There are 9 million bicycles in Beijing Katie Melua once sang (well actually she sang it more than once, Radio 2 never stopped playing that flaming record),  There are 1 million in Holland,  The majority appear to be in Amsterdam.  I love the  fact that the Dutch have trams, buses, cars and cycle paths.  But all at the same time?  Really?

Cyclists rule Amsterdam.  You think you are walking along a nice wide boulevard.  Oh no my friend. It’s a cycle path and the tinging of a bike bell behind you lets you know you are on their patch, so get out the way! After passing us this morning, one even pointed to the narrow strip of pavement next to the expanse of cycle path and barked “side walk!”.

Deciding that if you cant’t beat ’em, join ’em, we decided to go on a bike tour,  Now this was slightly more trepidatious than it may sound as neither of us have cycled in earnest for over 30 years.  Karen always brings up the point that she never did her cycling proficiency test.  I did when I was about 10, but just remember avoiding lollipop ladies as they jumped out at you on Christ Church School playground.  Not much help with the nutters in Amsterdam (and I haven’t seen a single lollipop lady since I got here).

We decided to go with green cycles hire opposed to yellow or black (2 other companies) as they were the best…and the cheapest.  The shop was just around the corner from our hotel so we called in this morning and asked to book on the 2:00pm tour.  The French girl (this story shortly becomes like the UN) said she would ring and find out.  She rang but didn’t find out.

“Call in later” she said.  Not a good start, I thought.
We went for a roam around the city and came across another branch.  Perhaps this was the one she rang.  We popped in.  There were a couple of German gentlemen being served before us, funnily enough hiring bikes.  The man behind the counter reminded me of Droopy the dog.  Down in the mouth and exceptionally dry in humour.  The German seemed amazed by the whole cycling thing:

“Why are there so many bicycles here?”
“We like them”
“But there appear to be more bikes than people”

“There are”
“But by the station, there are loads of them, do people have to dig to the bottom to find theirs?”[Polite chuckle with an undertone of “please shut up you stupid man”]

They then moved onto the insurance:
“It’s €3.50 insurance””What, in case I fall off”
“No in case it is stolen”
“Whaaatt, do they steal bikes around here?”
I think the shop keeper was going to hit him.   Eventually the transaction was completed and the 2 Germans set off.

“Can we book onto the 2:00 pm tour please?”
“Go to the other branch”
“Which other branch?”
He circles the branch on the map that we had just come from.
“Thanks” I said (through gritted teeth).

We returned to the branch at about 1:45.
“Can we book on the 2:00 pm tour please”
“I’ll ring and find out” (oh here we go)
Then 2 Australian ladies (sisters.  This fact is irrelevant but I thought I would mention it for completeness) and 2 girls (the daughters of Sally, one of the sisters. So the nieces of the other lady.  Are you keeping up with me?  Do you want me to draw you a family tree?) walked in asking to go on the tour as well.
Our French lady rang again. We only heard one end of the conversation but we knew how it was playing out:

“There are six of them…well they weren’t here when I rang before…well they are here now…OK, I’ll try someone else”
[Puts phone down.  Consults list on wall.  Tries another number]Speaks in French for a bit then eventually says “OK, I’ll try someone else”

By this point we are all looking at each other knowing that we are now onto the 3rd choice tour guide so our hopes were looking slim, especially as it was now 1:55.  Eventually a guide turned up and we were kitted out with bikes.

Now Karen’s stature caused a few problems.  They gave us their standard luminous green, heavy as a tank rental bike.  The problem was that Karen’s feet didn’t touch the ground.  She tried (and failed) to ride it, so asked for another one.  She came back with a Barbie Doll pink bike complete with hearts on it.  I think they took off the tassels from the handles to make her feel a bit more grown up.  It may have been a 9 year old’s bike, but at least she could reach the pedals.


Our tour guide was called Valerio.  He started with an apology.
“Sorry, we couldn’t find you an English guide so you have me.  I’m Italian”.  Well I suppose he was third choice.  Saying that, his English was exceptional and he was a joy to be with.  He explained how we were to all ride in a line single file and put our hand out to indicate when we were turning.

