I’ve wanted to visit Amsterdam for a very, very long time and yet the city still exceeded my expectations, even on a grey and somewhat-rainy long weekend in October. So, this is my inevitable fawning blog post about Amsterdam.
We left London on an early Friday-morning Eurostar train from St Pancras with Simon and Fleur, with Steve following a few hours later. I have gushed about the joy of direct trains from London to Paris before, but direct trains from London to Amsterdam are even more wonderful and engender a feeling of European interconnectedness in a way that flying never can and never will. After a pancake and hot chocolate-based lunch we hopped on a bus to a farm just outside of the city and the one-of-a-kind waggon we had chosen to stay in. Sure, we could have gone for a hostel or something, but that wouldn’t have been half as much fun as our beloved waggon.
On Saturday we started with art at the Rijksmuseum and in particular its special exhibition Rembrandt-Velázquez – Dutch & Spanish Masters. As a piece of curation this was easily one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Rather than my usual feeling of ‘wandering through many paintings and feel like I’m not really appreciating it properly’, whoever curated this has systematically selected one Spanish and one Dutch painting on a similar theme (headined, as the title suggests, by Velázquez and Rembrandt) and then invited the visitor to compare the works side-by-side. Combined with excellent historical background text, the whole experience of walking through an art gallery suddenly felt meaningful for someone who loves history but doesn’t really know much about art. And, if you are childish like me, you can also keep a running score of Catholic vs. Protestant? by picking your favoured painting each time. (I think the Protestants won out in the end, but it was a close-run thing!)
After lunch we headed to our timed tour of the Anne Frank House. (Tip: you have to book this online in advance, so check before you visit.) Having finally read her famous diary last year I was really glad that we got a chance to visit the annexe behind a bookcase where she and her family, along with several others, hid from occupying Nazi forces for two years before being discovered and killed. There is not much I can meaningfully add here, other than that the museum is very well designed and it is both strange and haunting to walk through the rooms which Anne wrote so much about in her diary.
Much of discovering Amsterdam felt like proving that the clichés were true, and not in a bad way. Yes, the homes lining the sides of the canals are incredibly pretty and charming. Yes, there is cannabis everywhere. And yes, cycling has a dominance and a naturalness (no helmets to be seen) which I’ve not seen in any other city in the world. What was especially exciting was finding this was still true even when we ventured outside of the most touristy areas, or late at night. With many cyclists, and few cars, it’s actually possible to have streets which feel calm and quiet without being empty.
Because all other transport modes can flourish together when cars are restricted, all of the other ways to get around Amsterdam were unsurprisingly but uniformly excellent too. The buses to and from our middle-of-nowhere stop by the motorway were astonishingly frequent. The trams across the city were great and – much to our amusement – sometimes contained an entire counter in the middle of the vehicle behind which a member of staff sat and (presumably) dispensed travel advice where needed.
And let’s not forget the Amsterdam Metro with its huge, beautiful stations filled with interesting art to admire in the couple of minutes before the next train would arrive. (To be fair, the line we used was only opened last year, so maybe it’s only fair that the stations look good.) On two occasions, by the way, random members of the great Dutch public stopped and explained the background to a piece of metro art that we were looking at.
We used one other mode of transport: a train to The Hague and back on Sunday, on which we had a bit of a surreal moment when a member of staff walked down the aisle and stopped to check “if everything was OK”. We had assumed she was a ticket inspector and had taken out our tickets to show her… but no, she was just checking if things were good. (On the same train, a young girl was practicing her English by having her mother call out English words and providing the Dutch translation. So we enjoyed a constant and quite adorable stream of pretty advanced vocabulary – “prison!” “pollution!” “pitchfork!”)
Anyway. Why did we go to The Hague in the first place? Why, to visit Madurodam of course! This ‘war memorial’ to a Dutch resistance fighter, George Maduro, is in fact a huge and utterly brilliant miniature park showcasing the best of The Netherlands at 1:25 scale. Although I could easily include hundreds of photos I will try and restrain myself a little, although if you check back in the post so far you may spot several model replicas already. Suffice to say: I loved it, from the intricate historical buildings and streetscapes to the big model industrial areas like Schiphol Airport.
There are so many wonderful little touches here, like the miniature Mars trucks which pick up real mini Mars bars from their mini warehouses, or the stricken cyclist lying by the stopped car. We also had a lot of fun at the immersive ‘New Amsterdam’ experience, which pits the plucky Dutch colonists against the nasty English pirates and – outnumbered – has them totally surrender as New Amsterdam becomes New York. I don’t know how anyone could fail to love Madurodam, and it is definitely worth the extra trip out of Amsterdam to see it.
