14 August 2013

Amsterdam - July 8 - 12

Within minutes of arriving in Holland we experienced that famous Dutch quality called "gezelligheid" at Cousin Linda's very comfortable home in Almere, just outside Amsterdam. Yes, yes, you heard right, another country, another cousin. I have a fair number of those, and thanks to the South African disapora, they are conveniently scattered around the globe. Linda and her Dutch husband, Marcel, fetched us from the Almere train station (after an anxious half hour of waiting at different exits of this surprisingly big station), and plopped us at a table in a shady corner of their garden. Marcel's mother and sister from a nearby town were visiting. And Linda's mother from South Africa had arrived that morning. Over chilled Belgian beer in this peaceful suburban garden, we got an overview of the cultural peculiarities of the Dutch from these locals. Who would have guessed that practically everyone around the table played cricket? That the Dutch were actually very much into this sport we associated with England and her former colonies?

Linda and Marcel deserve medals for hospitality.
The sumptuous meal that appeared on the table was clear evidence of determined effort. Lamb curry, vegetable casserole, vegetable pies, salads, and pickles turned us all into gluttons. Marcel opened up a 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon from a Stellenbosch winery. Wow, I couldn't imagine a more luxurious way to begin a visit to the great city of Amsterdam.

The next evening Linda and her mom, my Aunt Sally, prepared an assortment of vegetable curries and roti for dinner. It was another balmy evening. Marcel opened up a fine Bordeaux for this meal. We had such a lovely time in the garden reminiscing about our childhood days in Ladysmith. Don't they always seem wonderful in retrospect? The sun disappeared around 10:00 PM and we finally dragged ourselves indoors to rest up before more serious sightseeing in Amsterdam.

A spiffy train from Almere Parkwijn station deposited us most efficiently in Central Amsterdam. Mass transit in Europe never fails to impress the heck out of me. Exiting Amsterdam's Central station - a stunning neo-gothic building designed by Pierre Cuypers - we hopped on a tram, easily visible and waiting to depart, to Museum Square.

Now, I have to admit, we did learn that over the top efficiency had its problems too. Transportation chip cards are supposed to be painless, but we encountered some frustration when we tried to do a top up. But that's a long and boring story!

Rijks Museum
A few hours at the splendid Rijksmuseum did wonders for our cultural IQ. This museum impresses in every possible way - from that gorgeous facade (another of Pierre Cuyper's creations), to its luxurious interior with its precious collection, to the terrific sculpture garden outside.
A free online audio app guided us through the museum's highlights, helping us understand Dutch art of the Golden Age. We got quite the scoop on famous paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer and Frans Hals.

The helpful audio guide also made staring at the museum's Delft pottery more meaningful.

Rembrandt's Nightwatch

Rembrandt's gigantic Nightwatch is, of course, the star attraction at this museum. For ten years the museum was closed for remodeling and this famous painting wasn't available to the public. This year Amsterdam was a hot tourist destination due to the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum. Two other major museums - the Stedelijk and the the Van Gogh Museum also re-opened this spring after years of being closed for remodeling.

The audio guide helped me appreciate the contrast of light and dark that made "Nightwatch"famous. Rembrandt's depiction of motion was another unusual feature. Despite the crowds hovering around this masterpiece, we managed a good gawp.

Canals. gabled buildings, and bicycles - Amsterdam images forever imprinted in my mind. What a pleasure to wander around a (mostly) car free city. Though, it has to be said, dodging the millions of cyclists was not exactly fun.

We totally lucked out with accommodation in this city. I found an absolutely fabulous bed and breakfast listed in Rick Steve's guide book. The Hotel de Leydsche Hof was so central - on Leidsegracht - just a five minute walk from Leidseplein. The building was owned by the same family for generations and used to be a proper hotel. Now, after some remodeling, it is like a huge house with many bedrooms and loads of character.

