Adventures in Maastricht

The Netherlands offered more challenges to me as a traveler than any other country I went to last summer. Despite the host of obstacles in weather, transit, and basic cultural snobbery, I still had several positive experiences while I was there. I chose Maastricht after reading a fellow blogger’s rave reviews, and I can just about imagine that if I went there in better weather… and had my own transport (rental car, scooter, heck even a bike) it would have been a significantly more magical experience. The highlights of Maastricht for me were the caves (because if it’s underground, you know I’m going), the beautiful cathedral converted into a bookstore, and the tiniest Cafe in the Netherlands.


Fort Sint Pieter

The caves I found are part of the Fort of St. Pieter and are such an extensive series of tunnels that it is not permitted to enter without a guide lest one become lost and die. Seriously. I signed up for a combo tour to include the fort, which turned out to be well worth it. Even though you can climb up to the fort and see the outside unaccompanied, the guide has the keys to get inside and also a million interesting stories.

In 1673, D’artagnan and his army invaded Maastricht under the orders of Louis XIV. Yes, THAT D’artagnan. At the time, there was no fort atop the mountain, and the French army used that mountainside as an attack point to break down the city walls. Later when the Dutch reclaimed the town,  they decided to never let that happen again. Maastricht was a highly contested and often invaded territory for several hundred years, but eventually advances in weaponry made city walls obsolete, but the fortress atop the mountain remained.

I was surprised at how dark and gloomy the interior of the fortress actually was. I think I expected it to be more like a castle, but the guide pointed out the necessity of thick walls and arched passages to withstand artillery fire. We got to walk though the tunnels and see the different ways soldiers would communicate in such a large space as well as some arrow slits and cannons. The communication was done by means of drums placed in such a way as to take advantage of the building’s acoustics. A leader could issue orders from the center of the building and have a drummer beat out code that would be heard all over. It was quite dark in most places, so I don’t have very good photos.

The very top part of the fort was used by Nazis in WWII to watch for Allied aircraft, but the tunnels underneath the fort that honeycombed the surrounding countryside for miles were used to smuggle people into free Belgian territory at the same time.


The caves themselves were originally quarries, but became shelters where fathers could bring families and livestock to hide during invasions, and we’re used from Roman vs Viking times up through WWII for that purpose. There were places to cook and sleep like little apartments carved into the tunnels. They also grew mushrooms and chicory, which my guide was surprised to learn Americans brew into coffee (New Orleans!).

Now the tunnels are full of art.

The guide stressed the importance of staying with the group since people still can easily get lost without a guide because there are hundreds of km of tunnels. He told a story of a couple of young men who just barely escaped death because they happened to find a “chimney” or vertical tunnel that led up to a field. A farmer heard them and a rescue was organized, but it was pure luck.

Going underground was probably the highlight of my day/days because it was only 11°C underground, which was a wonderful relief from the 30°C+ weather of the day. Surprisingly, despite the drought, a million beautiful wildflowers grew around the fort and caves which made for a lovely scene to walk to and from the bus stops with.


Downtown Maastricht

During my week in Lanaken/Maastrict, I was having the worst week of my holiday due to some serious personal emotional stuff, so I spend a goodly amount of time in the Airbnb trying to stay cool both thermally and mentally. I also did more than average day trips away from the city including the Fort and Caves above, the amazing Carolus Thermen Spa in Aachen, and the oddly Disney-esque town of Valkenburg. On my last day, I decided to try out the city of Maastricht one last time.

When I arrived downtown, there was a large flea market in the nation square and it was mostly full of the kind of antiques and knick-knacks I found endlessly fascinating as a child, but don’t really know what to do with now. I mean buckets of old spoons? Art made from driftwood? It’s neat to look at but no room in the luggage. I did buy a nice summer dress, lightweight and a soft gray that reflected the bright blue sky. I changed into it as soon as I could and it made a world of difference. It was easily the best purchase of the trip.

After exploring the market, I set off to find the bookstore in a cathedral, which is dead cool as a concept. I read about it in other blogger’s “things to do in Maastricht” and decided I would check it out if I was able. I am so glad I made the time! Bookstores are already a little bit sacred space for me, so to combine the deliberate awe-inspiring architecture of a Gothic cathedral with thousands of beautiful books! Stunning.

Because cathedrals have such incredibly high ceilings, the bookstore installed multiple levels almost like balconies, allowing more book space but keeping the room open and the architecture continuously observable. I’d been in other converted churches that lost a lot of what made the cathedral “style” by breaking it up into usable space. This was by far the best combination. It was awesome to climb the central column of books and see the high vaulted ceilings up close. I got a little vertigo but worth it.

Not only was it beautifully constructed, it was also a great bookstore! Well stocked and diverse. I saw several books I wanted to make better friends with as well as lots of old favorites. I was amazed by the number of people inside, not just admiring the architecture but loaded down with books to buy. There’s even a small cafe in the back and a kid’s section!

     

If you have to live in a city that has a plethora of leftover cathedrals, I think this might just be the best way they can be put to use in the modern era.

On my way to my next stop I encountered another unique street performance. I was growing used to seeing buskers performing for money on the streets, but this couple decked out in ballroom gear waltzing around accompanied by live, tux-clad musicians definitely stood out!

Finally I headed over to have vlaai and koffie at the smallest cafe in the Netherlands. Vlaai is a kind of pie that’s popular in the Netherlands. It’s not a specific flavor (I had several flavors while I was there) but more the fact that the construction is mid-way between pie and tart that I can’t really say it’s exactly like any other dessert I’ve had. It does tend to be thicker in crust than either of those treats, which was startling at first, but the more I ate, the more I liked them. The vlaai I had that day was apricot, and so cool and fresh you could believe they just picked the fruit this morning. It was the exact balance of sweet and tart I look for in a perfect apricot, somehow even capturing the texture of perfectly ripe.

In addition, “cafe” doesn’t only mean “coffee shop”. This place has a full menu of food, beer/wine/cocktails, dessert and coffee. It’s also very popular. The indoor seating is nearly non-existent, but the patio seating seemed quite generous, even though it was completely full. I ended up sitting on a cushion on a curb next to the building with a tiny table lower than my knees. It was under a tree and so I had shade, and didn’t mind at all. By the time I finished there was a line even for those small curbside spots!

   


In the past I’ve read and repeated that the first and last things you do on a holiday define the experience. While Lanaken/Maastricht was in the middle of my summer, and in many ways represents the most difficult things I had to overcome, I’m glad I had these positive experiences on my last day there. It leaves me with a sense of what could be if I hadn’t been so ambushed by my health and the weather that week, and it reminds me that even in the midst of dark times, there are still wonderful adventures to be found and enjoyed.

Advertisements

Using Public Transit in Europe

I am completely spoiled by Asian transit. In Korea, my transit pass is linked to my bank card and so I just tap to get on any bus/subway/train in any city in the whole country. Tourists can buy a transit card from any convenience store that will work the same way, and also let you buy things at most convenience stores like pre-paid debit cards. I kept my transit card from Japan and used it again 3 years later with no problems. Again, they work on all the transit country-wide. I knew that visiting 8 countries in Europe would mean I’d have to navigate multiple public transit systems, but I had no idea how complex they would actually be.

This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.


Paris, France:

Paris has a huge subway system, and tickets are priced by zone. It’s a good idea to look at the map and decide what zones you actually need before you buy. Buying tickets one trip at a time is the most expensive way. You can also buy a ticket book for a slight discount, which is what I did my first visit that only lasted 2 days. This summer, I was in Paris for 6 days, and wanted a better option, and one that would include buses, not only the metro.

Related image

In the end, I bought a week long transit pass for cheaper than the 5 day tourist pass. When I asked about it the teller told me there’s no benefit to the tourist pass, that it’s basically there to bilk tourists, and I should stick to the cheaper option. Most cities have some version of the tourist card which includes “unlimited transit” and a few free attractions or discounts, however every single one I checked into was not worth it. In order to actually save money, a person would have to be running around like crazy and do 4+ activities a day!

You can see there’s a spot for a photo there, so it’s a good idea to have one ready when you buy your card. The lady who was working when I bought mine said I could add the photo later, but advised me to carry my receipt with me in case the metro authority asked to see my card and to prove it was not stolen. No need to get a fancy passport photo made, however, you can make a photocopy of your passport or other ID and use that.


