Monthly Archives: November 2009

THE BATTLES OF HASTINGS – morris men and motor men


It’s all happening in Hastings on a May Bank Holiday weekend. The Old Town has been invaded by morris men, brandishing sticks and handkerchiefs, while the beachfront has been claimed by the motor men – thousands of motorcyclists on their annual rally.

Fortunately any competition is very good humoured, and the only serious battle is to see which group can make more noise. The morris dancers open up with a volley of drums, fiddles and accordions, backed by the jingling bells strapped to their calves. The bikies counter-attack with deep-throated revving of 500cc motors, and get the better of the early skirmishes.

It may be just as loud, but it’s far less bloody than the other battle I’ve been learning about over the past few days. Any Englishman knows there are only two dates that matter in history: 1966 – England wins football World Cup, and 1066 – Battle of Hastings.

The nation-changing events of the latter took place in what is now the little tourist town of Battle, a short train ride north of Hastings. History is important around Battle, and they’ve done an excellent job of turning it into entertainment and tourist dollars, pounds and euros.

In Yesterday’s World, a museum squeezed into an old building with a maze of tiny staircases, I browsed through replicas of shops from the Victorian era to the 1970’s. Here the grocer scoops sugar and flour into paper bags, the ironmonger sells ‘Star Grenade’ glass fire extinguishers to lob onto unwanted blazes, and the chemist, a surplus waxwork of Margaret Thatcher, grinds potions with a pestle and mortar. In Queen Victoria’s throne room we can see replicas of various crown jewels, while a rather robotic computer-animated queen addresses us from a video screen. We are quite amused.

Friendly, knowledgeable staff at the Battle Museum directed me to dinosaur bones and Roman pottery, but I particularly liked ‘Britain’s oldest guy’, a 19th century Guy Fawkes effigy considered too well made to chuck on the bonfire, and the smock worn by Battle’s last gas-lighter, Mr Anderson, when he played marbles every Good Friday. You make your own fun in a small town.  

But Battle’s real drawcard for visitors is an unremarkable grassy slope on which England’s destiny was changed in a single day.

The museum attached to the 1066 Battlefield and Abbey filled me in on the details of the story. We probably studied it at school, but maybe I was sick that day. Edward the Confessor promised the English crown to both Harold and William of Normandy, but forgot to tell the boys to play nicely together. When Harold claimed the throne, William loaded a 7,000 strong army onto boats and sailed over from France. Harold, fresh from repelling some troublesome Norwegians at Stamford Bridge, marched south to tell the frog-eaters to get back where they came from.

A short film in the museum showed a re-enactment of the battle, while in the adjoining room an Australian family tested the weight of the armour and weapons of the rival Norman and English armies. They were heavy. It would have been no picnic marching with them, let alone doing any fighting.

Outside on that grassy slope I listened as the audio guide vividly described the ebb and flow of the decisive battle. The Normans charged Harold’s troops perched on the hill and were repeatedly repelled. We already knew that William eventually conquered and that Harold was shot in the eye (this detail is now disputed by some historians) but joining a group of French tourists walking around in the peace and the sunshine gave me a feeling for the tragic, senseless carnage of that day.

In a field you could stroll across in ten minutes, 7000 men died in a few hours. This was in a country of a mere 1.5 million, in the days when a large town had perhaps 2500 inhabitants. When it was over, William was crowned king and England became French.

In the museum, I chatted to guide Nasser about the significance of the Norman conquest. ‘It makes me wonder whether there is really such a thing as a true Englishman,’ he told me. ‘How can one say, “Ï am  proud to be English”, when you are really partly French?’ I found it an interesting question, especially coming from a young Englishman who was more than partly Ugandan.

The spectacular castles around this part of Sussex, like Pevensey, Herstmonceux and Bodiam are a huge attraction for tourists. They stage battle re-enactments and host ye olde English mediaeval fayres. Preserving English history is big business.

The morris men and their fellow enthusiasts have come to Hastings to keep alive the very English tradition of Jack in the Green. Dressed as black-faced chimney sweeps or leafy green bogies (‘part man, part bush, part alcohol’), they dance up the steep hill and celebrate the end of winter by ritually slaying their ‘Jack ’ in the ruins of Hastings’ Norman castle.

Visiting French high school students give me Gallic shrugs when I ask them, admittedly in barely adequate French, if they know what it’s all about. They’re more interested in the gleaming Ducattis, Yamahas and Harley Davidsons throbbing along Marine East Parade.

