The Netherlands / Germany, 22/11/12: …and the day got off to such a good start.
We were leaving Den Haag for our next destination, Horn-Bad Meinberg in Germany – a country hamlet nearish Hanover and about 6 hours on the train. We managed to get ourselves up and out in good time and after farewells to John & Marie, hopped onto our early tram to Den Haag HS station. We even had time to pick up some breakfast for the trip.
Up til now, the Dutch train system had been great – punctual, plenty of info and kind to foreigners. Today, however, the displays were all down so we were forced to revert to the quaint practice of asking people in broken Dutch (or English if we were lucky) which train was ours.
Using this approach we managed to get to our first change point, Amersfoort. Flushed with the success of this approach, we next learned that our second train to Bünde was running late, so we anxiously watched a train leave our designated platform at the designated time, 85% sure that it wasn’t ours.
When the next train eventually arrived, the boards still down, we conducted a hasty vox pop and, through the malaise of crappy Dutchglish (editor’s note: Nicole has indicated that she is offended by this description), concluded with reasonable certainty that this train was indeed headed to Bünde. On we scrambled.
This was to be a longish leg of the trip and the one that crossed the Dutch/German border, so when maybe 40 minutes in our train stopped somewhere called Zwolle and everyone got off we started to get concerned. After a minute or so of nervous waiting and some Dutch announcements over the train PA, it became clear that this train had terminated. Dang.
Hauling our gear onto the platform at our mystery destination, we assessed our options.
The train information system was still not an option.
We found a conductor with some English and a hand-held device that provided answers. After some stern button-pressing and lively conference with another train person, she deduced that our best chance now would be to hop on another train to somewhere called Deventer, some way south and our nearest international station, and ask them what to do. So after a short wait we did just that.
Some time later and we were discussing options with the patient ticket lady in Deventer who plotted a new course for us that left shortly and would see us at our destination by about 5. Not too shabby, so back up to the platform we went.
Bear in mind that intercity trains usually arrive at the a few minutes early to give passengers a few frantic minutes to fight through the crowds and find their wagon. We certainly bore this in mind as we boarded the wrong train and headed in the wrong direction for 15 minutes. Double dang.
The good news was that getting a train back to Deventer was easy. The bad news was that we’d well and truly missed our intended train. Tails between legs and weary from hauling suitcases on and off trains, we slunk back to the Deventer ticket office where the slightly less patient ticket lady recharted our course, now departing in two hours time.
By this time I was growing tired and stressed and my own patience was wearing thin. Tourists til the end, however, we took this opportunity to explore Deventer. 90 minutes was just enough time to haul our luggage into a shopping street, look at some outdoors apparel shops, get abused by a homeless guy and then drag our luggage along with our sorry selves back to the station. Up yours, Deventer, I thought, struggling for something to blame for our predicament. I might have muttered it out loud once or twice as well.
So finally we’re on our way to our next connection point, and this time on Deutsche Bahn. At last! Swift, German efficiency – exactly what we needed to see us safely to our destination.
But, alas, the European rail network was not done with us yet. Somewhere on the way to Osnabrück, our train slowed and then stopped. Following 30 minutes of confused glances exchanged with other passengers, occasional slow forwards movement and garbled German announcements, it transpired that our train had in fact broken down. Another train was stopped just outside that could take us to Osnabrück, so again we heaved our luggage down and, along with the other human cargo, headed for the exits.
Only I couldn’t open the door. Must be that I’m tired, foreign and don’t understand these German doors, I reasoned, so stepped aside to let a native have a go. Same result. We can see our train outside, waiting to leave. We clambered to another door: no dice. What on earth is happening?? We’ll be found dead here next Spring.
Tortuous seconds and minutes passed as we remained trapped in our capsule, forced to stare at our salvation, like orphans outside Scrooge’s dining room. Finally, however, the doors relented and we ran another suitcase steeple chase to our new train.
A brief interrogation of our watches and some elementary mental algebra yielded the disquieting but predictable result: we would miss our next connection. The helpful and well-spoken German man in our carriage who suggested we call DB to complain did not really help us. In my mind I was wondering if we could survive the cold night on the streets.
