The Central, the Baronie, the Strowis and the Ashes

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Apologies for the gap in posts, but I’m just finishing about five days off which I spent hanging around in Utrecht doing a whole lot of nothing. It was good, but I started to feel a bit like I’d lost my way, so it’s nice to be back on the road (or rails, to be more precise). As I write, I’m on a train to Rotterdam, to connect in Antwerp and Kortrijk, ending up in Ypres around 5:30pm (or Ieper, depending on whether you’re speaking Flemmish or French).

So really, what does one do in Utrecht for 5 days? In my case one bounces around among a few choices of accommodations, drinks coffee and beer, has a few runs around the canals, watches cricket, lays about, plays pool and backgammon and cribbage with other hostel-dwelling people, and generally unplugs for a while.

Utrecht – quite charming. It's got canals and bicycles and tourists and coffee shops so it's kind of like Baby Amsterdam.

And so what does one blog about after such a week? Well, since I gave so much space to Rucksack’s Hostel in Glasgow, I feel like I should really add a few words about the 3 different places I stayed in Utrecht, because they were, in each case, quite singular.

I started off at the Hostel Utrecht City Centre, which had such, err... unfavourable reviews it really needed to be investigated. It was from there that I Twittered: “I'm in Utrecht, at a hostel where the common room has 12 electric guitars, a drum kit, a grand piano and a banjo. It will be a long night.” There seemed to be a mediocre jam-session going on all the time, though the bongos and tambourine were left mostly untouched, and there was no accordion in evidence (Thank God for small mercies).

The Common Room (note banjo on the left)

The place really was interesting. Unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, the fridge and cupboards were full of food, and it was all included – you could basically graze your way through the day – as long as you were fond of bread, pasta, rice, eggs and cheese*. They laid out an impressive spread for breakfast, including hot food, and they encouraged you to make up sandwiches to take with you for the rest of the day. It really was a dream for the 20-something kids who were just there to smoke up. They could hang around, play guitar, get high, and eat whenever they got the munchies. It really felt like an unsupervised college dorm. All that atmosphere for just €22.00 per night.

On the downside, my bed was in a dorm with 19 other bunks, and attempting to sleep, wake and otherwise function in a room with 19 other people is just not fun. Also, the cleanliness of the place was - and you may detect a slight note of sarcasm here - not exactly sparkling. And the bathrooms were curiously under-lit, though given the general state of the place this may have been a wise decision on the part of management. It was like showering at dusk while wearing sunglasses. Despite the ample cheese supply (and a lovely cheese omelet I had quite late that night), it was time to move on the next day.

Unfortunately the other hostel in town was full, so I was forced to look further afield and was on the way to a quite expensive hotel farther out of town when the Hotel Baronie appeared. It was total crap, but it was cheap and private, and after bunking up with 19 others I was prepared to endure some squalor for the promise of a little privacy. And how could I not be charmed by the decor in the “foyer”? Mirrored tiles on the walls, and – I swear this is true – black light fixtures that made anything white glow in that weird purplish way. The less said about the room, the better**. Let’s just call it challengingly ugly and have a quick look at one corner, though the arresting grubbiness of the place just doesn't come through in photos:

Yes, that is dried up duct tape holding the doors closed on that stack on non-functional sheet-metal lockers. The Baronie made liberal use of sticky tape for function and decor – the entire bedside table was covered in brown packing tape, I presume as a quick way to cover the blood spatter.

However, as you can see, the room had a TV, so I got to watch a few movies, and some late-night re-runs of “The Simpsons”, and a weirdly large number of Dutch shampoo commercials. And it was quiet and dark and I got to sleep as much as I wanted. Still, two night was more than enough for the Baronie’s charms to wear thin.

