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Touring the Netherlands on inline skates

AMSTERDAM -- The "skeelers" gather at dusk in Vondelpark downtown, the crowd thickening by the minute. They shift from foot to foot, appearing antsy, ready to bolt. Some carry bullhorns and whistles. Red flashing blinkers hang from backpacks, jackets, arms and legs. It isn't some gang but rather a throng of inline skaters -- skeelers are what the Dutch call them -- and these folks are getting ready for the Friday Night Skate, a roll around town of about 9.3 miles.

Mingling with the locals this night is a small group of Americans, who are wondering how they will fare on the dark city streets. For the past week, their skating challenge has been altogether different. They have skated nearly 100 miles, but that was in the hinterlands, not across trolley tracks or alongside bustling traffic.

Friday night skates also take place in San Francisco, Paris, Washington and a growing number of other cities around the world. But the Netherlands offers a bonus: miles of good skating both inside and outside the city, and a bicycle-friendly atmosphere that prompts motorists to defer to those who are self-propelled.

Reclaimed from the sea, a large portion of the Netherlands is nearly flat, turning it into a skating park that just goes on and on. Bike paths, foot paths and small roads criss-cross the countryside, running past windmills and canals, thatched-roof houses and dairy farms, herds of cows and sheep and goats. Traveling through the villages is quite different from skating through Amsterdam.

During the weeklong inline skate tour, the Americans got a taste of both worlds. The skating adventure began in Enkhuizen, a port city in the province of North Holland that was once an important stop on a Dutch-East Indies shipping route. The visitors pulled on their skates at their hotel's sidewalk tables and pushed off toward the sea.

Though the terrain is fairly flat, it is not always smooth. The brick streets that lend charm to Dutch villages also make for teeth-rattling skating. But the skaters got quickly onto a bike path that led to a nearby dike -- and virtually on top of the world, for the dike is a rise of land that holds back the water of the Ijsselmeer, once a salt sea known as the Zuider Zee. (It was closed off by a dam in 1932 and now is a freshwater inland sea.)

To the left was the choppy green water. To the right, the manicured lawns and pastures of houses and farms located upon below-sea-level land after the water was drained. The road atop the dike curved around the contours of the sea. The group skated about 5 miles, turning back only because dinner was waiting.

The next day, they skated 13 miles to the town of Medemblik. Remnants of a 13th century fortress are a reminder of strife among countrymen six centuries ago, but the town is filled these days with pleasure yachts and sailboats. In the hour the skaters spent exploring, they bought bags of freshly baked amandelkoek (almond cookies) and speculaas (a crispy spice cookie usually served during the Christmas holidays) from a little bakery museum that gives tours and tastes.

The next day they boarded a ferry for the province of Friesland, where residents speak a different language from the rest of the Netherlands. Road signs for the city of Sneek, for instance, also have the Frisian translation of "Snits" in parentheses. Thankfully, most of the Dutch also speak English pretty well.

Friesland plays host to the storied Elfstedentocht, or 11-cities race, a famous ice skating race held when it is cold enough for the canals to freeze. Since 1909, the race has taken place only 15 times. The group skated portions of the route on the roads along the canals.

On the way they discovered another road hazard: cattle grates. These are metal bars spaced several inches apart across the road so the livestock grazing by the road will not walk onto property where they don't belong. For the skaters it meant coming to a complete halt at each grate, then clomping clumsily across.

Perhaps one of the greatest hazards was the danger of too much charming scenery and the pressing desire to photograph it. From time to time, skaters do have to look ahead to see where they are going.

The tour stopped at a farm on the outskirts of Makkum, where a husband-and-wife team demonstrated how to make wheels of cheese in 15 varieties, including stinging nettle, walnut, garlic and thistle. Another stop was at a tile museum and factory, where Royal Makkum blue-and-white ceramic wall and decorative tiles are made and hand-painted.

It is hard to mistake this country for any other, especially when rolling past an old-fashioned windmill that dominates the otherwise flat landscape, or when asking a farmer for directions and noticing that his wife wears wooden shoes.

The fuel for all this exercise came mostly from what seems like the four basic food groups of the Dutch diet: ham, cheese, patats (french fries) and hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles on buttered bread, a breakfast treat.) One night, in the port city of Harlingen, dinner was pannenkoeken, 16-inch pancakes made with a choice of fillings, either savory or sweet, and served with syrup. Another night the dinner wasrijsttafel, a 10-dish Indonesian meal.

By the time the group arrived for Amsterdam's Friday Night Skate, the Americans had ratcheted up their skating skills but were still concerned about how difficult it would be to dodge traffic, skate in the dark and cross a series of trolley tracks. As the sun set in Vondelpark, where they waited to begin, some interesting characters showed up: two skaters wearing funky wide-lapel, gray pinstripe suits, pink shirts and clashing orange skates, and another skater wearing nothing but a metal-spiked, black G-string and chains across his chest.

Yet the Americans also got stares, probably because they were the only skaters geared up in helmets and knee and elbow pads.

Then the whooping crowd set off out of the park, accompanied by skate assistants wearing reflective vests imprinted with "USS Roadblock." They would skate ahead to stop traffic on cross streets, so the skaters could stay together.

Admonished by a skate assistant, via a bullhorn, for dropping back too far, the Americans picked up the pace and wove to the middle of the pack, staying there.

Suddenly, the skeelers in front threw their hands in the air. Rather than some exuberant expression of loving life and skating, this was the equivalent of brake lights, used for warning those speeding along behind that the group ahead is stopping.

The throng broke midway in the route for ice cream, sitting on a curb in a large parking area and watching expert skaters perform. The skate then continued over the Amstel River and past postcard scenes of lighted bridges spanning canals. At one stretch, patrons of a bar poured out of the door, whistling and clapping as the skaters rolled by. The skating group then hit the downtown shopping district, entertaining gawking pedestrians.

By , everyone was back in the park where the skate had started. Under the cover of darkness, the skaters slipped away in all directions. The Americans headed for their hotels, happy to have kept pace with the skeelers.

First published in The Washington Post

 
2007 Ellen Perlman. All rights reserved.