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Travel Tales: Crossing the European waters by train

by Jan Wheatcroft

I love train travel. This year my friend Frances and I planned to visit Holland while I was staying in England. We could fly on one of the “cheaper” airlines which has a list of suitcase restrictions for carry-ons that I always fail. Then you’re sardined in a non-reclinable seat and the plane always lands far outside the city. I prefer to cross over to Europe by train.

The trip is made easier at your departure by carrying out all the border regulations for both the British side and the French side at the same time. Upon arrival, you just saunter out of the local train station or transfer to another train. Trés simple. The King’s Cross St. Pancras International station is quite lovely and clever Frances waited until the first day of sales for our tickets. She got the inexpensive tickets booked round trip from London to Amsterdam with a change of trains in Brussels. On the day of departure, we were able to board, store our bags at the end of the coach, find our assigned seats and take off. 

As far as I am concerned this is the most pleasant way to travel. We passed a lot of countryside on both sides of the darkness of the tunnel, mostly it was farmland. It was interesting to see the different arrangements of English farms and French farms. Once we arrived, there was no “entry” as we had done that before we left. 

I like Holland a lot. The people are really friendly and there are a gaggle of bikes. I really enjoy the atmosphere along the canals. And cheese has a life here.  Small village life is as interesting as living in the bigger cities. And the train stations are just great. In the smaller towns there may not be a ticket seller but there is an elevator up to each platform, which made my old arms very happy to not drag the bag up a series of stairs.  

We spent our first four nights in a small village about 30 minutes from Amsterdam by train. We dragged our bags and our backpacks until we found our B & B, located in a very old building, which housed only two rooms and a lovely garden. Our room was a garrett room with a sloping ceiling, a small cooking area and a fantastic bathroom that had a super ultra violet heat lamp in the shower. We loved using it.

Our breakfast was a huge spread of breads, rolls, sweet treats, cheeses and an egg. Meat was available but we declined. We also had coffee, tea and juice. Well-fueled, we could start our day of exploration. Since we were on the second floor, we had to go up the narrow stairs that wound about. I could only get up by hands and feet and Frances found that she could only get down by going backwards. But we kept ourselves amused. 

On the first night, we found a small local restaurant in an old building just down the street from our B & B. The atmosphere was charming but the food was rather poor and disappointing. A gentleman from another table came over to us at the end of the meal (he was with his wife and teenage daughter) and said that he heard me talking about the town of Claremont and asked if I was from there. I said I was.

“I was born and raised there right near the high school,” he said, “Now I live in South Pasadena.” The world is such a small place, really. 

I love the old Dutch streets and the older houses. Some streets are cobbled and the houses begin directly on the sidewalks. Flowers are not overlooked and they tumble from window boxes and jolly pots placed next to doors. There gardens are jammed with bright colors and bright green trees.

The old architecture of the flat-faced buildings with little windows at the top make the houses look larger than they actually are. When we peeked around the back of the flat-faced buildings we realized that the room with the window was very small in the back. The wall was like a false front.

This town had gathered many windmills together along with other old buildings along a canal and made a “village park” showing what life was like in times past. The windmills were actually working grinding grain or clay. We took a lovely boat ride along the canal, which was another way of enjoying the sites. We got to see many different styles and sizes of windmills, these graceful working “women” reaching their arms up to embrace the wind and use it.

And then we stopped for a cup of coffee on the walk home. Nice foamy lattes and buns are so satisfying after being outdoors. The weather was variable. Bright blue skies filled with fat satisfied clouds enjoying themselves as they played above us. Then the grey ones pushed their way in and the temperature would drop for a while. I always had my rain slicker and we carried umbrellas.

Sometimes we ate out and sometimes we heated packaged soup from the supermarket. I really enjoy prowling around a supermarket in foreign countries. It can be as much an adventure as wandering down a strange street.

When our four days in the Dutch village were over we made our way to the train station in a bike pedal rickshaw with our cases piled around us for the next part of our Dutch adventure.

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