Christmas in Haarlem for 2013 has already started; the streets are adorned with laces of Christmas lights and store windows decorated with festive Nativity scenes. On Sunday November 17, Sinterklaas and his black-faced helpers – the Zwarte Pieten – sailed by barge down the River Spaarne into Haarlem with much fanfare and celebration before parading on a white horse through the streets to check on the behavior of the city’s youngsters.
Cycling is big business in the Netherlands – there are 16 million bikes in the country and they have to go somewhere. The flat terrain provides a cyclist’s paradise with its flat horizons and hundreds of routes through arable farmland and tulip fields. Hundreds of way-marked cycling routes in the Netherlands cut across dykes, polders and canals, pass historic castles, seaside resorts, abbeys and windmills; they can be short, easy rides suitable for novices and families or they can constitute long-distance challenges for experienced cyclists.
The Netherlands in autumn sinks back into relative tranquillity after the madness of the summer. You might get a little more rain but the crowds have vanished, the trees turn prettily russet along the canals in Amsterdam and temperatures hover around a pleasant 58°F (14.5°C).
An easy half hour southwest from Amsterdam by public transport, Leiden has a glorious, car-free townscape of Gothic buildings, cobbled squares and canal-side cafés and bars sitting on a branch of the River Rhine. Once the center of the Dutch textile industry, today it is a vibrant university town – the university was founded in 1575 by William of Orange and is the oldest in The Netherlands – and there are many reasons to spend a day in Leiden.
Once an isolated community marooned on an island in the IJsselmeer north-east of Amsterdam, Marken relied on fishing for survival and developed its own distinct architecture, costume and even dialect. It wasn’t until 1957 that the Zeedijk causeway was built across the sea that the little settlement united with the Dutch mainland and became a national tourist attraction. Curious visitors flocked to the island to soak up its old-fashioned ambience and traditions.