Monthly Archives: June 2010

TOUR DE FRANCE – adieu Monsieur Armstrong?

Dear Lance Armstrong,

You tweeted today that this would be your last tour. I seem to remember you said that before, and it turned out not to be strictly true. Quite a few things cyclists say turn out later to be not strictly true (‘Contador/Landis/the French media and I get along fine’, ‘There could have been growth hormones in the chicken vindaloo’, ‘I have no idea how that got into my luggage’.)

But I’ll take your word for it this time, and if we don’t see you again, I’ll miss you and your witty post-race repartee. For me this will be my first Tour, so perhaps it’s an appropriate time for you to get out as the new generation moves in.

I expect you’ll be busy riding for the next three weeks, but in case you have any time for tourism, I’ll feed you some advice about sights you shouldn’t miss. I noticed that the Radio Shack team bus has dark windows so perhaps you just watch DVDs rather than admiring the scenery.

So, Day 1, Prologue, 8km time trial through Rotterdam. Rotterdam is not technically in France; it’s a couple of countries away, in the Netherlands. Someone probably told you that already. Anyway, don’t be surprised when you get out and about to hear local people speaking not francais, but Polish. Rotterdam is a multicultural sort of city.

The Destroyed City

The centre of Rotterdam was bombed flat in 1940, as punishment for Dutch resistance. This statue ‘The Destroyed City’ commemorates the event.

I don’t know if you’re interested in architecture, Lance, but Piet Blom designed these famous Rotterdam cube houses. They look great from the outside, but it’s tricky to live in one. If you don’t nail it to the wall, your furniture keeps sliding down into the bottom point.

Piet Blom's cube houses

Your prologue route takes you back and forth over the Erasmus Bridge. Desiderius Erasmus was a Dutch philosopher, probably born in Rotterdam about 1466. He wrote about cultural, ethical and religious development and his bridge has a good surface with a separate lane for cyclists. Should be a good start to the Tour. Bonne chance!

Votre ami de vélo,


PS. Lance, you probably remember that during this year’s Giro d’Italia I was supporting my Aussie compatriot Cadel Evans. Sadly, carrying the weight of my expectations in the pockets of his cycling jersey proved too much for Cadel, who finished out of the medals. I decided to give him a break for le Tour 2010 and see if it enhances his performance.


Filed under Cycling, Holland


The Netherlands is nearly the most densely populated country on the planet, but its cities are small. Visitors are surprised to find that Amsterdam has less than 800,000 residents. The Dutch population (16.5million) is dotted across the country in hundreds of small towns and villages. Most have green space all around them, water close by, and relatively prosperous residents who can restore old houses, employ good architects and develop attractive gardens. Consequently rural Holland is one of the prettiest places on earth.

So here are my top five, in no particular order:


This tiny village is set on the Spaarne River, in the farmland and forest between Amsterdam and Haarlem. Cafe Spaarndam dates from 1571. The village is also notable for the two late 19th century forts, and a statue of the mythical boy with his finger in a mythical dyke.


Muiden is made special by having a busy lock, a mooring for tall sailing ships, and Muiderslot, a restored castle on the waterfront. At Muiden a cyclist can sit by the lock with a beer or a coffee and admire the work others have done on their expensive hobby boats.

Broek in Waterland

In the middle of the most appealling (and most popular) riding area out of Amsterdam, Broek in Waterland has little wooden houses in lush gardens, and a church tower peeping up above the lake. A close call between this village and neighbour Zuiderwoude for inclusion in the list, but Broek has better cafes.


Weesp was razed to the ground in the 16th century by troops from Gelderland. You didn’t know Gelderland had a marauding army? Neither did I, till the information board in Weesp told me. Now Gelderland is a pleasant Dutch province surrounding the town of Arnhem. Weesp recovered from the setback, and now has a couple of church towers, a row of old windmills, a fort, and of course, cafes by the water.


