I was awoken in the morning by a Tannoy announcement piped into the cabin which informed me that we would be docking in Hoek van Holland in an hour and that breakfast was being served in the restaurant. Breakfast is a meal I rarely take so that was not a concern but the hour’s warning gave me ample time to have a lovely hot and leisurely shower, watch a bit of TV news and be ready to disembark at the gangway.
I had not bothered to check fully the onward travel arrangements other than to know that my ticket was valid for travel to any station in the Netherlands which does make it rather good value. Again it was my friend the good Mr. Gayton who had informed me of this as he had used the system to attend the Virtual Tourist Aachen Euromeet in 2015. He also tells me that you can make unlimited stops along your route as long as you do not “double back” i.e. keep going away from Hoek / Rotterdam which is exactly what he did stopping off for several beer stops on the way before alighting at Maastricht and paying for the short journey to Aachen. It is definitely an option worth looking at and I would think it would work equally well if travelling from UK to Denmark as you could travel (on the same day obviously) North to somewhere like Groningen and then get a ticket for the short trip onwards.
I suppose I was expecting Hoek van Holland to be like Harwich or indeed many other ferry ports I know in UK with a train station beside the port but this was not the case. Again this was no problem as my ticket covered me all the way to Leiden and so it was a bus that provided my next means of transportation.
What happened next was a little odd but I am well used to odd things happening to me on the road! I knew from the map that the nearest large centre near Hoek van Holland was Rotterdam so I guessed that was where the bus was going but no, wrong again Fergy. After about a 30 minute journey the bus deposited my fellow passengers and I in a place called Schiedam. I thought my geographical knowledge of the Netherlands was reasonable but I had never even heard of this place before. As always there was no stress as the driver announced in Dutch and English that we should go down a flight of steps to get to the train station for our onward journey. Great, I can handle that.
I know that many people find the physical act of travelling very stressful but I am the complete opposite. OK, I do not like long-haul flying purely because my large frame does not fit well into the class of seat that my budget allows and I have to go hours without a smoke but otherwise I find travelling completely relaxing and after my great night’s sleep on the ferry I was mentally so far laid back I was horizontal.
Here I was in a completely random Dutch town I had never heard of so what to do? Jump on the train immediately? I was not meeting my friend until 1830 that evening so I had plenty of time and me, being me, decided that a quick wander round and more specifically a glass of breakfast might be in order. Having found and noted the train station exactly where the driver had said it was I took off for a stroll round. I had rather stupidly omitted to get any € on the ferry and so I was entirely without a cent of the local currency. Not overly useful, but still no problem. I wandered into the local Spar supermarket just outside the station and asked the young man in there where the nearest ATM was. Like most Dutch people under the age of about 50 he spoke perfect English, which is a thing that still puts me to shame, and told me that it was in the station so I popped in there, got some “folding” and I was all set.
I mentioned a glass of breakfast and that is exactly what I needed at that point as they rather annoyingly do not open the bar on the ferry in the morning. Literally a few steps from the front of the station, I found what I was looking for in the form of the cafe – restaurant ‘t Centrum which even I could translate! I entered a completely empty bar and was greeted in English by the barman who spoke it perfectly. How did he know? Do I just look British? Probably so. There were two draught beers on offer, the fairly ubiquitous Jupiler and another that I had never had before so I opted for that instead and it was very good.
It was called Hertog Jan and I was informed it was actually Belgian although the website seems to suggest otherwise. Well, the Belgians do know how to brew as do the Dutch and it was a damn fine pint (or nearly a pint). One of my many odd travel habits is that I always take an image of the first drink I have when I land in any particular country. OK, it is strange but that is just me. The barman was old enough and certainly professional enough not to bat an eyelid even when I had explained my rather odd behaviour to him but I could almost see his thought processes going on. Having embarrassed myself thus it seems a shame to waste it so it is reproduced here.
At one point another chap came into the bar for a coffee and a read of his newspaper but otherwise I had the place to myself. Still, the barman was friendly and the beer well-kept so I took off on another of my pastimes which is trying to make sense of the local language by watching the TV news and trying to associate the subtitled text. I find it a relatively easy way to try to learn a few words of a foreign language.
One beer inevitably led to another and another and I probably had about six in there before deciding it was about time to move on. I was here, I had my onward ticket and I like to explore so why not? I thought a quick walk round the centre of town would do no harm as it was still not nearly time to meet my friend and I was travelling very light so luggage was not an issue.
I was wandering in my usual fairly aimless fashion and the first thing of interest I came upon was the Liduina Basilika which is the rather grand building you can see in the image. Regrettably, it was closed and so I had to content myself with a few external images. Subsequent research has availed me little (in English anyway) other than that the church was made a basilica (a venerable or “Royal” church) in 1990. I found it aesthetically pleasing and it is definitely worth a photo stop.
As if the basilika was not enough I could see the spire of another obviously very large church very close by and headed for that on the principle that I had nothing else to do. I noted with some regret that the numerous bars and cafes I passed were all closed although I suppose it was still fairly early in the day.
