Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Exploring the Dutch island of Texel

It's almost Christmas, but I haven't been posting in so long that I have a huge backlog of stories to share. Since "why not?", I thought I would post some shots and memories from our summer trip to the Dutch island of Texel.

News of the heat wave hitting Italy this summer really made me appreciate the mild temperatures we enjoy during the Dutch summer. True, summer in the Netherlands starts late (as in "we've been freezing our butts off until the end of July") and ends early (as in "three weeks later"), but when it's here we enjoy the most ideal conditions you can wish for: 25°C during the hottest hours of the day, 16° at night, a mild sun with a light breeze. Perfection!

It is the ideal weather to cycle, enjoy an open-air lunch or a glass of wine after work, and spend the weekend exploring this green, luscious country.

That's exactly what we did in August, when we spent a weekend on the island of Texel, one of the 5 Dutch Frisian Islands of the Wadden sea. Having never heard of the "Waddenzee" before moving to the Netherlands (I did not even know that the Netherlands have islands to be honest) I feel it is necessary to say that it is a stretch of water in the south-eastern part of the North Sea, that spans from the north-eastern part of the Dutch coastline, across the whole northern borders of Germany, to the south-western part of Denmark. It is an intertidal zone, or - in simple words -  an area that is above water at low tide and under water at high tide. Yes, you've read well! When the tide is low, the water can become really shallow, so much that I've been told that in specific times and seasons you can actually WALK from Den Helder on the Dutch mainland to the southern tip of the Texel island. There is even a word for this activity: Wadlopen or "mudflat hiking".

Texel was the first Wadden Island I visited and it is so beautiful that now I wish to visit them all. Thanks to ever changing tides, the landscape is rich in biological diversity - a true paradise for birds and other animals, including seals. So much that the Wadden Sea has been inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, and about one third of Texel is a protected nature reserve!

Texel, oddly enough, is just 2 metres above sea level, but this is not so surprising as it's part of the Netherlands. The island measures 25 km in lenght and 10 km in width, and all its beaches are on the north side, a long 30 km stretch of flat sands.

But apart from geography, I'd say pictures speak for themselves. This island is an absolute paradise for nature lovers. And, of course, bike lovers: it's almost flat so it's easy to reach any destination with minimum effort, and the scenery is worth the exercise.

The first day we did the northern perimeter. From Den Koog we cycled the 15 km to the Lighthouse on the northernmost tip of the island, stopping along the way for a walk on De Slufter, a dune valley into which seawater streams through creeks during high tide, allowing for vegetation to grow and creating a rich environment where birds love to nest. During the summer the area is suggestively purple-colored because of the sea lavender growing everywhere. Charming!

From the lighthouse, we continued southward along the east coast, until reaching the small town of Oudeschild, where the Texels Brewery is located. This artesanal brewery is renowned in the whole of the Netherlands for its great beers, and here you can taste it straight out of their barrels, enjoying the sun and local cheese in their patio. From Oudeschild we crossed the island back to Den Koog, crossing green fields with happy cows and sheeps grazing. The whole trip, 50 km, wasn't tiring at all (ok maybe we felt our legs a little after the stop at the brewery), and took us less than 8 hours to complete, including two long stops at De Slufter and the brewery, a picnic at the lighthouse, and various short stops for pictures.

The second day we cycled south to reach the vast beaches facing Den Helder. The low tide in the morning (when you can actually walk your way across the canal) means that the beach is so huge that you have to walk for 15 minutes before reaching the sea. We chilled in the sun for a couple of hours and then cycled back to Den Koog, just in time for another delicious Texels beer and to catch the 17:18 bus to Den Helder.

Fun fact: the same bus will actually take you in and out of the island as it actually boards the ferry connecting it to the mainland. Don't make the mistake we did on Friday evening and get off the bus when you board the ferry: the crossing only takes 20 minutes and if you are not back before reaching the dryland, you will be left on foot in the middle of nowhere, as the bus is super quick to desembark and retrieve its route. This happened to us and we would have had to wait for 1 whole hour before the next ferry (and bus) arrived. Luckily, we hitch-hicked our way to the camping thanks to some very nice islanders. People are very friendly on Texel: maybe it's because their main source of income is tourism...or maybe because for the most part of the year the island is cold, grey, and nobody comes to visit...or maybe they are just happy to live in such a special place. Anyway, we only had positive experiences with local people!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Fietsenstalling Jaarbeursplein - the new huge bicycle parking lot in Utrecht

I had already mentioned in a post on Facebook that the city of Utrecht was preparing to launch a new huge parking lot for bicycles. Well, the inauguration took place on Monday May 19th, and yesterday I finally used it for the first time.

