Archives for category: Travels

The much hailed bicycle infrastructure of the Netherlands is part of what makes bicycling so popular here. Of course, there are other reasons.

Groningen has high bicycle ridership because of:

  • Flat terrain
  • Limited Public Transportation (~20 bus routes)
  • Compact/Dense city development
  • Small enough city that everything can be reached within 20-30 minutes from any one spot
  • Many students (with not much money)
  • Many young, able-bodied people
  • Protestant Heritage (also don’t want to spend too much)
  • Bicycle infrastructure/encouragement

Among all these points, the thing that most excites planners and bicyclists in Seattle has to be the infrastructure – its the easiest to change.

Neighborhood Streets (occasionally Woonerfs) are almost the same as you’d see in the City of Seattle. The streets often have more traffic restrictions and are narrower. The traffic restrictions mean that almost all neighborhood streets are one-way to cars, but two-ways for bikes. Also, the speed limits are low, at 30 km/h and the streets are made of textured brick, which slows down all wheeled traffic. Bicycles often impede the flow of cars behind them. This configuration makes bicycling more convenient on these streets. Woonerfs are even smaller streets where sidewalks and the street are level, and the car/bike travel lane weaves through trees and other parked cars.

Small Arterial Streets are larger and two-ways for cars. These streets often will have painted bicycle lanes on the sides, but with no buffer between car traffic and bicycles. The speed limit is still low, at 30 km/h, but the streets are wider and traffic is rarely stopped by bicycles. Intersections are raised like giant speed bumps and not signaled. There are no lane markings for cars.

Large Arterial Streets are even larger and have higher speed limits for cars. Cars travel at 40-60 km/h. Bicycle lanes are buffered with parked cars and/or a curb area. Intersections, especially with other large streets, will be signalized with the infamous “Tegelijk Groen” style intersection. Streetfilms covers this type of intersection well here:

Groningen: Green Phase for Cyclists from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Larger Streets and Expressways have either larger versions of the last method (meaning more space between cars and bikes) or separate dual-direction bicycle paths near the route of the road.

Another important part of the bicycle infrastructure is bicycle parking. Most bikes in the Netherlands are parked with their kickstand, free-standing in the sidewalks. However, for greater security, especially at night, bicycle parking garages are built. In the city-center, where parking is the tightest and theft is prevalent, secure spots for bicycle parking are found in parking garages, under movie theaters, or in empty retail space.

After leaving Copenhagen on a high speed train across to Malmo, Sweden, Amy and I boarded a boat leaving to Hamburg. This sounds easy, but it wasn’t, and we almost missed the boat! The boat ride, however, was really fun. Truckers bring their trucks on the boat and sleep overnight in a cabin on the boat. They wake up in Germany and continue driving… clever! We left Travermunde, where the boat dropped us off on a bus that went through the center of Lubeck, which looked nice. We boarded a DB train and were in Hamburg.

Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany, and a Hanseatic city. There is an extensive subway and surface rail system that everyone uses because it is so convenient. It was also cheap.

I was pretty surprised about how Hamburg and Germany are. In my mind, all I had were stereotypes about how Germans are strict… Sound of Music? Some stuff like that. Hamburg, culturally, reminded me of ‘cool’ areas in Seattle. There were a lot of independent stores, nice small pubs and restaurants, and of course a commercial center. Food was cheaper in Hamburg than anywhere I’ve been so far in Europe, so it was nice to eat out and not feel like I was breaking the bank. Plus, drinking outside is legal, so we enjoyed a lot of the cheap Astra beer, which is special to Hamburg and good!

We visited the Warehouse District, Minatur Wunderland, and the waterfront.

Hamburger Dom is a large fairground in the city, which is active a few times a year. Nothing was going on when we were visiting, but it was interesting to see how much space, near the city center, was dedicated to fairs. There was a nice flea market we stumbled upon, and lots of antiques. The city also had beautiful train stations and a cool tunnel you could walk in (for free) under the Ems River.

