APRIL – No Fools Here….or Are There?

1st April — Starting the month with a Cunning Plan – Off cruising once more we left Amsterdam on 1st April with Dutch chums Niek & Petra on board as our first guests of the season, as luck would have it the cruise came to a halt about ten minutes and about 300 metres after we passed through the first lifting bridge to exit the Westerdok when the next lifting bridge wouldn’t lift. Two hours later we ‘re off and running again up the River Ij and through the main port of Amsterdam running the traffic gauntlet towards the first lock dodging numerous ferries, passenger boats, yachts and huge commercial tanker barges, one comes up fast astern and a radio call asks us to move over as he’s making a wide turn into the Amsterdam – Rijn Canal, I don’t need asking twice as the giant craft races by at twice our speed. Once clear of the main traffic it’s out and across the bottom of the Markermeer then into the Vecht River at Muiden cruising up to a wee place called Weesp (pronounced VAYSP) where we stop for the night.

The heating and hot water problem’s still not resolved so it’s time for a cunning plan. Having watched the service engineer a few days testing the boiler, he’d put as small amount of diesel into a container and then placed the fuel intake lines into it providing a source of fuel which worked perfectly. Plan B saw us wander over to the nearest garage a few hundred metres away to fill a 20 litre jerry can with fuel, then the boiler’s fuel lines into the jerry can and hey presto we’re back in business with hot showers all round, maybe not enough for the heating but sometimes you just take what you can get. Our trip to the garage lugging the 20kgs of diesel back is rewarded with a spectacular sunset, still in need of further rewards we head off to load up on the excellent pizza at ‘La Base’ along with an extensive Italian red wine tasting frenzy before flopping into bed.

Afternoon drinks in Weesp

Sunset in Weesp 1

Sunset in Weesp 2

DR & Evey – Pizza Base, Vecht

Petra & Niek – Pizza Base, Vecht

It’s still chilly in the mornings but we do get a glorious sunny day all the way to Breukelen, a small but very smart and wealthy town about 40 kms away from Amsterdam, New York’s Brooklyn bridge is named after the town. It’s a pretty cruise past lots of smart villages with expensive properties down to the river’s edge. Arriving in Breukelen the quayside’s empty so no problem shoe horning L’Escapade in, it’s still very early in the cruising season up here and too early it seems for the Havenmeester (Harbour master) to come out and collect the towns dues for our mooring so we get a free berth and free electric power for the best part of a week, while we wait for our tame engineer to come and diagnose our fuel tank problems. Sadly it’s here we say goodbye to Niek and Petra, who return to Amsterdam and a working week.

The Bruekelen Bridge, Vecht River

One of the upsides being in Breukelen is the really excellent and authentic Thai restaurant “Same Same” that’s a mere 50 metres from the mooring, needless to say we re-acquaint ourselves with the menu. After a few days we get a surprise visit from Aussie friends Geri & Peter Radzim, coming in from Germany en route back to Monaco staying overnight on board and ensuring we get another crack at the tasty Thai tucker across the road.

The trip planning spreadsheet – More calculations than a NASA space launch – This masterpiece is an all singing, all dancing snapshot of our trip plan and the motherlode of trip planning tools, so much for the oft claimed casual ‘no plan, plan’, my wife is the Excel spreadsheet queen who incorporates all manner of calculating formulae faster than a grooms undressing on his wedding night. It adds in locking times, journey times for canals and rivers with different assumed speeds, departure and arrival times, destinations and yes it is way over the top for this kind of cheese changing lifestyle but I hate to crush her creative spirit. Truth is it’s really only a fancy guide and we rarely stick to it as plans change day by day but we do get lots of visitors so the need to know where we might be and how long it will take to get there is kind of handy…..but I appreciate it does look rather scary and totally anal!

The Boiler Chronicles Sequel & Another Lesson Learned – I know readers with enquiring minds are just wetting themselves to learn how this saga ends. We’ve been without heating for eight days now and using a jerry can as a fuel tank for about five which is getting just a tad tedious not to mention slightly concerning at the prospect of what repairs might entail.

The appointed day arrives and so does Christian our super punctual engineer, so punctual in fact I’m still in PJs and dressing gown, but we get started anyway and it’s not long before all is revealed… Removing the inspection cover to the tank in the galley the first discovery is the fuel gauge all gummed up and stuck but the real surprise is the tank itself …….it was almost completely empty with barely 25 litres of fuel left from a 2,500 litre tank, and, being a long flattish tank meant the fuel lines weren’t getting any fuel. The gauge has always been very dodgy but we’ve never used that much fuel over a winter before and we were away for six weeks. It was suggested by a couple of people that maybe someone syphoned fuel out of our tanks while we were away but there was no evidence of this and it’s hard to imagine such a thing would have happened, I doubt it strongly. After emptying the remaining fuel and a bit of a tank clean we transferred some diesel from our engine fuel tank and the problem was fixed. A couple of days later we pulled into a bunker station and loaded up a thousand litres, we’ll fill it up fully when we get to Belgium in early May and can get a red diesel supply which is substantially cheaper.

It’s been an interesting exercise and learning experience, firstly to see that for all the years we’ve had the boiler serviced in France no-one ever checked the filter which was seriously dirty and should have been changed long ago. We’ll get a small cap cut into the inspection cover at some point so we can drop a dip stick in and physically check the fuel levels going forward so we can a) Not have to rely on the dodgy gauge and b) not end up looking like a pair of dip sticks ourselves again as this is something we could have and should have been able to check ourselves!! Gotta love barging, another lesson learned.

Shades of Grey to Shades of Green – Pootling on up to Utrecht with near full fuel tanks it’s a pity we don’t have a camera lens good enough to pick up the many subtle colour changes that emerge constantly around us as we cruise slowly up river, greys and soft new browns and a myriad shades of green makes you realise that spring time in Europe is really quite special and nothing quite like it, the changes come on so slowly then before you know it the barren branches of the late developers are in full bright green leaf as the buds burst, blossoms are everywhere and flowers come into bloom. Taking life slowly along the rivers and canals you get time to watch all this unfold little by little, day by day. Sorry no pictures to illustrate all this but it’s only when you see it for real that you capture the sheer joy of it all.

One lock at the entrance to the town port and we’re all sorted for the weekend, a nice spot looking back towards the town with power and water thrown in with the harbour dues and the promise of a warm days on Sunday and the chance to have lunch on deck.

Entering the locks at Utrecht, Vecht River

L’Escapade moored in Utrecht 1

L’Escapade moored in Utrecht 2

Sunday 9th April Turn Up The Heat – The outskirts of Utrecht like so many cities is a bit on the scruffy and unkempt side…hmm, is that a tautology I wonder, no matter, it’s often the same when arriving by train, you see the underbelly of these cities making you wonder if you really made the right decision coming here, but fortunately it doesn’t last long and the delights of the city soon reveal themselves to you, and so it is with Utrecht, The Netherlands fourth largest city and a university town. There’s plenty to do here but we find by far the most pleasant aspect is a stroll around the canals and historic areas, the city has plenty of both and often lined with cafes’, bars and restaurants. For history buffs a visit to the city’s symbol – The Dom or Cathedral tower is a must. The tallest church tower in the Netherlands standing at 112.5 metres it sits on the site where Utrecht was founded almost 2,000 years ago. One of the more unexpected attractions in town is the aboriginal art museum…….and for the life of me I have no idea how are why it’s located here.

Cathedral tower of St Martin

Cathedral of St Martin 3

Cafe culture, Utrecht

Street scene Utrecht in early April

Canal scene, Utrecht

Bouillabaise dinner in Utrecht

Summer makes a brief but glorious appearance on Sunday, bags of sunshine and the thermometer cranking up to 23 C , it only lasts a day but it’s enough to get all the students out on the port pontoons to soak it up along with mandatory beverages. We even managed our first lunch on deck with a nice bottle of Chilean Sav Blanc …….something I hope is the harbinger of similar days ahead!

Evey with Patcha, Utrecht

Flower Power at Maarssan – A pretty mooring a few kilometres back along the Vecht River and we’re in Maarssan another quaint town with pretty houses along the river bank. Once again it’s too early for the fee collectors to bother coming out so we’re left alone with free power once again. Evelyn’s sleuthing revealed a plant nursery a few kms away and had been scheming for some time about how and when she’d get the barge decked with her annual flower display. Potting mix had been sourced and pots filled weeks earlier but the northern spring is slower and so too the supply of summer plants, however Maarssan held some promise, so, with crates strapped to our bikes we made several trips to load up and get her blooming deck garden blooming. 

Maarssan

Bikes loaded with flowers for L’Escapade in Maarssan a/d Vecht

The Best Laid Plans & A Dash for Dinner – It’s Wednesday 13th April, but might as well be Friday the 13th with our rotten luck. We’re due to have dinner in Amsterdam tonight with barge buddies Nick & Marise who are about to head off to Berlin so we won’t see them for a couple of years, we’d planned to stop for the night about 20 kms away back in Weesp and get the train in but it seems not to be. Leaving last night’s mooring in Breukelen we’ve travelled barely 6 kms to the pretty village of Loenen only to find out the bridge is broken and boats are piled up waiting for it to be fixed, some had been stuck here for over 24 hrs, so our 5 hr delay seemed somewhat minor. We’re told they will try and open the bridge by hand at 13.00 but that time comes and goes, with no sign of an opening, then it’s another two to three hrs before they can try so it looks too late to make our dinner date and too late to turn around and try another route, disappointing but things could be worse, Loenen is a pretty village with several good restaurants, two of them with Michelin stars so starving won’t be a problem. Then, a glimmer of hope emerges as we’re told they’re going to try to open the bridge by hand and it’s 3.00 pm leaving us with barely 90 minutes to make the trip before all the lifting bridges close for the day at 4.30 pm and end our progress. Setting off at a cracking pace we sped off ahead of a large flotilla of other craft eager to put the dodgy bridge behind them, we found an entrance from the Vecht River onto the huge Amsterdam-Rijn Canal which we figured would save us all the twists and turns of the rive as well as most of the time consuming lifting bridges. As it turned out we got to the last bridge at the entrance to Weesp harbour right on 4.30 pm, they kindly let us through then closed the bridge for the day, phewwwwww, that was some speedy trip but we’ d made it and left enough time for a well- earned bloody mary before catching the train into Amsterdam and an excellent dinner on the edge of the Joordan district at Bistro Neuf with fab food and some great wines.

Loenen a/d Vecht

Dinner in Amsterdam with Nick & Marise – Hoop Op Zegen

Amsterdam re-Visited & The Witches Coven – Dinner digested it was back on the train to Weesp, or so we thought, maybe it was that last glass of wine that did the trick but whatever it was that caused the cock up we ended up on the wrong train at near midnight headed for god only knows where. It took us a while to figure it out but thanks to the excellent Dutch public transport system we were able to get another train back to Weesp before breakfast! Next morning a leisurely cruise back into Amsterdam via the scenic route along the Amstel River after which Amsterdam takes its name, and through part of the network of canals that criss cross the city dodging the tour boats until we arrived back in Westerdok for the weekend.