We set off, a little like Bambi to begin with, but we got to grips with it pretty quickly. There were 5 bikes; Valerio, Sally (with one of her daughers on the back), the aunty (with the other daughter in a sort of bucket at the front), Karen and myself. We looked like a row of ducklings behind their mother (with Karen being the ugly pink duckling).  When we turned, it was like a Busby Berkley film with us all putting our arms out one after another.  It was all going well. until we turned into the main road.

Remember the woman who shouted as us before?  She was polite compared to most cyclists in Amsterdam,  It was madness.  People cutting us up, shouting at us and generally making it known that just because we were on a bike, we weren’t real “damers” (if that is even a real word).
When we got off onto the side roads it was lovely.  Riding around the canal side with the wind in my hair (ok, on my forehead) was a joy.  It made me think this would be a great setting for a Bond  film.  (Note to self:  write to the Bond people about setting a film sequence in Amsterdam. Perhaps based around the Amsterdam Diamond business.  Perhaps Shirley Bassey could sing the theme tune).

The bikes we had were real “sit up and beg” bikes.  I felt like Linda Snell from the Archers (good Radio 4 reference for the kids there) or that old cartoon bloke from the Public Information films in the 70’s (another topical reference there).   All was going well until about 10 minutes from the end when we took a sharp right, but Karen decided to continue straight on.  Anyway, the diners outside the cafe of the National Theatre appeared to enjoy the distraction of a short blonde woman on a pink bike joining them at their table.

The whole experience was great and has left me wanting to buy a bike when I get back.  Karen’s verdit.  “I’ll be using voltarol gel in places that I have never used voltarol gel before.”
Today’s cake was a traditional Apple Taaaaart (they are fond of their vowels here).  As usual, a recipe is below.

Transport Tally
Cars x 1
Plane x 1
Train x 2
Bikes  x 1
Trams  x 0 (yeah, I know…what’s that all about)
Conversations about how tall Kylie is x 1
Number of photos taken by lying in the street  x 1
Grootmoeders Appletaart (Grandmothers Apple Pie)
2 cups sultanas (300 g)
2 tbsp brandy (or cognac or rum)
2 eggs
4 cups self-rising flour (500 g)
1 1/3 cup cubed ice cold butter (300 g)
1 cup brown sugar (175 g)
A pinch of salt
Zest of 1/2 lemon
4 lb tart apples (1.85 kg)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup brown sugar (75 g)
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ‘speculaaskruiden’ (or pumpkin pie spices)
1 tbsp corn starch (corn flour)
You will need:
A large springform cake pan (24 cm x 6.5 cm/10″ x 2 1/2″).
In a small bowl, steep the sultanas in the brandy for at least an hour (or put on high in the microwave for 2 minutes and allow to cool). Preheat the oven to 347 degrees F (175 degrees C).
Whisk the eggs, adding most of it to the flour in a large mixing bowl (keeping about a tbsp of the egg behind to brush the pie with later). Add the cubed butter, the first cup of brown sugar, salt and lemon zest. Knead dough using a stand mixer with a dough attachment (or by hand) until the dough comes together into a ball. Set aside for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel and core the apples, cut them into bite-sized pieces and mix with the sultanas, lemon juice, the remaining 1/3 cup brown sugar, and spices. Sprinkle the corn starch (corn flour) over and mix well.
Grease the pie tin and use 3/4 of the dough to cover the bottom and sides of the dish. Add the apple mixture to the pie dish and firmly press down. Use the rest of the dough to make the lattice topping. You’ll need about 5 strips. Arrange three strips one way and two the other way, press to fix it to the sides, and then fold the dough back in towards the pie. It should not be hanging over the pie dish, otherwise it will stick.
Brush the pastry with the egg wash and place in the oven to bake for approximately 1 hour. Allow the pie to cool in the springform and then carefully turn out. Serve Dutch Apple Pie with whipped cream, or vanilla or cinnamon ice-cream.
Makes enough for about 12 slices.

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