Relaxing in The Netherlands

Holland is a fascinating country. My family and I have been going there for years, usually spending a week or so there in the Spring. Whenever I tell people that I am off to the Netherlands they utter an interested “Oh!” but I am sure that what they are really thinking is “Why?”!

IMGP0012.JPGWe spend our Spring break in the south of the province of Zeeland, in an area that borders Belgium and which was until very recently separated from the rest of the country by the mighty Schelde river.  The opening of a 6km vehicle tunnel in 2003 beneath the Schelde at the town of Terneuzen, brought huge economic benefits to the area. On a map, Zeeland looks like a collection of islands jutting out into the North Sea, which appear to be joined to the rest of the country by the most tenuous of links. In truth, this part of the Netherlands does indeed have a tenuous grip on the land, much of it having been reclaimed from the water by sheer force of will and human ingenuity. These tracts of land are known as polders and maintaining the dikes and the drainage systems, the sea defences and the canals, is a national preoccupation.

From time to time, the sea reasserts itself (and we will no doubt see more of this across the world as low-lying lands will be the first to be hit by climate change and rising sea levels). The last major incident was in January 1953, when a storm surge in the North Sea led to the deaths of 2,551 people, including 1,836 in the Netherlands, and 326 in eastern England and Scotland. A total of 9% of Dutch farmland was under water. (See the images below of exhibits from the wonderful Watersnoodsmuseum in Ouwekerk.)

I have only known about the 1953 flood since 2002, when we first started going to this part of the Netherlands, and every year I have learned more and am increasingly fascinated not only by the history of this and similar events, but also by the relationship the country has with the sea and mor widely with nature. Much of the landscape of Zeeland is man-made, many of the beaches where we have spent some glorious sunny days have been created, but I find there is a greater harmony between human enterprise and nature and an immense respect for the natural world that I have seen in few other places.

 

From where we stay in the village of Hoofdplaat, in the area known as West-Zeeuws Vlanderen (nearest town is Breskens), we are within cycling distance of many pretty Dutch towns. We are also driving distance from the Belgian towns of  Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, even Brussels. Amsterdam and Rotterdam are even do-able on a day trip.

Our annual trip to the Netherlands is one of the most relaxing and energising weeks of my year. The biggest problem is returning to gridlocked England and making the snail’s-pace journey back up to the north via the M25 and M6. As for the potholes…! Something you seldom see on Dutch roads. I recommend Zeeland for a relaxing break…just don’t tell anybody. Please.

Which places do you find most relaxing? What quality is it that creates that feeling for you?

 

East London treasures

I spent a weekend in east London over the half term holiday. I was doing some research for a book that I’m working on and wanted to visit the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, examining relevant documents, photographs and records. The staff there were fantastically helpful and knowledgeable and if you have any family connection with the area I definitely recommend paying them a visit.

East London is fascinating and historic, and if you are planning to visit the capital I would encourage you to spend some time there. It is less crowded than the more touristy beaten track, and a good deal less pricey, both for accommodation and food. Here are some of my tips for places you should definitely include on your next trip:

Whitechapel Art Gallery

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Stunning modern art and sculpture. It was the first publicly-funded gallery in London for contemporary art. It now incorporates the former Passmore Edwards library, which you can see to the right of the gallery entrance. Free entry.

The V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green

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Another stunning museum, displaying toys and other child-related goods through the ages. There are always different activities and changing exhibitions on, as well as talks and workshops. Also free entry.

The Ragged School Museum

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I haven’t visited this one myself yet as its opening hours are somewhat limited, but I’ve heard it’s a great experience, giving visitors a taste of a Victorian school pupil’s life. Definitely on my must see list. Admission free.

 

 

A day’s walk around the area will be enough to give you a sense of the history of this part of London. Don’t miss the following:

Mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street, 1936

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Stunning mural on the side of St George’s Vestry Hall. It commemorates the Battle of Cable Street which took place in 1936 when demonstrators protested against a march by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists through this area, which had a large and well-established Jewish community. Mosley abandoned his attempt to pass along this route.

The Parish Church of St George’s in the East

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Stunning parish church which was built in the early 18th century

Wilton’s Music Hall

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Opened in the mid-19th century Wilton’s was a popular and well-known music hall venue, but poverty and war in the 20th century saw it fall into dereliction and used for other purposes, including a soup kitchen. It is now Grade II listed and gradually being restored and remains a thriving arts venue.