Amsterdam's squares are all so attention grabbing. Rembrandt Square, with an attractive sculpture of the artist and life size bronze figures around the pedestal, provided a great excuse to sit down and rest our weary legs.
The most famous one, the Dam Square, home of the ornate Palace, the Nieuwe Kerk, and the monument can keep you gaping for hours!
On the topic of famous squares, I had a lot of fun on the Leidseplein, discovering jenever. The buzzy cafés on this square provide a pretty cool base to absorb the city's energetic vibe. Tourists, locals, street performers, shoppers, street vendors - all help give this area a really lively atmosphere.
At the Van Gogh museum the term "spiritual" floated into my atheistic lexicon, as I soaked up the magic of this place. I kept saying a silent thank you to Vincent van Gogh's sister-in-law (Theo's wife)  for her persistence in making these works available to the public after his death. How could it be that this genius was a nobody when he was alive?

How many Shakespeares and Beethovens and Van Goghs have gone unnoticed? Thomas Gray said it best in his poem "Elegy in a Country Churchyard".
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness beneath the desert air

But thanks to Theo and his wife, we get to revel in the sweetness of Vincent Van Gogh's sunflowers and irises.
Amsterdam Concertgebouw

At another of Amsterdam's treasures, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, we heard three heartwarming pieces of music - Stravinsky's Pulcinella, Mozart's Violin concerto No. 3, and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4

Free beverages (wine, beer, espresso drinks, tea)  were a really nice touch. It was just so pleasurable to relax in the plush lobby during the intermission, sipping red wine, imbued in the sweetness of "Pulcinella".

Vondel Park
On our last day in this fine city, the weather turned a little chilly. Vondel Park was on our "must do" list, so we bravely marched over there after our tour of the Van Gogh Museum. I'd been to this park twenty years ago, when a heatwave swept through Northern Europe. I could clearly remember the party like vibe in this park on that scorching summer day. For the first time in my life I saw gay couples making out, and topless sunbathers sprawled on picnic blankets. Small groups of musicians strummed guitars, and others picnicked on the lawns. But today, with a gray sky above us, and only a few people around, the park had a serene feel about it.

Anne Frank House

A visit to Anne Frank House is just so gut clenching. Walking through the sombre rooms, all I could think of was Anne's joie de vivre that came through so vividly in her diary. She let us into her soul and we know well how she looked forward to her freedom. To think how close they were to it when they were caught ...

What cruelty we humans are capable of. So many examples through the ages, throughout the world ...

Being the responsible tourists that we were, we checked out the Red Light District - but in broad daylight when Warmoestraat, though thick with tourists and the smell of marijuana, was pretty mellow.
After checking out the 13th century Oude Kerk, we strode into the narrow lanes with red lights that radiate from the square. A few women  were at work being alluring ... and it was impossible not to wonder about the heartbreaking circumstances that led them here. We fled from the area, to more cheerful parts of the city.

Indonesian food is to Holland what Indian food is to Britain. We were told that a rijstafel is a not to be missed experience in this city. So we dined at a place called Sampurna near the famous flower market. An overwhelming number of spicy Indonesian dishes, many featuring tofu, tempeh and peanut sauce, arrived at our table. But they were all so tasty, we totally pigged out! It was our last evening in this city, so the heck with exercising discipline!

As we took our last tram ride to the train station in the early morning, we decided that this was a city we had to return to. There was still so much to see.

09 August 2013

Two Days in Bruges (July 6, 7)

Okay, I admit it, we went to Bruges because we saw the movie In Bruges. Amazingly, it really is full of medieval architecture and cobbled, car free lanes, and gorgeous canals with pretty bridges, just like in the movie!

The walk from the train station to our hotel gave us instant satisfaction that we made the right choice. We walked through a very green, shady park along a beautiful canal. Medieval buildings with red sloping roofs came into view. A quick stroll through cobbled lanes (dodging horse driven carriages) and we were at the Hotel Academie, a luxurious (but not in a pretentious way) place to be based. Wandering through the intimate, winding streets you feel like you are inside a beautiful picture. Every moment is a perfect photo op.