But at the end of the day, bogies and bikies share the pubs, and the French are made to feel welcome. England has room for all sorts of people now.

The writer was a guest of 1066 Country Tourism.

TRIP NOTES:

Jack in the Green is celebrated in Hastings every May bank holiday weekend. http://www.hastingsjack.co.uk

Getting there: The train to Hastings from London Charing Cross takes about 90 minutes and costs GBP29.60.

Staying there: The White House, Hastings offers B&B from GBP70/90 single/double. See thewhitehousehastings.co.uk.

Further information: Entry to the 1066 Battlefield and Abbey costs GBP6.70 (including audio guide), to Yesterday’s World GBP7.  Entry to Battle Museum is GBP1. For other accommodation and attractions in the area see visit1066country.com

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under England, Travel, Travel- Europe

TALKIE WALKIES – hiking the West Cork Walking Festival

The story goes that a blind farmer was offered a patch of suspiciously cheap land here in West Cork. ‘Does it have lots of thistles?’ he asked warily. No thistles at all, he was assured. ‘Lots of nettles?’ Not a single nettle, was the answer. ‘Then keep it yourself,’ growled the farmer, ‘Tis mighty poor land that won’t grow thistles and nettles!’

Farming this windswept corner of Ireland has always been mighty tough, but it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place for walking, and during the West Cork Walking Festival we hear the talking too. Ireland is a land of stories and raconteurs like Gerald O’Flynn tell us the tales, often funny, more often tragic, that are etched into this landscape.

The West Cork islands and peninsulas jut against the Atlantic swell, pointing towards Canada. They’re a paradise for walkers and birdwatchers, and not yet swamped by tourists. ‘They call Sheep’s Head the undiscovered peninsula,’ local farmer turned track-maker James O’Mahony tells me, but it may not remain undiscovered for long. The 100km Sheep’s Head Way walk James and his co-workers have set up has just won the prestigious European Destination of Excellence award.

It’s a worthy winner. Sheep’s Head is a rocky finger of land with Caher and Rosskerrig Mountains as its knobbly knuckles. Gulls shriek and swirl above the beaches, gannets nest in crevices in rugged cliffs, and whales, dolphins and seals are often seen in the bays below. Except for a small group of enterprising Germans who’ve found their way over from Nuremburg (‘We are coming here three times, it is so beautiful!’), I have it all to myself.

But when the West Cork Walking Festival officially starts, I have plenty of company. At Casey’s Hotel above colourful Baltimore village on the evocatively-named Roaring Water Bay, people are slipping into Goretex and strapping on knee-braces, as organiser Rianne leads stretching exercises.

These walking festivals are held around Ireland at different times of the year. They’re great community events, organised by locals but open to all, and very reasonably priced. Walks range from comfortable family ambles to six hour cross-country adventures, with guides providing stories along the way and convivial company guaranteed.

Rianne hands our limbered-up bodies over to local historian Gerald for a sunset tour of Baltimore. As we walk, Gerald spins yarns of fishermen and sailors, priests and pirates, and the feuding McCarthy and O’Driscoll families. Most remarkable is the tale of a Dutch/Algerian pirate who in 1631 sacked Baltimore and sold 160 inhabitants into slavery in the Middle East. Eventually a new village was founded, this time up the shallow river in Skibbereen, where pirate ships couldn’t follow.

‘Can you pilot me up the river to Skibbereen?’ the visitor asked the local sailor. ‘Indeed I can’. ‘Ah, you know where the rocks are?’ ‘I do not,’ replied the sailor, ‘but I do know where the rocks aint!

Skibbereen was later the epicentre of the disastrous 1845-50 famine. In the cemetery, under a green plot the size of a tennis court, more than 9000 lie buried in a mass grave with a poignant headstone inscription: ‘Oh God! That bread should be so dear, and human flesh so cheap.’ There was food enough in West Cork then, but most couldn’t afford it, and even Baltimore fishing rights were savagely controlled.

Next morning I join the Dawn Chorus Walk, an easy (except for starting at dawn) hour’s stroll through the lovely gardens and woodlands of Inish Beg Estate. Proud owners Paul and Georgie show us where the otters play in the estuary – just before dawn.

Then it’s off to the Shibin Inn to chat to fellow walkers over a Full Irish Breakfast of eggs, black pudding and massive hot raisin scones. And I’m sorry, Grandma, your scones were the best but these are…oh, yes thanks, a third one please – I’ll walk it off later.