Belgium:

In Brussels I got a Mobib Card with ten trips which is cheaper than buying your each trip one at a time. I was able to buy it easily in the subway station nearest to my arrival spot. The tickets are per trip, regardless of distance, and that if you have to go above ground and pass back out of the ticket scanning devices, or use a tram, there’s no transfers. Most of the Metro stations have a way you can connect underground, but be sure you get out on the correct side of the train car, since in some cases one platform leads OUT and the other leads to connecting tracks, while at other stops, it’s all the same.

Related image

It is also worth noting that the doors on the subway cars have to be manually activated. You have to tug the handle or it doesn’t open. I was a little panicked the first time thinking I couldn’t get on, but then I saw someone else open a door and followed suit. When in doubt, watch the locals.

The only downside is that the Mobib Card is exclusively for Brussels, and I needed to figure out transit again and again when I went out to nearby cities like Ghent and Antwerp.

In Ghent I could not find the tram for a while I thought about just taking a taxi from the train station to my boat but I did eventually find it, then realized I had no idea how to use it and no way to look that information up online since the SIM I bought in Paris wasn’t working in Belgium.

I managed to get change from a convenience store and buy a tram ticket at a machine near the stop, but I couldn’t find instructions on how to use it. I got on the tram with my ticket but didn’t see any place to use it so I just sat down. Of course I was doing it wrong but no one challenged me or corrected me. I’m sure if I didn’t look like a middle aged white tourist it could have gone differently. Although I did see a lot of barrier hoping in France….

In retrospect, I think the paper tickets have RF chips in them that you tap just like a plastic transit card. *shrug, they got my money anyway.

At the Ghent train station returning to Brussels, I got confused because it looked like nothing was going back to the “Midi station” in Brussels. It turns out that there are just too many languages in Brussels. Midi is the name I had seen in Brussels, but Zuid is another name for the same thing!!!

Overall, I think the transit issues in Ghent would have been avoided if I’d had mobile data. I did wonder how people navigated these transit options before smart phones, but I also think the technology of the trans, trams and metros has upgraded from paying cash and paper tickets to having RF chips in tickets dispensed by a machine and read by another machine. It’s great automation until you don’t know how to use it.

In Antwerp I decided to walk. The places I wanted to see were all within 30 minutes walking of the main train station and I wasn’t in a hurry. As a result, I have no idea how the transit inside the city works. On my out, the trains were running late but the kind conductor lady helped me hop off and change to a faster train at one of the stops. The tickets are somewhat flexible as to which trains you use to get to your destination.


The Netherlands:

First, in Maastricht, the bus company that runs the bus between Lanaken and Maastricht is the Belgian company De Lijn, and I was able to buy a ticket at the Maastricht main station. The front of the buses had a space to insert the ticket and a date/time/remaining balance was printed on it each time. I think I ended up with about 0.60€ left unused on the ticket at the end of the week, but it was much easier than trying to buy a ticket every time.

Image result for De Lijn ticket

I needed a different transit card (the OV Card) to get around the city of Maastricht, but at least I was able to use that transit pass to buy my passage into Aachen. Once I figured out the basic system it was not too bad, and the people in the Maastricht station were quite helpful in getting me the best prices when I was getting my cards set up on the first day.

The only complaint is that because Lanaken and Maastricht are smaller towns, the buses do not run often and there is no metro at all. This requires more careful planning to get to and from places, to get back to my room at night, etc. It also requires more walking since bus stops are fewer and farther between than in big cities.

Later, in Den Haag

I need to preface this by saying Den Haag was the single WORST transit system I encountered in Europe. I was not a huge fan of Maastricht because the infrequent bus schedule, and that was not an issue in Den Haag, but what turned my brain completely inside out was the pay structure and it’s deep deep bias against foreigners. In the Netherlands, you can use the OV Card everywhere, so I was able to use the same card from Maastricht, which I thought would be a convenience…. ohhhhhh no.

When you ride in Den Haag, you have to tap in and out every time because the price of your trip is based on distance traveled; however, sometimes it double tapped or didn’t tap at all so I suddenly found myself completely out of credit on my OV card with no way to get more!

Image result for ov chipkaart

There are almost no recharging kiosks for OV in Den Haag either. I found one in the grocery store near my Airbnb, but it wouldn’t take my credit card and the cashier didn’t seem to care much. She eventually just stopped trying to even speak English which was only annoying because everyone else there had been like “of course we speak flawless English!” So, it seemed a little implausible she is the only one who doesn’t…

I tried to use the OV website to find kiosks in my area, but the website map wasn’t working… of course.

I tried to go out anyway, thinking I’d just buy a ticket on the bus but they don’t take cash and a 1hr ticket is 3.50€! I’d end up paying 7€ to go out and get back? I left the bus with sticker shock and stood around cursing the entire transit system that had robbed my card and left me with no way to top up and charged exorbitant fees to get to a top up place. Finally I decided to take the tram back to the train station and sort it out. Then the ticket box on the tram refused to take my debit card! How is a person supposed to pay for this????

I asked a ticket monitor about it because just at that moment I was feeling too honest to steal a ride. She directed me to the app where I bought a ticket then told me I didn’t need to ride all the way to the station I could just stop at Centrum and use the machine there. Great! Except when I got off to use it, it was out of order. I waited for the next tram and got on as my e-ticket was good for an hour, then realized it was going the wrong way, got off and waited again to go the other way. The only good news is they run every 10 minutes instead of 30 like in Maastricht.

I finally got to the train station and put more money on the card. I looked at my transactions history and realized that one point I was charged 4€ for a trip. If you tap in and don’t properly tap out, it’s 4€ no matter how far you go. That’s right, it costs more to mess up your transit card than to just buy the flat ticket. Gouge much?

Image result for ov chipkaart kiosk

My tram ride back from the station? .90€! It cost me 3.50€ to go using the app, and 0.90€ to go using the card. It’s worth using the OV Card, it’s just hard to use correctly. Eventually, I was able to go online to the OV website and submit a request for a refund of the over-charges and it was granted, although I still had to get to the train station kiosk to actually claim the credit.

I specifically say it’s biased against foreigners because most people who live there have their OV linked to their bank account directly, and can easily contest overcharges or incorrect charges at their leisure without worrying about not being able to pay for a trip. Meanwhile, visitors who front load the cards can still contest overcharges, but have no recourse for getting to a charging kiosk if a mistake has drained our account.

Returning from Amsterdam

The OV card isn’t evil in and of itself. I had very little issue using it in Maastricht and Amsterdam. It was nice to be able to move from city to city without having to invest in yet more transit passes (glares at Belgium and France).

However, the vaunted European train system turned out to be a massive disappointment. I know I’m kinda old, but I remember when the dream was “get a Eurail pass and back pack around Europe for your gap year”. My parents had good things to say about the trains. The trains are 2-3x the cost of a bus in most places there. I expected the trains to be GOOD. It was not true.

I hopped on my train back to Den Haag thinking I’d had a wonderful if over-budget day and then about halfway back the train just stopped.

There was a problem with some other train stuck on the tracks (I heard because of the heat) and we sat there for about 90 minutes. The main problem with this is that I only had a small bottle of water, enough for the anticipated one hour journey but not longer after a long day in extreme heat (it was averaging 35-37C that week), and several alcohol drinks (wine with the cheese tasting, Bols distillery tour, and beer with dinner!). I even thought about buying a larger bottle in the train station and thought “no I’m ok, it’s not far.” FML.

There was a toilet in the train but no potable water. I tried to distract myself with Netflix, but I was getting insanely thirsty. We finally moved backwards to Harlem and I was told to ride to Leiden and transfer there to another train. My ticket would cover all my transfers to get me back to Den Haag, but nothing would make up for the extra hours added to what should have been a short and direct trip. At least I got to watch a beautiful sunset from the unmoving train?

When we got to Harlem, my first priority was water and I even willing to buy some but by 10:30 at night, most places weren’t open (Europe closes at 8pm) and the one I went to wanted 2€ for a tiny bottle!!! I pulled up my reusable and asked about tap water. It’s safe to drink from the tap in Europe. The sales clerk looked at me like I had suggested eating his grandmother and said “it’s not free” with the most contempt I have ever heard in regards to being asked for water.


