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Published: September 30th 2009
Sunday 5th July
A flying trip into Aachen, Germany then on to Maastericht
Had a good sleep-in, the little cretins next door still sleeping-in themselves. We really should have gone and played ball right next to their tent just to even up the score card...
Packed up and away by 11am, swinging into Germany to explore the city of Aachen. Once again Flo let us down with her ‘campsite’ which turned out to be an industrial area (seriously, how old is the camping information in these sat-navs?), and so we headed into town in search of an information centre. Lucretia and I eventually found one, incidentally exploring most of the old city in the process as we attempted to find our way around.
Back at the car and after a quick lunch, we decided to move on as there was nothing much to see in Aachen that we hadn’t already seen and our next stop of Maastericht, while being in another country, the Netherlands, was only another 30 minutes drive away.
So, on we went, again going to two non-existent campsites before
finally finding one about 25 minutes drive out of the city in a nice country area. We set up camp and were sitting around reading and playing cards when all of a sudden these black clouds loomed overhead and thunder rumbled in the not-so-far distance. We all looked at each other, ran towards the car, got the tarp out and set up in record time, just as the sky opened and the rains came down. It was really heavy rain and with the thunder above, it made for the best storm I have experienced in ages. It would have been fantastic to watch it from the comfort of a veranda somewhere - not so fantastic to watch it from beneath a flimsy tarp!
We all crammed into the big tent to play some cards and wait for the storm to pass, which it eventually did. A lovely stir-fry for dinner, some computer work plugged into the electricity point in the toilet block, and then bed - first night in Netherlands, our 11th country for our trip so far! Day 27
Monday 6th July
Maastericht and the St Pietersberg Caves
Packed up and away by 10.30am, we drove into Maastericht and parked up near the centre of town, getting a great spot as no-one was around - the Dutch are very resistant to starting back at work on Mondays, with most shops not opening until at least midday...
We walked around the city for about an hour, with the old town once again being really lovely, looking like it would be a fantastic place to spend a whole weekend there, just eating and drinking and soaking up the atmosphere.
Our next destination was the nearby Zonneberg Caves at St Pietersberg, a series of tunnels beneath the mountain which had been formed over 700 years of sandstone mining. Unfortunately we had missed the last English tour for the day, but we decided to do the next tour, which was to be in Dutch, at a reduced price as while we wouldn’t understand any of the tour guide’s spiel, they informed us that the walk alone is interesting and worth the visit. So we joined the Dutch group and, unknown to us, the tour guide asked the group if they wouldn’t all mind
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if the tour was done in English, as most people in the Netherlands can speak English very well. They all didn’t mind which was fantastic news for us and we were extremely thankful to them all - definitely made the tour a lot more enjoyable being able to understand the history behind it all.
And so off we went on the hour long tour. Basically the whole mountain, as well as many surrounding areas, was mined from the 13th century until the end of the last century for the soft limestone blocks, with which they used to build houses, churches, castles, etc. Initially each farmer mined only his own land, each starting about 10m below the ground’s surface as the higher ground was too hard, and continuing down once each layer was mined (up to 9m in some places). These individual tunnel systems all eventually met up as each farmer’s mining area met with his neighbours, forming these massive tunnel systems made up of 20,000 passages and stretching 200 kilometres in length under the mountain (due to cave-ins over time, there are only 6,000 passages remaining, covering 70 kilometres).
The great limestone layer, which
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stretches under a lot of Western Europe and the UK (even the White Cliffs of Dover are from the same limestone strata), was made many many moons ago when the ocean covered a lot of what now is land. The calcium rich skeletons and shells of animals, especially sea animals, fell to the sea bed and the pressure of the water above resulted in the formation of the limestone. Ta da - your trivia for the day.
The tunnels were prepared for use as a shelter during the 2nd world war, hoping to accommodate the 50,000 residents of Maastericht if needed. It was pretty full-on, with speaker systems, a bakery that could bake hundreds of loaves of bread a day, a toilet system, three churches, wells to hold fresh water, and a hospital ward. They were still preparing it when liberation occurred, and so never needed to use it for a shelter. However, a few years later a few thousand of the town’s folk stayed in the tunnel system for a while to test it out. Luckily they didn’t end up having to use it in a war emergency as they quickly found that it would never
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have been able to sustain 50,000 for very long, with the nothing quite working to plan.
At one stage in the tour, the guide talked about getting lost in the tunnels and how quickly you would die - perhaps a discussion that would have been more appreciated once we were safely back outside the tunnels! Apparently the chance of you dying from lack of food or water was pretty low, humans being more likely to die from hypothermia due to the constant low temperatures (8 degrees) and the high humidity (98%), exacerbated by nervous sweating that begins when you realise that you can’t find your way out. Plus, the absolute darkness (whatever they measure light in, it has zero down there) would actually make you start to go crazy in as little as half a day. Surrounded by complete and utter darkness, and teamed with the dead silence, not only would you start to hallucinate within a few hours but you would also start to lose all sense of what’s up and down, and so you just fall over. The guide walked away with the light for just a minute or so to give us a feel
of what it would feel like... I can tell you I was very glad when he came back, with both the light and the knowledge of how to get out!
Back out in the sunshine, it was back on the road for the drive to our destination for the night at Delft. We passed through another crazy Netherlands storm on the way, this one even complete with hail!
