(Mark and Vicki spent 33 months RVing in Europe from 2009-2013 in a US Roadtrek Adventurous Sprinter camper. They are back for more travels having purchased a European 2001 Fiat Rotec in Amsterdam.)
Before I start, just a few words about free camping in the Netherlands. There are some campingplaz (aires), a few are free but some at marinas and such charge up to 20E a night. There were rest areas along the main A roads that did not have no camping or parking overnight signs. Near cities and tourist sites every parking lot was marked “no overnight stays.” We have been told that it is illegal to just sleep in your camper. The good news is that in the off season using the ACSI discount card we averaged only about 18-20E a night with taxes and electricity—so really very reasonable while the dollar is strong. The Euro is about $1.13 during this time period and diesel about 1.32E per liter. The campgrounds are invariably clean and quiet, too.
We landed May 19 at Schipol and were picked up by Rene from BW Campers in our Rotec camper. We drove back to his place about 10 miles away where he went over the camper with us and we signed the paperwork. The next ten days are almost a blur now—3 trips to Kampeer Perfect (a Dutch Camping World type store), 3 trips to Ikea, 3 to the grocery, and stops at hardware, and other miscellaneous stores. Unfortunately, the Netherlands has no Walmart or Carefour type all-in-one cheap shopping destinations. We had brought 3 checked bags from the States toting over some of the things we knew would be difficult to find and spares that we didn't want to buy again. Amsterdam is a great place to start a European adventure as everyone speaks wonderful English—unlike say France, where the clerk in a hardware store can't; or won't. ( We later found that Blockker had a much greater variety and cheaper prices than anyone but Ikea.) Then we met up with Kathy and Rick Howe and spent the day with them while they had maintenance work done on their camper. As always, we had a great time. During all this time we stayed at Camping Amsterdamse Bos which is near Schipol Airport and only 16 E a night with the ACSI discount card we purchased along with our camper.
After bidding adieu to Rick and Kathy, we headed to Gaaspar Campground about 10 miles away on the southeastern side of Amsterdam. Though slightly more expensive-18E—with discount card, it is much more convenient for seeing Amsterdam. At Bos you either had to walk 2 miles to the metro or take the 5E one way bus—a ridiculous 16E round trip per person to get into Amsterdam. At Gaasper it is a two block walk to the metro. We decided to take things really easy and revisit Amsterdam over four days purchasing the 4 day transit pass for 21E. We also bought the 59E Museumkaart which allows free entrance to 400 museums all over the Netherlands for a year. Mark and I love museums and with this pass we could also split up our visits, as you can visit each museum as often as you like.
As usual in my write-ups, I will concentrate on the practical side. Mark's blog at roadeveron.blogspot.com has all the impractical details, with photos. Rather than go day to day in Amsterdam, I will just note some details that might make it easier for you. By the way, usually in May and June campgrounds around Amsterdam wouldn't need reservations. But watch out for Whit Monday as that is a 3-day weekend in most of Europe and as crowded as Memorial Day weekend in the States. Also when we checked into Gaaspar they told us that we could only stay 5 nights as they were sold out beginning June 4 for the weekend—apparently a big music festival at their campground—though we could find nothing about it online.
When you go to the Rijksmuseum, try to check your bag at the lockers instead of the bag check, to avoid the long lines. Our pass allowed us to skip the hour or more wait to buy tickets and walk right in. There is also a picnic area unlike most museums, so you could consider bringing along your lunch.
With our pass we visited a lot of lesser known sites: the Royal Palace (blah compared to other palaces in Europe), the New Church—nothing to see really, the Amsterdam City museum—only if on your pass, the Willet's canal house—the rich upper middle class but only okay, and the Hermitage museum. The Hermitage is unique in that the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg decided they had so many things that they couldn't ever display them all, so they decided to open branch museums. The current exhibition was on Napoleon, Josephine, and Alexander I. I learned or relearned a lot about Napoleon, and we enjoyed the exhibit along with a second exhibit of Dutch group portraits. Next winter the Napoleon exhibit will be replaced with Spanish art. So check on what is being exhibited before you go.
