Valentine’s in Rotterdam & The Hague

A belated happy Valentine’s day to all of those who, like me, are a sucker for the holiday, or who in any way enjoy the festivities! I myself celebrated with two blondies and a redhead, and took advantage of both Rotterdam and The Hague.

The festivities started on Friday afternoon. I took the train to Rotterdam Blaak to meet Barbara for a short coffee & shopping session – a little Valentine’s day girls’ date.
Back in the fall, Barbara was offered a great internship opportunity with a huge company in Rotterdam. She immediately accepted and left Groningen behind for the big city life.

In the Netherlands there is definitely a sort of prejudice against Rotterdam among some groups: it’s big, it’s impersonal, it doesn’t have the quaint, typically Dutch charm of other major cities … Basically, it’s ugly. I’d been once before Barbara moved there, about four years ago while I was on exchange, and at the time I had vaguely agreed with the sentiment.

Now that Barbara lives there though, it’s slowly edging out my favourite Dutch cities – and soon it may very well be number one.

rotterdam, Dutch city

When people say that it doesn’t have that typically Dutch charm … They’re right. It was majorly bombed during the war and very few of those lovely old Dutch buildings survived. What came out of the rubble though was a big, industrial, and very modern city, but with distinctly ‘clean’ lines – we are in the Netherlands after all. This may seem like a boring thing to say, but actually what I love so much about Rotterdam is that it distinctly reminds me of my home of Toronto, but with an undeniably Dutch feel. The sidewalks are big and they’re made of concrete so there’s none of this impractical, one-person-at-a-time, teeny-tiny, cobble, careful-you-don’t-get-clipped-by-a-cyclist, gymnastics-beam-esque business going on.

It also happens to be a one-stop shopping heaven. Every store you could possibly need is situated within a one kilometre radius, right in the center of the city. (Get out at Rotterdam Blaak, not Centraal!) So far it’s the closest thing to a North American mall I’ve encountered in the Netherlands, even if it’s outdoors.
As a side note: I never thought much about malls until I moved here. Now a trip to the Eaton Centre is required every time I go to Toronto and seems like the most majestic of all occasions. Which is weird because I worked there and it was a nightmare. But anyway.

rotterdam, Dutch city

We started with heavenly chocolate-y drinks at Mockamore – definitely an appropriate Valentine’s treat, and oh-so delicious – before checking off a few items on our shopping lists.
Having found what we needed, we stumbled across this gem. They’ve installed a camera in the middle of the shopping street where you can take selfies and then post them to a Facebook page for the world to see.
Needless to say this provided us with endless entertainment.

rotterdam, Dutch city

Rotterdam, Dutch city

All too soon it was time to head back to the Hague, where a hurricane awaited me in the kitchen – but I’m pleased to say that I successfully pulled off a surprise three-course meal, complete with homemade sea-salt truffles and a burrata starter (which I found at Marqt without even looking for it! take note!). Pieter in turn surprised me with a box of chocolates the size of the province, which should be devoured by Tuesday morning.

Valentine's day

Stolen from my Instagram

But the eating fest wasn’t over quite yet: we’d planned an all-you-can-eat sushi lunch at Sumo on the beach as our official celebration.
It turns out there was a major wind storm going down, so our casual stroll along the boulevard in Scheveningen quickly turned into a work out … All the more excuse to eat EVERYTHING.

Valentine's day, Scheveningen

With so much sand twirling about, the beach, the sea and the sky sort of blended into one. Between fits of hysterical laughter as the wind essentially propelled us forward, I managed to snap a picture.

My day ended with a lovely long Skype with my awesome Katerz and a lot of Olympics.

Valentine's day, Canada

You can take the girl out of Canada …!

I hope you all had a great weekend, whether or not you celebrated Valentine’s day, and I hope the start of the new week treats you kindly.

English scones, Chinese dragons

I’m sitting at my dining table on a sleepy Sunday morning with a delicious cup of coffee, my daylight lamp, and an extremely hyper Porgy darting through the room, occasionally swiping at my ankles … sheer happiness!

