Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Waterworks: tacky beaches, canals, canals, canals.

Other than football [but I decided that needed it's own post] we've done a bit of exploring in other towns while we've been here.
Our second day, while the weather was still nice [which we were firmly instructed NOT to get used to] we took a trip to Scheveningen, the 'most popular beach in the Netherlands'. And what a monstrosity it is. The beach itself is nothing to write home about, it's quite large, flat, reasonably nice sand through most of it, calm water... but then there are the shops, stalls, bars, restaurants... and the beach chairs. Now, any sane New Zealander, when going to the beach, will tend to sit on a towel on the sand, looking at the water [when they're not out enjoying the waves, that is]. But this beach was absolutely crammed full of little huts and covered chairs, umbrellas, even some beds... all of which you had to pay the staff of the bar or restaurant your chair was in front of before you could use them... and all of which were facing away from the beach!! So this is how to appreciate the nicest beach in Holland... don't sit on the sand, don't look at the water, don't let any sun get through your shelter... Why you'd bother to leave home in the first place, we couldn't fathom. But we did have a nice walk up the beach, and even almost got a tiny bit sunburnt, so it was a pretty good day out for us.
Later that week we took a day trip to Delft, home of the famous Dutch blue and white painted ceramics. It was a very pretty town, with [of course] the characteristic canals and bridges everywhere, and hundreds of places where you could purchase said blue and white souvenirs.
We also eventually took our first trip into Amsterdam. And it pretty much lived up to all the hype. The smell of smoke [of the green variety] was considerably stronger than in Leiden, Delft or The Hague, and the 'coffeeshops' were much more blatant and tacky. We took a short stroll down the red light district canal [just because you have to say you've seen it once] and even though it was early afternoon, it was still fairly shocking. Window after window full of pouts and flirty smiles... though we have been told that it is a far less peaceful stroll in the evening, when those on both sides of the windows get more pushy... but we decided hearing about that was more than enough! The Amsterdam canals are quite spectacular - they are as prevalent in the smaller towns, but much smaller, so they don't leave quite the same impression. Some of the old buildings were as impressive, particularly the tiny narrow houses that are left over from when rates were charged based on how much road frontage your building took up - one house is a mere 2.02m wide!! We went on a canal tour, and the city certainly has a lot of charm to it, particularly when seen from a peaceful viewpoint on the water.
But overall, we felt it lacked a lot of what we like about the smaller towns due to the general big-city-feel, though of course it always has it's points of difference [dubious though they are].

For now though, it's time to get excited about Belgium and all the awesome music we're going to see this weekend at Graspop....bring it on!

Hup Holland Hup

Having now been in the Netherlands for over two weeks, it must be time for an update. We took the cheapest [read: slowest] option to get here, which involved spending eight hours of Antony's birthday in a pub in London, all our belongings piled up in a corner, watching the Nadal Federer final and some football to kill time before jumping on a bus headed for Amsterdam. Twelve very long hours later, after a bus trip to Dover, a ferry across the water to Calais [mirroring exactly the Eurostar trip we took that very morning], then back on the bus and through Belgium to the Netherlands, we eventually climbed out of the bus in The Hague, found a train to Leiden, and ran into Paul in the train station just after seven in the morning. Needless to say, by about 11, we thought it should be late afternoon and could have done with a nap [who would have thought those bus seats weren't comfortable?] but we struggled on, familiarising ourselves with Leiden before having our first real European football experience...
We trained back to The Hague with a group of Paul's friends for the Netherlands opening Euro2008 match against Italy, and not much could have prepared us for the orange madness that we would meet when we got there! Every pub/restaurant/bar/house in town seems to have draped itself in orange flags, banners, posters and anything else they could lay their hands on, and every tv was tuned in. The crowds jumped and screamed and clapped every time a Dutch player landed boot to ball, and as the goals started coming, it only got louder. Coming from a nation where the national economy takes a hit every time our sports teams take a fall, we thought we knew a bit about patriotism and crowds going wild. Turns out we were wrong. These guys really know how to enjoy a game of football :)
We've watched each of the Netherlands games since [as well as a fair few of the others, just to keep up with the results ;) ] in different locations, all crowded, all very orange, all very loud. And yet even when the Quarter on Saturday ended in the shocking result that it did, the supporters put on a brave face, packed up their orange and dispersed quietly. The pub we were at even put on 'Always look on the bright side of life' over the PA system, and the crowd started to sing along. They were proud of their team for doing as well as they did, and in a way, Netherlands was the winner on the night either way, as Hiddinck, the Russian coach, is a former coach of the national side here.
It seems All Blacks fans have got something to learn after all.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Frenching it up

