Dutch December trip

Three days in Amsterdam and the Hague before Christmas

img_3776The Dutch holiday season starts with the arrival of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piets in early December. We arrived a little later, to spend the last three days before Christmas in the holiday decorated streets of Amsterdam and The Hague. We went along canals with light shows, and we met both whimsical Santas and crowds of last-work-day-before-holiday-cheerful Dutchmen.

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We stayed in a friend’s apartment, centrally located but cold due to (typical Dutch) single glazing. Great views, though, to green parrots and lively cycling through Vondelspark. These noisy birds provide Holland with an exotic touch, although the temperature is as low as in Scandinavia.

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Another great thing about Holland is short distances. We took a train to The Hague for a few hours of nostalgic Christmas shopping and hot stroopwaffels at “the safe Royal Christmas Fair”. (Quote from a tourist guide; and how sad that safety has become a marketing word).

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Back in Amsterdam,  streets were crammed with tourists, and we pushed along the canals through narrow shopping streets. Result: Sore feet, should have used those bikes, kindly offered by our friend!

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One night, we went to De Hallen, which is an old tram station turned into food stalls with all kinds of food and drinks. We had Vietnamese springrolls, and in the crowd of happy Dutchmen we managed to poach a few seats at the bar. A small choir entertained with Christmas carols: The conductor was blind, the pianist had no legs, and their voices were not impressive, but they were a cheerful bunch.

img_3773We strolled through De Negen Straatjes  (nine streets) with little quirky shops and had a coffee, yes plain coffee, on our way back. Next morning, infected by the relaxed and cheerful Amsterdam atmosphere, loaded with clog slippers, kruidnoten (bisquits), and presents, we flew back home to celebrate Christmas in Denmark.

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Scenic Sorrento Peninsula and murky Naples

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End-of-season trip to Sorrento Peninsula and Naples

H.C. Andersen, Freud, and Goethe knew how to find good accommodation, without the use of Google: They have all visited Grand Hotel Cocumella, a former monastery and Latin grammar school in Saint’Agnello, a 10-minutes stroll from Sorrento. Cocumella has a lush convent garden, shady benches, and a large terrace with elevator down to a private sundeck (the elevator is probably a more recent invention).

Cocumella was our home for a week in October. It was fun to encounter two “countrymen” in the hotel book: H.C. Andersen and Vera. The first hardly needs introduction; the latter was built in 1880 as a fishing boat called Gertrud Marie in Svaneke, Denmark. Later, she was fitted out as a ketch, and she now belongs to the owners of Cocumella, who use her for guest excursions. Vera was in a shipyard during our stay, but another tall ship anchored just off the hotel garden.

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Pompeii and Vesuvius

It takes 1-1½ hours to drive from Cocumella to Naples. About halfway is Pompeii and Vesuvius. I recommend to take the coastal road, Via Sorrentina: It is more scenic, and you avoid three gloomy tunnels on road SS145, which gives you the feeling of carbon monoxide poisoning!

Pompeii is a ‘must see’ but patience is needed, as many sites are closed due to excavation and (overdue) maintenance. The Italians ought to have a ‘Clean up Vesuvius Day” to collect litter along the access road to the volcano. Our guidebook told of an incredible eyewitness report from the eruption in 79: The eyewitness claimed that the eruption had divided the water in the Gulf of Naples – almost like when Moses and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.

Naples

Naples is far from pretty. Our first impression was traffic chaos (it would probably had been better to take the train). Miraculously, we managed to find a ‘Quick – No Problem’ covered parking.

We visited Castel Nuovo and the famous Grand Café Gambrinus, where we had cake and ‘caffé alla nocciola’ (suggested by our guidebook). Interesting history, but no culinary treat. The cafe decor was impressive, though, with vaulted ceilings and chandeliers.

The narrow streets of the infamous Quartieri Spagnoli with laundry lines and plastic decorated balconies reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy, where families are tied together in fates of poverty, crime, and corruption. Nevertheless, we felt safe and did not have our wallets stolen!

Fried seafood was sold in paper cones everywhere, and we had to try it. Just as we started eating, it started to downpour. We found an outdoor cafe with plastic cover and sat glancing for a while at the rain-resistant tourists (mostly American), umbrella-selling immigrants, and numerous police patrols before heading back to Cocumella.

