Thursday, August 02, 2012

Netherlands July 31

Yesterday I decided to not pack the bike at the hotel, since that would have entailed taking public transportation to the rail station with 2 pieces of heavy luggage. Instead, I put the trailer on and cycled to the train station. The ticket counter didn't open until 6 am, but there were no "hours" signs, so nobody really knew what time they opened.  The automatic ticket machines only accept cards with a chip and pin #, so I sweated it out for a few minutes.  The ride is only 18 minutes and drops you directly at the airport. I spent 1.5 hours folding my bike and reconfiguring all gear back into the duffle and 20 minutes to get through security, but I had checked in via a kiosk, so I just had to check my bags and pay for the one. That part was pretty quick. Security was right at the gate... interesting.
KLM was very cognizant of my lunch request this time.  They distributed the special meals first (as opposed to coming to the Netherlands, when they messed it up and distributed them last and had given my meal away by accident), though the meal was very institutional.
At JFK, the whole journey went weird.  First you go through passport check, then collect your bags, then go through customs, where they take your little "I am not taking any dangerous flora or fauna home" form, then you walk the length of that terminal, stand in line to re-check your bags, run upstairs to Airtran, run outside to the terminal under construction, back through security (20 min), then to the gate, which has changed.  There was only about 1 hour between flights.  A little hairy, but I made it.
Home sweet home.
Dwight had saved all bad news up while I was gone.  The dog had to be put down and a friend was having serious trouble.  I guess I am glad to have not known.  It pays to have a wonderful person at home.

Netherlands July 30

Woke up and ate the breakfast I bought at Albert Heijn last night.  I briefly visited Albert Cuyp market, even though it was really be too early for most of the booths to be open. Still interesting. I jumped into the queue for Rijkmuseum and was one of the first through the door.  This proved to be very valuable, since the museumkaart also allowed me expedited entry.  The early hour meant that I missed all the tours coming through and had excellent access to all of the exhibits. I only spent about 1 hour there, since most of the museum is under renovation. Next I took a look at the Van Gogh museum.  Because I don't need to worry about the cost of the museums, I felt that if I didn't see as much of the museum as I wanted, I could come back later, but I saw what I wanted in an hour and a half.  The information about Van Gogh and some of those who influenced him was very interesting.  They even had the original vase he had used in one of his still life works. The third floor housed an exhibit about graphic arts, including posters advertising shows and such.  The artist I am familiar with is Toulouse-Lautrec.

Next was the Jewish Museum.  I thought it would be more about the history of Jews, but it was more about culture and reflections. It was okay. St. Nicholas, the catholic church across from Centraal Station was exceptionally beautiful, but no photos were allowed.  It reminded me of some tour guide who spoke about the rational for building beauty that makes you look up towards god.  This was certainly the case. It was juxtaposed by the restrictions on how far you could enter the church, even though there were no services. Really truly a magnificent church, even seeing a tiny portion.

There are free tours put on by Sandeman. You tip the guide according to how much you can afford and how much you enjoyed the tour. Our guide explained the Dutch attitudes about marijuana and prostitution as, in part, a knee jerk reaction to WW II and the cooperation of Amsterdam in the collection and persecution of the Jews.
  He also showed us Amsterdam's solution to men pissing in the streets and the consequences of attempts to provide women the same kind of facilities (after the women protested). The women's facilities were shuttered because since they were totally enclosed and could be locked, they were used for drug use and women were being assaulted in them.  He also talked about the thousands of bicycles dredged from the canals each year and explained that the canals are purged and flushed about every 3 days.  This is one of the reasons the canals don't stink like the ones in Venice.  Yesterday I watched someone in the canal with a face mask on, trying to locate a boat which sank and apparently a long time ago people would throw their dead horses in the canals. Makes you wonder what you would see if you drained one totally. Parts of the old wall and gates still exist, as well as one of the weighing houses, from the times when ocean going ships came right down the canals to the city walls. It is amazing to see how skinny most of the houses are; this one was so skinny it is hard to imagine having anything more than a single sized bed in it.

