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.
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.
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.
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.
The peaceful canal.
One of the many statues in Leiden.
Go on, take a picture. I took enough!
The mighty windmill.
Bikes everywhere (well, it is Holland after all).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Lest we forget.
An image taken locally of WWII tank traps.
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.
El Gaucho restaurant (image taken in daylight later).
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.
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.
Candlelit dinner for two, how lovely.
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.
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.
Now that is what I call a steak.
All you can eat? Three men couldn’t eat this! There were more if I wanted them.
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.
Both totally unnecessary but very tasty.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s the start line.
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.
Canal Scene, Leiden.
No, I didn’t go for a paddle.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Trapped in the indecision of another fine menu (Google that!).
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.
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”.
Excellent hot and sour soup.
Apologies for the lack of flash.
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.
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.
Hoek van Holland Ferryport.
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.
Cafe t’Centrum, Schiedam.
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.
Liduina Bisilika, Schiedam.
Liduina Bisilika, Schiedam.
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.
Daily Specials board, looks good to me.
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.
The quirky interior.
You will be spoilt for choice.
I really recommend this place.
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!
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.