zephyr illusions photo by donna October 1992. The view atop Chasseral, Jura Mountains looking across Switzerland to The Alps on the horizon. Fog, intensely thick, rising from Lac Bienne and stretching its fingers high onto the Lignières-Plateau de Diesse after wholly filling the valley below the plateau.

Friday, September 30, 2005

European Adventure 2005 Day 21

My last day in The Netherlands dawns sunny, but a bit cold.... the first day weather that has a chill in the air. i was very lucky with the weather during my trip. only had about 3 or 4 days of rain, but today i can feel Autumn.
After breakfast of ham, cheese, fruit juice and a pot of good black coffee, i went outside with a handful of coins to purchase my parking pass for the day from the automated parking pass machine. damn! on the windshield of my rental car, which was parked on the street directly in front of the hotel, was a small piece of paper..... i immediately knew i had been ticketed, but for what reason?! i pulled the ticket out from under the windshield wiper and discovered that i hadn't bought enough time yesterday. shit! i mistakenly thought that paid parking ended at 17:00, but it is actually 19:00 so i was illegally parked for 2 hours. the fine for my expired parking pass was €47.00!!!! eeeekks!! oh well, my silly mistake, so i'll just have to use some of my last day in The Netherlands dealing with the Amsterdam parking-police.
So, i went online to the website address listed on the ticket to find info on payment procedure and to find out where the Amsterdam Oude Zuid parking-police office is located. lol, of course, the entire website is written in Dutch and no map on the website so i was clueless.
i went to the reception desk and told the owners, Gregorius and Olga, of my dilemma and asked if i could take a tram to the parking authority’s office. they asked me rather incredulously if i really wanted to pay the fine immediately? well, yes, i do... don't want to be met at the airport by Amsterdam police and detained for a parking ticket! they both broke into big smiles (i think holding back giggles at my seriousness) and Olga said that The Netherlands is a "democratic society" (something i sense to be an extremely important to them as Russians immigrants) and that there is not need to rush to pay the fine and i did not have to fear the Amsterdam police awaiting me at the airport to arrest me for a parking fine. Gregorius and Olga went on to explain that quarterly the Amsterdam police send out billing statements to parking and traffic violators. They also said that because the Amsterdam police are very good at watching for parking infractions Amsterdammers build into their annual budget funds for covering traffic fines. So, in 3 months or so the owners of the car, the rental car agency, would be billed for my parking fine and sometime within 4-6 months my credit card may, in turn, be charged for the fine. Or, maybe not. Gregorius and Olga told me to just “take it easy and not worry”.
lol, i think i like this “democratic society” system :D

After putting my parking ticket concerns to rest, Olga suggested that I might like to go to the Concertgebouw and hear the free lunchtime concert open to the public on Wednesdays. She told me that the Amsterdam Concertgebouw is world renown for it’s grandeur and excellent acoustics and the Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra is said to be one of the very best orchestras in Europe, second only to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. intrigued by what she told me i set off to Concertgebouw (built in 1888), which is located near the Museumplein, a 15-minute walk from the hotel. i arrived at the concert hall just in time to seat myself on the balcony of the beautifully elegant concert hall before the concert began. Wow! is that place ever grand!... beautifully painted in soft white, pastel green accents and gold gilding, crystal chandeliers, rich deep-red plush velvet upholstery on dark-grained wood seats, matching heavy velvet drapes, and a giant pipe organ dominates the wall behind the big orchestral stage.
the concert lasted only ½ hour and was actually a rehearsal for the full concert to be given later that evening. it’s hard to think of what i heard as a rehearsal because the orchestra was incredibly good and the sound nothing less than awesome. i was impressed with the first violinist… he was able to created such captivatingly delicate and sustained notes from his violin that filled in the air with such intensity and feeling. I’m not sure, but I think it was Peter Sánta because Olga told me that i would be hearing a famous young Dutch conductor playing and he sure looked like Peter Sánta. at the end of the performance, the conductor asked the first violinist to take an individual bow (so incredible was his performance), but he declined and took a bow with the entire orchestra. i thought that said something about his modesty and it was endearing.
i’m so happy Olga told me about the free lunchtime concert… again, the best travel tips come from locals if you really want to experience the culture and true ambiance of the country visited ☺

After the concert, i decided to make the short walk (about 10 minutes) to Albert Cuyp Market where i had lunch at one of the nearby cafes. even though still a bit chilly, it was very nice to have a leisurely lunch sitting at an outdoor table in the sun. i had the_best turkey club sandwich served on the_best crusty lightly toasted bread and a beer. dang, the beer sure is consistently good in Holland! ☺

After i finished lunch, i strolled along a canal and made my way to the Museumplein where i caught the tram and returned to the hotel to get a start on doing some creative packing trying to squeeze all of my things and all the gifts i had bought into my 2 small bags and backpack so that i would be ready for the trip back home the next morning. lol, it was a complicated task, but I accomplished the feat successfully.

