During the 2019 season we invited travel blogger Rachel Heller of travel blog Rachel’s Ruminations to join us on our Hansa Highlights Tour. Afterwards she wrote a wonderfully detailed account of her experience.

If you want to get a good idea of life on our tours then Rachel’s account will give you a very clear idea about it. (Note: it’s a long post!)

“One of the first people I met on my recent week-long trip with Boat Bike Tours was a retired Canadian man named Peter, who told me right off the bat that this was his third tour with the company. I took that as a good sign.

De Nassau, our home for the week during our Boat Bike Tour.

Along with my friend and fellow blogger, Shobha George of Just Go Places, I had agreed to this one-week trip with a bit of trepidation. I’m not at all physically fit, and the bicycling distances of about 45 kilometers per day sounded very long to me. Meeting Peter, this enthusiast who was over 70 years old, made me think that it couldn’t be too grueling.

I was only partially right. The rides weren’t grueling, but I used an e-bike, and I didn’t cycle every day of the trip. Peter and his son, who was traveling with him, cycled every day except one and used plain old bikes without motors.

We bicycled through lots of green farmland on our bike and barge trip.

Hanseatic cities tour

Boat Bike Tours runs a number of different tours covering different sights and routes. The one I took is called “Hansa Highlights.” The route starts and ends in Amsterdam, traveling in a circle around the center of the Netherlands through a number of Hanseatic cities and towns.

The Hanseatic League

The Hanseatic League, according to Wikipedia, was a “commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns” in the Middle Ages, originating in northern Germany. The cities and towns that were part of the Hanseatic League were scattered all over Northern Europe in Germany, the Baltic, the Netherlands and a few parts of Scandinavia.

As part of the Hanseatic League, cities and towns grew prosperous through cooperating, expanding and protecting their own and each other’s shipping and trade. The Hanseatic merchants established settlements in many of these towns, often living in their own communities rather than integrating into local society.

The Hanseatic cities traded in all sorts of goods: grain, cloth, and, here in the Netherlands, fish, especially eels and herring.

A view from the boat of one of the Hanseatic cities, Kampen.

Our Hanseatic cities tour

On our trip, we passed through nine different cities and towns that took part in the Hanseatic trade, if I counted correctly: Arnhem, Doesburg, Zutphen, Deventer, Hattem, Zwolle, Kampen, Elburg, and Harderwijk. Of this list, only Deventer and Kampen were fully-fledged Hanseatic cities (as was the town where I live, Groningen). The rest were just trading centers with a Hanseatic League presence in the form of a Hansa merchant community.

The draw of these towns today, though, is their beauty. Not all of them, mind you; Arnhem, for example, was largely destroyed in World War II, but is nevertheless worth visiting because of the dramatic battle that happened there in the war.

Many, though, have largely intact town cores of charming medieval-era houses and churches. I particularly enjoyed Hattem, Doesburg and Deventer for their beautiful streets and Harderwijk for its picturesque Vischmarkt, a town square, and its small harbor with traditional wooden fishing boats.

Water control and land reclamation

While it isn’t stated in the title of this particular tour, the route also covers a lot of history regarding Holland’s historical tendency to create new land whenever it is needed. I wrote about this many years ago as “Watery hubris.”

The advantage of a place where the weather is so changeable is that you often get to see rainbows.

Holland has been reclaiming land from the sea for centuries using dikes and pumps powered by windmills. Many of the towns we bicycled through or docked in on this trip used to be fishing harbor towns. That’s because they were on or near what used to be called the Zuiderzee, which means “southern sea” and was essentially the southern end of the North Sea.

The Zuiderzee doesn’t exist anymore. Back in the 1930s a huge dike was built across its mouth, turning the Zuiderzee into a freshwater lake, the Ijsselmeer, or Ijssel Lake. (The Ijssel is the river that feeds into it.)

While fishing boats could and still can leave the Ijsselmeer to the North Sea, the loss of the Zuiderzee was a heavy blow for the fishing industry. Ships no longer took their catch to these towns; the competition was too fierce from other ports.

Both water pumping and grain milling were done using windmills in the Netherlands. This one is in Deventer, on the opposite bank from where the boat moors.

The final death knell for these fishing towns was the building of a whole new province, called Flevoland, on land reclaimed from the Ijsselmeer. Between this huge piece of new land and what used to be the coastline of the Zuiderzee is a long, narrow lake, seeming more river-like than lake-like, called the Veluwemeer. Our route back toward Amsterdam was along this body of water.

Nowadays the fishing history of the towns we passed through is evidenced more in tradition than current fact. Several towns, particularly Harderwijk and Spakenburg (not a Hanseatic town), have a historical harbor with a picturesque collection of botters, a small, rounded sort of traditional wooden sailboat used for fishing.

Boat Bike Tour: Hansa Highlights

The routes for the Boat Bike Tours have clearly been carefully chosen. Much of the ride each day goes through flat green countryside with fields of crops, grazing cows or sheep, lakes, dikes, and scattered farmhouses. Often we rode along the tops of dikes which means a) big views and sometimes b) more exposure to the wind. Even coming into Amsterdam we rode almost the whole way in green spaces.

In order to do this, the route each day isn’t direct from point A, where guests get off the boat, to point B, where they board again. It meanders quite a bit to catch the best scenery. It would be a distinctly shorter, but often less scenic ride if you took the most direct route.

A pastoral view from the boat

In other words, the highlight of Hansa Highlights is the countryside.

Nevertheless, being the city person that I am, I particularly enjoyed some of the towns we passed through:

Arnhem

Arnhem is well-known for its World War II history. The battle portrayed in the movie “A Bridge Too Far” happened here. Not much of the old town remained after the war, but the cathedral and its tower have been rebuilt. The tower has an elevator, and a trip to the top is well worth doing. From there you can admire a view over the city and river, including the famous bridge. Informational panels point out landmarks from the Battle of Arnhem.

The John Frost Bridge in Arnhem, seen from the cathedral tower, with a bridge-shaped decal on the window in the foreground. As part of Operation Market Garden in September, 1944, the British 1st Airborne Division landed in Arnhem. Their goal was to retake this bridge over the Lower Rhine, an important supply route, but they were pushed back by the German forces. Almost 1200 1st Airborne fighters lost their lives.

Also in Arnhem is a museum dedicated to the battle, called the Airborne Museum. It’s a bit outside the center and I didn’t manage to visit it. I did visit its extension, the Airborne at the Bridge museum, which honors the British who gave their lives in this battle.

Another place worth visiting, also on the edge of Arnhem, is the Netherlands Open Air Museum. I visited it years ago with my kids; it’s full of lovely old houses, mostly farming-related, from a range of places and eras, as well as windmills and lots of other things to see.

Doesburg

Doesburg has the oldest café in the Netherlands, called De Waag and dating from 1478, as well as a charming town center with cobbled streets and pretty little houses. Even in the rain we enjoyed seeing Doesburg.”

This is a long story! If you’d like to continue reading Rachel’s review then please click the button to access the rest of the post (pictures included) on Rachel’s site.

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