Loeverstein Castle and rural Netherlands (Gelderland and Noord Brabant, The Netherlands)

We have no plans so I search Google Maps for inspiration. It seems there are many castles in The Netherlands and a few are within easy drive of my uncle’s house. Slot Loeverstein (Loeverstein Castle) is open today (Boxing Day) and look suitably Medieval.
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My uncle decides to join us for the day both to show us the narrow back roads past the canals and because, despite living just 40 minutes away he has never been to the castle. I’m glad he joined us because he sure does know every byway in the area and we get to see some gorgeou riverscapes along the River Meuse that we would have missed on the highway.
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The castle is part of a network of protection that extended down the Rivers Meuse and Waal for centuries. While it started its existence as a private home, that didn’t last long because the original owner built it using stolen taxes. The government (King) of the day quickly caught on and stole the castle when the owner was away.
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The waterways that surround the castle are more than a mere moat. They are part of the waterlijn (water line) defence system that supplemented the castle fortifications. This unique method of defence was truly Dutch. Through this system the Dutch flooded the lands near the rivers to  about 1m deep block the passage of advancing armies. The system worked until WWII, which saw the introduction of military aircraft. It’s really quite ingenious. A part of me feels an extra touch of pride at my Dutch heritage after hearing this creativity.
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Inside the castle walls is one of the best interactive museums I have visited to date. Visitors receive an electronic key shaped like an old medieval one. Throughout the castle are slots where you insert the key and become part of the medieval and Napoleonic world. There’s a Napoleonic era bomb shelter where soldiers await the flooding of the plains. There’s the story of Hugo de Groot who was held prisoner here but escaped in a book box (he is the lawyer who came up with the basis of all maritime law relating to where countries end and the sea begins). And there’s many other stories to hear.
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My favourite thing about the castle are the interactive games. I wore a heavy helmet and carried a sword. I rode a children’s horse toy because I couldn’t walk on the stilts. I shot laser-fitted rifles at medieval targets with an audio track either congratulating or chastising me depending on my accuracy.

Castle interactivities are offered in Dutch, English and maybe also German and French.
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After a spot of hot chocolate and apple tart (the Dutch make it the best), we set off again for home. This time we followed the River Waal for a bit before switching back to the Meuse and on to the farmlands of Noord Brabant. We stopped to take photos along the way and take in the windmills and old buildings.
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We pass my Oma’s line dance gathering in Berkel-Enschot so stop in to take a peek. Oma has been line dancing for 22 years but this is the first time I’ve seen her 80+ year old dance feet in action. She clearly loves it as she trips across the dance floor, feet skipping along to the routines.
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The atmosphere is serious and concentrated. Club flags in American styling a hang from the ceiling around the dance floor. Men wear hats. Many are American civil war era military hats with gold rope and military insignia. The women who wear dresses look like dressed up versions of Annie Oakley or ladies I might expect to see on a Mississippi River Boat two centuries ago. There’s also other takes on America country culture too like t-shirts adorning Native American imagery and modern rodeo-inspired attire. It’s all a little unexpected here in modern Holland with its fashion-conscious European culture and strong medieval farming history. But the dancers must enjoy it because they keep coming back.

We end our day with dinner at my aunt’s house in Eindhoven. It’s fabulous to catch up and share a meal. By the time we return to my uncle’s house our eyes have fallen closed before our heads make it onto the pillow.

Christmas with Oma (Hilvarenbeek, Netherlands)

I walk immediately to the right side of the car to drive it. This awkward “wrong side of the road” faux pas never fails to amuse me. There’s nothing suave about that first dorky moment when you can’t work out how to change gear with the wrong hand, flick on the windscreen wipers instead of the indicators nor look the wrong way at the intersection. But we survive and hit the motorways of Holland to drive across the country for Christmas with my Oma (grandmother).
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We make good time on empty roads until I see the sign. It advertises a massive puntzak friet at the next service station. And that’s how we come to eat our first hot chips with mayonnaise and need croquettes of the trip. It’s just service station food but it’s presented so beautifully; not just slapped on a plate.
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We get a bit lost finding Oma’s house. A lap of tiny Hilvarenbeek ensues with its one way lanes and dead ends. But eventually we find the place and are entering the Christmas dinner preparation sanctum. Oma and my aunt from Portugal are cooking up a storm. As afternoon becomes evening more family arrive to fill Oma’s small home. It’s quite the gezelig feast with conversation, good food and laughter. There’s no gifts exchanged because that’s not part of the Dutch Christmas tradition: it’s all about connection and family.

After the long journey to be here we last until 7:30pm before we drive to my uncle and aunt’s home nearby and fall asleep almost instantly.

