ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 139


BENELUX NEXT TIME!

We left Luxembourg City behind today bound for France. As the scenery rolled past the train window we spent some time reviewing all our photos from the past month in the BeNeLux region and reflecting on what we’ve seen and done since leaving the UK behind. Obviously a few days in each country is hardly enough to form more than a basic opinion of what it means to be a visitor in Belgium, Luxembourg, or the Netherlands, but we’ve still managed to pull together our general impressions from each country. So here it is: an overview of our* experiences in the BeNeLux region.

*Emphasis on the fact that these musings are based on OUR experiences. Everyone has a different experience of a place when they visit and we’re certainly not expecting that our view of the world is shared by all.

 

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One of the first things that strikes us about the BeNeLux region is that, whilst these 3 little countries share a lot in terms of history and geography, they’re also very different. We saw this in the architecture, which changed gradually as we travelled South from the typical tall, narrow townhouses that dominate cityscapes in the Netherlands and Flanders in Northern Belgium, to the more Germanic homes we saw in the Ardennes region of Belgium and all over Luxembourg.

 

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The architecture of this region was one of the highlights for us, without a doubt. The Medieval towns of Ghent and Bruges in Flanders were even more magnificent than we expected. And despite the hordes of other tourists we encountered in these towns, we would still rate them as top destinations in Europe. If nothing else just because they’re so well preserved, and there’s no denying that they’re pretty, with all the canals that criss cross the towns.

 

 

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If the canals in Bruges and Ghent are pretty, then those of Amsterdam are stunning. The canals in Amsterdam bring a sense of space and open-ness to the city that stops the densely populated city from feeling overly crowded and closed in. Brussels, by comparison, felt so much more oppressive; mind you, that may have had a lot to do with all the graffiti, dog shit, and dirt everywhere as well*!

*In case you missed it: we didn’t really like a lot of Belgium. Bits of it were nice, but the overall vibe wasn’t a nice one. The bigger towns and cities often had an air of unkempt disregard about them that just made it seem like no one cared. In both the Netherlands and Luxembourg, however, basic civic pride was evident everywhere. From the cleanliness of the streets, to the flowers in every window, and beautifully landscaped public gardens. There just wasn’t much of this in Belgium.

 

 

 

 

For museums Amsterdam wins hands down again, though when it comes to grand churches, there Belgium surprised us. The Protestant churches in the Netherlands were very stark and austere; whilst the Roman Catholic ones in Luxembourg and Belgium were far more ornate.

 

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And castles – so many awesome castles in Belgium and Luxembourg!

 

 

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In all 3 countries, however, the highlights for us were often to be found in the small country towns; in the quiet towns where the pace of life is still slow enough that people take the time to say hello and get to know their neighbours. And where you see the best of that the landscape has to offer. In the villages of the Ardennes, for example, we saw the better side of Belgium and got to enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery of the region.

 

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The countryside in the Netherlands is pretty awesome too. All the waterways bring life to the flat landscape there and adds immeasurably to its charm. The odd windmill helps with the charm too.

 

 

 

 

For beautiful scenery, however, Luxembourg has to be the pick of the bunch. The forests and hills of “Little Switzerland” are beautiful and, combined with the prevalence of schnitzel on the menu throughout the region, has made us keen to visit that part of the world again.

 

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Schnitzel wasn’t the only thing on the menus of Luxembourg we took a liking to. We found Luxembourgian food to be just great – like the best of rustic French and German cooking combined. Belgian food was a little OTT (i.e. other the top) for us – everything was always enriched with cream, drowned in melted cheese, or slathered in mayonnaise. Sure, the waffles and the chocolate are good, but you can’t live on waffles and chocolate alone (Shane tried, but the “sugar lows” he was getting after all the “sugar highs” were getting ridiculous so we had to get him back on to real food).

 

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A special mention also has to go out to Dutch cheese, in all its cheesy glory. So tasty….

 

 

One thing we will say is that Europe needs to WAKE UP when it comes to their definition of good coffee. Can we PLEASE ban push button coffee machines?! If all the skill required for someone to make my coffee is that they push a button, that’s NOT a real cappuccino, nor is it worth €3! We had the same issue with only being able to find push-button coffee throughout Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria a couple of years ago and we say IT HAS TO STOP (as for that percolated “American style” stuff, I cannot even bring myself to describe what THAT is; I tell you what it ISN’T: coffee!). We found a couple of cafés around the BeNeLux region that did real coffee, but it was a rarity and a little luxury we often missed…

 

