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Chasing The Kerstman: Christmas In The Netherlands, 2013

FUCK LAND I'M ON A BOAT MOTHERFUCKERThe clues have all been there for anyone who was paying attention.

Clue #1: a series of articles covering the various places that The Belated Birthday Girl and I have visited for Christmas over the last decade: New York, Brighton, Copenhagen, Prague, Newcastle and Belgium. The last one of those was for Christmas 2012. 2013 is notable by its absence.

Clue #2: a piece on Mostly Film entitled All The Blobs, discussing some films we saw in the Netherlands during Christmas 2013. At the same time (February 2014), I wrote the following on my own site: "you'd imagine that the Red Button backup content for the Mostly Film piece would be several thousand words of travel writing about where we slept, what we ate, what we looked at and how we got from one place to another. That article is definitely in the pipeline: it's just not quite ready yet."

Clue #3: a later Mostly Film piece (published June 2014) on Scandinavian cinema was accompanied by a backup post containing the following lines on my Copenhagen hotel. "The key to the Cabinn Metro is in the name: the rooms (or at least the single room I was in) have been made as compact as humanly possible, like a cabin on a ship. In fact, it was very reminiscent of the cabins The Belated Birthday Girl and I occupied on our ferry to the Netherlands last Christmas, which I still haven’t told you about yet. (That particular piece has been delayed so much now, I’ve taken the decision to hold it back till next Christmas, when it might be of use to some people.)"

At the time of writing, Christmas 2014 is about three weeks away. Still not made any plans yet? Then have a look at what we did for Christmas 2013, and see if it gives you any ideas. We went on a ferry, you know.

Not one of Valkenberg's most traditional bits of Christmas decoration, but I still like it.Friday December 20: London - Harwich - The Hook
Our trek starts with a train from Liverpool Street, full of people who stink of booze. Happily, they aren't ferry passengers, just Essex commuters in their natural state on the Friday before Christmas. Most of them have got off by the time we hit the end of the line at Harwich for the Stena Line terminal, at which point the stink changes to one of wet dogs and wee, as we discover just how many people are bringing their pets with them. After a quick and painless check-in process, it's off to the rather swish Captain's Class cabin we've booked for the outward journey. There's a three-course dinner included in the price - seafood appetisers and plaice fillets for The BBG, fried camembert and duck a l'orange for me, creme brulee for us both - which leaves us too stuffed to consider the booze and nibbles in the cabin's complimentary mini-bar. We take a walk around the ship before bedtime, and discover that the onboard cinema is showing the potentially inappropriate Captain Phillips.

Saturday December 21: The Hook - Valkenburg
As if to comfort any nervous sleepers who may have spent the night fretting about the prospect of being boarded by Somali pirates, the wakeup call at 6.30am involves playing Don't Worry Be Happy at full blast over the ship's PA. We grab a shower and a buffet breakfast, and then disembark to commence an epic rail journey across the Netherlands. Here's the deal with the Stena Line tickets - the price includes the train from London to Harwich, plus the train from The Hook to any other NS trains station in the country. We get our money's worth from this deal, hopping to Rotterdam, Eindhoven and Maastricht in rapid succession. At that point we have to start paying out some Euros, because we have to change to a local Veolia train to reach our final destination of Valkenburg. After dropping off our bags at the cheerfully basic Hotel Neerlandia (really just a set of rooms on top of a sushi restaurant), we go out and explore a town that has embraced the festive season to a ludicrous degree. There are special attractions running all the way up to just before Christmas Day, and we've timed our arrival to hit as many of them as we can - a chairlift ride to the top of the castle and back down again, and a set of Nativity sand sculptures notable for the sudden appearance of a bar at the point where you'd expect Baby Jesus in a crib. The biggest attraction of all is the nighttime Christmas parade, a continuous loop of two sleighbell-heavy rave tunes accompanying a vaguely racist procession of international celebrations (Asia, for example, is represented by a dragon dance, a big lantern and a model sumo wrestler). At the rear of it all is the Kerstman himself wishing good cheer to all. It's a ridiculous amount of fun, and we get to top it all by somehow pulling off a walk-in dinner at the Haselderhof restaurant in the castle ruins. It's notably less rammed than the eateries on the parade route, but with sensational food - pumpkin soup, incredibly rich shrimp and lobster ravioli, salmon fillet and a pleasant local white wine. By the time we get out at 10.30pm, the streets are deserted again.

