We've just climbed onto our rented 300cc Vespa in Zandaam!
Around the Netherlands and Belgium (2018)
Well, we're not exactly getting our posts out on time but we're more-or-less writing them on time. The sticking point is that there's a certain rhythm to the process and we're not synched yet. We're taking pictures with three devices, two phones and my trusty Canon S120, and getting them all into the laptop in an organized fashion has been a challenge. I've taken some good video but how to edit it down for email? And so on. So, thanks for your patience! We'll improve as we go along.
Our overall plan for the first five weeks is to tour around the Netherlands and Belgium on a 2010 300cc Vespa which we finally rented from a dealer just outside of Amsterdam. We were biking past his shop in April and decided to inquire; sure enough, he had a used Vespa at a good price and I declared in the first five minutes that I would buy it if he would buy it back after our tour. He agreed but then said that without an address in the Netherlands, he would be unable to register it in my name. One thing and another, he agreed to rent it to us at what for him is a very sweet price. (I'm trying hard these days to disregard the frugality which was the natural result of having to earn my spending money in college and onward. Sometimes I succeed, as in this case.) With the essential help of a new friend whom we met when trying to arrange for our red Vespa to be shipped to Amsterdam (Antonio, who's the legal owner as Americans cannot own motor vehicles in Italy, would not hear of it), we finally succeeded in the rental and in equipping the Vespa with the necessary racks and topbox.
We then fly back to the villa for a day before setting out on the red Vespa for Aix-en-Provence to attend the opera festival (four operas in five days). We hope to insinuate ourselves into a New York Times group led by Fred Plotkin who led us around Liguria with Oldways some fifteen years ago; we're staying at the same hotel. (At $1000/day per person, actually joining that group was not an option. We spend no more for our entire summer.) We're undecided about destinations after Aix but Lyons is a good bet. When we return to the villa in late July, we'll just relax all through August; I've got some important programming to do!
Friday, June 1, Camigliano.
Our flight was fine -- leaving Boston at 10pm meant we had extra time to get everything in order. At the Frankfurt airport, we had five hours to enjoy some food we don't get at home.
In Florence Deb came back with the rented Punto (it's always a tossup whether we can get a Punto, a fine Fiat compact that's so well designed that I have no trouble getting in and out). Then an accident on the autostrada kept us bumper-to-bumper for an extra half-hour, missing the chance for a stop at our favorite bar. Maria Grazia had done a wonderful job of cleaning our bedroom and bath (something we had always done but were arriving too late to be practical) and it took no time at all before we were sound asleep.
Saturday, June 2, Camigliano.
Awoke early (7:30am) and got to the real unpacking. Our favorite summer sagra (a charitable dinner and outdoor dancing event celebrating some local food specialty) in Segromigno Monte (Sagra del Tordello) was kicking off its four-weekend run this evening
so we made do until then with cappuccini and pastries (plus the first gelato of the season: chocolate and pistachio) from our favorite bar, Dolcidea.
The big excitement came mid-afternoon when we decided to fire up the Vespa (sitting in the billiard room since September) to go to the bar for our third cappuccini. The battery was clearly depleted but the Vespa started immediately. I expected it to get a small additional charge on the short distance to the bar but when we returned to it: nothing! Deb had to walk back to the villa (30 minutes), tell Antonio, and then pick me up in the car. Antonio was unflustered: just another vehicle needing to be jumped. He put a car battery in his Jeep and the two of us careened off, picked up Diego and in no time had the Vespa going again. Then, after everything was put away, I realized that my helmet was in the topbox which required the key in the ignition. Antonio, true Italian, said "Just ride home without a helmet" which I did.
As a result we arrived at the sagra in a car, not the usual Vespa, and had to park a long way away from the church grounds where the sagra was going full blast. A line for tickets was about 100 people long. [Deb here: We showed up on the first night to a large crowd standing in line. Here’s the view at the back of the line. Everyone sits as long rows of picnic tables and young children are enlisted to be “runners” to take your slip of paper with your order and run it up to the concession stand, carrying back trays of food to the tables. We enjoyed the tordelli, rosticciana con olive, palate fritte, bruschetta, although the service was a little rough on the first night and the cleanup crew (of what appeared to be only four young boys with and adult supervisor) was completely overwhelmed.]
but we finally got seats (abandoned with lots of dirty plates and empty bottles). Our food finally came perhaps 30 minutes later.
Sunday, June 3, Camigliano.
Didn't set the alarm last night so we awoke at 9:30am; still recovering, I guess.