First things first: a belated happy Chinese new year!

the hague, china town, kensington

On Saturday, China Town hosted some festivities complete with performances, fire crackers and little markets. People showed up in droves to sample all of the delicious food and watch some enormous dragons dance through the streets. I have to say that the whole thing was rather more commercially-oriented than I had expected (namely, a major casino was sponsoring the event and had an enormous promotional booth amidst all the smaller vendors’ booths), but the dragon dances were certainly impressive and had I not just had lunch (such a rookie mistake!) I would have gone to town on all the snacks available.

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After we’d wandered through the festivities, we headed to Kensington, an English tea room, for giant cups of tea in a teeny, cosy little shop. We’d walked by the place a couple of times and finally decided to check it out … and we weren’t the only ones! The place was consistently packed – and I mean PACKED, the entire café must measure less than 20 square meters! – while we were there, and I can see why. It’s an incredibly friendly, almost cheeky sort of atmosphere, with the staff bickering good-naturedly and the owner charming the ladies with his jokes and classic British manners. The room is decked out with lovely cake stands, chandeliers, little Union Jacks, lovely mismatched cups and cutlery, and even a big painting of Princess Diana surveying the premises.

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We hadn’t planned ahead, so we ordered chai teas and shared a blueberry scone served with cream and jam, and everything was just perfect, not to mention surprisingly inexpensive. I was a terrible blogger and didn’t bring my camera, but I found a Flick account dedicated to this place and you should definitely take a look – though perhaps not when you’re hungry. They do what looks like a heavenly high tea (in such close proximity to the other guests it was easy to get a proper, totally non-creepy look), with little trays piled high with sandwiches, scones, and cakes. So many cakes!

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Kensington is located right in a quiet corner in the centre of the city. If you’re in the neighbourhood, I definitely recommend a visit – preferably on an empty stomach!

Exploring The Hague

After a rather hectic start to the new year, Pieter and I finally had a quiet weekend to just relax and enjoy each other’s company.  Having indulged in a Saturday morning marathon of cooking shows, we set off on a walking adventure to find special food for Porgy (as you already know if you read last week’s saga, she has a delicate tum).  So here, on this rainy Monday, are some of the places we really enjoyed.

Living in the city centre, I’ve sort of fallen into this trap where anything that isn’t within walking distance simply seems too far!  A ten minute tram ride?  Forget about it.  A bus ride?  Who do you take me for?!  After this weekend though, I think it’s safe to say I’m cured of that silly phase.

Piet Heinstraat (Zeeheldenkwartier)

The Hague, Piet Heinstraat

You wouldn’t necessarily walk down this street thinking that it seemed like a lovely place to linger.  Some of the buildings are really worn down and you get the sneaking suspicion that a lot of the novelty-type shops in the area (think a whole store dedicated to toilet seats) may in fact be intended for other purposes …   wink wink.  To be brutally honest: it seems a bit sketchy.  I must admit that I am not at all the sort of person who has a nose for sniffing out great places.  I tend to like things neat and tidy and can be quick to judge a book by its proverbial cover.  I’m so glad I didn’t this time, though, because this street is PACKED with goodness!  The highlight: an Italian food shop, simply called Italy.

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The shop is a true feast for culinary geeks – they sell every imaginable type of flour, pasta in shapes I’ve never seen before, and a wide array of prepared food ready for you to sink your teeth in to.  A big plus: the staff were extremely friendly.  Pieter and I walked out with a heavenly burrata, which I’d been raving about since my trip to Rome in October, and pasta flour!  I’m happy to say that both were a tremendous success.  Or otherwise put: we devoured it all.

Besides Italy, the Zeeheldenkwarter is also home to a Portuguese traiteur (which we sadly didn’t try, with thoughts for our wallets and our waistlines) and an expat store!  We couldn’t resist stocking up on all manner of mysterious British sodas (dandelion & burdock?  yes please) before continuing on our journey.  I’m pretty sure that, given how heavily we were weighed down at this point, all calories consumed later were immediately used to replenish our depleted stores …

Right?

Frederik Hendriklaan (Statenkwartier)

The Hague, Statenkwartier, Frederik Hendriklaan

It wasn’t my first time in this area – I’d been with Barbara the week before and had immediately fallen in love.  It’s a very homey, friendly atmosphere, with a good mix of chains, independent boutiques, organic market stands/grocers, and lots of enticing restaurants.  While the street itself is quite commercial, the area surrounding it is very family-oriented, with beautiful old Dutch houses and lovely green expanses to play in.

