Monthly Archives: March 2010

HERMITAGE AMSTERDAM – from Russia with love

Hermitage and Amstel River

The Dutch and the Russians go way back as allies. In 1813 Peter the Great sent some Cossacks to help the kick the French out of Holland. The royals on both sides got matey and Prince William of Orange married Anna Pavlovna Romanova in 1816. Hitler’s mistake in invading Russia hastened the end of German occupation of the Netherlands. Dutch supercoach Guus Hiddink now trains the Russian World Cup soccer team.

Now there’s an art gallery connection. Last year the famous Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg opened a regional branch in Amsterdarn. The Hermitage has more paintings lying around in the dusty cellars than it has walls to hang them on, so it was a sensible idea to lend some of their surplus pics to their Dutch pals.

Amstel River

Amsterdam had a nice big building on a spectacular site on the Amstel River. For three hundred years it had been a home for old people, but with the rising standards of care demanded in modern Holland, it was no longer considered suitable for housing anybody. So in 2007 the last old person moved out, and the redevelopment team under architect Luuk Kramer moved in.

They did a beautiful job. The fabulous Matisse to Malevich exhibition has just opened and will be in Amsterdam till September. It features some of Matisse’s masterpieces, including the stunning Red Room and his famous Dance II (those girls holding hands and dancing in a circle), as well as some of the best work of his fellow “fauves”, Derain and de Vlaminck. Then there’s a room of full of great Picassos, and another of Kandinsky’s bright-coloured landscape period as he moved towards abstraction.

The view of the Amstel from the gents’ toilet is lovely too.

The displaced old people are not entirely forgotten in this museum. Downstairs in the cellar is a reconstruction of a 1725 kitchen, to show how the old people used to live, on a diet of artificial potatoes, apparently. Upstairs is a super modern Luuk Kramer designed café – so smart that we assumed we couldn’t afford coffee there.

I suspect most visitors go to St Petersburg for one main attraction – the Hermitage. Shame it’s so complicated and so expensive to get there. It’s much cheaper and easier to get to the Amsterdam branch.

TIP: A Dutch ‘museumkaart’ (museum card) gives unlimited access to most museums in the country. It is valid for a year, costs 40 Euros and is good value if you’re planning to visit five museums or more. You can buy a museumkaart at all major museums.

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Filed under Art, Holland, Travel, Travel- Europe


Utrecht, Holland

Yesterday’s meeting in Utrecht was postponed by an hour. Good. That gave me time to ride there on the bike from Amsterdam. It’s 54km according to my cycling guidebook, but the guidebook didn’t count on roadworks forcing detours around Abcoude and Breukelen. Nor did it warn that the wind would be blowing straight into my face when I headed south along the Amsterdam Rhine Canal.

Gein River by Abcoude

It was sometimes hard work, but the ride has a lot going for it. The path along the winding Gein River between the villages of Abcoude and Weesp is one of the prettiest in Holland.

By the Amsterdam Rhine Canal

The Amsterdam Rhine Canal carries enough interesting heavy barges to keep a rider’s mind off his legs, some of the time at least. But during an hour of riding into the wind on a dead straight track, broken only by the cycle path corrugations caused by poplar tree roots, the novelty wears off towards the end.


It was nice to see Breukelen. It’s fairly well known that New York was once called “New Amsterdam”, Harlem was once “Haarlem”, but perhaps less well known that the Bowery comes from the Dutch for farm – “boerderij” – and Brooklyn was “Breukelen”, named after this unpretentious little village a few kilometres north west of Utrecht. There’s not much there now – a couple of churches and a pleasant canal, but it does have a “Breukelen Bridge”.

Breukelen Bridge


Ride time to the centre of Utrecht 3hours 30 minutes, including leg stretching, backside massaging, photo taking stops.

You can take a bike on a Dutch train outside peak hours – all day ticket for anywhere in the country costs 6 euros. Honour had been satisfied, so that’s what I did to get home.


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

AMSTERDAM’S 10 most beautiful streets

A newspaper poll asked people to vote on their favourite street in this most beautiful of cities. The results are out, and it was a good excuse for me to spend a sunny day going round on the bike, with the camera.

The top 10 were:


1. Brouwersgracht. Oh, we did want to live here! The old brewers canal features houseboats, bridges, markets, trees and 17th century warehouses converted to apartment blocks. Unfortunately inside the apartments are usually dark, small, low-ceilinged, structurally dodgy and far too bloody expensive! But they do look great from the outside.


2. Nieuwendammerdijk. Some would consider the “new dam dyke” to be outside Amsterdam, but it is just across the water from Centraal Station, then a ride along the North Holland Canal. Old wooden cottages and very little car traffic give it a village feel, and make it a perfect place for a bike ride.