[Deb here: We made a reservation at the top seafood restaurant in Lucca, Celide Ristorante. We had a fine assortment of tartare and each ordered the spaghetti alle vongole (local white clams, not found at home) with a bottle of Vermentino from Bolgheri.]
And off to a long sleep before flying to Amsterdam in the morning.
B and Deb
Monday, June 4, Haarlem.
Before leaving for the Florence airport we had a useful visit with a Sotheby's broker to show her the villa. It's not the sort of property Sotheby's gets involved with but Daniela told us she'd do what she could to help.
Uneventful flight and train ride to Zaandam to pick up the Vespa which was waiting. Armin was cordial and helpful; he even took our picture!
We drove away toward Haarlem looking for a place for coffee: utterly industrial, nothing except a large McDonald's, so we (gulp) stopped! In Haarlem we found our funky hotel named "Hello I'm Local", and met Chris (who'd been invaluable to us in arranging for the Vespa) for an evening of beer and getting acquainted (he imports Italian craft beers to Amsterdam). Wonderful fellow whom we hope to see at the villa in August.
Tuesday, June 5, Haarlem.
[Deb here: We ran into the Apple store in Haarlem and discovered a few gadgets that we needed to add to our backpacks: an external battery charger for my iPhone and a combination charger for B's laptop and iPhone.
A trip to a low-end grocery store resulted in our finding a small hard case to replace our old and weathered front bag for the scooter. This should be an improvement, especially if we encounter some rain later this week.
B had discovered a highly-regarded tiny restaurant that focused on small plates with an odd name of "Mr. and Mrs." The dinner was just wonderful, although the slow pace between courses was not ideal, especially since we were planning to attend the free organ concert at the church of St. Bavo at 8:15pm.]
The chef worked out of a small kitchen:
The amuse bouche was the second best of our lives (we'll never forget the single escargot in a green velvet sauce we had at George Blanc many years ago), a tomato bisque with red tomatoes on the top and yellow on the bottom:
Then a bunch of perfectly competent dishes of decreasing interest. Local white asparagus with langoustine:
Tuna three ways:
Octopus on fried polenta:
We passed up the steak tartare but were fascinated when a table across the way order it:
[Deb here: It was terrific to hear this enormous organ in such a large space. I was reminded of how lucky I was to have heard so much wonderful organ music over the years with my colleagues at Memorial Church.]
One of the largest organs in the world (500 pipes; longest 21 feet):
Then back home to sleep!
Wednesday, June 6, Haarlem.
The best breakfast yet because I was able to cook my own two fried eggs!
We spent the morning taking care of online business. With temperatures in the high-70s expected, at 11am we packed our bathing suits and set off for the beach 8km away. Although it was supposed to be warm, and probably was in Haarlem, it was much cooler with a stiff breeze at the seashore. Only the most hardy Dutch were working on their tans (which was quite a few). We felt lucky to come upon a food stand with pickled herring and for Deb a fish croquette sandwich.
Back in town, we parked near the highly-touted freithuis but on our way found a great housewares store and kitchen store (bought a few small things but we'll return in 5 weeks). The frites we very fine and with beer completed our lunch.
[Deb here: B and I had agreed yesterday that we’d plan to visit one of the “coffee shops” in town where they sell cannabis, so we stopped there next. After a little exchange with the proprietress to learn about the options, B selected one that was combined with tobacco and was of “medium” strength. The shopkeeper said that it was fine to enjoy it indoors or outside, or even seated along the canal around the corner. We chose the last option and found a table overlooking the canal where B could smoke and enjoy the boats passing by.
We then headed to the nearby Chocolatier Pierre for some chocolate and caffe mocha ice cream. We were sitting at the outdoor tables enjoying the ice cream when B said that the effect of the marijuana was intensifying so that we were not going to drive back to our hotel on the Vespa. It became apparent that we were not going anywhere soon and that B needed a comfortable place to relax so we moved to a nice wooden bench across the street, where we ended up sitting for the next 2 1/2 hours.]
It's been forty years since I had a joint so perhaps I was sensitive but more likely the higher grade canabis being sold today was the culprit. It was a pleasant high (but it was very high) and it took longer than I'd imagined to fade away.
We spent some time seated near the cathedral while Deb had a beer but then drove home and went to bed.
B and Deb
Thursday, June 7, Schoorl.
