Amit Paranjape’s Blog

A Week In Netherlands

Posted in Travel by Amit Paranjape on October 8, 2009
 
Amsterdam Station
Amsterdam Station

Recently, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit the Netherlands. It’s interesting how you have an image in your mind about a place, a country – and then you see it for yourself for the first time. In my case, I can now say that I was fairly close.

Netherlands has its series of attractions and icons: some extremely famous, and others not so much. In this brief blog, I will make an attempt to highlight some that caught my attention during this brief stay. I really enjoyed my time and look forward to making another trip.

Food – Global Cuisine and Dutch Classics

Netherlands is not exactly known for food, but I had a great culinary experience. I guess Ham & Cheese Sandwich is to Holland, what Fish & Chips is to Britain. I loved the great variety of breads,sliced meats and cheeses. Dutch pancakes were also quite terrific –  different and a lot better than what you get in America.

Apart from the traditional Dutch food, what struck me was the wide variety of eclectic global cuisine that was available in Amsterdam and other smaller towns. I expected to see a lot of Indonesian restaurants in central Amsterdam, but was really surprised to see a huge number of Indian restaurants there as well! There were Chinese, Middle-Eastern, Turkish, Argentinean and many other cuisines represented.

In Europe, they serve great coffee. Even in a small town cafe, the Cappuccino was perfect. I guess this might be a problem for Starbucks to expand here.

Our hotel ‘The Golden Tulip – Lisse’  located in a small suburb Lisse, about 30 km from Amsterdam, also had a famous 100-year-old restaurant ‘De Nachtegaal’ that served a variety of different dishes, ranging from Dutch Pancakes, to Italian Pastas and Thai Sateys.

Bicycles

Bikes are one thing a first time visitor to Holland would expect; but the sheer numbers are astounding! Just look at the massive multi-storeyed bicycle-only parking lot next to the Amsterdam Central Train Station. Even in a small town like Lisse, you would see a swarm of bikes during the morning and evening rush hour. The riders include school kids from primary to high school, office goers, retirees, and from every other section of the society. 

Dedicated bike lanes definitely help and are clearly essential. Hotels (especially in suburbs) have bicycles available on rent. I was able to enjoy a nice 1 hour bike ride through Tulip country (No Tulips this time of the year!).

Given the amount of bike riding the Dutch do, I wouldn’t be surprised if their overall health ranks much better than most other countries in the world.

Windmills

Windmills are probably the first thing that would come to mind when one thinks of Holland. They are not as omnipresent as one would think, but still you would see quite a few, especially in small towns. Many are not in a working state anymore, and a few have been converted into restaurants, galleries, etc. We had a nice dinner at one such restaurant ‘ d’Oude Molen ‘ (translates as: ‘The Old Mill) in a small town of Nieuw-Vennep.

Wind Mill

On expressway A4 leading south from Amsterdam towards Rotterdam, you do see some interesting contrasts of old windmills standing shoulder to shoulder with their modern airplane propellor like counterparts.

The Hague

Few cities carry such weight and seriousness in their name, as ‘The Hague’ (translated from ‘Den Haag’). But then this is a fairly unique place. The capital of the Netherlands, and the seat of many important international organizations – such as the International Criminal Court.

I didn’t spend too much time there, but did drive around a bit. The palace (I only saw it from outside) is very impressive. The beach boulevard near the palace is a very popular place for tourists and locals. A large number of casual beach restaurants are a big attraction. I had a good lunch at Waterreus.

This beach had an interesting historical photograph, prominently framed there. It showed the same view (with a lighthouse in the background – it is still there…) from 1944, with all the German fortifications – in preparation for defence against an Allied Landing.

Given its capital and international diplomatic hub status, The Hague has a lot of dignitaries visiting and living there. While driving by some apartments, I noticed an interesting parking sign – ‘This Parking Spot Is Reserved For The Ambassador Of Guatamala’!  I am not sure if they have similar reserved parking for every country’s ambassador (guess they should!) – it’s just that I saw only one such sign!

Heineken

Another extremely popular Dutch export is Heineken. I noticed that in Netherlands – many restaurants just serve one kind of beer: Draft Heineken. They have a nice museum in Central Amsterdam called ‘Heineken Experience’. I have been to the Miller Brewery Museum in Milwaukee  (many years back) and found this to be a better experience.

