Geithoorn, The Netherlands

Nestled just north of Zwolle, Geithoorn is a perfect day trip that shouldn’t be missed if you have a short time to spare (half a day is enough) whilst visiting Amsterdam. I’d actually choose it over Zaanse Schans coz hey you can actually find those old wind mills—the tourist draw in Zaanse Schans—in Amsterdam.

Geithoorn, pronounced “kheet-haw-rn” (the closest I could come up with) is actually a town but the size of the attraction is just like that of a village. Yes, the canal system isn’t as complex as Bruges’, Amsterdam’s and defo not Venice’s. Venice too sure is way way grander.

But its charm lies in the fact that there’s far less crowd (especially if you come early), it’s pedestrian-only (bikers are allowed too) and instead of buildings, you’ll find lovely old cottage homes with well-manicured gardens that seem to want to upstage the other. Plus the business establishments perfectly blend in with the surroundings, it seems devoid of commercialism. It’s really straight out of a fairy tale!

To get there, you need to hop on a train that passes by Steenwijk. Get off the station and take either bus 70 or 270. Get off at bus stop Giethoorn, Groene Kruis.The attraction is across the street from here.

It’s best to experience Geithoorn by boat. Rent boats are cheap. They’re electricity-powered and a license is required, NOT! Anybody as in anybody can easily navigate the canals by these whisper boats. I suggest you rent the one controlled via a steering wheel—far easier to manoeuvre than the ones with the engine lever. An hour is enough to circumnavigate the canal ring even passing by the lake. But if you plan to take your time marvelling at nature (man-made hehe) and explore the canal stretches, then two hours is more than enough.

Food here is relatively cheap. Cheapest and seriously not bad food is in Eetcafé Giethoorn.

Following are pictures I took just when Spring was just starting:

Europe on a budget

 

Europe is dream destination especially for an Asian backpacker like me who grew up seeing beaches. I have made numerous trips around Europe on a budget. Yes, Europe can hurt your wallet but with these tips, hacks and thrifty travel inspiration from my vast experience, you can embark on an exciting European backpacking adventure without necessarily depleting your stash of hard-earned cash.

Fly low-cost. You can book the cheapest fares around Europe from RyanAir and WizzAir. A bit more expensive alternatives are EasyJetEuroWings, Jet2, Vueling and AirBerlin. It’s important to note that many of the airports these airlines fly from and out to aren’t necessarily the major ones close to the advertised city destination. But there’s always excellent airport transfer options, public transport included. So just make sure to check them before finalizing your flight bookings.

Skyscanner meanwhile scans most of  the flight-booking websites. I’ve learned one trick with Skyscanner. This is if you’re on a random European tour and just want to get to wherever the cheapest flight would take you. As you search for flights with Skyscanner, type in “anywhere” on the destination field. Results would sort destinations from your choice airport to wherever by price.

Ride a busBuses are cheap alternatives to trains. Though they’re not as comfortable. But at a fraction of the train cost, they’re a practical choice. Also bus rides usually take longer than train rides. From Amsterdam to Paris for instance, it takes 6-8 hours with a bus while only 3-4 hours with a train.What I suggest you do; for long trips (by that I mean 6 hours or longer),  take late-night schedules. They’re sometimes the cheapest. You sleep during the entire trip (unless you have problems sleeping in buses) and wake up already at your destination well-rested (unless, you know…) and ready for some sight-seeing. You save a night’s stay at a hotel.

Two bus companies I usually take are EuroLines and FlixBus. They’ve an extensive network of destinations. There’s also OuiBus and Megabus. You can also check out local bus companies of whatever country (in Europe of course) you’re in and book through them instead. To/from and around Poland for instance, there’s PolskiBus–probably the best bus company operating in Europe. They’ve fast WIFI, cleaner toilets and they used to serve snacks. An update, Flixbus has already bought Polskibus.

It’s important to note as well that bus terminals are not necessarily next to train stations. What I do and what I suggest, in Poland especially where the arrival terminal isn’t always the departure terminal (Warsaw), I locate thru Google Maps the exact location of the terminal and if possible, chance it like a day before, to avoid being left behind and forfeiting your ticket.

Take the train. Trains are undeniably more comfortable and travel times are quicker. Hence rarely would train tickets be cheaper than bus tickets. But that is not the case during promotions. Dutch train operator NS for instance on its website publishes slashed prices for its destinations.

It’s important to note as well that train prices are congruent to the cost of living of a country. Austria vs Slovak Republic for instance is a perfect example. I remember looking at train tickets from Vienna to Prague, they costed a lot. I decided to get to Bratislava first and bought another ticket to Prague from there. Total cost was cheaper than taking the train from Vienna direct.

EurailPass can be a little bit on the expensive side but a hassle-free way of getting around a country or multi-countries. I don’t necessarily recommend it for the sole reason that it’s pricey. I’d rather spend that money on food.

Sleep cheap. I used to book hotel rooms through Booking.com until I finally discovered hostels. As you search for the properties in Booking.com, sort the results list to show the cheapest first. Hostels will show up on top of the list I’m sure. But sites like HostelBookers, and HostelWorld are dedicated solely to hostels.