I ate cheese sandwiches and an apple for lunch, but couldn't resist the urge to get a very un-vegetarian fried roll out of the hot vending machines.  Such an interesting concept.  The staff is still there, but they stock the machine continually from the back and serve things like french fries.
In Dam square (named because the river used to be damned there before the whole great harbor was enclosed) there were costumed, music and performance buskers.

My hotel room is on the 4th floor and overlooks a lovely backyard deck.  There is no privacy in back yards, since other buildings overlook them from far above.

Netherlands July 29

The only person packing this morning, I got up at about 7, so as to not wake the others absurdly early.  We trekked through Brugge, but most of the restaurants were not open early, so we had to eat at a tourist place in one of the main squares; very expensive, compared to what we have been paying ($15 as opposed to $8 or so), but it was good food and filling. The owner/manager appeared annoyed at the presence of customers. All in all, I would probably have preferred to go to a grocery and have a breakfast picnic, but no stores were open. As we sat the horse carriages showed up.
The trip to Amsterdam is in two parts, first traveling to Antwerp, then on to Amsterdam, for about $60, including $9 for the bike. I could probably have avoided the bike charge by folding it, but my anxiety about connections and getting on and off where high enough to accept the extra charge. When Sara was with us, we were able to piggyback off her student discount card, which amounted to about a 40% discount, so the difference is substantial.

There is quite a difference in the attitudes about bicycles between the two countries.  Belgium is not quite as fanatical about bikes; the paths are often less prominent, drivers take bikes less seriously and bikes don't seem quite as welcome.  Still better than the US.
Since the train tracks are not elevated, you don't get much of a view of the cities and what we saw while cycling was far superior to the views from the train windows.  On the second leg, the bike compartment was first, included in the first class section, but I was not allowed to sit in first class.  As a result of not wanting to stray too far from the bike and trailer, I sat in a jump seat in the bike section.  Not quite as comfortable as a regular seat, but I was in good company. 6 or so others where there as well and after a spell, we struck up interesting and humorous conversations. I told them how inferior I felt because one was reading "The Last Cavalier" by Dumas and another "The Prince" by Machiavelli, while I was reading a Tom Clancy novel. We joked that I should just buy a hardcover of something sophisticated and use the jacket to cover my book.  As a matter of fact, you could do that with an entire home collection. One person was Dutch, two French and the rest English.  The English got partly off at most stops to have a smoke.  Really funny. I was oldest, but one of the English looked to be about 30.

Off the train in Amsterdam Centraal station, mass chaos spread before me.  Buses, parked bicycles all over and tons of people, with no signs I could read.  I followed the largest quantity of people to locate the  exit. Outside, my compass helped with orientation.  If I had had a decent map starting off, it would have been faster finding the hotel, but it was fun and a pleasant challenge just figuring out how to move with the wide variety of traffic. Fortunately, I have now been in the Netherlands long enough to recognize many traffic signs and have been blessed with learning outside of huge cities, where the various traffics are lighter and more forgiving. I had to ask 5 different people for directions and I had written the name of the street on my hand.  It was pretty amusing how easily people accepted this as okay behavior.  One guy actually took my hand and re-oriented it to better read the writing and another told me it didn't say anything.  I think what he meant was that he didn't recognize the name of the street, but his English lacked a way to express that.  It came out funny and I laughed.  Hope he wasn't offended. The last person I asked (when I knew I was quite close), was highly irritated with himself, because he said he knew the street was close, but couldn't place it.  He took out his phone and looked it up. It was one block away. Even people who proclaim to not really speak english speak it better than I speak Spanish. Generally they stumble trying to find the exact word they want, but they always get their meaning across. I found myself trying to speak french or spanish, because I don't know Dutch. This probably confused people further.
The hotel is very nice, but the one woman seemed short on patience. A man stepped up to help me and he was very good; he told me that though I could not take the bike to my room, I could store it overnight in the baggage room and disassemble it in the courtyard out back.
Dumping my trailer and stuff in the room and using the map the front desk gave me, I went out to explore and better orient myself to the city.  Like a wheel, the city is easy to get around and the streets are generally well marked.  I found the Amsterdam, Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum, checked the Red Light district for private boats for a canal tour (unsuccessfully), rode through Vondelpark, found St. Christopher's church and shopped in an Albert Heijn grocery store. I also stopped for a pancake with cheese and ginger, and learned how to say "have a good day", which sounds a little like "fine a duck". It appears that my attempts to learn some words before I came failed, since I ended up with the wrong words somehow.
Drank wine and ate stroopcakes in my room and read my book by the open window overlooking the city as the sun went down.

