Thursday, June 25, 2015

Is that Moordrecht or Mordor?

Although Holland is technically a flat country, there are head winds. As one cyclist put it, "In a country that builds windmills, you have to figure there is going to be wind." So it was that we peddled back to Gouda into a driving force that kept pushing us back from whence we had come!  Add to the journey, bike paths along dikes that had a 20 metre drop on either side to the farms below. I preferred the paths that just dropped off on one side and had the rest of the farm - orchards, sheep etc raised about two or three metres above you on the other side - very surreal.

Our first day out biking can be summed up in one word "adventurous." Given that we managed only 20kms on our first day, we decided to skip the 40kms ride scheduled for the next day and do our day 3 ride as our day 2 ride - does this make sense? The next day threatened rain, however, we know from other biking adventures that we can bike in the rain, not happily, but there you are. Using our maps and eschewing the GPS, we set out for Moordrecht. Again the exit from Gouda was awkward. Yes, we were on bike paths, but there was traffic on the road beside us and there were stop lights and other cyclists and pedestrians etc, etc. We also had to cycle through an industrial area, which wasn't pleasant.

Once we had extracted ourselves from all the overpasses and underpasses, it, of course, started to rain. In fact, it started to pour. We stopped for shelter under a large tree and waited. Fortune, at this point, decided to send us a little perk. She arrived in the form of a woman in her late 70s, on a bike naturally, and smiling. Somehow, she didn't mind the rain and was only stopping to put on a raincoat. We exchanged pleasantries. "Oh, you're English," she said. "It's raining cats and dogs. I learned that in school." Somehow she welcomed the fact that she could practise her English, even in the pouring rain, well, go figure :) She mentioned that yesterday, was lovely and she had cycled with a group to Rotterdam, about 25kms away. I made a mental note to do more cycling when I got back to Canada.

The rain eased. The lady left for Gouda and we headed to Moordrecht. Again we ended up in a subdivision and had to ask directions to the centre of town. Even under leaden skies, as they say, the town was pretty. We stopped at the first cafe we found for a coffee and a re-group. Did we really want to cycle further away from Gouda, in the rain, the cold and the confusion of an industrial wasteland? No, we did not.

I decided that we could cycle from here back to Haastrecht, which was only about 7kms away. There was method in my madness. Haastrecht had two great restaurants and when we had stopped there the day before, our waitress had asked us if we wanted apple pie. Dutch apple pie, how could I have forgotten, is a real treat. It was too early in the morning to have had it yesterday, but today was another story!! We now had a plan to escape from Moordrecht, which my husband had taken to calling "Mordor."

Our hostess at the cafe, pointed out that we could get to Haastrecht, but we had to cross the river first. Conveniently there was a small ferry which shuttled cars, bikes and passengers across the river for a mere $1.50 each. It was sunny yellow in colour, even if the day wasn't. Our ride to lunch was uneventful, except for the windmill!!  We had seen a few windmills in Holland, but they were either too far away or cramped behind housing developments. This one was a gem. By the time we reached Haastrecht, the skies had cleared, we sat outside where it was warm and sunny and feasted on open-faced sandwiches and Dutch apple pie!!

We knew that we were only about 7kms from Gouda and we knew that we could get back there via a country road, so we could relax. I love adventures, but I also love a safety net. Booking with Holland Bike Tours gave us an emergency phone number, should we have run into any real difficulties. We hadn't so far and tomorrow was our last day and we knew exactly where we were going!!

Have an awesome day!!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Oudewater and the outer limits....

We had cycled to Haastrecht on a bike path that ran parallel to a busy road. No doubt our GPS, had it been working, would have taken us along a pretty country lane that also ran parallel to the road but far enough away that you barely saw or heard the cars. Sigh! Anyway, as we were leaving Haastrecht, we noticed a weathered sign post, with several names on it, including Oudewater, our next stop, how fortunate, a country road from one village to the next.