Flotilla of boats behind L’Escapade heading upthe Amstel River

Heading into the Nieuwe Herengracht canal, Amsterdam

Ornate bridge, Amstel River, Amsterdam

Tram bridge over the Amstel River entering Amsterdam

Church tower detail – from the Amstel river, South Amsterdam

Replica East Indiaman ship & Maritime Museum, Amsterdam, Oosterhaven

The main reason for our return to the city was to pick up Evelyn’s two sisters flying in from the USA for a visit. Did I say a visit? Hmm, well I meant a two week visit and, as every host knows, both fish and visitors go off after three days!! Anyway, cheap jokes aside, the three sisters henceforth known as ‘The Coven’ i.e. being a gathering of several witches was in full session. Now the casual reader might think this collective noun for my wife and sisters in law a trifle harsh but I suggest you spend two weeks with them before crying foul, besides the description is based if somewhat loosely on fact since on a visit to the US family farm some years ago I was studying a wall picture depicting the family tree on my wife’s mother’s side which clearly showed that at least two earlier relatives were in fact burnt as convicted witches……I rest my case!

Cindy, Evey & Martha – The Coven in Joordan

The following days saw tour guide Evey herding the rest of the coven around Amsterdam’s monuments, streetscapes and museums while I sought solace through the medium of alcohol and menial boat tasks while giving my ears a rest.

Joordan in the spring mid April

Joordan in the spring mid April

Grebe – our constant companion

Joordan in the spring 2

Hooking up with fellow bargees Roger and Laura on the splendid barge L’auwrence against whom we were rafted up during the Amsterdam magic spell conference, we took the scenic route to historic Haarlem via the Zaan River and windmill infested museum village of Zanse Schans.

L’Escapade leaving Westerdok, 17th April

L’auwrence & L’Escapade leaving Westerdok

L’auwrence & L’Escapade leaving Westerdok onto the Ij River

The Ij River

The Eye – Film Museum & A’Dam Tower

Wind farm construction platforms in dock – Amsterdam

Zaanse Schans from the wheelhouse

Zaanse Schans from the wheelhouse

Zaanse Schans

Haarlem was as charming in the spring as it was in the previous autumn when we visited and as it turned out just as chilly. The havenmeester (harbour master) generously gave us a discount for our visit charging only two nights fees for a three night visit which we though very generous. It’s a handy place to be based while visiting other regional attractions like the nearby and fascinating Cruquius Steam Pump Museum, The Hague and nearby tulip fields at Keukenhof with Evey again playing tour guide.

Coming into Haarlem

The windmill in Haarlem

L’auwrence & L’Escapade in Haarlem

Cruquius steam pumping station, nr Haarlem

Keukenhof, – It’s All About the Tulips – OK other stuff too but this is the show to end all shows on tulips and a stunning day out among the flowers!

The whole region around this floral showcase is the heart of the Dutch bulb growing and exporting industry. Taking a bike from Keukenhof you’re very quickly riding out through the bulb fields with hectare after hectare of fields in bloom and colours of every shade imaginable. The season’s in full swing as we watch the growers lopping the heads off these beautiful flowers with specially designed machines as it’s all about bulb cultivation sales and export not cut flowers, that happens someplace else.

Scruffy & Evey visit the tulip fields near Haarlem

Taking the flower heads off the tulips

Pink tulips

Meanwhile back at the Keukenhof gardens there are more than 7 million bulbs in bloom this spring, with a total of 800 varieties of tulips alone as well as countless varieties of daffodils and hyacinths. A unique and unforgettable experience, it’s a sensory overload as you’re assaulted by the intoxicating perfume of the hyacinths and your eyes struck by the riot of colour and sheer scale and variety of the flowers before you at every turn. Taking it all in is almost as hard as it is taking pictures without people in the frame such is the popularity of this annual event that lasts for a mere 8 weeks during which time somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people a day visit the gardens. It has to be one of the most impressive gardens in the world not to mention a serious money making monopoly that’s still largely privately owned showcasing the best of the best of the local growers who generously supply the plants at heavily discounted prices to have their product on display.

Besides the vast 32 hectares of flower beds you can enjoy the spectacular flower shows, inspirational gardens, unique artwork and wonderful events. It really is hard to find words remotely adequate to describe the beauty of it all , I guess you just have to see it for yourself. 

 Kings Day in Delft – Our Haarlem visit at an end we packed our visitors off on the train to do further sightseeing in Amsterdam while moving the barge down to Leiden for the weekend and then on to Delft where we’d stay for about five days until the Kings Day celebrations. Konings Dag (King’s Day) is a uniquely Dutch celebration on the Kings birthday. Pretty well every town and village celebrates and pretty well everyone wears something orange, the national colour to mark the occasion, some smart and subtle most less so but everyone’s out and about and there are what the English would call car boot sales or the French a ‘vide greniers’   all over the place where you can buy someone else’s cast off junk, keep it for a year then try and flog it the following year! Streets are filled with open air bars, live bands everywhere and restaurants and cafes doing a roaring trade. In Amsterdam the place is totally nuts and anything that floats and can hold a person and a beverage is on the canals, so crammed in you can walk from boat to boat from one side to the other without getting your feet wet. Needless to say our lot got into the spirit of things and found a range of hideous orange accessories for the day and night festivities and, no matter how bad you think you might look, the truth is you’ll fit in a treat. It’s a great fun day and everyone seems to have a great time.

Delft to Rotterdam & Dordrecht – With Kings day behind us and Evey’s sister Martha on the train back to Amsterdam and home that left Cindy with us for her last day as we set a course for Rotterdam, Dordrecht and shortly thereafter our departure from the Netherlands and into Belgium.

The canal down to Rotterdam was pretty ordinary, commercial and uneventful though the coming onto the Maas river at Rotterdam is always exciting. It’s a very big river and a highway for big commercial barges and sea going ships too. We ‘re going to be on some larger more open waterways for a couple of days so have been keeping an eye on the weather especially the winds but it looks fine for trip south. The one thing we didn’t check was the direction of the current on the tidal Maas River which was running at around 4 – 5 kph and slowed us to around 6 kph on the trip down to Dordrecht.

 Moored in Nieuwe Haven marina Dordrecht was a tight fit with little room for bigger barges like L’Escapade but fortunately we’d booked ahead and they’d reserved space for us. Cindy left next morning and we set off on our last full day in the Netherlands bound for the picturesque village at Willemstad our last port of call before heading into Belgium.

Nieuwe Haven – Dordrecht

 
 

Lifting bridge leaving Dordrecht

 

Willemstad and that “How Dumb can We be Moment”? We all have them from time to time, you know, those moments when the memory kicks in and you think……..rude things, and why didn’t I fix that earlier!! For us it all began a few days ago when we still had Evey’s sisters on board. They had they aft cabin and bathroom whose sink and shower drained into a separate sump tank from ours up forward before being pumped over the side. Having been in Delft for a few days and not underway every day we hadn’t checked the engine room for a few days and when we did shortly before departing we’d noticed there was water under the engine in the bilge so started to think about where it might have come from. In any event it wasn’t serious and so we figured we’d check it all out properly when we got to Willemstad and clean it out there.

Arriving in Willemstad it was a pleasant day but instead of sight- seeing we got down to the task of getting the water out of the bilge and locating it’s source. Turns out there was rather a lot more water than we had at first thought but we got it all out and determined that the culprit was the aft sump and a sticky float switch that had failed and so the shower water with no-where else to go over flowed into the engine room bilge. Not a huge disaster and after some cleaning and fiddling about we got it all working again. But in the process of emptying the bilge water we’d closed the main fuel valve which was in the way at the time.

Willemstad

 
 

Willemstad

City Hall – Willemstad

 

 

Things You Don’t Expect to See – Our chores all done, we did manage a little tour of the town and the pretty marina at the end of the day and now filled with some seriously big motor yachts as well as a more unexpected sight as a huge former British RNLI lifeboat came into port, now fully restored as a private pleasure vessel after many years in service in Scotland where she’d been on many ‘shouts’ and saved over 50 lives. It was a fabulous sight and sound as the powerful Gardener diesel engines manoeuvred her against the quayside.

Didn’t expect to see this restored former UK lifeboat in Willemstad!

 

Lifeboat comes into Willemstad

Former Lifeboat now a private cruiser

 

 

Next morning we were up early for an 08.00 departure with the current in our favour for the eight hour plus run down to Antwerp in Belgium and the wind was already blowing quite hard but the day started with far too much drama as not long after setting off from Willemstad as we heading for a set of locks the engine began to lose power, the throttle revving and falling back constantly and you could tell it was about to conk out completely, leaving us in serious danger of being blown onto a very rocky dyke wall far too close by……needless to say panic all round as we tried to think what the problem was …..maybe the throttle cable or more likely something wrong with the fuel lines – a blockage there or in a filter …..FUEL, FUEL, CHRIST, and as we said the magic word Evey remembered that the day before when we’d been cleaning the water from the  engine room bilge we’d lifted some floor plates to get better access and turned the fuel tank valve off to get it out of the way………..in our keenness to get that job done we’d forgotten to turn it back on again !!!! A completely basic numbnuts moment!! Racing back into the engine room she got the valve open and fuel flowing before the engine sucked a load of air in and then we’d have been in real bother…as it was the engine picked up immediately and off we went again…funny how well these diesel engines work when you don’t starve them of fuel!!

No further mishaps and after a long day we arrived in Europe’s second largest port, Antwerp. The arrival into our berth in Willemdok took us through large industrial landscapes and past some of the largest oil refineries and storage facilities we’d ever  seen as well as mile after mile of wharves, dock facilities and quaysides, it seemed to go on forever.

L’Escapade moored in Willemdok, Antwerp

 

 

March 2017 – Countdown to Blast off

It may be the beginning of spring but the early days showed few signs of it emerging with several days of near constant rain and cold temperatures but apart from spiteful weather with just four weeks before we start our cruising season little can dampen our spirits for the prospects ahead.

Brouwersgracht

We’ve still quite a few jobs to knock off the list before taking off on season 6 and Evey’s return from her USA trip on the 3rd March heralded a serious attack to get things done. John Otto from Vink Diesel got the ball rolling arriving next day to install our replacement fuel pump, hopefully the last mechanical issue to be resolved, (this proved a false hope as it turns out) all goes well a few hours and beers later and the jobs all done.

