NETHERLANDS

You have to adjust your expectations for the Netherlands. Unless you go for the Amsterdam 'scene', or manage to hook up with the 'wild men' of Netherlands motorcycling, you have to look forward to a quiet, calm time, without undue excitement. Although there are some very pretty villages, and Amsterdam is justly noted for its beauty, and there are some marvellous museums and art galleries, there's not a lot of spectacular scenery: in fact, most of the country is dead flat. This also rules out exciting, twisty roads to a large extent, though the wily Netherlanders sometimes stick some really sneaky curves in, apparently just for the hell of it.

The people are (mostly) extremely friendly and helpful, and many of them speak better English than some so-called native English speakers; but there's not a vast amount for them to help you with. The food is really rather dull, though the Indonesian-inspired rijstaffel is very good, and while the beer is perfectly drinkable (and indeed a lot better than anything mass-marketed in the United States), it doesn't exactly provide a reason to go to the country in its own right, unlike (say) Bavaria, Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic or Poland. Out in the countryside, they roll up the sidewalks at around nine o'clock: if you want dinner, you'd better be in the restaurant well before that. Oh: and it's quite expensive, too.

Perhaps the biggest attraction for many people -- the Unique Selling Point, in marketing jargon -- is the Scene in Amsterdam: the dope and the sex. If you're not into this, and you're not into museums, it doesn't look like there's a lot of reason to go.

And yet, somehow, the above description doesn't do the country justice. Despite what I've just said, it is a good place to visit; it's just hard to explain why. Part of it is the Dutch people, as already noted, and part of it is the rediscovery of very minor, simple pleasures such as enjoying a picnic by the side of the river, watching the barges go by, and throwing the crusts to the ducks.

There are also some excellent spas. To date, we have only tried one of them, at Arcen in the south-east, but there are apparently others. They are very much leisure-oriented, rather than making rather overblown 19th-century claims as cure-alls, and prices range from not too bad to agreeably low. As noted elsewhere on this site, there is nothing quite so pleasant after a long tour as a few hours in a spa, soaking out the saddle-soreness.

The official Netherlands tourist board has a good general website, www.visitholland.com, and the local tourist offices, the VVV, can point you unerringly in the direction of such modest attractions as may be available. They are very local, employing local people with a real knowledge of the area; at the last one we visited, the girl behind the counter (who spoke excellent English) telephoned a bed-and-breakfast to make a booking for us, and then, learning that we needed a laundromat (there wasn't one in the area) called a local camp-site and arranged for us to use their laundry, which was normally reserved for campers. You can't ask for better service than that.

Essentially, Holland is a soothing, calm place to visit (except perhaps Amsterdam). Whether you're just starting a long tour, and have flown in from the United States, or you're just finishing one, and want to relax, Holland has its charms after all. You wouldn't want to spend a long time there, at least not if your goal was motorcycle touring, but it's worth trying to fit in a day or two (or possibly three) somewhere in the tour.

In what follows, I don't always use the correct terms of 'The Netherlands' and 'Netherlanders', reverting instead to 'Holland' and 'Dutch'. If this offends any Netherlanders, I apologize; but they may smile when I say that 'Dutch' has very positive connotations for me. When I was a small boy, moping indoors on rainy days, my grandmother used to cheer me up by pointing to a patch of blue sky as soon as it appeared, and saying, "See that? Enough to make a pair of Dutchman's trousers!" And I'd cheer up.

For a map I normally just use the 1:1 000 000 (1cm = 10 km, 16 miles to the inch) Michelin Europe atlas, but you can supplement this with Michelin 531 and 532 (North and South Netherlands) at 1:200 000 (1cm = 2 km, 3 miles to the inch) or really detailed Falk maps at 1:50 000, 1cm = 500m or 1 inch = 0.8 miles -- though these are more appropriate for walkers, and you need a lot of them. Forty-two, in fact, to cover the whole country.

