Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Amsterdam ArenA Stadium Tour

As I was staying at a nearby hotel and being a huge football fan I couldn’t resist signing up for a guided tour of the Johan Cruyff Arena, the largest stadium in the Netherlands and home of famed Dutch professional football club AFC Ajax.

The stadium was previously known as the Amsterdam Arena (stylised as Amsterdam ArenA) until the current 2018–19 football season when it was officially renamed in honour of legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff after his March 2016 passing. Cruyff (spelled Cruijff in Dutch) is widely considered to be among the sports greatest players winning the Ballon D’or as top player three times and helping Ajax (pronounced Eye-yacks) capture the European Champions League title four times. A proponent of what came to be called ‘total football’ Cruyff moved to FC Barcelona, managing after his playing career ended and helping to build a struggling Spanish club into one of the elite teams on the planet.

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Opened in 1996 after a three-year construction project the 55,000 seat stadium offers guided 75-minute tours daily throughout the year except for match days and concert events.  The tours include a visit to the pitch level, dressing room visit except when in use as they were during  my visit, press box high in the stands, media center where pre & post match interviews are held and the Ajax ‘Gallery of Fame’ trophy room. Tours may be confirmed online in advance for EUR 15/CAD $22 but as I was visiting in low season with tours less likely to sell-out I paid at the stadium ticket office and used a Smartsave discount coupon to save 20%.


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Football is war as our tour guide pointed out that the Mercedes seats in red & white Ajax colours the home team rest on are heated while the all-red seats reserved for the visiting team aren’t. Heated seats during cold Winter matches is one edge the home team enjoys and may make a difference between winning & losing.

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The tour includes a visit to ‘the tunnel’ which is where both teams line-up after existing their respective dressing rooms and wait to head up to the pitch to the cheers of thousands of rabid football fans.


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The press room holds the footballing media who grill team coaches and players about the match. and tour participants were invited to sit in the hot seat for photos.

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Near the end of the tour a visit is made to the Ajax ‘Gallery of Fame‘ which hold the 118-year-old football club’s impressive array of trophies and cups including its four European Champions League Cups. Ajax is only one of a trio of clubs along with Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to have won the title four times.

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While my schedule didn’t synchronize with Ajax to attend a match at the Johan Cruyff Arena taking the tour is the next best thing so would highly recommend it to football fans visiting Amsterdam.

Say Cheese, Say Alkmaar

In researching day trips from Amsterdam I considered a few national treasures such as Zaanse Schans for its cluster of windmills and the historic city of Haarlem but decided to take in the centuries old Alkmaar cheese market as it both fit into my schedule and my love of cheese.

One of only a few remaining traditional Dutch Cheese markets, Alkmaar had cheese scales as early as 1365 and began their cheese market on the town square or Waagplein in 1593 . It’s not actually possible to buy cheese at the market itself as it’s a demonstration of how this merchants’ market operated in times gone by however, the demonstration, which takes place in front of the medieval weighing house, is surrounded by many specialized stalls where it is possible to buy all kinds of cheese (and non-cheese) related products.

The walk from Alkmaar Station to the Waagplein is a short 10-minute stroll with sidewalk plaques whetting the appetite for cheese.

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The Waagplein or ‘weighing square’ has been extended several times in the course of two centuries and was enlarged no fewer than eight times before it reached its current dimensions, a very visible reminder of the importance of cheese trade for the city.

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As soon as the market opens, the samplers and traders in their white coats go to work inspecting the cheese which is more involved than checking its exterior. Cheese is knocked on and a special cheese scoop used to obtain a piece, which is then crumbled between the fingers and smelled. And, naturally, it is tasted to assess the relation between taste, and the percentages of fat and moisture. After the cheese has been cut, the number of holes – also known as eyes – are inspected. The holes in cheese are caused by non-harmful lactic acid bacteria during the maturing of the cheese. A perfect cheese has eyes that are evenly spread throughout. A cheese without eyes, known as a blind cheese, is considered to be of inferior quality.


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The wheels of Beemster cheese are transported around the square on wooden racks or barrows which are lifted by a string and leather shoulder harness. Each barrow holds 8 Gouda cheeses of of which weight 12 – 13 kilos. Carrying a heavy barrow (25 kilos) weighing about 130 kilos is not easy so the carriers walk with a special “cheese carriers’dribble”, a particular walking rhythm to make it easier.  The colour of the barrow and carrier hats indicates it’s one of four forwarding companies.


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Once carried to the Waagebouw the cheese is weighed and prices negotiated.

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The Waag building is a Dutch national monument that began its public life in the 14th century as a chapel before being converted to a weighing house in 1583, a role it retains to this day.

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Alkmaar’s tourist office is located in the building and can help with recommended walking tour routes. There’s an excellent Alkmaar city map here.

There are other cheese markets in Hoorn, Edam, Gouda, and Woerden however the Alkmaar Cheese Market is oldest, largest and most famous cheese market in the Netherlands so is well worth a visit.

There are Alkmaar sights to see beyond the cheese market including the De Boom National Beer Museum which is a few short blocks away from the Waagplein. This unique museum is appropriately housed in a former brewery and shows visitors the tools, equipment and machines used in brewing over the past two centuries.

