Amsterdam (continued)

Relieved to be back at the hotel I started my usual preparations for that night. Listened to live-streamed UK radio 4, a discussion about nudity – its cultural history & changing meaning.

After downing nearly half of the vodka I was finally ready to hit the town. My new self-assurance that tonight had to be the night. This time I found the red light area with no problem. A narrow street led from the canal. I vaguely remember a couple of women, one typically blonde, perhaps mid twenties in the usual skimpy underwear. But she hardly got off her stool, since there as I reached the door approached someone dark skinned and considerably older. I can’t say whether she was black or mixed; her maturity was the main thing I noticed about her. I even asked her age and she told me 35yrs. Well, maybe she’d lived a hard life; many sex workers have, let’s be honest. In any case I doubt she was older than me. [A section of text has been removed for inappropriate content]

After exiting I realised I’d put my jacket on inside out, so dipped into a quiet side-street to correct it. As I strode to the end I nearly bumped into a group of lads at the intersection. I stepped back in to let them pass. But they instead turned towards me. One of them kicked me in the shin, and all three of them seemed to laugh at that. He hadn’t used much force but it was enough to be annoying after the initial shock. Surely they were on something; alcohol makes casual violence easy, and I felt the urge to search them out and be violent back (though thankfully I didn’t). I don’t see myself as the type to get picked on; I’m not big but at a glance I could pass for a middleweight boxer. It was the first time anyone has shown violence and it hasn’t put me off visiting dodgy places, which is probably inevitable with what I seek out. But then Amsterdam, for all its tawdriness, reputation for drugs, doesn’t feel like a threatening place.

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The next and last day I returned to the city centre. It seemed a more gentile and tourist-friendly place, but still very crowded, mostly under 30s. I considered visiting another sex-worker, with 50euros still in my pocket. And maybe I would have done but for the lack of them at early afternoon. Difficult to know in the harsh light of day, albeit mildly intoxicated, whether I would have gone though with it.

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Generally the rail system works well, but Amsterdam station could maybe do with a simpler information display. There are so many different types of train. Had to ask one of the staff in the end which platform. The return journey was by high speed back to Brussels. The most interesting part was when a couple got searched for drugs. A team including sniffer dog. This is passing through the Schengen countries so it’s a good opportunity for smuggling. They returned to their seat. Maybe just a bit of hash, not enough to warrant arrest but still hardly worth what they must have gone through.

In conclusion, Amsterdam is not somewhere I’d ever want to revisit. Maybe great if you’re looking to experience the weed, some tulips, or just the culture. Not (IMHO) the best place to visit for [text removed for inappropriate content]. Amsterdam’s very reputation, attracting millions of tourists, makes it seem over-hyped and caricatured. Perhaps a victim of its own success.

Surely there are many like me who discovered, or had it confirmed to them, that the idea of this city is better than the reality.

To read the complete version:  Sin Cities (Amazon UK)

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Rotterdam, Amsterdam… and the troublesome travel bags

Rotterdam central is within easy reach by Eurostar. The advantage of rail – other than the carbon saving – is you can take a comfortable amount of luggage, not have to spend hours or days refining your choice down to what that just-flight-legal cabin bag will hold without breaking its zip. In February I’d really struggle with that for a three nighter.

Had an embarrassing incident at the St Pancras terminal after I’d forgotten to zip my bag’s back pocket. Travel passes and a spare phone fell out seemingly just after I’d walked the few metres to the queue with it on my back, I only realised when other passengers had picked them up. I must have been distracted by the surprise announcement, and lost in some discussion on streamed radio.

Embarrassed at my carelessness, I decided part of the problem was with my cheap eBay bag – I now would always associate with that embarrassing incident, so decided to buy a new one. Spent half an hour or so looking through sports discount store rucksacks. Well, it passed some of the time. After dark, the journey really dragged. No sense of the 200+km speed cross country. Still, one train journey from London to the Rotterdam central can’t be bad.

Only one night in Rotterdam before moving on to the capital. Glad to arrive late enough I wouldn’t feel the need to go out again since that meant notifying the hotel proprietor on return. How different from the capital!

