Monday, May 4, 2009

I'm in Europe...

I’m in Europe.
Antwerp, Maastricht, Berlin…

I know, last time you heard from me I was in the Red Sea with the Easter Bunny, but not a great deal bloggable has happened since then, until the last few days (if you don’t count a few minor internal and dermal malaises caused by a selection of tropical buglets). Now it has, so here I go again.
The Suez Canal was the Suez Canal as before, and not exactly fascinating the umpteenth time through, and the Med was not at its bluest nor its least (cool) breezy, so a lot of Victorian Vocalists got written in the comfort of my little cabin.
Then the disastrous news came. The company had cancelled the stop at Hamburg, where I was to get off the ship, and Kevin – for the second year in succession – had arranged abortively to meet me. For a moment, it seemed as if I would be dumped at Hull, but in the end Antwerp was settled upon. And disaster turned to delight.
Big John’s hurried aerial exit from the ship at Singapore meant that he had left behind the bulk of his luggage, so on our arrival he drove up from Maastricht to collect it … and me. And I have just had two really lovely days in Maastricht.
It’s a delightful place, made all the more delightful for me by the fact that John’s flat is bang in the middle of the town, and that one can walk therefrom to any of the seemingly hundreds of squares, cafes and restaurants that throng the leafy and lively streets of the city centre. Which, on night one, we did – John, Margo and I, and latterly Dukky the dog -- dinner and drinks at an atmospheric little place named Schijk (I do not guarantee my Dutch spelling), a stroll into the nearby square with its cosy bars and Belgian beers…
Day two, Margo had to work, so John and I and Dukky set out on one of those walks that we prefer: through the city suburbs and, in no time, out into the country and some glorious forestland. Forestland with humps and hills – not a Dutch speciality – thick green and brown smells and splendidly maintained tracks.

The forest led us past some charming views of the French and, eventually the Belgian countryside, before we crossed into Belgium at the little village of ?Keern. I know that spelling is wrong. But that little village will stay long in my memory. We sat down at a cosy café-bar which called itself ‘Between the Jaeger and the Meuse’ (in Belgian) and ordered a cold local beer. It turned out to be a Grottebier or La Biere des Grottes, and I think – and I don’t think it was just the occasion and the ambiance -- it was the best glass of beer I have tasted in my life!

Dukky was quite put out that our glasses got emptied.

Soon (well, soon after a second glass) we were en route again, back through the throbbingly green, soft-footed forests, past the looming and labyrinthine underground stone-quarries, until we reached the banks of the Meuse. I got just a slight tweak at the heart as I watched the cargo ships going by… but we steamed on, back towards town and the festivities that filled the streets. For today was the Queen’s Birthday, a vast festival all round Holland and the excuse for the biggest street parties of the year. Alas, the day was spoiled for Holland that afternoon when a madman anxious to get on TV killed six people in Apeldoorn, by driving his car through the assembled crowds in what he pretended was an assassination attempt on the Queen. If Maastricht were thus not quite as much in fete as it might have been otherwise, things were still pretty lively as we set out for our own evening’s entertainment: an aperitif at a delicious bar specialising in the roasting of peanuts, a marvellous dinner at the most splendid Italian restaurant I can remember, Gio’s, and the obligatory post-prandial visit to what had already become my favourite little bar where – in a mixture of English and French (people here speak so many languages), Dutch and German being outside by abilitites – we chatted to all manner of folk, into the night…
The real world does have its advantages. I could just about re-enter the real world…
And then, already, too soon, it was May 1 and time to move on. And, little did I know I, but 1 May was to turn out to be something of a red letter day for me.

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