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Sunday, 27 May 2018

Megamarkets and Wharfs

We were in the Netherlands for a LOT of holidays: Kings's Day, Remembrance Day, Liberation Day, and Ascension Day. Karen was getting regular e-mail updates regarding events in the country and one mentioned a monster street market -- 5 km long -- that took place in Utrecht on Ascension Day every year. We had to check it out; Utrecht's only a 30 min train ride from Amsterdam.

The train station (which looks more like a high-tech airport) dumps you out into a shopping mall. After we got our bearings and sorted out how to get out of the mall, we arrived at the market and this:
Umm... crowded? More like packed,
The greatest market I know of in Europe is the Porta Portese market in Rome (read about that here). This is not like that. First, it's not 5 km long. It's 2.5 km long, which they doubled because there are stalls on each side. Second, Porta Portese sells EVERYTHING: shoes and clothes, to hardware, to leather goods, to leather-like goods, to sunglasses, to housewares, to coins and stamps, to toys, to used cameras, to mens suits and ties, to furniture, to "antiques", to used fake Rolexes to... well, darn near everything.

This market was interesting to us because it mostly catered to immigrant Muslims from North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, etc). My friend Edwin tells me there was a immigration push from those countries about 25-30 years ago, and all were speaking Arabic or Dutch (with a bit of English thrown in), and it was clear that there were a lot of Dutch born kids (and grandkids) among them. So rather than selling EVERYTHING, there were things I had never seen in markets before, including prayer rugs and traditional clothing...
Lots of dresses like these for sale
Material to make stuff 
African styling
...and north African foods (mostly desserts).
Lots of almonds
The market had its share of sunglass vendors, and one or two home hardware guys. There were several "used" (stolen?) bike vendors and one guy selling used laptops.
All in seemingly fair shape
But there was Dutch stuff, too, like the guy smoking eels.
Ready for the smoker 
Who wants to count heads?
I did well. I found a guy selling men's dress and golf shirts for €3.50 or 3 for €10 ($5 Cdn/shirt); I bought 5.

Generally, though, the market was elbow to elbow humans all creeping along, many pushing strollers or wheelchairs. It was difficult to move, hard to pull over to look at things, and an exercise in crowd maneuvering.

Unlike Port Portese that requires at least 4 hrs just to walk through, we did the whole market in less than 2 hrs including shopping time. Being early afternoon, we opted to walk through Utrecht's downtown and look around.

The canals in downtown Utrecht are unlike Amsterdam's. Between each bridge that crosses the canal, are wharfs down at the canal level.
Tranquil
From the wharf level
The accesses from the wharfs that go under the roads are the basements of the canal houses. Most are shops, restaurants (that connect to restaurants in the canal houses at the street level), and so the whole place has a very "festive" atmosphere.
The wharfs are street cafes not at the street level 
Most wharfs are all seating 
Lovely juxtapositions 
Very green, very enjoyable
The only thing we found a bit disappointing was that the bridges segmented the wharfs; you couldn't walk along them as you could along the roads.

The inner part of the city is very pedestrian friendly like a lot of Dutch towns -- aside from the bikes trying to mow you down.
A main square 
A large bridge that becomes a square
Nice chair
No matter where you go, there's this really tall tower dominating the skyline.
Bad camera settings, but you get the idea 
Tall 
Kinda dominates 
Bigger when you get closer 

Under restoration 
It just goes on up there
It's the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, topping 112 m. It was built between 1321 and 1382, and marks the spot where Utrecht was founded 2,000 years ago. It has 14 bells (the largest is 2.24 m across and weighs 8,200 kg), a chapel, and an apartment for the tower guards. It stands alone; the part of the church it was attached to fell down in the 1600's, so it's not connected to the current church (more like half a church), which is cool unto itself, with gothic flying buttresses.
It, too, is big 
Large windows
Buttress detail
Interesting brickwork at the back 
Also on the naves
We didn't have time to go into either the tower or the church, but we did walk through the church garden.
The rear entrance 
Side corridors 
Looking back at the church 
From the other corner 
Nice view of the church walls 
The centre fountain 
Spitting gargoyles 
Drooling lions 
The gargoyles that direct water from the eavestroughs
A sample one
We wandered back though the pretty streets to the futuristic train station.
Light and art: made up of hundreds of small LEDs
The station
We liked the feel of Utrecht. We forgot to take our guidebook so didn't know what to go look at. We therefore missed the old moated fortification walls of the city that were just a few blocks past the Dom Tower, plus some other stuff. We liked the wharf idea; kinda surprised that at least one or two canals in Amsterdam aren't like that.

Friday, 25 May 2018

More sand, more dunes

Even though I am now home, there's still stories to be told about our Netherlands trip.

In looking for fun parts of the Netherlands to explore this trip, I was interested in the National Parks, in part because they tend to protect cool places, and in part, to compare them to our Provincial and National parks. One key difference I found was that whereas we generally create parks to protect as yet unimpacted parts of the country, the Netherlands was late to that party. This is what happens when you've been inhabited since medieval times. So the parks in the Netherlands are smaller and generally show evidence of substantial human use prior to becoming protected spaces.

An example of this was the Nationaal Park De Loonse en Dunense Duinen (which translates to "The De Loonse and Dunense Dunes"). I'm going to put together an entire post on how to access this park, because it took me a lot of time to figure that out, so I won't go into it here. In any case, the park basically protects a sand dune complex that is one of the biggest north of the Sahara.
The park from Google Maps
For us, getting there was a typical Dutch adventure. We planned our route on 9292.nl: 8:45 train past Utrecht to 's Hertogenbosch, connect to a train to Tilburg, connect to a bus to Loon op Zand, walk 600 m to a place to rent bikes. Arrival was to be 10:30 AM. But these things don't always work out.

