All Articles (Page 103)

In this section, you'll find every article we've published on CheeseWeb in chronological order, starting with our most recent posts. If you're looking for articles on a specific travel destination, see our Slow Travel section.

Germany turned out to be a fun weekend but it did not turn out as we had planned. We did manage to haul ourselves out of bed early on Saturday morning and get on the road, but that may have lead to our downfall.

We drove across the Netherlands and entered Germany near Arnhem with little fanfare. Since we were traveling the back roads the only thing that announced our arrival in Germany was a small sign. The country side we drove through was rural and similar to the Netherlands, although slightly lumpier. As we traveled south we did begin to notice differences in the architecture as well. We arrived in Cologne (Koln) around 1 and it took us quite some time to find our hotel. I had found a very good last minute deal on-line at the Park Plaza. Normally this would have been way out of our price range and it was quite a difference in quality to most of the hotels we have stayed in.

When we finally found it, we were hungry and tired and the weather was rainy and bleak. We decided to eat lunch at the hotel rather than wander around in the rain. Over lunch we admitted reluctantly that we were both exhausted and didn’t feel like exploring Koln in the rain. We were pathetic and went up to our room and had a nap. It ended up being a rather long nap and when we awoke it was starting to get dark. The weather had still not improved but we felt much better. We decided that since we had the opportunity to stay in a posh hotel, we would enjoy the experience to the fullest. We used the very nice gym and followed our workout with a very long sauna. We then had a late supper that was rather swanky. The afternoon / evening turned out to be just what we needed.

The next morning we were well rested but the weather was still not on our side. I made a snap decision to skip sight-seeing in Koln and drive the romantic highway to see the castles on the Rhine. We had done part of this drive on our bus tour of Europe and it was breathtaking. We agreed that this would be much nicer than wandering around in the rain. We were right. The drive was spectacular and the sun even peaked through a few times. The towns along the Rhine look like fairy-tale villages. It is impossible to describe in words or pictures how incredible this area is. Without exaggeration I would say it is easily one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Along side the town and castles, there are vineyards that scale the hillsides. I’ve tried to show this in pictures but I don’t think they do justice to how steep the vineyards are. Like all beautiful areas, there are definite signs of tourism and I’m sure that in the dead of summer, it would be a dreadful place to live. We drove as far as St. Goar, which was the town we visited on our bus tour, and then took a ferry across the Rhine and drove back up the other side. You can really only see the towns on the opposite side of the river when you are driving as everything is so steep. We had a nice lunch of sausage and German potato salad with apple strudel for dessert (how much more touristy could we be…). During our travels we decided that if the opportunity ever arose for us to come back to Europe, we would love to explore Bonn, Koblenz and of course Koln.

After completing our Rhine tour it was time to hit the highway and head home to the Praterlaan. One little over-sight on my navigational skills … German highway = Autobahn. I have two words to describe driving the Autobahn … “WHAAAAAAAAAAAA!” … “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” (a la What would Jarred do Subway commercial). Generally on the Autobahn, if there is a posted speed limit it is 130 and in many places there is NO speed limit. My knuckles remained a ghostly shade of white during this drive. When I dared look at our speedometer it was around 160 and endless BMWs and Mercedes were blowing past us like we were standing still. It was … an experience. I was relieved to return to the Netherlands, and the reasonable 110 limits.

On Wednesday, Andrew’s trip to Prague was unfortunately a disaster. He was up and gone to the airport at the crack of dawn. At 8:30 AM my phone rang. It was Drew. He had learned a valuable lesson … Canadian’s need a visa to visit the Czech Republic. He wasn’t allowed on the flight and he was coming home. About 15 mins later my phone rang again … they were trying to arrange a visa for him and maybe he could make the next flight. 15 mins after that, the third and final call … Visas take 5 working days to arrange. A few hours later a disappointed Drew was home.

Because the boys were supposed to be away, I had arranged to go out with Marie-Anne for the evening. We kept our original plans as Drew had loads of work to catch up on anyway. We met at Centraal and she took me to a place called The Movies. It is an old, Art Nouveau theatre that has been converted into a restaurant and theatre. You eat your supper and then go next door to a movie. It is a great idea and I think it would be a wonderful way to save some of our old theatres at home. We had a delicious supper and then went to see “Lost in Translation.” (No, the irony was not lost on me) It was a good film, but definitely not mainstream Hollywood fare. After the movie we had a killer dessert of 3 kinds of chocolate. It was nice to have some “girl talk” and we discovered that there are definitely universal themes. After supper, Marie-Anne kindly drove me home in her Mini (Drew was jealous).

Today I am planning our Paris trip. We purchased a map and guide book (we have a steadily growing collection if anyone plans to come to Europe anytime soon) yesterday. We have seen many of the must-do sights already, when we were on the bus tour. We’re planning to visit some of the lesser known spots and of course I will try to squeeze in a bit of shopping. Love to All! Al

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So last weekend was the last of our low-key weekends in A’dam. The rest of our stay seems to be planned to the hilt and time is going to fly by even faster than it has been. Saturday was great though. We slept in a bit and then headed in to the city to do some shopping. I won’t bore you with all of the details again but as usual Vroom & Dressman was a success. I also discovered the joy of scarves … People don’t seem to wear scarves at home anymore. I’m not talking about winter scarves either, but flowy, silky, girly scarves. Anyway I found a couple of nice ones and yet another pair of shoes (the new suitcase purchase will be happening soon). I also talked Andrew into buying a really nice shirt and tie. We had lunch at the Pancake House (yummy) and then headed home for our evening.

Saturday night was the last of my birthday festivities, dinner at De Kas. I had read about this restaurant on several websites and it was something I really wanted to try. The head chef had once worked at the Moosewood and earned a Michelin star. Also, conveniently, it’s right down the street from the condo. Since this was the closest I am probably ever going to get to Michelin Star greatness, I had to try it out. Andrew was game and we convinced Robert and Marie-Anne to join us.

