December 2016 - January 2017
  • Day1

    Christmas with my Oma

    December 25, 2016 in the Netherlands ⋅ ☁️ 10 °C

    Picking up our rental car in Amsterdam I walk immediately to the right side of the car to drive it. This awkward “wrong side of the road” faux pas never fails to amuse me. There’s nothing suave about that first dorky moment when you can’t work out how to change gear with the wrong hand, flick on the windscreen wipers instead of the indicators nor look the wrong way at the intersection. But we survive and hit the motorways of Holland to drive across the country for Christmas with my Oma (grandmother).

    We make good time on empty roads until I see the sign. It advertises a massive puntzak friet at the next service station. And that’s how we come to eat our first hot chips with mayonnaise and need croquettes of the trip. It’s just service station food but it’s presented so beautifully; not just slapped on a plate.

    We get a bit lost finding Oma’s house. A lap of tiny Hilvarenbeek ensues with its one way lanes and dead ends. But eventually we find the place and are entering the Christmas dinner preparation sanctum. Oma and my aunt from Portugal are cooking up a storm. As afternoon becomes evening more family arrive to fill Oma’s small home. It’s quite the gezelig feast with conversation, good food and laughter. There’s no gifts exchanged because that’s not part of the Dutch Christmas tradition: it’s all about connection and family.
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  • Day2

    Loevestein Castle

    December 26, 2016 in the Netherlands ⋅ ⛅ 8 °C

    The castle is part of a network of protection that extended down the Rivers Meuse and Waal for centuries. While it started its existence as a private home, that didn’t last long because the original owner built it using stolen taxes. The government (King) of the day quickly caught on and stole the castle when the owner was away.

    The waterways that surround the castle are more than a mere moat. They are part of the waterlijn (water line) defence system that supplemented the castle fortifications. This unique method of defence was truly Dutch. Through this system the Dutch flooded the lands near the rivers to  about 1m deep block the passage of advancing armies. The system worked until WWII, which saw the introduction of military aircraft. It’s really quite ingenious. A part of me feels an extra touch of pride at my Dutch heritage after hearing this creativity.

    Inside the castle walls is one of the best interactive museums I have visited to date. Visitors receive an electronic key shaped like an old medieval one. Throughout the castle are slots where you insert the key and become part of the medieval and Napoleonic world. There’s a Napoleonic era bomb shelter where soldiers await the flooding of the plains. There’s the story of Hugo de Groot who was held prisoner here but escaped in a book box (he is the lawyer who came up with the basis of all maritime law relating to where countries end and the sea begins). And there’s many other stories to hear.

    My favourite thing about the castle are the interactive games. I wore a heavy helmet and carried a sword. I rode a children’s horse toy because I couldn’t walk on the stilts. I shot laser-fitted rifles at medieval targets with an audio track either congratulating or chastising me depending on my accuracy.

    Castle interactivities are offered in Dutch, English and maybe also German and French.
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  • Day3

    Biddinghuizen ice skating rink

    December 27, 2016 in the Netherlands ⋅ ☀️ 7 °C

    My cousin suggests ice skating at the 3km (2 mile) long artificial outdoor skating track at Biddinghuizen. How can I say “no”? I love ice skating and want to catch up with my cousin so, despite the two hour drive each way, we drive across Holland to Velonice at Biddinghuizen.

    I’ve only skated two or three times in my life. Once was on a small rink in the snow in Warsaw last year. Before that I ice skated once or twice on indoor rinks as a child (25+ years ago). But I love the sport – possibly because it’s so far removed from sweaty subtropical life as you can get.

    We skate three laps of the rink. It’s like magic to be outdoors in the near-perpetual sunset that glows yellow around us. The air is crisp. The speed skaters in training zip past in blurs. The children slate better than me. And I get to catch up with my cousin.
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  • Day4

    Valkenburg

    December 28, 2016 in the Netherlands ⋅ ⛅ 3 °C

    Valkenburg is absolutely gorgeous. It’s easy to see why it is so popular with domestic tourists. The town centre is well-preserved with old buildings and sections of the fortress walls.