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In the cellar is the Proeflokaal de Boom, or tasting room, where stellar Dutch beer may be sampled in a cozy pub atmosphere. I opted to try the Weizen wheat beer brewed in Wijlre since 1340 by Brand, the Netherlands oldest brewery which is now owned by Dutch global brewing giant Heineken.

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Between the cheese market square and the rail station is the Grote Kerk,a 15th century Protestant church dedicated to Saint Lawrence but now not used for secular services. Maintained as a city landmark a highlight is the soaring organ installed in 1645 and is considered one of the most important and beautiful organs in the world.

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As everyone cycles in the Netherlands even a smaller city of 100,000 like Alkmaar has a two-tiered bicycle parkade adjacent to the main railway station.

 

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Alkmaar is an easy and direct 35-minute train ride from Amsterdam Centraal Station with day return tickets costing EUR15.20 when  bought at station kiosks. The Alkmaar Cheese Market is held every Friday morning 10 AM – 1 PM and every Tuesday evening from the first Friday in April until the last Friday in September.

Unsung Utrecht; Ancient City, Modern Soul

Like a college student living in historic housing,  Utrecht is a city steeped in Dutch history that lives in a very modern world, moving with the times rather than having been left behind in a glorious yesteryear.

Utrecht’s modern side manifests itself for most travelers arriving by rail at the glass and steel wrapped Utrecht Centraal Station, the largest and busiest railway station in the Netherlands with some 175,000 passengers passing through its sixteen platforms daily.  Adjacent to the station is the Hoog Catharijne, an upscale, two-floor shopping center with 150 shops, boutiques and restaurants that sprawls over a 6-block area of the city center.

Station Utrecht Centraal by Raymond Snijders CC BY SA 2.0

A short walk away however is the ancient side of Utrecht, a fortress town founded by the Romans in A.D. 47 which became an outpost of Christianity with the seat of a bishop in the 8th century. This religious importance was enhanced and expanded in the Middle Ages through the founding of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century and as a city of churches Utrecht is home to more restored medieval religious structures than any other city in Europe.

The symbol of the city and the tallest church tower in the Netherlands is the Gothic Dom Toren or Dom Tower which at 112 meters high makes for a useful landmark in the historic city center.

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Completed in 1382 the tower was part of the St. Martin’s Cathedral until the nave collapsed in a 1674 storm and as it was never rebuilt the tower has been free-standing every since.

Regular guided tours of the tower can be reserved in advance online or in person at the Utrecht Tourism office on the square at the base of Dom Tower. The 465 steps to the outdoor observation level are mercifully taken in stages to allow visitors to catch their breath in memorable medieval surrounding as in this chapel.

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About halfway up the tower tour participants walk through a gallery of hanging bells, some of which were cast in 1505 and weigh 32,000 kilograms. These bells can still be heard on Sundays, religious holidays and special occasions.

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At 80 metres up is the Dom Tower’s carillon dating from 1664 and made up of 50 bells which can be played manually or by a mechanical means. These majestic bells play a melody every fifteen minutes that can be heard all through the city center and our tour group was at the right place at the right time to enjoy a front-row performance.


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The Dom Tower bells have been known to honour popular modern musicians upon their passing which in recent years included Prince, David Bowie, electronic artist and DJ Avicii and Aretha Franklin.

Emerging onto the viewing gallery at 95 meters visitors are given an excellent vantage point over historic Utrecht although the view is in places partially obscured by scaffolding that’s been erected as part of a four-year restoration and maintenance project to the tower’s exterior. On a clear day the edge of Amsterdam 42 KM to the northeast is visible on the horizon.

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Utrecht’s historic heart is home to a number of canals, the most famous of which is the   Oudegracht (Old Canal) which winds its way from south to north in a 2 KM course.

Tower of the Cathedral ( Domtoren ) seen from the Oudegracht by Michielverbeek  CC BY SA 4.0

Utrecht University is the Netherlands largest university and lends this city a youthful outlook with a huge variety of cultural events, second only behind Amsterdam in the most events in the Netherlands.

I thoroughly enjoyed my short visit to Utrecht as it’s a compact, walkable city   cloaked in history but with a very modern heartbeat that combine to give the city its unique appeal.

A walk through Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter

In past visits to Amsterdam I’ve taken in the Anne Frank House which is a must for anyone visiting the Dutch capital but as tickets to the museum need to be booked months in advance due to very high demand this trip I decided to spend the day instead in the Jodenbuurt which is Dutch for “Jewish Neighborhood” to see a section of the city I hadn’t explored in-depth before.

The area around Waterlooplein , also known as the Plantage district, became the center of Jewish Amsterdam in the l6th and 17th century having received an influx of Sephardic Jews fleeing religious persecution in the Spanish Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Known for its religious tolerance Amsterdam’s Jewish community swelled over the centuries to around 80,000 by World War II however only an estimated 20% survived the Holocaust. Today, the city has a small Jewish community of around 15.000 which has helped preserve, maintain and create a number of important monuments and memorials that are well worth visiting.