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Last, but certainly not least, the people. Everywhere we’ve been it’s usually the people that help shape our experiences of a country the most. From the small, casual interactions with shop keepers, wait staff, and hotel staff, to the more in depth discussion we might strike up with locals we meet; it’s the people that make the most lasting impression. And the Dutch are AWESOME; a little crazy at times, but awesome. We loved how open and friendly people were, and how prepared they were to chat to us and share their thoughts and feelings with us. We also learnt to truly appreciate the Dutch approach to rules and regulations – i.e. don’t have so many of them and everything and everyone just works it out. It’s just great because, basically, they treat you like an adult and then it’s up to you to behave like one. It’s an almost Darwinian approach to rules/safety; if you’re too bloody daft to work out how to stay alive, then it’s your problem. It’s just about the opposite of Aus at the moment where those in power seem to think that we need rules for EVERYTHING, catering for the lowest common denominator every time and making us all feel like children wrapped in cotton wool (a favourite Aussie comedian of ours, Steve Hughes, does a great routine about this exact thing – very amusing). The Dutch do it much better – the lack of rules means the dumb ones get weeded out early.

 

 

 

 

Luxemburgians weren’t quite as open, but once past their initial reserve, they seem pretty friendly. A little “German” in their love for systems and order, but that’s OK. As for the Belgians we met…., well, suffice to say we didn’t really gel with any Belgian people. They seemed to begrudge us being there and we were glad to leave, so no love lost really.

 

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Overall it’s been a really interesting few weeks in the BeNeLux region. Before we started our travels in the region we only knew a little about Dutch, Belgian, and Luxembourgian history, art, and culture, but not much really. These aren’t “big ticket” countries, and living across at the other end of the planet we don’t tend to hear much about these smaller European nations – which is one of the main reasons we wanted to see them for ourselves! We’ve certainly learned a lot over the past month, and highlighted a few places we want to get back to one day. For now though, our thoughts are turning to France and what might await us there….

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 128


GOGHING* TO THE MUSEUM

*”Gogh” as in Vincent Van Gogh. Get it?!

For our last day in Amsterdam we decided to focus our attentions on the aptly named Museum District. Located just South of the old town centre this part of town is home to some of the best art galleries and museums in the world, including the 2 that we visited: the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum.

 

 

The wide boulevards and leafy parks of the Museum District were already teeming with eager tourists when we got there at 8:30 this morning. No wonder really, given that it’s museums are amongst Amsterdam’s most popular attractions. None more so than the Van Gogh Museum, an art gallery come museum dedicated to the life and works of one of the Netherlands’ most famous artistic sons. Having learnt from our London experience we pre-bought our museum tickets online and were able to skip the worst of the queues to get into the Van Gogh Museum. Once inside we were quickly enveloped in the quiet of the gallery and lost in the world of Vincent Van Gogh*.

*Photos are not allowed inside the museum, but below are images of some of our favourite Van Gogh works that we saw today from http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl.

 

 

Through its collection of paintings, sketches, and personal letters, the museum told the story of Van Gogh’s life, including his struggles with mental illness and eventual suicide in 1890. We learnt about his early years, as a child in rural Holland, and his life-long friendship with his brother Theo (who became an art dealer and supported Vincent financially and emotionally for much of his career). There were letters on display in the museum that Vincent had written to his brother, describing his religious fervour during the years he worked as a missionary; and his love of the land and it’s colours during the years he lived in the South of France, around Arles.

 

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Like many artists of the era, Van Gogh eventually found himself in Paris, living in Montmartre and studying the works of other artists. In February 1888 Vincent left Paris having painted over 200 paintings during his 2 years in the city.

 

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He moved to the countryside and invited fellow artist and Gauguin to visit. Gauguin’s visit marked the beginning Van Gogh’s decline in mental health that eventually led to his death. The men had an argument in December 1888 and when Gauguin stormed out Van Gogh severed his left ear with a razor. He bandaged his wound, wrapped the ear in paper, and delivered the package to a brothel frequented by both him and Gauguin, before returning home and collapsing. He was found unconscious the next day by the police and taken to the hospital. Van Gogh himself had no recollection of these events, and it is thought that he had suffered an acute psychotic episode.

 

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Van Gogh returned home but spent the next 18 months between the hospital and home, suffering from hallucinations and delusions. Finally, on 27 July 1890, aged 37, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver and died.

 

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There has been much debate over the years as to the source of Van Gogh’s illness and its effect on his work. Whatever the cause, there’s no doubt that his mental health both fuelled his creativity and, ultimately, destroyed it. Van Gogh’s work continues to inspire artists and art-lovers alike however, and, together with those of Pablo Picasso, his works are among the world’s most expensive paintings.

 

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Van Gogh drew as a child but did not paint until his late 20s; he completed many of his best-known works during the last 2 years of his life. In just over a decade, he produced more than 2,100 artworks, including 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolours, drawings, sketches and prints. Many of Van Gogh’s sketches, self portraits, landscapes, still-life’s, and portraits are housed within the museum in Amsterdam; together they tell a poignant story of the artist’s life and make for a fascinating couple of hours.

