Published: October 27th 2010October 26th 2010
I had become weary of my travelling whilst in Zagreb, the endless churches, castles and ‘sights’ - but how can something extraordinary suddenly become ordinary? The answer is when see it every day for weeks at a time.
So whilst in the baroque masterpiece of Mozart’s Salzburg I bought a train ticket to Amsterdam - 700 kilometres away. It would the longest single overland journey of my trip so far and also my last before arriving back home to Britain.
I looked at stopping over in Germany somewhere along the way and I noticed that Munich’s Oktoberfest was on. However, when I looked into it hostels were asking for a minimum of 50 Euros for a single night in a youth hostel dormitory; I didn’t love beer and thousands of Aussies - that
much. Besides, it looked likely I might lose something (again). (Check out these stats for lost property: Over two weeks 1,450 items of clothing, 770 identification cards, 420 wallets, and 90 cameras (among other items) are left behind. Also found: a live rabbit, a tuba, and a ship in a bottle.)
In addition (to all of the above), I discovered that there are plenty
of smaller (and far superior) festivals in Bavaria throughout the year, for example Gäubodenvolksfest
in Straubing (rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?); so I promised that I’d ignore the overblown commercial fest that is Oktoberfest and come back for the unpronounceable one instead.
As for Amsterdam, I’d made many Dutchies
friends over the previous 19 months travelling so I intended to ‘cash-in’ and was certain someone would be able to host me for a while.
At 8 am on a very fresh morning that told me Summer was most definitely over I walked from the Pension Elisabeth I was staying at to Salzburg’s train station. At 9am I was on board the near-empty train, grabbed a table seat and settled into writing up my blog on the long journey northwards. Without noticing it we were soon in Munich before quickly speeding through to the former capital of West Germany, Bonn and then Stuttgart (birthplace of German football legend and Spurs’ striker Jürgen Klinsmann) before arriving at Mainz at about 3ish (no titbit of information on offer for Mainz).
At Mainz I looked up from my laptop only to discover the train had emptied and a conductress peering down at me. In perfect English she explained that I had to get off. Up until that point I had been enjoying the labours of Teutonic efficiency; well balls to all that, not only was the train running late but I was also going to miss my onward train at Frankfurt.
Inside Mainz station I wasn’t sure what I was meant to do so I joined a queue that took ages and I was given a new ticket for the short journey to Mannheim where I could board a later express ICE train to Amsterdam.
Thirty minutes or so later and I was at Mannheim where from a pay phone I called Diane, the Dutch girl I’d met on New Years Eve in Melbourne. I had previously contacted her to say I may be popping by at some point. But now I was arriving in Utrecht at 8pm that evening, could she put me up!? Suffice to say she was a bit shocked to hear from me, and I was lucky that she was able to meet me. Whilst waiting to board my next trains I spent 30 minutes or so walking around the station and buying a few snacks. It sounds clichéd but on first impressions alone Germany’s rail infrastructure as well as its towns were not only remarkably pleasant but well organised too.
My last journey was on the ICE: Inter-City-Express Train from Mannheim to Amsterdam, on one of the fastest trains in Europe reaching speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour on some stretches. It was very smart inside and comfortable, if busy and I heard lots of English accents and men in suits when we got to Frankfurt, presumably workers from the City of London. I killed time on the train by watching the movie Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs on my laps top - I needed something light weight. We stopped in cities such as Cologne and I got to glimpse its magnificent towering cathedral and broad river and then I realised that to my shame Germany was an anonymous country for me; I promised that I would return.
I finally arrived at a very busy Utrecht railway station at around 8.30 pm - my journey had take 11 and half hours from Austria to the Netherlands - but the joys of train travel meant that I wasn’t remotely tired.
I soon spotted Diane who was looking for me on the concourse. This wasn’t hard as she’s tall and the Dutch are the tallest people on earth at an average 6 foot for men and five foot seven for women - which is my own height) and we then caught a bus went back to her student digs which she shared with two of her fellow students. The neighbourhood D lives is known colloquially as ‘Lombok’ - which is an island in the former Dutch East Indies - now Indonesia and as you can probably deduce the area has a large ethnic mix. In fact I was surprised by how many non-white Dutchies were about the place (With a population of 16.6 million, the Netherlands has 1.83 million ‘Non-Western’ non-natives around 11 percent of the population) as well as Islamic headscarves and Moroccan take-away joints and not forgetting the coffee shops with people queuing up to get their joints. It also has lots of university students like D living in cheap tiny flats.
Oh, and quick note on the usage of the Netherlands - Holland is accepted unofficially because historically it was the dominant province. Oh and it’s called the Netherlands (the low lands) as 60 percent is below sea level.