After exiting the Waterlooplein Metro station I began my journey at the nearby National Holocaust Memorial Hollandsche Schouwburg which began it’s public life in 1892 as a Dutch theatre before being designated as a Jewish theatre by the occupying Nazi’s in World War II who used it as a prison and deportation center for Dutch Jews being sent to concentration camps.

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In the memorial hall 6,700 surnames pay tribute to the 107,000 Dutch Jews whom the Nazi’s deported never to return with an estimated 80,000 having passed through the theatre.

The ruins in the rear of the building have been made into a memorial and is a somber place brightened a bit on each side by tulips, the national symbol of the Netherlands, which carry wishes for a better future from visiting schoolchildren.

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Access to the memorial is open to the public without charge daily except for Jewish holidays.

Across the street is the National Holocaust Museum which opened its doors in May 2016  however development is ongoing over the next few years. ‘Phase 1’ of the museum up to 2018 will see part of the ground floor of the building being used for presentations, exhibitions, lectures and films. The story of the Holocaust will be told by temporary exhibitions in an artistic format and using personal historical accounts.

Nearby tucked away in a corner of Wertheim Park is the Auschwitz Monument which consists of 6 broken glass mirrors on top of urns with the of ashes of Holocaust victims who perished in Auschwitz. This monument, entitled ‘Nooit meer Auschwitz’ (Auschwitz never again) by Jan Wolkers, was unveiled in 1977 but moved to its present location in 1993.

‘Auschwitz monument’ by FaceMePLS used  with CC By 2.0 

The park, the oldest in Amsterdam, is named for 19th century Jewish banker and philanthropist A.C. Wertheim and was opened to the public in 1812.

A rugged statue commemorates the February 24, 1941 strike of the Amsterdam dock workers to protest persecution of Jews stands in front of the Portuguese Synagogue. The strike, which spread to all walks of Dutch life with 3000,000 joining within two days, is considered to be the first large scale public protect against the Nazi’s in occupied Europe and was the only mass protest against the deportation of Jews to be organized by non-Jews. The monument unveiled in 1952 by Queen Juliana is called ‘De Dokwerker” and was sculpted by Mari Andriessen, a Dutch artist who during the war refused membership in the Nazi-led artist union and hid Jewish friends in his home to save them from deportation at grave risk to himself.

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While not a Jewish monument or memorial the Resistance Museum is within the Plantage neighbourhood a few blocks from the Hollandsche Schouwburg and examines how the Dutch people reacted to their occupation by Nazi Germany between 14 May 1940 and 5 May 1945.

I was interested to learn that early in the occupation the Nazi’s went fairly easy on the conquered Dutch nation seeing them as Aryan brothers even releasing Dutch soldiers captured during the German invasion and five-day fight for the low country so the resistance movement was slow to develop. That changed when the widespread persecution of the Jews began and the 25 February, 1941 strike broke out with more active underground resistance building up until the April, 1945 liberation of Amsterdam by Canadian troops.

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The museum has an excellent free audio guide that describes the artifacts on display.

One of the most beautiful synagogues of the world dating from 1675, this Sephardic synagogue is in fact a whole religious complex with the synagogue, archives, a mortuary, and a library with more than 25.000 books and 560 manuscripts in Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Greek, Arabic and Yiddish.

 

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Across the street from the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam is the Jewish Historical Museum which is housed in four restored 17th and 18th Century Ashkenazi synagogues.  The museum was founded in 1932 but was closed by the Nazi’s and much of the collection was lost.  After reopening in a different location in 1955 the museum – the only one of its kind in the  Netherlands to focus on Jewish history, religion and culture – has occupied its current address on Nieuwe Amstelstraat  since 1987.

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The Jewish Historical Museum’s permanent exhibition follows several themes such as the role of religion and tradition, links with Israel, the persecution of Jews during the Second World War, personal life stories and the mutual influence of Jewish and Dutch culture.

The memorials to those loved ones lost in the Holocaust are literally at your feet as I found while strolling a leafy side street. Amsterdam has 400 memorial cobblestones, which have been placed in front of the former homes of Holocaust victims as part of a commemoration project that a German artist began in Berlin in 1996.

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While in the district it’s worth a detour to the Rembrandt House Museum on the Jodenbreestraat  or “Jewish Broad Street” because  although Rembrandt himself was not Jewish his paintings often reflected his 17th-century life among Jews in the city.

Rembrandt lived and worked in the house between 1639 and 1656 and the historic interior has been reconstructed.

I would highly recommend a day-long walking tour of Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter as after four centuries Jewish history is Amsterdam history.

Flight Review: Icelandair Boeing 767

After flying Icelandair’s workhorse Boeing 757 aircraft on a number of occasions I flew one of its four larger Boeing 767 between Amsterdam and Reykjavik and enjoyed the economy experience on this shorter flight.

As with all Icelandair aircraft that are named for Icelandic volcanoes this aircraft bears the name Eldgjá after an 8 kilometer-long  volcanic fissure in south Iceland.

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The twin-aisle Boeing 767-300 jets are configured to seat 262 passengers – 80 more than the Boeing 757 -and with the increased passenger capacity the airline uses them on its most popular European routes including Amsterdam and Copenhagen and to key North American destinations  New York, Chicago and Boston.  Eldgjá  was given a cabin retrofit before it entered Icelandair service in February, 2017 after almost two decades flying for Air New Zealand .