The Hague, Statenkwartier, Frederik Hendriklaan

Aaah … Dutch weather.

(For the girls: a great store to check out in this area is By Fabrio – it looks a bit uninviting from the outside but they have a great selection of Dutch-made, high-quality clothes to choose from, all for 40,- or less!  Plus they apparently overhaul the entire store every week so you’re unlikely to find the same thing in there twice.)

We finished off our stroll at Hudson’s with some drinks and a snack and both agreed that the place had a great, relaxed atmosphere.  We were there fairly early, but by the number of reserved signs on tables it was clear that the place gets quite packed in the evening.  Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area!

The Hague, Statenkwartier, Frederik Hendriklaan

Roma Roma

As I mentioned in my last post, my graduation ceremony took place recently. To celebrate, my mom flew in from Toronto, friends drove down from Groningen (a 2+ hour drive) and I was showered with gorgeous flowers and gifts. Our group sat down for what started out as drinks but ended up turning into dinner, dessert and coffee before we parted ways late in the evening. It was an overwhelmingly awesome day and (as I know I often do) I have to pause here for an instant to marvel at how lucky I am to have you wonderful people in my life. Thank you!

Anyway. After you receive your degree, it’s a Leiden tradition to sign your name in the Zweet Kamertje (literally ‘sweat room’). My signature is now amidst thousands of others, including those of Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and Queen Wilhelmina … Pretty exciting I must say!

Leaving my mark in the Sweat Room.

Leaving my mark in the Sweat Room.

To further the celebrations, my mom treated me to four days in Rome. It was my first time in Italy and I simply loved it. The trip was incredible and, although it would be impossible to try to capture it in all of its glory, I wanted to document some of it – in pictures mostly. I hope you’ll indulge me in this non-Dutch post, particularly since my updating record has been less than pristine lately! Ahem.

View on the way to the Villa Medici.

View on the way to the Villa Medici.

I’ll try to spare you the most typically touristic shots I took, although restraining myself is likely to be a challenge. The internet is full of gorgeous images of the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum and Saint Peter’s basilica. Really, what can I say about Rome that someone hasn’t already expressed, likely more beautifully, eloquently and knowledgeably, before? Surely nothing, but here goes!

Pigeons on statues - a recurring theme.

Pigeons on statues – a recurring theme.

We stayed at the Hotel Locarno, right off the Piazza del Popolo. The room was lovely and quirky, and the location was just perfect – very central but not packed with tourists. I loved taking a seat on our teeny balcony and watching the activity outside. One morning I got quite the show: a man wearing nothing but his underwear very casually lit a cigarette, took out his phone, and had an entire conversation out on his balcony, which happened to be right across the street and on precisely my level. Oh my prudish North American heart!

Piazza del Popolo

Piazza del Popolo

Also conveniently located was the Villa Borghese, what our travel book called the Central Park of Rome. Here we had reserved tickets for the Galleria Borghese, which houses a stunning and enormous collection of sculptures and paintings. It was definitely one of my favourite sights of the trip, made all the better by the smaller groups of visitors allowed in at a time (something like 350 per slot).

Villa Borghese

Villa Borghese

On our second night, we went out in search of Il Margutta on the Via Margutta, an all-vegetarian restaurant that has apparently won awards for its food. When I later mentioned this to a fellow tourist, I was met with a blank, uncomprehending stare. I know what she was thinking: we went to a vegetarian restaurant in Rome of all places?! But even my mom, who has a penchant for rare meat, found the food delicious.
We started with a sort of appetizer plate and it was absolute heaven. The pictures I took really didn’t do it justice so: suffice it to say that it included a mini pot of truffled cheese fondue, a fennel and orange salad, and chunks of golden, almond-crusted goats cheese.

Via Margutta

Via Margutta

Fortunately we also did our fair share of walking.

Courtyard, Sant'Andrea delle Fratte

Courtyard, Sant’Andrea delle Fratte

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I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of things to see, and occasionally rather frustrated by the Romans’ seeming disregard for their surroundings. We came across several beautiful and yet unacknowledged fountains, buildings and ruins … How far we were from home! Can you imagine 2000-year-old ruins in downtown Toronto being totally unmarked and used to house stray cats?!