Robert and Marie-Anne decided to bike over to the Praterlaan and join us for drinks before hand, as Marie-Anne had not yet seen the condo. They arrived with the most gorgeous bouquet of flowers I’ve ever received and a box of chocolates for my birthday. We were also instructed on the traditional Dutch three kiss greeting. Marie-Anne gave me some instruction on dealing with the flowers and then we settled down to the first bottle of wine. Good company and good wine lead us to be a bit late for our reservation, but Andrew called and it was fine.

We had planned to take the tram to the restaurant as it’s only about 3 stops away. Marie-Anne suggested we go Dutch and ride the bikes. Well, after a bottle of wine this seemed like a good idea. Keep in mind that the last time I was on a bike was the first time I was in the Netherlands, on the bus tour, 3 years ago. Before that it was in High School. Anyway, here it’s quite common for someone to sit on the back of the bike, on the little rack for packages, while another person drives. Keep in mind also, that we’re dressed for a fancy diner which means pointy shoes (It’s not uncommon here at all for women to bike in skirts and high heals, but not something we slobby Canadians are used to). Anyway I managed somehow to get on the back of Marie-Anne’s bike. The woman must have legs of steel because she biked like I wasn’t even there. We did quite well. Despite feeling like I was going to fly off at any second, I actually only had to jump down twice to regain my balance. I did however, discover stomach muscles I hadn’t noticed in a long time. Andrew and Robert did not fare quite as well. Marie-Anne blamed it on Robert not biking very often. I blamed it on Drew’s lack of balance. Either way, the girls won that race and looked a lot less silly…

De Kas is situated in Frankendael Park. It is a huge green-house that has been partially converted into a restaurant, however part of the building still functions as its original purpose and fresh veggies and herbs are grown there for use in the kitchen. The decor is simple. The high glass ceilings give a sense of space and the restaurant feels very open and airy. We settled in, ordered some wine and the food started to arrive. Any stereotypes about fancy restaurants and small portions of food went out the green-house window. I suppose some would say the individual servings of each dish were small but we had more than enough food.

The concept of De Kas is that all of the food is fresh, organic, local, and has as little impact of the environment as possible. There is no menu. You eat what they give you, the only choices being vegetarian or not and what to drink. There were three appetizers: pumpkin and cream tart, marinated veggies with thinly shaved ham and (and this is going to sound disgusting but was wonderful) marinated giant shrimp on a bed of pasta coloured with squid ink. There was also fresh bread and butter. The main course was a beautifully grilled steak with more veggies (and a second bottle of wine [third counting the one at the condo]). Then we had a cheese plate … and more wine. Then there was dessert, which was a cake with fruit in it, followed by coffee and cookies. We were full, loud and happy. It was an all night affair. Drew and I caught the tram home and Robert and Marie-Anne biked back to their place.

The next day Drew and I had big plans to go see Den Haag. We ended up sleeping in and when we finally crawled out of bed I was suffering a Chianti head-ache. We ended up going for a drive, neither of us feeling like getting out of the car. We explored some of the beach resort towns, which are already getting crowded on weekends. Our supper was a hard earned pizza and we hit the bed early.

Last night, we had another culinary experience (yes mom, all we ever do here is eat). We hijacked Robert and went to the cafe Bern, which we had attempted to go to several times previously to no avail. The cafe Bern is a tiny little pub (about 12 tables if that and a bar) that is famous for Swiss fondue. I’ve only ever had chocolate fondue, and being in the land of cheese it seemed like a good thing to try. Dipping bread in hot cheese … what could be bad about that? Well, I can understand why we needed reservation because the Cafe became packed. It was the only time we were given the bill here without asking for it. So, having got the boot and not wanting to go home, we crossed the street and found another relatively quiet cafe to have some drinks. By the way, cafe is the general term here for what we would call a pub; Pubs here serve food; Coffeeshops are for smoking pot and Koffieshops are for drinking coffee (confused?) Anyway a few drinks (I got to be the BOB) at a nice spot, good conversation and a cozy atmosphere (Dare I say Gezellig?) and then home to bed.

Tomorrow morning we are off to Cologne or Koln, Germany in search of more stairs to climb.

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Alright, so I have two weeks of blog to catch up on. I’m not making any promises here because my memory is terrible. I’ll do my best at remembering but feel free to e-mail me any questions you may have too. So we left off on Valentines Day…

My Valentine’s Day gift was Andrew making me supper. This was his first cooking attempt in Holland and without a BBQ. He settled on a stir-fry so we decided to do the Dutch thing and go to the Albert Cuyp market for supplies. The AC is a HUGE street market that runs every day except Sunday. It is about a km long and you can get virtually everything there; Veggies and fruit, meat, fish, cheese, baked goods, spices, clothes, fabric, toiletries, plants, furniture … you name it, chances are you can find it there. We strolled through, invigorated by some fresh, hot spring rolls and found everything we needed…and then some. My two favorite stalls were the spice stall (literally any spice, herb or tea was available here) and the Tapas stall … we went a little nuts here and got hummus, babaganoush and cheese stuffed hot peppers (delish). We also bought veggies, fruit, fish, tea and breads. You can see the pic of our purchases in the photo section.

After the market there was one more stop I wanted to make. We went to Nieuwmarkt, the Asian section of town. I wanted to go back to the Asian grocery and pick up some more Miso… I ended up with more than miso but it was fun.

The rest of the day was a relaxation day for me and a cooking extravaganza for Drew. He did a fabulous job, by the way. The stir-fry had tons of veggies and shrimp from the market. Very yummy indeed.

Sunday was a bit of a patchwork of things we wanted to see and do. Our first stop was Rotterdam … ok so some of you are well aware that I had a bad first impression of Rotterdam (Andrew Roode). We won’t go there except to say that Rotterdam was bombed heavily in the war and therefore is very modern looking. Many parts of it could be any generic North American city. There was one area I hadn’t seen and wanted to explore. The old quarter where the artists colony is…. I wanted to see the Cubes.

