Category Archives: The Netherlands

European Capital of Culture, 2002 – Bruges

“Everything about it is perfect – its cobbled streets, its placid bottle-green canals, its steep roofed medieval houses, its market square, its slumbering parks, everything.” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

We were driving to neighbouring Belgium today to visit the town of Bruges in the north of the country and by the time we had packed the car and set off there were big spots of rain falling on the windscreen.

This didn’t last long and it was one of those days when there were different weather conditions in all directions and it was a bit of a lottery about what we were likely to get.  It was about a hundred kilometres to drive and on the way we passed through a variety of different weather fronts so we were unsure of just what to expect when we arrived.

Northern France Wimereaux

We needn’t have worried because as we parked the car the sun came out and the skies turned a settled shade of blue and without a map we let instinct guide us down sun-dappled mazy cobbled streets towards the city centre.

I had visited Bruges before in 1981 so I thought I knew what I was looking for but over the years I must have got mixed up because the place looked nothing like I remembered it.  I knew that we were looking for a large square and I had in mind something classical like St Marks in Venice so I was surprised when we reached the famous market square to find nothing like that at all.

Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium.  In the middle ages, thanks to the wool trade, it was one of the most important cities in Europe and the historic city centre is an important  UNESCO World Heritage Site because most of its medieval architecture is intact. The Church of Our Lady has a hundred and twenty metre high spire making it one of the world’s highest brick towers.

I Love Bruges Postcard

The sculpture Madonna and Child, which can be seen in the transept, is believed to be Michelangelo’s only work to have left Italy within his lifetime, it isthe most famous landmark is its thirteenth century belfry and also a pivotal part of the George Clooney film “Monuments Men”.  The church is also home to a municipal carillon comprising forty-eight bells where the city still employs a full-time carillonneur, who gives free concerts on a regular basis.

The city is also famous for its picturesque waterways and along with other canal based northern cities, such as Amsterdam in the Netherlands it is sometimes referred to as “The Venice of the North”;  but this isn’t a title that it holds uniquely because it has also been applied to Saint Petersburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh amongst others.

bruges-crop-xlarge

Bruges is a fine place and we really needed more time to appreciate all of this but the price to be paid for convenient close to the centre parking was that we were restricted to just two hours.  Even though I didn’t remember it quite like this the city square was delightful, fully pedestrianised except for the odd horse and carriage and surrounded by bars and cafés all around the perimeter.  We liked the look of the Bruges Tavern which had tables surrounded by pretty flowers tumbling effervescently from boxes and containers and a vacant table with a good view of the square.

The official language in this part of Belgium is Flemish, which is similar to Dutch and the man who came to take our order identified immediately that we were English and spoke to us in that delightful lilting sing-song voice that Dutch and Belgian people have when they speak English.  He made us feel welcome and we enjoyed a glass of beer sitting in the sunshine.

The girls wanted to shop so whilst they went off in the direction of the main  street we finished our drinks and then took a leisurely walk around the square overlooked by brightly painted houses with Dutch style gables and facades and then disappeared down the warren of quiet side streets that had something interesting to stop for around every corner.

Making our way back to the car we stopped in another, more modern, large square for a second drink where the service was slow and there was an amusing exchange between a flustered waitress and an impatient diner. ‘Alright, alright, the food is coming’the waitress snapped in a reproachful way when she was asked for a third time when it would be served.

Our beer took a long time to come as well but we thought it best not to complain.

As we left Bruges to drive back towards Boulogne the sun disappeared underneath a blanket of cloud and we drove through intermittent showers along a road cluttered with heavy trucks all making their way to and from the Channel ports.  This was not an especially interesting journey through a flat featureless landscape and although we had taken our passports with us there wasn’t even any real indication that we had passed from Belgium back to France except for a small EU sign that could be easily missed.

Past Calais the weather improved and by the time we returned to the gîte the sun was out again but it was still quite windy.  Richard complained about this several times but it was really not so bad and it didn’t stop us sitting in the garden.