MOTORING AND MOTORCYCLISTS

Dutch drivers tend to be sober, calm, law-abiding people -- which may account for why there are so many 'wild men' (and wild women, too) in the Dutch motorcycling fraternity, in reaction to the overall orderliness and neatness of the country. But the imperturbable Dutch do not judge all motorcyclists by this standard: there doesn't seem to be quite the gutter press in Holland that there is in some countries, willing to tar everyone with the same brush. In fact, even the wilder Dutch motorcyclists (like wild motorcyclists anywhere) are generally more than civil to fellow riders; it's just the anti-motorcycle lobby, and excess conformity, that they do not like.

Helmets are required; so is a set of spare bulbs; but a first aid kit is not. I don't think daylight riding lights are compulsory, but everyone seems to use them anyway.

ROADS AND RIDING

Most Dutch roads are in excellent condition, as you might expect, and the majority are paralleled by bicycle tracks. There are no toll roads but there is a toll tunnel: Dordse Kil in the Biesboch region.

Trams always have priority except against priority (major) roads. Buses leaving a stop always have priority, and so (in the absence of other signs) do bicyclists when they are proceeding straight across a junction. Funerals and military convoys also have priority. Otherwise, it's the usual priority-to-the-right. Speed limits in built up areas are 50 km/h (31 mph); on the open road, 80 km/h (50 mph); and on motorways, depending on the signs, 100 or 120 km/h (62 or 74 mph). Look out for small yellow 100 km/h signs on urban expressways. There is also a minimum speed limit of 60 km/h (36 mph) on motorways.

The Dutch are a law-abiding race in general, and while some people (especially visiting Germans and Belgians) may habitually exceed the maximum limits by five to ten per cent (especially the 80 km/h on the open road), a good proportion of the population drive within, or at, the speed limit.

All overtaking manoeuvres must be signalled. No vehicle should be overtaken on the left unless it is unsafe to overtake on the right or there is no room on the right.

As far as I have been able to discover, 'No overtaking' signs legally do not apply to motorcyclists -- an entirely logical and delightful idea. Overtaking is therefore illegal only when it's dangerous or stupid. Which is as it should be.

Park on the sidewalk (pavement) as long as you don't cause an obstruction -- and as in France, 'obstruction' is reasonably generously interpreted, unless you are parked in a bike lane, which is an offence.

Otherwise, don't park where it's dangerous; where there are yellow lines; in bus lanes; on railway crossings; at crossroads; across exits; or on priority streets.

WHEN TO GO

Guess what: the climate has no real extremes. It can be very variable, and seldom stays the same for more than a very few days in a row, but you will seldom either bake or freeze. Yes, it can be a good deal colder in winter than Britain -- in a cold winter, miles of canals freeze, and impressive skating races are held on them -- but although average daily minima inland (at De Bilt) are below freezing from late December to early March, average daily maxima never fall below 13 degrees C, 40 degrees F. At the other extreme, average daily maxima exceed 20 degrees C, 68 degrees F, only in June, July and August. On the coast, Vliessingen is a degree or two warmer in winter and a degree or two cooler in summer.

Summer won't be too hot, therefore, and spring and autumn won't be too cold. It can rain any time, though, and frequently does: there is over 0.1mm of rain on an average of around 200 days a year right across the country, though (mercifully) spring and early summer are the driest months with rain only a little more often than one day in three and slightly lower rainfall than the rest of the year. The combination of lower temperatures and higher rainfall makes December, January and February quite unattractive, and you need to be lucky to get good weather in March or November.

It can be windy, though. Those windmills had to run on something. And they did.

PUBLIC HOLIDAYS

There is some confusion about these, as shops (and even banks and post offices) open on some of them. Only on the days asterisked below are all shops likely to be closed.

Christian holidays (movable feasts) observed as public holidays are

PRACTICALITIES AND PAPERS

If you ride in, you don't stop at the frontiers any more. In fact, you don't even slow down, on some of the roads. Flying in is much the same as flying in anywhere: long queues waiting to get your passport stamped, or at least glanced at, and that's it. The Netherlands is a Schengen Group member.

