested, available for special events – strictly no guns mind, so leave the Smith and Wesson’s at home.

Not far from St. Hubertus, and near the Hoenderloo entrance, camping is available. Modestly priced sites provide those that prefer to explore the park over several days, ample space to pitch a tent, or even bed down a caravan and stay a while longer.

For the more organized, the Hoge Veluwe offers day trips for groups including, the Art and Nature combo that takes in the museum, sculpture gardens and some scenic riding on specially reserved blue bicycles – perhaps the blue ones never caught on in Amsterdam and were given early retirement in the woods.

A keen eye might also spot wildlife in different parts of the park: red deer, wild boar and moufflon (short-fleeced wild sheep) roam freely throughout and are often seen in the early morning, or at dusk.

A day at the Hoge Veluwe wouldn’t be complete without a obtaining a cycling diploma – for those that have never put foot to pedal that is. What is interesting to note is that it’s offered to “foreign” visitors, alluding to the fact that lessons, of course, would never be required for a local. 

When it’s time to tether the steed to the rack and settle down with a Heineken after a long day in the saddle, it’s charming to think we could hop back on and take it all in again, riding straight back the way we came.

Look Mum, no hands!

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