A ferry takes thirty energetic hikers and guilty scone eaters out to Cape Clear Island, the most southerly point of Ireland. Our guide Seamus leads us on a stiff climb up through the heather to where we can look across cliffs to the distant Fastnet Lighthouse. Cape Clear was for a long time an important communication centre, as ships from the New World dropped off their messages. It was from Cape Clear that the first news of the American Civil War and of Lincoln’s assassination reached Europe.


We tramp on across farmland only accessible by special arrangement with the walking festival. ‘Say hello to Ed as you pass his door,’ says Seamus. ‘He may have some goat ice-cream for sale.’ And indeed at Cleire Goat Farm there’s Ed, grey-bearded and blind, offering concoctions which happily taste more like ice-cream than goat.
As we scoop it up with plastic spoons, Ed unexpectedly bursts into full-throated song. For an unforgettable few minutes he sings us a story of the famine, and the tenant farmer’s wife who got the better of the cruel landlord. Pure, spontaneous, unpretentious magic!

By the end of the weekend I’ve become pally with members of the Mallow Walking Club, with Tim and Wendy from the holiday cottage up the road, Valerie from Brittany, Dominik from Munich who arrived in West Cork a couple of years ago and never wants to leave, and Eric and Madonna from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Back in Baltimore we share a parting pint, and swap more stories.

As they say, there are no strangers in Ireland, only friends you haven’t met yet..

For some other walking festivals coming up, see

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Filed under Budget travel, Hiking, Ireland, Travel, Travel- Europe

AMSTERDAM, WATERLAND – cycling the Dutch countryside

Everyone rides a bike in Amsterdam, but that’s just the problem. If you avoid getting sideswiped by a bus, you may tangle with another bike, probably pedalled by a tourist just as bewildered as you are.

So try cycling into the countryside, the healthy green alternative. You’ll survive. You’ll enjoy it. I always  do.

Rent a bike at any of the hire places close to Amsterdam Centraal Station and ask for a map of ‘Waterland’, north-east of the city. You can join an organised cycle tour to take you there, which is fine if you want to meet Knut from Norway or swap travellers’ tales with Betsy and Brad from Ohio. But if you’d rather save a few euros and ride at your own pace, you can easily go off on your own.

Check your tyres and saddle height, trying to look competent. Note that there’s no need to actually ride yet. The front of Centraal Station is a confusing nightmare of roads going in all directions, with trams, taxis and buses raising the degree of difficulty, so it’s not the ideal place to start your Dutch cycling career.

Instead, wheel your bike through to the back of Centraal. Behind the station people wait for little blue ferries, which putter across the North Sea Canal to “Buiksloterweg”. Fear not – you won’t have to pronounce the word, just hop aboard. Don’t fumble in your pocket for euros; the ferries are free. They’re for bikes and pedestrians only, and take just two minutes to reach the other side.

Once there, pretend to check your tyres again and wait while the cool racing riders in their revealing shorts speed into the distance. There’s a wide, flat cycle path in front of you. I repeat – wide, flat, cycle path. No cars, no-one watching, so wobble as much as you like. Turn off at a friendly sign, “Schellingwoude” – (don’t even think of saying this out loud). Then it‘s a doddle to roll along the bike path through shady parks beside the North Holland Canal. Even without gear changes or special cycling legs you’ll get out under the Amsterdam Ring Road in about twenty minutes.

Welcome to Waterland. There are cows grazing in green fields, ducks on canals, little white bridges, church towers poking up out of distant villages and flat bike paths everywhere. There are signposts at every intersection, and even if you get lost it won’t matter because it’s all so stunningly pretty.

Where you go now is up to you. A quiet 20-25km loop through old villages Zunderdorp and Ransdorp, out to Durgerdam, and back to Amsterdam will take about two hours, including a coffee break. If you’re up to riding all day and doing 75km, you can eat cheese in Edam, ride the dyke to historic Marken, zip down to Nieuwendam and still be back in town for a pre-dinner beer. There are lots of middle roads between these gentle and masochistic alternatives.

So, first through the polders, those fields rescued from total sogginess by the little canals cut through them. The villages of Zunderdorp, Zuiderwoude and Broek in Waterland are notable for their old houses and churches. It’s apparently compulsory here to have geranium pots by your windows and massed pink and purple hydrangeas in a lush garden. The farms look so prosperous they couldn’t possibly be real farms. Surely they’re country retreats owned by merchant bankers. Or are subsidies so generous in this area that a farmer with ten cows can also afford six horses?

