Oot and About


Out of town this week folks, on business of the no-time-to-blog kind. Back next week...

Amsterdam Centraal


Amsterdam Central Station is the Kim Kardashian of train stations - high maintenance, more than a little dirty, frequently invaded by foreign objects, yet not without its charm at times.

Centraal (the extra 'a' is the Dutch spelling) like so much of the overall Dutch experience, inspires a mix of emotions.

It is not the cleanest of stations, no. Particularly during the perennial garbage strikes that grip the station, when you have to navigate the piles of trash and Euro-trash while you dash to your soon-departing train.

Inside, it's not the nicest-looking of stations either. Any number of major centres in Europe have way more attractive central stations - including Paris' Gare de Lyon and Brussels' Antwerp, to name but two - where you step out and feel as though you are in a museum.

As far as amenities, it's lacking. A couple of fast food kiosks, a Hema (a future post will explain the goodness that is Hema), a pay toilet, and that's kind of it. Save for a few benches and a four-seat Starbucks, you can barely find a spot to sit down in the event that you have to wait to meet someone (an all too frequent experience, thanks to the train company NS, short for Nederlandse Spoorwegen, or No Service). You can't even meet someone for a beer here to ease the pain of a teary farewell or celebrate a homecoming.

And yet.

It's seeing the amazing mix and hum of foreign travellers and locals buzzing through the station from all directions. It's the thousands of bikes stacked seemingly on top of each other just steps from the door, yours included, offering quick access to the city beyond.

It's the water ringing the north and south entrances, a sparkling sight to see on a sunny day when the city is crackling with possibility. And it's the arrival from Amsterdam itself, when the station's exterior of red bricks, gold trim, exterior art work and a beautiful clock tower beckon from far away.

As for which one will age more gracefully, Amsterdam Centraal vs Kardashian, my money's on the one with the less generous seating.


Cologne to Konigswinter


A short train ride took us from Cologne to the Rhine-facing village of Konigswinter for a few days.

Travelling as much as I have over the years has built up this nifty little reservoir of I'm-not-sure-what... It's a way of just winging it, of doing only cursory research and planning before a trip and letting it happen randomly. Travel balls, maybe? Too crass perhaps - maybe travel confidence is better.

No strict agendas, no specific day trips planned, only a train or plane timetable and a hotel booking here and there. It's a matter of waking up and doing what you feel like, including nothing much at all if the body or spirit are not willing.

And in places like Konigswinter, it always works out. The town is right on the Rhine, with a bike path lining either side for many miles and a stop for the river tours right out front. You can take a boat or a tram to get here as well.

A boat tour is a must here. Criss-crossing the river, you can sit for hours looking at German countryside roll by, stepping off at various old-school postcard towns for lunch and a beer, and walking into Christmas stores in mid-summer if need be. Cologne and the surrounding region are renowned for its year-round Christmas markets, with every ornament and trinket ever created. Then again, you could just stay on the boat, drink beer and eat apple strudel.

You can also head up to Drachenfels ("Dragon's Rock"), a small mountain with a 12th century castle perched on top. You'll get amazing views of the surrounding area here.

Ah, the meadows, the rolling river, the lush countryside, and the zigaretten.

Stumbled across a car show  

These boats span the Rhine - at first, you feel like such a tourist, but then there's... 

...the view... 

...ze strudel... 

...the small town(s)... 

...and this guy, who invariably looks more like a tourist than you ever will. 

Uhhh...Small-town horror house of some kind. We didn't stay long enough to ask questions.

Smells Like Cologne


One of the beautiful things about living in Amsterdam - and in fact, 20 minutes door-to-door from the airport or Central Station - is the ability to leave Amsterdam. Not too often, mind you - but the weekend power trip is something to be cherished when it happens.

Earlier this summer, we took just such a trip to Cologne, Germany. It's a bit off the radar when one thinks of Berlin, Munich, or Frankfurt, but well worth the trip.