 

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The former Church of St Augustine and St Philip in Newark Street, amidst the vast complex of the London Hospital, now houses the university medical library, but in the crypt you will find a fascinating public museum which tells you about the history of ‘the London’ and the establishment of the NHS more generally.

St Dunstan’s Church

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Beautiful church, parts of which date back to the 14th century, that was one of the few buildings in the area largely unaffected by bombing in the area in World War II.

Tower Hamlets cemetery park

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Resting place for over 350,000 souls (mostly in unmarked public graves) it is now a vast nature reserve with a very active network of Friends which works hard to preserve the heritage of the site and make it an enjoyable local amenity. Stunning, peaceful and very moving.

I’d love to hear your recommendations for gems of east London. 

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The Top 10 things I love about Lisbon

So, our wonderful holiday in Portugal has come to an end. After a week of rest and relaxation on the Silver Coast (near Obidos) we headed for a few days in the country’s capital, Lisbon, a city I have been wanting to visit for years. It did not disappoint. More compact and lower key than some other European capitals it comes in at number nine on TripAdvisor’s top European destinations, ahead of the likes of arguably more famous places like Amsterdam, Venice, Florence and Edinburgh. Excluding our arrival and departure days, we were there for four full days, and there was far more to do than we could squeeze in. The high August temperatures (mostly exceeding 30 degrees Celsius during the day) and the peak time crowds made sightseeing more challenging than it might be at other times of the year, which perhaps slowed us up a bit. Other people (and those without kids) might be able to pack more in. We were not in a hurry (we are determined to go back again anyway!) and spent a lot of time just watching the world go by in cafes, bars and restaurants. Here are the top 10 things I love about Lisbon:

1. The views

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Lisbon is a city of hills. There are many opportunities to get a higher perspective of the city and the surrounding area, including plenty of  well signposted Miradouros (viewpoints).

2. Castelo de Sao Jorge

2017-08-20 13.34.46This ancient fortress up on a hill is a potted Portugese history lesson. It’s fabulous and from here you can get a panoramic view of the city. You take the antique Tram 28 to reach it. Aside from the main site I recommend the tour of the ancient archaeological area (above, where they have found evidence of habitation as far back as the Iron Age) which is generally under-attended, and is fascinating because you get to see and understand exactly how people have lived in and used the fortress over the centuries.

3. Museu de Farmacia

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Quirky museum by day, bar and restaurant by night with some fab cocktails (both with and without alcohol), imaginatively served. See above, #Elixir, #Oxymetazol, Vinho Verde (see 6), and we-won’t-rip-you-off-by-making-you-buy-bottled-water H2O (see 4).

4. It’s relatively good value

I grew up in London, but haven’t lived there for 20 years now. When I go back as a visitor I am struck by the hugely inflated prices compared to the rest of the country. Sadly, this is true of many major cities. Lisbon, indeed, Portugal as a whole, does not fleece its tourists. Long may it last. Food, drinks, travel, entry prices all seem reasonable, even in the light of Sterling’s weakness against the Euro.

5. The Waterfront

We took many an evening stroll along the waterfront, where there was a great buzz. The stunning Praca do Comercio (above right) looks majestically out over the River Tejo. It lies at the foot of the area of Chiado, the main shopping and commercial hub of the city.

6. Vinho Verde

The so-called Portugese ‘green wine’ is very drinkable indeed, and ridiculously cheap for the quality!

7. Cascais

Golden beaches are less than half an hour by train (for 2 Euro!) from the city centre. The husband took the two girls for the day and had a fantastic time. A great escape if the sightseeing is getting too much!

8. Fish

To see? At the amazing Oceanarium on the Expo site to the north of the city – did you know that a cuttlefish looked like this?

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To eat? Fantastic fish is served everywhere, and Mr Cuttlefish is very tasty as well as cute! Cacilhas, a suburb of the city just a short hop across the river seems to be almost entirely made up of fish restaurants.

9. Pastellaria

If you have a sweet tooth, expect to be well-supplied in Portugal. From the delicious Pastel de Natas (ubiquitous small custard tarts) to Macarons (below) you will find much to choose from in the many small cafes and bakeries serving fine coffee and cakes.

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10. The people

Portugese people are warm, kind, laid-back and welcoming. The language is very different to Spanish and most visitors will not have even a smattering of Portugese, I suspect (though it’s a fascinating language and I’m determined to learn a little before I go again). The natives don’t seem to mind, however, and most speak excellent English. Lisboans seem quietly proud of their city and so they should be. As such, they are delighted to help you and keen that you as a visitor should have a great experience in their city.

If you have been to Lisbon I would love to hear what your highlights were. 

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