 

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We really enjoyed the walk through Van Gogh’s life and works, but needed a break before venturing into the next museum. We stopped for coffee in the main square of the Museum District, people watching and wondering at on earth the display of colourful rabbits in the square was about. We never did work it out, but they sure were cute and popular with tourists for a photo stop (us included)!

 

 

 

 

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Our second (and final) museum stop for the day was the immense Rijksmuseum which houses thousands of pieces on Dutch art and historical artefacts from the Middle Ages to the present day, including works by Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer.

 

 

 

 

Some of the most riveting displays for us were those from the the Dutch Golden Age (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries), when Dutch ocean faring explorers were discovering the world; when the Dutch diamond trade brought immense wealth into the country; and when the Dutch East India Company was at its most powerful. Some of the models of ships from that era were especially impressive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was also a very large display of Delftware, or Delft pottery. Traditionally made in the small town of Delft in the southern part of Holland, Delftware was amongst the first European copy of the famous Chinese porcelain that was so prized during the 17th century. There were all sorts of plates, cups, tiles, flower pots, tea pots, and tiles on display. Some of them decorated with imitations of Chinese motifs, other traditional Dutch imagery (i.e. windmills, children dressed in traditional garb, etc).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The museum’s art collection was quite impressive too, with works dating from 1200 to 2000 on display.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was an especially large display of works by one of our favourite Dutch painters: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (better known simply by his first name). Born in 1606, Rembrandt was one of the great painters of the Dutch Golden Age. His unique style (e.g. Rembrandt was the first to paint figures in a group portrait actually doing something), and beautiful use of light and illumination make his works both beautiful and valuable (though he himself died a pauper). His most famous work housed at the Rijksmuseum is the “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq”, commonly referred to as “The Night Watch”. This is Rembrandt’s largest, most famous canvas which he painted on commission for the guild hall of Amsterdam’s civic guard.

 

 

 

 

We finished our tour through the Rijksmuseum and, Full to the brim with information, art and artefacts, we left the Museum District and wandered back to our studio apartment in Nieuwmarkt to enjoy one last quiet evening in Amsterdam (it’s definitely quieter early in the week – this town seems to wind things up a notch a bit each day, with the peak being Saturday nights and the quietest time being Monday morning). Shane took care of a few “admin” bits and pieces and I took myself to the hairdresser for a little TLC. We’re off tomorrow, bound for Belgium, and though we’re excited about the next thing, we’re also quite sad to be leaving the Netherlands already. This is a wonderful place to visit, and an easy place to get comfortable in. After just a week we feel pretty at home, and love the relaxed Dutch view on things. Hopefully Belgium will be just as chilled out, just with less whacky weed and more chocolate!

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 127


OUR DAY TRIP TO LEIDEN

Just half an hour by train to the South of Amsterdam is the Netherlands’ oldest university town: Leiden. This beautiful city of 120,000 people has a few claims to fame: Rembrandt was born here, Einstein taught at Leiden University for a brief period, and the University is the Alma Mater of René Descartes. The town centre is an easy-to-explore pattern of canals and narrow lanes, mostly laid down during the 16th and 17th centuries when, like many Dutch towns, the city flourished. We spent a great day wandering the streets of Leiden, enjoying its beauty and losing ourselves in its streets.

 

 

Leiden’s history can be traced back to Roman times when it became an important trading centre. For many centuries it remained a sleepy provincial town, however, until the Dutch Golden Age (16th and 17th centuries) when the city flourished. During this time the town gained fame as a centre for weaving and Leiden cloth became a sought after commodity throughout Europe.

 

 

 

 

In the same period, Leiden developed an important printing and publishing industry. One of its best known sons was Lodewijk Elzevir who established a large bookshop and printing works in the town during the early 1600s. His publishing business specialised in scientific and medical works and continues in this vein to this day (though spelt a little differently): Elsevier.

 

 

 

 

 

With the university attracting the intellectual elite and wealth from the linen and printing industries buttressed Leiden’s growing prosperity, the town grew and many grand townhouses and beautiful churches were built, including Pieterskerk (The Church of St Peter – the patron saint of the city), which we got to see today, though just from the outside as Sunday mass was being held whilst we there.

 

 

 

 

 

We also stopped by to see town’s largest church, the Hooglandse Kerk, which was dedicated to St Pancras and dates back to 1377.

 

 

 

 

There are many lovely old buildings in Leiden, mainly due to the economic decline the town experienced from the 18th to the early 20th century. In fact, it is reportedly the second largest 17th-century town centre in the Netherlands, the largest being Amsterdam’s town centre. One of these grand buildings is the Stadhuis, or town hall, dating from 1597.

