First Flight

Until I was in my twenties I had never flown anywhere. I’d been on camping holidays with my family as a teenager, to France and even once a driving holiday to Switzerland, which seemed intrepid at the time.

After a couple of years of work, and having become established in a pleasant, shared flat in Putney, one of my flat-mates suggested we take a trip to Amsterdam during our Easter holiday. We’d still be doing it on the cheap, taking standard flights and staying in the youth hostel; but Easter is a fine time to visit The Netherlands and we’d be able to take a coach out to Keukenhof, where acres of bulbs are grown, a spectacular sight in the spring.

I was as excited about the flight as anything else. At this time [the mid 70s] air travel still held a hint of glamour, influenced by Freddie Laker’s entrepeneurial innovations, the TV ads full of inviting images. I am ancient enough to remember the Imperial Leather soap commercial, in which a couple are bathing in an aircraft. These days any sense of luxury or comfort on an aeroplane can only be accessed via flying business class and paying extortionate sums for tickets.

But Amsterdam is a short flight away and a trip we would never undertake by air now. My friend, Deirdre had come up with another cunning plan. Her ex-boyfriend was living in Amsterdam, having moved on to live with his latest squeeze, a Dutch girl in a flat near the centre. According to Deirdre, Dale was a confident, charming but egocentric womaniser who would love nothing more than to provide free tours and guidance during our stay. We never discovered what the Dutch girlfriend thought of it all…

Everything was straightforward with our travel and we got into the centre of Amsterdam with no trouble, but locating the youth hostel was another matter. There were, however various ‘hostels’ and we checked into one, assuming it was indeed the official, kosher, accredited real deal. It was certainly cheap. But in that time-honoured way of ‘getting what you pay for’, it was a dump, the shared washing facilities spartan, the dorms quite nasty.

We managed a night then rose and set off to meet Dale, who was delighted to see us and show us around, He also explained that our accommodation was not the Youth Hostel and took us to find the YHA property, which was located bang slap in the centre of the red light district [which, for anyone who would like to know, is near Amsterdam’s grand railway station].

We removed ourselves from the first place and went to the YHA, where we were allocated bunks in a dormitory, mine being the top one. There were strict rules, one being a denial of entry after 10.00pm, which seemed a little draconian. We’d also have to take our turn with clearing up breakfast etc. But it was clean and safe.

So during our week we walked all over Amsterdam, taking a canal boat ride, visiting the Rijksmuseum, all the major squares, the flower market and most memorable, a tour of Anne Frank’s house, when we were almost alone and in silence to look at the cramped attic where she hid with her family. I’ve returned to Amsterdam on a number of occasions but have never wanted to revisit the house, to queue up and shuffle around in a crowd of chattering tourists.

As twenty somethings, we threw ourselves with gusto into the city’s nightlife, but our 10pm curfew was a severe obstacle to fully enjoy the evenings. Most nights we rushed in with seconds to spare, to find the dorm dark and full of slumbering women, then I’d have to scramble up past two levels to reach my bunk, hoping not to insert my foot into someone’s face.

It was a packed week. The Netherlands’ capital is always a captivating trip to make, but you never forget your first sight of iconic places-and you never forget the first time you flew, either!

The Beauty of the Bike.

Thank heavens for cycling.

Since most foot-dependent activities are currently out of the question, cycling is the option that remains. [Regular readers will know of my aversion to water submersion-hence swimming is off the menu].

So cycling is becoming vital to maintaining an amoebic level of physical activity and to this end Husband has been rising to the challenge of hauling me around various routes and tracks in pursuit of improving my corporeal condition.

Of course the bikes are always on board when we are out and about in the van and were transported all around Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica despite being rarely employed. This was mostly due to the terrifying nature of the Italian roads, although in Sardinia there was a modicum of driverly care un-encountered anywhere else in Italy.

On the subsequent [most recent] trip to Brittany there was more cycling. Travelling by ‘velo’ in France is a whole different experience surpassed only by bicycle use in The Netherlands or Belgium. So we undertook some pedal routes-quiet lanes and tarmac tracks, not all of which were totally flat. As I’m aware that Husband is not over-fond of complaints during cycle rides I took pains not to comment that my knees were creaking, my wrists numb and I was becoming generally knackered.

Such are the nuances of marriage however that once returned he announced that I’d been ‘complaining silently’.

On another afternoon I opted to stay behind, not so much as to spare him my silent complaints as to get down to revising poor, neglected Novel Two. Thus I was heavily engaged in the task and oblivious to anything else when Husband reappeared after what seemed an unusually brief spell. ‘I came off’ he said.

He’d come off in spectacular style, judging by the holes in his elbow and his knee. In the customary manner of husbands he was eager to minimise the event, the effects of which were not a pretty sight. Novel Two went back on the back burner while I delved into the eclectic mix of items I call the First Aid Box.

Back home now, I’ve managed to cycle without complaint, silent or otherwise, ascended some hills without dismounting to push and achieved staying within sight of Husband’s bike most of the time.

I’ve also come to realise that the bike has other uses besides the exercise factor. If I need to nip up the road for a loaf of bread I can do so without needing to suffer the excruciating attentions of Neighbour, a man who speaks to me as if I am a miniature toy poodle and who I tend to avoid at all cost.