Amstel river

3. Amstel. It’s hardly fair to call this a street. It’s the wide river on which old Amsterdam was built. Features the Hermitage Museum, the State Opera building (Stopera), the Waterlooplein flea market, the Carre Theater, the posh Amstel Hotel, elaborate bridges and lots of glass-topped tour boats!


4. The Begijnhof. Begijnhofjes were originally built as housing for the Beguines, devout single women who didn’t want to take vows – sort of plain clothes nuns. Now the hofjes are attractive complexes built around lovely communal gardens. They’re usually open to the public during the week, but close at weekends to give the residents a break from the stream of visitors.

Drawbridge onto Prinseneiland

5. Prinseneiland. Another place we could easily live. Amsterdam’s western islands, not far from the centre of town, are a quiet backwater of bridges and canals, converted warehouses, boatyards and artists’ studios. If you’re not an artist here, try to dress like one. Shame about the train line running right across in front of the island, but it makes it feel more like a real artist’s garret when you have noise.


6. Kromboomssloot One of many quiet little places no visitor knows about but locals love.


7. Groenburgwal Any street which ends with a view of the beautiful Zuiderkerk (southern church) tower is going to be a strong contender for Amsterdam’s Most Beautiful. Of the ten streets others voted in, this could be my favourite.


8. Noordermarkt. Dominated by the 17th century Noorderkerk (Northern Church), this is where the popular farmers’ market is held every Saturday, and a clothing and material market happens every Monday in the adjoining Westerstraat. Cafe Winkel on the corner regularly wins the award for serving the best ‘appeltaart’ in the city. It’s perhaps not particularly beautiful to look at, but it is very lively and interesting, especially on a market day.

Henri Polaklaan

9. Henri Polaklaan Right by Artis, the Amsterdam zoo, this is a street of handsome gentlemen’s residences. A little too grand for me – maybe I’m not enough of a gentleman.


10. Reguliersgracht. One of the classic canals of the city. You could make a case for many of them, but this is as good as any. All the tourist boats stop here so visitors can admire the seven or nine (depending on who you listen to) bridges in a row.


Riding around all ten of these streets took about four hours, including camera adjustment and coffee and appeltaart stops.

Next time I’ll go looking for my own personal street list…and if you have suggestions as to other beauty spots, let me know and I’ll try to cover them in the sequel to this post.


Filed under Cycling, Holland, travel photography, Travel- Europe

BUKCHON, SEOUL, KOREA – traditional hanok stay

I was sure we were lost. It was dark and, faced with a maze of little alleyways away from Seoul’s main roads, the taxi’s GPS had apparently thrown in the towel. But after my driver made a phone call, a bespectacled gentleman appeared out of the gloom, leading a large hairy dog. ‘Ah, Mr Richard! We walk to guesthouse.’

I was wrong about the man leading the dog. The dog was the boss and we had to jog to keep up, my backpack bouncing. In a breathless conversation I learned that my host was Mr Hyoun, and that this was one of his traditional sapsal dogs, Ssari.

Unit, Seoul Guesthouse

Up a short hill and down a laneway we reached Seoul Guesthouse, a hanok, or traditional Korean house. It had heavy wooden doors under a roof of grey clay tiles, leading to a little courtyard with piles of firewood and earthenware jars; I’d stepped into a Kurosawa samurai movie (Japanese of course, but I don’t know a Korean equivalent). Mr Hyoun slipped off his shoes and slid open a wooden lattice screen.

I clambered up over the high lintel. My room was a cubicle with white rice-papered walls and the yellow floor was warm. This was because the ondol, the old Korean underfloor heating system, was doing its job. I was expecting a sleeping mat, but there was a bed with a doona. I loved this place already.

‘Bathroom.’ Mr Hyoun hopped nimbly along the wooden balcony to slide open another door. Modern fittings, tiles, toilet, great! ‘You thirsty? Hungry?’ We sat on the floor of Mr Hyoun’s living room drinking Korean ‘cordial’ and chewing dried octopus slivers.

Ssari the sapsal dog

There are few of these old hanoks left in Seoul now, and many that survive are in Bukchon, this ‘northern village’ just outside the main city centre. Some are now ‘Visitable Korean Traditional Houses’, which means they can charge visitors a small fee to look through them, while several are run as very reasonably priced guesthouses.

Next morning I headed out to explore the streets, following a map and markers set in the footpath. There were plenty of nondescript buildings along the route, but also numerous hanoks converted into galleries selling lacquer-work, pottery, flutes and stone sculptures, and a ‘Museum of Traditional Knots’.

