Utrecht, Belgium, Düsseldorf

When I last wrote, we were in the waterworld of Maasbommel looking for floating houses. We found them, and, after looking at them from all angles, we moved west, meandering through the countryside toward Utrecht. The Maas is traversed by several small car ferries along its length and we took the opportunity to sail back and forth a couple of times – the cheapest way to get out on the water – and we diverted into open studio day in the town of Zaltbommel for a couple of hours, so it was late afternoon by the time we arrived in our campground, Camping de Boomgaard, outside of Utrecht.

This turned out to be the perfect campground for exploring Utrecht: 10 minutes walk from the train station at Bunnik (which is a single stop from the central station), and in the middle of the city suburbs, yet set in an orchard and buffered from the noise of the train and the highway by trees. There was laundry, and lots of space to walk Ethan, clean washrooms, and friendly staff. It was one of the nicest campgrounds we stopped at, and I’d highly recommend it as a Utrecht base.

The next morning, Sunday, we woke up early and headed into Utrecht for the day, with the University Museum Utrecht as our destination. This turned out to be a combination science centre and paean to the greatness of the university; there were some really great little exhibits – a tour through the human body was compelling – along with a lot of dry material about the evolution of the university campus. The highlight was the “Jeugdlab” on the top floor, an area for young people to explore and experiment that was well-constructed and staffed by a very talented facilitator who was a big help in our enjoying of the experience.

Sunday night we rendezvoused at a nearby Indonesian restaurant with Edward Hasbrouck and his partner Ruth. I’ve been corresponding with Edward for more than 10 years, but we’d never met, and their cycle trip through Europe came close enough to our camper trip through Europe that they graciously arranged to divert from Belgium into Utrecht to meet up. It turned out to be a great meal with kindred spirits, made all the more interesting by the fact that Edward’s book, The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, has been so influential in shaping my own thoughts about independent travel.

Monday morning we were faced with a fork in the road: we needed to be in Düsseldorf on Wednesday morning to return our VW camper, and so we had one night of camping left, one more destination to squeeze in. Given that Belgium was so close – the western part of the country only a little more than an hour from Utrecht – I advocated for a quick overnight jaunt there; my advocacy prevailed, and so late that afternoon we pulled into Campinastrand, just outside the town of Dessel.

The campground was one that had obviously seen better days in an earlier time: the vestiges of a glorious well-equipped past were everywhere and, while not without its charms, we found it rough around the edges compared to other campgrounds we’d stayed at. The owner was a friendly man, however, and he got us set up with electricity at a spot beside what could charitably be called a “lagoon.” We enjoyed some Belgian beer on the terrace, took a nice walk around the fishing lakes that dotted the campground, cooked a meal in the camper, and then tucked in for a night punctuated by the arrival, in the middle of the night, by a gaggle of young rock festival refugees stopping over for the night: when we awoke we found a trailed parked 3 feet from the back of our van.

The next morning we packed up and headed west toward Düsseldorf, stopping in the pleasant city of Eindhoven for the afternoon for some lunch and shopping (and, for me, a pleasant hour at the beautiful Eindhoven Public Library). By supper time we were re-installed in the Rheincamping Meerbusch campground north of Düsseldorf where we’d spent our first night two weeks earlier. After a nice meal on the patio at the campground bar we set to work packing and cleaning, readying for our return of the van the next morning.

We woke up early on Wednesday, did a final round of packing and cleaning, and headed off to our Airbnb apartment in central Düsseldorf, where I dropped off Catherine and Oliver, and then onward to the DRM franchise in the southern part of the city to drop the van. I then headed back into the city by train, picked up Catherine and Oliver, and we headed for lunch with our friends Pedro and Patrícia. We spent the afternoon with them, grabbed supper at a nice Italian restaurant near our apartment, and then fell fast asleep – in real beds for the first time in weeks! – packed and ready to head to the airport on Thursday morning.

Simultaneous Deutschgasm

Longtime readers will recall that a regular feature of our small family’s travel exploits is forgetting to eat. Or eat least leaving the eating for far too long. Today was no exception.

We started off so well: with a tour of the Kröller-Müller Museum planned as the central element of the day, I lobbied for an early lunch so as to take in the van Gogh et al on a full stomach. The family rallied around this idea, and so we enjoyed a heaty lunch of “maaltijdsaladesat” – it’s a meal, in a salad! – at Monsieur Jacques, the museum’s busy café. We were fed and heavy into the Vincent by 12:30 noon.

Three hours later, with our minds full and our hearts satisified, I hopped on one of the free white bicycles and dashed back over to the nearby park visitors centre to pick up our van, returned to pick up Catherine, Oliver and Ethan, and we were off, leaving our two days Nationale Park De Hoge Veluwe behind us with happy memories.

