Archive for April, 2011

Amsterdam

Arriving in a City as vibrant as Amsterdam presented a nice change from the boredom of Rotterdam. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Rotterdam. It might be a great place and we just somehow managed to miss all the cool and fun stuff.

We once again found ourselves staying in a Stayokay hostel, and although the building wasn’t quite as quirky as Rotterdam’s Cube Houses the quality of the place was still excellent. Due to the hostels location on the edge of the City centre Chris and I decided it would be a good idea to check out Amsterdam’s tram network.

From my experience I can thoroughly recommend the Amsterdam tram network. They are regular, on time and far more cool than taking a taxi or the bus. All English cities should seriously consider adopting them.

Upon arriving in the City centre I was struck by the sheer amount of stuff there is to see and do. Amsterdam really is a cultural hub alive with activity. There are bars and cafes everywhere you look and more canals than any City could possibly need.

Amster-Tram

After simply wondering around for a good hour or so Chris and I decided that it would be a good idea to find somewhere to eat. Not wanting to be too adventurous I settled for a beef burger and chips (with mayo obviously) whilst Chris went for the club sandwich. I can say with some certainty that every meal I have had so far has come with chips. The Dutch and Belgians do love their fries so it isn’t really something you can escape from.

In the evening we headed to an overly expensive Irish Pub in order to watch the Champions League semi-final match between Shalke and Manchester United. Despite being an Irish Pub run by genuine Irish people they still were unable to pour a proper pint of beer. Perhaps it’s because I am British and have spent too much time living on a strange island, but to my mind the head on a beer should not be considered a part of the overall volume. A pint is only a pint when the glass is so full that you struggle to carry it back to your seat without spilling some of it.

Regardless I was still able to enjoy the football as I sipped away on my €5 “pint” of Jupiler. When beer is that expensive you really do appreciate every drop. Manchester United eventually won 2-nil with goals from Giggs and Rooney. We left the pub in high spirits and had to run to catch the tram back to the hostel.

At breakfast the next morning I decided it would be fun too see how much meat I could possibly fit into my sandwich. The cheese at the continental breakfast also turned out to be an excellent divider between the different meats.

Upon finishing our breakfast we had to take our trays to a hatch in the wall where we were expected to clear our plates. Here we were able to find that only badly mannered and grumpy man in the whole of Amsterdam who insisted on loudly sighing and muttering under his breath if we put our dirty plates in slightly the wrong place. There is one obvious solution to this problem – do it your fucking self!

Full of food and not very good coffee we headed out of the hostel and once again boarded the tram. At one stop along the way an effortlessly cool man wearing a suit with sandels boarded the tram.

As Amsterdam is famous for its numerous canals we decided that taking a boat tour would be an good idea. Much like Bruges this is an excellent way to see the City and to take some cliched photographs. The tour took us around the canals of the inner City as well as the Amsterdam harbour. Of particular interest were a group of buidings which were leaning into each other due to subsidence. Apparently one of them is a hotel although I didn’t really fancy spending a night there.

Following the tour we searched out the Stedelijk Museum of contemporary art. Whilst there was the usual rubbish such as some bits of plastic pipe placed seemingly at random on the floor, most of the exibits were very good. One such exibit focused on the medium of TV and how it could be used as an art form. One piece showed a man compulsively washing his hands whilst the artists experimented with different R-G-B filters. This was to express the limitations of colour television. Another piece that stuck with me was a TV running an auto-queue. The text that appeared on screen commented on the relationship between TV and increasing consumerism. The piece was made some time during the 1970s but I felt that its message was probably more relevant now that it was back then.

In the evening we once again headed to the pub this time to watch Real Madrid take on Barcelona in the so called El Clasico. The first half involved Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez doing their best impressions of being shot by a lone sniper on the roof of the stadium. The second half proved a lot more interesting with Lional Messi scoring two fine goals to give Barcalona the victory.

On day three we decided to find Anne Frank’s house, a task that would have been very simple if I had remembered to take the map. Instead we spent a good hour walking up and down Amsterdam’s canals until we eventually found a sign post.

Anne Frank's House. I wonder if it's double glazed?

From the outside the house is very underwhelming, only a sign on the outside reading “Anne Frank Huis”, (as well as the massive queue of tourists) gives away its location. I can only assume that the sign is a recent addition and was not in place during the years 1939 to 1945. We decided not to go into the house, partly because the queue went all the way down the street, but also because we thought there probably wasn’t an awful lot to see inside.

Much of the afternoon was spent sat on a bench talking about the best ways to flank a Phalanx formation in Rome Total War. Shortly after it started to rain so Chris and I darted into a music store to check out the CDs. Music is outrageously expensive in Holland. Anywhere between €15 and €25 for a CD seemed to be “normal”. No wonder people illegally download music. Having said that the music selection was a great deal better than what you would find in your average HMV store.

Following a pit stop for coffee and people watching we headed out in search of something to eat. Chris recommended we try some Indonesian cuisine. Having never tried it before I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I like to think that I’m very open to trying new foods. I settled for some squid and rice based dish whilst Chris went for a selection of meats (also with Rice). What an excellent choice it turned out to be! The best way I can think to describe Indonesian food is somewhere between Chinese and Indian. A pretty useless description I know but it’s the best I can come up with.

