Saturday, April 28, 2007

19 Walking again

Bospad near Nunspeet
other photos:
April 3-7: Leerdam-Buren
April 7-11: Buren-Ochten
April 11-15: Ochten-Wyler
April 15-18: Beek, Apeldoorn, Amsterdam
April 20-21: Leidsenveen, Amsterdam, Hardewijk
April 23-25: Apeldoorn
April 26-27: Zuider Zeepad

Apeldoorn, April 28--

It can't be more than twenty kilometers to Nunspeet, as the crow flies -- a dozen miles or so -- but ground transportation has yet to reach the efficiency of the common crow. The bus goes once an hour, and even then you have to change in Elspeet. We missed the bus yesterday, through our own fault, so I decided to ask the girl at the train counter what might be our best alternative.

Of course the train people don't have information, or even opinions, about the buses -- one of the flaws of the ground transportation system. So she simply looked up the route on her computer: train to Deventer, change to train to Zwolle, change to train to Nunspeet, one hour.

Sounds good, I said; it'll be an hour before the next bus even leaves from here. So she sold us the tickets. Our train was scheduled to leave in two minutes, so we rushed to the platform. But, alas -- and heelas, the "h" sounded, is an increasingly common word in Dutch -- our train was seven minutes late. This caused us to miss the next train, for the entire rail system in The Netherlands is scheduled on the assumption that trains will always be on time.

That was a good system in the old days, but late trains are increasingly common, helaas; The Netherlands could use a bit of a Mussolini. I asked a conductor on the Deventer train platform about this, having plenty of time for idle conversation. Why are late trains increasingly common? This is a small country, he said, and there are too many trains. And then they get old, and things break down. And the system is increasingly complex, and that gives opportunity for increasingly common breakdowns and failures.

His English was very good, and he spoke with that measured, logical, patient manner I associate with a certain Dutch temperament: practical, resigned, correct but aware of imperfections.

I left him in his conversation with two other railroad officials and walked down the platform. A nice-looking young man approached me to practice his English: You were on the train from Apeldoorn, isn't it? Are you going to Zwolle as well?

He turned out to be from Kabul. I'm going to Zwolle to take a toost, a test I mean, he explained, and now we will be late, but fortunately I put in half an hour extra in the event.

His test was in Dutch, a language he finds difficult. In Afghanistan my English was good, he said in good English, but now I am losing it, and I can not speak Dutch well, and I need it if I am to get status. (Residence status, he meant.) English is easy, its grammar is like Farsi, we use the same times and numbers (tenses and genders, I think he meant); but Dutch is different, they leave out words that are needed, and put in others that don't mean anything, and you never really know what the time is.

I apologized for what our country had done to his. He looked grave. It is not your country, he said, it is very complex, first the Russians, then the Taliban who are Pakistani, our neighbors do not want our country to be successful. It is very complex.

I got the feeling that if it were left to young men like him these very complex situations could be resolved -- or at lest the beginning of a resolution could be achieved. But he was not persuaded. Politics are very complex, he said, and politicians are impatient and stubborn. He himself was studying medicine, but just as I was about to ask what branch, and why, and why and how he had chosen to come to The Netherlands, our train appeared -- meticulously on time -- and we lost sight of one another.

At Zwolle we had two minutes to change trains -- our train was waiting patiently on its platform -- and we rode past twenty kilometers or so of firing range on the Oldebroekse Heath to Nunspeet, arriving at noon.

We were here to resume our walk. We came to this country at the beginning of April determined to resume our Dutch walks, and as you've seen the first two weeks were successful in that respect, covering a good piece of central Netherlands. But there is one long-distance walking-path I'm determined to complete, the Zuider Zeepath, and I'd hoped to get in a few stages of it while we're here.

These walking paths are designed and maintained by an association that also publishes detailed guidebooks, with topographic maps, descriptions of the routes, photographs, and historical notes. The paths themselves are indicated by white-and-red strips, pasted to lampposts or gates, or painted on trees or occasionally on buildings. By and large you can depend on these, in our experience, but I had trouble these last couple of days, partly because the guidebook I'm using is an old edition, partly because it's hot and I grow impatient or careless, but partly also because on these stages of the ZZpad the white-and-red strips are few and far between, the descriptions now and then a little careless (a couple of times actually stating "right" when "left" is clearly meant), or because the route has been changed.

The stages are each usually about five kilometers long, and try to begin and end at or near a bus or train station. But here again we were in trouble, as this part of the Veluwe -- the region of The Netherlands we're pretty well centered in -- is very sparsely settled. Much of the terrain is in forest or heath. There are plenty of roads, some of them hundreds of years old: but they're mostly unpaved and closed to traffic. The walking is beautiful and comfortable, but amenities are few and far between.

And, to tell the truth, we're a little out of shape. You get into shape by walking every day, and you stay in shape the same way. It's a good ten days since we last put on our packs, and even though mine is no longer 11 kilograms, and Lindsey's is on the floor in our bedroom, these last two days of walking have been hard. We walked about ten miles each day, and by the end of each day we were beat.

Curiously for a walk called the Zuider Zeepad -- the "South Sea path" -- we saw the water only at the end of the second day, for LAW, the Long Distance Wandering Association, sees fit to swing away from the old Zuider Zee coast in this stretch, to give the walker an idea of the history and terrain that made that sea so important. It was central to the shipping lanes of the Hanseatic League, which was something of the World Trade Organization of its day, shipping dried and smoked fish from the cod- and herring-beds of the Atlantic to inland countries, notably Germany, in return for grains and other commodities.

The main shipping ports were of course coastal, but river traffic was as significant as saltwater shipping: relatively sleepy Dutch cities like Deventer, Zutphen, and Roermond were Hanseatic towns, just like Oslo and Hamburg and Stockholm.

And subsidiary roads sprang up overland for quick communication between nearby ports. Here in Gelderland especially, where relatively flat terrain, fortunately crisscrossed by ridges left by Ice-Age glaciers, stood between the Zuider Zeecoast ports -- Kampen, Hardwijk, Spakenburg -- and the river ports: Zwolle, Deventer, Arnhem.

It's hard to walk these roads without thinking of the foot-traffice they must have seen hundreds of years ago. And it's hard to walk through these forests, some of them still quite dense, without thinking of journeying tradesmen and soldiers. The cities and villages were the known world, to the people who lived within their walls and fences; the woods were wild and unpredictable. And until fairly recently there were wolves and, our guidebook solemnly assures us, werewolves, the wolves to keep down the deer population and to keep sheep and calves and human children in line; the werewolves to instill a fear of the unknown in the impressionable.

* * *

It's so hot this April that I keep thinking of the dreadful summer that must be waiting a few months away. I keep getting the eerie feeling that this spring must be like that of 1914, that some dreadful calamity is in the wings. We're at one end of an improbable stretch of years, from the late 1940s until now, when peace and industry, art and education, travel and understanding have pretty well triumphed in Europe. The World Wars of the 20th century never seem far away here, though, and walking these paths, with the history lessons they and our guidebook provide, bring even more distant calamities near.

Yesterday we walked from Nunspeet to Doornspjk and then, on a long graspad or grass-path atop a dike, to the "coast" -- where the coast of the Zuider Zee had been, until that entire sea was erased in the 1930s by the Afsluitdijk, which made possible the draining and "reclamation" of much of the center of this country. At the coast we came out at Oudekerk on a farmstead with perhaps three houses, one awaiting a new thatch roof; and, right at the edge of the land, the footprint of the St. Ludgeruskerk, which was built about a millennium ago, enlarged several times, but finally destroyed in the terrible storm of 1825, when the Zuider Zee erupted in a catastrophic spring-flood.

Our guidebook reproduces an engraving of the event: "St. Ludgeruskerk toneel van nood en jammer ("shown in need and sorrow") in 1825." It's a harrowing sight; and it's difficult to consider it without thinking of the consequences of global warming and a consequent rise of sea level.

I've brought this subject up from time to time in conversation here, but I must say the Dutch, at least those I meet, seem unconcerned. They've always managed, though there have been plenty of disasters, even recent ones. We'll build the dikes higher, many say. Others suggest a different response: higher dikes, when they ultimately fail, will only subject the lowlands to an even larger quantity of water. The problem isn't so much a higher sea level as an increase in runoff from the rivers: and the answer, some say, is to broaden the riverbeds, let reclaimed land revert to wetlands.

It's a complex subject, like all social engineering. Everything in this country requires a good deal of thought, even more discussion, a fair amount of time apparently spent in delays and negotiations, and then careful and well-planned action -- which ultimately, of course, provides more complexity and unexpected problems, leading to yet another cycle of thought and discussion and negotiation.

There's not much in this country that isn't made by man. Even these heaths and forests, while prepared by glacial activity eons ago, are planted, harvested, neglected, hunted, exploited over the centuries. We walk past burial mounds that date back to the Stone Age, on roads dating from medieval times, under river-bluffs whose military strategic value was known to the Roman Empire. It's all rather humbling; and ever so fascinating.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

18 Give is a good girl; grab is a bad one

Anneke's green beans and tomatos
other photos:
April 3-7: Leerdam-Buren
April 7-11: Buren-Ochten
April 11-15: Ochten-Wyler
April 15-18: Beek, Apeldoorn, Amsterdam
April 20-21: Leidsenveen, Amsterdam, Hardewijk

Apeldoorn, April 26--

Looking over the recent photos, I find there are a couple of new restaurants to write about -- both for their own sakes, and for what they have to say about the business in general -- and human attitudes in general.