As I usually travel solo one of the things I’ve always appreciate about flying the Boeing 767 is that it features a two-seat on either side of a center three-seat section so occupying a window seat means I only have to step past one other passenger instead of two as is the case with a narrow-body aircraft with a single center aisle and three seats on either side as the layout on both the Boeing 737 and 757.

The economy seat pitch – the space between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it – ranges from 31 – 33 inches on Icelandair’s Boeing 767 while the seat width is 17.8 inches and in an era of shirking personal space on board these measurements make for a more comfortable in-flight experience on the 3-hour flight Amsterdam – Reykjavik but would be even more appreciated on longer flights.

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Every seat has an inflight entertainment monitor with access to a choice of television, movies and music but note that “B” and “F” seats have a black box for the entertainment unit located beneath the seat which reduces foot and storage space. A USB port also allows charging of devices.

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The airline boats of having 49,380 minutes of entertainment available to view which includes newer movie releases such as Tomb Raider and Black Panther and older films including The Lion King and Pulp Fiction along with televisions series , documentaries and Iceland travel videos. Bring you own ear buds as earphones are sold for EUR 8 or CAD$12  by flight attendants shortly after take-off.

Icelandair flights do not include free meals bur rather a choice of buy-on-board food from the Saga Kitchen including pizza, sandwiches and small pair of burgers from Reykjavik-based ‘Hamburger Factory’. Prices are fairly high for in-flight fare but you can save a few Euros if you take one of the combo deals with food & beer or save 20% by purchasing your onboard meal up to 48-hours prior to departure. Payment for snacks, beer or food is by credit card only but members of the Saga Club frequent flyer program may redeem their points but since point levels cannot be verified while in-flight a credit card is also needed in case the member’s account has an insufficient number of points to pay for the purchase. I used some of my accumulated points to pay for food and it worked fairly smoothly except in one case where my credit card was charged in error. Membership cards are sent out after an account earns its first points and this card should be presented to the flight attendant with a clear statement that you wish to redeem Saga Club points for a food purchase.

The Icelandair boarding process is by row numbers from back-to-front of the aircraft instead of the zone system introduced by all major North American airlines in recent years. For flyers like me travelling on ‘Economy Light’ fares which do not include checked bags it was nice not to have to be concerned about finding overhead bin space when in a late boarding zone as is the case with most other airlines. The whole boarding process wasn’t as smooth as it could’ve been as the announcements made at the gate at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport weren’t loud enough to be clearly heard above the chatter of the masses squeezed into a narrow boarding gate.

Many flights arriving into Keflavik International Airport near Reykjavik do not pull up to a jetway so passengers walk down stairs to waiting buses for the short ride to the terminal. Since Icelandic weather can be breezy and cool I’d recommend having a sweater or coat handy for this fresh air disembarkation process.

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The Icelandair economy service on this flight matched those on my past journeys to and from Europe so there’s much to like as the crew is friendly, the in-flight entertainment and food service solid if a tad pricey, the seat comfortable and no extra fees for advance seat assignment. My ticket Edmonton – Amsterdam via Reykjavik was half the price of the non-stop KLM flight on the same route so Icelandair offers high value for a pleasant economy flying experience and would happily save money while flying them on a future trip to Europe.

An Informal Edmonton Craft Brewery Tour

#ABBeerWeek runs 19 – 27 October, 2018 and is a province-wide celebration of  Alberta-made indie beer so in honour of this auspicious occasion I took part by sampling some of the best craft beer brewers in the Edmonton area in a self-guided tour of a handful of capital-area breweries.

Since the dawn of time Alberta was a macro-brewery fortress with Molson and Labatt big beer brands dominating the province’s beer market due to provincial regulations which only granted a brewery license to those able to show the capacity to brew 500,000 liters of beer, a regulation which kept smaller micro-brewers on the sidelines until it was was scrapped December 3, 2013. The regulatory change unleashed a torrent of pent-up demand for local beer an in a few short years, Alberta’s craft beer scene exploded with dozens of breweries opening within a matter of months all over the province. The number of Alberta breweries doubled in 2016-2017 and now sits at 90.

Calgary-based Tool Shed Brewing Company co-founded Graham Sherman talks about how important the rule changes were to his company’s birth and growth.

ALLEY KAT BREWING COMPANY

The 4th oldest brewery in Alberta founded in 1995 with a current capacity of 18,000 hectoliters (5.1 million bottles) annually, Edmonton’s Alley Kat Brewing Company is located on Edmonton’s south side in an industrial  area hard against the train tracks .

Alley Kat’s taproom has a rec. room feel with a bar at one end serving its signatures beers such as Scona Gold alongside its seasonal brews like Pumpkin Pie Spiced Ale made with real pumpkins, a long central table and beer coolers to grab a six pack to take home.

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Alley Kat offers regular brewery tours which I joined on a recent Saturday afternoon which started with a quick overview of the ingredients used in brewing beer: hops, yeast, water and grains (mostly malted barley).