[Deb here: Today we drove from Haarlem north to a rustic retreat, Dopersduin, that was recommended by our host in Haarlem. This place is not really a B&B; it seems to be set up to host groups who are looking for a cabin in the woods and no frills. It's set near the town of Schoorl,
and this region is famous for its high dunes and forests. The dunes are the size of large hillsides; one must look closely to see that this is sand, not dirt.
When we arrived, there was one guest (a Dutch woman who has lived in North Carolina for 26 years, following her Air Force American husband) and a group of 30 young children who were dressed as if they were on a Pirate retreat. The accommodations were strictly DIY:
We drove the short distance into town and picked one of the two most populated restaurants in the center for a terrific meal of cream of chicken soup, wiener schnitzel, and a crepe-like pancake (but thicker) with cherries and whipped cream.]
Friday, June 8, Schoorl.
[Deb here: Breakfast was served at exactly 8:30am, after which we set off for the town of Alkmaar to arrive before the start of the 10:00am cheese market. We observed the festivities in the town square which occur for the tourists every Friday morning.
We wandered the market stalls including a seller of small Dutch pancakes eaten with powdered sugar,
and a working wooden shoe maker, who first shapes the exterior with a blade and then carves out the inside with a curved chisel (these are two video clips which you can play; let me know if you have trouble!):
and settled on a fondue restaurant for lunch, which was not memorable.] But here's a Beemster (the local cheese variety) fondue anyway!
[Deb again: We enjoyed a terrific visit to the Alkmaar Cheese Museum which had an introductory video that explained how the cows in the region are treated very well, and as a result, the cheese is better. Video clips of cows galloping and frolicking and being brushed were to impress us that the cheese will taste better from happy cows. Naturally, they set out three different types of local cheese for all of us to sample.
In the gift shop, B spotted a tiny cheese-colored fondue pot that was so cute, we couldn't resist and took the last one from display. B couldn't resist this gigantic poster:
We drove back to our retreat and were alone on the property for the rest of the night, after a not-so-interesting dinner in town at the alternative restaurant.] The dinner did give us a good lesson in ordering food from other countries; we love flammekeuken from Alsace so figured that if a restaurant put it on their menu they would know what they were serving. Not so; here's the disaster:
[Deb again: We drive north tomorrow morning for the ferry to the island of Texel, where we'll spend three days in a boutique hotel that B found in the Lonely Planet guide. We'll have an indoor pool, in addition to the beach, and a Finnish sauna. Looking forward!]
B and Deb
Saturday, June 9, Texel.
Up bright and early for our rustic Mennonite breakfast; we were alone as the group of 7-year-olds had left the day before. Packed up and headed for the ferry to Texel, a very popular vacation island 5km from the mainland. I took a picture showing how we pack for the road: things in the topbox, in the well under the seat, and in the brand new front suitcase (which is a great improvement over the clunky bag we used to carry. Deb carries her backpack resting on the topbox while mine sits on the floorboard between my legs. Everything one could need for five weeks!
[Deb here: This was by far the easiest ferry boarding ever. The road to the port led to drive-through booths similar to toll booths on the highway, purchase a round-trip ticket for the scooter and two passengers (11 euros) and drive right up to the ramp. The ferry arrived about 30 minutes later and the motorcycles and scooters zipped on down their own narrow lane while cars zipped on in their respective lanes. Very efficient and fast. It took only 20 minutes to cross the sea so we enjoyed a brief stay on deck, watching enormous seagulls flying alongside the outer deck because children were tossing bread to them.]
We arrived at the "boutique" Hotel Texel, said to be the best place on the island. Our small room was underwhelming but the facilities were terrific: a sauna, steam room, indoor swimming pool, etc. We jumped right into the sauna and steam room: very refreshing. (So nice that we repeated before bedtime.) The afternoon was quiet, interrupted only by a trip to the northernmost town, de Cocksdorp, where the dunes protected the island and provided a lovely beach (useful in better weather). The maps show that almost the entire 25x9km island is a polder, recovered from the sea in the late 19th century! We've had temperatures in the 60s throughout with mostly light overcast, a bit of sun here and there.
[Deb here: When we started the Vespa to return from de Cocksdorp, a theft alarm started screeching unexpectedly. Unable to figure out how to turn it off, we drove back to the hotel with a screeching siren with everyone looking at us, including the local fire department. I suggested that B look at the keys and sure enough, the key lob had buttons to activate and de-activate an alarm that we didn't know existed.]
Our dinner at the highly-touted hotel restaurant, Gusta, was disappointing overall, but started with a fine gin and tonic with "salty fingers" from the dunes (actually quite salty) (and Aperol spritz in rear).
