Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Day 21 - Dutch Countryside Tour with Key Tours

The sun is shining again, both literally and figuratively.  Quiet, sleep filled night. How glorious. I sleep until almost seven and then groggily get stuck into journaling yesterday’s activity. At about 8 oclock I wake the sleeping spouse and we head to brekkie. It’s always best with breakfast to get it early. We’ll shower and dress afterwards.
We are away on time. We have to be today. It’s only a short walk around the corner to the tour departure point.  Periodically one of the key tours people escorts groups to the busses. It’s a little bit complicated as a route and we’d never find it on our own.  We have a short wait until the bus arrives. We are a mix of half day and full day tourists, but even together it’s still only a small number.
Heading out of Amsterdam we drive past the 1928 Olympic stadium.  “What’s it used for now?” one of the chattier ladies on the tour asks.  “Athletics.”
To get across the north sea canal we need to travel metres underground in the tunnel.  It’s a tunnel like other tunnels. 
Commentary on the tour, like on the canal boats, is given in four languages.  Today these are English, Italian, Spanish and French.  This is not before our guide (Jacqui) has asked if everyone can have the tour in English.  It’s easier for her and a better experience as she can have time to give more detail.  No response. The tedium of multi-lingual for everything is adhered to.  We don’t have an issue, but it seems to confuse some of our American companions who don’t seem to be able to readily tell which is the English portion.  Consquently they, but one lady in particular, proceed to ask questions about things that Jaquie as only just explained. Everything from details about what we are seeing to what time and where to be, whether things can stay on the bus and on and on.  It gets a bit wearing, not only for Jacqui but for the rest of us as well. Our noisy companion also has a tendency to ask reasonably offensive questions.  As the day proceeds Hubby and I feel deeply for Jacqui as she increasingly looses patience with our noisy friend. Who has apparently been taking a tour with Key tours for several days running. “Madam I just told you that.  Please listen so I don’t have to say everything over and over”.  Man, she really earns her money.
As we flew into Amsterdam the view was over a checkerboard pattern of flat fields cut up by narrow strips of water.  Over this terrain back in the 16th and 17th centuries there were thousands of windmills.  The industrial revolution put paid to that. Today there are few windmills left.  This is our first order of business.  Zanse Schans.  This is a rapid fire visit arriving at about 10:20 and we need to stay with Jacqui until after the cheese making talk because she’s paid for us all.  Then we have to be back at the bus by 11:45.
First up is the wooden clog making. Klompen is the name for them in Dutch. It so suits them.  On the way into the shoe making demonstration there are glass cabinets with an exhibition of all different sorts of clogs. Some look like collectors items. It looks interesting but we don’t have time to stop and look over them.  We are set for a demonstration of clog making.
The clogs are made from either poplar or willow and are worked from very wet wood.  Carved by hand a pair of clogs takes 2 – 3 hrs. With mechanical assistance they take 5 mins.  Our demonstration sets out to illustrate this point.  The process is very simple and quick using a simple copying lathe. The proper size for clogs is to have a centimeter around your foot with thick socks on.  The clogs are very practical footwear because they are very strong and protect your foot from damage; insulated so protect your feet from the cold; and they are waterproof.  Once carved the clogs have to dry slowly for 3-4 weeks at which point they can be sanded and finished. 
Demo over we have about 10 mins to buy some souvenirs and then we have to meet outside to go to the cheese making talk.  I note that the wooden painted tulips like I got at Keukenhof are cheaper here. They also have an option of a slightly smaller size. We go for those. We wait outside while an Asian tour group has their private talk. Luckily hubby and I are up with Jacqui in the protected alcover near the door. It’s bitter outside and the breeze that travels across the flat open plains has the jaws of a shark. While we wait we chat about the unseasonal weather.  The flowers will at least last well at Keunkenhof. Apparently it was bitterly cold there yesterday. 