Thanks to a certain well-known cheese, Edam is the most visited village on my list. It booms in summer when buses churn out tourists to see Cheese Market: The Show on Wednesdays at lunch time. But any other time it’s quiet and well-supplied with preserved buildings.

NOTE: My rule for this short list – a village had to be in Holland. ‘Holland’ is commonly used to mean ‘The Netherlands’ but officially ‘Holland’ refers to two provinces containing Amsterdam (‘Noord Holland’) and The Hague (‘Zuid Holland’). I limited myself even more than that – my favourite villages had to be reachable within a hour’s bike riding from central Amsterdam, so all are in Noord (North) Holland.

There are plenty of other candidates I could have included (Marken, Durgerdam, Baambrugge, Naarden, Abcoude…). I’d like to hear your suggestions. I’m always looking for an excuse to get on the bike for an hour.


Filed under Cycle touring, Cycling, Holland

COLOGNE, GERMANY – just Another Bloody Cathedral?

I’m sure I’m not the first tourist to suffer cathedral fatigue. I’ve heard about the ‘ABC’ of travel – ‘another bloody city – another bloody cathedral.’ I’ve never taken any interest in gothic architecture, so why should I suddenly find it fascinating just because I’m in Cologne?

But a tour of Cologne’s biggest attraction quickly becomes fascinating, because guide Franz’s stories help us reflect on the beliefs, endurance, ingenuity, and sometimes gullibility of those who constructed and used this cathedral through the centuries. Cologne Cathedral is not just about architecture, or Goths for that matter – it’s about people.

Secret church services were held on this site in the second or third centuries, when Christians were still persecuted, but things only really got going in 1164, when the bodies of the three Magi were transferred here from Milan. Pilgrims flocked to Cologne to see them, and still do.

It was St Helena who originally brought the Magi to Europe, along with other ‘holy’ relics she found conveniently lying around when she made her trip to the holy lands. She may not have been the first gullible tourist to be sold fake artefacts by local shysters, but Helena was Constantine the Great’s mum, so when she returned with her souvenirs, few dared challenge their authenticity.

Three Kings

The Magi were relabelled ‘Three Wise Kings’ to avoid any confusion with street magicians, and in 1248 the Cologners started work on a cathedral to accommodate them. The kings now lie in a gold, jewel-encrusted sarcophagus, behind bullet-proof glass, ‘to protect the jewels,’ says Franz, ‘rather than to preserve the relics.’

Once a year at Epiphany, the casket is opened and visitors can peer inside. The kings have been enhanced over the years. Crowns have been added to make the bones look more royal, but since they couldn’t be fitted on the recumbent skeletons, authorities removed the skulls for the coronation.

Scientific examination established that the bones belonged to gentlemen who died aged about 55, 35 and 15. No problem, said the cathedral authorities quickly; it’s perfectly possible that one of the kings could have been a boy.

Once the Kings were interred there, other customers wanted to RIP close to them, hoping it would somehow speed their passage to heaven. The honour was reserved for archbishops only, but in 1371 Duke Gottfried of Alsberg paid a fortune to get his place by the Kings. He was an unpopular inclusion, so his supine statue is covered with an iron cage to deter vandals.

Despite financial contributions from the likes of Gottfried, the money ran out in the sixteenth century, and the builders ran out soon afterwards. The ancient crane that had been used to haul stone to the tops of columns creaked to a halt, perhaps to the relief of the six convicts who’d had the unenviable job of operating it, running on a treadmill like human hamsters.

The crane stayed motionless for the next three hundred years. For centuries Cologne was known as the ‘city of the crane’. Then in 1824 more funds were found and work resumed on the twin towers. Thanks to the new technology, the spires and the cathedral façade were completed in a mere 38 years and the cathedral became the tallest building in the world.

