Royal weekend at Palais Het Loo (Het Loo Palace)

The upside of living in Amersfoort which is pretty centrally located in the country is its close proximity to many places worth exploring especially on weekends and throughout the year. Two royal palaces are within easy reach on top of the many castles, parks, zoos and forests as well.

Palais Het Loo

The main fountain


One place that we love visiting especially on a warm and lovely day is Palais Het Loo (Het Loo Palace) in Apeldoorn as it is just a good half hour’s drive from home. We’ve been inside the palace twice so we’re pretty happy to just explore its lovely 17th century garden which is really stunning especially in spring and summer. Patterned after Versailles, this garden and the fountains are just perfect for a family’s outing and even a little picnic.

Almost 2 springtime ago, we were at Palais Het Loo on a warm and sunny Sunday. I couldn’t have asked for a better day as the weather was just perfect and it was amazing to see spring literally exploding all over the place from the fruit trees bursting with flowers, to bees buzzing here and there, to trees finally waking up and getting their green cloak after the winter slumber and to spring flowers just blooming in profusion.

Our little girl had a great time as she found the garden and the huge trees just so much to her liking for playing hide and seek. Later, she found a play buddy in a boy who was about her age.














"Royal" cappuccino



One of the many fountains


Forget me not


Amazed by the fountain...



Playing hide-and-seek behind the big trees...



Colors of spring







Horse-drawn carriage



The royal stable

A peek at glitzy St. Tropez

Who says dreams don’t come true? Growing up, places like St. Tropez, French Riviera, Provence and the South of France came to my consciousness from reading too much Mills & Boon novels. The impressions from those romantic novels never really left me and although I knew then that I’ll never travel to these places in my lifetime, the dream remained alive in my heart.


It’s kind of funny and weird to finally be in places that used to be figments in my imagination. The M&B novels had of course, over-romanticized these places for the reality was far from what I had conceived about in my mind. St. Tropez was over-rated to my assessment. Yes, everyone wants to be seen there but all because of its reputation as the playground of the rich and famous, the jetsetters, fashion models, Hollywood stars and millionaires. The harbor itself was oozing with those uber expensive futuristic-looking yachts that did not blend in with the centuries-old buildings in the backdrop and its streets were choked with expensive sports cars which actually cannot drive any faster than a few kilometers an hour.

Well, it’s one place that we should see at least once in our lifetime if we have the chance…all for the sake of experience. In summer last year, we camped in Roquebrune sur Argens which is part of the municipality of Ste. Maxime. Ste. Maxime is a municipality in the department (province) Var on the French Riviera and is very close to St. Tropez. The road to St. Tropez is a known nightmare especially in summer months and the 16 km drive can take 1-2 hours so we parked our car at Avenue General Leclerc near the port and took the shuttle ferry from St. Maxime to St. Tropez which was a pleasant experience especially on a warm and lovely summer day. The boat trip all but took 15 minutes.

My first impression of St. Tropez was not that all wonderful. It was busy and the shops and cafes especially those along the harbor were real tourist traps.

Am I just too old fashioned that I found distasteful the glitter, glamour and decadence of today’s modern times that did not match with the town’s architecture? One thing though was that St. Tropez was a place to indulge in people-watching especially of those socialites and wannabes who were regulars for botox or facelifts. Trendy shops were all over like Hermes, Prada, etc. and that was expected if the likes of Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Georgio Armani, Elton John, etc. were the regular visitors to the place.

St. Tropez was not really to our liking as we’ve been to far better places where culture and history were still intact. Anyway, we went around and found the fish market more fun to explore. That was an unbelievably amazing but uber expensive fish market with seafoods flown from all over the world to cater to the discriminating palate of St. Tropez visitors.

We got a warning from other Dutch campers we met at the camping site to avoid restaurants close to the harbour for they were real tourist traps. With that in mind, we found a small nice restaurant that was a block away from the usual tourist route. The day’s menu or “plat du jour” was grilled calamares served with rice so we ordered that and half a bottle of wine. The calamares was wonderful! The funny part was that in our whole stay in the South if France, our cheapest lunch was in St. Tropez, the swankiest of places.

We did a bit more of sightseeing after lunch, saw the VIP bar that caters to the rich and famous, and found a merry go round which thrilled our little girl to no end.

After lunch, St. Tropez just became busier and with the mercury rising further, we decided to head back to our camping site. The overpriced shops were really not that fun to explore. Even simple candies from the candy shop were priced 4x more.

We were relieved to finally leave St. Tropez. The place was really nothing special. I prefer the picturesque harbour of Honfleur in Normandy or the Medieval mountaintop village of Bormes les Mimosas. Well, some may disagree with me but this is a personal opinion.


























The charming village of Bormes les Mimosas

It’s another snowless winter day here in Holland so allow me to indulge in my memories of warm and sunny summer days. Let me take you to this lovely village that we stumbled upon on our holiday in the South of France in summer last year.

The medieval village of Bormes les Mimosas


It was my quest for open markets that led us to Bormes les Mimosas. Lonely Planet mentioned that there was an open market there on a Monday but that turned out to be incorrect. On hindsight, that was for the best as the open market would have distracted us from exploring this lovely Medieval village on the mountaintop with a commanding view of the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean. The village is so named after the mimosas that abound in the area. We were there at off- season for mimosas (they bloom profusely in spring and its vanilla-like scent fills the air) but the village was exploding in bloom from bougainvilleas to oleanders, hibiscus, irises and many more. The air was also filled by the lovely scent emanating from the many eucalyptus trees.

We enjoyed exploring the narrow streets, from time to time stepping into the many quaint little shops selling typical Provence items from herbs to soaps, olive oils, wines, hand-woven bags, hand-crafted kitchen utensils, potteries, etc.

