On my own again and off to Den Haag (or the Hague if you prefer).

The morning of the 7th April dawned and my friend was off ridiculously early to work and going straight from there to Schipol airport.  I was on my own and so what to do? She had asked me the previous night what my plans were and I replied in all honesty that I had no idea. I really didn’t.

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An empty hotel bar first thing in the morning.

Walking past the hotel bar which was empty at this hour and leaving my key with the receptionist who had now become accustomed to my slightly unkempt looks (see a previous entry for an explanation of this) and very cordially bade me a good journey, I was slightly sad to leave the Golden Tulip and Leiden.  The hotel is standard business accommodation but the town is wonderful and I had enjoyed such a wonderful time there.

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Help! Cafe Rembrandt is running out of beer!

 

I decided a second (local) opinion might be in order so that was a grand excuse to return to Cafe Rembrandt and speak to Tony the owner whom I had got friendly with. I asked him about the two options my friend had given me and he was emphatic that Haarlem was much better on the basis that it was a lovely old city but more specifically that Den Haag was “too full of immigrants” (his words, not mine). I went online to look for somewhere to stay but there was very little on offer in Haarlem and certainly nothing within my budget and so I decided on Den Haag. Again the options were limited although I tried several different sites, obviously none of them owned by the useless, totally discredited and utterly immoral TripAdvisor who are hell-bent on being the only travel related website available online. I do exhort you to boycott them.

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My favourite bar in Leiden.

I eventually managed to get a room in the Court Garden Hotel which appeared to be fairly central. It was on the limit of, or even slightly above, my budget but I was really left with little choice as I wanted to move and the place I was staying in Leiden was far more expensive if you were not on a corporate rate.

A last look at lovely Leiden.

There was time for one last look around the many delights of Leiden, which I had rather fallen in love with and I highly recommend, there is such a good vibe about the place.  Here are a few images.

 

Den Haag, here we come and it was certainly no problem to get there. A short walk to Leiden Centraal station, single ticket bought from the very pleasant lady in the ticket booth who (yet again) spoke faultless English and off I went. I must confess that I do like trains in “the Low Countries” and indeed most of Western Europe as they just put our appalling UK system to shame. Frankly, there are third world countries that put our disgusting network to shame.

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My (very modern) chariot awaits.

Having been removed from national control at huge cost to the taxpayer some years ago and sold off to (mostly foreign) companies who see them only as a cash cow with the guaranteed right to increase fares annually above the rate of inflation, railway travel is an obscenity in my home country. It was therefore a delight to jump on the NS “double-decker” train for the short trip to Den Haag. I know it is not physically possible in UK because of tunnels and low bridges etc. but I do rather like this two level rolling stock.

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Leiden Railway Station.

 

If the reader has perused earlier portions of this journal then they will know that I have something of a bad habit of falling asleep on trains and overshooting my destination but no such inconvenience here and I alighted at Den Haag in good order in the early evening. OK, I had got that far and was going well but it almost inevitably started to unravel then.

 

When I say that I am a complete technophobe I am not being falsely modest nor fishing for compliments, I genuinely am. It is about as much as I can do to answer an e-mail. I had memorised the map from the station to the hotel on my laptop in the morning or at least I thought I had. I strode off purposefully in what I believed to be the right direction only to find that none of the markers I had committed to memory were to be seen. Oops. In situations of emergency such as this there is only one viable solution – hit the bar, which is exactly what I did.

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A bad image of a random bar in Den Haag.

The next available bar was duly visited and I was told there that it was a fair old walk to where I wanted to be and so a couple of beers down the track the very helpful chap behind the jump called me a cab. It was obviously not a ploy for a kickback as it was indeed a fair old trek to where I needed to be but the driver did it on the meter and was obviously not ripping me off. He deposited me at the door of what looked to be a fairly modern building on Laan van Meerdervoort where I was checked in promptly and courteously by a charming young lady who had perfect English. I was directed to Room 106, which was on the first floor obviously and to the rear so road noise was never going to be a problem although, in truth, when I walked the road outside in the evening it did not seem that busy anyway.

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It does not take me long to trash a room.

