Europe 2012: Amsterdam, Holland


A city of canals, bridges, crazy paving, fixed gear bikes, weed and hookers.

Everything is made of brick.  Almost every single inch of the city is paved with rectangular bricks of various size.  There aren’t many parks and barely any tarmac.  Buildings leaning at scary angles and surfaces paved with hexagonal bricks are as exciting as it gets.

Bricks in Amsterdam Road

Leading brick building in Amsterdam

The bike is king.  They are everywhere, most with high wide handle bars and without gears or brakes.  Kids sit in wheel-barrow type contraptions affixed to the front of bikes and dogs/shopping in a crate on the back.  Some of the bikes are nicely decorated with flowers.

There are lots of canals.  They run in a series of semi-circular rings around the city centre with some narrower perpendicular connections.  Consequently there are a lot of bridges over which bikes, pedestrians, trams and cars must compete to cross.

The pavements are too narrow. We weren’t even there at the weekend which I imagine is busier.  Grade separated cars, bikes and pedestrians – pah!  In practice at least.  Along the canals pavements are mostly on a single side only – right in front of the houses, separated from a road in most places wide enough for a single lane of traffic only.  Not that there is much traffic aside from cycles and scooters on these lanes.  Sounds ideal until you actually try to walk on the pavements, avoiding steps down to doors below street level, bikes which seemingly can be parked pretty much anywhere and bags of rubbish.

There aren’t many cars which is good and those that are on the streets must wait for trams to get out their way.  Trams ring a bell to alert cyclists and pedestrians that they are about to mow them down.  When you cross the road at a pedestrian crossing the button emits a sounds which suggests you are getting mowed down by a machine gun.

Most buildings were 5 or 6 stories tall, very little rose higher than this which is rather unusual for a European capital city.

And yes the smell of weed emerges from coffee shops and spills out on to the street and the Red light district is as cringe-worthy as you predict.

Getting there: Very simple.  We flew out to Schiphol and took the 197 bus into Amsterdam, cost €4 and took about half an hour.

Where we stayed: Hotel Kooyk (1 star guest house). Old building by a canal with sloping floors downstairs, rather chaotic check-in process but all went well. It wasn’t very busy when we went, the shared bathroom facilities on our floor were always free. During the night the Amsterdam Schiphol airport flight paths must have changed since loud planes were coming in/taking off every couple of minutes in the morning but not during the previous evening/night.

Free open WiFi was surprisingly hard to find around the city.  Our budget hotel was looking to charge 10 Euros a day for access!

Breakfast: 3 choices of bread, butter, jam, cheese slices, 3 ham/salami, very nice coffee, hard boiled egg, help yourself, single small glass of orange juice.  My friends incredibly were nowhere near as hungry as me.

Getting around: The center is fairly compact and perfectly walkable.

Onward Journey (ease of using Interrail):
On our onward journey (to Berlin) reservations weren’t necessary, no additional fees to pay we just turned up and traveled (after checking in the station information kiosk moments before).  There were several other English speaking inter-railers in our carriage on the way to Berlin.

Double Decker Train in Amsterdam
Double-Decker Train

The first stage of our journey was provided by a double-decker train, like so many others serving Amsterdam Centraal.  Since we don’t have these in the UK we of course headed straight upstairs even though we were only going a couple of stops. Spacious, clean, comfy and about a quarter full we took seats around a central table.  An LCD screen at the end of the carriage switched between displaying journey information and a live stream of the Olympics.

A free Dutch newspaper even enabled us to see that team GB had bagged 2 more gold medals since we had left home early the previous day!

Walk to Cricketers in Sarratt

On the recent bank holiday Monday I went for a nice long walk with some of my school friends.

Along a mixture of wood, country, field and tow-paths we avoided as much as we could of the towns and villages of Watford, Croxley Green, Rickmansworth, Chorleywood and Loudwater as we headed to Sarratt.

