A Travellerspoint blog

Amsterdam

A city of Bikes, Culture, Sex and the Holey Smoke


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If anyone tries to convince you that the Earth is flat they’re probably Dutch.

Amsterdam is so flat that peddle-power is measured in minimum pedal rotations per 10 kilometres, making it the most bike-populated city in the world. So flat that anyone can ride well over retirement age and enjoy the right-of-way that all must give to those on two wheels, for if an ignorant tourist meanders along their dedicated red brick trail there is hell and bells to pay.

Amsterdam is so flat that if you drop a 2-euro coin, it doesn’t roll away, but settles conveniently at your feet. But do hesitate before stooping to pick it up and check dog poo and human spit wads that often spoil the polished cobblestones. Something not expected in this pristine city though in winter on a freezing day, the cold does tend to loosen the sinus into over-production.

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Yes, bikes are everywhere and a great way to get around, but if you don’t care for riding around looking for a parking spot, then hopefully securing your vehicle with a lock and heavy chain and hope that when you return it’s not missing one wheel and the rest is dangling over the canal, then walking is far better and if your feet do get tired, juts hop onto a tram, pay the conductor 1.60 euro for a 2-section trip and enjoy the smoothest ride ever.

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My preference is walking with only a vague idea of where I’m going and a street map tucked away to only consult when absolutely needed. For to wander is to find gems of sites, sounds and people that you could miss if taking the direct route. Amsterdam is easy to do this and easy to get back to the right direction, though with so much to see, every direction is the right way.

Rather than give a detailed, wordy, step-by-step diatribe of my visit to this beautiful city, I’m letting some selected photos tell the story, with the odd comment along the way. This may seem a bit of a cop-out, and well sorry, but it is, for I’m still travelling and getting behind with my blog, so I’m taking the easy way out and giving you a slide show to catch-up. But I promise to add more detail later when I’m not paying for hotel WIFI @ 6 euro an hour!

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The Hoppe Bar on Spui Square is one of the oldest and biggest sellers of beer in the city. Very quaint with sand still spread on the wooden floor and a great range of some of the best beers you will ever taste.

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On the culturual side of things, nothing beats the offering of art museums. Both the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum are totally absorbing in their depth of exhibits. Both cost 10 euro to get in.

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Begijnhof
Secluded from the street life of the busy Spui Square is the enclosed ‘hofjes’ (little courtyard) Begijnhof. Free entry but you are asked to remain quiet and respect the residents who live there. Originally a convent, this hofjes dates back to the early 14th century.

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Within Begijnhof is the Engelse Kerk (English Church) with its heavy wooden door, ornate organ pipes and simple but peaceful interior. Opposite is the Begijnhof Kapel where the Beguines would secretly worship after the loss of their Gothic church.

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Red Light district
Wander down the Red Light district canal at sunset and watch the activity grow both within the red-it rooms and the gathering crowd of onlookers and ingoers. Visit the Erotic Museum for 5 euro for 4 floors of some fascinating and some rather tardy exhibits. The higher you go the raunchier it gets, but by Dutch standards, all good clean fun.

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Along with the ladies crooking their finger invitingly at you, there are heavier dens of activity with live sex of all sorts and if you’re up to it, audience participation. These places start at about 30 euro. Then there's the peep shows with private booths from 2 euro a minute. It’s advised that you don’t photograph the ladies in their windows as some heavy hand from behind could make this very clear (hence my shaken pic that was rushed so as not to be noticed).

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Smoking
A statue of a street brat stands in Spui Square called the Lieverdje (Little Darling). Given to the city by a cigarette company, it became a meeting place for the Provo’s in the mid 60’s.

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This little statue seems to represent the ongoing worship of the weed, both tobacco and marijuana. Everywhere you go people are smoking. In bars it's common to see the bar staff smoking more than the clients and serve you your beer with a fag hanging out of their mouth adding to the dense cloud overhead. Smoking dope is condoned but be careful as customs will be strict if you try to take any away with you. You can drop into the Hash & Marijuana Museum and sample some and breathe a little sweet smell into the street.

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Posted by DenOS.08 01:40 Archived in Netherlands Comments (1)

Tiptoe into the tulips

Falling in love again


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A train ride to your destination is far more interesting than a twenty-five hour flight in darkness most of the way or an overnight ferry trip where the only interesting thing to see out of the porthole is imagined ghostly figures floating in the slightly illuminated wake.

So a train ride from Hook of Holland to Rotterdam Central is a refreshing, restful and enlightening change. But the best passing scenery was to come after changing to number nine platform and boarding the train to Amsterdam, making sure I get to the top deck for a better view. Now, not the best scenery by far I know, in this amazingly flat landscape but a refreshing change from the industrial and regimental houses between Heathrow and Harwich International.

