Back on track

If you’ve not been on an overnight Stena Line ferry, you won’t have experienced the early morning wake-up call. It’s a bit surreal! At 5.30am the constant hum of the engine is interrupted by the playing of a whistling cover-version of the late-80s Bobby McFerrin hit: ‘Don’t worry, be happy’. Then announcements in Dutch and English let you know that breakfast is being served. After not much sleep it’s all a bit disorienting.

After breakfast it was time to rescue Zoly from the kennel. Mike took in his breakfast and when I arrive Zoly was spinning with excitement with his tail wagging at super-speed. He was clearly thrilled to be reunited with his dads. So breakfast didn’t get much of a sniff. Our arrival also caused a mass chorus of barking from the other dogs, which wasn’t helping to get Zoly to settle down to eat his breakfast either.

The foot passenger gangway at Harwich is being replaced, so we had to disembark on a clapped out old bus. We wondered why a new gangway wasn’t put in place before the old one was taken out – clearly another demonstration of the excellent British welcome. Another gem was the large tourist poster in the custom hall selling the delights of visiting Essex all ‘…in under an hour!’, who knew it would take so long?

Essex needs to change its ad agency

As usual these days, the customs officer hesitated somewhat about letting us cross the border back in to the UK – several times she very carefully examined Mike’s passport picture, then looked at his face then back at the passport – even holding it up to check the picture alongside Mike’s face. Losing patience, Mike explained that he’d lost lots of weight and that he went running with our dog. This seemed to work and we were allowed in.

The train journey from Harwich to London was uneventful – Zoly mostly snoozed (mostly on our laps). We walked from Liverpool Street over Tower Bridge and along the south bank of the Thames to Westminster. It was a beautiful morning and we wondered who will occupy City Hall next week – obviously we’re hoping it will be Sadiq Khan.

We had to catch the Underground at Westminster to get our train to Bristol from Paddington (we didn’t but that’s another story – but we did spot Dennis Skinner MP waiting on the platform). As the train arrived at Sloan Square the driver announced “This station has no working escalators, so anyone who cannot go upstairs should remain on this train until the next station: High Street Kensington”. There was a pause. Then the driver said: “Actually that isn’t going to work as there are no escalators at High Street Kensington either. Hmmm, you could cross over at High Street Kensington and get the train back again – but that means going up stairs too. I’m afraid you’re going to have to go up stairs”. These are the sort of announcements we’ve been missing in Holland. It felt good to be home!

Chip and pinch

I won’t be the only one watching my weight after this trip!

We’re on the ship and heading home as I write this. The train ride from Amsterdam went smoothly once Zoly had settled. I put his blanket on a seat and he dozed with his head on my lap and my arms wrapped around him. The train was quite full and the sight of a (large) snoozing dog caused much amusement. I couldn’t quite translate what they were saying in Dutch, but I suspect it was something along the lines of ‘what a big baby’ – the emphasis on big! Thankfully the journey was only just over an hour, so the circulation in my legs just about held up under the weight of Zoly.

Mike was wishing he’d paid a visit to the little boy’s room at Amsterdam station. An hour’s train journey was pushing his bladder to the limit and one misplaced paw would have been like the dykes bursting. As soon as we reached Hook van Holland Mike rushed off in one direction to use the facilities and I went the other way with Zoly to find the nearest bush. Once the boys had had their comfort breaks we made our way to check in.
The terminal building was pretty quiet – we guessed that not so many people catch the Monday evening ferry. As we wandered towards the check-in desk we were intercepted by a friendly Dutch women. It turned out she was the check in supervisor and had the job of checking in the dogs. She took Zoly’s pet passport and checked that he was who his passport said he was. She returned shortly afterwards with her scanning device to verify Zoly’s chip and when it bleeped he looked a little surprised! I did wonder if there is a reject bleep and whether people actually try and smuggle dogs through with false passports or even try to bring dogs in disguise through.