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Next day it was chilly, breezy, and not much sun; the kind of coldness just enough to be uncomfortable in the one jacket not too warm to wear inside a station. Hours before my bus was due. Much cheaper than train if you book in advance. Relieved to get out of the cold rain. Then at the destination I climbed out and made for the luggage area of the bus, and could not understand why it was closed. No one else taking their luggage. Then opened and shown to me it was empty. I was baffled, until he pointed out my bag was behind me. But how had I not noticed it? Surely it hadn’t been there the whole time? I know my peripheral vision is not the best (I’ve passed by a friend on the street completely unrecognising more than once). But to not see it at all. Still baffles me. It was as if this luggage bag had developed some power to make me seem foolish beyond its cheap appearance. My dislike of it became hatred. It was definitely going get dumped for another.

The budget XO hotel turned out to be impressive, other than its dimensions. Though it was away from the city centre. I could have upgraded to a double for under 2euros but that somehow seemed unnecessary. The room itself was impressively well-equipped with tech, for a 3star: a coffee machine, huge TV and luxury shower.

That evening I searched for a Lidl, hoping to find some cheap vodka. But nothing more than beer. Carrying basic supplies I headed back, still hoping to find an off-licence near the hotel as most shops were closing before 7. I ended up in a ‘night shop’. The cheapest bottle of 70cl was 21euros! Normally a discount supermarket in Belgium or Germany would sell the same for no more than €9. It had to be tax. I’m happy to pay loads of duty on spirits in the UK, but on holiday it leaves me feeling exploited. Nevertheless I bought it. I drank nearly a third that night.

That night I took a train into the notorious city centre. After drinking over a third of the vodka it seemed like a good idea. But it was getting late, approaching nine. The old town was crowded despite it being a cold winter Tuesday night. Somehow the red light district eluded me. But that night was, you might call it, a dry run, though I was there too long given my ticket only lasted an hour. No choice, it seemed, but to walk the entire 5km journey back. This is when you are glad of the alcohol in your system.

Second morning in Amsterdam, slightly hungover and tired-legged I set out to buy my new luggage bag. Train fares are way simpler than most other countries, not least the UK. I got one ticket that lasted 24hrs for 8euros. Amsterdam Noord Park first, where I went for a walk, yes, around the park. With the sun it felt pleasant to eat my grated cheese sandwich and cereal bar.

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On to Noord town. I headed for a Decathlon store and picked up the rucksack I’d thoroughly perused online. I think I’d had a quick check of the zips before taking it to the counter to pay in cash, rather than self service. There was a queue so I had a look around and picked up a cheap bottle. Another embarrassing incident followed. The cashier asked me: ‘Is their anything inside?’
‘I’m not sure,’ came my honest response. Somehow I hadn’t noticed how it was filled out.
He unzipped it to look inside. And I can’t remember his exact words. But I remember the word ‘shoplifting,’ said both for me and his assistant who had suddenly appeared. He then started pulling out these little boxes, and commented: ‘Those would set off the alarm.’
But soon he realised they were just empty boxes, mostly flattened. Though he still seemed perplexed. I pointed out they must have been used to fill out the rucksack. At this point, I don’t know who was the most embarrassed. I hadn’t fully processed whether he was seriously suspecting me of attempted shoplifting, more concerned was I about making up the right cash. After I’d paid he said, ‘have a nice day.’ And I left with the burgeoning realisation that I’d been suspected not only of attempted theft but of being a rather stupid thief.

…to be continued.

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Stuttgart – the return!

Stuttgart was a place I had to revisit for a number of reasons. Not least the vast forests that stretch for 10s of kms. It is always tempting to walk too far just to see what the next section brings. So many paths that branch off. I failed, though, to find my route from last year where the colours were stunning! This year I arrived two weeks earlier in the season. The best time I think is early November. But with the fear of crashing out of the EU on Oct31 I booked for those last few days before. Weather was OK, mostly cloudy. One thing that struck me: the absence of any wild animals, not a single bird. A strange subdued atmosphere, calm, that can become quite eerie when the light fades.

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Still quite a few people about, some with dogs. More cyclists than before, causing a tinge of envy – you can get a sense of unlimited trails but of little progression, and occasionally the monotony. So I decided to try the narrow cross trails. Even along those you can encounter a mountainbiker, but I ended up on the more extreme gradients – and really felt the burn in my calves! Found myself on a wooded hill with no trail visible except on my phone map, thinking how without that I’d be starting to panic.

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IMG_20191030_142259.jpgEventually I ended up near a station. So it may well have seemed logical to take a train back. But no, that would just have felt like a failure. I’d gotten into that mindset of seeing a way to navigate back. And back on the main path felt good, what makes using a GPS map enjoyable. Only: the hills, they take their toll!

