The March of Death (aka Avondvierdaagse)

There are quite a few Dutch customs that would seem, frankly, crazy in the U.S. Some of them involve the impressively wide range of stuff Dutch kids are permitted, nay, encouraged to do (cycle several kilometres to school by themselves, take public transport all over the city, etc.) Others involve acts of defiance against the weather (the impossibly long ice skating race, Elfstedentocht, which happens only when the ice is thick enough on waterways between eleven northern cities, or the wildly popular leap into the frigid North Sea on New Year’s Day). 

And then there are activities which can involve both kids and extreme weather. Avondvierdaagse, for one. The Vierdaagse is a tradition that goes back more than 100 years in the Netherlands. It’s an event in which large groups of people walk together through the countryside, 50 kilometres per day. The kid version happens in the evening (avond) and is 10 kilometres per day. Avondvierdaagse is organised through the schools, so the kids march with their friends and whichever brave (foolhardy) parents decide to accompany them. 

It can actually be quite a pleasant walk in nice weather. The routes are preplanned with small pedestrians in mind. For us they wander through the countryside south of Amsterdam. Groups of school kids meet at a central location, and then set off, staggered at short intervals. It becomes a sort of procession through the wilderness.

One of the traditions is that the kids carry a half a lemon topped with peppermints and then wrapped in cloth. They suck on it as they walk, “to give them energy”. It has to be a specific brand of peppermints, even older than the Avondvierdaagse itself, and named after the iconic Queen Wilhelmina, who reigned from 1890 to 1948. Tutorial below:

Yes, another tradition is to scream as loudly as possible when walking under bridges, and yes you’re walking with a mob of exuberant kids, but it’s nice, especially since as city people we don’t get out to the countryside as much as we might like. In fact, just yesterday I posted a rather nostalgic piece on Hiraeth about how much I missed various countryside walks in places I’d lived around the world. And that very night fate laughed in my face. 

Not at first, mind you. I may have gone in with a bit of a bad attitude due to the weather forecast, but soon my heart was singing along with the beat of my feet. 

Not to be cliché, but it was like a jaunt through the Shire. 

My inner hobbit rejoiced. Perhaps the Dutch were right, and that silly weather forecast wasn’t a big deal after all. 

Besides beautiful landscapes, there were plenty of horses and other farm animals. 

As well as someone’s darling little pet speckled fawn. 

Being the Netherlands, of course there were plenty of charming watercourses. 

And thatched-roof houses straight out of a fairytale. 

As well as early summer flowers in abundance. 

As I write this, I can’t help thinking that maybe I actually had a really nice time yesterday evening, despite what I thought before going to bed last night. 

How could I forget how peacefully tranquil the scenery was?

Well, I’ll tell you how. I’m not sure what the weather has to be like to get Avondvierdaagse cancelled. But I know what it can be like and NOT get cancelled. 50 km/hr winds, for example. Torrential rain. Rivulets on the road so deep your sneakers would be wet through even if they hadn’t already been drenched from above.

The forecast was for blustery weather. I’m not sure why I and nearly every other parent there thought that light rain jackets would suffice. With rain pants, warmer jackets, and wellies, we could have survived better, although the wind did ensure that rain came at you from all directions. The few people who had brought umbrellas looked as wet as the rest of us. 

All of the photos you see above were taken during the first hour. Shortly after that last photo, the heavens opened. Within perhaps 45 seconds, we were wet to the skin everywhere except under our jackets. Our shoes squelched when we walked. The wind picked up, chilling all of the many wet surfaces on our bodies. The cute little ball of fluff at my side, who I had thought would have such a fun time jaunting along with her favourite little people, turned into a piteous, bedraggled rat, at least the part of her visible outside her raincoat. To her credit, she marched along uncomplainingly, despite the unfortunate turn of weather. 

One of the kids asked a teacher the question I desperately wanted to ask myself. It turned out we had walked four kilometres so far. Out of ten. I found myself channeling Nietzsche, mumbling over and over something about what doesn’t kill me. The last hour and a half of Avondvierdaagse last night was pure misery. By the time we arrived back at where our bicycles were parked (yes, we still had a fifteen minute cycle home), my hands were so numb with cold they could barely unlock my bike. 

At some point after a hot shower and some soup and tea, my fingers started working again. And yes, I took time while trudging through the cold and wet to reflect on the refugees and homeless all over the world who brave such conditions without the promise of warmth and shelter at the end. 

Despite my grumbling, I wholeheartedly support Avondvierdaagse, and love the emphasis on physical fitness, individual accomplishments (they get a medal at the end if they walk all four days), and enjoying the outdoors. But boy am I happy Tony is taking a turn tonight. 

2 thoughts on “The March of Death (aka Avondvierdaagse)

  • August 26, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    I loved this post! What a great tradition. My family often makes jokes about my “death marches” when I want to take a hike to together. It seems like a good way to toughen up the kids, and get them out in nature. Thanks for the tutorial on the lemon-mint hankie popsicle.

  • June 7, 2017 at 8:26 am

    I think it is an awesome tradition but certainly would have whine in that rain. Hopefully no one got sick after that. All the Italians would have thought was going to kill them.
    But I do love the idyllic countryside.


What do you think?