This is one place that I’d love to visit again in the future. I prefer this more than the glitzy and ritzy St. Tropez as it is more real and the old world charm is still very much well-preserved. We enjoyed a very nice lunch in a restaurant with an amazing view of the village below. When in France, the food will always be wonderful so we ordered the simple “plat du jour” or the day’s menu.

Maybe Bormes les Mimosas is an open secret for the French. I didn’t know till I was back in Holland that the official presidential summer residence of the French president is at Fort Breganson in Bormes les Mimosas. A few days after we left, I saw these articles on Hello Magazine:

Bumping along nicely: Carla Bruni on holiday






























A visit to Holland’s spring garden in 2010


We’re not even halfway through with winter yet I feel that this season is already going on forever. It is because this is the weirdest winter that I’ve ever had in this country since over a decade — warm, wet and gray. Not a single speck of snow has fallen and there seems to be none in the horizon when I look at the long term weather forecast either.

I’m trying to beat the winter blues by thinking of spring already…though that’s still a good two months away. Spring is the season where I won’t be found complaining. On the contrary, spring is the best time to be in this country. Holland opens the spring season with a bang and like a lady in full bloom, she’s at her prettiest.

One place that I never miss going to is Holland’s world-famous spring garden — Keukenhof. It is a garden that’s one of its kind as it displays the creativity of the best gardeners in the world. A step inside this park and you’ll know what I mean with the way this park is transformed into a spring wonderland.

Every year, the park takes on a theme and oftentimes, royalties and/or heads of states are in attendance to open it for the season. Two years ago, the theme was “From Russia with love” and the park was opened by Crown Princess Maxima and Mrs. Svetlana Medvedeva (wife of the Russian president).

We were lucky with the weather on our visit to the park then. The sun was shining and the sky was blue without a tinge of cloud at all. Our little girl initially enjoyed her foray into the flower garden but later we discovered that she was having chicken pox that’s why she was not her usual bubbly self anymore.

Anyway, here are the pictures I took on that day.
















One market day in Gouda

Open market day in Gouda


Exotic foodstuffs which I found irresistible


Cheese stall

I love markets. Bring me to one and I can spend countless hours there checking stall after stall for whatever goods are for sale. I guess this fascination goes all the way back to my youth when as the eldest in a big family, the task of marketing fell on my lap. I learned to work on a limited budget to get all the stuffs needed for the week and to carefully balance the plans for healthy and tasty meals.

The Weighing House for cheeses


Lovely canal houses


Restaurants at the entrance of the city centre - real tourist trap


One beautiful and sunny spring day almost 3 years ago, I decided to do a bit of local sightseeing on my own. I had some time to spare because I was in between jobs so why not do something that I would normally not have the time for when I am working. I decided to go to Gouda because it is a decent distance from Amersfoort (half an hour’s train ride). I was pleasantly surprised that the day turned out to be the city’s open market day. I literally walked into the Medieval city center which was filled with stalls selling everything…cheeses, fruits, vegetables, exotic foodstuffs, candles, chocolates, clothes, etc. Gouda is of course, known for its cheeses and candles.

Cheeses


There were also nice shops around and I had a great time checking out the lovely souvenir items which were very popular with tourists like those Delft blue ceramics and “stroopwafels” in nice round ceramic containers. It was also close to Easter time so the “pattiseries” or bakeshops were selling chocolate eggs and roosters.

Gouda candles


Delft blue ceramics


Delft blue souvenir items


Easter chocolate eggs


Chocolate roosters


I enjoyed playing tourist on this lovely spring day. The market adventure was fun. I just had to remind myself not to buy so much stuff because it’s just me and my husband who will be eating them. My usual mistake when visiting markets is that I easily yield to temptation of buying too many things. My husband always tells me that my eyes are bigger than my stomach at times when I see all the nice things in the market.

More pictures:

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Thai-inspired minced beef with ginger

Thai-inspired minced beef with ginger


This dish is something I learned from my very good Thai friend Lek. We are friends from way back to our days working for an American chemical company in The Hague over a decade ago. At that time, we were still in the process of integrating into the Dutch way of life food-wise. Because we both love to cook, we struggled with eating the food served at the canteen which were not to our liking. Thus, we started bringing packed lunch of rice and Asian viands to work which we would normally share.

I learned a few dishes from her like the red and green curries as well as this dish. Of course, I also did a bit of tweaking to make this my own, adding chopped coriander and sliced mushroom so that makes them optional add-ons.

This minced beef dish is wonderful especially given the aromatic taste of the ginger which is used quite liberally. One word of caution though: Ensure that the ginger is thinly julienned and fried well (not raw).

Ginger, coriander, garlic, onion, chilies, mushroom


Ground/minced beef


Ingredients:
300 grams minced/ground beef
1.5 inch ginger, thinly julienned
1 onion, roughly chopped
I clove garlic, minced
2 tbsps. cooking oil
Freshly ground pepper
Fish sauce
1/2 tsp. sugar
Chopped coriander (optional)
Mushroom, sliced (optional)

Cooking instructions:
1. Heat up the oil and add the ginger. Fry until slightly brown.

1. Heat up the oil and add the ginger. Fry until slightly brown.


2. Add the onions and garlic and stir until onion is almost translucent.

Add the garlic and onions and stir until onion is almost translucent


3. Add the mushrooms and continue stirring. Add a bit of oil if the mushrooms get a bit dry.

Add mushrooms to the ginger, onions and garlic


4. When mushrooms are slightly brown, add the minced beef and continue stirring until beef is no longer pink. Add the slices of chilies.

