Friday, 6 January 2012

5 Days in The Netherlands

It began as a throw-away comment about getting away for a few days after term had finished, and before the chaos of Christmas, families and, in my case, moving house. Then became a fairly flippant conversation about where we would like to go. Then during the course get-away at Nick’s house, it became two ferry tickets to the Hook of Holland. It still didn’t feel  like it was something that was actually going to happen. It didn’t feel like it was going to happen while cramming warm clothes into a rucksack. It didn’t feel real until the ferry left Harwich – though that might have has something to do with getting up at 5am to drive there. But it did happen, and here is a diary of our trip to the Netherlands.

Saturday 17 DecemberDSC01028
The ferry journey was surprisingly smooth. Having checked the weather forecast, and given how cold it was, I was expecting something much rougher. Given Alecky’s inclination towards sea sickness, and my lack of comfort on anything that isn’t solid ground, I was expecting this to be the least fun part of the journey. Really though, it wasn’t actually all that bad. The boat was fairly empty, no doubt helped by the time of year and the early departure time, and the seas were calm. It was even quite sunny. Cold, but sunny. As you can see, we did make use of the “sun deck”, despite it being not much above freezing. But sea-sickness was avoided, and I even managed to get some sleep – looking every bit the trampy student that I am.

Once we had arrived into the Hook of Holland, getting off the boat was quite simple. What was not so simple, however, was getting the train to Rotterdam, and from there to The Hague, where we were to spend the first couple of days. Firstly, it started to rain, and then we discovered that the ticket machines would not accept our cards – despite knowing that they worked just fine. Then we found a machine that took cash, which we didn’t have, so we wandered further in to town. We found a cash machine easily enough, and it seemed to have no problem with either of our bank cards. What it did have an issue with, however, was giving us money in any denomination under €50 – which was an issue since the ticket machine only accepted coins. Having withdrawn our cash, we then went back to the station, to get some change from the little fish shop next door. They didn’t have any. Back into town we go. Both of us are carrying quite weighty bags, and at this point it is raining and very cold. Eventually we went to the supermarket and bought some stuff, getting enough change together to pay for the train tickets. Almost everyone was polite and helpful – and spoke excellent English – which did make it easier, but it was still a more stressful arrival in the country than we had planned.

The train journey was very smooth – the train was clean, fast and on time. Definitely not in England any more! Having arrived in Rotterdam it was easy enough to find the connecting train to The Hague, and we were on our way once more. It is worth noting that, after everything that went into buying our tickets, we did not actually have to produce them at any point on the journey.

We arrived in The Hague in the middle of a downpour. Of sleet. It was incredibly cold, and very windy. Since Alecky had an idea about where we would be staying that night, we set off – looking as much like tourists as I think we possibly could, stopping every so often to peer up at street names and trying not to get run over by trams. Once we had found the place we hoped to be staying – having basically walked to the end of the street it was on and not noticed – we shuffled in to see if they had any rooms to spare (having decided that it would be worth the cost to spring for a private room, rather than the dorms). Luckily, they did, and we had somewhere to sleep. The best thing about our hostel – other than being warm and dry – was the encouragement dished out by the stairs as you walked up them. Little signs saying things like “Keep going!”, “You’re almost there!” and “See you in the bar!” were dotted all the way up to our third floor room, 304.
Having dried off and parked our decidedly heavy and damp bags, we ventured into town – the storm having calmed down a little by this point. We walked into the centre of town, mostly managing to stay out of the cycle lanes (which are actually separate to the road, unlike here where they just paint it then park a bus in it). Having braved the hail and wind once more, we settled upon somewhere to eat – starting off our run of choosing good food places without really meaning to. In that typically touristy way, we settled for a place that did Italian food – it was very good though, and just what we needed after a long day of travelling and being cold. Having stopped off for a quick drink after dinner we headed back to our hostel. Day one complete.

Sunday 18 December
This was to be our one full day in The Hague. It involved a lot of walking – we decided that we would walk everywhere, save for the trains between cities, in order to save money and to avoid getting totally confused by tram maps. So off we wandered, with only one bag of essential stuff between the two of us, so that we weren’t too weighed down by things we didn’t need.100_0182
As with most other days of our trip, we had a vague idea of things that would be worth looking at, and much of the rest was just strolling around until we found something interesting – like this multi-coloured building. Not sure what it is (I think either a shop or a cafe/bar) but it looked interesting, and the shop opposite featured this rather strange face above the door.