The Cubes are rather hard to describe so I suggest you take a look at the pics if you haven’t already … basically they are Cubes with one point cut off, tipped sideways and stuck on a column, then they are mashed together with a bunch of other cubes and pushed so that they tip forward…and people live in them…Between the Cubes is a sort of courtyard area that you can wander through. It is surprisingly peaceful. Surprising because the Cubes are also situated over a major street. Just as I was marveling as to how people could live in these things, we discovered the museum Cube. Basically one gentleman who lives in the Cubes, opens his house up when he’s home and charges a euro for you to take a look through. Great idea since anyone would be curious what these things look like inside … Well, they are small… claustrophobics need not apply. Also if you are afraid of heights, don’t wash dishes here because you are looking straight down at the street below. The stairs are narrow and the bathroom is tiny. By far the coolest room is the little pyramid on top. This was a sitting room with windows all around. The view is basically the other cubes, but also the street and depending on which cube you live in, I suppose the water as well. All in all, quite fascinating but definitely not for me.

Our next stop was Delft, another place I had been already but Drew had not and I thought he might like it. It’s a fairly small city, with a nice downtown and main square. It is of course famous for the hand painted pottery, mainly in blues but also available in other colours. True hand-painted Delft is wickedly expensive but also one of a kind and very beautiful. Unfortunately, this time of year, the factory is not open to the public. We did drive over to check it out and it is quite huge. We had a mediocre lunch on the main square, explored the Royal Delft shop and then headed out of town.

Our next event of note was our Wednesday night football game. Football here, for those of you who don’t know, is what we call soccer. There is also a football team here that plays what we know as football. The Dutch call it American football … they have cheerleaders which I’ll get to. The game we went to see was the Dutch (oranje) vs the Americans. This is like the All-star team for Holland. The stadium we were in was the Ajax stadium. Ajax (pronounced I-ax) is the Amsterdam team and you can’t actually go to their games at the stadium unless you are a member of the club. Back to the Oranje … why orange? I dunno. It is, accept it and move on. Because the team is called oranje, of course all of the fans wear orange. And we are talking day glow orange here. So basically it looks like a stadium full of hunters and death-row inmates (could be actually). And they are nuts! Frankly I think all hard-core sports fans are nuts but it is definitely infectious. Anyway of course my camera died before the game even started but there are a couple pics of the field. The game was pretty good. The first half, no one scored. Then we had the American Football cheerleaders … definitely wouldn’t make it in the states … these were no Laker Girls. They looked like they were having fun and I guess that’s what counts, but frankly, they sucked. Jenn, you would have laughed your butt off. Anyway, second half, Oranje scored, USA didn’t. We won, the world was happy (well, the Dutch anyway) and we went home. Only it wasn’t quite that easy. A tram had derailed on our route and caused a huge traffic jam. It was cold, we were tired. We had no idea what was going on. After 2 trams getting us part way and a lot of waiting, we finally gave up and got a cab. Not a great ending to a pretty fun night.

Ok, so the next great day was Friday, my Birthday! Yup, I’m still 24! heh. Andrew took the day off so we could do fun b-day type things. Our first stop was the not so fun b-day blood clinic. It went fine and actually I didn’t feel a thing. I had just commented on how easy it was, as we were walking away, when I realized I was bleeding all over my sweater. Once that was under control (did actually get the stain out later too) we walked down the street to my next errand. I wanted to develop a couple rolls of my slide film, just to make sure my camera was working properly. The photographers at home will get a kick out of this next bit … the rest of you feel free to skip ahead. Ok, so you know how you get used to going to the one camera shop you trust and it’s hard to just walk in somewhere new and hand over you film … Well, my experience was rather interesting. I had done a bit of research on-line because I didn’t want to just take it any old place. The place that I settled on was on our tram line and recommended to professionals. So I walk in and it’s a big posh room … with nothing in it but a counter … no cameras, no film. Just a counter, a sofa and a couple of photos on the walls and the place is BIG. Kind of like going to a really posh clothing store where the models come out wearing the clothes… Anyway I go to the counter, do my thing and they say it will be ready in 2 hours … 2 hours!!! Not weeks, not days, Hours!! for slide film! Anyway by now I’m thinking I’m going to be paying BIG bucks for this. Save you the suspense … it was 5 euro a roll. 11.40 euro total for 2 rolls. They came out great btw and I’ll be taking more there this week.

Ok, back to more interesting things … what I wanted to do on my b-day… I wanted to go to FOAM the Foto Museum of Amsterdam. It was a nice spot and had 2 major exhibits going. One on a Dutch photojournalist that was excellent and another on Man Ray and Lee Miller that was very interesting. It contained lots of contact sheets as well as prints so that your could see his original crop marks and notes. Quite neat. Then we went to the English bookstore to get a book on Barcelona (yes we are going at the end of March). We found that and Andrew got a computer book and he got me the latest Jamie Oliver cookbook. Then we picked up the film, dropped stuff off at home and went for my b-day supper. It’s been tradition the past few years that we go for Indian food on my b-day so we found a great Indian restaurant and ate so much we literally hurt when we left. The food was delish.

The next morning we got up bright and early and headed to Belgium for the Third and final time. This time we had reservations at a cheap hotel for the night so we could actually see some things without having to rush home. Our first stop was the Atomium. This was built for a worlds fair and is now kind of a symbol of the city. It’s basically a huge blow-up of an iron molecule. Inside you take an elevator to the top and have views of the city. Then you take a series of escalators down through the various spheres where there are art exhibits. It’s rather odd but an interesting, one time sort of thing. We avoided all of the other tourist traps at the fair ground, except to have an over priced lunch.

Then we headed to another part of the park where the Japanese and Chinese pavilions were left as museums after the worlds fair. These were both beautiful inside and out and the pictures show them better than I could describe so take a look.

Afterwards, it was high time to find our hotel. We drove around a bit and I remembered something about it being near a church. Well we found it, and what a church to be near. After checking in to the hotel, we had to check out the Basilica. It is an ENORMOUS art deco style church and is absolutely breath taking inside. The simple lines and domes to me are much more beautiful than the over the top gothic style of many of the grand churches here. There was some fantastic stained glass and the view from the top of the church rivaled the view from the atomium.

We decided to head down to the grote market again for supper and be herded in to one of the many restaurants there. I had a very tricky to eat stuffed crab and Drew opted for mussels. We then went back to our chocolate shop to stock up and back to the hotel. We had picked up some little cakes at the bakery across the street and I had my b-day dessert a day late.