Add the ground beef once the mushrooms has slightly browned


When beef is no longer pink, add the chilies


5. Season with fish sauce, sugar and freshly ground pepper.
6. Topped with chopped coriander and serve with boiled rice.

Thai-inspired minced beef with ginger

One of my enchanted moments…a picnic in the park

One enchanted corner in the park


Picnic by the water


Father and daughter - my favorite subject


Our happiness as a family consists of simple enchanted moments of togetherness… a walk in the forest, a picnic in the park, a visit to a nearby castle or simple flower picking and blowing bubbles by the little girl in the neighborhood.

One warm and sunny day in late spring last year, we went for a picnic in nearby Groeneveld Castle. The castle itself was under renovation but its sprawling wooded park has remained open to the public. I love it there in late spring because the park was by then very green and the decades-old rhododendrons of all colors everywhere were in full bloom.

My daughter and me


Simple pleasure like playing with grass


We found a nice spot close to the water and under the shade of tall trees which was just perfect for a picnic. We brought a thermo of hot coffee, sandwiches, cookies, cola and apples. Now, who says fun should be expensive?

My little girl was animated by the amazing setting. My husband and I couldn’t suppress the sudden rush of childhood memories as we watched her doing all the things that we did as kids.

Tree climbing


I can’t wait for the time when the weather will warm up again to go back to this same place and re-trace our steps from last year.

My little girl

One warm spring day in our neighborhood

My little girl and the red poppies


Butterfly


Spring is a wonderful time here in Holland. Towards the end of the season when the daffodils and tulips have bidden their curtain calls, it is the turn of the poppies, dandelions and daisies to take center stage.

The little flower picker


I love it in our neighborhood. We have this long stretch of green area which becomes blanketed by red poppies, yellow dandelions and white daisies beginning late spring and way into the summer. My daughter who loves picking flowers just enjoy the amazing spread in front of her.

Yellow dandelion


Father and daughter


My family


I love photography and in spring that passion is ignited to fever pitch. There are just so many subjects to indulge into…from flowers to insects and most of all, my lovely little girl ;-).

Red poppies


A green insect


Dandelion


Pink blooms

More pictures:

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My version of the crispy fried chicken

To complement the chicken tinola, fried chicken is always a good choice. Expect the hubby and the in-laws to over-eat as simply this combination of dishes is just perfect especially on a chilly and rainy day.

This fried chicken is crispy and so full of flavor. The use of the citroen juice ensures that the flavors penetrate the chicken and not just on the outside as with most fried chicken.

Crispy fried chicken


My version of the fried chicken is easy and simple, the ingredients are few and very basic so that the flavors remain distinct.

Ingredients:
1 kilo chicken thighs, cut in pieces
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6-8 tbsps. fish sauce
Black pepper, finely grounded
Juice from 1 citroen
Cooking oil

Cooking Instructions:
1. Marinate the chicken for an hour or two in the following: fish sauce, lemon juice, finely chopped/pressed garlic, ground pepper.

Chicken pieces marinated in garlic, fish sauce, lemon juice, black pepper


2. Fry the chicken over medium heat until brown and crispy.

Frying the chicken

An improvised version of Filipino Chicken Tinola

Chicken tinola


This tinola dish together with my version of the fried chicken (which is marinated with a lot of finely chopped garlic) is such a big hit with my husband and in-laws. Even my father-in-law who is not that fond of garlic, forgets his usual prejudice on the tasty and crispy fried chicken.

Tinola is a kind of chicken stew that is so common in the Philippines. Over there, the key ingredients apart from the chicken are ginger, unripe papaya and chili leaves.

Cabbage, potatoes, onions, ginger, garlic


My version of the chicken tinola here in Holland is an improvised one because some of the ingredients like the unripe papaya costs an arm and a leg if I get them from the Toko (Asian shops). Oftentimes this papaya also comes half ripe already which is not good and the chili leaves are just difficult to source out (either I plant one myself or use the ornamental chili leaves from the plant shops).

Resourcefulness is OK. Instead of papaya, I substitute that with potatoes and the chili leaves with cabbage and this dish still comes out tasting so delicious so long as the key ingredient which is ginger is not omitted.

Ingredients:
Chicken cut in pieces (I used 3 pieces but feel free to use more)
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, pounded coursely
2-inch ginger, sliced or pounded coursely
Cabbage, 1/2 head cut in big pieces
4 pcs. medium-sized potatoes
2 tbsps. oil
Fish sauce (patis)
Black pepper, finely grounded

Cooking instructions:
1. In a deep saucepan, heat up 2 tbsps oil. Add the ginger and sautee for a minute or until slightly brown. Add the garlic and sautee further until slightly brown. Add the onions and continue sauteeing until translucent.

Saute the ginger in the hot oil till slightly brown


Add the garlic...then the onions


2. Add the chicken and let it fry a bit on the spices for a minute or two. Put the lid of the saucepan on.

Add the chicken pieces


3. Add a bit of the fish sauce to the chicken. Add water until the chicken is covered. Add the potatoes too. Let it boil until the chicken and potatoes are cooked.

Add water and potatoes and simmer until cooked


4. When the chicken and potatoes are cooked, removed the potatoes for a while to avoid it getting overcooked. Add the cabbage and let it simmer for a few minutes. When cabbage is cooked, add back the potatoes. Check the taste and if still a bit bland, add some more fish sauce.
5. Serve with boiled rice. You can also have as another side dish, the crispy fried chicken. (Recipe to follow).

Eet smakelijk!

My memories of a lovely Friesian home

The Friesian home in summer

The Friesian home in summer


Outdoor breakfast on a sunny summer day


Just like in a fairy tale, my parents-in-law once upon a time, lived in my idea of a dream home…a lovely and cozy farm house way up north in the province of Friesland. It was a home like no other for every nook and corner had my mom-in-law’s loving touch. Mementos that filled the house had stories to tell from their times in Tanzania (Africa) and Suriname (South America) to inherited small things from both sides of the family. Simple things that we would normally overlook just blended in the whole set-up to make this almost 200-year old home acquire a character of its own.

