Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Nordic Explorer - Amsterdam & Ghent to UK

At sea to Amsterdam - 24 & 25 September.

The day started very differently and we were very relaxed as we sailed the North Sea from Oslo to Amsterdam. The main commitment on the day was to complete UK migration formalities. What a good idea! It means that on arrival in Southampton, we just disembark without any further formality.

We arrived early in the morning at the locks of Uijmuiden, at one time the largest sea locks in the world. Not sure what it's status is today, not that it matters. It is still an amazing engineering installation. I woke up as we entered these  locks and felt a strange sense of returning to my origins. That is truly weird as I have traveled back to the Netherlands on several occasions over the years. I guess it must have something to do with the fact that it was from Uijmuiden that back in 1951 we finally waved goodbye to the old country.

Again, as we docked in the heart of Amsterdam, I became quite emotional seeing from our cabin the very spot the Petrusma family left for Australia in 1951! Mind you, it looks very different today with modern facilities including such unheard of things as WIFI!! Hello? What's that in 1951!!!
The Sumatra kade (Sumatra Pier)!

Jan very much enjoyed Amsterdam when we visited here in 2010. She still loves it, and looked forward to sharing more of the city's delights. Once off the ship we made our way to Central Station and bought a day ticket for tram travel. We soon found ourselves heading into the unknown,  getting off at a square named Piet Hein Plaza.

Who is Piet Hein. Obviously, the Dutch should know. I certain did and as children we would sing a song about this guy who captured the Spanish silver fleet. But briefly, Pieter Pietersen Hein was a Dutch naval officer, born on 25 November 1577 and died 18 June 1629.
Dutch hero Admiral Piet Hein

He became vice admiral of the Dutch West India Company and is probably best known for his exploits in sea battles, capturing merchants ships. In subsequent raids during 1627 at Salvador, he attacked and captured over thirty richly laden Portuguese merchant ships (the Dutch were still at war with Spain at this time).

In 1628, Admiral Hein sailed out to capture a Spanish Treasure fleet loaded with silver from their American colonies. Part of the Spanish fleet in Venezuela had been warned, but the other half from Mexico continued its voyage, unaware of the threat. Sixteen Spanish ships were intercepted; one galleon was taken after a surprise encounter during the night, nine smaller merchants were talked into a surrender; two small ships were taken at sea fleeing, four fleeing galleons were trapped on the Cuba coast.

After some musket volleys from Dutch, the crews of the galleons also surrendered and Hein captured 11,509,524 guilders (I understand that an unskilled worker around that time would earn about a dollar per day!!!!) of booty in gold, silver and other expensive trade goods, without any bloodshed. The capture of the treasure fleet was the company's greatest victory in the Caribbean. Hein returned to the Netherlands in 1629, where he was hailed as a hero.

After that history lesson (courtesy Wikipdedia), let's return to the Piet Hein Plaza where we enjoyed seeing some great bronze sculptures modeled on the painting of another Dutch hero - Rembrandt van Rijn, a compatriot of Piet Hein. The sculptures copied effectively the scenes of Rembrandt's 'Night Watch' that hangs in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum and which we saw in 2010.
The Piet Hein Plaza with Rembrandt keeping a watchful eye on the 'Night Watch'

The following photographs shows the fine detail of the characters in the scene. Click on any image to get a better view:

Getting close and personal!
The original 'Nightwatch' is on display in the Rijksmuseum. 
The above photograph is of a painted copy that hangs in our house in Hobart.

Our Amsterdam visit was very relaxed and included, of course, lots of walking, coffee with Apple pie - a real delicacy! Jan even visited one of her favourite stores, the Hema and we enjoyed a scratch lunch there.
Saying g'day to the neighbours

Then of course, a walk around the grachten (Canals) enjoying the autumn colours
An atmosphere all of its own - Amsterdam!
Flowers galore!

The next photograph has an interesting history. It is called Begijnhof and according to their website began in about 1150AD.
"At that time, a group of women came together to live in a religious community, primarily to look after the sick. These were, in effect, the first ‘Beguines’ although the name was not yet used.

The women were not nuns, nor did they live in the seclusion of a convent. They had no founders nor did they make lifelong vows. They did have to be unmarried, to make a vow of chastity and to promise obedience to the parish priest. They could renounce their vows at any moment and leave the Beguinage.