We were lucky with the weather. The day was forecast to be cloudy after several days of rain but the morning was rather too bright and sunny to be contemplating such a long walk. Thankfully when we set of in the afternoon the sun wasn’t so bright.

It was surprisingly quiet for a warm bank holiday in the middle of summer except for cyclists along the tow-path of the Grand Union Canal which we followed from Cassiobury Park.

We then headed past our old school and on to the Chess Valley Walk. As if on cue when we reached Loudwater Lane a large black Bentley slowly rolled past. Jon then started to count houses with Tennis Courts in their garden and bemoaned the lack of swimming pools.

After Loudwater we walked along the most scenic of paths between an industrial unit and the M25 before heading across the motorway. The Chorleywood House estate was pretty empty except for a dog walker until we reached the bridge crossing the Chess where lots of families with small children had taken it upon themselves to sit and play various sports right in the middle of the path and not be terribly helpful as we tried to cross the bridge. As you do.

Once we got close to Sarratt and headed up the steep hill to the village the footpaths got a lot busier after we passed a load of parked cars. We arrived at the Cricketers in Sarratt for some snacks and a couple of drinks before heading back to Watford some dinner.

The Cricketers Pub Sarratt

The route was planned using an OS map and Google’s satellite imagery in an attempt to avoid as much as possible of the “normal” route to Sarratt I have taken on a few occasions previously. Not having navigated down most of the chosen paths before I was pleasantly surprised that everything connected up properly. We did take a couple of wrong turns but these can be blamed on a now-blank signpost near the Chorleywood House Estate and an OS map which had a petrol station marked on the wrong side of the road in Sarratt.

Jon had his shiny new HTC phone with GPS which helpfully told us that we were in the middle of nowhere for most of the time. I thought OpenStreetMap might be better than Google Maps for countryside mapping (after all what do Americans know about walking) but the “Street” bit of the name doesn’t exactly give me hope! A dedicated walking GPS or app that uses large scale Ordnance Survey maps would be better – I wonder if there are any?

I’d like to do some more of the Chess Valley walk at some time.

Busy Times

Vale Fireworks 20103 sisters by Conan (TK) (cc)

Since ProSEO two weeks ago I have been very busy.

On the uni side I have been making a console-based text chatting system in C as well as working on my final year project. I e-mailed Patrick Altoft and he gave me a couple more ideas for the project so all is good there, made good progress with almost a full day of work on it last Friday.

On Thursday went to see the Vale fireworks – didn’t think it was as impressive as in previous years. Perhaps they decided it would be good to tone it down given the recent announcements that tuition fees will double and could triple in the next few years. Still I didn’t see any arts students protesting.   Here are some Flickr photos of the Vale Fireworks.

Talking of fireworks my Cassiobury Park website experienced an explosion in traffic – up to a 3,300% spike on normal levels on the day of the bonfire there. Sadly revenue didn’t increase at all!

Have also been hooked into playing OpenTTD by house mates. Kind of like Railroad Tycoon, which I enjoyed playing previously but eventually got bored of, but with the ability to build road, sea and air transport networks as well. The railroad construction system is far more complex than in Railroads with the entrance and exit paths into stations, signals and pretty much everything having to be manually constructed.

Onwards!  Next C exercise has already been out a week.

Something Productive (Not by me!)

Whilst I continue to spend the majority of my time on nothing productive, one of my course mates has had a lot of media attention over the last couple of days.

Greg Hughes has been working on an iPhone App that enables you to wirelessly sync your iPhone/iPod touch with a computer over a wireless network. It has yet to be submitted to the App store (common consensus appears to be that it will be rejected) but a video demonstration has had over 100,000 views in less than 24 hours.

The story was picked up by engadget and of course a whole load of other sites copied giving him loads of attention. Apple definitely know it is coming now!

Amusingly Greg also apologised to me for criticising my use of Twitter.  He had long held the opinion that it was pointless, and mentioned this to me on many occasions!, but having experienced the viral nature of it yesterday he seems to have been converted.