Dikes

If there’s one type of structure all Dutch people need to be eternally thankful towards, it’s a ‘Dike’ (also referred to as ‘Dyke’ or ‘Levee’). These earthen structures protect the low-lying areas from raging sea waters. A large percentage of Holland is actually below sea-level (One data-point suggests that it is 27%). Schipol International Airport in Amsterdam is the lowest (11 feet below MSL (mean sea level) ) international airport in the world. For the past many centuries, the Dutch have been reclaiming land from the North Sea.

Canals

Given the geography of Netherlands, canals are a very popular means of transportation. Like any modern European country, a vast network of expressways crisscross the land, but Canals continue to maintain their unique identity. These canals lead to many ‘opening bridges’ on roads and local highways. Inside Amsterdam, the canals create a complex network of transportation routes. A common legend about these canals in Central Amsterdam goes like this – most canals were originally 3 meter deep, but presently, their usable depth is only 2 meters. Reason? The huge number of old bicycles that have been thrown in there over, the past century ;)

 

A Canal In Central Amsterdam 

  

  

Tulip Country

Tulips are another classic attraction in Holland. I think this is especially the case amongst Indians – thanks to Bollwood. If one song caught the imagination of the Bollywood audience in the 1980s and created an everlasting impression of Tulips country – its ‘Dekha Ek Khaab …’ from Silsila (imdb link), staring Amitabh Bacchan and Rekha.

Tulips (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Tulips In Bloom (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Our hotel in Lisse was right in the middle of Tulip country.  It was surrounded by vast Tulip fields and bike trails that run through them. Only problem was that we were at absolute right place, but not at the right time ;). Tulip season is in April-May. All we saw were mostly ploughed fields and small sections of some other flowers that grow during this time of the year.

Central Amsterdam  

Central Amsterdam is beautiful. Canals, small streets, bicycle paths and footpaths blend in and coexist together. Old buildings (some over 400 year old) line these canals and streets. The Grand Central Railway Station building is quite imposing. Many refer to Amsterdam as a ‘walking city’. It’s not difficult to see why. The sheer number of people we saw in Central Amsterdam was huge. Yes, it was a weekend and the weather was nice – but still we heard from locals that this kind of crowd is not abnormal. If  you think Manhattan is crowded, you should see this place! Clearly comparable with some of the crowded cities in India!

The central part of Amsterdam has many tourist attractions – Shopping, Museums, The Famous Red-Light District Area, Canal Rides,..to name a few. I got an opportunity to see the Van Gogh Museum. I am not much of an art lover so its best that I don’t attempt to describe any of his famous works! Rembrandt Museum is also close by in the Museum District.

 Leaning House

I can recommend 3 good ways to checkout Central Amsterdam – I tried all of them. A canal cruise is a must as it takes you around the complex network of waterways around the city and gives you a nice close-up view of some of the great historical buildings. It was interesting to learn how all those old buildings are built on a 40 (or 60) wooden pillars foundation. Due to some structural problems that have arisen over the years (I must say the construction is good – since many have been around for 3 or more centuries!), a few buildings are tilted. (See the above photo of the famous ‘Tilting House’).

If you have extra time on hand, and the weather is good – walking is probably the best way to see the city. The third way is less exciting, but the most efficient. Just buy a 7 Euros daypass (I bought it at the Central Station Tourist Office – but I am sure it must be available elsewhere) and you can roam around Amsterdam on any of the Trams and Busses.

And finally some quirks

We found the Dutch people to be warm and friendly.

However, didn’t have a great experience when asking for directions ;) On atleast 2 occasions, we were confidently sent on a wrong detour (that resulted in us driving around for over 1 hour..) to reach our hotel, that was just a few km away. And English was not the problem!

I know its typical European to have shops close in the evening, and remain closed on Sundays. But this still takes getting used to, if you are coming from U.S. or India. I always wonder what the locals do if there’s any emergency shopping need.

Amsterdam Grand Central Station has a Tourist Information Office. I got there at 10:30am, only to find a huge line outside. Turns out that this place only opens at 11am. There were many irritated tourists from all over the world here.

And a few closing comments

Netherlands is a great place to visit. Being a small country neighbouring U.K. and Germany – it has influences from both. English is more prevalent here compared to many other continental European Countries. It is also home to some leading multi-national companies such as Phillips, Royal-Dutch Shell, Unilever, ABN Amro,ING, etc.

I spent most of time in and around Amsterdam. I am sure the other cities like Rotterdam, Eindhoven will have their own sets of nice attractions. Netherlands is a great confluence of history and nature. Nice, green modern cities. Beautiful, quaint small towns. The landscape changes significantly as one drives East from Amsterdam towards the German Border. I didn’t get a chance to visit the Northern Netherlands – home of the famous Dutch Cheese.  Well, something for my next trip!

