Ik hou van Amsterdam!

When i drew up my bucket list, Amsterdam was the first city i wrote down in the section of places where I want to stay a little longer than a fun weekend away. After St Petersburg and Medellin, it is the third city i am now getting to see. i have been here many times with work or privately, but always felt there is more to this great city and its people than a short visit would reveal. My first visit private visit was in 2000 after a nights long rave at the Hanover world expo, the last one in October 2016 where i got stuck in heavy fog (bonus night for me i guess). This time i give myself more time to immerse myself here. Let’s see how that goes!

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So what’s the plan? Learning a little Dutch is a thing of courtesy and hopefully less painful than Russian. Then the ambition is to also to work if I can find something. Let’s see how this will pan out. What i really look forward is meeting friends / family from Germany (Frances, Steve, Max already signed up), some of the many Dutch people i met on my journey such as Jan (Issad farm experience) or Frits (Diamond Muay Thai) and a visit from a very good friend from far away. Fun times ahead. 

Setting in slowly: Since my language course only kicked off Monday, I had the best part of last week to settle in. After settling into my studio in Haarlemmerbuurt, which is right by baba coffee shop, I spent most time strolling through town, watching football and celebrating St Patrick’s day. Given the expectedly long list of visitors in the next weeks, i skipped visiting museums for now. i love the architecture here in a city on the shores of the same water that runs through london and st petersburg. its just amazing to get lost in Amsterdam, wander along the canals and check the vibe in bars, cafes and coffee shops. Sadly, the cold weather gave me my first flu of the year. should have stayed in thailand a little longer ;o)

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Top bars / pubs so far

  • Cafe Chaos: Formerly an orphanage nicely decorated with lots of angel figures. As tradition goes, you through the empty peanut shells on the floor (no joke) as the oil is apparently good for the floor. 
  • Grasshopper: A touch touristic, but always feels good to stop by for a beer or two. 
  • De Sluyswacht: Fantastic ambiente in this little pub/cafe. Just take a look at the picture and you will understand. Biggest memory is the weekend that I spent here with Tibo in 2010 – when the icelandic volcano eruption grounded world travel … purple stuff everywhere ;o)
  • Blarney Stone: An irish pub right in the centre that is close enough to walk over for a footie match, or indeed, St Patrick’s.

First days back at school: Learning dutch is so far much less painful than any other language. Its a mix of German, English and Swedish. Homework is usually done very quickly, as i don’t stumble over all the small words that drive me crazy in other languages and the grammar is very much like german. however, understanding what people say on the street will still take a while (especially since everyone speaks english here). The school (http://www.dutchcoursesamsterdam.nl/) feels a bit different than the schools in St. Pete or Medellin.

There are 6 of us in the beginner class – from Italy, India, Australia, Switzerland and Germany. Most of the students live here already a while (partners, work etc) and now take up the studies. So not people that just visit for a few weeks, as was the case in other schools. there are no group activities after class, which is a bit sad. One challenge for me is to juggle learning three languages at once – dutch, russian and spanish. teachers kindly scaled back the homework outside dutch a little. Still, i am looking at 40 hours of language related time (school, skype lessons, homework) each week. So it certainlky doesnt get boring.


London: Crazy weather, busy schedule …

I hadn’t been in my flat since I left for Colombia and time back in London turned out pretty busy. Time with Alex, language lessons, first steps towards my motorcycle licence, catching up with friends & neighbours, preparing for Amsterdam … the list was long and time was flying. Overall, I was in good spirits as i worked down my list. Next stop Amsterdam! 

Weather chaos: Arriving back in London from Portugal felt like arriving on winter holidays. Snow everywhere as the ‘beast from  the east’ brought a proper cold front to the island. It was fun to see how kids dealt with it as snowmen appeared (a rare sight in central London) and kids took off the wheels from their skateboards to ride down small hills as if on snowboards. Naturally, London sunk into chaos – trains, metro etc all struggled to run proper services. School was cancelled for three days, as not enough teachers could make it to work. An advantage for Alex mum, as I could take him on all days leaving her on her usual schedule. After a few freezing days the weather swung pretty abruptly and now looks more like spring with temperatures of 10 degrees or more. That’s more like London should be in March! 