The wetlands between the fields are protected nature reserves. There are oyster-catchers, lapwings, redshanks, a kestrel (okay, I’ve got a bird book) and thousands of geese. Every canal has its ducks, coots and resident white swans.

It’s quiet, but you won’t have the road all to yourself. You’ll meet sporty types on matching his and hers touring bikes. A mother rides with a toddler mounted on her handlebars and older children on their own bikes proudly weaving alongside. From time to time peletons of wannabe Rabobank riders whip by in tight formation. Then there’s that older couple riding at a snail’s pace, but always turning up in front of you, no matter how often you overtake them.

Sorry if you were hoping to see old windmills. Out here they’re modern ones, converting that wind you’re cycling against into clean green electricity. The power lines in the background sometimes spoil a good photo, but this is right outside a major capital city, so what did you expect?

If your legs are still functioning, follow the signs to Monnickendam, Volendam and Edam. According to my dictionary,  ‘dam’ is Dutch for dam, and there are lots of them in Waterland. What used to be the Zuiderzee (South Sea) is now cut off from the North Sea by a massive dyke and has become a lake, the IJsselmeer.

Many bus tours stop in Volendam, so it’s the perfect place to shop for “I love Holland” baseball caps, but Edam and Monnickendam are my favourites. During the summer, Edam puts on a popular cheese market show on Wednesday mornings, with men in silly costumes running round carrying huge trays of the stuff and tossing it on to horse-drawn carts. It’s very crowded but fun, in a cheesy sort of way. Monnickendam is quieter, quirkier and still a working shipyard. It’s a fine place to stop at a café for “koffie and appeltaart”, neither of which are prohibited substances under amateur cycling rules.

Head east along the dyke to the island of Marken. Yes, you can ride a bike to this island, because since 1952 it’s been connected to the mainland by a causeway. In the old days, Marken fisherfolk wore colourful traditional dress. Now Marken’s main industry is selling postcards of colourful fisherfolk. However, the green wooden houses, perched on stilts or built on mounds to keep their feet dry, offer great photo opportunities, as does the lighthouse on the tip of the island.

Your backside is probably telling you it wouldn’t mind a hot bath some time soon. So turn for home past Durgerdam, with its row of fishermen’s cottages, and along Nieuwendammerdijk, recently voted ‘Amsterdam’s second most beautiful street’ in a newspaper poll. Winner was the Brouwersgracht in the centre of town, but the mere fact that Nieuwendam can claim to be part of Amsterdam suggests you’re nearly back in the big smoke.

See – you survived Waterland! As the ferry chugs over to Centraal you have two minutes to consider keeping that bike and riding it round town tomorrow. Good luck!

RECOMMENDED MULTI-DAY RIDES IN THE NETHERLANDS:

THE GREEN HEART - Amsterdam-Leiden-Rotterdam-Gouda-Utrecht

FRIESLAND – The northern province

ZEELAND - bikes on dykes in the south

Guidebook:

Bicycle Touring Holland – Katherine Widing 2005
http://www.cyclepublishing.com

Bicycle hire

Macbike at Amsterdam Centraal Station has rental bikes from 8.50 Euros a day.

Guided 5 hour tour of Waterland  – 25 Euros including bike hire

www.macbike.nl

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under Cycle touring, Cycling, Holland, Travel, Travel- Europe

OMG! HE JUST KILLED MY DINNER! – Sokcho fishmarket, South Korea

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Thanks to a pink aluminium baseball bat, I’ll remember this dinner as long as I live. The cuisine is fine, the service attentive, the setting highly unusual, but the baseball bat is the standout image.

Sokcho, on South Korea’s east coast, is not a visually attractive town. Once a simple fishing village, it has become a holiday resort, with a regular population of perhaps 200,000 and a hotchpotch of nondescript concrete apartment blocks catering for the tourists who flock across from Seoul, attracted by its beach and nearby national park.

The waterfront, like so many in the world, is cursed with a busy road and gaudy signs in front of ugly buildings. Any view to the sea is blocked by rows of identical beach umbrellas. I don’t mind; I didn’t come here to bask in the sun or shoot the waves anyway.