A Little Rant About Water

Ok, a business pays fees to have water, but there is no way customers are going to drink a tenth of what you use operating a food stand. Washing a single load of dishes is more water than all your customers could drink if you gave them each a cup. Water is basically free in a drinking capacity, and even if you wanted to charge me for using your tap water, 20-30¢ would way more than cover my water bottle and not be actual extortion. In a record setting heat wave. While the whole country is having train delays.

I know I was raised in the US where the first thing a waitress gives you is water and it’s bottomless and always free, but I’ve traveled a lot and never encountered such water stinginess as exists in Europe. I’ve also lived in places where the tap water is not safe and never had trouble buying drinking water at very reasonable prices, and many businesses still give away clean drinking water and public water fountains are available in parks and public spaces.

I thought France was stingy with the water but at least you could get it if you asked and in France and Belgium I was able to find some public drinking water (the photo above is a public drinking fountain in Paris). The rest of the time I filled my bottle in bathroom sinks… the bathrooms are very clean because there are no free bathrooms.

I just don’t understand the water hoarding going on here. I don’t think it would be hard to install cheap water stations like the paid public toilets to let people refill their own bottles and reduce plastic waste. If you must make people pay for water then keep it affordable. Besides, free water in tourist areas makes people stay longer. In the end the EU is calling for clean drinking water to be a human right, but F.U. if you’re travelling in a heat wave and get stuck when the infrastructure breaks!

End Rant.


Hamburg,  Germany:

I had been using Flix Bus to get between my main cities up to this point, and it’s about as advertised. It’s a cheap bus. There is usually a bathroom, and sometimes WiFi. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s ok. Additionally, it’s often less than half the cost of the trains. When it came to getting in and out of Germany, however, the costs were suddenly inverted and the train became the cheaper option by half. Germany + trains? That has to be efficient and on time right? Oh, stereotypes, you fail me again. The trains are expensive, overcrowded and often late. Take a bus.

The train ride on DB Bahn from Den Haag was long. It took three trains and I always had to be aware of my stop because there are lots and no one will tell you where to get off. There is no WiFi on the trains in Germany. And outside the main cities I didn’t get good reception either. There was some air-con on the trains but only between stops, so it would get hot again while people got on and off. By the time I got to Hamburg 7.5 hours later I was soaked in sweat and tired. 

The good news is HVV (the transit authority in Hamburg) is great! Although the website is total gibberish, I went to their office in the station as soon as my train arrived, and the kind woman behind the counter helped me figure out what zones the places I wanted to go were in and helped me to save money on the week long transit pass. It was a tremendous relief to have unlimited transit and not have to worry about tapping in and out and possibly running out of credit due to a computer error!

Related image

In fact, there’s no RF readers or tapping in and out at all. The HVV transit pass is just piece of paper in a plastic sleeve that you can show to the bus driver or ticket checker and it’s all good. 

However! The one time I went outside my pass’s zone, I did have to buy a single use ticket. It was supposed to be cheaper this way… it turned out to be a royal pain. I still don’t know the correct way to buy a single use ticket across multiple zones. I thought I got the correct multi zone pass to head out to Blankenese, I got on the first leg ok, but the bus driver at Blankenese refused to let me on, saying I had purchased the ticket in the wrong zone. I don’t know if he was just being a jerk or what, because otherwise it seems I’d have to buy one ticket to get from downtown to Blankenese and then ANOTHER to get around Blankenese. I ended up walking to the beach.

On the way back from Blankenese, I decided to take the ferry, which was an excellent choice. It’s recommended to use the public transit ferry as a cheap tour of the Hamburg harbor and they’re not wrong. At 10.80€, it was certainly more expensive than using land transit, but much cheaper than a cruise up the Elbe with all the same wonderful views.

Leaving Germany, the last train

The original train I booked with DB Bahn was a single train from Hamburg to Copenhagen on Saturday, but the heat wave in Germany was KILLING ME, so I changed to a Friday ticket instead and left a day early. The new train route had two transfers, each giving me less than 10 minutes to change trains. A situation I would have thought could only be offered if the trains were reasonably on time. Silly me!

My first train was 10 minutes late in arriving, but that was ok because my second train was 15 minutes late departing, so I did at least get on it. However, so did EVERYONE ELSE. I’ve seen less crowded trains in China. Oh, and the platform wasn’t clearly marked so, even though I was standing under the sign for my train, my train actually pulled up at a totally different part of the platform and we only realized it when the hordes of people started running past us to get to it.

Hamburg-railway-station hg

The first several cars were so full that I couldn’t even get in the door. I mean, seats all full, aisles all full, stairs all full, entryway all full, full. I finally found one car I could squeeze into and found myself standing on the stairs (with all my luggage) compressed by bodies. There was an option to buy a reserved seat on the website, but I thought it was just for if you wanted to be sure you and your group had seats together or if you wanted to be sure to get one of the ones with tables. I didn’t realize they oversold the trains by so much that it was the equivalent of the Beijing subway. If you find yourself forced to take a train in Europe, pay the extra 4$ to get a reserved seat or else be prepared to stand.

As the tiny stops went by, and people got on and off, I was shuffled off the stairs and into an actual compartment where a very kind man getting off at the next stop gave me his seat and I was able to rest at last. By about halfway, most of the standing people were gone or seated, but it was still ridiculous.

That train was, of course, also late to my second connection, and I missed my connecting train altogether. The conductor gave us instructions on where to find connecting trains to various destinations and I stepped out onto the platform to wait for the last train of the day. It was going to be about 20 minutes later than my first scheduled train, but I didn’t think that was too bad.

I met a young American lady, just graduated from college and off for her summer in Europe with her Eurail Pass and we got to chatting in the station. When we boarded the next train it seemed that too would be standing room only, and two bicycles blocked off 4 folding seats entirely.  Luckily, as the train filled up, and started moving, a kind lady pointed out that there were two empty seats after all and we rushed over to grab them gratefully.


Copenhagen, Denmark:

The train took 90 minutes longer to arrive than the one I was supposed to be on, and instead of arriving in Copenhagen around 10pm, it was almost midnight. I expected the train to let us out into a train station where I could find shops, an ATM, and ticket machines for the public transit system. Instead, the train let us off basically on the street. I had no idea which building was likely to contain the train station/atm/ticket machine so I began to cast about for any ticket machine at all.

Image result for Rejsekort

I found one at the bus stop but as far as I could tell, the only option I could do with a credit card was to buy the Rejsekort transit card. For this you must pay for the card (80kr), then pay a minimum of 100 danish krone as a balance. So it cost me about 24 euro to get a transit card. But it was midnight and I was exhausted so I just bought it and got on the bus. Being extra sure to tap out as I exited and see the fare, I was pleased to note that even the fairly long journey out to the diplomatic quarter was about 12 kr and figured I’d be able to use that 100kr for a while yet (foreshadowing!)

The Rejsekort transit card worked similarly to the Netherlands OV Card in that each trip required a tap in and out and money was deducted from the card. However! There are two types of cards, registered and unregistered. Guess what? Of course since I bought mine from a machine at midnight it was unregistered which meant I had to maintain a minimum balance of 70kr in order to USE the card. Please remember that the trip between our Airbnb and the main train terminal is only 12kr, so that’s a little more than 5 trips in and out of town that I have to load up and NEVER USE. I was not amused.


Gothenburg, Sweden:

The local transit company here is Västtrafik. The transit in Gothenburg is good, but Google Maps has the wrong names for almost everything, so it says “get on the 10 going to abc-Swedish name” but none of the bus stops match that name on the sign. You can’t just guess by which side of the street it’s on because they use bays to remove the transit from the flow of traffic (very cool idea) so the stops are all together on an island in the middle of the roads. They have stop letters, so Google could just say take the 10 from Bay A but no. I blame Google for this failure, not the city of Gothenburg. 

Most of my time in Sweden was in a rental car, but for the time I spent in Gothenburg before getting my car, I was able to use the public transit easily enough by purchasing a three day pass which included unlimited use of buses, trams, and ferries. This is especially worthwhile since the archipelago near Gothenburg are PHENOMENAL.

Driving in Sweden was great. The roads are in good condition and the signs are very easy to follow. It is likely going to rank in my top 5 all time road trips. 10/10 would do again.