I found the church easily enough as you can hardly miss it, it is pretty massive. I was subsequently to discover that people just refer to it as “the big church” although I am sure it has a proper name. The side door was open so I thought I would have better luck than at the basilika but it was only open for some roadies loading out PA and lighting gear from a recent concert and I was told very politely that I could not enter. It was always my belief that churches were permanently open as places of sanctuary and rest etc. but it appears that this is no longer the case.
The blow of failing to gain admittance to not one but two impressive looking churches was somewhat softened by the sight of the Zaalig bar / restaurant which appeared to be very much open for business so that was my next stop obviously.
Zaalig enjoys a wonderful position on the corner of the Grote Markt (large market) which is effectively a very pleasant square and it also enjoys great views of the “big church” just across the road. On a fairly sunny Spring morning most customers opted to sit outside at the numerous tables set up in the Grote Markt (Large Market) and I had the bar all to myself. It was still a bit chilly for my aging bones but apparently the Dutch are a hardy people and don’t feel the cold!
The decor is eclectic to say the least and definitely suggests a “world” feel and the various light fittings in the roof are particularly worthy of mention. The entire premises is immaculately kept, including the “facilities” when I had occasion to use them.
I was greeted warmly by an extremely friendly young lady behind the bar who spoke flawless English as seems to be norm here and yet again I was put to shame by my lack of facility in languages. I ordered a beer from the extensive selection offered and sat at the bar to enjoy it whilst savouring a very pleasant conversation with the barmaid and then expanded to include the other young lady who started her shift a little later. She too spoke similarly perfect English although she spent most of her time running in and out filling orders with coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice seeming to be the beverages of choice. Honestly, in the relatively short time I was there the young lady must have squeezed about half an orchard’s worth of them!
Completing the triumvirate of charming staff was the absolute ace in the pack, the young lady chef. As it was still before lunch service when I arrived she was “prepping” away and I got to talking to her. It is almost superfluous to say that her English was perfect.
Just one of the many odd things about me is that whilst I have the appetite of a sparrow and eat virtually nothing, I love cooking and everything associated with it. I would happily watch cooking programmes all day on television and I will equally happily just sit and pore over recipes online for hours when I should really be doing something more productive and so it was a very content Fergy that was chatting away, beer in hand.
It turned into a fairly busy lunch service for a Tuesday and chef was on her own but even as she was very efficiently working her way through the tickets she seemed quite at ease chatting to me as she worked. I would have been pulling what is left of my hair out at that point. We yarned away about all things food related and she was even good enough to give me a steer on some traditional Dutch dishes which I determined to have to have a go at when I get home.
Although I did not eat there myself the food looked gorgeous, very well presented and quickly served. Zaalig also specialise in a “high tea” @ €21:50 p.p. and have regular special menus as well as daily specials.
I would have been more than content to sit there all afternoon but it really was time to be moving after four or five beers as I had to meet my friend and so I reluctantly called for the bill which was slightly more expensive than other places I drank in the region but not ridiculously so. Zaalig really is a “quality” place and I do hope to return there some day.
After perhaps a few too many beers I decided it was time to get back into travel mode and meandered my way back to the station where I got on the train to Leiden or at least that was the plan. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns has it, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley” which is nothing more than old Scottish dialect for an expression we had in the Forces which is “if something can go wrong, it will!”. Whether it was the beer or being tired from travelling (despite my excellent night’s sleep) I managed to fall asleep and only woke up at Soterdijk with is one stop short of Amsterdam Centraal and way, way beyond Leiden. Ho hum, this journey was really going from bad to worse to utterly ridiculous by this stage.
I got off the train, over the footbridge and fortunately did not have to wait long for a train back to Leiden which I had blissfully slept through on the way upline. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again and forced myself to stay awake until I finally managed to get where it had taken me such an unconscionable amount of time to get to. It was indeed a very relieved Fergy, not to mention a fairly exhausted one, that eventually alighted at Leiden Centraal station.
My friend had told me that the hotel was almost beside the station and so it proved. I asked the very helpful security guys in for directions which they supplied in perfect English and again I felt so inadequate with my lack of languages. I managed a weak “Dank u wel” (thank you) which forms about 50% of my Dutch vocabulary!
A five minute walk brought me to the Golden Tulip hotel.
I should explain that I do not look conventional for a 57-year-old man as some of you will know. I am 6’5″ with long grey hair, a totally unkempt beard, earring and I normally dress in a frayed denim jacket, T-shirt and “screaming skull” bandana. Not a normal client for a five-star business hotel, although it may be either three, four or five stars depending on which website you read.
I went to the desk and the young man asked me very politely if he could help me although he narrowly failed to remove the expression from his face that suggested he doubted it. I told him who I was there to meet and he said he would ‘phone her room. I told him it was pointless as I knew for a fact she was still at work but he insisted. On the one hand I was slightly annoyed but on the other I was quite pleased that he wasn’t just going to let any scruffy looking hoodlum (i.e. me) into the place. He again politely suggested I might care to wait in the adjacent foyer bar which was just like any other foyer bar in any other business hotel although it looked comfortable enough and that was invitation enough for me.