Country roads accommodate both bikes and cars. Some roads are so narrow, in fact, that two cars cannot pass each other. Technically a bike and a car can pass each other, but unless you have nerves of steel, you may just want to dismount and let the bigger vehicle pass first!! Fortunately, I didn't have to get off my bike too often for cars. We did, though, have to get off every once in a while to figure out where on the planet, we actually were - always a challenge!! However, once we got used to coordinating the map, we had purchased, with the sketchy computer printout we had downloaded before we left Canada, we stopped less often.

Fewer stops, unfortunately means, fewer pictures, sigh! Now I know why some bikers wear a webcam stuck to their helmets. You can record the entire journey without a stop, however, you do end up looking a bit like an alien most of the time :) Speaking of aliens and "funny" looks, we did notice some curious stares from time to time, no doubt because we were actually wearing helmets. Most Dutch cyclists rarely, if ever, wear a helmet and since we didn't look like Tour de France racing material, people must have wondered why we bothered with a hard hat, at all. It's the difference between coming from a North American country, where cyclist too often become roadkill, to biking in a country where cyclists are protected and respected.

There was a market on in Oudewater, when we arrived - what fun!! So much fun, in fact, that we decided to stay for lunch. In spite of the crowds, we found a lovely table outside next to a canal. Here we could watch the street theatre, pedestrians, cyclists, delivery vans, etc., while we wrote their scripts. I loved the couple, whom I presumed were North American. There are subtle differences between Europeans and North Americans! They were on bikes with panniers front and back. I decided that they must have been travelling from village to village toting their gear with them. From the pained look on their faces, I guessed that the journey today might have been a tough one. A group of seventy to eighty year olds were wiser. They had battery assisted bikes.

Once more on our vehicles, we peddled through farmland edged with small canals. Here ducks nested, cattle grazed and flowers fluttered in the breezes - a netherworld in The Netherlands.

More to come.

Have a great day!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

GPS and how to get lost very quickly...

Our train left for Gouda from Utrecht at precisely the time our tickets said it would. There's something to be said about northern Europe's stoic adherence to the mechanics that make things work. There is no throwing up of hands, when trains do not arrive on time - Paris, cursing coach doors that won't close - Rome, conductors that never appear - France, cancelled trains without notice - Italy. No, there is just a certain calm in the knowledge that everything is in order and working according to plan.

So it was that we arrived in Gouda, on time. We walked to our accommodation, a quaint inn near the centre of town, in about fifteen minutes. Hotel De Utrechtsche Dom is a lovely place with a walled garden, bright breakfast area and small but tidy rooms with private baths - a delightful spot to start and end a day of cycling. We had planned three day trips out from Gouda, through a tour group, Holland Bike Tours. They had set the itinerary to various small villages in the area and we were to follow their GPS instructions. Since our cycling wouldn't start until tomorrow, we spent the rest of the day strolling around Gouda, a very pretty town with some lovely old buildings, a canal, lots of cheese shops and a plethora of restaurants and cafes.

Dinner that evening was uneventful, I seem to remember asparagus in season, local lamb and a delicious desert. I'm not sure that we began drinking Rose wine here, but it seems to be all the rage in Europe, so it might have been.

The next day a representative from Holland Bike Tours arrived to give us the bikes we had rented, sign some contracts and explain the GPS system that would obviate our need for maps. The bikes were new, very sturdy, with gears, brakes and panniers - no problems so far. The GPS seemed straightforward enough. Although we don't use a GPS system at home, we did use one once when we did a house exchange in Scotland and exchanged cars as well - their car had one.

After convincing our outfitter that we understood the mechanics of the GPS and would have no problem, he left.  We got on our bikes and headed out. Apparently, though, the GPS didn't like the direction the agent pointed us in (in which the agent pointed us) and told us to turn around, we did. Peddling a few yards in another direction, it told us to turn around again, sigh! After we finally got going along a quiet road with canals on either side, the GPS started giving us conflicting directions, and we ended up in a subdivision!!  At that point we biked back into town, bought a map, ditched the GPS, and headed out to a place called Haastrecht!!