Interested in Belgium – take a look at this website – https://discoveringbelgium.com/

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European Capital of Culture 1987 – Amsterdam

Volendam postcard

Early next morning I was woken by the rumble of a passing freight train seven floors below which in my half sleep sounded like my next door neighbour putting the wheelie bin at the roadside and for a moment I was transported back home and had forgotten to put the refuse out and in an unnecessary panic this woke me completely.

I lay for a while reflecting on the first day in Amsterdam and planning the second and I began to regret that we hadn’t booked a second night in the city because we didn’t have enough time to do all of the things that we would have liked to.

Amsterdam by Delph

One of these might have been a trip out of the city to see the countryside and I recalled a previous visit to Amsterdam thirty years ago when I had done just that.  As on this occasion that trip was also by ferry crossing but out of Felixstowe rather than Hull and it was on an organised coach tour paid for by exchanging Persil washing powder vouchers and I can only imagine now that I must have done an awful lot of washing to get enough vouchers for two people to go to Amsterdam for a weekend.

We didn’t go very far into the countryside, just twenty-five kilometres or so to the attractive village of Volendam to the north of the city.  Volendam is a popular tourist attraction in the Netherlands, well-known for its fleet of old fishing boats, pretty gabled wooden houses and the traditional clothing still worn by some of the older residents.

The women’s costume of Volendam, with its high pointed bonnet, is one of the most recognizable of the Dutch traditional costumes, and is the one most often featured on tourist postcards and calendars.  As everywhere else as time passes however fewer and fewer young people continue the custom of wearing traditional clothes and I suspect that this is something that is going to be difficult to keep going for very much longer.

Amsterdam Near Miss

We certainly saw some people in traditional clothing on this visit because they were waiting for us as the coach pulled into the car park of a clog making factory for a demonstration of how they are made.

Wooden shoes have been popular in the Netherlands for about seven hundred years and along with windmills, Edam cheese and tulips provide the perfect tourist images of the country.  The Dutch have been wearing wooden clogs or ‘Klompen’ since medieval times.  Originally, they were made with a wooden sole of alder, willow and poplar and a leather top or strap tacked to the wood but eventually, the shoes began to be made entirely from wood to protect the whole foot.

Painting the shoes is an old custom and carved, painted clogs are traditionally given by grooms to their brides and that’s clever because that’s a lot cheaper than a diamond ring and a lot more practical as well.

I seem to remember now that clogs were quite fashionable for a short time in the 1970s (although many will dispute that there was any fashion in the 1970s) and I had a pair of black open back clogs which my boss told me I couldn’t wear to work and were terribly difficult to drive in so I wasn’t going to be tempted to buy another pair here.

Clogs Amsterdam the Netherlands

Close by to Volendam is the village of Edam, where the cheese comes from and there was an inevitable visit to a dairy to try again to see if we could be parted from some of our spending money.  Edam has never been a favourite of mine but I do remember that we left with a bag of cheesy comestibles with a variety of different additional ingredients including one with herbs and another with black pepper corns.

Twenty years later or so in 2004 I returned to Amsterdam with my son Jonathan on my very first Ryanair flight and on this occasion we visited some museums that we certainly wouldn’t be seeing today because we wouldn’t have time, the weather was too good to go inside and museums are not that popular with everyone in our group.

Henri Wellig Cheese Shop Delft the Netherlands

The first of these was the Scheepvaartmuseum or Maritime Museum which was a short walk from our hotel, the Amsterdam, on Damrak and told the story of the Dutch association with the sea through an interesting collection of maps, atlases, charts, paintings and scale models but best of all a full sized replica of the three masted ‘Amsterdam’, a ship of the Dutch East India Company, which in its maiden voyage sank in a storm in the English Channel in winter of 1749.

To sink on a maiden voyage always seems rather wasteful and sad to me, ships like Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, the German battleship Bismarck and most famous of all the passenger liner RMS Titanic; all that money, blood and sweat just for the ship to go to the bottom of the sea in a shorter space of time than it took to build it.

Steering the Titanic

Admission to the museum included entry to the ship and we wandered around the decks and cabins completely alone because this was an early morning in February and the temperature was some considerable way below zero.

In the old town we warmed up when we visited the Rembrandt house museum and visited the reconstructed rooms and historically correct restoration based on the artists own sketches and drawings.  In the afternoon we walked to the Van Gogh museum which is the most visited museum in the Netherlands and contains the largest collection of paintings by Vincent van Gogh in the World.

