Cycling with the family

NOT many weekend break destinations in off-beat corners of Europe can offer your family the chance to sleep in NATO bunkers, cycle below sea level, and admire Van Gogh paintings in the middle of a forest.

NOT many weekend break destinations in off-beat corners of Europe can offer your family the chance to sleep in NATO bunkers, cycle below sea level, and admire Van Gogh paintings in the middle of a forest. NICK FOLEY reports.

IN the Lower Rhine Valley, which stretches along the west German and southern Dutch border, all things are possible.

The region, just a short Ryanair hop over the Channel, remains largely unknown to British tourists, but really does have something to offer to everyone - including the chance to explore two countries in one weekend.

Culture vultures, outdoor sports enthusiasts and beer connoisseurs are all well catered for in the Dutch/German borderlands, where the attitude to life is predictably laid-back and you're free to do as much or as little as you like.

The pretty town of Kevelaer, just a few miles from Wezze airport, in Germany, is an ideal place to start exploring the rich history of the area.

Between May and November the narrow cobbled streets of the town are flooded with 800,000 Christian pilgrims, who come from across the world to pray at the shrine for the Virgin Mary, "the comforter of the grieved".

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Legend has it that in 1641, merchant Hendrick Busman heard a voice telling him to build him a chapel each time he stopped on the road to Kevelaer. He did as he was told and in doing so created the site of the second biggest pilgrimage in Europe after Lourdes. Devout Christians still walk for three days and three nights to the town, but others arrive every summer on bicycles or in huge motorbike processions - in a saintly version of the Hells' Angels.

Kevelaer also boasts a fantastic bakery boasting over 200 different types of bread!

The surrounding landscape is dotted with castles, monasteries and picture postcard windmills. One of the most impressive historical sites is Castle Moyland, a fairytale baroque castle which boasts a moat and a modern art museum in Bedburg-Hau.

After all the fresh air and history, the industrial city of Duisberg provides an ideal contrast for a family looking for an urban refuge of shops, bars and clubs.

But before long we're hurtling across to the Dutch side and to the tranquil heaths of the Hoge Veluwe national park. The 14,000 acres of flat-as-a-pancake terrain makes this a cycling heaven and visitors can pick up a distinctive white bike for free and explore the area's wildlife and landscape.

The ever-flexible Dutch allow you to dump your bike whenever you get tired of the saddle, before riding off on someone else's when you're ready again.

Cyclists are treated as motorists' equals here, with thousands of miles of well-maintained cycle routes and dedicated parking facilities outside hotels, bars and restaurants.

A further surprise lurks in the dense woodlands of the park in the form of the breathtaking Kroller-Muller Art Museum. The glass-fronted building is home to the second largest collection of Van Goghs in the world, with nearly 100 of his paintings and 200 drawings - including The Night Cafe, Bridge At Arles, and The Potato Eaters.

Outside the museum lies another unexpected treasure as we stumble across the Beeldenpark, Europe's largest sculpture garden which is relatively quiet and the roads are thankfully not choked up with buses and cars.

In our short trip of contrasts, we next head to Overloon, the site of Operation Aintree, one of the forgotten battles of the Second World War. The scars of war still hang heavy over many Dutch and German towns in the lower Rhine.

The historic city of Nijmegen was virtually destroyed by American bombers, who mistakenly thought they had crossed into Germany. The National War Museum in Overloon, which is located on the scene of the fierce battle, boasts a huge collection of original US military vehicles, equipment and aircraft enough to entertain any young boy.

The museum is set in a huge park, where part of the battleground has been preserved and German foxholes and British bunkers can still be seen. Before flying off from Weeze airport, a former British army base, there's time to see one last curious piece of Cold War history from the region.

Families who fancy somewhere a little different to stay can rent out a very nicely converted NATO bunker for the night - without worrying about any early morning drills.

It's been three-day blur of culture, art, battlefields, wheat beers and warm hospitality. But for me "zee tour is over", as our German guide says as he waves us off at the airport.

They do have a sense of humour after all.

Where: The Rhine valley, Germany

How to get there: Fly Stansted-Wezze by Ryanair. See

Cost: The Parkhotel Kevelaer (00 49 283 295 330); the Ferrotel Duisburg (00 49 203 287 085) and the Hotel De Bilderberg, Oosterbeek. Double rooms on B&B basis currently cost 85 Euros (£58); 86 Euros (£59) and 127.5 Euros (£89) respectively.

Contact: All trips and hotels (including the NATO bunkers) can be booked through the Call 00 49 216 2817 9333/4 or email:

The Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions on 0906 871 7777 or see

Hospitality: The author was a guest of The Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions.

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