Saturday, 25 May 2013

Lisse: Keukenhof

A picture is worth a thousand words.
So here is an essay as a tribute to the 7 million perfect flowers displayed at Keukenhof from March to May 2013. 

It must be said, though, that not even a Ken Follet-sized novel worth of pictures would be able to capture the detail, delicacy and radiance of the park's tulips, viewed by more than 800 000 visitors each year.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Maastricht: Aspergeseizoen

In the province of Limburg, spring is synonymous with rainy days sprinkled with sunlight, luminous green fields stretching into the horison, pink blossoms on trees and bicycles, and... asparagus.
Locally, springtime is even referred to as "Aspergeseizoen" - Asparagus season. 

In stores, massive bunches of white and green are put on display, while restaurants devotedly adapt their menus to cater for the seasonal hype. "White gold", as the vegetable is called, is grabbed by the handful to concoct enough salads, pastas and soups to feed the adults and entertain the children for the whole weekend.

In the Northern parts of Limburg, festivals, "kopen en lopen" hikes, cycling routes, and open days are planned during the month of May - all in the spirit of the almighty asparagus.
"Asperge" is the word, and taste, on everyone's lips.

Asparagus Fever

At my local supermarket, I approached the display of various sizes and colours with a caution reserved for the unknown and unpredictable. In Jozi, I would briskly disregard the (tiny) packets of asparagus without a backward glance, but suddenly the display (and asparagus on display) were big enough to occupy, not a glance, but an open-mouthed stare. Some pieces were big enough to be deemed illegal in conservative communities. 
Even so, in the spirit of embracing new cultures and gastronomic experiences, I bought a bunch. Medium-sized, due to the volume and weight limitations of transporting them via bike. 

As luck would have it, this Netherlands spring consisted of the coldest temperatures in 112 years. Fortunately my fridge contained enough asparagus to nourish a small family for a week. 
White gold on a cold spring evening: Priceless.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Maastricht: A Sunday Surprise

I had heard the rumours and tales long before I had the opportunity to experience this phenomenon in the Netherlands. 
It was a marvel not often encountered, a wonder that you wait and wish for. Stories and witness accounts of previous sightings were described to children, listening with mouths agape, and those who had experienced it firsthand had to repeat every detail of the the encounter to friends and strangers at the local pub. 
And then, suddenly and unexpected after months of endless waiting, the sensational sight arrived: A sunny Sunday.

Brilliant Blue

Overlooking the Maas

People poured into the streets to enjoy the radiant "Pinkster weekend", shops displayed flowers and crafts out on the cobblestone streets and the smell of freshly baked "stroopwafels" lingered in the air.

Sunny Sunday

Out and About

Maastricht is a city so pretty and picturesque that I have to rack the corners of my brain to find adjectives worthy of describing it. It is probably a blessing that I never visited Maastricht on previous travels with friends, because my whining about wanting to stay here for ever and ever, singing Dutch songs and eating stroopwafels while wearing my "klompen" slippers, would have truly put their patience and our friendship to the test.

My shoes are taking strain from walking on the cobblestone streets as I explore each part of the city in sunshine and mostly rain, wondering if the novelty will wear off like my heels. But it hasn't yet. In fact, each day brings with it new wonders as I stumble upon yet another view of the magnificent Maas, or a bakery selling vlaai and freshly baked bread, or a bicycle decorated with pink flowers.

I could have walked around the city centre for hours, but instead I took a leisurely stroll along the Maas and through Stadspark, which was lined with trees and people on blankets, their faces turned towards the sun.

Enjoying the Sun in Stadspark

Kempland and Onze Lieve Vrouwewal in Stadspark

Plans were made to get together for a barbecue to celebrate the glorious weather later that afternoon. A friend had an extra bicycle I could borrow and besides a few minor challenges (no braking system and my knees brushing past my ears) it was great to cut our travel time in half. She would shout out warnings of cross-traffic looming at the end of a downhill slope and we would hold our breaths waiting to see if my bike would stop in time or if I would be crushed by an oncoming car. Such fun.