Driving In Europe – How It’s Different From U.S.

Posted in Cars, Travel by Amit Paranjape on September 26, 2009
Autobahn

Autobahn

 There are many more differences than just seeing cars cruise-by at 250 km/hr!

On continental Europe, they drive on the same side of the road as the United States. But the similarities really taper off from there! Recently, I had my first opportunity to drive in Europe, and it was a great experience. In this blog, I will highlight the contrasts between the two systems that are separated by much more than the Atlantic Ocean.

Readers who have extensive driving experience on both sides of the pond are welcome to add their own insights. For readers who haven’t driven in Europe, this article will be (hopefully!) an interesting guide, and an invitation to checkout this experience on your next trip. Note – my experiences are based on driving in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.

Unless you are lucky enough to get a ‘company car’ in Europe – renting a car might be your best (and only) option. Car renting in Europe is quite expensive. But you can always look for bargains. Like in the U.S., renting a car in a suburb or a small town is significantly cheaper than renting at an Airport or in city center (‘zentrum’ or ‘centrum’ – as they call ‘downtown’). A manual transmission car is much cheaper than an automatic. A US driving license and a credit-card is typically all you need to rent, but many rental companies will also ask for your Passport as an ID Proof.

1. Where are the Pickup Trucks and SUVs?

The first thing you might notice is the near complete absence of pickup trucks! The SUVs are also significantly fewer in number. You will find a lot of station wagons. Clearly, the ‘drive’ towards reducing demand for oil, starts with vehicle ‘size’!

2. Better Driving Discipline – Fewer crazy drivers!

At first impression, the driving discipline definitely feels like it’s a notch higher than that in the U.S. Drivers seem to be more considerate when allowing lane changes, merge-ins, etc. Similarly, the fast lane is strictly used only for passing.

 3. Smaller cars

You feel like the entire class of automobiles got shrunk down by 1 or 2 sizes. The American compact car is a standard in Europe, an American medium sized car is a large car, and so on. Some of the cars are outright tiny – and smaller in size than the recently launched ‘Tata Nano’. On a related note (and quite interestingly, I may add..) – Toyota Prius was more common on European Roads than other iconic Toyota cars.

4. Better maintained cars

In general the cars seemed better maintained than in the US. Not sure if this is driven by necessity (wintery weather conditions, etc.) or by stricter enforcement (regular certification requirements).

5. Manual Transmission & Diesel Engines

These are again novelties to most American drivers. Both are quite popular given that they deliver better efficiencies (ultimately expressed as a lower cost per km) than the automatic transmission and gasoline counterparts.

6. Sheer variety of cars

My belief of U.S. being the global leader in variety of cars got corrected. The sheer variety of cars in Europe is huge! And the number of configurations available for a given model is also extensive. E.g. – Manual/Automatic, Gasoline (Benzin) / Diesel, etc. In addition to all the major global brands you commonly see in the U.S., there are quite a few other brands as well.

7. Speed limits

Contrary to prevailing belief amongst many – they do have strict speed limits on European highways. Even in Germany – 120 kmph (roughly equal-to 75 mph) is common on most highways, but they change to 100 kmph, 80 kmph, etc. based on road/traffic conditions. Many speed limits are ‘dynamic’ – they are indicated by electronic signs and change depending on the external conditions and time of the day. The adherence to the speed limits is fairly decent. There are only certain sections of Autobahns (away from urban centers) in Germany that have no speed limits.

8. Where are the cops?

In my 4 days of extensive driving, I swear I just saw one police car on the highway! That too was at a site of an accident. And yet, the speed limits enforcement and compliance is quite high. I guess they use cameras and technology a lot more in Europe, for traffic rules enforcement. If you are caught speeding, the ticket is mailed to you – complete with your picture driving the car, as proof.

9. 18 Wheelers

The 18 Wheelers are similar to what you would see in the US. Though, you see significantly fewer on the road. I guess there could be two primary reasons: 1. Europeans consume less stuff. Less stuff = Less Volume & Weight to ship! 2. They use a lot of rail transportation.

10. ‘Seamless Borders’

Crossing from one country to the other in the Schengen Region  is as seamless as crossing state boundaries in the U.S. or in India. Typically, there are just 1 or 2 signs welcoming you to that country and some changes in speed limits. That’s pretty much it – Plus the roads signs change from one language you cannot understand to a different one that you cannot understand either :) But the graphical signs are self-explanatory.