Finally, in the hotel. That sense of relief and accomplishment. But my legs were near gone. And this wasn’t good news for my night-time plans,

Continue reading of my Euro adventures here from UK

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Hot in Dusseldorf!

Düsseldorf was hot. The kind of heat you have to submit to or it can drive you crazy. For me it nearly did.

Düsseldorf was hot. The kind of heat you have to submit to or it can drive you crazy. For me it nearly did.

Another record-breaking summer in Europe. This was climate change in action. I tried to offset my carbon when booking the flight and buying travel insurance. Well, it’s only an hour by plane from Stansted to Weeze, but until there is a decent rail link there’s no other option. Not the main airport – Weeze is tiny and it’s a long way from the city centre, about 80km. It hadn’t occurred to me there’d be two but Düsseldorf Weeze has a good train link and the airport was generally less aggravating than Düsseldorf international.

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It did start well. I even got a free train journey, offered by a student I met at the airport who said she’d include me on her pass – which covered the replacement [for the bus] taxi. I must admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed, not only by her kindness but also her preternatural attractiveness (that is, not just physically). She was, though, with a man also in his early twenties, and there was another young traveller she made the same offer to. Not that I would ever have had a chance with her under any circumstance. Even in my dream she was completely unobtainable. Rightfully. I would have thought had I been her age on meeting her I’d have been totally tongue-tied, but here I was talking about the heatwave and discussing Euro travelling. When she removed the band and shook her blonde hair free I felt myself go weak at the knees. In her short denim shorts and vest she must have known the effect she had on men. But being such a warm night there seemed nothing inappropriate in that. I think there is something about the heat that intensifies feelings.

After an awkward parting, I made it to the hotel. Late check-in was ok: pick the key – actually a contactless fob – out of a safe, to open doors. It’s the future!

Next day a long walk in the heat through wide trailed woods. Good to shelter under the canopy of trees. What a contrast the weather made from last time.

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A woman runner passed me. And very soon I heard her gasping for breath and groaning. Turned round to see her doubled over. She sounded in a desperate state. I was surprised not least because she looked like a professional athlete. Yet there was no way I could have ignored her. But when I asked her if she was all right suddenly she stood up straight, a slight look of surprise. After a few words of German she was very much ‘I’m fine.’ I offered her a drink but she assured me she was very near her friend who had a drink. The incident left me bemused. It seemed as if she had been exaggerating her state of exhaustion, that she wanted to catch my attention. But then once she got a good view of me – or at least knew I’m not German – had second thoughts. I felt embarrassed afterwards and took an alternative path and waited out on a bench. A troubling thought then: the situation could have been construed that I was trying to take advantage of her. Approaching a lone woman on an isolated path is not something I’d normally do. But if I hadn’t I’d have felt bad. The heat has strange effects.

Left it respectably late to buy my usual in Lidl. Then finally back to the hotel – a relief! The room was way too warm so I took a cool shower. Started drinking the booze from about 5:30, and eating, possibly too much of either. Large packets of snacks not designed for one person.

Then something happened that left me shocked and disturbed. Not so much that I fell asleep. It was more a total dreamless unconsciousness. I’d got through two thirds of the bottle, and it seemed as a result knocked myself out. I don’t remember anything after about 7pm. Woke up at around 3am. I’d lost a night – as if the time had never existed. What would have been a very important night. I wondered: was it too late? Maybe I should have wondered: could I have died? I did wonder: could that be what it’s like to be dead? Pointless thoughts. Dark thoughts. Nothing else but to go back to sleep and hope I can make up for my lost night.

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Somerset: Tricky Trains, Rain . . . and the Child Prodigy

This was my second and last chance to explore Somerset. I set out with my usual hope that it would all work out, despite the weather forecast. But it wasn’t long before things started to go wrong. Not having taken the bike to Taunton since 2009 it just hadn’t occurred to me I needed to reserve it for the last segment. One of the train staff at Westbury told me helpfully I could leave it at the station. As if…

Still I made it finally to Taunton via Bristol. With the campsite only 2 miles away mostly on a cycle path, and bike satnav, it was never really a problem getting there. I was surprised to see another cyclist had just arrived, who pointed out the owner was not around; just had to leave my name on a register. He suggested just pitching up. That other lone cyclist had somehow managed to compress a tent and whatever other travel equipment into neat little pannier cases around his bike, whereas my panniers hung bulkily on a rear 30yr old carrier frame, holding an air mattress+pillows, bike accessories and enough cereal bars to last a week. But also I had 65litre rucksack with my tent, sleeping bag and clothes on my back. I must have looked a worrying site to most motorists!

