Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Phase 3: Epic Bike Ride (part the 1st)

So, it's lunchtime on Sunday, and, after a short stay in Disappointment, err, Utrecht, I have a lead on a room at an IBIS hotel (semi-swanky) in The Hague.  Not wanting to dork around with online screwiness, I find the bike where I left it ( theft is a huge problem in the Netherlands), and trundle bikily to the hotel.   And, I'm in luck:  there's a room available right now.  So, Sr. Bag gets to hang out in comfort while I strike out for the Hook of Holland on the Wheeled Contraption (WC), this 50-pound lump with handlebars so curved they run into my hips if I turn too sharply.  It's the ox of the bike world.

"Hook of Holland" is several things. For one thing, it's a little town waaay over by the mouth of the Rhine/Waal River.  Note: "the Rhine" at its mouth is what's left of a river that splits and rejoins, like, 80 times on its way through the Netherlands:  "Name This River" is not a Jeopardy category for the faint of heart 'round here....  "Hook of Holland" is also the little curl of land at the mouth, and it's ALSO a series of ports that have been here since before forever.  Those ports are across the river from the immensity that's now the port of Rotterdam.  Half the surface area of Rotterdam is port.  That's not an estimate.  It's half.  They have a port museum (of course) called Futureland that closes at 5pm but you have to take this ferry from the Hook or catch the bus from the way other end of Rotterdam.  "Boats as much as possible" on this trip.

So.  The Wheeled Contraption and I set off on this quest, maybe 1 1/2 hours each way (ha).  The first hour was fine;  then I needed to navigate.  'Dutch signs' have become a bit of thing for me.  I can't tell if they make sense to SOMEbody, but just have been placed poorly.  Or if the red-lettered ones are for cars and the green-lettered ones are for bikes.  Or maybe someone was simply having a stroke.  Whatever the reason, at least one intersection indicated my destination in 3 very obviously different directions.  Not always this bad, but often enough to keep you wondering all the time.

Through the various wanderings, I DID stumble across one of the enormous flood control gates on my 'to see' list:  the Maeslantkering.  Each of the two gates is the size of the Eiffel Tower and swings out when the sea is up.  So, 'stumbling' is a term of convenience.  Nothing with its own observation hill gets stumbled over.  

Anyway, the last 1/2 hour getting there turned into 2 hours, which got me there in time for the 4:40 ferry, which would've gotten me to the museum 5 minutes before it closed.  Crap. I hadn't really had lunch yet, so I grabbed some fish and chips and an orange Fanta, which doubled as dinner and tried to figure out what this all meant.  There was clearly a commuter rail option into Rotterdam, leading maybe to a proper train back to The Hague, but, no, it was under construction and not due to open for another month.  Crap.  I could probably bike back faster than that.  Okay.  I saddled up and the WC and I headed back.

On the return, you would've thought I'd improved on my 3-hour one-way time, especially having DONE IT once already.  But, but you'd be wrong.  Because you would (perhaps) assume I had learned anything about that first route, which I kinda didn't.  So, I got back The Hague around 7, now with a head cold acquired somewhere en route, and collapsed into bed with a box of tissue.  Oh, and a sunburn.

Busy Sunday.

Phase 2: Descent and Bounce (or 'The plan du jour is...')

Okay, so the bike's in The Hague and I'm off to Utrecht.  I get some sleep on the train, waking up just in time, but am still pretty zonked.  I'm anxious to figure out the rental so I can zip to the hotel and collapse properly.  Alas.  After a schlepping my pack from one end of Utrecht Centraal Station to the other a few times, I learn that here, you need an OV card (for Dutch commuters) to rent a bike.  At any price.  We can mail to you in a couple weeks.

Uh.  Oh.  Cripe. Okay.  This carefully constructed facet of the trip, while not completely unravelled, now is much closer to the 'pile of yarn' end of the spectrum than the 'sweater' end.  In the absolutely immediate short-term, too, it means that a) the bike I have already rented is locked up in another town, and b) I've got a half-hour walk to the hotel before I implode in on myself.