The first sight of a windmill makes you wonder if it really works or is it placed there as a prop just to give visitors that oohh aahh factor. Whatever, it works, as the train glides respectively past and the land stretched into the far distance unhindered by neither mountain nor mound. And just as effective a sight is the deliberately placed water channels, the agricultural version of the canals I’m longing to see.

After and hour from Rotterdam, the train slides silently into Amsterdam Central Station giving a sense that this city is serious about public transport. Even though I’m entering the realm of lugging luggage through a station again, this time I’m so eager to feast my eyes on this city, I’ve forgotten past ordeals. But my feast for the eyes was marred by the extensive construction work stretching far from the station. But this is Amsterdam, the city I most loved when in Europe in the 60’s and no construction sight is going to spoil my welcome back.

It was too early to check into my hotel so a coffee would give me a chance to prop and refer to my map on how to navigate the streets. The little café Le Pot au Feu on Damrak not far from the station looked inviting and on entering, more than welcoming, so a second continental breakfast seemed appropriate for 5.95 euro.

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The hotel was a bit of a walk but I was not in the mood to cram onto a tram but rather stroll and take in the evolving architecture as I headed deeper into the southern canal district. Luggage on wheels is great, but luggage on wheels on cobblestones is both bumpy and loud so when I finally arrived at my hotel it was probably as much relief to others on the street as it was for me.

The Hotel Dikker & Thijs Fenice at 444 Prinsengracht blends with the other buildings edging the canal, but this was my home for three days and that’s three days without dragging my bags around, and on finally resting them in my allotted room in the attic suite, it was my little heaven.

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Posted by DenOS.08 11:50 Archived in Netherlands Tagged lodging Comments (1)

Smooth sailing to Holland

A change from air pressure and airline food

After the long haul from Melbourne, the tiring wanderings around stations, the struggle with luggage on trains and the eye-drooping wait for my ferry to come in, I was so ready for a bed and sleep, so finally the call to board was like a tonic that woke the senses.

The terminal to ship walkway at Harwich is still under construction so the meagre handful of waiting passengers are loaded onto a bus for delivery to the ferry. This is the first time I get a glimpse of the size of this thing, huge. I sailed to England in the 60’s on the Fairstar and I’d say it was just as big. Now, being a ferry that means it takes cars and trucks, so or bus followed the road up the ramp and into the bowels of this yawning whale. Out of bus and into a lift to take us to the eighth deck, out of ten, I think it was.

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The small reception seemed inadequate for the size of the ship, but we were shown the way to our cabins and I rushed to rid myself of my luggage and unwind in my own space. We are handed a menu for dinner being served in the restaurant and for 12 euro there is a three-course on offer.

Not to miss out on what else this vessel has to offer, I quickly dumped the bags, a quick wash to freshen up the eyes and headed south to the next deck down. Here is the pumping heart of the floating village. There, spread over most of the deck is a restaurant, large duty-free shop, a bar, another food hall and for those with foreign money to get rid of, slot machines and gambling tables. If you are not in any hurry to kip there is also a full-sized cinema.

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Checking out the restaurant, I opted for a cheaper range of food from food hall situated among the bar and gambling tables. Not a lot to choose from but ample. They took Pound and Euro, so I got rid of some English money. The number of passengers seemed larger as I realised that for every truck and car there is also a driver, but not being in holiday season, it was relatively empty. A Heineken at the bar went down so well I decided I like beer again, but this moment of relaxation reminded me that sleep was needed so I gave up the foreign film and headed back to my cabin.

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The cabin has two bunks. I opted for the lower one just in case we come across rough weather and it allowed a better view out the window, yes, more a window than a porthole. It was dark of course at midnight as the ferry set sail. Unless you heard the revving of the engine you would not have guessed. But yes I can see the lights of the harbour passing by, so after a quick brush of the teeth, I turned the lights out and watched till the ship was out of the harbour and on the high sea, as smooth as can be.

The next thing I new was being woken by a loud voice over the cabin phone reminding everyone to get up, breakfast is served in the food hall and to get off the boat by 7.45. Obeying orders, I quickly showered, ate and left the ship behind.

I was now on Dutch soil.

Posted by DenOS.08 00:27 Archived in Netherlands Tagged cruises Comments (0)

Planes, trains and more trains

-17 °C
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We all know Australia is a big country, but it’s also a country furthest from most other countries and anyone flying to Europe will understand that a flight from Melbourne to London can take around 24 hours or more with a stop over somewhere along the way.

So my first day of travel is not about to break this tradition. Around 9 hours before a 2-hour stopover in Hong Kong, back on the plane for another 15 hours before finally landing at London’s Heathrow Airport with only a staggered 4-hour sleep even though the Hong Kong to London leg was half empty and I managed to have the centre five seats to myself.

My plan is, once in London, I’ll get to Harwich International to catch the overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland then train to Amsterdam the following morning.

All sounds reasonable and achievable one would think, but when travelling with a suitcase and backpack with laptop adding to the weight, things can quickly get out of any well-researched plan.