So finally after two weeks in London we made it to the second destination on our trip - Paris!! :)
The eurostar was awesome, really comfortable and super fast [though faster on the French side of the tunnel - they don't have speed limits!] and when we got off in Paris Mel and Brad were at the train station to meet us. By the time we got back to the apartment [cute, tidy, and very tiny!] we just had time to crack open the first bottle of cheap [tasty] French wine and catch up with Brad after nearly 11 months before crashing and looking forward to tennis the next day.
Tuesday morning the weather wasn't flash, and after how many rain delays there had been the week before, we were a bit worried, but by the time we made it to Roland Garros [managing to not get lost on the French metro system on the way!!] it seemed we would be in luck. First up was the women's quarter final, Ivanovic v Schnyder. It was a fast match, Ivanovic looking dominant throughout, and coming out on top 6-3 6-2 in under an hour and a half. While this was going on we could hear the cheers and roars coming from the second court, where Djokovic was battling it out with Gulbis... seemed that match still had plenty of action to go when our second round started and out came Nadal and Almagro. We were both stoked to get to see Nadal play live, and he was certainly on form, crushing Almagro 6-1 6-1 6-1. Not long before the match ended, the Djokovic battle finally ended, [5-7 6-7 5-7]
By that time we were pretty cold and tired, so headed back to the apartment in time to meet Dani as she got off the Eurostar and we were all there!
Wednesday the real touristing started, after croissants and coffee for breakfast, and making a picnic lunch with fresh baguettes. We walked to the Place de la concorde, and from there down the length of the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, which we were able to climb up to the top of. Nearly three hundred steps above the craziest roundabout in the world, we had so much fun watching the cars and wondering how any of them made it out unscathed!! Many photos later, we wandered back down and decided we deserved a coffee from a sidewalk cafe, where we sat and watched Paris wander past...
Thursday we put our arty hats back on again and took off for the Louvre. That is one amazing place, so ridiculously big you really could spend a month inside!! We had about seven hours, and managed to get through most wings, though some we really had to race through. Highlights include the obvious big attractions: Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, as well as the crazy opulence of the reconstructed Napoleon apartments, the amazing large [read: freaking massive] format French paintings, the Italian sculptures, and one of the biggest surprises of the day, the feature artist Jan Febre-a Belgian multi-media artist who was given free reign to place whichever of his works he chose all over a wing of his choice. There were some seriously weird pieces, in a real contrast with the fourteenth century Dutch, German and Belgian works they were placed amongst, but we really enjoyed them. After seven hours of going around and around the galleries and up and down the stairs between the different levels, Mel and Antony were feeling shattered so Dani and I missioned on alone to the Notre Dame cathedral. And it was absolutely worth a trip. Awesome amazing huge stained glass windows and fantastic gothic architecture - though it was a little odd that there was a service going on inside and yet we were allowed to wander around wherever we wanted and take photos... We made it home just in time for a quick dinner then we all took off for the Eiffel Tower, in the hope that we could get up in time to see the sun set and the lights come on over the city. Turns out we were a bit optimistic though, it took us longer to get there than we planned, and the sparkly lights came on all over the tower as we were still approaching it [didn't know it at the time, but this happens at 10pm every day, for ten minutes, then again every hour after that]. There was a literal collective cry of 'aaaah' from both sides of the road as all the tourists looked up and noticed the lights flashing away. We made it into the line for tickets, but not long after we joined, they closed ticket sales for the top level, as it was overcrowded, and it as it was already getting quite dark, and we really wanted to see the view from the very top, we decided to call it a day and try again the next day. Was still an excellent night out, as we got some great photos of the dying light behind the tower from the ground.
Friday we took the short walk to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur and had a walk around inside. It was very different to Notre Dame, but no less impressive, and well worth a visit. Once again, there was a service taking place, which we did our best not to interrupt..though there were plenty of other tourists there too. After Sacre Coeur, we took a train mission out to the Palace of Versailles for another dose of obscene opulence... and weren't disappointed. The rooms just got bigger and bigger and more and more grandiose as we went through...not exactly hard to imagine why the French people weren't so impressed when they were struggling to make ends meet ... Was awesome to be in the 'Hall of mirrors' where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, though it was a little hard to imagine the atmosphere when we were there surrounded by several busloads of big tour groups... We missioned back to Paris on the train and headed for the Eiffel Tower once again, stopping for a dinner of crepes on the way... yum! Made it into the line in plenty of time and weaved our way up to the top - wow do they pack you into those elevators! The view [or what of it we could see] on the ride up was awesome, and even more so once we got off on the second level. Took heaps of photos and wandered all around to get the complete view - crazy how tiny the Arc de Triomphe looked from up there, and we weren't even at the top! It sure felt big when we were up it on Wednesday :) Eventually took the final elevator ride to the very top, 300-odd metres above Paris, and the view, as expected, was spectacular. We watched the light start to dim, and got a shock once again by the sparkling lights at 10pm - they felt very different when we were in the middle of them!! It was awesome to see the lights of the city slowly turn on, and watch the last of the sun drain away from the day - a truly fantastic experience, so glad we made the trip back :D Sometime after 11 we decided it was time to head home and warm up, but the guys tricked me into McDonalds on the way home, claiming hunger, but really it was for a 'traditional' French experience, a.k.a. a McBeer... felt very very strange to be sitting in a McDonalds in Paris, around midnight, sipping on a Kronenbourg, very strange indeed.
Saturday morning I collected Michal, fresh off the train from Belgium, and we all headed for an Irish pub to watch the ABs v Ireland game, before having a few celebratory birthday beers for Antony. A relaxing end to an intense week.
Sunday morning came around very early as we all had different directions to head in for the next part of our adventures, though our departure on the eurostar back to London was somewhat delayed by a two hour bomb scare at Gare du Nord international terminal... which turned out to be an abandoned piece of luggage that the French police, after much standing around chatting and doing nothing, ended up destroying before we could get on our train and leave France behind... for now ...

