Saturday, December 29, 2007

Marken and 52 Beautiful Villages in the Netherlands

After procrastinating for so long (aren’t we all guilty of this sometimes?), today I finally bought the book I have been eyeing on.

52 mooie dorpen – lunchen, wandelen, en winkelen. In English: 52 beautiful villages – luncheons, walks, and shopping.

The book offers a synopsis of each featured village, things to do and see, a suggested walking route with a map, and cafes and restaurants for lunch, afternoon tea or dinner.

Foto on the cover is Marken, a quaint and pretty fishing village situated in a small island that is part of the Waterland municipality in the North Holland province. Marken is characteristically famous for its charming green and black painted old wooden houses attracting lots of tourists each year. The village also has its own cheese and clog-making factories. The book is perfect for 1-day weekend trips and my feet are now itchy to discover new places in Holland again!

Note: Book can be bought at any ANWB shop/offices in the Netherlands or online.

This little island town facing the Markermeer is connected to mainland Holland by a dike that stretches to a good 2 kilometers. This dike also functions as a causeway.

Marken Island - I grabbed this aerial foto from Google Earth. You can see clearly the thin white line, the causeway that connects Marken to mainland Holland.

I can still vividly remember this long highway strip. It was during my first visit in the Netherlands in early 2001. Dutchman, being the hospitable host was touring me around the charming fishing villages of North Holland. When we crossed the threshold of the dike going towards Marken, I was caught by surprise and in awe of my surroundings. Wow, we are driving on a thin land bridge?! As far as my eyes can see on each side of the road, there is only water. Water, water, water everywhere! Just imagine a highway, like an airport landing strip, in the middle of the sea. That’s what the highway looked like.

Clearly enough, passing through the dike was a marvelous first time experience, and I have not even reached Marken yet, lol. This is the kind of vistas tourists encounter in the low and flatlands when they get out of Amsterdam. I have to say driving on the dike with the water around me gave this strong feeling of absolute freedom; perhaps because of the space, the water, and the endless horizon before us. It appears as if the world is so flat going to Marken.

I managed to dig out some old fotos of me in Marken, taken at the end of winter 2001. This one I think is by the haven near the Kerkbuurt Centrum.

My convincing romanticism of this experience brought me to ponder quietly today. Hmm, perhaps my impressions now will be different? Having been so used to the numerous and ubiquitous dikes, and the plenteous water in this country, my speculation would be that the charm and magic that once struck me must have faded away. I suppose I will only know once I go back.

Many tourists arrive in Marken by boat either coming from nearby Volendam or Amsterdam. However, if you are a first timer here or someone who has not seen a dike that functions as a causeway, I would strongly suggest going by car or bus to experience this.

Aside from the main attraction of being a traditionally preserved picturesque and charming village, the other major reason that draws many people to come here is the locals themselves. They are a mystery on their own, like they belong to an exclusive island club. Dutch people outside Marken and nearby fishing villages, even find them exotic. I’m thinking that exotic might not be the appropriate word, peculiar would be best to describe.

This is by the Wilhelminabrug (Wilhelmina Bridge - a manual draw bridge) near the Kerkbuurt Centrum too.

The people of Marken speak their own dialect called Markers. They are strict followers of the ascetic Dutch Reformed Protestant Church. It is no secret that the influence of religion in the Netherlands in the 21st century has lost its flavor - but, alas, in this little once fishing village, quite near to Amsterdam, religion is fervently practiced as a way of life.

Some of the women here can be found dressed in Dutch traditional costumes, while the rest wear long dresses in basic designs and glum colors, and accentuated with black stockings. These black stockings represent the somber outlook and Spartan way of life in the reformed church community. I was also told that the women here would never wear pants, and would never show a generous amount of skin.

In the early evenings, sometime after 6PM, locals stay inside their homes to observe the silence. We wandered quite a bit in the narrow streets and it was nothing surprising really as there was no one outside to be found, lol. I remember we heard sounds from a nearby café. It looked open, but when we peered through the door, it was empty. The place is dead in the evenings! Well, what can you expect in a highly religious tightly knit little island?

But, Marken by day is surely lovely. I should plan another trip there soon.