Alex back at home: Alex was so happy to move back into his ‘headquarters’ and spending time with daddy. His dog Charlie, which he only got in January, didn’t turn out to be a problem. I expected him to ask to see him rather often – he didn’t ask once to my surprise. Instead we run through the routine of school runs, homework (more Russian!), after school clubs, Russian school & concert, Sunday church, playdates and a lot of time to relax together – especially as he had three days off school due to the weather. I was proud to see him perform at the Russian concert the saturday preceding mothering sunday – well done big man! Ahh … it was also nice to cook a little in my own kitchen including Alex’ favorite – lasagne.

Language craze enters another level: I started Russian Skype lessons after I returned from Colombia, as I felt I was forgetting all i learned which would be a waste. Since then I enjoyed weekly classes with Daria and feel much more comfortable now though the grammar still does my head in and new vocab is tricky. I keep trying. The same goes for Spanish, though the language is generally easier for me. I now have weekly classes with two teachers to improve understanding and flow of speech – Edu from Venezuela & Laura from Colombia. Downside of it all is loads of homework to improve vocabulary, grammar etc. As if that wasn’t enough I also started to train Dutch  a little bit ahead of my Amsterdam trip and the two weeks language school. Thank god that my German and English gives me a little head-start. Let’s see how it goes on the ground and how I will manage to keep up doing all three. 


Motorcycle licence – first step taken: I started to do my licence already in 2010, but sadly never got around to finish it. Given i have a few dreams of motorcycle tours on my bucket list, it was time to get going. There are three parts to the license. First, a general skills test called CBT (compulsory basic training), then a theory test and finally the practical training & test on a big bike (600ccm+). Hope to get it all sorted before summer though I don’t have immediate trips planned. Big dream is to ride the panamericana one day – just as Daniel who I met in Colombia half way on his tour from Alaska. Let’s take it step by step.

Getting ready for Amsterdam: As usual when I am back home, there is a long list of things to sort out. First on the list was a major washing session. While I regularly wash my clothes when travelling, keeping it in the same bags eventually requires an all-round session cleaning everything. There were many other things like seeing dentist, doctor, sorting the flat and loads of admin stuff. I didn’t get boring. Then there was stuff to sort for Amsterdam. First language school (just two weeks though) and a place to stay. Being there for about two month doesn’t make it easier. Places to stay are in high demand. If you stay only a short while then airbnb is a decent option, but for two month its too pricey. Likewise, you normally don’t get into the mid/long term rental market as tenancies even for rooms start typically from 6 month. I was lucky to get hold of a studio in Amsterdam’s Jordaan district not far from the centre. That was after a video call with the landlady. They do take it serious as to who will live in their place. 

Catching up with friends & neighbours: This time I was better prepared to meet my typically very busy friends in London and booked time with them early on for a few good evenings out to catch-up on life. Here it came handy that I didn’t have Alex all the time as i did previously and could conveniently schedule meetings on my evenings off. Hope to get as much planning security for future stints back home. Very enjoyable was the catch-up with the old UBS lads (to my surprise the former office building in Liverpool street is gone), dinner at Tom & Marta’s, catching up with Sara & Paul and the lunch with my neighbours Dom & Jane over a good Swiss raclette – a new favourite meal for Alex who loves to melt the cheese and fry meat by himself. 

One day in Sintra … city of kings!

Sintra had not been on my original travel plans, but something I picked up on the way. It was anyway just possible after I completed the fisherman’s way quicker than expected. So why Sintra? Well, it’s basically a really nice town and world heritage site located about 40mins from Lisbon by train. A really worthwhile day trip I found – completely different from the outdoor experience of the fisherman’s trail.


