Cycling through World War II History
Bucolic. Picturesque. Charming. Cliches, perhaps, but I have visited few places where these clichés are more appropriate.
In the summer of 2019 I visited the Netherlands via Tripsite’s “Holland – World War II Reflections” trip. For several days I pedaled through the beautiful countryside in southeastern Netherlands, near the border with Germany. It’s hard to believe that such a peaceful place was once (actually twice) the site of some of the fiercest fighting of World War II.
This region was the first line of defense in the invasion by the Germans in 1940. After several years of brutal occupation by Nazi forces, the Allies liberated the region in 1945 as they fought their way from the beaches of Normandy to Germany.
There were four of us on this trip, including our guide Martin, a local resident who grew up hearing stories about the conflict from his mother who lived through it all. Everyone in our group was in their 70s.
What I experienced as I glided through the pastoral countryside was probably the most effective blood pressure “medicine” I have ever taken -- enough exercise to raise my heart rate and burn off some calories plus scenery that would chill the most hyper Type A personalities restlessly pacing the corridors of power.
Our daily excursions of 30 miles, plus or minus, took us on mostly flat, dedicated bike paths on leafy tree-shaded lanes and country roads, along the tops of dikes overlooking canals and rivers, and through villages of red brick, ginger bread houses. The scenery was unremittingly serene, pristine, and tidy – fields of flowers; grand homes and castles; ponds, lakes, and rivers; and some of the healthiest farm animals I’ve ever seen.
The bucolic beauty belies a dark history. The first four days of the trip focused on the invasion in 1940, which took place in the area around the village of Amerongen. The village is near the Grebbeline, first constructed in 1745 as a line of defense against invading armies. The defense consisted of a vast low-lying area that could be flooded, backed up by classic trench fortifications. Unfortunately, the Grebbeline was not able to withstand the Germans’ modern artillery and bombs. The Dutch put up a valiant resistance, however, holding them off for five days, rather than the one day the Germans had expected.
Over 5000 Dutch soldiers and civilians lost their lives in those five days and many houses, barns, and villages were destroyed. The occupation added to the toll as Nazi sympathizers turned in their neighbors and had them shipped off to labor camps.
After four days in Amerongen, we transferred to Otterlo, a quiet, quaint town about a 40 minute taxi drive away. The history around Otterlo essentially completes the story of WWII in the region, adding the liberation by the allies in 1945 to the tragic history of invasion and occupation. This is the region where the Allies launched Operation Market Garden to take the bridges that were critical to the allied advance toward Germany. This is also the site of the book and movie, “A Bridge Too Far,” which tells the story of the ill-fated attempt to capture the final bridge at Arnhem. The Battle of Otterlo was the last big battle to take place in the Netherlands.
The cycling took us through forests, villages, and the city of Arnhem. There were more hills than in the first four days, so for this section of the trip, Martin advised me to opt for an e-bike, which provides battery-powered assistance on demand to help get up long, steep hills. It made all the difference in the world.
I had trained hard for this trip, going for 30+ miles rides 2-3 days a week on the beach bike path in Los Angeles. But if I hadn’t switched to the e-bike, I would have struggled trying to get up the few hills we did encounter in this, one of the flattest countries on earth.
I took the last couple of days off and explored the area around Otterlo on foot. Otterlo is located a short walk from the National Park De Hoge Veluwe, and there are many hiking trails in and around the park and town.
The excellent Kroller-Muller Museum and Sculpture Garden is in the heart of the park. The museum is spacious, filled with natural light and beautifully laid out. It also has a great collection, including many Van Goghs, second only to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The sculpture garden was the best I’ve ever seen, with miles of trails and almost two hundred impressive pieces scattered along the paths and embedded in the forest.
Probably the most important element in the success of the trip was Martin. His knowledge of the area ensured that we took the most scenic, historic, and safe routes each day, and his stories bought the history to life and added an important personal perspective to what we saw and experienced.
And a special shout-out to Hosea Libbey, the inventor of the e-bike. If it wasn’t for him, I might have spent way too much time puffing and grinding my way up gentle hills rather than enjoying scenery as bucolic, picturesque, and charming as it gets.