 

‘Let’s not waste much time seeing the harbour,’ says my local guide Sonia, ‘Korean harbours are all the same.’ I’ll take her word for that; Sokcho Harbour is just a couple of L-shaped concrete jetties enclosing a cluster of not particularly picturesque boats.

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Sonia has brought me here for the fish market, and that is seriously interesting. Small fish and squid hang drying on racks, stalls sell steaming snacks cooked before our eyes and rows of tanks hold enough weird writhing sea creatures to stock the Sydney Aquarium.

 

There are fish and crustaceans of every colour, shape and size. My favourites are the flatfish, the asymmetrical sort where one eye is peering round the edge to see what’s happening up on the surface. Then there are puffy orange things like bloated octopus tentacles, but with hairy roots. And there are pinkish slugs that look like, well there’s no other way to describe them; they look rather like penises.

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Sonia has a translation dictionary in her mobile phone. Of course she does; Koreans love their electronic gadgets. A couple of buttons pressed and the puffy orange things are identified as animal, not vegetable. ‘Sea squirts,’ she says, leaving me not much the wiser. Her dictionary doesn’t know an English word for the pink slugs, but I expect if they really were penises it would have said so.
A hawker dips her hand into a tank of squirming squid and pulls one out, laying it on the bench in front of her. It’s about a foot long and obviously very much alive. With a razor sharp knife she deftly guts it, skins it, chops it into little blocks, lays it in a polystyrene tray, covers it in cling wrap and hands it to her customer – still wriggling. The whole process has taken less than twenty seconds. It’s hard to actually declare the squid dead yet and I’m still squirming a little myself.

We find a restaurant with a table and chairs. That may sound odd, but most diners in this part of the world sit cross-legged on mats, and my creaky knees have already had enough of that sort of thing on this trip.

There’s a bit of negotiation with the tough-looking man at the restaurant door, who carries that pink aluminium baseball bat. Is this perhaps this is a known rough joint, where rowdies need to be evicted? We’re allowed in. They have just two tables with chairs, but they’re up on the outside balcony. We take off our shoes and shuffle past yoga experts dining on the floor. From the balcony we have a perfect vantage point for watching a wonderful street show in the market below.
The waitress gives our table a quick wipe and brings a sheet of clear plastic, which she wraps across its surface, bunching it untidily around the umbrella pole in the middle. This is clearly not going to be five star dining but I sense it is going to be a very unusual experience.

I say I’ll eat anything, even trying sea squirts and penises. A collection of interesting side dishes appears and Sonia orders ”mo-deum hwae”, a Korean version of sashimi (raw fish).

Korea 086

There’s a commotion below us. A large flapping fish is tossed onto the street, the tough guy steps forward with that pink baseball bat and clubs it to death. Two minutes later a platter of raw fish slices appears at our table. Yes, any fish I’ve ever eaten has been killed somehow, somewhere, but the murder usually takes place discreetly out of sight. I’m glad I didn’t ask for veal.

We dip the strips of fish into bowls of sauce – chilli and wasabi – then wrap them in scraps of lettuce and pop them in our mouths. It’s not moving any more, but it certainly is fresh. And delicious. To follow there’s a fabulous soup made of the head and tail of our fish.

The show in the street below continues. A lady pushing a handcart laden with peaches is blocking the path of a truck with a water tank on top. The truck is delivering live fish to the stalls. People chatter, laugh and haggle. Wet money is exchanged.

 

The sun sets and over by the harbour squealing fireworks shoot into the sky and explode in clouds of stars. Letting off fireworks is something you do on a beach holiday here, I’m told.

 

The bill comes and Sonia apologises. ‘It’s so much more expensive to eat by the waterfront.’ But the damage is less than $20 a head; I’ve paid so much more elsewhere to eat very ordinary food and without the fabulous dinner show. And wait, there’s more…a full moon rises, gorgeous and yellow, out of the sea.

 

‘Would you like the last penis, Richard?’

‘Er, I couldn’t eat another thing, but thanks anyway. It’s been a great evening.’

 

The writer was the guest of Korea Tourism Organisation

 

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Buses from Seoul to Sokcho leave every hour, take about 2.5 hours and cost 23,000won (about US$20) one way.
Staying there: Kensington Stars Hotel near Sukcho has double rooms from 116,045won.  For other accommodation in Gangwon-do province, see visitkorea.or.kr.