The 6th March is a Monday and I’d forgotten that being the first Monday of the month means it’s city alarm testing day in The Netherlands so damn near jumped out of my skin when the sirens began shrieking to warn of flood, invasion, the arrival of aliens from Mars or some other calamitous event, it’s a noisy affair and though thankfully doesn’t last long it always seems to startle us.

The port of Amsterdam’s always a source of interesting and sometime unusual craft. Out for an interesting dinner one night with Dutch pals the venue was a former North Sea Oil rig, which later become a pirate radio station and now a good restaurant. Nearby a bunch of unusual looking vessels got our attention and we’d seen them before in Rotterdam, turns out they are platforms for rigging marine wind farms.

Wind farm construction platforms in dock – Amsterdam

Wind farm construction platforms in dock 2

Wind farm construction platforms in dock 3

Another unusual sight that recently passed our mooring is this odd craft and not a Beatle in sight.

The Yellow Submarine passing through Westerdok, Amsterdam

War with Switzerland – The Bitter Butter Battle – One of the pleasant aspects of life on a barge are the visitors we get and we get them from all over the place, the USA, Australia, UK, Monaco, Switzerland, France, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium to date with each bringing their social mores to keep us entertained. And so it was with our Swiss friends Carol & Suzanne who joined us for a few days in early March. Now we all know the Swiss like their rules and regulations and none more so than the Swiss Germans who it seems have a rule for doing just about everything including when the everything can be performed, or not performed as the case may be. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when near war broke out over the butter dish one evening at supper.

Carol, DR & Evey – Dinner before the war

Curious? Well check this out……a tasty supper’s laid out on the dinner table, candles are lit, wine poured and appetites primed after a day’s sightseeing but something is going horribly wrong as I can tell from the initial look of astonishment rising to near horror on dear friend Carols face as I enthusiastically dig in the butter knife helping myself to a goodly dollop of Holland’s finest. It turns out that in the Helvetic Republic there’s a right way and a wrong way to dig into your butter and clearly I had transgressed taking the wrong way and was severely taken to task over the matter – digging in is a definite no no and if to avoid being shown the door in polite company one should gently scrape the butter on the top from one end to the other leaving the butter pat in shape and thus preserving the dignity of the butter and the person spreading it at the same time. It’s a wonder that hostilities didn’t break out as I shared a north country expression that broadly describes the nether regions of male cattle and perfectly conveyed my thoughts on the matter! The rest of the meal passed without further incident.

Carol & Suzanne – Dinner on L’Escapade

It’s Friday 10th now and the sun’s made a rare but very welcome appearance with temperatures soaring to a dizzying 15C suggesting that maybe just possibly spring has sprung. Evey who never tires of schlepping all over town tramping through endless museums played tour guide for our Swiss friends taking Carol & Suzanne all over the city and up to the historical museum village at Zaanse Schans.

Zaanse Schans

Zaanse Schans

Meanwhile I did boat stuff including a couple of trips on the new bike to hardware stores to collect packing materials for when we store our hardtop wheelhouse on deck for the trip down the Canal du Midi. The laden bike looks more like something from South East Asia than the Netherlands and is quite precarious as I wend my way back to the barge.

Dodgy Transport

Next morning sees a return to chillier conditions but the 7C temperature doesn’t deter the five deranged Dutch women swimming the length of Westerdok and back even if they do have wet suits on an either way it’s still far too energetic and challenging for a Sunday morning.

The last week in March arrives heralding a drive to Paris moving our car and a train ride back. We spend our last few days wandering around the canal ring and charming streets of the Jordaan district as real signs of spring are at last emerging with daffodils and all manner of other flowers and blossoms in bloom, it really is a fabulous sight.

Spring in the Jordaan 2

Daffodils and crocuses

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossom buds

Daffodils and crocuses

Leaf burst, late March

Daffodils

A few more good dry weather days allows me time for favourite chores..….seeking out previously hidden bits of rust to treat and re-paint and also spruce up the ‘she shed’ that is Evey’s engine room with a lick of paint.

Drastic Water Saving methods or How to Keep Visits Short – What is it about sod’s law that ensures that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and why is it that it always seems to happen when least convenient I ponder as I get out of bed to a chilly barge two days before our first guests arrive and we set off cruising. I’m hoping one of us has just nudged the boiler switch off in the galley by accident but it’s still firmly in the ‘on’ position, no hot water either then I conclude heading to the engine room to check the pilot light and ignition switch, hmm, it’s off, so I press the button, it fires up then moments later it stops again and the boiler fails to start up, several more attempts get the same result. Now, I know what some of you are thinking so don’t even go there, of course I checked the fuel gauge and it still showed very full, and we’d been away over the winter for six weeks and despite that very year we’d run the boiler all winter and it lasted well into late spring before needing a fill. The cold shower that followed, actually I’ll amend that, the very very brief cold shower that followed brought me to the conclusion we needed a specialist to look at the boiler. It took us near two full days to find someone who’d come out and after several hours, a new filter, a new fuel pump and other sundry bits he’d concluded that the boiler worked perfectly but we had blocked fuel lines. This was not good news. Was it rust, diesel sludge, or bio diesel bacteria? Whatever it was with the fuel tank at least 17 years old it didn’t look good and we might be facing pumping out over 1,000 litres of fuel, re-filtering it, having the tank cleaned and maybe even new fuel lines made. All I could see was trouble, a lot of time and a very large expense. In short NOT HAPPY! There’s another unpleasant discovery as we test our electrical power generator who’s fuel feeds from the same tank, it cranks up but dies a few moments later, again suggesting a possible blockage in the fuel line, but either way it means without a shore power connection our batteries will only last a day or so before we run too low and risk seriously damaging them.

We call our ever helpful tame barge engineers in Sleidrecht but they are an hour away and can’t send anyone up for 6 days so we agree to set off and meet them along the way the following way but you’ll have to read onto next month’s riveting episode to hear the conclusion of the boiler business. Never the less prospects of no heating and cold showers doesn’t deter our hardy Dutch guests Niek and Petra so we prepare to set off.

Friday 31st March Port fever reaching overload – Ok so perhaps a slight exaggeration but after 6 months in port all be it with an occasional escape south we are always well ready to fire up ‘Thumper’ our trusty DAF 1160 engine and head out for another adventure. Without doubt the local bar tenders and restaurateurs will be lamenting our departure and their soon to be depleted coffers, we might even risk a blockade of Westerdok might be planned.

Last jobs done, water tank filled, Marge the barge scrubbed, dilithium crystals for the warp drive fully primed and definitely well ready for blast off tomorrow as our first cruising guests, Dutch couple Niek and Petra arrive for part of the trip down the Vecht River to Utrecht, it just leaves time for one last delicious dinner at the Bickers a/d Werf restaurant at the end of the Westerdok marina and a small Armagnac before heading off to la la land with dreams of a new season ahead.

Vondelpark

Image

February 2017 – Back On Board

 February Made Me Shiver. Back on the barge it’s nice to be back in familiar surroundings, even if it’s cold and around zero C with snow flurries. Time to break out the comfort food while we start our list of jobs and chores, things to be researched and bought before we head off in barely 8 weeks’ time. We get a welcome respite with a few visitors from the England and France who head our way which, along with a few outings to great eateries like Ron Gastro Bar and The Daalder both of which deliver great innovative cuisine.

Vondelpark in the snow, Amsterdam Feb 2017

Vondelpark, Amsterdam Feb 2017

The Joordan with snow 1

Lift bridge – Joordan

The Joordan with snow 5

The Joordan District

Ron Gastro Bar - Scallop Tartare

Ron Gastro Bar – Scallop Tartare

Still in the food camp, I get to tackle the jamon porker leg Evey presented me with for my birthday.

Cutting my 61st birthday present!

The 1st cut is the sweetest – my porcine pressy

There’s plenty to get on with as we need to arrange annual check- ups with doctors and dentists, my electric bike to order, source a small ice maker, a new deck sun parasol and some packing material to help store our wheelhouse on deck before we head onto the Canal du Midi, and a squillion other smaller odds and sods.

Despite most of the other barges in the port still decked out in twinkling Christmas lights it’s well past the 12th day of Christmas, maybe the locals don’t follow the same rules as we do but in any event an early task is taking all the Christmas bling lights down and packing them away, sadly the barge looks rather barren and undressed now.

It’s not Fur or Fair – She was really tall, I’m referring to the elegant Dutch lady who entered our favourite local Italian the other night, who, by the way do a fab pasta vongole, simply done with just a little olive oil , fresh flat leaf parsley, garlic of course and the fresh vongole…..just delicious and naturally a nice light red vino to assist its passage is essential, well it is for me, but purists might suggest a white …..personally I don’t think it matters a great deal either way. Anyway, where was I, oh yes, the Dutch as everyone knows are the world’s tallest folk, so much so that some look like they were extruded rather than born making the rest of us feel distinctly Lillipution by comparison. So in strolls the tall lady wearing a faux fur coat, well it looked faux to me and I certainly hope it was. You see quite a few of them here in the winter time, and the market stalls always seem to have a stack for sale both faux and the real deal, anyway this one looked faux to me and for all the world like she’d got fifty rats on her back, alas no reservation means no table at this small noshery known pretty well only to locals so alas the pied piper left looking forlorn, hungry and ever so tall!

Carry on Doctor. A mixed weather month so far, with a cold snap early on and some snow but as the weeks pass things seem to be gradually ticking up a notch and the evening light gets marginally longer, but don’t get me wrong it’s still pretty nippy at night. Few of us look forward to a doctors’ appointment at the best of times and even if it’s just an annual check- up with blood tests and for us blokes the prostate health check. This month’s visit was no different, there’s always that nagging doubt that just maybe they’ll find something you don’t want or tell you what you already know, that you’re the wrong shape and need to lose a few pounds but imagine my delight when greeted by an attractive young female French doctor to conduct the examination, even better, she was assisted by an even more attractive young female Dutch trainee….I thought Christmas had arrived well early as my fertile imagination performed mental cartwheels at the prospects of the examination ahead but all hopes were dashed heartlessly as I learned that the examination consisted of a general chat, and the handing over of hard cash with the rest being done via the blood tests…..once again life dealt another cruel blow.

On Yer Bike. You know, there are some really uncharitable folk out there, and some of them are my friends. Like many men of a certain age I have challenges when it comes to achieving a shape other than round, well, let’s face it food discipline was never my strong suit and I’m a firm believer that good food is to be embraced at every opportunity. Rightly or wrongly I was brought up to leave a clean plate before leaving the table….starving children in Africa and a host of other exhortations and threats were regularly applied ensuring that whoever got dish washing duties that night would have minimal work to do. So it is to this day that I find it hard to leave anything on my plate and that goes for second helpings as well! In my not so humble view there are two types of folk who walk this world – Those who eat to live, sad sods that they are, and those that live to eat, and I’m firmly on the latter camp. But food and mealtimes are more than just fuel for the body, they’re a rewarding social experience that brings people and conversation together, sharing good times and bad with good food and maybe a glass of wine or two, what could be better? (Ok, so maybe a little less on the plate and generally better portion control, but where’s the joy in that).

