Late September 2018, Priyanko and Di had informed us that a new addition to the Basu-Gupta family was expected. This meant that the family trip to Turkey that had been under consideration was no longer under consideration. While we would not have otherwise changed hemispheres during our travel, Parul and I decided to go to US to spend some time with the families. This is one of the agendas that our current jobless stint has - to spend some quality time with loved ones. Something that usually gets shelved in the bustle of a regular work life. And then, of course, I have a soft spot where my siblings are involved. So US it was! But en route, to break the oh-so-long journey (😂), we decided to stop in Europe for a few days. Lot and Arno (C&A), the Dutch couple I had befriended while they were travelling across the globe a few years back, had been inviting us to visit them in the Netherlands for a while now. Plus we had a house in Vienna as well since Chacha was posted there. So we decided to make a trip of it 😄
A Warm Welcome
The planning for our time in The Netherlands had been left up to C&A. When they had first told us the suggested itinerary, the procrastinator in me had kicked back and put on his lazy hat. This was well taken care of! 🍷 Our flight was through Moscow (Aeroflot has become our flight of choice these days 😄) and we reached Netherlands late in the afternoon. Rita and Wietze, Arno’s parents, met us and took us to their home where we were supposed to meet C&A later that evening. They stayed in Alphen, a small town south of Amsterdam and we drove there in their car. Of course, at this time I had no idea about how far a “town south of Amsterdam” would be. Turns out, people commute from one city to another for work on a daily basis in this country. If you are from India, daily commute in Bangalore would probably take more time. 😑
We stopped in a mall first where Rita picked up some stuff for our stay. I, as usual, was going crazy exploring the alleys 😂 I think I will make this one of the things to do in every country. Randomly walk the aisles of a grocery mall 😛
Rita kept pointing at things that were typically Dutch and if I showed a flicker of interest, it went into the shopping cart 😊
Next, we drove to their pretty home and settled in. It was one of those pretty houses that make you smile involuntarily.
The garden was being layered with some soil and Wietze explained how the ground in Netherlands sinks on a regular basis. This was when we learnt about how The Netherlands was more or less a man made creation! I had no idea about this till now and I was simply blown away at how these people had, over the years, built this country out of the marshes and seas. Quite a feat! No wonder they are the priority engineers for waterworks around the globe.
There were many more interesting conversations that we had with Rita and Witze over the 24 odd hours that we spent with them. They were very well travelled and had so many stories to tell. Coated in Wietze’s typical Dutch sense of humour, it was a blast to listen to 😂 They gave us some serious life goals as well. The couple still travelled a lot and were full of various intriguing pieces of information about cultures across the globe. I can probably go on and on about the stories I have heard about the Keuning family but let me put a limit to it 😄
That evening, after their working hours, C&A came over for dinner and we talked some more. About our travels, their lives and plans, etc. The delicious white asparagus that Rita had prepared was hungrily gobbled down by Arno and me before the conversation shifted over wine and coffee. Later, C&A left for Amsterdam and we called it a night in the cosy room upstairs.
We had a very relaxed sleep that night and woke up to have some more conversation with Rita and Wietze over a typical Dutch breakfast. It consisted of bread, cheese and meat mostly. And then there was the Hagelslag which was to soon become my favourite Dutch food 😛
After breakfast we left for a drive. Wietze loved driving and had been a rally driver back in the day. He even owned a beautiful Porsche that I forgot to take a picture of 😑 The navigation was old school, with a paper map and lots of uncertainty 😂 But it was definitely fun!
We drove on country roads along canals. Wietze explained more about the Dutch creation of The Netherlands and how the land was actually under the level of water. “Netherlands” made sense. We crossed some tulip farms which were yet to be harvested. The typical scenery of big pastures and cattle was everywhere to be seen and was beautiful. The roads were wide and well maintained.
We stopped in a small town called Oudewater first. It had a small town feel and the orange flags were up for the imminent King’s Day celebrations (more on that later). Oudewater has a Witches Weighhouse (Heksenwaag) where those accused of witchcraft were brought in and were pronounced guilty or not based on their weight 😂 We walked around some, clicked a few pictures, checked out the interesting facades and then grabbed a gelato on the way out.
