Summer 2014 we cycled the Dutch section of the Limes Cycle Route which follows the 'Limes', the northern border of the Roman Empire. We wondered, how much can you still see of this Roman history? What else has the route to offer? The route isn't signposted or marked on cycle maps. The only existing guide book is in Dutch. How problematic is this if you don't understand the language? We got on our bikes to find out.
Modern version of Roman border post near Woerden. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com
The Limes Cycle Route takes you along the northern border of the Roman Empire. In 2nd century AD - when the empire was at its greatest - the Limes ran from the North Sea at Katwijk along the rivers Rhine and Danube all the way to the Black Sea. Two sections of the German Limes are already on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Currently the Dutch part of the Limes is on the list for nomination.
The Limes Cycle Route can be cycled in both directions, so it's up to you whether you want to go upstream or downstream. If you're just doing the Dutch section of the route, going upstream (from Katwijk to Millingen) will hardly involve any extra climbing and you're more likely to benefit from the prevailing south-westerly wind. We did the route in two sections - Utrecht to Katwijk and Utrecht to Millingen.
The route is not signposted or marked on cycle maps. The only existing guide book is in Dutch. How problematic is this if you don't understand the language? We followed the Roman border to find out.
The guide book Limes Fietsroute 1 covers the Dutch section of the route and the German section up to Regensburg. The first impression of the book is positive. It is compact and has a spiral binding, so it's easy to fold open and fit into a map holder. The people that have made the book are clearly cyclists themselves!
The book starts with a general introduction about the Limes, the route and some background information on the Roman Empire. It also gives information about travelling by bike, accommodation along the route, useful addresses and even a Dutch-German list of bike terminology which might be helpful for German speakers.
Unless your Dutch is good enough, you'll have to make do with the photos and find your information elsewhere. Some knowledge of the Romans in this part of Europe does help bring the theme of the route to life, but it's not essential for cycling the route. The cycle route is worthwhile in its own right.
The layout of the book is very practical. On the even pages you'll find more information about the places of interest along the route. On the uneven pages are the maps combined with two-way cycling instructions (in Dutch), which are meant to be used together. The maps are detailed enough for cycling - for rural areas 1:150,00 and for built up areas 1:100,000 - and they show plenty of the surrounding area to allow you to deviate from the route without needing extra maps. There are also detailed city maps of Leiden and Utrecht, which are very helpful.
Can you find your way without the cycling instructions, using just the maps? As I'm considered the worst map reader on the team, I got the dubious honour of being assigned the role of navigator. The idea being that if I can manage with just the maps, other cyclists will be able to do so as well! The section Utrecht - Millingen hardly goes through any built-up areas and mainly follows the dykes, so the route was dead easy to find. Around Nijmegen, the maps are no longer accurate as new suburbs and bridges have been built since the guide book was published in 2010. This was no problem as the route is self-evident here. Just make sure you follow the river and cross over at the old Nijmegen road bridge.
Map reading for the Utrecht - Katwijk section was a lot more difficult as it goes through more urban areas. Right at the beginning of our route we were confronted with major road works at Utrecht Central train station. Thanks to the detailed city map, finding an alternative route was no problem. West of Utrecht the maps are once again no longer accurate as a new suburb, Leidsche Rijn, is being built. The route mostly follows the old roads that are still there, but the fact that there are many more roads than those shown on the map, means I was constantly checking the map, which I found slightly annoying.
So here's my tip: from Utrecht train station until past the Roman watch tower at Castellum Hoge Woerd the Limes Cycle Route coincides with the LF4 which is signposted. If you want, you can just follow the signposts here. There are also GPS tracks for the entire Limes Cycle Route, which should make navigating a lot easier (see below).
A line of steam marks the outline of the original Roman fort in Utrecht. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com
If you're expecting to see lots of amphitheatres, aqueducts or other Roman structures along the route, you're going to be disappointed. This was the border of the empire, not the centre of Rome!
The Romans built around twenty forts along the Dutch part of the Limes. In between these forts a series of watch-towers (castella) was constructed, interconnected by roads. Along the route we saw little direct evidence of these Roman structures as most archaeological remains have been preserved underground.
Many of the Roman remains were discovered when digging for new building projects e.g. in the new suburb Leidsche Rijn and the underground car park in Woerden. Great effort is being made to make this Roman history visible. There are modern reconstructions and information boards (in Dutch) along the route, but you'll also come across more creative ways of showcasing the archeological finds.
For years I thought the line of steam marking the outline of the Roman fort in the centre of Utrecht had something to do with pest control... So beware, not all of the Roman sights are as obvious as you'd expect. Some sights are just off the route, or in unexpected places - such as the memorable underground car park in Woerden - so you need to know what to look out for and where to find them (see box).
River Rhine near Rhenen. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com
The Limes Cycle Route has a lot more to offer than Roman history. The towns of Leiden, Woerden, Utrecht, Wijk bij Duurstede and Nijmegen are all very different in character and well worth exploring. Along the route we also got a taste of some typical Dutch landscapes, from coast and dunes to polders to rivers and dykes in the Rhine Delta.
We ended our journey at the Dutch border as this is as far as the scope of Holland-Cycling.com goes, but if we'd had the opportunity to continue the route all the way to the Black Sea, we'd have happily done so!
Roman sights along the route (from west to east):
Museums with Roman collections along the route:
Do we recommend cycling the Dutch section of the Limes Cycle Route? Definitely! It's a varied route that takes you along many interesting historic sites - whether they are Roman or more recent. You also get to see some typical Dutch landscapes. This makes the route well worth cycling even without the Limes theme, but the theme does add an extra dimension to the ride, making it just that bit more special than the LF4 which - in part - crosses through the same part of Holland.
The Limes Cycle Route is not signposted, so you have to rely on your own navigation skills. The only existing guide book is in Dutch. If you don’t understand the language, the maps in the guide book (which in some places are no longer accurate!) are detailed enough to use on their own without the cycling instructions. The GPS tracks provided by the publisher are very useful - but not essential - for the more urban section of the route between Katwijk and Utrecht, as you need to really concentrate on the map. Once you've crossed the river Rhine at Wijk bij Duurstede navigation is easy.
We just cycled the Dutch section of the Limes Cycle Route, as Holland-Cycling.com focuses on Holland. You can cycle the section Katwijk - Millingen as an independent route. But if you want to turn the route into a round trip and cycle back to the coast, you can do this via the national long-distance cycle network. The network connects to the Limes Cycle Route both in Millingen and Katwijk.
Do you have more time and energy and do you want to explore more of Europe? Then you can continue the Limes Cycle Route all the way to the Black Sea. See: Holland - gateway to the European cycle network.
For more on the route (and more pictures!), go to Limes Cycle Route
Limes Cycle Route (Limes Fietsroute)
|Route:||Katwijk - Millingen (Dutch section of the route)
For more on the section outside Holland, go to Holland - gateway to the European cycle network
|Guide book:||Limes Fietsroute 1, Uitgevery Pirola|
|GPS tracks:||Download from Europafietsers|