First, though:


Monday night we went to the Apeldoorn music-and-theater center, Orpheus, to hear Frans Bruggen lead the Amsterdam Conservatory Orchestra in a Schubert concert. The publicity had promised the symphonies no. 7 and 8, and I was excited: I assumed we would be hearing the neglected symphony in E major, reconstructed a number of years ago by the conductor Felix Weingartner -- a delicious piece that I've never heard live (and haven't heard otherwise for years, as my tape has long since disappeared).

Oddly, when we picked up our programs at the concert hall and saw they were in fact playing the Unfinished and the "Great" C Major -- numbered 7 in the old days, but re-numbered as 9 many years ago -- I was just as excited. The Ninth is, in my view of things (which is strictly personal), as perfect a symphony as has ever been written. True: this was an orchestra of students. But it stood to reason they'd be unusually advanced students, and Bruggen is a conductor of great interest.

I first knew of him, forty years ago, as a recorder virtuoso, one dedicated as much to contemporary, even avant-garde music for that instrument, as he was to the historic repertoire. Years ago he matured into a conductor, though; and his work with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century has done much to revitalize that repertory. We heard him with that orchestra years ago in The Hague, on an exciting evening, and we were sure this evening would be up to that memory.

After dinner -- a delicious one that Anneke cooked: home Dutch cooking: green beans with tomatoes and mushrooms (my mother would have left out the mushrooms: I prefer Anneke's version); Dutch beefsteak, cooked well-done and served with brown gravy and potatoes -- we mostly walked to Orpheus. At this hour in Apeldoorn the twilight is taking its own sweet time; the birds are still calling; ditto the church-bells. We stepped out of this twilight into the foyer, with a nice little restaurant along one side, comfortable chairs and tables at the café and a desk with a display of CDs, presided over by two clerks from the downtown music store.

Lindsey pointed out one of them as the clerk I'd bought a CD from a few days ago. (She has a much better memory for faces than do I.) I joked with him about the Symphony no. 7-Symphony no. 9 problem. No, he said, no Number Seven tonight, and no Weingartner either. You should buy the album, he said, pointing to a four CD set of all the Schubert symphonies (except the elusive no. 7) with Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century: only 30 euros; four CDs. I resisted. I may regret that.

Then we took our seats. The big hall at Orpheus, the one used for symphony concerts, seats about 1300 people, and has excellent acoustics. The orchestra was already on stage, playing that piece of mine I always love to hear, the one where everyone is working at whatever it is that concerns them at the moment -- the first oboe, for example, playing solos from the Mahler Ninth.

A good-sized orchestra; first and second violins at opposite sides of the stage; no risers; young musicians.

Then Bruggen slowly made his way to the podium, looking not terribly well and a little frail; and took a seat on a high chair on the podium, and holding his white hands in front of him, no stick, after looking over the orchestra to be sure everyone was ready, gently gave a downbeat for the "Unfinished."

A program note in German -- a language I cannot cope with -- suggested that this symphony is in fact complete, and has a program -- something about sorrow and lack of achievement and nevertheless getting on with it. I can't follow this sort of story, Hans said; neither can I, I answered; it's just sounds, just music; it's not a novel.

The orchestra played without vibrato, but without that curious swelling tone that disfigured (to my taste) so many "historically informed" performances thirty years ago. Bruggen's conception was slow, lyrical, subdued except for considerable bite at the discords, those amazing seventh and ninth chords with which Schubert articulates the unfolding of the otherwise over-familiar first movement.

At intermission we were a little excited: the "Unfinished" had been given new life. What does the C Major sound like, Anneke wondered, and I sang a little bit of it -- though once you begin that horn call at the opening it's hard to stop.

We filed back in to hear Bruggen's version. He respected Schubert's architecture, again in my opinion: slow introduction; accelarating bridge to the first movement which is nevertheless somewhat slower than the second movement; fast and somewhat desperate scherzo; impossibly fast finale growing even faster in its closing passage. He took all the repeats. The piece achieved its "heavenly length," in Schumann's famous description; and also his suggestion that it's a musical equivalent of a novel in four volumes.

There so much in this music -- so much human activity, so many events, such great long-spanning architecture. Yet it's all so incredibly personal -- it speaks more readily to each individual listener than it does in generalized terms. And, of course, in each of its movements -- even the scherzo -- it so perfectly a walker's symphony. The tempi are those of a walker, and of a walker of long distances. It's the perfect piece to hear in a week of vacation from long-distance walking. In this it suggests Bruckner, of course: late Schubert and Bruckner have to do with quiet walks through long distances: the differences between them have to do with the terrain traversed: Schubert walked through the city and suburbs of Vienna; Bruckner through the Austrian countryside. (Erik Satie, bless his heart, walked through the nocturnal streets of Paris.)

* * *

That was Monday. Last night, Wednesday, we went back to Orpheus for another evening of music -- completely different in one way, completely similar in another. The piece was Henry Purcell's opera (to John Dryden's and William Davenant's text, very loosely indeed based on Shakespeare) A Tempest, performed -- absolutely splendidly -- by Barok Opera Amsterdam, musical direction by Frédérique Chauvet, staging by David Prins.

The piece is three hundred forty years old, or nearly. But it spoke directly to the audience, and the audience was by no means uniquely prepared to hear ancient music. Three strengths put the piece completely over the top: the utterly engaging story; Purcell's ineffable melodic invention; and the simplicity and perfection of the performances.

Dryden and Davenant forget all about the philosophy and politics of Shakespeare's play, and concentrate on what is normally the secondary business: the awakening of love in the young couples; the clowning drunkenness of the sailors. In this version, Prospero is a woman; Miranda has a sister; Caliban is in fact a local boy who's never seen a woman (other than Prospera. Ariel is the one personage true to Shakespeare.

The orchestra was a significant part of the action: six violins and violas, a lute and theorbo, an obe, a bassoon, a bass viol and a harpsichord, standing (save the basso continuo, who would have found it impractical) while playing right center stage, all wearing sailor striped blouses, blue suits, and (this very engaging) boat shoes.

The five actors spoke their lines in Dutch translation (David Prins provided that too, and it sounded okay), and were doubled by singers (two sopranos, tenor, baritone, bass). There was plenty of physical action -- fooling, mugging, genuine pathos, seriousness -- to portray the wide-ranging emotional content of the piece; but it never upstaged the music. And the musical performances were absolutely outstanding: every singer was flexible, true to pitch, expressive through the range of comedy and pathos; and every instrumentalist seemed completely the master (or the mistress: like the Conservatory Orchestra, Barok Opera is gender-balanced) of the music.

What emerged from this riveting but genuinely entertaining evening was, for me, one overwhelming fact: Purcell's amazing melodic invention, riding his almost as amazing harmonic concept. Sudden seemingly unprepared modulations, foreign keys, abrupt major-minor shifts -- yet beyond them those scales and leaps and arpeggios taking his singers through incredibly long phrases, repeating, repeating the words, embroidering their verbal meaning with allusions far beyond words.

And what came of that was the thing that unites Purcell and Schubert: their fundamental innocence, their good cheer, their generosity of spirit. This is something they share with Mozart and Satie and, I think, John Cage, and with so few other composers. They're not in business for their egos. They're as amazed at the beauty they discover as we fortunate listeners are. They are, I think, in a way, angels, Ariels. How lucky we've been to share two evenings in three days with them!

* * *

The two restaurants of the last two days have revealed the same lesson, adumbrated as the title of today's blog -- itself taken from a translation I love (by Donald Slavitt, I think, though I'm away from my books and can't swear to it) of Hesiod's The Works and Days:

Give is a good girl; grab is a bad one.

I don't mean to say that Tuesday's restaurant, Gijs en Katrien (van Kinsbergenstraat 4, Apeldoorn, tel. +31 055.576.7484; is only in business for what it can get. It has its strong points, or the guide (which I've wrongly called "Simple Bites" previously) wouldn't have listed it amont the top 100 restaurants in The Netherlands. (Number 93, if you really want to know.) The room is beautiful and serene; the reception warm and appealing; the menu ingratiating.

But the service was amazingly slow. Not only slow, but inattentive. One young man, Gijs perhaps, clomp-clomp-clomped through the room, striding in impossibly loud shoes, but never looked your way once the order was taken. A slender young woman, the only other waiter, was similarly reticent. When I pointed out that another table was finishing their dessert and we hadn't yet been given our main course, Well, yes, the young man said, That's because they started eating before you. But they were seated long after we gave you our order, I countered, with logic that seemed to make no impact at all.

We complained to the girl about our delayed main courses. It hasn't yet been an hour since you received your appetizer, she said; we're well within acceptable limits.

The food was reasonably good, though a little too trendy, I thought. There was little warmth or generosity. The coffee wasn't very good. We weren't pleased.

Next night we ate at a new restaurant, Sizzles (Koninginnelaan 37, Apeldoorn, tel. +31 055.578.9292;, and the difference couldn't have been more profound. The host was easy, comfortable with himself and with us, affable. The waitress was enthusiastic and cheerful almost to a fault, happy and genial. The service was attentive, the courses followed easily with a relaxed but efficient pace, the servings were generous, the amuses-gueules and dessert lagniappes (why no English words for these pleasant little freebies?) prompt and surprising.