Together with those of Pablo Picasso, Van Gogh’s works are among the world’s most expensive paintings ever sold and some of the most valuable ever.  Actually, I found the museum rather disappointing because there were lots of gaps where paintings were on loan to other galleries around the World and some of his best known works that I would like to have seen are tucked away in private collections and vaults.

Sunflower Head

I like Van Gogh paintings and the museum shop was full of prints and reproductions but I am not an art critic and have to confess that alongside those I find brilliant I find some that quite frankly are not so good (shock, horror). The sort of things that my children used to bring home from school, I’d say well done and give them words of patronising encouragement and then after they had gone to bed I’d tape it up inside a kitchen cupboard!

While I reminisced about these previous visits the clock ticked on and soon it was time for an Ibis hotel buffet breakfast, which turned out to be very good, to set us up for a second day of sightseeing and walking the canals of Amsterdam.

The Amsterdam, Scheepvaartmuseum or Maritime Museum

Blue Doors of Europe and North Africa

Wooden Door of Catalonia Besalu

Catalonia, Spain

Door Detail Dinard Brittany France

Brittany, France

Dublin Doors 2

Dublin, Ireland

Milos Greece

Milos Island, Greece

Doors of Ronda 1

Ronda, Spain

Burgau Algarve Portugal

Algarve, Portugal

Essaouira Derelict Doors

Essaouira, Morocco

Amsterdam by Delph

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Black Forest, Germany

More Doors…

Doors and Windows of 2015

Sardinia – Doors and Windows

Brittany – Doors and Windows

Blue Doors of Essaouira

Doors of Catalonia 1

Doors of Catalonia 2

Doors of Catalonia 3

Doors of Catalonia 4

Doors of Dublin

Doors of Northern France

Doors of Portugal

Doors of Siguenza, Spain

Festival Days – National Potato Chip Day (USA)

Potato Chips (Crisps)

My thanks to Beth from ‘I didn’t have my glasses on’ to alerting me to the fact that in the USA 14th March is National Potato Chip Day.

Are they kidding!

Whilst I am prepared to concede that they know how to prepare French Fries in McDonalds and other similar places the bottom line is simply this – in North America they don’t even know what chips are, they think they come in a foil packet.   Americans and Canadians please take note – these are not potato chips they are potato crisps!

Walkers Potato Crisps

These are chips…

chips

I did some research on this recently…

Read the Full Story…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Time – Trouble With a Cuckoo Clock

Black Forest Cuckoo Clock

On a visit to the Black Forest in Germany we stayed at a nice hotel in the town of Offenberg.  One evening when going to the restaurant we were disturbed to find a bus tour from the Netherlands had pitched up and they were all in the dining room right now.

Because they were so busy the service was slow which meant that we drank more wine than is advisable and to pass the time I started to poke around the bric-a-brac and the ornaments and then foolishly started to fiddle with an impressive large cuckoo clock hanging on the wall behind the table.

Immediately I wished I hadn’t touched those cone things that drive the mechanism because it unexpectedly whirred into life and out popped the cuckoo, which had been dormant for a thousand years which unfortunately turned out to be a rather loud cuckoo.

And then as the chain headed non stop towards the floor it popped out several more times, each time announcing itself with its little song that just seemed to get louder and louder each time – the doors were banging, the chains were rattling, the bird was going berserk and I wondered if I might eventually have to throttle it to shut it up.

This impromptu and unscheduled entertainment seemed to amuse the people on the bus tour who were giggling and laughing and I just wanted the thing to get back in its box .  There was no such luck (some people thought it was a fire alarm and made for the exit) and the clock went through twenty-four movements in under two minutes and believe me that is an awful lot of cuckoos.

Then just as I was giving up all hope the thing  thankfully finally exhausted itself and it stopped and with me red faced with embarrassment we slipped out of the restaurant and went back to our room before I could get up to any more mischief.

 

An Alternative World Showcase at EPCOT

American Adventure

Some time ago I wrote a post about a visit to Florida and a day at Walt Disney Epcot and an hour or two in the World Showcase.  I called it Around the World in Eighty Minutes” and I took a look at the eleven countries represented there – USA, China, Japan, Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Norway, France and Morocco.