Having prepared my packing for morning departure, i took one last walk through Vondelpark at dusk. the air had a real nip to it and the walk was relaxing. there were a few joggers and bicyclist about, but the park was quite still… i guess because of the time of day and the chill in the air.
On my way back to the hotel, i took a route through the neighborhood of my hotel and admired the large brick houses with their huge open windows brightly lit by life going on behind closed doors. many of the windows are partially or completely of stained glass. the stained glass windows were so pretty with the interior lights shining through their colorful designs…. it was so peaceful, even with the din of city noise and sirens of Amsterdam City in the near distance. which makes me think of something I noticed - a difference in the sounds of life in Amsterdam as compared to life in Utrecht and Groningen… in Amsterdam the quarter hours are marked by police & emergency vehicle sirens (or at least it seems this way) ; in Utrecht and Groningen the quarter hours are marked by the chiming of clock towers…

i reached Hotel Villa Borgmann feeling a real sense of satisfaction and contentment, with my last day in The Netherlands… [despite my parking fine, lol :p], yet feeling a bit sad and reluctant that my holiday in this wonderfully exciting country was ending.
So, i enjoyed a bottle of Amstel Pilsner and a bag of peanuts from the mini-bar in my room and made a toast to The Netherlands and her good friendly citizens. Proost!!

*NOTE: go to October 2005 archive and scroll down to 1st October entry to read the final post of my Holland Adventure, "Departure Day".

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

European Adventure 2005 Day 20

Awoke at daybreak to get an early start... leaving Utrecht and returning to Amsterdam for a couple days before catching a ride back to the States on Icelandair.
Got a some good suggestions from a friend for some traditional Dutch candies and thought it a great gift idea for my nieces and nephews. so, after breakfast i headed for the Hoog Catherijna.... a modern shopping mall that seems completely out of place juxtaposed to the old town centre. i arrived at the Jamin candy shop a few minutes before they opened for business so i walked around the mall and noticed how these sorts of places all look and feel the same. i worked for many years at malls just like this one and find them very boring.
Anyway, when the shop opened i filled three big bags with the loose candies of many varieties. the shop clerks helped me find the kinds my friend suggested... Kaneelstokjes, red & white mice, black & white sticks, Maria statues and red & black berries (those look good!) and then i just went wild scooping up others that looked interesting.
After having a good time laughing with the shop clerks about how funny it sounds when i try to say Dutch words, I left the shopping mall and headed into the old town to find a shop where i saw some of the pretty Delft blue & white ceramics that i want for other family members. the ceramics aren't the genuine Delfts Blauw made in Delft, but are very well done, have nice color and are hand-painted, so i bought them.
My shopping done, i went back to the hotel buying a beautiful bouquet of sunflowers on the way (don't know why... i had no vase or place to put them, but i had been admiring them ever since arriving Holland), checked out of the hotel, said 'tot ziens' to Utrecht and was on the road to Amsterdam.

On another recommendation from my friend (who figured i could handle with ease small rural roundabouts without getting lost :p ), i made a sidetrip to Kasteel de Haar.
Wow, how pretty is the castle out in the middle of the tranquil countryside with horses and sheep grazing the surrounding meadows. Lots of tall trees were everywhere around the village and castle grounds. i wish i could have toured castle De Haar and its gardens, but the owners are currently in residence and the grounds are not open to the public.

I really enjoyed seeing the castle, complete with moat and drawbridge from the gatehouse and road (more like a country lane) that runs along the moat.... well, maybe it's a canal, but what is a canal around a castle if not a moat? even though i admired the castle from afar rather than up close, i'm really glad i made the sidetrip. it was a nice way to leave Utrecht.

I found my way back to the highway and continued to drive in the rain to Amsterdam. hehehee, the drive went well until i made the wrong exit from the highway and got lost somewhere in Amsterdam. very quickly i decided that being lost in a car in the rain (those tram tracks on the streets are very slick when wet!) in fast driving Amsterdam was not a fun thing and my good vibe from castle De Haar was deteriorating rapidly. so, being the clever lass that i am, i drove looking for parking, parked the car, found the nearest cafe and asked for help.... would the cafe worker be ever so kind as to phone for me a taxi. the taxi arrived quickly and i paid the driver €13.00 to lead me to my hotel. LOL, mission accomplished!! :D

With the help of the taxi driver escorting me, i arrived at Hotel Villa Borgmann to be greeted with big friendly smiles and a hearty welcome from the owners and was surprised when they immediately handed over a key to a room without putting me through the check-in procedure. Villa Borgmann is the small, quaint, privately owned hotel located on the south side of Vondelpark where i stayed and enjoyed a typical Amsterdam single with park view the first week i arrived Holland. this time the owners gave me a HUGE room with full bath. it's almost like a suite in size..... (and, again, i am totally impressed with the size of the windows!! yeah, it's the little things that get me excited :) the large room is on the front of the hotel and is not as quiet as the single parkview room i had previously, but the Wifi connection is much better. the owners know i like having a good internet connection so this is why they chose this huge double room for me. cool people :)
The hotel is operated more like a bed & breakfast rather than a hotel.... personalized service (the concern about my good Wifi connection, for example) and bright clean rooms with individual character is what i really like about Villa Borgmann. i offered the sunflowers that i had bought that morning in Utrecht for the lobby/reception area (they were surprised, but delighted to have them), got settled in my nice accommodations and then took the tram going to town centrum.