Further information: See english.visitkorea.or.kr.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under Budget travel, Korea, Travel

PICTURE POSTCARD PEDALLING – Cycling Holland’s Green Heart

Tilting at windmills

I rode a bike around a bog for five days and enjoyed it. Mind you, we’re talking about a world-class bog here; there can’t be many nicer ones than the Groene Hart (Green Heart) region of the Netherlands.

The Groene Hart, the area directly south of Amsterdam, is the Dutch landscape of the postcards – lush green fields where cows and sheep graze, old windmills turn slowly, ducks dabble on canals and barges glide under willows along the rivers. It’s the largest ‘preserved land’ area in the country; 1500 square miles of farms and nature reserves, dotted with little villages.

Poking up around its edges are the surprisingly interesting cities of Leiden, Rotterdam and Utrecht, so whenever my backside had had enough I could pull off the cycle path and check out a museum. Or I could research a local café, which in this part of the world means ‘bar’.

This was my sort of cycling – flat, safe, and with regular access to food, drink and beds. I hardly needed the gears on my basic touring bike and, even with my unreliable knees, averaging 35miles a day was a breeze, at least when the breeze was behind me.
It was vaguely disconcerting to pedal out of Amsterdam, perched on the dyke beside the Amstel River and notice that the surrounding countryside was several metres below the water level.

Gein River, Groene Hart

Until the Middle Ages, this was all swamp. Decaying vegetation formed a soggy peat layer several yards thick. So when the growing industries of brewing, weaving and brick-making demanded fuel, there it was in the Groene Hart, just waiting to be dug, dried and burned.

Turf-cutting was relatively lucrative work for mediaeval peasants, but it had a major downside. Drying the land caused subsidence, thus requiring more drainage canals, which in turn led to more drying, more sinking and more flooding, hence the windmills needed to pump the water back up to the rivers.

Now only the dykes are keeping the rivers honest and I hoped I wouldn’t have to stick my finger into one. Incidentally, the author of that classic 19th century tale about the brave little boy who saved the land by putting his finger in a hole was Mary Mapes Dodge, a New Yorker who never saw a Dutch dyke.

Farming here is now barely economical, and environmentally friendly activities are subsidized. So the Groene Hart is becoming an area of lakes and bird sanctuaries, its old farms turned into homes for city commuters, mini-campgrounds and B&Bs. Agriculture’s loss is the cyclist’s gain.

I reached Leiden, famous for cheese studded with cumin seeds. It also boasts the oldest university in the Netherlands, whose most notable alumnus probably dropped out around 1625. He was a young tearaway called R.H. van Rijn, later known just as Rembrandt. The bridges arching over the canal offered an excellent lunch stop.

Then I went rolling down towards Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest harbour. By reputation it’s a no-nonsense commercial centre, devoid of appealing old buildings. On May 14th 1940, as punishment for Dutch resistance, Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed it flat, killing 800 Rotterdammers. The event is recalled by Ossip Zadkine’s powerful sculpture by the waterfront, The Destroyed City.Rotterdam 035

But Rotterdam bounced back. Instead of rebuilding in the old style, the city went for radical modern architecture, and very impressive it is too.

Cube Houses,RotterdamMost extraordinary are Piet Blom’s Cube Houses of 1984. His row of yellow boxes, set on their points, spans a bridge over a busy road. They look award-winning from the outside but could anyone actually live in a house with no vertical walls? One cube is open to the public, so I saw how they ingeniously solved the problem of where to put the bookcases and wardrobes.
Bars by the old Rotterdam harbour were uninviting, but I found one attractive cafe. ‘Can I get good coffee here?’ I asked the waitress. ‘They have better coffee machine next door,’ was the answer. I appreciated the honesty, so I stayed. She was right – the coffee was indeed average, but the food and service were worth tipping.

At the signpost outside the city I had a choice to make. I could fight my way into the gale blowing off Kinderdijk, where World Heritage windmills line a canal, or I could ride with the wind at my back towards Gouda. It started to rain. Suddenly cheese seemed very interesting.

Town Hall, GoudaGouda has perhaps the most beautiful town square in Holland, dominated by a seventeenth century town hall in the middle. A wedding party arrived in a horse-drawn carriage, which sent tourists scrabbling for the cameras. The bride posed for us, then went inside for a very short ceremony – she was married in less time than it took me to eat a cheese sandwich.

30miles further across the Groene Hart I came to Utrecht. It features one of the world’s quirkier museums, with the cumbersome name Het Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement. It’s a museum of mechanical music.