In the course of writing, dragging up memories and doing some research I started to think more deeply about World Showcase and became intrigued by the rationale behind the concept, design and construction and in particular the reasons why these eleven countries in particular were chosen for inclusion in the park.

epcot map 2

This is partly explained by the fact that at the time of construction the Walt Disney Corporation was at a watershed moment.  Walt Disney had recently died and with him passed the inspirational concept of the whole park.  The accountants had taken over and with mounting costs of construction and strapped for cash tried to find sponsors for the showcased countries and failed in all but one attempt – Morocco.

The bottom line is that selection and inclusion was based on simple economics.

This also explains why some of the Pavilions are so disappointing, the absence of rides and attractions and the over reliance on shops and restaurants all designed to get visitors to part with their money.

But the failure to attract government sponsorship or private sector investment still leaves us with almost a dozen countries and no explanation why these eleven so I have been giving the matter some thought and whilst at first the inclusion appears to be rather random I think there is a credible reason for almost all of them.

The United States is of course obvious and requires no explanation for its inclusion or for the fact that it occupies the prime position on the World Showcase Lagoon and is the biggest and the most lavish and expensive of all the Pavilions.

Canada EPCOT Postcard  044 Mexico EPCOT

Canada and Mexico are also easily explained.  It would be rude I suppose not to have your nearest neighbours ( it would be like EPCOT World Showcase in England without Wales and Scotland) but there are some important statistics that reveal that it is not just about being neighbourly.

In terms of tourism by international visitors these two countries make up over half of all travellers visiting the United States and according to official data in 2014* Canada with almost twenty-three million visitors provided 33% of all international visitors and Mexico with seventeen and a half million contributed 24%.  Way behind in third place was United Kingdom with 5%.

The inclusion of Mexico is even more easily explained by looking at population statistics that reveal that the second highest number of foreign born residents in the United States (by a very long way) is Mexican.

It is easy to see therefore that the inclusion of these two countries makes obvious commercial sense.  Strange however, and this is just a personal view, that the two Pavilions provide the contrast between the best (Mexico) and one of the worst (Canada).

EPCOT England   germany world showcase 1

And so we move on to Europe with five of the eleven Pavilions coming from the second smallest continent –  but why these five?  Why not Spain or Greece, Poland or Sweden and once again I am rather easily convinced that it is based on US ethnic heritage and visitor numbers.

In terms of ancestry the top ten European nationalities (in this order) are Germany, Ireland, England, Italy, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Scotland and Sweden.  Germany (at 17%) genuinely surprised me and explained immediately why it is at World Showcase but (at almost 11%) why no Ireland? Why Norway and not Sweden? I suppose Poland, at the time of construction, was part of the Warsaw Pact alliance and that might have ruled it out but why not Holland because surely all of those windmills and canals would have made a great attraction.

Visitor numbers also explain why these countries are here because four of the five (but not Norway) are in the top ten of international visitors to the United States.

ITALY EPCOT  Boulogne Street Entertainer

Japan and China must surely also be explained by visitor numbers.  After Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom Japan contributes the fourth most visitors to the United States and China is also firmly in the top ten. Conversely, in the top ten but not represented at EPCOT are Brazil, India and Australia.

Of all the countries at the EPCOT World Showcase I suppose the easiest to explain is Morocco and this is in part due to the fact that the Pavilion was the only one in which the country’s government aided in the construction and they did this so that they could retain some measure of Islamist control over the design of the mosaics and to ensure that everything was as authentic as possible in the representation of the Muslim faith.  So authentic in fact that there is a story that it was deliberately constructed with deliberate errors because Muslims believe that only God is perfect (might be true, might not).

Epcot World Showcase

So who is missing?  Well, there is nothing from South America but the United Kingdom itself provides more visitors to the USA than the whole of Latin America combined so perhaps there is a clue there?  Apart from state funded Morocco there is nothing from Africa which might be considered surprising when 13% of the US population are of African descent but (and here is the crucial commercial factor) visitor numbers from the African continent are the smallest of all at only three hundred and twenty-seven thousand in 2014.

