Friday, August 31, 2012

Guide to a year in The Netherlands

After a whole year in The Netherlands I've learnt a lot about the Dutch culture: I've improved my Dutch usage, I've got used to have dinner at 7ish p.m., I've managed to get through the day with just a couple of bread slices with peanut butter and chocolate strands and I've enjoyed lazy weekends in the sun having a chilled drink in a terrace or doing some picnic sitting on the grass. But besides everyday customs, celebrations are also a big part of every culture and I've been lucky enough to experience many typical Dutch celebrations: from carnivals to the Queen's Day and also a visit to some cheese market, a year can be very busy when it comes to traditions and celebrations. So, here's my own list of events and celebrations worth experiencing in The Netherlands. As I've never fully kicked out the student in me (and after a three years hiatus I'm going back to school next week) I'm starting in autumn, hope you don't mind!

AUTUMN

  • Open Monumentendag: not a celebration itself, but it is a great opportunity so soak up in culture for free. Most monuments in the whole country are open their doors for free during the first or second weekend of September.
  • 11 van de 11: On 11th November the south of the country celebrates the beginning of the carnival season. I had read about it on some travel guides and thought it was just an annecdote but in Maastricht it is actually quite a big street party with typical Limburgish music, silly costumes and beer, lots of beer during that day.
  • Sinterklaas: Dutch children receive their Christmas presents on 5th December from Saint Nicholas, a Santa Claus look-a-like, who comes every year from Spain in a steam boat and is helped by several servants called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
  • Christmas Markets: nowadays most cities have a Christmas market, even if it is a small one, starting already in November and selling all kind of christmas decorations and treats. Valkenburg, in the south of The Netherlands has a quite renowned Christmas market, which is held in caves.


WINTER
  • Oud & Nieuw: Old and Nieuw is the Dutch name for New Year's Eve. Most families stick to tradition and bake oliebollen on this day, a traditional Dutch sort of dumpling which can have raisins or be filled with custard cream. 
  • Elfstedentocht: Every year, as temperatures drop, Dutch people begin speculating whether this traditional skating race between eleven Frissian cities will take place or not. Sadly,climate change is making it harder year after year and the last edition was in 1997, as the ice on frozen cannals is not thick enough or doesn't last enough.
  • Carnival: the south of the country celebrates carnival with passion and Maastricht names itself the carnival capital of the country. Everything is closed from Friday evening until Ash Wednesday and everyone parties in the streets all day long. And everyone means everyone: students, children, families with babies and even oldies!


SPRING
  • Tulips in bloom: bulbs of every possible colour begin blooming in spring. On of the best places to enjoy them is the Keukenhof, a huge park dedicated to tulip-growing nearby Leiden ... I still have to go there!
  • Queen's Day: or Koninginnedag, as the locals call it. The whole country dresses in orange to celebrate the Queen's Birthday (it was actually the birthday of her mother, Queen Juliana). There are street parties in almost every town of the country and Amsterdam is probably the place to be. In the night before, known as Queen's night, there are concerts and parties in many big cities.


SUMMER
  • Cheese markets: hundred of years ago cheese markets the size of a cheese market defined the importance of a Dutch city. Nowadays, some cities still hold a weekly cheese market during the summer, but they're no longer an important trade centre but a touristy spectacle. Gouda, Edam and Alkmaar are some of the most popular destinations to spot Dutch people dressed in traditional costumes carrying cheese around, throwing it up in the air and weighting it just like they did centuries ago.
  • Tilburgse Kermis: acknowledged as the biggest street fair in the whole Benelux region, this street fair in Tilburg usually takes place in mid july and the streets are full of traditional and modern rides.
  • Summer festivals: festivals have become really popular everywhere in the last decade and now many important cities hold their own festival, even if most of the acts are usually unknown. Coast towns are probably some of the best locations to enjoy them.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, as there's always a lot going on in The Netherlands and no matter when you come to this little country there will always be something to enjoy. I hope that this little guide is useful for you if you ever plan to spend your holidays here or to move to The Netherlands. 

Do you know some other interesting events or celebrations? Some special sites worth seeing? Let me know about it!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A short trip to Candelaria


When I went to Tenerife I had the intention of doing some little walk to Candelaria and spend a day there, I wanted to visit the basilica and relax in the new beach that has been built near the town centre. However, the weather was so hot that I stayed at home most days and finally I just went to Candelaria on my last evening in Tenerife. I didn't stay too long, just enough to visit the basilica and take some photos around, missing the chance to try out this new beach, which looked really beautiful, at leaat from the distance!

