Friday, April 19, 2013

Day 3: Kinderdijk and Rotterdam, Netherlands

I was tired from yesterday's cycling, so it is probably a good idea to move around by public transport. One of the more interesting places is Kinderdijik, the place with plenty of windmill and an UNESCO heritage site.

I had breakfast at Bagels and Beans, which is a cozy little cafe which sell bagel (it is a donut shape bread with various flavors, such as Tomato, Cinnamon and Raisin, etc.). There is a breakfast set for EURO 5+, which include bagel with sour cream and jam, coffee and orange juice. One interesting fact about Europe is that they charge money for sauces, and the cost of different sauces varies. The bagel is hot, not too hard (or soft), and goes well with the sauce (sour cream), and I can't help it but to order another bagel for EURO 1.50. There are some interesting tapas set which serve minimum of 2 person, would most probably try it when Mei Ru is around.

Deciding on the route to Kinderdijk is quite a challenging one, where I basically have 3 options i) following the easy instruction on the website by taking a train to Utrecht Centraal followed by an hour bus ride ii) take a rain to Rotterdam and rent a bike to Kinderdijk (10 miles) iii) follow some more complex instructions on 9292 (website and app). Since I was out late (10.30am), I pick option 1. The train to Utrecht Centraal is below an hour from Den Bosch for EURO 10. There are 3 bus station at Utrecht Centraal with 2 exits; after consulting the Station Information counter, I need to get to the West Bus Station and board bus 90. The bus stop is in the open air, so people are standing out in the cold without much cover, but luckily the bus arrive within 20 minutes. I can buy some manual ticket from the bus driver, which cost EURO 10 to Kinderdijk.

The journey is about an hour, but it's quite scenic as most part of the road is along the river canal and farm land on the other side. I wish I could cycle along this part, which made me realize I should select cycling routes which are along river canal. The weather is good, and everything went smoothly.

Finally arrive at Kinderdijk (thanks to Offline Google Maps and gentle que by the driver, I know where to stop). The visitors walk on the center walkway, where both side are flanked by canal and windmill. We can't really get near to the windmill, except the only one opened to visitor as a museum (around  EURO 5). The pathway is pretty long, I was contemplating to rent a bicycle (not sure of the price), but I didn't. One thing for sure, this place is very windy, where I am wearing double layer of jacket to keep me warm. What more could I describe about Kinderdijk: canal, windmills and strong wind.

I walk until the end of the pathway for almost 45 minutes, and I certainly doesn't feel like walking back to the bus stop. With my handy Offline Google Map, I cross a bridge into a farmland and into a residential area. Some houses actually have water canal at their backyard, which seems interesting. The people here do spent quite some time tending to their garden and walking their dogs, and cycling. It's interesting to stay in this area, where a UNESCO heritage site is just behind my house. After getting some direction from a local man who is tending his garden (his wife was born in Indonesia), I found a bus station soon enough and happens to board bus 90 again towards Rotterdam (actually most bus go towards Rotterdam, just make sure you are on the right side of the road towards Rotterdam). The ticket is EURO 6 and take about 30 minutes. I was a little worry that the bus might not stop at a central enough location as its destination is a place called Zuidplein; soon enough I realize though it's quite far away from central, but Zuidplein is a Metro station (city train) and a shopping complex, hurray!

The Metro ticket is quite interesting, as you don't buy your ticket by destination, but you pay EURO 3.50 for a 2 hour pass. I choose to visit Delfshaven, as it is an interesting old neighborhood. This street is filled with immigrants, mostly african and middle easterner; which means good variety of restaurant, especially kebab. The buildings here are fairly interesting, but still rows and rows of brown-colored buildings (perhaps I am not the guy to appreciate architecture). I walk towards central, and trail of immigrants had lessen along the way. Interestingly, there are rows of Chinese restaurant near the train station, mostly of Cantonese origin. Finally I stop at a Kebab (Doner) stall, which offer a kebab burger for UERO 3+ or EURO 5+ for set meal (with fries and drink). I opt for the wrapped kebab (mayonnaise and hot sauce is free, an good) , which is really full, but the meat is not necessary tasty.

Rotterdam is a big city (they have Metro and Tram), yet might not be an interesting one (perhaps I didn't do enough research), and I didn't have time for Den Haag. Perhaps I dislike big city, just rows of shops and tiring walking around; and the restaurants here are expensive, so I can't indulge myself in great gastronomy adventure. Most of the shop here doesn't close by 5pm, but in comparison, Den Bosch seems like a cozier place to visit. It makes me wonder what we really enjoys during our travel? I would say trying now new food (but internationalization of restaurants means you can eat almost any type of food anywhere, which make the experience less satisfying), view the magnificent scenery (sadly, most of these places are overcrowded or too expensive) and finding the hidden gem (which remain hidden, or became too popular). In a certain sense, which visiting the local grocery and trying to live a different live in a different city seems more interesting at times, but this cannot be experience with just over one week in a place and staying in hotel. Perhaps my concept about traveling is starting to change. I usually enjoy hiking trip: nature, beautiful scenery all the way and no city hassle or thinking what to do next.