But by now we were savvy enough and close enough to our target that we could improvise. On alighting in Osnabrück, Nicole selected another train that got us nearer to our destination and from there we were only a couple of hops from Horn-Bad Meinberg.
Mercifully, the remainder of the journey went relatively smoothly – if not quickly – leaving us shivering on a dark, empty platform at our one-horse destination at 8:30pm hoping for a taxi to arrive (it did). We realised too late that we had actually purchased a first class Eurail passes so could have at least been stressed out in comfort, but never-the-less I rationalised that by turning a 6 hour journey into 12 hours we really got good value out of our day pass.
Furthermore, it felt nice to be in Germany at last where even if we were lost, we at least had a better chance of communication. And salty Brezels.
Den Haag (The Netherlands), 21/11/12: 24 hours left in Den Haag – time to take in some sights.
Starting in John & Marie’s apartment, I got to have a closer look at Marie’s recently acquired fortepiano, currently undergoing service but still playable.
It’s a very groovy instrument. Piano-like sound but with a much lighter touch and of course the inverse white-black keyboard is quite stylish.
We headed into town and met John, Marie and Zoe for our dim sum banquet (mentioned previously) and the took to the galleries with touristic zeal.
First stop was the Mesdag Panorama. Back in the late 19th century, panorama paintings (that is large-scale, 360° paintings that surround the viewer) were the attraction de jour – as it was explained to us, they once occupied a similar place in the spectrum of entertainments that cinemas do today.
There was a Belgian company that commisioned panoramas around Europe, often in purpose-built buildings. Since it was a commercial enterprise and panorama’s are typically only viewed from a distance, they did not tend to employ renowned or established painters, but Mr Mesdag was an exception, making this panorama quite unique.
The other thing that makes the Mesdag Panorama unique is that it still exists in its original location – after the Belgian company went bust, Mesdag purchased the building containing his work and it has been preserved ever since.
To be honest, not knowing what to expect, I wasn’t super-excited to see it but once we emerged from up the stairs to the viewing platform we were quite struck. First of all, it’s big – 40m in diameter to be precise. Secondly, it is a beach and town scene as seen from a pagoda on a sand-dune (the viewing platform) so the room it filled with sand which hides the bottom edge of the canvas and the pagoda roof hides the top so it is seamless to the viewer. This, plus the natural lighting creates a convincing illusion of depth so that you can’t quite judge the distance of the wall. Only the absence of parallax as you move around betrays the effect (though this does give you a neat, woozy sensation).
The building hosts a regular gallery too, which was worth a slow, hands-clasped-behind-your-back stroll through.
Next stop was the museum of one of Den Haag’s favourite sons MC Escher, and here’s the proof:
I came here on my last visit but Nicole hadn’t been and it’s worth a second look. Besides originals of his well-known pieces it also features many less famous prints and some of his graphic design / poster work.
It also sports some fancy chandeliers – a different one in each room.
By closing time at Escher it was time to get back to the apartment and get our affairs in order for an early start and long train trip the next day.
Thanks Den Haag and massive thanks to John, Marie & baby Zoe for having us!
Leiden (the Netherlands), 20/11/12: On Tuesday we travelled to the neighbouring university town of Leiden to visit Vikki & Kyl, friends from Perth who upped stumps and relocated here a couple of years ago.
Like so many other places we’ve visited, Leiden is an old city with an interesting history. It once rivalled Amsterdam in terms of size but these days appears more modest, yet it has retained many of the qualities of a big Dutch city from centuries ago. In short, it’s a beautiful place to live.
Before we met with K&V, we did some light touristing of our own around Leiden.
We caught K&V after office hours and, to kick things off, got a bit of a tour of the dream they’re living.
Further to the pleasure of their company, we were also treated to a very nice Dutch dinner (previously documented) before heading back to Den Haag with the definite impression that this place offers a lifestyle choice that you could really get used to. Thanks Kyl & Vikki!