Or at least, i had planned to go to the centrum... the tram was running 10 minutes late and i boarded a very crowded tram with hardly any standing room (a nice man offered me his seat :) ). after the tram began to slowly move, an announcement was made by the tram operator... something in Dutch, of course, and i didn't understand... and there was a big noise of disapproval made by the tram riders. i was confused, not knowing what the disapproval was about, and waiting to see what would happen. then, all hell broke loose.... a young (he looked about 16 years old) man looking very dirty and smelling like he had bathed in beer began staggering and pushing his way back toward the ticket agent booth where he stood next to me yelling belligerently in Dutch at the ticket agent. she yelled back angrily at him and the two of them really got into it. the tram reached it's next stop by this time and the ticket agent came out of her booth and was aggressively telling the young man to exit the tram. he didn't, she was a tall waoman and towered over him shouting angrily, the young man was yelling back, a couple of the nearby male passengers began to lend support to the ticket agent (lol, she was in command and didn't need any help, though!). and then, appearing at the open tram door a woman police officer. (now, that i think about it, i think the tram must have stopped in front of the Police station that i had seen on the route .) the police officer was demanding the young drunk guy to exit the tram and he refused. i remember being amazed that all this highly aggressive behavior was happening (still not knowing why) and yet nobody had gotten physical. but, then, the ticket agent moved in closer to the young man still shouting out him to exit the tram and kind of pushed him with her whole body, edging him out the tram door. damn, that young drunk guy reached out and struck at the ticket woman. that was it, show over... the police officer and one of the male passengers took hold of the drunk guy by the arms and put him off the tram and sent him reeling up the street still shouting over his shoulder. the ticket agent shouted 'biatch!' (this was the only word i understood during the whole episode, lol) at him and resumed her position back in her ticket booth. whew. guess that's big city life for ya, eh? :)
The tram began to move ahead, again, very slowly. at the next stop it became clear what the earlier announcement was all about. we were informed to all exit the tram because it was not operating properly and to get on the tram behind us. i'm not sure, but i'm guessing that the young drunk guy was demanding his money back since the tram was not taking him to his destination. in his drunken state, i'm supposing that he didn't understand that we were being moved onto another tram to continue our journey.
Anyway, we were deboarded the malfunctioning tram at the Museumplein and i decided that i would just walk to the nearby Leidesplein and have my evening meal there rather than continue on into Amsterdam Centrum.
The Leidesplein wasn't very busy, probably because it was a rainy wet kinda cold day, but still there was plenty of activity. lots of sports fans were awaiting some football (soccer) game to be televised in the sports bars, cafe employees were drying off outdoor tables and chairs, tourists wandering about and the best busker i've heard since being in here was playing guitar and harmonica. he was really quite good and i tossed €4 into his guitarcase and asked if i could have a photograph. he said 'sure' (noticing the two coins i had tossed) and went on playing. i listened to him for about 10 minutes then went off in search of a dry table for food and drink. i found a place under a canopy (just in case the rains came back) and had a very tasty Tosti of ham, cheese & tomato and a tall Heineken while chatting with the Canadian couple at the table next to me. they were doing a whirlwind 2 week European holiday and had just arrived from Antwerp. after 2 days in Amsterdam sampling the menus at coffee shops, they would be on their way to Nice where they would rent a Porsche convertible for a drive to Paris.
I finished my dinner and wished the Canadians a pleasant holiday. as i headed off to find the tram that would take me back to my hotel (without incident), i thought about how glad i was that i decided to spend the entirety of my 3 week holiday in The Netherlands and not do the whirlwind tour thing... something i had originally intended. 3 weeks is not enough time to really know a country, its culture and its people, but i really feel like i have soaked up a good bit... i'm sure that i have gotten a closer look into life in Holland by walking through the streets, looking at and touching the historic buildings, talking to local people, sharing the same spaces....
don't think spending my time behind the wheel driving through countries would have given me any where close to the same thing.

When i got back to the hotel, i was pleased to see the sunflowers i had brought with me from Utrecht in a vase in the center of the reception area. they really are happy pretty flowers and looked lovely in the lobby adding a vibrance. when i opened the door to my first floor room (second floor for americans) and turned on the light i had a real nice surprise... there was a vase of the sunflowers brightening my room, too :) that really made me smile for some reason.

life is good :)

European Adventure 2005 Day 19

Woke up this morning to the soothing sound of rain and i almost blew off breakfast to continue laying cozily in bed drifting in sleep.
But, since i was looking forward to climbing Dom toren before leaving Utrecht, i threw back the duvet and got the day rolling.
By the time i finished breakfast and replied to a few emails, the rain had subsided. so, under grey but clearing skies, i walked into town centre taking an alternate route than my usual and was pleased to discover that my sense of direction on the winding and confusing streets had improved... i didn't get lost this time! :D
I arrived at the Dom tour office just in time to catch the noon tour group (the guided tours are scheduled hourly). besides the tour guide, there were only twelve other members of the tour group (25 is the usual group size) which was good... i would be sharing the Dom toren with a smaller crowd.
Dom tower, built between 1321 and 1382) rises an impressive 112 metres (368 feet) and is set upon a foundation 8 metres (26 feet) deep. gaining access to the highest gallery, the steeple gallery, requires walking up 465 steps. on the way up, we would stop on each level of the tower and the guide would explain to us about the construction and history of Dom Toren.
The second level of the tower is very impressive with 13 giant bronze bells dating from 1500, the largest weighing 8,222 kilos (18,127 pounds!!!), suspended from giant timbers.

The next level houses bellworks for the clock chimes and there are a total of 75 bells. wow, that's a lot of bells! every quarter hour, they can be heard chiming... and, it's nice.

The stairway winds up the interior of the tower, beginning relatively wide and gently steep gradually narrowing and becoming quite steep. the last 100 or so steps gave me one helluva workout... i felt like i was climbing a ladder made of tiny rungs of smooth stone inside a stone and mortar cocoon.

