May 16, 2012

Best of Holland (Day 5, 16 May 2012)

Phew, it was another looooong day today as we explored more of Groningen province.

I was all psyched to cycle like a Dutch, we had a city tour scheduled and people could choose between walking and cycling, however when I tried the bike, the seat was too high for me, even after being lowered and my feet couldn't touch the ground. I dared not get on the road as such, had visions of me not being able to break properly or falling off the bike so we chickened out and got on the coach instead. Phebe and Zalina were more adventurous and practiced a bit before the cycling group departed.

We had a local guide named Paulien who took us to hidden nooks and crannies within the city centre, starting with an almshouse which provided shelter to the poor, sick and elderly in the past, we explored some peaceful courtyards and the gardens of Prinsenhoftuin and ended at Martinitoren in the main market square, the highest church steeple in the province. There are a lot of Martini-named buildings in Groningen because St Martin is their patron saint.

We then had some free time and mine is always spent shopping! The usual shops beckoned, Zara, H&M, Hema and several purchases were made, although the range was limited. We had trouble deciding where to eat and walked back and forth a couple of outlets, losing precious time that in the end, we had to wolf down burgers at McDonalds within 10 mins and hightail it back to the coach...I like to live dangerously!

The bus made a pick-up/drop-off at the hotel, then we continued on with a local guide named Titus who covered the province more in depth. We ventured into the countryside, passing narrow lanes and verdant fields with many a cow grazing.

Titus pointed out rich villages that existed in the past because of the city's wealth and artificial hillocks called terpen, which were constructed because being near the sea, floods were a big issue in the past. There are lots of dykes around the coast to prevent flooding and Titus brought us to one of the highest ones, facing out to the North Sea.

It was super windy and chilly, we were freezing our bums off. I wandered away to snap pictures of sheep spotted nearby but when I got too close, they baa-ed and walked away. We passed by a number of windmills, the traditional ones we associate with Holland are fast disappearing, replaced by modern white giant fans so every time we passed an old windmill, I would snap away.

Next up was an old estate called Menkemaborg where we stopped for coffee and butter cake and had a chance to view how a rich family lived in the past. Ducks and geese roamed the grounds, it was very serene and I noticed little things in the house that are quintessentially Dutch like Delft pottery and carpets on tables.

Ananda had mentioned how when the Netherlands became a rich trading nation in the 17th century, the Dutch would put Turkish carpets on the table instead of floor as they were too valuable to be stepped on. These carpets are also depicted in paintings, indicating the social status of the subject, as pointed out to us at the Rijksmuseum.

After a short rest at the hotel, we were out again for one of the highlights of the tour, the Be My Guest dinner. We passed by a canola field on the way, yellow as far as the eye can see! Oh, and we had a bout of hailstones too, shows you how cold it is!

Exclusive to Trafalgar, Be My Guest dining experiences showcase the true essence of a destination by an insider. As the guest of a local host, we get to experience warm hospitality and enjoy a delicious meal prepared using fresh local produce. This evening we visited a dairy farm and local cafe for the Be My Guest experience.

Everyone had to put on blue plastic covers over our shoes, I suspect so we don't bring dung back on the bus! The smell of dung was overpowering as we disembarked, but there was a rainbow in the distance so I knew it was going to be a good night.

I was half tempted to bring out the minyak kapak but didn't want to offend our hosts, a young farmer helping out in his father's business. He spoke very good English and showed us around their barns and facilities, they have a few hundred cows and modern production facilities that allow them to milk 50 cows in an hour. Or was it 200?

Some of the cows were huge, like the size of a car! They were curious when I put my camera close to their faces, one nearly licked it out of my hands!

After the orientation, we were taken across the road to Cafe Mausel, where the main dinner was hosted. There was a short presentation by the young farmer about his family's business and then Farmer Mausel took over for the dining portion. We were eating in his family's cafe, they run a B&B and have a farm of their own. His wife and daughters prepared all the food for us, hearty Dutch fare comprising some mustard soup, salads, salted herring, buttered broccoli, meatballs and roasted potatoes.

The mustard soup was a hit, we weren't sure what to expect when he told us about mustard initially but it was rich and creamy with slices of leek and bacon and only a subtle mustard flavour and I had myself 2 bowls! The recipe and mustard used was offered for sale at 2 euros and I bought some to try and replicate it at home.

I had a friendly albeit slightly deaf lady named Sandra opposite me, so I had to speak slowly for her. She was amused at the 1001 photos I took, even down to the soup and the homemade ice cream with strawberries for dessert. The ice cream was too milky for me but it was balanced out by the sweetness of the strawberries.

After dinner, Farmer Mausel showed us around his barn which hosts parties and events for the locals, there was a gleaming chilli red real Cadillac in a corner, I had no idea these cars were so big and long.

All in, it was a truly enjoyable evening with great company and good food so two thumbs up for the Be My Guest experience!

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