Even with the car, when I was in Stockholm, I opted to leave the rental at the hotel parking lot and take the bus around the city. In a surprising turn of absolute convenience, I downloaded the transit app on my phone and used that to buy my tickets for the day. I’m sure there are longer term options, but I was happy to just get the single use tickets since I was only using it for two trips and it was drastically cheaper than paying for parking.


Olso and Nesodden, Norway:

I was only in Norway because I was flying out of Oslo. My Airbnb was on Nesodden, one of the fjords a ferry ride away from Oslo. A single trip transit ticket is only good for an hour, but would take more than that to reach my Airbnb from the bus station where I arrived. Do I really have to buy two tickets for this? Turns out… no.

I took the local bus to the ferry terminal, but the buses on the fjord considered anyone getting OFF a ferry to be transferring and did not require an additional ticket. Whew. The ferry tickets were only mildly confusing, and with minor investigative skills I was able to navigate the ticket kiosk at the ferry terminal.

Once the bus dropped me off at the stop closest to my Airbnb, I was truly worried however since it was very rural, with no signs of any ticket machines near the bus stop. I had no Norwegian cash on me and was not walking distance from anything. I tried to use the transit app for Oslo, but it refused to accept my Korean bank card OR my American credit card (which was a much bigger surprise). Unlike the ultra convenient Stockholm app, the Oslo app would only accept payment from a limited number of EU countries.

In the end, I just went to the bus stop when it was time to leave and explained my situation to the driver. Of course he had a solution, and I was able to get to the ferry terminal, then from the Oslo side of the ferry, I was able to walk to the nearest train station that would take me to the airport…. where I promptly bought the wrong ticket.

Bus Terminal in Oslo, Norway (Oslo bussterminal) tickets (billettautomater) for Ruter nettbuss Bus4You IMG 6050

I’m still not sure I completely understand what happened. I went to a ticket kiosk and bought a ticket to the airport, then followed the signs and got on the train. There is no place to have the tickets checked on the way to getting on the train. Once I left the train at the airport, our tickets were checked on the way out. The ticket checker told me I had bought the wrong ticket, and that I’d bought the city public transit ticket, but gotten onto a private company express train (not clearly marked, and don’t check tickets on the way IN?). The money I’d spent went to the city transit authority (Ruter) and there was no way for the private train company to get it. I tried to offer to fix my mistake, but it seems there’s no way to fix it on the back end and she waved me on through exhorting me to pay more attention to the trains in future.

I would never have hopped on the wrong train intentionally, but it wouldn’t hurt if they had some kind of a barrier to scan tickets on the way in?


Moscow, Russia:

Ironically, as in counter to expectations, Moscow had the best running and least expensive public transit. I was only in Moscow for 20 hours, and I got a 24 hour unlimited pass for less than the cost of a single trip ticket in any European city. The ladies at the ticket counter spoke enough English for me to easily get the one I wanted.

I had a little trouble finding my first Metro station (I should have got a SIM card so my Map would work better) but once I realized what to look for in a Metro entrance, getting around Moscow was a breeze. The stations are so well labeled and the metro maps are clear (if you know how to read a metro map). Plus, Moscow is famous for it’s beautifully decorated stations. Even when I got lost because I read the stops wrong there were helpful people to turn me around and help me find my way.

I also used the airport express train here which was crowded, but reasonably priced and running on time with no surprises. I guess there are some things communism does well?


I have come to realize that I’m a novelist, not a blogger. I think other people would have made each country a separate blog post in order to spread out the words, and get more posts out there. At 5200+ words, I gave some serious thought into dividing this post up into bite size chunks… but tbh, I’m not that thrilled to be writing about transit, and I’m mainly including it because these were hard won lessons that I hope can spare at least one other human my trials and tribulations. I also think it helps sometimes to see that the adventure life is not always one of joy and excitement, and that we must also contend with learning basic life skills over and over in each new place we visit.

Utrecht: History & Music

July 26th, about halfway through the vacation. I was suffering through an unbelievable heat wave in The Hague (Den Haag), Netherlands. I was not enjoying myself. The heat was oppressive and causing me physical illness, and the transit in the Netherlands was without question the most obnoxious of the transit systems I have experienced in my life. However, Utrecht was a happy place that I truly enjoyed and may even brave the Netherlands again to visit. Not only was the city itself cute and bohemian in a “university town” kind of way, the exhibits I went to that day made me take several steps back and re-examine some of my perceptions of human history and development.


The Underground Tour

As an American, I didn’t grow up around places like this. I am sure that there are places in the US that have 2000 years of human occupation, but sadly the original colonizers did a very good job of erasing any traces of it. Perhaps as a result, I am eagerly curious about places on earth where the stories of humans can be traced back and retold over such vast stretches of time. I also love all things underground. The DomUnder was practically begging me to come and visit.

Dom Square in Utrecht boasts 2000 years of human occupation and I decided to go on a little tour of the archaeological dig site. The first stop on the tour was below the main office (where it was blissfully cool) to get some history lessons and watch a film.

They divided us into “English” and “Dutch” language groups. The English group was less than half native speakers, and was comprised mainly of people from other EU countries with a few Asians as well, all of whom were able to follow along in English, but not in Dutch. One more example of why ELF is so important!

The English guide gave us a good timeline overview of the square, walking us through the various stages of construction from Roman frontier fortress to modern day with a series of maps, drawings and photos to help us see the evolution. Then we all huddled together and watched a very dramatic short film about the square with actors in period dress and CG reconstructions of the architecture and the dramatic and destructive storm that reshaped the town.

2000 Years of History

Starting around 50 CE (that’s AD if you’re old), the site began it’s civilized life as a Roman fortress on the outskirts of the Empire. The Rhine river was, at the time, flowing through the area and just here it became shallow enough to cross. To defend the crossing point, a fortress, or castrum, was built.

Traiectum - Wttecht - Utrecht (Atlas van Loon)

Traiectum, the name of this castellum, was built mainly of wood with a stone wall surrounding it. It was burned down during the Revolt of the Batavi in 69-70 CE. The film we watched speculated that there may have been a romance and betrayal involved in the sacking of the fort, and that it was the wife of an officer who buried the gold later found by archaeologists below the lowest layer of burned wood.

Begrenzingskaart castellum Traiectum Utrecht Domplein Within 20 years, the Romans reclaimed it, and maintained power until about 270 CE when the Franks invaded. There isn’t any substantial change to the site for another 400 years, although evidence suggests that it was not abandoned, simply that the castellum was never rebuilt and any structures were temporary. You can still see the outline of where the old walls were built in the modern streets of Utrecht by looking down for some distinctive metal plates.

Around 630, the last of the Merovingians established a small abbey using the stone walls left by the Romans to enclose the grounds.

In 720, a chap named Willibrod who is intensely famous in the Netherlands and unknown everywhere else, established the church of St. Martin which more or less still stands today. He really loved preaching out in the frontier and was not always warmly received, having been driven out violently on at least one well known occasion by pagans who were not at all interested in this new-fangled religion he was peddling. He was canonized after his death.

The Vikings came through Europe between 857-920 in a rash of Church raiding. A lot of wealth was concentrated in churches and they were often poorly defended. St. Martin did not escape. Interestingly, there’s a viking rock on display in the square today, although I’m not sure if it’s from the time of these invasions or from a later time after the Nordic countries had converted to Christianity.

Around the turn of the millennium, the church was once more destroyed, but this time by a fire. The rebuild was inspired by the Roman round arch style. Shortly after the Emperor built a palace within the walls of the old Roman castellum (yes, where the cathedral is) and there was a bit of state vs church argy-bargy over who had ultimate authority. It seems the Emperor and the Bishop wouldn’t share an entrance from their residences into the cathedral and so two separate entrance halls were built.

In 1253 there was, shock and surprise, another huge fire that destroyed nearly everything (that’s at least 3 by now). During the subsequent reconstruction, the church transformed into a proper French Gothic cathedral completed in 1267 and the famous church tower (see below for more on that) was built in the mid 1300’s.

Dom voor storm (retoucheerd)
Things go along fairly peacefully until 1647 when an enormous and devastating storm swept through the town. My subsequent research says a tornado, but the reconstructions and explanations I experienced that day in Utrecht made it seem much more like a thunder and lightning with extremely high winds kind of storm. Either way, it was so bad that the townsfolk seriously questioned what they had done to incur the wrath of God, because nothing outside the Bible even compared.