Anyway I’m in danger of losing the thread here, this is supposed to be about the electric bike which, as one caring alleged friend pointed out is a speedy end to my last remaining avenue of legitimate exercise but I like to delude myself into thinking the real pre-text for its presence is that in bunny hopping the car along the canals this will let me do it further, faster and in more comfort when hot weather prevails, rather than just an accelerated means to propel me from one delicious meal to the next and of course it still requires the operator to pedal. So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it and nay sayers can bugger off!

By month end the electric beast had arrived, and it’s a cracker, German engineering, of which I’ve always been a fan, I figure if they can build a panzer tank then a bike should be easy, come to think of it the weight of both seem pretty similar and I might need to invest in a small crane to get it on and off the barge. It’s got plenty of bells & whistles , actually just one bell and no whistle but it does have a claimed range of up to 200 kms which should cover most eventualities. Cycling back across Amsterdam when it arrived at up to 30kph was awesome and just as well as it was blowing a hooley and chucking it down with rain at the time.

DR’s New Electric Bike

Two Wheeled Triv. While on the subject of bikes here’s some triv’ we picked up recently – Most of us know that Amsterdam’s pretty well the bike capital of the planet but what surprises is that while the city proper has a population of 813,562 as at 2016, it’s estimated that there’s between 880,000 to a million bicycles in the city, which is more than the city’s permanent population. With so many bikes and over 150 canals around the city it’s little wonder that some of the bicycles end up getting wet. Some? Check this out, it turns out that between 12,000 and 15,000 are fished out every year, some get recycled as bikes using parts but most get turned into scrap. We’d even heard figures for some years as high as 35,000 ending up in the drink, but that doesn’t account for the police estimate of 50,000 – 80,000 bikes stolen each year of which one last year included mine! With so many bikes around – there’s 7,800 official bike parking places at Central station alone and countless others left all over the city it’s not hard for the light fingered find their targets despite the hefty chains used to secure so many.

Cleaning it all up is a full time job with Waternet being the agency tasked with keeping the canals clean and employing a permanent crew with a huge hydraulic claw to fish out bicycles from the canal bed something they’ve successfully doing since the 1960s, and still do it every day.

It’s hard to say why Amsterdam’s residents throw away so many bikes into the canals, but it’s been going on for a long time. In days gone by, the canals like so many around Europe used to be an open sewer and, as there was no sewer system in Amsterdam the canals were like an open toilet and rubbish bin for the city’s inhabitants.

In 1860, Amsterdam started to see the problem and began cleaning up the canals. But many Amsterdammers still haven’t totally dropped the habit of tossing things into the drink, especially when they’ve had a few beverages. It’s believed that most bicycles fished out from the canals are either stolen or victims of vandalism, though few are reported to police in the belief that nothing will be done about it which is probably true!

Bikes of course aren’t the only things that get fished out of the canals, it seems that from time to time the giant claw hauls out fridges and even cars, between 35 to 50 a year we’re told. In most cases they end up there accidentally, but sometimes vandalism is the cause and perhaps beverage consumption has a role to play as well. Amsterdam is the only city in the Netherlands with a dedicated special diving team of the Fire Brigade to fish out cars, when such an accident is reported.

Unusual Bar Buddy. Evey’s been in the US for a week visiting her folks leaving the cat and me to fend for ourselves, we’ve coped very well watching the 6 nations rugby on TV with the required amounts of beer and snacks as well as tackling a few chores. Needless to say the cat’s been next to useless helping with the chores but was more than a little ready to assist when the bangers and mash arrived one dinner time……whatever happened to cats liking cat food, how did the sausage addiction start, my god but life can be cruel at times.

Talking of cats, a visit to our local neighbourhood bar last Friday found me sitting at the counter with the bar’s large black moggie perched on the stool next to me, moments later as I’m sipping my beer the cat places front paws on the bar leans forward and starts drinking from a glass there and looking for all the world like a regular bar fly or in this case a bar cat.

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January 2017 – A Shocking Start to 2017

The sun was up, though despite that and the bright blue sky above there was still a chill in the air however it was New Years’ Day and the occasion demanded it be marked in some way and so it was as my malfunctioning brain snapped with the notion that a new years’ dip was called for. Having taken things a step further by announcing this ill thought out idea to my incredulous wife, I say incredulous because Evelyn rarely ventures into the briny unless the temperature exceeds 24C! The look on her face said it all ….totally mad but there was no going back. Unfortunately too many years had passed since my regular winter swims at Balmoral beach in Sydney so my feeble brain had erased all memories of just how cold and challenging a mid- winter swim could be, probably just as well or I’d never have gone in. With the last sip of my morning coffee gone, swallowed reluctantly with any remaining excuses I headed down to the beach below all the while

staring at the calm turquoise waters that beckoned while masking the frigid waters I knew lurked there awaiting the next foolhardy victim. I wasn’t the only idiot in the water that day there were at least two other clots in there pretending to enjoy themselves and enough people around watching these antics as I stripped down to my swimmers to ensure there was no turning back..…..swimmers? Did I say my swimmers? What possessed me to pack swimmers when we left a freezing Amsterdam I pondered far too late into the proceedings.

Nothing for it then I thought after staring at the water for what seemed like ages and with that I leapt into the briny……..and damn near leapt out again instantly thinking that at this point I could have walked on water, yes, it was cold, around 14C I’d guess as a cursory glance into the swimmers confirmed that my nether parts had all but disappeared unlikely to re-emerge anytime soon. It’s quite hard to look nonchalant after that entry and pretend it’s all fine with so many sniggering souls around. Those with a warped sense of humour can watch the video and my reactions on my facebook page.

 

After that arguably over dramatic description it might be hard to believe that after some vigorous movement, I say movement as swimming would be stretching the truth a tad it actually became very enjoyable, probably because my extremities were by now completely numb and I couldn’t feel anything, but it must have been all right as I stayed in for a good half hour emerging like some triumphant channel swimmer and feeling like a million dollars. Mind you not enough to warrant venturing back in again.

 

Monaco Observed – A City State without Soul Speaking three official languages (French, Italian and Monagasque) English is also widely spoken, we found the food less than exceptional, and largely over-priced though we did avoid the multi Michelin starred establishment of Joel Robuchon at the Hotel de Paris where I’m sure it would have been quite acceptable, shops selling high end designer ware, high end furniture & car showrooms for every ultra-uber marque you can think of. I did meet a woman in a bar with one of the more unusual jobs it has to be said and er, no, it’s not what you might be thinking. In actual fact she was in the submarine selling business, flogging these privately made Florida based submarines to the mega wealthy super yacht owners, a must have surely? They were pretty amazing pieces of kit it has to be said even if you did need a lazy 3 million dollars and upwards to get your mitts on one.

 

Seeing and Being Seen – It’s hard to visit Monte Carlo without seeing the places where everyone seems to want to be seen and where people and mega yacht watching are the most popular activities starting at the Café de Paris on one side of the famed Casino where you can freeze in the chill winter air whilst sipping expensive beverages served by largely indifferent waiters – at least in the chillier Netherlands they give you a cosy blanket if you sit outside! Then of course there’s the Casino itself, as featured in many a Bond film and surrounded by a necklace of Bentleys, Aston, Martins, Maserati’s and Rollers and, in the true casino spirit of “The House never loses” they’ve cottoned on to charging non punters an entry fee. I is however a rather elegant building inside and out. One very pleasant place for a splurge evening in this elite circle is at the Bar Americain in the Hotel de Paris which is right out of some classic 40’s or 50’s cocktail bar setting, with some great live jazz playing and impeccable service, but then you’d sort of expect that when you fork out €105 for four drinks and where beverages start at a hefty €26, it was still worth it though.

 

Regional Reflections – France and Italy One of the nicer things about being in Monaco is being able to leave it behind and explore the nearby towns in both France and Italy. Pretty well everyone heads across to Ventimiglia in Italy for the huge Friday markets with the wiser ones making sure they have a place for some truly excellent and inexpensive Italian food for lunch. The contrast between filthy rich Monaco and poor Ventimiglia is apparent the moment you get off the train, from the station to the town itself it’s evident the place has seen better days, but a long long time ago, never the less it has a certain charm and character that Monaco lacks for me. There’s a small indoor market selling produce and incredibly cheaply, little wonder the place is full of French filling their baskets. The big outdoor market is now on the very well trodden tourist path and it shows. Visitors flock here for the cheap leather goods and cheap cashmere sweaters, but as the adage goes you get what you pay for and within a couple of days my prized €10 leather belt was falling apart and the cashmere sweaters on closer examination turned out to be only part cashmere! There are some good bargains to be had though like the mountains of cheap sun dried tomatoes and vast slabs of parmesan cheese, I swear you’ll never find it at prices like these anywhere else, ever….we load upon both of course.

Forays into neighbouring France while less flashy than Monaco are not as poor looking as their Italian cousins. Inland towns like Grasse, known for its long standing perfume industry are pretty even in mid -winter and good restaurants can be found in and near the main square but don’t come looking for Coco Chanel, or Dior here for they’re no-where to be seen, not that I was looking of course.

While the coastal villages are pretty with some spectacular coastal walks you can also see the villas of the rich and famous dotted here and there and Nice of course is well worth spending time in. Yes it’s touristy especially around the weekend markets and restaurants in the old town but walk a street or two back and you’ll find good value and great nosh for a lot less.

France – C’est compliqué. You hear that a lot in France, usually when dealing with the hard to explain or incomprehensible to us Anglo Saxons, and a lunch in Nice delivered a text book example. The blackboard menu was to blame of course with descriptions for two dishes with seemingly a common ingredient – Chestnuts, but with two different names – one being marron and the other châtaigne but both the same product so what what’s the difference we asked the waitress who struggled for some time before offering up the analogy that the difference is the similar to the difference between a camel and a dromedary and concluding “C’est compliqué. Clearly this was not going to satisfy either of us so further investigation was needed……. And after some time on the internet I began to wish I’d never started but for those of you who demand the detail here goes.

There are basically two sorts of chestnut: The edible sweet chestnut is easiest to identify while still in its spiny and needle sharp husk and goes by the scientific name of Castanea sativa. It’s the one that causes all the confusion and a very distant relation to the toxic, inedible chestnut we call the horse chestnut which has a smoother husk with a few wart like features and sharp spines. Horse chestnuts, scientific name Aesculus hippocastanum are the ones often found in woodlands and backyards and that as young boys we’d use for conker contests, but that’s another story. In France this tree is called a marronier d’Inde or marronier commun but has nothing to do with India and it’s inedible fruit is also called a marron.

