Margreet is the main driver when we go to mainland Europe. I am the map-reader.
So I had prepared for our voyage through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and France once more by buying the latest maps, deciding on our route, and compiling a list of reference numbers, dates, hotels and all the rest.
Then Margreet came home with a satellite navigation gadget.
We programmed it to take us to our first hotel in Belgium – magic.
With James May’s cat, Fusker, wanting to jump into our car unnoticed at crack of dawn (he loves cars like his master), we drove for a Dover – Dunquerque crossing of the Channel. Our satellite lady’s voice gave us initial directions, which we dutifully took, only to find that we use a better way out of London from our house.
But the gadget soon realised that we were not to be bullied and that we had our preferences when navigating through our own district.
So, with altered and now correct instructions we were dulled so deeply into believing her instructions that I abandoned my usual job of map-reading and left it to her to tell us what to do.
When approaching the Channel Tunnel she insisted that we go there. But we wanted Dover. Whereupon she became so confused that she started to direct us any-old-where, and even back to London.
Sat-Nav magic does not always work. Now we were to see where she would take us when reaching France.
On the boat she (“Olga”, because she is a spy in the sky and Olga Poloski was a beautiful spy) thought that we were still in England. But she soon got the hang of Europe and directed us beautifully to our hotel in the main street of Hoogstraten, in northern Belgium.
She bleeps when we are about to enter a speed camera zone, but does not know of long phantom traffic jams. And her accent with town names baffled even Margreet, who speaks all the lingoes thereabouts.
The town centre of Hoogstraten is dominated by an enormous, double onion-domed tower on a 1320s to 1330s church. This edifice is constructed of pink and white bricks – looking most impressive, if somewhat mottled.
It was our first day abroad, and it is not until arriving and having a drink at a roadside bar that one realises that one is in a foreign country with foreign customs and tastes.
In Hoogstraten we heard jackdaws (no longer in our part of London) above and watched cyclists riding like mad on cycle paths below them, knowing that bicycle-riding has priority and right of way over pedestrians and motorists. So we watched ambling pedestrians, wildly speeding cyclists, cars being parked with aplomb, busses, and a constant stream of tractors and industrial trucks, all beneath the chatter of those jackdaws on the streetside, in trees and on red-tiled roofs.
From afternoon until nine in the evening and probably beyond, we were astonished to see so much farm machinery and farm activity passing through the centre of a town. Huge tractors rushed from one side of town to the other with trailers of covered loads. Was it harvest urgency on the move for such a long period of the day? Sometimes we caught a glimpse of what appeared to be loads of finely-chopped, dried grass. Was this for some specialist cattle feed, or was it for silage?
We ate the kind of dinner I love – 3 courses (scallops, rare lamb chops and cheese) with copious quantities of Chilean and South African wine – none of which we chose – all included in the price of the meal. One eats well and over a long period of time when abroad. So we walked to our bath and bed in a slightly serpentine manner, being very careful indeed when climbing the high treads and steep stairs favoured in that part of the world.
23 September 2009
Except for the refrigerator in our bedroom that kept cutting in and off during the night, the Hostellerie de Tram, in Hoogstraten, turned out to have been an excellent choice for food, comfort and friendly (family) ambience.
When setting off for The Hague, Olga, our satellite guide, told us to turn left when, to retrace our steps to the motorway we would have turned right. We trusted Olga, and she was right, guiding us painlessly to our Mövenpick Hotel in Voorburg, once a Roman town but now part of The Hague.
It was during a morning beer that information reached us that an early painting of mine sold for a handsome sum at Christie’s. That called for another drink.
This new idea for restaurants of offering a number of courses and wine of their choice for a fixed sum, is a good one. It had worked beautifully for us in Hoogstraten. So now we were delighted to accept the same arrangement at Griff , in Voorburg. The food was good, if rather over the top with Nouvelle Cuisine, effusive waiters, and the wine from South Africa, the USA and Australia, all excellent. But in the small print on the menu the wines were charged for as extra. The bill, therefore, was exorbitant – especially as the wine was charged for at £6 a glass – a good idea for the restaurant perhaps, but not for us. So when perusing such a menu in Holland be careful.
24 September 2009
I have written on The Hague before – and about the food at the Fat Kee Chinese restaurant (at Gedempte Gracht 23, where, if you don’t mind chicken bones, order, phonetically, Kip Paiper and Sout). Then there is the wonderful late 19th century Panorama Mestag, the No.1 tram from Scheveningen on the sea through The Hague and on to Delft, and a sex shop where I hope my drawing in the dark will eventually pay for their modest entrance fee.
The Mövenpick Hotel, where we had chosen to stay, is an international (anywhere) hotel, splendidly appointed in its rooms and plumbing. The management had the stroke of genius and fun to supply the bathroom with a small, yellow, red-beaked, plastic duck – the kind that coated the sea somewhere by mistake and swam away the length and breadth of the oceans. It now brightens up our bathroom in England.