Netherlands July 28

We parted company with Sara and Robbert this morning.  We shall see if we are able to navigate on our own...

Skirting Middleburg, Netherlands (not to be confused with Middleburg, Belgium), we headed for the ferry to take us across the channel and towards Belguim. The ferry is for bikes and pedestrians only, since several years ago a tunnel was built.
There are no signs telling you that you are entering Belgium, no border crossing. In Sluis, we stopped for lunch and visited a VVV (tourist info) where we bought a cycling map to get us to Brugge.  Unlike in the US, there were no freebies.
We mostly followed a canal into Brugge.  It was a very popular route for cyclists, joggers, walkers, roller bladers and people fishing. There was even someone swimming up the canal.  That would be like one of those lap pools- you could go forever (kind of).
Fields of onions lined the paths.

This is a photo of the human powered ferry.  It crossed the canal in a section without a bridge for a long, long distance.
This is one of many cargo boats.  I suspect the owners or managers live on them.  The painting and ornamentation is unique on each.

The streets of Brugge are set in roughly two concentric circles, corralled  by the canals and consistently cobbled.  This tends to be a bit of a bone shaker on a steel bike (or probably any bike), but we saw many skinny tired racing bikes.  There are windmills set around the perimeter of the city.
As we approached the outer ring of the city, an older man on a bike asked us a one word question: kamping? He never spoke another word after we answered in the affirmative, but led us directly to the camping.  That would have taken us quite a while, if left to our own devices.
Each camping situation is different and all have their idiosyncrasies.  This one had free showers, but no toilet paper. We met two men with recumbent child seats on the fronts of their bikes. They told us they had traveled to France, but just far enough to see the welcome sign, take a photo, then turn around and come back.  Still a feat with two small kids, but pretty funny, none the less.
We entered Brugge after setting up, because it was already 4:30 and we knew things would shut down, but there was still live music and many shops were open. Chocolate and lace shops predominated the landscape.

Several huge squares hosted music, horse drawn carriages gave the acoustic echoes of long ago and  sculptures and fountains graced several squares. Canals, bridges and buildings built right into water dissected the streets and it became difficult to know north from south.
For dinner we ate pizza (one of the only reasonably priced options).  Customer service here is quite poor; you often wait a long time for someone to take your order and they rarely ask if you want anything further.  Sara attributes this to the discouragement of tipping, leaving the wait staff with little or no motivation to actually wait on you. I think for the most part, I would rather picnic.

We gleefully (at least Linda and I were gleeful, and maybe beerfull) wandered aimlessly as dark fell and we had to use lights for the first time.
Laundry was a desperate plight for Bill and Linda and I were amenable to doing ours as well, but it was almost midnight before it was done and we could go to bed.

Netherlands July 27

We headed out from the campground and backtracked a tiny bit to return to the Oosterschelde water's edge. From there we proceeded to cross the Zeelandbrug bridge, the longest bridge in the Netherlands. The lock at the beginning was interesting, because they built the busy road to shift from one end of the lock to the other, allowing traffic to continue even if the bridge at one end was lifted.
There was the usual crop of wheat, plus a leafy crop which was probably sugar beets and a crop I've never seen before, which Bill thought might be rye. If anyone recognizes it, please let me know.
We came back through Veere, back to its truncated church tower, and had lunch and a desert of inverted ice cream with wee small cones on top.
We showed no  ice cream restraint. Such a tiny little town, with narrow streets and huge delivery trucks.  It was amazing to watch them navigate the streets and intersections. A horse drawn carriage trundled through it all with a bride and groom on their way to city hall.
These three beautiful wooden boats were docked along the canal.  They may be used for excursions in package deals.  The upkeep must be non-stop.