We took Zoly to the kennel and three of his room mates were already bedded down: a lovely golden Labrador who seemed very content. Next to the Labrador a collie and opposite these two was an Alsatian who was barking furiously. Zoly isn’t very comfortable with Alsatians and this wasn’t helping to settle Mike’s anxieties. “What if he barks all night?” “He won’t” I replied – trying to be reassuring. “How on earth do you know?” said Mike. This is the standard response I expect from Mike to most of my statements. This is what I got for marrying an academic – they always expect evidence-based answers to their questions. Zoly joined in with a bit of ‘twilight barking’ of his own and I’m grateful that Kennel TV (which was tuned in as soon as we found our cabin) doesn’t have sound.
To calm Mike a little, we went for a bowl of chips in the cafeteria. Comfort eating seemed to settle Mike a little. The trouble is that ‘moment on the lips’ will inevitably turn into comments about those chips ending up on my hips! After all the naughty holiday treats we’ve been tucking into, there will be more than an inch to pinch before long. I resolve that the bad eating stops here (well after we’ve finished off the marzipan chocolate bar).

Into the woods

The gardens at Keukenhof were an expected delight, but the unexpected pleasure of this trip has been the Keukenhof Forrest. Located just over the road from the gardens (but totally unconnected) the forest is a beautiful tranquil beech woodland with several well marked trails.
We walked Zoly in the Forrest every day of our trip here. Although the signs says ‘dogs on leads’ we followed the local dog owners and let Zoly off to roam free, he loved it. The sandy soil meant that there wasn’t a lot of woodland plants, just lots of leaf matter – perfect for sniffing and zooming in, sending leaves flying in all directions.

Where’s Zoly? A whole wood to himself

On each of our visits we barely saw more than a couple of other people in the wood, it felt like it was Zoly’s private playground and he loved it. Sticks were thrown, holes were dug and plenty of marks were left.
The Forrest was also a great haven for wildlife, we saw rabbits and lots birds. There was a very active woodpecker pecking away but the most impressive resident was the stork who had made its nest high in the canopy and was sat guarding its content, hoping for a special delivery very soon.

Special delivery coming soon

Zoly’s favourite part of the wood was the hollow where the soil gave way to pure sand. It was a bit like s beach in the middle of the Forrest. Zoly loves the feel of sand under his paws so as soon as he reached the sound he went crazy, leaping, bounding and digging. It’s a joy to watch him enjoy such simple pleasures. Maybe I need to get him his own sandpit at home so it can be like viz-vacation every day!

From tulips to Amsterdam

Today was an odd day. We split it between Lisse and Amsterdam. We’d never been to Amsterdam together and since the first monument to the gay victims of the Holocaust is in Amsterdam – near to Ann Franks’ house – it felt like a good reason to go and see it. We could also take the train from Amsterdam straight back to Shiedam, where we can change for Hoek van Holland and on to the overnight ferry. We weren’t sure whether it would be possible to exercise Zoly very much in Amsterdam so Matthew suggested visiting the botanical gardens in Lisse.

The fire alarm went off at the hotel at about 6:00am (a false alarm, but everyone was out in the street in their nightwear), so we were up and about quite early. We wandered around Lisse and it took a while to find the gardens – it seemed to be hidden out beyond the suburbs and when we eventually found them on the outskirts of town, they were closed! Still, we did happen upon a rather nice thatched windmill.

As we weren’t in a hurry we had plenty of time for one last circuit of Keukenhof forest before getting the bus the Haarlem (a beautiful city – we must go back to explore) and then the short train ride to Amsterdam.

Walking through the narrow streets near Amsterdam station was a bit nerve-wracking and a a little unpleasant with Zoly because the streets were so crowded and also because so many people were smoking (and not all of them tobacco, this being Amsterdam). It’s curious how quickly we’ve become used to smoke-free public spaces in the UK.

On our way to the homomonument my sister Lisa called – she’d finished the Milton Keynes marathon – only her second – in a London marathon good for age qualifying time of 3:48:33. This despite the fact that she lost a few minutes after tripping over a tree root and falling at about 14 miles in. I’m so proud of her – and hopefully this means that both she and me will be running in London next year. Can’t wait!

