Sunday, January 28, 2007

Treasures in Utrecht

Real life can indeed get busy, and tiring. A simple evidence is during weekday evenings after dinner, the living room sofa suddenly looks like an inviting bed to me. It is very tempting to just crash. This weekend, we haven’t done much. We overslept, cleaned a bit, did the laundry and drying, and packed. I’m flying tomorrow to the US for work. The Dutchman is also flying to another country in Europe later of the week for work.

We also have postponed our winter sport holiday. We were supposed to go this week but didn’t because it took the snow a long time to fall in the Alps. It fell this week though, but it was too late already, since we need to make the decision at least a week earlier. We’ll probably go in March.

Anyway, I wanted to write a bit about our nice weekend last week. Reason being, the fickle Dutch sun shone. Its warm rays glowed above the flatlands. People were out and so were we. Dutchman and I, in a rather spur-of-the-moment spirit, which is by the way not a Dutch trait, decided to drive around in the outskirts of the city, somewhere north of Utrecht.
See map here: Utrecht Province Map. In this country, people would think you are crazy if you stay indoors when the sun is out.

River Vecht

We drove past the remarkable and scenic River Vecht; one of Utrecht’s hidden treasures. Along the river banks stood showpieces of regal stately mansions guarded with lovely French-style gardens and petite tea port houses, reminiscing the past glory of the country. Ah, welcome to the elite Dutch country lifestyle during the Golden Ages.

Most of these monumental stunning mansions by the river were built during the 17th century, some later. They served as vacation houses of rich merchants from Amsterdam; adventurous and risk-taker merchant traders that profited from the great spice trade in the East Indies (now Indonesia) during the Golden Ages. The VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie /United East Indies Company), the first multi-national firm in the world became very rich, responsible for making the Dutch known not only as world navigators but world traders.

Life before for the wealthy aristocrats was all about escaping the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam and enjoying the serene and beauty of the River Vecht during the summer months. Nowadays, these mansions are local and tourist attractions.

I told Dutchman that we will come back another time and stroll along the elegant gardens and river banks. Surprisingly he agreed. I also promise to bring my camera next time and take foto’s!

Nijenrode Castle in Breukelen

Trivia: Did you know that the only university in a castle is found in Utrecht, the Netherlands? This university castle is called the Nijenrode Business University in Breukelen, Utrecht.

This is what you see from the road, the frontal view of the Nyrenrode castle along the River Vecht in Breukelen.
Pictures were taken by Dutchman’s mobile phone and they are not of great quality, helaas. These pictures did not do justice to the beauty of this castle.

Speaking of Breukelen, I have another Trivia: Did you know that Brooklyn in New York City, USA was named by the early Dutch immigrants after this little pretty town called Breukelen in Utrecht? Brooklyn is the English translation of Breukelen. Incidentally, I will be in Brooklyn-NYC next week.

This enchanting university castle is built during the 12th century and is the most popular attraction of Breukelen. The castle is private so only faculty, students and official guests can get in. Luckily, there are no high fortresses surrounding the castle and any passersby from the road can freely enjoy the beautiful architecture of the castle. The Dutch brother-in-law by the way graduated here as well.

Oh, how apt. I just remembered reading an excerpt from a booklet in the Quote Magazine–‘How to become a Millionaire’. There was this Dutch millionaire narrating his humorous experience with the erudite. He is basically annoyed by people who harp too much their elite university backgrounds (and he even gave Nijenrode Business University as an example) carrying titles in their business cards supposedly intimidating others, i.e. Msc.M., M.B.A., Ph.D., whatever.

So this Dutch millionaire scoffed, “Heh, I also have a title, M.M.! Multi-Millionaire!”


Then we had tea and apple tart in this little quaint town called Abcoude, just by the northern border of Utrecht province and North Holland-Amsterdam. If you live or are visiting Amsterdam, do drop by in Abcoude. It is just a few minutes from Amsterdam by car, train and even by bike. From Bijlmer Amsterdam train station, the next stop (if you take the stop train to Utrecht) is Abcoude.

Here in Abcoude you can experience the charismatic Dutch modern life, set apart and preserved in a medieval old-world setting, in its compact little and charming Centrum. The village is a perfect hideaway from the modern and tall buildings of Amsterdam just 5 minutes away.