There is a small African Trading Post and Disney excuses the omission by pointing out that there is an entire African themed park at the nearby Animal Kingdom.

Finally, I have been giving some consideration to an alternative World Showcase and here are my suggestions:

Moscow Metro Park Pobedy

Parthenon Acropolis Athens

First, Australia with an IMAX film narrated by Mel Gibson and Kylie Minogue and a ride based on the theme of the World’s deadliest snakes.

Then Russia  because now the Cold War is ended there must surely be space for Red Square and the Kremlin and a Moscow Metro ride.

Next, Brazil, with a ride based on the Rio Carnival and then Peru because Machu Picchu would be a good replacement for the Mexico Aztec pyramid.

After that, Egypt with a Nile Cruise ride;  India and a train journey ride to visit the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple of Amritsar and  perhaps Equatorial Africa, which was once suggested but abandoned.

And from Europe:  Greece with a visit to Mount Olympus to meet the mythical gods in an animatronic show, each one popping up in turn to introduce themselves; Spain and the legend of El Cid and the Conquistadors and the Netherlands with a cruise of the Amsterdam canals (leaving out the red light district as not being entirely appropriate for children).

And finally, wouldn’t it be fun to include the World’s smallest sovereign state – The Vatican where Disney cast members would be dressed as priests and nuns and with a roller coaster ride around St Peter’s Basilica!

Francesco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura Spain  Amsterdam by DelphSt Peter's Square, Rome  Ireland Cliffs of Moher

Whoops, Sorry, I nearly forgot Ireland, lets have twelve countries (it’s my list and my rules) and let’s  have a visit to the Cliffs of Moher and the Giant’s Causeway (sponsored by Guinness).

Please let me know your suggestions, I would be interested in your suggestions…

* US National Travel and Tourism Office.

Chips, Crisps or Fries – How Do You Eat Yours?

Boulogne-Sur Mer Moules et Frites

“Everything comes with chips, which are French fries. You put vinegar on them.  Cookies are biscuits and potato chips are crisps” – Scott Walters

Just a short time ago I wrote a post where I speculated on the origin of the humble dish of potato chips or, depending upon dining or geographical preference, French fries.  There were an unusually high number of comments  and responses (more than two) so blatantly exploiting unexpected success I thought I would follow it up and carry out some more research and punctuate the results with some personal reflections.

This time I am going to take a look at how people prefer to eat their chips and watch out because I am going to award points for style.

The post was my report on eating fried potatoes in a Friterie in Northern France so it is only really polite to start with our nearest continental neighbours.

Friteries are a feature of this part of northern Europe and are a simple place, usually outside on wooden benches, to buy and eat French fries accompanied by a selection of traditional sauces and accompaniments.  The thin strips of potato are fried twice, first to drive out the moisture and second to achieve the essential golden crispness of the French Fry.

You might expect the French, along with close neighbours the Belgians and the Dutch to know a thing or two about chips and they do make a good job of cooking them it has to be grudgingly said but as soon as they are served up they demonstrate a total lack of culinary style and taste.

French Fries with Mayonnaise

They immediately apply a dollop of horribly sloppy mayonnaise!

Now mayonnaise is fine on lettuce leaves or as an ingredient in a McDonalds burger, it gives them a bit of taste after all, but it really shouldn’t be smeared all over a helping of lovingly prepared  potato chips and I am reminded here about a scene from the film Pulp Fiction and a conversation between Jules and Vincent…

… “Do you know what they put on their French Fries in Holland instead of Ketchup?”  – “What? “ – “Mayonnaise” – “No Way.” – “Yes, I’ve seen them do it man they f*****g drown them in that s**t.”

In Holland they do unspeakable things to the chip – They serve patatje oorlog which translates as “war chips” and is a toxic combination of French fries, mayo, raw onions and Indonesian sate sauce! What?

Marks out of 10 for the French and the Belgians  – 6 and for the Dutch only 4.