Carry the usual things: passport, driving licence, registration documents, proof of insurance, letter from the owner of the bike if it's borrowed. You also need to carry an MoT or other certificate of roadworthiness if your motorcycle is old enough to need one and if they are required in your home country.

Visas are not required for citizens of the majority of affluent countries but Australians apparently do need them.

EU licenses are fully acceptable, along with licences from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. Other licences are acceptable but can lead to delays as the police try to figure them out; International Driving Permits are therefore recommended (but not required), especially if your licence is not in English. Holland is as healthy as anywhere in Europe today. No special health precautions are required; the water is uniformly drinkable. There are reciprocal health agreements with many countries that have a national health service, including the whole of the EU and Cape Verde, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Yugoslavia (the Serbian/Montenegran rump).

For customs it's the EU standards but note the following restrictions on tea and coffee:

500 grammes coffee OR 200 grammes coffee extract

100 grammes tea OR 40 grammes tea extract.

VAT (Value Added Tax -- BTW in Dutch) is refundable on large purchases (over 137 euros -- including aggregated purchases in one shop, even if the individual items are below the limit) for non-EU residents flying out from Schiphol.

OPENING HOURS

Currency is the euro, as in most of the rest of the European Union. Hole-in-the-wall machines (autotellers) are widespread, and credit cards are widely though far from universally accepted: you will have a wider choice of places to eat if you have cash as well. Prices overall are on the high side, but still a good deal better for most things than England.

Shops are often closed on Monday mornings, opening from 1300 to 1800 in the afternoon. Then it's Tuesday to Saturday, 0900 to 1800, usually without a lunch break. On the first Sunday of the month, many stores are open from 1200 to 1700, and there may be late night shopping (until 2100) on Thursdays or Fridays. In the country especially, there may be an early closing day one afternoon a week. Banks are normally open from 0900 to 1600 Tuesday to Friday, 1300 to 1600 Monday, closed weekends -- but there are apparently variations from bank to bank and place to place.

Tipping is normally 10 per cent; lavatory (WC) attendants are normally tipped 10 or 20 euro-cents.

FUEL, OIL AND REPAIRS

Petrol in all the usual grades, plus lead replacement petrol, is widely available all over the country in stations that all seem to take credit cards (I've yet to come across one that doesn't). On the negative side, prices are at the upper end of the normal European range: I try to fill up before I get to Holland. There are not many discount petrol stations and the discounts are tiny anyway. Oil is expensive at filling stations and somewhat cheaper in supermarkets.

There are a lot of enthusiastic motorcyclists in the Netherlands and as I understand it, they are well catered for by good mechanics. As repeatedly noted, though, repair prices may be higher than you expect. I have to add that this is hearsay: the last time I had problems in Holland I brought the bike back to the UK (it was just rideable), but the mechanics I dealt with in the Netherlands were very helpful, spoke excellent English, and didn't charge me very much. So maybe prices aren't too bad after all.

MOTORCYCLE HIRE

The only motorcycle hire company I could find was Motopoint, booked via www.euro2scots.com. They charge a base rate plus insurance (per day) plus daily rental for panniers, helmets... From their rather confusing price schedule it looked as if a mid-range (600cc) tourer should cost around US $500 a week with panniers and insurance.

POLICE, ACCIDENTS AND EMERGENCIES

The Dutch police have a curiously mixed reputation: stolid, serious and polite, but with the ability to turn very nasty, very quickly. Be polite to them, and you should have no problems. Otherwise, you very probably will.

Call the police in case of injury; or for major accidents; or if you and the other party cannot agree what happened. If things look as if they are likely to turn awkward, do not move the vehicles before the police arrive.

Call 112 for all emergency services.

