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Best of Holland

When writing the city reports for http://www.talesmag.com, I’ve had some difficulty filling in the part about the highlights and advantages of living in a place. Where do you start, when you’ve lived somewhere for over a dozen years? I have given it some thought, and tried to imagine what would I miss most, if I moved to another country. These are the things which to me make the Netherlands a pleasant place to live in.

  1. Cheese
    The Dutch cheese is world famous. But I’m sure many people will wonder “Is cheese something really worth raving about? How fascinating can Dutch cheese be?” I guess it’s one of those things you need to learn to appreciate, over time. Before I moved to Holland, I had no idea that plain ol’ cheese can be so diverse and so damn good.

    Alkmaar cheese market

    Alkmaar cheese market

  2. Museums
    The Netherlands has the highest museum density in the world. There’s a museum for everything here. Tobacco, Jenever, Taxes, Dredging – it can’t get any weirder. And I’m loving it. I’m a museum freak, and even though I enjoy the classic big museums, I get the greatest satisfaction from a visit to one of these obscure museums, where you actually learn things no one else knows. Nothing like small talk about dredging to break the ice at a party.
  3. Cycling
    To the Dutch, cycling is second nature. Some local children learn to cycle before they learn to walk, I kid you not! In fact, the cycling culture and facilities were one of the reasons I chose to come to the Netherlands in the first place. Cycling here is something completely different and it would take a lot of getting used to, should I live anywhere else.

    Cycling in Amsterdam

    Cycling in Amsterdam

    Cycling in Rotterdam

    Cycling in Rotterdam

  4. Location, location, location
    So yes, the Dutch weather sucks sometimes. There are no mountains here, no empty spaces. But one of the major advantages of living in the Netherlands is that its so easy to leave the place. Jokes aside, it is hard to rival the Netherlands in terms of connectivity. In a radius of 1000 kilometres from where I live lie the capitals of 15 other countries, all accessible by a cheap flight of 1.5 hours. Best of all, its possible to board a train in the morning and be in Berlin or Paris by lunch, or even at the Med by the evening.

    Budget airline - use with caution

    Budget airline – use with caution

  5. Efficiency
    A couple of weeks ago, I’ve noticed one of the light poles in front of my house was corroded at the base. I took a photo, uploaded it at the municipality’s website and ticked its location on the map. The next morning, city workers were on the spot, and a new light pole was installed before noon. That kind of efficiency is hard to beat.

    Fixed within hours!

    Fixed within hours!

What are the things that make your small European country a pleasant place to live in? Add your comment, or, if you feel inspired, I’d be happy to publish your guest contribution here.

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Amsterdam Alternatives

I’ve written this piece last year for Travel Between The Pages. A recent post I read about a trip someone else made to Amsterdam reminded me of my own work. Amsterdam, like most major cities in Europe is filled with things to see and do. But most people only do the stuff 99% of what “all the other people” do. Amsterdam has a big advantage – its quite small. So you can “tick off” the top attractions (Rijksmuseum, Vondelpark, Red Light District, Anne Frank) in a single morning, and then be “free” to experience the city at a leisurely pace. And I have a couple of suggestions for you.

Travel Between The Pages

This guest post is from Rotterdam resident and blogger Michael Afanasyev. You can follow Michael at his own blog Small European Country

Amsterdm-stedelijk-museum-130313-2

Amsterdam alternatives

Every major tourist destination has the “big ones”, the things everybody wants to see – like South Africa with the Big Five. Amsterdam has the Big Three. I mean, everybody goes to the Anne Frank House, visits the Rijksmuseum and takes the canal tour, right? Unfortunately, the popularity of these hot-spots tends to bring them down, too. To make the “experience” suitable for the masses, the attractions (yes, Anne Frank is also an “attraction”) make themselves suitable for mass consumption, in what I call the McDonaldsization of travel. I am not a huge fan of Amsterdam myself – to me it is a bit like a sleazy Disneyland. But over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the Amsterdam behind the touristy facade and discovered Amsterdam…

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Our annual Christmas market weekend getaway – this year to Antwerp

Its been a while since I’ve published one of those photo posts. You know, the “I’m too lazy to write but look at the cool pictures” kind of post? Well, here’s one. Last weekend me and the missus dropped our daughter at her sister’s and drove off to Antwerp for our annual Christmas market weekend getaway. We both have been there before, but a long-long time ago, so even though Antwerp is only a 100 km drive from Rotterdam, it was quite new to us. There are overwhelming similarities between the two cities – both are a major European harbour, of roughly the same size and with a long common history, having for a long time been part of the same country, and even the language is the same. But despite the many parallels between Rotterdam, our hometown, and Antwerp, we’ve really enjoyed exploring those subtle differences in culture and experience, that make cross-border travel in Europe so much fun. So without further due, here’s Antwerp:

We got SO lucky with the weather!