One restaurant seemed to say: We're very good; we're excellent; you're lucky you chose us; we'll deign to provide you with something.

The other said: We love being hosts; we're glad you came; we want you to come back -- because we enjoy doing this, sharing pleasure with you.

You can keep your grab: give me give every time. It's good for both sides of the equation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

17 Toscanini; Ratatouille; As

The kitchen, Restaurant As
other photos:
April 3-7: Leerdam-Buren
April 7-11: Buren-Ochten
April 11-15: Ochten-Wyler
April 15-18: Beek, Apeldoorn, Amsterdam
April 20-21: Leidsenveen, Amsterdam, Hardewijk

Apeldoorn, April 22--

More restaurants to note:

Toscanini Ristorante, Lindengracht 75, Amsterdam, tel. +31 0206.232813. A big open spacious room with white walls, high ceiling, and lots of light; another similar room off to one side; a huge open kitchen; a menu that makes you think you're in the north Italian countryside; fine ingredients and attentive cooking with a touch of enterprise. Last Saturday we had a fine risotto with green asparagus and a discreet but fresh, springlike presence of mint; our roast pork was right out of Italy.

Restaurant As, Prinses Irenestraat 19, Amsterdam; www.
We visited this brand-new restaurant for an open house party, with wine (and picolit) flowing like water, and trays of finger food passed around -- not a good way to judge a restaurant, but that's not my purpose here. Sander worked at Chez Panisse for a stint, many years ago, and has since opened the huge Elf on the eleventh floor of the temporary Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where quick sandwiches and the like are served from eleven or so on, lunch and dinner, and the bar continues into the wee hours.

As, in the city's Oude Zuid district, is a polar opposite in almost every way: on the ground floor but mostly outside; technologically minimal; relaxed. The kitchen is open not only to viewing but to the elements, centered on wood-burning ovens providing most of the cooking. There are chickens out back, and Sander promises pigs to come: the neighbors are an art space and a professional cooking school, so maybe they won't mind. Clearly a place to watch.

Ratatouille, Vischmarkt 6, Harderwijk, tel. +31 0341.431256. Contemporary, ethical, aware; careful, impeccable cooking for comfortable tables in a 17th-century house completely updated, with an extensive herb garden on the upstairs deck and a vegetable garden out back. Lindsey said her risotto, with small prawns, was even better than Toscanini's: creamy and fragrant. My slice of roast lamb, with succulent green beans and a small roasted potato stuffed with mushrooms, was excellent; and the dessert was one of those marvels: complex, with you'd think too many ingredients, all combining in perfect logic and delicious flavor: Strawberries, rhubarb, lace cookies, and rhubarb-white chocolate ice cream, with a sprinkling of chopped nuts.

We visited Toscanini and As with Kees, who took the day off from his own restaurant Marius (see many references to Marius in previous blogs); without him along we wouldn't have got into Toscanini on short notice on Saturday evening. Saturday was spent in a suburb of Den Haag, enjoying lunch and conversation on a back-yard deck right on a canal, a white swan at our fingertips; and then driving to Amsterdam for the restaurant evening.

After an hour at church in Apeldoorn, Sunday was also dedicated to the delights of the palate, beginning with the poffertjeskraam De Haan in Laren. A kraam is a temporary pavilion; in the old days many Dutch towns enjoyed these summer-houses, gilt and crystal and mirrors -- I imagine they were inspired by visions of Oriental luxury in the Netherlands East Indies. De Haan stood for decades in Apeldoorn, or made Apeldoorn one of its two or three stops on its annual trek in search of customers.

Years ago, however, a stingy city councilman held out for higher rent from the kraam, which stood on municipal property, and the owner took his business elsewhere -- to the upscale and touristy town of Laren, to be precise. So we go, when we can, to Laren, to sit in splendor for an hour and a few dollars, and to eat delicious poffertjes.

At the front of the building stands the stove, its vast cast-iron griddle dimpled in an array of circular depressions a couple of inches in diameter. An enormous block of butter stands nearby. The cook brushes butter over the griddle, pours the batter in a steady stream back and forth, lets the little cakes puff up and brown on one side, then takes a fork and deftly turns them one by one, very quickly, to cook on the other side.

In no time at all they're done. An assistant forks a dozen or more up and arranges them on your plate, adds a generous dollop or two of butter, and shakes a cloud of powdered sugar over the whole. I drink a glass of cold fresh milk with these things; nothing is much better.

From Laren we drove through the polder country to see what Spakenburg looked like. Calm and peaceful, is what, to a great extent because it's Sunday; this is part of Holland's Bible Belt; the mayor has just decreed that there be no drinking in the afternoon. The sun was low as we walked the quays, bringing out a special glow from the red brick buildings.

Spakenburg was an important port in its day, when the Zuider Zee was still salt water, full of herring and other fish; but the port is now mostly given to improbable recreational boats, those shallow-bottomed, wide, wooden scows with the sideboards that can be lowered to lever against the wind when tacking -- Frisian boats, I always think of them as, but characteristic of the entire Zuider Zee.

We drove on then to Harderwijk, another formerly important port on the Zuider Zee, now facing instead the broad, boring Flevoland polder created fifty years ago, when the Zee was finally completely cut off from the North Sea, and converted to fresh water.

Harderwijk is bustling, though, with a long strand, a long row of cafés and restaurants behind it; and behind them a surprisingly big town -- another Hanseatic port, I suppose, with rows of graceful 17th-century houses, fine churches, extensive pleins, and fine trees. Again, that light: the soft new green of the elm and chestnut leaves; the rose brick; the darkly glittering green enamel on shutters, doors, benches.

And Ratatouille. It's not the only restaurant in town: there's even one with a Michelin star. But it was the one that called us, Sunday night, and I think I'll be back.

Cod, duxelles, chervil, at De Altena
other photos:
April 3-7, Leerdam-Buren
April 7-11, Buren-Ochten
April 11-15, Ochten-Wyler
April 15-18, Beek, Apeldoorn, Amsterdam

Apeldoorn, April 21--

When I first came to The Netherlands, in 1973, the food was not very good. Well, that's not quite true. Some of the food was quite good: it was the restaurants that were not good. One of the first Dutch sayings I heard about was: God sends food, and the devil sends cooks. In the thirty-three years since, I've run into the possibility that this saying was not original with the Dutch. It probably goes back to the invention of cooked food. But it seemed particularly appropriate here.

One of the first things I ate was groene haring, raw fresh herring. I'd read about it in one of the helpful tourist introductions to the country that I read while preparing for that first flight across the Atlantic. Apparently a Real Dutchman can be recognized by, among other things, the way he'll hold a raw herring by the tail, flop it on one side and then the other in a bed of chopped onions, and then hold it over his upturned face and drop it into his eager mouth, chomping down on it, quickly chewing and swallowing it, and following it with a good draught of beer -- unless there's some delicious Dutch gin handy.

I tried it, of course, in The Hague I think it was, April 1973, and I've been hooked since. On the same trip I discovered Broodje van Koortje, the sandwich chain that had an outlet on the Leidseplein in those days: at B v K you could get a tartaarbroodje, a soft sweet roll something like a hot-dog bun, filled with freshly chopped (not ground!) beef, and flavored again with those sweet chopped onions, and pepper of course, and just enough salt, and maybe a slice or two of sweet-sour cucumber pickle. I miss the Broodje van Koortje; it disappeared long ago from the Leidseplein, a victim either of increasing rents or increasing governmental regulation, who knows which.

In both those cases the food was delicious because it was the food you tasted, not its preparation. If you went to a restaurant in those days you basically had two choices: a rijstafel -- mediocre Indonesian food, mainly rice, chicken, peanuts, and satay-sauce -- or a Traditional Dutch Restaurant.

The latter, of course, emphasized Quantity. Potatoes provided the, um, meat and potatoes of the meal; but there was also overcooked vegetables mostly related to cabbages -- cauliflower, cabbage, and cauliflower, the latter thinly disguised by nutmeg -- and uncooked cabbage mixed with suspect mayonnaise in a sort of slaw (the word itself is Dutch: sla, salad); and, of course, potatoes -- fried, croquettes, steamed, boiled, and/or deep-fried. Often two or three of these at a time.

There was Dutch Beefsteak, a thick cut from a mature animal, cooked a considerable while and served with a milk-based gravy turned brown with something from a bottle. There was of course chicken. And there was fish, generally deep-fried.

We kept coming back to The Netherlands nonetheless, and over the years something wonderful happened, and I'm still trying to figure out how it happened. What it was, was, the restaurants improved tremendously.

Of course that's happened in the United States as well, but it seems to have happened in a more consistently planned way here in The Netherlands. For a long time I suspected that it was a deliberate move on the part of the government -- partly, I suppose, because my first trip here, my introduction to this wonderful, enlightened country, was the result of planned marketing: I was a journalist on a junket sponsored by the City of Amsterdam, the Dutch Tourist Board, and the then-new Van Gogh Museum.

The Dutch were early discoverers of the importance of tourism as a national industry, and they were hawking their best. But their best, in 1973, did not include restaurants. It was at least a decade later that things changed. My theory is that someone in the HoReCa industry, or more probably the HoReCa education industry, had somehow slipped across the border and discovered that food could be lively and interesting and pleasurable even when cooked.