Finally, I was able to move to the nice hostel in town – Strowis. It was completely booked when I first arrived in town, but space finally opened up just as the Baronie became intolerable, so I was happy to move. It turns out that Strowis might actually be the nicest hostel I’ve stayed in so far. The common room was large and bright and clean and had free wifi. There was coffee and tea and beer and wine and chocolate for sale all the time. The back garden had lots of places to sit, and a giant umbrella to shelter under in the rain. The bathrooms were spotless and plentiful, and the rooms were clean, airy and simply but pleasantly decorated.***

The Common Room at Strowis.

There was also a reasonably well-equipped kitchen, though it didn’t open until noon and was locked at 9:30pm on the dot. I suspect this was to encourage everyone to buy the €6.00 breakfast on offer, but I found it a bit ungenerous. Then again the breakfast was nice, so it wasn’t all bad. I can understand why the place was booked up – at only €16.50 for a dorm bed, and equipped as well as it was, it really was the nicest place I’ve been. It’s big enough to force them to be well-run, but small enough that it was still friendly, and with ample opportunity to meet other people and, say, play backgammon in the garden for hours on end.

And that was Utrecht – a string of different beds, all with a story. There were also a few runs in the afternoon heat, and there was a frustrating day of running around trying to figure out how to transfer the funds for my new computer to my personal assistant in the UK, and there was an evening spent playing pool in a Irish pub with one Brit, one Aussie, and one Dutchman, while watching Day 4 of The Ashes****. I’m pleased to report that England prevailed in a surprising and decisive victory, thus eliminating the need for a fifth day of play. The score was something like this:

“England made 792 over-under for Australia's one not out, despite Hussey’s century of 12 fours, 19 sixes and 3 Flemberton twelves. English bowlers managed 127 flap-casts on a complete match of 47, and Wallace marked his fourth spinnaker in international play (an all-England record for left-handed Welsh batsmen born in a month ending in ‘R’).”
Or something like that. Honestly, I almost understood the game for one brief, shining, beer-assisted moment in that pub, but it’s all gone now.

What I’m really pleased to report is that the visiting team of England-Canada bested the Aussie-Dutch local duo at 8-ball, with Canada potting the winner despite clamourous and unsporting attempts to throw the shooter off her game. Sorry Australia, it just wasn’t your day.

* There were, and I am not exaggerating here, two full shelves of the refrigerator absolutely crammed with packs of shredded cheese. I know I may be a bit liberal with the hyperbole on occasion, but in this case I would confidently say that there was about 20 pounds of cheese. There was so much of the stuff hanging about that the next morning when I was packing up to move on to a new place, I found melted cheese stuck to the sole of my shoe.

** The state of the sheets will have me in therapy at some point in the next twenty years, mark my words.

*** I had a room on the upper floor where there were big exposed wood beams angling up along the side wall. Pretty, but positioned in precisely the right spot for me to walk into them at full tilt. Naturally I did this at the first opportunity, and dealt myself a blow that left me whimpering with astonishment and checking to see if my brain was dripping out of my ears.

**** The importance of The Ashes to English and Australian cricket fans was explained to me like this: “Imagine that Canada played the United States in a big, important hockey tournament in 1882, and the Americans were so pleased when they won that they gathered up all the Canadian hockey sticks and burned them in triumph, and carted away the ashes of the burnt sticks and stuck them in a little trophy to parade around. Imagine how much the Canadians would want those ashes back the next time the two teams met." The back-and-forth battle for The Ashes goes deep into the soul English and Aussie cricket fans.


Karen said...

Thanks for catching us up on your adventures.

I love the picture of the common
room at the Strowis. The photo of the other scary place and your non-description of the sheets made me shudder.

FLF said...

Great to hear you are sounding chipper, and in no need of immediate psychotherapy re: sheets. Perhaps the memory will dim and fade, as more adventures head your way. Thanks for the posts, I slog away at work here, travelling vicariously through you... had a hot but good track work out yesterday with Karen, Jackie, Mike, Martial, Lloyd, Cynthia, Chuck and Ian... missed you egging me on for pace!
Safe travels... FiF

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