The next morning we went back to the bakery for breakfast and then got on the road to Waterloo. We went to see the Butte de Lion a huge grass pyramid with a lion statue on top, commemorating the Napoleonic war. After climbing a gazillion stairs we had a nice view of the surrounding farm land. Vowing never to climb things again (a vow I seem to keep making and breaking on this trip) we headed to Ghent.

This city came highly recommended by Drew’s colleagues and we weren’t disappointed. The city boasts four magnificent churches, some fantastic old architecture and a castle. We had to see the castle for ourselves. So after a very nice lunch at a little coffee house we went trekking through the castle. Well, that blew my stair vow again but there was a beautiful view of the churches from the castle walls. There was also an exhibit inside showing various medieval torture devices (lovely). After the castle we went on a short but interesting boat tour of Ghent. It was interesting to see the buildings from the water level. .

After Ghent we had one last mission… and it was a difficult one. We wanted to find where my great-uncle was buried in Antwerp. My Grandfather Fair’s brother had been a signalman in the war and was buried in a graveyard in Antwerp. We had vague directions from the Canadian Government web site. Frankly it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. I think the directions had been written when the graveyard was instated, as none of the streets seemed to exist any more. It took an hour or more of searching until we found the graveyard… and it was closed. Well, never being one to let little things like locked gates stand in the way of a mission… we parked the car (illegally). To actually get to the grave we had to: 1). Rescue a very grateful dog 2). Scale the fence and 3) avoid the police. All of that is true, but not really that dramatic. A woman and her dog had gotten stuck inside the graveyard when they closed the gate. She was waiting for a friend to come and help her lift the dog out. We helped and the puppy was very happy to be free again. Then we hopped the fence (I figure if they really didn’t want us in there, they would have made it taller). Finding the actual grave was much harder. We had a number V.D.63 which didn’t seem to correlate with anything. I finally figured out that V actually meant 5 and Drew discovered that the graves were more or less in chronological order. Finally we found it. I have to say, as far as eternal resting places go, this one was beautiful. It was right by a canal and the graves were very well tended with herbs planted around them. Very peaceful and lovely. As we hiked back out of the driveway we noticed the police driving by and were worried they would stop and check out our car so we jumped behind some trees. They didn’t stop and we made a clean getaway with pictures for evidence.

Then we settled in for the long drive home. Both of us were exhausted but it was a very fun and interesting weekend.

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Ok, so I didn’t think anyone was actually reading these regularly, but when this one was late, everyone started complaining. So you’d all better be reading. I will start with our trip to Brussels on Saturday.

We were late getting on the road and for the second time in a row, headed to Belgium in a downpour. Shortly after we crossed the border (about as eventful as crossing a provincial border at home), the sun came out and stayed with us for the day. (Oddly enough on the drive home, shortly after we crossed back into the Netherlands we were hit by a freak hailstorm…)

Brussels is much more spread out than central Amsterdam. It is an interesting mix of architectural styles with a very French feel. There are a lot more modern buildings here and the Art Deco period really took hold. We parked in the Old town not far from the Market Square, by far the most impressive square we’ve seen in Europe. As you enter the square, you are literally surrounded by some of the most stunning architecture imaginable. The crown jewel is the magnificent gothic town hall with its huge tower. Across from the town hall is the museum which is also spectacular and the rest of the square is filled with the union guild buildings, each trying to outdo one another with their splendor.

We were looking for a spot to have lunch but stumbled upon the chocolate museum and had to detour in. It was small but interesting and smelled delish. We got a free speculaas, hand dipped in hot liquid chocolate, YUM! After that we decided to head toward the Belgian Comic Strip Museum and grab some food on the way. Well, the food didn’t pan out and the museum was in a very odd, rather run-down, part of town. When we finally found it, it was a gorgeous Art Deco building and had a cafe. We ate a super meal there and then proceeded to the museum.

We expected the requisite tribute to Tintin (which of course there was) but we had no idea that the museum and Belgian comics in general were so extensive. We gave it a good effort, but after over an hour our non-French / definitely non-Flemish brains were starting to hurt, so we gave up. We did see sections on Tintin, the Smurfs and discovered a new French comic called Les Triples (the triplets) which we enjoyed and bought a book of in the comic book heaven gift shop.

By the time we emerged from the museum it was almost 4 and already the sun was setting. We decided the only way to find all of the major sites was to do a bus tour. The tour was the last of the day and did hit all of the sites we had wanted to see and some we didn’t know about. Unfortunately the windows were scratched to death and made photography next to impossible. We decided we definitely have to go back and spend more time there.

Supper was another good experience. We headed down a little side street that was nothing but restaurants. It reminded us of eating in Lyon in France. You walk down the street, looking at all of the fixed price menus, and are accosted by people trying to lure you in. This may sound pushy and off-putting but it’s part of the culture and you just go with the flow. We decided on one and had a cozy window seat (where we could watch the accosting process). We had a 3 course fixed-price menu for 12 euro each including a drink and it was quite tasty. We also could not go to Belgium without the requisite beer and chocolate stop so we have more flavored beers to experiment with (chocolate beer bad, lemon beer good).

The following day was my day … CAT DAY!!! Yup, I’m really missing my kids. So we dedicated a day to them. This story is better told by the pictures but our first stop was the Peozenboot (cat boat), a floating cat shelter. The website is interesting so I’ll let you learn about it there … The woman who founded it has passed on but there is a lovely old Asian gentleman who runs it now. We had a good chat with him and got to play with the kitties. They keep all of the cats until they are adopted and from the sounds of things they get lots of visitors and cats are adopted quite quickly.

After the poezenboot we went to the Katten Kabinet, an Art Gallery dedicated entirely to cats. The collection was quite impressive, as was the building it is housed in. The building is a tradition grand canal house and was lovely to explore. There were also many ‘curators’ on hand, willing to give tours or simply have their heads scritched.

After the gallery we headed to the bloemen markt to pick up some flowers. We had a pit stop at the Pancakehouse for some traditional Dutch pancakes. These are more like what we would consider giant crepes and are filled with fruit or cheese. … very yummy. Then we bought some more tulips and headed home.

