Travels: Jordan

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I wouldn’t say I’m the world’s most adventurous traveller; I love going to European cities and visiting friends in the US, but I haven’t really visited anywhere that exotic. I decided a while ago that I want to be a bit more daring in the destinations I visit, and when a friend suggested going to Jordan over the new year, I jumped at the chance. I’ve wanted to visit Petra ever since watching Indiana Jones as a child, and I’ve also long been keen to visit a Middle Eastern country and have the chance to see beyond the stereotypes. We booked a seven day guided tour of the best bits of Jordan, as we knew we would want to travel quite extensively and didn’t feel confident at the thought of driving across the desert by ourselves!, and so just after Christmas, we hopped on a plane to Amman, and five hours later, landed in a city that was utterly different to anything either of us had ever experienced before.

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Amman certainly has many elements of Western culture, and the appearance of the city, set over three hills, with its cascading tumble of creamy-coloured blocks of flats, lethally unconstructed pavements and maze of steep stairways that connect the zig-zagging streets, reminded me quite a lot of Italy. However, the steeples of the minarets piercing the sky, the calls to prayer floating across the air, the shops piled high with exotic produce and variety of souks make it unmistakably Middle Eastern, and the mélange of ultra-modern buildings and recognisable brands – McDonald’s, Baskin and Robbins, KFC – alongside souks, falafel stands and tumbledown buildings, made for a fascinating entrée into Middle Eastern life. We loved wandering the streets, finding surprises on every corner – a Roman amphitheatre, a Royal palace, a nineteenth century Moorish mansion – and breathtaking views across the surrounding city and countryside as we scaled our way up the hillside. Everyone was friendly, everyone spoke English, and we ate like Queens as we stuffed our faces with falafel and baklava. It was brilliant.

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However, we were soon off exploring – our first day was spent at the Dead Sea, where we floated around in twenty degree sunshine in this incredible stretch of water that overlooks Jerusalem and Jericho and wants to do its best to kick you out. Friends had told me of how strange an experience it was to float in the water, and I couldn’t quite understand what they meant until I was in it myself, and kept getting forced onto my back every time I tried to get up! The water is just so buoyant – it’s an utterly bizarre feeling! – but absolutely marvellous. I could have bathed in it forever! The second day saw us heading out towards Petra – it was a long drive, and we stopped off firstly at Mount Nebo, where Moses was shown the Holy Land. We marvelled at the incredible, spine-tingling views across to Jerusalem and Jericho – amazing to think of all the history that has happened in this place! –  and went into the monastery to see some wonderful Byzantine mosaics. We then drove for hours through the desert to reach Little Petra, part of the larger Petra mountain range, just before it closed, and had a wander through the incredible canyons and carvings, which we thought were absolutely breathtaking until our tour guide Khaled said we’d not think much of them when we saw the main Petra site the next day!

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That night we stayed in a wonderful hotel which is a converted Bedouin village, with incredible views across Petra and a fantastic hammam spa. We ate marvellously again in the hotel restaurant – hummus, falafel, the most wonderful fresh vegetables – great for vegetarians! – and the most wonderful honey cakes. Jordanians certainly know how to feed you! – and then headed to bed ready for our big day at Petra. The day dawned bright and sunny, and we were thrilled to be walking through the enormous orange sandstone canyons that lead to the city carved into the rocks as the sun was rising, making the cliffs glow with such a beautiful fiery warmth. Words can’t even describe the awe and wonder I felt as I turned a corner and saw through a gap in the rocks ahead the sunlit facade of the Treasury building glimmering in the distance; it was truly like something from a fairytale. We spent all day roaming this remarkable place, that has so much to see and so much fascinating history to discover. The most amazing thing about it is that half of the ancient city is still buried underground, and archaeologists are still making new discoveries all the time. It’s exciting to think that in ten years’ time, there might be so much more to see. As it was, we did the hour and a half climb up into the mountains to see the enormous Monastery building, and took in the fabulous views across the site of the city as we did so, encompassing the amphitheatre, colonnaded street, tombs and houses. We must have walked for miles, and yet we never felt tired – we were just utterly entranced by our surroundings. It was a magical day – one I’ll never forget – and certainly the highlight of the trip for me.