Shortly after we headed back to the hostel for beers and to make plans for our next destination, Hamburg.

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28/04/2011 at 8:24 pm Leave a comment

Rotterdam

Travelling between Antwerp and Rotterdam I was once again let down by the European train network. Due to engineering works we had to change trains halfway. Had this been in England I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but in Europe I had expected the train to run like clockwork.

There is a large amount of construction work going on in the City and the area around the train station is no exception. It wasn’t exactly the most of inspiring sights to be greeted to a new City with a building site.

The City of Rotterdam is all very modern and trendy. The place is scattered with works of “modern art” and contemporary looking buildings. However, much of this modern styling lends itself to commerce. Rotterdam is very much a place of work, and most certainly not a party town.

Asides from looking at the modern architecture there is almost nothing of interest to do in the City.

Some largely pointless "modern art".


You know your in trouble when the hostel in which you are staying is listed in the tour guide as one of the things to see. The Stayokay hostel is located in Rotterdam’s so called Cube Houses

The hostel is the best we have stayed in so far. Chris and I enjoyed our first decent night sleeps since undertaking our European adventure. We were however woken in the night by two fellow travellers. A flustered sounding German and a nervous Spaniard has decided that 1am was the best time to debate who was sleeping in the wrong bed. Their conversation, conducted in broken English, seemed to go around in circles before the two decided that they should go to reception and rectify the problem. I don’t really know what happened because I must have fallen asleep before the two guys returned to the room.

A walk along Rotterdam’s waterfront is pleasant enough, but like Antwerp there is precious little in the way of bars and restaurants. The area along with waterfront is scattered with flags from all nations. This is to represent Rotterdam’s multicultural population. In amongst the national flags are the flags of the City’s sponsors which gives the whole thing a nice corporate edge.

A pleasant stroll through Het Park made a nice change of scene from the offices and apartment blocks which seem to dominate the majority of Rotterdam. There is also the Euromast, a large observation tower which stands just outside the park. You can pay to go up it, and apparently there is a restaurant at the top. Although quite why you would want to go up there is beyond me. It’s not like there is much to see anyway.

Always conform to stereotypes.


Partly because there was nothing else to do, but also because it is typically Dutch, Chris and I made a visit to one of Rotterdam’s windmills. I don’t have much knowledge of windmills, so I don’t have anything to compare this one too. Seems pretty windmill-like though.

Rotterdam is by no means an ugly City, it’s just that there is nothing to do. Yes it was bombed badly in the War, which is why it all looks very modern, but I’m sure they could have built a few attractions for people to visit.

Now we move on to Amsterdam. I’ve heard it’s pretty OK.

25/04/2011 at 8:36 pm 1 comment

Antwerp

By all accounts Antwerp was bombed very badly during World War II. Its large sea port was of major strategic value to the allies. However the German bombing raids had little effect on the port itself and the majority of the damage was inflicted on the City centre. Consequently the City centre now looks like any modern highstreet you could walk down in Britain. The area around the docks has maintained a more traditional 17th and 18th Century style.

The name Antwerp comes from a legendary tale about a giant called Antigoon who used to charge people money if they wanted to cross the River Scheldt. Those who refused to pay the toll would have one of their hands cut off and thrown in the river. The giant was eventually killed by a disgruntled young man called Brabo, who cut off Antigoons own hand and flung it in the river. The word wearpan means to throw in Dutch.

Brabo throws the giants hand in the River. LAD!


The Antwerpen-Centraal station itself is fairly impressive and adopts a similar architectural style to London Paddington. However, upon leaving the station we found ourselves in a fairly nondescript part of the City. The highstreet has all the usual shops and is devoid of any charm or character. Consequently we avoided this area for the rest of the day.

The Rock Concern de Rots hostel where was stayed was located in the upstairs of a heavy metal themed bar. We found ourselves in a Ronnie Dio themed room which basically involved painting the room a dark colour and putting up a handful of posters of the former rock star.

After dumping our things in the hostel we set out to explore. After taking a few “edgy” low angle photographs of the statue of Brabo we sat down to eat and sample some of the local Bolleke Koninck beer.
The old part of the City is very pleasant to walk around and there are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from. There are however little or no green areas in which to sit and relax. The river side area also feels somewhat wasted. I was expecting to find lots of bars along the front but the area is devoid of any activity.

Later in the afternoon Chris and I found ourselves walking down Kammenstraat. This is the hip area of town where all the “cool kids” hang out. Everyone in Belgium is really well dressed and extremely good looking so at times it’s difficult to distinguish the “cool kids” from the rest.

By the evening we were back at the hostel relaxing with some drinks. One such drink was a 10% beer which tasted a lot like a pudding. Being 10% it was obviously a great idea for me to have three of these beers washed down with another strong blonde lager. Come the morning I would regret this decission.

I wasn’t expecting a great deal from Antwerp but it turned out to be a real jem. The place has a great atmosphere and everyone seems relaxed and able to get along with each other. Belgium generally seems to be an untapped market with a repuation for being slightly dull. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people are lovely, the food is great and the beer is wonderfully alcoholic.