Although this very pretty village was only about seven kilometres away, we were exhausted by the time we got there. That frustrating hour or so fiddling with our non-functioning GPS in Gouda, obviously sapped a lot of our energy. It was now time for a much needed coffee break. We cycled through Haastrecht's main street, which actually wound up one of the few hills in that part of Holland and found a sunny cafe, beside a canal, with a drawbridge. Actually the bridge opened several times, while we were there to let pleasure craft through. Many of these boats had living quarters below deck, as well as bikes for day trips off the boat. I made a mental note to explore the possibility of boating and biking in Holland another time.

More later.

Have a great day!!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

A Train to Utrecht

I think before it's all said and done, I have to ride the Orient Express, because I love travelling by train and I love Agatha Christie!! There is something about going down to the station, with it's spectacular glass ceiling, imposing iron girders, and maze of intersecting tracks that says, "awe."

From our apartment, we took the light rail train - a combination of streetcar and bus to Amsterdam's central station. Here we merged with the crowds and followed the signs in both Dutch and English, to purchase tickets to Utrecht. As Gouda is quite small, there is not a direct train to it from Amsterdam. However, trains from Utrecht and a few other centres, go to Gouda every fifteen minutes - totally amazing!!

We were planning on visiting Utrecht, anyway. It's one of those "must see" places and we were not disappointed. It's a lovely old university town with ancient buildings, tierred canals, winding streets, delightful shops and charming cafes. We arrived just before lunch. I do love planning itineraries around meals. Even if we had arrived earlier - Utrecht is less than an hour from Amsterdam by train - there is always the tradition of having a coffee anywhere, anytime, isn't there!

We left our bags in a locker at the station and wandered into the town for lunch. To our amazement, we realized that the Tour de France starts in Utrecht this year. I think that this iconic race will soon be renamed Le Tour d' Europe. Since our daughter is a biking enthusiast and feels that Lance Armstrong has done and can do, no wrong, we bought her gift here - a T-shirt announcing that Utrecht will have its day of cycling glory soon.

Although rain threatened, it never really poured and even though it was cool, many people were sitting outside for lunch. Of course, we sat outside for a glass of wine, an open-faced, melted cheese sandwich with walnuts on traditional dark bread, and a great cup of coffee! It was fun to wander, often getting lost, in the narrow streets that fringed the canals. I could have stayed longer, but we were booked into a small inn in Gouda for three days of biking and we wanted to get there, just in case it did rain.

More later - have a great day!!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A native son...

On our last day in Amsterdam we went to the Van Gogh Museum. Although Vincent was born in Holland, he did most of his painting in the south of France. His brother, on the other hand, remained in The Netherlands, attempting to sell the artist's paintings there. Perhaps this is why the museum has such an extensive collection.

We booked online for our tickets - remember this - because you get VIP treatment, when you arrive. By 10:00am the lineup to get into the museum was huge. However, we simply walked up to the front door, stood beside the sign that said ticket holders and were admitted right then and there!! We don't go to a lot of museums, so we skipped the one that held the Rembrandts and a few other "must see" places, including Anne Frank's House. I had been to her house about 40 years ago, when it was still a nondescript building on a nondescript street and much closer to the original feeling of disappearing into the walls to avoid the Nazis. Today it is a gaudy spectacle with a glass entrance and another massive line-up.

My husband and Vincent
Although you couldn't take pictures in the museum, there was a designated "selfie" area under a large self-portrait of the artist - a savvy bit of marketing, when you realize that every picture taken beside Vincent was going to be distributed to thousands with a single click!!

We picked up a small gift for our eldest at the museum - a key chain of the artist's ear. Well, someone at least, had a sense of humour about it all. Our son, the artist in the family, has watched every horror movie every made. He loved it. I had a choice of green, purple or red - red of course!! He has now taken a picture of the ear and sent it to all his horror-loving friends.

Our "last supper" in Amsterdam was the classic "rijstafel" or rice table. The Dutch rivalled both the English and the Spanish when it came to colonizing the rest of the world, often bringing back the traditions of these conquered countries. The rijstafel comes from Indonesia and it's delicious. Our guide book suggested a good restaurant, which lived up to its reputation. In fact, they were fully booked on a Sunday night, when we first planned to go. We booked on the spot for the next night. I wasn't going to miss a sumptuous meal of spicy sauces, roasted meats, rice crackers, banana fritters and much, much more, all laid out on a myriad of plates in front of you!!

