The Netherlands is Closed on Mondays

Willem has started a project at work that requires him to travel to Leeuwarden–almost 2 hours north of Haarlem, in the province of Friesland–every Monday.  I had never been that far north in the Netherlands, so this past Monday I decided to hitch a ride with Willem in the morning and explore the city while he was at work.

Leeuwarden, City, Canal

I read up on Leeuwarden before we left to figure out what I wanted to do there.  I found out that it is a pretty interesting city, despite not exactly being a tourist hotspot.  It is the capital of Friesland, a Dutch province with a fierce identity, including its own language (West Frisian).  Friesland (or Fryslân in the local language) is the only province of the Netherlands with two recognized official languages. As soon as you pass into Friesland on the drive north from Amsterdam, you will see road signs posted in both Dutch and Frysian, with the Dutch often secondary to the local language.

Leeuwarden, Statue, Elfstedentocht

Monument dedicated to the winners of the Elfstedentocht in Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden is also famous for its role in the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), a traditional 200km ice skating race that takes place over 24 hours along the canals linking eleven Frysian cities.  I have mentioned my interest in the Elfstedentocht once before, when I visited Heerenveen (also in Friesland) to watch speed skating, but it is such an amazing event, I think it is worth describing a little more in depth here…especially since Leeuwarden plays a starring role! The race only happens in years where the canals freeze over with ice to a thickness of at least 15 centimeters.  Every winter, the entire country of the Netherlands keeps a close eye on the canals around Leeuwarden, praying for them to freeze over to an acceptable thickness.  If the ice is deemed suitable, the race is announced by a committee of representatives from each of the eleven cities, and within 48 hours the competition begins. The finishing point of the race is a canal near Leeuwarden called the Bonkevaart, and winners of the race become Dutch national heroes.

Leeuwarden, Map, Elfstedentocht, Eleven Cities, Friesland

Cities of the Elfstedentocht

In the summertime though, Leeuwarden is just like any other Dutch city.  The center of the city is built around a network of canals, with centuries-old houses lining narrow streets.

We arrived in Leeuwarden around 9am, and I parted ways with Willem for the day. I planned to find the tourist office first, to get a map and decide the best route to take around the city.  Unfortunately, in what was to become a theme for the day, the tourist office was closed.  I had forgotten a very important fact about the Netherlands: Everything is closed on Mondays!

As strange as it sounds, this is not a joke.  Almost every museum, public monument, shop, store, or anything else that a tourist would want to see, is closed on Mondays in the Netherlands. If you’re lucky, some places open in the afternoon, but nothing is open before around 1pm.  How could I (and even Willem!) have forgotten this Dutch habit of extending your weekend as far as possible before going back to work?

However it happened, I now had an entire day in Leeuwarden with nothing to see or do. I decided to wander the city exactly as I would have on a different day, except today I would have to be happy with admiring the outsides of all those museums and monuments.  Travel is about adapting, right?

I walked towards the old center from Willem’s office, making my way to the Waagplein.  I bought a croissant and spent some time sitting on the pretty square, watching people walking or biking on their way to work (where they were going will remain a mystery, since nothing was OPEN).

Leeuwarden, Canals, Waagplein

The Waagplein

I then walked west along the Nieuwestad to the parks and gardens that line the ring of canals around the center.  The Prinsentuin (Prince’s Garden) was so beautiful that I had to stop there.

Leeuwarden, Prinsentuin, Garden, Pier Pander Museum

The Prinsentuin

The park was originally built in 1648 as a private park for Prince Willem Frederik of Nassau, but was opened to the public in 1795.  I found a park bench along the canal and sat in the sun reading a book for over an hour before moving on.

Flower, Leeuwarden, Prinsentuin, Garden

Flowers in the Prinsentuin

Flower, Leeuwarden, Prinsentuin, Garden

Flower in the Prinsentuin

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The view from my bench along the canal

Over the next few hours, I walked past all of the most famous sites and museums in Leeuwarden: the De Oldehove Tower, the acclaimed Keramiek (Ceramics) Museum, the Jewish Quarter, the Fries Museum, and the Verzets (Dutch Resistance) Museum. I found out that the last two are closed for renovation, so I wouldn’t have been able to see them anyway.