Catch up time

It's been a while, due to some severe internet-access-shortages...but it's now time to fill in the gaps!
Our last week in London was a little less frantic, but we managed to fit in a few more touristy things. Wednesday we spent at the Tate Modern [hoorah for free museums and galleries] and it was awesome. Very different to the National Gallery, and cool to see so many familiar famous names - Bacon, Monet, Picasso ...
Then of course no visit to a city would really be complete without a trip to the zoo, so we spent Thursday at London Zoo...where, unfortunately, after spending over an hour outside queuing to get in, it rained :( Still, we managed to see most things, though many of the monkeys [lazy primates!] were hiding from the weather. The new[ish] rainforest area was great [and inside ;) ], and we spent heaps of time in the 'bug' area, and looking through the aquarium and reptile house. Bit sad about the teeny tiny giraffe and zebra enclosures though...
Friday we made a trip to the Tower of London and went on a 'beefeater' tour. The jokes were bad, but it was good to hear more of the history of what we were seeing. Spent a couple of hours wandering around by ourselves afterwards- never knew the tower complex was so huge! And Antony had to be very careful not to smack his head as the ceilings were often very low, and the stairs narrow and winding...
We spent our last weekend at a hostel absolutely overrun with Australians, [both staff and guests] before heading to St Pancras international train station on Monday morning...