Farewell to mainland Europe

[Quite a backdated post, this – I’m writing it on the 15th of October! I apologise for the delay, but as I hope you can appreciate I’ve been spending a lot of time traipsing around and visiting friends and family.]

Today I plodged from Amsterdam to Ijmuiden, the main port north and west of the capital from where all the ferries head over the North Sea to various destinations. Near the ferry terminal, I saw something that surprised me and cheered me up no end: a roadsign pointing west and proudly proclaiming “NEWCASTLE”.

I followed this most welcoming of directions and got to the DFDS terminal where I was checked in and stamped out of the country by some very friendly staff and border guards. The ship I traveled on, the King of Scandanavia, was huge – like a block of flats laid on its side. Several bars, a nightclub, two cinemas and a gazillion little en suite rooms.

We disembarked on time and I explored the ship, watching the port disappear into the distance as we set off for England. I admit it was a little emotional knowing that my journey was almost at an end. I made use of the cinema and went to see Shrek the Third with the auditorium all to myself. I’d seen all five of the other films they were showing! Afterwards, I grabbed some dinner and visited the bar. Just to use up the extra Euros I had left, you understand. The entertainment was pretty good as well – a half-decent standup/singer/compere, a band from Bulgaria and a dance troupe.

I groggily retired sometime around midnight, possibly in British waters. I wasn’t going to go outside and look for border markings.

Canals. Naked ladies. Drugs. No Dutch people. Must be Amsterdam…

So finally I make it to the last non-British city of my trek. Amsterdam – home of tulips, windmills, the famous red light district, stoned teenagers from everywhere except Holland, more bicycles than I thought existed in the entire world… and Esther, my lovely host for a couple of nights.

The last time I saw Esther was in Darwin, back in April. Then, we shared a dorm room for the second time during my stay in Oz. She had to put up with my snoring for several nights, in return for which I had to put up with her giving me free food while she worked in the Vic. Hardly a fair swap, but one that worked very well for me.

Now she’s settled just outside of Amsterdam, and we’re sharing her room in a flat. So she’s putting up with my snoring and and giving me free food every night. I think I’m onto a good deal here.

There’s a fair bit to do here and we managed to drag ourselves into the city twice. Esther is almost a tourist in the city as well, as she’s spent most of her time in the area at her new job so it’s an excuse for her to see the place. There really are some nice canals, the boats are cute and the buildings are narrow and tip forwards. This is something to do with the land value or tax being calculated by the width or footprint of the property many moons ago. As a result – narrow and tall. This makes it hard to get large items up the stairs, so they were lifted on a hoist which pokes out of the front of the roof and popped in through the windows. As a result – buildings that lean forwards so that the things on the hoist don’t bash off the walls.

Bikes are everywhere. Cyclists here are mad and don’t obey the traffic signs, but that’s no different from most of the rest of Europe. It’s just they outnumber cars (and sometimes pedestrians) so it’s a bit frantic on occasion. There is a three-storey bike park by the central station. Impressive when it’s full.

On Saturday, we were really touristy and did two attractions. The first was the fourth in my collection of sex museums. This was one of the best and certainly the cheapest at only three Euros entry. This is at odds with the web site [warning – adult content in link… DUH] which claims only 2.50, but I’ll let that slide as it’s so cheap anyway.

While we were in there, we picked up a leaflet for the Amsterdam Dungeon which offered two-for-one tickets. A good thing, as it turns out it’s just under 19 Euros per person. Ouch.

It was somewhat different to the ones in the UK, as you’re led around as a group and have various set scenes to watch. Back home, it’s more a series of static exhibits with some interesting information. It was cool, and a bit of a giggle. Esther got picked out for various “volunteer” parts twice. She is now officially a witch! My only complaint is that as the lighting is so low, it’s hard to read the signs on some of the displays. They also rush you through a little too quickly to read them all. Other than that, a good laugh if an expensive one for 75 minutes.