A sign caught my eye –‘Seoul Museum of Chicken Art’. I’m intrigued by weird museums, and wasn’t disappointed by this one. A private collector has put together over 8000 chicken paintings, statues and bric-a-brac, ranging from the beautiful and ancient to the downright kitsch. My guide proudly led me to Australia’s contribution – stamps from the 2005 Year of the Rooster.

There were wooden chicken carvings from traditional funeral biers. Koreans, I was told, see the chook as a symbol of intelligence and courage, faithfully leading the departed towards heaven. A new advertising angle for KFC, perhaps?

Adjoining Bukchon, in the grounds of the Gyeongbukgung Palace I found the National Folk Museum of Korea, and it’s a much more professional affair, beautifully displaying artefacts from Korea’s social history. There were wooden printing blocks, fishing equipment and farming implements. I particularly liked the stone and wooden sculptures outside – totems that were set at village gates. It was also fun to see children trying their hand at old games like bowling hoops and spinning tops.

Spinning tops, Insa-dong

Nearby Insadong Road is famous for its dozens of little restaurants, galleries and craft shops. This being a Saturday, the street was closed to cars, but swarming with people. Priests carrying gongs and bowls were begging from shopkeepers, guards in traditional dress put on a show, young people were electioneering and good-natured street hawkers sold snacks of grilled octopus and chestnuts, not to mention roasted silkworm larvae.

The ‘Beautiful Tea Museum’ was indeed beautiful, a triumph of filtered natural light falling on wooden tables and a dazzling array of fine earthenware tea sets. Less beautiful was the Knife Gallery, a store selling vicious hand-weapons. Want a samurai sword, battleaxe or mace and chain? You’ve come to the right spot. There was an exhibition of swords from films, including Frodo’s Sting and the sword our Russ used as Maximus the Gladiator, opposite a collection of Rambo’s knives. They were for sale, and I certainly never want to meet anyone who’s bought one.

Something out in the street was pulling a crowd. It was my host Mr Hyoun and his dogs. The Sapsal is a rare but famous traditional Korean breed, which was thought to be extinct forty years ago until rediscovered in the wild. They are supposed to ward off evil spirits, and in the street they were attracting the sort of attention I’d expect walking through Hobart leading a pair of Tasmanian tigers.

In the Korean Cuisine Restaurant, I tucked into bean-pasted pork with vegetable leaf wraps – brilliant, very cheap and surrounded by a huge array of kimchi and other accompaniments. But it was the design of the place that most impressed me; modernity cleverly mixed with the traditional, wooden tables in intimate compartments divided by panels of woven basketry and walls of piled clay roof tiles.

During the next few days working in different parts of Seoul I came to realise what a distinctive oasis Bukchon is, in a city where progress verges on an obsession. With a last night to spend before my flight out, I headed straight back there.

Tea Guesthouse

This time I stayed in Tea Guest House. It was a little more upmarket than Seoul Guesthouse, though equally quaint, with padded sleeping mats on the floor. But the toilet had a heated seat. Tradition is all very well, but mod cons are appealing too.


GETTING THERE: Nearest subway station to Bukchon is Anguk, and KAL limousine buses go there from the airport for 9,000won .

Seoul Guesthouse 35000 won per night for single room, 50,000 won for a double. . Tea Guesthouse 50,000 won single, 80,000 won double.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Entry to National Folk Museum of Korea and Knife Gallery is free. Entry to Museum of Chicken Art costs 3000won . Korean Cuisine Restaurant is in Insadong4-gil.

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney

MY OTHER KOREAN STORIES:Temple Stay – not for the weak-kneed.

Gangwon-do – the Great Outdoors Korean-style



Filed under Budget travel, Korea, Travel


March 21st is officially the first day of spring. To celebrate the occasion, the sun made a brief, tentative appearance, causing Amsterdammers to throw off their coats, jump on the bike or the joggers and hurry to the Vondelpark, the largest patch of green in Amsterdam, vowing ‘this year I really am going to get fit’…but first let’s have a coffee and a beer in the sun.

The park is long and thin – a couple of kilometers long and only about three hundred metres across. It’s also car free, crisscrossed by walking paths and cycle tracks, weaving between the lakes, sculptures, formal gardens and cafes.

The purple crocuses are blooming, the storks are nesting on their pole and the Vondelpark Toad Protection Society is helping stray amphibians migrate across the local streets towards the safety of the Vondelpark lakes…where the storks are waiting.

