*Post by Anto (mostly)*
Once again we (or at least Anto) woke up to the dreadful sound of the Alarm – given how lovely the hotel was it would have been really nice to have a sleep in followed by a lazy breakfast. Sadly the reality was we rushed around getting everyone ready and packed so we could be ready for breakfast at 8am and our bus departure, with a quick walk and tram transfer in the middle. With all the harried running around we made our tour with about 15 minutes to spare only to have a passer by inform us (first in languages we didn’t understand, and then helpfully in English that our lovely daughter did not have a left shoe on… Nic went on a quick run back to the tram stop with no shoes to be found – and of course this was the trip we decided to try the ‘packing light’ option so didn’t have any foot wear for miss A. As there was absolutely no other option we got on the tour and hoped that having Astrid not walk around all day wouldn’t drive both her and us insane.
The tour departed virtually on time (although not to Swiss standards – which has now become our benchmark) and proceeded to drive out of Amsterdam. Within a few minutes we were heading north. A couple of minutes later the city suddenly vanished, no suburbs etc just city and then nothing but fields and water. Apparently, the Netherlands has an average (country wide) of 500 people per square kilometre which puts it just behind South Korea and way ahead of Australia’s 3 per Sq/km. Amazingly (for us) the Netherlands is less than 1/2 the size of Tasmania, which we consider a ‘small’ state.
Three things became very quickly obvious on our travels through the Netherlands, one the place is incredibly flat – there just aren’t hills or anything really approaching a hill. Two there is water everywhere – the only thing keeping the country out of the sea (in most cases) is constant pumping of water, if you live here you pay a separate water tax which is entirely put to running pumps to keep the country dry(ish). Thirdly there are bikes everywhere – and they entirely rule the roost – seemingly everything except the trams gives way to bikes – and every type of person rides. We saw kiddies sitting in the front of ‘barrow’ bikes coming home from school, people carrying their shopping home and everything in between – and just because you are on a bike doesn’t mean you can’t ‘dink’ another adult – or carry two or three children. Special points goes to the guy we saw riding with two children on the bike – on in front and one in a child seat behind, all while riding with one hand as the other was seriously bandaged up and obviously not able to be used.
Within about 30 minutes we arrived at our first stop Zaanse Schans, where we walked around a bit and had a look at some windmills, including walking into one that still functions as a spice grinder – which smelt absolutely delightful with the aroma of freshly ground cinnamon, clove and cardamom had us salivating – I’m sure it will not help either our or our daughters speculaas obsession.
We were constantly told how windy the place was – but today it was pretty much dead still, which resulted in zero movement of the windmills. Apparently due to the design of the mills they must be rotated at least every two weeks or the huge bearings they sit on get out of shape and the mill becomes useless . You can see why there are only a handful left and everyone else has switched to so much more convenient electrical sources of power.
Both Nic and I fairly rapidly remembered why we hate this kind of organised tour, between arrogant people who insisted on smoking the entire time we were not on the bus (and usually in the middle of the group) the dawdlers who just wandered off (or plain stop) combined with the obviously ‘tourist upped’ site visits left us feeling that although in this case there was a practical reason to subject ourselves to such a tour we will do our best to avoid them in the future.
We did admire their use of canals to keep chickens, sheep and other wildlife in paddocks. No need for fences here, when water can do the job for you. Astrid and Anto found a lovely bit of water with a overly friendly (presumably very well fed) swan to play with just before the usual rounding up of everyone and shepherding back onto the bus.
We had another fairly quick trip (as long trips either take you into the sea or another country) to a clog making factory in Marken, where a fairly amusing guy took the group through the demo of how wooden clogs have been made for the last 60 years or so. It was quite interesting that over here you are expected to look after your own safety – the clog making machine, while quite safe, did throw wood chips everywhere. I’m sure in Australia it would have had to be partitioned off from the public with some form of solid barrier. Over here we were just told ‘you might want to look out for your eyes the machine does throw off quite a lot of wood chips’… You will be happy to know we all made it out with our vision intact. The demo was fairly impressive, although we were both left with the impression that although wooden shoes probably filled a void in the markets in the 16th century with modern (think 19th century) materials and manufacturing techniques we could probably come up with something more useful. I can see the market for a good Aussie thong and gumboot shop 🙂
The tour then continued on foot to the ‘fishing’ harbour of Volendam – while there may have once been aquatic species involved it appears that these days the only catch involved is the flocks of tourists who are escorted around the town before being deposited at the ‘restaurant’ that has ‘the fast service’ for a meal.
With the adults being dehydrated and somewhat grumpy and the thought that Astrid would turn horribly feral if not properly fed we acquired some street vendor(ish) dutch pancakes with banana and cream – they were not only freshly cooked in front of us but remarkably tasty. Astrid was more than happy to eat these (after entirely rejecting some less quality ones in Amsterdam) until Anto turned up with some take-away fish and chips (with salad and both Mayo and other sauces) this food provided Astrid with an opportunity for her current food related activity of ‘dipping’ (which Anto would like to apologise for inflicting on Nic once again – it seemed like a good idea to have vegies eaten one night….) Astrid readily pushed away offered pancakes for freshly ‘dipped’ fish (the dipping has to be witnessed, the evidence of sauce / mayo on a food item is, apparently, not sufficient) once again she preferred the fish to the chips and had a fairly good percentage of her fathers meal. I suspect this is why her parents clothes seem to be stretching while hers get tighter..
Post meal there was another short hike back to the bus once again along a very pretty lake, which like all the water in the Netherlands is man made – there were all sorts of stories of environmental disasters from the early attempts at controlling the sea. Once back on the bus we elected to sit downstairs – which we had all to ourselves and the tour guides (there were two on this tour) Astrid happily played with the guides, voluntarily sitting on the lap of one for about 10 minutes until the poor guides job got in the way. Astrid was not happy to be abandoned by her new friend – even mum and dad seemingly rating lower than the new fun companion.
We then wandered to find some afternoon tea at a nearby cafe. They promptly gave Astrid a balloon to play with, which amused her no end and we had some yummy hot chocolates and chocolate mousse cake.
That was followed by more wandering around Amsterdam and we went in search of some shoes for Astrid, who had been confined to the carrier all day due to her lack of footwear. We eventually found some cute boots in Zara after having no luck elsewhere. Lots of very expensive and cute shoes available but we settled for the moderately priced ones, and some cheap ugg boots to keep her feet warm. She of course promptly lost one boot about 10 minutes after purchase. Luckily a nice Dutch man came running down the street with it, or we would have cried. We took this opportunity to purchase a massive amount of Dutch biscuits and other confectionery in the hope it would placate the small child on the long train trip back to Paris.
Amsterdam was looking pretty good in the evening, and we were sad we had to leave soon. At this stage it was dark (at almost 5pm) and we headed back towards the hotel. First stopping in for a light dinner at the cafe we had enjoyed lunch in the day before. We had some lovely coffees, wine, beer and pizza. Note, Astrid had only the pizza although wine seemed like a good option at this point. After a relaxing dinner, and wishing we could take our weary bodies back to the hotel, we instead went there to grab our bags and loaded up caught the tram down to Central Station. Which incidentally gets the award for the prettiest train station ever! Note Astrid lost another shoe on the tram ride back, but was again rescued by a Dutch lady. Shoes were giving us headaches today…..
The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful as Miss A slept on us or the seats as we were periodically served fresh pastries and coffee. We made it back into Paris and back to our apartment fairly efficiently although, it was almost 11pm. Still, only 4.5 hours earlier we were sitting in an Amsterdam cafe for dinner. Not a bad way to travel several hundred kilometres in comfort!