If asked to describe the Netherlands in one word, many people would say “tulips” or “windmills.” Until recently, I would have been one of them. But no longer. Following a recent trip to the birthplace of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Vermeer, the word that epitomizes the Netherlands for me is “bicycles.”
They are, literally, everywhere. You can’t walk out a door in any Dutch town or city—at least not those I visited—without seeing a bicycle…or two…or twenty. Seriously. In Amsterdam, alone, there are some 850,000 bicycles of all shapes, colors, and condition. And despite the fact that 10,000 to 15,000 bicycles are dredged from the city’s many canals every year, that means there are still some 100,000 more bikes than there are people.
Bicycles aren’t just a form of entertainment and exercise in the Netherlands; they are a—in some areas, the—major mode of transportation. From youngsters to suit-clad commuters to retired senior citizens, the Dutch pedal to school, offices, shops, restaurants, and pretty much everywhere else. Toddlers ride in front of or in back of parents, or in special cargo bikes called bakfiets. Bicycles are used to transport people, pets, and purchases of all kinds…even large ones like Christmas trees. And unlike the racing bikes familiar to U.S residents, these are old-style bicycles with comfortable seats and handlebars that allow riders to sit upright rather than hunched over and contorted.
The sheer number of bicycles can be overwhelming—and even intimidating—to tourists. Just ask my sister, who experienced her own “close encounter” with a cyclist. Serious accidents, however, are relatively rare, thanks to clearly designated lanes for motorized vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians, and traffic safety education that begins in elementary schools. Perhaps that’s why almost no one wears a helmet.
And while designated parking places are obviously inadequate, th
e plethora of bikes parked in front of buildings and along canals makes for attractive—and quintessentially Dutch—photographs.
I have a bracelet featuring charms from memorable trips I’ve taken, and I had planned to purchase a little gold windmill to commemorate my Netherlands visit. Upon reflection, however, I think I’ll get a bike.
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