We got SO lucky with the weather!

A fanfare band playing on the Christmas market

A fanfare band playing on the Christmas market

There was also the regular Sunday market, under the roof of the Stadsschouwburg theatre

There was also the regular Sunday market, under the roof of the Stadsschouwburg theatre

Its not the Netherlands, but they do have an impressive array of bikes

Its not the Netherlands, but they do have an impressive array of bikes

Supreme view from our hotel window

Supreme view from our hotel window

Our stay in Antwerp, Hotel Banks was rather modern and neat in design

Our stay in Antwerp, Hotel Banks was rather modern and neat in design

Yes, leave it to the Jews to sell air (an exhibit from the ‘Sacred Places, Sacred Books’  at the MAS museum)

Yes, leave it to the Jews to sell air (an exhibit from the ‘Sacred Places, Sacred Books’ at the MAS museum)

The centre of Antwerp from the MAS rooftop

The centre of Antwerp from the MAS rooftop

A view of the harbour from the MAS rooftop

A view of the harbour from the MAS rooftop

Belgium is the absurdity capital of Europe, no one is even surprised by having a 9 1/2 th floor here

Belgium is the absurdity capital of Europe, no one is even surprised by having a 9 1/2 th floor here

Liquors are THE Christmas market drink in Antwerp

Liquors are THE Christmas market drink in Antwerp

I can warmly recommend Antwerp and in particular the following places:

  • Hotel Banks – not the cheapest one around, but with excellent facilities and services, including a free bar at the evenings!
  • Daily Roast – excellent coffee.
  • The MAS – Museum Aan de Stroom – a spectacular building with a fascinating variety of exhibitions.

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Europe as a budget destination – part V – what to do there?

In the first post of this series, I’ve bundled the travel issues into 5 categories: “Where to?” , When to go?”, “How to get around?”, “Where to sleep?” and “What to do there?” Having dealt with the first four questions, I now get to the best part – the fun stuff to do in Europe on a budget. Now I know Europe is famous for the amount and quality of attractions, like museums, churches, beaches etc. And you can save, for example, by visiting several museums in one day on a city pass, by doing what I call a “museum run”. However, when on a budget, its nice to have a few fun options that cost virtually nothing. The following 3 are my personal favourites.

  • Go hiking
    Europe is the best continent for hiking. Period. Nepal, New Zealand, New Mexico, all are great hiking destinations, but hiking in Europe is just so much easier. Every country in Europe, large or small, offers a vast array of well-marked hiking trails of every degree of difficulty and length. There are fully equipped, clean campings all over the place. If you don’t feel like camping, a mountain cabin is usually available. And if you’re tired of hiking, civilization is just a couple of hours away even in the remotest parts of Europe. This doesn’t mean you will hike among hordes of people (like on the Around Annapurna trek or on any of the Great Walks of New Zealand). Even slightly off-season (in June or September), in a bit less touristy areas (Pyrenees or Scandinavia) or on not-the-most-popular-paths you will be mostly by yourself. Best part – hiking is for free.

    Europe is ideal for hiking

    Hiking is for free even in expensive Switzerland

  • Take the tram
    The tram is my favourite vehicle and is a distinctly European mode of transport. Trams are virtually non-existent outside Europe. Unlike the metro, the tram runs above ground, so you don’t get claustrophobic. Its on rail, so it doesn’t veer like the bus does (buses always give me nausea). You’re inside a tram so you don’t get wet like you do when cycling. Finally, the tram offers a great view with zero effort, and tram routes usually go through cool parts of town. Buy a day ticket – it’s a great (budget) way to get to know a city. Just hop on, ride all the way to the suburbs, step out at the end of the line and have a walk in the park – usually there is a park where the line (and the city) ends. Then go back to the tram and go back. If still in the mood, repeat, using another line. Congratulations, you’ve just had a great day of sightseeing for about 5 euros. Probably met a few locals on the tram, too.

    Tram crossing the Erasmus bridge in Rotterdam

    Tram crossing the Erasmus bridge in Rotterdam

  • Have a break
    Yes, this one is, again, not unique to Europe. But while backpackers all over the world spend their time in hammocks, the ones in Europe seem to be rushing from museum to church to party, with never a dull moment in between. European distances are, indeed, relatively small and the attractions are innumerable, but taking a day or two off your travels is as good an idea in Europe as it is anywhere else. Give yourself a rest – the museum will still be there tomorrow, the church has been there for 800 years and will wait, and you still have a hangover from yesterday’s party. Stay in your hostel (or with your Couchsurfing host), have a walk in the neighbourhood without actually going anywhere, read a newspaper in the local library (most have newspapers in English) or a book, even if its your Lonely Planet guide. Perhaps you might end up reconsidering your next destination or decide to stay longer where you are at the moment. Having a break can and probably will save you money, short- and long-term.