The campsite itself – in an orchard – was not too bad considering it was near the town centre. Empty except for other biker. So I carefully had to calculate how I’d pitch my tent a fair though not obvious avoidance distance away from his – not completely at the other end of the field and a trekking distance from the shower block. It took me a while to decide. But anyway most on bikes only stay one night, as it proved.

Before I’d unpacked my tent the owner arrived, got his payment for two nights – £14 less than the last Quantocks site! And not here the rigmarole of searching for my address on a database. I did get the impression the other cyclist knew the owner, asking him how he was. Or maybe that’s just some people’s more sociable demeanour than mine.

Finally I was pegging down the tent. But somehow I snagged my middle finger getting frustrated at the hard dry ground and bent pegs. The skin ripped off deeply; these accidents always seem so avoidable, wondering how I could have been so careless. Still I didn’t think much about it till the next day. Tiredness to took over. Even the incessant squawking of peacock/hens wasn’t enough to bother me.

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The next day started brightly. Sun shining. It filled me with something approaching optimism, a quixotic hope that the heavy rain forecast would not materialise, that in these hilly parts there are more unpredictable local weather systems. I didn’t think to take my rain jacket.

From the outset the sky darkened. An hour into the journey towards the Quantocks the rain became torrential. After sheltering under trees at a roadside for it to ease to merely heavy, I pressed on to a fire-road connecting the main hill. Stopped again; ate peanuts, a mini cheese and a cereal bar under a heavily dripping tree. Feeling cold, my optimism had ebbed away.

At least one section of the main route was sheltered. But then was faced with the open hills. Well, I couldn’t face them, so found another grouping of trees and listened to Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Trump tirade on my pocket radio until that gave out. My phone at least should be ok, attached to the bike and wrapped in clear baggie. Checked forecast: showers but sunny spells in the next hour. An MTBr with a dog passed by. He returned ten minutes later. Maybe even the hardened locals were getting defeated by it.

Eventually it became light enough to be tolerable. Sky brightening, I headed off onto the hill. But now I was starting to notice my sore finger, pressed against the next on the bar grip. Had a tube of Germolene … left in my tent. Damn! Perhaps it wouldn’t make much difference anyway in these conditions, I reasoned.

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Reached the top of a ceremonial ground, then down a steep hill. Rain had stopped. Clouds cleared, the sun illuminated the spectacular view. Did an about-turn, climbed on foot. When back at the gate trying to empty a bit of grit from my shoe, a runner stopped by, wanting to know if that was good route. I gave my impression that it probably was. The number of possible routes can be overwhelming. I headed to West Quantockhead. Some decent trails and the views were stunning! I stopped to put tape and tissue round my finger. It helped. A bit.

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Mostly sunny, the long hilly journey back was a pleasure on the small roads. Satnav on handlebars really removed the anxiety I once had of getting lost.

Finally reaching the town after 40miles I stopped off at an Aldi. Depleted of energy I picked up way too much food – nuts, crisps, biscuits, chocolate. At the checkout I was guessing it would be a pound or 2 over £10. But the cashier I was sure told me £18.21, and seemed to be confirmed by the little display. Pulling out two tens I somehow dropped a pound coin. But what happened next seemed strange. Incomprehensible, even! A child – perhaps no older than 7yrs, with his dad – picked up the coin and handed it back to me. Then I thought I heard him say something to the cashier, who then re-quoted me the price as £10.21. The kid’s dad, full of pride, was praising him, saying ‘Yeah! You’re my Power Ranger!’ But I was left befuddle. Did that child really correct the cashier? Was he some mathematical genius, who knew the total price of all those items? Or maybe he understood that the scanning system can malfunction – that a zero wrongly displayed as an 8. In my fatigued state I wondered if I had only imagined it.

Back at the campsite all I could think about was eating, and resting. Not even worrying about that potentially tricky train journey the next day.

Barcelona!

The gradual descent over the Pyrenees was something to behold. Still, even though I had a window seat, it turned out the other side had the best view (according to the pilot). Anyway the flight from Gatwick at just under £50 seemed like a bargain. Pressure-based earache, though, distracted me on the final descent – maybe too steep. Then the inevitable infant expressing its suffering. The kid had my sympathy!

