Autumnal Holland 2012

Another collection of reviews about the country I visit more than any other. This time several are from outside Amsterdam which should make a nice change

The Hope of a Good Dinner

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by koshkha on October 3, 2012

Dinner at the Restaurant de Hoop Op de Swarte Walvis came at the end of an afternoon looking around the Zaanse Schans historic park with 60 colleagues from all over Europe. As strange corporate ‘events’ go, looking at windmills and cheese making beats building rafts but not by too much. Rather than bus us back to our hotel in Zaandam, the organizers had booked us the main dining room at the historic restaurant in the heart of Zaanse Schans.

The restaurant’s name is fascinating and translates as something like ‘the restaurant of the hope of the black whale’. There’s no explanation offered but you can’t help but start to imagine what that might mean. Is it the hopes of the whale ("Yum, I hope we have plankton for dinner") or the hope of the fishermen of catching a whale? I don’t know.

Our tour had ended at about half past five and dinner was booked for 6 o’clock which is surely unfashionably early even for Holland but meant we didn’t have to hang around too long looking at sheep and grass and little green houses. Some of us found our way to the restaurant early to drink beer and wine in a cosy little sofa filled room on the back of the restaurant whilst others gravitated to sit on the riverside terrace outside.

Zaanse Schans is a funny place created with the mission of keeping the local ‘Zaanse’ architecture alive. After the Second World War a building boom kicked in and lots of traditional old buildings were at risk of being flattened by the bull dozers. Instead, many fine examples were brokend down, transported by land or by river, and then rebuilt at Zaanse Schans, ensuring that the old ways could be protected for the future. De Hoop Op de Swarte Walvis occupies three of these old buildings. The kitchen is in an old merchant house, the main restaurant and bar occupy and old orphanage and the bar at the back by the water is in the old ‘skate house’, a building which was used to store the belongings of the fishermen and whalers. Much of the furniture and the fittings – such as stoves and fireplaces – were also rescued from old buildings.

Lest you think that we were slumming it with the whaling folk, I also learned that this place is a bit of a favourite with the Dutch royals and has been visited by Queens Julian and Beatrix as well as Prince Prince Willem Alexander and Princess Maxima. Apparently President Gorbachev has also been there. I can only hope they got better food than we did.

The room was beautifully laid out with thick table cloths and sparkling cutlery and glasses. We had been given the entire dining area and there were five or six tables set up for us. It looked very pretty and I was optimistic that this might be something quite special. The secretary who had booked the dinner, ran round the room giving each person a label saying ‘vega’ ‘vis’ or ‘vlees’ – vegetarian, fish or meat. I’d have preferred to have fish but got allocated the vegetarian label which I came to quickly regret.

The waiting staff circulated with bottles of wine and then brought bread for each table. It wasn’t particularly good bread (and it’s always risky serving bread to 60 people who work for a bakery company) but we had quite a long wait to be served and were glad of the distraction.
My starter was the oddest plate of ‘I don’t know what’ that I’ve ever been served. The waitress mentioned something about ‘beets’ as she placed it in front of me then left quickly before I could quiz her deeply. I ate everything on the plate but I would struggle to identify what any of it was actually supposed to be.

I spotted what I thought was a cherry tomato – a perfect sphere of bright red so I popped it into my mouth and discovered that it wasn’t. It was a blob of oddly tasting gooey, gelatinous something or other. I can only guess that some clever culinary technique had been used to create this texturally unpleasant ‘thing’. The second of these was bright green and sadly just as odd. There were also two small pieces of what looked like quiche or Spanish omelette which tasted sweet, as did the two pieces of vegetable ‘waffle’. The most bearable and most recognisable bits of the dish were circular pieces of beetroot. There were also some thin crisp wafers made of what I assume was beetroot juice. Whilst the dish may well have illustrated the diversity of what you can do with a root vegetable, it also demonstrated that sometimes ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’. The fish and meat eaters had received a delicious (but small) portion of home smoked salmon with prawns and salad. I was seriously jealous.