The Friesian home in winter


Christmas


The cozy living room


The fireplace


My memory remains vivid of summer barbeques, of cozy drinks by the fireplace on chilly autumn days and of happy Christmas dinners. When I was in that home, all my cares in the world simply vanished as the love and warmth of my loving husband and in-laws reassured me that everything was all right.

It’s almost four years ago since they left that home to move closer to us so that they can enjoy the time with their youngest grandchild. They also realized that in their advancing years, maintaining a home like that was becoming a drain financially and physically. They had almost 30 years of fond memories which will see them through in the coming years in a new place they will call home.

The vegetable garden


Flowers everywhere


It was me and my husband who had difficulties with letting go because our infrequent visits were all filled with amazing memories. Our busy lives in the west kept us away because of the two-hour drive, but our days there were well-spent. In summer, we would spend there a long weekend timed on Dad’s birthday which falls on the sunny month of July. I would normally be busy organizing the barbeque which was always fun to hold in the sprawling garden which burst with blooms that only someone with the magic touch like Mam Sil can do. I enjoyed harvesting produce from the garden…from potatoes to beans, raspberries and strawberries. We cycled a lot too, and thoroughly enjoyed countryside bliss such as the sights of quaint villages and pasture lands.

My husband cherishes his memories of that home with fondness. The space afforded him in his teens the privilege to indulge in his passion for raising rabbits and pigeons.

We now only have pictures and memories engraved in our hearts when we think of those idyllic times way up north. Friesland to those in the western part of the country seems like another country already but it is a lovely province with people who are proud of their distinct heritage. They speak their own language and take pride of everything that’s truly Friesian — Friesian horses, Friesian sugar bread, Friesian cows, etc. And there’s one Friesian who’s hit the international scene lately. Her name is Doutzen Kroes.

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Holiday in the tropics: Why it’s more fun in the Philippines

Our own paradise on earth - El Nido, Palawan


Uninhabited island in El Nido


Island hopping in El Nido


“It’s more fun in the Philippines”, goes the new tourism campaign slogan that’s sweeping my home country which has been going viral in the last couple of days. I’m actually very happy that finally tourism is being given a boost. It’s high time for the Philippines to shine as a must-see country in Asia. Thailand has its “Amazing Thailand” campaign and Malaysia has its “Truly Asia” slogan. The Philippines was left out for a long time in the cold when in fact, she has so much to offer.

I’ve got a long way still way to go with my Loire Valley castles blogs but what the heck…let me blog about the many fun things to experience and see in my beloved Philippines. I’ve seen those gorgeous pictures of must-see places so let me show you this country through the eyes of my Dutch husband who really see the fun part of the Philippines like any tourist would.

The financial district of Makati in the distance


There’s no denying that just like any developing country, the Philippines has high poverty incidence which exists side by side with enormous wealth. Thus, it is normal to see high-end cars alongside rickety buses and cars on the highway, to view shanties in the metropolis with the high rise buildings of the financial district in the backdrop. The drive from the airport to the hotels in the more opulent areas like Makati will mean passing through congested areas with ambulant vendors selling anything from “balut” to household merchandises, beggars asking for small change, flimsy built shops that offer vulcanizing services, cellphone charge loading, etc.

Meeting friends mean eating and more eating


To holiday in the Philippines is a combination of fun, pleasure and discomfort (to those who never experienced brownouts for instance). When meeting family and friends, expect that to be a marathon of eating after eating. Being invited for a snack means finding ourselves guests to huge parties so there are times when the hubby would ask if it is possible to meet my friends just over drinks and no more food ;-)

The hubby and the jeepney


My husband and I are unconventional travelers. We hate organized trips so we always take the off the beaten tract kind of adventures. We’ve traveled by plane, buses, tricycles, jeepneys and motorcyle to reach places that we want to see. I remember a time when we were in Camiguin and we wanted to see a waterfall. We were told that the way to go there was either to hike for 5 kilometers or go by motorcycle. To our surprise, there were 7 of us in that motorcycle.

Hidden Valley, a tropical rain forest resort in Laguna which is south of Manila


Hidden Valley Resort


We were last on holiday in the Philippines way back in 2006. It was for 2.5 weeks with half of the time visiting family and friends. We stayed a few days in Manila, then off to Lucena City where I used to be assigned as a bank officer to meet up with friends and former colleagues, then to Bicol to see my family and then off to El Nido, Palawan (that place which we would never miss for the world).

Riding a carabao


Driving a jeepney


Meeting friends in Lucena was fun. My husband was able to satisfy his wishes of riding a carabao and a scruffy horse and then driving a jeepney. He thought it was so easy to ride a carabao as he see very young boys on top of carabaos but realized that some things were easier thought of than done. Then it was off to driving a jeepney which he thought was also a very cool thing to do but realized that it was not built for his size and comfort. He struggled with the drive because the jeepney did not have even the standard direction indicator, the steering was tough and he could barely see what was in front of him because his sheer height means that his eye level was far higher than the small Filipino driver behind the wheel.

Island hopping to uninhabited islands


Having this place all to ourselves, what more can we ask for?


Grilling tuna for lunch


Freshly grilled tuna, island-style


Fun with children who serenaded us with lovely local songs


Our holiday was capped by a trip to El Nido, Palawan, the place where our love story started way back in 1996. We were then both backpackers who met on the beach with that excellent view of limestone mountains. We remained true to that memory of our first meeting, backpacking again and stayed in a simple cottage by the beach. We enjoyed our glorious days in this island paradise, island hopping every day and having picnic on the beach. We saw the guests of the exclusive resorts in El Nido also visiting the uninhabited islands where we were — they were ferried by speed boats and the resort staff would set up table for them with the finest table cloth and the finest china and were served posh meals. We, on the other hand, far enjoyed our meals of barbeque and grilled tuna with the boatmen with us.