The world's best beer (and chocolate) are a constant temptation in Bruges. My advice: abandon willpower in this town. Bars are always in the most scenic or atmospheric settings. For example, take a look at that bar right on the terrace of an old stone building alongside a charming canal. Who could blame us for yielding to temptation a few times a day? Hoppy beer with shockingly high alcohol percentage kept us in a constant state of euphoric oblivion.

We sampled a fair selection of chocolates too. Every other shop in town claimed to have the best hand made chocolates, so we obviously had to check this out. We would select a few small dark chocolates from the display cases, and munch on them throughout the day.

At the Halve Maan Brewery, famous for giving tours of the beer making process, we skipped the tour and got right down to business in their lovely patio. On a warm summer day, sitting under the shade of an umbrella and sampling the very flavorful beer made right there on the premises, you can go funny in the head. Are we really allowed to have such a great time in such a troubled world? We promised ourselves we would atone for this ...


In the movie In Bruges, the belfry, a thirteenth century tower, featured prominently. We climbed up its 366 steps for rooftop views. Wow, it was quite a steep climb, but a pretty quick one. Seeing the carillon up close while it went off (perfect timing on our part) made it all the more rewarding.

We took a ton of photos from the top just because it was so much fun to admire the city from different angles. Afterwards, we explored the nearby Burg square with its stunning buildings.

A four course vegetarian meal at Restaurant de Buhne was definitely our highlight here in this town. This was absolutely the best restaurant meal we ever had. On our first evening I went into the restaurant to ask if we could get seated. A polite, soft spoken lady pointed to a table in the rather elegant dining room. It was a perfect summer evening and the idea of dining indoors didn't really appeal. I asked her if she had outdoor seating. She smiled and said, "You know, it's such a beautiful evening. You should go to a restaurant with a terrace. There's an Indian restaurant on the square around the corner which serves good food. Why don't you go there?"

When I reported back to Daryl, he chuckled. Why would a restaurant  - which wasn't exactly busy (there was no one in it) - actually encourage us to go somewhere else? We weren't in the mood for Indian so we sauntered over to the big central square - The Markt - and studied the menus of the many mainly Italian restaurants. The square certainly had atmosphere (lots of people and entertainers), and it had a lot of beauty (e.g. the neo-gothic courthouse and red medieval houses), but it seemed obvious that the mass-produced food would be mediocre tourist fare.

Off on a side lane we found a little Mediterranean place featuring falafels, haloumi, humus, that sort of thing. It had everything we were looking for - outside dining, atmosphere (close enough to the Markt), and the menu suggested a definite interest in catering to the vegetarian. A warm, older Flemish woman took our order in the manner that revealed she owned the place. She suggested we get fries for starters. Earlier in the day we had sampled Belgian fries at a "hole in a wall" take-out place and found it astonishingly tasty - crisp on the outside and soft inside. We quickly realized that this was a specialty of the region, so of course we said yes. The sizzling fries were served with three tasty home made sauces. We demolished them in seconds (well, I exaggerate)! Our mains - stuffed pita with salad - were really good too. An English couple sitting near us told us they came to Bruges a few times a year and always ate at this place. Aha, did this mean we had the gift of sniffing out the right restaurants?

Later, back in our hotel room, I did some more research on vegetarian restaurants in Bruges. Again and again I kept reading rave reviews of de Buhne. It seemed obvious that we had to go there for a meal. So the next day, another sunny day, we lunched at de Buhne. What better way to stay cool than in the elegant dining room of a top vegetarian restaurant? The softly spoken lady seated us by the window and then explained the four course menu to us. Unusual. Imaginative. We smiled in that satisfied way of people reassured of a truly unforgettable experience.

De Buhne Restaurant in Bruges

Soup with meringues and cheese sticks

Freshly made manicotti
Second Course - shortbread base, sauce, beets

Roasted Fennel in Pastry Cases with Battered Asparagus
Wine seemed more appropriate than beer, and we were pleased with our selections. Less pleasing though, was the lack of water. We found it quite confounding that the only way you could get water with your meal in Europe was to buy it.

An amuse bouche was served, and soon after, each exquisite course appeared in well timed succession. As each artistically presented dish was brought to us, we just stared at it for a while, discreetly getting out the camera so we could immortalize the experience.