11. Round-Abouts/Yield

When driving on city roads – a ’round-about’ circle is something that might confuse an American driver! It’s a different system of yielding – instead of a 4 way stop-sign.

12. Various kinds of ‘entities’ on the city roads

I can understand why Americans sometime dread driving in European cities!  In addition to the tiny roads – you have bicycles, pedestrians and trams to deal with! Amsterdam also has a few human powered bicycle taxis (And I thought Kolkatta was the only big city in the world to have them!).

For me personally (and others who regularly drive on Indian roads) I guess this ‘diverse traffic’ is not that bad :)

13. Bicycles lanes

Bicycles are omnipresent in Holland. They are also quite popular in other countries as well. On most city roads, bicycles have separate dedicated lanes. It’s quite interesting to see a few folks ‘bike’ from their home to a rail station – ‘fold’ their bikes (yes, some bikes literally fold in half – and can be stowed away easily..) board the train to the city, disembark and again ride to their office building!

Motorcycles are also more common, and they ‘optimize’ lane usage at traffic lights or in traffic jams by moving forward by the side of stuck 4 wheelers (the way they always do in India :)  ) . Initially I thought they were breaking the rules – but then it seemed like it was a ‘standard’ procedure.  

14. Gas Stations

The first time you pull into a Gas Station – be prepared for a sticker shock! Gasoline is currently priced around 1.40 Euros/liter. At the present exchange rate, that roughly translates to USD 7.60/Gallon. Diesel is a little cheaper at around 1.05 Euros/liter (USD 5.80/Gallon).  Add to this the price of a comparable car is approximately twice as much in the U.S. – and you will understand why driving is so expensive in Europe!

At Gas Stations in Europe you can literally fill ‘Gas’ ..LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas), that is :) . Note in Germany and the Netherlands, they refer to Gasoline as ‘Benzin’. Instead of 3 varieties of gasoline and 1 variety of diesel – at European filling stations, you will typically find 2 varieties of gasoline, 2 varieties of diesel and LPG. Initially, I was confused to note the significantly higher octane rating numbers in Europe. However, that is apparently because of slightly different standards. (For more information, checkout: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octane_rating )

Reliance on Diesel and LPG is part of the drive towards reducing cost / km. LPG is significantly cheaper than Gasoline. Diesel typically yields a much better fuel efficieny in terms of km / liter.

15. Use of GPS and other electronic gadgets

The use of GPS based navigation has increased significantly over the past few years (as it has, in the U.S.) and old fashioned ‘paper’ map based navigation is a dying art. I however had to use this ‘old’ and tried and tested art form – since my cheap rental didn’t have a GPS.

Similarly, I understand that hands-free mobiles are mandatory – hence most cars have an integrated Bluetooth mobile integration with the car’s sound system.

In general, I also observed that for a similar model – an European car would typically have many other smaller gizmos – tire pressure monitoring, range calculators, etc.

Helpful links

Description of Autobahns from Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autobahns

A good site with lot of information (speed-limits, restrictions, etc.) about various Autobahns http://www.autobahnatlas-online.de/index_e.html

(Image credits: Wikipedia)

An Indian Road Trip in the 1980s – We sure have come a long way!

Posted in Cars, Travel by Amit Paranjape on May 24, 2009

I recently made a long road trip from Pune to Goa, a distance of nearly 500 km (320 miles) in around 7 hours. The scenic route has a combination of nice 4 laned highways and beautiful winding mountain roads that descend down to the sea coast. The average highway speeds were comparable with the US average 60mph. I was driving a nice car – with ABS, multiple airbags, climate control, powerful engine, and great suspension & handling.

So what’s so great and special about this? Young readers in India, as well as the readers in the US will not understand my sheer joy in driving in these conditions with these ‘basic’ features! You folks have been taking the roads and the car features for guaranteed, for way to long. To appreciate my experience, you will have to step back to India in the early 1980s. (A rough analogy might the pre-freeways US roads in the 1950s…).

To bring you upto speed, let me sketch a typical driving trip in India, a quarter century back.  Sit back and enjoy the ride…if you can :)

Our family’s car of choice (not that there was any choice during those days…only Fiats and Ambassadors were available. The new phenomenon ‘Maruti’ was just around the corner) was the Fiat 1100, sporting a ‘powerful’ 47 HP engine with a 4 speed (non-synchromesh) gearbox. It was made by Premier Automobiles; but was rarely referred to by its official name, ‘Premier Padmini’. Visitors might still see a few of these cars upon landing at Mumbai Airport – some of these vehicles still serve as the ‘yellow & black’ taxis.