Read through the comments/reviews first and consider the location of the hostel also before finally deciding on booking. I stick with Booking.com coz after multi-city stays, I became a genius member. With it, I get 10% discount on my bookings with participating properties.

If you’re a couple or better yet, a group travelling, it’s worth considering getting a hotel room instead. The sum of the cost of your hostel beds can amount to a hotel room with a private bath–a more comfortable stay altogether.

But then Hostels have most of the time a working kitchen–yes I cook rice noodles every time. 😉 And the coolest people stay in hostels. I’ve connected with people from all over the world and have since remained friends with them. And that couldn’t have been possible if I stayed in hotels just.  You’re exposed to different perspectives and it widens your horizon. You also get to change whatever misconception they have about your country through you.

AirBnB meanwhile offers a more personalised accommodation ranging from a room with shared bath to an entire apartment/house all to yourselves.

Sleep freeI haven’t personally tried it yet but CouchSurfing offers free accommodation from locals. You need to set up an account and your identity needs to be verified.  Accommodation requests from unverified accounts usually get ignored by hosts.

I also tried once, something I don’t necessarily recommend–sleeping at the airport. You don’t get proper sleep of course and you worry about waking up to your luggage carried off. But if you have a very early flight the next day and/or maybe the airport is hard to get to, you might want to consider coming to the airport late night. The website SleepingInAirports provides reviews of sleeping conditions in airports all over the world from actual travellers/passengers themselves. You save money on a hotel and you’re not late for your flight (unless your alarm fails to do its job).

Goede reis!

the making of modern Rotterdam

The post-war rehabilitation of the heavily-bombed Rotterdam abandoned the idea of restoring damaged buildings especially in and around the city centre. Instead, restoration took on a moving forward approach–completely taking down the old for the construction of new ones. There are a few historic buildings though that survived the bombardment. They blend in with the hypermodern buildings constructed in the recent decades that either reach for the sky, push the design envelop or both.

Rotterdam Centraal Station
Front view of Rotterdam’s Central Station.

Greeting visitors as they get off their trains in Rotterdam Centraal is the city’s iconic ultra-modern main station that easily puts many international airports in the world to shame. The complete dismantling of the old beggars/junkies-infested train station to give way to this new one is probably the most laudable decision the city has ever made. The new station sits north of Kruisplein grabbing attention despite being dwarfed by a sprawl of giant buildings surrounding it. The city centre is close easily reached on foot.

The Delftse Poort
Sleek “The Delftse Poort” standing tall next to the iconic train station.

The city centre was initially planned to be functional. Different city functions were clustered in different areas: shopping, leisure, banking, housing. This however resulted in a less lively, even deserted city centre especially outside of business hours. As a solution, available spaces were utilised for small-scale housing developments. One stand-out in terms of design are the Cube Houses–just outside of Blaak Metro Station. Designed by Piet Blom and constructed in the 70s, the Cube Houses is a must-see for its unique asymmetrical design.

The Cube Houses
Piet Blom’s The Cube Houses. Behind it is The Pencil Tower–another residential building in the city centre.

Just steps away from the Cube Houses is the recently built Markthal–an arched tunnel-like apartment complex that assembles the best market vendors in The Netherlands. It is also home to upscale cafes and restaurants including Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian. Shops abound in the nearby Cool District.

Markthal
Markthal–an apartment complex with shops, cafes and restaurants. Outside it is an open-air market open Saturdays and Tuesdays.

Economic boom of the past decades followed a huge labor demand, which immigration helped fill. As a result, Rotterdam now is a melting pot of cultures. Multiculturalism is evident in the diversity of people you come across, tolerance to whatever religious practice and the plethora of restaurants catering to various tastes. 50% of Rotterdam population are either non-Dutch or have a Dutch parent. Aptly so, Rotterdam sees The Netherlands’ first immigrant mayor–Ahmed Aboutaleb. And Rotterdam’s multicultural aura is apparent in the July holding of Zomercarnaval (summer carnival) patterned after Rio de Janeiro’s carnival.

Beurstraverse
Diversity on display. At Beurstraverse–a shopping street in the Cool District.

A visit to Rotterdam won’t be complete without climbing the Euromast. Its unobstructed 360-degree view of the city makes it the perfect spot for studying Rotterdam’s urban planning and development. It offers a view of the sprawling high-rises and the towering cranes further to the sea–Rotterdam is arguably the busiest port in Europe.

Spido Tours meanwhile offer views of popular attractions of greater Rotterdam onboard a ferry cruising along the River Maas. Undeniably, the most prominent attraction is Erasmusbrug–an ultra-modern minimalist 800-meter long bridge that connects the North and the South. The televised annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display is held here.

 

Erasmusbrug (Erasmus Bridge)
View of Erasmusbrug (Erasmus Bridge) on a beautiful, sunny day.

Rotterdam is second to Amsterdam in terms of tourist visits. Amsterdam’s biggest tourist draws are its canals, the Red Light District and unarguably, weed (and all sorts of drugs). And Rotterdam, cleverly, doesn’t wish to replicate what Amsterdam offers tourists. Rotterdam is an altogether different experience.