Saturday 11th October 2008, Woerden
The weather is more like summer than autumn and it has been hot, bright and sunny all day. We moved on from Katwijk intending to visit Utrecht, but as so often happens, we got side-tracked, ending up in Gouda instead. We'd only meant to stop briefly for a look at the town hall which our friend Kati had assured us was one of the prettiest to be seen anywhere in Europe. She was quite right, it looks like a fairy tale castle, but the rest of the town was so interesting we spent best part of the day there.
It was market day today and the square around the town hall was crowded with shoppers and stall holders. Around the edge of the square the café tables were all full as people made the most of the sunshine, enjoying a beer or two with friends. Amongst the many market stalls selling cheeses, fish, honey, cakes and vegetables, there were several selling deep fried fish and battered prawns with mayonnaise and pickled vegetables. The smell was so seductive it became today's Dutch treat. We ate them standing at a high stall while listening to the pretty sound of the Town Hall's ancient carillon striking the hour as little wooden figures rotated on the side of the building.
To one side of the square is the old cheese weighing house while around the square were several cheese sellers, their stalls piled high with displays of bright yellow cheeses. There seems to be a wide variety of Gouda cheeses, some quite young, others more mature while others include various herbs. We tasted the different samples and although they were more salt than English cheeses, even Ian, who generally does not like cheese, found himself admitting that he could make exceptions.
Back from the square the town was quieter and we explored some of the older side streets and canals, discovering a tiny park with a bronze statue commemorating the first printer working in Gouda in the 1470s. We also found a windmill, its arms turning majestically, near a pretty park, and several beautiful early 17th century buildings around the archaeological museum. The public library occupies a lovely 17th century building and the nearby town archives had a book sale today. We went to have a look. Of course everything was in Dutch but it was a pleasant, familiar feeling to be surrounded by books again. There was a scrap box filled with surplus photos from the archives being sold off, including a very nice one of the town hall. So we bought it for you Kati, as a thank you for sending us there!
Returning to where we'd parked Modestine, beyond the main canal surrounding the town, we discovered the streets blocked by police and a couple of huge cranes being manoeuvred through the side roads around the railway station. When we eventually rejoined Modestine it was to discover there had been a train crash with two trains, going in opposite directions, derailed just outside the station. The cranes were needed to clear wreckage and presumably lift the carriages back onto the tracks. Dutch trains are electric and are hooked up by gantries to overhead power lines. The roofs of both carriages however were ripped right back, the power lines and gantries down, and they rather looked beyond repair. The trains must have collided in the station but we have no idea how, or whether there were any injuries. (We read on the internet later that a Paris express touched a local train in passing and both were derailed. Nobody was seriously hurt.)
By this time it was too late to do anything more than seek out a campsite for the night. We need to be in this area tomorrow as we are visiting friends. Our camping book listed this site as open and only half the price of the site we'd used in Katwijk. It seems just as well appointed and we are parked right on the edge of a canal where it was still warm enough this evening to sit watching the coots and ducks bobbing along beside the bank as we waited for supper to cook.
Monday 13th October 2008, Walcheren, Zeeland
The Danish king Canute failed to hold back the sea. Holland though has succeeded, increasing its size and providing the country with rich, fertile agricultural land. The Dutch nation is justifiably proud of this outstanding achievement. The countryside however is extremely flat and uninteresting.
Whereas the rest of Europe has hills, mountains, gorges, ravines and waterfalls, Holland has drempels. These are the country's man-made mountains, intended to relieve the monotony of the polders and, as a spin-off, help calm the traffic when it tries to exceed 30 kilometres an hour in residential areas. They vary in intensity from gentle drempels to dreadful drempels - though none remotely compare with Poland's less sophisticated traffic calming measures of unannounced potholes. The views from the top of these dremels is quite splendid. With a pair of binoculars, no matter where you are Holland, by standing on tiptoe you can see half way to Maastricht! So proud is the government of these man-made miracles, that all along the roadside are signs warning drivers "let op! drempels"
Surprisingly we have found driving in Holland's towns and cities to be rather difficult. Drivers are courteous and car driving is generally exemplary, but under Dutch law, if there is an accident, it appears that, no matter what the cause, the cyclist is in the right. Both sides of every road are dedicated to cyclists. At roundabouts and side streets they cut across the car lanes and it is the drivers who must give way. The self preservation instinct does not exist in Dutch cyclists and they simply pedal out across the road without a glance. Road marking too are sometimes unclear and unnecessarily complex so that on several occasions we have inadvertently nearly ended up on the roads intended for cyclists rather than those for cars.
