Saturday, 30 May 2009

Netherlands - Amsterdam

We saved Amsterdam for the last leg of our trip through the Netherlands, and I have to say it was a bit of a rude shock to come back to a 'big city' after the freshly-painted, neatly-trimmed feel of the small towns and countryside around.

There are the canals of course, which are bigger in Amsterdam than the other towns we'd been to, and the shear number and variety of bikes was quite amazing, but it's all just a bit shabbier than the rest of the Netherlands and has a definite seedy edge to it.

Which is not to say Amsterdam is not a beautiful and interesting city to visit, it's just a contrast to the places we had been previously. In fact the history of the city and the museums and sites make it a fascinating place to stay.

We did all the usual sorts of things you expect of Amsterdam, such as visiting the Anne Frank museum, taking a canal tour, renting a canal bike, visiting the flower markets, etc.. We may also have excluded some of the other things Amsterdam is famous for.

And, despite the generally bad reputation the Netherlands has for food, we managed to keep ourselves well fed on pancakes, indonesian food, cheese, proffertjes, bitterballen, and other goodies.

By the end of our trip we were feeling very satisfied with our stay in the Netherlands - it is a really relaxing and interesting place to visit and we really felt like we would love to come back and see it again, if only to cross off two things from our 'must do in the netherlands' list: riding a bike through the countryside; and seeing the tulips growing in the fields.

Netherlands - Edam

Even though there is a town in the Netherlands called Edam, and a cheese that originates from the Netherlands called Edam, apparently no-one actually eats Edam in the Netherlands any more. The red-wax covered cheeses are almost entirely exported, and often actually made in Germany.

This didn't prevent the town of Edam from being a very pleasant stop for a night, with the usual assortment of canals, bridges, churches and a lovely hotel with an enormous and delicious breakfast (Linda's fine work once again to find the hotel).

We spent our time there wandering the streets and dropping into food and gadget shops. The weather was really nice and it was great just to be outside in it.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Netherlands - Zaanse Schans

Zaanse Schans is a small town in the Netherlands made up of historical houses and windmills relocated into a new site. It sounds quite terrible, but actually it is a genuine town with people living there, and it is amazingly well preserved and the windmills actually still do work (whether they do productive work is another question).

In fact after arriving in Zaanse Schans we wondered if we had wasted our time going to Kinderdjik, since it is actually more picturesque and interesting than Kinderdjik.

We spent most of our time wandering in and out of the shops there, the highlight being the clog shop where they had a demonstration of clog making, and where I spent a long time wondering if I really needed my own clogs. In the end I decided I could do without the clogs, since wearing them felt like I had two small boats installed on my feet.

We also went inside one of the windmills, which was used to make dyes for paints. I even made a little movie to show what it is like inside.

Outside of Zaanse Schans we also saw the few Tulips that we would see in the Netherlands: a few sad examples left behind while their neighbours had been lopped off for sale at the markets. Unusually for us we had not done our research - we figured that, while we were at the tail end of the Tulip season, there would surely still be some in the fields. How wrong we were! The season is apparently very precise and we had missed it by some 2 weeks. There were no longer any Tulips in the Netherlands and we resolved we would have to come back and see them next season.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Netherlands - Alkmaar

Next stop on our travels was to Alkmaar, where we wanted to see the cheese markets that were on in the morning. The cheese is Gouda, but although there is actually a town called Gouda in the Netherlands, after which the cheese is named, the markets in Alkmaar are meant to be more interesting.

Coming from Switzerland we're quite used to idea of cheese being a staple food, but the Netherlands have wrapped it up in a fair amount of tourist-friendly ceremony, and the markets were certainly fun to watch.

It was very entertaining seeing the cheese being sampled, carried to the weighing machines and to the carts by the 'strong men' with the silly hats, and ultimately rolled into a truck for transport.

After watching the markets for a while, we tasted a fair bit of the stuff and bought a few slices that kept us well fed (perhaps a little too well fed!) for the remainder of the trip.

Netherlands - Haarlem

We were on a tight schedule in the Netherlands - we were only there for 5 days over the long weekend of Ascension holidays - and as a result only had one night in Haarlem.

Like Delft, Haarlem was a very attractive mix of canals, market squares, people on bikes, and had the added attraction of people floating down the more sizeable canals on their canal boats.

We also had our first delicious taste of Indonesian Rijsttafel (Indonesia being a past Dutch colony). In fact we stuffed ourselves silly on Indonesian food on a couple of occasions in the Netherlands!

Netherlands - Kinderdjik

After our morning in Delft we drove out into the countryside to Kinderdjik, which is one of those places with windmills on canals that you see on postcards of the Netherlands.

Windmills are of course one of the icons of the Netherlands, along with Canals, Cheese, Tulips and Bikes, and we were keen get started on ticking each of those boxes!

It was pretty exciting to see windmills in action - although you do see a surprising number of them strewn about the country-side, not many of them are operational. I can't say that I'd thought about it much, but I didn't realise before that the windmills were mostly built to drain the water from the low-lying countryside, a job that has been passed on to steam and then diesel power.

