An introduction to backpacking

Even though the title of this blog is “Bryony and James go biking”, and we currently have no bikes with us, we are going to keep sharing some of our adventures in Europe just in case you like hearing about what we do (and not just what our bikes do). If you are just here for the bikes we won’t be offended if you quit now, although you should be prepared for some more cycling adventures as soon as the sun starts making a more consistent appearance.

Trying to cram our stuff into Bryony’s 24L day pack and an even smaller teenagers school bag we realised how spoilt for space we have been with all our panniers. We are very minimally packed now compared to Bryony’s previous backpacking adventures with a laden 60L climbing pack, but just couldn’t make it work and had to stop in at Decathlon on the way to the train station in Den Haag and buy a bigger 50L pack for James. We must have looked outrageous repacking on the side of the busy pedestrian street.

den-haag-old-buildings

It was a long train ride up to Groningen, and we accidentally sat in the silent carriage which was a little eery. It was warm though, and Bryony picked up some crocheting gear in Den Haag so was occupied enough. Groningen is another old university city in the North of the Netherlands. Too far to commute from Utrecht, but somewhere we would consider living if we could find jobs there. We stayed with James’ uncles good friend Pieter Jan who is a researcher at the university and his wife and 3 year old daughter. We were lucky to be given a comprehensive tour of the enormous medical center, housed in the hospital. Peter also introduced us to a couple of people who might be able to help us with jobs.

The weather in Groningen was stunning, but freezing. Late into the afternoon we still walked past bikes with frozen seats. The city is beautiful to walk around inside the old city, surrounded by the canal. We visited the university museum in the center of town (yay free activities!). They had a display about the use of plants in medicine, and another about the use of plaster models in art and education. Upstairs was a room set up as a consulting room of Dr Aletta Jacobs. She was the first female physician in the Netherlands and played a huge role in advocating womans health and rights. While in Groningen we also took a trip out to Hoornsemeer by bus and wandered around the frosty lake for a while. In every Dutch city we have visited we’ve been amazed by the amount of green, natural space so close to where hundreds of thousands of people live.

groningen-pond

From Groningen we took a train back to Utrecht so that James could have an interview at the University and we could spend some more time exploring. After only a week without the bikes Bryony was going crazy without exercise so we found some cheap running shoes to mitigate that. We took a bit of time to visit some more common tourist attractions too, including visiting the speelklok (self playing instrument) museum. We are both fans of the quirky, specialised museums as opposed to the huge history ones so this one suited us perfectly. There was a tour (in English) included in the ticket price where they demonstrated some of the instruments playing. James’ favourite was the self-playing violins acompanied by the piano and Bryony liked the huge dance hall organs. We could poke around the back of the instruments and watch them working as well. This museum gave us discounted entrance to the Dom Tower, the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, right in the center of town. Unfortunately we did this the day after Bryony went for her first run in four years so she looked ridiculous climbing down the 465 narrow, steep, winding stone stairs without bending her aching thighs.

After another week resting, applying for jobs and exploring in Utrecht we took the short train to Amsterdam. Here we met with a kiwi couple who had replied to Bryony’s social media plea for information about the working holiday visa program in the Netherlands. Only 4 countries have access to the program, so it’s not as streamlined as in New Zealand. Also, it just appears that there is much more bureaucracy to deal with here. So we met with Freddy and Lily at an Irish bar for a few beers to talk about life in the Netherlands, followed by general reminiscing about New Zealand. We had so much fun we ended up having dinner together at the Food Hall in town and ended up on the last tram home that night. It was probably the most we’d talked in months.

We attended two nights of the Amsterdam 6 days while we were in town. It was a pretty slick operation, but had less history, and was less busy than the one in Ghent. We were still treated to some pretty amazing racing though, and they featured a sprinters event with some familiar faces. We actually saw one of the German riders (Joachim Eilers) at the food hall while we were eating and James went and said hello.

Lander joined us in Amsterdam for the last night of racing, and took us to his favourite brewery in Amsterdam. It was a cool spot inside an old wind mill, but so popular we had to sit outside in the cold. We walked back via some of the canals with installations for the light festival that just happened to be on. During the day we wandered around some of the old city streets and marveled at the angle of some of the houses. Perhaps its because of the last few years in New Zealand but we can’t walk anywhere without thinking ‘if there was an earthquake this whole street would be gone’. Luckily this part of Europe doesn’t have any fault lines!

I’m glad we saved Amsterdam till so late in our Netherlands adventure – it was a beautiful city, but not really where we want to live. There are lots of tourists compared to the other places we’ve visited, and it’s the middle of winter. Particularly grating were the very loud, usually American, herds walking around talking about how stoned they are/were/will be. Most people we’ve talked to that live in the Netherlands rarely go to Amsterdam and prefer Utrecht, and we think we do too.

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