That’s the easy bit. Now we have the tree called the châtaignier (Castanea sativa) whose edible fruit is called une châtaigne. But people talk about eating marrons chauds and marrons glacés because there are two kinds and the larger (and (tastier) cultivated châtaigne is called a marron!

The cultivated marron only contains one fruit in each husk whereas the wild ones have two or more, with an annoying skin called a pellicle between them. Wild one are often too hard to eat so make you buy marrons! Clear as mud isn’t, and just when you’ve got your head around that little lot let me add that Marron is also the common word for the colour brown in English but of course the English colour Maroon, a deep reddish brown is derived from the word Marron in French however generally both “brun” (masc.) or “brune” (fem.) being almost the same as the English, “brown” usually have the same meaning.

And finally to cap it all off when you refer to hair color it gets tricky… as Brun means dark hair while you would use châtain which actually is lighter brown to describe brown hair, and of course “brunette” sounds so much better than “brownette”.

Meanwhile back in Nice and after pondering the quirks of language what better way to end an afternoon than a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais seafront walking off that lunch, there’s lots going on here,uskers, and street performers vie for your attention while café’s beckon across the road for a cleansing beer or another coffee if you must.

Money no Barrier to Anti-Social Habits Strolling through nearby Beaulieu Sur Mer in search of lunch we happened upon the an unusually large and out of place Santa complete with long sled but powered by only a single reindeer which we put down to the possibility that being in France they probably eat reindeer and the rest of the team had been consigned to the local plat du jour! Still, it’s nice to be back where we speak the language, though being back in la belle France also meant focusing the poo goggles once again firmly on the pavement to avoid the dreaded doggy doo doo that folk seem so reluctant to clean up, it really is singularly the most anti- social aspect of life here.

Meanwhile back in Monaco itself no stranger to canine crap we uncovered some other odd behaviour when grocery shopping at the local supermarket. In most supermarkets at least in France anyway, you select and weigh your own fruit and veg, but not here, at the first sign of you heading for the scales a staffer races over and insists on doing it for you. Turns out that some of the locals have a penchant for a little five fingered discount and weight their goods, get the bar coded ticket then load up more goodies before heading for the checkout……then there were the cheap shuckers, don’t try saying that after drinking a lot by the way, I’m referring here to the folk that suck their peas from the pods then put the empty pea pods back in the rack, where they put the freshly purloined peas we never found out but we did find a fat bag full of pea pods and no peas when we got home…..and boy were we pee’d off. What sort of people were these we wondered.

 

All good things come to an end though and so after near three weeks lolling about and sightseeing it was time to leave and head further south to Spain.

 

The Rain In Spain Contrary to the rhyme doesn’t fall mainly on the plain as it transpired but rather mainly on David and Evelyn but more on that in a jiffy. The drive across France’s rather attractive bottom skirting the Med then down into Spain and our destination Moraira about 500 kms south of Barcelona took a good eleven hours so we made for an early start before the sun rose stopping only for fuel for us and the car. Patcha the cat after a snack quickly settled down onto Evey’s lap and proceeded to sleep most of the way.

Our first few days were spent with barge buddies John and Winnie and the first couple of days were pleasant enough with sunshine and some warmth but it was not to last. Two days after we arrived we awoke to a blanket of snow, you couldn’t make it up, the first time since 1926 we were told, but hey, what did we care, the temperature had dropped significantly and outside was winter wonderland that closed nearby roads out of the area. The snow was short lived and melted after about a day but this opening act was swiftly followed by near five days of cold and heavy rain. Brilliant. Never the less we managed to get plenty of socialising in and spent our last few days with more barge buddies Alan and Sharon. Alan showed his legendary generosity by sharing his man flu with me but that wasn’t to manifest itself for a few more days.

 

Be Careful What You Wish For Despite the spiteful weather we managed to get out for a few socials, and my birthday bash at John and Winnie’s gaff where beverages of all manner were showered upon me along with Evey’s present – talk about living high on the hog, she bought me the rear end of a rather large porker, actually that’s sounds a bit unkind as it was really a whole Iberico ham and quite delicious though judging by the size of it we’ll still be eating it this time next year. I suppose it serves me right as Evey said when I first clapped eyes on it claiming that I’d often said how much I wanted one, careful what you wish for is the lesson there. That said I’ve also often remarked that I’d like a Maserati but she never bought one of those, just have to settle for the pig I guess.

 

Along with the dodgy weather January also brought the news that our tenants of over four years back in Australia had bought a house and were leaving, a great shame as they’d been great tenants but nothing lasts for ever so the task of getting the house back into shape again for re-letting had to be started.

The rain came to an end just as our time in Moraira ended and we drove north to Barcelona for some authentic tapas, nice wines and exploring this great city, but again it was to be short lived as the weather remained on the chilly side. We had a good first couple of days and managed some nice food and got to see Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia. We’d seen picture of it many times but nothing prepares you really for the sight of it when you get there, and that’s just the outside, the inside is even more spectacular, breath taking even. It must be the most amazing building on earth for there is nothing remotely like it anywhere on the planet. Everyone should see this. Started back in 1882 and not due to be finished until at least 2026 it has to be one of the longest building projects in history, longer than it took to build the great pyramids of Egypt and all that without the intervention of building unions!

 

Dodgy Tucker & Man Flu Evey had poured over guide books and restaurant reviews for some time before our arrival in Barthelona (sp phonetic spelling) so we were all set up for some serious eating and sightseeing but things didn’t quite turn out as planned. Day three and Evey came down with some nasty food poisoning that kept her in the bathroom all night and another day or two to recover after that, and, just in time to see me come down with a case of man flu which as all women know is the worst kind and in my case had me laid up in bed for four days so not much joy there and recovering just enough for the long drive back to Amsterdam, remember thinking we’d have been better off staying in Amsterdam all along!

It’s now the 30th January and we’d got a two day trip back to Amsterdam stopping overnight in Luxembourg, the trip was largely uneventful with fine weather as far as Lyon then is just got spitefully cold with near freezing temperatures, rain most of the way and then fog…loverly and by now the hitherto patient cat Patcha was starting to mutiny at all the changes in accommodation and unfamiliar surroundings, so overall our Spanish sojourn this year was a bit of a wash out on most fronts though we did get to see some good friends so it’s not all bad.

 

31st January, Fire Up The Boiler Scotty Back on board, car unloaded and time to re-commission all the essential services starting with the central heating, it’s bloody cold and will take a few hours to warm up and the winter motto on L’Escapade is “We don’t do cold”.

December 2016 – The Great Escape

What better way to kick off a new month than with a bout of man flu, which as every long suffering male knows is as bad as it gets and mine was no different ensuring that between bouts of sneezing and coughing fits the world around me knew about it alas sympathy’s a commodity always in short supply in this household so no soothing words or cups of hot toddy coming my way.

By the time it came to head off to Switzerland for Christmas temperatures were down to around 5C and decidedly nippy. It felt a bloody sight colder after emerging from the hair dressers for my half yearly cut which turned out to be rather an ill thought out and rash move as I forgot to pack a hat when leaving the boat. So there I was with frozen ears, I went in looking like Thor God of Thunder with hair onto my shoulders and came out looking like Flintstones Barney Rubble!!

 

Wed 21st December and we were off to Basel stopping off sausage side (Germany) en route to see Judith Fleming old school friend going back to infants school some 55 years ago. The drive was a bit manic and stressful with very busy motorways on the 7 hr drive, everyone talks about how bad the drivers are in France, Italy and Spain but forgets how fast the Germans drive, flying up right behind you at high speeds left us wondering how often they had accidents and if they just scraped them off the tarmac!

 

A pleasant overnight stop and reminiscing school days past our journey continued next day to Basel to join old friends Carol, Urs and son Colin who’d just finished two years military service. Predictably Christmas was filled with far too much food and wine but also good times. A chance to look around the stunning Munster (cathedral) and old town where I’d spent several months of mis-spent youth aged 18 washing dishes to pay for a European trip…..my first long-term foray travelling under my own steam and surviving on my wits, it was a pre-cursor to more lengthy travels in years to come and an introduction to travel that’s remained with me my whole life.

Blessings and Curses I’m referring here to the introduction to aged rums courtesy of our host Urs who had a couple of bottles on hand and, having discovered the stuff I’m now cursed with a need to buy some and as if further encouragement were needed, Urs planted a bottle into my arms when we set off south to Monaco.

Alas no snow for our Basel Christmas visit, just rain and drizzle but once through the amazing 17 km long St Gottard road tunnel we emerged into sunshine in Ticino the first we’d seen since 19th December as we headed south into Italy and around the coast to Monaco, the temperature steadily climbing from 3.5C to a welcoming 20C….bliss!

 

Moolah and Monte Carlo It’s the 27th December and we’ve arrived in Monte Carlo after the 7 hr drive from Basel in Switzerland and swapping maniac German drivers for maniac Italian drivers…. The speed they hurtle around at and the distance from the cars in front it’s a wonder they’re not all dead! Anyway another stressful drive over we got into town passing a squad of heavily armed French coppers as we entered Monaco, it looked like they were looking for someone in particular or maybe just anyone looking middle eastern, either way, a nod and we went past no worries.

Neither of us had previously visited this part of the French Riviera let alone Monaco the playground of the rich and filthy rich. With around 30% of the population classified as millionaires the wealth isn’t hard to spot on the roads and in the marina. Interestingly Monaco is one of the few countries where the local citizens, all 7,000 of them are outnumbered by the number of non- citizen residents who make up another 31,000 of the population.

A little winter warmth isn’t the only reason we find ourselves in this playground. Friends Geri and Peter Radzim from Australia had very generously lent us their apartment in their absence so this was a chance to explore new places as well as warm our bones, not that it was that warm during our stay, but certainly warmer than Amsterdam.

 

With the apartment located and the car unloaded, hot, sweaty and tired with a raging thirst and gagging for a cold beer, Peter had very thoughtfully anticipated my condition and filled the fridge with a welcome pack of coldies ……..Peter’s a bloody lifesaver I thought as the first slid down barely touching the sides. Now all we had to do was locate a suitable noshery for dinner which didn’t prove too challenging as it turned out when we found a family run Italian not too far away.

 

Next day as we headed out to explore a cursory glance around the car garage highlighted the neighbouring wealth with a liberal smattering of Ferraris, Rolls Royce’s, Bentley’s and such……undaunted we set off into town and the local tourist office in search of attractions and fun for the approaching New Year’s Eve.

 

All That Glitz but No NYE Monaco must have the swankiest Christmas decorations on the entire planet, I’d guess maybe only surpassed by Las Vegas in extravagance with streets decked out in expensive lighting, Christmas songs played over loud speakers it all seemed surreal as did cold but sunny days in front of the casino looking at some fake alpine snow scene complete with fake trees, fake snow, ski lift cars, skis and so on…..totally weird but maybe that says something about the place.

