TRAVEL / Pedalling on the polders: Carmel Pavageau feels at one with her wheels on the so-called 'slopes' of the Dutch countryside

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THERE IS nothing quite like travel for cleansing the mind of all the old national stereotypes. Anyone going to the Netherlands will realise that the hackneyed idea about the Dutch wearing clogs is just not true. They wear bikes.

The cycling holiday brochure confirmed it: 'Out of a population of 13 million, 12 million own a bike.' Never having owned one myself, I embarked on a cycling holiday there feeling about as handicapped as if I'd turned up on crutches. But once in the saddle I was soon too busy to worry about falling off: pedalling through woods, avoiding ruts and tree roots, looking out for signposts and following my companions as they freewheeled down the wrong slope and slogging back up again.

'Slope' is a relative term in the Netherlands. In four days and 160km I didn't change gear once. Mind you, the bike didn't have any gears. The bicycles provided by our tour operator were Dutch - straightforward, no frills, dependable. But the seat was much the same as on any bicycle: at the end of the first day's 28 miles, crutches seemed suddenly desirable.

We followed a four-day loop through Gelderland province, through national parkland and small villages, covering about 26 miles a day. Cycle paths were well-marked, maps and route notes were provided and luggage was taken on ahead every day. All we had to do was carry our daily needs and arrive at the pre- booked hotel in time for dinner.

The only thing not worked out for us was how many miles per hour we might average and whether the day's destination was worth hurrying to. Should we have another coffee-and-cake break (an excellent Dutch habit), or concentrate on culture? I don't know whether the Netherlands has more museums per square mile than other countries, but in Gelderland province alone there are more than 130. So, if you don't work out your timing, you might skimp, as we did, on the big one - the Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller.

In the heart of the woods an hour's ride from our starting point, Otterlo, was the Van Gogh collection (276 works at the last count). They were not the only treats. There were Corots, Cezannes, Gauguins and Seurats; then the early Dutch masters and 20th-century works. Out in the grounds Hepworth and Rodin sculptures cavort with other works across the lawns of Europe's biggest sculpture park.

For about half the trip, we were in de Hoge Veluwe national park - 13,000 acres of heath and forest, an extraordinary expanse of emptiness in one of Europe's most densely populated countries. This is where deer, boar and moufflon roam. Moufflon? 'Wild mountain sheep' the reference book said. Someone obviously told these sheep a whopper about the mountains round here.

The sky seemed limitless suddenly. Ancient sand dunes lay under our wheels here, a reminder of the precarious nature of this land, where trees and scrub fix the shifting sands and dykes hold back the sea. Cyclists are held back by the wind in these exposed parts.

In villages we paused to look at neat houses where each window was a still-life. In the gardens, exuberant fuchsias threatened the manicure of Dutch lawns. It was so 'Toy Town', I half expected Noddy to come out and dead- head the begonias. The national liking for order extends to farms too: some of them are as spruce as country clubs. It is all rather puzzling, so much conformity in a country that is a paragon of liberalism.

But there is no confusion about the doggedness of a people famous for holding back the North Sea. You can sense it somehow when a group cycles straight at you on the wrong side of the tracks. And keeps on coming. (We gave in.) And on a cafe terrace where customers continue to sit, drink and shout at each other through a cloud of dust while a pneumatic drill breaks up the pavement beside them.

There came a point sometime during the four days where we agreed that getting off the bike was a shade more painful than staying on it. We made an exception, though, for the 17th-century Het Loo Palace at Apeldoorn. Behind a surprisingly plain exterior is an epic display of royal lavishness over three centuries.

Despite the feeling, by day four, that a triangle of leather was indelibly imprinted on my nether regions, cycling seemed quite the most sensible way to progress through this landscape. It was all so sedate, with the only sounds for an hour at a stretch being the whirr of wheels and birds on the wing, or the occasional greeting of 'Goeden morgen'. It came as quite a shock when we crossed a viaduct and vehicles were seen screaming down the motorway below - do people still travel like that?

The other advantage of propelling yourself without help from the combustion engine is that it allows for more self-indulgence - another stop for poffertjes (puffed pancakes) or tweekbak (pastries). However, meals could best be described in the same terms as the hotels - homely and comfortable. None stood out, although Hotel Baars, in the pretty harbour town of Harderwijk got extra marks for its imaginative renovations. You can fork out extra for their new suite with Jacuzzi and try a few contortions before dinner to get the water jets on to parts the bath salts cannot reach.

By the time we turned the bikes in, I felt at one with my two wheels. I had finally mastered reading the route notes while pedalling, though I did have to get off to write my postcards home: 'Recycling mind and body'.-

Travel notesq

TOUR OPERATORS: Anglo Dutch Sports (081-650 2347) arranges a variety of cycling tours. Prices for the Gelderland tour start at pounds 234 per person for four nights (car-ferry, half-board, bicycle hire and luggage transport).

Bike Events (0225 480130) runs 26 different biking tours in Holland. One week costs from pounds 300 per person (including return car-ferry fare, dinner, bed and breakfast, packed lunch and luggage forwarding). Olau Line (0795 666666) offers six-day cycle tours from pounds 300 per person, with the same fares and meals included in the price. All the tours are circular.

Bart Germonprez at Twijnstraat 7/6, 8000 Brugge, Belgium (010 32 50 331236) is a native of Bruges who guides groups round the lesser-known quarters the city. He also does a four- hour countryside cycle tour.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Netherlands Board of Tourism, PO Box 523, London SW1E 6NT (0891 200277) publishes a brochure on cycling holidays, available free to Independent on Sunday readers on mention of this feature, or as part of a set of four, price pounds 3.