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As often, at the airport my ears had that flu bunged-up feeling, and curious popping. Then my typical mild disorientation, having to really make an effort on focusing where I’m getting. Passport control has an automated option, but curiously a fingerprint sensor, which, on reflection, is slightly concerning. My fingerprints have never been stored anywhere except my phone, and now do the Spanish authorities possess it? It was taken again at near gate. Maybe this explained why so many people opted for a human checker.

Finding the train station wasn’t really a problem (certainly nothing like the questing journey in Madrid Barajas). A relatively short journey to Bar Sants. The city centre is reasonably easy to navigate but I’ve got so much in the habit of using my phone even to find a hotel that’s a 5 minute walk. Being near and at a budget will always feel like a comprise: small single room, in darkness until I found the slot for the key card (how they stop people wasting power). Hardly bothered with the invariably no-English TV. But free wifi felt like the saviour of my sanity. Even if you don’t have BBC Sounds there’s a world radio app (on android so not quite sure of its legality) that surely covers all your radio needs.

The first day often that feeling of trepidation – that if I make a plan it will go wrong. (Well, I always make a plan for the night, but more of that later.) Estacio de Franca: the obvious tourist destination. What could be simpler? I had my train map, so hardly needed to bother with the info at the station. Nicely numbered and colour-coded. Simple? No. Somehow I’d missed the display giving the platform number and instead went with corresponding R2, dark green. But none went there, and so I had a dilemma: do I risk exiting and losing my ticket or hope I can get off at a near station. Eventually I risked, and managed to get through the correct platform barrier. I often think there’s some logic that’s obvious to the locals and that somehow I’d missed. But actually I was make an even more grievous error the following morning.

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But this day I got to Estacio de Franca, and in the sun it’s a lovely district – a circuitous park, stunning architecture amid trees in blossom. Abundant art installations that don’t have to mean anything beyond their aesthetic appeal. And people soaking up the joys of spring, making me wish I could too.

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Barcelona is a city steeped in culture. Or maybe many. Not one I can fully grasp. Still, the night-time was sure to offer a different understanding.

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Despite the number of road crossings I was determined to get to the coast. Even in late March it seemed very tourist heavy. I began to feel self-conscious and slightly overdressed in trousers, casual, bordering on smart and long sleeve top even though the temp was no more than 18c, and most others were in long sleeves. I’m reluctant to reduce to T-shirt level unless it goes above 20c. But the sun made it feel more like UK summer. The beach was everything I could expect, soft sand bordered by palm trees and a gentle lapping white-frothed dark blue sea. But there was no way I was venturing onto it. Most of the people looked under thirty, one on his own taking a selfie; something i’d never do. (I wish the selfie camera was an optional extra rather than feeling that, because it’s there, I should use it.) Others, I guess locals, wearing clothes that seemed too warm for a Brit.

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Train back to Barcelona Sants; too early, really, for the hotel. But it turned out there was a problem with my ticket: the barrier machine rejected it. I only wanted to exit; I had a valid return ticket. A staff member told me I was supposed to stamp it at the destination! Stamp it where exactly – what machine? I was so irritated I didn’t even bother to ask, though she did seem surprised I was able to exit at de Franca. I’m sure there’s no puzzle at all for the regular traveller, but given this is a popular tourist area you shouldn’t have to figure out those quirks. UK stations only use ticket/barrier systems, the occasional inspector, and only one type of automated ticket vendor. So Britain’s system is not fare-dodge proof but at least it’s less likely to leave the foreign traveller irritated, and thus more likely to return.

Finally, she told me, “So you’ll remember to stamp it next time.”
Me: “There won’t be a next time!” Which I had meant at that moment. And it gave me a mild jolt of pleasure to see her dismay – whether or not it was genuine.

Shaking off my irritation, I had to think of the shopping mission, which involved a 2km walk to Lidl for something strong to drink. OK, mission sounds hyperbolic; it should be simple, but it wasn’t quite, not helped by a misleading offline map. It takes me a while to get used to crossing roads where motorists feel that stopping at a green crossing is not mandatory. I’d fear the driver with dark obsessive thoughts just as much as the distracted. The shop is far enough away from the tourist hub that staff are never going to bother speaking English – if they were able, but normally that isn’t a problem, until they are trying to tell you to do something (such as “can you move along so I can put the barrier across”). Spirits are so much cheaper than in the UK it seems like a no-brainer. We get to pay majority sin tax, which actually feels someway absolving. Never mind that it might one day kill me. My ideal checkout cashier is someone who’s disinterested enough in their job not to care that I’m a Brit alone wanting to get through a bottle of vodka.

Back in the hotel I contemplated the night ahead…

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