The last couple of days have been rather frustrating, though they have been interspersed with a very pleasurable evening with friends.
Yesterday morning we walked from the campsite into the pleasant, nearby little town of Woerden, confident that we would find it bustling with cafes, Sunday morning markets and flower sellers. After all, Holland is not a deeply religious country and it seemed only too easy last Sunday to buy cannabis and prostitution on the streets of Amsterdam.
The streets of Woerden were deserted and its car parks empty. It was just as silent outside the closed cafes and the empty shopping centre. We were seeking a large bouquet of sunflowers for our hostess that evening but Woerden was not the place to find it. Incidentally, we have heard that there is a higher financial turn-over from the sale of drugs in Holland than there is from its entire flower industry! It just proves the value of Sunday trading in drugs rather than flowers!
On our way to Utrecht we found our route barred and were diverted along the motorway where we missed our turn off and ended up on the Hilversum ring road with no idea how to get off. Every attempt sent us round side streets, bumping over those irritating drempels while electronic signs warned us that we were doing 31 kilometres an hour. We ended up on countless diversions that simply dropped us and we have unwittingly found ourselves in so many sports field and leisure centre car parks we felt like screaming from frustration.
Meanwhile, the entire country remained closed and silent. Nowhere did we find a flower shop and were eventually reduced to buying a bouquet in a garage. It's just not the same somehow.
Everything changed when we eventually found Harry and Jacqueline's home in a pretty, wooded village on the edge of heath land. It is over 25 years since we last saw Harry but we were immediately at ease as we chatted over the intervening years. His younger daughter, Charlotte, joined us for the evening and Jacqui completely spoilt us with a wonderful supper. They all spoke perfect English of course. It is an integral part of their lives and spoken almost as frequently as Dutch.
We had been invited to spend the night and we wallowed in the luxury of a large and comfortable bed, a real roof over our heads for the first time in three months, and an en-suite bathroom. We moved on after breakfast this morning. It had all passed far too quickly but we are determined it will not be a further 25 years until our next meeting. Thank you both for such a warm and friendly welcome.
Harry suggested we make a visit to Middelburg and Veere, calling off at Breda in Brabant on the way. So we abandoned our half-formed plan to visit Delft, and soon found ourselves in the very pleasant old town of Breda with its citadel, used today as a military academy. Troops in military fatigues were marching in the streets, there were military jeeps and motorbikes patrolling the quayside and hordes of off-duty uniformed army personnel on bicycles. We spent a pleasant couple of hours exploring the town before having lunch and moving on.
By mid afternoon we had arrived at the furthest tip of the peninsula of Zeeland. Following the floods of 1953, when the dykes were breached and Zeeland flooded, drowning almost 2,000 people, destroying some 50,000 homes and polluting arable soil with salt water, Holland introduced a scheme to shorten its coastline. It constructed high dykes linking coastal promontories with automatically controlled sluices that closed whenever there was a danger of an exceptionally high tide, turning river estuaries and salt water inlets into inland fresh water lagoons.
Our campsite book informed us there was an open campsite at Middelburg which exactly suited our needs. So first we continued to the picturesque little old village of Veere, now no longer on the coast. In the past it was an important trading port. Its freshwater harbour is still busy though, with smart and expensive yachts and pleasure craft. There are several very attractive 16th century red brick properties with stepped gables and green and white shutters, formerly belonging to Scottish wool merchants. It has a magnificent town hall and a huge old church that has had so many changes over the centuries it is patched and battered with bricked up windows and an ugly tower that was intended to be three times higher than it is.
Back in Middelburg the campsite, when we eventually found it, was closed and deserted. After much driving, lots of frustration and road diversions we eventually found the only other one on our ACSI list - also closed. Somebody told us of another at Dishoek which we eventually located and after unbelievable frustration and red tape we managed to book in over the telephone to a remote centre somewhere in Holland - or possibly India. It took a good half hour and we were cut off four times. After we had eventually registered, the security barrier refused to lift and we only got in by driving through immediately behind another vehicle with a swipe card. We don't know how much it will cost as the line went dead yet again before we finished registering, but there may be a few angry words exchanged when we eventually come to pay in the morning.