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The enormous growth of the Alberta craft beer scene in recent years has also lead to more home-grown hops in the province and the 2017 formation of the Alberta Hop Producers Association.

Our tour takes in Alley Kat’s on-site production facilities and visitors get to see the brewing process.

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The barley husks that are removed in the mashing process aren’t discarded but in an environmentally-friendly way are recycled to a Millet-area farmer who uses them as cattle feed.

Of the annual production Ally Kat brews each year 60% is bottled while the other 40% is kegged.

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In peak summer season the bottling line can crank out up to 3744 six packs per day.

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The post-tour reward is a flight of Alley Kat beer to sample. While Scona Gold  is still my long-time favorite the Buena Vista brown ale has become a closer runner-up.

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A small merchandise corner offers Alley Kat souvenirs or gifts for family & friends.

YELLOWHEAD BREWING COMPANY

Named for the first commercially beer brewed in Edmonton in 1894 Yellowhead Brewing Company is located in downtown Edmonton’s historic H.V. Shaw Building, a Chicago-style brick building that began it’s industrial life as a cigar factory in 1914 before being reborn as as brewery in 2002 with a modern addition on its south side. The building is on the Alberta Register of Historic Places and was redesigned by noted local architect Gene Dub who has offices in the building which has been called one of the most decorative warehouses in Edmonton.

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The first Friday of each month Yellowhead hosts a drop-in tour of its brewery and leading the tour for my visit was brewer Lisa Davis, one of only a few female brewers in Alberta in a traditionally male dominated industry. In the end all that matters is the quality of the beer, not the gender of the brewer and in that regard I’ve come to like Yellowhead’s signature Premium Lager, Edmonton’s original craft-brewed lager, but the brewery is trying to build on the lager’s recognition with new lines including Remlar Pale Ale and possibly an amber ale and dark Porter beer at some point in the near future.

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The second floor Yellowhead Tasting Room with its exposed red brick walls and wood beams has an authentic vintage feel befitting it’s home in this 100+ year old building, a vibe many of the new beer halls and brew pubs strive to re-create with varying success.

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Half hour long, $10 tours of the Yellowhead brewery are offered weekly Thurs. – Sat. but a minimum number is required for the tours to go ahead while the first Fri. of the month has a 6 PM open tour that goes ahead regardless of the number on hand. I joined on a recent Fri. evening tour and enjoyed my post-tour ‘Premium Lager’ in the tasting room with two ladies taking their first brewery tour.

Signing up for Yellowhead’s newsletter earns reader half off a flight of beer in a future visit to the Tasting Room.

BLIND ENTHUSIASM BREWING COMPANY 

Opened in 2017 the Ritchie neighborhood’s Blind Enthusiasm is more than a stand-alone brewery as it shares its space with bistro restaurant Biera with both being within the larger Ritchie Market.

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The gleaming brewing tanks are proudly displayed in a glass enclosure in one corner of Biera.

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The brewery was months-old when it took home the ‘Brewery of the Year’ award at the inaugural Alberta Small Brewers Association Alberta Beer Awards held in March, 2018. Alley Kat came in second. For all the category winners the list is here.

In my visit I tried an ‘Extra Special Monk’ and liked its light taste and lack of bitterness. Note that the beer line-up is changing frequently so there’s always something new to sample.

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Biera has an industrial feel with exposed grey concrete walls, towering beer tanks and big copper looking pipes for the beer taps. A cool Autumn visit found a warm welcome and so will plan a return Summer visit when the outdoor patio is open and the weather warmer.

SITUATION BREWING 

Barely a block off Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue Situation Brewing bills itself as a Brew pub, a micro-brewery with a cozy pub atmosphere where the beer and pub food can be enjoyed with family & friends.

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To the side of the pub and bar area is the brewery with regular tours offered.

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Frau Lisa was the featured beer when I visited so tried this Vienna-style lager and really liked the golden colour and clean finish without a heady, hoppy taste. A great beer for a cooler Autumn afternoon.

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TOWN SQUARE BREWING CO.

Located in a stripmall off Parsons Road near South Edmonton Common, Town Square Brewing opened in September 2017 and produced its own beer for sale a month later. Despite the stripmall exterior the interior has a warm, rustic feel with comfy easy chairs and fireplace in the small upstairs mezzanine level so extra marks for trying to bring a soul to a soulless space.

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Founded by three couples who wanted to try and help build a sense of community in the fast-growing south side community, Town Square has a standing policy of donating 10% of its proceeds to a select charity of the month.

Town Square took home two awards at the 2018 Alberta Beer Awards for its ‘Beets by Sinden’ sour beer and ‘Pond Surfer California Common’ amber beer but the beer list at their tap house changes regularly. I tried the ‘Crop Duster Alberta Ale’ in my visit which is a golden ale made with locally grown and malted grains and liked it so much I had a refill.

I laughed at the choice of cocktail names as the ‘Dave’s Not Here Man’ IPA Radler is a reference to a very funny Cheech & Chong comedy skit from the 1970’s but as I was the oldest person in the place at the time only I got the inside joke.