The barbecue was awesome and the crowd a mix of foreigners who introduced everyone to thirst-quenchers from their respective countries  Icelandic Brennivin (literally "burning wine") should not be mistaken with Brandewyn, although both are equally dangerous if not taken in moderation. We sipped South African Pinotage, followed by brownies with caramel sauce accompanied with home-brewed coffee. I scored a unanimous B+ for my first attempt at making a Starbucks-style cappuccino. Apparently you are not supposed to use a spoon to scoop the foam into the cups. It's a good thing I didn't lick the spoon afterwards as that would've surely costed me my "+".

The meal was fantastic, the company extremely entertaining and when we wiped the last tears of laughter from our eyes and checked our watches, it was 8 pm!

Cultural Experiences

It really was a Sunday full of surprises: Cycling, laughter and new friends. 
And of course, the sunshine.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Paris: Sauntering along the Seine

Because there is so much to do in Paris, I am dedicating one more blog post to the sights of the city. Ok maybe two more...

When the sun is out and the flowery scent of spring fills the air, a walk along the Seine is the perfect way to spend a Saturday. 
During a weekend in April, the sun shone bright in the indigo sky and I decided to start my journey at the Arc de Triomphe and walk along the Champs Elysees, from where I planned to saunter along the Seine and soak up the spring rays.

Of course, (sunny sky) looks can be very deceiving in Europe and I had not yet taken two strides when I started fumbling around in my bag for my hat, scarf and gloves. The wind was freezing!

The streets were dotted with tourists and at the Arc de Triomphe I had to fight my way through a crowd of Chinese tourists to get a view of the 50 m high arch, which was built in honour of Napoleon. This area in Paris is called Etoile, because the twelve straight avenues that meet at the Arc du Triomphe resembles the form of - you guessed it - a star.

The Champs Elysees is the line that connects the Arc de Triomphe perfectly with Cleopatra's Needle and the smaller Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, situated at the Louvre. Both arches were designed in 1806, but the construction of the smaller Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel took two years, while the Arc de Triomphe d'Etoile was only completed 28 years later. 

Arc de Triomphe d'Etoile

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

After a few stops, to intermittently gawk at the Parisian way of parking (commonly referred to as "vandalism" in other parts of the world) and taking stock of my fingers to ensure I hadn't lost one to frostbite, I reached the Seine. Displays of books, paintings and postcards lined the streets and everyone seemed to be out and about enjoying the clear, albeit chilly, day.

La Seine

I sauntered across Love Lock Bridge, where couples go to declare their everlasting love for each other by fastening a lock with their names to the bridge and dropping the key into the depths of the Seine; thereby forever locking their love in the City of Love.
It's an incredibly romantic gesture, but I was quite intrigued when I spotted a combination lock among the glistening metal. A one-night stand perhaps?

Love Lock Bridge

I meandered over to the Shakespeare and Co across from the Notre Dame and stopped dead in my tracks in front of the window. There, through the window of the old bookstore in Paris, Nelson Mandela himself peered out at me from amongst the books. Well, from the cover of a book at least.

But it might as well have been him in person, because whenever you see something close to your heart and home in a foreign country, it makes you want to drag a random stranger towards it and shout in a crazed fashion: "Look! He is South African! And I am South African! And I have a friend who shares a birthday with him on 18 July." (This you add just to show off your awesome friends and date-storing capabilities). "And now we're both here in Paris! Isn't that amazing!?" Then you would add a local South African word like "Lekker" or "Shozaloza" just to emphasise your point.

I didn't shout and point, of course.
Because I might have been locked up by La Police and forbidden to go within a mile of the Shakespeare and Co bookshop. And I was curious to browse and see the interior, which was fantastically authentic with murky reading corners and creaking shelves (delightful) and stairways (disconcerting).