Utrecht is pronounced with a hard guttural sound at the end - it sounds faintly ridiculous, as if you are trying to cough up a fur ball in your throat. I’d only ever heard of Utrecht from the obscure peace Treaty of 1713 which ended the War of the Spanish Succession (anyone remember what that was all about?), introduced the concept of the Balance of Power in Europe (vaguely), oh and gave possession of the Rock of Gibraltar to Great Britain - which had been captured by an Anglo-Dutch force during the war. The Dutch were famously taunted by the French Ambassador with the bon mot De vous, chez vous, sans vous, meaning that negotiations would be held "about you, in your country, without you."
I digress. Diane had a day off from teaching and studying and so took me on a walking tour of the old city taking in her favourite cafe and also showing me the university where she studied and worked - in a very nice and very Dutch square. Utrecht is surprisingly delightful; it’s one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands so it has an historic quarter with lovely old streets and picturesque canals as well as a magnificent cathedral with its huge tower which was built between 1321 and 1382; I even climbed the 465 steps to the top which revealed a misty panorama of the city.
As Utrecht has a big student population (Utrecht University (Universiteit Utrecht) is actually rated the best university in the Netherlands) there are many of them cycling around everywhere - and I mean everywhere. In fact this is a cycling city - I’ve never seen so many bicycles on the road before - and all so calm as opposed the race and Lycra bandits in Melbourne and London. Over the course of a few days I got to have a go myself, taking turns to be the passenger on the back of D’s bicycle; although the man (me) should never sit on the back of if she is a woman because apparently it’s not very masculine!
D wasn’t the only student I knew in the city, Alicia, whom I’d met in an Istanbul youth hostel back in August was now starting her Master’s Degree. So I met up with her at a rather opulent bar in where she was (not) drinking with a bunch of her new classmates. It was great to see her in her own environment and not in a hot un-air-conditioned nightmare of a hostel. The course was conducted solely in English so surrounding me at the bar were Americans, Dutchies and Irish one of whom I got talking to, an Irish girl who just so happened to be from the same village as my father in Ireland - am I bored of coincidences or what?
On Sunday Diane and I went to visit yet another Dutchie - a very good travelling companion of several weeks during 2009, Mr AJ. I’d last seen him in a hospital bed in Singapore, suffering from Dengue fever - he’s alright now though. Despite being October the Sunday was gorgeous and what perfect weather to take up AJ’s generous offer to take us sailing on his boat in the Frisian Islands. These form part of the homeland of the Frisians, a Germanic people who speak Frisian, a language group closely related to the English language. It was great to see AJ again and we had a great afternoon sailing, stopping at a waterside restaurant for a beer and later have delicious fish and chips before heading home at nightfall.
A few days later I left Utrecht and went to stay with AJ in his very nice home in Amsterdam. He hadn’t change since the 15 months I’d last seen him and we still got on like always. The weather was sunny and warm and it was great to spend time in Amsterdam cycling around on one of AJ’s bikes. Although I have to admit that despite the amount of cyclists on the road it was nerve racking. Combine dangerous tram lines that your wheel gets stuck in and throws you over head, bicycle lanes that just stop for no reason, one way streets, cyclists running red lights, speeding mopeds in bicycle lanes and high handle bars made cycling downright frightening. But all that wasn’t to blame for my flipping over my handlebars and landing on my head in the centre of downtown - in front of thirty or so horrified bystanders no less. The back wheel was a bit wobbly and clearly couldn’t take the sudden overtaking of another bicycle. You could say I was pretty dazed confused and much bruised - weeks later I still have the scabs on my knuckles and a blue hip.
A few days later I made a small trip to Den Bosh -a medieval city and among the oldest cities in the Netherlands. It has lots of cool old buildings such as The Moriaan is the oldest brick building in The Netherlands, built in the 13th century and now the tourist office. AJ and I went on a subterranean cruise of the canals hidden behind and below the ancient houses a network called the Binnendieze that once spanned 22 kilometres. It was pretty cool thing to see.
Even without the bike crashes, buying of shoes (of which Dutch shops are great for), and going to exhibitions at teh Hermitage Amsterdam branch - starring Alexander the Great I was tempted to do visits to Delft and Maastricht. However, I had been truly saturated by culture and besides AJ was getting a bit fed up of me sleeping on his kitchen floor. From my laptop I had been receiving job email alerts in the UK so I
prepared my way back home.
Den Bosch 8 (8 Oct 10)
A London bus, a wedding and me
After 614 days or 1 year, 8 months, 7 days since I left the UK (I was then 28 years old and now I'm 30), 22 countries visited, 62,675.78 kilometers (38,944.92 miles) travelled, 9,500 photos taken, 106 blog entries written with 205,099 words typed, and I was back in the UK, flying into Liverpool.
I think after all this travelling, writing, picture taking, meeting people and randomness I need time to digest everything in my own head. Thanks for the comments over the last twenty months of my blog’s life and I hope you enjoyed it more than I enjoyed writing it! Now is your cue to leave me some comments.
There are more photos below