Travel Period: March 2001
Destination: Marken (Waterland), The Netherlands

Monday, December 24, 2007

A medieval Christmas market in Siegburg, Germany

During the cold wintry holiday season, there is one country in Europe tourists flock to: Germany.

This fairy tale land, home to the world renowned linguistic and story tellers, the Grimm brothers, the rowdy Oktoberfest, its giant-serving sausages, and the autobahns without speed limit, is known for its magical and traditional Christmas markets. They are everywhere in Deutschland. Nuremberg is the most popular of them all and is said to draw yearly more than 2 million eager tourists.

That said, it was very tempting to go to Cologne and Dusseldorf, the cities comparable to Nuremberg in size and revelry and nearer to Holland too but I wanted something smaller and less touristy... something different.
The enchanting medieval Christmas market in Siegburg is said to be the first, and the most authentic of all period markets in Germany.

Siegburg, a small cosy town between Cologne and Bonn (about 27 KM south of Cologne) was just the right choice.

Before the trip I read about Siegburg being the first and biggest medieval Christmas market in Germany, and probably is the most genuine among all remaining today. Now that made me curious, and enough to drive a few hundred kilometers for a day!

Siegburg’s Christmas market is truly a very unique market and an enchanting experience. A one of a kind; far away from the image of popular Christmas markets travel agencies advertise and tourists congregate. It is an old fashioned and historic market that relives the times of the dark medieval period.

Reviving antiquated craftsmanship with metal; a real blacksmith with his real ancient tools. Next foto is a baker selling freshly baked bread from their open-air stone oven.

I personally love the warm, historic, and extraordinary romantic setting. The whole place is torch-lit and bonfires are scattered in the market grounds. Pungent odors greeted my nose. Shop stands are made of primitive materials and sellers dress up in remarkable medieval garb selling 100% handmade wares. Entertainers prance around in public devouring fires and a group of minstrels stand on the wooden stage performing live music with their ancient instruments. Enthralling, it brought me back in time!

Sampling some of the food offered in the fair, I chose this tasty-looking grilled twisted meat on a stick while Dutchman settled for pita bread with some meaty stuff in it. The handmade Gluhwein was delightful. It just had the right aroma and taste into it. And with the temperatures dropping to 0C and lower, it was indeed a very comforting drink. The bonfire in front of us made the setting perfect too.

I quite like this blurry foto of the woman in the taverne. She sold me a glass of gluhwein. Next foto is a couple selling roasted chestnuts.

My favorite shop was the exotic tea shop. Next to it is a comfortable seating place that resembled like a knight’s hut. Inside are leather padded low stools grouped together and people can sit in there while they enjoy their warm cup of aromatic tea. It appears to be the coziest spot in the market.

My pictures can be found here: Siegburg Medievel Market

Siegburg tourism PDF in English: Siegburg Mittelaltermarkt

On the way back to the Netherlands, we got lost (again) and found ourselves driving into the Centrum of Cologne. The magnificent lighted Dom Cathedral rose before us, the Hohenzollern Bridge, the Great St. Martin Church and the rows of pretty pastel buildings in the fish market quarter of the Old Town - I totally forgot how breathtaking Cologne is in the evening! With the lights, the city is so beautiful from a distance, just like a postcard. Catching a glimpse of Cologne at night was definitely an extra souvenir for this Siegburg trip.

At any rate, in summary - though Siegburg was a bit far, and I have a grouchy Dutchman sitting beside me in the car who firmly swore never ever again to come with me to any (far-flung and overkill -- his words) Christmas market, the visit was still very much worth it ;-)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Austrian Alps Reminiscing: Dreaming of a white Dutch Christmas

I am not religious. I do not believe in religion or a god. But I like to go along with the flow and cheer with everyone the yuletide season. Largely for the real meaning behind the festivities before the spiritually and politically correct religious institutions took control and indoctrinated the once trusting society. Well anyway, let’s celebrate the end of the year!

I really miss snow now. The foto above was taken almost 2 years ago (January 2006 trip) during our winter sports vacation in the Austrian Alps.

We are going again to the Alps this winter 2008 to ski and snowboard, but firstly, I want some snow before the year ends. Like next week. Perhaps on Christmas - pick a day - 25 December, first day of Christmas or 26 December, second day of Christmas. Yeah, we have 2 Christmas days in this part of the globe. But I will not mind if it snows on the 27th really. Or even on the 28th.