Finally the Asian group is finished and we head inside out of the cold.  The girl who is planning to talk speaks only three languages other than Dutch.  Can everyone have the talk in English? No. Spanish? Oh.  The girls swaps duties with another girl who can cover offer the additional language.  It’s a very quick talk.  Fresh milk each day. Heat to 29C. Add rennet. Cut to a fine curd.  10 litres of milk will yield 1 kg of cheese.  The curd is put in moulds and pressed for a couple of hours. Then into a salt bath, 20% salt for one day. This aids preservation and also adds a nice salty flavor. Finally the cheese is dipped in liquid plastic.  A young cheese has been aged 1 month. A middle cheese for 6 months and an old cheese for 12 months or longer. At 2 years it is very hard and very good for grating over pasta. 
From the talk we move into the next room where there are cheese tastings.  You can of course also buy cheese and other souvenirs.  What a shame we can’t take cheese home. No point taking it to consume in Paris. We loiter a while and decide to have a look elsewhere.  Jacqui gives us our brochure for the windmill that crushes oil out of peanuts and points it out off in the distance.  We enthusiastically hurry to make the windmill.. well… except for the moments when I couldn’t resist the views.
This particular windmill dates from the early 17th century if memory serves. 1600 something I think. A quick hello and welcome at the ticket office and we’re in.  It is seriously wonderful.  There is creaking and thumping and the large millstones are working some peanut paste. Round and round and round.  This is AWESOME.  When we've had a good look, hubby says we should go upstairs for a look.  We clamber like monkeys.. hmm.. obese retarded monkeys perhaps.. up to the next story. There’s a door we’re clearly supposed to use to get outside but I am taking in the scenery here looking at the workings.  COOOOL! I take some photos and at hubby’s suggestion some video as well.  I love this place.  Out on the deck the sails of the windmill are being driven by the wind. A steady thwipe…thwipe.  . We have a look around and take in the views at take some more photos and are heading towards the exits when the wind suddenly picks up speed considerably.  It’s impressive and really a little un-nerving.  More video.  More video. Hubby is encouraged to take responsibility for his own video.  The speed and vigour of both wind and sails is getting a bit more than I can take and anyhow, I want to go and have a look at the sawmill across the way a little. 
Back down at ground level we have 15 minutes before we’re required back at the bus.  We race for it again. This time we need to pay another €3 pp.  The ticket man gives us a very brief run down on the mill.  It is a reconstruction of a windmill that was demolished 60 odd years ago, but back even further, in the 30’s detailed drawings had been made to capture every detail of it.  The rebuilding was completed in 2007 and cost €2 million. It is now a working sawmill and people can order timber from them.  There’s a 10 minute vision only film to go about how to the windmill was built but unfortunately we don’t have time to watch that.  The sawmill may not be 300 years old, but then the windmills in the time before the industrial revolution were not 300 years old either. It’s not possible to go up and outside at the sawmill, but is quite different in layout and very interesting.  The whole mechanization powered by the wind is ingenious.  Unfortunately time is short and we have to rush back to the bus.  We take the longer of two routes and find that it takes us past an intersection with a little street and village.  Many of the buildings seem to be private residences but it’s very cute.  A quick photo and a quick dash to the bus just a couple of minutes late. Luckily I’m not the last to return we wait another 5 minutes for another couple of people.  I could have happily spend another ½ hr to an hr at Zaanse Schans, but I guess it is about opportunity cost and we’re off to see some other things.  For people doing the tour in future, I’d say that if you’ve seen or have access to the series Cheese Slices and/or already know how cheese is made, skip the cheese and spend your time after the shoe making demo heading straight down to the industrial windmills.
11.54 am and we back in the bus heading to Edam for a walk. On the way we drive across a polder and hear a brief explanation about how they are made. They are lakes around which a dyke is built, then the water is pumped out of the lake.  The area of the polder is 4 metres below sea level.  This is the Beemster.  It’s a world heritage site and we are told is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the Netherlands.  Fields of green spotted with black and white cows.  Stripes of vibrant red and slightly shy orange; A faint whisper of pink where flowers are just starting to emerge.  A swan rests on the grass its long neck proving useful as it reaches around to pluck at blades of grass. We have a question from a passenger about when they harvest the flowers.  Here the money is in the bulbs rather than the flowers so they don’t harvest the flowers but wait and dig the bulbs up in August.