We took a short coffee break next to the river crossing on The Lek. The hotel that we stopped at was another pretty sight and the conversation with Wietze and Rita shifted to some cultural differences between India and The Netherlands. It was interesting to get to know the perspective of their generation in addition to what we knew from C&A. Obviously, both these perspectives were quite different and comparing them with the “Indian mentality” was another interesting exercise.
As we crossed the river, Wietze passed over the ferry tickets to Parul for a scrapbook he was sure that she would be maintaining 😆 Across the other side was Kinderdijk, a small village that offers a sight of numerous windmills. The windmills here were built to pump out water from the polder and while most of the windmills no longer serve this purpose, it has been preserved as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The Kinderdijk museum was an interesting display of the typical lifestyle of the family that used to inhabit and operate the windmill.
From Kinderdijk, it was a short drive to Rotterdam. This city is a bustling port of commerce and has been so for a long time. This town is also known for it’s modern architecture and it’s football club, Feyenoord, rivals Amsterdam’s Ajax. We were also told a bit about the historical context of Rotterdam in World War II. Wietze took us to his old work place and walked out for a bit. The rains that had been threatening since the morning (which I had been predicting since we left the house (a prediction that Wietze kept making fun of because it had not rained till now :stuck_out_tongue)) finally came down. While the initial plan was to have our lunch here, we were running a little late and decided to grab a quick bite enroute.
From Rotterdam it was a straight drive to Amsterdam which took a whole hour and fifteen minutes mostly because of the break at McDonald’s (I tried the croquette burger at Rita’s recommendation! 😋), a wrong turn we took and the “heavy” traffic we encountered after entering the city. The travel times are ridiculously short in this country 😑
We were now dropped at Arno and Charlotte’s place which was a pretty apartment right in the center of Amsterdam.
That night we had a delicious dinner that Lot had prepared and then headed out to attend a concert in the town. We were supposed to have no idea about the concert but Rita had mistakenly let it slip during the breakfast 😂 I think we did a good job of acting surprised when Arno announced it 😛
The concert was in Paradiso, a chapel that had been converted into a music club back in 1967 and has been the center of hippie culture in the city. It has hosted a number of prominent rock artists and it was outright the most pretty location I have been to! The acoustics were amazing (it was a chapel of course) and the crew had done an amazing job with the lighting.
We enjoyed the band’s performance for a bit with C&A and their friends but had to skip the later half because Parul was feeling faint. It might have been claustrophobia (the Dutch are tall and the hall was jam packed) but we are not quite sure yet. After returning to the house we talked some more over some wine and Arno’s Spotify playlist before calling it a night.
When in Amsterdam
The next morning while Lot headed for work, Arno and I rented out cycles. Cycles are a very Amsterdam thing. Bicyclists have the biggest priority on the road (even more than pedestrians!) and cycles are probably the most protected item, heavily guarded by big locks and chains. Arno told us that there is a big black market of cycles and everyone has their cycle stolen at least once in this city 😂 The cycles were not easy to ride for us. They were so counter-intuitive with their back-pedal-brakes and no hand brakes. I am surprised at how neither of us banged into a car or something (someone) else! At the end of the tour even Arno expressed his surprised at it. Evidently it’s something of an adventure sport for the tourists 🚴
We rode along the roads as Arno explained to us the way Amsterdam was structured around canals. Every road had a name that Arno thought I should know and I knew I’d forget 😂 We stopped at some spots to check out the waterways, saw the Anne Frank House from afar (neither of us were interested in standing in long lines), checked out Westerkerk from outside since it was closed for some maintenance and eventually ended up in the museum square for some croissant lunch in the park.
Arno had breezed over all the usual touristy parts of the city and I liked it better this way 😄 He also told us how Amsterdam derived it’s name from the river Amstel. While we were having lunch, we thought of the museums we would like to check out during our stay but evidently the museums here need to be booked well in advance. There was a special Rembrandt exhibition going on in the Rijksmuseum and we decided to do that. Lot looked up and booked us the first available tickets which were just a day before our departure 😬 Europe definitely needs more planning than what I had thought and what we are used to.
Arno’s tour of Amsterdam lasted for half of the day post which we met some of his friends over food and drinks. They were a fun lot and we spent time checking out the King’s Day preparation and then settled down in a place with some amazing Apple Pie and beers.
