Cycling in the footsteps of Van Gogh

Published on 8 May 2015 by Hilary Staples

The opening of the Van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle path last November marked the beginning of the celebrations of the Van Gogh year 2015. The glow-in-the-dark cycle path is part of the Van Gogh Cycle Route - a 335 km-long bike tour through the Dutch artist's homeland Brabant. We set out this spring to see the new cycle path for ourselves and find out what the route has to offer.
Vincent van Gogh House in his birthplace Zundert. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Vincent van Gogh House in his birthplace Zundert. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

This year it's exactly 125 years ago that Vincent van Gogh died, but still the Dutch artist is very much alive. There is even a Van Gogh Cycle Route. The 335 km-long bike tour takes you to the places where Van Gogh grew up and that inspired him as a painter.

The long-distance cycle route has been conceived around five shorter circular routes, each starting at one of the Van Gogh locations in Brabant: his place of birth in Zundert, Vincent's Art Room in Tilburg where he went to school, Etten-Leur where he started his career, Nuenen where he created his famous Potato Eaters and the Noordbrabants Museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the only location in Brabant where you can see original works by Van Gogh.

The Van Gogh Cycle Route follows the numbered cycle network and is signposted in two directions. There is no fixed starting point for the long-distance route - we decided to set off from ’s-Hertogenbosch. From here we followed the route clockwise to find out how much we would we get to see of Van Gogh’s life and work and whether following in the footsteps of Van Gogh - who spent a lot of his time exploring the countryside on foot! - would result in an interesting cycle route through Brabant.

The Van Gogh Cycle Route is signposted in two directions. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

The Van Gogh Cycle Route is signposted in two directions. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

The guide contains a fold-out map and separate sheets. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

The guide contains a fold-out map and separate sheets. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Documentation

The guide to the route Cycle through Vincent van Gogh's world (available in Dutch and English) gives you all the basic information you need to cycle the route, such as maps, distances, numbered cycle network and points of interest. However, some information you might expect to find in a long-distance cycle route guide is missing - there is no information about bike rental, accommodation or bike shops.

The guide contains a fold-out map of the whole route and separate sheets for each of the five shorter circular routes. It uses a loose leaf system so you can take out the separate parts and put them into a map holder. On the front side of each sheet you’ll find a map of the route, a short story about the artist’s connection with the location and a list of places of interest - not all to do with Van Gogh. On the back side, there’s more about the various places of interest, including practical information such as opening hours, admission fees and how to get there. There is also a list of special Van Gogh events that are to take place this year.

The list of paces of interest is very concise. Strangely enough we found that not all Van Gogh-related places along the route are mentioned in the documentation, such as the location where the house of the Potato Eaters once stood in Nuenen. The choice of general places of interest also seems a bit random. Why include Heeswijk Castle - which involves a long detour from a cyclist's perspective - and leave out Halder Castle which is literally on the route? Are we expected to find out by ourselves that the cities of Eindhoven and Breda are well worth exploring? The guide offers no information here.

Maps

The maps provided are detailed enough for cycling - the scale is not specified, but it appears to be around 1:140,000 - and they show plenty of the surrounding area to allow you to deviate from the route without needing extra maps. The maps only give the numbers of the numbered cycle network along the route, which shouldn't be a problem. The distance between each number is given in kilometres. There are also more detailed maps of the starting points Zundert, Tilburg, Etten-Leur, Nuenen and ’s-Hertogenbosch.

The set includes a large, fold-out map with an overview of the complete route (scale: about 1:120,000). This map is convenient when planning your trip, but it would have been more useful if the places of interest had also been included. On the maps for each of the five shorter circular routes the places of interest are clearly marked by a red dot with a number, so we used these where possible.

Changes in 2015

The route was first established in 2013. Quite a few changes have been made for the Van Gogh year 2015, so make sure you have the latest version of the route! Currently the guide to the route is available at tourist offices along the route. We’ve been told that in future you'll also be able to order it online. Check out the Van Gogh Brabant website for the latest information.

Closer to Van Gogh

We automatically assumed we’d be seeing lots of works by the artist in the various Van Gogh locations along the route. But no, the only place in Brabant exhibiting original works is the Noordbrabants Museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch. To see more of Vincent’s works, you need to go to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam or the Krüller-Möller Museum in National Park De Hoge Veluwe.

