278. When Life Became “The Amazing Race”

The task was simple. Fly from Amsterdam to London, pick up campervan, drive through Euro-tunnel to France, begin awesome camping adventure around Europe.

Well, that turned out to be the biggest false assumption of summer. Within about 5 minutes of setting off on this adventure, it had began to be a very difficult mission, and began to resemble an episode of “The Amazing Race.”

The first hurdle was getting to the airport at 5am. As we left with all our packs, waddling down to the tram stop, we waited a wee while for the tram that was supposed to come by to take us to an airport train, but anxiety levels were on the increase. With no trams in sight, it was time for a quick check of travel times, in which we decided our plans were probably far too ambitious and we weren’t likely to make it to the airport. Time for a Detour, or maybe a fast forward, depending on how you look at it! We opted to grab a taxi, though the next hurdle was finding one at 5am on a weekday in the suburbs! We spotted a hotel down the road and asked the concierge to call us one. I don’t think he saw us walking in the door so probably assumed we were staying there, which proved handy, as he started carrying our bags around! When the taxi driver arrived, he was definitely on the conservative side with his estimate of the distance to the airport, which made for an anxious ride, but in the end we made it just in time, and the price was less than that of a new flight.

Once at the airport, a bit of a “road block” as he dropped us in completely the wrong place! A bit of sprinting around like headless chickens later we managed to get to our check-in desk in the nick of time.

Once arriving in London (with a major grilling at customs, despite heading back out of the country less than 24 hours later!), the next task was navigating through the underground system and finding the rental company. The underground was a total mess, as they completed the last of the pre-olympics works. The timetables were pretty much no help at all, and we took forever, getting beached at a few stations to finally get where we wanted to go. Once we eventually got to the right station, we were really in the middle of nowhere. Once again waddling around with all our bags,  trying to find a street sign so we could correctly orientate our terrible map!

Finally, around midday, we found the tiny, barely marked office of ‘Spaceships UK’ and went through a very long process of paperwork, and probably really annoyed the poor man as we asked a million questions and got them to show us everything from how to set up all the awnings etc to how to check the oil. Better safe than sorry! To be fair, they also left as waiting as they were trying to add a whole bunch of stickers with their logo etc to the van and slogans like “traveller’s adventures.” We had a bit of a debate with them over that, saying “Don’t you think that kind of screams out ‘rob me I’m a tourist’?” As they assured us it would be fine, we eventually got them to cut back on some of the tacky branding. We later learned we probably should have been a bit more adamant on that front…

Next stop, driving. As I pulled out of the carpark and set off, it was incredibly stressful – who would have thought that only 6 months of driving on the right side of the road would cause me to have to think twice about everything when driving on the left! So we switched drivers – Claire would drive on the left, and I’d take over when we were on the right in France!

What should have been a simple drive down to Dover also turned out to be quite complex! When I’d looked up prices to get over to France, the Eurotunnel and ferry were about the same, so we opted for the tunnel as it was faster. After plugging it into the GPS, we then discovered she was pretty free and easy with her direction giving, often telling us to turn left after we’d gone past etc. We got there in the end, only to find out that even though it is a tunnel, you actually have to book in a time to drive across and purchase tickets in advance, or they go up in price. Who would have thought? Though of course it took a long time to work this out, as we pulled up to a whole bunch of unmanned gates that did everything electronically. After literally driving around in circles we managed to find one where we could press a button and ask for help, and a woman appeared from God knows where. After informing us of the rules, she then told us it would cost almost £250 to drive through the tunnel and the next opening wasn’t for another few hours! Ummm no thanks.

So we opted to take the detour down to the ferry, and hope we could get on one that night. As we neared the town of Dover and the harbour, there were actual roadblock and detour signs everywhere, and the odd one that simply said “Event !” We had no idea what was going on, but we couldn’t get to the ferry. We decided to head toward the town, find a petrol station and ask what was going on. As we got closer there was a lot more sign-age and advertising and we realised that the olympic torch was arriving off the ferry, touching down in the UK for the first time. Well we could hardly be annoyed at being held up if it meant we had the opportunity to see the Olympic torch! So we parked up and headed in to town to join the crowds and check it out. It was about 6pm by this stage.

Once all the crowds dispersed, we head to the harbour and tried to investigate the ferry. We definitely had some deja vu as we drove around a massive complex, following arrows and lanes and signs, having to go through what I like to call “car customs” where they looked around with torches to make sure we weren’t smuggling drugs or illegal immigrants, walked through a huge empty office complex and finally found a little wee building before we could even enquire about tickets, let alone get on a ferry. Luckily the different companies had desks in the same building, and we managed to get a ticket to the 9pm ferry. The whole day had been cold, miserable and rainy, we’d been up since 5am, and finally at 11pm we touched down on French soil!

The next problem, which we’d been a bit preoccupied to work out, was where to park up and sleep. We decided to head into the town centre of Calais, and we found a big, well lit car-park  Problem was there were some bars around, and we didn’t fancy the safety factor of trying to sleep where there were drunks about! There was some sign-age to a campsite/campervan park so we headed there and at last we could relax. Definitely made us think a bit of advanced planning of where to actually sleep each night was a very good idea!