That evening after another amazing dinner (prepared by Lot of course), we went to check out the King’s Day celebrations. The city had gotten into a festive mood and their biggest festival was to start in the morning. But the party definitely began tonight! Squares and markets had music set up where bands and DJs played music. Alcohol was flowing everywhere and everyone was to be seen out in the streets drinking and socializing. I met up with three of my friends from college who were now working in Amsterdam. Everyone met everyone - the four of us, my friends, their friends, C&A’s friends, random strangers, everyone! We stood or sat on the roads and drank. Amsterdam seemed like a very likable city for me 😃
The next day was an extended party. We were out the whole day. Drinking, standing on the roads, talking to everyone we met, watching boats full of people partying in the canals. Everything was coloured in orange and we tried our best to blend in. It was extremely entertaining and amusing to watch an entire city party together. Parul has written more about this crazy festival.
The Country Up North
The morning after, C&A had another plan for us and we left in their car to the north of Amsterdam. The destination was Friesland, the native province of Arno and Wietze. The Keuning family had a house by the lake out here. The drive this time was assisted by modern technology (😂) and as we crossed the 32 kilometer long Afsluitdijk (yes, it’s written like that), Arno explained the creation of the IJsselmeer (yes, it’s written like that as well 😑) and the history of Holland’s biggest lake.
After driving for almost an hour, we reached the lake house, a pretty house with lake access and a couple of boats. C&A told us that the lake was part of an interconnection of waterways (of course). People sailed and indulged in other water recreational activities during the summers and when it froze over in the winters, ice skating was a popular sport here. In fact, their first date was spent skating across the countryside 😄 There was a special ice skating event, Elfstedentocht, that was organised some times in the winters when the ice was thick enough. It was a sort of national holiday for the Dutch and the route passed right in front of this house!
We had an early lunch by the lake side and relaxed in the shining sun. Since the weather was a bit nippy, taking a dip into the lake was considered but not seen through 😛
After hanging by the lake for a while we headed out to see the countryside. The drive was through small country roads much like the ones we had seen with Rita and Wietze a few days ago. Our destination was Sloten, a small city with fortifications and canons. It looked pretty as a picture and we spent some time walking around and clicking lots of pictures.
We came back and chilled by the lakeside some more. Arno’s Spotify playlist provided an easy pace for thought and actions. Looking at the boats pass by I started wondering how different a life the people of this country led from that of ours. The skills that they learnt growing up and the kind of recreational activities they did in their free time were so different from ours.
Later that evening we set up a barbecue. The ladies cut up and prepared the meat and vegetables. Arno did the grilling and poured some Beerenburg (a Friesland speciality). I tried my best to stay out of their way, drink much wine and imitate “El Profesor” 😂
The table was wrapped up as the sun set after it’s extended hours of work. Then we retired indoor for a game of the Dutch shuffleboard, called Sjoelen. It was a fun game and Parul was a clear natural at it 😂
The next morning we had another easy breakfast by the lake and in the sun.
Then while Charlotte put in her working hours, we took to doing some laundry and watching boats go past us. When Arno felt that we were feeling bored, we went out for a drive and saw the famous Friesian horses (a lot about this small country seems to be pretty famous!), checked out a local boating accessory shop and saw IJsselmeer up close.
Once Charlotte was done with her work, we took off to Hindeloopen for some lunch. This city has a harbour which houses many a boats which sail in the IJsselmeer. We walked around a bit and learnt how the canals connected to the lake via lock gates. Then we settled for our lunch of fish and chips which were extremely good!
Then we bid goodbye to Friesland and headed to Haarlem where Arno’s sister had invited us for dinner. Rita was there as well which meant delicious food! But first, Arno had to take his niece and nephew to the fair in town. So we accompanied Lot, Arno, Rita and the kids and checked out the Dutch fair 😂
The dinner saw some good Italian food, more stories and lots of wine.