Now keep in mind a 24-hour cramped journey in a flying cigar with only 4 hours napping, the first of my waiting experiences came in getting from Heathrow to London. Opting for the cheaper Heathrow Connect (£6 and 45 minutes) rather than the Express train (£12 and 15 minutes), was acceptable since customs and collecting baggage was extremely fast and as I had a bit of time on my hands until about 7 o’clock to get the train to Harwich International.

Arriving at Piccadilly station, the destination for both airport trains, had me wondering should I stay here before catching the circle line train to Liverpool Station to connect with the Harwich train? The time was now 2.30pm so I decided to hang around Piccadilly station as there’s quite a lot of shops and food outlets here, not that I was hungry after being fed all the way from Melbourne, but it didn’t take long to get sick and tired of dragging around luggage that, even if on wheels, gets heavier the more weary one gets.

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But I must admit that I could look at the architecture and detailing of stations of old for many hours as the more you look the more you discover. But after an hour you can only do the circuit of shops and endure the greasy smells of the food stalls for so long. With security as it now is in London, I must be beginning to look rather suspicious so I decided to get to Liverpool Station even if just for a change of scenery.

Now just to add a bit of a warning to those travelling with any sizable luggage of more than a briefcase of backpack, the trains from Heathrow cater to ones needs, but once in London you’re on your own as even a medium size suitcase can get in the way in the normal train system, so be prepared to stand in the doorway and out of everyone’s way who are getting on or off and be ready to move from the left to the right as not every departure is from the same side.

After another train trip of 45 minutes to get to Liverpool Station, I realised Piccadilly wasn’t that bad after all. Now, nothing against the station, it’s just as lovely but less to do while waiting.

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And here’s another problem when dragging around luggage, getting to a toilet is not that easy as the one at Liverpool is down steps. Not all things modern are bad, I feel.

After a couple of wandering hours at Liverpool, I thought a beer may pass away a few minutes but here I get another lesson, it is now office closing time and where do a lot of workers go while waiting for their carriage home, you bet, the pub. It was packed and no room for someone with luggage and as I approached I could see in the eyes of all the patrons, there's no space here for me.

An announcement that a train to Harwich was about to leave at 17.05 made me check the timetable to see how often trains go there. As this one was the last direct express for two hours I decided to get on – another error of judgement. The train, of at least 20 carriages, was full so for the first hour I stood with my luggage at the door entrance, again. For a train servicing the International ferries, there was no facility for any luggage and the tight seating layout left little space between seats. After an hour and one of the few stops I finally got a seat for the last 30 minutes until it arrived at Harwich International station.

I was relieved at first that it seemed quite modern with direct undercover entry to the ferry terminal departure lounge. But I realised all my mistakes had come to bite me, all the food stalls, the very few there are, were closed. In fact all seemed to be closed and not a soul around. There was one man at the Stena Line counter so I checked in. He informed me that boarding was not till 9.45pm, another three hours away. This was going to be a long, drawn-out battle just to stay awake.

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Next, my pleasure-cruise to Amsterdam…

Posted by DenOS.08 06:12 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged train_travel Comments (1)

In preparation, in pre-production, in anticipation

Research, research, research and planning and booking...when will it ever end?


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Europe in Winter and Asia in summer offers up its own considerations when attempting to travel light. All the advice in the world cannot prepare for the freezing days that I haven't endured for forty years and a long faded memory of things of pain. But I do have recent experience of the heat and humidity that is ever constant in South East Asia which can only add to the dilemma in planning this trip.

From the moment I had a reason to do this trip, I needed to do a lot of research, not only for how to get were I wanted to go, where to stay when I get there, what to do and see that is relevant, but with a research trip with a purpose in mind and a short time to do it, I needed a tight itinerary. The more I added to this itinerary, the more I found I needed to see and hence the time set aside started to become condensed and crowded. But this makes for a trip with a purpose, I figured. Well, possibly but it also makes for a reliance on travel connections and unforeseen lay-overs that can easily wipe out half a day.

Well, the time has almost arrived when all has been planned and booked, the itinerary is crowded and the credit card debit is bulging. This forced the creation of a spreadsheet in Excel to keep track of what I've paid for, what has been booked, what needs to be paid at the location and what deposits have been paid and the balances outstanding. These things need to be kept track of or things can get out of hand, the budget is shot and there is the chance of being overcharged or pay for something already paid for. The result is a binder that is starting to bulge with e-booking tickets and confirmations.

With just over two weeks before setting of on this journey, I'm only now starting to feel confident I've covered all bases...what's that I hear? Never! I agree, there will always be the unexpected when traveling and that's why I've set up this travel journal for all to follow my journey and join with me in my experiences and how I combat those unexpected hurdles that will inevitably block my passage (a common ailment when traveling).

Posted by DenOS.08 16:18 Comments (1)

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