Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 4

Read about this trip from the start - here.
Amstel River Amsterdam
For the most part on this trip we saw Dutch registered boats. Our guess is about 90% of the boats on the waterways are locals. Another 9% are German owned boats And obviously the closer one gets to the German and Belgian borders the more of those boats are on the waterways. We saw very few other nationalities. Two British boats, one Swedish and one from Denmark.

Since we arrived late - and we had Internet - sort of - we caught up on comms and chores on the boat. The following morning we caught the free ferry across the Ij into Amsterdam which was heaving with humans. Hen and stag groups - or whatever the occasion - with team T-Shirts seem to be the thing in Amsterdam. I guess people come to party. We saw a good few people who over-did it on magic mushrooms, weed or strong beers and were looking more than a little worse for wear.
Free ferry across the River Ij
And that's another thing I will never understand. Tourists don't seem to venture past Damrak in Amsterdam. It's groaning with people shuffling  past each other gawking at the girls in the red light district. I get that the openness about sex and drugs is a novelty. And for sure our first trip we did the
obligatory walk past the ladies in the sex area. And we visited a kinky museum. Or two.

Nowadays we skip Damrak and head straight to the outer suburbs. Food and drinks are cheaper and it's just a whole lot nicer. If you're not keen on a walk then catch a tram. Even better, take short day trip by train out to Alkmaar, Haarlem, Delft, Gouda or Utrecht. They also have lovely canals with cruises, Dutch architecture, a town square, markets, yummy food and all that one expects - but minus the hoards of tourists.
Abandoned umbrellas after the storm
We struggle with Internet on the waterways. For four reasons. Reason One - while there is wi-fi in some marinas, a person needs to be near the modem, which is usually in the havenkantoor (harbour office). If your boat is not moored close enough, then the signal is not strong enough. Reason Two - our boat is made of steel, wi-fi signal is not able to penetrate the boat. We usually have to sit on the outer perimeter of the deck to get some signal.

Reason Three - is the sheer number of people all trying to get signal. At Compagniehaven we speculated there were around 700 boats. Sure, not all were trying to use wi-fi, but each boat has at LEAST two people - however most boats are likely to have a family or group of friends on board. There are simply too many people all trying to get on-line. Reason Four - people use wifi gobblers. I never even knew these things existed until another boater told us about them. He uses a thing called Wifi Rogue which he bought in America. Apparently they suck up available wifi signal but I really don't understand how they work
Eating in the dark at C Taste
We've been to Amsterdam a few times now and rather than pack in museums or a canal cruise, we like to go walkabout and visit places we liked before or find new places to like. Our first day in Amsterdam we wanted to do a shop-up at our favourite store - Marqt. Everything is organic and ethically sourced. They also only accept credit cards. Which is a nice change for us. Foreign owned shops such as Zara or H and and most hotels accept credits cards but Dutch owned businesses will not take credit cards. Even large chains stores like their supermarkets are not interested. They will accept a local debit card which we don't have.

We also booked at a place called C-Taste, more on that later, where they will accept a credits card but add the bank fee onto the bill for your account. I suspect in Amsterdam there is a bit more tolerance for credit cards but not elsewhere.
View from Sixhaven marina
We ended the day at a pub in De Pijp area and had a Belgian beer while watching people going about life. It never ceases to amaze us how the mix of motor vehicles, trams, bicycles, tricycles, tandem bikes, mobility vehicles and humans all manage to go about their journeys without crashing or fighting. I get scared just crossing the road with all the activity.

Before going back to the boat we had a pita at our favourite spot Maoz. For €5 you get a white or wholewheat pita pocket, 3 falafel balls and unlimited salad and sauces. Yum. Our second day in Amsterdam we wanted to go to the Albert Cuyp market. We've been before and it always gets a mention in the What To Do in Amsterdam guides.
House boat in Amsterdam
Plus the guy double-banked next to our boat from Friesland was raving about it. We thought we would give it another try. It's lots of the same stuff really. Mostly cheap clothes and fruit and veggie stalls. The prices aren't that much better than the supermarkets but we love the novelty of shopping at produce markets. They sometimes have things you don't often see. Like purple carrots. We had to try those.

