Stephen Thomas broadens his horizons on a whistle-stop tour of Europe's flattest land
The Netherlands is seriously and undeservedly neglected as a source of case-study material on transport policy, urban planning, conservation and land reclamation issues. A keen eye for conservation, imaginative use of meagre land resources and enlightened social policies make it an innovative and interesting society. Last summer this compact country's fast Inter-City rail network enabled us to put together a short geographical itinerary using the Netherlands Railways five-day Euro Domino ticket.
Took the double-decker train from Amsterdam, skimming across the Flevoland polder reclaimed from the IJsselmeer in the Forties and Fifties. This exploration of the Netherlands' relentless horizontality brings us to Lelystad, a commuter dormitory housing some of the capital's lowest-paid workers. It has the lifeless torpor of a Soviet frontier town, a place made rather than evolved, full of rootless young people, and very much at the end of the line.
Planners hope to learn from the mistakes made in Lelystad when they start the Ijburg project. The aim is to extend the city to the north by creating six artificial islands covering an area of 1,630 acres and costing an astounding Pounds 2.46 billion. An exhibition about the plans for this new community of 78,000 homes is taking place in the Zuiderkerk in Zandstraat, home to the excellent Amsterdam information centre for planning and public housing.
To Rotterdam to talk to Ton Michielse of RET, the city transport authority, about its attempts to maintain an integrated public transport system in the face of government pressure to privatise and increase competition. He says the authority is using the UK as an example of how not to do it.
Took a thrilling 45-minute trip along the river Rotte on a Russian-built hydrofoil to see the port and its industries, which deal with 30,000 seagoing vessels a year. Sped at 70km an hour past petro-chemical refineries, the world's biggest boat repair and submarine building docks, the ECT terminal, which handles one million containers a year, then out to Botlek and the fringes of the Europort. Rotterdam has imaginative plans to use hydrofoils and catamarans for high-speed commuter links along the river.
Revisited the Kop van Zuid, as good an example of urban regeneration as any in Europe. It is a balanced blend of housing, commerce, leisure and general yuppiefication, south of the river. Ben van Berkel's superb Erasmus Bridge now symbolically locks what was once a neglected, disadvantaged backwater settled by many of Rotterdam's ethnic minorities firmly into the heart of the city.
The Rotterdam tourist office continues to take an innovative approach, building on the success of its architectural and urban-planning guided tours with a set of industrial tours looking at such matters as the operation of the port, the airport and management of the harbour.
North to Zwolle, a former Hansa port now land-locked by polderisation. The town will make an excellent base for looking at the Dutch way with conservation. The fact that 627,000 of Greenpeace's three million members are Dutch is a sharp reminder that the environment of the Netherlands is protected as assiduously as its agricultural land is intensively garnered. They start young, and the new Ecodrome in Zwolle, with its information centre, themed gardens and "ride" tracing the development of the Dutch landscape, is an attempt to "green" primary-age children.
Day trip from Zwolle to Steenwijk to visit De Weiden, 5,400 acres of waterways, lakes, reeds, grassland and swamp that make up the one of the Netherlands' largest conservation areas and an excellent case study of ecologically-based tourism. It is the largest unbroken peat moor in western Europe, formed in the low-lying land between two lateral moraines and originally settled in the 13th century by a sect of peat-digging flagellants.
Centuries of peat-cutting led to the creation of a unique network of waterways and lakes, which can be explored in non-polluting, battery-operated "whisper boats". As part of the Overstaap l000 Bikes plan, designed to prevent over-exploitation of one of Holland's most beautiful areas, visitors are encouraged to cycle the seven or eight kilometres from the station using the reasonably priced Overstaap passport which covers the cost of bikes, boats and the bus back to the station.
To Groningen to see what is probably Europe's most traffic-free city, the result of a decision in the late Seventies to deal decisively with serious congestion. A six-lane motorway was closed overnight, the town centre pedestrianised on an almost unprecedented scale and a web of bus lanes created, allowing bus drivers to control traffic lights.
More than Pounds 20 million has been invested in cycle paths to encourage commuting from the suburbs and to improve access to lakes and countryside. Almost 60 per cent of the population cycles regularly. Every car kept out of the city saves Pounds 200 a year in environmental damage.
Culture is at the forefront of attempts to revitalise the city with the new, architecturally hybrid Groningen Museum, a major investment financed by Groningen's rich gas industry. Earlier this year, it held an exhibition of seemingly perverse plans to create a lake north of the Groningen on land already reclaimed from the sea, a response to EC-induced agricultural overproduction.
Once you get used to Dutch trains that frequently split in two halfway through a journey, the Euro Domino ticket is an economical way of exploring a confident and forward-looking country.
Netherlands Railways' five-day Euro Domino ticket cost Pounds 69 for adults and Pounds 49 for those under 26. The ticket can be extended to take in Belgium and Luxembourg.
A five-day pass for local buses, trams and metros costs Pounds l0. For details, tel: 01962 773646.
For further information about places of geographical interest, contact the Netherlands Board of Tourism. Tel: 0891 717 777 Stephen Thomas flew to Amsterdam with EasyJet. Tel: 0990 292929