But, the view from the occasional small window and the thought of feeling the wind on my face while looking upon the town below inspired me. just when i was nearly convinced that the stairway would go on winding upward and narrowing forever into the heavens, i rounded a turn and there was the low door leading out onto the steeple gallery.
Wow! to stand there on the narrow walkway that circles the perimeter of the base of the steeple with only an open stone barrier of Gothic design separating me from the openness of the sky was literally breath-taking. the sky was still a bit grey, but the view was incredibly expansive stretching beyond the limits of Utrecht city into the Province beyond. somehow, the greyness of the sky seem to enhance the colors of the rooftops and buildings of the town below, the green leaves of the trees seemed brilliant and almost glowing, the water in the canals seem to almost shine and sparkle... it was simply and utterly beautiful. i felt like i was standing on the greatest balcony that mankind has ever built.
I hung out admiring the view, walking the perimeter, touching the ancient building stones and wondering about their stories of what they had witnessed over the centuries...
Then, the tour leader broke the magic and told us it was time to descend before the next group would begin their climb.

After the invigorating (albeit, challenging) climb, i decided to would be apropos to seek out the 'Stairway To Heaven' cafe as recommended by a local friend. the rock cafe is owned by Henk Westbroek, a famous Dutch musician/music industry celebrity. i knew in which area of the old town the cafe is located and had no trouble finding the place. whooaaa, is that place ever cool! a nice mix of old world charm and modern rock music memorablia... kinda like that American chain of clubs, 'Hard Rock Cafe', but with style and class.
On the walls hang an impressive collection of guitars donated by famous rock musicians and bands... including (among others) guitars of Slash, Metallica, INXS, Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, Jimmy Page, Cream, Eric Clapton, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Peter Frampton, Steve Vai and Live (cool for me to see because that band is from York, Pennsylvania, a small town very near my hometown). there is also a tom-tom drum from Def Leppard. great rock music from the '60's - '90's was playing and he staff was very friendly. lots of students were sitting at tables studying, other customers having lunch and some guys were just hanging out at the bar having a good time. there was even a guy working on a laptop. when i commented how cool it is that there was Wifi availability, the guy offered me a few minutes on his laptop if i wanted to access the internet. what a nice guy, eh?!
I had a couple beers at the bar and chatted with the bartender then decided this would be a good cafe to see if the Dutch know how to make a good burger and fries. so, i moved over to a table with a fresh beer and was quickly served what i consider the official american meal. the burger was quite large and good (but too salty... why to European burgers always taste too salty?), the fries were heaped on the plate looking like a small mountain and a delicious salad garnished the plate. oh, and of course, there was a generous portion of seasoned mayonnaise accompanying the fries... no, i didn't ask for ketchup. :p other than the burger being too salty, everything was quite good, but the portions way too much and i could only eat about half of the meal. i completed the meal with a nice strong black coffee. considering the great atmosphere of the place, the excellent friendly service and the quality & quantity of the food the price of €11.50 was quite reasonable. i'd recommend the 'Stairway To Heaven' cafe as a great lunch spot.

After enjoying my respite, i set off to find the docking station for the canal boat ride. i found the station with little problem and bought a ticket just in time for the next departure. i really enjoyed the canal boat tour a lot. it was soooo much better than the Amsterdam canal boat tour i took a couple of weeks earlier (and only 1/3 the price). not exactly sure why.... maybe, because the wharves housing businesses and apartments at water level with the streets and town above make the canal more interesting? also, the tour wasn't a recorded speech, but a real live woman who did an excellent job of describing what we were seeing and pointing out buildings of interest. she did the tour in 3 languages... Dutch, German & English. she would have done it in French, too, but there were no French-speaking persons aboard. still impresses me how multi-lingual are Europeans.
Anyway, the canal boat tour was very interesting and very relaxing. very nice and enjoyable way to complete a day after climbing to the top of Utrecht and rocking out at lunch :)
When the tour ended, i walked leisurely back to the hotel and had a quiet evening and blissful sleep after such an active day.

In short, today was another awesome day in The Netherlands :)

Monday, September 26, 2005

European Adventure 2005 Day 18

Today, i was very lazy and did nothing more than spend several hours outside in the sun listening to my iPod while walking, then back to the hotel to recharge iPod battery, write postcards (meant to do this the first week i arrived here so that the postcards would arrive home before i do! lol), exchanged correspondence mails with family members and do some other writing (ain't laptops & Wifi great?!!).
Began my lazy day by visiting Wilhelmina Park and spent a couple of hours strolling the park and sitting on park benches enjoying the warm sun, watching the aquatic birdlife on the pond, listening to music and just spacing out with my thoughts about life, dreams, goals, and other stuff.

Wilhelmina Park is very pretty with a variety of tall trees, large grassy areas, walking/biking paths, a large pond and interesting art sculptures sprinkled throughout. there is a pretty building with thatched roof that i think must be a restaurant, but it was closed so i couldn't check it out.

The activity in the park was relaxed, mostly couples and families with small children... walking leisurely, rollerblading, children with baskets collecting the chestnuts fallen from the old trees (i picked up a few, too... i like the smooth feel of them in my hand, yeah, i'm wierd. lol), a couple guys practicing karate moves... just enough people out enjoying the sunshine to give a bit of energy to the park. even saw a guy preparing to pack up his tent which made me wonder if he had made overnight camp there... reminded me of the time, years ago, when i jumped a wall and pitched tent overnight on a football field in Sligo, Ireland [got out of there at daybreak so as to avoid being noticed by the police, lol].

Some time midday, after enjoying the park, i walked up the Nachengaalstraat and window-shopped the closed shops getting ideas of gifts to take home to my family and friends. i was struck by how quiet and lacking of activity was the main thoroughfare. it was so still, it was like a ghost town. only a few of the ever-present bicyclists and a few buses, but no traffic and no other pedestrians. quite the opposite of the previous afternoon/evening when Utrecht was filled with people moving about. it was kind of eerie, yet peacefully calming, to hear church bells tolling giving sound to the quiet streets and amplifying the feeling that i had the town to myself.