Sintra’s charm stems from several royal estates and palaces that bring along a lot of history (full wiki info here). I visited palace of Sintra, the impressive Pena national palace (looks like a castle from a fairytale) and Monserrate (with it’s amazing gardens) – to do all at once is too much for one day unless you just want to race through the estates. You can visit them using the local bus services (EUR12,50 per day, see map above). I skipped the visit to mainland Europe’s westernmost point Cabo da Roca (see here) for reasons of poor weather … rain had really caught up with me after a sunny week … and it was foggy as hell.


Saxon Kings in Portugal

I was a little surprised to see the german royals of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld mentioned on a large board in Pena palace. Indeed, Ferdinand the nephew of the duke Ernest I. married the Portuguese queen Maria II. and rules Portugal until the country became a republic in 1910. Ernest is no nobody, having fathered Prince Albert who later married Queen Victoria of England and thus the progenitor of the current royal family.


Naturally, the downside is that Sintra attracts heaps of tourists, which impacts the atmosphere and most certainly the pricing – I felt like being back in London. It’s wise to get early to Sintra (before the train that arrives 11am) to see place like Pena before all the day trippers and organised tours arrive.

Pena national palace


Sintra Palace




And then it was time to return to a totally frozen London. The airport was pretty busy, but my own mood had picked up from what was a day of many thoughts for me. Back to winter sports and most importantly, Alex!

View from my house the next morning



Time for a Ginya

Lisbon: Notes from my afternoon tour

The bus over from Porto Covo took a good two hours, but was pretty convenient and had good speed, free wifi (Rede Expressos). It drops you in Lisbon Sete Rios station or the zoo to make it simple. There are good public transport links from  there. The weather was no longer stellar and hence I decided on a bit of culture by joining the free tour in Lisbon’s city center – usually a good, alternative view on the city.

We met 3pm at Largo do Chiado – not far from my favorite district, the bohemian Bairro Alto. While learning a ton about Lisbon & Portugal, we moved through the center, the castle and finally into the medieval district with lots of more traditional housing akin to time pre-earth quake (though mostly rebuilt). The guide was pretty detailed at times, but overall a very interesting afternoon that we concluded with a shot of Ginja liquor – tasty! I put a few bullets below with some interesting facts I picked up.


A few facts about Lisbon … (more on wiki if you like)

  • Oldest city in Europe: While not quite the oldest continually inhabited city in the world (as the guide claimed), it is the oldest in Europe. The oldest globally is Damascus (or whats left of it).
  • Oldest established borders since 1249 making it the country with the longest defined borders. 
  • 10 countries speak Portuguese: I was somewhat surprised to hear that so many countries speak Portuguese – be it some are very small. They are Brasil (207m people), Angola (29m), Mozambique (27m), Portugal (11m), Guinea-Bissau (2m), East Timor (1m), Equatorial Guinea (<1m), Macao (<1m), Cape Verde (<1m), Sao Tome and Principe (<1m). The countries span the entire globe of what used to be the first global superpower. 
  • Arabic influences: The moors (more specifically, their occupation) left marks not only in Spanish lingua, but also i Portugues with c8% of the vocabulary coming from Arabic rather than latin. For example, the algarve region simply denotes ‘west’ in arabic [pronounced ‘gharb’] – so al-gharb = the west. 
  • Vasco da Gama: Reached India in 1498 as the first European and still most famous Portuguese. His achievements were fundamental to make Portugal the first truely global empire. On my travels I have come across the Portuguese in many places uch as Macao and most recently in Bahrain (trading post & fortress). Nagasaki is another unsuspecting example of their influence – while the fishing village existed before, it was the trading the P. initiated that made it bigger.
  • Carnation revolution: Portugal was one of the longest lasting authoritarian dictatorships in the world. In 1974 it ended in a revolution with almost no shots leading the country into demoscracy and ending the disliked colonial wars for which many Portuguese men & youth were conscripted.
  • Lisbon earthquake in 1755: At 8,5-9 magnitude one of the most potent earthquakes ever recorded (top spot goes to Chile in 1960 at 9,4-9,6). I devasted Lisbon, but also many countries around. 15% of Portuguese population died & two thirds a of Lisbon’s inhabitants. The king, afraid it could happen again, lived in a tent for the coming 20 years. At the time it was considered divine intervention as it happened on All Saints day (1 Nov) where not only many people gathered in churches, but also lit candles – all of which made things worse. After the earthquake – the city was hit by a huge Tsunami wiping out those the seeked refuge near the water. It did, however, also inspire new techonology and ways to constuct a city (such as the Baixa district). Given large quakes happen every 250-300y, the next one is due soon.
  • Igreja de São Domingos: I only visited one church in Portugal (well, exclude those that are part of castles). It is right in the center of Lisbon and has now burnt 20 times. Appearantly, it was cursed to keep burning by a Jewish family following the Lisbon massacre outside the church (1506) killing thousands of Jews. The family relocated to Amsterdam and built the largest synagoge there (‘Portuguese synagogue’)
  • Orange = Portugal: In some langauges like Persian, Portugal refers to the country as well as the orange fruit. It was brought to Europe by, you guessed it, the P.
  • Codfish central: Lisbon & Portugal love theior codfish or Bacalhau as they call it. It usually comes in salted & dried form and features high & often in local cuisine.
  • Ginya liquor: A liquor made from sour cherries. Really tasty, so don’t miss to try one as you visit Lisbon.