    There’s even hills here. Small ones but hills all the same within the bounds of this flat country. It’s so pretty.

    We ride mountain bikes in the limestone mine. It's amazing. We’re way underground in a live working limestone mine. The rock here has been mined for centuries, first by hand and now by electric saw. Progress is still slow even today with each miner taking just three blocks of limestone out in a single day (it used to be one before electric saws).

    We ride about 4km (2.5 miles) in our 90 minute adventure. We stop along the way to learn about the natural and human history of the mines. Sometimes we have to duck low to pass through tunnels and other times we have to walk to squeeze through smaller spaces. It’s good fun.
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  • Day6

    Brugge

    December 30, 2016 in Belgium ⋅ 🌫 0 °C

    Clip clop clip clop. The sounds of horse drawn carts greets us as we walk out of our hotel onto the wet cobblestones of Bruges. 

    We start our exploration in the Market Square with it’s gorgeous architecture. The shape of the shop fronts is emphasised by the bright colours. Its particularly stunning given the grey skies and freezing cold air. The only thing missing is snow.

    Our walk takes us past some incredible gothic architecture. Like this building in Jan van Eyckplein (Jan van Eyck Square). I can see why cousins were so insistent we visit Bruges . There’s not a dull corner or square to be found here. It’s all immensely impressive.

    We walk down small steets near the outer edges of the old city. Buildings that look like old farm houses sit here marking times gone past. The windows typically have stained glass panes and brightly painted shutters. The Folk Arts Museum is located in this area. It’s well worth the visit with each room representing a different aspect of life in Medieval and 18th Century Bruges. I am particularly fascinatd to learn that the smoking of cigarettes was introduced to Europe after Columbus’s journeys to the Americas. The guy who first introduced smoking to Europe was jailed for seven years as a witch. Unfortunately for society after his release smoking took off and has been killing people ever since.

    We almost have to walk just to stay warm. Even though we’re well dressed, this is weather for sitting by a warm fire. The cold and mist does add atmosphere to the architecture though. Especially the Harry Potter-esque guild building. And the brightly painted “modern” residences, which reflect beautifully on the still canal water. We are still not used to the near-perpetual sunset effects of the light with the sun sitting so low in the sky. I think this is part of what I like about winter in Europe – the colours brought on by this low sun.

    All that’s left to do to end our walk is to indulge in a fresh Belgian waffle with melted Belgian chocolate. We warm up in our hotel room revelling in the taste of our first Belgian chocolates bought right here in Bruges before hitting the streets for a wintery evening walk in the chill air.

    We wake to clear skies and a crisp clear winter’s day. Where yesterday felt cold, today feels joyful despite the cold temperatures. We set outside and the city looks even more gorgeous than it did yesterday. Here we are in the middle of Bruges with a whole day stretched out ahead of us to enjoy.

    Our first stop is the cathedral precinct where tall spires stab the sky. The Church of Our Lady Bruges looks closed and there’s a sign about buying tickets at the hospital museum across the lane. I’d read that the hospital museum could be interesting so we buy over priced tickets. We will learn throughout the day that the museum curators of Bruges are old-fashioned and still believe dumping a heap of barely curated oddities in a space is acceptable in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by some of the more modern museums we’ve experienced in The Netherlands, Poland and South Korea. After this visit to the museum we decide not to bother with any other museums and just to enjoy cathedrals, castles and open spaces. Fortunately, there’s plenty of those to enjoy.

    The Church of Our Lady of Bruges is partially open and entry ends up being free (tickets will be sold after the renovation is completed though). The church is a mix of peaceful and hectic, as are many major religious spaces we’ve visited. The faithful pray. Pilgrims kneel. Tourists click away with their cameras and smart phones. And the stained glass windows continue to watch on as they always have.

