Thursday, April 30, 2009

Queen's Day

Today Laura and I ventured to Amsterdam for the yearly Queen's Day celebration, which honors the queen's birthday - just not that of the current one, Beatrix. Instead, they celebrate former Queen Juliana's birthday, mainly because it's more fun to get a day off of work in April than in January. Queen Beatrix still feels the love though, I'm sure.

I cannot even begin to express the enormity of Queen's Day in Amsterdam. It absolutely dwarfs any event I've seen before, including the more familiar St. Patrick's Day in Dublin. The city was completely packed with people from Amsterdam Centraal all the way to Museumplein, 3.5 km away - and probably much further than that. The massive crowds donned orange (the color of the Dutch Royal Family, The House of Orange) from head to toe, including orange suits, orange earrings, orange hats, etc. We were, at least for a moment, reminded of a game day in Gainesville*... but then we'd walk through a cloud of marijuana smoke and snap out of it.

Because Queen's Day is the only day of the year that people can sell stuff without a permit in The Netherlands, we passed street vendors (and regular people) selling everything imaginable. Scattered among the soft drink and beer vendors were people selling purses, stupid hats, bed sheets, orange face masks (for the swine flu, of course), cultural outfits, and bathroom time. Amsterdam residents charging € 1 for access to their bathrooms surely made tons of money from the ladies, who don't benefit whatsoever from Amsterdam's infamous street urinals.

Laura and I spent most of the day walking aimlessly around Amsterdam, like leaves drifting in an orange stream. Most of the excitement not related to buying street junk was centered around various musical acts throughout the city. The coolest place to be, though, was on a boat in the canals. Party barges regularly grabbed our attention, with their dancing passengers and booming music systems.

Figuring we had surely spent more than enough time in the enormous international crowd to ensure we'll be suffering from the swine flu next week (it's just the flu, people!), Laura and I headed back to Delft around dinnertime.

In fact, it wasn't until we got home that we discovered there had been a lunchtime attack on the royal family in Apeldoorn. During an event there, some lunatic crashed his car through a barricade - killing several people - en route to ram the royal family's bus. He ended up smashing into a monument instead. It's a terrible event to have happened on a day of celebration for the people of the Netherlands.

*Many of you might be wondering why I said Queen's Day reminded me of game day in Gainesville and not Clemson. The answer lies in the tackiness of the crowd - sorry, fellow Gator fans, but the blanket insult, "Gator fans wear jean shorts" didn't come out of nowhere.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Frisbee Outdoor Competition Day 2

On Sunday we trekked all the way to the University of Twente in Enschede - practically in Germany - for the second outdoor competition day in the Dutch Ultimate Frisbee League. Despite the long journey, we were fortunate to be far from the coast; weather in Enschede was beautiful and sunny with temperatures well above 70 °F. Meanwhile, the east of the country was easily 10-15 °F colder, overcast, and rainy.

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The University of Twente is basically in the middle of nowhere and hidden in thick tree cover. This makes the campus more picturesque than most Dutch universities. (TU Delft, for instance, looks vaguely like WW II just ended due to construction in the heart of campus, and TU Eindhoven has the distinct misfortune of being in Eindhoven.) On this day the most notable feature of the campus were the remnants of what must have been the biggest student party in the history of the universe - piles of beer bottles, people sleeping on the lawns, tents, half-dismantled stages, people walking with enormous backpacks, etc.

The event turned out to be an 18-hour overnight race from Nijmegen to Enschede, culminating in the massive campus party that we had just missed. We still had two frisbee games to brighten our day, though. We won our second game handily but lost our first to the other best team in our division. This ultimately kept us from advancing to a higher division next month. Even with the unfortunate loss, it's hard to complain about spending a nice day on soft grass in the sun.

More pictures on Flickr...

Noordwijk and the Bloemencorso

On Saturday the weather was very nice, so Laura and I ventured to Noordwijk, a beach town near Leiden. We noticed upon arriving at Leiden Centraal, where we intended to rent bikes for the short ride to Noordwijk, that there were an unusually large number of people around. When we walked outside, we saw obscenely long lines (I'd estimate 150 yards long) snaking around the front of the station; hordes of tourists were waiting to board the bus to Keukenhof (the Dutch flower "theme park"). It seems this weekend may have been the peak of the spring tourist season, probably because of the Bloemencorso (flower parade), which I'll get back to shortly. The massive crowds had already rented all the bikes, so it was the bus to Noordwijk for us.