The young barman had obviously seen me “pass muster” with the reception guy and he was very friendly, served me a nice cold beer and I sat down to wait for my friend who arrived bang on cue. Launching herself at me to give me a massive hug in all her businesswoman finery and known there as she works for a very large local business and all on expense a/c’s etc., I could not resist a sideways glance at the receptionist whose visage was now hovering somewhere between quizzical and incredulous. It was a picture. Books? Covers?
The simple fact of the matter is that once through the door of the hotel, and certainly in your room where you cannot hear the accents, you could easily be in any similar establishment anywhere in the world. It is a very typical business hotel, perfectly comfortable but I always find them a bit sterile.
For a non driver like myself the location is excellent as it must have taken me all of three minutes to walk across the road from the train station. It is also only about a 15 minute walk into town. With a large road and a railway in such close proximity, “road” noise was potentially a problem as our room was to the front but the soundproofing was excellent and it was completely quiet.
A quick beer apiece and then straight upstairs to the room for a wash and brush up. I am not going to describe the facilities but merely report that there was everything you would expect in such an establishment and that it was spotless and well-presented. Personally, I really only have two requirements from a hotel room. Firstly I need a bed that is comfortable obviously but more importantly it needs to be long enough to accommodate my lengthy frame and it was perfect in both respects. Secondly, the shower should have a good water pressure and plenty of hot water and again it was spot on.
Suitably refreshed we went back down and past the receptionist again. Obviously, satisfied that all was right in his world he had returned to Defcon One and even managed a smile as he bade us have a good evening.
I had asked my friend what she fancied for dinner and quick as a flash she answered Oliver’s which she described as a beer bar and restaurant that she had been to with business colleagues before. To be an absolute pedant it is properly called Belgisch Biercafé Olivier but the cab driver had no problem finding it, he knew what we meant. I have absolute faith in my friend as she is a proper foodie and knows what she is on about. She is also fond of the odd beer herself!
I was rather looking forward to it and I was not to be disappointed. Despite the fact that it was midweek it was pretty crowded which is always a good sign in my book. The surroundings are absolutely gorgeous as they are what was the old St. Elisabeth hospital which has been very sensitively either restored or maintained. It really is a delightful setting to have a beer and whilst I had been promised the food was excellent, as it indeed proved to be, I was here for the beer, simple as that.
Olivier’s is located in what in the Hooigracht area which is just a little way from the centre. Leiden really isn’t that big a place so you can walk easily from just about anywhere along some beautiful canals and it is a delightful building which has been very sympathetically restored or preserved. It just oozes atmosphere.
We wandered in and readers of other pages in this journal will not be surprised to know that we were greeted in perfect English by a young man who turned out to be a great source of information as he was actually a qualified beer sommelier, despite his relatively tender years. I had no idea there even was such a thing.
To say that the beer list was extensive would be somewhat akin to saying that George Best (who incidentally lived as a child a few hundred yards from where I did in Belfast) could kick a football. It was huge, mostly Belgian as the name of the place would suggest but with a few Dutch offerings as well and I set about it with a will. Truth be told, I probably set about it with rather too much of a will but it was just so, so tempting. The young man had the full information on everything on the menu and I proceeded to wade my way through Dubbels, Trippels, Bocks, fruit beers (apparently only supposed to be drunk by women but I love them), Trappistes (made by Trappist monks) and Heaven knows what else. When my friend announced that they were closing the restaurant soon and she was hungry, I took the hint and we retired to the delightful back room for a meal.
Service was very prompt and with the usual perfect English spoken by all the young servers and we perused the menu which was not huge but looked very interesting. I plumped for the ham on the bone and my friend went for steak, which is her usual choice. I must admit that, whilst I like steak well enough, I think that dead pig is my favourite meat. I have to say that my ham was cooked to a nicety and my friend declared her steak equally good. I did have a mouthful of it and it was indeed falling apart it was so tender. The accompaniments complemented the meats brilliantly and I was glad to note that the vegetables were not boiled into submission as can so often be the case, they were beautifully prepared and just a little “al dente” as I like. The whole meal, service and ambience were top-notch. Apologies for the lack of images but I do not like using flash when people are eating.
Having been well satiated already we skipped dessert or coffee but I did decided that I was going to finish off with just one more beer and I picked an utter killer. I think it was this one that finally saw me off. I opted for the rather strangely named Trappistes Rochefort 10 which is another of the beers I mentioned that were made by Trappist monks. The reason I say it was oddly named was that it was called “10” but the label actually showed that it was 11% abv which is getting on for wine strength. Perhaps the extra 1% was a tithe to the Church!
People that know me, including many “refugees” from the Virtual Tourist website, will know that I have a fairly high tolerance to alcohol, presumably because I consume so much. I think, however, the Rochefort was the straw that bloke the camel’s back and it was a slightly unsteady but utterly contented Fergy that had to be gently steered in the direction of the hotel for a great night’s sleep.
There is plenty more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.