· bike ·

I'd never been to Holland before, but I'm sure I'll go again after a week there for a conference and other work business. The people are very friendly and generally laid-back, the towns are pretty and there seem to be quite a lot of nice open spaces, parks and woodlands. But the best two things about Holland are the trains and the cycling environment.

We travelled on the train a few times, and apart from one journey where the carriages were over-full and we had to stand, the service was wonderful. You can easily buy tickets from the machines, the information at the stations is very clear, and — most importantly — the trains are punctual. We had the novel experience when making a connection of finding that our train was not only timed to meet the connecting service, but that the trains were on adjacent platforms. The pricing structure is also admirably simple, with only a couple of types of tickets, rather than the incomprehensible mess of Super-Advance-Third-Wednesday-in-Lent-Only tickets we have here.

And the bikes! Of course, I knew that the Netherlands was a cycling Utopia, but actually experiencing it is something else. Unfortunately, the schedule (and our finances) didn't allow for hiring bikes, but I was gazing adoringly at the lovely, upright, laid back machines gliding by. What I love about Dutch cycling is that it is taken as something absolutely normal and unremarkable. Cyclists there would think that you were a bit weird if you wore special clothes or — heavens! — a helmet, unless you were an actual, in-training racing cyclist.

Everyone, from little kids to elderly people, cycles. There are dedicated cycle paths on either side of almost every road, and everyone else has to give way to the bikes. The bikes themselves are very comfortable with full mudguards, lights and racks as standard equipment, and encourage a stately, gentle progress so that you don't work up a sweat. When it rained, cyclists unfurled umbrellas rather than donning waterproofs, and I saw couples holding hands as they cycled side-by-side. Parents also held the hands of their younger children as they crossed junctions together on their bikes, which struck me as very sensible and rather sweet. People sit upright, looking around them and beaming at passers-by. Wonderful.

Of course, the flat terrain helps a lot: it's much more difficult to look nonchalant and carefree while puffing up a 1:4 gradient, but the culture is completely different. The next time I visit, I'm definitely going to hire a bike next time I visit, and try to hold on to that carefree spirit when I'm dodging cars, dogs and broken glass on my daily commute.