Our last day in Amsterdam we had lunch at Sami Sebo where we had the small ristafel—two flavored rice dishes along with 4 meat samplers, several vegetables and a half fried banana. A ristafel is a sampling of dishes from Indonesia which of course, was once “owned” by the Netherlands. The last time (1979) we had the whole nine yards and it was so spicy I almost choked to death on my first bite. I think they have toned it down now for tourists and the spicy sauces were served on the side to add as you like. Safer, but not near as much fun. After lunch it was off to the Van Gogh Museum where we waited about 40 minutes even with the Museumkaart. The only people who got in quickly had timed tickets. The museum was packed—you had to wait a considerable time to see each picture so it is a good thing they don't allow photos and that the museum is small. Definitely go early or late for this one, two to three hours inside is plenty.
After four days of touring we decided on an admin day to wash, catch up on the internet, and come close to finishing our own touches in the camper. Then off to northern Holland with a first stop at the island of Markin. (now a peninsula) We parked at the third parking pull-off on the peninsula which turns out to be about 2 miles from town whether you take the footpath along the dike or the path by the road. Bikes would be great here. Parking in the lot at the edge of town is the only other option. 5E for 2 persons. Camping cars may unofficially spend the night for 12E as long as they leave by 9am. It may be that the 12E is also the charge for daytime parking for campers—the attendant's English was not as good as most Dutch and she was in a lousy mood. We really enjoyed Markin and especially the little museum and slide show. Lunch was pancakes for me and the fried catch of the day for Mark down at the harbor. Somewhat pricey, but this is a tourist town. A local warned us that on weekends it is a complete madhouse. Europe seems especially crowded this year—maybe because of the terrific exchange rate for Americans and Brits, and maybe because the Europeans can't afford to take their Euros elsewhere. Leaving Markin we noticed a picnic area by the dike at N52.43761 E5.07034 without a no camping sign.
Next stop was Edam—sweet little town worth a couple of hours of walking around. Don't however, follow the signs to the camper parking unless you want a really long walk. We parked at the Multimate across the highway from the old town. We left Edam headed for Alkmaar and noticed a group of camping cars parked for the night near a dike a few miles north of town. This spot was not marked in our ACSI combined camping card & camperstop book. Next time we will order the real Camperstop book from Vicarious Books in England and just get the cheaper ACSI discount card book.
It was Friday and we decided to head for Alkmaar to the famous cheese auction. Parked at an inexpensive lot just on the other side of the canal/river from the old town with lots of room—N52.63743, E4.75162. Signed no overnight parking. The cheese auction was not worth the wait—you could arrive at 10:30 and get a good view and not really have missed anything instead of getting there at 9:15 to wait for 45 minutes. What we enjoyed most was just walking around the town where all the market stands were open and lots of pedestrian friendly shopping streets. Nothing spectacular but a fun, festive atmosphere. We ate lunch from the various market stalls—herring, fries, tiny pancakes, and my happy discovery—olie bollen in a stall by the church. These are deep fried round balls of sweet dough with fillings. The last one I had was at the Leon County Fair in Tallahassee in about 1969. I knew they were Dutch but in all our trips to the Netherlands had never seen them for sale. Heaven!
We contemplated going to Hoorne but decided to head over the dike and further north to Schokland. This is a World Heritage Site and though small, extremely interesting. It was an island for centuries and had to be abandoned in the mid 1800s because of rising water. After the dikes were built in the 1930s it was surrounded by dry land. A movie available in English tells the whole story. The small museum contains lots of interesting finds including a prehistoric canoe, a giant ice age bear skeleton and lots of mammoth bones. Really neat to run your hand over those ancient molars. Together with Markin you get a really good picture of what life was like fighting the sea on a daily basis. Though we stayed at deVoorst campground the night before, it looked very possible to stay in the parking lot at Schokland. It is screened from the road, far from any residential area, and there were no “no camping” signs.