Other events of note occurred on Wednesday when I decided it was high time we both got haircuts. We headed to the seven streets district, a collection of little shops and businesses. We prowled around for a bit and then settles on Sissorhands, a funky little spot with antique Barbour chairs. I was the guinepig and went first. The girl who did the cut was very sweet and did a great job. She didn’t quite believe me however when I explained that at home it was below -30 with the wind-chill. She thought that people couldn’t exist in such cold and we must live near Alaska.

After our cuts, Andrew wanted to find a vegetarian restaurant we had read about called Green Planet. We had to wait for it to open but it was well worth it. They use only organic products, including their beer and wine. The food was fantastic. Andrew had an amazing looking stir fry and I had Spatzle, a Nordic Gnocchi, covered in a 3 cheese sauce. We also had delish bread with pesto and hummus. So good we got some to take home.

That’s all I can think of at this point. We don’t have huge plans for the weekend but we do have some fun things upcoming. The 28th we are heading to Restaurant De Kas for my belated b-day. Andrew scored ticket to Cirque de Soleil’s Dralion in March, which I am extremely excited about. And there is a good possibility that we’re going to Barcelona for a few days at the end of March. Yay! Sun! Also starting March 21st the world-famous Keukenhoff gardens will be open and there is no way I’m leaving the country without seeing them. Tulips Galore! Stay Tuned … we miss you all! Al

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This will be a blog of tid-bits again. We had some interesting driving adventures starting on Thursday and spanning the weekend…

Thursday as usual I had big plans for shopping day. Andrew even decided to work from home so we could head out early before some of the smaller shops closed. Well, the weather had other ideas. Since being here, we’ve definitely gotten used to rain and usually will head out into the drizzle. Thursday however, was torrential. Neither of us felt like wandering around in the deluge so we decided to see what we could find by car. We found heaven … a magical place (possibly more magical than … dare I say it … Ikea). Its name is Intratuin. It is about the size of our Home Depot and it is a garden centre. Keep in mind that it is Feb. and this place is FULL of plants. Everything from spring bulbs to any house plant you can imagine. In addition they have a large pet section and about a third of the store is home decor items. The prices are crazy cheap for the plants and on par with Ikea on the decor. Down side … we forgot to get cash before we left the condo. So it was a browsing only trip but it still took over an hour. There are some pictures on the website (including the … get this … shopping carts!).

After that little adventure, we met up with Robert to grab some supper. He took us to a little spot in the Jordaan area, a calmer more residential area of central Amsterdam. Supper was yummy and relaxed. We had a nighttime stroll along the canals as well.

Saturday we had no set plans but wanted to do some exploring by car. We set out for the back roads and saw many interesting towns and farmland. One interesting thing we noticed is there are still some remains from wartimes. Various bunkers and such still dot the landscape. The truly interesting part of this is how the Dutch have incorporated them into their daily lives. We saw one bunker on a farm filled with hay for the cattle.

As we wandered we found yet another, even bigger Intratuin. This time we had cash and I had to buy a few plants for the condo. They are dirt cheap (pardon the pun) and the selection was overwhelming. I finally settled on some pink hyacinth (which I can smell right now and are gorgeous), some mini iris and some tri-coloured crocus. The whole lot cost just 5 euro … can’t beat that. But it got better. This Intratuin was having a HUGE clear out sale. All of their decor stock was on sale to make room for the summer stock. We found a few great deals, including two Saint Bernard glasses. Everything was an additional 50% off at the register so we can out with several bags for only 14 euro. Woo!

After all of that excitement, you’d think we’d be shopped out. But no. We then went to Maxis, a shopping centre Dutch style. It actually wasn’t that exciting but there was a huge grocery store, so we got our food for the week and then headed home.

After unpacking the groceries we realized it was very late and we were very hungry so we headed out for food. After an unsuccessful attempt at finding anything close to home, Andrew decided to drive in downtown Amsterdam. (see the movie on the movie page). This is NOT recommended by any guidebook but Andrew did a great job. As usual, Drew astounded me with his parallel parking prowess and actually managed to find a killer parking spot (unheard of in this city). Because we were so hungry, we weren’t up for experimentation … We wanted something we knew would be good, so we headed back to Los Pilones (see movie) and had more amazing Mexican food.

Sunday we decided to stretch our wings and head toward Friesland in the north. We had an amazing time exploring the back (way back) roads. We drove through many windparks and took loads of windmill pictures. We visited a little seaside town called Urk that was very picturesque and watched some people sailboarding. On the way home, we drove over the causeway between the ocean and the inland sea. It is quite amazing that this is the only thing keeping the whole country from being under water.

The only downside to the day was lunch. We didn’t want to spend the time getting a sit-down lunch so we decided to go to McDonald’s. I know, I know … it was a stupid idea. We both felt incredibly sick afterward and vowed not to do it again. I haven’t craved fast food since we’ve been here and I don’t think I ever will now. Hopefully I can stick to this resolve when we go back to Canada. Maybe alcohol and chocolate aren’t the healthiest foods in the world, but I think in general our eating habits have been much better here than they ever were at home. I’m looking forward to putting in a veggie garden at home so we can keep eating like this.

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I don’t have a whole lot of interesting blog topics, as we had a relatively sedate weekend. Saturday we went to Utrecht to do some (mainly window) shopping. I didn’t take a whole lot of pics as it was raining pretty hard and you’ve all seen my gazillion pics of Utrecht at home anyway. We did have lunch at Bond & Smolder, my favorite little bakery. Dessert was to die for (see pics). We had supper in Amsterdam at an out of the way Pub.

Sunday we went to the Tropenmuseum which is just several tram stops from the condo. It is a museum of civilizations/anthropology of tropical and sub-tropical cultures with an emphasis on the Dutch colonies. It was quite interesting and well presented. There was an exhibit on Urban Islam in the centre which you can see in the pics. We spent the day at the museum and then walked back to our hang-out, The Frankendael Cafe. They had a live jazz band that wasn’t too bad so we hung out for a while and then had supper.