The weather was atrocious. Freezing cold, howling gales and horizontal rain. How does this happen in the height of the summer and holiday season? There were broken umbrellas aplenty next to rubbish bins. We decided to catch the tram back to Dam and head for one of our favourite veggie places in the Jordaan area for a bite - Bolhoed. Amazing how bad weather sends people indoors. The number of people of the streets was vastly down compared to the previous day. We were also pleased not to be boating in inclement weather.
The captain having a break from the rain at Bolhoed
Since we've discovered Happy Cow ( we've visited all sorts of amazing veg friendly eateries on our travels. Bolhoed (bowler hat) have vegetarian, vegan and raw food. After a meal at Bolhoed we'd had enough of being out went back to the boat to keep warm and dry. The rain lashed down and our boat bounced for a few hours more and then just like that, the weather lifted and the sun came out. We heard the following day that the tram service was suspended due to a tree blowing over and debris on the track. That's the Netherlands for you. Four season in one day.
This story continues - next week.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 3

Read about this trip from the start - here.
Westfriese kanaal
From our wild stop we journeyed along straight canals, through the polders, heading inland and south in the North Holland province. Not sure how the Netherlands came to be called Holland. Holland is actually a province. It's a bit like calling the USA - Texas or the UK - Yorkshire.

And that's not the only thing I don't understand. The system of  building a dyk or bank to close off the Zuiderzee creating their polders still confuses me. The Dutch aren't sure themselves when the process of holding back the sea started. The pretty windmills we associate the countryside - along with Friesland cows, cheese, clogs, funny white hats and brightly coloured tulips - served to pump out water. Today they have modern pumps doing that job. But consider what would happen if the pumps stopped working? There are still rivers flowing into the Netherlands. And it rains. And there is a coastline. What about global warming and the possibility of a rising ocean?
Approaching Alkmaar
So while the Dutch people sought to protect themselves from the ravages of the North Sea and create land from the bed of the Zuiderzee, they face an ongoing issue to keep water at bay. No doubt the innovative Dutch people have considered all this but it does add an extra dimension to national security. No wonder there are so many floating homes in Holland. The polders, which are essentially the old sea bed, are a much as 6 metres below sea level. I find it humid when we're in the low lying areas. Particularly on a hot day. The weather can fluctuate quickly.

Our next stop was Alkmaar. (prounounced Alekmaar) Another Dutch medieval town and well worth visiting. Many towns in the Netherlands were built with a moat around to encases the old city. Plenty old towns and cities survived the bombings of the Second World War so their buildings are still in tact. It's worth remembering that Holland was occupied during the war and certain areas were heavily bombed. Alkmaar doesn't appear to be one of those places. What to do? Head to the VVV (tourist info) and get a map. And then just get lost. Wander around the streets. Alkmaar, as do all the other medieval towns, has festivals, markets and museums. A Beatles museum and a beer museum were the two that piqued our interest.
The Beer Museum was a modest €4 and had video presentations, mostly in Dutch but one was in English. Three floors of information - luckily also in English - and a pub at the bottom next to a canal where you can try one of over 50 beers at a discount. Our attempt to try the local beers failed as they didn't have them in stock. We ended up having a Grimbergen donker ale (dark ale) which is one of our favourites anyway. The canal was bonkers busy with people in slopen (dinghys) barelling past each other with more or less boating skill causing the odd bump. You can hire a dinghy and take yourself on a trip through the maze of waterways.
Beer museum Alkmaar
On the subject of drinks to try, beer is top of our list. The Netherlands have a vast selection of regional and national beers. Our best Dutch beers are Texels and Brand. We often discover a divine beer in a local pub and never find it again. Heinken and Amstel are famous local beers but they are lagers. Most pubs also have plenty Belgian beers. Often made by Trappist monks. We love their malty dark ales such Leffe, Grimbergen and Westmalle. You can get pils, cherry beers, weiss - more types of beers than you can ever imagine. Some of them pack an alcoholic punch - up to 11% alcohol - so drink with care. They're usually served in a matching glass freshly rinsed with water. Why do they do that? I really don't know. Might have something to do with the foam. We finished our day with a walkabout and a shop-up before heading back to our boat for a jog (one way to explore and get some exercise) and an early night.
Our next trip was via the Noord Hollandsch Kanaal via Zaanstad into the Noordzee Kanaal which becomes the Ij River and runs through Amsterdam. We've been to Amsterdam on our boat before and headed straight for Sixhaven. It's not the only marina, but we knew what to expect. The Ij River in Amsterdam is wide and the banks are home to factories so the route is industrial. Which means you get to share the waterways with big working barges. Who always have right of way. They come from way behind you and push right past you into the locks. Never mind how long you've been waiting. You hope there is enough space for you. Or hope another barge doesn't come while you're waiting to enter the lock. Because they will get right of way. One very good reason to avoid commercial routes.
Inner canals of Alkmaar
However we like barges when there are bridges as they make sure they get opened and we don't have to call the bridge operators on the VHF radio. We come from South Africa and speak Afrikaans. Which is an old version of Dutch from the settlers way back when. Somehow Afrikaans has developed it's own words and pronunciations of words. We sort of understand Dutch if they speak slowley or if we read it. Highbrow newspapers excluded. But we prefer not to have to figure out what the operator said. Or ask again and again until we understand.
Approaching Amsterdam by boat
Sixhaven has a sharp entrance and the moorings are tightly packed. Sixhaven can get very, very full. I'm happy to do deck duty but I'm way too scared to park our boat. I would hate to manoeuvre a boat in Sixhaven. It's a bit like a Rubik's cube situation. The havenmeester toggles boats and the ingoing or outgoing boats glide past other boats in tight proximity. We also had to cross the channels in the River Ij. Which meant dodging the ferries and barges. Scary stuff. Sixhaven has had a bit of a renovation. They have a lovely brand new ablution block.
Sixhaven marina
The story continues - next week.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 2