Georges Seurat, The Harbour and the Quays at Port-en-Bessin

We’ve been navigating around the Netherlands using a combination of my phone’s Google-powered navigation app (when I have a SIM that’s data-enabled), notes scribbled into the sides of brochures from a morning fill of wifi (when I don’t have mobile data) and by the seats of our pants (when all else fails). Today was a little bit of each: I eked out a little wifi on the way out of the park, scrawled down a few notes, and we knew the general direction of our trip to the watery region of Maasbommel (choosen as today’s destination because we both fondly recall a documentary watched years ago on its amphibious houses).

Unfortunately, this ad hoc approach to navigation failed us today, and we ended up on more than one “oh, that was the wrong turn – and there’s not another exit on this highway for 35 km” misadventures.

And so a promised 59 minute trip quickly stretched into a couple of hours.

But every unwanted diversion has a payoff, and so we found ourselves sailing across the river Maas on a tiny ferry built for a half-dozen cars:

The Maasbommel Ferry

While the high of unexpected water-journey was enough to keep us out of catatonia temporarily, soon the skies opened up with rain, and the struggle to find a campground took over, and that early lunch started to look foolhardy as it receded in the past.

We pushed on, however, and resolved, once our campsite was secured, to find a grocery store and restock the van’s pantry.

This too was easier said than done: we found a sign for “Supermarkt,” followed it, but none manifested. We reversed and still found nothing. Finally we spotted a man walking along the road; we slowed, Catherine rolled down her window.

“English?”, she asked, tentatively.

“Deutsch!”, he proclaimed.

“Supermarket?”, I asked, thinking this a universal enough term.

The man then proceeded to recite directions to the village supermarket in German.

At the conclusion of which we thanked him heartily, rolled up the window, looked at each other in surprise and the simulataneous realization that we’re understood absolutely every word he’s said. Despite knowing only 10 words of German between the two of us.

Wordlessly we followed his directions to a T, and five minutes later I was in the grocery store buying yogurt, bread and pasta.

Our campsite, available for a single night only, alas, is right on the side of the same body of water we’d crossed earlier in the day by ferry, looking out at a collection of ducks and geese and with the sounds of water lapping at the shore to lull us to sleep.

Maasbommel Campsite

Tomorrow we’re on to Utrecht.

Annals of Travellers Cheques

I am the last generation to have used “travellers cheques” as a regular part of international travel: kids today, with their fancy ATM cards have no idea.

Travellers cheques, for those of you younger than me, are perhaps best described as “money that you can get back if it’s stolen.”

One went to the bank and handed over cash: in return one received a numbered series of registered “cheques” that could be turned back into cash during travels. There’s an American Express televsion ad from the 1950s that explains it well. The system was based on a system of dual-signatures: you signed each cheque on receipt, and then again on cashing. If your signatures matched, presumably you were the owner of the cheques. Should the cheques be lost or stolen during travel, they could be replaced.

And, in fact, this actually happened to me once: I was in Seoul, South Korea visiting my brother Steve in 1998. We’d checked into a tiny hotel on the night of my arrival and somehow, between checking out of the hotel in the morning and arriving at the train station several hours later to book travel south, my Thomas Cook travellers cheques went missing. We went back to the hotel and scoured the room and the garbage, but to no avail. So I figured out how to call Thomas Cook from a pay phone and was given instructions as to where to go for replacement. We made our way to the 10th floor of a shiny office block, found the office, and within 30 minutes I walked out with new cheques.

By the time we visited Thailand in 2002 (after a 4 year break from travel during which we moved house and Oliver was born) the shift to debit cards had begun: in theory I could put my Metro Credit Union debit card into any ATM in the world and withdraw cash. And, generally, that worked in practice: there were always a few ATMs on a trip that would spit out the card for some reason – wrong network, etc. – but more often than not it just worked.

And twelve years later, here in Europe, we generally don’t give how-to-get-cash issues a second thought: ATMs are everywhere, they work 99% of the time, they dispense whatever the local currency happens to be, and the surcharge for currency conversion is generally reasonable (for example, I withdrew 150 EUR from my account on Wednesday; this cost me $224.75 CAD; the Bank of Canada exchange rate for EUR to CAD for that date reports $218.91).

What’s gone missing in all of this is: what happens if you lose your debit card?

It’s never happened to me, but I imagine it most have happened to many thousands of others.

I wonder if most banks and credit unions have a system for quickly replacing debit cards that matches the old travellers cheques replacement system in speed an convenience.

I’m not in a hurry to find out, of course.

This is our family, and this is how we roll...

How to visit a national park that’s bicycle friendly – bicycle obsessed, in fact – with a service dog and a kid who’s averse to the tippiness of regular bikes? In the Netherlands this isn’t a problem: a cargo bike for Ethan the dog, a tricycle with lounge seating out front for Oliver.

Our Family On Our Bikes

The dedication to cycling accessibility in this part is truly something behold. We had a great day out on the trail, rambling about in the reconstructed wilderness of De Hoge Veluwe National Park.

Careful readers will see that I’ve entered the On Golden Pond phase of my life.