He wouldn't have had to travel far. In 1974 we noticed that the restaurants (and charcuteries) improved noticeably when we travelled from The Netherlands into Belgium; that it was better yet in Luxembourg; that it was really quite delicious in Burgundy. It continued to be delicious in Italy; but then it backed off across the Swiss border and then, markedly, in Austria, which reminded us of what we'd eaten in Amsterdam.

* * *

But it's all changed. One of the reasons we like to come to this country now is the dependability of the restaurant food. At its best it can be really quite extraordinary, and that's nice: but on the day-in, day-out level, in suburbs and villages, it is flavorful and nourishing and fresh and dependable, and that's what we like. In the larger towns, of course, you find international cuisine: Italian, Belgian (a bit different from Dutch), and Indonesian -- the latter with subcategories: the other night we had Moluccan take-out. But even in the tiniest villages, where there may be only one restaurant, the menu will include dishes with tomatoes, peppers, garlic. It's not the Middle-America desert it was thirty years ago.

We've been here seventeen days now, and we've had five memorable restaurant meals. Two of them have been in Amsterdam at Marius (Barentszstraat 243; tel. +31 020 4227880. We were there Tuesday night again, eating the table d'hote: skate wing; a turbot-like fish the Dutch call griet; lamb two ways (chop; roast); a fabulous cheese board; a crèpe with strawberries and vanilla ice cream. With that, a fine white and an organic red, both from Provençe.

Kees, the chef, did two one-year stints in the Chez Panisse kitchen, and has taken Chez P. in a new direction in Amsterdam. His dining room seats two dozen, and there is only one seating. (A terrace seats another dozen or so in warm weather.) In addition to the fixed menu there are certain standbys, including a wonderful vitello tonnato and an indispensable, I suppose, ribeye steak. But the chef's menu's the thing; and it mediates beautifully Chez P's resolute loyalty to the purity of fresh ingredients and the chef's awareness of a Dutch culinary tradition, or rather its values: honesty, wholesomeness, local provender. His work can be complex, and I don't know anyone better at bringing a complex set of ingredients to a single, focussed point: but the food is homey and familiar. And the place is informal, and fun.

On our walk along the Lingepad we ran into two quite remarkable restaurants. First came De Twee Gezellen (the two companions) in Rumpt (Dorpsdijk 39; tel. +31 0345.549349), a tiny village halfway between Leerdam, if you can find that, and Nijmegen. Here a married couple with a background at KLM left their air career to open a neighborhood resto relying, again, on fresh and local. The menu is longer than that at Marius; perhaps they feel they can't impose limited choice on their clientele. I don't think, though, that the menu relies on frozen or vacuum-packed courses, which can be the case even at well-known several-star restaurants.

Where Marius brings the homey and familiar to an exalted level, de Twee Gezellen restores substance and flavor to a cuisine whose origins are in post-Nouvelle Cuisine professionalism. Each dish flirted with the problem of too many ingredients, too much texture and color and even surprise; but each dish also stepped back from that temptation. Just one example: the first course, a green salad (tiny lettuces, of course; drizzled Balsamic on the plate, of course) with halved cherry tomatoes that could in all honesty have had more flavor, atop it a cylinder of tuna tartare wearing a lid of tuna roe. The girls had shrimp scattered among their salad; I did not. The dish was delicious; fun; nourishing.

Six days later we lunched on a dike along the Waal at De Altena (Waaldijk 38, Oosterhout; tel. +31 0481.482196). I'd call the cuisine here Modern Classical: smallish plates; lots of technique; awareness of all the current trends; but again a grounding in a Dutch set of culinary values. I think I described this meal earlier: salmon tartare with asparagus soup; perfectly poached cod on a square of duxelles bound with cream; duck breast with green asparagus and a slice of potato, with rich but not cloying reduction; panna cotta, chocolate sorbet with sugared hazelnuts, and a surprise cookie involving chocolate and marzipan. Again, simple fresh French country wines with lots of character.

And in Nijmegen, two days later, we tried Altena's sister restaurant Plaats 1 (Franseplaats 1, tel. +31 024.3656708). (The owner-chef, a woman by the way, also owns De Altena.) This place is trendy, even brash in a way; absolutely up to the minute; with striking decor, menus presented on huge flat-screen displays overhead (they continually cycle through drinks, appetizers, fish, meat, and dessert); and you can compose a two-, three-, four-, or five-course meal at set prices each.

The place is only a little over a year old -- the girl behind the bar mixed her first Martini for me (perfect ingredients and proportions; not quite cold enough) -- but it's already Number 20 in the SpecialBite survey of the country's top 100. (More on SpecialBite a few paragraphs down.) Again, the cuisine is based on Dutch traditions: good solid fish, lamb, vegetables; a certain amount of spice, a nod to southeast Asia. But the execution is fun, almost edgy, though without ever overreaching toward the merely silly -- no foam here.

The Dutch temperament does tend toward comfyness (Dutch gezelligheid and jocularity. Little concrete kabouters -- trolls and gnomes -- pop up in every sixth or seventh front yard. Living-room windows are given to symmetrical groupings of austere vases and tulips, but whimsical wire or glass sculptures are often just on the edges. The kitchen at Plaats 1 is happily in this tradition, perfectly aware of the Seriousness of High-Art Cuisine but ready to have a little chuckle about it. I like this quality, and I'll go back to Plaats 1 happily next time we're in town.

How do we find these places? Serendipity, for the most part. When you're walking town to town you don't have that much choice. We always ask counter-people in impressive-looking butcher shops or cheese stores, too. And I use two restaurant guides in The Netherlands: Iens, named for its originator, to be found only (as far as I know) on the Internet at; and SpecialBite, an annual magazine-format guide that also maintains a Web presence.

Iens is something like the American Zagat, though more heavily influenced by a staff (or for all I know single proprietor). I like it because there's a version that lives on my Palm handheld computer, very nice when you're walking. Like Zagat, though, its reviews have as much information between the lines as within them.

SpecialBite seems more consistently discriminating and perhaps more seriously informed -- not in terms of its content; both are quite dependable in my experience as to factual material, but in terms of the scope and intent and possibilities of restaurants as cultural statements. I'm not fond of the idea of numerical ratings -- how do you decide who's number 63, say, and who's 64? -- but I'm glad Marius is number 7, and therefore boasts the second-highest rating in Amsterdam. (And I'm even happier that SpecialBite then goes on to point out that when it comes to table d'hote restaurants, it's Number One.)

Okay. I haven't mentioned the lasting pleasures of simpler Dutch foods, at least not this time around. But I'm sure I'll get around to that, too.

Friday, April 20, 2007

15: Lazy Days in Apeldoorn

Liberation Day, Oranjepark, Apeldoorn
April 3-7, Leerdam-Buren
April 7-11, Buren-Ochten
April 11-15, Ochten-Wyler

Apeldoorn, April 20--

We get up about eight, breakfast with Hans and Anneke (bread, cheese, a soft-boiled egg, coffee), do a little housekeeping on the laptop or the notebooks, and then walk into town for a cappuccino and an appelgebak -- and, of course, to check up on the e-mail. We scan the news: Washington Post, Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

The news isn't good. We're glad not to be at home for the media blitz from Virginia -- it's bad enough in the Dutch press. Here in Apeldoorn, pop. about 180,000, the daily paper tells us about someone set upon in a park Sunday afternoon, a woman found dead in her home yesterday, a couple of guys caught in a traffic-control with some drugs, a baseball bat, a kitchen knife, and an imitation pistol.

There's a drought here -- it hasn't rained this month -- and 25 hectares (60 acres or so) of heath burned yesterday out between Hoog Soeren and Assel. The cappuccino at the Café Martin is excellent, and the wireless internet connection is free. And the appelgebak -- it doesn't come much better.

In the States appelgebak is known as Dutch Apple Pie, and it can be pretty bad. It can be unpleasant here, too, filled out with colorless sweet gelatinous stuff, or overloaded with cinnamon, or drowned under chemical slagroom, "whipped cream." But it's delicious at Martin, and I think I'll have another, and stop reading the news.

This daily routine puts another four or five kilometers on our shoes each day. Tuesday we walked considerably further, for we took the train into Amsterdam with Hans and Anneke, and went to the Tropenmuseum, originally built to educate the Dutch about their possessions in the East Indies, enlarged since to accommodate a collection of non-European culture -- Africa, Latin America, the North American Indians, as well as Asia.

We went primarily for a temporary exhibition: beads throughout history -- and the history of beads is long indeed, for beads themselves form all there is of human cultural history, apparently, for its first hundred thousand years or so. This was an intriguing and exhaustive show, from the earliest bone beads from Asia Minor down to Mick Jagger's sequined underwear, and if you're interested in beads, as I tend not to be, it was absolutely fascinating.

Upstairs, a photo exhibit of the celebrated photograph of Che Guevara as it has been used (and much more often misused) in the forty years in which it's become, said the wall label, the most widely reproduced single image of all time. I wouldn't doubt it. Most fascinating, the entire filmstrip of which it is only one image was displayed, enlarged: it was a lucky shot, but the photographer clearly knew what he was doing. I could have spent more time in the show.

Then we visited the Botanical Garden, a favorite place of ours, with its butterfly house, and beds of hyacinth and ground cover, and two enormous kassen or conservatories, and a delicious appelgebak.

In the evening, dinner at Marius again. I know: I still haven't described our restaurant meals. It's a task requires a certain amount of concentration, and that's not what we're here for, here in the Netherlands I mean; it's certainly what we're here on earth for, that was drilled into me sixty years ago.