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There are some quirks to this stripmall space such as the whitewashed,  weathered-look wood planking on the wall behind the bar that gives way to faux brickwork halfway along the wall but the welcome was so warm to overlook small decor nitpicks as the bartender let me sample a trio of Town Square brews with the ‘Mega Watt New England IPA’  being a surprise as unlike most IPA’s it’s not overpoweringly hoppy and bitter.

BENT STICK BREWING

Bent Stick Brewing kicked off #ABBeerWeek with free samples at north Edmonton beer mecca Sherbrooke Liquor poured by co-owner Scott Kendall.

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According to Scott the Bent Stick name as adopted in part as a hint to the brewery’s desire to do things differently while trading on the popular alliteration of breweries that begin with the letter ‘B’.

The taste test confirmed that the Belgian-inspired amber ale Wizard Device was a fast favorite so left with a handful of the 650 ML bottles.

After visiting Portland and Denver this year with both of those cities having a well established, vibrant craft beer scene it’s good to see the trend taking hold in Edmonton as variety is the spice of life and the greater the number of hand-crafted beers means more quality beer to sample on a regular basis. Cheers!

Hotel Review: Courtyard Amsterdam Arena Atlas

Amsterdam is Europe’s most expensive for city center hotel stays at an average rate of EUR 192 according to this article so when planning a visit to the Dutch capital I expanded my search to the suburbs to find quality accommodations at value pricing and found the Courtyard Amsterdam Arena Atlas offers four-star lodging with easy access into the historic heart of the city for half of comparable downtown hotel rates.

I arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport used one of the kiosks to purchase a one-way ticket to the Amsterdam Bijlmer ArenA station which at EUR 3.90 for a second class ticket is a very good value for the 14-minute ride. The station is a 2-minute walk to the Courtyard past the inter-city bus terminal.

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The smoke-free hotel has 175 rooms in the 12-storey tower and my assigned room is #1102, one of 56 ‘Superior’ guest rooms which feature a king bed, glass work desk and ergonomic leather swivel desk chair, 42-inch flat screen TV and bathroom with shower only.

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The table beneath the big screen TV and next to the Nespresso coffee & espresso maker proved a better place for online surfing as the glass desktop wasn’t compatible with my laptop wireless mouse.

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The closet was quite user-friendly with a laptop-size safe, mini-bar with two complimentary small water bottles, and iron and ironing board  but  failed horribly with only three clothes hangars! Who ever thought a solo traveler required so few clothes hangars never mind a couple or family is beyond me. While I’m sure extra hangars could be requested expecting guests to ask for more of such a basic room item isn’t in keeping with the hotel’s four-star status.

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The room measures 230 square feet and so is big by European standards.

The bathroom features a shower stall with sliding glass doors and a shower wand that can be adjusted to simulate a rainfall shower head except with fairly low water pressure. Note that the bathroom toiletries includes eco-unfriendly small bottles of shampoo, conditioner and shower gel.

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Despite the close proximity to busy roads and rail lines the room soundproofing keeps the outside noise out making for a quiet room and very good sleep quality.

The view from the window is of Amsterdam Bijlmer ArenA station which has both inter-city rail service and Metro service on Line 54 direct to Centraal Station, a short walk to many of Amsterdam’s sights and the main transportation hub of the Dutch capital. The ride into Centraal Station is about 20-minutes with stops.

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For guests staying at the Courtyard by Marriott Amsterdam Arena Atlas who intend to spend much of their stay in the historic heart of the city I’d recommend buying a multi-day Metro pass which at EUR 21 for 4-days unlimited travel on Metro and trams is a very good value and far more convenient than buying individual ride tickets. Note that tickets must be scanned to enter the Metro as well as when exiting so don’t pack these credit card-sized paper passes away while in transit.

On the hotel’s ground floor adjacent to the front desk is pantry with snacks, sodas and beer at pricing noticeably higher than stores at the nearby train station. Convenience always has a cost.

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A pair of guest-use computers with printers are to one side of the lobby but lack any privacy.

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GåRD Amsterdam is a Scandinavian inspired restaurant and bar that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Sample lunch, dinner and bar menus show upscale appetizers and entrees  with pricing to match i.e.  EUR 17/CAD $25 burgers and EUR 3.25/CAD $5 sodas are as much as the draft beer. The GåRD full buffet breakfast at EUR 22/CAD $32 is almost twice as much as I found nearby at the Hampton by Hilton Amsterdam Arena Boulevard.

photo by author

My schedule found me in central Amsterdam or on day-trips to other Dutch cities during my four night stay so only stopped for a quick cocktail at the GåRD bar.  It’s a warm,  inviting space on a cool rainy September evening with antique filament lights and comfy dining & easy chairs but traveling on a budget meant forgoing its four-star fare.

Guest services are excellent with helpful advice when requested day & night. This tech novice guest was awoken in the middle of the night by the chirp of an almost dead smart phone I’d forgotten to charge before turning in my first night but found the two-pin European electrical outlet adapter I’d remembered to pack failed to fit any of the outlets in the room. A quick visit to the front desk with phone and charging cord had a quick solution as the young staff member said my cable could be plugged into the back of the flat screen TV USB outlet which did the trick. Knowing I’d also have to recharge my laptop eventually another staff member the next morning directed me to the nearby megastore Media Markt where all kinds of electrical adapters and charging cables could be found.