The cathedral’s mosaic floor is also a 19th century addition. Prior to that, the floor was covered with the graves of noblemen. Unfortunately the stones covering them made imperfect seals, so recently buried bodies tended to emit an unpleasant odour, which according to Franz gave rise to the phrase ‘stinking rich’. I thought it could have given rise to the phrase ‘odour Cologne’, but I wisely kept that pun to myself. Until now.

Masochists can pay a small extra fee to climb the 509 steps up the south tower. Yes, of course I did it, and without oxygen too. The narrow spiral staircase is not recommended for the claustrophobic. It was a relief to pause halfway up to admire Fat Peter, the world’s biggest suspended bell, who is seldom rung and is naturally closed for Lent. Any more fun could be dangerous to us.

Fat Peter


Filed under Germany, Travel- Europe


We have American visitors in town today. We want to show them a good time, so we’re taking them to the library. The magnificent new (2007) Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam (public library Amsterdam) is not yet a major tourist attraction, though we’re doing our best to make it so.

It’s a wonder any internet cafe can survive in this city, when the library offers it all. Backpackers who arrive at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station suffering internet withdrawal need only turn left, walk a couple of hundred metres past some roadworks and the floating Chinese restaurant (a candidate for the ‘ugliest building in town’ award), and within a few minutes they can be online for free.

More comfort than in your own living room

Everybody is welcome. Bring your own laptop or use the library ones. Read the world’s newspapers and magazines. Sit in a sound shell and listen to music (the jazz collection is particularly impressive). If you prefer live music, go next door and see what the Conservatorium students are up to. There are often excellent free concerts on, performed by young musicians of prodigious talent.

For a meal, coffee or a drink, there’s the restaurant below, but better still is the seventh floor branch of La Place, a cheap, fast (but fresh) food outlet. Outside on the roof terrace is the best birds’ eye view of the city you can get without being a bird.

The view from the cafe terrace.

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Filed under Budget travel, Holland, Travel- Europe

OPEN GARDEN DAYS, AMSTERDAM 2010 – “Opentuinendagen”

Incredible though it may seem, there were a few people in Amsterdam more interested in gardening than in a World Cup football match between Paraguay and Slovakia. Despite inclement weather, they flocked to this annual event.

It's a thrilling social occasion.

We’ve been regulars at the Opentuinendagen (Open Garden Days), so it was good to see some new venues this time. We particularly enjoyed visiting ‘hofjes’ not normally open to the public. These are private shared gardens surrounded by housing complexes originally set up by rich burgers anxious to do good works for needy people, often single women or the elderly.

We really like the idea of communal gardens. There’s a lot to be said for knocking down the backyard fences and employing professionals to take care of the design and the weeding. We have only a couple of pot plants on our 5th floor balcony, so we envy those who have a small green patch at their doorstep, a space where they can be alone, or get to know the neighbours if they prefer.

These are all beautiful gardens, but must be said that if this is a representative sample, Amsterdam landscape design errs on the conservative side. Certainly growing a Mediterranean garden or a cactus feature would be a challenge in the Dutch climate, but the range of plants on show is limited, and there’s a sameness to many of the gardens we visited. Does every Amsterdam backyard need a box hedge and a central sundial?

At least as interesting as the gardens were the snooping opportunities, as we poked our noses over the ropes and the ‘no entry’ signs into the kitchens and living rooms of these elegant establishments. Though we common folk were normally admitted only through the servants’ entrance – a tunnel under the building, for transporting the buckets of manure, we presume.

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Filed under Holland, Travel- Europe


For one weekend in June each year, stately houses on Amsterdam’s most beautiful canals open their secret gardens to the public, giving us common folk (for a small fee) access to the playgrounds of the privileged. Mevrouw T. and I are regulars at this worthwhile event. Most gardens, in a town where space is at a premium, are formal French-style affairs, featuring box hedges, sundials and ponds with fountains. Many also hold temporary sculpture exhibitions during the open days, much of it for sale.

The Open Tuinen Dagen (Open Garden Days) are June 18-20, 2010.

For more information, visit the


Filed under Art, Holland