We're here for rest and recreation, and yesterday, after the noon constitutional into town, we got on bikes and rode to the neighboring village, Vassen -- oh, eight kilometers there, I'd say, and ten back, for we took a circuitous route in order to see the newest vineyard in the Netherlands, planted about six years ago to Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. A sign boasted that the first vintage was bottled last year, and that it was pretty damn good (I paraphrase). If global warming can make a Burgundy of Gelderland it'll prove it's an ill wind indeed that blows no good: but I've yet to taste any of these Dutch wines -- the bars and restaurants don't serve them. Someone isn't doing the marketing right.

Vassen is home to a particularly elegant kasteel or palace, I guess you'd call it; a manor house surrounded by a moat but not otherwise fortified. I think the moats are there primarily for drainage and decoration. Brick, of course, with stone and plaster relief work, and interestingly asymmetrical -- but you'll have to take my word for it, as I forgot to take the camera along.

We like Apeldoorn, and not only because two dear friends live here. It's a nice balance of commerce, leisure, and residence; the homes are attractive, the commercial architecture pleasant; there's lots of pedestrianized streets; and above all the town's full of trees. Today perhaps we'll stroll into Het Loo, the former summer palace now a museum and a magnificent garden.

Or perhaps we'll simply take it easy.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

14 Liberation Day

Liberation Day at Oranjepark, Apeldoorn
other photos:
Leerdam-Buren Photos
Buren-Ochten Photos
Ochten-Wyler Photos

Apeldoorn, Netherlands, April 17--

It is Liberation Day in this city in the heart of Gelderland, near the center of The Netherlands. On this day, April 17, in 1945, Canadian troops arrived from Deventer, a few miles to the northeast, to reassure the town that the hard winter was finally over, the occupiers routed.

At lunch -- a salad at the Café de Paris in front of the old town hall -- we noticed a large man drive up in an army jeep. The Radhuisplein, like much of central Apeldoorn, is a pedestrian zone, so this was odd. He parked self-confidently in front of the terrace with its tables and wicker chairs, turned off the engine, swung his legs around and strode into the café, leaving the keys in the ignition.

After dinner at home we drove down to the Oranjepark, a beautiful expanse of lawn and trees with a large pond, a graceful fountain, and a soberly elegant bandstand. Quite a throng had already assembled, and we were just in time to see a contingent of runners arrive: they'd run all the way from Deventer, carrying the torch of Freedom. The Apeldoornse Doedelzkkers played their bagpipes to welcome the runners, and the torch was handed to the Burgmeester, who used it to light a more considerable flame.

Schoolchildren stepped forward, two by two, to read poems they'd written for the occasion, their voices clear and steady, their messages optimistic and certain. I was surprised that while mention was made of the dead -- especially the large number massacred in nearby Hoog Soeren, in retaliation for resistance, I think -- most of this ceremony referred not to war and oppression but to freedom. There seemed to be a serious optimism in the air, and a commitment to constant renewal of liberty.

Toward the end of the ceremony a large number of balloons were released, red, white, and blue (for those are the Dutch colors as well as the English, French, and American). Wishes written on scraps of paper tied to these balloons were sent aloft. Some -- maybe one out of five -- were caught in the high branches of nearby elms, but most flew quickly aloft and out of sight; and so it is with our wishes, we hope.

We walked on to the Orpheus Theater, a community auditorium Lindsey and I had never visited, though we've visited Apeldoorn many times. It was the monthly Cultureelavond, and the hall was quite full. The hostess, an acquaintance of Anneke's -- she'd been a few nights previously to a tai chi evening the woman had put on -- seemed professional, relaxed, a comfortable interviewer.

The acts were local and quite varied. First we heard a short interview with a nervous young man who was producing a cabaret theater later in the month, and then we saw two excerpts from the show: a love-duet between soprano and tenor, neither really comfortable with their body microphones; and a long dance scene with perhaps eighteen strong, energetic young women turning cartwheels, doing the splits, and kicking up their heels in a lusty can-can.

Came next a local architect of considerable importance whose slide show led us through the recent architecture in Apeldoorn, revealing details expressing a degree of design integration -- not quite successfully, in my opinion; while I'm beginning to be convinced that high design in postmodern buildings can take its place easily in historical communities (The Hague is a persuasive example) I'm not sure this is being achieved here.

One of his points was particularly distressing: that we should take a look at buildings that reach their fiftieth year and decide whether they have any value left -- whether they have any architectural value for their community. If not, the implication was, away with them. He was dismissive, for example, of the time and money being spent to restore the railroad station, quite a nice, modest, workmanlike building that serves its purpose nicely. That whole part of town is being developed, with a postmodern row of condominiums facing the station, "Apeldoorn's new front yard," the advertisments suggest. The old station will perhaps be a bit incongruous in this setting, but it demonstrates a continuity with the past, and I think community awareness of such continuity is important.

But no one asked my opinion; the architect was politely applauded, and the next act came on, a series of short dances by adult students in one of the city's dance schools. Some people hereabouts play soccer in spare time; some knit or sew; many ride their bikes out into the countryside; some learn to dance -- folk dance; ballroom dancing; modern dance. This was modern, and set to world music, and serious and rhythmic, and clearly amateur.

I was reminded of one of the values of that collection of local paintings in the Hotel 't Spijker in Beek: good paintings were hung alongside mediocre ones, for the value of artistic or cultural expression lies not only in its degree of excellence, but also in its participation in a community of expression. ("Mieux vaux se mettre à quelquechose de médiocre," says the motto hanging in Hans and Anneke's bathroom, "que de rêver éternellement à perfection": better to set yourself seriously to some ordinary thing than to dream eternally of perfection.")

And then it was intermission, and we had had enough liberty and community culture for one evening, and we walked out into the cool, clear night, the sky a dark but striking blue around us.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

13: Beek

Hotel Atlanta, Nijmegen
other photos:
Leerdam-Buren Photos
Buren-Ochten Photos
Ochten-Wyler Photos
Monday, April 6--

The name, pronounced "bake," means "brook," and there are many beken hereabouts, so many that our hotel annex is on the Waterstraat. Nijmegen was noisy and energetic; Beek is tranquil and relaxed. We deserve it after finishing the Lingepad, which, I figure, throwing in the detours and wrong-ways, added up to about 120 kilometers, that is 75 miles, of walking, in twelve days, with one day off.

We came out here yesterday to finish the walk and found the Hotel 't Spijker just what we wanted for relaxation. A decent kitchen, a fine terrace, internet access, a comfortable bed in a quiet room, and a bathtub, our first in days. Showers are all very well, but the tired walker wants to soak in hot water.

And water is what the town is all about. Beek lies in the municipality of Ubbergen, which stretches along the foot (and to an extent climbs the lower flank) of the ridge that runs from Nijmegen southeasterly for several miles. If you climb a bit into that ridge and look out northeasterly -- and why would you not? -- you see the wide expanse of the Ooijpolder, and beyond it on a clear day (and these are not; the heat brings haze with it) Millingen on the Rhine, with the hills of the Veluwe beyond.

At Millingen the Rhine divides, a small stream leading northwest to form the Nederrijn (later the Lek), most of it continuing through a curve and then west as the Waal. And along the Waal, just west of Millingen, there were huge clay pits. Urban Netherlands is made of brick, and this is where much of that brick was made.

In Beek we visited the VVV, one of the few we've seen on this trip -- I'll get around to that subject one of these days -- nicely installed together with a small village museum in an art-nouveau building (brick, of course) that used to be the municipal power plant. Here we learned about the baksteenenfabrieken, the brick factories; but we didn't want to tax the nice woman who runs the VVV by going too much into the history, and I wonder when the clay-digging began, and how the factories -- or, more likely, the handwork -- was first done, and when.

For brick, I suppose, you need four things: good clay; some kind of binder (straw might do, or horsehair); plenty of water; and a drying-yard of some kind. Of course a convenient means of transportation would help, to send all that brick off to its buyers: and the Waal makes a very convenient highway. If you're not in a hurry you could send all that brick down to Rotterdam without spending a penny on energy.

Once the brick cities are built, and once a sizable middle class is developed -- and that happened early in this country -- another industry develops, also needing tood water and a drying-yard: laundries. And that is what made the town of Beek. Conscious and proud of its history, the town has placed illustrated panels at the sites of many of these washing-places. On them you can read about these brooks, their origins and courses, and you can see reproductions of 19th-century paintings and engravings of the very landscape in front of you.

And scattered along the watercourses are restorations or replicas of the communal washing-basins, long rectangular basins where the washerwomen bent over their washboards, clean water spooling into the basin at one end, spent water spooling out at the other. I suppose the heavy washing was done at one end, the rinsing at the other; and then the laundry was laid on lawns to dry and bleach in the sun.

Across from our hotel stands a life-size bronze of one of these wasservrouwen, a pretty young woman with her hair in a bun, in a floor-length dress and apron, carrying her wicker laundry-basket; and next to her is a fountain; and beyond the pretty little 13th-century Protestant church, and beyond that the rather grander and more recent Roman Catholic one: here around Nijmegen the Catholics outnumber the Protestants. (One reason, perhaps, for the earlier development of good cooking in the restaurants here; and perhaps also for the earlier intrusion of recreational shopping.)

Het Spijker is an old hotel, 250 years old, but the building like many hereabouts dates from after World War II, because this is after all where the last push was, the famous Operation Market Garden.