 

 

 

 

To guide us around Leiden’s town centre we printed off a guide that detailed a walking route that took us past 2 dozen different murals of poetry from around the world. These poems were painted onto the walls of Leiden’s buildings as part of a city beautification project run during the 1990s. It’s a cute gimmick and gave us a great excuse to go strolling down laneways and across lovely little bridges decorated with flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many of Leiden’s grandest buildings are university buildings. Leiden University was founded in 1575 and during the scholastic year more than 20,000 students reside in town. Being summer all the students are on holidays, making the city far quieter than it would otherwise be no doubt. Still, one of the perks of having such an old university in town is that many of its discoveries and findings have been collected and are now housed in museums. Leiden is one of the most important museum cities in the Netherlands, with some of the best ones we found today being Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology), which has displays on the culture, social norms, and traditions of native cultures form all over the world; and the Museum Boerhaave, named after the 16th century physician and biologist Herman Boerhaave, which features an extensive exhibition of scientific equipment from 1600 onwards.

 

 

 

 

Like the other small towns and villages we’ve seen in the past few days, Leiden had a wonderful relaxed vibe to it. Even Amsterdam, for. Big city, is pretty calm (compared, for example, to London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Beijing, Berlin, or Rome). Shane puts it down to all the pot smoked around here, but surely it can’t just be that?! Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s summer and there are more tourists than locals in town*. Whatever the reason, we’re loving the mellow Dutch vibe and are looking forward to spending our Sunday evening relaxing in a coffee shop down by the canals somewhere. Sounds good right?!

*Lots of Dutch people take August off to go on their summer holidays. All around Amsterdam we’ve seen businesses shut with notices out the front saying they’ll be back at the end of the month. It’s actually very cool to see as it shows how important summer holidays are to families here.

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 126


THE WONDERS OF WATERLAND

In the Eastern part of Noord Holland there’s a region known as Waterland that’s dotted with charming villages, extensive grasslands, and picturesque harbours. As the name implies this part of the Netherlands is very…, well, watery. There are ditches, dikes, and canals criss-crossing the landscape everywhere, and most of the towns look out onto the Markermeer, a man-made lake reclaimed from the North Sea. It’s a beautiful part of the Netherlands and a great place to spend the day, as we found out today.

 

 

Waterland has both lived off, and struggled against, the water for ages. Most of it is situated well under sea level (the lowest point being 7m below sea level), and over the centuries was often subject to severe flooding. To protect themselves, their homes, and their farms from the floods, the Dutch inhabitants of Waterland built numerous dikes. These were effective against all but the worst of floods.

 

 

In 1916, however, a disastrous series of floods made the Dutch government decide that they needed to do something to protect Waterland once and for all; and so they built a dike across the mouth of Zuiderzee (once part of the North Sea). Called the Afsluitdijk this ambitious dam was finished in 1932 and effectively eradicated the threat of flooding for Waterland.

 

 

One of the other consequences of the dike is that it separated the Zuiderzee from the rest of the ocean, allowing the newly formed water body to transform into a fresh-water lake. This lake is called the Markermeer and is the heart of Waterland today.

 

 

There are lots of little villages to visit in Waterland, and the whole region is easily reached by bus from Amsterdam. We chose 3 towns to explore for today: Edam, Volendam, and Marken. First stop: Edam, after which a certain delicious cheese is named. Quaint and charming don’t begin to describe the little village of Edam; it’s all cobbled streets, traditional Dutch townhouses, and picturesque canals spanned by centuries-old drawbridges.

 

 

 

 

Edam is steeped in maritime tradition and history dating back to 1230 when the first dam in the River Ij was constructed (hence the town’s name: E-dam). From that moment on Edam prospered, first as a cheese market town, then as a herring fishing port, and in later centuries, as a shipbuilding centre. Although prosperity reigned, Edam endured periodic flooding from the Zuiderzee. The building of the Afsluitdijk fixed this, but also ended the town’s shipbuilding and herring-trading industries. Thankfully, Edam still had its cheese markets to fuel its economy (the town still has a weekly cheese market which runs every Wednesday). Most of the town’s architecture dates back to the 17th century when things were booming in Edam; today it’s a quiet retiree’s and tourists’ town with cafés, restaurants, and souvenir shops to go with the beautiful buildings.

 

 

 

 

The Netherlands is very small, so the distances between villages is often (unsurprisingly) very small. For example, it’s just 2.5km from Edam to Volendam. Rather than catch the bus between these Waterland villages, we walked, enjoying the rural and village views along the way.

 

 

 

 

With its pretty harbour and scenic waterfront promenade, Volendam has been popular with visitors for centuries. In the early part of the 20th century it became something of an artists’ retreat, with both Picasso and Renoir spending time here. Today it’s a VERY touristy Waterland favourite, that’s really more kitsch than quaint. Still, we enjoyed going for a stroll along the harbour, admiring the boats moored there and soaking up the glorious summer sunshine.