Pigeons on statues pt. 2

Pigeons on statues pt. 2

Quattro Fiumi fountain, Piazza Navona

Quattro Fiumi fountain, Piazza Navona

Ponte Sant'Angelo

Ponte Sant’Angelo

Portico d'Ottavia

Portico d’Ottavia

We followed a neighbourdhood walk of the Jewish Ghetto and Campo dei Fiori from the Fodor guide to Rome which, although aggravating at times (the directions were awful and the accompanying map inexplicably left out a lot of what the book suggested we see!), allowed us to discover a lot of beautiful architecture and a more ‘typical’ side of Roman life – at least, that was the feeling I got. Particularly at Campo dei Fiori, where we had a ‘light’ (cough cough) lunch, I loved watching the market vendors go about their business, pretending I could understand their banter.

Campo dei Fiori

Campo dei Fiori

One evening we joined a food and walking tour of the lovely neighbourhood Trastevere with Eating Italy Food Tours. I had read about them online and the evening even surpassed my already high expectations. I had my first-ever burrata (if you don’t know, look it up because OH MY GOODNESS); we sipped wine in a cellar older than the colosseum at Spirito DiVino; and we had fantastically, amazingly delicious gelato at Fatamorgana. On top of that, we were treated to a surprise visit of an old pharmacy concealed within the church of Santa Maria della Scala, which was shut down in the 50s and still contains remedies that are many decades old (and are made with live vipers!) as well as big leather-bound volumes on herbs and plants and their healing properties. We were all fairly awe-stricken when we saw where we’d been lead … (There had been some apprehension as we turned down several unmarked corridors at the back of the church. The words ‘murder’ and ‘kidnapping’ were thrown about in a rather nervous, not altogether casual manner …)

On top of the delicious food and exciting surprise, we got to discover Trastevere which is extremely charming and lively, and which offers a totally different feel from the other areas of Rome that we got to explore.

Crossing the Tiber

Crossing the Tiber

Trastevere

Trastevere

Trastevere

Trastevere

While we were able to see the Colosseum and the surrounding archaeological area/dig, one major attraction that eluded us was Saint Peter’s basilica. We foolishly turned up around eleven in the morning, only to be met by a line the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before. Unwilling to waste so much time, we swore to come back the next evening … Which we did, only to find out that the basilica had been closed early for a wedding.
We were rather reckless and attempted to sneak to the entrance by squeezing ourselves between fences, but to no avail – the way was blocked off and we were forced to admit defeat. Disappointing though it was, it was still a highlight of the trip for me: I’m unlikely to forget the sight of my innocent little maman carefully sizing up a fence, considering whether or not she could climb it, in her determination to get in.

Saint Peter's Basilica

Saint Peter’s Basilica

I guess I’ll have to go back!
I’ll leave this post here as I’ve just noticed the word count has passed 1000. If you’ve been to Rome, I’d love to hear about your favourite sights/experiences there! I may not have a job after December first but I’m already planning my next visit. That’s adulthood right there …

The Hague Hotel School

If you’re reading this somewhere in the Netherlands, or if you’ve ever been served so much as a glass of water in the Netherlands, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the standard Dutch service-without-a-smile (and-perhaps-even-with-an-eye-roll if you’re lucky). And it’s not just in food and drink establishments. Trying to find your size at Mango or Vero Moda or even de Bijenkorf? It probably isn’t going to happen unless you manage to smuggle yourself into the stock room. Done trying things on? Don’t hand me your reject clothes, you tiresome, insignificant thing. Please hang everything up exactly as it was and then retrace your steps until everything is put back precisely where you found it.
(Note: I may be slightly exaggerating for dramatic effect here.)

Coming from Canada, the land known for its ridiculously and excessively polite and friendly citizens, it took me a particularly long while to really get accustomed to this unusual standard … But I can truthfully say that, at this point, I’m a convert. Going shopping back home in Toronto has become an exhausting exercise in small talk and extended smiles and sustained eye contact.

Once in a while, though, it’s nice to be acknowledged and appreciated as a customer – and a human being. My lovely maman came to visit me last week (more on that later!) and, after a gorgeous and sunny walk on the Scheveningen beach, we were treated to just such service.