(Nijmegen itself was badly damaged: American airplanes, needing to dump their bombs on flights apparently turned back from targets deeper into Germany, and mistaking Nijmegen somehow for the nearby Cleve, bombed the city in April 1944, killing 800 citizens and destroying many of the buildings. The great church in Nijmegen was spared, though its tower fell into one aisle, and it took many years to restore.)

I think, though, that the present building respects the footprint and character of the original, judging from photos and paintings of the prewar hotel. There are paintings, drawings, prints and engravings everywhere in this hotel: in the dining room, the breakfast room, the corridors, and the rooms; and they range in style from 19th-century landscape and still life to more modern expressionistic work.

They have one thing in common, says the hotelkeeper: they are all by artists who live (or lived) in the region -- Ubbergen, Beek, Berg en Dal. This is one of those places like Carmel on the California coast and Skagen at the tip of Denmark where painters gravitated, drawn by the natural beauties of the region (human, I suspect, as well as terrain), and where subsequently they inspired one another, and a sense of place developed visibly in the resulting work.

Much of culture grows out of this kind of awareness of place; it responds to the food, climate, feel, scent of place; it differentiates its people from those of other places by instilling an identifiable (if not often explicable or even describable) character in them. And while much tourism these days seems dependent on shopping or leisure, much is also prompted by curiosity about such local culture: local business and government is right to take its history as seriously as the present, and to preserve it and celebrate it; even, these days, to market it.

We left Beek with a bit of sadness. We'll return one day: the Ooijpolder is worth exploration, and the best way to do that would be by bicycle. But we left happily, too, for we were en route to Hans and Anneke in Apeldoorn, and we're curious to see what we do next.

12: Nijmegen

Hotel Atlanta, Nijmegen
other photos:
Leerdam-Buren Photos
Buren-Ochten Photos
Ochten-Wyler Photos
Sunday, April 15--

Over the last four days the village of Beek and the city of Nijmegen have revealed the extremes of life-style here in the Eastern Netherlands. Beek is a suburb of Nijmegen, hardly more than a mile from the city limits, but separated by woods and open country. There used to be a steam-railroad out to Beek, but that's long gone, replaced by buses that run every hour or so -- and, of course, the private automobile, racing along a two-lane priority road (itself flanked, in the Dutch manner, by a two-lane fietspad or bicycle path).

We checked into the Hotel Atlanta, on Nijmegen's Grote Markt, the principal square at more or less the heart of the city, on Wednesday night, the 11th, having tired of sleeping in a different bed every night. That night, as I've already written, we simply ate at the hotel. It is more or less centered on its block, facing away from the river Waal, rather an ornate building, about a century old I'd say. Looking at it from across the Marktplein -- the market place -- it is the tallest building on its block by about a storey, with a handsome arched three-light window centered under the roof: that was our window, to our delight at first, our sorrow one night.

The hotel, like all the neighboring buildings, is furnished with rattan tables and chairs out on the street, an outdoor eating- and drinking-place, three or four tables deep beyond the narrow sidewalk. Since last week was a heat wave here in The Netherlands, these tables were frequently filled: Nijmegen is full of people with apparently nothing better to do than drink coffee or beer.

We took the time our first day to introduce Giovanna to the Valkhof Museum, because I can't help being pedantic, and always want to share my enthusiasms, and I find Nijmegen immensely interesting, and this museum makes its history pretty clear. The history itself begins about two thousand years ago, under the Roman Empire. There was of course plenty of human activity before then; people farmed the fertile lowlands for centuries before they figured out how to record what they were doing.

The Romans took care of that. I imagine this was a lively outpost: the northernmost reach of the Empire, not counting the colony that is now England. This must have been a cold and miserable outpost to generals and administrators who longed for the pleasures of the capital at Rome (unless they had good reason to congratulate themselves for having been posted away), but they made the best of it, and the surroundings could have been worse.

Why was this the northermost reach, and what were the Romans doing here? Well, if you conquer all of Gaul, and keep pushing north, the road's relatively easy until you come up against this river, which is not called the Waal (which means, of course, Wall) without reason. It's broad, and its current is fast. A lot of water moves through it: it drains at least three quarters of the Rhine, which brings snowmelt from the Swiss Alps, and rainfall from the German plain.

The Romans apparently figured whatever was beyond the Waal wasn't worth it. What was beyond was Batavia: the Romans tried to subdue the Batavians, but lost interest. The Batavians apparently stayed on their side of the lower Rhine, a few miles north of the Waal; the land between was a sort of no man's land, farmed by those prehistoric peasants, who must have been uneasy between savages and Romans and the constant threat of flood.

Nijmegen, the name, derives from the Latin "Noviomagus," Newmarket. One of the first things the Romans did, about two thousand years ago, was grant the town "market rights." Thanks a lot, I imagine the locals said; we've been marketing here quite well for centuries without you, and now we have to pay taxes. But the Romans thought it was important; judging by the exhibits in this museum they made quite a nice Roman-style city of the place; the coins and pots and pans and armor and jewelry and especially the glassware that's been found testify to a taste for luxury and comfort and high fashion that seems to have presaged our own times.

Because Nijmegen is, today, nothing if not a market town. I don't think I've ever seen such a concentration of shops, stores, restaurants, galleries, bars, and cafés in one place. Nijmegen isn't really very big: its within-the-old-walls (long since cleared, of course) commercial district is a half circle, the Waal forming the straight side, little more than a thousand meters across; you can walk across town in ten minutes, if you don't stop somewhere for a beer.

There are only four or five major streets, for most of their length mostly given over to pedestrians; and these are lined with literally scores of competing stores: shoes, dresses, and cell phones apparently accounting for well more than half of them. Across the street from our hotel is the V&D department store; on the corner next to our hotel is the H&M clothing store; half a block away is the C&A. These stores seem to put more energy into loading and clearing their shelves than they do into thinking up names for themselves.

Thousands of people, all apparently with disposable money, spend their time shopping, more and more frenetically as closing time approaches: and then they all descend on the terraces of the bars and restaurants and cafés. And these are indeed very pleasant, with their mineral waters, and beers, and wines, all reasonably priced, cold, and easily had. (Even the water from the tap is delicious: we've never tasted better municipal water, anywhere.)

Eating, then: Wednesday night at the hotel; Thursday afternoon at the Voorgrachtershuis (delicious fish); Thursday night at the Vlaamse Brasserie (marvelous calf's liver); Friday night at an amazing restaurant, Plaats 1; Saturday lunch a haringsbroodje at the market; Saturday night vitello tonnato and lamb chops at Pasta e Fagioli. I'll get around to a more detailed account of Plaats 1 one of these days when I write about it, and Altena, and De Twee Gezellen; these are the best places we've found so far outside of Amsterdam.

We knew that Saturday was market day in Nijmegen, and wondered where the market would be. After going to bed I heard a buzz of preparation outside our window, and after a while woke up enough to have a look: neat stacks of lumber had been set out in stacks, evenly spaced every hundred feet or so: looks like these will be the stalls.

Later I was awakened by a God-awful racket, and looked again: three rowdys were running down the Markt, jumping on each stack and scattering the lumber every which way, and roaring as they did. "Roaring drunk" has rarely had so visible a demonstration. I looked at the time: 5:36. I shrugged, mentally, and went back to bed.

It was one of those typical markets, running up and down the Grote Markt from the Museum to the end of the Markt. At the museum end mostly food -- fruit, produce, meat, fish, spices, bakery items. Toward the Markt itself there came the tools, electrical items, yardage, socks, blouses, and miscellaneous items -- crafts from Africa, old postcards, DVDs and the like.

Across from the hotel, next to V&D, two young men ran a draiiorgel, one of those calliope-like organs with animated figures striking triangles and tambourines in front of a highly decorated panel, and behind it mallets beating on snare and bass drums and a wood block, and sets of wooden pipes providing the melody and harmony, all responding to seemingly endless folded chains of wooden panels with holes cut in them to allow compressed air to activate it all. The young men shook their tin cups of change rhythmically to the music, which ran from soft rock to Strauss waltzes to those incomprehensibly serious Dutch marches, and engaged in conversation or occasionally argument with bystanders.

Further down, at the end of the market, there were two big fish stalls, and there we had our haringsbroodjes. There is nothing more delicious: a fresh raw herring, about five inches long, split before your eyes and gutted and cleaned and set in a soft hot-dog bun and drowned in chopped sweet onion. Well, yes, there is: the same herring without the bun, dredged through enough onion to stick to it, and taken with a small glass of jenever, that clear tasty Dutch gin: but you don't get gin at the market with your herring, and everyone these days eats them from buns; I don't know why.

There's more to say about Nijmegen, of course. The nice bar De Fiets ("the Bicycle"), where we had our drinks that first day we were there, and were served by a young man named Frans who spoke French to us for some reason, and stayed with it when we returned the language, and told us a lot about the town. The waiter at Het Poortgrachtershuis who had so much historical information. The search for batteries and a cable for my Palm, and the excellent blue shirt, and the funny byplay at the Vlaamse Brasserie where one diner's order on its little piece of paper fell from the cook's lineup of orders, and was covered by plates, and almost spiked as already filled when it finally turned up, all while we watched wondering what would happen next.

The walk about town and along the Waal quay, and in the Valkhof park where the Roman fort stood so many centuries ago; and the excellent bookstore at the railroad station, fancy a bookstore so complete and well-stocked at a railroad station, you don't find such a thing at many airports in the States.