The Courtyard by Marriott Amsterdam Arena Atlas delivers solid four-star accommodation in a location with convenient access to Amsterdam’s city center so despite a few quirks more than met my expectations.

Pros

  • Modern hotel with bright, clean Nordic design
  • Comfortable, quiet guest rooms with large desk space, mini-fridge, laptop-friendly safe and Nespresso coffee maker
  • On-site dining at GåRD Amsterdam
  • Friendly, helpful staff
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • Lobby level corner with PC’s & printers for guest use
  • Excellent access to central Amsterdam by nearby public transit
  • Value pricing; some dates as low as EUR 150

Cons

  • Small number of clothes hangars
  • No digital alarm clock
  • Limited dining options nearby
  • On-site dining pricey compared to off-site alternatives

 

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Two Wheel Touring: Utrecht by bicycle

Amsterdam is the cycling big time, a wall-to-wall free-for-all on the busy thoroughfares and blind corners testing reaction times on even the quietest of side streets so throw in a steady drizzle making the cobblestones slick and it was enough to persuade me to stay on foot and live to cycle another day. After all, discretion is the better part of valour. My sunny day in the saddle would come however a few days later in Utrecht, an ancient university city a short train ride south of Amsterdam that is consistently ranked as one of the three most bike-friendly cities in the world in an annual ranking.

The religious center of the Netherlands for twelve centuries Utrecht is also home to the nation’s largest university and so has a hip, young vibe that’s in contrast to its storied history. Seemingly everyone rides bikes but the pace felt far less frenetic than in Amsterdam.

Bikes rentals are available at a number of central locations including the VVV Utrecht Tourism office at the base of the symbol of the city, the Domtoren or Dom Tower but my day-long EUR 12 bike rental is a unisex cruiser courtesy of my suburban hotel, the Holiday Inn Express Utrecht – Papendorp.

While far from stylish with big white hotel stickers looks matter little compared to practicality so in that respect the bike rental delivered.

With dedicated bike lanes throughout the city and into the suburbs it’s easy to navigate Utrecht and the city’s tourism board has some support with suggested bike routes. I rode a variation of the ‘Typically Dutch bike tour’ that starts in the historic heart of the city and rides a long loop out into the green spaces and countryside that surround it.

Along the quiet canals there are fine examples of Dutch drawbridges from more traditional white ones to the modern Roode Brug or ‘Red Bridge’ over the Vecht River whose colour is either carrying on the tradition of an earlier structure or a hint to the neighborhood’s racy reputation depending upon whom you believe.

photo by author

photo by author

My sunny morning ride was interrupted briefly by a rain shower which gave way to a beautiful rainbow.


 video by author

A highlight of the day is the twin windmills, or ‘Molen’ in Dutch, just outside the sleepy town of Oud-Zuilen about 4 KM north of Utrecht in an area called the Vechtstreek.


 video by author

The Westbroek Molen dates back to 1753 while its neighbor the smaller, red Buitenweg Molen is by comparison a relative newbie built in 1830. Sadly neither windmill is open to the public.

Scattered around Utrecht are a number of forts including Fort Rijnawen which is hidden away in the forests between Utrecht-area towns Zeist and De Bilt. Work started on this fort in 1868 and it would become the largest in the ‘New Dutch Waterline’, a series of water-based fortifications  designed to protect the Netherlands from the south and west.

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Today the Dutch Waterline has become a popular national cycling route.

During my day-long ride I often heard a unique clinking sound while riding over paving stones and came upon this section of road under repair and found the sound is made by friction as the stones aren’t cemented in place but rather are held together with sand. This is a practical approach to road repairs is seen around Europe and makes road repairs cheaper and faster than laying asphalt as in North America. Luckily the bike lanes on either side of the center section under repair were kept open as this is the Netherlands after all.

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Common-sense care needs to be taken while cycling in the Netherlands including pointing the direction you intend to take at uncontrolled intersections, avoiding sudden bike lane changes and always checking over your shoulder to see if you are about to be overtaken. A bell is also user-friendly to warn pedestrians of your approach as in many places in Utrecht’s city center bike lanes and sidewalks are in very close proximity. An excellent outline of all the cycling rules may be found here.

I’m always happiest when on a bike and so enjoyed the self-guided Utrecht and area bike tour immensely. The ‘Typically Dutch’ title the Utrecht tourism board gave this route very aptly describes the urban & suburban landscape and sights so I felt like a local for a day soaking in this corner of the Netherlands. Ride on!

The Panorama Terrace at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

For aviation enthusiasts or travelers with a long layover between flights at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam a free fair weather diversion is to head up to an outdoor observation deck called the Panorama Terrace  to watch aircraft at the world’s tenth busiest airport take off, land and taxi to gates.

Located on Schiphol’s third floor with views of the planes in the C, D and E piers the Panorama Terrace is post-security and open to the public year-round. Simply follow the first signs to Departures 1 & 2, then look for another sign that reads ‘Panorama Terrace’.

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Entrance is complimentary to the terrace which is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (winter) and 7 a.m. to  9 p.m. (summer) except in cases of inclement weather.