    We walk through Oud Sint-Jan. It’s crawling with tourists carrying Lonely Planet guide books. That is a sight we will see all day here as it is the winter high season. The apotek (pharmacy) museum was included in our hospital museum tickets. The apotek is interesting but again there are irrelevant displays mixed in here, making for a confused experience. We spend more time trying to take photos of the courtyard through the windows of the museum.

    The Cathedral of St Salvador is our next stop. Again, restoration work is underway but still the cathedral is stunning. We ooh and aah our way around. I light some prayer candles and we buy a candle made by a refugee. This is the common theme here in mainland Europe – the refugees. From what we have seen, the anger against them has eased and a more humanitarian approach is being taken by those Europeans we speak with. Everyday people tell stories of visiting refugees in their local areas to help them complete paperwork, learn language and engage with culture. Everywhere there are small stalls selling items to raise money to help the refugees. And some houses even have stickers on the windows advertising that they will accept refugees into their homes. It’s refreshing to see and hear after all the negative press the refugees get at home in Australia. Every time I travel to Europe or talk about it people say “but aren’t you afraid of the refugees” or “you can’t go there because of the refugees”. But here in Europe, in the thick of the crisis, solutions are being found, especially as the refugees’ stories are learned.

    Leaving the church we walk to the Beguinage. The walk takes us near the train station where massive tour groups follow flag-carrying guides briskly into the centre of Bruges. I feel immediately exhausted as we try to wind our way between the groups. They’ve paid lots of money to be guided through the city so they push to the front at every good view point to take a quick photo and continue. We stop longer, taking photos of buildings, playing with the light and enjoying the sunshine. My recommendation is to always travel independently – Europe is easy and safe for travel so there’s no need to tie yourself to a guided tour.

    The Beguinage is gorgeous. White buildings line a large wooded square. It’s easy to see why women chose to live here. Formerly a convent, the Beguinage is now a place secular women of prayer live spiritual lives. One house is open for the public and it’s worth a look. I feel calm here after the hectic tour group parade outside the Beguinage’s walls.

    We walk some more from the Beguinage to Gentpoort. I have to go inside because it’s a castle. I can’t help myself with castles. We look through the bolt holes. And walk onto the roof where we can take in views of old and new Bruges. In the medieval days the city gates were closed at night so this would have been a busy place at sunset. Pubs lined the outside of the gates in those days because people who didn’t make it back into the city on time would need somewhere to stay. I can just imagine how hectic this place would have been back then.
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  • Day7

    New Years Eve in Coevorden

    December 31, 2016 in the Netherlands ⋅ 🌫 2 °C

    We arrive in Coevorden just in time to walk from my godparents’ house to my cousin’s house. My cousin’s wife is cranking out the fresh home made ollie bollen like a champion. They taste as delicious as I remember from last year.

    My cousin’s kids and their friends are lighting fire crackers in the street. They are young but the fire crackers are less insane than those we will fire off at midnight. The kids are loving it. It’s our second New Year with them in a row and the kids are now talking about “Paul and Andrew who come every year”. It’s adorable.

    We head back to my godparents’ home for dinner. My cousin, his wife and their kids come too. We sit in front of the open fire chatting. There’s a year to catch up on. The kids gently correct my Dutch when I use the incorrect words or grammar. I appreciate the help.

    The kids go to bed and we play a present game. It’s odd to have gifts on New Year but in Holland gifts aren’t usually exchanged at Christmas so it makes sense. The game is a laugh. We have dice and cards that dictate what we can do with the gifts we select. Everyone has bought three gifts valued at about three Euros each. We select and unwrap gifts according to the cards and dice. We also swap and steal gifts according to the same cards and dice. Three hours pass and we end up with a selection of gifts each. It’s all random fun and we’ve laughed our guts out.