As i entered the old town centre, i began to see others wandering about or sitting in the sun having coffee. i walked aimlessly and continued to window-shop stopping occasionally for a cappuccino.
After a couple hours of drifting around town centre, i had an early dinner of mixed green salad with tomato and cucumber drizzled with a bit of creamy garlic dressing and topped with salmon, a piece of very good bread and a glass of Heineken. the salad was quite tasty, but very large and i couldn't finish it all.

Then, i walked leisurely back to the hotel.. taking a new route. hehehee, after spending a few days walking around Utrecht, i'm getting a better sense of the streets and neighborhoods.... i'm finding that i'm getting lost less frequently. Yay! :)
Back at the hotel, i sipped another beer as i wrote the postcards and mails, read a bit, watched an old American western on BBC TV and then fell asleep.

A very laid-back, relaxed day.... sometimes, it's nice to just kick back when on holiday :)
oh, yeah.... can't decide which of these cars is the coolest :)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

"Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates"

Came across this while catching up on some reading and since i just recently mentioned having read this story as a child, thought it to be good timing, so linking to it here :)

'The Little Dutchboy'

European Adventure 2005 Day 17

Today, i did the 20 minute walk from my hotel to the old town centre and spent a fair amount of time just wandering around the bordering residential neighborhoods admiring the buildings and cobbled streets.
As i made my way closer to the interior town centre where the Dom rises high above the many cafes, restaurants and shops, i noticed that there seemed to be a lot of tourists bustling about with maps in hand. it was the first time since Amsterdam that i really noticed a lot of obvious tourists with maps and cameras. it also seemed to me that there was more activity, in general, in Utrecht. the weather was very warm and brightly sunny, so i suppose that brought a lot of people out to enjoy the weekend. virtually all the outdoor cafe tables were occupied and the doorways of the shops were busy with people passing in and out of them.

i checked into climbing the Dom toren, but all the hourly tours were booked. (unlike the Martini toren in Groningen, you must join a group for an escorted guided walk up the Dom tower). so, after talking with the University student working at the tourist office, i decided to wait until Monday morning to climb the Dom when it will be less busy and walked across the plaza to enter Dom church. [website in Dutch, but check out virtual tour (Virtuele Tour) if language a problem]
WOW. incredibly beautiful Gothic arches stretch upwards from the solid columns which support them; stained glass windows of huge proportions glow in rich colors as sunlight filters through illuminating the interior of the cathedral; various chambers and sanctuaries are built into the old walls made of hewn stone blocks; tombs, statues and icons of worship; candles and chandeliers; rich heavy wood deeply polished; the solemn sound of quiet respect and awe seems to tangibly fill the air as the sound of slow footsteps of visitors echoed off the tombstones that make the floor worn smooth over the centuries.
As i sat in one of the beautiful wooden pews beneath those incredible towering arches that support the highest ceiling i have ever been under, i was again filled with awestruck emotions that uncontrollably welled up from somewhere deep within me. i felt a disconnection from the present and the people around me and had some sort of sense of sharing a space-in-time long past... a time past stretching over centuries that i cannot explain nor understand. i somehow felt that i was outside my body and floating. after a few minutes of this inexplicable disconnection, i suddenly felt overwhelmed and struggling to maintain control found myself outside in the plaza, vaguely aware of church bells chiming in the distance, gazing back inside the cathedral entrance wondering what supernatural powers command this magnificent ancient structure.
i'm sure this may sound like a bunch of romanticism and fairy tale stuff to some people... but, for me, it is very real. i've had similar experiences at other ancient historical sites, including Mayan temple ruins, but nothing, and i mean nothing, compares to the magnitude of Domkerk.

i walked across the plaza and found a table at one of the cafes under the shadow of Dom toren and had a glass of red wine. lol, it seemed to me that a glass of the blood of christ was in order!

As i savored the wine, i referred to my town map to get a general sense of which direction to find the National Museum Van Speelklok Tot Pierement. i don't know how this translates to English, but it's a very nice museum (housed in another beautiful old church building) of musical clocks, music boxes and other mechanical music devices. after getting a bit lost in the confusing winding streets of the old town, i found the museum. the guided tour was informative and very interactive with the small children in the tour group (seeing the children's fascination with the musical items was as fun as the tour itself). the various objects on display are quite beautiful and unique, my favorite being the intricate mechanical clocks which still play music of amazing tone even though quite old. as the tour ended, my plan was to find a cafe and have a bit of dinner before further exploration of old town Utrecht on a Saturday night.

Then, as i exited the museum and stepped out onto the street, it happened to me! aaarrgghhh, wall-to-wall people! no room to move independently on the narrow streets... no where to go... being carried along on a tidalwave of people... felt the world closing in on me... felt the slow heavy wave of panic rising...forming to attack. i don't know why or where it comes from, but sometimes when in the middle of a large tight crowd of people, i feel claustrophobic and HAVE to escape. doesn't always happen to me in crowds... but, when it does, it hits me hard.
i focused on making my way to the Post Office plaza where i knew i could easily find my way to the familiarity of Nachtegaalstraat, the main thoroughfare that would take me away from the maddening crowd and closer to the safety of my hotel room. lol, i remember thinking as i was fighting my way through the endless throng of people that as much as i like the old town centre of Utrecht, i wished i was spending this particular Saturday night on holiday in quiet peaceful Groningen. much better to be partying with University students in the middle of farmland than struggling to escape what seemed like an ocean of city dwellers creating whirlpools of riptides out doing who-knows-what... i mean, what were all these people doing here?! there was hardly room to breathe let alone have a good time.
Anyway, after ducking into a supermarket near my hotel that was about to close, i bought some chopped ham salad, an avocado, a nice piece of bread and two split bottles of Cabernet-Syrah, i spent the evening picnicking in my hotel room and chatting on AIM with a friend while listening to fav podcasts. whew! made it to the sanctity of sanity without flipping out in downtown old Utrecht. :p

quite the emotion-filled intense rollercoaster of a day, but despite the close call of losing sanity, another good day it was :)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