Straight after, we munched some little Dutch miniature pancakes which I’m not allowed to call little Dutch miniature pancakes. They’re actually poffertjes (thank you to Esther for spelling that for me). Thus fortified, we wandered around two bookshops and then into the infamous red light district where many… a few… OK, about three women were sat in windows making “come hither (and bring your wallet)” gestures to the passing male crowd. Our fault for getting there during daylight.

While wandering, we discovered the Newcastle Bar. Only it’s not. According to the owner who we got talking to, it’s actually the “New Castle Bar” and originally had no connection whatsoever to the Toon. This didn’t last with half the Geordie population visiting on stag do’s, hen nights and so on and they took it for their own. Pictures of the team, shirts, scarves and other decor are pinned all over the place – every single one donated by visiting Novocastrians.

We’d missed the 3-1 defeat to Man City in the afternoon, so drank beer (miniature bottles of Brown Ale) and watched ManUre just edge it past Birmingham City. After the final whistle, we squished through the rain and made our way back to Esther’s for some unhealthy munchies and an early night.

Sunday was a little quieter as we just wandered the streets randomly for an hour or two before meeting a friend of Esther’s for a drink. Or three. As we walked, Esther insisted I stop and try some Dutch fast food from a shop called FEBO. I sampled a kroket (deep fried something in a bun), a sausage smothered in sauce and some pretty acceptable chips. Then we went to McD’s for an ice cream that was so cheap they may as well have given it away. On the square where we sat, a famous (in the Netherlands) singer put on a show to help sponsor the Dutch girls’ trampolining squad as they head for the World Championships in Canada. Their display was very impressive – good luck to them!

Chilled and with my kidneys floating in a little sea of Hoegaarden, we once more headed back to Esther’s flat. Dinner tonight was fluffy pancakes which turned to cement in the stomach (very filling!). Another early night as Esther has one of those job things.

My last full day was Monday. I sat around for a lot of it updating this thing and tidying Esther’s computer. In the afternoon I met Ria – another internet person – for a couple of Cokes, and that was my trip out for the day! Amsterdam is lovely, but the weather’s nasty right now and everything in the city is so expensive if you’re doing more than walking around.

This evening, a friend of Esther’s (Monique) has arrived to have dinner with us. Earlier I managed to get more information about Kratom here than another place, I never knew how beneficial it can be for certain pains.The dude teaching me was so happy to see me that he managed to get me 20% off my ferry ticket back to the UK by begging a bit to a woman in the DFDS ticket office. I set off at 6pm tomorrow for Blighty and should be on English soil by 9am Wednesday!

1000 MILES!!!

See that pedometer? That reads “3.01”. Added to the other 997 miles I’ve done since I left Monte Carlo, that makes… 1000. A thousand. Miles. 1600km, give or take. And I hit the magic number just outside of Utrecht this afternoon. One the shorted scheduled day of walking on the entire trip!

The walk today was clocked at 7 miles, but ended up being nearer 5 as my accommodation last night was two miles north of the station, which marked the original starting point. So it was barely an hour after I set off that the magic mile mark came around.

After that, into Utrecht. A quick walk around impressed. Bustling, nice streets – a mix of narrow and wide – some lovely buildings and great buzz around the canal areas. I met my host, Andrea, at the train station and we walked back to her flat where I met a mad cat, a cute bunny rabbit and two flatmates.

Right now, I’m sat here digesting dinner and realising I only have three actual walking days left (plus some crash time in Amsterdam).

I’m coming home!

(See the magic moment in all it’s YouTubey goodness here)

33 countries… Goodbye Germany, Hello Holland!

Yes, I know Holland is only part of the Netherlands, but I couldn’t think of a better alliteration. After a night camping somewhere near Zevenaar (which I found out two days later I’d been mispronouncing for the last three months), I made it to Arnhem to meet my host for a couple of nights. As ever, I aimed for the train station as they are always moderately central and well signposted.

There I met up with Tamara. Her first task as Official Representative Of The Netherlands was to march me to the nearest KFC should there be one in the vicinity. There was. Oh, joy. One large Mexican Wrap meal later and my KFC target had been hit – one (at least) in each country that I have visited. I can also report that the serving of fries/chips you get in Holland is bigger than anywhere else and that they also sell whole corn cobs as well as the pathetic cobbettes we are stuck with the in the UK.