After being subjected to a clever chef’s failed attempt to impress, I was hoping to get a nice main course and I must admit that I did quite like the dish I got but would have preferred it to be less Lilliputian in size. My main course was seriously tiny. The dish consisted of a mushroom filled filo roll, about 1/3 the size of a Gregg’s sausage roll (which obviously I wouldn’t eat but it’s a pretty good size reference) perched on top of a small heap of tagliatelle which in turn was perched on top of some pea puree. Think posh mushy peas. I felt sure there must be a dish of vegetables still to come because the plates of the meat and fish eaters seemed to be similarly sparse. Unfortunately I was wrong and I was a very disappointed diner. I don’t like mushy peas but I was so hungry that I ate everything. The taste was fine but unexciting and the biggest problem was the tiny portion. The meat eaters got a slab of entrecote which one declared diplomatically as ‘not entirely awful’ whilst the zeewolf fish fillet was declared to be bland. The menu translated zeewolf - literally sea wolf - as ‘cat fish’ but I’m not entirely convinced that was right.

Normally I skip restaurant puddings but on this occasion I had plenty of tummy space to spare and was happy to see the first big portion of the meal. Again this was an attempt to put lots of different things together without too much consideration for whether they were in harmony. A good sized slab of lemon pie was accompanied by chocolate mouse and a ball of pear sorbet with a poppyseed crisp and a smear of what I assumed to be chocolate on the plate. The menu mentioned blueberry sauce but none was evident. We sympathised with the poor kitchen staff who would have to scrape the ‘skid mark’ smear of chocolate off the plate. The lemon pie was appreciated for its size rather than for any type of delicacy and the chocolate mousse was lovely. I wasn’t hungry enough to eat pear sorbet as it’s a flavour it particularly dislike.

Teas and coffees were served and then we headed back to the hotel. I have subsequently learned that the restaurant has a great reputation and is well rated on sites like Tripadvisor so perhaps we were just very unlucky with our group meal. However, when the menu has been greatly simplified to help the kitchen of a well established restaurant, they should be able to offer their best and not just some mysterious and unpleasant dishes that left everyone wondering what was going on. Several of my colleagues who normally eat meat had opted for vegetarian hoping to get what one described as "more veg" and they were all as baffled as me about what they’d been served.

Normally if those around me told me their food was excellent, I would make exceptions for the inconvenience caused by me wanting veggie food but on this occasion I didn’t hear anybody rhapsodising about their marvellous food. Fortunately the company had hired a magician to entertain us and ‘Magic Steve’ (yes, I agree that he needs to work on his branding) had performed the magical trick of distracting us from how poor the food was.

The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner and what you can have at each time on each day seems to be quite complicated. I couldn’t get my head round the information on the website but it did appear that at certain times you can only have the 3-course menu at €35 a head whilst at others, there are other snack options. Dinner is served from 6 pm but drinks are available during the afternoon.
De Hoop Op d'Swarte Walvis
Kalverringdijk 15
Zaandam, Netherlands, 1509

Adventures in Psychedelic Legoland

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on October 3, 2012

When I heard that work had arranged a big meeting in a hotel in Zaandam, a town to the north of Amsterdam, I can't say that my heart leapt with excitement. I'd been to Zaandam twice before and it's fair to say it hadn't impressed me much, especially the time I'd stayed in the Golden Tulip Hotel, one of the worst hotels I've ever visited that cost more than £10 a night. I asked the secretary who'd booked the hotel "Is it the one that looks like it was designed by a kid with too much Lego?" and she confirmed that indeed it was.

The good thing about Zaandam is that it's easy to get to and to subsequently get back from if you're travelling through Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. Trains run from the airport every 30 minutes at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour for just a tad over €4. In the opposite direction, they run at 26 and 56 minutes past the hour.

I'd expected it to be easy to find the hotel because I knew I was looking for the place that looked like it was built of Lego but you can't see anything from the station. After trying the wrong way first, I got the right exit from the station and stepping out of the station I was hit by a big whiff of cannabis smoke at almost exactly the same time that I spotted the Lego buildings. This seemed somehow appropriate because I was wondering what the architects must have been smoking when they designed the Inntel and its surroundings. It's all in shades of green with mock gables all over the place. It looks like the whole place was made of plastic building blocks.