Arriving at 1:45 at the Stayokay castle Domburg, our room was not ready, so we dumped our bags and went out to the beach.  The water was about 50 degrees, similar to Lake Ontario, so we just hung out on the beach until the air temperature dropped too far.
On arriving back at the castle it began to rain; great timing. Showers and the spreading of clothes to dry encompassed the time until we met up with Robbert and his dad, Han.  Dinner was at a Mexican Restaurant in Domburg, in part to get margueritas. Back at the Stayokay castle, Robbert, Bill, Sara and Linda played a game, while I caught up on this blog. Han headed off home. Tomorrow we lose Sara to Robbert, as they work their way back home.
Linda and I had a funky tan competition.  I am not pleased to announce that I won. Kean shoe wearers unite!

Netherlands July 26

We took the train from Arnhem to Middleburg.  On the first leg of the train trip we were alone and able to sit. On the second leg, there were two cars with bike storage areas, but both had bikes in them already. We shoved ours in as well, but had to split into two groups.  Blocking the doorways meant that we had to rearrange ourselves every time someone wanted to get on or off.  Fortunately, the second ride was only 30 minutes or so.  The ticket collector came through and laughed because it seemed a fiet train (bike train), there were so many bikes, but he didn't yell at anyone for blocking the stairs, doors and passages.
Middleburg is very touristy, but the tourists were mostly Dutch. We visited a seminary, with its affiliated church.  There were tombs in the floors, a la The Divinci Code and two huge naves, each with an impressive organ.
There was a Thursday market, with all manner of stuff being sold, from fresh prepared foods to farm (not necessarily local) goods, to cloth by the yard. We saw only a small portion of the market, but it was enough, especially since we chose to drag our bikes along with us through the crowds. We got strawberries, fresh stroop waffles and milkshakes. Stroop waffles are 2 really thin, sweet waffles with honey sandwiched in between.

Very rough cobblestones are tough on the bike.  A weld on one of my water bottle cages gave out as a result. I also lost the bolts which held on my right toe clip and had to remove that toe clip cage. Each night I check the bolts and screws, but it is tough to check them all. Most of the streets in towns are cobbles or brick.
For scale, keep in mind my bike has 20" wheels
As we headed out of Middleburg, a sail was passing us in the middle of a field.  If you look closely at the trees at the left side of the photo you can just see the top of it.  Someone was sailing in the canal. The wind must have been dead perfectly behind them to fill that spinnaker.
The Oosterschedle waters are enclosed by a series of dams (Pijlerdam)/walls/man made islands created as reaction to the 1953 flood which killed 2,000 people. We crossed this series of about 4 dams and the connected land, about 10.5 km.
There are many new windmills along this feature and more are being built. Fish farms, beach goers and kite surfers share the connecting "islands". A lock allows passage of boats from the ocean to the inner "harbor" which is actually partly salt water. Sluice gates allow the ocean water to move in and out, but they can be closed in emergencies to prevent flooding. Boats still need to pass through a lock to go from the ocean to the enclosed protected waters.
Coming off the final bridge/dam/man made island, we came across the odd little town of Kat. Not a sole was to be seen, but many of the road signs and poles were encased in yarn.  In the states we might call this "yarn bombing". We found someone to ask outside of town and our best guess at what she told us is that the regional religious order had tried to close their church and the yarn was a show of support for keeping it open.
It is interesting to note that even the people who say their english is very poor speak far better english than I speak spanish. They are embarassed by their poor english.  Little do they know...

We followed the path signs and did a small loop, which took us back to the other side of the town with the yarn bombing. Kat was only about 6 blocks square, so we found our circumnavigation via the path to be pretty funny.
Zierikzee was the town just before the campground.  It had the narrowest streets yet.
At the campground, there were no owners, just a sign that read "choose your own pitch". Free showers, but no wifi or laundry.  You can't win them all. Pretty nice place. None of the campgrounds are totally quiet.  Probably if they put them out in the middle of nowhere it would be quiet, but since they are generally situated close to towns, highways, trains and air traffic is always at least a little audible.