All in all a marathon of a day, including 3 countries, 4 cities, a taxi ride, a flight, 5 trains, and a ferry ride. I just wish there was a prize! Getting a photo with the Olympic torch was a good bonus though I suppose…

276. Amsterdam

A photo collection from Amsterdam. I found the whole place excessively charming, so there’s a lot of photos…

275. Doors and Windows of Amsterdam

Before I left New Zealand, a family friend of mine showed me a book she had made of photos she had collected of “Doors and Windows of Europe.” I guess it must have made quite the impact as it really made me notice and appreciate the charm and individuality found in shuttered windows with peeling paint, or elaborately decorated medieval doors, as spotted all over the continent.

I think there’s a few reasons I find them so charming. First, I find the old buildings that characterise each location beautiful, and a real novelty when you come from a very young country. Second, every window or doorway offers a hint of who might be behind it – from pot plants on a balcony to clothes lines between buildings – and each has its own individual character.

In Amsterdam, I really loved walking through the centre of town, along the canals and admiring all the buildings – especially as, unlike much of Europe, the adjoining buildings all had their own individual style as opposed to being one giant Coronation Street block. The same was true for the details of the buildings. So here’s a collection of photos of spots I found interesting, beautiful or unique, including Rembrandt’s house (below) and some really great, well designed shop fronts.

274. Vondelpark

In the middle of Amsterdam is a huge and absolutely magnificent park, also known as Vondelpark. With a huge road around it full of joggers and cyclists getting some inner city exercise, lakes, clearings, and amazing (probably ridiculously expensive) houses on the waters edge, it was a beautiful spot to walk around.

What I really loved about it though, were the adult-sized playgrounds scattered throughout with lots of things to climb on and through and forget your age!

271. The Amsterdam Zoo

It’s literally a pile of cute

We’d heard the Amsterdam zoo was good, but how many zoos do you have to see in your life? Especially when you have seen The Cove, or you think too hard about what the animals are missing out on by being in captivity… Nonetheless, we pushed our ethical concerns to the backs of our minds and went for a wander, and I must say, we most definitely were not let down!

The Amsterdam zoo was actually quite the elaborate masterpiece. Housing an aquarium, planetarium, a butterfly room and beautiful sculptures all throughout the area, it really was quite a great site.

I made great strides in confronting my irrational fear of things with wings – I didn’t go running out of the butterfly room after being dive bombed by an enormous moth, and I didn’t panic at all the random, abnormally fierce peacocks strutting around and just waiting to pick a fight with visitors.

The absolute highlight though, that really put it above any other zoo, was the whimsical, magical room overrun with all kinds of wild animals and plants, like a scene out of a movie. The room was like a part of an old train station or something – huge brick arches, but completely overgrown with plants. When you entered (it was a one way door), there were birds flying round, monkeys darting out and almost running over your feet, huge green lizards crawling up the walls, brilliantly colourful flowers of all varieties and bats. So many bats. It’s like the place was just made to show you your imagination wasn’t good enough, and needed to step it up! It definitely felt surreal, like I was in a movie as I walked through. It reminded me of scenes from an old Batman film with Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. I did get a bit stuck at one point, when an enormous bird decided to block the entrance, and I was too scared to get close to it…

All in all, an excellent excursion, and I’d be surprised if there was another zoo that could beat that one!

Oh and did I mention the casual Astronaut, just chillin’

270. Green Cheese

The Netherlands are famous for their delicious Gouda, and all through town there are marvelous cheese shops offering all kinds of special varieties. Most of them have samples too, which is handy because they seem to only sell wheels of cheese in large and extra large.

The most exotic version of Gouda I had tried before was with cumin seeds, so fairly standard. Much to my delight there were many more varieties on sale, especially a green one! The basil pesto Gouda was very delicious (not to mention novel, being green and all) and I most definitely would have bought some if a wheel of cheese wasn’t such an awkward thing to backpack around with.

269. Westerkerk – X-rated church?

It is pretty hard to miss the tower of Westerkerk in Amsterdam, and what better place to see some wonderful art, sculpture and my favourite bit – beautiful, ornate and unique organs, than in a church? A refreshing change comapared to packed museums with hefty entrance fees.

Whilst looking around the interior of Westerkerk, I noticed yet another example of the cities ‘XXX’ branding. Amsterdam is home to a number of world famous advertising and creative agencies, so I had assumed that the very well branded public services of the city were a by-product of that. The ‘XXX’ symbol is absolutely everywhere, and it looks like a relatively modern, simple yet effective logo. I had wondered a few times what it came from, the obvious initial link being to the red light district. When I spotted it built in to the chandeliers in this incredibly old church I thought there definitely HAD to be more to the story.

A little research revealed it is actually the Cross of St Andrew (as he was supposedly martyred on such a diagonal cross), and the Coat of Arms of Amsterdam contains three silver St Andrew’s crosses in the middle. In line with my original suspicions, however, the imagery now synonymous with three x’s does hail from Amsterdam – it used to be the only place you could legally buy pornography, which would arrive packaged with a ‘XXX’ to represent the city.