Our camp all set up, and dinner done, it was off to bed after a very interesting day. Day 28
Tuesday 7th July
It rained throughout the night and most of the morning, so much so that we could feel the water underneath the tent, literally puddles that waved beneath us. Not good as there was so much water that it was actually seeping up into the tent and soaking all our bedding... So after giving up hope that the rain would clear, Craig, Davin and I, in the pouring rain, packed up the tent in record time, trying our best to keep things as dry as possible. (In her defence, Creash was
in on the computer, unaware of what we were doing.) We got absolutely drenched in the process, and so jumped into warm showers and dry clothes as soon as everything was safely in the dry haven of the car... and by the time we were finished showering and getting warm, the rain had stopped and the blue sky was peaking through...! Damn weather.
We ended up renting a cabin in the same caravan park, the last one available and for quite a cheap rate, and then headed into town to explore. (We walked into town, the skies now a brilliant blue... rain? what rain? ...it’s enough to make you go crazy!) The actual city was quite pretty but nothing exceptional, the highlight being delicious Asian noodles for lunch.
Back at the caravan park, we spent the rest of the afternoon drying our wet belongings in the sunshine (still hadn’t rained again...), having a swim in the pool, and playing badminton with our new set. Lucretia cooked a delicious rice meal for dinner, we all played some cards and then off to bed.
Netherlands trivia #2… The Netherlands are often referred to
as Holland, especially by the Dutch themselves, although this is technically incorrect. There are two provinces within the Netherlands called North Holland and another called South Holland, but they are only two of the twelve provinces which make up the Netherlands. So that’s a fact straight from the mouth of Google, but I wouldn’t be the one to correct a Dutch person if they say they come from Holland… Day 29
Wednesday 8th July
Fantastic sleep in - well worth the extra money for a night in a cabin every once and a while for that slice of luxury!
After packing up we were once again on the road, our destination for the next couple of days was Amsterdam, the home of all things naughty.
With weather forecasts predicting more rain, we once again opted for the cabin option in the caravan park we eventually found just outside of Amsterdam. It was considerably more expensive that our cabin the night before, but as we are quickly leaning, a dry bed to lie down on at night is priceless. And the campground was
only a 15 minute walk to a free ferry which takes you into the heart of the city, so a good deal all-in-all. So after unpacking and a late lunch, we set off to explore…
Walking off the ferry into Amsterdam, we immediately found ourselves stuck in the main tourist strip, a street lined with bright flashing lights, ridiculously overpriced tourist traps (who is going to pay $2 for a crappy postcard?), and clogged full of tourists laden down with massive cardboard cone-fulls of hot chips smothered in mayonnaise. So after grabbing our own massive cardboard cone-full of hot chips, we set off to find a place to enjoy some dinner.
After stopping at a coffee store for a quick drink and a game of cards (that seemed to go forever), we found a great little Italian restaurant that could satisfy our cravings for garlic bread (oh how we are craving anything that involves an oven to cook).
After dinner we took a quick stroll through the infamous Red Light District on our way back to the ferry. Definitely an eye-opener! Girls of every taste displayed in the windows, red lights
no longer alit outside the windows with curtains pulled across… I never really believed such a place existed
All in all, the four of us were all a bit disappointed in Amsterdam. It has such an international reputation as a fun lively place to visit, but I found that while it was definitely an eye-opener and worth a visit of a few hours just to experience the different culture, I found our short visit to be more than enough, with our plans to return the next day being scrapped.
It has definitely made me more aware of the debate against legalising marijuana, beyond the health implication arguments where the discussions normally revolve, I had never really thought about the social implications of such a decision. We all found the general feel of the city to be quite unsafe, not in a pickpocket-and-mugging sort of way you would associate with most big cities, but just that wariness and unpredictableness (not technically a word but when has that ever stopped me…) that comes from being around people who aren’t completely in control of their actions. The blank stairs and red bloodshot eyes of the locals and
tourists keen to take advantage of the country’s laws allowing marijuana use definitely takes away from the prettiness of the city. Day 30
Thursday 9th July
Edam & last night in the Netherlands
After a fantastic breakfast of scrambled eggs and pancakes, we checked out and were on our way 20km north of the city, to the small town of Edam, home of the tasty cheese. The rain was a bit of a dampener, drizzling on and off, but we still managed to have a bit of a walk around, taste-testing some cheese and an ice-cream before once again returning to the car and hitting the road.
Our next main destination was Cologne in Germany, but we didn’t make it out of the Netherlands, getting as far a campground in De Hoge National Park before calling it a day. Barely got the tents and tarp up before the heavens opened… We are very seriously fed up with the rain which we now estimate has plagued us for half of our trip to far…
A few games of badminton when the rains cleared,
some cards, some chilli con carne for dinner, and bed - our last night in the Netherlands. Reflections on the Netherlands: Again, with such a short flying visit, it is hard to comment on the country as a whole with much conviction. From our experience, the Dutch people have been exceptionally nice about our inability to speak their language, a sore point with many other nationalities. Highlights for me personally were the Zonneberg Caves at St Pietersberg which I found fascinating, and the lovely city of Maastericht where I would love to spend a long weekend to fully explore the narrow cobbled-stones café-lined streets. Next time!
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