Next time when I visit these Dutch treasures, I promise to bring my camera.

Visit Period: January 2007
Destination: Breukelen (Stichtse Vecht - Utrecht), The Netherlands

Friday, January 19, 2007

After the Storm

What a 30-minute to an hour (during peak hours traffic) drive between Amsterdam and Utrecht, took me almost 4 hours yesterday!

The news headlines hugging local TV and the internet: The Dutch NS train went flat. Only short distances trains, trams and buses were functioning in many municipalities, and all intercity trains didn’t ride. Due to flying objects and trees that have fallen across the tracks, risking a train ride would be too dangerous. Thousands of stranded and harassed passengers all over the Netherlands were homeless for a night.

About 1500 stranded passengers in Utrecht Centraal alone were housed in Jaarbeurs exhibition center. Fortunately, their temporary home is just an easy walk right across the train station. Food was served and beds were provided by Utrecht municipality. The trains resumed service the next day early morning.

A new car in Zwolle, er --- it is not anymore new, foto by Martijn Kleingeerts. And a truck that lost its balance in Mijdrecht, foto by Edwin Glaser. Both pictures were posted at lezersfoto (readers foto).

The strong winds lashing at 130 kilometers per hour left almost 200 million euros in insurance damages and 7 casualties in the Netherlands - I think around 40 deaths all over Western Europe.

On other news, roads and highways were a huge mess. The infamous A2 highway, which is my usual and only route to and fro home and work, was shut down. News reports said that some of the aluminum noise barriers between Abcoude and Vinkeveen were seen flying across the highway, which is the reason why traffic officials closed the area. Considering that the A2 is the busiest highway in the Netherlands, you can just imagine the chaos this decision has brought upon between Amsterdam and Utrecht.

Example: I left work at 3:30PM and got home 7:20PM. (I could have arrived home later to midnight if I did not manage to arrange an impromptu detour!)

About two thirds of driving time lost was spent queuing up in the hopeless overflowing with cars A2 which was diverted to A9. So when I had the chance to exit A2 before my traffic chain sets foot in A9 with no choice but to follow a bumper-to-bumper ride, I did, and retraced my steps back to Amsterdam. My ultimate goal was to get out of the nightmarish A2 and gamble with another route. I know; the smarty pants me, lol.

Traffic officials have sent all A2 road users via the A9 to Amersfoort which is about 50 kilometers from Amsterdam to the east. From Amersfoort is another 30 kilometers to Utrecht. Looking at the traffic mayhem, it would be utterly crazy to follow the Amersfoort route to Utrecht. I am sure I would be home by 10PM, if not midnight. No freaking way.

The red strips are the main Dutch highways. The A2 highway is the red strip on the left side from Amsterdam on top down to Utrecht in the center --- this was closed yesterday as traffic was diverted through Amersfoort - towards the east. The black oblong drawing on the left side is my secret route last night. I drove between the little villages and fields.

This is by the way the provincial map of Utrecht. And this may be of interest to you, Utrecht (the city) is the capital of Utrecht (the province) - yes the city and province have the same name.

Thus when the open opportunity came, I exited near Ouderkerk a/d Amstel and followed the road towards the regional municipalities of De Ronde Venen and Woerden; from Mijdrecht to Waverween to Wilnis to Kamerik to Woerden to Harmelen and De Meern...

During the drive, the unforgiving wind almost lifted up the car from the ground. I know. Quite scary. If you saw the trucks that skirted off the road, you will understand why. I was thankful that not a single debris fell in front of me or on top of the windshield.

Nevertheless, trying my best to concentrate steadily on the dark narrow winding dike road before me (here is an example how narrow this road is: you have to pullover to the side when another car approaches from the other side of the road!), making sure my grip on the steering wheel is tight enough to fight the ferocious gusts of wind outside, and peeling my way through the slanting rain, realization dawned on me that being lost in strange unknown and somewhat deserted places during a storm with a mobile phone network out is not really fun at all. Plus, under the same circumstance, I was following an off-the-beaten-track road where there were no lights, very little reflectors on the road, and the recommended speed was 35 kilometers per hour.