The city was great in that it didn’t take much effort to find things, transportation was quick and easy, and everywhere you wanted to go was right next to one of the train stations… much closer together compared to US systems I have used.

One of our stranger ideas that we had while planning our travel was to take buses and boats and combine a trip to Copenhagen and Hamburg. We did it. A 13 hour overnight bus ride, and a 9 hour boat ride. The bus is not advisable, but the boat, with our own cabin, was totally great.

Copenhagen was again quite architecturally different. Buildings were longer, more colorful, and church towers had spirals!

The city had sleek modern architecture and historic buildings that were whimsical and exciting. Elephants and other animals were carved into stone and urban areas were generally bright and inviting.

Copenhagen has a nice bicycle sharing system with bikes that you put a $4 coin into as a deposit. There are not enough, and the range isn’t far enough, but it is better than in any American city I’ve been to. The Strøget is a shopping street that has a lot of interesting stores, street vendors, and is the longest pedestrianized shopping street in Europe. The city has a nice library, and there was a cool book sale happening (with people paying by sms!?). The university is in the heart of the city, and was really fun to visit, especially the university’s music venue, which has free concerts and discounted beer! (Why doesn’t UW have that!?)

Christiana was a very CEP area of the city that is a commune built into an old military barracks. The neighborhood is quite large, and is known for having few rules, and letting people take control. Drugs are sold here, but that is not the most exciting part of this neighborhood. The cooperation and personality in this part of town is striking. Homes are built by the occupants however they want, and people are free to do whatever they want… as long as it isn’t violent. Having lunch here was relaxing and delicious.

Hey – no posts for a while – shame on me.

So a few weekends past, I visited Belgium, which is a very interesting place. Belgium is a highly fractured country with large Flemish (Dutch-speaking) and Walloon (French-speaking) communities and a small German-speaking community. Generally though, the Flemish and the Walloons are the big schism in Belgium. The flat north is where the Flemish live and the mountainous south is where the Walloons live. Brussels is north of the dividing line and is dominated by French-speakers.

Since there is such a harsh divide between the two communities, there has been a political crisis since 2007 in which the two dominant parties, which represent the Flemish and Walloons have not been able to make any decisions in parliament. This leaves Belgium with a provisional, caretaker government, that cannot change laws, only maintain the status quo. Belgium has set the world record for the amount of time without a government, surpassing the previous record set by Iraq in 2010.

When we traveled through Belgium, we noticed some of these differences. Even buying the tickets at the train station in Groningen, which is very far away, when we asked about going to the Walloon city of Liège, the attendant told us that we should call it Leuk. (the Dutch name) In Belgium, There seemed to be a disparity of resources across the dividing line, with the north being orderly and clean, and the south being less well-maintained, and with less order.

Some highlights were the food, architecture, and the opulence of Brussels, which is a very rich city and has a great number of palaces.

From a planning aspect, I would say that Belgium is very different according to its regions. Flanders, especially the flat areas, are very similar to the Netherlands. Brussels and the south are hilly and not as well suited for bicycling. The towns and cities themselves have a different style, especially considering the architecture of the churches. With no national government, cities and regions determine their own futures more than in the Netherlands, so I think that this contributes to the variation in forms and attitudes.

Liège was very chaotic, dark, and a little dirty. People asked us why we visited there, but I think that it was very authentic and charming. The buildings were close together, dark, and oppressive. However, below the people were happy and lively. Traffic sped past, but people dodged it, the scaffolding on the streets and made life what they wanted it to be.

Bruges was completely unlike Liège. Filled to the brim with tourists, and orderly and clean.

Brussels was the mix of both. At times touristy, at times orderly, but also pervasively it felt like there was an attitude of letting people do what they wanted and minding one’s own business to have fun.

I was so excited to see the Calatrava-designed train station in Liege!

Liege also had hills! We hadn’t seen hills in more than a month.

Bruges, sparkling clean.

Brussels, a mix of both, and a huge city.

Last weekend I visited The Hague (Den Haag, s’-Gravenhage, The Hedge) It was a very rainy day, and there were many delays on the train because of trackwork, fallen power lines, and a bad motor. The journey was long and somewhat tedious but the group of us from my international student house made it!