The Dutch, I have noticed, are inclined to mix up their food before eating it. This combining of ingredients on the plate seems to please them. But when Margreet and I stopped for an early morning coffee and roll in Voorburg (hardly a place for refreshment seems to open until late) it was, I suppose, no surprise to see on the snack menu the following ingredients as a filling for a roll, called, appropriately,”Breadroll Terrible”: Liver, ham, salted beef, meatsalad, egg, vegetable salad, picalilly (sic), mayonnaise, ketchup and onions. That should have set up a Dutchman for the day.
Do we, in England, Anglicise foreign dishes? We may do. I hope not. The Dutch certainly do. Take that far eastern delicacy satay – slivers of pork, threaded on to a stick, grilled over charcoal, served with a light peanut sauce, and bought by the number of sticks wanted. The Dutch turn it into lumps of meat on a stick, covered with glutinous gravy. Or take liver. The Italian fegato is cut very thinly and cooked in butter or oil for seconds, and flavoured with lemon juice and sage. The Dutch (even in an Italian restaurant) serve great lumps of overcooked, connective-tissued liver, covered with a thick, rich onion gravy.
Dutch appetites are enormous. They are a large people. So they are far too generous with their servings for the likes of us.
We enjoyed a pleasant aperitif of white wine in a bar that one would hardly choose from others. It was a bar of noise – or several noises. Beneath the railway main line, with the sound of trains above occasionally drowning out conversation, cars passing close by, Sinatra singing in the background and parakeets above, somehow combined to make it a very pleasant place for a drink.
Sound mixtures and levels may be quite pleasant or, like noise from running a tap in our bathroom, high pitched enough to make it quite intolerable for Margreet.
Whereas in England leaves on trees were still mainly green, in mainland Europe, especially in areas where it had been dry, autumn leaves were turning colour and falling in the path of our car.
In The Hague, from clumps of tall trees, the raucous chatter of parakeets was to be heard. So they are thriving in Holland as well as in England. And it was interesting to watch these birds from high up in our 6th floor hotel room, where I was able to see that they fly surprisingly quickly over a considerable distance, but quite often change their minds about direction as they go.
Being in a country of flowers, and especially tulips, market stalls were offering a myriad choice of bulbs and winter-hardy plants. The flower stalls were crammed with every kind of bloom – regardless of season or country of origin. These were being bought already made up as arrangements for a vase or, if chosen individually, expertly gathered together to make a display to take home. The Dutch certainly know about horticultural matters, this being very evident at a quite charming garden centre next to the Mövenpick Hotel in Voorburg. It could have been a discerning person’s private garden.
Margreet found that shopping for clothes in a Voorburg shop was quite satisfactory. In one, an assistant asked her if we were just married, so happy we were in each other’s company.
The Dutch kiss three times when greeting or parting. In a crowd, one sometimes is in contact with the moisture left on cheeks by predecessors. I have wondered how often diseases are passed on by these friendly gestures.
There is another national trait that I have noticed. The Dutch write the figure 8 in a different way from the English. Theirs starts going down left, crosses over above in the middle, and finishes by going down right – if that describes it.
We were in The Netherlands for Margreet to take a short course of brain training. My father (born in the late 19th century), who took my brother away from school because he was forced to do lessons when he should have been playing sport, believed in three important maxims in life. They were Observation, Recollection and Retention – maxims that apply today. From Margreet’s course it seems that nowadays imagination and creativity are held to be of almost higher importance than academic prowess.
27 September 2009
And so to Bad Bentheim, a small town in Germany, noted for its spa waters and world-renowned stone (its formidable castle and the Statue of Liberty rest on it).
A short way out of town my Dutch in-laws have bought a house on a holiday-home housing estate as an investment. It is an extremely clever concept house, constructed quickly and made with the considerable use of man-made materials. It, like its neighbours, is set on a concrete platform in a constructed landscape, layered and hillocked from a plain slope. On this the houses are positioned at different levels within a system of cleverly constructed gullies to channel away storm water to keep the building platforms dry.
The houses themselves have much the same look to them, but differ in size and external decoration. And although situated very close to each other, give a certain feeling of privacy, even though there is very little when sitting outside to eat or drink on the extended concrete slab.
With a central command office, the owners must allow their houses to be rented out for part of the year for several years, rental being guaranteed by the management. So, because of this, the furnishings in each extremely well thought out configuration of rooms, must be of a straightforward, neutral and robust variety – chosen from what is on offer by the management.
They are very modern houses, incorporating the latest technology in installed equipment. Quick to construct (I hear that the roof of quarry tiles was lifted, whole, into position), is this the way houses will be constructed in future?
The large project was designed by a Dutchman and, being near to the border with Holland, has attracted many Dutch participants.
28 September 2009
And so, in a slight fog, we helped to tidy the house for the next renters and made our way south through Germany.
Olga was wonderful, as finding our hotel in Koblenz would have been mightily difficult without her.
Our hotel, Diehls, bordered the Rhine, and our room overlooked the water.