European Adventure 2005 Day 16

So, i've returned for a few more days to soak up more of Utrecht's ambience, a town whose vibe i really enjoy. of the three Dutch cities i have visited... Amsterdam, Utrecht, Groningen... i can somehow, someway feel an intellectual and emotional connection on an immediate and basic level with Utrecht. Amsterdam is the nicest, coolest city that i have ever visited, but way too big and overwhelming. Groningen is quite nice in its blending of city action and small town familiarity, but a bit too much of a party-town. Utrecht's historical overtones and undertones of appreciation for things of antiquity and for higher knowledge/learning really appeals to my senses.
of course, i've only spent a few days in each city... little time to truly know their characters, strengths and weaknesses, so i may be totally off base, but these are my initial impressions... be them as they may.

Began today by doing some writing and organizing (sorta, lol) myself for my last week in The Netherlands before returning to whatever awaits me and my life in the USA. then, ventured out into another day of delightfully sunny weather to take a leisurely stroll about town...

And, along the way, saw this lady enjoying her work and thought it a neat subject for a photograph... a painter painting the window frame that frames the painter in the photograph. lol, yeah, my mind sometimes sees things in strange ways :p

During my walk, i saw something else interesting. as i was walking near a canal, i saw a that a drawbridge had opened to let a boat through. when i got a little further up the street, i cut over toward the canal to check things out and i saw a man standing on a walkway over the canal furiously turning a hand crank. curious as to what the man was doing, i walked over a convenient foot bridge crossing the canal (in retrospect, i think i walked over another lock) for a better look... he was closing a lock by hand! dang, that's got to be a hard job. i'd have thought all locks these days to be automated... guess not in Utrecht :)

Speaking of the canals, something i think very cool about the way Utrecht was built all those centuries ago is how the canals are bordered by wharf-like walkways and celler-like rooms are built into the canal walls going back for many metres under the streets above. seems so very practical and a rather sophisticated designed. i'm wondering, is this a common canal system design found elsewhere in Europe?

Had dinner at one of the many restaurants situated on OudeGracht, an Argentine restaurant at the Bezembrug (Bezem bridge). i sat at one of the outdoor waterside tables to eat, but did go inside to have a look around... really cool use of the low-ceiling, cave-like space with an open kitchen grill/food preparation area right inside the doorway and a couple of dining rooms extending back into the interior occupying the space under the street above. very cool atmosphere.
During dinner chatted with a man who is on some sort of an Utrecht Province historical preservation committee. he told me about hopeful plans they have to rebuild the old Dom church which was destroyed some 300 years ago by a big storm. the committee is lobbying for funding to rebuild the old church recreating medieval methods... a huge undertaking that is projected to take a couple of decades. our discussion reinforced that characteristic of Utrecht which permeates the town's vibe... pride in Utrecht's history and the yearning to preserve the town's heritage.

Other than strolling around enjoying the day, didn't do much today... just kinda enjoyed being on holiday :)

oh, also met a couple other Utrecht inhabitants enjoying a laid back day in the sun.

Friday, September 23, 2005

European Adventure 2005 Day 15

After enjoying a good breakfast, i said goodbye to the marvelous staff at Schimmelpenninck Huys and thanked them for providing me with beautifully charming accommodations, excellent service, best Wifi connection (even better than the Wifi @ the businessman hotel i stay at in Utrecht) and friendly smiles.
i loaded my bags in my rental car parked in the nearby garage and having another 3 hours of parking time to my credit, i walked into town in search of the Klompen Zaal Leatherwear on Oude Ebbingestraat. i easily found the shop, but no klompen... only lots of nice leather jackets and coats. i did find a discount shoes shop just up the street and found nice clogs with wooden soles and leather uppers... too bad they only had my size in white (eeks, not a fan of white footwear!). but, since my clogs are about 15 years old and quite worn, i bought a pair of the white ones for a reasonable €14 with the thought of trying to dye them black when i'm back home. good luck, eh?! lol
anyway, I proceeded to the busy shopping district hoping to find brown or black clogs in my size, but found no clogs in any of the shops...
BUT, i did find some real wooden klompen in one of the shops. (ok, i guess all the wooden klompen are really tourist items, but, hey, where do the old-timer Dutch guys get their real klompen??) the klompen in my size were priced at €27. i remembered that the klompen i saw at the cigarette kiosk when i first arrived Groningen were exactly like these, but only €16....

heheheee, so i went to the kiosk on the town centre square and i now have my long-wished for Dutch wooden shoes... quite stylish, eh!? B-)
This is what the tag on the klompen says...
"Certificate of Genuineness
Wooden shoes as protection, for men and women sizes. Inspected in the prescribed way 89/686/EEG Institute:0336. Produced in accordance with the Dutch Wooden Shoes Association (NVK)
The Dutch have worn wooden shoes since the 13th century. Thanks to the orthopedic form wooden shoes support your feet. Especially for children this is important. Hygenic, fresh air around your feet and the wood absorbes perspiration. Thanks to the natural ventilation of wood, cool in summer and warm in winter, a good insulation. Wooden shoes are safe; your feet are protected on all sides by the wood.
Attention: risk of slipping."

