Friday, July 17, 2015

Kinderdijk UNESCO world heritage site, a wondrous place

No visit to Holland is complete without windmills...but these are no ordinary windmills. They make quite the story.
A significant part of Holland is below sea level but this isn't noticeable because of an incredibly innovative and intricate system that keeps the ever-rising seawater from flooding the land.
The gorgeous windmills of Kinderdijk which is a UNESCO world heritage site is a testament to water management at its best. The mills and pumping stations drain the excess water into the river that subsequently, flows into the sea.
But enough of the science part....the art is in getting there...quite an adventure on its own....with 2 water taxis, buses and 20 minute walk...not to mention, I picked a day when it was pouring...cold and windy. Nevertheless, the site with 19 windmills was lovely and made for a picturesque country side self guided trip.
Holland windmills- check

Losers...weepers, bicyclers... keepers.

If there ever was a mecca for bikes, it would be Amsterdam and there are good reasons for it. 
Take a relatively small city, add a dash of flat terrain sprinkled with years of investment in cycling infrastructure and you get bicycles for every age, shape, size and profession, plus a national culture that supports their daily use. This clogged stream of cyclists is just one of many in a city as renowned for bikes as Los Angeles is for automobiles or Venice for gondolas.

Cyclists young and old pedal through narrow lanes and along canals. Mothers and fathers balance toddlers in spacious wooden boxes affixed to their bikes, ferrying them to school or day care. Carpenters carry tools and supplies in similar contraptions and electricians their cables. Few wear helmets. Groceries are bought, milk is carried, fresh farm produce along with a good bottle of wine and some cheese packed for a picnic, all on 2 wheels.

I was curious on my travels to Amsterdam, to learn more about this bike-friendly city. I spotted special roads set apart for cyclists, protected from the dangerous automobile by concrete barriers where might I add, even the average pedestrian is at risk for being run-over! But more than that, I found a city where biking is part of everyday life. A city where executives, working stiffs and hand-holding lovers all pedal side by side. The old and the young are equally bike friendly and equally bike fanatic racing along Damrak from Centraal Station to Dam square. Click here for some fun facts about bicycles in Amsterdam.

Though at times, this appeared over obsessive to me, bikes are just a part and parcel of who the Dutch are.They don't over think it. Conversing with a local, when I mentioned that in a city of 800,000 there were 880,000 bicycles, Tuen shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly to say "Most people own more than one bike....they never take their 'good' road bike into town. That is reserved for long weekend breaks out in the country side!" That explains why we mostly saw tattered old 70s and 80s style of bikes chained to lamp posts, pillars and bridges all over central Amsterdam. You'd be lucky to find an available free post or pillar for parking in the heart of the city.

The last thing you want to try is to drive through the center of Amsterdam in a car: you'll quickly realize the city is owned by cyclists. They hurry in swarms through the streets, unbothered by traffic rules, taking precedence whenever they want, rendering motorists powerless by their sheer numbers.
In the past two decades, travel by bike has grown by 40 percent so that now about 32 percent of all trips within the city are by bike, compared with 22 percent by car.
But many Amsterdamers say it is not so much the traffic jams like those at the morning ferry that annoy them most, but the problem of where to park their bikes once they get to where they’re going, in a city with almost more water than paved surfaces.

“Just look at this place!” said Xem Smit, 22, who for the past year has struggled to maintain order at a municipal bike parking lot in the heart of town, waving a hand at bikes chained to lampposts, benches, trees and almost any other permanent object across a tree-lined square between the stock market and the big De Bijenkorf department store. I can't imagine the frustration of not being able to find your bike at the end of a long tiring work day or for that matter finding a parking spot to begin your mornings with, however, so far the most bicycle friendly city has maintained its appeal and kept its secret to its health. 

The flip side to it  of-course is rampant bike theft. Amsterdam Police and the Cyclists’ Union estimate that each year between 50.000 and 80.000 bikes are stolen! Most of them from right outside your house!Yikes! Click here for a humorous take on how to ensure your bike doesn't get stolen. My favorite from this link is to Park your bike near a street light!