Tomorrow - Gouda, the town that named the cheese and a little cycling - wheels of a different sort!!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

On a high in Amsterdam...

In Amsterdam, you really don't have to go to the "pot" cafes, where smoking marijuana is legal, you just have to inhale. OK, it was Saturday night on a long weekend. People were here to party, weren't they? However, I got the distinct impression that smoking weed was like drinking coffee. It was there to get you through, on a daily basis!!

A plaque dedicated to street workers.

Considered the most liberal city in the world, Amsterdam has made a lot of taboos legal. The most dramatic of which is prostitution. When making our itinerary, we decided that we would not go to the "redlight district" in the old town. I just couldn't be entertained by something I find very sad. Yes, it is the oldest profession and ignoring it won't make it go away. Again, it is sensible to monitor prostitution for everyone's sake, but to use it as theatre - there is even a candlelight tour - is to mock those, who must use it as a means of income.

Hence, we moved onto the next item, Oude Kerk, the old church, which is in fact, the oldest building in Amsterdam. Built in the 1300's, it had to be seen and heard. It has a magnificent carillon of copper bells, which like many of the churches in Amsterdam, rings out every quarter of an hour. However, little did we realize that this religious structure formed the centre of the red-light district!! How did this happen? By chance or by design, Oude Kerk was bounded on all sides by the boudoirs of the "ladies of the night." Ironically, this was Sunday morning about 10:00am. Still, many were open for business, while the church was closed.

Moving on, we headed to a popular pancake house for lunch. Simply called The Pancake House, it served crepes in every imaginable combination all day. These are European pancakes, thin, large and filled with either sweet or savoury. I chose a savoury one with tomatoes, bacon, cheese and basil. Half way through, though, I realized I should have ordered the one filled with bananas soaked in cognac, sigh! The coffee, however, was very good - hot, strong and tasty.

More later.

Have a great day!!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Excesses and more....

In Amsterdam, the weather was sunny, but cool. In fact, most of northern Europe was having a very cold Spring. Would this mean that I could still see the famous tulip fields in bloom? Although a late Spring may have prolonged the tulip season, Dutch precision determined that the massive Keukenhof tulip park would close, as scheduled, May 17. Alas, we arrived May 23. I always believe, though, that there is a reason to have missed a place or an event. It means that you have to come back!!

Everlasting tulips

As a result, we had to content ourselves with the extensive flower market in the centre of Amsterdam. Here you could buy tulips in almost any colour and composition, including wood, plastic, paper etc. They were displayed as fresh bunches, colourful fridge magnets, place mats, trivets, the list goes on.

Real tulips
In addition to tulips everywhere, there were also the iconic wooden shoes. I saw them as key chains, actual shoes, giant clogs, bicycles and even as a boat in one of the canals.

Not every bicycle was a wooden shoe, however, there would not have been enough room in the streets. I think that Holland's motto should be "Why walk when you can ride a bike!" Cycling is clearly a way of life in The Netherlands. You go to work, do your shopping, give someone a lift, even take your kids to school, on a bike. In fact, I saw one hearty mother with a young child on the handle bars, another on the cross bar and a third straddling the panniers behind - whew!! If you happen to have more than three children, you pile them in a bin that looks like a wheel barrow at the front of the bike and peddle on. No one wears a helmet and no one, it seems, complains!!

Finally, I have to mention the cheese shops. Where the rest of Europe has fruit stands, Holland has cheese shops, each one striving to out do the other. I have never seen so many cheese wheels. Gouda - pronounced "howda" with a hack to the H - is the mother of all cheeses, in Holland anyway. It's greened with pesto, reddened with tomato, freckled with caraway, spiced with chutneys and served in a myriad of shapes and sizes. It can be sliced, diced, melted, grated, you name it. In fact unless you knew it began as a humble wheel, you would never recognize it, in its many transformations. Oh, and did I mention, it's delicious!!