For dessert we were served a warm, delicate apricot tart. The pastry was so light and the fresh apricots so flavorful. Wow! We ate it slowly, drawing out the experience to make it last as long as possible.

We learned from Tripadvisor that this restaurant is run by a French chef and his Italian wife (the soft spoken lady). This couple loves what they do and will not compromise their standards for anything. This restaurant may well be a reason for us to return to Bruges.

In summary, if your idea of fun is to be in a beautiful place where you can find lots and lots of great beer and chocolate, you might enjoy Bruges. We certainly did!

08 August 2013

London (July 2 - 6)

We had a mere four days to fit in as many of our London traditions as we could. My magnanimous, beautiful, thoughtful Cousin Angie once again welcomed us into her lovely Belsize Park flat. Not only did we have a comfortable bed, we also had a well stocked refrigerator and pantry with every food item we could possibly need. In addition to all this luxury, many of our favorite London places were an easy walk from Angie's flat.

A stroll into Camden Town (down Haverstock Hill Road past the Round House) for lunch engendered an immediate "wow, this is why I love London" feeling. All that international cuisine at Stables Market, the arty clothes and jewelry markets, and, of course, Regent's Canal create quite the atmosphere. This is where the first time visitor to London should start exploring the city.

In the evening we feasted on a superb Indian meal that Angie prepared. We had a good old chat, covering the usual assortment of topics.

The next morning I left an unwell Daryl in bed, and hopped onto Bus 24 to Trafalgar Square. London is blessed with one of the best art museums in the world and my plan was to wallow in its collection.
National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London

There was much to love at this museum (a whopping collection of the greatest European art over several centuries), but what I enjoyed most were the school groups. There was this group of befuddled, restless nine year olds seated cross legged on the floor facing Constable's Hay Wain. A teachers asked them questions about the era. Their predictable answers gave me quite a chuckle. This scenario was repeated throughout the museum. I thought, how lucky London kids are to live in a city so rich in culture and history.

St. Anne's Churchyard, Soho
Strolling through Soho's narrow lanes at lunch time is a great way to see suit clad Londoner's on their way to trendy restaurants. Browsing the menus here disabuses you of any dated stereotypic notions you might have of English food. Soho restaurants are clearly for the 21st century ethically responsible, adventurous, sophisticated diner. London's celebrity chef, Ottolinghi, has his restaurant here. With the art of the French Impressionists and Post Impressionists fresh in my mind I found the process of food selection too overwhelming. So I settled for Maoz Falafel and enjoyed it in the beautiful St. Anne's Churchyard around the corner. Londoners in office attire sat on nearby benches munching sandwiches, immersed in conversation. It felt great to find a spot away from tourists, but clearly a local favorite.

After lunch I joined the crowds and hunted for bargains on busy Oxford and Regent Streets. The July sales had begun. I found two light sweaters suitable for the opera in the evening.
Traipsing around the center of post Olympic London was so much fun. I remember how unpleasant it was two years ago with  all the road work and scaffolding and building cacophony. The warm temperature definitely helped.

Troy and Jon came over from Cambridge in the early evening. The four of us were going to see Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera House. After a hurried dinner of Angie's yummy leftovers from our Indian meal the night before, we took the tube to Covent Garden. We joined London's high society as we made our way to the Royal Opera House. This building is so beautiful, and entering the plush interior made me feel like I was trespassing through territory reserved for the privileged. Troy treated us to seats just two rows from the stage. We could BBC cameras on a lower balcony behind us. Then we noticed Stephen Fry being interviewed. (Later, during the intermission Troy saw Stephen Fry with Alan Davies quaffing champagne and scarfing down buffet fare.)

So close to the stage, facial expressions and voices so clear, we were pulled right into the Genoa of Simon Bocannegra. The male actors, especially the (black) American, Russell Thomas, delivered the kind of star quality performance expected at a world class opera house. Critics anticipate Russell Thomas cast as Otello in the near future. The female lead role - Amelia - played by Hibla Gerzmava was a little disappointing. She was an outstanding actress and had a beautiful voice, but she couldn't carry the highest notes. I found this a little surprising, given the high standards of this venue. Overall, though, with Verdi's moving music, and a troupe of outstanding actors, we loved the performance.