Of course, we had to have the local lamb.
To our surprise there was no wine list or any attempt to sell us wine. We made do with the local sparkling water in fancy bottles.
Sunday, June 10, Texel.
A long slow morning which is just as it should be. The hotel fried me an egg so breakfast was satisfying but the quality of the things on the buffet should have been higher. We were offered a better room and took it: much improved and rather what one would have expected from a boutique hotel said to be the best on the island. Apparently Friday and Saturday are the big nights; there are far fewer cars than last night.
We took an afternoon tour around the western part of the island. In the biggest of the seaside towns, Deb found a lovely new pair of linen pants for 29 euros among a string of restaurants of every sort, including Greek.
Dinner was at a small inn specializing in the local lamb. I had for the first time (and probably last) smoked lamb shoulder and for the second time some lamb boullion with sherry (need to learn how to do that!).
After an online conversation with prospective tenants from the Business School, off to sleep.
B and Deb
Monday, June 11, Texel.
Our last day on Texel has little to report. I was permitted to fry two eggs for breakfast in the hotel's well equipped kitchen. We used the sauna and steam room, swam in the indoor pool, got caught up. We didn't have lunch or dinner but instead had some tiny North Sea shrimp, smoked salmon and smoked eel at the primary fish purveyor on the island (proudly announcing that they deliver 6 days a week to 70 restaurants).
Then I noticed a tank with oysters and discovered that they had two French varieties and a local one. Deb declined so I happily ate two of each.
We had more gin and tonics with salty fingers along with the various snacks we'd accumulated during our stay. (A terrific supermarket in the main town had packaged all sorts of marvelous "tapas" for take-out.) The hotel has some wonderful peony bushes and has beautiful peonies on all the tables.
[Deb here: One of the best things about being so far north is that the sun doesn't set until 10:00pm and it's still light at 10:30, allowing us to be out for dinner and drive back in "daylight"! The island of Texel, we agree, is like the Martha's Vineyard of the Netherlands, with sheep everywhere (not to mention the cows and horses).
The sun was shining today so we made use of the indoor swimming pool and made sure to lie out in the sun on our last day.]
We're looking forward to being tourists again tomorrow as we head to an important outdoor museum of North Holland life and culture before the dikes closed off the enormous bay leading to Amsterdam in 1932.
Tuesday, June 12, Enkhuizen.
Packed up early and had breakfast at 8am but decided not to rush for the 9am ferry 20kms away. Fairly cold (high 50s) and overcast but the countryside was beautiful nonetheless. The 20-minute ferry is by far the most luxurious and efficient we've ever encountered. (Why can't Martha's Vineyard have such a ferry?) The trip to Enkhuizen was almost entirely through farm country on ruler-straight roads. We stopped in Medemblik for coffee and stayed a while to warm up.
Our B&B was waiting for us when we arrived just after noon. A very cute place on a canal in the center of this small village (which was a big deal in the 1600s as a shipping port but is now Hyannis).
Then off to the Zuiderzee Outdoor Museum. The very extensive (and completely authentic; buildings moved here from all over North Holland) museum was extremely well done and had a fine restaurant for lunch. We saw many craftsmen in old dress doing their things: blacksmith, fish smoker, druggist, post office, and a very impressive two-room schoolhouse with classrooms from 1905 and 1930. After three-and-a-half hours we were content to climb on the Vespa and return to our B&B.
Our research disclosed a pizzeria a block away which was "famous" for its "best pizza in the Netherlands" so, not wanting much to eat, we jumped on it. Every review said that it was essential to have a reservation in order to get in, so of course we called. Only two customers when we arrived at 6pm but also only about 25 seats. We ordered the special pizza of shrimp, pepperoni and anchovy and a Margarita with buffalo mozzarella. We asked whether the proprietor considered the pizza to be in the style of Naples or Rome and he replied "in the style of Le Marche" his home region. The pizza was so good we immediately formulated a new absolute rule: "when in the Netherlands, order only Dutch food" in part because we won't know whether it's authentic or not. The Dutch have only a sketchy idea of Alsacian flammekeuken and none at all about pizza.
After dinner we walked to the enormous local supermarket and got everything we needed (our first time finding Tropicana grapefruit juice!). We then sat outside our B&B which fronts on a small canal. Then we heard what sounded like a marching band in the distance. Deb went to explore and discovered that she didn't need to: the band was in a small barge floating by in front of us followed by a second barge containing the new championship soccer team, Team G, holding up their newly won silver plate.
Some landlord business before bed, then sound asleep!