Monday was my adventure in the Dutch medical system. Through Andrew’s sleuthing we found a Dr. close-by who would take patients without appointments between 8:15 and 9 am. We tracked down the office which was quite small but nice enough and waited to see the Dr. While his English wasn’t the greatest (much better than our Dutch) he was very nice and helpful. He gave me forms to have my blood tested and was interested in where we were from. He was rather appalled when we told him it was -20 degrees at home. Then we headed to the blood clinic which was also very close-by. We talked to the receptionist who was very nice but she had never heard of our street and was convinced that we were spelling it wrong. Eventually she gave up and let us in anyway.

For those of you who are used to blood-clinics at home (Anna & Cheri) you know how long the wait is… a good hour at the least. I waited for maybe 5mins to see one of the 7 (that’s right, 7!!!) nurses taking blood. We had to explain my situation for the third time, but like most nurses, she seemed to have a better idea what was going on than the Dr. She was also confused about where we lived but eventually figured out we were in the new condos on the old Ajax stadium (Yay! We exist!). She took the blood and sent us on our way. The whole ordeal, including the Dr. visit and drive time was an hour (try that in Canada). Within a few hours I had the results, now we just have to wait for the bill (hrmm…)

Observations On the Dutch Part 2

The Dutch love their animals: If you don’t like animals, don’t come to the Netherlands. The Dutch are less restrictive about pets than in N. America. For example, you can take your dog anywhere … literally. Malls, shops, restaurants, public transport; there are very few places that you aren’t allowed to take your dog. In addition, many businesses have their own pets. We’ve seen shop dogs and cats and several restaurant cats. One particular little black cat greeted each table at an Italian restaurant we ate in. Around the corner from our condo is an emergency hospital, complete with half a dozen ambulances … for animals. Yup, if Fido gets sick you can call him an ambulance. The downside to the abundance of animals and lack of green spaces is doggy-poo … everywhere. You have to watch you step in the city because the lack of grass means dogs do their business on the sidewalks … not that pleasant. The Dutch don’t drink water: And neither will you unless you want to pay $1.80 euro for a tiny bottle. That’s the average restaurant rate. (often more than a glass of wine) If you do splurge to quench your thirst, be sure to order spa blauw, or else your water will be carbonated. I don’t know what European came up with this wonderful (not) idea, but they like their water bubbly. The Dutch are surrounded by water; they live on it, they commute in it, but they just don’t drink it. Beware Febo! Febo (pronounced Fay-bo) is a scary thing and with all of the wonderful food options in the Netherlands, I can’t quite figure out why they are so popular. It is basically a take out food establishment, with one BIG difference. Instead of ordering you food, all of the various food items are in individual little lockers. You put money in the locker and take out the food item. Kind of like a giant vending machine. The food ranges from sandwiches (of course) to crockets, fries and various other deep-fried items. At busy times, I’m sure it’s relatively fresh … but there’s no way of knowing how long your crocket has been baking under the heat lamp in its locker. I can only assume that after extreme alcohol and/or pot consumption, Febo seems like a good idea…
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Ok, I have a lot of blogging to catch up on. First of all is my Thursday night shopping excursion. Boys, feel free to skip over this unless you want to learn about Dutch shoes….

As I’ve mentioned, Thursday night the shops here are open late (usually until 9pm) so we decided this would be a good time to go shopping. When Andrew got home from work we hopped on the tram and got off in Dam Square. This square contains, among other things, the palace, Mme. Tussauds and Bijenkorf. Bijenkorf is the famous Dutch department store, kind of like an Eaton’s or Harrods. We did the requisite run through but like Eaton’s and Harrods, everything was severely overpriced.

My mission was to find of pair of what I call “witch toe” boots, which are the rage in Europe right now. The toe extends several inches beyond where your real toe is inside the shoe and come to a very narrow point. The effect rather than making your feet look huge, actually makes them look slimmer and your leg look longer. So with this quest, we set out down Kalver-straat. I was excited and eager to find my boots.

Well, I started off excited anyway. As we walked I found a similar phenomenon to the malls at home. Girls, I know you hear me on this. All of the shops either cater to the teeny-boppers who want to be scantily clad in their size 1 pants or to rich old ladies who want to pay over 200 euros for a blouse. Being in neither of these categories I quickly became discouraged. Then disaster struck. I actually found a pair of boots in a shoe store that fit the bill, and I discovered my formerly blood-clotted leg is still too swollen to zip into boots. AHHHHH! After figuring out that I am a size 39 here, I tried in vain to zip several pair of boot over my calf. I left the store dejected and with no more desire to shop.

Just when I thought all hope was lost, I spotted it … Vroom and Dressman. You’ve heard me mention it before I’m sure. My current handbag came from there in November. Well, if I couldn’t have shoes maybe I could console myself with another bag. As I walked in, the first glimmer of hope shone: a purse covered in St. Bernards. Cutest bag I’ve ever seen. Hope carried me to the second floor and to the shoes. KORTING! read the sign. And there they were, my boots, in brown and only ankle high … The zip test … and yes they zipped!!! They were on the high end of my price scale but I couldn’t resist.

Then I saw the shoes… light brown suede, pointy toe, strappy and perfect for summer. Another good fit and these ones had a red sticker. Not being able to resist the sale I clutched both boxes with some encouragement from my hubby who was ready to spend any amount on shoe therapy at this point to cheer me up. I headed to the cash with bag and shoes in hand, expecting to pay 150 euro or more, and then it happened … the icing on the shopping cake … additional discount at the register and my total was only 70 euro!!!

Happy at last, we headed to the Bloemen markt to refresh our now wilting tulips. We found some gorgeous Callas in orange and red and some orange and purple parrot tulips that matched perfectly. Then Andrew, with the help of a guidebook, found us a fabulous Mexican restaurant for a late supper. I’m not talking tex-mex here, this was mex-mex, run by two Mexicans. The food was divine and the atmosphere was cozy. A disappointing day, saved by good food, gorgeous flowers and a fabulous Sale.