The room was unremarkable and I may as well have been in New York or London but it was well-appointed with a large flat screen TV, complete with various satellite channels including quite a few in English (BBC News, NatGeo, Discovery etc.) and also a cooking channel I did not know called 24 Kitchen which became my default station as I could watch cooking programmes all day.

 

The en-suite bathroom was a walk in shower (piping hot water at a good pressure all day) but no bath, and the whole room was spotlessly cleaned and exactly what I would have expected from a premises in this price range. There is a wi-fi connection which is super fast and any amount of power sockets so you can charge up all your kit.

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Tidy bathroom with hot water aplenty.

A friend of mine is involved in marketing and she speaks (as obviously do others) of the “Unique Selling Point” (USP) of any given business or product. In the case of the Court Garden it is a “green” and eco-friendly approach to things and it would seem that this is not merely a gimmick as they use solar panels, they have recycle bins on every floor and so on. Had I not read this online beforehand I would never have known as it was just a typically business style hotel and I suppose there must be a moral in there somewhere. You don’t need to compromise comfort or facilities in order to do the right thing by the planet. I am as keen as the next man to do my bit for the rock we live on and the people thereon and whilst the “green” thing is a marketing ploy as well as a conscience choice for them, I did actually feel slightly good about having chosen it over a couple of other similarly priced and equipped other hotels. If ecological matters are of great concern to the reader then this is definitely first pick in town.

The “green” / eco ethos extends to the breakfast which I believe is the only meal offered as I certainly did not see a formal restaurant and the kitchen in the breakfast room (located in the basement) would not have been up to the task. It is the usual continental affair featuring bread, cheese, cold cuts, fruit, juice, tea and coffee etc.

Breakfast is a meal I rarely take but there were no tea / coffee-making facilities in the room and I do like a coffee in the morning so I just headed down for that as breakfast was included in my room price anyway (walk-up price is €12:50) but it looked so good that I took into it and very good it was too. I had a large bowl of very fresh fruit with yoghurt, coffee, fruit juice (plenty of variety including an interesting apple and ginger which I had never had before) and then a hot plate of scrambled eggs, Frankfurter sausages and a rather bizarre offering of chickpeas and sweetcorn. The veg. selection got even stranger the day I left and it all seems to change daily but I have never seen carrots and sweetcorn for breakfast before. The scrambled eggs seem to be constant but on the Monday the frankfurters had been replaced by what I know as spinakopitta from my time in Cyprus i.e. pastries filled with spinach and goat’s cheese. Very tasty they were too.

As I say, they really do take the eco gig very seriously here and all the food was organic or home-made and FairTrade featured heavily in the hot beverages. They aren’t messing about with this and I have to say it results in a very pleasant product. People that know me will find it literally incredible that I a) actually got up early enough for breakfast when I did not have to and b) took the meal twice in a row. I genuinely could not remember the last time it had happened. I really should get back into the habit.

If you do want to partake breakfast is available 0700 – 1000 Monday to Saturday and 0800 – 1100 Sunday.

I really enjoyed the Court Garden and would recommend it to you.

On that first night I headed straight for my room and bed as I was pretty tired by then from doing precisely nothing. I think lethargy must be a particular weakness when you get to my age.

I’ll take you for a walk round Den Haag in the next instalment so stay tuned and spread the word.

Another great day and another great meal in Leiden

So another wonderful day had been had on the 5th of the month and up early in the morn ready for more of the same. I was still feeling pretty down and my natural enthusiasm for travelling had not fully returned due to online issues as previously discussed although it was coming back slowly but surely. I was rather enjoying myself in a lovely place with very good company. My friend was working again so I had the whole day to myself and not much idea what to do with it. I determined on another quick wander round the centre and then the rest of the time attempting to get productive with my TravBuddy writing (as it was then) as I was already falling behind. It always seems to happen no matter how diligent I try to be.

I walked a different route to the centre but I was fairly well orientated by this stage and had a good idea of where to go. I got a closer look at the windmill I had seen from a distance the previous day and it really was impressive, it was absolutely huge. The canals looked splendid on a fine Spring day and I finally managed to get as far as the gate I mentioned previously which I had seen but never got as far as due to waylaying myself in the Rembrandt bar.