Or perhaps I should rejoice? Just parallel away from the road I was driving on and across the water, is a long queue of red tail lights, village to village. I wondered - when will my lonely trail meet up with the busy traffic on the other side?

All in all, it was an interesting driving adventure. Not knowing where the dark and narrow road leads me to totally wrack my nerves. At the same time, it was very refreshing not to sit in the traffic jam with everyone, and realizing in the end that I actually took the right and fastest route! Damn, ha-ha - Woohoo! *pats my back*

Out of the almost 4 hours drive last night, it took me only an hour to muscle through and between the villages from Amsterdam to Utrecht. Many people I believe came home after a 6 to 8 hour ordeal with the traffic. Well, at least individuals with cars were able to get home --- unlike the train travelers, they were stuck. My only regret: The route I took would have been best during the day, where I could enjoy the beautiful scenery.

I was dead tired when I got home, but I need to cook and serve dinner – I never trust the Dutchman in the kitchen! After dinner, I dropped on the couch. ZZZ...

PS - During the storm, the Dutchman reported a horrific encounter with a door. A door flew over his head!!! *shock* Poor he is now nursing a blue pinkie. At least that was all of it that got derailed. Gek, he?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Appelbol: A typical lowland treat

The appelbol is a warm sweet pastry in the Netherlands and Belgium eaten as an afternoon leisure snack, and even for lunch during winter.

I don’t know why, I am not the sweet-tooth type but I have been hankering for this scrumptious pastry for weeks already. Sometimes my taste buds just go funky, berserk I say, during that certain time of the month. So without further delay, the understanding and obedient Dutchman treated me yesterday Sunday to an appelbol in Utrecht Centrum at Graaf Floris Cafe by the Vismarkt, where you can find the best (lekkerste!) appelbol in the Netherlands.

The cozy interior of Graaf Floris Cafe; it was timing I brought my camera with me, but I didn’t take this foto though, Dutchman did.

They also have a big table with magazines and newspapers but it’s nothing compared to what Café Le Journal can offer though, more selections and of course a much bigger table.

The Dutch parents themselves are loyal patrons of this charming with period style furnitures café. Their names would probably been engraved under the tables! Whenever they are in town, it is a tradition for them to visit Graaf Floris Cafe for coffee or tea and some warm appelbol. The chic Dutch mother once brought me here after we had an afternoon of shopping. Of course, we had appelbol too with our tea.

Appelbol (I could not get a nicer foto, my hands weren’t steady enough) and tea goes great together for an afternoon snack - something you should not miss when in the Netherlands during winter.

A simplified preparation and baking process summary:

The whole apple is peeled and holed in the middle where the sweet apple syrup (some have different variations of the syrup I believe) is locked in. The apple is then coated with a bread pastry and sprinkled with powder cinnamon and thick crystal sugar. Put in the oven for half an hour and the mouthwatering appelbol is ready!

My favorite part of the appelbol is the crispy pastry top - flaky melted sugar crystals flavored in cinnamon.

When in Utrecht, never miss an appelbol treat in Graaf Floris. I may be wrong, but I think the appelbol in Graaf Floris is available all throughout the year? They did not pay me to write this up though, I am just a happy and satisfied customer ;-)

Appelbol is “apple ball” in English.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A hot winter green Alps

It is just so unbelievably HOT for winter!? With my coat on inside the car, I don’t even dare turn on the heater?

Anyway, we are pressed. Pressed to make a decision to book our winter sport holiday, but with the Dutchman’s 7th sense tightly screwed in its rightful place we made the conscientious decision to wait, and wait, and further wait... Until we have come to realize that the temperatures are not really going down. They remain steady and high above 0 centigrade. Weather check in the European Alps averages around 2C in the evening and 6C by day. Instead of snow, there’s just rain – yes, even in the Alps. *miffed*

Pictures above shows snow-capped slopes and a village burried under the thick snow in Mayrhofen in the Tirolean Alps, Austria - taken by the Dutchman last year January 2006 during our ski holiday.