In 20 years time it will either have become a much celebrated iconic location or will look like something the dog brought in. I'd previously seen the hotel from a distance but I hadn't realised that quite so much of the surrounding area was done in the same bizarre style.

The first challenge was to work out how to get in. The first entrance you reach is only for the conference centre but if you take the lift, steps or escalator down, you can reach the bar and then figure out how to get to the reception where you will meet some of the unfriendly and super-slow reception staff.

Reception is light, bright and very modern looking but the staff are experts at trying to avoid looking at you. Several times I watched two of the three staff each trying desperately to get the other to check someone in. All seemed quite happy to take phone calls from the rooms whilst checking people in too – something that never fails to annoy me. I wouldn't have been surprised a few years back as this is typical in Holland but I now usually stay in a Novotel with outstanding staff and I've got used to nice hotel staff again.

I gave my name, my passport and my credit card. The receptionist swiped the card and charged me something like 280 Euros. I asked her why that was really necessary when we had a corporate booking for 60 rooms that were surely guaranteed in writing by the company. I also asked why it was so much since the woman had told me they'd be charging 50 Euros. She then changed her story to the room rate plus 50 Euros for incidentals. Oddly when the time came to check out, it was another entirely different amount and an even higher price. Two of my colleagues are a couple and had expected to get a double room together but the secretary had forgotten and booked them one each. When one explained the situation the receptionist said, dismissively, that she didn't care and "They both have to be paid for!"

Several of my colleagues decided to have dinner in the restaurant but it was already gone nine in the evening so I headed to my room. To call the lift you need to use your room key. My room was on the 8th floor and I was reasonably optimistic that it would be quite nice because I'd seen the website. The room was long and large. The walls were painted white which was a little bleak A little bit of colour comes from the long browny purple curtains although you don't really need to draw them as there are light-tight roller blinds which are more effective. The king sized bed was arranged lengthways rather than perpendicular which is quite unusual. I've only seen it done before in hotels where the rooms weren't wide enough to take the bed the other way round but this was not the case at the Inntel. The wall at the head of the bed has a large black and white historic photograph mural and at the foot of the bed is a long, narrow storage unit with a flat screen TV sitting on top. There's something very indulgent about a room which encourages you to watch telly whilst lying down.

The flooring is a grippy laminate that's slip resistant but a bit cold underfoot. I also found the room to be quite cold and the air conditioning/heating was very noisy so I turned it off. I wouldn't really want to be there if it was very hot or very cold but I got away with it at the end of September.

All of the furniture matched and was of that special black grained veneer that's always popular in Italian style magazines. There was a long desk with a white leather desk chair and a desk lamp, a small coffee table and a 'comfy chair'. The TV at the bottom of the bed could be swivelled around and viewed from any of the chairs.

The bed was big and predictably squashy. Dutch hotel chains always have soft beds as there seems to be a national preference for such things. I don't like soft mattresses but even I slept pretty well at the Inntel although the big square pillows were not very comfortable.

The bathroom was beautiful but a bit weird with a glass panel between one end of the bath and the bedroom. I can see that this would allow more light into the bathroom and you could feasibly lie in the bath and watch the television if you cricked your neck. The bath was large and there was a separate glass enclosed shower on the other side of the room. The sink unit was the same black grained wood as the rest of the furniture and had a white ceramic bowl sink. The real weakness of the bathroom was the awful lighting that had probably been designed by someone who didn't have to shave or put on make up. The towels were small for such an otherwise rather nice hotel and I was a bit disappointed.

The wardrobe contained a bag stand which I instantly whipped out and set up. There was a storage unit with a kettle and hot drink supplies all neatly tucked in a pretty Delft style tin. There was a room safe and a minibar with rather poor stock. I don't mind paying €3.75 for a Heineken but I'd prefer it was a glass bottle rather than a can.

We ate two breakfasts and two lunches in the hotel. The restaurant is poorly laid out with the food area separated from the seating by a particularly narrow area that seems to throw people and plates of food at each other. The breakfast was pretty good although I don't really enjoy the stress of trying to find the plates first thing in the morning. Cue me wandering round shaking my head muttering curses about which joker thought it was funny to hide them. Lunch on day one was OK but nothing special and on the second day we ate in the conference centre where I got into a heated debate about the need for them to provide a spoon near the fish dish so that people wouldn't dip into it with the chicken spoon.