The monument was good to visit – I worried a bit that people were sitting on it and picnicking, perhaps without realising what it was or its significance. It’s a pink granite triangle that steps down and juts out into the canal. But maybe it’s fitting that it’s enjoyed as well as being serious.

The Olympic stadium was lovely, but also closed! We did a quick circuit and then there was time to visit Vondelpark – built in 1865 and named after a 17th-century playwright and poet. The park is fantastic – long and narrow, with hundreds of runners and cyclists. It was lovely to walk through with Zoly off his lead after the streets of Amsterdam. There were lots of other dogs to meet and greet, lakes and fountains, an outdoor gym, open air theatre and lovely little cafés all over. Zoly had been so good today that we treated him to an ice cream while we had a picnic and wrote postcards.

We’d done quite a bit of walking around today by now, so we took a tram back to Centraal Station for the train back to Hoek van Holland. Zoly and Matthew were both very tired.

Keukenhof gardens – part two

Keukenhof gardens were becoming very crowded yesterday morning so we left to take Zoly for a run in the forest. He’d been so good and well-behaved in the garden, it was lovely to see him running around getting excited with sticks and smells. After our walk we returned to our hotel for lunch and then a snooze – well for Mike and Zoly at least. I had a few matters to attend to on email. Once that was done I left the sleeping beauties to it and walked round the corner to visit the Black Tulip Museum in the centre of Lisse.

Who knew there were so many different kinds of hyacinth bulb vases?

The museum is not very large, but it does tell the story of the tulip and has a lovely collection of botanical drawings and prints of spring bulbs. There was also a film about the discovery and spread of the tulip bulb, some ceramic tulip holders and a rather nice collection of glass hyacinth bulb holders. It was a pleasant enough place to while away a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon.

Some rather pretty tulip art

After the museum I collected Mike and Zoly so that we could go back to the gardens. It was about 5.30pm and we hoped that Keukenhof would be starting to quiet down. It was still very busy, but the crowds were mostly drifting towards the exits. It definitely seemed like we were moving against the tide when thousands of people were heading in the opposite direction to us as we wandered back into the gardens. Zoly was enjoying his return visit back to the gardens very much – he spent lots of time Hoovering up the left-over bits of waffle, ice cream, strawberries and pastries dropped by the departing hoards.

Daffodils glowing in the evening sunshine
Seeing Keukenhof in a whole different light

We had definitely made the right decision to return to the gardens later; not just because they were quieter, but also because the evening light made the flowers and fountains look so lovely. The sun hanging lower in the sky created the most beautiful backlit effect on many of the flowers. Long shadows were cast on the pathways and lawns and the warmth of the spring sunshine helped release incredible scents from the hyacinths and narcissi – the whole experience was wonderfully intoxicating.

An alternative kind of bedding

With the crowds thinning we were able to explore the smaller demonstration gardens that we had avoided earlier in the day. The ‘inspiration gardens’ were more contemporary and intended to show off flowers in a more modern setting. I think it would be fair to say that Mike is not a great fan of the more ‘conceptual’ garden. The sight of bulbs growing out of old metal bed frames, or plastic Miffy the rabbits or bits of smashed up Delft is just the sort of thing to send him into his Catherine Tate ‘Nan’ character – “What a load of old sh*t!”. Fortunately, the conceptual gardens were fairly limited and so I was soon able to distract Mike’s attention with something much more to his liking: some big fountains that changed and danced in the evening light.

Mike loves a good fountain 

The whole of Keukenhoff is landscaped with beautiful water features – rills, canals and gurgling streams then huge jetting fountains and waterfalls. Nothing is ever far from the sound of water, which is always a lovely addition to any garden. However, for men of a certain age, this abundance of flowing water also has its downsides! At least in Keukenhoff you’re never far from a toilet either! Meanwhile, Zoly seemed perfectly happy leaving his mark on every corner, every bed of tulips and daffodils and any tree that he could get near. It’s fortunate that the Netherlands has such an extensive flood defenses and drains.

Man (and dog) afloat

Mike was determined to get Zoly onto the stepping-stones that crossed part of the lake, (they were actually made of wood, but that doesn’t have the same ring). I’m not entirely sure what Zoly thought I of this, but he seemed happy enough to pose for photos mid way. He was distracted by a passing duck, so a tight grip on the lead was required – although a shot of Mike going head first into the lake following Zoly with a duck in his mouth would have been priceless.

