40,000 people, awake at the crack of dawn, assemble on a city centre street. While the air still holds a certain chill, everyone’s dressed for the warm day ahead. As the starter gives the signal, tens of thousands of people spill out across the bridge over the Waal, silhouetted against the early morning sky. Ahead lie up to 200km over four days – not all will finish but each will take away memories of this unique experience. This is the Nijmegen International Four Day Marches, or the Vierdaagse.
Walkers from over 60 countries head to Nijmegen in the southern Gelderland province of the Netherlands each year, to take part in the marches and the surrounding festivities. This year sees the 94th Vierdaagse, which takes to the streets from 20-23 July. Four years ago the event ended in controversy, with the death of one participant due to extreme temperatures. The decision was taken to call the event off on the first evening. Thousands went away disappointed, but understanding that under such conditions there was no other option.
But 90 years of history don’t just disappear overnight. Resolute and with typical dutch stoicism, recent events went off without a hitch and preparations are well underway to welcome thousands to the city again this July.
The Vierdaagse’s origins lie in the early 20th century, but it was only after the Second World War that it really got into its swing. Families, friends, teams walking under the banner of a particular company all look forward to taking part each year. It’s not a competition: to get to the end is a real achievement, and not done without a few blisters. In some ways the unique atmosphere of the event is down to the crowds. Each day the route visits different villages, north, east, south and west. Each village makes an effort, puts on music, hangs flags and cheers walkers on. Kind of like the Tour de France, only a lot slower.
In Nijmegen itself, different neighbourhoods throw street parties and have barbeques. It’s all a bit of an excuse for a party.
Over at the Heumensfoord camp reserved for military personnel from around the world, the atmosphere is buzzing. Tomorrow will be different, as Canadian and American soldiers take time out to attend the yearly memorial service, remembering those lost in the campaigns fought in the neighbouring countryside during World War II.
Nijmegen is a student city and always has a lively atmosphere, but nothing I’d seen there before prepared me for the Vierdaagsefeesten. Taking place over the course of a week around the main marches, the feesten is where families and friends of the walkers, local residents and a few tourists go to kick back. While the walkers are having an early night, the rest of the city explodes into a buzz of music, performers and beer tents.
The highlight is the fireworks over the river Waal on Tuesday, the first night of the marches. It doesn’t start until it’s truly dark, around 10.30. The best spots on the Waalkade are staked out early, but even arriving around 10, you can get a fine view on the action: 25 minutes of a fantastic lightshow set to music. If you’re lucky you might even find your way onto one of the boat parties taking place on the river.
Nijmegen is worth a couple of days of your time any time over the summer, but this event’s character and atmosphere mark it out as something special.