I joined the free tour, as guide Pieter explained the instruments in Dutch and English.
We listened to delicate French musical clocks, pianolas and mighty pierements, the Dutch street organs.

My favourite exhibit was a musical cabbage. When Pieter wound it, tinkly music played, and a fluffy white rabbit emerged to make chewing movements above a cabbage leaf. That was it. Kids were apparently easier to entertain in the pre-Nintendo age, though the young members of tour group enjoyed the bunny too.

Most over-the-top item had to be the grand Heizmann Orchestrion, the 19th century predecessor to the jukebox. It’s a massive structure of polished wood, formerly housed in an expensive café. Insert a coin and you get the sound of a full brass band blaring out. Unfortunately it only ever played one short tune, its internal cylinder being too clumsy and expensive to replace. Not surprisingly, the novelty soon wore off and customers left to find another café, with live music maybe?

Utrecht also claims to have Europe’s only Museum of Aboriginal Art. Kathleen Petyarre of Utopia was the featured artist when I visited and I enjoyed the guide’s thoughtful presentation for a group of Dutch primary school students, who had already been well prepped on Australian Aboriginal culture.

I’d planned to test out a Dutch farmer’s campsite for my final night on the road, so I could report on that experience. I really did mean to do it. My tent and sleeping bag were rolled up in the bike’s panniers.

But the rain was still around, so instead I tested two beers (both good), a Turkish meal (excellent) and put the bike on the train to Amsterdam (easy). From my second-class seat (padded, comfortable) I had a final view of Holland’s Groene Hart sinking in the twilight (very beautiful!)

TRIP NOTES:

Bicycles can be hired at most Dutch railway stations for around EUR8-10 a day. A day pass to take the bike on the train outside peak hours costs EUR6.

There are frequent daily train services from Amsterdam to Leiden – 33 minutes, EUR14.40 return, Rotterdam – 57 minutes EUR23.60, Gouda – 24 minutes, EUR18.10 and Utrecht – 24 minutes, EUR 12.10.

Getting in: Entry to Rotterdam’s Cube House is EUR2.
Entry to Utrecht’s Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement costs EUR8.

Entry to the Museum of Aboriginal Art costs EUR8.

Tip: A museumkaart (museum card) costs EUR40 and gives free entry to most Dutch museums. It can be bought in the museums mentioned, as well as many others, and is valid for a year. Visit over five museums and you’ll be ahead.

Guidebook: Fietsen rond het Groene Hart (Cycling round the Green Heart) is in Dutch, but with self-explanatory maps and a useful campground list. It is available at tourist information offices.

First published Sun-Herald, Sydney

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Filed under Cycle touring, Cycling, Holland, Travel, Travel- Europe

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – New Zealand’s top hikes

Mt Ngauruhoe

When it comes to playing outside, those Kiwis punch well above their weight. They’ve done a brilliant job of turning their country into an open-air gym, and when the skiing season ends around October, there is what Kiwis call ‘tramping’.

In New Zealand anyone with limbs in reasonable working order can enjoy some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. So assuming you have a few days and some excess energy, which tramp is for you?

Nine routes are officially designated ‘Great Walks’ by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The tracks and huts are kept in better condition than those on other routes, and in peak periods booking systems allow hikers to reserve accommodation. DOC huts are an affordable and comfortable alternative to carrying a tent or paying serious money for a luxury lodge.

NZ9 08 025Tongariro Northern Circuit. 41km, 3-4 days, 3 DOC huts.

Is there anywhere on the planet quite like this amazing volcanic moonscape in the centre of the North Island? The Tongariro Crossing is regarded by many as the best one-day walk in the country, and in the high season you’ll share it with dozens of others who pour out of backpacker shuttle buses. They’re there for good reason. Barely a blade of grass grows along the track past Mt Tongariro and the pile of volcanic scoria that is Mt Ngauruhoe. Sulphurous smoke oozes out of cracks and the colours of the Red Crater, Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes are extraordinary.

Three or four days walking will take you away from the backpacker hordes, on a circuit past the active volcano Mt Ruapehu, and through areas of lovely forests and streams.

Where: Central North Island
Closest towns: Whakapapa Village or Turangi.

NZ11 08 062Lake Waikaremoana Track – 46km, 3-4 days, 5 DOC huts

Driving on unsealed roads to reach this remote lake, and remembering its name when asking directions, may be harder than doing the walk itself, an easy loop with only a few lumps to clamber up. But you’ll certainly feel you’ve got away from the crowds, and seen some of the most spectacular old growth forest on the North Island. It’s apparently a great fishing spot too, though I’m no expert there.