Read about this trip from the start - here.

We never for a second thought we would spend as much time in the Netherlands as we did. There is so much to see and the Dutch are geared for water travel. I started blogging about our boat when we did the northern areas of the Netherlands - Drenthe, Groningen and Friesland in 2013. In 2014 we explored the middle and southern areas taking in places like Delft, Rotterdam, Utrecht and heading into the Limberg region down to Maasbracht. For such a small country Holland has over 6000 kilometres of inland waterways.
French maps and remote control
One day we were having a chat to some people on a boat next to us and they opened a map of the waterways of Europe. That's when we realised the sheer scale of connected waterways. A person can travel by boat from Holland through Germany through Poland through Belarus to the Ukraine all the way to the Black Sea. Or from Germany up north via Denmark to the Baltic Sea and Scandanavian countries. Or from Holland via Belgium to France. From France it's possible to head back up and across the English channel to the UK. Other countries such as Austria, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Hungary, Bosnia and Serbia are also accessible to avid boaters. No doubt about it, we had to move on.
Last night in Zwartsluis
This is the story of our journey from Zwartsluis in the Netherlands via Belgium to St Jean De Losne in France. One continent, three countries, five cities, 44 towns, 77 days, 298 locks and 1274 kilometres in total.

Our last few days in Zwartsluis were about tying up loose ends. Final repairs, topping up on food and fuel, squaring up our account with the marina. Since we were going to cross the Ijsselmeer, timing in terms of weather was paramount. It can get mighty breezy. Which is why it attracts a lot of yachts. We said goodbye to all the people we got to know and geared up for an early start from Zwartsluis across the Ijsselmeer to Enkhiuzen. The start date of our journey was Saturday 18th July 2015.
Using the van to load up on provisions
The wind was about Force 5 on the Ijsselmeer, enough to give us a bumpy ride at times. I was glad when we made it to Enkhuizen. We had four marinas to choose from. Not always the case I need to point out. Compagniehaven was the biggest marina I have ever been to. Could accommodate - at a guess 700 boats. The 3 other marinas although smaller were jam packed full of boats. We've experienced double banking on our boat. We've seen triple banking. In the municipal harbour in Enkhuizen - boats were tied up six abreast. Sextuple banking!
Sailing on the Ijsselmeer
Although my other half is a meticulous planner, and we have the Imray Inland Waterways guide books, it's not always possible to know what to expect when arriving at a new place. The guide isn't ever going to say a place is rubbish. They have more, or less, to say about a town which is something of a guide. And the name or size of a place doesn't give much of a clue either. Some really big places have turned out to be industrialized and conversely tiny places were post-card pretty. Enkhuizen is a lovely touristy place with something we haven't seen often - a Dutch beach! They also have the Zuidzee Museum which although pricey at €15 -  is worth visiting. Not all Dutch museums have their information in English but this one did. We made the mistake of not allowing enough time for the museum. There's an indoor part where they have exhibits and artifacts. But there's also a huge outdoor section where they recreate an entire village. You can see a pharmacist, a cooper and a lime kiln amongst many others exhibits setup as they would have been back when. You can buy smoked herrings and Dutch sweets at the various shops.
They also have a walking route that you can follow on your own which takes you through and past the best bits of Enkhuizen. Since Sundays and Mondays tend to be pretty quiet in most places in Holland we knew we would need an extra night in Enkhuizen. The nice thing with planning and anticipating our journey, we had a bit of room to add or subtract a stop here or there.
Zuiderzee Museum
From Enhuizen we went back onto the the Ijsselmeer heading north, close to the coast, and popped back inland at Medemblik. Fortunately the weather was a whole lot better and it was a much calmer passage. We found a wild spot to overnight. Wild stops can be free but unlucky for us, this one cost €17. The havenmeester (harbour master) pitched up on his bicycle to collect his fee. Admittedly the wild stop did offer walstroom (electricity), water and an overflowing refuse disposal bin. But to put that in context, our night at Compagniehaven cost €26 and had everything you can think of, washing machines, supermarket and bakery, two floors of amenities and showers, restaurant, wi-fi, boat repairs and various items for sale. Utrecht marina cost us €12 including unlimited electricity. You still have to pay to use the showers at the marinas over and above the mooring fee. And you pay for electricity. And for water. It's all metered and you drop in a 50c or €1 coin, or use a yachthavenbetaalkaart (yacht harbour pay card) which are only in use in a few marinas, press a button and it should work.
Wild stop
Your mooring fee is based on the length of your boat, the amount of people on board and sometimes a tourist tax. Private marinas are more expensive and usually offer the works - some even have a gym and free bicycle hire. Municipal marinas are cheaper but the facilities can vary from not so great to surprisingly good. Municipal marinas are often in the inner canals near the bars and shops. Nice to be in the heart of things. Not so nice if a group of rowdy people don't want to go to bed, which certainly happens in the summer holidays.