Transporting a pig, Palawan-style


We felt so sorry to leave the island as during our stay, we developed an excellent rapport with the people we met there. Some evenings we were serenaded by the children who were just so happy to regale us with their stories. My husband cannot think of any best place to be for holidays. The best holidays are those filled with happy memories, with inconvenient experiences that stick to memory long after the holiday like our stay at a pension house in Taytay where we stayed awake the whole night because the bed was just filled with bed bugs.

Market scene that we really love


We saw and experienced a lot of things that we will forever cherish. Most of all, what makes the holiday more fun in the Philippines is the friendliness of people we met everywhere.

More pictures here:

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My city (Amersfoort) in early spring

Crocuses everywhere


Crocuses in various colors


Enjoying the sun


The city gate


There is nothing more exciting than the coming of spring that I look forward to every year. The long drag of winter especially after the snow or ice is gone simply gets too much that everyone here can hardly wait for the herald of the new season. Spring to me starts when the crocuses wake up from their slumber, sprouting through the ground and blanketing open spaces in yellows, whites, purples and lilacs. The Dutch with their passion for flowers and organization, ensures that spring follows a synchronized order with the daffodils following the crocuses in the blooming game. Tulips cap the spring beauty pageant.

My little girl wasn't able to resist the flowers


My advice to would be visitors to Holland is to come in spring. This country is simply awesome and experiencing this season here is the dream of a lifetime come true. Everywhere is abloom and going out is just a pleasure. If you are a photography enthusiast, you’ll never run out of subjects.

Running around enjoying spring


One early springtime almost 2 years ago, we went to the city center for a little stroll. Although temperature-wise it was still very chilly, the sun was shining and the sky was blue…just the perfect spring day for a little stroll. We had a great time just sitting on the bench enjoying the sun rays and admiring the beauty around us. And like any typical Dutch, we brought our lunch with us which we ate at the city square.

Centuries-old buildings


Centuries-old buildings in the city centre


Lunch at the city square


One of the city canals

We live in Amersfoort, a municipality and the second largest city in the province of Utrecht. It is a city with a long history having celebrated its 750th birthday in 2009. This city is known too by a few names such as the “City with a heart” and “Boulder City”. The former is attributed to the heart-shape formation of the city centre which is visible from the air.

Old map of Amersfoort (taken from Wikipedia)

Amersfoort is not part of the usual tourist route but below is a list of places to see when in the city:

1. The Tower of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwentoren) – one of the tallest medieval church towers in the Netherlands at 98 meters. The construction of the tower was started in 1444. The church was destroyed by an explosion in 1787, but the tower survived.

The Tower of Our Lady (summer picture)

2. The inner city of Amersfoort has been preserved well since the Middle Ages. Apart from the Onze Lieve Vrouwentoren, the Koppelpoort and the Muurhuizen (Wall Houses), there is also the Sint Joris Church, the canal system with its bridges as well as medieval and other old buildings, many designed as national monuments.

A canal close to the home of Piet Mondriaan

If you want to see more of the Netherlands and want to get away from touristy Amsterdam, hop into an intercity train to Amersfoort. The train ride takes just a good half an hour and you are already in this lovely city. It is also very much possible to make a side trip to Spakenburg to see those women in traditional costume (see my earlier blog about them). That is just a bus ride away from the train station.

More pictures of Amersfoort:

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A moment with the “stroopwafel” man

The "stroopwafels" in packs of 10 pieces


Waffles and caramel filling


It was love at first bite when way back in 1996 I encountered “stroopwafels”, that sweet and crunchy caramel waffles that is so typical here. I remember hoarding them for “pasalubong” or presents to family, colleagues and friends in the Philippines. The recipients, just like me, all fell in love with it as well…at first bite.

Every time I go back home to the Philippines, I usually would bring these caramel waffles together with the Bastogne cookies. Both are addictive I can tell you. They are preferred presents than chocolates because the latter can be bought there anyway.

The "stroopwafel man"


When we went to Albert Heijn supermarket last Saturday, I saw this “stroopwafel man” at the entrance. He had pieces of the waffles for customers to sample to I was tempted to have a little piece but resisted the idea of buying a pack of 10. I’m sure that I won’t be able to resist eating them all so better not as I am trying to stay away from sweets this new year after indulging so much last Christmas season.

Instead, I asked him if I can take some shots while he was making the waffles. He was actually happy to show the whole process and I can take pictures. He regaled me with stories of the good old days when this waffles making was really a real art and tradition. These days, the production is mechanized which is more cost efficient because of economies of scale used and fast. Indeed, we can just buy the waffles inside the supermarket at a much cheaper price.

What is he then doing at this supermarket? He is employed by the supermarket to make these waffles as a come on to shoppers and to provide that “gezelligheid” or coziness that is so typical Dutch. The aim is to still keep this old craft fresh and vivid in the consciousness of everyone in this day and age when mechanism has in most cases, overtaken so many of the manual aspect of work.

I asked him if he also made the dough and the caramel by himself. I was actually curious and interested to get the recipe and may attempt to make them myself. To my surprise, he told me that the ingredients (dough and caramel) are also produced in bulk by the waffles company near Gouda. Thus, nothing is homemade anymore about these waffles.