Shakespeare and Co

Next to the bookstore, Square Rene Viviani bustled with children and couples. The day had finally awoken to the realisation that it was in fact supposed to be spring, and a warm breeze wrapped itself around the small garden.

Square Rene-Viviani

There I enjoyed lunch in the shade of a tree and was only interrupted when French tourists approached me to ask "a Parisian" for directions.
"I'm a South African!" I hollered. And just to emphasise my point: "Eish!"

Friday, 17 May 2013

Paris: A Weekend Visit

One sunny Friday afternoon in October 2012, some of my dearest friends and I packed the car after work to trade the hustle and bustle of Jozi for a girls weekend in Parys. Parys on the Vaal, that is.
Parys is a treasure of a town, quietly tucked away in the Freestate but perfectly situated for a break from the Joburg city life. 

You have to wonder, however, if the German surveyor who was reminded of Paris, the capital metropolis of France, when he dupped the small town on the Vaal, had the epiphany in the early hours of the morning. Possibly during a lunar eclipse, a Paulaner Weissbier draught jovially clutched in each hand. 
Because Parys on the Vaal and Paris on the Seine are worlds apart (excuse the pun).

Parys and Paris

Nonetheless, Parys is a picturesque break-away town and our girls weekend was full of scrumptious meals at the local restaurants, cocktails next to the Vaal and lots of laughs. We explored the numerous antique stores and promises were made to return early in 2013 with bigger wallets and a Venter sleepwaentjie or two, much to the delight of the antique store tannies of Parys.

Painting Parys Red

Savouring a glass of red wine and peering out over the dark waters of the Vaal in October last year, I never would have guessed that I will be sipping "un verre de vin rouge" during a weekend visit to Paris. On the Seine, that is.
However, six months after our Parys expedition, I unexpectedly found myself in Europe at the same time as friends from home who travelled to Paris on holiday. Therefore I jumped at the chance (and onto a train) to visit the city for the weekend. 

Friday after work I drove to Liege to catch the train to Paris via Brussel-Zuid and was immediately notified that my car had crossed the Netherlands-Belgium border when the "Uit" road signs changed to "Sortie". The smooth and shiny highway of minutes before, instantly started to resemble the M1 in Joburg South, much to my alarm as my French vocabulary had not yet progressed to recognise warning signs such as "Watch out for the mammoth potholes!"

Here's a tip when travelling to or through Brussels: Brussel-Zuid and Bruxelles-Midi are one and the same station. It might not sound like much of a tip, but believe me, it is. 
Especially when, someday, you find yourself on a high-speed train, suitcase eagerly clutched in one hand and train ticket in the other, and you realise with impending unease that Brussels has not one, but three train stations: Noord, Centraal, and Zuid. 
And your ticket states in bold lettering that you have exactly three minutes to get to your next train at Bruxelles-Midi station. 

Do not, under any circumstances, assume that "Midi" and "Centraal" are the same station. Because they are not. This is just a cunning ploy devised to confuse all travellers who aren't fluent in both French and Dutch. In other words anyone who was not born and raised in Belgium. 

Brussel-Zuid / Bruxelles-Midi Station

Having finally found the correct train at the correct station, I arrived at Paris Nord in no time. 
How wonderful to visit friends from home in the incredible city of Paris! 

The rest of the weekend passed in a wonderful haze of wandering through cafe-lined streets and strolling along the Seine, catching up on the Jozi news, picnicking in the Jardin du Luxembourg, shopping in Rue du Rivoli, drinking cafe creme and eating pain au chocolate and Amarino ice cream.

We explored the odds and ends found at the Puces antique market, gazed at breathtaking Monet paintings at Musee d'Orsay (much to our surprise, the museum was free because we went on a Sunday!), and walked along Promenade Plantee - an elevated garden overlooking the city, dotted with locals going for a run or walking their dogs.