More tomorrow - have a great day!!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Mermaid within...

I have always loved the idea of a houseboat. To me it suggests a dream-like, almost fairytale existence. "Couldn't we stay, for our three days in Amsterdam, in a houseboat, " I asked? My husband, who is not nearly as romantic, noticed that the bedrooms were below deck - no windows, not even a porthole and really, who would want to wake up in the dark.

Alas, Ariel, your siren song has been ignored once again. Due to the housing shortage in Amsterdam, people are allowed to live in houseboats. It's a very romantic solution to a perennial urban problem. I presume that the boats are fairly permanent and hooked up to the sewage system, because the canals are very clean!!

I don't know the exact count, but there must be hundreds of these charming houseboats moored up and down the city's waterways.

This one has its own arched entrance, with a small patio on the "pier." In fact, many of the houseboats actually had tiny gardens right on their decks.

There is no subdivision blandness here, just a little magic in an urban environment. I think we need a few in Toronto.

Have a great day!!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Sixty Stairs...

Sixty stairs, I must be on holiday, let me explain. Last year, when we were in France, we booked 3 apartments through Home Away. All of the units were on upper floors in buildings without elevators.  I now consider climbing stairs as the yin to the vacation's yang - or is it the other way around? In France, we climbed as many as 85 stairs up to our apartment in Cannes. This year in Amsterdam, we were spared - just 60 stairs. The Dutch, however, love narrow, steep steps that border on spiral staircases - very tricky to climb with heavy cases.

Exercise aside, I loved Amsterdam. It's a beautiful city on water. Canals run right down the centre of most streets, so you are never very far from water. In fact, many people actually live on the water in houseboats. We were fortunate in that our apartment overlooked a canal, so we could marvel, not only, at the street traffic - a constant flow of bicycles, scooters, and cars, but also, the boat traffic - a steady stream, so to speak, of barges, pleasure boats, and kayaks.

A quiet canal
Our apartment, after the climb, was bright and airy with a bedroom at the back and a large sitting room, which served as living room, dining room and kitchen, at the front. We could enjoy this for the three days we were going to be here!! Now, to eat!!

Shopping for groceries is always an adventure and since we decided we weren't even going to attempt to speak Dutch, we didn't buy a phrase book. Usually you can make out bread, milk, eggs etc. visually. However, buying butter, real butter, not margarine, was a challenge. We got a few odd looks from store security for hanging around the coolers a bit too long and fingering anything that might have looked like a small amount of butter. In the end, we threw up our hands, bought some cheese and spread it on toast in the morning - it was delicious!!

To save some money and have some time during the day to "regroup", we ate breakfast and lunch in, except for the first day. Just around the corner from our apartment was a street of restaurants, small cafes, bars, and eateries of every combination. We do like to try as much local cuisine as we can, however, in a world that loves french fries and hamburgers, this is often difficult. Still, onto each plate a little culture will creep, if you look hard enough. Below is a picture of our first Dutch meal - yumm!!

We couldn't avoid the deep fried bits, delicious as they were, however the cheese, sausage and pate´ were fresh, local - Holland is a small country, so they couldn't have come from too far away - and interesting. Dinner was often a three course set meal. Sometimes you knew what you were getting and sometimes you didn't - tasty surprises!!

Our first evening out was at a restaurant curiously named the five flies or Vijff Vlieghen - it gains a lot in translation. Here, we knew what the courses would be, and that they included two glasses of wine, plus coffee for €37.00. Actually, we were only charged €27.00 on the final bill - I'm not sure why and I decided not to question the fly in the ointment :) Our three courses were - mushroom soup to start, beef filet - served rare - nobody asked how we would have liked it done and we didn't specify - with asparagus in season and real home made French Fries!!!  Dessert was a delicious syllabub of cream, whipped cream and strawberries. I am so glad that the Dutch have collectively a very sweet tooth!!

More tomorrow and more pictures, however, I couldn't resist this one!!

Have a great day!!