btw, even though rather clunky and making my feet look quite large, klompen are surprisingly very comfortable :)

after feeling content with finding clogs and klompen, i had an espresso-for-the-road and said tot ziens to Groningen. i found my way to the highway without any problem and began my drive back to Utrecht with good impressions of Groningen... a city of 179,000 inhabitants, 45,000 of which are students, blending city action with rural ambience and charm. there's so much nightlife and bustling activity of a city, but, yet, the warmth a small town.

the drive back south went smoothly and the weather was good... a bit of haze, but sunny and warm. saw lots of cows grazing and farmers working the fields in heavy farm equipment.

also, stopped along the highway to get a few photos of the modern windmills and what appears to be a huge dyke somewhere along the route A6. i'm guessing i stopped in Flevoland along the Merkermeer just south of the Noordoost Polder and IJsselmeer... i don't really know, but for many kilometres, i saw what must have been literally hundreds of the windmills turning in the strong wind.

btw, if you look closely at this photo (click on pic for closer view), you can see in the distance that maintenance work is being done on the huge dyke... teeheehee, guess that little Dutch boy i read about as a child who stuck his finger in the hole in the dyke to keep the water back has grown up and got himself a machine to make his job easier :p

seriously, it's really very impressive and i could not help but to wonder at the ingenious technology and the Dutch ability to adapt to the conditions of nature.

so, i had a pleasant drive listening to Simple Minds' and Intwine's new CDs and seeing the sights along the highway from Groningen to Utrecht without incident....
until i exited the highway at Utrecht and got lost at the first roundabout. lmao, i spent a good hour backtracking and trying various combinations of exiting spurs on the 3 roundabouts between the highway and my Maliebaan hotel. at one point, i looked over and saw that i was almost within spitting distance from where i wanted to be, but i was in a neighborhood of narrow one-way cobbled streets and cul-de-sacs. aarrgghhhhh, driving in Holland is driving me mad!! lol

finally, found my hotel where i was rewarded with a very convenient parking spot only several metres from the front door :)
spent the evening enjoying a sandwich i bought at a nearby grocery shop and a large draft beer from hotel bar while catching up on emails. then, fell to sleep while watching BBC TV.

European Adventure 2005 Day 14

Today, the gameplan was to check out Groninger Museum and take a canal boat ride. so after sleeping through breakfast, again (heheehee, anybody noticing a theme here... sleep-get lost-beer-food-beer-sleep :p), i quickly looked at my town map to get a general sense of direction and set out to find the museum which is across the street from the central bus station & train station.
The day was sunny and warm and it was an easy walk... the way to Groningen Central Station is very well marked with signage so i had no trouble finding the Groninger Museum, a building of very modern architectural and colorful design.

BUT, what caught my eye and attention is Groningen Central Station... WOW! what a beautiful work of architecture is this grand old building. the train station is quite large and is stunning in its glorious brickwork which seemed to be enhanced by the newer, more sterile brickwork of the neighboring bus station. the area in front of Central Station is currently under construction, but still this does not take away from the beauty of the building. i was so intrigued that i found myself being pulled into the train station rather than the museum. i spent more than 2 hours just wandering around the busy station, having a cappucino in the brasserie and just sitting in the central lobby marveling in the intricate designs of the stained-glass windows, rich old polished woodwork and amazing muli-colored brickwork thinking that whoever designed this building was more than very talented architectural designer, but, also, a real artist in his/her own right.

This is a photo i made by tilting my head straight up at the ceiling as i sat in the lobby.... incredibly beautiful, but my simple camera does not do it justice!

After delighting in the glory of Groningen Central Station, i decided that i would walk along the canal rather than do the boat ride. so, i did a leisurely walk of the perimeter of central Groningen town following the main canal and doing exploratory side trips onto interesting-looking streets. i discovered the university area, many lovely residential areas and saw many many beautiful old boats harbored on the canal. there is one section of the canal that is a very congested with boats of all sizes, types and in various conditions of repair. it seemed like a little city of water dwellers... i got the impression many people lived year-round on their boats harbored there.
One large and well-maintained schooner named Zwadde, caught my interest and as i was admiring it, a man approached and boarded. i said hello and asked if he was the owner of the beautiful boat. he said yes and told me a bit about his ship (he prefers to call his classic seafaring vessel a ship rather than boat :) ). in the summer, he charters sailing excursions and during winter he rents the ship as a residence. he even gave me his website address.... check it out, real nice website with good pics and interesting history of the ship. sounds quite the interesting excursions that are offered and something that i would like to experience, sometime.

After chatting with Mr. Bakker about his ship, we said 'tot ziens', wishing each other a pleasant day and i continued on my merry way. by now it was mid-afternoon and i was getting hungry and thirsty, so i headed up the Nieuwe Ebbingestraat in search of an available outdoor table at a cafe for a beer and bite to eat. i found a comfortable table under the shade of a canopy at Cafe´ Boezeroem. as it turns out, the cafe was not yet open for business (many eating/drinking establishments in Groningen do not open until 4pm), but the very nice cafe operator served me a couple beers and a tasty Tosti of boerenworst [i think that's what it's called] and kass (toasted salami and cheese sandwich). she was very pleasant and we enjoyed a nice interaction as i had my late lunch/early dinner.
Revitalized from my refreshments, i completed my circuit following the canal and then retreated to my hotel to enjoy a cappucino and chocolate in the garden courtyard cafe while accessing the Wifi and updating my journal.