Don’t be surprised if these two don’t turn up in next year’s Keukenhof marketing material 

We have been so lucky with the beautiful spring sunshine for our visit to Keukenhof, it made the gardens appear even more magical. Seeing the variety of colours and scents is quite unreal. I’m sure that I’ll wake up in a few days and think ‘was that real?’ If you like spring bulbs as much as I do, then I’d certainly recommend a trip to come here at least once, and if you have a dog – bring them along too!

Vizsla mania

At its peak, the tulip mania that engulfed the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century resulted in hugely inflated prices – with single bulbs apparently selling for small fortunes. Of course it all ended badly when the ‘tulip bubble’ burst and many people were left bankrupt. Thankfully, tulips today are modestly-priced and there are plenty of opportunities at Keukenhof’s many retail outlets to purchase any of the bulbs on display – or in fact a just about anything from a wide-variety of tulip-inspired merchandise: neck ties (extraordinary), scarfs, handbags, jewellery, serviettes, tissues – you get the idea. If you can put a tulip on it, it’s for sale at Keukenhof.

So photogenic – the husband’s not bad either!

We could have capitalised on another popular Keukenhof activity – particularly among Japanese tourists: what to do after taking several hundred tulip photographs? Take pictures of all the dogs in the gardens of course! Especially handsome ginger dogs! Zoly could have earned our entry fee back easily today if we’d charged €1 for every picture taken of him. Everywhere we went we were asked. The Japanese tourists were particularly keen, which was ever so slightly nerve-wracking as I kept thinking that it would probably only take a good tail wag from Zoly to knock some of these very petite Japenese tourists off their feet and into the nearest flower bed or water feature, (also, he has been known to jump up at people when he’s overexcited and send them flying). Fortunately everyone stayed standing this morning.

You can imagine the looks we got

The best Zoly-shot of the day, though, was taken by me. I call it ‘Delft Lovers’ a sort of homage to Banksy and Delft pottery in one – I’m sure it will go viral!

Keukenhof gardens – part one

I’ll start with the health warning – if you don’t enjoy tulips turn away now. As advised in yesterday’s post – today we visit Keukenhof gardens. When we were planning a spring mini-break we discovered that dogs on leads are welcome in Keukenhof, so that sealed the deal. 
The forecast for today was bright sunshine all day, so what with it being a Sunday we knew it would be busy. The plan was to be there for when they opened at 8am so it was early to bed last night and the alarm set for just after 6am to be ready for the start of breakfast serving at 7am. 
I have to confess it wasn’t the best night sleep. The bed was comfy enough, but in the early hours of the morning there was something of a ‘parting’ of the ways. Our ‘double’ bed is in fact two two separate single beds pushed close together. This is practical and with two single duvets it avoids that nighttime ‘battle’ to keep warm. The trouble is that Zoly tends to sleep on our bed when we’re on holiday, he had positioned himself equidistant between me and Mike at the bottom of the bed – that is effectively on top of the fault line. 

At around 2am I was woken by whimpering and scrabbling sounds. As I reached down to touch Zoly, I was not met by the dog but rather a gap. It must have seemed that there’d been some sort of earthquake for Zoly and the two beds had parted – poor Zoly had sunk into the hole between mine and Mike’s bed and was suspended on a sort of hammock formed by the blanket that he was wrapped in and he couldn’t get out. I rescued him and set him free. 

Understandably he was wary of going anywhere near the ‘canyon’ after that, so he positioned himself firmly on my part of the bed. Mike was still fast asleep – he didn’t rouse once during this entire dog rescue incident. The remainder of my night was a choice of sleeping with my legs apart (one each side of Zoly) with them suspended over the side of the bed or curled up in foetual position. None of these were very comfortable, so a restless night ensued.
We did get to the gardens at 8.30am, not bad given that when on holiday Mike runs on GST (Gay Standard Time – that is usually between 30min to an hour behind). Even at this early hour on a Sunday there were already around ten coaches parked up and groups of visitors waiting to get in. We purchased our tickets and headed in.

