Category Archives: trains and train stations

Train-trip and a Beguinage in Bruges

Every place gives you something – a gift, a new insight, courage when your heart is failing, and sometimes, just occasionally, wonder. In Amsterdam a few years ago, I discovered Het Begijnhof. I fell slightly in love with this sanctuary in the heart of the city and with the idea and history of Beguinages Bruges or Brugge had already been on the cards, recommended by a colleague who, it turns out, knows me well. Learning that there was also a Beguinage was enough – I bought a ticket and headed down into the underground gloominess of Gare Centrale to wait for my train.

The train trip and the chance to see the country-side was part of the joy of this journey. It’s easy to stay in one place, in the city where there is so much to see. But wonder comes in many forms and the country-side, especially when seen from train-windows, is a peculiar kind of joy. A joy complete with the space to write the journey.

Winter trees. The sky clouding over with soft grey and white billows. The houses narrow and upright, with snow-sloped rooftops and many chimneys. Red brick – in all shades of red – to brown and beige and painted white. Some semi-detached, just two windows wide; some standing alone, three or four windows across. Each small settlement with a church-tower – red-brick pretty or imposing gothic grey against the sky. 

The fields stretch green and brown, between stands of winter-bare trees, in the gaps between the settlements. A field of Shetland ponies behind a house surrounded by open land. Chickens in a run fenced with posts of dark, dark wood. Where the fields have been rested, the grass, dry from summer, stands knee-high, winter-dry white-brown. Several stands of young pines – next year’s Christmas trees? 

Settlements pass. A car-wash, a petrol station, a parking lot. In a yard, a trampoline with raised sides for small children. A jacket flaps on a washing line. More open land. A tiny brick wendy-house, half-hidden by ivy. Three geese in a field. A rugby pitch. What looks like a convent school or university college. So much water – rivers and bridges again. 

In a green field, a group of sea-gulls comes in to land. The first canal, complete with boats. We are travelling in the direction of the sea. Ducks waddle in a row – grey and white and brown – along a strip of grass to a water-filled furrow. Sheep graze among stalks in a black-soil field. A house with a built on glass conservatory. Almost there now. 

A house further out surrounded by fields and near the train-line. Outside a bicycle and a pile of freshly chopped firewood. From the windows, the warm glow of lights. 

In Bruges, I walk away from the station and take the path towards Minnewaterpark, with it’s pretty canals and Lake of Love and fortied gunpowder tower. The sun came out just as I arrived in Bruges and for a while it adds a sparkle on the water to the crisp afternoon stroll. Waterbirds, including snowy-white swans, decorate the lake and canals.

A twist and a turn and I find the Beguinage. From the moment you enter the complex, you can feel the peace. Signs on the grassy, tree-scattered central square ask for silence. Each white house, with its red roof, is a home. This is no longer a community of Beguines. Since 1927, it has functioned as a community for Benedictine nuns – a contemplative order that also holds special meaning for me. The place is beautiful and calm and not all the tourists wandering around can change that. Before crossing another pretty bridge over the canal, I even wandered through the gift shop.

The remainder of the afternoon is whiled away peacefully. Roaming the medieval city. Admiring lace and chocolate in lit-up shop windows. Enjoying the houses and restaurants on the water, and the city hall, museum and fries with mayonnaise on the square. Along the streets, the crowds walk quickly or meander and the clip-clop of horse-tours is a constant companion.

Back along the canals, where the birds are resting on froze shards of water. Back to the station, one more ticket, a wait on the platform where I wonder for a while about the drifts of salt before I finally figure it out. The train is warm and pleasant and the countryside we pass, once again beautiful. I am peaceful. I’m glad this trip was suggested. I’m glad I took the advice.

To Amsterdam

Drama in the Netherlands is a train running 15 minutes late. Phones are pulled out and hasty calls made. Harried people search for a seat where they can send urgent emails. Everyone from the elderly to school children stomps around angrily. 15 minutes later, everyone is on the train and settled into the trip and the delay is forgotten. The train glides past green, green fields. I zone out and wait to arrive.

At Amsterdam Station, I pass a group of teenage boys. Dutch teenagers sound just like Afrikaans teenagers. I’m smiling by the time I reach the exit.

Amsterdam Central Station

I follow the crowds to the main road… and get lost. I have the name of the street I’m supposed to be on and I have a map, but I can’t seem to find the place. The streets are a maze of crowds, neon lights, tourist attractions, noisy trams and stoned people. Everything smells like marijuana and lentil curries. I’m still carrying my backpack and people keep bumping into me. The street signs don’t seem to help. Eventually, I go back to the station and start again.

This time I’m more successful. I’m quite relieved by the time I reach my backpackers. Durty Nellie’s Irish Pub and Hostel. I’ve stayed in such different hostels in the Netherlands. ROOM Rotterdam, efficient, clean and convenient, Flying Pig in Noordwijk much more of a party hostel, now Durty Nellie’s. I think this one is my favourite. Downstairs is a traditional Irish Pub – or at least what a traditional Irish Pub looks in non-Irish cities (one day I hope to be able to compare it to the real thing). Upstairs, with really solid security, are several en-suite dorm rooms. Durty Nellie’s isn’t a coffee shop (no smoking, no drugs), so it’s a welcome break from the chaos outside.

I had planned to spend the afternoon quietly, perhaps quietly in the corner of the pub with a pint, but after looking through some of the brochures I’d been given and the Amsterdam city guidebook I’d picked up at the last minute in Johannesburg, I felt the urge to explore.

Armed with a map, I set off for Dam Square. It turned out to be quite easy to find. I guess my earlier wanderings had given me a fair idea of the layout of central Amsterdam. In the square is a fun-fair. I’m tempted by the Ferris wheel (but definitely not at all by some of the other crazy rides) but decide to leave it for the moment.

Beyond Madame Tussauds, I spot the Royal Palace. It is impressive looking and I take a moment to take it in before walking past to the Nieuwe Kerk. The church isn’t used anymore and inside is a massive Ming Dynasty exhibition. With limited time in Amsterdam, and not much interest in Chinese history, I wander out again. I am intrigued by the fascinating clock on the Nieuwe Kerk clock tower – a clock with the numbers in a closed U-shape around hands fixed to a point at the top, instead of around the hands attached the centre of the circle.

Niewe Kerk 2 (451x800)

I stop for a moment. I’ve been moving around so much in the last few days and rushing so much before that, that it’s almost easy to forget to stop and take in the fact that I am here, that I am standing in the centre of a major capital city in Europe. I head off down the road to see what I can see.

Something like a desert

It is a terrible stereotype to say that Namibia is a desert. Namibia is a huge country (almost twice the size of Kenya according to my guide-book), with something like 29 different climatic/environmental zones. Two of these are desert – Namib and Khalahari – but even these are not anything like uniform. I knew all this long before I took off from OR Tambo on the last Thursday in November. And yet, I found myself, as we came in to land in Windhoek, surprised that the veld below me looked green and pleasant and rather like the Northern Cape. Stereotypes are hard to break.

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