Tuesday 14th October 2008, Near Ghent, Belgium
Sadly we were not mistaken and quite a few angry words were exchanged this morning. Sometimes, in the light of the following day, one decides a battle is not worth fighting, but this morning I still felt very annoyed about the way we had been treated last night. The final straw was finding the water in the shower cold this morning. We tried to explain our dissatisfaction when we went to pay but were told the computer had registered us, it was impossible to make any alterations and we were obliged to pay the full amount as we had used the services. Futile to explain the barrier hadn’t been raised; that the allocated pitch was the worst on the site; because nobody was around to help, wifi wasn't available; we'd not had the service of a receptionist; nor were prices publicly displayed. Futile too to say once we were inside we were trapped and couldn't get out until this morning so had been obliged to stay overnight. We said we were quite prepared to pay but felt some recompense should be made for the dissatisfaction and inconvenience we'd experienced.
The unhappy receptionist rang management for advice. They couldn't care less, neither offering an apology nor any financial compensation. I then got really angry and refused to pay the full amount, making a reasonable offer and asking for the barrier to be raised. We wasted best part of an hour arguing until I got so furious I parked Modestine at the exit barrier so nobody else could get out from the site either. Staff threatened to call the police, claiming I was causing a safety hazard. I pointed out that they didn't seem bothered about that last night when they'd left us blocking the barrier for over 40 minutes and perhaps they should call the police, though it would be more sensible to get their manager down to the site to sort matters out rather than hiding behind the reception staff.
Their suggested solution was odd in the extreme and quite beyond our comprehension. They explained that some weekly campers paid for 10 nights camping to get a discount and sold off the remaining nights to other campers by placing adverts in the toilets. If we found an advert we could buy the voucher directly from the camper and use it to pay our bill!! It would be about half what they were charging us.
So after all the aggravation they had caused and the time they had wasted they expected us to go reading messages on toilet walls in a language we didn't understand!! We were not making a fuss simply for a discount! We just wanted an apology and to be treated fairly. We found such a laughing, cavalier attitude totally insulting.
Eventually I agreed to move Modestine while reception staff went off to read the toilet walls for us and seek out a discount voucher. It cost significantly less than we'd offered to pay them nearly an hour earlier and we really cannot fathom their logic. Nor can we see how they have either climbed down or apologised. The entire episode was quite crazy. Fortunately in over 500 different campsites over the past three years, there is only one other really unpleasant incident we can recall, offset by hundreds of very pleasurable experiences. If any of you ever find yourself camping in Holland, whatever else you do, NEVER stay at the Dishoek campsite near Walcheren in Zeeland.
Relieved to be rid of it all we returned to Middelburg for the rest of the morning. It is indeed a very pleasant mediaeval market town with a picturesque town hall and the usual canal-side merchants' houses and 18th century warehouses. There is a large abbey complex with attractive cloister gardens. It is also home to a very early organ dating from the 1470s.
If Middelburg had been the first Dutch town we had seen, we would have found it quite splendid. Sadly though, we suspect we are starting to feel jaded with all the travelling we have been doing. There is a limit to the number of different things you can say about broadly similar Dutch towns, however lovely they are individually. I even found myself slipping off to browse Euroland for a new dish cloth and a watch battery while Ian was photographing yet another mediaeval gable. All of a sudden we are starting to feel impatient to be home for a while. We have, after all, been travelling for over three months now, absorbing so many new experiences and facing new challenges every day. It is finally starting to become rather tiring.
We left Zeeland after lunch, driving through the six kilometre-long tunnel under the Westerschelde to emerge just a few kilometres from the Belgian border. We had hoped to visit Antwerp to see again the Plantin-Moretus museum of printing. However, we could find no open campsites anywhere around the city so we headed instead to Bachte-Maria-Leerne a pretty village on a bus route into Ghent which we will discover tomorrow.
We did not notice when we crossed into Belgium and we are still in the Flemish speaking area of Flanders. There are subtle changes between here and Holland. For starters drempels have disappeared, cycle tracks and weird road signs are less apparent, and cobbles have started to give way to tarmac. There are trees and hedgerows and the landscape is becoming more interesting.
When we found this simple little campsite beside a tiny lake with ducks and bright autumn trees, we were greeted by a cheery Fleming speaking delightfully bad English. He told us the owner was away on holiday and he was his next door neighbour who had been left in charge. He didn't know how much we ought to pay really but would 19 euros be okay. We felt our spirits lifting. How wonderful to be back in a land where there were mild eccentrics rather than computers and telephones to check us in.
As we settled Modestine and sat outside in the warm sun with mugs of tea, yellow autumn leaves tumbled around us from the surrounding trees. A Belgian camper came to chat – in French, telling us of a pretty walk nearby to a local château. It proved to be every bit as pleasant as he's said and the feel of the Belgian countryside just here reminds us strongly of a rather flattened Loire Valley. Certainly it has filled me with a great nostalgia for France again and we look forward with pleasure to returning there in a few weeks time.