For all that and all the wealth around it turned out that Monaco simply doesn’t ‘do’ New Year’s Eve celebrations unlike the rest of the planet and we were fobbed off with some lame story about security issues that were never quite fully explained….more fake news. Odd that the larger potential target of Paris still managed to put on a spectacular show, maybe they could have just told the real story, you know “ we couldn’t be bothered” !

So a quiet NYE for Evey and me and armed with a bottle of champagne we reflected on the year behind us and the one ahead just barely made it to midnight before the need to get horizontal beckoned.

Autumn & Winter 2016 / 2017

No Rest November 2016. Once again distractions and procrastination find me several months in arrears with this blog, makes me wonder, so is this a blog or is it a diary, hmm distracted once again. November came around rather quickly probably because we didn’t get into Westerdok, Amsterdam until mid -October but with only six weeks before we made our annual winter escape there was much to do.

Evey disappeared to the USA to see her folks for a week but not before sorting the engine room out and closing up the various hatches and openings. Plenty of things to clear up and pack away for the coming winter including all the deck furniture, plants and potting mix to be dumped ahead of sub zero temperatures and the low voltage greenhouse heaters to be installed in the forepeak and engine room in the event of prolonged periods below zero.

Gradually everything fell into place but still left time for socialising and entertainment, we discovered a new local Italian restaurant that served excellent pasta and vongole (clams) as well as the best pizza in town and right on our doorstep. Barge buddies Mike and Sally on ‘Ailsa’ were still in town so a few meals together plus a fantastic night concert at the world class Amsterdam Concertgebouwe were highlights as we enjoyed a tribute concert to Queen and Freddie Mercury with two brilliant soloist performers and a full symphony orchestra, it was a memorable evening.

Weather of course continued to deteriorate and just in time for several visits from chums overseas, with Evey’s former college girlfriend Andrea and husband Bill coming from Geneva and UK pals Jon & Tina Clauson from Cheshire along with John and Karen Gunn from Hampshire coming for a long weekend and while the conditions might have been a tad damp to say the least, we still managed plenty of sightseeing and a cruise along the inner canals of the historic Jordaan district…..the open boat might have been a little ambitious in hindsight but the free beer and gluhwein made it tolerable. Naturally a visit to the famed red light district was on the tour but of course window shopping only and it’s hard not to notice the myriad of ‘coffee’ shops like Barney’s where clouds of marijuana smoke seep into the street and everyone gets the hazy benefit! Needless to say it wasn’t the most sober of weekends!

With visitors gone it’s time to get the Christmas lights out and bling up the barge, by now many of the barges in the port are decorated up with lights from bow to stern making a very festive sight. The streets, cafes, restaurants and bars too are filled with Christmas lights and Amsterdam really goes to town with its decorations making for a very cosy ambience.

My attention soon turns to starting research into the hunt for electric bikes after mine was re-homed as they say in polite circle in the US, I prefer the more appropriate description of ‘nicked’ by some light fingered git but then I’ve always felt a tad malevolent toward those that purloin my possessions sans permission, off with their hands I say and while it might seem a smidge draconian to some in mamby pamby circles it’s hard to argue about the effectiveness of such a remedy.

It soon becomes clear that in a country geared up for two wheels more than anywhere else on the planet the selection of a new bike isn’t going to be a simple task with more variants and choices than you can possibly imagine and that’s before you consider the matter of price.

 

Autumnal October – The end of Season No 5

Haarlem  – The Little Amsterdam. What a difference a day makes as the song begins and as if a switch were turned on it’s the 1st October and the air has a distinctly Autumnal feel to it as temperatures take the next quantum leap downwards, and the day is punctuated by an occasional shower and thunderstorm. Emails from uncharitable barge buddies down in the  South of France generate pangs of jealousy reminding us they’re languishing in mid 20Cs temperatures……long sighs, wailings and gnashing of teeth emanate from L’Escapade’s direction.

 

After getting our mooring sorted yesterday we’d taken a quick spin around the town, checked out the tourist office and gathered essential maps, and enough brochures to have destroyed several forests. Sifting through it all plans are hatched for our assault on the city starting with a visit to the Netherlands oldest museum – The Tyler Museum located only a few metres away from our mooring but not before we make a trip to the Saturday market in the main square picking up bread, fruit, veg but it’s the butchers van that gets the biggest share of wallet as we load up with a fat slab of cote de boeuf, pork choppies and a couple of very handsome looking racks of lamb. The modest mortgage we’d taken out that morning just about covering the cost.

 

Meanwhile back at the Tyler museum, it turned out to be so much more than we’d expected. The building itself is impressive being the former home of its benefactor, the wealthy banker and linen manufacturer Pieter Teyler van der Hulst who donated his fortune to a foundation dedicated to promoting science and the arts thus this lovely building now houses some fascinating exhibits ranging from a vast collection of  fossils apart from those visiting like my good self of course, a huge range of scientific instruments covering a range of disciplines, coins & medals, rare books and an impressive art gallery.

 

It’s 2nd October, Turn Up the Heat . Call me a wimp or not  who cares, so I’m sitting down in the saloon and after a while I decide, bugger it, I need a pair of socks……ok and a Tee shirt, and a sweater, let’s face it I’m feeling chilly. Outside it’s 13C and falling and inside it’s 17C but either way we’re splitting hairs here, chilly is chilly and I always said that the day we couldn’t afford heating is the day we sell the barge. Well we haven’t reached that point, not by a long chalk and I’m buggered if I’m going to sit in my own boat and freeze while there’s two and half tons of heating diesel lurking beneath the floorboards. So OK it’s an acknowledgement  of the fact that Autumn weather has arrived but I don’t care. Patcha the cat agrees wholeheartedly and immediately sets about investigating these new and interesting sources of heat, unfortunately her quest for new heat sources leads her to the conclusion that the warmest and most alluring place my laptop keyboard that I’m trying to type on, but hey, who am I to complain I’m just the hired help around here and fur face treats the place like she’s the owner.  It’s at this point dear reader that you get the condensed version of our cat’s keyboard communication skills….here you go 33333ghsdkslllllllvvfgtlpppp………  well, now you see what we’re up against alas after 18 years with her I still have no idea what she’s trying to say. All that’s a roundabout way of saying it’s Official tonight’s the night we turned the central heating boiler on for the first time since April this year and sadly only six months but there you have it.

Time to leave this rant as its time to head out to Restaurante Luca for an Italian supper and I’m thinking pasta vongole for me and a bottle of red.

 

Some- time later……….well that was perfect, a simple meal done really well, I recommend that place highly, a bit off the beaten track on not in the centre of town but the fact that we couldn’t get a table until 2100 and the place was still packed with locals and not a tourist in sight spoke volumes. The food was excellent, the ambience charming and the welcome warm and genuine.

 

Haarlem Highlights. Known to locals as the little Amsterdam due to its 17th century period architecture and many small canals boasts many fine buildings and monuments among them is the former courthouse and the city hall both located on the edge of the great market square which today is also flanked on two sides by many cafes, bars and restaurants. It’s also the site for the large Saturday market selling everything from every kind of fine foods to clothing and numerous speciality stalls.

 

What a Whopper. By far and away the most impressive building on the great market square is the great church or St Bavo’s to give it it’s proper name. This Gothic style church was originally catholic until the reformation in the 16th century when it became a protestant place of worship. It’s a seriously impressive building and though many of the original sculptures were lost during the iconoclastic fury in 1566  it does house the worlds’ largest organ – the famed Muller Organ upon which the young Mozart once played as did Frederick Handel.

Both church and organ are subjects of some interesting facts and statistics starting with the sheer size of each. We’re told that the St Bavos church is so large that services have to be moved to another church nearby during the winter months as it’s too hard and too expensive to heat St Bavos. Inside the church there are several unusual references to the past including a communion board on the back of which is a report of the Spanish siege of Haarlem in 1573 and line 8 states that the people of Haarlem were so hungry that “Ja honden en catten waren wilbraet gheheten” – ‘dogs and cats were called roast game”  Yum yum !!

The floor of the church is paved entirely with gravestones, 1500 to be exact with the oldest dating back to the 15th century.

Best of I thought was a small chapel near the back of the church called the Dog-Whipper’s Chapel so named as it was where a person back in the middle ages  was tasked with the job of disciplining unruly dogs and keeping order in the church!

 

When in 1735 it was agreed to replace the original organ that had stood for over 300 years but become unfit for use, organ builder Christian Muller organ was appointed to build it and it stands at almost 30 metres in height with some 5,068 pipes the longest of which measures an impressive 10 metres or 32 feet. The organ is decorated with an ornate painted and gilded case.

It’s also interesting to note that since the separation of church and state in the Netherlands the organ has been owned and organists appointed by the municipality and not the church with organists being required to play for both church and municipal concerts which, following long tradition are given free and paid for by the municipality.

We were fortunate enough to be in town for one such concert and while the program was not quite my cup of tea it was impressive to hear this magnificent instrument being played.

 

A Sad Sausage Day. It didn’t make the BBC news headlines but judging by my anguished cries it could well have done when delving into the freezer the full horror of the situation came flooding over me as I peered in to see the near end of my Lincoln, England sourced stash of sausages, a tragic event of biblical proportions as all that remained were four measly packs of weeny chipolatas which I could snork in one go. The situation made worse in the full knowledge that Patcha our ageing cat had, over previous months discovered that she too had a penchant for English snags (Aussie term for sausages to the uninitiated) and I’d be forced to share the last remnants with her. The stash I’d brought back in an esky back in January this year had served me well but all good things come to an end as they say. Yes yes, I know that sausages can be found in the Netherlands but they’re just not the same.

 

Our week long stay in Haarlem at an end we finished off with a farewell meal at a little restaurant barely more than 50 metres from our mooring called ‘Nesta’ and one of the best steaks I’ve had in a long while and a delicious celeriac soup to start with that is shortly to be elevated to my all- time faves list. We’ll be sure to drop in again come next spring as we make our way south again.

 

Alkmaar, Northern Gem. Not quite our last stop before Amsterdam again but certainly the last town and Alkmaar instantly joins our list of favourites as we discover yet more tree lined brick paved streets alongside picturesque canals, beautiful buildings and impressive monuments. Our arrival into Alkmaar mid to late Friday afternoon 7th October is well late to secure a berth on the main town quay which is very full and there’s some reluctance to open bridges to let us pass into side canals, our fault for turning up late without a reservation but we figured this late in the season it would be dead quiet, oops, we hadn’t reckoned on visiting on one of Alkmaars busiest festivals. The port office find us a berth on a nearby passenger boat mooring with power and water as it’s not in use over the weekend. Just enough time for a quick exploratory spin around town on my bike before returning to slap a fat rib eye steak on the BBQ for supper and reach for a nice Spanish tempranillo red.