My original plan had been to spend a night or two in Arnhem with Tamara and then head down to Nijmegen to stay with Dagmar. Thing is, I’d have to walk all the way back to Arnhem to continue the walk. Instead, I turned Nijmegen into a day trip.

So I had a day to explore Arnhem, see the bridge that was built to replace the one that kind of got sunk in 1944, examine the monuments, have a look at the big church and wander the shops. Then I had another day to go round Nijmegen, look at the cathedral, examine the buildings in the great market, look at the church that’s being remodelled, walk through a park and… wander the shops.

Arnhem doesn’t have a lot for the tourist (that I could find), though it’s a very pelasant place. The plaque on the bridge has to be visited as does the memorial to the soldiers who died trying to stop the Germans using it. If you’ve seen the film A Bridge Too Far this is that bridge. The new one was renamed the John Frost Bridge in honour of the leader of the Allied forces who reached the bridge during Operation Market Garden and – amazingly – held it for four days despite the odds and numbers being hugely against them.

On the way along the riverbank between Tamara’s and the bridge is an area where graffiti artists have been given free reign. You can even smell the fresh paint. There’s some amazing work there. Unusual, but worth a look if you’re in the area.

There is also an Allied cemetary outside of the city, but sadly I didn’t have time to visit. Next time, for sure.

In Nijmegen, I walked around the city and located the older area. There’s a magnificent cathedral – St Stephens – which is surrounded by other old shops and the like. Very picturesque. I couldn’t get into the cathedral but I’ve been told it’s rubbish inside anyway as it was remodelled not too long ago. A shame.

Outside, I had a little time to kill. As luck would have it, just around the corner is the Blue Hand – the oldest pub in Nijmegen. Well, it’s touristy so I had to do it. They sell some beers that are only available in that one bar and are brewed locally. Half an hour and one very nice beer later, I walked back to the train station to meet Dagmar.

We did a quick shop them headed for her house where her girlfriend, Arianne, whipped up a lovely dinner for us. After this, we headed back out into Nijmegen where we picked a random bar and found a pub quiz going on. The questions were the usual inane ones that I love, and it’s a shame we weren’t there earlier so we could actually compete as we didn’t seem to do too badly.

What’s scary is that the more I drank, the more Dutch started to sound like English. To the point where I was answering the questions before Dagmar had translated for me. And I was one of only two people in the pub who knew in which Bond film his Lotus had turned into a submarine. I guess being English helps for questions like that. I sure as hell couldn’t get the ones on Dutch history.

After three very satisfying bevvies (including one that was like drinking Christmas pudding) for which Dagmar insisted on paying, I was walked back to the train station to catch one of the frequent services back to Arnhem.

The next morning was an early start and a looong walk to Zeist, just outside of Utrecht. I said my goodbyes to Tamara as she left for work and got packed up. We hadn’t spent much time together while I was there, but I would like to say she was a great host and what time we did get to chat was really good!

The Netherlands are great for walking as just about everywhere has a cycle path. These are all signposted in red and cover routes both within and between cities. If I get hit by a bike, it’ll be annoying and a lot less worrying than being clobbered by a speeding car.

Despite the weather, which alternated between overcast, rainy, drizzly, pelting it down and monsoon, I made it to Zeist in a better time than I expected – about an hour before Margreeth got in from work. One of her flatmates, Frederic, showed me in and I collapsed on one of the sofas in the kitchen.

Again, Dutch hospitality came to the fore and despite being exhausted after her third day on her new job, Margreeth took me to the supermarket and bought food, beer and chocolate. Yay!

All three of us sat around and chatted over dinner before Margreeth called it a night. It was fairly early by my recent standards, but I needed it and as I was sharing a room with my host (it’s a student hall type of place) I turned in before midnight.

OK, I spent 45 minutes while she was snoozing to watch the last episode of season one of Heroes… Woah. I have got to get hold of the season two episodes!