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The delightful Moorsport gate.

It is properly known as the Morspoort and is one of only two surviving gates in what was the old defensive system for the city of Leiden. The name originates from the Morsch which was an area of bogland just outside the city here and this was the Western entrance to the city. The name is also reflected in the name of the bridge you can see which is called Morspoortbrug which crosses the canal known as Morssingel. Not very imaginative I suppose but at least you know where you are!

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So you want to come in, do you?

The current building was built in 1669 to the design of a local architect called Willem van der Helm and it replaced an earlier wooden structure which had been built in the early part of the 17th century. I found it to be very aesthetically pleasing and did spend a bit of time just admiring it.

As it’s defensive function implies the Morspoort is associated with a military presence and was home to the Fourth Infantry Regiment up until the Nazi German occupation of the country in 1940. During that time it also served as the city prison. With the Germans defeated and removed the Morspoort continued it’s military association by becoming, of all things, the training establishment for the Catering Corps but this function was moved to Haarlem in 1981 thereby ending the long military association with the area.  There are still several reminders of the German occupation adjacent to the gate and here are a couple of images.

 

It really is an attractive building and is well worth a brief visit for a photo op.

Well, that was quite enough sightseeing for the one day and I retired to my “office” aka the Cafe Rembrandt where I was greeted warmly by the relief barman as Tony was on the evening shift that day and also by a couple of the locals who recognised me from my previous visit, I really did feel at home there. I did not have much conversation with the barman as he had limited English and my Dutch runs to about a dozen words including, bizarrely, the Dutch word for a milk churn! That little story will be for a later journal entry however.

Some people castigate me for days like this when I am travelling and perceive it as wasted time but I really do not subscribe to that view. Apart from the fact that I got productive in relation to my writing, I was doing what I like to do best i.e. just getting off the beaten path a bit, interacting with the locals and generally immersing myself in local life. I really cannot be bothered with charging round five museums in one day just because they are there. I have long maintained that there is no right or wrong way to travel just as there is no right or wrong way to write about it. It is very much a matter of taste and this is just the way I like to go.

I had been talking to my friend on the rather wonderful Whatsapp thingy which my friend Jo had very helpfully loaded on my ‘phone for me and shown me how to use. It really is rather nifty and it must be really simple if a card-carrying technophobe like me can use it. We were discussing where we might eat that evening and my friend told me she had booked us a table at the El Gaucho restaurant which was very handy as it was about three minutes walk from the bar and only a couple of doors down from the Asian Palace where we had dined the previous evening and I have reviewed elsewhere in this journal.

My friend turned up after work and was made to feel most welcome despite being the only woman in the place. It really is very much a “blokes bar” but she told me she felt totally comfortable in there. After a few drinks we made our way to the restaurant.

 

I have absolute faith in my friend’s knack of picking a good restaurant as she has demonstrated an unfailing ability to do so over the many years we have known each other. Added to that, she works regularly in Leiden with many Dutch colleagues and they had spoken of El Gaucho in glowing terms.  Having made the short trip to the premises we entered to be warmly greeted by a very pleasant young lady and seated in a window table. To be honest, we had plenty of choice as the place was completely empty. OK, it was a midweek night but my friend informed me that the Dutch like to take their evening meal pretty early and we had obviously missed whatever evening service rush there may have been. Still, there were enough staff on duty to have serviced a full restaurant and that ensured that service was very efficient and friendly but I have come to expect that in the Netherlands anyway.

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Here we go again.

There is an open kitchen which I love as a) I can watch pro chefs at work and I do love to cook myself. I would watch cooking programmes on TV all day, and often do. b) It shows that the kitchen has nothing to hide and this place was spotless and obviously well looked after.

El Gaucho is an Argentinian grill and it really is a place for carnivores. I fear that vegetarians will struggle here with vegans having no chance as this is a place for people that like to gorge on dead animals! We had been told that the portions here were generous and so we shared a starter of Chorizos @ € 7.50 which were billed as “Grilled Argentine sausages” (the menu is bilingual in Dutch and English). They were not chorizo as I understand them but they were very pleasant and the taste reminded me slightly of Cypriot pastourma although not quite the same.