 

 

 

 

Like Edam, Volendam once was a prosperous fishing port and shipbuilding centre that suffered a serious economic downturn after the building of the Afsluitdijk. Luckily tourism picked up where the herring boats left off, and Volendam is now one of the bigger and busier towns in Waterland.

 

 

 

 

After exploring a bit of Volendam we sat down to a lovely lunch of salad and kibbeling en frites (i.e. bite sized chunks of lightly battered, crisply fried cod served with chips/fries), before hopping on the ferry across to the island* of Marken.

*Technically Marken is no longer an island – it is now connected to the mainland via a land bridge. Before 1957, however, it was a tiny little isolated community, out in the middle of the Markermeer.

 

 

 

 

The boat ride from Volendam to Marken only took half an hour and the views across the Markemeer along the way were great. There were lots of people out in their boats, enjoying the weekend weather and cruising around Waterland like us.

 

 

 

 

Marken was once a prosperous fishing township with a harbour for whaling and herring fishing ships to pull into; when the Zuiderzee was diked off, however, Marken became a virtual ghost town. It was only when the land bridge was built in the mid-20th century that the community became revitalised, fuelled by the every-increasing numbers of tourists who come to enjoy the hamlet’s lakeside location and beauty.

 

 

 

 

Walking around Marken, we noted how the traditional wooden cottages were all tarred black to protect them against the elements. It was interesting too to see how the oldest homes were only built on top of the sand dunes to help keep them dry when storms and high tides used to whip the Zuiderzee into a frenzy (no such concerns now that the Afsluitdijk is in place, of course).

 

 

 

 

After wandering through Marken for a while we stopped in at one of the waterfront cafés for one of the best iced coffees in the world* before heading back on the bus to Amsterdam. A little sunburnt but blissfully content, we’re back in town now, wondering if summer days can possibly get much better than this…

*It’s a big call, I know, but this truly was a work of art: the shot of espresso was mixed with ice, coffee ice cream, and milk and blended into a soft, creamy coffee slushy of awesomeness.

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 125


GETTING CHEESY IN HOLLAND

The joy of a Eurail Pass is it means you can jump on any train, at any time, and go anywhere in Europe. So today we took our Eurail Passes and set off to Noord Holland* for a day trip to see how many cheesy Dutch clichés we could cram into one day. The count so far includes: big wheels of golden Gouda cheese, hand made wooden clogs, pretty blonde girls in traditional Dutch garb, equally pretty blonde guys in traditional Dutch garb, cute wooden cottages lining even cuter canals, Heineken beer, and a dozen giant windmills. Truly a cheesy day.

*The Netherlands is the country, Noord Holland and Zuid Holland are just 2 of 12 provinces in The Netherlands. Amsterdam is in Noord Holland. In case you’re interested, one of the other provinces is Zeeland, after which the Dutch “discovery” of NEW Zealand was named. Another random factoid we discovered whilst here: The Netherlands is part of The Kingdom of the Netherlands, which is headed by the Dutch Royal Family and includes the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten.

 

 

Our first stop was the town of Alkmaar, famous for its Friday kaasmarkt (i.e. cheese market) where well-known brands of Dutch cheeses like Edam and Gouda are auctioned off.

 

 

For 400 years Dutch cheese producers have been bringing their cheeses to the market square in boats and by cart. Once in town official guild cheese-porters (known as kaasdragers) carried the farmers’ cheese on barrows to the auction area, where buyers sample the cheese before negotiating a price. To help record the days sales and purchases, a couple of girls (dressed in traditional Dutch garb of course), where there to tally things up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cheese market attracts hordes of tourists, keen (like us) to see this tradition reenacted. To cater to all us visitors, there were a whole lot of market stalls selling everything from hand made clogs, to art, crafts, and, of course, cheese. We’re not really in the market for any wooden shoes or hand blown glass, but after sampling a dozen different varieties of Gouda, we just had to take a little bit of Alkmaar’s kaasmarkt home with us.

 

 

 

 

As well as the cheese market, Alkmaar was an attraction in and of itself. The town was really pretty, with a whole lot of well preserved 17th century buildings lining the canals and narrow streets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stadhuis (i.e. town hall), Sint Laurenskerk (St Laurence’s Church), and Singelgracht (Defensive Canal) were highlights too.

 

 

 

 

We had lunch in Alkmaar before deciding to move on and see Zaanse Schans, another little village in Noord Holland famous for its cheesy, touristy Dutch sights. The views from the train on the way there were as expected: green, lush, very flat, and lots of water channels everywhere!