We drive through a pretty village called Middenbeemster, which basically just means its in the middle of the beemster.  It appears very pretty and upmarket.  The buildings look new but may be ancient.  Even churches built in the 15th century don’t look old here. Perhaps it’s the bricks, perhaps it’s the careful maintenance. 
Coming out of the polder we drive along the top of the dyke and observe the difference in level between either side.  The dyke is just a huge earthwork. Nothing that looks particularly structural in terms of walls of brick or that sort of thing.
Everywhere there is water.  Canals all over the place.  Often just little drainage canals.  A large flock of waterbirds is flying in the direction from which we’ve just come. They look like cormorants or something similar and have white on their faces but we pass them too fast for a good look.  Soon we are alighting from the bus again.  We’ve pulled up on one side of the town and the bus will head for the other side of town and we’ll rejoin it there. 
Our walk in Edam begins as we wander down past the large church and along a narrow strip of water.  The church dates from the 14th century. The church was subject to rebuilding in the 17th Century so probably that’s the age of what we are looking at.  We don’t go inside. There is an overhanging willow and in the tree are two nests of storks.  Not one, but two nests of storks! Whacko! A parent bird is flying around. With patience I think I could get a great photo, but the group is moving on. I do the best I can in the time.  Or lack thereof.  We walk past the old cheese weighing house which is situated on a large cobblestoned courtyard then make the turn to the centre of town.  Straight through the centre of town runs another strip of water. The oldest building in town is and dates from 1540. 
The impressive town hall is just across the water.  It’s all very pretty.  We head out to the bus on another lane.  Hubby and I are attracted by a display of for sale signs for bicycles in a shopfront window. 
A nearby door has a large wreath which appears to be made from real birds eggs. It sits centred on a very cool door knocker.  It’s all picture perfect.  Our route is well chosen and we pause to a look at a very old restaurant. Achingly pretty.  A very old lady comes past slowly pushing her wheeled walking frame. A couple of men sit at an outdoor table talking. I’m beginning to fantasise about a driving holiday in backstreets Europe and warn hubby of this developing financial threat. It’s not long until we’re stopping again. This time at a set of locks that control the change of water level in the town.
Again we pause, this time to note the two 17th century teahouses on the edge of the water behind two impressive old mansions. Just nearby a lovely bridge and cute little boats tied. I’m all set for taking a photo when a stork comes flying through the arch of the bridge. Oh yes! But I’m about one or two seconds too impatient.  Better than a complete miss though.
Our bus is parked at the local bus station and parking area.  A typically dutch commuter carpark is located near to the bus stop.

It’s only a fairly short drive of about ½ an hour to Voldendam where we have about an hour and a half of free time to get some lunch and look around. The tourist area is on the waterfront of a large lake. It mostly seems to be tourist and souvenir shops in the old buildings, but it is very pretty just the same.  Most of the group seem to head directly for the fish and chips shop which has a glaringly modern interior. Hubby is over looking at the menu board of an old looking place called the Hotel Spaander.  I’ve got my eye on a little café across the road.  They have a sign in the window “Best apple pie” …. Mmmm… apples… I don’t want to leave the Netherlands without having some dutch apple pie.  I raise the option with hubby. We go to look in the window at the menu.  Occassionally the door opens. The place is busy and full of what sounds like Dutch conversation.  The menu is also completely in Dutch no translation at all.  This is the Netherlands so its not that that is inappropriate obviously.  However virtually everywhere we’ve been at least has a fine print English translation.  It seems to me that not having this is either because they want to look more authentic or they are mostly interested in feeding the locals rather than the tourists. .. it’s probably a moot point because Hubby seems very keen on the hotel Spaander. The bells chime the half hour, starting with a nicely melodic series of notes to warn people to be ready to start counting.