Leeuwarden, Tower, Oldehove, Leaning Tower

De Oldehove

If De Oldehove looks like it is crooked in my picture, that’s because it is.  In fact, the tower leans more than the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy! The Oldehove was originally designed as a church tower. Construction began in 1529, but during construction the tower began to lean. All efforts to correct the lean failed, and work on the tower was stopped for safety reasons in 1532.  Funnily enough, the church that was connected to the tower was demolished, but the tower remained standing.  For all the worries about safety, De Oldehove has outlasted everything around it!

Leeuwarden, Ceramics Museum, Keramiekmuseum

Ceramics Museum

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Monument to Leeuwarden’s lost Jewish population. During the Holocaust, over 550 out of the 650 Jews that lived in Leeuwarden were killed, and most of the survivors left.

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Narrow streets in the Medieval town center of Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden, City Centre, Friesland, Street

Graffiti in Leeuwarden

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Busy canals

After I got tired of walking, I spent the majority of the rest of the day working on my laptop and reading in the local library (boring, I know) until Willem finished with work.  Leeuwarden is a pretty city, but it is small.  Unless you have things planned to keep you occupied, you will exhaust your options fast.  So learn from my mistakes- don’t try to do anything in the Netherlands on a Monday!

Friesland, Netherlands, Windmills, Landscape

The Frisian landscape passing by on the drive home

Deventer Boekenmarkt: The Biggest Book Market in Europe

Book Market, Boekenmarkt, DeventerWith well-known cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the Hague to keep tourists in the Netherlands busy, Deventer is usually not very high on many people’s list of must-sees.   But every year, on the first Sunday in August, Deventer hosts the biggest book market (boekenmarkt) in Europe- an event that I think should be on every list!

Deventer, located on the River IJssel,  was an important trading center during the Middle Ages and was a prominent member of the Hanseatic League.  The city center (where the book market is located) was largely spared from destruction during WWII, so the entire area is full of charming, centuries-old buildings and public squares.  Deventer also has the advantage of being easily accessible from Amsterdam.  It took us approximately 1hr 15min to get to Deventer by car, or you can get there in 1hr 30min by train.

Book Market, Boekenmarkt, Deventer

This year, the book market started at 9:30am and lasted until 5:30pm. We didn’t arrive until almost 11am, but were told that there were people lining up to start browsing the book stalls as early as 7am.  In total over 125,000 people visit the Deventer book market annually.

Book Market, Boekenmarkt, Deventer Book Market, Boekenmarkt, Deventer

If you decide to brave the crowds (as every book lover should), make sure to give yourself enough time to browse all of the stalls. We were happy that we got there before noon, because this mother-of-all  boekenmarkten is HUGE.  Each year, an estimated 900 vendors showcase their wares at the Deventer book market.  The stalls weave through the old city and along the IJssel riverside, covering an area almost 6km long.  Don’t forget your comfortable shoes!

Book Market, Boekenmarkt, Deventer Book Market, Boekenmarkt, Deventer

The two of us had a wonderful time geeking out amongst the miles and miles of books.  There weren’t as many English books as I had hoped, but I still found plenty to interest me.  We brought along a backpack to carry our purchases, but our appetites for the written word resulted in many more books than the poor little rucksack could handle. We ended up having to cut ourselves off when the backpack felt like a pile of bricks and our arms strained to carry the books that wouldn’t fit in the pack.  We should have brought a suitcase!

Book Market, Boekenmarkt, Deventer

Before we left Deventer we also took the time to climb the tower of the St. Lebuinus Chuch (Grote of Lebuinuskerk), a Gothic church dating from 1450.  It only cost €2 to climb, and we were rewarded with vistas over the entire city (including the book market) at the top. Between the kilometers of books and the hundreds of tower stairs, I think we got our exercise for the weekend.  Now I don’t have to feel bad when I spend the next few days on the couch reading some of my new book finds…

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Canal Cruising: Amsterdam By Boat

There is no better way to see Amsterdam than from the perspective of its world-famous canals.  But don’t take one of those over-priced, crowded canal cruises that leave by the hordes from outside Amsterdam Central Station.  As I found out this past weekend, there is a much better option: rent your own boat.

Amsterdam, Canal Boat, Canal Cruise, Boat Rental

This may look nice, but there is a better option!

I have always loved boats, but I only recently discovered that it was possible to rent your own boat in Amsterdam.  At first I didn’t even bother looking into the possibility, because I assumed boat rentals would be too expensive, or would require a license.  When I found out that some of our friends from LSE would be coming to visit us for a few days, though, I finally decided that a boat rental might be worth researching.  For a couple of our friends, this would be their first trip to Amsterdam, so I thought a canal boat ride would be a perfect introduction to the city.