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Chorizo, Jim, but not as we know it. Very tasty though.

For mains, my friend had chosen a steak which is obviously the house speciality but the merest glance at the menu was all I required. If there are ribs on a menu then it will take another exceptionally interesting dish to tempt me away from them and so I plumped for the linguistically odd “Costillas de cerdo all you can eat” @ € 23.00 and described as “Perfectly marinated spare ribs, all you can eat.” I am sure there must be a Dutch phrase for all you can eat but they chose to juxtapose the Spanish with English for some reason.

There is an option of a one-off serving @ €18 and honestly I suspect this would have been ample. All you can eat? The first serving would have been all three men could have eaten over two meals. As I say, I love ribs and have eaten them in different styles in many different countries but I have never before seen a serving that huge. As they say, the camera does not lie so judge for yourself. Again apologies for the quality of some of the images but even in an empty restaurant I just feel uncomfortable firing off flash.

 

The menu description is entirely accurate as they were indeed marinated to perfection although I could not put my finger on exactly what the marinade consisted of. They were cooked to a nicety and literally falling off the bone. Some of the best ribs I have eaten anywhere. The accompaniments of roasted onion and a whole roasted garlic bulb (which I love) were all that was required as further veggies would have been superfluous for me although my friend’s steak did come with some well-cooked carrots and green beans.

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Donde es Buenos Aries?

Needless to say, there was no way I could wade through that much food and so I had to send for reinforcements. Still, fair’s fair and I had had a couple of mouthfuls of my friend’s steak which was so tasty and very tender. I do not know if the meat is locally sourced or imported from Argentina but wherever it originates it is of absolutely top quality.

What I know about wine you could write on the back of a postage stamp and so I always leave it to my friend who is a bit of an expert and in collusion with the obviously knowledgeable server she chose a beauty (a Merlot possibly?) that complemented the meal perfectly. After having gorged myself so completely, the concept of a dessert was right out the window although I was tempted by the “Vanilla ice cream with fresh mango and tequila” which sounded like an interesting marriage of flavours.

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OK, I did try one night shot of the restaurant. Turned out not too bad.

Full to the neck, we took ourselves off into another pleasant Spring night to try to walk off at least some of the ludicrous amount of calories we had consumed. As always local knowledge had come up trumps and my friend’s Dutch colleagues had certainly not steered us wrong as el Gaucho, whilst certainly not a budget option, is an absolutely top-class place. The fact that it has been going for 25 years in what is a very competitive and uncertain market probably speaks for itself.

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What a way to walk off a damn fine meal.

Yet another fairly short walk home and on the way my friend asked me what I planned to do the next day and this was more than merely a casual enquiry. She was returning to UK the next day and I would have to vacate the hotel room so what next? Good question.

I had only bought a single ticket to get here with a vague notion I might spend a day or two on my own when my friend took off. I am a single retired man with no dependents and no commitments at home so I can pretty much please myself.  She literally laughed out loud and told me that I was crazy, which has more than a grain of truth about it.  I had asked her where might be a decent place to go and visit nearby and she had suggested either Haarlem or Den Haag both of which she liked. Alternatively, I could go and see my friends in Aachen in Germany or other friends who live in Tongeren in Belgium or yet more friends near Den Haag or………. well, I certainly had no shortage of options.

I thought I had better sleep on it so if you want to know where I did end up then stay tuned and spread the word.

Let’s look at Leiden.

The next day dawned and a quick look out the window of the hotel room onto the fairly uninspiring aspect of a carpark and some office blocks indicated that the day was bright, although I knew it was going to be chilly enough. The hotel certainly was not chosen for it’s amazing vistas!

A leisurely wash and brush up and it was time to go out and explore the delights of Leiden. I had the whole day to myself as my friend would not be back from work until about 1900 and I had absolutely no clue about what there might be to see or do in the city. Frankly that did not worry me as it is the way I love to travel. I derive great delight in just ambling about fairly aimlessly until I stumble upon something vaguely interesting and by doing so I have no doubt that I miss so many of the “sights” in any given place but by way of a trade-off I end up discovering some amazing places that regular travellers probably would never find. It is a compromise I am quite willing to make and it has served me well thus far.