24/04/2011 at 6:12 pm Leave a comment

Bruges

According to the tourist map that I picked up in the youth hostel, Bruges was first described as a, “dark, poor and ugly place” in the book Bruges la Morte in 1892. From my brief experience of the place it is difficult to see why. Yes, it would be true to say that not a lot goes on in Bruges, but then I wasn’t exactly expecting it to be the party capital of Europe.

The day began with my first experience of the European rail network. I was left feeling bitterly disapointed when the train to Bruges rolled up seven minutes late. If I wanted shit like this I would have just stayed at home. The train journey itself was fine and I was provided with ample leg room (something of great importance for a man of my height).

The centre of Bruges is surrounded almost entirely be canals. They do eventually lead to the sea and were important for trade during the 17th and 18th centuries. Now though, their main purpose seems to be providing tourists with a boat tour of the City. €7 seemed very reasonable for a tour so Chris and I jumped on board. It is an excellent way to see the City and compared to walking it gives you a very different perspective of Bruges. After 30 minutes and some badly taken photos of the backs of other peoples heads the boat returned to the jetty.

The centre of Bruges is very small, apparently only 20,000 people live within the City walls. As a result you can walk around and easily see everything of interest in a day. There are several large churches and a market square surrounded by restaurants mostly selling chips and waffles. Needless to say Chris and I indulged on both during the course of the day. Being Belgium, the chips came with a large dollop of mayonaisse which was far better than anything I have tasted as home.

When in Bruges...

In the evening we headed down to a local butchers and bakery in search of supplies. I don’t have a lot of experience of going into butchers shops but to me the food seemed very good value. We then headed to a nearby park where we sat and ate our sandwiches. Preparing your own food is a hell of a lot cheaper than eating out in restaurants every night, but if you shop in the right places the quality is still excellent. It’s a shame that in England we don’t have many independent food retailers. It’s only been three days and I’m already beginning to realise that the quality of the food we get in the supermarkets at home is crap.

I’ll leave you with a fun fact about Belgium. Drinking in public places is legal, yet I have seen nothing in the way of drunk and disorderly behaviour. Britain should perhaps take some note of this. Get caught drinking in the wrong place in Britain and you’ll likely have the local Police Community Support Officer turn up and ask you to pour your beer down the nearest drain. There is definitely something wrong with a country where alcohol consistantly leads to violence and bad behaviour. The Belgians seem able to keep things under control so why can’t we? I have also only seen one police officer in Bruges and he was at the train station… just saying.

24/04/2011 at 6:10 pm Leave a comment

Brussels

The British railways have once again proved what a dire state they are in. It now only costs £10 more to get from St Pancras to Belgium than it does to travel from Basingstoke into London. With prices like that you can’t afford not to go to Europe.

Anyway, I’m currently in Brussels sitting on my bed in the Youth Hostel. Prior to arriving in Belgium I had no idea of what to expect. The idea of researching the place before I arrived didn’t really appeal to me. Subsequently I have been pleasantly surprised by what Brussels has to offer.

For a Capital City it isn’t particularly large and you can easily walk around the City centre in a day. I’ve been putting my C grade GCSE French to excellent use, although everyone seems to speak excellent English so it is largely a waste of time.

Today Chris and I walked to the European Parliament. I was expecting to see lots of men in suits passing legislation, typing numbers into spreadsheets and looking very stern. The place however looked pretty quiet. The building itself is absolutely vast. Some people (myself included) would say that it is probably too large. It is however a fairly attractive looking building with a definite “bureaucratic” look to it (if such a thing exists).

Out the back of the Parliament building is a park where Chris and I sat and watched a lone man play basketball. I can only assume that he was a MEP out on his lunch break.

The Belgian people all seem very nice, although much like the French nobody seems to have a real job. Instead they spend their days sitting in restaurants eating steak and chips and drinking Stella Artois. I don’t hold it against them though, people in England seem to work far too much and the European clearly have the right idea when it comes to mixing work with fun. Just to go back to the Stella, the stuff they drink here is a hell of a lot better than the crap we get served back in England. It actually a very pleasant and refreshing drink rather than just being another tasteless lager which leaves you with a cracking headache.

This evening we are planning to go and see the Atomium, which are essentially just some giant marbles.

Tomorrow we head to Bruges.

21/04/2011 at 4:18 pm 1 comment

I’m not going anywhere without a reservation

Only two days left at work and then I’ll be officially unemployed. Maybe I should sign on at the job agency for two weeks before I head off to Europe. The extra beer money would certainly come in handy.

Chris and I now have reservations at hostels up to Prague, although the problem of getting a ferry between Stockholm and Helsinki still remains. For whatever reason the ferry company won’t accept either of our credit cards. At this rate we’ll be swimming or building a small raft to take us across the Baltic Sea. We’ve been trying to use Tallink to book the ferry but if anyone else has some suggestions for ways to complete this leg of the trip it would be appreciated.

Keep the dream alive…

03/04/2011 at 9:46 pm 1 comment


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