Cologne is a charming place. The riverfront location, the big town squares, the old-fashioned housing mixed with modern architecture, the striking Dom cathedral - it all made for a very welcoming stay, just 2+ hours by train from Amsterdam.

Like Kindergarten, but better

And then the beer. K├Âlsch actually, is the local type of brew. To me it tasted like a standard and perfectly fine beer, but others with more dignified beer tastebuds would do a better job explaining it. Beer aficianados, click here for the full Wikipedia explanation.

And it is EVERYWHERE. Each table we passed at the sprawling cafes had monster glasses of Kolsch being quaffed by men and women. Walking the streets, a group of men, girls or families from teens to omas and opas can be seen strolling with their bottle of beer in hand. Overlooking the Rhine, lazing in the grass along a long promenade, hundreds of people drink from bottles of beer like marathon runners shoot back water (ok, that last one was a bit of an embellishment). But really, beer is always near.

Bottle openers hang from the overhead awning outside most convenient stores - a sure sign of a beer-friendly culture.

They all drink it with any type of food, though I opted for pairing with some schnitzel and fries at one occasion, and this item below on another:

Some kind of unholy potato concotion - the name escapes me; the heartburn does not.

Day 2 we moved down to Konigswinter, a Rhine-front hamlet/town (I'll never know the difference, but hamlet sounds somehow more majestic. More on that on the next post...for now, some images from Cologne itself.

The bathroom wall at the excellent art 'otel

 The view from the hotel room - in the foreground is a replica of Noah's Ark, to the right is the Chocolate Museum. Very difficult to combine these into one joke. Still working on it.

 Dom Cathedral

 In Cologne's souvenir shops, memories of the previous wars are ubiquitous. These are placemats, sure to cheer up any meal.



Big City Blogger is on holidays this week, making a pilgrimage to Malaga and area once again. Back in action after September 10th. See you soon!

Part II - Get to Know an Amsterdammer - Sports Edition


Nicol David is back for Part II of our interview. Technically speaking, of course, she's some 16,600 kilometers away in Canberra, Australia at the moment, heading into the final of the Australian Open on Sunday August 19th.

*UPDATE - Aug 20th - Nicol won the tournament.


Nicol spent the previous weeks on a promotional campaign during the London Olympics to make squash an Olympic sport. When she first told me she was active in this campaign I was surprised, thinking that squash was naturally already part of Olympics.

After all, it's played in 175 countries, and is most definitely a great sport requiring world-class physical skill and athleticism when played at the highest levels. And it's a sport that, in my humble opinion, is far more deserving to be in the Olympics than a handful of sports, like whitewater rafting, or any equestrian event, or the always-ridiculous race-walking. But that's just me. Before we go any further...

Support the bid to make squash an Olympic sport

Now back to the interview.


How much do you travel in a given year?

Well, aside from travelling to tournaments, I try to get back to Malaysia four or five times per year. That alone is about eleven and half hours one way. Tournament-wise, I play in ten or so tournaments a year, all over the world. So travel is a huge part of my life. I can sleep anywhere, anytime though [Nicol has slept virtually the entire trip on the Malaysia-Amsterdam leg before].

Any travel tips? This is a Lonely Planet blog, after all.

I can travel really light - a dress, a bikini, three pairs of shorts, and one set of formal trousers and a top and I can be away for weeks. I also think with my passport, some money and my phone I can survive anywhere.

I see you are the Malaysian representative as the National Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - can you tell me more about this?

It involves some mission work and awareness for the UN's Millenium Developement Goals. I am currently devoting a lot of time to the squash so I hope to spend more time once I've stopped playing competitively.

Aside from more UNDP work, what are your plans after your squash career?

Well, for one, I really hope to stay in top shape for the next eight years so I can participate in the Olympics, if squash makes it in as an event.