Bruges Blog

Saturday we had our first trip out of the country. We were headed to Bruges, Belgium on the advice of the trusty guidebook. We were told to expect a picturesque town and loads of photo opportunities. Besides photos, our goal was consumption: Beer, waffles and of course chocolate. We had a very early start since there was a lot of driving ahead of us. We were on the road before sun-rise, sans coffee, as there is no concept of drive-thru coffee here. It was grey and misty, as per normal, so we were hoping the rain would spare us enough time to explore the town.

As we arrived in Belgium, our hopes were not that high. The area we were driving through was industrial and rather bleak. The countryside was similar to The Netherlands, without the picturesque canals. And of course, there was the road we were traveling on. It was not the smooth pavement of The Netherlands, but concrete. Ka-thump … Ka-thump … Ka-thump … Ka-thump. At this rate we would both need to be put in traction.

Finally, as we approached Bruges, the concrete streets gave way to cobblestones (no less bumpy but defiantly prettier) and the factories gave way to beautiful houses and the occasional mansion of castle proportions. We passed through a gatehouse and into the heart of Bruges.

Well, first things first, we explored by car, which is to say we got lost trying to find a place to park. That taken care of we headed for the main square. As promised, it was breath-taking. Digital and film cameras snapping we wandered about. We decided to take a trip up the belfry that dominates the square for a Birdseye view of the city. We paid our admission and started to climb…and climb … and climb … (I am so out of shape and the swollen knee wasn’t helping) I was beginning to wonder if it was worth it, as my claustrophobia was kicking into high gear as the spiral stairs became increasingly narrow. Finally after the 366th step we made it. And it was well worth it. It was a perfectly clear view of the town and made for some gorgeous shots.

Going down was much faster although no easier on the knees and the claustrophobia was not helped by the people passing on their way up. When we finally reached the bottom we decided that we deserved some lunch.

We headed for the pancake house, as recommended by our guide book, in search of waffles. They had stopped serving them and what they had on the current menu was out of our price range. Serendipity found us the perfect spot around the corner. It was beautiful inside, the service was friendly and we had the best waffles I have ever tasted. Andrew chose banana and chocolate and I had mixed fruit. They were as beautiful as they were delicious. Unfortunately in our haste to taste, I failed to take pictures (you can’t be on the job all of the time.)

Bellies full and bladders empty (always take advantage of restaurant bathrooms in Europe as it’s usually the only place you don’t have to pay and they are typically very clean) we headed in search of our other quest items. First stop (other than the requisite browsing) was the Arti-choc (haha) Choclaterie. Oh my God ladies, the smell alone would kick your hormones into overdrive. I purchased a box of assorted hand made chocolates (see the picture and weep) and Andrew bought a bag of mocha beans (yummy and caffeinated). Two down one to go.

We found a beer store and the owner was kind enough to give us a quick overview. Andrew picked up a sample pack and a few others and I hit the flavoured beers. Since I enjoyed the cherry beer I had before I picked up raspberry, peach and grape. (So far I’ve had a raspberry and the peach and both were yummy.) Our quests fulfilled and daylight slipping away we decided to head back to the car (making many photo stops on the way). We rounded the corner and noticed some Tintin figurines in a window. We looked up and found ourselves in front of the official Tintin shop! So present for Charlie taken care of we found our car and headed home.

After crossing back into the Netherlands (blessed land of signage) we proceeded to get lost in Breda looking for a place to have supper. It ended up being the Sate Hut (things on sticks are good to me) and we had the best sate I’ve had so far with rice and veg. A nice ending to a great day.

Artis Zoo Blog

Since Saturday had been a long one, we decided to not set the alarm Sunday. When we rolled out of bed and looked outside, there was a strange sight indeed … blue sky, with this large, round, bright shiny thing in it … My God, it was SUN! For the first time since we arrived it was sunny! So we gathered our things, hopped on the tram and headed to the Zoo.

Artis is Amsterdam’s zoo and it is the oldest in the country. It’s been here since the 1800s. It’s definitely nothing like the mega zoos that are popping up over North America, but the animals are well cared for and have surprisingly large enclosures and the zoo architecture is part of the attraction.

Many of the animals are what you would typically expect to see in a zoo. Big cats (my personal fav), elephants, giraffes, polar bears, monkeys and the like. There were a lot of birds, many we had never seen before, including pink pelicans (pictures for Amy). We were also lucky as there were many new babies to view, including: a chimp, a gorilla, wallabies, a giraffe and some baby turtles. Of course, being the first sunny day in forever, and a Sunday, the zoo was busy. Lots of screaming children and haggard looking parents. You had to constantly be on guard so as not to get run down by a stroller or stampeding children. Nevertheless, we were very impressed by the zoo and I shot several rolls of film and tons of digital pics and videos will be on the site.

We headed home once the zoo closed and I made us a warming potato and leek soup to stave of the chill from being outside all day. It was a fun and relaxing Sunday.

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I will call this my food blog since that will be the major theme of this installment. Many of you have asked questions about the food and market situation over here. Since we bought groceries yesterday, it’s as good a time as any to fill you in.

There are three ways to buy food in Amsterdam (and the rest of the country) and all of them seem pretty popular (At home we have a definite tendency toward the super market.)

Supermarkets – these are similar in size to those at home but there are some fundamental differences which I will get to in a minute. Specialized shops – produce shops, butcher, fishmonger, Kaaswinkle (cheeseshop), bakery, etc. (I haven’t shopped in these too much yet but that’s my next goal). Open-air / farmers markets – There is supposedly a huge one in downtown Amsterdam on Saturdays which I hope to get to soon.

The supermarket we shop at is the Albert Heijn, which is a large chain here. We call it the Hamsterwinkel because the mascot is a hamster and he is in all the commercials. The major difference you notice when you first walk in the store is the amount of produce (I touched on this before a bit in my observations). There are things that you can get at home, but they are fresher, better looking and MUCH cheaper. There are things that you’d be hard pressed to find at home in summer, forget January. And there are things you’d never, ever get at home. If your produce is not pre-packaged, you put it on a scale, press the corresponding picture button and hit enter and it prints a barcode with the price. Very cool.