Tulips in every shade and shape – simply stunning

Even though we sort of knew what we were going to see, it still takes the breath away. Massive swathes of tulips and other spring flowers flow in all directions. Pink, red, yellow, white, purple… the colours go on. It’s not just tulips though: grape hyacinth, daffodils, iris and heavily scented hyacinths are all there too. The bulbs are planted in big blocks of colour and set out in lots of different patterns. The beds weave among the trees with the canopy providing beautiful dappled light. Streams, cascades and fountains and beautifully manicured grass and sculptures are dotted around too. The whole effect is quite delightful.

Can you believe we actually queued up for this shot!

Paul Smith stripes in tulip

Obligatory dog and husband amongst tulip shot

Our first two hours were not too crowded, so we visited most of the garden – including the more formal beds of tulip combinations, the woodland garden, the Willem-Alexander pavilion (like the grand pavilion at the Chelsea Flower Show, except they have to keep it looking stunning for 3 months not 3 days!) and the windmill with its views across the stunning multi-coloured striped tulip bulb fields adjoining the garden. 

Tulip mania traffic gridlock

Keukenhof gardens – part oneBy 11.30 it was getting very busy indeed, so we decided it was time to leave. Zoly had been amazing walking round, but we didn’t want to risk a repeat of the Harwich terminal woofing at strangers incident so we headed out. Before we left to take Zoly across the road for a run in Keukenhof bosch (forest) we got ‘stamped’ so we can return again later this afternoon, when hopefully the coach-loads of tourists have headed away. It was definitely the best decision, as we walked the short distance to the forest it was apparent that the draw of a visit to Keukenhof in the sunshine had resulted in gridlock on all the approaching roads. Of course those on foot and bikes were all moving ok – which just goes to prove: bulbs are better by bike!

Going Dutch

We love the Netherlands – ok it’s a bit flat, but it’s such a civilised place to visit. From the moment you step off the boat you’re made to feel very welcome – it obviously helps if you have an orange dog as Zoly attracts lots of loving glances wherever he goes.
I think I may have written before about the wonderful cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands. However, there can never be too much of a good thing when it comes to cycling, so here’s a little bit more! As well as beautiful segregated cycle lanes everywhere, the spaces provided to park and store bikes are just jaw-dropping. Every little suburban railway station has covered and secure bike parking that makes the so-called ‘extensive’ bicycle parking at our local mainline station – Temple Meeds in Bristol – look third rate. At major stations and interchanges, such as at Leiden the bike parks are even more amazing. At each entrance to Leiden station a ramp takes cyclists down under the station to a vast underground bike park that is staffed and free to use. Such wonderful bike facilities means it’s no surprise that just about everybody from nought to 80 (and over) rides a bike in the Netherlands.

Going underground with your bike at at Leiden station.

Netherlands’ towns are neat and well cared for, most are designed on ‘home zone’ principles where the priority is firmly given to pedestrians and cyclists. Back in Bristol we live in one of our cities’ few home zones, but here in the Netherlands they are the norm. The gardens here are lovely – many have pleached trees, clipped borders, beautiful herbaceous plants and of course at this time of year: tulips. The Dutch clearly take a lot of pride in how their streets look and we’re getting to enjoy their efforts too.

Dutch gardens are a delight

The one element that foreigners might struggle with in the Netherlands is the language. Fortunately the Dutch tend to be incredibly well-versed in English and we barely have to open a mouths before they realise they need to speak to us in English. It has been a little bit of a challenge trying to read ingredients on the packets to try and make sure we don’t eat anything that isn’t vegan. Thank goodness for translation apps – that has is quite handy for that sort of thing. 

Zoly leaving his mark on the Netherlands

I don’t think Zoly is having any such language difficulties. The international language of dogs seems to be working just fine for him. Sniff the other dogs bits, maybe a quick lick (not to much on first encounter), a friendly wag and a low-down crouch to indicate you want to play. The other dogs seem to get it – either that or they think: ‘an orange dog, he must be Dutch!’