Sunday December 22: Valkenburg
Wherever you are in the Netherlands, it's always a good idea to visit the VVV tourist information office to see what they recommend. The one in Valkenburg seems to be more about selling local goods than providing solid information, but there are a couple of leaflets that tell us about stuff we didn't know. So we run from the office to the charming Valkenburg station, pass the time with a mug of Chocomel, and wait for the Santa Express steam engine to pull in. Sadly, I can't quite get my camera out in time to catch Santa himself quickly hopping off the train for a crafty fag, but like everyone else there we get to take pictures of it pulling out again. From there it's off to Museum Land van Valkenburg, a very traditional type of small town museum, whose best display on the day is a collection of unusual nativity scenes. A quick bite of lunch at Aan de Linde fuels us for an afternoon spent in two of the town's Christmas markets. The Municipal Cave is huge and full of tat, while the Velvet Cave is smaller, more tastefully decorated, and has excellent beer and cheese on sale. Wrong fun can be had by reading the signs in four languages describing how these caves were used as a hideout for Jews during WW2, and noticing how the German version of the text omits roughly three-quarters of that historical background. We grab dinner at De Zotte Zus, which is very much operating in last-opening-day-before-Christmas mode: they add a free lobster to our meal because it just happened to be lying around the kitchen, and by the time we leave the place has erupted into a staff party which we're very tempted to hang around for.

A rare Rieu-less picture of Vrijthof Square in MaastrichtMonday December 23: Valkenburg - Maastricht
We calculate that if we're quick, we should be able to squeeze in a quick visit to Valkenburg Castle Ruins before our 11am checkout. Unfortunately, as the castle's no longer physically secure, they've chosen to protect it by means of inadequate signage, so we have to walk around the entire perimeter before we can find the entrance. Still, it's a very pretty location, and the bright cold weather enhances it even more. We catch our train back into Maastricht for the second leg of the holiday, and are delighted to discover that the Townhouse Hotel offers you complimentary mushroom soup on arrival. We're three hours too early to check in, but pass the time with a Maas river tour (quite enjoyable, but a little too heavily focussed on the cement works at the halfway point) and a hearty lunch of cheese, scampi and beer at Den Ouden Vogelstruys in Vrijthof Square, the area famous for those Andre Rieu concerts they show on Sky Arts all the bloody time. In the evening, we follow the Magical Maastricht route recommended by the tourist office, a lengthy walk that takes in pretty Xmas lights, unexpected sights, blatant promotion of local businesses, and a queasy stroll through the bit where all the junkies are. There are plenty of highlights - riding the big fairground wheel in Vrijthof: the jaw-dropping realisation that one of the old churches has been converted into the beautiful Polare Bookshop (sadly, the chain went bankrupt just a few weeks after we visited, so I've no idea what state it's in now): the even more jaw-dropping discovery of a former monastery that's become the Kruisherenhotel. We finish up with Michelin-starred local delicacies at Jacques, having a splendid dinner of salmon salad, lobster soup, sole and deer, and I think being graced by the presence of Jacques himself at the end of the meal. Be warned that they don't take credit cards, which nearly resulted in embarrassment for us.

Tuesday December 24: Maastricht
The Townhouse turns out to be an excellent choice of hotel, and its wildly diverse breakfast buffet is proof of that. It's tempting to stay in there for a while because of the drizzly, shoe-penetrating rain that's visible outside, but it seems like a waste of a Christmas Eve. So eventually we head out to get a cheap pastry and coffee at the Grand Cafe before visiting the Museum aan het Vrijthof that it's attached to. The staff give us a handy potted history of Maastricht before we enter: it started out as a fortress town, gradually moved into manufacturing, and nowadays is best known for its university. Several of the displays focus on these transitions, notably one which contrasts old sketches of the city with modern pinhole camera pictures. You wear an RFID pass as you walk around the building, which triggers off an audio description in your language as you enter a room. This is an ingenious solution to the age-old problem of multi-language displays, until people from two different countries enter a room simultaneously, whereupon it becomes an RFID FIGHT. By mid-afternoon both the museum and the city as a whole are showing signs of wanting to shut down for the holidays: while they do that, we pop into the Pathe cinema to catch Hemel op Aarde as reviewed on Mostly Film. (The Pathe Maastricht shut down a couple of months later: I'm seeing a disturbing trend here.) By the time the film's over, the streets are more or less deserted, apart from those people like us who are having Christmas Eve dinner in a restaurant. If you ignore the way that I nearly walk through a plate glass door on entry, Le Bon Vivant has a very nice festive menu on offer with matching wines: the diners are almost entirely couples, although one large family group arrives just as we're leaving.

Wednesday December 25: Maastricht
The traditional problem of spending Christmas Day in a foreign city: who cooks your meals? This year we've put our trust in SeatMe.nl, a restaurant booking site which we've assumed is the equivalent of OpenTable back home. It turns out to be roughly 50% successful. Christmas lunch at Reube is utterly lovely - in a reversal of the previous evening, there are two big family groups of 6 and 20 people respectively, and we're the only couple. The food is terrific (The BBG has monkfish for her main, while I have deer steak in what they advertise as a POWERFUL GAME SAUCE), and decent value for the day (€48.50 for four courses), to the extent that I can't quite feel sorry for the couple who are turned away disappointed because the restaurant's usual €30 lunch deal isn't available. Of course, once you've had a big Christmas lunch like that, no amount of walking around can prepare you for a full-sized evening meal. This makes it all the more annoying when a few hours later, we turn up at Indonesian restaurant Kapulaga to discover that a) they aren't aware of our online booking, and b) most of their menu is off, and the only option is to order a gigantic rijsttafel. Sure, it's as much the national Dutch meal as curry is the national English one, but we're only in the mood for a couple of satay sticks, not a dozen or more with veg and rice on top. We end up eating about half of what we've paid for, which puts a small downer on the end of the day. For future reference, Les Tables is another restaurant website worth investigating.