I discovered that there are quite a few companies in Amsterdam that cater to private boat rentals, but their offerings vary widely.  We originally planned to rent a boat from boaty.nl, which was the cheapest option for a three hour rental; however, their boats only allow up to six people, and we were a group of seven.  The option we decided to go with instead was sloepdelen.nl.  While the second option was slightly more expensive, the boats are big enough to fit up to ten people.

On Saturday we made our way to the Nassaukade, the pick-up and drop-off point for the boats. It took us about half an hour to walk there from Amsterdam Central Station, but the weather was nice so we didn’t mind the distance.  We arrived at 11:45am for our noon reservation.

Sloepdelen, Amsterdam, Canals, Boat Rental, Canal Cruise

It only took a few minutes for the staff to show us how to work the electric boat.  Anyone is allowed to drive without a license, provided they are over 18 years old and refrain from drinking while maneuvering the boat. We were given a map of the canals, told to yield to any boats larger than ours, and off we went!

Sloepdelen, Amsterdam, Canals, Boat Rental, Canal Cruise

The boat was perfect.  All seven of us were able to comfortably lounge on the seats lining the sides of our boat, and there was a raised platform in the center which was a great place to lay out a picnic spread of the snacks and drinks we had brought along.  Even if you forget to bring supplies (or you underestimate your passengers’ capacity to consume food and beverages!) having your own boat means having the flexibility to just tie up alongside the canals for a few minutes, hop out, buy some more supplies, hop back in, and be on your merry way.

The only small problem we had during our trip was something completely out of our control: the weather.  It is the Netherlands, after all.  About half an hour into our two hour trip, the skies opened up and the rain started pouring down.

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But we weren’t going to let the possibility of a little rain ruin our chance of cruising Amsterdam’s canals.  We took shelter under the nearest bridge along with a few other fellow boaters caught out in the storm.  Luckily we had plenty of food and good conversation to keep us occupied!

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We were slightly disappointed that the storm meant wasting part of our time on the water, but the boat rental company was extremely considerate and gave us an extra hour for free due to the rain delay.  They were also helpful when we called them to ask for directions back to the docks after we got slightly lost due to our map getting wet (and thus becoming illegible).

Sloepdelen, Amsterdam, Canals, Boat Rental, Canal Cruise

The sun came back out!

I couldn’t believe how quickly the time passed cruising the canals. In a few short hours, we motored past all three of the main 17th century canals in Amsterdam: the Herengracht, the Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht.  It is no wonder the canal ring area, lined with beautiful Golden Age canal houses, was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010. If you ever come to Amsterdam, I highly recommend renting a boat.  See Amsterdam the way I’m sure it was meant to be seen–from the water.

A Visit to French Champagne Country

A few weekends ago, Willem and I took a weekend trip to the Champagne-Ardenne region of France. We didn’t have a particular reason for going, other than the fact that we had a car, a free weekend, and an itch to go someplace new.  Our only criteria was that we needed to stay within a 5 hour drive from Haarlem so that the trip was manageable as a weekend break.  We had recently been to Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg, so we settled on France.

We stayed in a charming B&B in Reuilly-Sauvigny, a tiny village of only 230 residents about half an hour away from Épernay (the capital of the Champagne region).  The B&B is run by an older American couple who moved to France in the 1980s and have been living there ever since. It was a lovely place to use as a base for our exploration of the region.

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We arrived late on Friday night, having left the Netherlands after Willem got off work.  Saturday morning, we got up early to take advantage of the delicious breakfast at our B&B, and then drove to Épernay.  Without a doubt, the champagne industry is Épernay’s biggest claim to fame.  The entire city revolves around champagne.  The world’s most famous champagne houses are all located in Épernay, lining a road aptly named “Avenue de Champagne”.

Epernay, France, Champagne, Avenue de Champagne

We spent our first few hours in Épernay wandering around the old town center.  It didn’t take us long to find a local Carrefour (cheapskates that we are) where we bought some bread, cheese, and fruit for lunch.  Armed with our purchases (and feeling very French carrying around our baguettes), we settled on a bench in the shade right in front of Épernay Cathedral.  Yum.