However, if you think that is bad then let’s cross the River Rhine into Germany where they serve up a variation called pommes rot-weis (potatoes red and white) named rather unimaginatively it is said after the colour scheme on level-crossing barriers and this toxic combination is achieved by smothering the poor chips in not just the evil mayonnaise but a good slug of tomato ketchup for good measure which has the effect of turning the classic dish into a sort of Salvador Dali gastro-interpretation.  I don’t know about the colour of level crossing barriers more like the rags and blood of a barbers pole if you ask me.

Marks out of 10 for the Germans – 4.

pommesrotweissgal

As I mentioned in my previous post Spain makes a creditable claim to be origin of chips so let’s head south now across the Pyrenees into Iberia.

Spain has patatas aioli which is a mayonnaise with garlic and having already dismissed mayonnaise as inappropriate then the addition of the foul tasting noxious onion bulb is not going to improve it one taste bud notch in my opinion; and then there is patatas bravas with a spicy sauce whose ingredients vary from region to region. Generally I am a big fan of Spanish Tapas but my recommendation would have to be to avoid the patatas bravas at all costs.

patatas-bravas

I have two issues with them. First of all they don’t even look like chips and instead of being long and slender they are served in solid lumps of fried potato and secondly the bravas sauce is often so fierce that it completely spoils the dish all together and you can add to that the fact that it frequently (depending on region) includes a whole host of odd ingredients such as chorizo, baked chicken or fried fish, none of which in my opinion should be anywhere near a sauce for simple chips –  if you want to muck about with vegetables then stick to pumpkins.

Marks out of 10 for the Spanish – 3.

Nearby Italy shouldn’t really be featuring because they don’t really do chips or fries.  There is an awful lot of street food in Italy but this is mostly pizza and deep fried rice balls.  I did come across this food stall in Naples which sold all sorts of fried food served in a brown paper cone and one of the options was fried potatoes which looked more like English chips than French Fries.

Italy Chip Shop

I am not going to score the Italians because that wouldn’t really be very fair.

Hastily retreating to the United Kingdom I am first going to head north to Scotland despite the fact that Scots deep fry chocolate so cannot really be taken seriously in a cooking sense.  In Glasgow and Edinburgh they have a fondness for gravy with chips and I find that odd because in my culinary opinion gravy should only really be served up with the weekly Sunday roast.

smiffy-s

Having said that it is really rather tasty so marks out of 10 for the Scots – 7.

Which brings me back rather neatly to England and especially my home town, the fishing port of Grimsby.  They know a thing or two about chips in Grimsby let me tell you and there is a chip shop in every street – sometimes two and people there know best how to cook them and to eat them.

Grimsby Fish & Chips

Never mind the fancy restaurant trend for twice or even thrice fried potatoes they just cut them up and sling them in a vat of boiling fat or preferably beef dripping and then serve them piping hot and crispy on the outside with delicate fluffy middles with the only two accompaniments that chips really need – a generous sprinkle of salt and lashings of good vinegar.  No mayonnaise, no gravy, no tomato sauce and definitely no curry!

chips

Marks out of 10 for the English – 10 – of course.

So what about the USA and Canada you might ask.  Well to be honest I have dismissed the New World completely.  Is that fair?  Challenge me if you dare!

Whilst I am prepared to concede that they know how to prepare French Fries in McDonalds and other similar places the bottom line is simply this – they don’t even know what chips are, they think they come in a foil packet.   Americans and Canadians please take note – these are not potato chips they are potato crisps!

My research informs me that in Australia they cannot make their minds up whether they are potato crisps or potato chips.  Let me help my antipodean pals on this point – they are potato crisps!

Potato Chips (Crisps)

Anyway marks out of 10 for the North Americans – 0.

This might seem a little harsh but the rules are that you have got to compare apples with apples!

Anyway, enough of all this, let me tell you my favourite.  In this picture taken in France my mum has gone for the tomato ketchup option and is wagging her fry around to prove it.  Alan has kept things simple and luckily is not wagging his fry at anyone, my brother Richard, who has a bit of a reputation for wagging his fry, has gone for the classic salt and vinegar combo and although I am not in the picture (obviously I was taking it) you can clearly see my preferred accompaniment is a bottle of cold beer – just don’t mistake it for the vinegar and pour it over the chips!

So, over to you, How Do You Eat Yours, what is your favourite accompaniment?

Wissant Friterie France