Remember the joy as a kid when you hoped to get a sweet and were given a whole bag; or – at a slightly older age – when you thought you might be entitled to one free drink at the work Christmas party and found out it was a free bar all night? That’s more or less the feeling hubby and I recently had at the Stena Line terminal in Harwich as we were about to board The Stena Hollandica for an evening crossing to Hoek van Holland. This time, however, it wasn’t food or drink-related.
The Dutchflyer ticket we had booked months earlier included rail and ferry travel from any Greater Anglia station in the UK to any station in the Netherlands and therefore we expected to collect open single tickets for the Dutch leg of our journey when we checked in. Instead, we were given all-day travel cards (Dagkaart) for the NS rail system, which meant that all of a sudden we could completely turn our (very loose) weekend travel plans upside down. Oh, the places we’d go: this would require a celebratory drink at the bar! (First, however, we had to take what’s probably the shortest bus ride in the country to the ferry because the passenger gangway was being replaced.) Once on-board we ordered ‘his and hers’ drinks – beer and wine, how classic! – and almost got more than our money’s worth when the bartender heard ‘a small glass of wine’ as ‘four glasses of wine’ and started to pour accordingly. Bon voyage! – or maybe it should be ‘Goede reis!’
An overnight sailing, luckily in calm waters, meant no wasted holiday time and we arrived at Hoek van Holland bright and early, eager to start our whistle-stop tour once we’d had the all-important first cup of coffee. After activating our tickets – you must touch in at the beginning of your journey and out at the end, regardless whether or not stations have gates – we took the first train to Rotterdam where we boarded a standard Intercity train towards Haarlem. (Intercity Direct services, on the other hand, would have required a supplement, which we didn’t fancy paying)
The beauty of travel cards is your ability to adjust travel plans as you go: instead of Haarlem, our first stop ended up being Delft. Admittedly, that was partly because we had accidentally chosen the quiet coach without realising it and were told off politely but firmly by a fellow passenger for talking too much. (Silence means silence in the quiet coaches!) Hopping off the train seemed like a better idea than looking for a seat elsewhere, and there was no way we could have kept quiet when we were busy making plans and admiring the scenery! Delft may be best known for its blue and white pottery but what we saw first on the beautiful old market square was a well stocked cheese shop full of big yellow cheese rounds. (Culturally and historically more important landmarks on the square might be the historic city hall and the majestic New Church, which dates back to the late 1300s and is therefore not that new – except when compared to the Old Church!)
From Delft we continued to Leiden, deliberately avoiding quiet coaches! Out of all the places I’ve visited in the Netherlands – and there are still plenty I haven’t seen – Leiden is probably my favourite. Even on a slightly chilly spring day I could imagine how beautiful and vibrant it would be later in the year, its cafes and terraces full of people soaking up sunbeams and good vibes. On our stroll we witnessed a wedding shoot on a bridge and saw a tabby cat in a flower shop window keeping an eye on both people and birds. If you want a little bit of peace and quiet, the many side streets are filled with quirky details and fascinating buildings, such as an old orphanage, Weeshuis, with its red and white shutters, now a Dutch national heritage site.
I remember how my very first visit to Leiden was like from a Visit Holland advert: first I saw colourful, sturdy bicycles, then a canal, and a moment later an old windmill. All I needed was some pancakes for lunch! The Dutch bike does have a specific look with its full fenders, upright riding position, rear rack, and high handlebars. People ride it with speed and confidence amongst pedestrians, who don’t seem at all bothered by the cyclists whizzing by. I was also surprised to see nobody using D-locks: I wonder how common bike theft is?
Starting early means you fit a lot in one day, and despite our altered tour plan we reached Haarlem no later than early afternoon. I was curious to see this city with some of its ancient buildings and cobbled streets I had heard so much about, especially as it would be compact enough to be easily walkable. However, to my annoyance, after a while I started to lose track of what I had seen and where: clearly I can only take in a limited number of picturesque canalside houses and historic buildings along market squares on any one day. To improve my energy levels, I decided to go for my all-time favourite, a dose of caffeine.
Haarlem is a coffeeholic’s haven full of cosy, quirky, funky, and fun looking coffee shops and tearooms. Maybe I should try a café crawl (almost like an alcohol-free pub crawl) one day. We finally chose a chocolate shop which, interestingly enough, only took cards, no cash. Perhaps cafés are different from other shops but this was one of the few times my Visa debit card was accepted and worked without problems. (More about card payment fun next time!)
In the early evening when not even caffeine gave the required energy boost we headed towards Den Haag and checked into our hotel next to the station. The view over a building site was less than inspiring but the bed was comfortable and the shower worked. Our plan A at this point was to find a supermarket and bring some food back but as we only came across a small expensive corner shop, a portobello sandwich in an independent burger bar near the market square was a perfect plan B and a relaxing end to the busy day. What could we get up after a good night’s sleep?