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Ever the foodie, prior to her arrival in the Netherlands my mom had read about the Hague Hotel School (Hotelschool The Hague). The school trains its students in every area of hospitality, which means that everyone spends time working in the kitchen, the two restaurants, and the school’s own hotel. Students are at every level of the operation. Because all of the staff are in fact in training, the food and drinks are offered ‘at cost’ and you can eat and drink for astonisingly low prices …
PLUS, from the moment you enter until the moment you leave, you are treated with North American levels of friendliness and enthusiasm.

We had lunch at the Brasserie Zinq, the more informal restaurant, and we were not disappointed. We were seated right by a huge window overlooking the grounds and, while we meticulously studied our menus, our lovely waitress brought over an absolute mountain of freshly baked bread with aioli and tapenade.
Things were off to an excellent start.

Highlights of the meal include a smoked duck appetizer that my mom raved about, really delicious wines, and a beautiful ‘seasonal salad’ with goat’s cheese and beet curls that melted in my mouth. However, the real winner was when dessert arrived (including cherry-beer ice cream and roasted figs … enough said) and the waitress lit a sparkler on my plate! We had mentioned at some point that I had just graduated the previous day (more on that later too!) and she’d remembered. I may be a big sap, but the smile on my face was pretty much permanent after that.

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We must have spent a solid two hours at the Brasserie, so enjoyable was our lunch, and I would definitely recommend checking it out if you’re ever in The Hague or Scheveningen and looking for a meal with a gastronomical feel, but without the hefty bill.

A few practical notes:
To access the Brasserie, you have to enter through the school’s main entrance (right across from the Nieuwe Scheveningse Bosjes). Here, you are led by a welcoming, professional and impeccably dressed student to the restaurant, crossing the cafeteria on your way. (It is a school after all.) You may feel a bit weird about this, but don’t! They are delighted to have non-students as it provides more realistic training.
If you have any special dietary restrictions, ask about dishes before you order them (I know – duh – but still). I considered getting the salmon on a bed of paella, but then decided on the salad. My mom however did get the salmon, and the paella turned out to be full of chicken AND pork even though the menu made no mention of this. Fortunately, she isn’t pescatarian and happily devoured the dish.

Leidens Ontzet/Drie Oktober

It’s official … Pieter and I are moving in to our new place on Saturday! Things are sure to be hectic this weekend, so I thought I’d get a head start this year and write about Leidens Ontzet, or the liberation of Leiden – simply referred to as 3 Oktober by those in the know.

The holiday marks the anniversary of the liberation of Leiden from the Spanish back in 1574 (if Wikipedia serves me correctly) after a two-year siege. It’s a cause for huge celebration in the city, with offices and schools closed and a tremendous influx of visitors from neighbouring cities and towns. In fact, it’s such a big deal that the festivities start a day early on 2 October. Today I’m bringing you my insider (but-not-really-at-all) suggestions for making the most out of Drie Oktober!

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(Photo credit to my lovely Katerz!)

First things first, I have to address the hutspot – the quintessential, practically iconic meal reserved for Leidens Ontzet. Legend has it that, newly liberated from the clutches of the Spanish, the Dutch had to make do with the scraps of food their captors had left behind. From humble potatoes, onions and carrots, the hutspot was born … Boiled and mashed potatoes, onions and carrots.
I know. It doesn't seem particularly festive. These days people eat it with meat (preferably sausage) and gravy but if, like me, you don't eat such things, hutspot hardly feels like a celebratory meal. Nevertheless, if you truly want to celebrate the holiday in Dutch fashion, hutspot has to be on the menu.
From a purely practical point of view, it will form a warm ball in your belly, ideal in the chilly fall air and guaranteed to keep you going throughout the night's festivities. Restaurants and stands throughout the city will be plating it up and there's definitely an element of hilarity and delight in standing in a silent huddle of friends on the street, intently devouring mashed potatoes from plastic plates with flimsy forks. The calm before the storm, if you will.
However if, like me, you're more of the live-to-eat variety, I recommend making your own. My official Dutchman taught me the key to making fantastic mashed anything …
Add cubes of cheese to it. (This is why we work so well together.) It may not be traditional but biting into pockets of semi-molten cheese is clearly rewarding on a whole other level.
If you're a vegetarian, this is also a great opportunity to make your own gravy (super easy – I'll include a 'recipe' below) and try out fake sausages. Do I know how to have a wild time or what?!