 

 

 

 

Zaanse Schans is a small town that was put on the tourist map in 1972 when its open air museum was opened to the public. The museum is comprised of half a dozen working windmills and about 30 traditional wooden cottages, moved to the area in the 1960s and now converted into souvenir shops and cafés. The idea was to preserve some of the areas traditional architecture and heritage by saving the windmills and homes, and turning them into a tourist attraction. The end result is ridiculously picturesque, and unsurprisingly popular with visitors.

 

 

 

 

Windmills are iconically Dutch; they were once used for a whole variety of purposes, from grinding grain, to helping pump water out of marshland, and saw timber. However, with the advent of mechanisation and electricity, windmills became less important and by 1920 there were fewer than 1,000 working windmills left in The Netherlands. Today there are just a few left standing and even fewer still in operation. The 6 working windmills at Zaanse Schans are used as grain mills, saw mills, oil mills, and the world’s last working dye mill. The oldest of these dates from 1676 and is still in use as an oil mill, it’s huge millstones crushing seeds and nuts to release their oil. The products from each windmill are available for purchase, alongside other traditional Dutch goodies like clogs, cheese, and Dutch pancakes.

 

 

 

 

Zaanse Schans is very touristy and, though cute, doesn’t warrant more than a quick visit. So after just a couple of hours, we jumped back on the train and headed back to Amsterdam for our third night in the city. Inspired by our Alkmaarian mini-wheel of cheese we decided to have a picnic for dinner and bought some Italian mozzarella, Spanish jamon, Greek olives, German rye bread, and fresh cherry tomatoes to with our Dutch Gouda. Such a multinational feast and a great way to end our very cheesy Dutch day!

 

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 124


ALL AROUND AMSTERDAM

Ah Amsterdam…. so many lovely canals, cute old townhouses, and wonderful little streets to stroll through. Named after the dam that was built across the River Amstel in the 12th century, Amsterdam was once a sleepy fishing village. Today it is the capital of the Netherlands, one of the most visited towns in the world (the city welcomes 5 million visitors a year), and a bustling city home to almost a million people. It’s also one of the prettiest cities we’ve seen, with its characteristic canals, lined with tall townhouses and grand old palazzos; narrow streets full of bicycles*; and busy squares.

*There are A LOT of bikes in Amsterdam, and they OWN the streets. Cars have to give way to bicycles and pedestrians should do. If you DON’T watch your back you run a VERY serious risk of ending up with what we call “bike-butt” (i.e. where a bicycle front wheel finds its way into the cleft of your buttocks, usually at high speed). NOT pleasant. Best to watch for bikes and give way when in Amsterdam.

 

 

Today was our first full day in Amsterdam and we wanted to see everything! Well, maybe not EVERYTHING…, there are some streets in this notoriously liberal city that we skirted around. Mind you, as we found out, even if you try your best to avoid the, ahem, “coffee” shops and Red Light District, the smell of whacky weed is everywhere and the boundaries between the residential areas and De Wallen are not as clearly delineated as you might think. We stumbled across one of THOSE alleys this afternoon, without even realising it – the scantily clad ladies in the windows displaying their “wares” gave the game away pretty quickly though!

We have no moral objections to the liberal approach to sex and drugs that’s applied around here; it’s not what WE’RE here for, but if that’s what floats your boat, more power to you, we say (as long as no one’s getting hurt in the process). And generally things around Amsterdam seem to be pretty safe and tourist-friendly, despite the permissiveness of the regulations. We saw a few dodgy/sleazy characters during our sightseeing today (mostly guys who looked seriously drug-addled OR seriously in need of their next fix), but nothing too disturbing. Probably the worst/funniest moment was when we turned a corner and startled a gentleman who was busy, er, “amusing himself” beside a tree. Must have seen something he REALLY liked… (snigger snigger)

So even if you don’t go looking for it, you’ll still stumble across bits of Amsterdam’s “liberal side”. If you follow the locals’ lead though and just live and let live, it all just blends in with the rest of the city to add some spice (and occasional amusement) to the mix.

 

 

Beyond its reputation as a place to party, Amsterdam is actually a beautiful city with some great history and a lot of fantastic museums and art galleries. THESE were the things we were interested in and sought out today!

 

 

Amsterdam became one of the most important ports in the world during the 17th century (i.e. the Dutch Golden Age), a result of its innovative developments in trade and city planning. It was during these boom years, when migrants were flocking to the city from all over the then known world, that Amsterdam’s iconic canal system was devised and constructed. Today Amsterdam has more than 100km of canals – hence its moniker “Venice of the North”. We spent much of our day just strolling alongside many of these canals, admiring the characteristic houses that line them.