Joost van den Vondel was a 17th century Dutch poet. His poems are remembered by few these days, but his statue still stands in the centre of the park. And you can google his poetry: “Amstelredam, die ‘t hooft verheft aan ‘s hemels as, en schiet, op Plutoos borst, haer wortels door ‘t moerasch.” (Amsterdam, who raises her head to Heaven’s axis, And shoots, on Pluto’s breast, her roots through the swamp). Sorry if that’s not an accurate translation, but it’s my best guess.

Film Museum

When I first came to Amsterdam in the 1970s, the Vondelpark was the domain of the backpackers, many of whom spent the night camping here, trading travellers’ tales, mind-altering substances and bodily fluids. I went there in daylight hours for the music sessions, dominated by the Turkish drummer who knew only one rhythm. I took my yellow fiddle and jammed along with the guitars and harmonicas of other wannabe Bob Dylans.

Jan Bronner's sculpture Teun de Jager, by the Rose Garden

The Rose Garden was a notorious gay beat, where people strolled around with colour-coded handkerchiefs hanging from their back pockets. Which handkerchief you displayed and which pocket you dangled it from gave other strollers the clue to the sort of adventure you were up for…so I found out later.

The park has become more regulated since those happy hippie days. Bossy signs now ban camping (of the tent variety) in the park. Sunbathing is allowed, but nudity is not. Live acoustic music is encouraged, but quite rightly Turkish drums are now banned.

Some local residents and concerned park users questioned why sex in the bushes by the children’s playground is apparently still okay, while walking a dog without a leash is not. Writer Youp van ‘t Hek argued in the local Amsterdam newspaper that the lawmakers had got it right this time. He and his wife had always enjoyed sex in the Vondelpark bushes. The children’s play equipment was convenient for hanging up their clothes, but such harmless fun should not be interrupted by a wet doggy nose.

Despite the attempted crackdowns on fun, I have a personal reason to like the Vondelpark. I met my wife here, on a sunny spring day in 1976. Perhaps she liked the colour of my handkerchief (it certainly wasn’t the quality of my fiddle playing) and we took it from there.


Filed under Art, Budget travel, Holland, Travel, Travel- Europe


Want to walk in Europe this year, but don’t want to organise it yourself or spend big bucks on a guiding company? Try joining a walking festival.

There’s been an encouraging surge in interest in my report on last year’s West Cork Walking Festival, so I thought I’d go for a tramp around cyberspace to see what’s on offer for 2010.

Walking festivals are a brilliant idea – locals get together to organise walks for a few days, set up some routes to showcase the best hikes in their area, ranging from easy strolls to challenging adventures, engage knowledgeable guides, charge a modest fee to cover costs, post details on a website and see who turns up.

West Cork attracted groups of 25-50 for each event, a good number, I thought – enough for everyone to meet a few people, but not so many that it was ever overwhelming. I arrived on my own and left having made some friends I’m still in contact with. Thanks to the guides I learned a lot about the area’s history and characters and thanks to the craik in the Irish pubs at the end of each day, a foine toim was had indeed.

These are some festivals I found coming up:

May 1-8 Caithness and Sutherland (Scottish Highlands)

May 7-13 Newton-Stewart Walking Festival (Galloway Hills, Southern Scotland.)

May 22-June 6 Lincolnshire Wolds (Lincolnshire, England)

June 25-27. Mourne International Walking Festival. (County Down, Northern Ireland).

July 1-4 Castlebar Walking Festival (Ireland’s wild west)

Tuscany is advertising the Tuscan Coast and Islands Walking Festival from April 2 – October 10. That’s a long time to stay festive, but there’s a lot to see under the Tuscan sun.

If you can add interesting festivals to this short list, please let me know about them in the comments box below.

Finally a word of warning.  On the web I found publicity for some  ‘festivals’ which were being run by commercial tour guiding companies. I have no reason to think they’re not interesting and  good value, but they were considerably more expensive than walking festivals run by local volunteers.


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

MELAKA, MALAYSIA – chilling in a travel hotspot

I’ve read that Malacca, or Melaka as it is now more properly known in Malay, will be one of Asia’s hottest travel destinations this year. I have a couple of days free from my work in Singapore, and Melaka is only a few hours’ coach ride away.

But when I leave the air-conditioned bus, I know I’m in a hotspot, and a humid one too. I could easily fill a pith helmet with sweat after a short hop down to the Old Town, picking my way beside a busy road along inadequate broken footpaths covering deep storm-water drains, stepping around stalls where Indian vendors, Bollywood movie music blaring from their stereos, are threading garlands of flowers.