The parking lot is located just outside the central station, where I park my bicycle every day, but so far I had not yet tried the new structure because of the good weather ( the parking is underground ) and because I am always late in the morning, and this kind of makes me habitudinary.

Yesterday the rain was pouring down, I was early, and - most of all - the racks where I used to leave my bicycle had been fenced off to prevent access: a great reason to try the new parking lot. The gradual removal of the racks around the station is in my belief an attempt by the municipality to clean up the city by abandoned bicycles - a plague only known to the Netherlands - and renovate existing facilities, to make the parking system more efficient. For weeks, various signs and straps affixed to the bicycles were informing citizens of the date on which the racks would emptied, inviting them to move their bicycle and use the new huge bicycle park (which is called Fietsenstalling Jaarbeursplein, or "bicycle parking lot in Jaarbeurs square" - but Huge Bicycle Park sounds better to me) .

So, how is this new huge bicycle park? Super cool!

Modern, technological and indeed huge - 37 lanes of double-decker racks, arranged over 3 floors, which can accommodate up to 4,200 bicycles. A remarkable figure, but not enough to meet the demand for bicycle racks in the area: in fact, 40% of the 1.2 million travelers who take the train every morning in the Netherlands arrives at the station by bicycle. If you consider that Utrecht has 330,000 inhabitants and is the main railway station in the Netherlands, with commuters leaving their bicycles both ways, I'd say that we are short of at least 25,000 bicycle spots. At least!

Some more information about the parking lot: open 24/7, guarded day and night, equipped with digital displays indicating the number of free spots for each floor and lane. Parking is free for the first 24 hours (which means it's always free for people like me who take their bicycle to work every morning and go back home at the end of the day). If you leave your bicycle parked for more than 24 hours, you will pay a daily rate of € 1.25. One-year subscriptions are available for € 75. Check-in and check-out times are registered with the ubiquitous OV- Chipkaart, the single prepaid card that is used for all means of transport here in the Netherlands. Just like when travelling, you check-in by approaching the card to a sensor at the entrance, and check out in the same way at the exit. The only difference is that in the huge fietsenstalling the check-out is supervised by an employee with a scanner, probably to discourage theft. So, if you have not checked-in, they will notice and you won't be able to take the bicycle away.

The parking lot is a pilot project by the Dutch railways (NS), the municipality of Utrecht and ProRail (the company that maintains the railway network), that together share the costs of the structure and that in 2 years will evaluate its performance and see what's next. The city indeed needs to build more parking lots, as it is planned to have 22,000 new bicycle spots built over the next 5 years.

Below are some photos I took yesterday in the fietsenstalling, and an official video by ProRail introducing the new parking lot (it's in Dutch but if you read the post you already know everything about the place ;)).

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Crazy hot winter!

Nothing suits small talk better than a good ol' weather discussion. But this year the Dutch indeed have a good reason for bringing this subject up: look at the images below!

It is indeed strange to see that Bologna, 1250 km south of Utrecht, has the same temperature we have here. How crazy is that?

I had been warned that January would have been f***ing freezing, and was expecting to have a real bad time when back from my holidays in warm Italy. But honestly, the difference was oh-so-slight!

I know the weather is unusually mild for Italy as well, but look at this: the average temperature in the Netherlands, in January 2013, has been around 3°C!

Quoting from Dutch Amsterdam: According to the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI1), January is the coldest month in most of the Netherlands. (...) Normally the average temperature in January is 5° Celcius (41° Fahrenheit). But the Netherlands just had the warmest January 3rd on record , with 11.9° Celcius (53.42° Fahrenheit). Not only that, but we also just experienced the warmest January 6th on record — 13.1° Celcius (55.58° Fahrenheit). In fact, so far this winter is the sixth warmest ever in the Netherlands (since meteorological record keeping began, in 1901).

I am shamelessly happy in this unusually warm weather. I mean, I know it may be the global warming and everything, but I can't help enjoying the average 10°C, especially when I take my bike in the morning! More so when I think that these days last year it was snowing in Utrecht...

Lots of love and positive vibe to the folks in NY who instead are going through an insanely snowy weather! Hold on guys!

And you? How's the weather in your city? And how are you reacting to it?

Lots of love,

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Welcome 2014!


Welcome to the first post of the year. It's a bit late, but I have been busy lately...yeah, busy eating, drinking and sleeping during my 2-week holiday in Italy! :D

It's been great to be back, be with my love, meet my friends and family, and enjoy the food and polemics frenzy that are typical of us Italians.

Even if we are 6 days into 2014, I thought I would pay tribute to 2013, as it has been a great year. Full of love, travels, new people and places, big decisions, changes, inner growth.

These are 24 of my favourite Instagram moments (if you know me, you know I LOVE Instagram) chronological order, from January to December 2013. Let's see if you can guess where these pictures were taken?