    A book store in a former church in Maastricht

    If you don’t have a book – why not buy one? A visit to a local book store can be quite interesting, even if you don’t end up buying anything. Especially if its anything like this one, located in a former church in Maastricht.

    This sums up my series of posts about budget travel in Europe. As usual, if you have any tips of your own, or anything to add to the ones I wrote, you’re welcome to leave your comment here. Happy travels!

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Go wild in Scandinavia

Europe is not the first continent that comes to mind when you think about wild nature, right? Wrong! Even though the tourism industry brands Europe as the continent of castles, wineries and museums, there’s a wealth of wilderness in the old continent and not just at the far edges of it, like the Ural mountains. And Europe keeps getting wilder – just last week it was officially announced that the wolf has returned to the Netherlands after 150 years of absence! While parts of the Balkan or Spain are certainly rather wild, the wildest European region (outside Russia) is undoubtedly Scandinavia, the toughest bite-size region. The term “Scandinavia” is somewhat ambiguous. I take the linguistic interpretation of Scandinavia, one that includes Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden (and I want to add Finland to the Baltic states, to diversify that corner a bit).

  • Why go there?
    Because even Denmark, the most densely populated Scandinavian country, has over 7000 km of coast line (not including Faroe Islands and Greenland), most of it pretty deserted. Just type “Denmark coast” in Google and see if the images bring to mind the words “crowded” and “urban sprawl”, so associated with Europe’s Southern beaches. The forests of Sweden, the mountains of Norway, the arctic deserts of Iceland – Scandinavia is as wild as can be. Of course, it is still Europe, so there’s an abundant supply of castles and museums, and even the occasional winery.
  • What’s it best for?
    The region is a survivalist’s paradise. But the avid hiker is sure to enjoy it, too.
  • When is the best time to go?
    The Scandinavian climate can be rather harsh. July-August are the best time for hiking, especially since the wild berries are ripe then. The spring tends to be the driest season though, and the best chances of seeing the Northern Lights are in March.
  • How to get around?
    Having a car is somewhat of a necessity here. There are excellent ferry connections between the many islands and across the straights, so you can take the car with you pretty much everywhere you go – even to Iceland!
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    The distances in Scandinavia are BIG. If you’re short on time, perhaps consider a denser region.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Iceland. For sure. Even around the capital Reykjavik (which is worthwhile on its own) there’s plenty to see and do. Plus Icelandair allows a stopover en route between Europe and North America – free of charge!

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Museum run

Many European cities offer some kind of a visitors pass – a one-day or multi-day ticket that gives you access to major attractions, public transport and some discounts. I like these visitors passes as they allow my to do what I call “museum runs”. You see, I’ve been in so many museums that I sort of lost the patience for the slow strolling around that for some reason is the normal pace of museum-goers. It hurts my feet to shuffle around from one prolonged gaze at a painting to another. That’s why I sometimes revert to the museum run.

European cities usually have their (numerous) museums packed into the compact city centre or a convenient museum quarter. The high density of museums and the public transport access given by the pass allow me to squeeze as many museums as I can handle into a single day. On such a day, I do “cherry-picking” – in no way do I feel obliged to see the whole collection of a particular museum, but I rather head straight to the section or exhibition that I find interesting, skipping the rest. This way, and by walking in a normal pace (considered sacrilegious by the other visitors, judging by the dirty looks they always give me), I spent an average of half an hour per venue, and I can go to up to 10 museums in a day.

The fun part of a museum run is that I get to skip all those badly painted Madonna’s with baby Jesus (who is always painted as a 4-year old rather than a newborn), and focus on the stuff that I like. And get a varied museum experience, skipping from Indian painting of the 19th century to a tram museum to modern installations exhibition. I mean, I enjoy seeing Indian paintings of the 19th century, but after half an hour they become more of the same. So switching themes helps me to stay sharp in my consumerism of culture. And if a museum is boring, or not what I have expected – I just skip to the next one, without hard feelings.

On my museum runs I often shut myself from the world outside by playing some high-bpm audio content in my headphones. The music helps me ignore the other visitors (especially handy on Sundays) and I can also concentrate more on the visual perceptions – museums are mostly about seeing, not hearing.