Foto on the left is Mayrhofen today, a stark difference from last year, it is bare and green - taken by Jeroen van Alfen, I believe a few days ago, posted in lezersfoto [reader’s photo] section. Green Alps during winter, eh?

The other week, Dutchman went to Germany with the Dutch family to enjoy a full day of skiing in the Alpin Center, the longest indoor ski runway in the world (?) - about a 640-meter jump and stretch of man-made snow. I didn’t go with them because I am saving up my vacation leaves for other days. When they arrived at the ski hall, they were received by a VERY LARGE crowd. So large they could not get in. And even if they could, just wonder what it is like skiing elbow to elbow?

Dutchman called me from work that day, “Hey baby, you didn’t miss a thing!” and told me how incredibly full and busy the Alpin Center was so they left and had coffee some place else before returning back to the Netherlands, not having skied, and in their bulky ski outfits, lol.

Maybe they should have just gone to Snow World in Zoetemeer here in Holland instead?

Back on to the Alps story...

There’s actually snow in the Alps, in the higher grounds, not lower than 1500 meters and near the glaciers, to get it and enjoy it – enjoy being the key word here. One just can’t ski everywhere like what we did last year. The snow is also not deep enough, and these high resorts will definitely be crowded, and of course quite pricey.

To begin with, for a ski beginner like me, I am a danger in crowded slopes. So that’s not even a proposal to go. Please. Just keep me off from busy slopes and everyone will be fine.

However, even with the bad snow conditions, many ski resorts, especially the lower resorts, can always fall back on to their trustful snow canons for artificial snow. The drawback to this is - after a few hours, with the brilliant sun glowing down, the snow becomes squishy, or they melt and turn hard like ice, or the slopes become a white blanket with funny weird blotches of stone, grass and earth peeking through, which damages skis and boards by the way and makes skiing very dangerous.

To top all that, snow forecast looks very poor; there is “snow crisis” in Europe. I think Sam I Am would love to add green Alps into his green eggs and ham!

As a result of this capricious weather setback, we are tempted, and are now toying at the idea of going somewhere else warm for the winter holiday instead.

I have a couple of exotic countries that come to mind. It’s not the Philippines though; we are going there this summer, just somewhere nearby the European continent, where it’s not too far away from home.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Dutch Reisgids

The whole Dutch family was today at our place. We celebrated the 40e birthday of the Dutchman (hey, life begins at 40 they say), and to my delight, Dutchman’s eldest sister brought something for me. She temporarily loaned me a book: Het toppunt van Nederland, which means something like --- the top point of the Netherlands.

“Het toppunt van Nederland”, a book by Aad Struijs, published in 2001, is a bestseller in the Netherlands. This book for sure can be found in any bookstore in the country.

The book is an extraordinary travel guide of the flatlands, highlighting the special and interesting sites of the country; some I believe are charismatic unheard of places. Places that your customary touristy travel books and bureaus will not acquaint you with and places that are YET to be truly, truly discovered by regular visitors, tourists, travelers, backpackers, and even the natives here!

There is also a little bit of historical summary for every featured travel discovery. The funny thing is, the travel tips somehow sounds like its Holland’s Guinness little travel sort of book. It shows you places and things with subject captions like - THE biggest, THE only, THE smallest, THE oldest, and all THE whatever you can think of.

Here are a few of the author’s tips:

First foto shows the biggest sailing wooden shoes which can only be found in Hattem; the largest castle in the Netherlands - Kasteel Huis Bergh in ‘s Heerenberg where Hollands’s only graphic coin master lives. In the second foto is “Het grootste middeleeuwse straatfestival in Nederland” (The biggest medieval street festival in the Netherlands) is in Deventer during Hemelvaartsdag [Ascension Day], every 25 May.

See, I didn’t even know about this biggest medieval street festival in the Netherlands? For sure I will be there this coming May!

Anyway, I’m flipping through the book and it’s giving me this sudden adrenalin rush of excitement. Blame my itching feet! I’ve been to many parts of the Netherlands already but just like anyone who’s caught with the travel bug, it’s never enough; there are still many, many pretty and fascinating spots in the country that I haven’t been to.

It seems that this book is indeed worthwhile; maybe I buy a copy for myself.

Dutch Reisgids means - Dutch travel guide.

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