Tuesday, 31 March 2015

8 reasons to visit the Netherlands - without going to Amsterdam

8 reasons to visit Holland and not go anywhere near Amsterdam
“You’re going back to the Netherlands?”
“Isn’t it a bit boring?”
“Amsterdam is great but the rest is flat and uninteresting, isn’t it?”
 “I’ve been to Amsterdam, but I’ve never thought about going to the rest of the Netherlands.”
These are the kinds of responses I received when I told friends I was returning to the Netherlands. It has become a love affair for me. Me who’s always gravitated towards mountains is now enchanted by this flat, flat country. And I’m not bothered about going anywhere near Amsterdam. Here’s why.
1.       Great cycling
This is the thing. Cycling is civilised in the Netherlands. You can go off-road without worrying about getting a flat tyre because the cycle paths are surfaced. This also means more speed.  Neither do you need to worry about being knocked off your bike by a lorry, sprayed by a car on a rainy day, deafened by traffic or choked by exhaust fumes. And where there are no cycle paths, the roads are quiet. Plus the cyclist has priority. The routes are surprisingly varied and interesting too. There are undulating dunes; coastal forest; roadside canals; country lanes in the polders; wetlands, dykes and seawalls, plus pretty towns and villages – all with plenty of cafés and restaurants along the way for  a pit stop.
2.       Great beaches
Wide, white beaches that stretch out for miles - the Netherlands has some of the best beaches in Europe. I’ve not been in summer yet, but even in autumn and winter the beaches are busy with walkers, kite flyers and land yachters. The Dutch love the outdoors and a bit of cold weather doesn’t put them off. Then there are the beach pavilions …
3.       Beach café culture - the strandpaviljoen
From the land, the beaches are hidden from sight because of the soaring dykes, so opening a café with a view isn’t easy. The solution? Build the café right out on the beach. Almost every beach in the Netherlands has the ubiquitous ‘strandpaviljoen.’  Built into the dunes or right out on the sand on stilts, the beach pavilions have shabby-chic sophistication, beach-hut cool and New England style, combining casual soft furnishings, distressed furniture and decorations of candles, pebbles, shells and driftwood. Not only do the beach cafés look good, they also serve good food and a decent selection of Dutch beer. And how about a beach pub crawl? We stayed near Callantsoog, where there were three beach pavilions side by side. Crawling through the sand a few yards, with the sea roaring in your ear, is much more appealing than crawling through hard and dirty city streets!
4.       Islands
Yes, islands. The Wadden Sea islands stretch out a trail of droplets above the mainland: Texel (pronounced Tezel by the locals), Vieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog (with a few sandbars in between).  In the summer the boats plough across to the islands from the mainland, and from one island to the next. This trip, I only visited Texel, but I can’t wait to return in the summer so I can island-hop with my bicycle. Texel is a mini Netherlands, with the best of the Dutch landscape compacted into a small area: shoreline and seawall, coastal woodland, mountainous dunes, long, golden beaches and wetlands packed cheek-to-jowl with waders – which brings me to the birdlife.
5.       Birdlife
Black storks, gannets, spoonbills, oystercatchers, ducks of all descriptions, Northern lapwings, greenshanks and redshanks. I’d never seen so many birds packed into one small area as I did on Texel. And the large number of over-wintering birds was striking on the mainland as well. Because of the flatness of the land, your eye is level with the sky – and the birds that inhabit it. I’m not a twitcher, but because the birds in the Netherlands are always in your line of vision, you become more aware of them – crossing  in front of you, swooping and curving into constantly changing patterns; migrating to feeding grounds.
6.       Charming towns and villages
So Amsterdam is charming with its tall narrow buildings (a building tradition that came about because the Dutch were taxed according to the width of their houses) lining the canals and the narrow streets. And of course, there are the equally charming sit-up-and-beg bikes that come in every shape, colour and size. Actually this describes most towns in the Netherlands: Try the historical towns of Middelburg, Goes and Zierikzee in Zeeland, Alkmaar in North Holland or Utrecht in its eponymous province for starters, but every part of the Netherlands has its share of historical towns and villages. Check out the old fishing villages on the Markermeer and the Ijsselmeer. Then there’s the Netherlands’ answer to Venice – the car-less Giethoorn, a village of canals, boats and thatched cottages.
7.       Language heaven
Almost everyone speaks English - and probably another couple of languages for good measure. When I ask the Dutch whether they’d like me to speak in German or English, they often shrug their shoulders and say they don’t mind. I usually speak German for the practise, but the Giethoorn waiter was very disappointed that I’d run out of languages after English and German. He’d hoped to show off his French, Spanish and Arabic. While Dutch people feel obliged to learn a bit of the language when they go somewhere new on holidays (the same waiter told me), my understanding of Dutch is at best receptive. But it’s great fun working it out as it’s a halfway house between German and English.
8.       Koffie en Koek
I’ve never had a bad cup of coffee in the Netherlands and the apple cake, standard in most Dutch cafés, is second to none.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Haunted by a smile at Auschwitz