The museum of crazyness in Haarlem – also free with the museum card

Since I live in a country with the highest museum density in the world,  the opportunities for museum runs are endless here. With an annual museum card, I have  free access to most of the museums and I’m doing my best to put it to good use.  I’m not a multimillionaire, so I can’t buy a Rembrandt or a Vermeer. But I pay the taxes that sponsor the museums, and I have the museum card so its just as if I own them – I can go see them every day. Which reminds me – I should check on some of my favourite paintings. And since I live in a small European country, they’re not too far away.

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Europe weirdland

In Europe, you can visit the strangest places. Here are some of the weirdest European tourist attractions:

  • Chernobyl, Ukraine
    Yes, its a tourist attraction. And yes, its worth a visit even though its a bit pricey and rather creepy. The tour includes a genuine Soviet-style dinner served in Chernobyl. Some visitors forget that it’s not a “fun” place like the Eiffel tower, so if you do get there try to keep it down. To complement the visit, don’t miss the Chernobyl museum in Kiev.

    An amusement park in Pripyat. It was scheduled for opening on the 1st of May, 1986 and, since the reactor exploded on April 26th, has never been used

  • Lourdes, France
    At first glance, Lourdes seems a normal French town. But it has a really weird vibe, swarmed as it is with cripples and sick of all kinds. If you think of drinking the holy water – think again. Look around you. All these people, carrying every possible disease, have been bathing in it. Trust in god, but with a pinch of salt and a bucket of common sense.

    For about 5 minutes after arrival, Lourdes seems normal

  • Liechtenstein
    What can be weird about Liechtenstein? The country isn’t even big enough to afford weirdness. However, if you measure weirdness per square kilometre, only the Vatican might be weirder. For example, the mighty army of Liechtenstein once returned from a war with more soldiers than it started off with, after some random guy liked their uniforms and marched back with the troops. Actually, its even weird that Liechtenstein even thought of going to war with someone. They can’t afford customs, but the tourist office charges 3 CHF for getting a Liechtenstein stamp in your passport, supplementing the nation’s income from tax evasion. The weirdest thing about Liechtenstein – you can rent it. And its the only country to have won an IgNobel prize.

    The Prince of Liechtenstein's castle, wine-tasting from the cellar is included in the rent

  • Berlin wall, Germany
    If you’re old enough to remember, think about what it was like just 25 years ago. You’d be shot if you would as much as look at it. Nowadays – its the number 1 tourist attraction in Berlin. The weirdest thing – there’s no wall at all. They were so happy they just cleared it all away. As the whole former death zone is built up with shopping malls and offices, you actually have to really look hard for the remaining pieces.

    Checkpoint Charlie - I guess its still forbidden to carry weapons off duty

  • Museum of Aviation, Belgrade, Serbia
    The weirdness starts with the location – the Nicola Tesla Airport. Usually, airports are named after politicians – Kennedy, Indira Ghandi, De Gaulle and such. This one is the only airport I know of named after an electrical engineer (who was also the inventor of the death ray). Perhaps naming it “Slobodan Milošević Airport” would create some frictions and generate too many jokes about the destinations (“only flying one-way to The Hague”), so even the inventor of the death ray was a better alternative. The museum itself features an amazing collection illustrating the complexity of local history. So, the Yugoslav pilots flew just about any plane in WWII – German, Russian, Italian, French, British – anything they could lay their hands on, resulting in an impressive collection. The star of the exposition is undoubtedly the Stealth Fighter wreckage, certainly the only one on display anywhere in the world.

    Not so invisible after all - F-117 wreckage at the Museum of Aviation in Belgrade

  • Signal de Botrange, Belgium
    I have described this unique location earlier here. Its the highest point in Belgium. In order to achieve a 700 meter altitude, the Belgians built a 6-meters high tower on the otherwise unidentifiable 694 meters “high point” on a flat windy marsh. It takes a lot of effort to find this place and once you found it you wonder why were you looking for it and how do you get away as fast as possible.

    Extreme Ironing on the stairway to nowhere at the Signal de Botrange

    • Zivilschutz-Museum, Zurich, Switzerland
      In the middle of Zurich, under a green garden hides the most exclusive museum I know of. Open on every first Sunday of the month, between 14:00 and 16:00, the (free) visit includes a guided tour, given in magnificent Swiss German. The guide, a former employee of this air-raid bunker/fallout shelter/commando post, appears on almost every photo on display and it seems as if the whole venue is a private vendetta of his to save some Cold War legacy for future generations. Walking through the 6 underground floors gives a good image of the madness and naivety of the era. I mean, hometrainers for electricity generation? That’s your answer to the A-bomb? And did they really think that a horse-drawn field kitchen is a legitimate piece of military equipment in the 1960’s?

      While the nuclear war is raging outside, you can give birth to the next generation of bankers thanks to the Zurich Civil Defence

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