Yesterday was a -1C when I went out for lunch. I was a thickly wrapped bundle and the cold wind slapping my face brought me to a halt - the wind sucked out my breath! Outside right now I think it's -5C. The wind makes it very, very chilly. In the mornings the grounds are covered with a flimsy sheath of white frost. I spend an extra 5 minutes now defrosting my car before going to work as the windshield and windows are

Up north in Friesland, some of the lakes were already frozen and announcements were made to hold an ice skating marathon, but helaas, no snow, just yet.

Please snow, come very soon. The holiday season is not perfect without you.

UPDATE: It snowed last Thursday the 20th and today as well the 21st!

Keep in touch and follow me on Facebook: Travel & Lifestyle Diaries by Dutched Pinay Travels
Happy Travels! Enjoy Life =)

All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

Monday, December 17, 2007

From Friesland with love: Berenburg

Recently, we were in Friesland for a housewarming party. Our dear friends up north bought a land, built a huge house on it with an attic and a cellar (for the wines!), and now the family of 5 has been living in there for about a week. We’ve seen the house before when it was still being constructed. What impressed me most was not just the space it boasts, but the huge glass windows in the living room facing the water. Gorgeous zeg.

Not just that - In the middle of the living room was this big black furnace that greets you when you enter, like a focal point, and it matched by the way the black floor tiles. It’s not just a fireplace, but an oven grill! Can you imagine a big barbecue grill installed in your living room? I had to laugh when I realized it was fixed. But the darn thing is so cool. It even has a twin reserved outside for the summer months. The family could grill to their heart’s content in the garden by the water when the weather allows them to. The final pitch for this oven is the massive cover that does not heat up. If you happen to accidentally lean on it, you won’t feel the heat or get scarred. Plus, the oven does not leave any lingering smell at all in the room. Sound just fantabulous right?

Anyway, so much for the house stuff. I went to the kitchen for my red wine refill and saw this beside the beer tap, a local Frisian drink: Sonnema Berenburg

The bottle shape, the bearded man print, just the whole bottle design, is simply boring, don’t you think?

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate the whole presentation 4. If Sonnema is not so emotionally attached to its brand image, they should seriously overhaul it. Pronto! Re-package Berenburg into something more inviting. Pick something appealing please? Pick something that persuades people to drink it. Pick something that makes people salivate in anticipation. Ah, that’s more like it.

Anyway, the alcoholic drink piqued my curiosity. Yep, I am up for a Berenburg tasting. Smelled it, savoured its intense aroma, and poured a little on a wine glass.

The 2 Dutch guys chatting at my back interrupted my Berenburg reverie, and told me to be very careful as it’s a very strong drink. I glanced back and saw what they were both drinking - oh dear me. I gave the 2 guys a wry look and was so tempted to say something about their girly drinks, but out of decency (cough) I held back. As you can see, I am a dark beauty type; I love dark lagers, strong beers, and wine. Heineken is water.

Lifting the glass slowly to my lips, I quickly guzzled Berenburg in a smooth go into my throat. Umm... it tasted like whiskey?

One of the 2 Dutch guys said I am better mixing it with coke. Now, that sounds familiar. “Oh, zoals rum cola bedoel je?” [Oh you mean just like rum cola?] I said.

“Yeah, zoiets.” [Yeah, something like that.] He replied nodding his head in agreement.

Hmm, Berenburg coke or coke Berenburg?

“Nee, ik drink liever puur!” [No, I prefer to drink pure]

My response left the 2 guys giggling and looking at each other. Have you ever seen middle aged Dutch men giggle? Well, I clearly have. It makes you feel like you are the man in the room. Seriously.

The 2 huge glass swinging white doors of the kitchen swung open and in walked the Dutchman announcing he is ready for another refill of Heineken, the water beer, er heck no, the girly drink, lol.

“Aha, je hebt iets ontdenkt!” [Aha, you have discovered something] Dutchman grinning from behind his empty beer glass.

“It tastes like whiskey, or rum, I think.”

“No, it’s Berenburg. It’s from Friesland, a spiced strong alcoholic drink.”