The wind (tornado or otherwise) completely destroyed the nave of the cathedral that connected the tower to the rest of the structure. The nave was not small. You can see from drawings how much of the space it took up, and in heavy stone with Gothic arches, gargoyles and other bits of stone crenelation all over the place. It was flattened. Rubble. The people of Utrecht were devastated and although the city continued to function, no one cleaned up after the storm for 150 years.

NIMH - 2011 - 0518 - Aerial photograph of Utrecht, The Netherlands - 1920 - 1940

Even when cleanup began, it was little more than clearing the rubble and a few halfhearted attempts at restoration. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that there were serious efforts to return the cathedral and tower to their former glory. The nave was never rebuilt and it is that space that is now the main square of Utrecht between the church and tower.

The Dig Site

Armed with this historical perspective, we trooped back upstairs and headed into the main square where a hole opened up to lead us down into the dig site.

Here we were given “interactive flashlights” that we could use not only to see, but also to trigger the audio tour in our headsets. I like headset audio tours much better than trying to listen to a single guide, so I admire the choice, however, this was maybe a little too interactive. We had to find these tiny little RF chips tucked in amid the displays and aim the light at them to trigger the audio file to play. The chips weren’t labeled and there was no way to know if I got them all or missed any since a single display could have 1-3 chips in it. It was a little like playing hidden picture in real life. Here you can see one nestled among some old Roman artillery.

Despite the hunt and peck games, the displays were absolutely fun. There were two more mini movies underground, including one meant to replicate the storm itself, and the rest were pieces of the actual dig sites that had been left for display.

There were walls from the original fortress. There were tools and pottery and jewelry from the Romans. There were pieces of clay tiles with cat prints in them, proving cats have been walking on wet paint, wet cement, and wet clay forever.

There were the support pillars of the cathedral, and remnants of the rubble of the catastrophe of the storm. There were even earlier dig crew’s archaeological tools that got left for a few decades. Plus the immortal remains of at least one Bishop (probably).

I could have stayed much longer mulling over the details, but as always, I was the last person trailing behind the tour group and the guides politely reminded me that the tour was over as I was taking photos of the last few displays. Returning to the surface, I had a whole new perspective of the square in which I stood, seeing now in my minds eye the layers and layers of construction and destruction that shaped it for over 2000 years. Will someone stand in Washington DC or New York city in 2000 years and marvel at the capacity for human growth, change and tenacity? I hope so.

Church, Gardens, Tower

Although I had accidentally meandered through the gardens at St. Martin’s between the bus stop and my tour start, once I finished the tour I was eager to have a closer look at both the cathedral and the tower. The tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, and I think the tallest building in Utrecht. It stands 112m tall and if you want to see the view from the top it’s 465 stairs (no lift). I admired it greatly… from the ground.

The cathedral is undeniably French Gothic. It could have been picked up and moved over from France. Beautiful stained glass windows, impossibly high arches, and a great deal of overly grotesque carving including gargoyles, skeletons and dead dudes.

It’s not that I’m tired of looking at cathedrals, but I did reach a point in Europe where one French Gothic cathedral began to look rather like all the rest. It’s interesting because in modern architectural design, international companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks want their stores to all look the same on the inside because they want to establish a brand and also that their customers would feel comfortable with the familiar, even in an unfamiliar city. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Catholic Church is the McDonald’s of the middle ages… no, wait, I am… And since the average human didn’t travel more than 20 miles from home their whole lives back then, the only people this was meant to appeal to would be the ruling and priestly classes, so they can go to church anywhere and it’s always the same.

The Speelklok Museum

This is a museum dedicated to self playing instruments and music machines that pre-date the gramophone and other recording devices invention and rise to musical dominance. The museum roughly covers the time from 1750-1950, but focuses mainly on the Victorian and Edwardian periods (1840-1910). It opened my eyes to the history of music and music technology in a whole new way and made me completely re-evaluate my ideas of change and progress in the modern world. I couldn’t fit it all into a single post with the rest of Utrecht. If you haven’t already read the whole story, you can follow this link.

Is That a Theremin or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

My final moments in Utrecht, I stopped into a cafe for a sandwich and a nice iced latte. The Netherlands is not so snooty as France when it comes to putting ice in coffee, and I was grateful for their lack of coffee-purity during the unrelenting heat wave. I was sitting upstairs, trying to imagine a breeze through the open window and taking notes on my phone about the thoughts swirling in my head after my visits to the Underground and the Speelkloks when suddenly I realized that the music I was hearing in the background was a Theremin.

Not everyone would know this strange instrument either by sight or by sound, but due to an odd quirk of my proclivity for learning peculiar information and my ability to involuntarily remember completely useless trivia, I recognized the sound before I even realized I was hearing it. It was as though some part of my brain whispered “theremin”, and my conscious train of thought stopped and said “what?” before registering what my ears were hearing.

I had only ever heard recordings of the theremin, but I was sure that was what I was hearing and as soon as I realized the sound came from the street, I peered out the window. Lo and behold, on the street below was a middle aged man in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt busking for change with a theremin.

A few minutes later, he was joined by another gentleman who sat down on the ground and pulled a sitar from it’s case and began to tune it. Another instrument not readily recognizable, at least not to those who are not from South Asia. I first learned about it from the Beatles of course, since they became entranced by it’s sound after visiting India. It is also a unique and (outside India) fairly obscure instrument.

So there I am, staring down at two middle aged hipsters with the most unlikely instrumental duet I have ever heard of, and they’re good. Not like philharmonic good, but the theremin is a HARD instrument and I don’t really think the sitar is a piece of cake, so “good” is a major accomplishment and thousands of hours of practice. And there they are, on the street, playing for coins. Of course I contributed to the growing pile of money in the sitar case (pay your artists!), and if you like what you hear, I even made sure to get the band name so you can support them yourself. They are called Guau! (pronounced “wow”) and they are from Spain. You can get the album here.


For those of you playing the home game, I’m finally finished with final exams and the complex grading math that is the end of semester excel spreadsheet. I’m stuck in Korea until January 9th, when I’ll be embarking on another long trek. I’ve been so busy with work (and art) that the blog has been very slow, so I’m going to do my best to churn out a double handful of posts to leave you with before the next big adventure begins. Hope you enjoyed Utrecht, and as always, thanks for reading. Happy Holidays and Merry New Year!

Miniatures

I have always loved tiny versions of regular things. As a child, I was most fascinated by toys like my tiny working blender where I could make about 2 oz of chocolate milk at a time, my tiny Barbie spoon which I would use to make a dish of ice cream last longer, and a series of miniature fuzzy animals. Living in Japan in 3rd grade may have been the most ridiculous overexposure to the cute and the tiny since I was easily able to get tiny art supplies, tiny erasers shaped like tiny food, and tiny key chains shaped like tiny everything. As an adult, I have stopped acquiring stuff so much, but I cannot help but squee at the sight of well reproduced miniatures. Thus, when I found out that Europe has a proliferation of miniature theme parks, I was captivated. After careful consideration, I chose to visit 3: The Mini-Europe in Brussels, The Madurodam in Den Haag, and the Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg. I was not disappointed.


Mini-Europe, Brussels

The weather this summer was insanely hot, and the northern Europeans are simply not prepared. It cut into my outdoor activities severely, and I almost didn’t make it to this park. Lucky me, there was a single cloudy and cool day during my week in Brussels. It doesn’t make the best photos, but overcast skies certainly make a happier me.

The park is right next to the Atomium a huge statue constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. I honestly believe that nearly every strange structure in a city can be attributed to this cause, not the least Seattle’s own Space Needle and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You can go inside. I did not.

General admission is not too expensive at 15.5€ and it’s so full of amazing things that I felt it well worth the cost. I recommend bringing snacks and drinks since the on-site Cafe is overpriced.

Once inside, there is a winding path through a whirlwind tour of Europe. It is seriously all of Europe. The most famous buildings and historical sights of each country (at least as decided by the Belgians). It’s enormous.

While ogling the array of tiny architectural marvels from a distance, I came across a series of informative signs at the front. They were… interesting. Among other things it gave credit to UK for modern democracy (as an American my response is, “um excuse me?”) and also represented rampant European colonialism as “the spirit of adventure”. I know each culture teaches history in their own way, but… I suppose if the history can’t be accurate, at least the architecture is pretty spot on. (top: mini Brussels, bottom: real Brussels)

Some vignettes were reproductions of old villages, but most were modern familiar and famous sights. At the starting point for each nation, there was a button to push that played what I’m fairly sure were the national anthems. Some exhibits were also animated, many activated by another button. As you can imagine, kids raced along to be the first to push each button.