The meats are much the same as you would get at home with the exception of the sliced meats. This is the land of the sandwich. These people will put anything on bread (more on this in a sec). So there are tons of sliced meats. Then you come to the cheese. I don’t think I have to tell you how important cheese is here. I think I’ve already eaten my body weight in the stuff. I’m not complaining. The cheese here is amazing. They don’t do weird shit like dye it orange and there is any kind of cheese you can imagine. Gouda is by far the prominent cheese and comes in all ages and flavours. I’m a fan of the super old (oude) stuff but Andrew likes the young (joung) cheese. There is also a lot of goat cheese / feta. If you don’t like dairy, don’t come here.

The breads are all fresh baked. No such thing as wonderbread here (thank God). Lots of different kinds (I’m partial to the sunflower seed bread) and it’s available in half loaves so it doesn’t go bad on you. There are also many rolls and pastries.

Remember how I said the Dutch will eat anything on bread? Well for breakfast and lunch here, typically, you have the same sort of thing – an open faced sandwich (i.e. a slice of bread with something on it), eaten with a knife and fork. Ok, so the sliced meat and cheese I was ok with … then I saw some of the other stuff … A favorite (keep in mind this is breakfast in the land of the healthy) is chocolate and/or hazelnut spread with chocolate sprinkles … ON BREAD ?!? Ok, I like chocolate … a lot … but really, on bread??? Anyway there is a whole aisle in the supermarket dedicated to things to put on your bread. There are tons of flavoured spreads in jars, and different salady type spreads (tuna, salmon, egg etc) that you can get to spread on your bread. The Atkins diet isn’t going to take off here.

There is also an aisle of veggies and fruits in cans and/or jars. I can’t for the life of me figure this one out… And there loads of crackers (in keeping with the bread theme). Cereal selection is pretty limited. There aren’t too many chocolate coated, frosted, rainbow, marshmallow things here, thank God. And the usual assortment of household items and toiletries.

Finally my favorite section … The Indonesian / Asian food section. This gets a whole aisle and is dominated by a company called Cominex. I’ve found all sorts of yummy looking things that I can’t wait to try (as soon as I can get the instructions translated).

And here’s the other thing. They don’t just hand out tons of bags. You buy them and they are actually well made so you can use them over and over. It’s a great system, I think that cuts down on a lot of plastic waist. (Kitty litter disposal would cause a problem though).

So After the excitement of the grocery store yesterday, we went to Robert and Marie-anne’s condo for a traditional Dutch supper of Boerenkool met worst. It’s a mixture of potatoes, ham and some cabbage-like veggie that nobody knew the name of in English, with a sausage. It was very yummy and very filling. In combination with a lovely white wine and some illy espresso for dessert, it was a great meal. Their condo is beautiful and again very Ikea (but much more upscale than ours) and it overlooks the harbor. They have two cats, Bugsy and Felix who were a bit shy. We were given lots of Netherlands survival tips. And overall the evening, as Marie-anne put it, was very gezellig. This is a word that has no direct English translation but is closest to cozy or comfortable, with a bit of laid back thrown in. It is used in many contexts to describe many aspects of Dutch life.

The other thing about supper here, that you notice particularly when you eat at a restaurant, is that it is an event. You start early and you go late. You take your time and enjoy each course. You have some drinks before and coffee after. Then you sit and chat. You will not get a bill at a Dutch restaurant without asking for it because they do not want you to feel rushed in any way (that would be very un-gezellig).

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Well, we survived our first weekend in Amsterdam. Even though nothing went as planned, we still managed to have a good time and find some entertaining things to do. Since we had both been to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh previously, I wanted to see the third major art gallery that hosts all of the modern works.

We set out late Saturday morning and decided to give the tram a try. The tram stop is just in front of our block of buildings and the #9 goes all the way to Centraal and passes most of the major sites on the way. We found it to be convenient, clean, and the conductors were very helpful. We road all the way to Centraal Station where we purchased our ‘strippenkarts’ for discounted future tram rides.

We decided to take the scenic route to walk to the museum quarter. When we finally arrived at our destination we discovered that it was closed … until May, for renovations. So much for that idea. We decided to hunt down some food and regroup so we hit the Leidseplein, a major tourist spot with lots of restaurants and shops primarily catering to tourists.

Our meal at the pancake house was rather uninspired but it filled us up. Since we were running short of time (most things in Holland close at 5 except on Thursdays when they are open until 9) we decided to be true tourists and partake in the Heineken Experience.

The former brewery has been made into a tourist attraction. It takes you on a tour of the beer making process (a feeble attempt at getting you to learn something before getting sloshed on free beer at the end of the tour.) It was cheesy but entertaining and Andrew enjoyed some beer (me not so much).

In front of the brewery we met Kate, a former New Hampshire resident now working for a comedy troupe called Boom Chicago. She convinced us to head back to the Leidseplein and see the dinner show. The troupe is made up of Americans who alternate between scripted routines (generally bashing Americans and the Dutch) and improv. It was well worth the cover price and despite being crammed in like sardines between two Dutch couples, we had a great time.

Sunday I had big plans to go to Artis, Amsterdam’s zoo complex, the oldest in the country. The rain had something to say about that. (Side bar, not expecting any sympathy here but it rains at some point every freakin’ day!)

We decided instead to go to Rembrandt house. Although there are few of his paintings here, as most are in the Rijksmuseum, there is a huge collection of prints by Rembrandt and other famous artists that he collected. You also get to see his house and studio. We found it quite interesting (although Andrew feels that modern art is ‘crap’ so it’s probably good that the Modern Art museum is closed. Bill did you teach this boy nothing??)

After Rembrandt house we went for a bit of a wander and found ourselves in Chinatown (should be Asian town really). We went to an Asian grocery and bought some goodies and then found a nice Thai restaurant for an early supper. The food was good and there were no fries in sight. Then we headed back to the tram with a quick stop at Gall & Gall (a liquor store chain) and picked up some wine (at 6 euros for the good stuff, I’m quickly becoming a wino). We called it an early night and watched a movie. Tomorrow the cable guy arrives to install our internet connection so hopefully this blog will be on-line shortly. Tot ziens, Al

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