The story continues - here.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France - Part 1

My other half and I often have to pinch ourselves as we just cannot believe we have our very own Dutch steel motor cruiser - Shangri La. How did this happen? I have to confess I had no part in it. None whatsoever. In fact I had no desire to even set foot on a boat. Why would I? Then I met my now husband. He'd been sailing dinghys as a child and went on to become a ship captain. Boats are his whole life.
Shangri La in Alkmaar

Sailing holidays in Greece and Turkey were his thing for decades. He took me on a sailing holiday to the Greek Islands. The Sporades. Fabulous part of the world. I liked being on a boat but was less keen on the actual sailing. More like hard work than a holiday. I also didn't like being lurched all over the place and ducking every time we changed tack to avoid getting smacked on my head by the boom.
Shangri La in Utrecht

Our next trip he took us to explore the Croatian islands, this time we had a cabin cruiser. (Read about that holiday - here) Again I loved being on a boat but that particular boat had compact living space and was all about speed and power.

The following holiday we did the Macclesfield Canal on a traditional English narrow boat. I really enjoyed that break. Boating at a slow gentle pace means you can leave a cup of coffee on a table without fearing it will smash  or spill. The holiday after that was wonderful. We went barging in France. (Read more - here - and - here) And we did more similar holidays. A narrow boat in the Brecon Beacons in Wales and more France as well as the Netherlands.
Shangri La in Liege

Since we enjoyed our slow boating holidays, it started to make sense to buy a boat. Well that's how my other half explained it to me. He favoured a Dutch steel motor cruiser. If there is one thing the Dutch have got right over the eons, it's making boats. We did our last holiday with a boat-hire company that specifically uses Pedros, a particular design of Dutch steel boat. (Find that holiday - here) My other half knew that was the sort of boat he might like and wanted to try one out.

Over the next couple of years we looked at a LOT of boats. We had a checklist and would rate the boats according to things we thought would be important like water and fuel capacity, location of toilet for guests on the boat, engine size, air and water draft, equipment, double steering positions - something we didn't want as we felt it took up unneccesary space. We had some idea of what boating in Europe would be like. We needed to fit under bridges or travelling would be limited. We needed to have enough fuel and water. The bigger the boat the higher the mooring costs but with two of us hoping to take lengthy holidays we needed space to move.
Shangri La in Dinant

We fell in love with a Mollenkruiser in Nottingham. Beautiful boat. And fully renovated. Sadly the sale fell through as there was insufficient paperwork in place. Paperwork is VERY important crossing international borders. Proof of tax payments and ownership papers were not available for that boat. Despite the owner of that boat insisting he had never had a problem, and we were very much in love with that boat, we took advice from multiple people and never went through with the purchase.