The city is where most/all of the Dutch national government’s offices are, but Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. Also, this is the city where the Dutch Royalty lives and works, so there are royal palaces here. The main attractions to the Hague are the government offices, the International Criminal Court, and the beach at Scheviningen. (There’s also a place with a 1:25 scale model of all the famous sites in the Netherlands! We didn’t go, but we wanted to!)

Het Binnenhof - Where parliament meets and the Kings of Holland were crowned.

What I noticed in the Hague was that there was a lot of modern redevelopment compared to Amsterdam or Utrecht. The center of the Hague has a lot of historic buildings surrounded by newer office or residential buildings and towers. Even the new towers at the train station are visible in this iconic picture from the Binnenhof. I usually scoff when people complain that a special view is being destroyed by some kind of development, but in this case I wonder if changing this iconic view of one of the most significant buildings in the Netherlands was really necessary.

Another difference is how much open space I noticed in the Hague. This could be left over from royalty, but there was a lot of park space and forest surrounding the city center that I noticed particularly when we walked to the beach.

The beach was pretty awesome! The big waves and cold water reminded me of Oregon or Washington, and I was shocked at how many people were out surfing! The weather was cold, wet, and windy, but these devoted people – many of them young surfing students – were out in wetsuits braving the elements!

In the Hague, we also enjoyed some delicious ethnic foods (Turkish and Indonesian) and I was surprised to see a Chinatown (that was pretty fake, but whatever!).

One of the highlights of the trip thus far has been going with my parents to the island of Schiermonnikoog. My parents visited for 10 days, and toured the country, partially with me!

Schiermonnikoog is an island is the Wadden Sea (a UNESCO world heritage site). The Wadden Sea is a shallow muddy sea, that straddles the line between water and land. When the tide goes out, it is possible to walk to Schiermonnikoog, but when the tide is in, you would have no idea that there was land so close to the surface.

The island is made of silt, pushed northward by the currents in the sea, that comes from the large rivers that drain in the south of the country, which means it moves and changes shape every year. There’s around 800 permanent residents on the island, and when we visited there were few tourists, because it was a weekday in late September (even though the weather was awesome!).

We opted for the ferry to the island, which is about an hour’s drive away from Groningen. The ride takes 45 minutes since the ferry has to zigzag around the muddy shallows in the Wadden Sea. Cars are very limited on the ferry, and tourists are not allowed to bring cars at all. Once you reach the ferry dock, you can rent a bike, which is more than enough to explore the whole island.

The island was very quiet, with a few cars and busses. Most of the island is a nature preserve, which can be explored by the web of bicycle trails. And, what is quite unique about the landscape on the island (for the Northern Netherlands) is that there are hills! The hills are really sand dunes, covered with vegetation, but they make biking without gears a little difficult!

The beach is also unlike any beach I’ve seen before. After riding our bikes to the parking area near the beach, we walked over a set of dunes towards the water, and found… a huge sandy plain.

Which was a nice place for lunch.

We stayed overnight and had a great time! The sand is so fine, and so sticky. I’m still getting it out of my clothes, bag, and shoes!

Thanks for visiting Mom and Dad!

Who wants to visit me next!!?! Got $850 you’re ready to spend on airfare? I’ve got a room and an extra bed!

Last weekend was my first trip to the biggest city in the Netherlands – Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is a very touristy place, but is rightfully so. It is a very pretty place to be, especially this last week since there has been such great weather here (75 degrees and sunny!).

We saw some of the major sites – the Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House, Red Light District, etc. But we stayed outside of the city center, which was very nice. I really liked exploring the Harlemmer and Jordaan neighborhoods.

The major differences I saw here were (compared to Groningen):

  • More people walking vs. Biking
  • Smaller streets with more bollards
  • More urbanized canals
  • Cheaper food
  • Greater range of ages
  • More cosmopolitan feel
  • Not as safe
  • More tourists/English/Souvenir Shops
  • 10x the Coffeeshops