A productive day (Noord Brabant, The Netherlands)

The day has finally arrived. I am picking up the wheelchair bike I bought for Pedal Puddle Participate. It’s exciting to see the bike dismantled and packed into boxes. The guys at Roll-On Mobility in Hapert have been wonderful, meeting all my needs and requests.

Unfortunately, I get home and discover that the bike, as packaged, is just too heavy for my baggage allowance. I am flying Etihad Airways and booked my flight before 12 September 2015 so have a 30kg baggage allowance. For USD140 I can also buy one extra piece of up to 23kg. As packed, the three parcels we’ve picked up weigh 28kg, 4kg and 26kg. As you can see, this is not going to work. So my uncle and I set about dismantling the bike some more. Some puzzling later and we’ve managed to get the bike to fit into one bike box weighing 30.7kg and one other box measuring 90cm x 72cm x 43cm  (I’m allowd 90 x 70 x 45) weighing 22.8kg. I also have about 7kg of bike parts in my hand luggage, meaning I will be wearing pretty much all my clothes onto the plane to keep my carry on below 10kg (my laptop alone is 1kg). It’s a tight fit but that just means I am getting my luggage money worth.

It’s still bucketing down so I spend a few hours in the afternoon working. It feels good to be productive and the course I’m writing is interesting. My aunt asks me what my plans are for the evening given that my uncle is going to a fishing club meeting. “I might keep working a bit”, I say. “Or shall we go to another movie?” she asks. You don’t have to ask me twice. And that’s how I come to spend the night watching The Revanence. Have I mentioned that the movies in Holland have a ten minute break midway through? It’s good if you need to use the bathroom or buy a snack. I don’t need to do either so just sit back and relax.

Family, climbing and a movie (Tilburg, The Netherlands)

It’s my first full day back in Holland and the weather has turned foul. I was going to cycle to my uncle’s house about an hour from where I am staying (with another uncle and aunt). Thankfully my aunt offers to drop me off. As a migrant child, my family in Holland have been an ever present distant reality. I love the ones I know and always love to see them and hang out. Coffee soon turns to lunch as my uncle, aunt and I catch up on the years (almost 20) since we last spent time together. It’s a wonderful way to spend the morning.

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I’ve made an arrangement to climb with my cousin and a mate of his at the climbing wall in Tilburg. I first saw it almost two months ago but didn’t get a chance to climb then. I’ve been dreaming about the 20m indoor walls since first seeing them and, now, here I am.

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We start on the easy 10m wall with a 3+. It’s fantastic for a warm up and the three of us all scamper up like we’re climbing a ladder. A 4- is next and then a 4. We’re still on the 10m wall warming up. The 4 has a slight overhang but nothing to stress about. It feels fantastic to hit it strongly and make it through the slight overhand and get some confidence.

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We tackle a 4+ and a 5+ down on the 20m wall. Now I’m starting to feel like I’m getting a work out. My arms pump out as I climb the 20m 5+. I get up but it’s not pretty. I definitely could do with some work on my technique. My cousin’s mate gives me some pointers. I try them out upstairs back on the 10m wall on another 5+ climb. Now we’re talking.

I keep my hips close to the wall. I think about my moves more. I turn side on, rather than hanging spreadeagled on the wall. I see how these slight shifts of my body give me more options, they stop me from feeling like I am holding on to prevent the fall. Suddenly my arms aren’t pumping as much. I am feeling smoother and less like someone clutching for anything to hold. It’s wonderful.

We climb for just over three hours. I shower and eat dinner with my uncle and aunt at their house. We talk about the evening and decide on catching a movie. That’s the perfect way to end the day. My uncle likes action films so we watch 13 Hours: Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. It’s action packed and a good watch.

Today was pretty much a perfect day of family, physical challenge and story telling.

Riding, walking and eating with family (Hilvarenbeek, The Netherlands)

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It’ll be my grandmother’s birthday in a few days time but we’ll be in Poland already. Yesterday Paul and I stopped at this absolutely gorgeous shop called Piggys, which is just down the road from my grandmother’s house. While there, we found pretty cake mixes in jars, fancy herbal teas and beautifully wrapped chocolate. So today we started our day with a little private birthday party for my grandmother. We baked the cake in a cute heart shaped pan before eating and drinking the goodies. It’s quite special to be 36 years old and still able to celebrate your grandmother’s birthday.

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After the party Paul and I set off on the borrowed bikes to ride to my uncle and aunt’s house in a nearby village. Paul is doing well on the bike and soon I will need to train harder to keep up with him. Interestingly, it’s quite warm riding and soon we are both stripped down to long-sleeved t-shirts despite what would be considered a freezing cold day back home (it’s about 10’C). The landscape rolls by and we take in the contrasts between brown brick villages and flat green farmlands.