Candelaria is a very popular town in Tenerife and not only as a sea resort or dormitory town near the sea. Candelaria is home to the patron of Tenerife and the Canary Islands, the Virgin of Candelaria. Every year thousands of pilgrims walk from all over the island on 14 and 15 August to celebrate the festivity of the virgin. Nowadays, the image of the Virgin of Candelaria is inside the newly-built basilica on the main square of the town. The basilica and the square lie besides the sea and the promenade along the sea is ornated with the statues of the last nine menceys of Tenerife (mencey was the aborigin name given to the kings of Tenerife and by the time Spaniards conquered the Tenerife it was divided in nine kingdoms).


This time I did a bit of research on the history of the town and of the Virgin of Candelaria. All I knew so far was that some time ago, some inhabitants had glimpsed the image of a dark lady and believed her to be the Virgin Mary. Now, this is what I found out: in 1390 some guanches (the aborigin inhabitants of Tenerife) found a wooden image of the Virgin Mary floating on the sea. The guanches, who weren't christians, didn't have a clue about the meaning of such image but they found it so precious that they started to worship it straight away, placing her in a cave near the sea. A hundred years later, Spaniards came to Tenerife and as they carried out the process of christianisation of the conquered people they explained them that this was the image of the Virgin Mary. Later a small basilica was built and this dark image of the virgin was declared as the patron of the canary Islands, the Virgin of Candelaria. While the story is rather romantic, there are some details which left me puzzled. I really wonder if the guanches, who were totally oblivious of christian beliefs, actually did worship that image. Still, I can buy in that part of the story but the most disturbing fact is the accuracy of the date. How can someone be so sure that the guanches found that image exactly on 1390 (or 1392, as I read somewhere else) when the guanche people had no meassure of time at all ... maybe I'm just thinking too much, as usual! Any thoughts on it?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A year in Maastricht

Yesterday I arrived back from Tenerife and after being awake since 3 a.m. I couldn't wait to get to have a rest in my appartment in Maastricht, the place I currently call home. I relocated to Maastricht exactly a year ago and just like yesterday, the typical Dutch rain greeted us. However, it didn't rain for a long time and a wonderful year began in this tiny and charming city. I found a job quickly and I made a great best friend in town. My Dutch improved and now I am (almost) totally fluent in Dutch, I finally got used to watch TV in English and now I understand even the trickiest film conversations without subtitles (ok, more or less) and I've read an amazing amount of magazines in German and even some German books! Despite my appartment lacking an oven, my cooking skills have also improved and now I can even prepare some traditional Dutch dishes. I have developed an ever-growing love for the Albert Heijn supermarkets and for some of the not so traditional Dutch food (bread with peanut butter and chocolate strands, anyone?) And I've travelled around the country a bit more discovering some places I had never been before to like Den Bosch, Valkenburg, Zandvoort aan Zee, Tilburg or Eindhoven.

These are some of those great moments in pictures!


Autumn 2011 was mild and incredibly sunny in Maastricht, it didn't rain for weeks  and the city was painted  in a  hundred beautiful shades of red, orange and yellow.


Christmas markets and lights all over the city announced the beginning of the winter.


Temperatures dropped down in January and it started snowing. My nose and ears hurt when I was outside for more than 10 minutes.


Just as the spring began, the sun showed up again and it hasn't stopped shining ever since!



I dared to cook some chicken satay, now a traditional Dutch dish originally from Indonesia. And I also warmed up in the winter with some home-made mashed potatoes with smoked sausage, a simple but delicious Dutch meal.


I polished my cooking skills to be able to celebrate birthdays without baked cakes.

Utrecht
Rotterdam
And I kept travelling!