Finally took a train back to Den Bosch for EURO 16, which need to switch at Utrecht Central. The transportation cost of the day is pretty costly, add up to EURO 42. Perhaps cycling around Den Bosch to the next towns are better value for money, for EURO 7.50 per day.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Day 2: Cycling out of Den Bosch

Since Den Bosch is not much of a touristy town (more of a weekend escape and relaxation for locals), I would guess the best activity for the day would be to explore the outskirt of Den Bosch. In Netherlands, the best place to rent a bicycle is always the train station; for Den Bosch, it's EURO 7.50 per day with EURO 50 deposit, and it's a decent city bike (3 gear) in good condition.

How to navigate around? There is a famous Netherlands cycling map available, I could find the English version in the VVV (Tourist Information) office. Why not just use Google Offline Map and I probably won't get lost (proven to work well during my Vietnam trip). I am aiming for one of the local national park (De Loonse en Drunense Duinen), so off I go. Cycling is pretty safe and comfortable in Netherlands, where there is a dedicated cycling path most of the time, and the cars are pretty considerate of the cyclists and pedestrian, but I do need to remember to cycle on the right side (sometimes there is no cyclist path on one side of the road where we need to share the same path on the other side, which could be confusing at first).

Soon enough, I left the City into the highway, crossing through residential and finally on a small path in the outskirt. Netherlands is very flat, with vast grassland and bold trees (right after Winter) and brown-colored buildings. There are some horses, goats and sheeps along the way, and the scenery doesn't change drastically. Some parts of the road are more pleasant due to the lack of cars, which makes it quiet and comfortable to cycle; or surrounded by farmland, grassland or nice houses. Perhaps I was looking for some breath-taking view, but there is none, just comfortable views along the way.

Once in a while I went into a small town, where every town seems equally populated with a lively street with shops, definitely equipped with with two or three supermarket/convenience stores, a shop which sell cheese/nuts/meat/bread and 2-3 restaurants & cafes. It's a quiet town, but far from "dead", which make it an ideal place to live. It started raining when I reach the first town (Vlijmen), and I realize the rain didn't bother most of the people: they just keep cycling, keep walking or keep playing football. Some pedestrian use an umbrella, but most didn't make an attempt to find a shelter or cover their head. Drizzling rain seems to be common around here, and my hand and face definitely felt the freezing cold; wearing a water resistant wind-breaker is good, keep the wind out and keep me dry.

Bought some cold pasta (about EURO 1.50 per 100g, 400g could probably make a decent meal) while taking a shelter from the rain, and take lunch at the 3rd town (Drunen). I definitely could use a hot drink in this weather, and EURO 2.50 for 5 Cheese Stick Bread (Knabbelstengel) and EURO 1.70 for  a Chocomel at Bakker Bart seems like a bargain to me. In any town or city in a new place, there is always a few things which always interest me: the restaurant (food), the supermarket (food), the market (food) and local specialty shop (cheese, meat, nut, etc.); I guess it's all about the food. If I can't appreciate local culture in the form of art and history, at least I would like to taste their food.

After a nice rest, it's time to venture into the national park. The national park have plenty of hiking trails, but the path is not city-bike friendly. I have to push my bicycle half of the time, and the forest is pretty "deserted" (I did bump into the only other person). It's a pine forest, and the forest is not thick, and every part of the forest look almost the same, and with some sands on the ground, and there is some horse riding trail as well. After rejoining into the main road, it's a pleasant ride along the way. I guess I didn't went through the "main entrance" of the national park and saw the sand dunes.

My butt is getting sore for the last 90 minutes of the ride, and cycling within the city is slightly more confusing. The total journey is 28 miles (probably the longest ride I have) in 6 hours 18 minutes (thanks to Google's My Tracks app). Cycling is fairly enjoyable (I don't mind doing it again), the weather is nice, the path is good, and the scenery is lovely. I like the cycling culture here, where the weather is nice, dedicated cyclist path, the motorist are considerate and the concept of "snatch thieve" doesn't seems to exist here (proven by lady cyclists putting their handbags in front of their bicycle): sadly Malaysia have neither of these criterias.