Here we bid C&A goodbye and hitched a ride with Rita to her place in Alphen. The next morning she dropped us at the airport and we took a flight to Vienna, moving from one family to another 😄
The flight to Vienna was short. We landed at the airport and then were supposed to get to the center of the town where we were supposed to meet Chacha at the Indian embassy. Austria has excellent public transportation and I was eager to check it out. We had not been given a chance to try it out in Netherlands as yet because we had been taken care of a bit too well by our hosts 😬
We took the train to the center of the city. We bought the tickets and then boarded the train. There was no manual check anywhere and we soon understood why. An unfortunate tourist from USA boarded the train in a hurry without buying a ticket and while his intentions were in the right place (he asked us and a few other passengers where he could get the ticket), it was too late for him since the tickets were sold only on the platform. Unfortunately, the ticket checker passed through our compartment and the guy was fined despite his pleas. It made sense now how the system worked without manual checks on every step. Huge fines enforced strictly served them well enough. Not that such a system had any chance of working in a more populous country but out here it was a very effective way of operation.
We found the Indian embassy with some difficulty in a drizzle. It was right next to the Viennese Opera House and afforded a beautiful view of the building.
Once Chacha was done with his work we drove back to his house together. He gave us an overall idea of the town and the main points of interest that we could come and check out later. It was raining heavily now and we found quite a lot of traffic jams on the road. Such a change after Amsterdam! 😛
The house was a beautiful old construction that was very tastefully decorated with Indian decor. The kids had us engaged most of the time that we were at home and of course there was the home cooked Indian meals that we were treated to.
The morning after our arrival all of us left on a road trip to the Wachau Valley. The roads were easy and nice so it did not take too long to reach the valley which, as I learnt on the trip, is a UNESCO heritage site due to the uniqueness of the landscape. The small hills dotted with vineyards and the Danube flowing to one side made for a very pretty landscape and a delightful drive. We stopped at a bunch of places to click pictures and then turned back towards Vienna.
We made another stop on the outskirts of Vienna at Kahlenberg, a hill that affords a lovely view of the city of Vienna. There is a monastery on top and a cafe where you can sit and enjoy the sun. The weather had been favourable for us all day and we enjoyed the view and some ice cream before heading back down.
The long days of Europe helped us make more use of our time here. We headed out to the city to walk around the streets. The entire historical town of Vienna can be easily walked around in. We headed to Stephenplatz first. The church is an imposing structure with some very impressive architectural sculptures and bas-relief. The square itself is quite busy and sees all kinds of human activities.
We walked around some more in random directions. There were the horse drawn carts and more beautifully decorated buildings. Musicians played their instruments by the fountains hoping for some tips by patrons. People dressed in their finest strolled and shopped in the big branded stores. Rebels masked as ‘V’ protested about issues they wanted the world around to know. It was a random assortment of life and activities.
I found the entire town of Vienna to be extremely impressive. I could have spent scores of minutes standing outside a random building checking out the sculptures with all it’s details and finesse.
We walked all the way till Karlskirche and sat in front of it, admiring the reflection in the small pool.
Tired as we were, spent the dying hours of daylight sipping coffee and eating some apple strudel in a cafe.
The next morning was spent exploring more of Vienna. We started by looking at Pallas Athena from outside since the parliament had not opened to visitors yet.
Then we headed to the Maria-Theresian-Platz with the impressive statue of Maria Theresa. There were the impressive buildings of Museum of Natural History and the Kunsthistorisches Museum on either side.
We got a lesson in the history of Austrian and European art at the Leopold museum where we spent the better part of the morning. Both of us enjoy museums and spend way too much time in them. Not that we regret it but it tends to devour our day. It was afternoon by the time we came out of the Leopold museum with tired legs begging for rest.
We had some simple lunch bought off the shelves of a nearby supermarket and then headed to the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the Habsburg rulers of this city. While this place also had a famous museum and the palatial building is worth checking out, we decided to stick to the gardens and sat in a nice spot to enjoy the view.
On the way back, we stopped at Stephenplatz once more to look at the impressive church and sat at Aida to enjoy the famous Viennese coffee and Sacher Torte.
While there was a considerable amount of daylight left, we decided to head back to the house. Doing too much is not our style and the long days were leaving us more tired than we wanted to be 😛 Back at the house the kids had some game or the other they wanted to play and then of course there was the comfort of the home cooked food!