Yeah Ok. We don’t have time to procrastinate.  Committed and walking in I then notice the Best Western logo among the other signage on the elaborate façade. Hmmm.  Oh dear.  We wander in and the place is deserted.  Amazing ambience though.  Hubby sums it up well when he says “it’s like a Dutch version of Rules in London”.  Yep.
We walk through to the bar and ask it’s ok to have lunch. Ya.  Just sit anywhere we like out in the area we’ve just come from.  We do. It’s not long before our waitress who is dressed in traditional outfit minus the cap comes over to take our order.  Hubby has decided on the Hollandse biefstuk en roomboter gebakken (dutch steak fried in butter).  I congratulate myself on my sensible choice of a dutch sandwich: Edammer kaas (Edam cheese) and ask for an addition of some Boerenham (farmer’s ham).  Some discussion as the waitress points out the option of a bagette with ham and cheese with salad. No, not a bagette, I really want it on bread. This leads to some extended instructions to the little hand held electronic ordering gadget.  We sup on some hot chocolate and still water and admire the large collection of paintings around the room. In frames, on walls.  Pretty soon we have a paper placemat to read which gives the history of the hotel Spaander.  It was started by a fellow back in the 19th century and he decided he wanted it to be a centre for the great artists to come from all over the world. So he sent them all a postcard.  Consequently many came and this place became a bit of a legend with many of the artists leaving a picture, perhaps in return for board and lodging.  It’s a fantastic place.  We wander about sussing things out. You could do worse than stay here I’m thinking.  We wait.  It starts to get a bit worrying how long our food is taking and hubby goes to follow up.  He’s not back when the food arrives with an apologetic explanation from our waitress that the Dutch steak takes a while to cook.   Well. So how was it?  It was worth the wait. Hubby’s steak is tender and delicious. His accompanying salad and fried potatoes are delicious.  My dutch sandwich is huge with three slices of bread. It’s an open affair with the slices of bread overlain with thinly sliced cheese and ham and a bit of salad on the side. I’ve opted for brown bread and it is dark chocolately brown. Soft fresh.  I’m at a bit of a loss how I’m supposed to tackle this open sandwich layout. In the end I conclude that certainly the best way is to just roll each slice of bread around the filling and get stuck in.  mm delicious.  Great lunch.  I’m enjoying having something so simple and yet so satisfying.  Hubby is emitting noises of satisfaction as he eats his steak.  We’re both really glad we chose to eat at the hotel Spaander.  Our waitress returns “how is everything”  “Worth the wait” hubby replies.
We finish our main course and we really don’t need it, but I am determined not to leave the country without having a Dutch apple pie. We order a serve of Boerenappeltaart met slagroom en vanilla saus (Farmer’s apple pie with cream and custard). One to share.  On arrival it’s a little cool from the fridge, but it is very delicious. Spiced with ample cinnamon. Lovely.  We have about ten minutes until our meeting time so we head back to there and go inside the shop to check out the souvenirs and select a couple of things.  Each place we stop we’re finding that the wooden tulips are cheaper than the last. At Voldendam are the cheapest yet. 6 for €6.50. 
We’ve left our bus behind for now and are taking a boat ride across the lake to Marken.  The weather has closed in and it’s cold and rainy. Large river cruise ships are berthed at the docks of Volendam. Out on the water too far to make a good photo an old boat with distinctive sails is visible.  The boat trip takes about ½ hr. We sit upstairs away from our group who have settled downstairs. Upstairs is much nicer and there’s space available.  We have been informed while on the bus that this lake was once salt water but was enclosed and converted to fresh water a long time ago.  Truly. The mind boggles.  The Dutch must be incredibly clever and hard working people.  To have even conceived of doing what they have done with all the land reclamation over hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s just incredible.  "Hey this land we live on is a bit boggy isn't it.  The problem is the earth and water are all mixed up together. Don’t you reckon it would be good to just dig the earth out and pile it up so that some areas are just water and some just land we can use?? Huge amount of work but pretty good payoff yah?"  … I have to observe that anyone else would have just acquired some weapons and gone and taken someone else’s land.  Full marks to the Netherlands I say.