I haven’t even mentioned the food yet, but this was yet another highlight of our short trip. From pancakes to poffertjes, stroopwaffles to Surinamese food, we all ate pretty tremendously. My only regret was failing to realise that the Van Gogh Museum also runs exclusively on timed tickets and thus failing to get in before our train back home on Monday afternoon. Still, if there’s anywhere I now ‘have’ to go back to, I’m delighted that it’s Amsterdam.
Sadly the train home is not as magical as the way there since there are no passport control facilities (yet) at Amsterdam, meaning that everyone gets chucked off at Brussels, goes through the customary (but absurd) double British/Schengen passport control a few metres from each other and then waits in a too-small waiting area to get on a new train. Not to be outdone, the Home Office then insisted on a third passport check when we came off at St. Pancras. I asked the border agent what on earth this was for, and he responded that it was “only for certain trains”. “But… why?” “Because… well, why not?” On this stellar logic I am expecting passport checks at Brixton tube station in the morning. (Not that I want to give them any ideas.) Can’t we spend the money on someone to check if people on trains are OK instead?
But enough of the Home Office. I hope I have done enough to prove my newfound love for Amsterdam and the dry-humoured Dutch in general. Send me back any day!
This Bank Holiday weekend Randi and I took the slow train to Dartmoor in an ongoing quest to explore the UK’s National Parks. I’ll cheerfully admit that we can’t compete against the US for sheer awe, but the British version of a National Park will still provide impressive walks through beautiful countryside and/or other people’s fields of sheep. I had actually forgotten when we planned this that I had already visited Dartmoor a decade ago, but this time we did things our style by rolling up to Exeter Central and then joining a small but merry band of travellers on the ‘Country Bus’ to the village of Moretonhampstead.
I was, in fact, that person who had phoned Country Bus (“the local bus operator with a friendly face”) in advance to check if they took contactless cards, and the guy at the other end (who was indeed very friendly) confirmed that – as of a few weeks ago – they did! “But, just to let you know, it’s not like using your card at Sainsbury’s where you can just tap and be done. You really have to hold it.” He was right, but I was still very impressed by the technological advance. And so we rattled on happily up and down narrow country roads (and past a road sign which said “CAT’S EYES REMOVED” which disturbed Randi as apparently they do not use this term in the US) until we arrived at our destination.
From here we followed a simple formula of eating large breakfasts, going on long walks and then eating large dinners. Wisely we decided to shell out for a paper map rather than relying on our phones, which was good because (a) I don’t think Google Maps is quite comfortable with hiking, and (b) on our second day we encountered a pair of proper walkers – one of whom sounded like a cousin of Gyles Brandreth – on top of Manaton Rocks. They were surprised and impressed that we had made it but also preemptively horrified that we might be using our phones to get around. Fortunately I could put their minds to rest with our laminated ‘Around & About’ (£3.99).
It was a simple but refreshing break, topped off on Tuesday night by the new season of Bake Off for which we were joined by Randi’s new friend Hala who had – surprisingly – never watched it before. Here’s to gentle vibes.
On Wednesday morning I received a 30th birthday e-mail from my 19 year-old self. It was sweetly good-natured as well as containing an alarmingly prescient warning about Boris Johnson, and it feels rude not to reply. To be fair, my 19 year-old self was just procrastinating from essay writing so it would probably be a bad idea to distract him even more. To make up for it, I will find some time to write a reply forward in time to my 40 year-old self instead, who I really hope has just enjoyed a birthday at least half as good as the one I’ve just had.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I don’t want to skip over the final few weeks of my twenties which – as promised last time – were all about settling down in our new flat and jobs and building the foundations of a routine. Our move to Tulse Hill was remarkably smooth (thanks partly to my mum who drove down a car loaded with suitcases and boxes!) and although we’re still waiting on some painting before we decorate properly the flat has slowly been filling up with everything it needs to feel like a home. In fact, on the very same day we moved in we also hopped down to IKEA Croydon to fill our backpacks with domestic essentials… and my very first journey on the hitherto mysterious world of London Trams.