 

The Victory Started in Alkmaar. It’s a true of course Alkmaar’s claim to fame is its centuries old cheese market, the first public one being held back in 1622 and cheeses have been weighed there since 1365 according to the tourist blurb, nowadays however it’s a weekly tourist event held each Friday from the first one in April to the last one in September. It’s also said that the former cheese carriers, two per barrow carrying 120 kgs of cheese per run to the weighing scales were never allowed to swear if a cheese fell off by accident, though no-one says why not but in any event instead of swearing the just yell ‘UIL’ meaning  ‘OWL’ which  I can only guess is the noise you’d make if one of these puppies landed on your foot!

It’s not all just about cheese or maybe it is as Alkmaar ….…. Spanish Flea or Spanish Flee? – The 8th October weekend is a major celebration marking the victory over the Spanish army laying siege to the city in 1573 when locals cut the surrounding dykes and flooded the lands up to the city limits  which seriously cheesed off the Spaniards who took flight at all this water. Alkmaar thus became the first city to throw off the Spanish rule and to this day people still say ‘The victory starts in Alkmaar’. In a somewhat amusing twist of fate it’s now the Dutch who have invaded the Spanish homeland with thousands heading there in summer and even more in the winter as they seek to escape the northern winter.

 

Cheese Heads in Alkmaar. Alkmaar folk are also known as cheese heads which has nothing to do with their consumption of, or capacity for cheese but rather harks back to that Spanish siege in the mid16th century. The good folk of Alkmaar wore helmets on their heads when patrolling the city ramparts to protect themselves. The helmets it turns out were not quite purpose built but rather were the cheese moulds into which the cheese was pressed, hence the name cheese heads.

 

Law & Order – Fun for All The Family. Alkmaar like most places then and now had its share of scoundrels, crooks and ne’er do wells who were kept prior to sentence in two rooms under the otherwise very beautiful city hall building – those condemned to death on the left and the rest on the right, the single windows to each of these rooms can still be seen today. Twice a year the executioner from Haarlem would come down to Alkmaar to execute the judgments held behind the town hall and by all accounts it was a festive occasion, church bells would ring and kids had an hour off school, but we’re told that the proceedings were so horrendous that many walked away screaming. Whipping, drawing & quartering, drowning, decapitating and burning were all part of the fun and just to make sure everyone was ‘on message’, after execution the bodies were taken to the gallows field just outside town where they were hung again (probably just to be doubly sure) and left as examples to those who might consider similar ways.

 

Elsewhere the administration of justice was a little more complex, for example in The Hague the class system was very much in evidence for executions.  Noblemen, the influential or just plain well- heeled being the most fortunate, ain’t it always the way, anyway they simply had their heads lopped off with a sword so generally, or at least hopefully, a clean and swift end, next down the pecking order come the middle classes, merchants and so on and this lot of condemned souls had to be content with simply being hung, but, as with the rich and famous if executed properly, pun definitely intended, this should also offer a swift end. The hoy paloy and great unwashed however did not fair so well being subjected first to the ‘breaking bench’ essentially a long heavy wooden table to which they were spread eagled out where upon heavy sticks were then applied to break the bones in their arms and legs, and finally a large hammer was then used to smash either their heard or their heart, but we never found out whether that was a whim of the executioner or some other arbitrary decision process.

Mind you, it wasn’t all easy street even for the upper and middle classes and worth bearing in mind that torture before execution was a treat everyone got to sample, now of course confessions under torture were not admissible as evidence of guilt so a second confession was required after the torture to make things nice and legal. Always good to see due process being applied in the law isn’t it.

Interestingly the torture chamber in The Hague was very classily lined with those wonderful Delft tiles, ok so they were the rejects but class is class and the purpose as you’ve probably worked out by now was for easy cleaning as torture can be such a messy business.

 

Despite all the obvious attractions of the aforementioned justice system the Netherlands in fact officially abolished the death penalty as far back at 1870, and, one assumes that torture went the same way but we didn’t find any references to that.

 

Other Charms of Alkmaar. It really is a gorgeous town with narrow streets, canals and a swag of beautiful buildings and pleasant squares to sit and watch the world go by. The city hall I’ve mentioned before but alas not open to visitors is still home to some city officials, also worthy of seeing is the Court of Sonoy, formerly a convent, later a home for those whose houses were destroyed making way for the new city walls and eventually the home of Diederick van Sonoy the governor and all round hard man of North Holland with a fearsome reputation as both a brave and cruel fighter. At front and centre of the rebellion against the Spanish he regularly tortured suspects to identify Spanish sympathisers, burned their homes and used women and children as human shields for his troops. Less impressive it’s now a café / restaurant but the outside structure and setting is still very attractive.

 

Nearby the imposing St Laurens church is very impressive with its floor made up of tombstones, it’s truly huge and worth a tour – taking 50 years to complete construction the present structure began back in 1470 though there and been churches on the site as far back at 900 AD. Today it’s used for a variety of functions, concerts, fairs, exhibitions and weddings. Apart from the structure itself the most impressive piece is the huge Schnitger organ built in the 17th century and renovated again in the 18th century this ornate guilt organ is quite stunning. Organ players from around the world still come to hear it and attend competitions. Visiting twice including once for a concert with full orchestra and soloist singers it was really quite special through alas the magnificent the organ was not played.

 

Love for Sale. Like so many towns Alkmaar had a thriving brothel district that remains to this day and though the ‘brothel alley’ and it’s quaintly named ‘horse around houses’ resides in a different location today than that of the 17th century , the original street can still be found. So I’m told!

 

Fish Market and the Clean Up Crew. The Dutch love their fish, every market has both traditional fish mongers selling a wide variety of fresh vis (fish) as well as stands selling a variety of freshly cooked fishy snacks, a bit like the British fish and chip shops only without the chips, which is a bit odd when you stop and think about it given how much the locals love their chips , they seem to like them sold separately, but that’s not the main story here. Again like most towns Alkmaar had its fish market dating back before the 16th century, sadly a thing of the past but the old building and it’s canal side gallery remains intact along with the decorative statues of a fisherman and fisherwoman on the roof. Here with doors in the wall the freshwater fish was kept fresh in braided baskets in the adjacent canal. The story goes that on market days a stork was present and hired by the municipality complete with its official chain of office around its neck. It was walked around the market tasked to eat all the fish waste.

 

 

Last Stop of the Season and the Windmills at Zaanse Schans. Knowing our cruising season is close to an end we’re reluctant to rush back in to Amsterdam, despite its many attractions. Our route from Alkmaar carries us along the Zaan river through the Zaanse Schans with an opportunity for a short stopover in this Dutch heritage site. Moored on a short pontoon we’re surrounded by windmills on one side and the river on the other. The Zaan region was Western Europe’s first industrial area as an 18th and 19th century living and working community.

As an historic reserve and brainchild of architect Jaap Schipper old buildings no longer required elsewhere or threatened by industrial progress were collected, preserved and moved by truck and river barges to this site which now features a preserved village of houses, barns, shops, museums and windmills moved here in the 1960s and 70s in what was the first relocation of this scale that had ever been attempted anywhere in the world. Windmills dominated the Zaan region up to the steam age numbering up to around 600 and processing vast amounts of cocao (the world’s largest cocoa processing plant was here) flour, spices, and paint as well as saw mills and oil pressing.

You could easily argue the whole site is one huge museum and you’d be right. Attracting over 1.5 million visitors a year it’s a bit of a tourist trap and while there are plenty of interesting exhibits in a delightful rural setting one can’t help being put off by the usual swag of shops selling cheap tourist tat (cheap quality not price!) no doubt authentically made in china.

 

Amsterdam Wednesday 12th October. The final day of our cruising season arrived and a short trip from here by the windmills in Zaanse Schans down the Zaan river through Zaandam and into Amsterdam as we make our way to our winter mooring. Stopping for fuel along the way to fill up all our tanks for both the main engine and central heating systems, is always an expensive exercise and this one’s no different as we load some 1500 litres of diesel on board and also fill our water tank. It’s a day I’ve come to dislike, bringing as it does not only an end to this seasons adventures, at least on the waterways but it’s also the precursor to the winter ahead.

Arriving at Westerdok we’re met by Paul van Meelis the Port Captain and guided into our mooring alongside a couple of permanent house barges. Working ropes stowed and old winter ropes dug out of their deep recesses in the forepeak we take some time to get properly secured, shore power hooked up and begin sorting out our winter preparations. There’s always plenty to do readying the barge for the coming winter but our thoughts always seem to stray to the summer just past, the places we’ve been to, the experiences we’ve had and the wonderful people we’ve met along the way.

There is of course some joy to be found and the prospect of exploring our winter port city of Amsterdam is one of them with its fine museums, art galleries, concert halls and loads of cosy restaurants, cafes and bars. There’s also the planning for next season which is already underway even if we’re not.

 

Light fingered locals. Well you hear about it so often you know it’s bound to happen sooner or later, I’m talking about bike theft and after near five years of trouble free service my beat up but fabulous old Giant bike got re-homed, well that’s what the polite term is for having your bike nicked by some thieving sod. I’d chained it up against railings just outside the marina among a squillion others, admittedly the bike lock cable wasn’t the most sturdy and that’s probably why it got purloined as all the other bikes looked more secure than Fort Knox, one things for sure it certainly couldn’t have been nicked for its good looks and pristine condition. It had been raining steadily for a couple of days and I’d meant to go and cover the cushioned seat cover but was put off by the weather, when I eventually braved the elements is when I discovered that I’d already had my last ride on it. Later reverting to more reliable transport and walking to a nearby bar to console my recent loss I found the seat cover left ever so thoughtfully on a post nearby, presumably because the thief didn’t relish a wet arse, anyway not a total loss then. So now comes the task of researching what bike to buy next, one with a bloody good lock is the obvious answer but with a seemingly infinite variety to choose from here in global bike central a little more thought might be required. It does of course mean that the electric bike idea I’ve been mulling over for months now becomes a real prospect……what is they say about from adversity comes opportunity, well that’s a lot more preferable than from adversity comes yet more adversity.

 

Well it seemed like a good idea at the time. About a week or so after getting into Amsterdam the knowledge that we were soon likely to run out of gas, (we use it partially for cooking) was playing on my mind a lot, it’d been three months since I swapped our last full cylinder and we were definitely going to run out soon so it seemed like as good a time as any to make the trip down to Paris to collect our car and while picking up some essentials, you know the sort of stuff, several fat duck breasts for the BBQ, French coffee for her indoors and some economical wine supplies to save guzzling all the good stuff we are now ploughing our way through, oh yes and swap the large 13 kg propane gas bottle while I’m at it.