For breakdowns the ANWB (Royal Dutch Automobile Club) patrols all major roads and can be called from the yellow phone booths which can be seen quite frequently throughout the country. The (toll free) number is 0800 08 88; non toll free, 070 314 7147.

As far as I am aware, members of affiliated clubs get reciprocal service (check with whatever club/s you belong to) and you can join temporarily when you visit the country. Assistance is however chargeable. Their site, www.anwb.nl is only in Dutch; their address is Postbus 93200, 2509 XB, The Hague (Den Haag).

There is also a Royal Dutch Motorcycle Club, the Koniklije Nederlandse Vereniging, www.knmv.nl, but again their site is only in Dutch.

FOOD

Dutch food has already been remarked upon in the introduction: it is not really a country where anyone goes just for the food. I've had one or two really awful meals in the Netherlands (generally when I've left it so late that I've had to go to a pizza joint or the like); one or two quite good rijstaffels (though to be honest, I've found the majority of them rather bland as compared with real Indonesian food); and a number of totally unmemorable meals.

DRINK

Don't order draught beer in the Netherlands unless you want three-quarters of a glass of foam: bottled beer is a much better bet. Maybe I've just been unlucky, but if so, I have been consistently unlucky. Prices are on the high side of average but still cheaper than the UK.

Wine is cheaper than it used to be -- a benefit of the European Union -- but it's still quite expensive, except perhaps by British standards.

Dutch gin -- 'Genever', and they invented the stuff -- is something of an acquired taste. It doesn't taste much like British-style gins, but if you do like it (and I do, quite) then it's worth drinking. I can't get excited about their other schnappses though.

An interesting custom is the 'borrel', a drink taken at 1700 precisely, whether a glass of beer, a tot of gin, or a glass of sherry.

The blood alcohol limit is 50 mg/100ml (0.050 per cent).

ACCOMMODATION

Once again, prices are on the high side of average for the EU, though they are not disastrous. Out in the country, you should be able to find somewhere to stay for 50 euros or so, with private bath and WC, and because it's the Netherlands, wherever you stay will be spotless and the breakfast (which is almost invariably included in the price) will be something between good and excellent. Actually, take away the cost of the breakfast (which may be substantial enough to allow you to skip lunch) and accommodation in the Netherlands is pretty good value.

In Amsterdam, the more expensive hotels are seriously expensive, and the ultra-cheap 'crash' accommodation is likely to be too basic for the tastes of many. Mid-range hotels are often in wonderfully picturesque buildings without lifts; carting your luggage up very steep, very narrow stairs can be wearing.

Dutch youth hostels are on the expensive side -- often over 20 euros for a dormitory room, though there are reductions for members -- but on the bright side, breakfast is normally included in the price. Double or family rooms with shared facilities are often more expensive than bed-and-breakfast or cheap hotels. The Nederlandse Jeugendherbe Centrale (the youth hostel organization) has since January 2003 been known as Stayokay and can be found at www.stayokay.com. There are campsites all over Holland, mostly with excellent facilities. Some are for motorcyclists only; find out about these at www.cellardwellers.co.uk. Camping on private land is legal if you have the land-owner's permission; public land is a bit more problematical, and in the flat Dutch landscape a tent counts as a geographical feature.

Sleeping rough is legal but the police may wake you if you're in an unusually public place, or if they're feeling bored.

LANGUAGE AND ROAD SIGNS

Dutch looks to an Englishman like bad German; to a German, it looks like bad English (or possibly bad German). Awkward to look at, it is surprisingly mellifluous when spoken, though the sounds are sometimes a surprise. For example the well-known cheese, Gouda, loses both the G and the d to become something like 'Hhoo-uh'.

Except for the sake of politeness, or deep in the country, there is really no need to speak Dutch because so many Dutch people speak such excellent English. Many speak excellent French or German or both, as well, so if you speak any of the major languages of northern and western Europe, you should have no great difficulty.

The road-signs listed below will often be supplemented by international pictorial signs but they are still worth knowing.

CAPSULE VOCABULARY