The first time the word ‘beguines’ was used was in an official document of 1307 found in the accounts of the Bailiff of Amstelland. Another document, dated 31 July 1346, speaks of the Beghijnhuis ceded to them by Cope van der Laene. In 1393, Albert of Bavaria ratified the regulations of the Beguinage by letter, taking them under his protection and giving a number of rules for those in the Beguinage to observe."
The property is in the heart of Amsterdam close to Kalverstraat - the busiest shopping mall in Amsterdam.

We arrived in this peaceful setting just as a worship service in English concluded. We decided it was a good opportunity to see a church filled with worshipers, rather than tourists (like us). The blessed advantage was that the organ just began playing its concluding voluntary. It was indeed another lovely sound. 
 We happily spoke to the pastor and some of the parishioners. All good!

As the Marina left its berth, I again felt emotional. Once again in my memory, I could see my aunts and uncles standing on the wharf waving goodbye to the family in 1951. 

Sailing down the canal back to the North Sea was interesting. Can't get over how large a port Amsterdam really is and equally, how a ship the size of Marina (66,000 tons) had no problem negotiating this waterway.

Scenes along the way
Central Station is clearly visible. A busy place!
Shipbuilding remains an active dutch industry.

A somewhat short night journey saw us ready for Zeebrugge in Belgium for a 9 am shore excursion to the city of Ghent. It is the only shore excursion we organised with Oceania - we did all our sightseeing independently from ship-organised excursions.

Our first activity in Ghent was a canal boat ride. These rides are centre stage throughout Europe and together with the 'Hop On Hop Off' buses are real a good way to see most of the attractions. We found Ghent interesting but rather neglected and dirty.

We were coming to the end of our Nordic Adventure! We were really happy with everything, including the ship's four specialist restaurants. They were outstanding!
  • Our first experience of these was the Toscana that we enjoyed with new acquaintances Linda, Bruce, Mary Beth and Larry. They were great company and we look forward to remaining in contact with them. 
  • In addition we enjoyed the Red Ginger and the Marco Polo. 
  • Our final night on board ship was a meal in Jacques restaurant. Obviously French that provided a most excellent meal. We committed ourselves to make this our first restaurant booking when we re-board the Marina for a cruise that begins on 19 October.
27 September. Time to say goodbye to newly made friends and to the staff who looked after us so well! Our suitcases were taken by the ship crew the evening before for a smooth disembarkation the following day.

Our assessment of the cruise? UNBELIEVABLE!!!!! The ship is a beauty, the staff unbeatable, the food beyond description -  fresh fruit and veggies of wonderful quality. The specialist dishes, including seafood were plentiful. The facilities without exception were great and up to date. Our stateroom was a home away from home and very comfy. What more can I say? A minor disappointment was not being able to go to the Flanders war cemeteries.  We do believe we got value for our money and enjoyed the attention and the experience.

As mentioned, the British migration officials had already cleared us, so it was just a matter of getting on shore and meet up with Mark and Cal. They very generously welcomed us in a rather special and, dare I say, unusual way!

Mark and Cal immediately took us sightseeing, ensuring that we would have maximum time with them- time was short. They first took us to us to The Lord Nelson arms museum not far from Portsmouth. It is a place full of interest and we enjoyed wandering around. What an amazing display and variety of weapons - some of them are real works of art, like:

 They all look for too handsome to fire in anger!

 But for a change in temp, size, and weight, the following was fun to do.
 Others, of course, had to go one better. 
I guess wanting to know where the trigger was to fire the darn thing. 
Or was it to look for cannon balls. Get out of there MARK!

Outstanding works of art

We did have fun and enjoyed each others' company. Walking back to the entrance of the fort, we were met by a couple of good looking guys who told us that they were about to fire the World War II 22lbs gun - a daily occurrence at 1 pm. As we chatted, I asked them who fires it and was quite astonished to hear them say, 'YOU SIR!!'

It turned out that as my birthday gift from Mark & Cal they had arranged for this rather unique experience! What a UK welcome - FIRE YOUR OWN SALUTE!! I loved it!

Hmmm! Marching to once own execution? How very orderly!
Ears protected with the perfect response to FIRE!
Oh dear! Got a bit of my own back with the wind in my face.

What a delightful surprise! A wonderful welcome to the UK! It set the scene for a great 14 days in this country.