Friday, 22 February 2013

Photo Diary: A short tour of the South of Holland

I'm going to predict that the majority of bloggers have had the pleasure of visiting my favourite European city, Amsterdam. Easy access with flights from all major UK airports and a short flying time makes this the ideal place for a weekend getaway with friends. Despite the reputation Amsterdam seems to have nowadays (you know, the drugs/Red Light District part), I feel it's the perfect city for soaking up a bit of culture and enjoying the wonderful architecture the Netherlands has to offer.

What I didn't know was that a short train ride away (20 minutes from Schiphol Airport/30 minutes from Amsterdam Centraal), the student city of Leiden has everything you need to escape the bustle of the Dutch capital. Located in Zuid-Holland, Leiden is home to the oldest university in the Netherlands AND a windmill museum. It's also the birthplace of Rembrandt, so if you're into your art, you can have a look around Rembrandtplein - a square with dedicated artwork.

Here are a few things I would recommend you do on a day trip to Leiden:

  • Take 30 minutes or so to walk up the staircase at de Burcht, and enjoy the wonderful views of Leiden when you get to the top. An ancient shell used in times of trouble during the 11th/12th century, there are lots of historical notes scattered along the way. Knowledge is power, as they say.
  • Leiden's main shopping street, Haarlemerstraat, is perfect for your tourist/gift needs. Pop into H&M, or buy stroopwafels and clogs. On this 1km stretch, the choices are seemingly endless.
  • Visit the market that takes over the whole city centre all day Saturday. It feels like the whole of Leiden spends its Saturday wandering around the sprawling stalls, and you can get everything from raw herring to fresh fruit and veg. If nothing else, it's a pretty interesting insight into Dutch living.
  • Quell your hungry in Bagel & Beans, a wonderful cafe located in the city centre. There are 2 branches in Leiden so go to whichever is nearest - you won't regret it. I love to spend my afternoons in cafes, and the food here is simple yet delicious. A wide range of bagels (self explanatory?) with coffees and smoothies to go alongside, I would guess this is popular with the student population.
  • Take the time to walk down the banks of the Rhine, and treat yourself to a cold beer in one of the many riverside bars you'll come across on the way. I can only imagine how busy it gets in summer, but it's definitely worth it for soaking up the relaxing vibes.
  • Lastly, visit some of Leiden's museums/libraries/churches. All beautiful to look at, and perfect for discovering more about this great city.
I think that just about covers everything! Of course, if you have a bit more time, take the 10 minute train journey from Leiden Centraal to Zuid-Holland's capital, The Hague or Den Haag. Home of the Dutch Royal Family and the majority of the Netherlands' foreign embassies and major international organisations (The United Nations and the International Court of Justice, for starters), it's a really exciting city with a gentle buzz about it. Think Amsterdam, with fewer tourists and impressive skyscrapers.

Last weekend taught me there's much more to Holland than Amsterdam, and the ever-efficient Dutch rail system makes it easier than ever to get out and explore.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Art of Travel

View of the Yorkshire Moors from my plane window.

I wish I could describe the sense of peace travelling solo provides me with nowadays; notebook in hand, maybe a gin & tonic/glass of red wine if I’m feeling fancy. It’s not glamorous by any means as I'm never flying business or first class - my flight back to the UK from Amsterdam on Monday involved a vomiting child and minimal leg room. I was graced with a window seat though which made up for the lingering smell of stale sick and disinfectant. Despite the negatives, there’s something comforting about being alone with just your thoughts for company, flying across the planet at ridiculous speeds. Air travel is a wonderful feat in itself. 

I’ve narrowed down my love of flying to one central point - it’s the anonymity it grants me. I am wearing a camel coloured coat and toting around quite the hazard in the form of a wheeled suitcase, but you, you have no idea who I am. It’s freeing. Airports grant us the opportunity to be surrounded by a large section of the general public going here, there and everywhere. Much like train stations, with the added glamour of clear plastic travel bags and temperamental passport e-checks. The departure and arrival screens show flights to Abuja, Moscow, Manila and Chicago to name but a few far-flung destinations. I’m queueing up at airport security next to a woman who asks if I’m going to Africa, because she is and isn’t it wonderful to finally be going home? Don't get me wrong, I don't want to make my airport experience seem awfully quaint - I ended up running across Schiphol to find out the flight hadn't started to board yet, and the rushed goodbye at the train station 34 minutes earlier (so precise) wasn’t entirely necessary. Goodbyes are never good for me however so maybe it was for the best. 

Maybe this is an ode to new places, as well as the actual notion of travelling. I have seen the Yorkshire Moors look almost post-apocalyptic, the Sahara Desert and its apparent ‘nothingness’ and the somewhat calming vastness of the Atlantic Ocean at night. Views and perspectives I would never get to appreciate on the ground are suddenly right in front of me. It doesn't matter that I'll probably be able to qualify for frequent flier air-miles soon - I still look out of the window with the wonder and amazement of a 7 year old child. For me, the art of travel is pretty addictive. And I quite like it that way.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Playlist #1: Travelling

For me, travelling and music go hand in hand. I'm not sure about anyone else, but I know my iPod will have to be completely up to date before I step out of the house. I start to feel ever-so-slightly apprehensive with fears it will run out of battery or true to form, my headphones will suddenly decide to break halfway through my trip, leaving me unsure of what do to with myself for several hours. The thing I find with travelling is that it gives you the chance to appreciate even the most mundane things with the wonder of a child. Whenever I'm abroad, I find myself taking photos of things I would ordinarily walk past at home, just because it somehow "looks different". I suspect that is the reason so many people end up travelling for years on end, constantly chasing the unknown and unfamiliar.

While looking through my iTunes this evening, I realised there are certain songs that without fail, tend to accompany me on my (often) solo travels. Tomorrow evening, I'll be heading to Leiden in the Netherlands (30 minutes outside of Amsterdam) to visit one of my close friends who's currently studying there on his year abroad. To make it even more long-winded, I have, for reasons unknown, decided to fly from a different city meaning I have a 50 minute coach journey to the airport to contend with first. Fuelled by the excitement of my somewhat spontaneous trip, I made an 8tracks playlist with just a small sample of what I listen while I'm on the move. From the afropop sounds of The Very Best back to Simon & Garfunkel's melancholia, these 8 songs perfectly sum up my travelling experiences so far.

1) The Very Best (feat. Ezra Koenig) - Warm Heart of Africa 
2) Theophilus London (feat. Solange & Dev Hynes) - Flying Overseas 
3) Chromatics - Kill For Love
4) Blonde Redhead - Silently
5) Kurt Vile - Freeway
6) Simon & Garfunkel - The Only Living Boy In New York
7) Frank Ocean - Lost
8) Bill Withers - Lovely Day