Rolled dough is cut in pieces of circa 1-inch length


Cut pieces of waffle dough about to be pressed and baked in the waffle iron


Hot waffle fresh from the waffle iron is cut in half


...then slathered with caramel


Cooling the "stroopwafels"

In the footsteps of French Kings and Leonardo da Vinci

The chateau from across the Loire River


You may after sometime have an overdose of my castle madness but this is just the second castle in my Loire Valley adventure. At some point, the hubby told me that if he never ever see a castle in his life again, he can live with that. He has seen enough…. Not me!

Hubby and me at the chateau's ground


at the chateau


From the chateau with view of the Loire River

My royal fascination continues. From Chenonceau Castle, we drove to Amboise which was about 15 kilometers away. The 15th century Royale Chateau of Amboise belonged to Louise d’Amboise who was convicted of plotting agains Louis XI and condemned to be executed in 1431. He was pardoned by the king but his chateau was confiscated. The chateau became a favorite of French Kings from Charles VIII, Louis XII, Francis I to Henry II. It would, however, figured infamously in the Tumult of Amboise, the failed attempt by the Huguenots in 1560 to gain power of France by abducting the young king, Francis II and arresting Francis, Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine. This event would lead to the Wars of Religion that divided France from 1562 to 1598.

The Huguenots led by La Renaudie attempted to storm the chateau. When he was caught, he was drawn and quartered and his flesh displayed at the gates of the town. In the presence of the King and Queen, La Renaudie’s followers (between 1,200 and 1,500) were also killed and their corpses hung on iron hooks on the facade of the chateau and from nearby trees. Others were drowned in the Loire or exposed to the fury of the townspeople of Amboise.

Castles are not that all glitter and glamor, huh!

What is then the connection of this chateau to Leonardo da Vinci?

King Francis I who was known as “The Builder” was raised at Amboise and during the first few years of his reign, the chateau reached the pinnacle of its glory. Leonardo da Vinci as his guest came to the chateau in December 1515 and lived and worked in the nearby Clos Luce which is connected to the chateau by an underground passage. Leonardo is buried in the Chapel of Saint Hubert on the castle’s ground.

Resting place of Leonardo da Vinci


The chateau is built on a promontory overlooking the Loire River. On the other side, we got to peer down at the lovely town of Amboise. Too bad that we didn’t have sufficient time to linger and explore the old town which is reputed to be loveliest town in the Loire. That’s what castle madness and greed did to me on this holiday — I wanted to see as many castles as possible that I set aside the chance to savor every moment and absorb the beauty that was around me. Next time, I’ll devote a longer time here, explore the town and have dinner in one of the fancy restaurants…someday.

View of the town of Amboise from the chateau


Picture-taking was not allowed inside the chateau so I don’t have indoor shots. It was nice to explore the chateau’s garden. I was so impressed by the centuries-old cedars of Lebanon with the huge scented pine cones. Those cones would have made fantastic home decorations for my mom-in-law.

Huge cones from the centuries-old cedar of Lebanon trees on the castle ground

Hubby with the chateau and the centuries-old cedar of Lebanon

Me and the cedar of Lebanon with the chateau in the background

The women of Spakenburg are keeping the traditions alive

Our picture with one of the women of Spakenburg


Two Spakenburg women having a chat at the market


Unbeknownst to many, there are still places in Holland where age old traditions are alive and well and where practices from centuries ago are thriving well into the 21st century.

Holland, a small country here in western Europe, looms big in the global arena when it comes to liberal approaches to many issues which are still taboo in many countries such as abortion, same sex marriage, soft drugs, prostitution and euthanasia. Against this backdrop, I’m sure that it will come as a huge surprise if not shock to many that there are still very conservative and ultra-religious communities here where the practices, traditions and way of life observed are from many centuries ago.

A Spakenburg woman on her bike

I am lucky to live close by to one such place. Within cycling distance from my home is the fishing village of Spakenburg and this place is pretty unique because the women there live up to their age old traditions. They go about their daily lives in traditional clothes. There are other aspects of life in Spakenburg which are still too traditional as well such as strict observance of Sunday as the day of the Lord. The people of Spakenburg go to church twice and on special religious holidays, even three times. All establishments are closed on Sundays, even the ice cream bar or cafes. And local football games which in typical villages are held on Sundays are held on Saturdays out there.

I love going to Spakenburg on a Saturday when there is an open market because I would normally see these women doing their groceries or cycling to the market. There is also a museum that can be visited that explains their culture and traditions. To know more about this museum, here is the link: http://www.museumspakenburg.nl/

Other useful links are the following:
http://www.dd-spakenburg.nl/
To go there by public transport, you can check the schedules of the trains and buses through this link: www.9292ov.nl

When I visited the museum some five years ago with other Filipino friends, that was the time when I really learned more about their way of life, about their traditions, about their clothing which was quite a revelation because they would for instance, have a new set of clothes for the entire family when a family member dies. They also observe a very strict mourning period and everything in the house would be painted in black.

The women of Spakenburg are resilient and strong, known for their dedication to family and for keeping their houses extremely tidy. In the old days when the men went to the sea, chances are that they may never return. It is for that reason that these women had to be strong for their families.

I would definitely recommend a visit to Spakenburg if ever you find yourself in Holland. In summer, there are plenty of cultural activities out there to see. The village is very pleasant to visit. I love the harbor with the view of the docked traditional Spakenburg wooden boats. There is also a windmill that can be visited daily except on Sundays.

From Amsterdam, you can take the train to Amersfoort and there is a regular bus connection that will take you to Spakenburg.

Here are more pictures from our usual visit to the village.

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Creamy potato, leeks and carrot soup

Potato, leeks and carrots soup

For yesterday’s dinner, I have to raid the fridge because I didn’t want to bravely confront the storm on my bike. The fridge revealed the following: potatoes, leeks and carrots (leftover from the bag of carrots I used for the carrot cake I made for the hubby on his birthday). I happened to still have one chicken breast as well and there was still creme fraiche.