The Hague is a really nice place to just walk about it. It’s made easier of course by being totally flat, but even when its cold and damp it is very easy to stroll around looking at stuff – though I think at times we did look very much like tourists, taking pictures of everyday things, but they are interesting and different from the kind of things you see in London every day.
After a while ambling up and down streets – some of the shopping areas which looked as if they could have come from any town in Western Europe – we came to this square.
One of the things about both The Hague and Amsterdam was the very tall, narrow buildings that are all over the older parts of the city, which apparently came about due to a tax being levied according to the size of the frontage of the house – so they became deeper, taller and narrower.

DSC01038Just to the left of where this picture was taken from, however, is one of the main attractions on our visit to The Hague: Mauritshuis. This is one of the most significant galleries in the whole country, containing paintings by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Holbein. One of the most famous paintings in the collection is Girl With a Pearl Earring. There is a small lake/large pond right next to the gallery, and some of the buildings built along the edge of it were very grand-looking. Some had doors in that opened out onto the water – clearly built for the days when boats used to be able to pull up to the side of the house. Out of this group of pictures, the Mauritshuis is the building in the picture on the bottom left.
Understandably we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum, 100_0202but it really is worth a visit – even if just for the building in which the gallery is located (and it’s always worth remembering that it used to be someone’s house). This is the front of the house.

Having left the Mauritshuis, the next place we went was the Binnenhof, which are the parliamentary buildings. Not quite as grand as the Houses of Parliament, but certainly seemed much less pretentious. What there aren’t in these pictures, but are on almost every window in these old buildings is the wooden shutters that are folded outwards to let in the light. Along with the tall, narrow fronts, another very Dutch piece of design. It was in the same central square as the fountain that executions used to take place.

Once we had left the Binnenhof we headed towards somewhere that The Hague is known for internationally: the Vredespaleis, or Peace Palace. Otherwise known as the International Court of Justice – the main legal arm of the United Nations. It is separate from the International Criminal Court – which is responsible for trying those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and other crimes.100_0210100_0215

Since the court was in session for the entire time we were there, it wasn’t possible for us to get a tour of the inside of the palace, but it was still an impressive place to see. Right outside of the palace is the World Peace Flame – around which are placed a stone from each of the countries that supported it, though I cannot remember what the stone from the United Kingdom was.
100_0219100_0217The walk back from the Vredespaleis towards the centre of The Hague was one of the more unexpectedly entertaining and bizarre parts of the trip. The reason for that is the range of things that we saw while we wandered along. Firstly, we came upon a plaza, in the centre of which was a selection of these small stone statues. Of turtles. We had no idea why they were there, or if there was any particular significance behind them, but there they were. This is the point when we started to realise that there seemed to be an approach of “well, why not?” used when it came to whether or not to do stuff – if there isn’t a good reason why not to do something, then do it. Very different to the British way of only doing something if there is a good reason to do it.

The next couple of strange things, unfortunately, I do not have pictures for, so you will just have to believe me that they really did happen. Firstly there was a man dressed in a full suit with a gramaphone attached to the front of his bike, playing records in the street. Again, slightly out of the ordinary, but why not. The second strange event was what looked like a photo-shoot of a burlesque dancer, complete with feathers etc. taking place in what I initially thought was some form of gallery. This was happening right in front of the window. Okay, slightly unusual, but this is the Netherlands, and there are a lot of things in windows. What made this even a bit strange was the realisation it was not a gallery, it was a hairdressers. A man taking pictures of a burlesque dancer, in a hairdressers. As you do.

Having arrived back in the centre of The Hague, we decided that we would find somewhere warm to sit and defrost. Found a decent looking place with a fire, not far from where we had dinner after arriving, and on discovering there was a sofa, we parked up and ordered a couple of Gluhwein – mulled wine. We also tucked into Bitterballen, which are a kind of deep-fried meatball snack. Very Dutch, and very nice. After discovery of the place’s cocktail menu, we ended up staying till about 11pm before ambling back to the hostel and crashing out.

Monday 19 December
This is the day we had decided to make the journey to Amsterdam. It takes just over an hour on the train – which, I discovered, were double decker trains. Again, they were clean, fast and on time. Dutch rail transport is so much better than its UK counterpart – and is much cheaper too.

Having arrived in Amsterdam we followed the pattern of our arrival in The Hague: try to find somewhere to stay before doing anything else. Again, we had a first choice and a back up – though it was much better weather this time around. However, in the first place we looked there weren’t any rooms, and the second place was closed until 5pm, and by this time it was about 2pm, and we wanted to dump our bags.

Eventually, with a few distractions, we managed to find somewhere. It turned out to be a 3* hotel, but cost about the same as the hostel we had stayed in before, so it worked out quite well. It was also just inside the red light district, and was easy enough to walk to and from. And again, as in The Hague, we were staying in Room 304.