I get to the hotel.  The room isn't a total dump, but smells like Marlboro mildew, and has all the drains running through the wall just past my head.  And, you know what?  I don't care.  Carefully balancing on one of my teeny squishy twin beds, I konk out for an hour.  When I regain consciousness, I'm off in search of cash, water for the CPAP (yeah, I'm dragging my Darth Vader breathing machine around on this trip), and maybe dinner.  I actually try to buy water at the nation's largest grocery chain but guess which kind of payment they don't accept?  Yup.  The only kind I've got.  VISA.

Dinner was more successful, followed by an hour sitting in a park, watching a small crowd of chickens circulate around the place while folks grilled on their portable hibachis.  All moderately entertaining, but not so much that I felt Utrecht was calling me for two nights.  The room, located under the stairs and not even numbered, had strong hints of being a converted storage room.  Shower room and toilet room were both shared with half a dozen other rooms, some of whom insisted on showering at 1am while loudly playing their music.  I texted to my sister that 'Utrecht' was rapidly becoming the Dutch word for 'disappointment.'

Incredibly, that was all the first day.  The Pack & I left early (8am) the next day.  That was Sunday morning.  Of course nothing but NOTHING was open then, not even coffeeshops.  Well, a couple coffeeshops were open, but unless I was offering to do dishes, I wasn't going to get any coffee out of them.  Because...still no cash.  I guess I could have offered a "blogging for coffee" swap, but then I'd be waiting 3 months for it (apparently).

So, Pack & I had a very leiesurely, very nice walk along the Bermude Weerd Canal, about which I know practically nothing (you're welcome) other than it has a set of locks, it joins the Vlecht River (the main river running through Utrecht) and, at that confluence, all the canal tour boats park for the night.  An odd find at 9am on a Sunday morning, this little herd of glass-topped boats snuggled up along the bank.

This is where Utrecht got interesting for me, going from long rows of 2 & 3 story apartment buildings from 1975, to classier and older brick buildings.  The shopping also becomes, well, jeez, ubiquitous, and pretty upscale, too.  Signboards for the tours appear, as do theaters, and squares surrounded by nifty restaurants.  The long straight streets of the newer areas turn into these narrow winding streets that line the canals.  It's the older, possibly medieval layout, that makes me happy, and it's a pattern repeated all over the Netherlands:  old charming surrounded by newer charmless.

My goal for the morning was to visit Oude Touer: the tower which remained after the Germans plastered the rest of the cathedral.  A side note:  the Dutch are skilled at finding new reasons to dislike the Germans, but the pure devastation of World War II continues to resonate here.  Which was really only the latest reason to hate the Germans.

I got a look at the tower, though the interior was being renovated and the new cathedral was holding mass.  Given all that, I decided it was time to fortify, and got a very nice breakfast at a place on the tower square.  Oh, and coffee.  Phew.  Disaster averted.

Next stop:  The Hague.  Deja vu, all over again.....

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Phase 1: Arrival (or, 'Wait....what?!)

hase 1:  Arrival
I always forget how much I hate space travel.  On a 9 1/2 hour flight, I go back and forth:  is it better just to get there and get on with it, or do I take the layover and give my $## a break?  Obviously this becomes a theoretical exercise once you're miles above Greenland.  Plus, hooray!  A middle seat, which pretty much guarantees 'no sleep.'  I did watch 3 movies, though....couldn't tell you which ones, but I did watch them.

Suffice it to say, I showed up in Amsterdam a bit of a wreck:  poorly watered, awfully tired, pretty hungry and having a little difficulty standing up.  And the pack's good and burly.  Yasss.  Oh, also, the exchange rate at the Portland Airport was ludicrous to the point where I suspect that I misunderstood something.  So, I'm there with no cash.  None of these is a crisis, but some take longer than others to remedy.

My first planned stop was the bike rental place in The Hague (Den Haag [which means The Hedge {referring to someone's old hunting lodge where the 7 provinces discussed unification in the 1500s}]).  That would be 2pm at the latest, after which I'd get to my first night in Utrecht.