Now that that's out of the way …
The festivities officially begin at 16.14 with an opening act. This year they're taking place on the Stadshuisplein and, if the pictures from the Leiden website are any indication, it’s bound to be a good one! The next morning, you can join the Dutch at 7.00 in the morning for the reveille at the Stadshuisplein. (I have never done this myself but it would appear to entail a lot of brass instruments.) Then, between 7.30 and 9.30 at De Waag, you can also go extremely Dutch and take part in the symbolic handing out of herring and white bread. I won’t say anymore on that subject …

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Just like on Queen’s Day, there will be a kermis (travelling fair) in town for two days of celebration. (Beware: they set up right on the Stationsweg so getting to and from your train/bus becomes a bit of a challenge.) While the rides may not appeal to the more ‘mature’ among us, there are always plenty of games and hilarious prizes to be won – not to mention ALL of the best food choices: oliebollen (deep fried dough balls covered in powdered sugar), cotton candy, sugar sticks, fries …

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According to the municipality’s website, there will also be a historical kermis set up on the Pieterskerkplein. (It will be taking place on both 2 and 3 October in the afternoon.)

Once you’re reasonably stuffed, it’s time to wander off to watch the performances taking place across the city. Last year we sort of just stumbled upon good ones, but this year I’ve discovered that, in fact, you can get a schedule here.

Don’t miss the fireworks show! It’ll be taking place at 23.30 on the Zijlsingel.

One final word of wisdom: Do not try to look good. Just do not. It’ll be crowded and dark and people will be armed with mashed potatoes and beer. Wear layers – ugly ones – and, of course, sensible shoes. There will be music playing in all sorts of places, including cute little cobblestone alleys. Unless you’re Dutch and have that ‘I can do everything in stilettos and do it more gracefully than you’ gene, dancing on cobblestone is a lot more enjoyable with comfortable footwear.
(If you do go out next week to celebrate the liberation, let me know what you get up to!)

Vegetarian Gravy

All you need to do is add about 1-2 tbsp of dissolved corn starch per 250 ml of vegetable stock. Everything else is optional, but you can’t go wrong with a few sautéed onions, some cayenne pepper, and a splash of soya sauce!

Friday the Thirteenth

On Thursday night, I bundled myself up again the chilly air and set out into the city to pick up the lovely Barbara at the station. I stopped on my way to casually buy out the supermarket’s junk food supply, and we spent a perfectly stereotypical and fantastic night chatting up a storm, chomping down on various candy and salty treats, and laughing out loud at The Big Wedding.

I posted a shameful glorious shot of our movie night to my Instagram. I’ve been updating a lot more with my new phone, so if you’re interested in a mix bag of pictures of the Netherlands, friends, cats and food, I’m your gal! (But be warned: when I say cats, I do mean cats.)

The next day was much more wholesome. The last time Barbara had spent more than a couple of hours in Leiden it had been way too cold to properly enjoy the city for its beauty and its incredible history. This time, armed with light jackets and resigned to being spit on all day – all day – we explored the heart of the historical city centre and its countless alleys and hidden corners. Barbara’s enthusiasm for everything awoke my own rather dormant appreciation of this gorgeous old town.

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Aside from the Pieterskerk and the Hooglandsekerk, two must-see tourist attractions, we fell in love (I for the umpteenth time) with the dozens of little hofjes, enclosed residential squares. They are hidden within the city by high brick walls, discrete gates, high foliage, and narrow, winding alleys.
(Apologies for the picture quality! We hadn’t planned to do quite so much exploring and my camera was tucked safely away from the rain in my room.)

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Some of these hofjes date back to the fifteenth century or even earlier, and have been reserved for orphans, the poor, single women, and, more recently, for specific communities of like-minded people. Most contain a little garden and many also continue to feature old water pumps. (Unfortunately they don’t work anymore – we tried!)

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A beautiful old orphanage, hidden right by the popular Hooglandsekerk.

A beautiful old orphanage, hidden right by the popular Hooglandsekerk.