Because they’re miniature and placed on the ground, most exhibits are at eye level or below. I took some bird’s eye photos, but my favorites are the ones where I was able to get level with the model ground, as though I were standing inside. I used the selfie stick a lot to get better angles, and wished I had a better zoom since many of the amazing details were hard to capture. The three I loved most were Galileo testing his ideas at Pisa, Don Quixote and Sancho in la Mancha, and a tiny blue TARDIS in London.

I was blown away by the level of detail, the cathedrals especially. It’s hard for me to say how accurate they all are. I found the models of places I’ve been before to be a bit lackluster, while I found the ones I haven’t seen in person to be amazing. I visited several of these cities after Brussels, so you can see for yourself how they stack up. (top: mini Copenhagen, bottom: real Copenhagen) 

More than anything, it reminded me of the “bigatures” that were used in the LOTR movies. These models were often gigantic, the size of a sofa or even a car, yet because the originals are multi-story, towering masterpieces, it still counts as “miniature”. (left: mini Maastricht, right: real Maastricht)

It took me hours to navigate the entire park, and I am ashamed to admit there were one or two countries in the mini-EU I hadn’t heard of before. Overall, it was an amazing visual experience, and a fun photography day since I got to do a lot with experimental angles and effects. I took hundreds of photos, but here are the 50 I think are best.


Madurodam, Den Haag

The Madurodam is far more focused than the Mini_EU. It is exclusively about the Netherlands, while Mini-EU covers all of Europe.  The attempt at being interactive was really more of a pain than an enhancement. Mini-Europe had a plethora of buttons that played music or activated moving parts. Most of the animations at Madurodam were coin operated so cost extra, and the informative audio clips, while free, required you to scan a card to hear it and see the educational video. I was constantly having to rearrange my camera and sunbrella (umbrella for sun) to dig the card out of my pocket. 

Despite this inconvenience, I did enjoy the miniatures. The quality of the constructions was high, and I liked the fact that there were more scenes of neighborhoods or city blocks rather than just a single monument in isolation. It’s hard for me to speak to the accuracy, and I didn’t recognize as many landmark buildings, since my travels in Holland were somewhat limited. Photography was if anything more fun since I was able to get much closer to the buildings and there were more interesting and active scenes, rather than stark and empty buildings (although both styles have an appeal). The one building I did get to see for real was the Dom Tower at Utrecht (left: mini, right: real life).

One thing that Madurodam had that Mini-EU lacked were the shows. There were several locations where one could go into a small theater and watch a kind of puppet/animation show about some aspect of Dutch history. The shows reminded me of 80’s Disney animatronic entertainment, and some used puffs of air or sprinkles of water to create realism. 

One was about the namesake Maduro, one about the rebellion against the Spanish with William of Orange, and one about the founding of New Amsterdam. The performances were lovely, and I’m grateful that they were all available in English as well as Dutch, but the content left me feeling very uneasy.

George Maduro was a military officer who fought in WWII and eventually died in Dachau. His parents donated the money to start the park as a living memorial to their son. I’m quite sure that the video of his heroics is hyperbolic, but it is the one I mind the least, since it is after all a monument to his memory. Nonetheless, it does seem he was an extraordinary young man, who became a leader at a young age, escaped a German prison, became part of the resistance smuggling Allied troops through Spain, and finally perished in a concentration camp. The presentation was a panoramic movie screen that used a combination of actors in historical dress, photos of historical events, and shadow animation to give a sense of the battles and prison experiences of Maduro’s life.

The Rebellion against the Spanish was part of the 80 Years War, or the War of Dutch Independence. It was a combination of religious rebellion (Catholic vs Protestant) and of course the tangled web of European nobility and the right to rule (collect taxes). The Dutch were tired of being controlled by the Catholic Spanish, and William of Orange provided a central figure to rally around. The presentation was captivating. We entered a war room of the mid 1500, decorated with all appropriate trimmings. We sat at a large table and the video projected a revolutionary leader apprising us of the dire situation, and of the need to go to war for Prince William. We were made in large part to feel like active participants in the planning of the rebellion.

The last performance I visited was the most elaborate. We started off by going in a dark ship’s hold. The space was decorated with ship’s stores and some animals and it swayed slightly to represent the waves at sea. A ship’s captain narrated the journey of the Dutch pilgrims to the Americas, including a small storm with special effects. When the “ride” was over, we emerged into the harbor of New Amsterdam where we stood on the quayside and watched the invasion of the British. Well before the American war for Independence, this battle was fought between the Dutch and English for control of the colony, and the port city later named New York, after the English won. We were encouraged to take up “firelighters” to ignite the cannons before us and try to sink the English ships. Very fun and interactive, but sadly historically inaccurate and loaded down with propaganda.

I didn’t have the best cultural connection with the Dutch. While I found the individual Dutch people I met to be courteous and friendly, the culture as a whole felt to me like one of wealth and entitlement. Madurodam was far from the only place I encountered these attitudes while there. Basically every Dutch written info blurb or tour guide about this country did this at least a little, but the shows at Madurodam were best at putting them in a clear and succinct way that helped me identify my unease.

They’re rich and proud of it, but more they know they got rich with the Dutch East India trading Co. and rampant colonialism and they’re proud of that. Like ‘we are so awesome cause we built better ships than those horrible English and we got billions of euros of equivalent wealth by exploiting “unexplored” regions of the world’. Oh and ‘we invented democracy a 200 years before America when we fought a revolution against the Spanish (for King William) and we are responsible for everything good about New York, which was completely devoid of people (Indigenous People don’t count, right?) when we arrived to build it’.

I did not know anyone was still bragging about colonial wealth. A lot of people (mostly white and Western) benefit from it, but most of us at least try to acknowledge it was a horrible atrocity. They seriously brag about it here all the time. At Madurodom, it was laid on so thick I felt like I was drowning in it. Holland and I are not destined to be friends until this country gets woke about it’s role in global wealth inequality and gets rid of the saying, “God made Earth, but the Dutch made the Netherlands.”

The miniatures were of excellent quality, and it was a cute park. Despite the colonial superiority complex, I still took a million pictures, which I have winnowed down to the top 50 in this video.


Miniature Wonderland, Hamburg

The miniature museum was astonishing. It is completely different from the other two miniature parks. Both Mini-EU and Madurodom were outdoor parks that focused on reproducing famous architecture in miniature with great detail. Miniature Wonderland is an indoor attraction (climate control!), and focuses on the tradition of model trains. If someone had told me “model trains” I would not have gone, and I would have missed out. I don’t know what most people think of when they hear “model trains” but I think of the train, the tracks and maybe some engineering specs with a side note of mini-landscapes. At Miniature Wonderland, the landscapes the trains travel through are far and away the stars of the show. The trains are fun, but in many ways, merely an added detail. Although, I did see the Hogwarts Express pass by once, and that was a nice touch. I took so many more pictures here than at the other two parks I couldn’t actually narrow it down to 50 photos, so there are 2 videos. Here’s the first one.

Famous places were replicated, but in the style of a model train set, rather than a single building. As a consequence, there were many reproductions of famous landscapes, as well as cities, and towns. There was so much detail not only in the buildings but in the humans! There were thousands and thousands of tiny miniature humans engaging in every activity imaginable. There were passengers in the trains and people inside the buildings. I even found some nude bathers in a secluded lakeside retreat!

In addition, everything moved and lit up, not only one or two attractions, but nearly everything. Every building and car had working lights. Of course the trains moved, but also ski lifts, and airplanes, and dolphins in the sea! Some were button activated, others on a timer. It was enchanting. Moreover, the lights would change from day to night and different things would be visible. At night, all the buildings lit up and you could see the delicate window dressings, or be a peeping tom and see what people were doing inside. During the day, the landscapes and building exteriors were on display, while the insides of buildings were dark and hidden. 

The museum spans two floors in a large warehouse building near the water. Although there is a gift shop, and a restaurant, most of that space is dedicated to the models. There’s also a central control area where several employees monitor the trains movements and other activities around the scenes.