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That night we celebrated New Year at the hotel, before heading out early the next day, into the desert. On the way we stopped off at an old Ottoman railway station and were allowed to climb all over an abandoned steam train – heaven! – before being taken out on a jeep to explore Wadi Rum and see the sights made famous by T.E.Lawrence. We saw the rocks that he called ‘the seven pillars’ – and the site where he gathered together his troops to fight during WWI. We rode a camel for part of the trip, which was certainly an experience! – and the desert landscape, filled with other-worldly rock formations, was simply incredible. It really does feel like you’re on another planet, and miles away from civilisation. We stayed that night at a Bedouin camp in the desert, and had a marvellous time drinking traditional sage tea by the fire and eating traditional Bedouin food. We watched the sun go down in a blaze of glory over the sand dunes and then bedded down into our tent to sleep under the stars, which was another totally unforgettable experience – absolutely magical!

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The next day we drove back to Amman and spent the afternoon wandering, before our final day, which we spent at the Roman city of Jerash, north of Amman. This is an incredible, vast site, which, like Petra, is still being uncovered, and offers the opportunity to see the entire layout of a typical Roman city. The forum, the colonnaded streets, the temples and amphitheatres, the stadium, the houses – it’s possible to see it all, and it’s all in such good condition, thanks to having been buried underground for so long. It was a wonderful way to finish our trip.

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I loved Jordan – it’s a stunningly beautiful country with such a varied landscape and a fascinating history. There’s so much to see and do – if we’d had longer, we’d have definitely spent a few days at the beautiful Red Sea resort of Aqaba – and I know I’ll go back one day, and also visit some more of the region. We felt perfectly safe the entire time, and were made to feel completely welcome everywhere we went. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Reading Resolutions for 2020

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As I’m sure many of you can attest about your own bookshelves, I have a huge number of volumes on a vast array of topics sitting prettily in carefully organised rows, making me look very erudite indeed, but whenever people come over and say ‘oh my goodness, you have so many books – have you read them all?’ I have to sheepishly admit that about half of them I have never opened. In fact, many of them have been waiting to be opened for upwards of a decade. I love watching TV programmes about hoarders – I experience an immense sense of satisfaction in the transformation from chaos to order – and always feel enormously sorry for the people who have, often through trauma, felt the need to obsessively hold onto objects as an anchor. However, I have come to think of late that perhaps I am not so different – I may not be navigating my way through piles of mouldering newspapers as I try to make it from my bedroom to the bathroom, or eating out of takeaway containers because my kitchen is inaccessible due to piles of unwashed crockery – but I just can’t seem to stop myself from buying more books when I already have hundreds – yes, hundreds! – I haven’t read. My excuse is that I love book shopping, it’s harmless, I have plenty of room for them, and I’ll definitely read them one day – they are stored up waiting for me to be in the right mood, and how often have I come across something interesting somewhere and then remembered with glee that I have a book on that exact topic nestled on a shelf at home? – but despite all these very good reasons, this year, I want to take things in hand. I don’t want to possess things I don’t use or enjoy. So, I am going to read every unread book on my shelves. Fiction and non-fiction. Classic and modern. Adult and children’s. Uplifting and miserable. And to force myself to read every one, I’m going to read them in alphabetical order. No dodging the doorstoppers – when I get to D, I am going to read Bleak House, whether I like it or not.

My caveats to this are that if I get to page 100 and am not enjoying it, I can give up and put the book in my charity shop pile. If I start a book and don’t enjoy it but think it’s just because I’m not in the right mood for that theme or topic, I will allow myself to put it on a ‘come back to’ pile to revisit when I do feel like reading it. Some books do have to be read when you’re in a particular frame of mind, I find, and so I am going to allow myself some leeway for when I need a light read. My aim is to discover what I really have hiding away on my shelves, to broaden my reading and hopefully find new favourites in the process, and to make room by getting rid of the books I decide I don’t want to keep for future acquisitions, as I’m currently at shelf capacity. It’s going to be difficult to not be tempted by new releases, or recommendations from friends and other book bloggers, but I have preempted some of that by unsubscribing from all of the bookshop emails I receive in my inbox. I will still allow myself to go into second hand bookshops, however, because I have decided another caveat will be I am allowed to buy nice old editions of books I’ve already read, or rare finds I’ve been hunting for years, so that I can still indulge in the pleasures of book shopping to some extent. I couldn’t go completely cold turkey!

So, I’m essentially going go be hibernating in my own little cave of books all year, and I’m excited. I’ve already made a start; I’ve read Lynne Reid Banks’ The L Shaped Room, one of Simon‘s favourites (but I didn’t love it, sadly!) and got to the first 100 pages of The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill and decided to give up as I am not enjoying it enough to plough on (it’s a long book). Next up is James Baldwin, followed by Adrian Bell, then Dorothy Canfield, then Willa Cather, then Richmal Crompton – there’s so much to enjoy! I’m also going to be reading at least one non-fiction book per month, as those are the majority of my unread books – I’m excited to finally read all the books I have about Jack the Ripper, train stations, Victorian explorers, and female novelists! So many adventures to have, and I won’t even need to leave the sofa!