It has been a great year and now I'm about to start a second year in Maastricht, which I hope will be as good as the previous one, even if things have changed a bit now as I am back to the student life, so I'll have to work really hard and I don't think I'll have that much time to travel. But still, I'm looking forward to it!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Oh, magnificent Teide



Once upon a time the aboriginal inhabitants of Tenerife, the Guanches, considered El Teide a sacred place where evil god Guayota lived. Guayota kidnapped the sun and hid it into El Teide. Meanwhile the Guanches spent a long time living in darkness surrounded by ash clouds and they prayed to their almighty god Achaman and eventually the sun went back to the sky and a huge amount of new rocks were released to the surface. Nowadays, we are perfectly aware of the volcanic nature of El Teide and the story of Guayota and the sun is just a legend. But still, El Teide is a majestic mountain reaching up to the sky with its 3718m above see level and somehow it still looks like a sacred place out of Earth. El Teide is the highest mountain of Spain, the third highest volcano on Earth and it lies in the middle of the National Park Las Cañadas del Teide, the most visited national park in Spain. Besides tourists, Las Cañadas del Teide is also a great attraction for geologists, vulcanologists, biologists and many other scientists who come here to study the many different volcanic formations, as well as the many endemic species of flora and fauna. Las Cañadas del Teide is also a great playground for astronomers, who can enjoy some of the clearest skies at this latitude all year round.





But leaving facts aside and speaking from the heart, El Teide is a magnificent mountain soaring to the sky from the small island of Tenerife and it is probably one of my favourite places on Earth, only rivalling the Alps. When it isn't cloudy or foggy, El Teide can be seen from any point in Tenerife and even from La Gomera or Gran Canaria. The way up is as diverse as Tenerife can be. From the coast upwards, the cities are left behind and then you drive through a pine forest, which is usually covered in clouds. As the road goes up, the clouds stay down and then you can glimpse an amazing sea of clouds beneath your feet. Vegetation starts to fade and volcanic sands and rocks appear everywhere. Surprisingly, the landscape here is really diverse and multicoloured. There are yellow, black, brown, red and green sands among any other hues, and the colours change as the day goes by. By then, you're almost at 2000m above see level and the road goes up a little longer to the national park. In the naional park there are a couple of visitor centres, some restaurants and a rural hotel, so it is possible to spend there the night. A cable car goes up to the summit and once up there you can see the seven canary islands lying on the Atlantic Ocean. There's also another rural hostel to spend the night if you're planning to walk up to the summit.

Sadly, this time I won't be visiting this amazing place, as I'm short on time and temperatures are very high. But next time I will try to finally hike to the summit and enjoy a sunrise on top of the world, because I kind of feel ashamed for having lived here for 24 years and never experienced that incredible trip!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Greetings from Tenerife



After much anticipation and a five hours flight from Maastricht I finally arrived today in Tenerife. Even though I'm just staying for a week, I'm really looking forward to enjoying my time here relaxing, swimming in the sea and seeing my friends and family. This is welcoming view I glimpsed from the plane, the Teide vulcano rising from the sea and above the clouds. As beautiful as ever!

Love,
Irene

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My hometown

I was born in Santa Cruz de Tenerife 27 years ago and I lived there until I was 18 and my parents decided to move to Tegueste, a small town in the northeast of Tenerife. I never adapted very well to that major change in my life as I had always lived in Santa Cruz, a medium size city, and at 18 I wasn't particuraly looking for the stillness that my parents were longing for when they chose to move to such a small town. The positive outcome was that from that moment on I felt so unattached to new homeplace that I couldn't wait to move somewhere else and to begin travelling around Europe. But despite being happily living abroad I still miss my hometown from time to time, after all, I spent my childhood there so almost every street is full of vivid memories that bring me back to my most careless years!

Santa Cruz is the capital of Tenerife and in the last 15 years it's undergone a dramatic transformation: the city center has become a pedestrian zone, an iconic auditorium by top Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has been built, a tram system started operating a couple of years ago and many traditional sites have been renovated. As a result the city has become more important and can even boast of having the third highest skyline in Spain thanks to its very own twin towers (at least according to Wikipedia). And earlier this year even The Guardian acknowledged it as one of the 5 top cities to live in! I totally heart my hometown and that's why I decided to dedicate a post to share its charms. So, if you ever happen to be around you can take some ideas to enjoy your visit.

Tenerife Auditorium, detail


WHAT TO SEE ...