So bike is the way except for when it’s raining-which it is-a lot-at the moment…


Travel or Holiday? What’s the Difference?

We are travelling across The Netherlands, meandering slowly northwards with the aim, having negotiated Germany and Denmark of an eventual stay with a Norwegian friend. The Dutch countryside, though flat as a table-top is scenic in a bucolic way and the villages chocolate box pretty with their thatched, angular, barn-style roofs and manicured gardens. [I suppose the analogy of the chocolate box must be becoming obsolete nowadays-as a child I was used to seeing the array of assorted chocolate boxes ranged along the top shelf of the village shop and all bore images of thatched cottages or streets of half-timbered houses. Heaven knows why…]

All this prettiness is, of course very uplifting. But to enjoy travel [or a holiday-whether the two are the same is a matter for debate] every sight need not be picture-book gorgeous, in fact quite the contrary-some of the ugliest views can provide the best travel experiences.

Take docks. We sailed overnight last night from Harwich in Essex [East coast UK] to Hoek von Holland [The ‘Hook’]. Harwich is a tiny port, occupied almost entirely by the two sailings of one ferry company. The enormous ship dwarfs the quay as lorries crawl up the ramp like swarming insects to be swallowed up by the gaping mouth of the vehicle decks. At last it was our turn to be swallowed, trundling across the metal gantry and shuffling into a narrow space between two caravans. We downed a couple of drinks, chatting to some touring Americans to one side and some touring Australians on the other before tumbling into bed in our cabin.

We woke to the view of Rotterdam, a forest of cranes and pylons all engaged in loading or unloading container ships. How many containers can there be in the world? One per head of the population? You could be forgiven for thinking so. The containers look like children’s bricks as they are plucked from the quayside in giant pincers and placed with meticulous accuracy on to the wide, flat deck of a ship, piled to an impossible height until it seems the vessel might topple sideways-and yet there is one on the horizon, disappearing somewhere with its unwieldy cargo.

We ground to a halt in the berth and descended to the depths to rejoin out vehicles and a long wait for our turn to disembark. Then we were away into the Netherlands and Northwards.

I attempt to make sense of the signs. ‘Slag boom’ says one, or ‘sluiz-droomen’, or broodjes slommen’. The Dutch language seems to consist of faintly abusive and insulting words although they are in fact all innocuous terms for everyday objects. We cross ‘dijks’ and wait for ‘brugs’ to open and allow boats to pass on the countless  waterways that make up the country-once passing underneath an aqueduct bearing sailing ships-an astonishing sight. We cross huge barrages like driving across the sea, where on either side cormorants are gathered, spreading their wings to dry before plunging after another fish, or tall grey herons poised motionless along the roadsides.

So to Germany then-ausfahrts, glottlestops and beer-swilling, thigh-slapping efficiency-ah, but only for one night!

Going Dutch

                We have arrived to the environs of Amsterdam. The last time we visited this compact but beautiful capital city was a number of years ago, despite having travelled in the Netherlands to some extent. Our last Amsterdam visited included a comfortable hotel stay near the centre. This time we have made the bold step of driving here in the campervan, despite the autumnal weather.

                Amsterdam boasts remarkable architecture and a network of canals, as many North European cities do, and like all of the Netherlands [which benefits from a flat terrain] has developed a magnificent system of bike paths. As I’ve mentioned before, the bicycle rules here, taking precedence over both motor vehicles and pedestrians, which is lucky since we have not only brought our bikes with us, but yours truly continues to be lame from foolish activities such as jogging.  Nevertheless we are here to watch a plucky family member undertake the Amsterdam marathon and provide whatever support we can, from clapping and whooping as he dashes past in a blur, to hearty congratulations and beer on completion.

                The campsite here in Amstelveen, a satellite of Amsterdam, is clean, modern and comfortable, with heated wash blocks, hard standing for motorhomes, affable, friendly staff and plenty of useful information. But Amstelveen is an odd, characterless area. We stumbled out to try and find the ‘centre’, hoping for a bank and perhaps a hostelry where we might enjoy an early evening drink. There are miles of new, pristine housing estates, neatly laid out and incorporating cycle ways, patches of grass with goal nets, basketball courts, picnic benches. There is no litter or dog excrement. There are also no newsagents, grocery stores, coffee bars, bistros, launderettes, betting shops, Chinese takeaways or bars. Eventually, among the vast warehouse factories and car outlets we discovered a supermarket and inside, a cash dispenser.

                There is an intrepid element to van camping at this time of year. A couple of years ago we ventured to Bruges, in Belgium just a couple of weeks before Christmas, to a site accessible to the centre, though a bus ride away. The weather was damp and chilly. One of the few fellow campers blew up the electricity supply, rendering our electric heater useless and necessitating using the gas rings for heating. Visiting the centre of the medieval city was nice, but cold, and in order to stay warm we had to keep nipping into bars and cafes even more than we would normally. Bruges was bedecked with lights, decorations, a Christmas market and an ice rink, but was freezing. We returned home with head colds.

                Here there is a vestige of watery, late autumn sunshine mixed in with the clouds. We are an easy cycle from Amsterdam’s centre and have the benefit of reliable, cosy heating. How was the marathon? I’ll let you know…