Talking of the business centre I have to say that the meeting rooms were pretty good with lots of natural light. We were a bit squidged in and spent a lot of time climbing over furniture to get past people. There's running water going passed the windows so don't sit near them if you've got a weak bladder. The room acoustics were poor and the temperature control was a bit erratic but on balance the rooms were better than many I've been in for big meetings.

On the plus side, the rooms were good, the meeting rooms very pleasant and it's really easy to get to the hotel from the airport. On the down side, the reception staff need to go to charm school although the restaurant staff were very good.
Inntel Hotels Amsterdam Zaandam
Provincialeweg 102
Zaandam, Netherlands
075 6311711

The Windmill Zoo part One

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on October 7, 2012

Every since I was 14 years old and went to the fabulous Skansen museum island in Stockholm I have loved places that bring together old heritage buildings and let the public wander around, peering into the past and seeing how people lived in long ago times. Consequently I only have to hear that there’s such a place in an area that I’m going to visit to want to go and nose around. My visit to Zaanse Schans was therefore an unexpected surprise during a recent visit to Holland. The company for whom I work had pulled together all the colleagues who work in my function from around the region for what was supposed to be a business meeting/team building event but turned out – for one afternoon and evening at least – to be more of a ‘please don’t leave us, see how nice we are’ session. The company is up for sale and a morale boost was the order of the day.

We set off from our bizarre hotel in Zaandam with only the instruction to dress warm and wear sensible shoes. The Portuguese and Spanish colleagues all disappeared to Primark at lunchtime and returned with €17 padded jackets because they’re just not well equipped to deal with ‘cold’ and then we set off to walk through Zaandam in an unruly ‘crocodile’ until we came to a small alleyway which led to a boat jetty. We boarded two boats and chugged up the river Zaan until we reached Zaanse Schans about 30 minutes later.

We moored up in the middle of the village and the group was then split into three parts, each with a tour guide to look after them. If you want to do this yourselves, tours cost €6.50 per person and are for a minimum of 10 and maximum of 20 people. Personally I found it interesting to be shown around but if I were going on my own, I’d rather have a map and a list of things to see and just take it at my own pace.

Most visitors to Zaanse Schans will not arrive by water but the views are so spectacular that I can only suggest that they should. We were chugging along the river wondering where on earth we were headed when suddenly a host of windmills appeared in the distance. "It’s a windmill zoo" I said to my colleague who was one of the few people who knew where we were going and she agreed that was pretty much what it was. But there would be more – windmills were not the only exotic creatures to be seen, there’d be many more treats in store.

Zaanse Schans was not particularly intended as a tourist attraction when it was originally set up in the 1960s and 1970s. One thing that many of you will know is that the Netherlands is a small country with a high population density and in the years after the Second World War building land was at a premium. The country had many beautiful old buildings but they needed the land for new housing and so the bulldozers started to march across the country and the builders went in to create the accommodation that the Dutch needed. To prevent all those beautiful buildings in the Zaanstreek area of North Holland being lost forever, someone had the bright idea of setting up a village where they could all be ‘rehomed’ and form a tribute to Holland’s past. That place was Zaanse Schans. It takes its name from its place on the banks of the Zaan river and from the old Dutch word Schans which means a type of castle or fortified town.

The guide told us that he had grown up in the village and his parents had run a small museum and he’d started working there when he was a teenager. He also explained that most of the houses in the village were inhabited and that the people who lived in them rent them from the Zaanse Schans trust. It must be a bit like living in Lego land as he then told us that over a million Chinese tourists pass through every year. He also explained that in the decades that he’s lived there the nationalities that visit have changed so that the western European and American visitors are now very much in a minority, that the Japanese have peaked and declined and now it’s a bit hit with the Chinese. This also led to him telling us later that most days he has to pull at least one damp Chinese tourist out of the small canals that run between the houses and fields because the green weed that grows on the water confuses the visitors who don’t realise that there’s water underneath.