The best way to get to know the city is by walking around, as the city center is rather small and a pedestrian zone. Plaza Weyler is a great start with its Italian baroque fountain. You can the walk to Plaza los Patos, a very beautiful square full of colourful tiled banks in the middle of the ancient modernist neighbourhood in Santa Cruz. There are many elegant houses around and also the Iglesia de San Jorge (St George's Church) which used to be an anglican church. Parque García Sanabria is nearby and it is probably the greenest spot in town. You can stroll along its many lanes, enjoy a drink at its open air café and admire its flower clock. Then you can walk to the Plaza de España and have a look at the recently renovated square. Renowned Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron carried on the renovation project and finished it with a small artificial lake. From there you can head to the 'old town' and visit the oldest church in town, La Iglesia de la Concepción, which is one of the most distinctive buildings of Santa Cruz. Nearby is the market, Mercado de Nuestra Señora de África, inspired in the colonial markets that Spaniards built all over Central and South America, and the two main museums of the city: the Human and Natural History Museum and the TEA Museum, a brand-new museum dedicated to contemporary art and again by Herzog & De Meuron. If you walk a bit further you'll get to the 'new town' where you can see the twin towers and the new icon of the city, the white, shiny auditorium by Santiago Calatrava. There's an old castle next to it, Castillo Negro, and finally you'll find the Parque Marítimo, a complex of swimming-pools designed by famous Canarian architect César Manrique.

Plaza los Patos,detail

Parque García Sanabria

Parque Marítimo


... AND WHAT TO DO

  • Relax at the beach: Las Teresitas is just 15 minutes away with the bus (take bus 910). While it looks like an idyllic beach with golden sand and palm trees, it is an artifitial beach made with sand brought from the Sahara desert in the 70s.
  • Visit a museum on Sunday: most Spanish museums are free on Sundays, so that's the perfect day to enjoy some island culture. The Museum of Human and Natural History offers an insight into the lives of the prehispanic inhabitants of the island, including a mummy collection. The TEA Museum of Contemporary Art has an eclectic collection focused on Canarian painter Óscar Domínguez and hosts interesting photography temporary exhibitions, plus it screens arty movies with subtitles on Saturdays.
  • Enjoy some crêpes: ok, crepes might not be a Spanish speciality but there's a very cosy place in Santa Cruz which catters a wide variety of delicious crepes. La Bohême (Emilio Calzadilla 8) is a tiny restaurant with just 8 wooden tables, so after 9pm queuing is the norm. They have sweet and salty crepes and also salads,all of them named after some village or mountain in Tenerife.
  • Party!!!: Calle La Noria is the place to be. It is a old street full of cool bars serving teas in the afternoon and mojitos in the evening (try Bulan lounge restaurant,with a cool terrace on its roof top). And if you're looking for something greater, just drop by at February/March to enjoy the big carnival celebrations, worldwide famous and compared to the Rio carnivals.

Hope you enjoy this virtual tour, or even better, your time there! I can't hardly wait to spend some time there next week.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Train trips in The Netherlands (& part 2)

Splitting trains: Amsterdam-Maastricht

I have already learned that, at leas tin The Netherlands, certain trains split up at some given point to double up the service to remote regions, like Limburg. Ever since I have been linving in Maastricht I have always been careful to step into the right side of the train. However, sometimes that's not enough! After having spent a couple of days in Amsterdam with my boyfriend we were on our way back and I was exhausted, so I just listened to my iPod carelessly. When we were just half an hour away from home my boyfriend started to look concerned about the fact that he didn't recognise the landscape. I tried to reassure him saying that all the previous times we have done the way back to Maastricht were in winter, so it was already dark and we could not see anything. But when we stepped out of the train I got a disapproving look from my boyfriend as it turned out we have just arrived to Heerlen! And apparently we were not the only ones surprised to be in Heerlen, so eventually we sat for another 30 minutes on a train to Maastricht together with many other people who had arrived there by mistake, which led me to think that it wasn't entirely my fault.

Maintenance works: Maastricht-Haarlem

The Dutch railway company has the particularly annoying habit of doing most of their maintenance works during the weekends. And while it may be good for commuters who won't have to deal with unwanted delays, it can be a real pain for common people who want to make the most of their free time by going somewhere else in the country. So, last month, after having put much thought and prepation on a trip to the beach I arrive at the station and found out that trains weren't running between boxtel and Den Bosch. Options were a shuttle bus or changing trains three times. I decided for the second option and stepped out in Eindhoven to take another train to The Hague. The platform was totally crowded with people who wanted to go to The Hague (or to somewhere in between), people who could not go directly further to Den Bosch, Utrecht or Amsterdam or people who simply wanted to enjoy a warm and sunny Saturday at the beach. The train to The Hague arrived on time but it was such a small train that most people could not get into, including me, so I had to take a regional train which stopped at every possible station, including Boxtel. And there I decided that it might be a better idea to actually take the bus to Den Bosch and keep on going on a direct train until Amsterdam. But the story repeated itself and the bus stop outside the station was totally crowded with people trying to get into the two buses waiting to go to Den Bosch. Finally some other buses arrived and I could continue my journey and I eventually managed to get to Haarlem with just a 30 minutes delay!