Where: Central North Island
Closest town: Wairoa

NZ11 08 051

Queen Charlotte Track 71km, 3-5 days, 6 DOC campsites and a number of lodges.

The Queen Charlotte is not exactly a wilderness walk, since it passes through attractive farmland as well as forest, but it has the advantage of great flexibility if you don’t have the time or inclination to walk the whole route. Highlights are the great views of Queen Charlotte Sound on one side and Kenepuru Sound on the other.
Access is from Picton by ferry or water taxi, so day walks on the track are easily organised. By arrangement, water taxis will also take your gear to the following night’s lodge or campsite, so wussy trampers need only carry daypacks. The track can be walked year round, but is most popular in the summer.

Where: Northern tip of South Island – the Marlborough region

Closest town: Picton

Routeburn Track 32km, 2-3 days, 4 DOC huts.

The Routeburn can be done as a guided walk staying in commercial huts, with showers, food and wine available, but it is also well served with DOC huts. It’s a spectacular and relatively easy alpine trek (consequently very popular), and can be combined with two more days on the slightly tougher, less well-maintained and less busy Caples Track or Greenstone Track to make a loop walk.

Where: Mount Aspiring National Park, central South Island
Closest towns: Queenstown and the lovely village of Glenorchy on the end of Lake Wakatipu.

Kepler Track 60km, 3-4 days, 3 DOC huts.

The Kepler Track in Fiordland was opened to take some pressure off the very popular Milford and Routeburn Tracks. The track being relatively new is in excellent condition, and the alpine scenery is brilliant. The tramp begins with a solid 850metre climb from Te Anau to the Luxmore Hut, but after that the walking is comfortable, and the descent into the forest by Iris Burn Hut is particularly beautiful. We did it during a light snowfall and the effect was magical. Probably my favourite of the Great Walks.

Where: Fiordland, south of the South Island

Closest town: Te Anau. The route is a circuit beginning and ending in the town itself.

Abel Tasman Track 52km, 3 days, 4 DOC huts

Walking the coastal Abel Tasman Track is not too demanding, and the route offers beaches and a range of accommodation from camping to up-market lodges. If you want to combine a day of sea kayaking with a couple of days walking, this can be arranged. Another two days of (harder) walking will take you over the higher Inland Track to make a loop with the Abel Tasman.

The track can be walked year round, but is crowded during school holidays in January. Best times are probably February-May.

Where: Northern coast of South Island
Closest town: Nelson

Mitre Peak, Milford SoundMilford Track 53km 4 days No camping permitted. 3 DOC huts for independent walkers, and separate huts for guided groups.

Number one on many trampers’ list of New Zealand hikes is the famous Milford Track, though I confess it’s one Great Walk I’ve never done.  I’m sure it’s beautiful, and others speak highly of it, but I’ve been slightly deterred by its very popularity. Advance bookings are essential, which means no flexibility in case of bad weather, though guided tours with up-market huts are also available for those who want more creature comforts in the evenings.

Where: Fiordland South Island
Closest town: Te Anau.

NOTES:

Hikers using DOC huts need to bring their own food and sleeping bags, but the huts offer gas stoves and bunks. There are toilets and cold water, but generally no showers. Arrangements are pretty communal, but that can be a plus. You meet nice people, all in high spirits and excited about what they are doing.

Buy hut passes on-line (website address below) or at DOC visitor centres in towns before beginning your walk. Costs are different for each route, and are cheaper in the low season, but are between $12- $45NZ (about $10-$35) per person per night.

Safety and weather

The weather, particularly in the alpine areas, can turn nasty at any time of year. Good footwear and wet-weather gear are essential, and a bit of physical condition will help to make your tramp a pleasure rather than an ordeal.

When to walk

In the winter, the alpine routes (Tongariro, Routeburn, Kepler and Milford Tracks) can turn into serious mountaineering adventures, suitable only for very experienced and well-equipped parties. Best times to walk are October to May.

Days required

In good weather, fit trampers can do the walks in fewer days than those given above, but what’s the hurry?

ReadTramping in New Zealand Jim Dufresne, Lonely Planet Publications
Website: www.doc.govt.nz (search site for “Great Walks”) gives information on all walks and operates an accommodation booking service.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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