Since my other half was set on a Dutch design boat we knew we would in all likelihood find one in the Netherlands. And so focused on boats there. Eventually we found Shangri La, the much loved boat of a German couple who had to sell. They had enjoyed plenty holidays on her and done a whole lot of improvements. Things we never considered important like an electric hob, which we initially thought was odd, but with gas regulations and safety issues it's actually a sensible idea. The boat also didn't have a holding tank but rather a sea toilet. Many of the boats we looked at had holding tanks close to the living area. They smell. My other half is prepared to fit one externally if the need arises. And we keep disposable toilet liners should we be in an area that prohibits the use of a sea toilet. Shangri La has a distinct nautical interior with a ships brass clock that chimes the bells and assorted other brass and nautical hooks and gadget holders. Luckily the owners left all that on the boat for us. And a  few other handy things such as German pots, microwave, spares and tools.
Shangri La in Bar le Duc

The sale went well and we became the proud owners of Shangri La. We think we're her fourth owners. Her bouwjaar (building year) is 1992. She is a Van der Valk cruiser. My husband is happy to keep on top of maintenance and repairs either by himself or outsourcing work. Shangri La has been re-upholstered, she has new curtains, her piping has been replaced, starter motor and gearbox overhauled, woodwork refurbished, new awnings and canvas covers, the broken windows and ports have been repaired. But, like any house or car, a boat has to be maintained ongoing.

The story continues - here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Riebeek Kasteel Week - Part 4

Go to the start of this article by clicking - here.
Pieter Cruythoff Memorial Stone
Another thing to do in the day is the the History Route. Download the details on It starts just outside Riebeek Kasteel in the direction of Hermon. We popped into Hermon thinking it would be as quaint as Riebeek Kasteel. It's not. There's a bottle store, a general dealer and an agricultural supply outlet. That's it. The drive is not well marked but we managed to find most of the places or points of historical interest. We had to drive back and forth a few times before we spotted the Pieter Cruythoff Memorial stone. The museum at De Oude Kerk has genuine Boer (Dutch settler or farmer) day to day living items as well prehistoric tools. They have a touch screen information board where you can read as much or as little as you want.
Birthplace of Field Marshall J C Smuts
I loved the Jan Smuts museum at the PPC Cement factory. PPC is a bit of a blot on the outskirts of this pretty area but kudos to them, they have restored Smuts birthplace and turned it into a museum. You can see old newspaper cuttings and photos of Smuts. I worry that they have not been copied and the originals kept in a safe place but I consider myself lucky to have seen what they had on show.
Local designs at a boutique in town
Don't fancy driving? Well you could stroll around the central area taking in art galleries, boutiques, craft shops and eateries. We found art, ceramics, wrought iron work, clothing, home-made skin care products as well as jams and chutneys. That is by no means all there is to view or buy. RK has some rather out there decor in the eating places. Eve's Eatery has a "chandelier" made from a bicycle wheel and various stuffed characters dotted around. They do a 3 bean burger which was good. We LOVED Mama Cucina. They do the very best thin based vegan pizza ever. It's not on the menu but apparently they make it often so just ask.
The town square
Once the sun sets behind the mountain and the ambient temperatures drop, it remains light until the sun actually sets. Local residents come out in the cooler air and get fit walking, running, cycling or leisurely take their dogs for a sniff around. Kids come out to play or people head out for sun downers or a meal. We made sure we went walkabout with the dogs every day once it was cool and got to see as much of Riebeek Kasteel as we could. I loved the Beware of the Snakes signs. Not a common sight. We also got to see the tractors and trailers filled with grapes as farmer were furiously harvesting.
Local eatery
Since Riebeek Kasteel is a teeny tiny village, it doesn't generate the same amount of light as a big city. Which means the stars shine brightly. The full moon is so bright it's as if a light has been switched on outside. Even during full moon we could see Sirius, Orion's Belt, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Castor and Pollux and The Southern Cross. How do I know this? My other half is a not so ancient mariner who still knows how to plot a course with a sextant. (He can tell the weather and time of day looking at the sky. The rest of us can download an app or map to do some star gazing. New moon is a perfect time.
Memorabilia at the Museum at Het Oude Kerk
After a whole week of time out we reluctantly made our way back home to face a never ending To-Do list. We were so lucky to have this break and should we come again, we know there's lots to do. Having said that, doing nothing can also be fun.