We began our tour in a small square by the water near the centre of the village where the guide showed us a map and told us a little about the history. As we stood there I noticed a distinctive smell, turned around to see where it was coming and spotted a guy sitting on a bench smoking an enormous joint. He looked at me rather sheepishly and tucked it behind him but it did rather say something about the local attitude to old and new heritage living side by side. Windmills and Cannabis – what better combination of Dutch clichés could you find?

Having a guide is a good thing if you want someone to point out the little details that you’d otherwise probably miss. We stood outside one of the riverside merchant houses and our guide explained how the crest above the door would have explained everything that a visitor or a tradesman needed to identify that they had found the right house. At the time that it was built there were no street names or numbers so the clues had to be on the house for those who knew them to identify. The family name was d’Mol and is illustrated by a picture of a mole (the burrowing type, not a large freckle) and their trade was explained by the two crossed tridents – although I’m ashamed to say I cannot remember what they signified. It’s a good thing I’m not an 18th century person looking for an address. The building apparently ‘rents’ at 2500 euros per month but has 13 rooms and is run as a B&B. That didn’t sound outrageously expensive to me for a home and a business combined.
Zaanse Schans Historic Windmills
Schansend 1
Zaandam, Netherlands, 1509
+31 (0)75 681 00 00

The Windmill Zoo Part Two

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on October 7, 2012

The guide explained that the further we got from the river, the more humble the houses would be and it was clear that this was so. The riverfront properties were those of wealthy merchants, and the tiny houses furthest away were homes to farming families. Some were so tiny that the organisation that runs the village had been worried that they couldn’t rent out such small properties. I wasn’t paying full attention – I wandered off to talk to some ducks – but I think the guide said they just built an enormous shed on the side of the house to give the tenants a bit more space thus characterising a local philosophy of ‘small house big shed’. We also had various features pointed out to us as we went around – such as hooks for putting your clogs on (probably to stop the spiders getting in) and shown how to date the age of a house by the size of its window panes.

Almost all the houses are painted in shades of dark green and he explained that the owners would buy the pigment and the linseed oil separately and mix their own paint. Only those with plenty of money could afford a lot of pigment so the darkest houses were those of the wealthiest people. He also told us that in earlier times all the houses were black because they were decorated with tar. Those interested in Dutch retail history (and I know it sounds odd but that was most of our group) will gasp with delight at the reconstructed first ever Albert Heijn supermarket. To the Dutch this is as famous as the original Marks and Spencer’s market stall. Zaandam is the home of Albert Heijn’s head-quarters and they are major sponsors of the Zaanse Schans village.

Our tour included entrance to one of the windmills – the one called ‘The Cat’ windmill which grinds chalk and pigments. An old man with an accordion was playing and singing outside and promising (or possibly threatening) to teach us a song when we came out but fortunately he’d gone when we emerged. I’m pretty good at guessing Dutch and I worked out the chorus was something about ‘hoisting the sales’ and assumed it was a sea-faring song. It was only when we’d climbed up all the ladders and gone onto the outdoor platform to watch the sails of the windmill going around that something glaringly obvious fell into place – that the Dutch were both a great sea-going nation and a nation famous for windmills and both relied upon sail-power. That’s the kind of thing that makes you stop and wonder how you’ve never put two and two together before. Similarly when the guide mentioned that the English word for a factory is often a ‘mill’, the penny dropped and I realised that it all came from the windmill as the original source of controllable power. The windmills at Zaanse Schans have many different uses, for example the chalk and pigment mill at The Cat, several mills for sawing wood, and at least two oil mills. I guess I’ve always associated windmills with pumping water or grinding crops and I’d never really given much thought to the many other possible uses. The guide also explained that some of the mills had tops which were turned into the wind, whilst for others almost the whole building could be turned and he showed us how to tell which type was which.

We also stepped into the bakery museum where the owner was busy serving customers in the front of the shop and didn’t have time to show us around. We said that was fine as we probably knew as much about the exhibits as she did. There was a large, fat cat in the back room which was quite ironic as one of the exhibits was a ‘cat loaf’ that was traditionally baked to placate the devil. We finished our tour with a stop at the dairy where they make and sell very expensive traditionally made cheeses.