You’ll never be closer to Vincent Van Gogh - that’s what the guide promises, and yes, we found this to be true. You visit many locations that played an important role in his life, from the village square in Zundert where he was born to the parsonage in Nuenen where he lived for a short time as an emerging artist. You also get to see the Brabant countryside that inspired him and places he depicted in his works. Naturally, many things have changed or disappeared over 150 years, but at times we were amazed to find a place still more or less as Vincent must have seen it, especially in and around Nuenen.

From the Vincentre in Nuenen you can go on a walk that takes you along places Vincent sketched or painted. On site you’ll find panels with information, audio fragments in Dutch and English and a reproduction Van Gogh’s work. You will pass some of these sites as the cycle route takes you through Nuenen.

Van Gogh Chapel in Nuenen. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Van Gogh Chapel in Nuenen. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle path. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle path. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Route

The Van Gogh Cycle Route is presented as ‘a 335 km trip, split into five unique routes’. However, just looking at the documentation and map of the route it’s clear that it’s actually the other way round: the five shorter circular routes have been connected to create one long tour through Brabant. The makers of the route seem more concerned about showcasing Van Gogh, than about creating the best long-distance cycle tour.

This is most noticeable in the southern section between Eindhoven and Zundert. The more than 100 km-ride to get from one Van Gogh location to the next, isn’t particularly memorable and going into Tilburg just to see the busy ring road doesn’t make sense - unless, of course, you’re studying Dutch cycling infrastructure. The circular route starting in Etten-Leur also seems to have more to do with the idea of creating a cycle route around each of the five Van Gogh locations, than with taking you through the finest part of Brabant. A short detour from the Zundert route is enough to see the sights.

While the southern section of the route failed to impress us, the northern section of the route from Zundert to Eindhoven was a real joy. The landscape is varied, the cities of Breda, ’s-Hertogenbosch and Eindhoven are well worth exploring and there are many touristic highlights along the route - all the Van Gogh sights are along this part of the route.

Conclusion

If you’re interested in Vincent Van Gogh, the Van Gogh Cycle Route is a great way to find out more about the artist. For us seeing where he was born, where he lived and started off his career brought his work to life. Highlight was visiting places we only knew from his paintings, such as the Van Gogh Chapel and the Coll Watermill in Nuenen. Comparing the real-life scene with Van Gogh’s depiction, you really get to appreciate what a great artist he is. We also enjoyed cycling over the world’s first glow-in-the-dark cycle path, but do take into account that to see the effect, you have to come after sunset!

To see all the Van Gogh sights, you don’t need to cycle the complete route, you could just do the five shorter circular routes - or if you don’t have that much time, just focus on the Zundert route (with a short detour into Etten-Leur) and Nuenen route.

Is it worth going the extra mile to do the full 335 km? We don’t think so. There is a shorter alternative of around 200 km. Rather than cycling the whole route, we suggest you start in Zundert and follow the route clockwise to Breda (with a short detour into Etten-Leur), Tilburg, ’s-Hertogenbosch and Nuenen, ending your trip in Eindhoven so you avoid the less memorable southern part of the route. This will leave you more time to enjoy the sights and you will literally be following in the painter’s footsteps from the place where Vincent was born to where he made his first masterwork. The Van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle path and the modern city of Eindhoven will bring you back to the present day.

Also read:

Van Gogh Cycle Route (Van Gogh Fietsroute)

Route: Round trip starting in: Nuenen, Zundert, Etten-Leur, Tilburg or ’s-Hertogenbosch.
The long-distance cycle route has been conceived around 5 individual round trips, which can be cycled in a day.
Distance: 335 km
Day trips from Nuenen (56 km), Zundert (65 km), Etten-Leur (32 km), Tilburg (50 km), ’s-Hertogenbosch (30 km)
Maps: Download the PDF Fiets door de wereld van Vincent Van Gogh. Guide of the route available at tourist offices along the route (€ 8,95).
GPS tracks: Download GPX file from RoutesinBrabant.nl. Please note that at the time of publication only the 2013 version was available.
 
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