In Chicago I really enjoyed my half-hour walk to and from work – not only as a chance to clear my head, but also as the perfect podcast listening time. So I’m really thrilled that I’ve been able to reproduce a 30-minute morning commute walk by heading to Brixton rather than just using the nearest station from our house. And as a bonus, I’ve swapped the industrial vibe of Goose Island (which, to be fair, I now have very fond memories of) for the breathtaking Brockwell Park. We are going to get an awful lot of use out of this park, especially on Sundays when there is an amazing farmers’ market just outside the park at Herne Hill station.
While Josh has the distinction of being our very first dinner guest, I was shocked to realise that the first people to stay overnight in our spare room would be Chicago’s very own Catherine and AJ! As I discovered when I walked into a pub on Wednesday evening and found them waiting at a table, our ‘surprise birthday weekend’ which Randi had organised for my 30th was actually for the four of us, which was both an incredible surprise and very touching that they would fly all the way here for only a couple of days. That night we joined up with my family for a plate-sharing extravaganza of Peruvian food (I was really hankering for some ají de gallina) before heading home together for the night.
On Friday morning we ate a variety of English breakfasts at our new (and currently favourite) local café before catching the train to the coast for a long weekend in a small village near Dover. I have taken the Eurostar along the High Speed 1 route before but this was my first time riding the domestic high-speed service and the incorporation of this particular bit of railway nerdery into the birthday plan seems to have been a happy accident. We were all suitably impressed by how fast it was and as we shared cans of M&S cider and snacked on Percy Pigs it was galling to learn that a similar high-speed rail link connecting Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis very nearly went ahead in 2010 before being scuppered by the asinine Republican governor of Wisconsin.
I had never been to the White Cliffs of Dover before and we were incredibly lucky on Saturday to get a perfect sunny day for a long stroll along the clifftop. The clear view of France across the channel really does bring home how geographically close the two countries are and, as if to make a point, my phone kept latching on to a French mobile network and pretending it was an hour later than it was. I challenge anyone to stare down at the port of Dover from above and casually opine that the single market is a trivial thing to mess around with. Once we got to Dover Castle we appreciated the usual medieval castle features (such a sentence is much less common in the US) as well as the Roman lighthouse and a tour/exhibition on Dunkirk presented in the ‘secret wartime tunnels’ which are signposted all over the site.
When not walking we did a lot of eating and drinking, from tea to vegan sausage rolls to three different chocolate caterpillar cakes (Charlie, Colin and Connie) which are not a staple of American birthday parties but ought to be. We also binged on Channel 4 (The Secret Life of Kids USA is notably didactic about parenting techniques compared to the UK version) and played an extensive game of Grand Austria Hotel, my board game birthday present from Katie. Predictably I also got upset about the cost, frequency and general demeanour of the very-non-London bus from Dover back to St Margaret’s at Cliffe… but I must admit that they do (finally!) take contactless card payments now, which is a real gamechanger if you find yourself relying on an unfamiliar rural route.
My 19 year-old self couldn’t have predicted how I would be spending my 30th birthday or who I would be spending it with, but he did have a hunch that I’d be enjoying myself. I’m really grateful to everyone who proved him right and made it so wonderful, kicking off my thirties in an exceptionally happy way.
I’m sitting in my aunt’s kitchen, snacking on Quavers and celebrating mundane achievements like acquiring a new debit card (after leaving my old one somewhere in Cambodia) and having the following conversation with T-Mobile:
“Hi, I’d like to cancel my T-Mobile account as I’ve left the country.”
“Sure, I can help with that. If you’re planning to come back I can just pause your bill.”
“No, it’s OK, I’ve left for the foreseeable future. [awkward pause] I mean, I’m not barred from the country or anything…”
“OK, OK, got it. So I can go ahead and cancel, but just to warn you that your SIM card will stop working immediately.”
“That’s fine. My SIM card is currently in the possession of a Peruvian teenager who stole it from me on a crowded bus in Lima so… it’ll be his problem.”
But before my brain is completely swamped by a reintroduction to London, I wanted to close out our four-and-a-bit months of travelling with some general bits and bobs from our big journey across South America and Southeast Asia.
An obvious question to ask is “what was the best part?” and for overall sense of achievement it’s difficult to argue with the W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. It’s obviously easier to hop on a tour but nothing compares to the satisfaction of carrying your tent, clothes and food along on your back for five days, even if it wasn’t always enjoyable at the time…
Interactive Destination Map
20 Different Transport Modes
Aeroplane, car, bus, coach, train, bicycle, minivan, tuk-tuk, motor boat, catamaran, ferry, kayak, basket boat, dragon boat, slow boat, subway, metro, cable car, pick-up truck, feet.