And so on. But that suffices for now, and later I'll contrast all this with what we found in Beek, yesterday and today.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Lingepad 11: Ubbergen-Wyler

Walking into Germany
other photos:
Leerdam-Buren Photos
Buren-Ochten Photos
Ochten-Wyler Photos
Monday, April 16--

We'd scheduled the end of our walk for Friday the Thirteenth: we are not overly superstitious. And for the short walk we had company: Petra drove over from Ede to join us. She picked us up after breakfast and we drove to the bus stop in Ubbergen where we'd ended the previous day, but we somehow took a wrong turn and drove through that tony neighborhood we'd walked the day before, then on farther, past St. Martienskliniek where Lindsey's foot was X-rayed seven years ago when we first began walking in this country, then into the rich town of Berg en Dal, finally back through Beek and to the bus stop.

This final stage of the walk occupies three pages in the map-guidebook, which traces a twisty route through the forested Wylerberg, a ridge rising from about ten meters above sea level -- the plain on either side of the Waal at this point -- to sixty meters or so at Duivelsberg. (The name means "devil's peak".) Sixty meters doesn't sound like much, but the ridge is steep; in some places the trail can only proceed by means of a series of steps. And there's a significant change of fauna, as we move from mixed hardwood forest, mostly beech and, increasingly, birch, to pine woods.

At only one point did we find the trail confusing, in spite of the tree cover and the frequent turns and switchbacks. Here, though, we quickly got back to the marked path. and before long we were walking on a gentle downhill road through the Filosofendal, the "Philosopher's dale," with its farmhouse, pasture (with Shetland ponies), a curious sinkhole-pond reminding us of the constant presence of unseen ground-water, and a tall white-painted post dedicated to peace and amity marking the Dutch-German border -- which in fact lies a few hundred miles away.

Then there was a final steep climb to today's lunch spot, the Pannekoekenhuis de Duivelsberg. We'd been here before, twice, when walking the Pieterpad, which crosses The Netherlands north to south. It's a popular spot; people bicycle or walk or even drive here from nearby. They come in such numbers that poffertjes are not available on Sundays; too many customers for such complicated preparation.

But we were there on Friday, Friday the thirteenth, and Lindsey ordered poffertjes along with her ham-cheese tosti; Petra had her pancake and so did Giovanna; and I had yet another uitsmijter, the best one of the trip so far: an uitsmijter drop en drang, one with everything thrown onto it: roast beef, ham, cheese, the three eggs, a salad on the side -- though I did request they withhold the ground-meat-thing that would otherwise have topped it all off.

Delicious. And then came the mistake: for whatever reason instead of going on to finish the Lingepad we turned ninety degrees off and joined the Pieterpad, which we've already walked. This took us down a steep path, and no one wanted to turn round and go back once we'd got to the bottom and discovered our mistake. Nothing to do at this point but walk on, through the gate at the end of the Wylerbergmeer, a small long-and-narrow lake, and entering Germany, walking a familiar path to the little town of Zwyllich.

Here, though, we left the Pieterpad, turning south instead of north, and walked on to Wyler, a slightly bigger town which does indeed lie at the end of the Lingepad. The town is pretty in a provincial way, climbing a hill to a church and the main road, where we found a café and a bus stop. Time for tea; then the bus back to Nijmegen.

I won't write here about our Saturday in Nijmegen; time enough for that later. Yesterday, though, Sunday, we packed up and checked out of our Hotel Atlanta and took a bus to Beek, where we'd decided to spend one night in the prettty Hotel 't Spijker; and after checking in we walked to the foot of that steep road where we'd discovered our error on Friday, and walked up to Duivelsberg for lunch -- pannekoeken this time, apple-raisin for me -- and then walked the last two kilometers described in the Lingepad guidebook.

We're glad we did. We walked first through the pine forest; then down a lane between forest and pasture, crossing into Germany imperceptibly until soon, at the top of a hill yellow with mustard flowers, we noticed an odd watchtower, two little windows at the top looking like eyes. We continued past farmhouses, around another pasture, and there we were, almost unexpectedly and somewhat anticlimactically, at the bus stop.

The bus wouldn't come for two hours -- we just missed one, and it's Sunday, and they're few and far between. So we walked back along the main road, another three kilometers perhaps, and cleaned up, and took a nap, and enjoyed a slow dinner at the hotel, and now I'm pretty well caught up with these dispatches (save one on restaurants, and another on Nijmegen), and we're about to catch a bus to the train station to begin the next week of this wandermonth.

Ochten-Wyler Photos

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Lingepad 10: Osterhout-Ubbergen

Nearing Nijmegen
other photos:
Leerdam-Buren Photos
Buren-Ochten Photos
April 12--

We'd checked into the Hotel Atlanta, right on the Grote Markt in Nijmegen, and gratefully unpacked our backpacks, and showered and changed, and were too tired to explore the town, and too well fed after that marvelous lunch at de Altena, so we had a simple meal in the hotel restaurant and turned in early.

And today we set out a little guiltily without packs (except for Lindsey, who was apparently in a Calvinist mood, but had nonetheless lightened her pack a bit) and caught a bus to yesterday's end-point. And we were once again a bit alarmed: like yesterday, of course, the bus took us through densely built-up suburbs, and huge tracts being built, and others just cleared. No Shetland ponies here. This doesn't look like promising walking.

But after getting off the bus, at the Oosterhout church, our path took us through a small, quiet residential neighborhood and then plunged us into the woods. I'm beginning to get familiar with the history of these regions: the land is owned for centuries by a baron or a duke, and little by little his family increases or goes into debt and bits and pieces are sold off, and finally the kasteel or manor house, if indeed it has survived wars and the rise of the republic, with whatever bit of woods and farmlands it's kept to protect it from the rising middle class, is turned over to a foundation (or perhaps a corporation, or indeed sold to a nouveau-riche, if such there are in The Netherlands).

And when a region is slated by whatever governmental planning agency is responsible for such things for further residential development, the old estate is kept under one pretext or another -- a nature reserve, or a park, or simply a Public Good that really shouldn't be destroyed. And the Long Distance Walking Paths, of course, are routed through such places, rather than the tedious tracts of lookalike homes and apartment blocks necessitated by a mobile, if not actually increasing, population.

So we walked through this wood, losing our way at one point because we stopped to photograph the manor house and overlooked a change-of-direction warning, but coming out of the woods at about the right point, only having to scramble up the grassy dike rather than walk up an easier access road, and come back in sight of the Waal.

And then it was an easy walk along the Waal, past a war memorial whose stones were being reset (I'd begin that job at the center of the circle and work out, I said, not at the outside the way you're doing it; That's why we're the ones doing this, the stonesetter answered, and you're the one standing there making a comment); into another quiet neighborhood with its closed cafés, up a few steps, and onto the immense Waalbrug, the first bridge to cross this huge river at this point, not built until the 1930s, promptly destroyed in World War II, and rebuilt by the Germans.

By the time we got across it was lunchtime and we stopped at the nearest restaurant, 't Poortwachterhuis. Easy to choose it: it was closer than the Museum café, our first goal; and a white-jacketed cook was leaning against the wall outside the front door enjoying the sun, and when I asked him how the kitchen was here, Good enough, he said, good enough for your lunch; so in we went, to find a wonderful old-style dining room: burnt orange walls, white-framed windows, lots of old furniture most of it bearing bottles and glasses and decanters and vases, sparkling white linen on the comfortably spaced tables.

There was, again, no menu; just a few suggestions from the waiter, a pleasant, tall, thin, blond young man who slipped easily between Dutch and English. We all had zeetong, sole, simply cooked in butter, served with a lemon and side dishes of the obligatory potatoes and other groentjes: broccoli, green beans, salad. Delicious.

And then on through a posh, interesting neighborhood perched on the bluff that forms the eastern border of Nijmegen, which sits high above the Waal; and down an improbably steep road to Ubbergen (whose name, I bet, originally meant "under the mountains," or something of the sort); and a short wait in a bus-stop shelter whose advertising window was being replaced by a CBS advertising crew, one guy who drove a VW panel truck, another in a Mercedes panel truck, both deft at their work but much slower when it came to talking about it and writing it up and all that when the job was done. (But then, it was too late in the day, past three o'clock, to rush on to another job.)

And before long the bus came and we headed back to Nijmegen to spend an hour or so in the Museum Valkhof, which Lindsey and I know pretty well but which would introduce Giovanna to the long and interesting history of this city.

We showered and changed, and walked down to the Vlaamse Brasserie for dinner -- I'd seen it yesterday, while looking unsuccessfully for a cable to connect my Palm to my laptop. (Yes, I'm carrying both. How did you think I was writing and uploading these things?) It turned out to be brash and noisy, of course, and a great deal of fun, with its open kitchen, its rushing waiters, and its complex menu. I had calf's liver and onions -- I never miss a chance to have it -- and a good salad and a passable house wine. There are other places to eat hereabouts, they told us at lunch yesterday; but today felt like a fast and simple dinner, especially after the slow and simple lunch we'd had. Time enough for gourmandise tomorrow.