Potatoes, leeks and carrots


Chicken breast and garlic


Why not make a creamy soup from these ingredients which would be perfect for dinner on a cold and stormy winter day.

So here is how I went about with my creamy soup…

Ingredients:
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 pieces medium sized potatoes, cubed
1 piece leeks, sliced to about 1/2 cm. thickness
1 piece carrots, roughly chopped
1 piece chicken breast, cut in few big chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 cups water
Creme fraiche (optional)

Instructions:
1. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat up the olive oil and add the chicken breast to fry for about 2 minutes. Then add the garlic and leeks and stir constantly until a bit cooked for about 1 minute.

Sauteeing the leeks, garlic and chicken


2. Add the potatoes and carrots and continue stirring for another 2 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Adding the potatoes and carrots


3. Add the water and at high heat, bring to a boil. Lower the heat to low and continue boiling for 1.5 hours.

Water added to the sauteed vegetables and chicken and will boil slowly for 1.5 hours


4. Remove the chicken chunks and with a food processor or blender, you can puree the potatoes and carrots. Add back the chicken and serve with creme fraiche.

Soup went nicely with the sliced of freshly baked bread slathered with creamy butter.

As we say in Dutch, “Eet smakelijk”!

Baking my own bread

We’re having a very stormy weather today. Just the kind of weather for staying inside the house curled up on the sofa and watching something on TV. I’m glad that today happened to be my day off to look after my little girl so I didn’t need to brave the rain and wind in going to Amsterdam.

I also have to raid the pantry and the fridge to come up with something for dinner. No, I’m not going to dare to go to the supermarket with Francesca on the bike to pick up the groceries. Today is one of those days where I need to be resourceful and inventive.

I always have a lot of stuffs in the store room which at times I completely forget to use and would need to eventually throw away because they are already past their expiry dates. Thus, today is an opportune time to check what I still have.

There is nothing more satisfying than to be able to bake one’s own bread. Baking bread is not my line as I grew up with special fondness for rice. However, I want to try this bread baking avenue this year. Last year, my challenge was on baking cakes and cookies which I have now successfully conquered.

I’ve so far tried two other bread types: the Irish soda bread which is actually very easy and does not require kneading and yeast and the no knead bread that I stumbled upon from Steamy Kitchen but that required a long wait.

The ingredients of bread are simple (flour, salt, yeast, water and sugar) but it is the trick on how to make all these simple ingredients come together especially the working of the yeast that will make or break a good bread so to speak.

I happened to have all the ingredients on hand so I decided that today, I’ll give bread baking a try. I searched the web for the simple bread recipe and Jamie Oliver’s version popped up. Since I have nothing but good experience when I tried his slow roasted pork shoulder, I opted to try his recipe.

Simple wholegrain bread


Here’s the link to the recipe: http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/bread-recipes/basic-bread-recipe

His recipe though did not show the time and temperature needed so I have to guess from the thread of discussions in this link. I decided to have the temperature at 204 degrees Celsius (400 degrees Fahrenheit) as suggested by one of the comments and initially set the time for 20 minutes. I was a bit hesitant that maybe the inside of the bread is not yet baked so I added an extra 10 minutes to the baking time.

Hmmmm…bread just smells great and I can’t wait to have it with the potato, leeks and carrot soup which I also came up with from the raid of the fridge.

And don’t forget that creamy butter to slather the bread, yum!

Whole wheat flour


Kneading process


Setting the dough aside to rise


The dough has risen twice its size after 30 minutes


Ready for baking


My bread


Cooling the bread

Exploring Chenonceau, the castle of the ladies

Behind the beauty of this castle in such a splendid setting lies the story of a king, his long-suffering wife and his favored mistress which would make a perfect basis for a soap opera in today’s time and age.

Chenonceau Castle


Chenonceau Castle is known as the “Chateau of the Ladies” in obvious reference to Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II and Diane de Poitiers, his favorite mistress. The king who was so attached to this woman who was 20 years his senior, showered her with gifts from jewelries to properties and the most known of course was Chenonceau, the castle she so coveted. Built in 1513 by Katherine Briconnet, Diane lavishly had the castle embellished and had the arched bridge constructed, joining the chateau to its opposite bank. She then oversaw the planting of extensive flower and vegetable gardens along with a variety of fruit trees. Set along the banks of the river, but buttressed from flooding by stone terraces, the exquisite gardens were laid out in four triangles.

The garden of Diane de Poitiers


Diane de Poitiers was the unquestioned mistress of the castle , but ownership remained with the crown until 1555, when years of delicate legal maneuvers finally yielded possession to her. King Henry II would die in a jousting accident in 1559 and his strong-willed widow and regent Catherine de Medici had Diane expelled. It was her time to exact revenge on the woman who had the king’s affection for which she could never be first place despite bearing him 10 children. Because the estate no longer belonged to the crown, she could not seize it outright but forced Diane to exchange it for the Chateau Chaumont. Catherine de Medici then made Chenonceau her own favorite residence, adding a new series of gardens.

View of the chateau from Catherine's garden


Of all the castles which I’ve visited in the Loire Valley which I can say is the castle mecca in the world (castles were at a close distance of few kilometers from each other), Chenonceau was my favorite. The 2 gardens were simply astounding, competing with each other just like the two ladies who vied for the affection of the king.

We explored the gardens and the castle’s interior. I was pretty curious of Diane’s bedroom, thinking of her and the king ;-) We also saw Catherine’s bedroom but she was already a lonely widow when she went to live in this castle.