Four Extreme Photos
If GPS is to be believed, here is the furthest north, east, south and west that we went and snapped a photo. (Fair warning: furthest north is particularly unimpressive.)
Concept stolen from DG. Disclaimer: some photos may lack proper GPS co-ordinates blah blah blah. I did my best.
Public Transport Smartcard Nerd-a-thon
I ended up with six different cards in total. Bangkok’s Rabbit card is the clear winner in terms of cute design, but the downside is that it only covers one of the city’s three rail systems and none of the buses. Singapore was the only place organised enough to sell three-day tourist passes at our port of entry, while Kuala Lumpur loses many, many points for charging a ‘reloading fee’ every time you want to add more value onto your card. Not cool.
By default we stayed in AirBnbs, with a mix of the “staying in someone’s back room” type which Catherine and AJ find so awkward to whole apartments and repurposed hotel rooms. On top of that we also slept in a couple of hostels, four sleeper trains and one tent. Our most ritzy accommodation was definitely Marina Bay Sands in Singapore and for extreme relaxation it has to be the Ten Moons Resort in Koh Lipe.
Special shout-outs to Mary in George Town who kept insisting that everything was better in the Philippines and to Sophie in Laos who nonchalantly told us her crazy stories about babysitting pumas in the Bolivian jungle and bare-metal 48 hour bus rides. Apologies to the man in Puerto Natales who we tried to evict from a room that was rightfully his. And we will try to forget about the family who played acoustic guitar together outside our bedroom at 3am before – for some reason – poking their heads in our room.
The “watch a Disney film on the plane” tradition
My flight home Disney entertainment was Ralph Breaks the Internet, a gleefully self-referential sequel to Wreck-It Ralph which still manages to tell a decent story but is basically wasted on children who are not going to appreciate any of the best jokes. Highly recommended for your next flight, and be sure to stay through the end credits.
One moody black-and-white photo from Angkor Wat
Full Index of Blog Posts
13th April 2562, Bangkok.
The night before we had acquired our arms from a nearby dealer. It was a necessary act of self-defence to protect ourselves from trouble but also signalled our own commitment to fight, and we familiarised ourselves with our new weapons with a hastily arranged target practice back at base. This was not enough to protect me from a first strike the next morning on neutral ground – a victim of some ill-disciplined young fighters who found excitement in an unprovoked attack – but the majority of the battle was confined to designated combat areas other than some stray shots from passing vehicles. Some, like us, came from abroad but the majority appeared to be locals who had been looking forward to the scrap for some time. They expected the fighting to last for three days.
We arrived at the scene, suitably uniformed, to a war of all against all – but the majority of us formed a slow procession, not a scrum, as we marched along the road. At unpredictable moments the crowd would break into a roar, in a surge of emotion, or descend on a single victim with the passion of the mob. But much of the battle was marked by remarkable self-discipline fuelled by a shortage of ammunition. Profiteers enriched themselves by selling extra rounds by the side of the road, although they remained vulnerable to attack themselves and were frequently hit. Only the police seemed immune to fire, guarding the site but doing nothing to prevent the carnage before them. I regret to say that my weapon was no match for better-armed opponents who fired with more powerful guns, and I came away thoroughly vanquished but proud of the small part I had played.
I had a great time at Songkran.
Joking aside, Bangkok’s multi-day New Year celebrations (based on the Buddhist calendar) is so much fun, and the entire 5km length of Silom Road is blocked off for the giant water fight you can see in my hastily snapped photos. Even more charming, though, are the kids who wait eagerly alongside ordinary roads, ready with buckets of water for any passing vehicles or pedestrians. Of course, this only really works in a hot country where getting soaked is not going to chill you – it’s nice, actually, that a tradition is so naturally rooted in the particular geography and climate.
Other than water fights, we also enjoyed wandering through the Songkran celebrations at Lumphini Park, where we bought dinner from some of the many food stalls and sat watching musicians perform as the sun went down. But otherwise, part of the reason we turned our Southeast Asia route into a loop from Bangkok (which we visited a month ago) was that we wouldn’t feel a great pressure to explore one last place. Instead, we’ve been trying to lay the groundwork for a return to ‘normal life’ by applying for jobs and suchlike. Which is not that interesting to blog about 😉
And… that’s it! Tomorrow morning we set off for the airport and a direct flight home to London. I am planning one last wrap-up post about our whole adventure before this blog returns to its usual frequency. If you’ve been reading specifically for this series then I hope it has been enjoyable/helpful/a source of silly photos. Goodnight!