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Amalfi Coast

A firm hold on the steering wheel is recommended when driving from Sorrento across the peninsula to the Amalfi coast. Also, try not to be too distracted by chili booths, dramatic cliffs, and glitter blue sea on the way.

Amalfi town lies at the mouth of a deep ravine. It is small, charming, and touristy. The cathedral is surprisingly large and beautifully decorated inside, with multiple floors built into the cliff.

We drove on, up to the charming Ravello village which is somewhat hidden – in the old days because of pirates – and thus less touristy. We came looking for a specific restaurant recommended by our hosts, but we ended up at the Belmond Hotel Caruso with sunset views, festive drinks and delicious food.

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Sorrento

Also Sorrento offered nice dining, except for Syrenuse on the main square which we left quickly! We sneaked past the guard into the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, to end the night on their terrace, where we enjoyed the passionate house musician and his 70s hits!

October was a perfect time to visit Sorrento: Less tourists, a few showers, and unabated Mediterranean atmosphere with lemon trees, views of Vesuvius, pizzerias, and shops offering citronella, ceramics, and naughty-shaped pasta!

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Singapore: More than a staging post

First impressions of Singapore and a few tips

kirstenbukager_singaporemorethanastopover1To me, Singapore used to be little more than a staging post on journeys to e.g. Australia. I imagined a city-state dominated by skyscrapers and container ships, with expat enclaves as the only touch of greenery.

Then, I grabbed an opportunity to spend a long weekend there with my husband. After a 12 hours fairly comfortable journey from Denmark with Singapore Airways, I landed Friday morning in Changi Airport and walked through the spacious, sparkling, and clearly signed (in English) arrivals hall. My husband received me in The Fullerton Hotel which used to be the general post office. Fullerton spoiled us with sumptuous breakfast, good service, and a pool with city view.

Modern, traditional, efficient, safe

kirstenbukager_singaporemorethanastopover1Singapore is a mixture of daring and often successful skyscraper architecture (except Marina Bay Sands Skypark below, which made me think of a stranded whale) and beautifully restored colonial buildings.kirstenbukager_singaporemorethanastopover7

Infrastructure is efficient, and we felt completely safe, not because of visible police patrol, on the contrary: It seemed to have more to do with social control. Yes, we had heard the story about giant fines for throwing gum on the street. And indeed, some public signs were bombastic, like the one at a water reservoir in Fort Canning Park, illustrating how trespassers would be shot!  Some argue the police are present in civil. No matter how they do it, it appears to work.

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Multicultural and accommodating

The street scene is multicultural, dominated by Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Sometimes, we felt like walking from one world to another within few meters: Chinatown is indeed Chinese, with red and gold-colored temples, including the huge Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, colorful houses, and markets offering all sorts of knick-knacks.

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Likewise, Little India is Indian. We were there for the Diwali holiday, and streets were teeming with Indian men hanging out, chatting and waiting – we guessed – for their wives to prepare the feast at home.

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We found out about Diwali by accident: After noticing several girls with henna decorated hands, I asked a one, a saleswoman in a department store, if there was a special occasion? She told us about Diwali and how it is a celebration of light with treats and gifts similar to Christmas.

kirstenbukager_singaporemorethanastopover14At the hindu temple Sri Mariamman, we took our shoes off and went in. Walking among the colorful statues, we appreciated the openness and relaxed atmosphere, with no locked doors, no admission fee, and no dress codes.

Flower power and hawker food

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Normally, I would not include a botanical garden on a city break. But, Gardens by the Bay was worthwhile. The cool (!) greenhouses contained all kinds of plants and sculptures, and the ‘Super Trees’, which are 25-50 meters high tree enlightened structures, were impressive. And this was not even Singapore’s “real” Botanic Gardens, which is located near the main shopping belt.

kirstenbukager_singaporemorethanastopover9Hawker centres (footstalls) were also on our bucket list. They turned out to be less street-style compared to food stalls we have seen in other Asian countries: No battered plastic chairs on the roadside,  but well organized buildings with fixed stalls, covered seating and cleanup teams. In Lau Pa Sat we tried different stalls and dishes, and satay came out a winner.

White Raffles far from the beach

The colonial-style luxury hotel Raffles was established by Armenians in 1887, and to us it looked like a refuge for white tourists: They all went for the long bar or the outdoor courtyard bar, to try the notorious “sling” cocktail (both before and after noon).