I would one of the most interesting attraction in Netherlands would be cycling, sadly I am not prepared to do one of those long distance (LF) cycling route (>100km) with camping along the way. With more bicycle on the road, it does make car traffic a lesser problem; and it makes the people happy. They make quite a few innovation for ferrying babies, with baby in the front with a windscreen, put them in a cart at the front or full them from the back with a trolly extention. Anyway, cycling is a lovely part of Netherlands which I truly enjoy.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Day 1: Den Bosch / 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

My wife shall be traveling to Den Bosch, Netherlands to work for 2 weeks, so it's a great opportunity for us to accelerate our travel queue to Europe (we usually clear up cheaper destinations first), and to experience why Europe is such an attractive travel destination.

Flight from Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam should be around 13 hours if it's a direct flight (Malaysia Airline seems to be the only airline with direct flight), and the rest seems to involve transit which easily increase the travel time to 15-18 hours. We flew by KLM Royal Dutch Airline with 4 hours transit in Singapore (Changi is a nice airport to easily kill time during the transit), where the flight time from Singapore to Amsterdam is around 12.5 hours. My round trip ticket (flew back from Rome) cost RM 4,500, where it could be RM 1000 cheaper if my travel schedule didn't eat into May.

The KLM flight is almost full, and it's  a big plane, where the boarding time took more than an hour. The 12.5 hours journey is still bearable for me, though we are in quite a "tight" spot, and KLM does serve many rounds of meal: snack, dinner, breakfast, and I probably miss a round of waffle because I had fallen asleep. The seat is pretty cool with a head rest, where both side could be folded up to hold your head in position so that it doesn't swing around; the leg space is not great, but not too bad either.

We reach Amsterdam around 8.00am (with 30 minutes delay). Though the immigration check out queue is long with little counters, but the processing is swift. We realize the filling up of the Arrival Card is not necessary. Schiphol airport is connected to the train station, which is great. The train ticket to Den Bosch cost around EURO 16 and take around 70 minutes; we bump into another group of people from my wife's company, where they store their luggage at the train station for EURO 9.50 per day and take a train ride to explore Amsterdam instead.

The train was pretty much empty on Sunday morning, and Netherlands seems quiet, flat and vast, with canals, bold trees (right after winter) and vast fields. Not much of the windmill, not much car either on the highway. We took a cab upon arrival to Golden Tulip Hotel Central (EURO 120/night), where it's quite centrally located; after getting our free buffet breakfast (juice, bread, cheese, salmon and meat slices, etc.), we began our walking tour of Den Bosch.

Den Bosch is not actually a touristy town, but it had just the right amount of cafes and a commercial square to feel comfortable with. It's Sunday, so 90% of the shops are closed. Everyone seems to be enjoying the outdoor cafe or just strolling around, and many more travel around with bicycle. It's a pretty walkable town, and the weather is great with a nice day time temperature of 15 Celsius. The architecture of buildings are very pleasant, systematic yet with some minor distinction, with their nicely done stone walkway, coupled with the nice feeling of water canals. The town is very walkable and cycle-able, where it feels nice and not stressful to move around, where people seems cheerful and more relaxed (sitting outdoor to enjoy the weather). It seems the people here are able to enjoy themselves more and be happy, more than Australian. The residential area is make up of cozy apartments or nice detached houses, with seems like quite comfy to stay. It would seems to me that Den Bosch is quite a liveable place. But since it's not much of a touristy town (except for some museums and cathedrals, which are not my thing), walking around the town area is pleasant enough for the first day.

The sky is still pretty bright from 7-8pm (April), where we found a nice cozy restaurant to enjoy our slow dinner which lasted for 2 hours. We dine at Het Strand, which seems like a decent western restaurant with not particular cuisine type. They offer a 3 course dinner for EURO 21.50, which I think is not bad. We have minestrone soup with bread, sea bass fish with salad and chocolate cake with cherry for dessert. The fish is fresh and nice, but the pork steak (EURO 16.50) is just average. Het Strand has a cozy interior with a beach theme, with 3 outdoor tables, facing a quiet and pleasant street.

It's a nice feeling to finally travel again, leaving behind baggages of work and commitment, and enjoy a short term freedom and adventure; I wish this could be my way of life, rather than a short term escape. The planning part could be quite tedious, and perhaps that's my motivation to start Travelopy: to make travel planning (where to go, what to do, restaurants, itinerary) easier and more enjoyable. With the entrance of and AirBnb, getting a place a stay seems much easier now. Bought a tablet to make travel planning on the go easier, and also a keyboard to keep travel journal in digital format. I did wrote a few travel journal before, but there is just no time to blog about my travel once I get back to the "real world". Everything should be done and completed while it's "hot".

What's up for tomorrow? Cycling the great outdoor.