 

 

 

 

 

Most famously, the canals of the Grachtengordel were laid out during the early 1600s, with the city’s richest citizens building grand townhouses all along the 3 most picturesque canals: Herengracht or ‘’Patricians’ Canal’’; Keizersgracht or ‘’Emperor’s Canal’’; and Prinsengracht or ‘’Prince’s Canal’’. So unique is the Grachtengordel area that it was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010. It was in this area that we started our day.

 

 

 

 

Within the Grachtengordel district lies a tiny enclave of homes known as the Begijnhof. This cluster of homes was originally a béguinage*, set up as a closed community for the 100 or so women who lived and did their charity work there. The homes there are now private dwellings, but the residents kindly open up their little community to tourists during the day and so we got to have a look at the communal chapel, lovely 17th century buildings, and pretty inner courtyard.

*A semi-monastic community of women who sought to serve God without retiring from the world, but who did not necessarily want to become nuns.

 

 

 

 

Just beyond Begijhof we found the Bloemenmarkt, the world’s only floating flower market. With stalls selling all manner of gardening and floral supplies, the market was bustling with tourists and locals alike (the market is one of the main suppliers of flowers to central Amsterdam). No doubt in spring it’s a blaze of colour, but right now, in full summer, the displays were a little toned down. Still, it was nice to stroll through the market and see where the locals go to buy the supplies they use to make the city so colourful and fragrant (there are flowers EVERYWHERE here – in front of homes, in pots outside windows, lining the bridges).

 

 

 

 

During our travels through Grachtengordel we stopped to see the Dutch Protestant Westerkerk. As is typical of this style of church it was quite austere inside, though still beautiful.

 

 

 

Next door to the Westerkerk was the Anne Frank House Museum, where you can tour through the house where Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family for more than 2 years during World War II. The queue to get in was really, really long however, so we decided to leave that one for another day. (We should have remembered: what did we learn from London? When travelling in peak season, pre-buy your tickets online!)

 

 

Continuing our tour through Amsterdam we came to Dam Square, the historical centre of Amsterdam. The square derives its name from its original function: a dam on the Amstel River. Built in approximately 1270, the dam formed the first connection between the settlements on the sides of the river.

 

 

On the west end of the square is the neoclassical Koninklijk Paleis (i.e. Royal Palace), which served as the city hall from 1655 until its conversion to a royal residence in 1808. It is one of 3 palaces in the Netherlands which are at the disposal of the Dutch royal family, but given that they don’t live there in the summer, it’s open to the public during July and August. We love a good palace and so had to go in for a look.

 

 

 

 

The palace was built as the Town Hall of the City of Amsterdam and was opened as such on 29 July 1655. However, in 1806 the Netherlands was forced by Napoleon Bonaparte to become a vassal state of France and accept Louis Napoleon (Bonaparte’s brother) as king. At this time the building was converted into a royal residence and has remained so every since. The palace is still used by Willem-Alexander, the King of the Netherlands, for entertaining and official functions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beside the palace is the 15th-century Gothic Nieuwe Kerk (i.e. New Church), which is no longer used as a church but as an art gallery and exhibition space. The current exhibition is on Dutch history and the Dutch royal family. We went for a look through and, though the exhibit didn’t really excite us too much, the building itself is quite something.

 

 

 

 

In contrast to the New Church, Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (i.e. Old Church) was built in 1213. We visited the Oude Kerk and found the church itself is quite simple and plain. Most intriguing, however, was what has grown around the church: over the centuries, the area around the Oude Kerk has developed into Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Talk about an interesting juxtaposition!

 

 

 

 

Last, but certainly not least, on our list of sightseeing stops was Sint Nicolaasbasiliek (i.e. St Nicholas’s Basilica), Amsterdam’s only remaining Roman Catholic church. The church is dedicated to the city’s patron saint of seafarers – no wonder given Amsterdam’s rich maritime history. Built in 1887 the church was much richer in design than the Protestant churches we had already seen, with ornate Baroque trimmings and dark, brooding colours throughout.

 

 

 

 

After such a busy day of sightseeing and trawling through the city we decided to finish there and headed home to our little attic apartment where we enjoyed a quiet drink whilst sitting and looking out our window at the passing boats on the canal below. This city really is beautiful and very easy to enjoy. If only we lived close enough to visit for the weekend every now and then!

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 123


FOND FAREWELLS TO ALL THINGS IRISH, WELSH, SCOTTISH & ENGLISH

It’s hard to believe it’s been 2 months since we landed at Heathrow Airport, freshly traumatised from our experience in China. The past 2 months in the British Isles have flown and we have absolutely loved our time here, but today came our time to move on. We’re in Amsterdam now, just beginning our 90 day sojourn in continental Europe. What’s the verdict so far? Amsterdam is ongelooflijk!