My uncle and aunt are active people who love the outdoors. I get to ride my uncle’s ebike, which is quite a treat because he’s quite handy with mechanical and electrical things. Before I know it I’m in top gear and flying along at 40kph without needing to put in much effort and without a hill or tailwind. I never quite understood the lure of ebikes until now. While I won’t be switching my tourer or fat bike for one yet, I can see the benefit of this style of riding. See, you can still get exercise because you still need to pedal but it extends the joy a person can have on a bike. Particularly for someone who lacks fitness or physical ability (due to age, infirmity or physical stature) to keep up with faster cycling friends.

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After my spin around the block on the ebike we head out for an evening walk through the woods to the Bokker Rijder restaurant. The walk is magnificent. The Dtuch woods are beautiful and alive, even in the winter. It’s silent but for our voices and footfalls but you can feel that under the fallen leaves there is life regenerating and waiting to come out in the spring.

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These mushrooms are proof of that.

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The walk to dinner takes a little over an hour with a stop at a big lookout. We eat pea soup, a popular Dutch dish. And then we walk home again through the same woods. It’s dark and muddy so at times we need to use our phone cameras. It’s also drizzling with rain and my jacket isn’t great in these conditions being goose down. But it’s also invigorating to be out walking in the woods at night as though it’ just normal. This is why the Dutch don’t have the obesity problem we have in Australia: they walk and cycle everywhere rather than relying solely on their cars. How many Australians (or Americans or Brits for that matter) would walk an hour through the woods to eat dinner and then walk home again? It’s not a criticism but a total lifestyle difference. One in which places are closer together and where active transport is considered normal not an oddity. That said, our distances are vast so it’s not always practical to cycle or walk to work or the shops, our weather hot and humid so it’s not always nice to arrive at a friend’s house hot and sweaty, and our urban design is focused on cars so you are often abused by motorists if you do overcome the first two obstacles to get on your bike. Interesting cultural differences.

Family and the woods (Hilvarenbeek, The Netherlands)

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It’s still only the second day of 2016 so I am feeling motivated to exercise first thing in the morning. I wake at a fairly reasonable hour to darkness outside. Esbeek is the next village out of Hilvarenbeek so I decide to make it my destination. I start with a spot of geographic embarrassment as I follow the road signs to the highway instead of the more useful cycling signs that would take me directly out of the village. But that’s okay because I can do with the extra exercise after eating far too many olibollen on New Year’s Eve. It takes me about an hour to reach the Esbeek church and photograph it’s steeple before walking back “home”.

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I don’t need a map to show me which way to walk. The steeples of the various churches are relatively easy to spot from a distance and are quite unique. I manage to find the church steeple in Hilvarenbeek easily and then walk north another kilometer to our B&B (I can highly recommend Bij Jans B&B if you are in the area).

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We visit my grandmother for coffee and then are picked up by one of my cousins to go to lunch. We drive in a two-car convoy with my uncle and cousin’s brother following us. Our destination is the Trappist Monastery and Brewery in Tilburg. The monks started brewing beer here in 1884 and still follow traditional recipes.

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The buildings themselves are exactly what I think of when I think of Dutch Catholicism. It’s sturdy and somber and somehow almost oppressive but beautiful all at once. The Trappist monks live a strict life of contemplation and only speak when necessary, if at all. I definitely could not be a Trappist monk.

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Silence, however, is not something that is encouraged in the restaurant. And it’s not something we even come close to practicing. After all, it’s been a long time since I sat at a table with my uncle and cousins all together at once. And it turns out my uncle is something of an expert in wheelchair bikes (more on that topic in a later post). I thoroughly enjoy our lunch, both the food and the company. Especially the company.

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Over lunch we discuss my interest in outdoor recreation for people with disabilities. It turns out that while my uncle is an expert on wheelchair bikes, my cousin works in the local government’s tourism and recreation office. Would you know it, their local government has built an amazing high ropes course in the woods that is fully wheelchair accessible. It’s not just a small little bit of token access for people who use wheelchairs but it’s built with people who use wheelchairs in mind. Seriously, you can even strap your wheelchair into the flying fox section of the ropes course and fly through the air. It’s absolutely wonderful to see that this is available here.

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After taking in the sights we head back to my cousin’s house and borrow some bikes. Paul hasn’t been on a bike since childhood but I have been threatening to get him into cycling since we met 18 months ago. And would you know it, apparently I ride too slowly for him.

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And then it was dark. Before we knew it we were sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen eating pancakes for dinner and chatting the night away. Paul drifted off to sleep listening to my grandmother and I speaking Dutch. I did translate some of the conversation but I was fatigued from switching between languages and Paul didn’t seem to mind drifting off with his eyes closed.