My only complaint is that many of the viewing areas were cul-de-sac, so once you got in to see the point of interest, you were sort of trapped fighting the tide to get back out. Mini-EU had a single path with easy to follow arrows that kept the flow of people moving and avoided clumps or jams. The Wonderland was much harder to move around.

A local woman visiting with her husband noticed I was on my own and took it upon herself to point out the curious and interesting details around the various sets. She would run off and then come back to show me something else, and before she left she made sure that I wouldn’t pass by the Lindtt Chocolate factory which gave out actual pieces of chocolate!

I watched Mt. Vesuvius explode and pour lava made of light down onto a tiny replica of ancient Pompeii.

And we all flocked to the airport whenever a plane was ready for landing or departure.

There was even a miniature miniature park!

Tickets are sold for an entry time, and you can stay as long as you like afterward (until closing). Early morning and late night tickets are cheaper, and I got a deal on a combo harbor boat tour. I enjoyed the boat trip, but seriously underestimated the amount of time I would want to spend inside the miniature display, and while I was shuffling out as the exhibits were being shut down for the night I felt I had still seen less than half of the stunning hidden delights tucked away in the extraordinary displays. Here’s 50 more of my top photos from the second half of the displays.

Speelklok Museum: Fads in Music Tech?

They say travel should expand your horizons and change your way of thinking about the world and while I had other experiences like that this summer, for some reason, the Speelklok Museum stands out among them. Do you ever think about how recent changes in technology are impacting your generation differently than people in the past? Well, it may not be as different as you think. Turns out we’ve been having a music technology revolution for at least 150 years, maybe longer.


When I arrived to buy my tickets, I was told about all three different options for exploring the museum that were included in my entry fee: the music tour, solo exploration, and the “Expedition”. I didn’t really know what to expect out of the museum and I could only see a few exhibits in the waiting area. One was this blatantly-racist-but-normal-at-the-time automaton duet. Insert a coin in the slot and the show begins as the robots play a little jazz tune. It’s not a recording with puppets, the machine actually creates the music.

This is a museum dedicated to self playing instruments and music machines that pre-date the gramophone and other recording devices invention and rise to musical dominance. The museum roughly covers the time from 1750-1950, but focuses mainly on the Victorian and Edwardian periods (1840-1910). For reference, the phonograph was invented in 1877 and the first commercial record player was released in 1895.

The Music Tour: Hearing History

The music tour is unique not only because you get a guide to explain things, but because that guide will also activate several of the devices that are otherwise stationary and silent in the museum. Since it’s all about the music, hearing is believing. Music may be a universal language, but Dutch is not. Thankfully our guide was gracious enough to give the relevant information in both Dutch and English.

Speelklock means “musical clock” and that is where the tour began. Although the earliest example of a musical clock is from 1598, the ones we looked at were very advanced members of the species popular in the 1750s. We visited first a white room with many such elaborate clocks on display.

The guide explained a bit about the history of early self playing music starting with bells and pipes. Bells were the first and “easiest”, if that can be applied to such complex machinery. A metal cylinder like that in a music box was used to orchestrate a series of springs and levers to tap small bells of different tones. There was only one length of note and it resulted in some very un-nuanced music, but the Victorians loved gadgets sooo much that owning such a marvel in one’s home was a real status symbol. They were incredibly expensive and very fine. The only way to change the song was to change the cylinder inside.

Pipes were close behind bells, although they were even more expensive and complicated, since they relied on a vacuum seal and bellows system to pump air through the pipes. It did allow for a slightly nicer sound since the length of individual notes could be shortened and lengthened in the program.

I’m going to keep calling these “programs” because that is the word the museum used to describe the different types of devices used to impart the directions to the machines. Over the decades they changed form, but always used a series of bumps and holes rather like early computer punch-cards.. The first use of such a cylinder used to program music was in the church carillons in the mid 1500’s. I sure as heck didn’t know that the idea of programming music was that old, did you?

Many of these early musical clocks also included some simple form of animation. The one we watched had a progression of figures parading through the fields showing the phases of life and inevitability of death… there’s a reason it’s called “Victorian Gothic”.

Kids and Their Newfangled Gadgets

My first real clue that I have spent my life seeing time and history all wrong came a few steps to the left as our guide began to explain the rapid change in music technology. The cylinder, which had been used consistently since 1550 to create musical programs was suddenly replaced by the disc in 1885. Cylinders were heavy, difficult to make, and expensive. Plus, most people had to have them professionally changed out in order to listen to new songs. With a disc, much less material was needed and production could be streamlined by simply stamping each flat disc with it’s musical program. Much cheaper, more efficient, and easier to use.

No automatic alt text available.

But what do you do with your cylinder collection? No worries! The modern wonder of technology created a crossover player with a space for both! What about that new gramophone recording? No problem! Your technological crossover music machine comes equipped with a clockwork organ and a gramophone speaker! Maybe you had a similar device? I know we had a record player with a tape deck… and later a boom box with a tape deck and CD player… and later a CD walk-man that played both .wav and Mp3 discs. And now, a Bluetooth Gramophone? Turns out that fad is more than 100 years older than I realized.

Much like the record to tape to CD to MP3 transition, the musical programme revolution of the 1800’s wasn’t over. The next step? PAPER! The lightest, cheapest and above all longest musical program yet. With paper, you could have a much larger music collection and you could play longer pieces of music, or multiple pieces on a single program. Plus you could print words on paper, giving rise not only to the player piano, but to the world’s first “karaoke”. Friends and family could gather round the player piano and modern favorites would play from the paper program which would display the lyrics in a moving scroll as the music played, allowing those with imperfect memories to sing along. Yes, that’s really how they used it back in 1925. Although it started in early 1900, the paper roll player piano was the height of home entertainment from about 1920-1930 when the stock market crash combined with the rise of other musical technology wiped it out. Talk about a fast fad.

During this time, our old friend the cylinder program achieved some continued use in miniature. Not only in the form of teeny tiny pocket sized music boxes, but most especially inside automata cleverly shaped like people or animals that would come to life and perform to some piece of music. These automata captivated the people of the Edwardian era and were almost as short lived as Edward himself. We got to see a nightingale in a cage (yes, made of real nightingale), an acrobat atop a ladder, a rabbit emerging from a paper cabbage, and a rather singularly Dutch representation of the painter Van Gogh painting his famous “Sunflowers”.

The guide kindly led me back after the tour so that I could see it in action and as Vincent’s arm moves the brush across the canvas to the music, the sunflowers begin to spin as his eyes go wide in representation of the hallucinations he was thought to have.

Clockwork Organs & Orchestrions

Book music put out from reader - Gavioli & Cie fairground organ - rear left - Birkenhead Park Festival of Transport 2012

The music tour continued into pipe organs and dance hall organs. Starting in the late 1800s, the pipe organs used the cylinder method, though often wooden instead of metal. Organ grinders were so called because they had to turn a crank to operate a kind of bellows to keep the cylinder turning and the air passing through the pipes. Earlier pipe organs were displayed on the street and at festivals and often involved theatrical stories and sing-a-long musical numbers to keep the audience engaged with the limited cylinder length.

By 1892, the pipe organs too had converted to paper, although instead of a paper roll, they used a “book” made of cardboard and folded in a zig-zag fashion so that it unfolded into one long piece with all the convenience of a paper roll, but made of a far sturdier material that would withstand the abuse of outdoor performances and travel better than flimsy paper.

Street organs remained popular in the Netherlands until the street organ ban in WWII. They have never really made a comeback, but are still enjoyed as a novelty from time to time. Many of the most fantastic designs were made between 1910 and 1925 including the “Gouden Limonarie” and “The Arab”.

The final segment of the music tour was the orchestrions. These were not merely seeking to produce music from a single instrument, but rather to imitate an entire orchestra. The earliest of these machines was created in 1805. They were fairly limited to the number and type of instruments at first, but quickly expanded to encompass brass, woodwind, and percussion, delighting and astonishing audiences everywhere.

The final and most challenging orchestral section to make self-playing was the strings. In 1910 at the world’s Fair, the first self-player with a string section had it’s debut and was hailed as the 8th wonder of the world. It included three sets of violin strings which could be set to different pitches with different levers acting as mechanical fingers of the left hand and used a “bow” made of continuously circling horsehair that could be lowered and raised to play notes as the “right hand”. It was so inconceivable an achievement that some believed it to be magic until they could see the inner workings for themselves.