Sometime around 9pm, i headed out to the Cafe de Toeter and discovered the bar jam-packed with patrons enjoying lots of beer, music and 'quiz night'... a trivia competition. the owner and the bartender were pleased to see me return and the owner introduced me to his wife... she is very friendly and chatted with me throughout the busy evening as she helped to serve massive amounts of frothy Grolsch, lots of Jenever and offered various free hors d'ouvres to the crowd. i've been curious to try the Dutch traditional hard liquor, Jenever, and the bartender gave me a small sample of the clear liquor. it is served ice cold in a small shot glass... funny, i found that it has no real taste ( i thought it would taste strongly of juniper like gin does), but i suspect that the stuff probably packs a pretty good punch despite its smoothness in going down the throat.
I spent a couple of hours @ de Toeter enjoying a few beers while chatting with a very good looking, very tall and very charming guy from Leeuwarden. he and his friends were participating in the trivia quiz competition and asked my help with some of the questions that related to books, music and American pop culture. had a really great and relaxed evening at de Toeter. it really is a cool and friendly bar with great atmosphere and i'm glad for the recommendation to visit the place :)
On my way back to my hotel, i decided to pop into a small bar that was playing some good music on the iTunes playlist on the computerised stereo system and have one more beer and a proper shot of Jenever. i was served an apertif glass filled to the very rim of ice cold Jenever and was still amazed that the stuff has no flavor and tastes pretty much like water. lmao, i guess i understand the warning i got previously from a Dutch friend to take it easy with the Jenever... when i woke up the next morning, my head was a bit foggy... was it the effects of the Jenever? or maybe, the combination of several glasses of Grolsch and Jenever? :p

Anyway, my last day in Groningen was very nice and filled with a good time. Groningen is a real nice town.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

European Adventure 2005 Day 13

Began today by again sleeping away the morning in this ultra-quiet and comfortable room, then set off have a strong black coffee at one of the many open-air cafes on town centre.
i was happy to discover that today is market day in Groningen and found the expansive plazas at town centre filled with marketeer booths of many kinds... textiles, various and sundry dry goods, tourist items, jewelry, flowers, a multitude of fresh vegetables and fruits, herbs & spices (both fresh and dried), delicious-looking cheeses, fresh meats and poultry, various types of salami-type dried meats, fresh fishes and food stands that included broodjes (sandwiches) and deep fried fish & frites (fries). the market was bustling and i saw lots of locals purchasing the fresh food goods.
the booth that fascinated me most was one that sold fresh and deep fried fish... there was a guy there working nonstop cleaning and de-boning some sort of small fish (herring, maybe?) for a long line of customers. after squeezing fresh lemon juice over the deboned fish, it was pressed into chopped onion and then the customers would hold the onion-covered fish by the tail, tilt back their head and take a bite of the fish. the fish would be eaten in 3 or 4 bites in this manner. i don't know what this snack is called, but it sure looked like some sort of old traditional culinary delight. i was tempted to try one, but it was a bit too early in the day for me to eat raw fish. now, i wish i would have tried it... might have made a nice breakfast :)

since it was a beautiful and bright sunny day, after browsing the market, i decided that today would be a good day to climb the Martini Tower which dates back to the mid-1400's. the Martini church dates all the way back to 800!!
i paid a very reasonable €3.50 for a very informative brochure of Martini Tower and it's history and a pass that would allow me access to the tower stairway. wow, what an incredible feeling to walk up the very narrow steep staircase made of old brick, stone and mortar that winds upward toward the top of Martini Toren. i felt fortunate that i had the tower and the stairs to myself... it was indescribably cool to be hearing the echos of my own steps while imagining the many echos of those who had shared the same space over the centuries.

while the actual climb took about 20 minutes, i spent nearly 2 hours enjoying the view from the various galleries where you could leave the interior of the stairway and walk the perimeter of the tower. what a view of the town below and the countryside expanding into the horizon in all directions!

also, cool to see up close are the giant bronze bells that are suspended from huuuge timbers inside the tower. i stood for many minutes in the bell chamber gazing upon the ancient beautiful old bells and timbers and marveled on what it must have taken to raise such incredibly large and heavy things so high into the air. in the early days, before crankshafts, it took 12 men pulling at the bell ropes to ring the largest bell. that's a big bell!
i descended the tower as more visitors began to appear on the tower's galleries, feeling a sense of wonder and satisfaction of having been afforded such a pleasurable experience of soaking in some history and enjoying a grand view of Groningen town and Province.

i spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering aimlessly around town, stopping occasionally for a beer. late afternoon, had a dinner of mosterdsoep (mustard soup... something new to me and quite delicious) and bitterballen with a beer and chatted with a woman who immigrated to Germany from American some 20 years ago.

then later in the evening, i stopped by a 'bruine kroeg' called Cafe de Toeter as recommended by Prof., the Dutch guy who reads and comments on this blog. very cool and laid back place with lots of dark wood and an atmosphere that reminds me of an Irish pub. the owner is very friendly, as is the bartender. there was lots of guys throwing darts (it was competition night) and great music was being played by the bartender. the bartender chatted with me about music and played some songs by bands that we were discussing as he served lots of Grolsch draft and other beers to the patrons. the cafe soon became very busy (Groningen really seems to come alive after dark) and it was time for me to head back to the hotel, so i said 'tot ziens' and was on my way.

had another nice day in Holland :)