Stephanie Bilen crossed the North Sea to sample a Dutch winter and had a long wait for a pancake.

The Dutch have made a winner out ofwinter. While the British lament car trouble and the death ofshoes turned slush puppies. the Dutch don skates and hit the canals.

Holland isn‘t all sun—drenched tulip fields. as I discovered in February. But the bleak midwinter finds it just as colourful, not least because each year several thousand skaters try to inspire twentieth century artists to the Christmas-card wizardry of their painter ancestors: they even skate in front ofwindmills.

Going home. they take the next straightest route the bicycle lane. Suprisingly wide (considering the narrowness of the roads). these lanes flatly rc‘f‘Use to break course. unless it is to right-angle across the road in defiance of passing motorists. Word has it that knocking down a cyclist in Holland is like killing ten policemen in Britain. All of which should make you justifiably nervous about motoring in your holiday Holland. especially when I tell you that once off the boat. you‘ll see a good many more bicycle warnings than signs telling you where to go.

If you head north and avoid signs for L'trecht. clearly marked for treaty delegates. you may chance upon Noordwijk. considerably more attractive than my Noord Acton address in London. l’icturesquely tree-lined (actually the trees are in the middle ofthe road). Noordwijk's low-lying high street contains two hotels. one being the Royal which surprised us with a breakfast which made you wonder why anyone should bother to emulate the French in this respect. This was the great British breakfast with a difference eggs and bacon. but the egg boiled and the bacon wafer thin and presented raw with the ceremony of smoked salmon. Three different types of bread from nutty brown to currant adorned a table also laden with strong Dutch gouda cheese. stronger Dutch coffee and a selection of jams and spreads. plus fruitjuice. You could say they had laid out the red carpet for us. In fact it sat thicky and hairily on the table. as is the Dutch wont.

We could learn a thing or two from Holland‘s interior decor. The Persian table in a hotel or cafe will also boast pot plants like poinsettia. or spring flowers. like tulips. and. to cater for eyes tired by Holland‘s post gin-and-tonic outside brightness. candles throw mysterious light on lost patterns in the carpet. In less salubrious eating places. the carpet is the first to go. but the plants remain. On the wall you may spot. as we did

at Noordwijk's sport centre cafe. a portrait photograph of the Dutch queen together with a dazzling

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display of nationalistic kiiickknacks —r clogs. windmills. china and Heineken mirrors.

Dutch bars are open all day and offer alcohol all day. lt is easy to lose your self—coiiseitiusiiess about drinking at breakfast when you hit upon the varieties of laced hot drinks that this country provides as part of its civilising effect on winter. Black coffee is laced with cognac. Warm chocolate (note the mellow Dutch alternative) is laced with slagrooni. which may look like cream. but must be alcoholic to taste that decadent.

lii Amsterdam. the bars become brown. which means slightly diiigier than elsewhere in this relentlessly tidy country. We found a transcendental bar. A long—haired American with a Dutch accent talked extensively about the meaning of life to the barman. ‘What

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Above: Trams in Amsterdam. Below: |ce hockey in Delft.

are we when you consider the vastness of the universe'.’ We think we are sick in the head so our body tells us we are sick. What is sickness in the body compared to . . .‘ “The vastness of the universe?” we wondered as we listened and adlibbed on the reason for an hour‘s wait for a pancake. What is time . . . 'l'he perfectionist cook meanwhile threw dozens of burnt pancakes in the bin as she sought the ultimate in frying pan experience. What‘s a burnt pancake. we wondered as Van (iogh beckoned and the sunflowers looked about as likely as a field of waving tulips. We got there. no signposts of course. and in the Van (iogh museum. the sudden culture shock of no plants. no carpets. only white walls. threw into spectacular relief the vital colours and chunky slabs of paint ofthe artists works. Am I alone in this world in preferring the sunflowers and watcrsnip (snipe) that feature on Holland‘s paper currency.

That these should be considered powerful enough to be everyday images for a nation. is a tribute to the outdoor consciousness ofthe people. Tough old fashioned bikes.too heavy to think of climbing hills. go

l everywher

e else instead. At Noordwijk's coast cyclists race strange Dutch wolfhound on miles of white beach. Just fiftymilesupthe coast the island ofTexel surprises I dedicated foreign naturalists by being inhabited. Undeterred by I

frozen harbours and unsightly sea dykes that defy invasion by the elements. the Dutch build houses that are more comfortable than ever. Worth remembering as you peruse the Arctic wasteland full ofice and birds. that Texel is about parallel with Sheffield. The Dutch. unlike the British. can enjoy the cold. because they start the day with something more than nuts and berries. and end it in warm houses with efficient heating systems. Taking the guidebook‘s suggested stroll at a gallop. we explored Delft at six o‘clock on a Sunday evening in February. The revels were just beginning. there was an ordinary looking house with parties and what looked like old-style music hall acts refreshing more parts than even the cans of Heineken could reach. Tripping across every canal bridge was a parade of madly dressed. singing. and in mind probably flying. Dutchmen and women. They looked as ifthey had been in transit from one welcomingiiiterior to another. and as we passed a hundred lighted. uncurtained windows revealing candle—lit tables with food spread on carpets. it was hard to resist the impression that the lace framing the window was not some Dutch yellow ribbon to welcome us in.

I have taken away very few souvenirs from Holland but many surreal and authentic memories - wolihound dogshit on spotless pavements. my friend at the European Space Agency jogging along Noordwijk beach in his lunch-hours. a mother taking a break from the shopping to pull her child along on a sledge. Delft. famed for its blue china and tiles. is immortalised for me in some real souvenirs. two blue and white tiles featuring 17th century Dutch children at play. and a small tub of hand cream called Winter Cream. That and the spirit ofHolland just about vanished my winter worries away.


0 Air lzdinburgli Amsterdam 1' l .6 return. (ilasgow Amsterdam £135 return. l.ondon ~ .-\iiisterd.iiii £5" return ('l'ransalpino. students under 3o).

0 Road By car I lull Rotteidaiii ('ar £72 return. each passenger £58 return. Various cabins and couchettes alsoayailable.

0 Rail lidinburgh r llarwicli 7 Hook of l lolland Amsterdam L‘lti return or 5-day excursion {Sb return.

0 Transalpino Weekend Packages All from l.oiidoii. lilight ' 3 nights in budget hotel Ll loSll. l’light ~7 I iiightsiiigoodhotel£15555. ('oacli Ship ~ 2 nights in budget

hotel L475”. ('oach Ship 0 3 nights

in good hotel Lift—“.25.