The sun was shining at the beach, but the cold Noordzee (North Sea) wind was also blowing hard, so our time sprawled out on towels was short lived. But the wind couldn't also stop us from visiting a beachside cafe and playing a game of Gin Rummy.

After the beach, we joined other members of my research group at my boss's home to view the yearly Bloemencorso (flower parade), which is probably what drew the hordes of tourists to the NL on this particular weekend. The parade is an all-day spectactle that starts at Noordwijk and ends in Haarlem; we saw it near the end of its run in Heemstede at about 8pm. We found the flowered floats really fantastic, but the marchers seemed to have used up all of their energy at an earlier stage of the parade.

The theme of the parade was literary classics.

Here's Nijntje (aka Miffy), the Dutch star of over a 100 children's books (which are available in 40 different languages and have sold over 80 million copies worldwide).

We have officially deemed the worldwide US influence to be completely inescapable. In London, the entire New Year's parade was American high school bands. At Keukenhof, the theme this year is New York and there was even a flower-patterned Statue of Liberty. And of course, here at the Bloemencorso, a float featured Uncle Sam and our national anthem on repeat. (Now if only they liked us this much in the Middle East.)

The Bloemencorso - a short and sweet event if there ever was one - ended at right about dusk. We thoroughly enjoyed it and the invitation to watch it in Heemstede, where we were able to enjoy funny commentary from several co-workers who professed to have seen one too many flower parades. The count of flower parades for Laura and I, on the other hand: one. (Hopefully we'll make the Rose Bowl Parade our number two...)

More pictures from the day on Flickr...

Friday, April 24, 2009


Out of all the drinks we have had overseas, one drink jumps to the top of my favorites list every time. And mind you, we have tasted our share of the liquid offerings available over here. From ice cream shakes in London to stouts and ciders in Ireland to the beers of Belgium to the wines of France, Pomelo Fanta Zero is my favorite. I've had Fanta in the US and don't remember it being anything special. There must be something different about it here. If grapefruit Fanta ever makes its way to your grocery store aisles, snatch it up! You will be glad you did. It might be that thing we miss about Europe when we get back to the US (just like we miss Reese's over here).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Epic Journey

The next stop on the adventure was to take mom and Tony to the most magical place in Europe - Bruges (or Brugge). Matt and I fell in love with it instantaneously when we where there last fall and I was excited for them to see the fairytale land of canals, Gothic buildings, chocolate, beer, and fries. Hey, even the crappy movie In Bruges did not diminish the beauty and allure of the city.

Unfortunately, we were in Domburg - at the edge of the sea, on a long peninsula - and we needed to get to Bruges - just 50 km south as the crow flies but a 4 hour bus/train ride away. We decided to skip the trains and venture out using buses and ferries. Mind you, this is no easy task because the bus schedules at one stop are only good for that stop and are useless in determining a multi-step journey - not to mention this trip was going to take us across two countries, with two different bus systems. Have I mentioned I forgot my passport at home?

So here's the journey, in all its glory:
  1. Walk from Kasteel Westhoven to Domburg Windmill (2.5 km, 25 minutes)
  2. Bus from Domburg Windmill to Middelburg Train Station (20 minutes)
  3. Train from Middelburg to Vlissingen is running 30 minutes late - hop on a bus from Middlelburg to Vlissingen Center (20 minutes)
  4. Bus from Vlissingen Center to Fast Ferry (5 minutes)
  5. Ferry from Vlissingen to Breskens (15 minutes + loading and unloading)
  6. Bus from Breskens to Brugge (1 hour 20 minutes)
  7. Get off bus at first site of Brugge to avoid passing out, since it was at least 100 degrees on the bus (the heat was on and it was about 75 degrees outside)
  8. Walk to B&B (3 km, 30 minutes)

View Trip to Bruges in a larger map

But then we were there -Brugge! And she was just as magical as I remembered!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Domburg & the Beach

On Thursday morning, before embarking on an epic journey to Bruges, we headed out to the beach to walk along the ocean and pick up sea shells. The beaches in the Netherlands are beautiful - mostly due to the fact that they have not allowed building close to the water or on the dunes. Now if only the water wasn't 60 degrees in the summertime...