Of gabled fame

Amsterdam has been called a city of 'well-mannered' architechture because its charm lies in intimate details rather than in grand effects.
The gabled houses on the Canal Ring are Amsterdam's most picture-perfect historic feature. The infinite array of gables on the city houses dominates the city's postcard-perfect image and is a carefully preserved asset.

From the 15th century onwards, planning laws, plot sizes and the instability of the topsoil dictated that facades were largely uniform in size and built of light weight brick and sandstone, with large windows to reduce the weight. The lack of firm land meant that Amsterdam houses were built on narrow, deep plots, and one of the only ways to make a property distinctive was at the top, with a decorative gable.
Canal house owners stamped their own individuality on the buildings, mainly through the use of decorative gables and cornices, ornate door-cases and varying window shapes.
One thing all canal houses have in common is the hook in the gable, to which a pulley wheel and rope can be attached. This handy manual elevator system was developed from medieval shipping techniques; it's pretty impossible to move bulky goods up and down the precariously steep staircases found inside most Amsterdam houses (trust me when I say that one person could barely fit through those narrow tight stair alleys). Boxes, pianos, couches, or whatever are winched up using the rope and pulley, and hauled in through exceptionally wide removable windows. On my walk through different neighborhoods, I kept my eyes peeled to catch a few Dutch movers in action.

The old center was formed by rings of canals with unique mostly 17th century residences of wealthy merchants, financiers, craftsmen, doctors, lawyers, politicians and artists. Merchant’s houses had their storage in attics and cellars. Sometimes the lift was installed in the middle of the house plan, to transport the goods between floors. The office of the merchant was usually on the ground floor. Like in Venice the canals were the main way of transporting the goods.

Interesting tit-bit - most of the canal houses lean a tad forward to prevent loads crashing into facades!

I could happily 'get lost' here...

Over the centuries libraries have been constructed more than mere book repositories, but as symbols of knowledge, power, and wealth. Today these are wide expansive public spaces that celebrate the connections humble citizens have to civilization and literary culture. I was fortunate to have visited one such stunning pieces of architecture where I would happily 'get lost'! We should be so thankful for a world where such spaces exist.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Dramatic Ronda

It was the daily picture on Bing that gave us the incredible sight that is Ronda. One look at the photo and we both instantly knew the look! We were definitely including this jewel into our Andalucian itinerary. Perched on an inland plateau riven by the 100m fissure of El Tajo gorge, Ronda is Málaga province’s most spectacular town and I mean it. It has a superbly dramatic location, and owes its name (‘surrounded’ by mountains), to the encircling Serranía de Ronda. The more we read/saw, the more certain we became that this was a must-see destination.

Hardly anybody has ever regretted the 100 kilometers journey from Malaga, passing narrow mountain streets, when suddenly Ronda appears like an apparition. The famous and really breath-taking bridge alone is worth the travel, but Ronda has more to offer: the only bullring in all Spain which is entirely made of stone, and several interesting buildings in particular from the Moorish period.
The city is divided into an older part, which is the Moorish and aristocratic quarter and the newer section to the south bank of the gorge, built principally after the Reconquest. Because of the cliffs, Ronda was one of the last Moorish cities to fall during the Reconquest of Spain by the Catholic monarchs. 
While we were there we tried re-creating that magical inspiration of a panorama that started this in the first it is, and hoping that it inspires you to visit/travel this not-to-be-missed Andalucian jewel. 

Jewels of Andalucia

The Spain that one would often read about, or see coffee table books richly illustrate is in fact Andalucia. It is the cradle of Flamenco, the stomping grounds of the amorous Don Juan and one of the last strong holds of the Moors, who held Al-andalus for over 7 centuries!
Its lush landscape, sweeping hills and topography, sleepy white washed villages, ornate moorish castles lured us towards it and spending a week there was just enough to skim the surface!

Ours was a 7 day itinerary flying in and out of the coastal city of Malaga (serviced by an international airport) and traveling clockwise to Ronda followed by Seville, Cordoba, Granada and returning back to Malaga. We traveled by road (and other interesting means of transportation along the way), didn't feel the need to rent a car and were still able to cover little gems of surprises off-the-beaten-path...leaving us with memories to last a lifetime and a spanish vocabulary of 100 odd words to boast!