While the musical clock and player piano might find their way into any reasonably affluent household, the larger organs and orchestral players were reserved for the ultra wealthy and of course, the dance halls. During their height (again an incredibly brief time ending abruptly in 1930) these orchestrions were the darling of the day, drawing large crowds to dance halls to cut a rug to the mechanical orchestras and marvel at the wonders of modern technology. Because of the limited amount of musical numbers available to each machine, and because of the stunning but stationary artwork on the outside, audiences became bored with a single orchestrion quite quickly. (no, our attention spans weren’t any better a century ago no matter what your grandmother says) To keep the crowds coming, these huge machines were often built to be easily disassembled and moved to play a new dance hall every week. Early 20th century DJs played the precursor to EDM– MDM: Mechanical Dance Music.

The Whitewashing of Buurkirk

When the music tour ended, I was left in a very thoughtful state as I set off to find the rest of the museum’s displays. After returning to some of the machines for a longer look, I found a staircase and went up. It was immediately clear that the museum was actually built into a disused cathedral. Post-travel research tells me this is the Buurkirk and is the largest and wealthiest of the parish cathedrals in Utrecht, having been built in the mid 10th century and suffering from 4 fires and rebuilds in less than 300 years.

It’s only a couple blocks away from St. Martin’s Cathedral, and you may wonder why any town needs so many churches so close together, but I believe St. Martin’s was at the time mainly operating as a monastic center (and a royal palace). Perhaps folks in town could come for masses, but parish churches would have been a bit less formal and also often offered the church space for use in the community during non-church times. I suspect that Buurkirk and the other nearby parish churches were a bit more like community centers and St. Martin’s was a bit more like a place you go for Easter and Christmas but otherwise leave to the clergy and nobility.

The walls, columns, arches, and decorative carvings are painted a crisp clean white except a few places where the original church artwork has been preserved and painted around. The whitewashing isn’t a result of secularism, however, but rather the work of the Protestant reformation which took over the church in 1586 and just hated all that ostentatious Catholic art. Buurkirk was actively used as a church until 1975 and it became the Speelklok Museum in 1984. Wandering among the displays and whitewashed arches, my mind was occupied with the impending massive shift in my perception of humans, time, and technology.

The Expedition

At last, I found the “expedition” part I had been so curious from the moment I bought my ticket. I had been given a card and told it would be used for this segment of the museum. It was not the first time I encountered the idea and I’m still not sure why it exists since it would be just as easy for visitors to press a button to activate whatever the card does. It’s just one more thing to hold in my hands, or more accurately, fish out of my pocket every time I found one of the small silver slots in the wall with a little speaker on cord.

Holding the palm sized speaker up to my ear, I could use the card to activate audio recordings (sadly, not the music machines themselves). The recordings included samples of the music as well as narration about the pieces on display. While some were a bit dry, there was a fun section where I seemed to be visiting a wealthy Victorian gentleman who had the very latest in musical clocks and self playing instruments he eagerly wanted to show off to me. Maybe I liked it so much because it reminded me of a friend who would talk about historical clocks and clockwork with almost the same level of enthusiasm.

Several of the expedition displays included information that the guide on the music tour had given, but I didn’t mind since often it was able to go into greater detail. For example, the fad of “player” instruments stretched well past the piano. The urge to amaze your friends with your musical talents extended to a number of other instruments like this “player trumpet”. Just blow?

Composing for Machines

Room after room of intricate, detailed clocks and devices ended in a small theater. While the card-activated recordings were played for me in English (the choice of language determined by the placement of holes in your card, haha, how clever, just like a music program) the theater had only one soundtrack and it was Dutch. Thankfully, a film of the English words played on a display that I could easily read.

The stage was occupied by a large number and variety of self playing instruments which were highlighted as the story moved to cover them. While some of the information was familiar from my guided tour, I was rather astonished to learn that composers like Mozart, Hadyn, Handel, and even Beethoven had composed music expressly for these wonderful self playing machines.

Wait wait, I hear the music history majors cry, they were alive in the 18th century, late 1700’s composers. I thought you said these machines were popular in the 19th and 20th century! Yes, I did and the museum did mainly focus on these later inventions, but remember the original carillon use of the cylinder program is from 1550. The human operated pipe organ was a popular instrument for composition during the Baroque era. Although Classical era composers like those mentioned above rarely wrote for the traditional pipe organ, some were interested in the abilities of the clockwork organ which was becoming more and more available by the mid 1700’s. Available at least to the reasonably affluent, and that’s who paid composers after all.Freule-open-bewerkt-930x620

The film at the museum said that because the clockwork organ could play combinations of notes not possible by human hands, the composers of the day felt drawn to compose unique and challenging works. Other sources I have since found seem to think that some of the composers disdained the tinny sounding miniature organs and only accepted the commissions for composition out of economic necessity. Either way, I was captivated by the notion because not only were these unique works designed exclusively for a machine to do what a human could not, the composers were actually present during the creation of the cylinder programs and could make adjustments to the timing and length of notes (the most nuance possible for the machines at the time) giving us the most accurate representation of the musical result they themselves envisioned for each piece.

Below is one of the pieces by Hadyn composed for the mechanical organ. Although it was recorded at the Speelklock Museum, it’s not my recording, I found it on Youtube by a Swedish Instrumental Band called Wintergaten. I especially like this video because you can see the organ working as it plays. You can find recordings of other compositions for clockwork organs on Youtube as well: here are a few for Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Although most of the videos are not as visually captivating as Wintergaten’s, it’s still interesting to hear these unique mechanical compositions

What Is New Under the Sun?

What started out as a mildly amusing side trip turned into one of the most eye-opening experiences of my summer. Before the invention of self-playing instruments there was no way to hear music without a musician, just as before the invention of the motion picture, there was no way to see a play without actors. It was a revolution in human culture and it happened a lot earlier than I realized.

In a very short amount of time from roughly 1750 to 1930 the culture is constantly demanding and creating new and improved technology. From about 1850-1920, the changes were happening so fast that your home music player would become obsolete almost as soon as you bought it. Meanwhile, in my head, I always pictured the fast transition of music playback to be the one from LP to MP3 that took place between 1965 (the release of the 8-track cassette deck) and 2001 (the release of the iPod).Related imageAnd just like our parents (maybe grandparents), people living in the 1860-1930 range complained that each new development was destroying music, culture, and maybe even the very fabric of society. However will we maintain social standards when people can just listen to music in their home instead of getting dressed up and attending a performance in polite society!?

I admit, I am a little flummoxed trying to imagine a world where music isn’t just there when I want it (and when I don’t, elevators everywhere). We are hardly ever without music. In our earbuds, in our cars, in every shop and most restaurants there is music. I’m listening to music while I write this. I struggle to imagine a world where the only music is that you can make yourself or pay a large number of people with expensive instruments to make for you. The invention of musicianless music is, I believe, an actual moment of deep cultural change on par with the printing press or the assembly line. However, past that huge conceptual change in our relationship with music, the trappings, the delivery systems, those are only small changes, and not as significant or original as we like to believe.

The mechanics might be different, but none of it is new: karaoke, the drum machine, samplers, auto-tuning. It was all there 100-400 years ago in a different form. The more I learn about history, the more it looks like we’ve been reliving the same cycles over and over with smaller and faster machines each time. I don’t find this thought depressing. It makes me look at the progression of time as more of a gradually progressing spiral than a straight line. Yes, it’s a repetitive cycle, but each cycle changes slightly. We’re still moving forward just not at the breakneck speed that the “get off my lawn” crowd would have us believe. Every so often we get a really big “ah-ha” change that sweeps us on to the next series of small change cycles.

So the next time someone says something like “kids these days” or heaven forfend “Millenials are killing everything”, just remember that Mozart programmed music in binary code for a machine to play over 200 years ago. Change is the only constant.


The Speelklok Museum in Utrecht was not the only place this summer that made me reach inside my brain and rearrange the way I look at things, but it was undoubtedly one of the biggest and most compact of such experiences. As I stated my intention is that these stories have no order or thematic relationship to my experiences this summer. Non-linear felt intuitively like a good way to go and after reconstructing these memories and thoughts I start to see why. Sometimes we have to step away from the linear narrative to see the bigger picture. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll return for more stories as they come.