In those days, a Fiat was the standard car…the Ambassador, a big ‘luxury’ car! Note – any ‘car’ in general was not for the masses, and there was no talk about a Nano. The real ‘people’s car’ was the bicycle! Even a 2 wheeler in those days was expensive and tough to buy. (Some people might remember those times when it took 10 years to get a Bajaj Scooter..).

A road trip was an ‘event’…an adventure. Someone has said ‘It is the journey that is more important than the destination’. How true! I will not bore with you all the details; rather let me just highlight the ‘high-points’ of a typical road trip from that ‘era’. In my preferred style, I will highlight 10 points:

1. Before  you set-off, there were a series of ‘checks’ that may have rivalled a ‘pre-flight’ checklist of an aircraft. There was the car radiator that needed constant filling up. Same with the car batteries water level. And the engine oil level check. Infact, opening the front hood was an extremely common occurence.

2. Talking about car batteries – they were as reliable as the cars in those days…needless to say ‘Dhakka Start’ (people pushing the car to get it started) was common.

3. Refueling in the city was a must – there were no guarantees about any highway side fuel stops.

Once you were off, the only positive thing compared to the present, was the traffic – It was orders of magnitude lower than you would encounter today.

4. 6 people would be comfortably seated in the car: 3 in the front, and 3 in the back. Yes, this car had ‘bench’ seats in the front. The carrier on the roof of the car was packed with all kinds of stuff. (I vividly remember a Kokan trip where we had sets of those ‘old style’ Mango Crates tied down on the top..!)

5. Flat tires were extremely common…cannot remember a single long trip where we didn’t have a tire ‘puncture’. We all were quite adept at changing the spare tire (‘stepney’ as it was called in those days..). This was followed by a stop at a small town ‘tire-walla’ to get the tire fixed. Oh..in those days, tires had tubes in them. (I am assuming that the reader knows that majority of the cars today have tubeless tires…if you are not one of them, then ignore this para all together :)  )

6. Frequent mechanical breakdowns were common as well…and these too for ‘new’ and ‘well maintained’ cars. You were lucky if it was a case of a simple over-heating … in this case you simply poured more water into the radiator, let it ‘blow some steam and cool down’, and then drive on. If it was more serious, then the only option in most cases was to hitch a ride with a passing-by truck/bus to the nearest town…find a mechanic, and bring him back to the car. The saving grace was that these cars were ‘easy’ to repair and after a few hours – you could move on! Oh..and the only ‘phone’ we knew those days was that big black box like device with a round dial on top of it, that made an irritating ringing sound (when it used to work). Today’s cellphone would have looked straight out of Star Trek in those days.

7. Ofcourse the cars were luxurious…well relatively speaking :) Airconditioning was unheard off. The standard cooling solution consisted of those innovative ‘triangular split’ windows that diverted wind into the passenger cabin. And there was no music-system either. Music (if any) was (as they say in the web 2.0 world today) ‘user-generated’. The background score was typically provided by the cacophony of the engine and suspension rattling.

Did I mention that the Fiat 1100 had no power steering, no power-brakes? But driving with all those aids is for wimps… right :)

8. The lack of airconditioning created interesting problems during rainy weather. The front wind shield glass used to get fogged rightaway, with the condensate. The only option to get rid of that moisture was to have the ‘co-pilot’ constantly and skillfully wipe-off the wind shield, without distracting the driver.

9. There were no highway side McDonalds or Food Malls in those days. There were some good restaurants or more appropriately ‘food shacks’ (Tapris) along the way. Some people will vividly remember that Khopoli favorite on the old Mumbai-Pune Highway, ‘Ramakant’ – famous for their ‘Batata Vadas’.

10. If you were driving off the highway on the country roads, the experience used to be even more interesting. A car was a rare sight in rural India in those days. We felt ‘important’ :) Like a VIP motorcade driving by! Proper tar roads were often times non-existent. The car used to leave a huge storm of dust..literally throwing it into the onlookers’ eyes. I am sure those villagers must have been cursing us ‘city folks’.

After all this adventure when you finally made it to your destination, there was this immense satisfaction about a ‘big achievement’. The driver used to really earn his ‘stripes’ those days…and so did the car… Since for all its short comings and problems it was a great way to travel!

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