There is row upon row of photographs lining the walls of one of the barracks blocks at Auschwitz I. Face after face along the length of the building; both sides. These photographs were taken at least two years before Auschwitz was liberated - before the SS speeded up its killing machine; when the Nazis neither had the time nor the inclination to photograph each prisoner or record their details. When the trains from all across Europe headed straight for the crematoriums.
Like everything at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the sheer numbers make it hard to see beyond the mass of humanity to the individual lives: the mother, the father, the sister or brother; the lover, the colleague, the resistance fighter and the defiant; the quiet and unassuming; the meek and mild. Behind each photographed face is a story, a narrative cut short – reduced to a few details beneath the picture: a name, a nationality, a date of birth and deportation… and the date of death.
As I walk along the corridor, I gaze at the photographs of the women, masculine in appearance with their cropped hair, striped prison uniforms and identification tags, all gazing into a camera with expressionless faces.
Helena Bargiel stands out from all the other women. She causes me to stop in my tracks, and leaves me wondering why her picture is so compelling. Then I realise what it is that makes her stand out from all the others. She is smiling. This is a photograph that could have been taken by a friend, or someone in her family. As Helena stares into the camera, her face is open and confident and filled with optimism and strength. And I wonder what her story is.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is as flat as the polders of the Netherlands, the land stretching out to the woods in the far distance.  Beneath the winter ice and snow, the land is punctuated with watch towers and the remaining brick columns and gables of the bombed barracks blocks. In between, the metal ribbons of barbed wire are strung out across the frozen wastes. Just before the woods, the bombed crematoriums lie in tatters beside the ash ponds, the Nazis' attempt to conceal the damning evidence as the Russians approached.
 In the other direction the railway tracks lead the eye in to the death gate. It’s the landmark people most associate with Auschwitz, along with the cynical ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work will make you free) entrance gate at Auschwitz I. I walk the path taken by those selected for the crematorium - the young, the old and the weak - but I have no idea what it was like to be in their shoes.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is as flat as the polders of the Netherlands and a place of mountains: a mountain of empty Giftgas canisters (zyklon B); a mountain of wire spectacles and circles of glass; a mountain of shoes; a mountain of shaving brushes and enamel bowls and jugs; a mountain of suitcases and a mountain of hair.  The individual lives of so many people are heaped into singular mounds, and it’s this I find the most distressing. In the mountain of suitcases, I find solace in the individual names neatly painted onto the lids: Franz Engel, Klara Goldstein, Marie Kafka, Leon Singer and Paul Gelbkopf. But even at that, the individual names are just that: I don’t know their stories - and what makes each person identified on the suitcase an individual human being.
As we stand beside the collapsed crematoriums, the sun pale and shadowy in the snow-filled sky, our guide says: The Auschwitz prisoners resisted every day. They resisted death, fought to stay alive, organised food, supported the weak and the dying, holding onto the day when they would be liberated – when they could go back to their families and their homes. But the few who were finally liberated, realised on leaving Auschwitz that they had lost everything: their families, their homes and their lives. There was nothing left. Nothing.
Back home, I try to find out more about Helena.  Her photograph tells me her prison number is 32099; that she was a Pole born on the 2nd of March 1916; deported on the 29th January 1943 and dead by the 14th October 1943, still in her twenties.  Online I find her name hidden in among the long list of names beginning with B, as recorded by the German officials at Auschwitz. I learn that she came from Nowy Sacz southeast of Krakow and that she was a Catholic. That’s it. Nothing more. So I imagine narratives for her to match the strength in her face; imagine she was a member of the Polish resistance, or that she had hidden a Jew. In truth, she may just have been taken to Auschwitz for more ‘banal’ reasons - simply because she was a Pole and therefore an ‘Untermensch’ - a person of inferior race.
But as far as I can tell, Helena’s story is lost for ever, like so many others in the ‘mountains of Auschwitz.’
1.1   Million people (possibly more) died at Auschwitz
1 million of the victims were Jewish.
70-75,000 non-Jewish Poles died at Auschwitz
Today Auschwitz-Birkenau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (lest we forget)
This year is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau
First published on Wanderlust online magazine on my Freewheeling blog, 8th February 2015