I was very intent on showing Barbara the medieval dungeons, housed within an otherwise modern university building, in which I occasionally have meetings. Unfortunately both rooms were occupied; however, sensing our eagerness, the kind receptionist led us to the back of the building and showed us the building’s old torture chamber! It turns out the building was used as a full-on prison in the fifteenth century. You can even reach it from the Breestraat, one of the busiest streets in Leiden, by following the Diefsteeg, or thief alley.

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The receptionist explained that the walls of the chamber were at least half a meter thick, ensuring that no one would ever have heard the screams …
How fitting for Friday the thirteenth!

Left to our own devices, we poked around the rest of the building, enamoured of its old, winding brick staircases and big wooden doors.

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Access to the historical Leiden monuments is usually restricted – we happened to show up on a quiet day and were lucky to be allowed in. However, once in a while the university organizes free tours of all of its hidden historical gems. If you’re interested in visiting this gorgeous place, check out the Visitor’s Centre. They’ll be able to tell you when and how you can arrange these sorts of tours.
Alternatively, you could simply walk into the building, soaking from the rain and batting your eyelashes, and play your best confused tourist card.

The hofjes on the other hand are open to the public and are truly enchanting. Part of the fun is trying to find them!

Family road trip: Montreal

I’m back home in Toronto for a couple weeks so, for this post, I’m stepping out of my clogs and into some … snowshoes! (Or some other more ‘typical Canadian’ foot attire.)

My parents, my sister and I took a weekend trip up to Montreal to see family – it had, as usual, been far too long. My aunt, uncle and cousin treated us to three magnificent meals, including maple teriyaki salmon on the barbecue, blue cheese & porto with nut bread, mint zucchini pasta, and an incredible chocolate cake. When we piled ourselves back into the car this afternoon, none of us had any appetite for a solid hour. That may be a record as far as our family road trips go!

I thought I’d do a short write-up about the old Montreal, as we went down there on Saturday afternoon and it was my first time seeing it. We’ll be back to our regular Dutch-themed posts soon I promise!

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Almost immediately after having parked the car, we stumbled on the Marché Bonsecours. Stands were set up outside the building, offering maple syrup and ice wine and cider. My mum and I found ourselves enjoying a dégustation (tasting) well before noon … A fine way to start a leisurely touristy stroll! The vendors were very friendly and not at all pushy, which was nice. We enjoyed the stands so much that we ended up circling back before we left to get some delicious sparkling ice wine.

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Having sampled all we could, we joined my sister and my dad along the streets of the old city, admiring the quaint little buildings, the cobblestone and the street performers.

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We doubled back to explore the old port.

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I was particularly enamoured of the Rue des artistes, where artists were selling their work.

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A small little market place is nestled within a courtyard on that street and displays handmade jewellery, clothes and other pieces. It was definitely aimed at tourists, but the market itself was just beautiful.

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Having feasted our eyes (and surprisingly not our stomachs) on all we could see, we took a seat on the square in front of the Basilique Notre-Dame. Unfortunately the church was closed for a wedding, but it was still impressive from the outside!

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We returned to the car on the main road, leaving the old buildings behind.
Montreal really is a beautiful city, and one that I still hardly know. I was glad to be able to combine a much-needed visit with my family with a bit of touristy activity! I was also very, very glad for that Roquefort Papillon …

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Fortunately my Grand-Papa made me a whole tin of his caramels to help make the separation easier!

A week in food

I don’t even know if I should give you my excuses for my terrible updating record! It’s always the same thing … blah blah blah thesis. I do have exciting news in that department though: as of tomorrow at 1.00 PM, it will be out of my hands. Done. Come what may. I can’t wait! I still have quite a bit of proof-reading and tweaking to do today but I thought I’d start off this Sunday morning in a leisurely way, with pictures of food.
My beautiful friend Stephanie came to visit for a few days, and I think it’s safe to say we ate our way through the country – or at least the better part of the Randstad.

Amsterdam

Steph has a Lonely Planet app on her phone, and it highly recommends Jordino. It’s a gorgeous chocolate shop on the outskirts of the Jordaan, with candy shaped into every imaginable form: heels, cars, iPads, herring …

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We each chose two little chocolates to whet our appetites for lunch. I had a candied ginger concoction that I’m still dreaming of five days later …

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After a great sandwich at Small World Catering (why I didn’t take pictures of that place is beyond me), we did some exploring and a bit of shopping before seeking out our next food stop: the Kaaskamer (cheese room). It way heavenly! We left with a big hunk of truffled cheese and a small portion of aged Gouda. Fortunately I still have some of each to tide me over through the mood swings I’ve experienced during the last legs of my thesis journey …

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Sadly it started pouring in Amsterdam in the late afternoon, so we headed back to Leiden for dinner: take-out from Ichi Ban. Delightful as always.