It was quite interesting to climb around inside the windmills and see them up close, but we'd taken longer than expected to get to Kinderdjik and we didn't want to hang around too much - we had more windmills later in our itinerary!

Netherlands - Delft

Some countries take some time to warm to, but when we arrived in Netherlands we were almost immediately in love with it. The airport was clean and organised, and the people at the car rental place were prepared and friendly and we even got upgraded to a bigger car! Linda even found some delicious Vlaamse frites (chips and mayonnaise) [okay officially that's Belgian, but like lots of things in the Netherlands, like the Belgian beers, the Indonesian food, and the amazing language skills, you won't end up caring too much where it originates].

Then we arrived in Delft, a very pretty town with canals and market squares and bars with happy drinkers in them and people on bikes chatting to each other as they rode side by side. Linda had organised an excellent hotel right in the town and we found a car park right outside; pretty much the perfect start!

The next morning we spent some time wandering around the town, although since it was Ascension public holiday it was quite quiet.

We climbed the church tower to see the view and checked out the Delftware in the tourist shops.

There was also an antiques market where we saw some cool old clogs and ice skates, and had our first try of broodje haring (raw herring sandwich), which we decided we didn't need to finish.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Les Jardins du Château de Vullierens

On Sunday we wanted to get out of the house, but didn't want to overstretch ourselves since next weekend we're off to the Netherlands and we still had a lot of preparation in front of us.

So, since the weather was looking good, we headed off to Vullierens, which is just outside Lausanne, to see Les Jardins du Château de Vullierens, which was just opening its spring time Floralies d'Iris.

In fact we were about 1 week early from the official opening, but while there were some flowers yet to bloom there was plenty to see and maybe we'd managed to beat the rush of the official opening.

So we took a lot of close-up pictures of Irises and other flowers (in fact the most interesting photos may have been Linda's of the plain old dandelions), wandered around the grounds of the Château, and had a slice of cake in the outdoor cafeteria.

It was all very pleasant, as you can imagine, and a nice surprise to find the Château and the village of Vullierens. It seems like Switzerland, like much of Europe, does its little villages very well.

Monday, 4 May 2009


I'm going to have to interrupt my blogging of our trip to Tunisia (which has turned into a long and tortuous affair), because this weekend we went to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc!

Linda gave me a flight over Mont-Blanc for my birthday last year, and we'd waited until now simply because we'd been too busy to do it earlier. We watched the weather for a few weeks, and it looked like this one was going to be clear, so we booked a hotel and off we went!

On Saturday we didn't do too much more than wander around Chamonix town, poking our heads into shops and taking food and coffee stops.

In fact we spent many hours looking through the many food and sports shops. I was looking for a cheap, light, rain jacket - which seems to be an impossible combination when the shops only stock brands like North Face, Mammut, and Eider.

The next day we woke up to clear skies - the view from our hotel room up the valley to Mont-Blanc, was quite amazing.

We arrived at the airport in Megeve and watched a few planes taking off and landing on the curiously sloping and dipping runway, before boarding our little plane and starting our flight.

We flew up the valley to Chamonix and then around two glaciers and Mont-Blanc itself. I took lots of photos of the amazing scenery.

I also took some video, which I've turned into a stunning piece of cinematography set to the Top Gun anthem.

After the flight we headed back to Chamonix and immediately jumped on the Aiguille du Midi Telepherique, a two-step lift to one of the Mont-Blanc peaks, around 3900m.

At the top station, the lift is so steep the cable almost touches the back of the cabin. I have to confess I felt quite queezy towards the top - I just kept thinking about the fact that we were held on by that slender cable, which disappeared above us to an unseen anchor point, and below towards a drop of many hundreds of metres.

My queeziness was soon forgotten, however, once I saw the amazing views from the top (you have to catch an elevator to the very top viewing platform).

We also watched some climbers appearing over a ridge, from where they were presumably returning either from one of the refuges, that seem to have been built on only the most precipitous cliffs of Mont-Blanc, or from summitting the mountain itself.

Eventually we had to head back down (more queeziness), which we did just in time to jump on the Montenvers railway to the Mer de Glace (sea of ice) Glacier.

We thought this would be a quick tourist train around the corner from Chamonix, but in fact it is quite an impressive trip, up a very steep and winding track, to the tip of the Glacier at some 2000m.

Once you see the glacier, its also easy to imagine that it is just the dusty, rocky, tip of the glacier above, however it is possible to actually enter inside the glacier, from where you can see that in fact it is solid, blue, ice inside, and you can see bubbles of air, pebbles, and even some sizable rocks suspended within.

This was at the end of a long day, so we didn't have long to hang around at the glacier, however it was certainly an amazing way to wind up the weekend!

I think it's safe to say we had an amazing time at Chamonix. We will amost certainly go back in Summer to see the difference from our early Spring visit. What's more, it is only 1.5h drive from home!