Cyclists, wild horses pass each other in the rustic landscape of the Netherlands

Two hours from Amsterdam and Rotterdam, there is a rustic region of the Netherlands called Millingerwaard along the German border where wild horses and cycle paths along a unique landscape of rivers await travellers, where walking in high heels is not a good idea.

“How far is the Theetuin?” the woman wants to know.

Answer: The sandy path is a good 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) long. The route runs from the small village of Kekerdom to the exotic tea garden on the Waal, as the largest Rhine estuary in the Netherlands is called.

The Millingerwaard is characterized by rugged landscapes of floodplains. (Ap Photo)

We are traveling in the German-Dutch border region, just beyond Kleve in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

There are no roads that lead to the paradise garden of the Millinger Theetuin, visitors come on foot or by bicycle. The woman in high heels solves the problem pragmatically: she takes off her high heels and walks barefoot the rest of the way.

A natural paradise

“The Millingerwaard is a diamond in the Gelderse Poort,” says forester Daan Meeuwissen. Gelderse Poort is the name given to the landscape of rivers between Cleves and Emmerich as well as Nijmegen and Arnhem on both sides of the Rhine and the Waal, he explains.

Until 35 years ago, farmers herded dairy cows here through lush green meadows and cornfields spread over fertile soil. Kleyboden had a brick factory on the banks of the Waal dug as raw material for bricks. The hollows quickly filled with water and served as the basis for the natural paradise that today spans about 7 square kilometers (2.7 square miles).

In the 1990s, the gradual transformation of the river, once used for agriculture and industry, into a landscape conservation area began: dredges enlarged the water pits into a lake landscape by gravelling.

Small clusters of scattered seating create a calm and serene atmosphere in the Millinger Theetuin.  (Ap Photo)
Small clusters of scattered seating create a calm and serene atmosphere in the Millinger Theetuin. (Ap Photo)

River is the boss

“In the Waard you can experience the different types of landscape,” says Meeuwissen. They range from the pastures of Kekerdom’s towering protective dyke to mysterious swamps, riverside forests of gnarled willows and black poplars and sandy riverbanks.

“The river is the boss here,” they say, shaping the Millingerwaard nature reserve. It does this constantly, day after day, with its changing water level. Spring floods, for example, have spread across the floodplains, while poplars and willows are getting their feet wet. “After every flood, the Millingerwaard is like new,” says Meeuwissen.

Great egrets and gray herons lie in wait for prey in the marshy ground, as do spoonbills and storks. In addition, more than 150,000 white-fronted, gray and bean geese arrive from the Arctic each year to spend the winter.

Horses and cattle

The fauna and flora are left almost, but not completely, to their own devices: around 150 semi-wild Konik horses and Scottish Galloway cattle roam freely in the Millingerwaard and neighboring Erlecomse Waard near Ooij.

The animals ensure that the flora – for example meadow sage, wild thistles and orchids – can thrive and that the land is not completely overgrown. According to “Boswachter” Meeuwissen, beavers and otters have also settled in the nature reserve.

Up to half a million hikers and cyclists visit the area each year, estimates the Dutch nature conservation organization Ark. Despite the considerable number, there is no problem assures Meeuwissen. Both Konik horses and Galloways are able to retreat into impenetrable shrubbery. Only occasionally do they block the paths. If they come across them, hikers and cyclists should keep calm and wait for the animals to pass.

Up to 200 people can be seated in the Millinger Theetuin.  (Ap Photo)
Up to 200 people can be seated in the Millinger Theetuin. (Ap Photo)

Contrast with the desert

The final destination of the hike is the Millinger Theetuin. A tea and coffee garden the size of a football pitch. Some 80 types of roses, bamboo, hostas, phlox and herbs grow here, as Far Eastern meets European garden design. The model for the design was the famous Jardin Majorelle garden of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech.

The tiles in the Millinger garden shimmer in Majorelle cobalt blue, while the bellflowers shine in an intense blue. Seating groups are spread over multiple levels, water babbles in small fountains, and goldfish swim in a pool.

Although up to 200 people can be seated in the Millinger Theetuin, the atmosphere is always calm and serene. Noise and bustle are a world apart. The wild nature of the Millingerwaard acts as a protective shield for this oasis of calm.

The Millingerwaard River Landscape is part of the Gelderse Poort National Park and is located near Kekerdom, directly on the Waal River. Traveling east from Amsterdam or Rotterdam, the train journey takes around two hours.

Traveling west you can take a train to Kleve, from there a bus goes to Millingen on the Rhine. From Millingen there are buses to Kekerdom. You can also take a train to Nijmegen and from there a bus to Kekerdom.

The Millinger Theetuin is open daily from late March to late October. It is only accessible on foot or by bicycle.

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