Entrance into the village is free of charge but several of the mills and museums come with entrance fees. The mills are mostly €3 each to enter and the bakery charges €1 per person. The village’s main museum is €9 for adults and there is also a clock museum at €8 a head. Boat trips are available on the Zaan in the warmer months for €6 per adult but I do think that you could have a very pleasant day out in the village without really having to go into any of the fee charging buildings. If you want to save money and see lots of things, there are two different type of card which can be bought which offer free entrance to several of the museums and discounts with other attractions. You can find full details of these on the Zaanse Schans website at

Different buildings have different opening times so it’s important to plan your visit carefully if you want to see a lot. Again, all the details are on the website. I would recommend not to visit on a Monday as a lot of places are closed although if you just want to wander round and soak up the atmosphere you might find it’s much quieter and easier to visit on that day. Dining options include a full service restaurant – de Hoop op d’Swarte Walvis – a pancake house and the museum cafe.

In comparison with similar places that I’ve visited, the access to the actual houses at Zaanse Schans is very limited and I found this a bit disappointing. I like to go inside, look at the furniture and try to imagine what it would be like to live in these places and that’s just not really possible. However, an enormous plus point is the access to the windmills which are both fascinating and impressive. I would strongly recommend a visit to anyone who is interested in industrial history and fascinated by how machines work, as well as to anyone seeking to escape the city and get out into the countryside and see somewhere very different from Amsterdam.

Assuming that most people would probably be staying in Amsterdam, there’s a regular train service from Amsterdam Central which takes 20 minutes to get to Koog-Zaandijk. From the station it should take 10 minutes to walk to the village and the way is well sign-posted. Bus 391 also runs from Central station and stops beside the village at St Michael’s College. Alternatively from Amsterdam Schiphol airport you can take a train to Zaandam (€4 approx. - trains every half hour at 15 and 45 mins from platform 3) and then take a bus towards Wormerveer and get off at Koog aan de Zaan. Again the instructions are on the website.
Zaanse Schans Historic Windmills
Schansend 1
Zaandam, Netherlands, 1509
+31 (0)75 681 00 00

Like staying with friends (but better)

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on October 8, 2012

Our Dutch friends Ineke and Marit spent almost a year planning their joint 50th birthday party. We were forewarned back in January and immediately booked flights to be able to join them. One condition of our going was that we would not stay with them this time – Marit can be a bit ‘high strung’ and predicted that she would be far too stressed to have company that weekend so it was agreed that they would find us somewhere to stay nearby. That way the hostesses could do what they needed to do and we could relax, out of their way, and let them get on with it. They went online to search for accommodation in the lovely Gelderland town of Culemborg where they live. The place they chose for us was ‘de Gasterij’ – I think it means ‘the guest house’ .

You can be forgiven for not knowing where Culemborg is as it’s not a place that many people will have visited. It’s in the centre of the Netherlands and is not too far from the better known towns of Utrecht and 's-Hertogenbosch (a.k.a. den Bosch) both of which can he easily reached by train.
‘De Gasterij’ is a beautiful old, tall town house on Kleine Kerkstraat - literally ‘small church street’. I have to assume the adjective refers to the size of the street and not to the church as the church is absolutely enormous. Fortunately – and generously – the church doesn’t ring the bells early in the morning or every quarter hour through the night, unlike some other places where I’ve stayed. De Gasterij is right in the centre of the town, just around the corner from the beautiful, historic Town Hall and the main shopping street. Since Holland – like much of northern Europe – closes all the shops at about five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, there’s almost no noise from passers-by despite the central location.

If you have a car, it’s worth knowing that there’s no on-site parking at the B&B but there’s plenty of space in the pay and display car park near to the Barbara Polyclinic which is just a couple of hundred yards away.

The house is a tall, narrow, high-ceilinged red-brick building with enormous windows. The front of the house overlooks the red-brick church opposite. There are apparently two churches, both of them for St Barbara and one is protestant and the other catholic. I can imagine that gets confusing but I think ‘ours’ was the protestant church. Marit dropped us off at the B&B and we were welcomed very warmly by Marja Klaverstijn, the owner of the B&B. She took us up the scary steep staircase to the first floor where we had a bedroom, a sitting room and a bathroom. The toilet was on the ground floor, under the stairs and the breakfast room was on the back of the house, overlooking the garden. The garden is absolutely gorgeous and is likely to set up some serious garden-envy. The garden extends the whole width of both this house and the one next door, the owner having bought the neighbours garden many years before and clearly she’s spent decades working on it. It looks like something straight out of a swanky life-style magazine. We visited at the end of September when it was a little too cool for sitting out, but if we’d been there in summer, I think she’d have needed to drag us out as we’d not have wanted to leave.