Lousy people: Maastricht-Eindhoven

The last time I travelled bytrain I had quite a funny trip. I was totally absent-minded enjoying some reading when a woman started to shout to her phone. After five minutes of loud conversation she explained with an equally loud voice that she was speaking to a deaf nephew, so she really had to shout for him to hear her. Suddenly, out of nowhere a young boy came up playing the accordion. Everyone was enjoying and had taken their wallets out when the ticket inspector came to take the boy out of the train, yelling at him for playing music in a public place where it is forbidden to do so. People totally disapproved the inspector attitude and began clapping their hands to praise the boy, so the inspector yelled even more and told the boy to get out at the next train station. Meanwhile, everyone in the wagon was pitying the accordion boy and after 10 minutes of yelling the inspector came back to explain that the boy did the same day after day and never paid for the train ticket, so he had just got a €120 fine. Incredibly, some people still offered to pay for his train ticket. Needless to say that the inspector didn't accept any deal.

* * * * *

So, this is was my little collection of train stories worth telling. Do you also have some interesting train stories to tell?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Train trips in The Netherlands (part 1)

One of the things I enjoy the most about living in Europe is the possibility of travelling by train. There's something old-fashioned and slightly decadent about long train trips which make them really appealing to me. Besides, I'm scared of flying and I don't have a driving license, so I don't have many other choices left. Luckily  for me, I think that trains are a really relaxed way of travelling, as, usually, you don't have to worry too much about being on time and once you're in the train you can just sit there and enjoy the views form the train windows while listening to music or reading a magazine. Other advantages are the freedom to step down at whichever train station you fancy in between or the many people you can meet on a three hours trip. So, after a year of train-tripping in The Netherlands (not as much as I would have liked to, though) I decided to put some stories together about the not so common things that can happen during any train trip.

Queen's Day ride: Antwerpen - Amsterdam

I have been lucky enough to celebrate Holland's big day in Amsterdam twice! Queen's Day is celebrated throughout the country but it is specially huge in Amsterdam and people from every part of the country goes to Amsterdam to take part in this orange madness, as well as many curious tourists like me. And the party starts already in the train, even if it is a very early train at 9 am. Most people are already dressed up in orange, drinking beer. The last time I went to Amsterdam for Queen's Day was already four years ago with some friends and we also started to party in the train. I had a great time drinking beer and taking pictures of the most eccentric orange costumes (think of orange easter bunnies or orange fairies with orange tiaras!) In the meantime, a Dutch friend of us tried to teach us the national Dutch anthem, but by then alcohol had already taken its toll and I never got any further than the third line. Finally, after two hours in the train, we arrived in Amsterdam totally in the mood for partying and ready to surprise the locals with our own version of the Wilhelmus song!

Commuting for free: Schiphol Airport - Maastricht

Last summer my boyfriend and I came to visit Maastricht to look for a flat before moving in in September. We arrived at the airport and took there a direct train to Maastricht and once we were on the train we realised that we had bought a ticket only valid until Maastricht Centraal while we were supposed to step down at Maastricht Randwyck. In my less than perfect Dutch I asked the ticket inspector if it would be possible to ride till Maastricht Randwyck with the same ticket. He replied that he would find out and left. One hour later the ticket inspector showed up again, took our tickets and wrote something illegible on them. Apparently he had phoned a colleague in Maastricht to sort everything out. I thought he was just joking, after all, he was an inspector himself, so he needn't call anyone to know the rules. However, when we changed trains in Maastricht Centraal to head to Maastricht Randwyck a new ticket inspector came to us and said: "My colleague just called and it is ok for you to be in this train". I really wonder what the inspector on the train actually said on the phone, because the new inspector found us really quickly and didn't even ask if we were the passangers from Schiphol with wrong tickets ... maybe our big luggage did all the talking.

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