Marken is a beautiful little village of immaculate dark green and white striped or black wooden buildings.  It used to be an island until a causeway/dyke was built in the late 1950s.   The seafront road has a number of tourist shops and we have about 15 minutes before meeting up to walk to where the bus is waiting.  We wander about and admire an old “Botter anno 1911” which apparently offers short trips. (see ) Looks like fun! Beautiful old vessel.  Gasp. What’s that bird calling on the water.  A grebe!! Yes! This delays my return for the walk to the bus.  I make no apologies!
We retrace our steps back to the bus. The lady who never listens and who hubby has decided must have some sort of problem, perhaps some sort of history of brain injury or something suggests I, is missing.  This leaves me time to admire the interesting dead tree trunk covered in klompen . In each shoe is a coin or several.  Perhaps a wishing tree?
It’s only half an hour or so back to Amsterdam. We travel through Monnickendam and are told that this means dyke built by monks.  We’re back in town by 4:30 and after 15 minutes of stops for people in various locations, central, dam and finally we are dropped at Museumplein.  We take the by now well known path home and gratefully collapse on the bed for a rest before dinner.  I’m worried about hubby. Hes had a little cough recently and now it sounds like it’s freshening into something more serious.  We really don’t feel like going out.  Hubby looks at the bright side. If we don’t go then we may wake in the night hungry.  Dare I say you won’t be surprised to hear that this is a very serious consequence in our world.  We’ll drag ourselves out. 
I’ve misplaced, or perhaps even lost my Amsterdam map guide.  Oh dear. Thank god for the internet. I check the route we need to walk. Thankfully we travelled the same ground the other day and we find Zaza’s easily in Daniel Stalpertstraat and take our seats.  It’s a lovely restaurant with a very modern décor.  We are greeted at the door by a pleasant young man who shows us to our table. We have been allocated a window seat. Is this OK? We agree, and not that it's a problem, but we discover that the windows radiate cold despite the fact that they are double glazed.  Our first tasty morsel is a filo tart of apple ginger and pumpkin.  Just one bite's worth.  We enjoy and happily anticipate the meal to come. Before our selections arrive we are entertained by a scrumptious aioli dip with smoked aubergine, and sun dried tomatoes.  Oh it is so good!  What a great choice of dining for this evening. For a start I select the pan fried scallop  with rosemary risotto, cauliflower  cream and dried pancetta.  This arrives with the dried pancetta sitting like a frill atop a mould of rice resting in a moat of cauliflower cream.  The whole is topped by two beautifully browned scallops.  Ha. Beat that!  Hubby has gone for the Tuna Tempura filled with wasabi mayonnaise and soy and sesame dipping sauce. (E Mmm lovely is the judgement he makes.  We each prefer our own. I have a slight phobia against rare seafood and well, meat too.
Running even we head into the turn.  I have lined up with Chargrilled rib eye with homefried fries, a paremesan filled onion, red wine jus and horseradish cream. I look to hubby for a judgement on his Fillet of venison with a mushroom duxelle and fois gras tartlet, red cabbage, truffle mash a nd red wine & port jus.  We're still level pegging, both meals are delicious. Down to the decider.  Dessert. I have bagsed the Yoghurt and vanilla hangop (a typical dutch dessert) served with strawberry, ginger and orange coulis and sugar dusted crostini.  Actually I don't remember getting the crostini, but the hangop was absolutely delicious.  I am well known for my passionate love of yoghurt and the hangop is a sensational way to have it.  Basically it is a delicously thick yoghurt eaten with a beautiful spicy dried fruit bread. Yum.. Hubby has taken my suggestion of trying the cherry clafouti. It's nice but it isn't in the race with the hangop. I am declared the winner for tonight.  Definitely one of our dining highlights. If you're in Amsterdam, don't skip dining at Zaza's.

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