We loved almost everything about this house except the staircase which we both found pretty intimidating. Our company’s office near Amsterdam has stairs so steep that I’m always nervous taking hot drinks up or down them, but the ones at the Gasterij were even steeper. Going up is manageable but there’s no way you could walk down the stairs with your feet facing forward on the stair treads as they overlap to such a degree that you’d need the bound feet of an elderly Chinese lady to fit. For the first day my husband was going down them backwards like a ladder and I eventually graduated to going down sideways like I was a crab. If you want an authentic, historic Dutch building then you have to expect this kind of things but I do think it’s important to be aware of it if you aren’t too mobile or are a bit wobbly on your feet. If you need big stairs or a lift, you’d better book a chain hotel.

As far as we could tell, de Gasterij can accommodate just one couple at a time which makes for a lovely, very personal experience. We felt – as the name suggests – more like guests than people paying for a room. We had almost all of the first floor to spread out in and were encouraged to make use of the sitting room on the front of the house as well as the bedroom on the back.

Our room had two single beds which was a bit of a shame as I’d have much preferred a double bed but I can live with that for a couple of nights. The room had a very large window looking out over the garden and a small table with a lamp between the two beds, an arm chair in one corner and a chest of drawers. Rather than a wardrobe which would have taken a lot of space, there were hooks and coat hangers on the wall which were perfect for what we needed, especially bearing in mind we’d gone by EasyJet with hand luggage only. If this had been all the space we had, it would have been a bit snug but the joy of de Gasterij is that we also got a sitting room, equally as big as the bedroom, if not bigger, where we could sit and watch television, use the free wi-fi, and make cups of tea or coffee whenever we wanted to. A small bottle of wine was provided for our first night which was a very kind touch and there was also a plate of chocolates and biscuits which didn’t survive for long after my husband found them. The coffee maker was a bit of a mystery but after some practice we got the hang of it. The room also had a big bookshelf full of books and magazines which were mostly in Dutch and a stack of board games we could have used. The room had a small writing desk, two comfy chairs and a television.

On both evenings we used the sitting room for a few hours before going to bed. We knew our friend were exhausted with their party preparations and with the aftermath of the party and were happy to have some time on our own. Each morning after breakfast we had another hour or so checking emails, reading books and waiting to be picked up. It was really nice to not have to do all of this in our bedroom.

The shower room had a good powerful shower, a towel rail with plenty of towels and a sink. There was a small wall mounted bar fire which magically was on whenever we went for showers. I think Marja had nipped upstairs and switched it on for us after breakfast. We did live in fear of needing to go down the stairs in the night to get to the loo but the route was lit with electric night lights so we could see where we were going.

Breakfast at de Gasterij is out of this world and I still can’t believe how much we ate. On the first morning we were presented with a toasted English muffin with a fried egg on top, followed by pancakes with creamy yoghurt and lots of berries, freshly squeezed juice, and pots of tea and coffee. A plate of cheese and cold meats was also there along with a big basket of assorted bread rolls. I could hardly move by the time I’d eaten the muffin and the pancakes. On the second morning we got more amazing delights and Marja must have been up really early cooking for us. There was an egg baked in a flaky pastry nest as well as a baked peach cobbler and another bowl of yoghurt and fruit. We also had a glass filled with fruit salad. I would need to grow a second stomach to do justice to the culinary magic of a de Gasterij breakfast. It was no wonder we had to go and sit down for an hour or so afterwards. Marja told us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I wouldn’t want to argue with that.

The room rate for two people for bed and breakfast is 70 euros per night. At current exchange rates that’s less than £60. If this isn’t the best bargain in central Holland, I would be astonished.

De Gasterij
Kleine Kerkstraat 10
Culemborg, Netherlands

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