Leiden

We spent the next morning in Leiden, admiring the sights and sampling the entire market. Steph picked out a few tins of stroopwafels for friends and family, and then we shared a giant cookie between the two of us. The man at the stand was extremely friendly, and even agreed to my shy request (in Dutch I might add) to take a picture of us.

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Courtesy of Steph's instagram.

Courtesy of Steph’s instagram.

Having devoured more than our fair share of meaty green olives, bread and tapenade from one of the stands, we decided on a light lunch …

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Den Haag

Next, we headed off to the Hague to do some sight seeing and some shopping. I’d venture to say that, after Groningen, the Hague is my favourite city, and I did my darndest to make sure Steph liked it too! I think dinner really sold her. We scoured out a table on the Plein, a big square in the city shared by six or seven different food and drink establishments. After an apero (including deep fried cheese sticks) at Barlow, we scooched over to the neighbours, Millers, for truly outstanding food.

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Tuna sashimi with soya sauce, seaweed, lightly pickled ginger and wasabi. My goodness that tuna may have been the best I’ve ever had, even without all of the extras. It was so fresh and meaty! As a ‘pescatarian’ (vegetarian who eats fish), I rarely get meat cravings, but if I were ever to want to devour a whole steak, this is the dish I’d turn to.

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We also shared a Caesar salad, but I mysteriously have no pictures of it.

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The main attraction: truffle risotto with baked truffle chips, cherry tomatoes, parmesan and arugula. There are no words. I’m not even usually a risotto person but this had me closing my eyes with every bite! I foresee a do-over of this entire meal in the near future …

That night we were totally pooped, so we went home fairly early and (re-)watched Pitch Perfect. The best way to end an excellent day.

Scheveningen

To cap off Steph’s stay, we breakfasted at Bagels & Beans before heading off to the beach in Scheveningen. It looked rather different than the last time I posted about it.

(Courtesy of Steph's instagram.)

(Courtesy of Steph’s instagram.)

The sun was out in full force and we spent a delightfully lazy afternoon basking in its glory. Starting to feel peckish, we returned to the Plein for more delicious food and drinks. (Sadly this time I hadn’t brought my camera, so I have only my memories to treasure!)

Steph left the next morning … and I’m leaving Tuesday! I’ll be back in Canada for two weeks and I cannot cannot CANNOT wait. Aside from the truffle cheese whispering my name from the fridge, the thought of being back home after seven months is keeping me sane in these last hours!

Canadians reunited

I’ve been away from the blog the past week or so because one of my best friends in the world was staying with me. Katelyn braved the long flight from the West coast of Canada to interview specialists on cerebral palsy here in the Netherlands. She had an incredibly busy schedule, but honoured me with her spare time by bunking with me in Leiden. It was so good to see each other again after well over a year – as usual, it was as if no time had passed.

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(Picture courtesy of the Katerz!)

We wandered the streets of Leiden and even trekked up to Groningen for an evening of sushi and catch-up with our beautiful friends there. The week went by altogether too quickly, but I am so grateful for it. To make matters even better, the sun shone the entire time! Katelyn took a lot of gorgeous pictures and I think I’ll be back to share some of those, but for now here are a few highlights from our time together.

Katelyn’s lovely family sent over some magnificent chocolates and toffee. Thank you Marie, Gus and Alexa!

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We shared a picnic by a canal …

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… and did some frolicking.

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I stalked a little bit.

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We revisited some old haunts, like the Pieterskerk.

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In Groningen, we topped off our sushi with drinks at the Drie Gezusters, in their library-themed room.

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On our last morning (this morning, sadly!) we had gigantic cappuccinos at the Bagels & Beans by the Botermarkt (literally: butter market).

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Then, all too soon, it was time to say goodbye. I’ll be back to share some more pictures soon! For now, as I’m sure you can predict, it’s down to the wire with my thesis!