Armed with no map, guidebook or technological back-up which I cannot use anyway I took off in the direction of what I thought might be the centre of town and I think I found it. It was so stereotypically Dutch as to be almost a caricature of itself with canals, an absolutely huge and still working windmill and the imminent possibility of being knocked into oblivion by a lunatic on a bicycle about every 10 paces. I found a very tidy little square with a charming water feature down by what seems to be the main canal, you can see it on one of the images here.

 

It was still pretty early and I had walked past a number of cafe / bars that were evidently not open yet, always a source of huge sadness to me but just off the main square I glanced down a side street and saw what looked like a fairly ancient old gate there which looked like it bore investigation.

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The lovely Morstraat leading to my “Leiden office”.

 

Walking down what I subsequently discovered to be Morstraat towards the gate I saw a little place called Cafe Rembrandt and thankfully it appeared to be open. The gate could wait!

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The very traditional face of Leiden.

Friends jokingly say to me that I can smell alcohol at 600 yards through concrete and I do not believe that for one minute but I will concede that I have an innate ability to sniff out a good bar or perhaps more correctly a bar that suits me. Generally, it tends to be the roughest place in town and my friends from VT will attest that this is what I do as I spoke of it there many times. I have had some wonderful experiences in places that people warned me not to even venture into and, touch wood, never come to grief yet. It must just be me.

I suspect that had all the other bars been open I would probably have walked past them anyway as they all looked a bit upmarket and as soon as I walked through the door of the Rembrandt I knew that this was “my” place and so it transpired over the next few days. I was greeted by the owner (actually the owner’s son but the de facto owner), a lovely guy called Tony, ordered a beer and sat down to watch the previous night’s German football on TV. Tony is a thoroughly nice man who speaks flawless English. I also used the in-house wifi to construct some pieces for TravBuddy, the website I was writing in at the time.

Rembrandt is by no means a “rough house” and after a scant couple of days there I was being greeted by the locals as a long-lost brother with handshakes or pats on the back as they entered and passed me. There was certainly no threat of violence or even unpleasantness and I do have a fairly well-defined sense of “situational awareness” as it was called in the Forces but means nothing more than keeping your eyes and ears open and knowing when to get out.

That kind of thing (handshakes etc.) pleases me immensely and is one of the major reasons I travel. Certainly, it is great to see wonderful, jaw-dropping sights / sites but I travel to meet people. I literally have friends all over the world through travelling and writing about it thereafter and that pleases me greatly. For a relatively uneducated man, I consider it to be a bit of an achievement.

The first thing I noticed was that it is still divided into a smoking room and a non-smoking room which is becoming such a rarity all over Europe by virtue of Federal States of E (aka EU) diktat as imported from the USA and as a smoker this was a great joy to me. I know smoking is a really stupid thing to do and I exhort anyone who may read this (especially younger people) who may be toying with the idea to forget it now. It is ruinous to your health not to mention your wallet and there is no merit in it whatsoever. I have been smoking for over 45 years now and will never quit, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks as they say.

There were large TV screens in both areas and I got the impression that Rembrandt was very much a “sports bar”. I subsequently found out that they field at least one darts team. It was pretty quiet just before lunch on a weekday in early April but there were one or two guys in there. In the several days I was there I only saw two women in the place and one of them was there meeting me! The other female I saw was there on the Friday afternoon when there is a card session going on which becomes raucous to say the least but never violent. My friend did not feel in the least threatened or intimidated so that is not a concern for the solo female traveller.

There is an excellent selection of bottled beers but I prefer draught and ordered a Heineken from the tap. I know that the Heineken brewery is literally a couple of miles up the road so I reckoned it should be in good order, and so it proved. I am generally not a fan of big international beer brands but it was the local brew so I reckoned I should.

I just felt instantly at home here and was engaged in conversation at various stages by different men who spoke English to varying degrees but even those with lesser facility in my mother tongue managed to have a reasonable interaction by dint of the international language of miming and six words which is something I have now got down to a bit of an artform.

Not that I ate there but Rembrandt offers a limited selection of bar snacks i.e. sandwiches, toasties and the like.