A Hungarian Encounter
That night, picking up on Chacha’s insistence that we should see more of this side of Europe given that the distances are so short, we booked an impromptu trip to Budapest. Europe is not kind on your pocket if you do not plan well but we managed to find a good balance in Budapest. The next morning we took a bus to the Hungarian capital, dumped our bags in the hostel and then headed out for a walking tour.
Budapest is quite charming as a city. The two sides of the river have quite a history and we learnt about all the Nobel laureates that the country has produced. The list is pretty impressive! We saw a lot of the city on the tour and learnt about the history of the country, one of the reasons why we like doing it as one of the first activities in a new town.
Tired, we returned to the hostel and checked in. We took a nap and then after a short supper, headed to check out the famous night life of the town. It had just gotten dark and the town’s famous ruin bars and streets were already overflowing with happily drunk people 😑 Clearly we were late to the party! We walked around, absorbing the enthusiasm off others and finally settled in a nice bar for some cocktails. We laughed at the shenanigans of a bachelorette party that was going on at a nearby table 😂 After some more walking around, eating and drinking, we called it a night and returned to the hostel. Another tiring day in another part of Europe 😛
The next morning we woke to gray skies and intermittent rains. We had booked a late bus out of Budapest to get another half day in the city but the weather was not favourable so we spent it in the hostel common room chilling and watching the rain fall outside the window. The only activity we could have done was the famous Hungarian baths but for that we would have needed our swimming suits which we had, with a lot of thought, left in Vienna 😑 Europe is really not kind to travellers without a plan 🙅 So we spent the morning inside the hostel, got out to lunch on the famous Hungarian Langos and then caught our bus to Vienna.
Back to The Netherlands
The next morning we caught a flight back to Schipol and then finally took a train to Amsterdam. Lot was caught up with some work which was the only reason we were allowed to take the public transport 😬
We spent a couple of hours at a friend’s place in the southern part of the city. He had been working in the Netherlands for a few years now and it was nice to listen to his and his wife’s perspective of the country and Amsterdam in particular. This country was way easier to set up business in than India or even the USA. Which made sense since they had thrived on commerce for a very long time.
When it was time for us to visit the Rijksmuseum, we bade farewell to our friends and headed to the museum square. We dumped our bags in the locker room and quickly headed to the Rembrandt exhibition. We had the 4-5 PM slot which was the last slot of the museum. There had been no other available option. Imagine the stress at having to see a museum (a small part of it since this was Rijks) with just a couple of hours available!
We did good though. We went through the special exhibition in an hour and a half only to learn that the other sections of the museum closed at 5 PM itself 😑 Why in the world would they allow admission till the closing hour of the museum was beyond me.
Rembrandt blew me away. His works were exquisite! I mostly liked his etches since I prefer the monochrome medium myself. The use of negative spaces and the effects of light was as amazing as I have ever laid sight on. There were pieces where I could have stood examining the details for much longer than the opening hours of the museum permitted. This was also one of the most crowded exhibitions I have been to but of course, it makes sense why.
We went for some delicious Dutch fries after the museum. They really are worth all that hype! Another speciality of this country 😆
Next we met with Charlotte and said our goodbyes. Arno had left for another road trip and was attending a concert somewhere in Germany (these guys travel a LOT). She dropped us at the train station, we said our goodbyes again and took a train to Schipol. But our flight out of Netherlands was not till the next morning. So, of course, Wietze was there to pick us up again and bring us to Alphen. We spent another relaxed night at their pretty house before being dropped to the airport after a delicious breakfast.
Our short time in Europe had ended and but for a few short bouts where we were left alone, we had enjoyed the continent more with families than as tourists. We had not been to the more famous parts of The Netherlands - the tulip gardens, the “coffee shops”, the red-light district. Instead we had seen small towns in Friesland and attended a concert in Paradiso. Vienna had much more to offer than we had taken but we had spent hours playing games with the kids and I had spent an evening engaged in a rather intense debate (political and philosophical) with Chacha. This was the kind of travel that I enjoy - slow and meaningful. But the first taste of Europe has been interesting and it is certainly a continent I would love to see more of! Until then…
Here is an album from our time in the three countries of Europe. The pictures are credited to Charlotte, Arno, Chacha, Parul and me 😃