Epernay, France, Champagne, Cathedral Epernay, France, Champagne

After lunch we walked to the champagne house of Moët et Chandon, where we were scheduled to go on a tour of the house’s famous champagne cellars.

Epernay, France, Champagne, Avenue de Champagne, Moet et Chandon

It is possible to tour almost all of the large champagne houses in Épernay if you book in advance (and the myriad of smaller champagne houses will often allow you to just walk up and ask for a tour/tasting), but since we only had one day in Épernay we had to choose just one. The Moët et Chandon tour turned out to be a great choice.  It was fascinating, to say the least. I learned more than I could have ever hoped to know about champagne and the champagne industry.  Here are a few of the most interesting tidbits:

  • Legally, a sparkling wine can only be called “champagne” if it is grown and produced in this particular region of France. The French government is fighting hard to maintain the special designation to protect this traditional industry.
  • Moët et Chandon is one of the world’s largest champagne producers, with an output of 26,000,000 bottles of champagne annually.
  • Moët et Chandon is the official supplier of champagne to the British monarchy
  • 30 meters below its headquarters in Épernay, the entire stock of Moët et Chandon champagne is stored in a 28 kilometer network of caves–28km adds up to a mind-boggling amount of bottles!
  • Dom Pérignon, the famously expensive brand of champagne, is actually owned by Moët et Chandon.
  • In order to keep the taste of champagne uniform (despite the variability in the quality of grape harvests each year), most bottles contain a combination of types and years of grapes.  Vintage champagnes, however, only use grapes from that specific year’s harvest.  If the grapes from that year’s harvest do not taste perfect, the company will not produce a vintage champagne that year. This is why vintage champagnes are rare and expensive.

Epernay, France, Champagne, Avenue de Champagne, Moet et Chandon, Cellars

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When the tour of the cellars finished, we came to the best part of the Moët et Chandon experience: the champagne tasting, of course!

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We spent the last part of our day driving around the vineyards that surround Épernay before heading back to the B&B for the evening.  We even found Moët et Chandon’s vines! I was impressed by the fact that, in a time where most companies split up the various sections of their business in order to maximize profits, the major champagne houses in France still stick to the traditional methods of production.  In one day, we were able to see the entire process of champagne-making from vine to bottle.

Epernay, France, Champagne, Vineyards, Moet et Chandon Epernay, France, Champagne, Vineyards, Moet et Chandon Epernay, France, Champagne, Vineyards, Moet et Chandon

On our final morning in the Champagne region before we drove back to the Netherlands, we made a small detour at Reims to see the famous Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims.  The cathedral was built on the site of ancient Roman baths, and replaced an older church that burnt down in 1211.  Notre Dame in Paris is more famous, but having seen both of them, I think that the Reims cathedral is the more beautiful of the two.

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The cathedral is not only a pretty building though.  The cathedral was captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, and stayed in English hands until 1429 when it was liberated by Joan of Arc.

Reims, Cathedral, France, Joan of Arc, Jeanne D'Arc, Statue

Joan of Arc’s success in Reims allowed Charles VII to be crowned king on July 17, 1429, keeping alive the tradition started in 1364 that all kings of France be crowned at the Reims cathedral.  Today, the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and receives over 1 million visitors each year.

Overall, the Champagne region was a lovely place to spend a short weekend trip.  Anyone who likes history, champagne, or a combination of the two will enjoy a few days in this little corner of France.

A Few Words About Dutch Heatwaves

Even the sun is melting

A mere few weeks ago, I would have given anything to finally get some real summer weather here in Haarlem.  I should have been careful what I wished for.  As I write this I am slowly melting away in my apartment. Coming from a place where temperatures average in the 90s (with disgustingly high levels of humidity) during the summer months, I thought that handling a Dutch heatwave would be a piece of cake.  Unfortunately, I forgot that finding a place with air conditioning here is like finding the Holy Grail. The Dutch have also never heard of ceiling fans or shady front porches, either. I am convinced that the Dutch have superior sweat glands or something like that, because I don’t know how any normal person can operate in these conditions.  I certainly can’t!

These are hot commodities right now

So this week my life has been relegated to pouring buckets of cold water on my head, fighting for the last bag of ice at Albert Heijn, and typing ridiculous search terms like “places with air conditioning in Amsterdam,” “coldest Dutch places in summer,” or “where can you buy a fan in the Netherlands” into Google.  Now, excuse me while I go stick my head in the freezer for the twentieth time today.