Friday, September 16, 2005

Dover ~ Calais ~ Amsterdam

Woke early to get to the ferry. Although it's only 80 miles to Dover, just getting out of London takes an hour. It rains most of the way along the M20/A20 until I catch my first glimpse of white chalk cliffs. French border control official barely glances at our passport covers and we're directed to our waiting lane, bringing back many fond memories of waiting for Puget Sound ferries.

Just before 11am we embark on the SeaFrance Renoir, which is packed to the gills with German tourists, atrocious coffee and dubious duty-free options. The journey is bouncy enough to make me feel a bit queasy, even though I'm not susceptible to sea-sickness.

Poor Bondi is riding it out in the back of the car, down on the lowest deck. We approach Calais from the south, cruising along a very wind-swept line of sand past a nest of wetsuit-clad surfers. When it's time to return to the car, I affix glare-reducing stickers to my headlights so that my RH-drive vehicle doesn't blind oncoming vehicles on my left.

After less than 2 hours aboard (2pm GMT+1), we drive out and without any further checks are on the highway north within minutes. It is still very windy: this is very flat countryside and the only changes in elevation over the entire drive appear to be man-made.

I notice that, despite the wind, the clouds seem to be immobile for my 4 hour drive from Calais to Amsterdam.

Highway drivers here are treated to more flashes of colour than I've seen on other roads, with overhead bridges and railings sealed in bright solid colours or alternating bands: pieces of a Mondrian print dropped into a Van Gogh jigsaw puzzle. It's definitely a relief from the grey/concrete/drab that you see in UK, Australia or USA. These touches, along with recurring sets of wind farm propellers lend a sense of modernity a la Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle to the scene.

30 minutes on the road, skirting Dunkerque and Oostend and we've passed into Belgium and don't veer off our road until we're halfway through that country. It only takes 90 minutes to cross it and enter the Netherlands. We follow a single road past Utrecht and then directly into Amsterdam. Traffic in the opposite direction seems to have piled up for 40km or more(!) as cars flood out of town on a Friday afternoon.

It should have been quite straightforward to get to our hotel in the southern canal zone, but my Lonely Planet map omits a bridge and so I end up crossing a canal too soon and wound up some distance from where I'm headed. I got my bearings again and spiralled through the necessary combination of canals, bridges and one-way streets to reach the hotel.

Bondi finally sets foot on his third continent, here in the Hotel Mercure's courtyard. He dashes up the stairs to our top-floor room.

We spent a few hours walking around the canalzone (blah blah blah statistics - 100km or more of canals, over a thousand bridges, ...).

Bicycles dominate the streets here, and a pedestrian often has little room to manoeuvre through the intertwined cycle paths, vehicle roads, tram tracks and canals. A pedestrian with a large, occasionally obstinate ice-bear (as a waiter termed him) sometimes has to wrestle said creature to a safe-zone before he is sliced into three by a pair of starry-eyed hand-holding cyclists. Cyclists are the most aggressive street users: cars are usually watching out for random cyclists. The Dutch must also develop great lungs from carrying out bike-to-bike conversations, not to mention SMSing and dog-carrying. I'm sure I'll add to the list before the week is out.

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