I was enquiring about the name as I had seen various references to Rembrandt on tourist information boards around the city and Tony informed me that the great painter, perhaps one of the most famous ever to have lived, had been born literally just round the corner on a street bordering the adjacent canal. As I say often and probably to the great annoyance of people who read my meagre offerings on travel related websites, “Every day is a schoolday” and I firmly believe that.

There is little more I can tell you about the Cafe Rembrandt. It is certainly not a tourist hangout, it is very much a locals pub frequented by working men in working clothes who are there to drink. It is friendly with well-kept beer and what else could you possibly want? It was just exactly my kind of place and I basically spent three days in there.

I was happy. I was back on the road, in my kind of bar and was literally finding it hard to keep a physical smile spreading across my face lest they think I was even madder than I actually am.

Cafe Rembrandt may certainly not be to everyone’s taste but if you like the same sort of places I do then it is well worth seeking out.

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One photo opportunity after another.

My friend had been in contact and I asked what she fancied eating that evening to which she replied that she would rather like a rijstaffel (literally rice table) which is an Indonesian concept of a big bowl of rice served with various small dishes and accompaniments. I do love them but they are generally not served for one person (I generally travel solo) so this was a great opportunity. There is a large Indonesian community in the Netherlands which harks back to the colonial days when it was the Dutch East Indies and very good authentic Indonesian food is available just about anywhere.

I asked Tony where the best place to go for rijstaffel was and he immediately recommended a place literally two minutes walk from the bar called the Asian Palace. It turned out to be an excellent recommendation as I knew it would be, being a great believer in the value of local knowledge. When my friend joined me and I told her I had sourced the best place around from a local she merely smiled and made some comment along the lines of, “I knew you would”. It’s what I do.

After a few beers it was time to eat so we made the short journey to the recommended location.

We arrived shortly after nine and the place was totally empty. My friend told me later that the Dutch seem to like to dine early in the evening unlike Mediterranean countries where nobody considers going to a restaurant before about 2200. We actually went in the side door in Morstraat to what appears to be a small dining room and where the staff were all sitting about and were greeted in a most friendly fashion and quickly walked through to the main dining room by the obviously Asian waitress in semi-traditional dress.

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Lovely place but where are the people?

Once seated and a bottle of wine ordered by my friend, who knows far more than me about it (frankly, there are amoeba on the floor of the Pacific Ocean who know more about wine than I do) we set about the fairly extensive menu.

 

Obviously, rijstaffel was what we were there for so that was called up and my friend decided on another main of crispy duck, which is a great favourite of mine as well. As for starters, we both opted for soup. I had the hot and sour and she had the chicken noodle, I believe it was called. I understand fully that hot and sour soup is very much a Chinese thing but the menu here offered dishes I would normally have associated with China, Indonesia and even Thailand and so hence the name ASIAN Palace, I suppose.

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All set and ready to rock ‘n’ roll.

My soup was excellent and a very good example of the style with the sourness just balancing the heat perfectly. Then it was time for the mains and the crispy duck was an utter delight, cooked to perfection. It was not served with the Chinese or even thinner Vietnamese pancakes I am used to at home but it was beautiful just eaten “as is”.

 

As for the rijstaffel, well I do not know where to begin. I apologise in advance for the poor quality of the images accompanying this review but I really do not like firing off flash on my camera, even in a totally quiet place (we were literally the only customers). Even had it been David Bailey photography on my part it would scarcely do justice to the quality of the food depicted. Every one of the dishes served on what I always think of as a “thali” tray from my time in India was superb and with nothing overly hot to offend the Western palate. I actually like screechingly hot although my friend is not so keen but the dishes were all brilliantly and subtly spiced rather than merely overloaded with chilli.

We were offered coffee and / or dessert and, whilst the selection looked very good, neither of us had room so we paid the bill before attempting to walk a few of the calories.

I cannot remember the exact prices of everything but I do remember that the rijstaffel for two was €31:50 and my friend remarked that the wine was not overly expensive. It was just a tremendous end to what had been a great day.

After our meal we wandered off back to the hotel on a chilly but dry and pleasant night and so ended another day of my trip.

We still have a long way to go so stay tuned and spread the word.