Though places look far on the map, when you start driving you realize how tiny the Netherlands is. From Schokland we drove an hour or so to Otterlo which sits at the edge of De Hoge Veluwe National Park. We camped at an ACSI discount park near Otterlo, Beek en Hei. If your vehicle is over 3.2 meters high you can only enter the park through the Otterlo entrance. The park charges 8.8E per person per day and you must either park at the gate for 3E or pay 6.5E to park inside. There are 1500 free bikes to ride to the Kroller-Muller Art Museum and to explore the park. The museum was free with our Museumkaart but otherwise about 8E. KM has the second largest Van Gogh collection in the world—about 79 works on display. And even though we visited on a Sunday it wasn't crowded. The collection also includes Monet, Seurat, Picasso and lots and lots of Mondriaan among others. Another plus is that you can get really close to the pictures—no setback bars or cables at all and they allow photos. The huge sculpture garden is also a treat with 160 sculptures by the likes of Rodin, Moore and van Lieshout. We spent over 4 hours there and did not do the entire garden. We also didn't visit the nature museum and only drove by the Kroller-Muller summer house (a huge mansion complete with tower). There is really a lot to see here and if you really want to see it all you will need two days. We loved driving around Otterlo—whose theme is “Van Gogh Lives Here.” Nearly every home and business has giant copies of his paintings in their yards, along with every kind of sculptured sunflower and even a giant Potato Eaters with holes cut for you to put your head through. Quite fun and imaginative.
Kathy and Rick Howe had recommended the moated town of Naarden. It lies just east of Amsterdam and we stayed at the Jachthaven Naarden marina, about a 1.5 mile walk to town, but they also rent bikes. The marina was gorgeous with store, restaurant, nice bathrooms and totally unbelievable—a free dishwasher! We have stayed in a host of campgrounds and marinas but this was a first. 15E plus tax a night. You could also drive to Naarden Vesting (old town) and park right at the moat. No signs about overnighting there. We arrived on a Monday so a lot of stores and the fortification museum was closed, so we actually spent two nights. It was our 47th wedding anniversary and we had a lovely dinner at Restaurant Fine. The old town has several well reviewed restaurants including the one at the Arsenal that is listed in the Michelin red guide. The town has been walled and moated since the 1400s but in the 1600s a double moat and fortress with tunnels etc. was installed—almost all of which remains. In addition the church is amazing with a tall, wooden barrel vaulted ceiling with 23 paintings dating from the 1500s. Several of which are based on Durer woodcuts. Bring your binoculars. This is a lovely town for strolling and quite affluent—one block sported several Porsches, BMWs, and a Ferrai parked with its top down. I can imagine almost no where where one could safely park on a city street like that.
One of our top priorities was a visit to Haarlem. We spent the night at Camping den Lieden that I found on the internet. Very close to the city if you have or want to rent a bike. We opted to take the bus from Ikea for 2.3E. Next to Ikea (pronounced ickea in Europe) is also a park and ride lot and a bus stop that is far more frequent than the stop in front of the store. You could also cross the pedestrian bridge to the train station if you want to go to Amsterdam and also further along another park and ride and large bus stop. Neither park and ride had signs forbidding overnight parking. But again, overnight parking is officially not allowed in the Netherlands. The campground we stayed at only had a few overnight spots and no discount so with internet it was 23E for one night. Haarlem has a terrific church (cathedral) with one of the largest organs in the world—entrance 2.5E. But a large part of what was terrific for us was that the organist was practicing while we were there. With our museum pass we also went to the Teyler Museum. Not so great unless you are a fan of old scientific instruments and early collections of fossils. We went back another day to visit the Frans Hals museum which was very good with a free audio guide. Be sure to watch the introductory slide show. This was a Sunday so we attempted to find street parking which was free on Sunday. Lots of one way streets and u turns later we ended up parking 2 miles from the museum, near the windmill. It was 2 miles because we decided to follow the canal and managed also to get lost. Coming back we headed straight to the center on a lovely pedestrian shopping street, stopped at the great fry shop before the cathedral, and Mark managed to get to the herring stand on the square before it closed.