Paris Pleasures

On Sunday afternoon I took the train back to Liege and by 8 pm I was back at home in Maastricht. 
Visiting Paris for the weekend was such an adventure!
So whether you are visiting Fieterjasies antiques on the Vaal or sightseeing on the Seine, a weekend breakaway to Parys/Paris will always be a memorable event when meeting up with friends.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Maastricht: Bicycles

After one week in Maastricht, I can already say with certainty that I love it here!
One of the many reasons is the bicycles that are visible on every road, street corner or alley.

All Shapes and Sizes

In South Africa, cycling is more of a sport or pastime than it is a method of transportation. On Saturday or Sunday mornings at 7 am, we would go cycling at the Cradle of Humankind with its many cycle routes and few motorcars - a combo that slightly decreases the possibility of becoming roadkill. 

Cyclists would often head out for an "easy" 60 - 80 km cycle, take a short stop to spot the (caged) lions next to the road and eat an energy-bar and return 2 to 3 hours later, ready for a scrumptious breakfast and coffee and/or cream soda.
Cycling is an outing in the company of friends and nature, a way of staying active or train for an upcoming cycle race.

In the Netherlands, it is the opposite. Although I have caught glimpses of sleek and swift Bianchi bikes in the cobbled streets, their helmeted owners bent low over the handlebars, most bicycles are strong and sturdy. And noisy, with squeaks and alarming rattles. 
I also suspect that bending over your handlebars are "vorboden" as it would completely destroy the grace and style with which you are supposed to cycle in the Netherlands.

Crossing the Maas

Police Officers on their Bikes

Shopping Spree

Bike in Hand

Advanced techniques and gestures are constantly performed with a nonchalant elegance that makes me want to dive for my camera to capture the phenomenon that is the Dutch cyclist. After two years of cycling in Johannesburg, I have yet to master the lifting of my left hand from the handlebars (Yes, the cyclist at the Argus with the one arm-warmer pulled up in 30 C weather was me). Therefore I truly respect and appreciate the art of cycling that I get to witness here everyday:

In Maastricht I have witnessed the impossible: Students cycling in five inch heels. Girls getting lifts on the back of bikes, while waving with both hands at passing friends doing the same. Mothers carrying one child in the front of the bike, one in the back, and pulling the third with a flagged wagon behind the bike. A guy on a uni-cycle. With a backpack. On a cobbled street. In the rain.

Lending a Helping Hand


Rain, sunshine, wind, and probably snow - no matter the weather, you will find cyclists in Maastricht pedaling their way through town.

Cycling daily at a leisurely pace whenever you feel like it, is definitely a luxury for us Jozi-cyclists. 
Therefore I have decided that I need to get a bicycle.
And start working on my left hand's handicap.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Maastricht: Koninginnedag

On 30 April the Netherlands celebrated "Koninginnedag", the birthday of the current Queen of the Netherlands (Also the birthday of someone special and close to my heart – my mom!)

This year, Koninginnedag was particularly festive as the new King of the Netherlands was inaugurated and therefore next year’s “Kongingsdag” will be celebrated on King Willem-Alexander’s birthday, which is on the 27th of April.

Orange Window Displays

The town of Maastricht was brightly decorated with flags and balloons in orange - the colour of the Dutch Royal family whose lineage can be traced back to Willem van Oranje - and since it was a public holiday, a fun-filled programme was planned for the day.

A Decorated Bicycle 

Orange Everywhere

A group of artists from the Netherlands even wrote a song, "Koningin van alle Mensen", in honour of the Queen. 
Radio stations played it repeatedly. Over-and-over. Non-stop. Throughout the whole day.

In the evening, everyone spilled into the streets and the sounds of merry Dutch songs, pumping music and cheer filled the air (This video clip was recorded at 9 pm - it's still light outside!)

After the magnificent fireworks display that concluded the celebrations for this year, I walked back across the bridge with the hundreds of party-goers. The street lights glimmered on the black water of the Maas, the cool night air ruffled my hair and murmurs of the "leuke dag" filled my ears. 

It was magical.
I crossed my fingers in a wish that I'll be able to celebrate "Koningsdag" again next year - here in Maastricht.