Lingepad 9: Hemmen-Osterhout

En route to Oosterhout
other photos:
Leerdam-Buren Photos
Buren-Ochten Photos
April 11--

A nice conversation with our hosts this morning. They took this place a couple of years ago; they only make the rooms available from time to time, since they do a lot of traveling themselves. A son is working in Spain, where he's building a house; they go there often, more than once by bicycle. They used to travel often in Asia, especially Indonesia and Southeast Asia, but it's too dangerous now. Mevr. Janssen is fluent in Indonesian; they like it there; but it's too dangerous.

Hemmen is a nice little place to live. There's not much to it, but the next town, Zetten, has just about anything you need, and it's not far -- we walked there last night for dinner, in fact, at a pizzeria: ok until a collection of yobs and goths came in, boisterous and in-your-face and endlessly smoking; but by that time we were about finished with our pizza anyhow.

We walked back through Zetten this morning, and then after a kilometer or two hit the first deviation from our Lingepad guidbook as it was published nearly ten years ago, a sizable detour adding at least a mile to the day's walk, a detour occasioned by the new railroad line we've been crisscrossing. It is apparently a high-speed line, with state-of-the-art signals and extra turnouts and sound walls along the entire length of the line, from the Europort in the west, near Rotterdam, all the way to the German border and, for all I know, on beyond there even.

Yesterday, as we crossed it on an overpass, Hans explained that it was very controversial: it will carry nothing but freight, hundreds and hundreds of containers of imports from China; it was extremely expensive to build; no one wanted it in their neighborhood, with its waste and its noise and pollution and energy demands. It came in far over budget, of course, and long past its due date. And it's not in operation yet, because of hundreds of lawsuits and objections, all of which have to be debated and analyzed and mediated and, probably, finally, tried. And it's all there just to move freight into Germany.

I wondered if the Hanseatic League had to put up with this sort of thing, five hundred years ago. Typical Shere Question, Hans undoubtedly thought.

This morning Mr. Janssen returned to the New Railroad theme, and his report was remarkably similar to Hans's. But as far as we are concerned the chief impact is a two-kilometer deviation in today's walk, taking us at first past a number of houses under construction -- eight or ten of them, huge, in the traditional Dutch style with two storeys and a capacious hip roof and room for a garden of topiaries out front and a pasture of Shetland ponies or goats or geese out back.

I'd read about the detour on the Lingepad website, and between the description and the map it wasn't too hard to figure out, so we didn't lose a lot of time. We soon rejoined the published itinerary, passing an honors-pay stand of little potted plants (with a sign offering also a couple of free hens, one small, one big, ask within); and a small apple orchard one tree of which had recently been blown over but was nonetheless in full bloom; and a fine white old-fashioned windmill, the kind with a tall gable-roofed twostorey house balanced on a stubby cone-shaped base, with a long outrigger by which to shove it around to face the wind, and a staircase leading up the outrigger, and four enormous arms, their sails furled for the moment but obviously ready for work.

And then, in the distance, the steeple of the Oosterhout church, another Romanesque-looking brick one; but first more outskirts, with long low barn-houses whose doors and shutters are painted mauve or blue or dark dark green with those marvelous hard, glossy Dutch enamels; and lanes across pastures, or within woods; and then, just when we can't bear waiting any longer for lunch, we come upon a completely unexpected thing: a very fine restaurant up on the dike, next to one of those European camping-grounds meant for crowds of tiny camper-trailers.

I will write separately one of these days about our restaurant experiences on this trip: it'll be a little specialized, I suppose, of interest only to fines bouches and foodies. Suffice it for the moment that De Altena is the best restaurant of this walk so far, and I don't imagine it will get much better. (I don't count Amsterdam's Marius in this, of course: first, it's not on the walk; second, Marius is always hors de question, outside any comparison.)

We sat, the three of us, on a terrace overlooking the Waal, the river we've been flirting with these last three days. (I refer to it occasionally in these dispatches as the Maas, but that is in error: it's the Waal, always the Waal.) We were waited on by two young women, one new to the job but enthusiastic and skillful, the other clearly associated with the place for quite a long time.

There was no choice of courses, simply a house lunch-menu -- though when I mentioned that I couldn't eat seafood with legs, namely crab, lobster, shrimp and the like, that seemed to pose no problem. And then we had a truly wonderful succession of courses: salmon tartare and a cup of asparagus soup; bread and butter and a curiosity: really good olive oil somehow gelled into a butterlike consitency for spreading; soft, creamy, delicate cod on a bed of mushrooms; duck breast on a grilled potato slice with a couple of spears of green asparagus; panna cotta with raspberry coulis, chocolate sorbet with cracking-sugared hazelnuts, and a traditional Dutch cookie made elegant with chocolate and marzipan. Oh: and a fine white wine from Languedoc, and a red from Puglia, and delicious coffee.

All this left us with little to do but walk another kilometer or two into town -- Oosterhout -- and fall into a bus that magically appeared at the very moment to take us to tonight's hotel, the Atlanta, in Nijmegen. And next time I'll tell you something about that hotel.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Lingepad 8: Pottum - Hemmen

The road to Hemmen
other photos:
Leerdam-Buren Photos
Buren-Ochten Photos
April 10--

Over breakfast (as usual: hardboiled egg, cheese, meat, gingerbread, roll, white bread, brown bread, jam, coffee, but an orange instead of juice) we hear a little of Mevr. Quint's history. Her husband raised milk-cows, but he died ten years ago, and the cows are gone; only a few chickens are left. (Our eggs are their contribution.) That's her cousin visiting her; she lives up in Arnhem, but visits once or twice a year.

Regretfully, almost, we decide it's time to hit the road again, and I ask for de rekening -- the bill. Forty-five Euros, for two rooms and breakfast. It seems absurdly cheap. Wouldn't fifty be better? She smiles shyly but thankfully, and I hand her a fifty-Euro note.

In a moment Hans arrives, having driven down from Apeldoorn. We drive to the nearby bus stop on the outskirts of Ochten; he parks nearby, and we set out toward today's goal, Hemmen. This took us back through Ochten and then the Waal. We walked first along a good-sized harbor protected from the river by a long bar; but soon the dike was set away from the river by only a narrow strip of pastureland, almost all of it put to good use. Many cows, of course, only a few of them the "sheet-cows," so called because they are black with a white patch like a sheet thrown over their backs.

Shetland ponies seem to be a big business here, though most of them are found farther from the river, in twos and threes in people's yards, or on bigger farms that seem to specialize in them -- one wonders what the market is for all these animals.

After four kilometers or so our map-guidebook promised us a pannekoekenhuis -- with the excellent name "De Strooppot," "the syrup-pitcher," it didn't seem it could possibly miss. When we drew near it though -- it stands isolated on the dike-road where another road branches off -- we were disturbed to see no cars parked, no sign of life beyond one complacent householder watering his garden. The pancake-house closed five years ago, he told us; we'd have to walk on, hungry and thirsty.

Oh well. Three kilometers more and we'll come to Dodewaard, not a very promising name (it looks like "deadward" to me, and indeed it's the home of a thankfully decommissioned nuclear generating plant); there another café is promised.

Along with something you don't see every day: an 11th-century church, which turns out to be a beautiful one, Romanesque in its northern way, brick of course, with a Roman sarcophagus-top embedded in its tower, who knows why.

Even stranger: a walled animal-garden adjoining the church is home to four albino wallabies, a disgusting sight -- perhaps they were laboratory white rats subjected to disturbing genetic-material accident by the power plant when it was in operation.

Our walk led us past them and through a pleasant wooded park, and we came out at a gate where two housewives were having a conversation. Oh no, they said, the café closed some time ago, there's no place to eat in Dodewaard, at least nowhere near this part of Dodewaard. But there's always de Engel, de oudste herberge in Nederland. We found it on our map just a little off our course, and lost no time getting there.

It may not actually be the oldest auberge in the Netherlands, and in any case it's been entirely rebuilt and updated; but we had delicious pannekoeken here, and then a fascinating talk with the chef-owner. He'd bought the place just before the 1993 flood, which wrecked the place even though it's not actually on the Waal but rather on a backwater; and he vowed that such a thing would never happen again.

He installed heavy-duty concrete posts at intervals around the terrace of the restaurant, with slots to accept heavy hardwood planks which otherwise function as floorboards in the patio. When the 1995 flood threatened he had his chance to try this out. It'll never work, the villagers told him, but he watched as the water rose to within inches of the top of his flood-fence, and be damned if it didn't hold; no water came into the building.

He showed us photos of the flood, and they convinced us. How do you seal the boards in the grooves in the concrete posts, I asked; what keeps the water from seeping in? He smiled a little sheepishly. Horse shit, he said; we seal it with horse shit. It's not very nice for a restaurant, I suppose, but it's better than floodwater.

On, then, to the Hemmen-Dodewaard railroad station where Hans left us; and on then another three kilometers to tonight's bed, in a new B&B in the charming town of Hemmen, well away from the river. A church and perhaps a dozen houses owe their tranquillity to the Van Lynden family, who owned almost everything around here from 1375 until 1931, when the last baron, Frans Godard, died without issue, leaving it all to a foundation.

The castle garden was still closed for the winter, warm and early though this Spring is; but we slowed our pace, grateful for the shadow of immense elms and the quiet of a very sleepy village; and we easily found our B&B, a new one we'd found on the Lingepad internet site.

It's in a new house, one of five row houses recently built on the edge of the village, and exactly on the Lingepad itself. Here a retired seaman and his wife have a pleasant home downstairs and two huge rooms to rent out upstairs; and here we slept very well indeed.