Fisherman’s trail (Rota Vicentina): Almograve – Vila Nova de Milfontes – Porto Covo

The last day for me on the trail had arrived – a total of 175km in a little more than 5 days. While there were still two stages to go (35km in total), my plan was to do a double today and move on to visit Lisbon and Sintra before heading home to spend time with Alex.

The first stage to Vila Nova de Milfontes went pretty quick. It’s just 15km and mostly on solid hiking path’. In fact, you get to the city already after 11km (so a bit more than 2h), but on the wrong side of the river. The ferry service wasn’t operating and hence left me no choice but to walk the 4km across the bridge further up the river.

Weather was still good though with a few more clouds. Rain was forecast for the coming days – an extra motivation to get the trip wrapped up. Rain is very much-needed, as the country already faces water shortages with reservoir levels running very low. A theme that echoed in several places i visited.

I reached Vila Nova right on time for lunch though I somehow managed to sit down in probably the only restaurant that wouldn’t serve food on that fine Sunday. Instead the waiter was busy grilling fish for himself in front of my nose. Well, I had my own food anyway ;o)

The final 20km stretch to Porto Covo was slow. The path was now mainly sand again. About two hours after Vila Nova I met a hikers going the opposite direction. It was now after 3pm and when they told me they had left Porto Covo 10am I figured I am in for a long day. However, the path soon improved as it led don from the cliffs onto the beach. On the wet bits you can walk pretty well actually.

Here I met a fellow hiker also Porto Covo bound. His name is Alex and he is from Sheffield where he deals in clothing though aims at minimising the time in England and rather prefers to spend time in cheaper places – sounds familiar.

Different to most hikers (e.g. 90% German & early 20’s), he is in my age category and has seen a few things in life. We had a rather entertaining and at times pretty deep conversation about life, relationships and the pros & cons of our lifestyle. Glad to have met him. He will be a few more weeks in Portugal – general direction of travel being North towards Porto.

After a short visit to a fortress on the way, we reached Porto Covo by 6pm – a pretty little town right on the sea. We checked into the hostel (‘Ahoy’), which had been recommended to us. Nikolai runs it and is super helpful setting you up and giving you some good tips. We were hungry and hit town for a bit of food (and, of course, a football game in the background). With us was a french fellow (Hughes from near Paris) who also stayed in Ahoy and so yet again the evening turned out pretty entertaining and let the pain in the feet disappear as if by magic.

And here I was. End of the trail. It was beautiful and one of the most scenic routes I have come across. Many amazing people, some interesting new knowledge and a good break from the troubles i encountered the last week. Buen camino!

Here the whole route from Cabo de Sao Vicente – 175km away