Goes to Domburg

Last Wednesday, Mom, Tony, and I met our old neighbor, Myriam, in Goes for lunch. We walked through the city and by the harbor to her house, where she treated us to a wonderful lunch of goat-cheese, honey, and roasted pine nut sandwiches. After lunch, she took us around the peninsula in her car, stopping at interesting sites along the way.

Our first stop was in Yerseke, where we got to see the oyster pits and fishing boats docked in the harbor.
Next we stopped in the picturesque village of Veere. We enjoyed an ice cream cone as we walked along the water and down the main street. Our tour ended in the seaside village of Domburg.
We dropped our bags off at the Kasteel Westhoven, where we would spend the night, and headed into the small village for a bite to eat. After dinner (and a rain storm), we walked back to the castle along the ocean and through the dunes, being very careful not to step on one of the frogs we passed along the way.

Jean Shorts + Tights + Heels = Bad Idea

I have to break from telling you about Mom's visit to share with you the worst fashion trend of this decade.

Caroline, Tara, and I first encountered this new trend in Edinburgh and hoped that, like wearing Halloween costumes to the bar, it was a trend contained in Scotland. Unfortunately, we were wrong...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Keukenhof Flower Garden

After visiting the flower auction, we headed to Keukenhof to visit the flower bulb garden. Mom, of course, was in heaven among all the flowers.

Here are my favorite photos from the day:

The rest of the pictures can be found here.

FloraHolland Flower Auction

Last Tuesday Mom, Tony, and I traveled to Aalsmeer to visit the largest flower auction in the world, at the largest commercial building in the world. We arrived just before 8am to a flurry of activity - over 125,000 transactions take place there every day.

We watched the Dutch auction on the big screen, as buyers with everything from notepads to multiple computers bid on the day's fresh cut flowers. The going price for a tulip was around €.04 a stem - that even makes my 50 stems for €5 at the market seem like a steep price!

Next we walked around the cat walk over the distribution floor and watched as flowers were moved around in a way that resembled a scene from Ants.

It is amazing that these flowers come from around the world every night, are auctioned off the next morning, and reach the shops in your town the next day!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Gouda and the Kinderdijk Ride

On Monday - the last day of a wonderful four day holiday weekend - our four travelers (Pam, Tony, Laura, and I) woke up bright and early to catch the train from Utrecht to Gouda. The bike rental shop in the Gouda train station served as our starting and ending location for a 62 km (38 mi), one day bike ride into the Dutch countryside and through the village of Kinderdijk. Pam and Tony, who had been training for this day, are seen below negotiating one of the many bridges on the ride.

As an aside, because I know you're wondering: yes, Gouda is indeed the home of the famous cheese. Just don't pronounce it Goo-da in front of a Dutch person or they will laugh at you - it's actually pronounced How-da.

The ride featured much of the usual Dutch scenery: long green grass as far as the eye can see, canals everywhere, islands of farmland filled with animals, and trees cut in bizarre ways. The lambs were a treat for Laura yet again, and we also saw many nesting coots and swans.

During our ride, we took two ferries across the Lek River, which were fun (and surprisingly efficient). Here I am with my bike on one of the ferry rides.

Throughout the ride we were treated to the sight of windmills - I believe more than 30 overall - but the main event was the 19 of them situated in a 2 km stretch near the Dutch village of Kinderdijk. This area contains more windmills than any other place in the world, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, and is absolutely magnificent. The windmills - or molen - are from the 18th century and were used for keeping water out of the polders until as recently as 1950. Although not in use today, they're well-maintained and can still be operated.

The end of our ride took us through another extended area of farm land, where we saw a farmer shearing an entire flock of sheep (and the resulting enormous pile of wool). Laura was particularly excited when we came upon a herd of Highland cows because she saw a lot of them last week in their home country of Scotland (Scotland stories coming next week). These are the only ones we have seen here in The Netherlands.

A bike ride in the Kinderdijk area is a must do activity in The Netherlands and we thoroughly enjoyed it. After riding 61 km, though, we were all beat, sore in the rear, and glad to trade our bikes for a train ride from Gouda back to Delft.

Posted by Matt