The Netherlands, 19/11/12: Staying in Den Haag put within a day trip’s distance from Efteling, an amusement park located in a Dutch forest that Nicole had received some positive reviews of back in Australia.
Efterling was opened in 1952 and is largely a product of the imagination of the late Anton Pieck, a Dutch artist and designer. It distinctive and often fairy-tale inspired attractions were rumoured to have been an inspiration for Walt Disney when he designed Disney Land. It continues to have new attractions designed and built for it by a team of “imagineers”, a JD that, for me, conjures images of wild-haired, over-all clad eccentrics brandishing charcoals and paint-brushes with wild, gay abandon.
It was an appropriately cool and misty Monday when we headed out there and medieval trumpets sieved through tinny speakers heralded our approach along the long entrance path, an indication of how busy this place could get during peak season.
Inside, the sprawling park is divided into sections. Our first call was the fairytale forest, an enchanted world or wonder and delight, brought unsettlingly to life with a combination of sounds, lights and a fairy-pinch of mechatronic magic.
A personal highlight was the museum, which featured surplace or retired creations from the park. The front room was given a house of horror vibe, with dingey lighting, eerie sound effects and shelves full of decapited fairy-tale heads adorning the walls.
There were also rides and other amusements that we explored, ranging from scary (for the cool kids) to scarily fairy (for the namby-pambs) to just downright confusing.
However, the clear highlight for the day was the Indian fairytale. As the English description explained, a hideously ugly witch with a beautiful voice saw the stars and was so jealous of their beauty, dancing on the water, that she turned them into water-lillies. However, when the full moon comes out (so read the description), IT happens…
(I had my own video of this but it proved too hard to upload from my phone at our present accommodation. Stick with this one for a few minutes or fast-forward 2 mins in, there’s a big, Cantena-style pay-off.)
Den Haag (the Netherlands) 18/11/12: Pretty high on Nicole’s Europe checklist was to go to a European flea market, so it was perhaps providence that on our first day in Den Haag we spotted a large banner outside the station, broadly proclaiming “VLOOIENMARKT” tomorrow.
It was out in the suburbs, which meant a bus-borne adventure, but before we knew it we were out in the wilderness, rubbing shoulders with the public at large and picking through tables overflowing with all manner of superfluous treasures.
Averting our eyes from the man at the entrance selling hard-core porn and possibly used marital aids, we made our way into the basketball stadium to pan for some nuggets of our own. The hits-to-shits ratio was about as low as any other swapmeet I’ve been to, just more European. Never-the-less, I still walked out with a Gameboy camera and Nicole scored some smurf figurines, a euro-poodle book and some antique postcards. Success.
We headed back into Den Haag to meet John, Marie and Zoe for a light feed then meandered back to their place via the shops for a home-cooked chickpea curry and chocolate self-saucing pudding a la Pete & Nicole, plus some competetively-priced exotic Dutch ales. Then, a baby photoshoot.
Bonus Zoe shots:
Den Haag (ND) 17-22/11/12: A chronologocally oblique post to cover some of our foody experiences around The Netherlands.
Erwbten (pea and sausage soup) from a Den Haag soup cafe. Just the thing for a cold, foggy saturday.
Hot chocolate and coffee from another nice little Den Haag cafe as we waited to meet John and Zoe. We could sit here and watch Zwarte Piet direct traffic in the street outside.
Chips with mayo, the dutch condiment of choice outside a Den Haag pub with Zoe, Marie and John on Sunday. Tastes better than you’d think.
Burger (patty sans bun) and chips (with mayo of course) at Efteling on Monday.
Kebabs in Leiden on Tuesday. Turkish food has possibly overtaken chips in a paper cone with mayo as the ubiquitous Dutch fast food of choice.
Entrée of paté and a raw meat dip (whose name I forget but all tasty) plus €2 supermarket glühwein at Kyl and Vikki’s in Leiden. The glühwein (warmed) was more delicious than the price-tag and point of origin might suggest.
Kyl prepared a traditional Dutch meal of sausage, potato, broccoli and onion mash plus bread. He has his game face on here. Apparently home cooking is not such a popular pass-time here, so we were told, making Kyl & Vikki anomolous in this respect.