Unless one was devoted to the study of size and design of barges, sightseeing craft and river cruise ships, interesting shipping was non-existent.
We took an ancient cross-river ferry (we were the only passengers) to the main shopping centre of Koblenz, where we ate excellent schnitzel – there being, as far as we could see, no sausages on any menu – but pizzas galore.
Then an hour’s gentle pleasure-boat trip up the Rhine and just into the Mosel and back, aided the digestion.
We were surprised to see that waterborne traffic on the Rhine kept to the left-hand side of the river. And then they seemed to all be steering on the right hand side, then sometimes both - with no sound signals given. Just why there are not more accidents on the river is hard to understand.
Although the Rhine is supposed to be much polluted, I saw quite a lot of ducks and swans on it – and a cormorant.
There was another flow of clean water to hand. It had happened before, but in less salubrious circumstances, in France. The scenario is this: When glass screens are used instead of shower curtains, it is difficult to reach the water-control mechanism for running a bath.
Plumbing custom dictates that when the shower is turned off, the system reverts to water coming from the spout to fill the bath. So, if this mechanism fails, stretching in to turn on the bath water often results in a shower from above, soaking you and/or the bathroom – clothes and all.
So the only way to fill these baths when just the shower works, is to put the showerhead into the bath and turn on the water.
If the pressure is high, it is necessary to hold down the shower head and pointing way – or it will jump around like a frightened snake and shower you and/or the room once again (Deutchland, Deutchland wasser everywhere).
That is all I have to say on the matter – except that hair-dryers also make (as Margreet discovered) for my case, fairly good clothes dryers.
29 September 2009
This was to be our last full day in Germany and we had not yet enjoyed their much-renowned sausages.
The day before, a lady, who ran a kiosk by the Rhine, told us of a place to go – Altes Brauhaus, Braugasse – in the old part of Koblenz. Her advice was excellent. We ate their home-made sausages, sauerkraut and mashed potato, and drank the excellent local beer (Königsbacher Pilsner). The place, decorated in white and blue for the forthcoming Octoberfest, was also as it should be – the warm colours of aged wood, iron framed and scrubbed pale wood tables, hospitable, and with highly efficient waitresses and contented customers.
We bought further German fare of smoked pig and sausage to dine on in our room, as we had been disappointed with the aggressive service and far too expensive wines in our hotel.
30 September 2009
Having left our unjustifiably expensive hotel, the only redeeming feature of which was our room’s expansive view of the Rhine, we headed south to Strasbourg. With regular stretches of autobahn under repair, we passed the Maginot Line (of which nothing was visible), into France, and on to Strasbourg. There we had a most excellent lunch of Alsace choucroute (cooked until quite soft with sweetish wine and juniper berries) with red and white local wine in carafe (both wines cooled).
After Germanic weight, the professionalism, food, lightness of touch, and even friendliness of the French were in evidence. And for myself, with hardly a word of German at my command, I could just communicate, almost as if I knew the language.
Whereas it used to be that costs in mainland Europe were cheaper than in the UK, now it is the opposite. Food, clothes, shoes, meals, and even some hotels are dearer. Beer in Strasbourg was excellent, 33cl of it costing the same as a pint at home. An ordinary bottle of Alsace in a grocery store, however, was £11. One just had to accept the high prices and get on with it.
Strasbourg boasts that it is the only city in France to have an advanced cycle path network. It may be. But in the centre this meant that there were a few stencilled pavement signs depicting a cyclist and a splayed-out man. No-one seemed to know who had priority, and where. The result was that the pavements were shared by those on foot and those on cycles. Advanced chaos would have been a more apt description than advanced network.
Waterborne tours of any city with extensive canals are generally interesting. The Strasbourg tour included the use of two locks, one being in the heart of the Petite France district where millers and tanners lived and worked in the 16th to 17th centuries. Their half-timbered houses abound and water rushes through and beneath ancient mills and over sluices. The tour reaches the European Organisation buildings that display considerable areas of heartless glass sheet.
3 October 2009.
Strasbourg possesses a fine tram system, with vehicles that resemble Eurostar trains with large windows. Their tracks are separate from the road, and crossed by cars only at junctions.
Olga was woken early for our return drive across France and was probably as sleepy as we were, because we kept getting lost, with her telling us to U-turn several times, and even directing us on to areas reserved for trams.
And it was a little of the same confusion from her when we arrived at Dunquerque after a 6 ½ hour drive through France, Luxembourg, Belgium and France again. Here, the autumnal wind off the sea almost blew us off our feet as we searched for a nice place in which to eat.
It is my custom, sometimes to Margreet’s disapproval but often to her delight, to ask a local (be it waiter, pedestrian, shop assistant or whoever) where we should eat locally, reasonably, and well. This I did in Dunquerque, accosting a man about to enter a block of flats. He gave us two places from which to choose, one being near to our hotel on the port. So, at La Réserve, we drank carafe wine and ate as well and as imaginatively as at any place during our two weeks away. It was a delightful gastronomic conclusion to our continental voyaging.