In the planning, I thought I might take some time in Amsterdam that first day, you know, take a canal tour, see some Rembrandts.  Then go The Hague.  Except, The Hague and Amsterdam are in opposite directions from the airport.  Throw in all the rest of this mony/food/sleep stuff and, hey, remember to add time for getting lost.  Plus, man, this pack....

Right.  The Hague it is.

Got there with no trouble, found the bike place, paid for my 2-week rental, and kind of tottered my way back to the central train station.  The bike, as it happens, weighs about as much as my pack.  For the unwary and sleep-deprived (hi), this is a nice experiment in dynamic centers of gravity.  No hi-jinks ensue, fortunately.

Back at Den Haag Centraal Station, I learned that:

-nobody likes VISA, or even credit cards, here. But definitely not VISA.  Mastercard is OK.  AmEx to some extent.  But only VISA debit cards in the train ticket machines.  Credit cards are only usable with live customer service people.  Did I wind up in Japan somehow?
-taking your bike on the train costs almost as much a second ticket.  So much for renting in The Hague and then taking the bike with me everywhere.....
-oh, you can rent bikes from almost every train station in the Netherlands, for $4 a day.  Saved!  I'll park my bike here in The Hague while I figure things out in tired.  Now on 30 hours with no sleep...
-most Dutch banks are on different ATM networks from mine. No cash for me here.
-public toilets here at the train station are coin-op.

Hmm.  Time to get out of The Hague...

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Phase 0: Leadup (or, the greatest trip ever?)

Heyo.  After a bit of a delay, it's my Netherlands blog.  Yeah, the headcold I picked up on Sunday has had its effect, but here we go.

So, Mitch....seriously...what is this?  The Netherlands?  Lemme 'splain....

This trip has kinda come out of nowhere, but also not really.  I'm 4th generation Dutch.  Growing up in a place called Holland, Michigan, some part of me thought I knew the Netherlands (ja, ja, windmills:  check.  Tulips:  check.  Wooden shoes:  check).  And I spent 3 days there while studying abroad.  In December.  Funny, everything was either brick colored or grey...

Something changed this summer, listening to an interview with a Dutch flood engineer.  Totally matter-of-fact dude, very practical and quite reasonable.  And the engineering he was describing were astounding things:  big flood gates, but also lowlands and valleys being reclaimed as the natural flood storage that they are.

It got me thinking about how I hadn't gone back since college, which is actually extra-weird because I was so curious about, you know, the medieval wool trade and how it helped create the first real towns in Europe, right here in the Lowlands (meaning Belgium and the Netherlands, which were co-owned by a variety of monarchs for a while).  And then modern banking spins off, international trade, etc.  I mean, what's not to love about this stuff, right?

And right now you're thinking:  the weird part was...which...exactly?

Anyway.  I was riding my bike to work just after that interview, in the usual "joust and jockey" style now seemingly necessary in Portland commuting, and I thought to myself:  'Self, wouldn't it be great if there were a place where everyone biked and driving cars was sort of a secondary....wait a second.'

And besides that, it occurred to me that Western Michigan (where I grew up) is pretty flat, agriculturally-based country, with sand dunes running along a big lake.  If I were to visit the Dutch province of Zeeland, wouldn't I find pretty flat, agriculturally-based country, with sand dunes running along a big lake?  Hmm.

We're not even talking (yet) about cheese.  And beer.  And red cabbage.  And little pastries filled with almond or whatever.  Or panenkoeken, the gigantic uber-crepes that the Dutch call 'pancakes.'

We're also not talking about the astounding art or the canals.  Seriously, I could even get excited about windmills and tulips.....I probably draw the line at the shoes, though....

Placeholder C: Tokyo and the rest

This is the last day of the trip, in which I make no attempt to see all of Tokyo in one day, and a realization about tthe Tokyo train map.

Placeholder B: Kyoto & Himeji

In which I describe Kyoto a & Himeji, an astounding fortress and a bamboo forest just parked in someone's back yard ("back yard").

Placeholder A: Train of thoughts of trains. I think.

I still have a bunch to write about Japan, but it's not quite ready, I don't want to mess up the sequence and I want to get on to the current trip.  So, placeholders.  Why didn't I think of this before?

So:  placeholder A, in which I describe a random assortment of train related thoughts.