I take my life in my hands and dodge between cars and scooters to reach the Melaka River. After that things slow down. It’s a quiet little stream, where the banks have smart new paving and tourist barges shuttle between the dilapidated backs of houses on one side and café terraces on the other. Nothing is crowded and no-one is in a hurry.

At the square in front of the 18th century Dutch Christ Church a gaggle of trishaws, brightly decorated with plastic flowers, patiently wait for trade. Souvenir stalls sell leather hats, cane back scratchers, wooden foot massagers, flip-flop sandals, sepia photos of old Malacca and kitsch painted kittens. Sure it’s touristy, but there are no hassling hawkers; browsing is a pleasure.

By now I’ve worked out there’s not a lot to do in Melaka. There is shopping of course, but Melaka Mega Mall sells the same stuff you can get anywhere else. I didn’t want to buy it when I saw it in Singapore, so why should I buy it now? When you buy something you didn’t need in the first place, saving 20% = losing 80% in my book.

Most tourists seem to be from Singapore, and I get the impression that once they’ve been photographed in the trishaw they wonder how to fill the rest of the weekend.

No problem hearing the words in this church in Melaka - excellent diction!

What Melaka really has to sell is its history. It took centuries to create, but a day or two will be plenty for me to retrace it at a gentle pace. Melakans are celebrating their World Heritage status, awarded in 2008, and they’ve painted the Old Town red – heritage red of course. It may not be strictly the original décor (most colonial buildings are white in those old photos) but it does make the town attractive.

The old Dutch Stadhuys (town hall) is now a museum dedicated to the history of Melaka, which since the sixteenth century has been colonized by in turn the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese, and St Francis Xavier gave Catholicism a toehold here in 1545.
Smaller, quirkier museums occupy a short row along Jalan Kota, museums of architecture, Islam, stamps and kites. I like the ‘Museum of Enduring Beauty’, dedicated to the suffering people go through in the quest to look good. The sign by the entrance warns me, ‘The different levels of pain one has to endure during the beautification process are shown in full.’ On the staircase there’s another warning: ‘SORRY – AIR CONDITION FAILURE’. The things I’ll put myself through to get a story! And after studying gory details of foot binding, neck stretching, tattooing, teeth filing, scarification, lip implants and ladies’corsetry, I have no stomach left for the mediaeval torture exhibition down the road.

Instead I visit the Museum of Spinning Tops (‘gasing’ in Malay.) I had no idea top-spinning was such a dangerous sport. The traditional rules of the gasing are translated into English and include: “a) Players not allowed to eat in shop within game area until after competition for fear may be poisoned to death. b) Players not allowed to boast or be arrogant. c) players not allowed to stand in doorstep. A Satanic Knot is often placed here by insincere people.”

Across the road in Coronation Park, yellow orioles flit above the ginger plants and frangipani into huge trees dripping with birds nest ferns.

Forbidden Gardens

The Forbidden Garden of the recently reconstructed sultan’s palace is no longer for princesses only. It’s open to the public, and very beautiful it is too. Massed bougainvilleas and sealing wax palms surround formal ponds, and a group Tai Chi lesson is in progress.

Famosa Chicken Rice Ball restaurant

Lunchtime. Melaka’s food is excellent and extremely cheap. Calanthe Art Café serves asam pedas, a claypot of spicy stingray and vegetables, West Malaysian coffee and a brilliant mango lassi drink (a fruit, milk and yoghurt mix), all for under $7. Famosa Chicken Rice Balls, a Melakan specialty, cost even less.
As evening falls I take a break on a warm concrete bench beside the river. A breeze has sprung up, the night is balmy, and hundreds of screeching mynah birds roost in floodlit trees. A crescent moon hangs overhead and from the mosque the muezzin starts his call to prayer, singing much better than the contestants on Celebrity Karaoke which flashed across my hotel TV earlier. The muezzin doesn’t have to read the words to an Alicia Keys number off a jerky teleprompter.

The waterfront restaurants fold up their awnings and put out extra chairs on the terraces. Craft stalls appear the length of Jonkers Street, now closed to cars and opened to pedestrians, and the pace is still very relaxed. A gentleman sips a beer while a large green iguana perches on his shoulder. There are a few surprises in Melaka still; like the sudden opening of the heavens. I can’t even shelter in a door step for fear of insincere people with their Satanic Knots.

But the rain soon passes, and my wet shirt is refreshingly cool, like the rest of Melaka.


Getting there: Konsortium Bus from Singapore to Melaka takes just under 4 hours and costs from SGD72 return.

Staying there: Hotel Puri near Jonkers Street has double rooms from RM120

Further information : Entrance to all museums listed is RM5 or less.

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under Budget travel, Malaysia, Travel