Evey had the bright idea to put the empty cylinder in a hold all with wheels and take it on the train with me as luggage, then bring the very heavy full one back in the car which I readily agreed was a sensible solution. Friends later made the observation that the Netherlands is one of the world’s largest gas producers and so supplies should be easy to find however, unfortunately despite the modest cost of buying a new cylinder locally the regulator fittings are different from those in France so wouldn’t work though I guess it might have been possible to find an adapter of some kind.

A thought did occur to me that taking a large gas bottle on a train might be frowned upon at best and totally against the rules or an offence at worst, never the less we needed the gas and there seemed no other obvious way. So off I went lugging my gas cylinder buddy with me.

Increased and visible security is the first thing I notice as we enter French rail space as we’re boarded by French National Police checking identity papers, passports etc, border control at work and a wise exercise given recent history. What I wasn’t prepared for were there very large contingent of gendarmes on the platform when I got off at the Gare du Nord in Paris and who were busily making random checks on passengers leaving the platform, mild panic swept over me as I conjured up the look on their faces as they discovered the large gas cylinder in my bag. Worse still, not until I reached my sisters’ house did I learn that only a month earlier in September the Paris police had narrowly averted a terrorist attack where three women had a bag with five or six gas cylinders ready to set off, so my little package was likely to cause a bit of a flap to say the least.

The wave of relief having avoided selection for a random check was swiftly replaced by a cocktail of emotions, mostly rising panic as to my horror I spotted the long row of security baggage X ray machinery like those you see at the airport in front of me and yet more police and more random checking. I suspect in the near future all bags will be checked in this way but on this occasion luck was again with me when I walked by without being detained as my head filled with images of alarms going off followed swiftly by over-zealous officers racing to my scanned bag weapons drawn, and people scattering in all directions while I tried to explain the saga of the gasless barge in Amsterdam, it didn’t bare thinking about and on reflection taking a gas cylinder empty or otherwise into Paris and via a crowded railway station was perhaps not the smartest move I’ve ever made!

The Netherlands Observed – Cruising 2016, Things You See and Things You Don’t. A comparison between the Netherlands and France in many respects seems rather unfair let alone the Netherlands and the rest of the world, on the other hand given the French history here you might think there’d be some legacies. So what am I rabbiting on about, well let’s start with the things you see. After several months observing towns and villages across the length and breadth of the Netherlands several things strike you, first is they love the light and houses whether modern or the gorgeous 17th century houses that proliferate pretty well every old town centre all have large windows allowing the light to flood in regardless of the time of day or the temperature outside. This of course is in direct contrast to France where it seems the entire population prefer to live like moles or in caves with all the windows shuttered both day and night. The Dutch it seems, are more than happy to have their entire ground and upper floors open to any and all passers- by who wants to take a peek inside, which unlike the French they don’t do. It’s been our experience in France, on the barge at least that the French are hugely curious about what the inside of a barge looks like and regardless of whatever it is you’re doing if you don’t draw your curtains or blinds you’re likely to find any number of faces pressed against your window ogling in, smiling, pointing and gesticulating to anyone that’s interested and leaving us feeling like some zoo exhibit and hence the habit of closing all shore-side window coverings when moored in towns and villages. But what-ever the reason Dutch windows and all that lies beyond seem to invite you to take a look inside.

 

Got one, Get Another. Talking of Dutch windows as I was, another observation is the almost national obsession with symmetry,  so invariably any window with more than one pane must be decorated identically, thus, if there’s a plant pot on one side then there must be an identical pot on the other, ditto for a vase or ornament and in one case even a cat, actually there were two cats each in their respective panes!  After a while you start to lookout  for these national traits and it’s not long before you’ve more examples than you can poke a tall Dutchman at. Hmm, a tall Dutchman…isn’t that a tautology?

 

Conspicuous commerce. At first glance that  might appear an odd descriptor for a title but when you start to look at commercial behaviours and attitudes several significant differences become evident, for example general shopping hours in France are broadly Monday to Friday 9 to 5 with occasional late night shopping one day a week, Saturday shopping usually in the morning only and largely everything closed on a Sunday and Monday (some supermarkets do have extended hours though it’s true). Naturally with such a love of cuisine lunchtime is sacred and most shops are closed for at least a two hour lunch break.

If you’re planning on eating in France be sure to get to your lunch table by 12.30 or 1.00 at the latest or you risk going hungry or being turned away and banish any thoughts of eating all day or outside of normal mealtime hours. Dinner time too is rigidly organised so turning up before 7.00 pm risks a frosty reception and told to come back later, at 7.30 it’s likely you’ll still be the lonely diners!

Travel barely three hours north by train into the Netherlands and there’s a world of difference. Eating habits in the Netherlands have one similarity to France in as much as the Dutch love food and love to eat out – lots, and often! So much so that it’s possible in most places to eat at any time of the day, no one is turned away for arriving late for lunch and no hungry Euro refused. Portions are generally large probably due to perceptions of value sometimes at the expense of quality but not always. The Dutch like to eat early as well and it’s not uncommon to find restaurants doing a roaring trade from 6.00 pm onwards, many’s the time we’ve rocked up at 8.00 or to a full house with only our table vacant being the last in regularly the last out.

Shopping by contrast is a free for all pretty well every day of the week, true some smaller shops do close on Sunday’s and even remain closed on Monday mornings but you can generally get what you want whenever you want it and certainly no closing for lunch.

It does perhaps offer some insights as to why their economy seems so robust. As to who’s got the balance right, it’s hard to say.

 

Streets are Paved with…..Pavers! There’s very little natural stone here so we found that in just about every town old and new the main building material is brick with most of the buildings including the very large churches are constructed in brick. Similarly apart from the modern highways and major trunk roads the road surfaces around town and villages are almost exclusively made of clay bricks and pavers. Part of the reason for this over tarmac is that combined with the soft and often sandy soils, pavers and bricks make it easy to access to underground cables etc, they can be easily saved and recycled and have the added benefit of being very attractive.

 

Bicycles …..Oh really? Ok so this might seem like the bleeding obvious but while you’re expecting to see bicycles here in The Netherlands what surprises you is the sheer volume and variety of them both for transporting goods, adults and kids. Bikes with single seats, seats for one child, two children even three children, kiddy cart three wheelers and best of all the electric kiddy carts for up to eight kids….just as amazing as they are inventive.

 

What about the things you don’t see…….well graffiti for one, sure in some parts of the bigger cities you’ll find it if you look hard enough in the right / wrong areas but wholesale graffiti of buildings, walls & infrastructure etc is not something you see a lot of here and it’s noticeable, maybe a sign of an affluent well educated country with low unemployment, maybe more simply a national trait for neatness and social order I can’t say.

Another thing that’s really noticeable in as much as you don’t see them are streets strung with electric cables overhead or adorning the sides of almost every building in France and indeed other parts of Europe including the UK, Spain, Portugal and so on. Pretty well all cables are buried underground which makes the towns so much neater, tidier and more attractive. Further investigation revealed that it’s due in large part because the ground is so soft ( you have to go down a long way before you hit clay let along bedrock!) so digging up streets and burying all your cables and pipe works in the soft and often sandy soils is pretty easy. This of course poses other engineering and building problems but the Dutch are nothing if not inventive and adept at managing to keep their feet dry and resolving these problems, no small feat when you consider how much and how far the vast bulk of this country is below sea level!

 

 

The other thing you don’t see  lot of here are bike helmets, whether for push bikes, electric bikes, scooters and mopeds under 50CC and often propelled by very young people, few of whom look like they’re just met the wrong side of a passing cement mixer and cycling without a helmet and indeed without lights at night is rarely troubled by a brush with the local wallopers ( police). Few cyclists seem to come to grief and they certainly don’t risk getting a thumping great fine like in NSW (Nanny South Wales as it could be called more accurately).

 

Parrots – Are you kidding me? At first we thought we were going nuts, listening to the sound of screeching parrots a sound familiar to most Australians but it turned out to be true when we discovered that a number of imported parrots had escaped into the wild some years ago and had since gone native. We’d heard and later saw them in several towns including Rotterdam as they made their noisy frantic flights around the place. Who’d have thought it!

Rose necked parakeets in the Hague, green parrots in Amsterdam and Rotterdam were among the strangest things we’ve seen in the Netherlands along with brown spotted sheep, people so tall they look like they’re on stilts, the world’s biggest organ, world’s biggest steam engine but by far the strangest and last thing I’d have expected to see has to be a colourful tropical parrot!

 

Collecting the kids from school – Back in Australia it’s pretty common to see nothing but big gas guzzling oversized 4 x 4 s lined up morning and afternoons outside schools picking up or dropping off the kids from school but not here…….no way, mum turns up on a bicycle with up to 3 extra seats on it or a bike with a cart in front into which up to 3 small kids are pedalled around town, and no I don’t mean pedalled as in sold!

 

Winter Escapes. Before turning our thoughts to plans for next season there’s still the rest of Autumn and Winter ahead to think about, not to mention a few winter escapes which are now all falling into place. We’re heading off to Basel in Switzerland for Christmas spending it with old and dear friends Carol, Urs and Colin Schweizer, we’re promised turkey and all the trimmings so we’ll need to make sure we take some decent vino along with us. Our winter escape continues right after Christmas as we make our way south to Monaco where dear chums from Australia, Geri and Peter Radzim have kindly lent us their apartment for a couple of weeks while we explore the haunts of the well heeled and a few forays into northern Italy before making our way west and further south again into Spain and to Moraira to see barging buddies Alan & Sharon, and John and Winnie all of whom have bought villas in this pleasant coastal town filled with expats of all nationalities and plenty of good restaurants, but more on that episode in due course and naturally our fur friend Patcha will be making the journey with us.

 

Thoughts on the Season Ahead. The short story is we’re going south again, a long way south in fact and back to where our barging adventure all began back in 2012 along the canal de Garonne and Canal du Midi. There’s a few things that got us to this point instead perhaps of the more logical exploration of places further north in Germany, and possible Eastern Europe or even Scandinavia, but we reckon there’s still a lot of years left in this barging malarkey for us and it’s good to leave some new stuff for another day. The mixed northern weather and a need for sun, seeing old chums, revisiting favourite haunts, restaurants, towns, markets and vineyards, and the prospect of lazy summer days napping in a hammock under a tree with a good book and a glass of vino are all contributors to our decision to head south again if only for another season or two. Lazy lunches on deck……. well we had precious few this season with the shade umbrellas barely getting raised more than a half dozen times and warm evenings having dinner on deck barely one or two and frankly that’s just not acceptable?  All in all though when we look back at previous seasons it turns out that so far we’ve spent almost exactly the same amount of time in the far south of France as we have in the north and beyond so it’s really time for a return visit.