At this point Mark's pulled chest muscle was really acting up so we spent four nights at Amsterdamse Bos campground catching up and doing nothing. We had ordered a refillable LPG bottle to replace one of our German ones so we could get propane in France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, England, etc. (see my article on buying a European camper.) It had arrived from Germany and Rene at BW Campers installed it for us in less than two hours. We still wanted to add a solar panel so we drove to De Jong Kampercentrum in De Zilk. A huge store with more motorhome type things than Kamper Perfect had. Solar panels were on sale but had to be ordered and would be there in two days. We opted for the 140 watt as we only have a 100 amp hour coach battery and pretty low electric needs.
So off to Den Haag and Rotterdam. We first tried a campground near the coast but it was connected to an amusement park and they wanted 35E for a night. The roads were tiny and a nightmare but we fought our way through to Poeldijk to an aire (low cost camper parking spot N 52.02449 E 4.21353) At 5E a night and free wifi, it was great and electric was also available for 2E. The next day we took a combination of bus and tram into Den Haag for a ridiculous 7.70E each way. But we would have had to pay for parking and found it had we driven. The Mauritshuis Museum has been closed for the last few years and we wanted to see their three Vermeer's, the Steens, and the Rembrandts. It was just added to the Museumkaart so that saved us 14E we hadn't expected. A great small museum with its showpiece Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. We had actually seen the painting when it was on tour in San Francisco two years ago, but this was so much better. In San Francisco it was mobbed and roped off so you were about 5 or 6 feet away. Here no more than one or two people were looking at it at a time and the small wooden railing kept you back about 2 feet or so—what a difference. The audio guide was also a free download.
The next day bus 36 headed off to Schiedam for the same 4.20E where we took the train into Rotterdam. The tram also goes from there. In order to take the train we had to by the OVI Chipcard but then we could get an all day city transportation pass for over age 65 for only 3.75E. We should have bought the chipcard in Amsterdam on our first day! It is good for 5 years and can be reloaded with cash or chip and pin credit card. We did the Rick Steve's walking tour in Rotterdam and the highlight for us was the recently opened new indoor market-- spacious, clean, with exciting foods at every turn. We ended up buying Spanish ham, a lovely T bone steak, and dried sausages. We had lunch at Elliniko—a Greek restaurant. We had the platter for two—Greek salad, fried crispy pork, beef steak, chicken, 2 shrimp skewers, calamari, french fries, Greek flat bread and 4 dips. It was more than we could eat and the price was a mere 10E each. And really it was better than anything we could remember from our trip to Greece. Supposedly, they have another site near Amsterdam that we will have to find. Since Rotterdam was wiped out by Hitler's bombers, a visit there is all about the modern architecture. It was less impressive that I thought it would be, but still worth the day if you have the time. We also popped into the Maritime Museum on our museum card—again some interesting exhibits for a quick look and free bathrooms!
Back in Amsterdam our solar panel had arrived and after quick trips to Kamper Perfect for the wiring and connectors, we spent the day at BW Campers where Rene let Mark park inside and use his tools to install the solar panel. Mark finished up the installation a couple of days later, wiring in the solar controller and Trimetric battery monitor that we had brought from the States. Ta Da! Everything worked and we now have plenty of electricity to happily use aires all over Europe. We will save money even when in campgrounds because unless you are using the ACSI discount card electricity always runs 3-4 E extra per day. We had thought we would spend about 3 weeks in the Netherlands fixing up the camper, making sure everything worked (there is a guarantee but work must be done at BW) and touring. Mark's illness and our new go slow attitude stretched the 3 weeks to 5, but that's okay. We just like living in Europe and the pace of our travel doesn't matter much anymore.