London Skyline from Hampstead Heath

London has had awful summers the last couple years. Not so this year. With each day warmer than the previous, the pull of the outside was too strong to resist. Troy, Daryl, and I took a stroll through Hampstead Heath in the morning. We showed Troy our favorite bench not too far from Parliament Hill. One of our London traditions is to sit on this bench, eating chips from an excellent nearby fish and chips shop, and sipping cold beer. From here you can enjoy the most wonderful view of the London skyline.

After Troy left we made a beeline for Archway on the overland train. Lunch at Peking Palace, a little vegan Chinese restaurant on Holloway Road, was a tradition we didn't want to sacrifice. The rather inexpensive buffet lunch - a decent assortment of tasty, sensibly prepared vegetables and tofu dishes - lived up to our expectations. A slide show on wall monitors of environmental damage resulting from meat production made us feel quite smug about our dietary choices!

We spent another stimulating evening with the Self family in Willesden Green. Daryl prepared a tasty pasta dinner and Tasha (who has suddenly turned into an adult) provided the wine and cheese. We covered as many controversial topics as we could, thereby preserving our special bonds. I can't get over the fact that the youngest Self, Katie, is about to start university. How did this happen? An evening here always leaves us with those warm feelings of gratitude to not only know such lovely people, but to have them as lifelong friends.

Regent's Park is a lovely walk from Angie's flat in Belsize Park. Down Haverstock Hill Road, then into Primrose Hill, across the park and over to Regent's Park. We met up David and Rona in this gorgeous London park. After a stroll through the fragrant rose garden we found a shady spot outside the café. Over a pretty decent lunch of tomato soup and ciabatta sandwiches (roasted eggplant, mozzarella, and pesto) we exchanged highlights of our lives since we'd last been together. A lot has happened in the last year - and we appreciated the opportunity to experience for a few hours the company of old friends who genuinely care.

On our last evening in London we wanted to have an indulgent dining experience. After all, we were in one of the world's great culinary capitals. My first thought was to go to a restaurant owned by a celebrity chef like Jamie Oliver or Ottolenghi. Then Daryl came across rave reviews for an exclusively vegetarian restaurant called Black Vanilla in a quiet lane off Chancery Lane. So we made our reservations, and slid into proper evening attire. Before dinner we did the London thing of having a beer at a nearby pub. Warm summer evenings in London are full of festive atmosphere. Chancery Lane is famously the address of London's barristers, and they were all here at this pub, in clusters, spilling out on the street. Atmospheric pubs, summer evenings, strong English Ale - I love it!

As soon as we stepped into Black Vanilla we knew we were in for a damn good time. Indeed, every moment was an experience to savor. The tasteful interior - like an old English home - and contemporary china were clear indicators of an intent to pamper. It was so much fun studying the extremely unusual menu, knowing you could choose absolutely any item. An amuse-bouche of some savory mousse in a cute little bowl appeared before the first course. A reassuring touch - we chose well with this restaurant. For starters I had brie ice cream (savory of course) with pickled plums and mulled custard. Daryl chose the grilled carrot cake with sheep's yogurt. My main course was the goats cheese and toasted cauliflower mille feuille. Daryl had the fried mushroom mousse and rosemary scone. We shared a dessert that will be a topic of conversation for years. Roasted White Chocolate, cep mushroom custard, and tarragon cream cheese. I love ceps (aka fungi porcini) and will never turn down the opportunity to eat them. Unless they are served as dessert. Daryl has a thing about ordering inventive desserts and so I had to take the plunge and dare to be different. Of course, the dessert was another fine example of the chef's skill. Interesting, well thought out flavors - yes ... but am I sold?

An unforgettable meal at a first class vegetarian restaurant has the delusional effect of making you feel like all is right with the world. Such was our state of mind when we boarded the Eurostar early the next morning. Destination: Bruges.