Bollen!Thursday December 26: Maastricht - Den Bosch
Back on the train again, to finish off the holiday in Den Bosch (or 's-Hertogenbosch if you're going to be more formal about it). Compared with the boutique glitz of the Townhouse Hotel, our accommodation here at Hotel Jo van den Bosch is a much smaller, more homely deal. It's actually unattended most of the time: our key is theoretically in a safe deposit box in the lobby, and when we discover that it isn't we have to phone the owner, who arrives ten minutes later on a bike, full of apologies. No real harm done, anyway, and we spend the afternoon mooching around den Bosch's own festive walking route, stopping off part way through for uitsmijter lunch at 't Bosch 'Kwartiertje, one of the many eateries located on Korte Putstraat. The equivalent street for booze is Korenbrugstraat, which has several groovy bars including the Cafe Bar le Duc attached to the local brewery: rest assured, we investigate that as well. Virtually all the shops are shut (including the VVV), but there are enough people out on the streets to ensure that the restaurants and bars are very busy indeed. We wrap up the day with another fine dinner at Van Puffelen - thankfully, they don't attempt the set menu bait-and-switch that we've encountered a couple of times on this trip, and we can choose freely from the a la carte. (Moroccan chicken for me, turbot for The BBG.) We finish up with a green tea nightcap at the Verkade Fabriek arts centre next door to the hotel, refusing to be tempted by the late cabaret they're running till 4am.

Friday December 27: Den Bosch
Having spent much of the last 24 hours just eating, drinking and walking, it's time to focus on a bit of culture. We start off by visiting the local branch of the Netherlands chain Free Record Shop (oh FOR GOD'S SAKE STOP CLOSING THINGS DOWN), where I purchase a cheap Sinterklaas DVD for Mostly Film reviewing purposes. (I didn’t actually go to the counter and say "can I have your most racist Christmas film, please?", but that’s effectively what happened.) A short walk away from there is the town museum complex. Noordbrabants Museum is a permanent display of several centuries of Dutch art with interesting temporary exhibitions scattered around it: on our visit, the latter include a fine set of trompe l’oeil pictures, and a collection of modern pieces by JCJ Vanderheyden which play with light and shade in fascinating ways. Connected to it is Stedelijk Museum, a smaller building focussing on modern art and design: the former is represented by Thom Puckey’s gun-toting classical statues, the latter by a retrospective from the Cor Unum ceramic works. After heading back to Korte Putstraat for croquettes and frittata at Zoetelief, we finally get to see some work by the artist who took his name from the town - well, almost. The Jheronimus Bosch Art Center is just a great big pile of reproductions of his famous works, spread out across several stories of an old church. Nevertheless, it's a good insight into his life and times. From there, it's a massive plummet in artistic quality as we see the film Bro’s Before Ho’s at JT Den Bosch, an old-fashioned Dutch cinema that still does a PAUZE in the middle of its movies. (I think it's the first time I've seen one of those in about 20 years.) Dinner is at Eeterij 't Verschil – scallops, scampi, cod and salmon canneloni, with an excellent €25 three-course option if you choose from the right bit of the menu. We hop around a couple more bars after that, finishing back at Verkade Fabriek again, which is even more crowded than last night even though there isn't a show on.

Saturday December 28: Den Bosch - Utrecht - Hook - Harwich
Lots of travelling today, inevitably. Once we've checked out of the hotel, we leave our bags in lockers at the station so we can look around St John's Cathedral. Sadly, we find out too late about the tours up the cathedral tower - they're all booked up for the day by the time we reach the ticket desk. Still, there's plenty to see from ground level: from the gargantuan nativity display that appears to contain an entire arkful of stuffed animals, to the cheeky update of the external statuary that includes the notorious Angel With A Mobile Phone. (The BBG took that picture, as well as another 257.) We wrap up our time in Den Bosch by finally getting to eat Bossche Bollen, the hemispherical profiteroles closely associated with the town, best experienced at source in the Jan de Groot bakery. And then we're on the move: a half hour train ride to Utrecht, where we pause for a late lunch at the unusual burger/wine-bar combo Firma Pickles, and then more trains to Rotterdam and the Hook for connection with our boat home. We're in a Standard Class cabin this time, not quite as swanky as the one we had before, but we're too full of burgers and wine to really care.

Sunday December 29: Harwich - London
6.30am train to Liverpool Street, breakfast at Costa. It's funny how quickly you get reacclimatised to home. Being a monkey, and all.

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