“I know, but what I meant was, it tasted like whiskey.”

“OK, but it’s not whiskey.” He argues.

“I know it’s not whiskey but it tastes like whiskey!”

“It’s Berenburg.”

SIGH –whatever, lol. Annoying dutchmen!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Place Massena and Nice at night

Place Massena is biggest square in Nice and a lot of people use this as a reference and meeting point, as well as for public events such as concerts, political gatherings and celebrations. The square is surrounded by mediterranean inspired terracotta coloured buildings.

There are 2 things I like about Place Massena:

1) The sitting figures on poles that changes in colour
2) The fountain with the horses

And just on the corner is the Zone Pietonne (pedestrian zone) where many shops, cafes and restaurants are located. It can get very busy here quickly.

From the square it’s just a 2 to 3 minute walk to the Vieille Ville (old town), just right across actually, and the Promenade des Anglais, the coast.

Here is Place Massena by day:

The tram line passes through the square.

And Place Massena by night:

Those sitting figures on poles are cool.

Moi here at the fountain, one of my very few souvenir pictures of Nice.

More night pictures of Nice:

This is at the Zone Pietonne (pedestrian zone) where many cafes and restaurants are located.

A main street in Nice.

I forgot the name of the street but this is where the signature shops are located.

Lighted palm trees at Promenade des Anglais.

Travel Period: November-December 2007

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Colourful Cours Saleya Market in Nice

What better way to spend the weekend by staying up late Friday night and waking up late in the morning, then going to the local market to sightsee and have a late breakfast of plain crepes with sugar and coffee on a market terrace.

This is a nicely presented spices vendor. I noticed that in this market merchandising matters.

The Cours Saleya market is a nice experience in Nice. It is situated parallel to the Quai des Etats-Unis. I love the traditional atmosphere in the market square. A very busy spot I cannot argue and one that visitors should not miss.

If compared to the markets in Spain and Italy, the Cours Saleya is smaller, less diverse and far from being chaotic. The market is located in the old town and is flanked on the side lines by numerous touristy cafes and restaurants that are mostly catering to seafood lovers like moi. Nicois cuisine is definitely a must try when in Nice.

Aside from flowers, fresh fruits, and vegetable produce being sold, they have a variety of gourmet goodies such as sun-dried tomatoes, olives, bottled artichokes and peppers, and quite a big selection of Provence herbs and spices.

Let me take you on a quick Cours Saleya market tour...

Fresh produce: fruits and vegetables.

A market is not complete without olives.

Herbs and spices of Provence.

Flowers of course!

Kitchen gadgets.

Handmade artisan soaps.

Regional gourmet products.

Selling art as well.

It was a very warm December, and just like everyone else, I was wearing my sunglasses and bathing my skin under the sun. The café terrace is full of clientele taking their morning break doing my favourite pastime, yep—people watching.

From where I was seated, I could see local shoppers and inquisitive tourists pouring over the products sold in the market stalls. Just the jive of the place is already a nice thing to start my day with. Lovely.

Anyway, just a side note. The waitress who served my order had been so clumsy, she broke a glass. Not a good start for her.

My view on the cafe terrace.

And with beautiful architecture around me... indeed a great start for my day.

Travel Period: November-December 2007

Riviera’s charming fishing village: Villefranche-sur-Mer

Now, my personal opinion of the French Riviera would be that the east side going to Italy offers the most scenic views in the region. Driving from Nice to Villefranche-sur-Mer is simply breathtaking! Definitely one of my unforgettable experiences there. The winding highway was something I had to get used to though, and I was so glad they offer parking spots along the cliffs for people to stop and admire the beautiful quayside views.

I have read before about Villefrance-sur-Mer as one of the few remaining traditional fishing villages in the French Riviera, and most importantly, as being a low-key quarter. The writer of the article was right. When I was there visiting I was one of the very few tourists exploring the meandering alleys.Villefranche-sur-Mer is for me a breath of fresh air; a pretty little town that is away from the ostentatious scene where the true character of a French fishing village is conserved. It is uniquely perched on a hill on a picturesque bay in the Riviera coastline between Nice and Monaco (precisely between Cap Nice and Cap St. Jean Ferrat).