We got to the station and the train we planned to take wasn't going past Utrecht with no explanation as to why. We asked at the NS Rail Info Office, and all they did was pull up 9292 and suggest a different route. We gave up trying to get NS help and just hopped the 9:05 train to 's Hertogenbosch (which we started calling "Certo" for short. Den Bosch would have worked, too, apparently). Thus we missed the initial connect to Tillburg, missing the bus we needed to catch.

Then our train into Certo was late, so we even missed the second connection to Tilburg (it left the station just as we pulled in). By the time we finally made it to Tilburg, the only bus we could take dropped us on the side of a major motorway near (not in) Loon op Zand, 2.5 km from our bike rental place. The bus was also STUFFED past capacity with school kids, and we had trouble even getting off the bus (no one got off the bus to make space for us to get off; we just had to forcibly squeeze our way through the mass. So un-Dutch like). We finally arrived at 11:45 AM. By the way: Loon op Zand has a pretty church.
Nice church on a nice day
The bike rental place I found turned out not to be a bike rental place but a hotel that happened to rent bikes. Armed with trusty steeds...
Nice steeds
...we rode all of 10 minutes and stopped for lunch on the edge of the dunes with this view:
That's a lot of sand
It was cool, but I think it would have been more impressive had we not seen the big dunes at Hoge Veluwe two days earlier. Still, these were much bigger.

While having lunch, we noticed there was a wedding going on in the distance.
Maybe just the pictures being taken
So, having visited dunes before in Namibia, in the USA and in Australia, the biggest challenge is that dunes are not conducive to wandering in. Since dunes move, trails are impractical, and signage is darned near impossible.
I bet those posts are at least 1 m tall
Here is no different. The bike paths encircle the edge of the dune fields. The walking paths cut slightly into the dunes, but only slightly. While you're welcome to just head off into the sand, it's a) hot, b) dry, c) dusty and d) filled with blowing sand that gets into every orifice in your body.

Still, we had to explore, so for an hour, we followed one of the walking paths, past an oasis in the middle of the sand...
Seriously: where are the zebras, rhinos and giraffes? 
Shades of the Namib desert
...past footprints of people and horses heading nowhere...
A whole lotta nothing out there
That way, too.
...past wind ripples in the sand...
You can see these in sandstone rocks
...past tracks of critters who live in this harsh environment...
Looks like kangaroo rat, but they may not have them here 
Fox for sure
...and past trees that lost the fight with the sand.
The Loch Ness Monster?
On the edges of the dunes, we actually saw wildlife.
A roe deer
My wildlife is shy. The two deer we saw bolted at 50 km/hr the second they saw us, and we were standing still.

There was an interesting research project going on along the path: crowd sourced time lapse photography of how the dunes are losing to the vegetation.
Maak 'n foto!
So the idea (as I translate it) is that they want you to take a picture that matches the view in their picture, and send it to them. From this, they can string together a timelapse of how the vegetation is taking over the dunes. This was mine:
The bikes were an added extra
After our 3 km walk, we rode around and through the park, which was about 21 km. We passed a pretty little lake with a nice sandy beach that was popular with dogs...
A nice swimming hole
...and past a number of spots where you could get to the dune field's edges.
More sand 
Someone trying to emulate Deadvlei in the Namib desert 
More sand 
At the far west end looking back east
It just goes on
Generally, though, the bike path skirted the park edge, going in and out, and ran along the edges of the farm fields that line the edges of the park.
Marshmallows not yet cut up?

We passed a small amusement park, pretty thatched buildings of questionable build quality...
One building from two halves, I suspect
...past pretty little (crowded) caf├ęs set up for the bike crowd and filled with bike riders having an afternoon beer.

We got back to our bike rental place at 3:00 pm, plenty of time for a beer in the hotel's bar before our bus home...
A lovely way to end the day
...and to watch the kids taking riding lessons in the barn attached to the hotel.
The view from inside the bar
I checked 9292 to confirm our planned pathway home. It told us to leave the hotel at 3:40 pm to walk to the bus stop to catch a 3:55 pm bus (that would get us to Tilburg, then Certo, then back to Amsterdam at 5:30 pm), but it did warn that the bus stop had moved because of an event in town. We left at 3:35 pm, walked back through the town...
Busy place
...past the road being set up for the carnival, and got to the bus stop at 3:50 pm, where two others were waiting for the same bus. At 3:55 pm, a lady stopped by the bus shelter and told us all (more precisely, told the other two, in Dutch), that there was no bus running at all because of the carnival. We checked 9292; it said it was. But (just like Hoge Veluwe) one of the lovely young ladies waiting for the bus with us translated, and said we could still catch a bus from the stop we were dropped off at this morning -- which was 1.5 km down the road and across the motorway. I checked the timetable on 9292, and it said we had 20 minutes to get there. So we started off walking with her -- she was trying to catch the same bus -- but she was wearing high heels and couldn't keep up the brisk pace that was needed. She told us to go ahead.

We scooted along, and got to the stop 3 min before the bus appeared. Unfortunately  the lady didn't make it, but she said she was not in a rush. We got into Tilburg too late to catch the train to Certo, so we grabbed the next train heading to Breda instead, where we caught an Amsterdam-bound train. We got in at 6:05 PM.

The De Loonse en Dunense Duinen parks was interesting and I was glad we went -- but we would have enjoyed it WAY more had we arrived when we wanted to and been able to get home as per plan. Instead, we got to spend less than 3 hrs in the park, while spending 3 hrs to get there and 2.5 hrs to get home. Not a great time investment.