I really want to give back to Malaysia. All my training is funded by the Malaysian National Sports Council, which has been such a help. I might like to develop my own academy back home. Hundreds of kids are trying to get in for coaching, so if I can help out in some way that would be great.


And with that, I will sign off. Meeting Amsterdammers is always interesting for me, as it's such a multi-cultural and dynamic city. But this is first time that it's also been motivating.

Meeting the top player in the world in squash, who happens to fit in work with the UN and a campaign to the International Olympic Committee, stays close to her family - all while managing to be a really genuine and cool person - makes for prime motivation to get going on my own self-improvement goals.

Get to Know An Amsterdammer - Sports Edition


You meet some very interesting people in this city.

A year or so ago, I wrote a short collection of posts called "Get to Know an Amsterdammer". It featured people profiles from interesting locals (not necessarily long-term residents) from a variety of professions and backgrounds.

Nicol David, six-time and reigning squash world champion

In the hopes of reviving this series, I managed to meet a great person to start with: Nicol David, the reigning six-time world champion female squash player. Nicol, 28, is from Malaysia, and she's also possibly the nicest world champion of anything.

We sat down at the club where she trains, Squash City, and had a great chat for close to 90 minutes.

Here we go, with part 1:

What brings you to Amsterdam?

In 2003, I came here to be close to my coach, Liz Irving, who was living in Amsterdam already. I met Liz on tour years earlier and decided she would be a great fit for me. Career-wise, it was the best move for me - Liz knows what is takes to be a top-tier player, she offered me a lot in terms of learning and still has a lot to offer today. She's one of the best mentors for a female squash player.

I loved the city when I first visited, in 2001. I felt comfy right away when I loved here, it's a big city but feels like a small town.

Amsterdam is not known for its "healthy" lifestyle image - what do you do outside of training?

The "unhealthy" scene that tourists know is only a small part of it. There's so much to do - the architecture, the arts, the music - and people have the freedom to do whatever they want and there's a respect for what anyone wants to do. I can focus solely on squash. I also like that you can bike everywhere. The rain doesn't bother me that much - squash is weather-proof.

I'm normally so tired after training that I don't do much![Ed.Nicol spends approximately 20 hours/week on the court, and has recently added another step up to her training with Patrick, her personal trainer at Squash City]. Westerpark (Westergas Fabriek), and music gigs and festivals are some of my favourites.

What are your favourite places to play, as a tourist and from a player's perspective?

Wow, so many places. As a tourist, Australia and New Zealand are amazing. I can see myself living in either place, with the nature and the peace. Mexico, for the food and the people - they have a similar style to Malaysia. And Rio has a great beach and sporting culture.

The setting for squash in the Cayman Islands
(photo: www.squashsite.co.uk)

As a player, some of the coolest locations are the Cayman Islands and Hong Kong. In the Caymans, you play in a glass box by the bay - a beautiful setting. And the harbourfront, in view of the Hong Kong skyline, is another great location to play. They host of the best tournaments each year.

Part 2 comes later this week, and talks about Nicol's work with the UN, her insane travel schedule, and more.

Sardinia III


Authenticity. It's a word that comes to mind often in Europe, especially when it comes to food.

And Italian food does not get more authentic than being served by a kindly 70-something in her living/dining room, her husband ousted from his easy chair to make room for you and your dining companions just minutes before the first anitpasti is served.

This was all part of the package served up just next door from our agriturismo, at another B&B that welcomes visitors for dinner in less busy times of the year. And so it was that for 30 Euros person, we were treated to a five-course meal (wine and digestifs included) by Giuseppa, the lady of the house, and her elderly sister, who watched us eat with such a smile on her face it's as if she could taste the food herself.

Authentic, simple, and about the 100th reason why I will always travel - for experiences like this.

Giuseppa, the hostess/chef/surrogate mom

 Fellow dinner guests, Martin and Anna-Maria from Germany

 The rest of the eating area

This was far better than the photo suggests

A choice of homemade digestifs... firewater!