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My mid-September visit was graced by clear skies and a light breeze making plane spotting easier.

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video by author 

Also on the observation deck is an authentic Fokker 100 KLM Cityhopper plane that served KLM’s regional subsidiary for over two decades and was retired to help illustrate the airline’s illustrious aviation heritage with a timeline of important events but note that the time line is in Dutch only.

photo by author 

photo by author 

Schiphol’s Panorama Terrace is a one of a handful of outdoor observation decks at major international airports including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Honolulu, and Frankfurt but once upon a time there were many more but post 9/11 security concerns closed many.

As a boy who pressed his nose against the Plexiglas at Saskatoon’s John  G. Diefenbaker  Airport in the late 1970’s watching the DC8’s taxi right up to the terminal airport’s have always held a certain fascination for me and so it was with great delight that I spent an hour after arriving from Reykjavik on Icelandair watching the aircraft movements with my jet lag momentarily forgotten.

Hotel Review: Holiday Inn Express Utrecht – Papendorp

After a two-night stay at the Holiday Inn Express Utrecht – Papendorp I came away impressed by  the quality and value of this accommodation but as it lacks a central location travelers should weigh its low cost relative to its suburban address.

Wanting to extend my visit  to the Netherlands after an Amsterdam stay and being a member of the IHG Rewards Club loyalty program I used my points to confirmed a two-night stay at this Holiday Inn Express and while the points do have a value it’s hard to beat a free stay.

Arriving at Utrecht’s Centraal Station in a downpour I jumped in a taxi for the short ride to the hotel but the 10-minute drive came to EUR 21 which was more than I’d expected.

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Rarely have I received a warmer welcome with the front desk staff thanking me for my IHG membership and after checking with housekeeping by phone allowed me to check-in earlier than the normal 3 PM.

I was assigned room #412, a top floor double bed room with views of the business park the hotel is located within. First impression of the room is very positive as the floor-to-ceiling windows flood  the space with tons of natural light even with overcast skies.

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While the room windows don’t open I liked that there was a narrow wooden door instead that could be opened to cool off the room quickly without relying on the individual room thermostat.

The room has a large desk with plenty of space to spread out city maps and electronic devices which may be powered by a pair of European two-pin outlets.

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The bathroom features a frosted glass door and plenty of vanity space but lacks a bathroom fan.

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The large shower stall has shower wand only which I adjusted to fashion a rainfall shower head making for an invigorating shower as water pressure is strong and hot water in abundance even at peak morning use. A wall-mounted 2-in-1 shampoo and shower gel dispenser worked better than expected.

photo by author

Note that the bathroom doesn’t include facecloths which for an American hotel chain came as a small surprise.

Another quirk about the guest room is the lack of an enclosed closet as a corner has been carved out as a closet with 6 clothes hangars provided plus a hook by the door for jackets. For my short stay this open closet sufficed but a couples staying more than a few nights would likely find this arrangement wanting.

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Other items lacking in the room are no mini-bar and safe but as this is a Holiday Inn Express limited services and amenities are a trade-off for a reasonable hotel rate.

The lobby level includes a small bar, business center with a pair of guest-use computers as well as the breakfast area which serves a Continental breakfast 6:30 AM – 10 AM weekdays and 7 AM – 10:30 AM weekends.

photo by author

The Holiday Inn Express Continental breakfast consists of cereals, croissants, toast, cold cuts and cheese and a coffee & juice station.

photo by author

photo by author

Because of the limited evening dining options nearby the bar area serves a limited food menu.

Bike rentals are available for EUR 10 for 12-hours or EUR 15 for 24-hours and may be signed out at the front desk. A wheel lock and a heavy-duty chain lock are included.

photo by author

The Holiday Inn Express Utrecht – Papendorp is located within a business district about 4 KM from the city center so the location isn’t ideal for guests wanting to spend most of their time in the historic city core. Access to the heart of the city for guests without a vehicle is good as four bus lines are available within a block walk of the hotel at the ‘Papendorp Noord’ bus stop. The ride is EUR 2.80 round trip and the return ticket may be used until the end of the same day.

Pros

  • Complimentary continental breakfast daily
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • Modern hotel with bright, clean design
  • Comfortable guest rooms with large desk space, floor-to-ceiling windows and large shower stall
  • Good access to historic Utrecht city center by public transit
  • Friendly, knowledgeable staff provide attentive customer service
  • Bike rental on-site
  • Small business center on lobby level with two PC’s for guest use
  • Value pricing; some dates as low as EUR 60

Cons

  • Located in a business district 5 KM from Utrecht Centraal Station and historic heart of city; taxi ride one-way EUR 20
  • No dining options nearby
  • Guest rooms without user-friendly features including safe, mini-bar, facecloths, enclosed closet and bathroom fan

Weighing the hotel’s pros and cons it still came out as a very positive stay for me as I appreciated the Continental breakfast and bicycle rental which negated the hotel’s location one day. Visitors to Utrecht wanting a more full service accommodation in a central location can pay much more than the Holiday Inn Express Utrecht – Papendorp which delivers excellent service and value in a location that is a short bus ride from the historic heart of the city.

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