Diane de Poitiers' bedroom


At Catherine de Medici's bedroom

I was curious as well of the arched bridge spanning the river Cher. Catherine de Medici actually had a magnificent ballroom gallery built upon the bridge of Diane de Poitiers. It is 60 meters long, 6 meters wide, lit by 18 windows, with a sandy chalk tiled and slate floor and exposed joist ceiling.

We also went to see the kitchen which I found very interesting. I loved those copper pots and pans and I can’t help but imagine how food must have been prepared in those days.

We had lunch at the castle’s restaurant L’Orangerie which had amazing haute cuisine. Too bad that I couldn’t do wine tasting in their cellar because of my condition. I’d love to someday come back again and camp in the same camping site along the banks of river Cher which is a tributary of the Loire River.

Summer is a great time to be there. The gardens are just at their gorgeous best and on weekends, there is a music festival at the chateau which we could listen to from the comforts of our tent.

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New Year’s day surprise at Hernen Castle

After all the indulgences of the past week, we just felt that today, a walk is warranted. Time to shake off the extra pounds from all those rich dishes that we feasted on.

We were feeling a bit sad after breakfast when hubby’s parents bade their goodbyes because little daughter was so distraught so see her Opa and Oma gone. They came yesterday for hubby’s birthday and for the first time, we welcomed the new year together. In the past years, they normally came for their son’s birthday but never stayed for the changing of the year. They used to have a dog which was scared of the fireworks so they stayed at home before those big bangs start.

I quickly checked the internet site for Dutch castles, www.kastelen.nl for some guidance and found this one in Hernen whose plus point is that in case the castle is closed, we can have a good walk because there are suggested hiking routes. It’s new year which is considered a holiday so normal establishments are closed for business.

While we were driving to Hernen, the rain started to pour. It did not help that on the radio the weather forecast was suddenly announced — rain to continue for the rest of the day. I started to rue the decision to visit a castle and do some walking. With bad weather it seemed like a waste of time and petrol as this castle was a good 52 minutes drive according to the car’s navigation system. We could have just stayed at home.

I love castles and on Sundays when we would normally go for a walk, I love doing that against this backdrop. Castles to me are repositories of history from where I get a glimpse of how life was some few hundred years back. We have several castles nearby but I love exploring new ones. This one in Hernen seemed to be a nice one from the pictures, Medieval and well-preserved.

We arrived in Hernen at around 2:30pm and because the weather was gloomy, it seemed even far later than that. Daylight here in winter is short and when the sky is overcast, it seemed even shorter than usual. We parked the car and headed to the castle, assuming already that it must be closed. To our amazement though, the main entrance was open. When we entered the main door, we were led into a small courtyard and suddenly, the castle’s door opened and this old lady at the castle told us that there is a special show for children which is about to start shortly and we are very much welcome to come in.

What a wonderful surprise! She led us into the library where seats were assembled for the children and parents. In front was a makeshift stage and there was the lady performer with her props of guitar, accordion, flute, drum and hats. She started the performance shortly after we came in. She narrated a story of a brother and sister who were always fighting and very difficult and how they were sent away by their parents for misbehaving. The performance involved a lot of singing, role-playing, dancing, and the use of the musical instruments. Little daughter was mesmerized.

The show was amazing! The lady was really engaging and the children enjoyed the very interactive performance. Little daughter lost her inhibition and at one time, even volunteered to play the flute.

The show lasted for an hour and afterwards, we were even treated to free coffee, juices and cookies. What a great way to spend a Sunday and we didn’t even have to spend a cent!

We did a bit of walk after we left the castle. The ground was quite muddy though but it was nice to just have a breath of fresh air and to feel the raindrops on our faces.

How about you? How was your first day of the year?

For more information on this castle, here are some of the links I found on the web:

http://www.castles.nl/hern/hern.html

http://www.mooigelderland.nl/index.php?pageID=3281&n=&categoryID=1895

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How to make peanut brittle

I have actually forgotten about this sweet until my mom-in-law made a special request last Christmas as this is her favorite and she haven’t had it in years. I’ve been busy trying out new recipes of cookies, cakes, cupcakes, muffins and other sweets that I’ve already forgotten about my old repertoire of sweets.

In the Philippines, I remember buying it in Baguio City at the Good Shepherds’ Convent. They come in plastic jars and are best sellers together with the strawberry and ube (a type of purple yam) jams.

Because Baguio City is a long drive up northern Philippines, getting this peanut brittle is almost next to impossible. Being adventurous in the kitchen, I decided to make it myself. I forgot already how or where I got the recipe but I never forgot how.

The recipe is simple and requires very basic ingredients such as the following:

1 cup peanuts, roasted and roughly chopped
1 cup granulated white sugar
1/4 cup water
pinch of baking powder

You will also need a rolling pin and baking paper, greased or buttered. I use the baking spray as that is easier.

Cooking instructions:
1. Make the caramel. Place the sugar and water in a thick bottomed pan. Turn the heat to high and bring the water and sugar to the boil without stirring. Then lower the heat to medium-high and continue boiling. After about 8 minutes, the mixture will start to brown. Continue boiling until the liquid is the color of amber.
2. When the caramel has turned amber, add the baking powder and then the peanuts. Stir until all the peanuts are evenly coated with the caramel.
3. Pour into the greased baking paper and using the rolling pin, roll until evenly spread to about 1/4 cm. thickness. While still hot, cut into squares using a sharp knife.

I chose the hard way roasting the peanuts myself


Coarsely grinding the peanuts (you can also use roasted or fried peanuts and chop it roughly)


Roughly grounded peanuts


Boiling the sugar and water


After a while the sugar/water mixture starts to change color


When the caramel has turned into amber, add the pinch of baking powder


Add the chopped/grounded peanuts to the caramel and stir until evenly mixed


Peanut/caramel mix poured into greased baking paper and flattened using the rolling pin


Crunchy peanut brittle

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