Dim Sum, a la carte, Den Haag style. Actually pretty good, though no fried squid tentacles.
If I haven’t mentioned already – and I will surely raise this again – booze here is cheap. Wine from around €1, beer is cheaper than water and a good whiskey is maybe €20-30. I seem to recall seeing a Laphraoig Quarter Cask for around this price. That’s Christmas taken care of then, eh?
Den Haag (The Netherlands), 18/11/12: Our very excellent hosts in the Netherlands – the Hague / Den Haag more specifically – have been John, Marie and baby Zoe.
Straight off the boat at the Hook of Holland we hopped on the train bound for Den Haag and were greeted by John at the other end.
I last stayed with a pre-Zoe John and Marie about four years ago (in the same place) but over New Years Eve. It was a good time to be in the relative safety of a first-story apartment. Fireworks are legal on NYE here so every man, woman and child is armed with an Australia Day’s worth of crackers and rockets and turned loose in the streets. It crossed the line dividing celebratory and riotous, with head-level rockets being launched down streets and laneways and bonfires at every major junction. There was a memorable combination of these two ideas when some over-excited reveler dumped a box of rockets into a bonfire. That sure got the people dancing. However, the really scary people weren’t your garden-variety upbeat anarchists, rather the passive aggressive groups that would set fire to public property in back-streets then just stand around it quietly and watch. I didn’t get quite close enough to hear, but I imagined a lot of heavy breathing.
The whole city looked and sounded like a BBC special report from Gaza. The paper the next morning said that this year’s celebrations were far more under control since only about 80 cars got torched.
This time round we are a month-and-a-half early for the fireworks (though there are a few warning shots every evening) but we have been instead been lucky enough to experience another extremely Dutch tradition – Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.
As the story goes, Sinterklaas, the jolly fellow pictured with the snowy white beard and bishops hat, arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat from Spain in mid-November. Children line the streets and sing traditional Sinterklaas carols and sweets are distributed forthwith to the good kiddies.
On the other side of the coin, if you have been a bad child, you are instead spanked with his birch rob, stuffed into a sack and taken to Spain. In the olden days I guess a one-way trip to Spain might not have been so desirable, but as I was shivering in the Dutch mist, watching the parade pass by, all of a sudden sunny Spain doesn’t look so bad.
This is all good family fun but non-Dutch readers might have spotted the elephant in the room here: Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). Yep, it’s a blackface act and also an inseparable and important part of Sinterklaas tradition. As we wandered through the town that afternoon, numerous bands of boot-polished up Zwarte Pieten were roaming the streets, entertaining the crowds, playing the fool and up to their usual mischief.
My favourite was the Black Peter with a walkie-talkie who was directing traffic – mainly car-loads of other Black Peters. It was like a particular episode of The Goodies.
He’s big business here – Zwarte Pieten are in all the shop windows and all the ads and product packaging. You can buy Zwarte Piet cards, chocolates and even make-up kits (in fact, Nicole did just that). There was a remixed version of “Gangnam Style” with the words “Zwarte Pieten Style”. There’s more boot polish applied to faces in this one day than in all of Hey Hey It’s Saturday and The Footy Show combined. It’s huge and it goes off.
This has been a regular tradition since before blackface started happening in earnest elsewhere in the world and well before it became offensive. If anyone suggests that the tradition is out of step with current sensibilities, they are shouted down in an outcry. There have been attempts to gild the issue by suggesting that Zwarte Piet is sooty from coming down a chimney, but then why the curly wigs and red lipstick?
For my part, when I spotted a young African-Dutch kid dressed as Zwarte Piet, complete with black make-up, I decided that it’s an unmovable tradition here and an bracingly European novelty for foreigners like us. A pretty good start to the tour of the continent.
I don’t think this photo does the beard justice – must be the soft lighting. Yeah, the chops are still clearly the dominant force but not the the extent implied in this pic. It’s not strokeable and I look probably 20% more thoughtful as a result, but I’m really hanging out for the full blown “highland philosopher” or “maritime war hero”.