Once we had put down our stuff we headed out to the Oude Kerk, or Old Church, which is, as the name suggests, one of the oldest parts of Amsterdam. It is one of these churches where the floor is made up of tombstones, with engravings of the information about who is buried beneath it. According to the information we were given, there are thousands of people buried beneath its floor – going back hundreds of years. It was slightly strange walking out of this huge, cold stone building and finding ourselves confronted by the sight of the prostitutes behind their windows. Very much old Amsterdam and new Amsterdam blending together, even if the contrast was rather stark.

We spent much of the rest of the afternoon and evening walking down to the far west of central Amsterdam – following lights and walking across a lot of canals. We eventually ended up in this little bar, drinking gluhwein and planning out what we wanted to see the next day, before, due to cravings from both of us, having Chinese food for dinner. Certainly being multicultural.

Tuesday 20 December100_0229
Our full day in Amsterdam involved probably more walking than any other day on the trip. First thing we went to was the Homomonument, which is a memorial to all gay men and lesbians who have been persecuted because of their sexuality. It is made up of three triangles of granite, arranged to form the points of a larger triangle.
100_0225One point is raised, one thrusts out into the canal, and one is at street level and bears an inscription of a line from the Jewish, gay poet Jacob Israel de Haan: “Naar Vriendschaap Zulk een Mateloos Verlanged” – translated as “Such an endless desire for friendship”.

One of the points faces towards the National War Memorial on Dam Square, one points towards the house of Anne Frank, and one points towards the the office of COC Nederland, the oldest continually operating gay and lesbian organisation in the world.
Next we visited the Amsterdams Historisch Museum, which is an excellent museum with a walk through history of the city of Amsterdam – the Amsterdam DNA. It is quite interactive, and very engaging. Most certainly worth a visit. Next on the list was the van Gogh museum. DSC01065On the way there we stopped off in a square that seemed to have some form of festive things going on, so that I could try another Dutch food – poffertjes, which are a kind of ball of pancake batter.Not the healthiest thing to eat, but tasted very good – as the slightly manic look on my face might suggest.

Again there are no pictures of the van Gogh Museum (though the picture at the top of this post was taken only a minute or so away from it), but it was excellent. It is strange having seen some of his work through other forms, like on TV, so to be in the same room as them felt odd, almost as if they weren’t real.

Once we had left the museum (one of the places where it felt there were more tourists than local people) we headed back towards the centre of Amsterdam, via the Rembrantsplein, which was the most festively bright part of the entire city, and the Nieuwmarkt – on the way I saw a sign for a “Dutch Sandwich”, not entirely sure I want to find out what that is – and eventually we got back to the main square, not far from our hotel. 100_0236We stopped for coffee, in a coffee place that seemed to be a sort of Dutch equivalent of Starbucks, except for one difference: this one had a cat in it. It seemed totally unbothered by the people coming and going, though it seemed to refuse to have its picture taken doing anything other than grooming, which it did a lot.

For our final dinner in Amsterdam we settled on steak – since there seemed to be a lot of Argentinian steak restaurants around. We walked about until we found one that looked like it could be good without being too pricey. It happened to be 8 steps (I counted) from the door of our hotel. The food was excellent, and the waiter seemed to take a shine to us, so after we had finished he made us this cocktail that involved mixing together Lemon Ice Cream, Blood Orange Vodka and Prosecco with a whisk in a large bowl. It tasted so good! I would recommend trying it. This is the point at which our plan for the day slightly feel apart. We had originally planned to go out and spend an evening enjoying some of the Amsterdam nightlife, but after dinner we were both so worn out by the day that we ended up staggering back to the hotel and going to bed.

Wednesday 21 December
This was the day we were to travel back. The ferry was at 2:30 in the afternoon, so we managed to have a lie in, before taking the double decker train back to Rotterdam, and from there to the Hook, without any of the ticket drama we had faced on the way in. Having arrived with plenty of time, we went to the supermarket we had visited on our arrival, so that we could get stuff for a picnic on the boat, as well as some very Dutch things: gouda, Hopjies (which are a small coffee flavoured boiled sweet – we had been eating them every time we went on a train), Gestampte Muisjes (a sweet aniseed powder that is really nice sprinkled on toast – sounds strange but it works), Hagelslag (a similar thing, but chocolaty) and Stroopwafels (which are a form of caramel waffle).

The ferry on the way back was even calmer than the journey out, and also even emptier: we had one of the main areas almost entirely to ourselves. We managed to eat, sleep and watch a fair few episodes of The Big Bang Theory on Alecky’s iPod before arriving back in Harwich and driving back down to Sidcup – by far the least exciting part of the trip.

It was an excellent break, and I would certainly like to go back and explore more of the country – though we did well only having a few days. It certainly made a big impression on me, and I would recommend that people go and visit it for themselves.

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