 

 

We left London’s St Pancras station this morning on a slick, super-fast (300km/h) Eurostar train*, bound for Brussels. We crossed under the English Channel without any issues; it only took half an hour or so to get across to Calais in France (much quicker than when we travelled under the Sea of Japan getting from the Japanese island of Honshu to the northern island of Hokkaido in 2013). Cutting westwards from there we reached Brussels in just 2 hours, where our connecting train to Amsterdam awaited us.

*We looked at flying to Amsterdam, but the Eurostar tickets we got were cheaper than any airfare we could find, so through the Chunnel we went!

 

 

 

 

We spent most of our day watching the green, picturesque landscapes of 4 countries (England, France, Belgium, Netherlands) zip by, reflecting on the past couple of months and everything we’ve seen and done in the British Isles. As is our wont, we’ve summarised what our favourite bits of each country were, and what lasting memories we will take with us from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reasons why Britain and Ireland are on our list of places to come back to:

• The wealth of history and culture to immerse yourself into. Need we say more…

• Grand castles and stately manors. So many to choose from! So much fun to explore!

• Pubs with a cosy atmosphere, good cask ales on tap, and simple, traditional pub food on offer.

• The beautiful countryside and the friendliness of country folk. More than the big cities, that’s been a major highlight of the past 2 months for us.

• So many hiking opportunities. If you’re into mountain climbing, this is probably not the ideal hiking destination for you; but if you’re after simpler strolls, rambles, and treks that can take you up hills, across fields, and around fells, Britain is just right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just about the only thing we won’t miss about the UK is the cost of things. Britain in particular is not a cheap destination at the best of times, and with the Aussie dollar now valued at less than half the British pound, this is not a destination for the “budget traveller”. Also, whilst public transport options are OK across Ireland and Britain, they are not as frequent, punctual, or extensive as in mainland Europe. Renting a car in some places (e.g. Western Ireland, Northern Scotland) is the best way to go because otherwise you just can’t see the best of what there is to see.

 

 

 

 

Things we will always remember about Ireland:

• The green – oh the green! Such pretty rolling, green hills! The countryside in Ireland is undeniable beautiful. No wonder so many songs have been sung about it!

• The people are so friendly and fun. It’s a cliché, but it’s also a truism. In particular we loved the locals’ senses of humour and their of making fun of people (including themselves). We love it as it’s very similar to the Aussie sense of humour, but we saw a few people get a little perturbed by the Irish informality and humour. Made us think that if you go to Ireland and take yourself too seriously, you’re going to have a bad time.

• The music. Whether plaintive and heart-wrenching, or merry and foot-tappingly good, we discovered that Irish music is always worth listening to.

 

One thing we didn’t expect is how frustrating Ireland could be, however, in terms of the lack of systems and adherence to time (on buses, trains, tours, etc). It seems to us that Irish people’s view on life is pretty optimistic and happy-go-lucky – they don’t sweat the small stuff. Generally that is AWESOME, however, just occasionally, this lack of concern for “the small stuff” (e.g. being on time) was just a wee bit frustrating. We learnt to just roll with it, but it took a couple of days to adjust to what we ended up calling the “Fiddle-dee-dee Factor”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The country we spent the least time in, and had the least expectations of, was Wales. This was also the country that surprised us the most in terms of the beauty of the scenery and the lovely rural feel of the place. The language is impossible, but the people are welcoming and friendly, and the pace of life so relaxed. Also, Welsh cakes are scrumptious!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Wales we moved on to Scotland and promptly fell in love. The weather might be horrendous (or at least very changeable), but the mountains, valleys, lakes, and beaches are stunning. Simply stunning. We had heard all about the Scottish Highlands and how awesome they are, “You must go!”, etc, etc. So we went. But we did not expect to fall so profoundly in love with what we found there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last, but certainly not least, the country that’s (kind of) our Motherland: England. There are definitely some pretty bits to England (most notably the Lakes District, the Cotswolds, and the Yorkshire Dales), but overall it’s nowhere near as stunning as its neighbours. Still, there’s so much history to be had in England, and the castles, grand houses, abbeys, churches, universities, museums, and art galleries are second to none. London especially thrilled us and has taken its place amongst our favourite cities in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s no doubt in our minds that we will return to Britain and Ireland at some stage in the future – there’s just so much to see and do, the people are awesome, the food’s not bad, and it’s a very easy, safe country to travel through. For now though our attentions have turned to a whole new city, culture and language as we take our first baby steps in the Netherlands.

 

 

 

 

We’re staying in a small apartment in the Nieuwmarkt district of Amsterdam, on a lovely canal lined with grand old townhouses. Our apartment is in the attic of one of the townhouses and it’s light, airy, and just lovely – we have views over the canal and are just a block from the closet restaurants, shops, and cafés. It should be a great home base from which to explore the city! Join us tomorrow to find out how our first foray into Amsterdam goes…