The little town reminds me of Nice. Its charisma is, let me put it this way, overpowering. It is arguably one of the very attractive quayside towns in the Riviera and for such a small place, the hamlet stirs up so much charm to the visitor. I guess it works this way always. As they say, beautiful things come in small packages.

For 2 hours, I patiently made my way around the village, exploring the side streets, devouring the ambiance and allowing the stone winding alleys lead me to the next hallway. The alleyways from the main road slopes in tiers all the way down to the wharf. The descent is kind of dramatic though. As I walked down the cobbled steps, I can’t help but feel the excitement burgeoning inside me—What’s waiting down there for me? Well, I guess we all know what’s down there huh.

The harbour provides anchorage to all types of vessels, from fisherman’s boats to luxurious yachts and holiday cruise ships. However, the way the village is laid out calls to mind a different expectation. As what I have said earlier, it is dramatic, or perhaps it’s just my artistic imagination at play.

Going down and before reaching the waterfront, I came across this massive stone vaulted tunnel in a somewhat graceful decaying state. The excitement of reaching the bottom of the steps was replaced with curiosity of a new challenge. On the topmost of the archway, it says ‘RVE OBSCVRE CARRIERA’ SCVRA (Rue Obscure) and beside it is a small squared plaque saying Monument Historique. The place looked like remnants of a long gone Roman bastion, or perhaps a secret subterranean vault or passageway.

After returning home from the trip my inquisitiveness got into me. I researched Rue Obscure and found out that this is indeed a hidden road, and the oldest in fact in Villefrance-sur-Mer.

La Rue Obscure was primary built as a refuge for the townsfolk from attacks and raids. It is a hidden place where they can continue with life without being noticed by the outside world. Secondly, it serves as a depot. When ships dock for repair or to pass away a storm, here they can store their wares temporarily. It might also be interesting to note that this vaulted passageway was not built underground, although it looked like it is due to its cavernous setting. This was built from ground up in the 14th century and the long-standing houses were built on top of it making it imperceptible from the outer surface. All the buildings built around Rue Obscure have access to this tunnel which explains the minute passageways I discovered later.

Promenade des Marinieres where I exited offers a picturesque view of Villefranche-sur-Mer. It would have been perfect if I was in a boat arriving to dock where I could see this fishing village from a point of vantage. Due to the sloped topography, the town’s buildings stand in a theater-style slant, making it without difficulty to witness and appreciate its beauty from afar: the warm pastel colours of the old buildings reminiscent of Nice’s Vieille Ville, the open-air café terraces on the bayside esplanade, and the baroque St. Michael’s Church in white and yellow ochre colours, its tower looming above the village, all offers an expressive scenery.

I might have to mention that parking in this village is simply horrible. I had the feeling that during the weekends, many locals come here to spend their time. Or perhaps it was just untimely as there was a big group of lively locals gathered where the main shops are housed. I saw a cameraman roving around and could hear loud voices coming from a microphone. Without really understanding what was happening I squeezed myself into the mob to find out. I can only surmise it must have been politics as a few sharply dressed individuals standing in front of the camera were interviewed and a series of claps followed. The same scene continued, and if you are aware of the French media style, they can go on talking, like forever.

Villefranche-sur-Mer however has its own train station, so I would safely assume that it would rather be easy to travel to other parts of the Riviera from here with public transport.

After spending enough time in the promenade I went back to La Rue Obscure and headed for the small pockets of exits. The passageways were so minute that one person can only fit in while going in there. It reminds me of a scavenger hunt inside the caves. There were no lights and the small ray of light ahead was my guide and, I have to say this, my sanity, lol. I must say though that this hidden vaulted hallway is surely the coolest thing in Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The surrounding hills are also known to be homes to a number of nobility, stinky rich people, and famous celebrity and public figures. However, unlike Cannes and Monaco, this little village doesn’t have the feel, lifestyle, and the brazen jet set moniker for a place. The seaside town has managed to preserve the personality, charisma, and image of a little fishing village that suggests a low key yet very exclusive atmosphere. This for me is what makes Villefranche-sur-Mer so attractive.
Travel Period: December 2007
Destination: Villefrance-sur-Mer in Nice (Provence-Alpes Cote d'Azur), France

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