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We struggled a bit to find Raffles, because my husband recalled it as being situated on the waterfront  (from his last visit 30 years ago). His memory did not fail: A waiter told us it was originally built as a beach house, but since then the city has reclaimed so much land that Raffles is now surrounded by skyscrapers and busy roads.

Night Safari, no thanks

For some strange reason, Night Safari had climbed the top sight list in our guidebook. It sounded a bit family-zoo-like, but we took a chance and a taxi. Half an hour later, we were seated in an outdoor amphitheater watching a show we could have done without: A shouting host and some poor animals (including serval, owl, and otter) that were carried or lured into the spotlight.

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Been there, done that, no pictures! Far more enjoyable was to stroll along the Singapore river at night and watch the color lit-up bridges and neon signs. Every evening at eight o’clock riverboats flocked in front of the Marina Bay Sands to watch a 15-minute light and water show. We followed a tip from a friend and went for the rooftop bar Smoke & Mirrors on top of the Old Supreme Court Building: The view from the terrace was so gorgeous that we stayed for several drinks and had delicious bites (but don’t stay if you are starving).

Hidden hardship and rich cultural life

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We found Singapore beaming with affluence, trade, and low taxes, and although we did not see any beggars, we could not help wonder about welfare? From Denmark we know that a broad-reaching welfare system is expensive. According to BBC and AsiaOne, there is no welfare provision in Singapore along the lines of many developed Western economies, and both media have brought stories about Singapore citizens depending on charity. It seems the backside of beautiful Singapore is poor people living behind closed doors.

kirstenbukager_singaporemorethanastopover12Welfare provision may be inadequate, but free cultural experiences are plentiful. On our first day we noticed scenes were set up, and we thought it was because of Diwali. But it continued, every day new scenes popped up while others were taken down, and there was free access to various theater and music performances in the colonial district. Nice tourist experience, but also slightly thought-provoking.

Summing up main reasons for (not) visiting Singapore

kirstenbukager_singaporemorethanastopover18For a Westerner, Singapore is probably the easiest Asian country to visit: People are friendly and English-speaking, infrastructure is top class, streets are clean and safe, no vaccinations are needed, and the range of goods is excellent. For some travelers, however, these might be the exact reasons why they would skip Singapore: The city is not all that adventurous, and it might remind them too much of their home country. Furthermore, living costs are just as high as in Europe, and the welfare system is not impressive.

kirstenbukager_singaporemorethanastopover17However, I would not mind going back for another visit, and to Singapore’s advantage I must say that – albeit on a small scale – it has all the exotic colors, smells, sounds, and tastes of Asia. It is like a multicultural stock cube!

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Six reasons to travel to France

French coffee

After spending time in the US, I appreciate even more French strong coffee! Cups are small (especially espresso) but the flavor is rich! And I like the fact that you seldom have to walk more than a block to find a café in a French city.

Breakfast included

Another good thing about being a tourist in France is that breakfast is normally included in room rate. Of course, prices are adjusted accordingly, but it feels nice to be able to attack the breakfast buffet without considering how much extra it will cost me.

Cheese!

Speaking of breakfast, no French breakfast buffet without at least two to three different types of cheese: Not the child-friendly sliced cheese, but regional specialities of e.g. brie or goat cheese. One time, on a road trip in England, I stayed in a small hotel with a very nice restaurant. I couldn’t find any cheese at the breakfast buffet, so I ask a waiter if they might have a little bit of cheese. “Sure” replied the waiter, and brought me a big sandwich with grated cheddar! English and French culinary traditions clearly differ.

Spacious cities with grandeur

French cities have “grandeur”  with broad tree-lined boulevards, avenues and grand places (squares) that  leave room for cafés and street life. And cathedrals and castles amplify the character of French cities and arouse curiosity anyone interested in history.

Shopping: Diversity and quality

A friend with strong French ties once told me she buys all her clothes and personal care products in France, because she finds the variety greater and quality better than anywhere else. I think she has a point: Just go for a walk in Nice e.g. in the Jean-Medécin area, and you will find small shops with products unlike the established branded stores that dominate the street scape in most European city centers.

You get to practice French

This is true if you avoid major cities and the most popular vacation spots. In the countryside, you rarely find French people who speak English, and restaurant menus are in French only. Here your French language skills – no matter how basic – will come in handy.

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48 hours in Nice and Monaco

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