    And then it’s time. The clock strikes 12 and it’s hugs all round. Outside the fire works have begun. Last year we stood in the street where there were lots of young people but this year we’re in my godparents’ backyard. The difference is that it’s less scary and more enjoyable. There’s little risk tonight of fire works hitting us if they go wrong. And we can duck inside when it gets too cold. It’s a blast (no pun intended). We stay out in the cold as long as we can keep our eyes open and then we climb the stairs to our bedrooms (yes plural). My godparents have bedrooms for their grandkids and tonight that’s where we will sleep – each in one small child’s bed (the children are not there off course).
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  • Day8

    Ganzeduik

    January 1, 2017 in the Netherlands ⋅ ☀️ 1 °C

    Around 1pm we head off to theGanzenduik (literally translated to Goose Dive). We walk there through the village. There’s lots of people at the pond where we will be taking our icy cold plunge. The air temperature is 1.5’C and the water temperature is about 3.7’C. None of my family are joining me in the traditional New Year’s Day swim but I’m not about to miss out on the fun. I did the same thing last year but the air temperature was 6’C then.

    My costume isn’t anywhere near as good but by coincidence the hat and bow tie I won in the present game last night match my swimming shorts, making it look like I planned my costume.
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  • Day8

    Coevorden Castle

    January 1, 2017 in the Netherlands ⋅ ❄️ 1 °C

    My godparents have reserved a table at the Coevorden Castle for dinner. I am castle-crazy so to have dinner in a castle is pretty amazing. The food tastes great and the company (my godparents and Paul) is even better. After dinner the staff let us explore the castle unguided. It’s mostly set up with various banquet and dining areas. But it’s still very much a castle.

    And then we step outside to discover it has started to snow. The only thing I’m crazy about more than castles is snow. We rug up and walk home in the snow. It’s perfect. The village is gorgeous. And it’s quite romantic … especially watching Paul speak with animation to my family. What a way to start 2017!
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  • Day9

    Westerbork Transit Camp

    January 2, 2017 in the Netherlands ⋅ ⛅ 3 °C

    We drive to the Westerbork Transit Camp Memorial. The camp was originally a refugee camp for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the Nazis took the camp over and transformed the once safe-haven into part of their regime of reign of terror. Gypsies and Jews from all over The Netherlands were rounded up and sent to Westerbork for transportation to concentration and death camps further east. Approximately 120,000 people were transported through Westerbork by the Nazis. The most famous of these was Ann Frank who was among the 60,000 people transported from Westerbork to Auschwitz-Birkenau near Krakow in Poland.

    Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, the original camp no longer stands here. But there is a moving open air memorial and a museum. The memorial is a public space that can be accessed for free by walking along paths through the woods from a nearby carpark. However, you have to pay entry to the museum, which includes access to a shuttle bus to the memorial (cars cannot travel the road to the memorial itself). The 2km walk from the carpark through the woods is pretty and (being The Netherlands) flat.

    It’s a cold and bleak day. We leave the warmth of the museum and make our way to the memorial. The first thing that strikes me are the two railway carriages. Identical to those we saw in Auschwitz-Birkenau last year the sight of these carriages fills me with a sense of the horror that awaited those who transited through this camp. Not only does it make me think of what we saw in Auschwitz-Birkenau last year but now I also think about the long journey those who were sent there had to endure. Krakow is a long way from Westerbork. What makes this memorial even more moving is the roll call of the names of all the prisoners who were transported. You could probably stand here for a whole day and not hear them all.

    Stones have been laid here to honour each of the individuals who transited through this camp. Almost all were murdered by the Nazis. Some died on the long train journeys, others of malnutrition in concentration camps, some by being shot and many in the gas chambers. Photos between the stones show the faces of Jews and Gypsies. It highlights the inhumanity that was shown to ordinary children, women and men who’s only crime was to be born into the wrong religion and the wrong place and time. The same crime committed by the Syrians and other refugees in the world today who are fleeing torture and death in their home countries.

    Large coffins representing each of the camps to which Jews and Gypsies were sent line a pathway. Each names the respective camp and has inscribed the number of people who were sent there. The numbers are too large to comprehend. All are in the thousands. Some in the tens of thousands. It’s sobering and sad.
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