Books of 2019

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Happy New Year everybody! Reading-wise, 2019 was a fantastic year of discovery for me. I came across new authors that I absolutely fell in love with, and read some books I’d been meaning to read for far too long. I made a concerted effort to read a more diverse body of literature from outside of the Western canon, and outside of the English language. I read more non-fiction than usual, and enjoyed reading clusters of connected books to research new interests. I feel that my reading educated me and expanded my horizons more than it has in previous years, and that was largely down to me being intentional about reading outside of my usual preferences. I don’t want to become that person who only ever reads about what they know!

Choosing ten favourites of the year has been a very difficult decision, as I have thoroughly enjoyed so much of what I read over the course of 2019, but I have just about managed to whittle it down. So here they are:

10. Milton Place by Elizabeth de Waal

I absolutely loved this, one of Persephone’s new offerings in 2019. The story of a young Austrian woman coming to stay with an elderly old flame of her mother’s in the English countryside in order to escape her unhappiness is everything the best Persephones do so well. The main characters are an unlikely pairing, but their sensitive, cultured souls connect with another in a way that brings them a peace and joy that neither have had the chance to experience before. Within the walls of the large, faded Victorian house that is falling down around them, they create a haven of pleasurable domestic routines, but beneath the surface is the constant knowledge that this idyll cannot last. It is a remarkably moving book that is rare in the Persephone canon in being written from the perspective of an elderly man. I found it tender and beautiful and truly profound in its depiction of human relationships, and I know it is a book I will return to again and again.

9. Lanny by Max Porter

I am usually sniffy about experimental fiction, but Porter’s unusual and inventive prose style, with its misshapen lines and disrupted narratives featuring allegorical figures alongside human characters, as also seen in Grief is the Thing with Feathers, absolutely mesmerised me. This tale of an unusual boy, the man who befriends him, and the Green Man who lives beneath the surface of his rapidly urbanising village, is moving and thought-provoking and offers a fantastic reading experience in the way that it challenges our expectations of what a novel should look like. I loved it!

8. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

I’d been meaning to try Margery Sharp for years, after other book bloggers had waxed so lyrically about her, but somehow didn’t get round to it until I spotted a lovely old edition of this in a bookshop in Winchester over the summer. I got stuck in immediately, and found myself laughing out loud at the enchanting antics of Cluny Brown, a mischievous working class Londoner with ideas above her station who gets packed off by her uncle to deepest Devonshire to work as a servant. However, far from teaching Cluny her place, her new employment offers her plenty of opportunities to become involved with the life of the family of the house, and before long, she’s causing havoc wherever she goes. This is a pure delight from start to finish, and a perfect read for when you just need to forget the world and its troubles. I loved every minute!

7. Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

I taught a collection of Ted Hughes poetry for the first time this year, and wanted to find out more about him in order to aid my teaching. I was expecting to find the reading of his biography a bit of a chore, but instead, I soon lost myself within the fascinating, often unbelievable events of his life. Bate is an excellent writer, with a keen sense of irony and a clear eye for detail, and his unusual thematic, non-chronological structure enables a more holistic understanding of Hughes’ evolving interests over time and how these influenced his writing. So much of Hughes’ often tragic life was stranger than fiction, and having been rather influenced by the Plath camp of Hughes-haters while at university, I came away from reading this with a far more nuanced and sympathetic view.  I think this should be essential reading for anyone interested in Hughes’ work.

6. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

I’ve had this doorstop of a book sitting on my shelf for years, and after having read it, I couldn’t believe I’d let its length put me off for so long. The story of nineteenth century prostitute Sugar and her rise to being the kept woman of a wealthy manufacturer is a brilliant and inventive exploration of the contrasting worlds of nineteenth century London society as well as a fantastic portrait of an unconventional woman whose true self is always kept just tantalisingly out of the reader’s reach. Yes it’s long, but the world Faber builds is so rich and multi-faceted that you’ll want to stay immersed in it forever!

5. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

My dear New York-based friend Katherine recommended this to me when she came over to stay with me in May and she was so passionate about it that I ordered it straight away. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who became incensed at the racial injustices inherent in the US Justice system, and the hugely disproportionate number of young black men and women sentenced to life imprisonment based on scanty evidence, largely due to racist attitudes of police, judges and jury members. He started an organisation dedicated to helping these people challenge their convictions, and several years on, he and his incredible team of lawyers, many of them volunteers, have been able to help hundreds of innocent people achieve justice and freedom. I was heartbroken by so many of the stories of lives wasted, and shocked at the true extent of indentured racism within society. It moved me so powerfully that I recommended it to everyone, and its triggered a lot of interesting and challenging conversations. It’s not an easy read, but an essential one.

4. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

This is the first Polish novel I’ve ever read, and I found it a wonderful, and rather unique, reading experience. Janina is an eccentric woman in late-middle age, passionate about animal rights, astrology and William Blake. She has a very part-time job as an English teacher, and also acts as a winter caretaker of the cottages in her small rural hamlet, most of which are summer homes for city dwellers. When her neighbour is discovered dead in the middle of the night, followed by a local police chief, Janina finds herself obsessed by the details of their deaths, and convinced that animals had something to do it. Before long, more men, all of whom have had some sort of connection with harming animals, are killed in strange circumstances, and Janina grows increasingly frustrated that no-one will listen to her when she claims that their murderers are animals, taking revenge against their cruel treatment. Janina tries to convince those around her that she is right, but this is no fantasy story, and a human hand ultimately has to be responsible – but whose? This a fantastically quirky, beautifully written and well plotted novel, with a twist I didn’t see coming – I enjoyed every moment and can’t wait to read more of this Nobel Prize winning author in 2020.

3. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

This is a sequel to the hugely popular Olive Kitteridge, and Strout is once again on top form in her chronicling of everyday life in small town Maine. There are so many beautifully, sensitively realised character studies within this sequence of short stories to laugh and weep over, and I read it in one sitting, genuinely unable to put it down. Strout manages to weave magic with her words, and reach deep within the depths of the human soul in her observations about life. I’ve loved everything she’s written, and this is a book I know I’ll come back to again and again.

2. Any Human Heart by William Boyd

This doorstopper is one I’d been meaning to read for years, and I’m so glad I did. The story of Logan Mountstuart from child to old age across the tumultuous years of the twentieth century, it’s a moving, entertaining, thought-provoking and utterly wonderful piece of storytelling that kept me hooked right from the first page. Logan is such a marvellous character, and Boyd brings him to such vivid life. I couldn’t bear to finish, and hated being wrenched away from his world when I had to close its pages. It’s a magnificent book; if you haven’t read it, you must!

1.Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson was my great discovery of 2019; I’ve now read five of her books and have loved them all. Life After Life was one of the first books I read in the new year, and none other I picked up in 2019 held a candle to it. It is the story of Ursula Todd, whose life can restart and take a different course whenever she finds herself in danger of death, allowing her to live several alternate lives over the five hundred or so pages of the novel. While it may seem like a whimsical premise, it completely works, and is a fascinating exploration of how the trajectories of our lives rest on what may initially seem to be minor decisions. Ursula and her family members are all brilliantly drawn against a compelling backdrop of early twentieth century Britain, and Atkinson writes with such refreshing, sophisticated clarity that her prose is a delight to read. If you’ve not tried Kate Atkinson, don’t delay another day!

Advent Activities

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One of the joys of getting older is getting to know yourself more. Last year I had the realisation that the horrible, crushing sadness and restlessness I feel every winter is nothing to do with my life being rubbish and in need of an overhaul, but is simply my body’s reaction to reduced daylight. In previous years, I’ve pushed through the fog by signing myself up for all sorts of things to make positive changes to my life, and only ended up making myself more exhausted and no less miserable. This year, I’ve recognised it for what it is, and am being kind to myself. I am, as the self-help books would say, listening to my body. I’m going to bed earlier, staying in to curl up on the sofa and read, eating lots of vegetables, and watching terrible Netflix Christmas movies. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying hibernating, and avoiding the chaotic crush of Christmas shoppers.

By making sure I make time to do nothing, I conserve my energy for the things I really want to do at Christmas time. The theatre is magical all year round, of course, but in the winter, I love being cocooned inside its womb-like darkness to watch a story unfold before my eyes. Over the last couple of months I’ve seen Lungs at the Old Vic, Death of a Salesman at the Piccadilly Theatre and The Ocean at the End of the Lane at the National, all of which have been fantastic, and I’m off to see Master Harold and the Boys at the National this week, which I’m really looking forward to. The William Blake exhibition at the Tate is so utterly magnificent I’ve already been twice and will go back again before it closes; there’s nothing better on a grey, rainy Saturday morning than being closeted with beautiful, otherworldly images that you have all the time in the world to gaze at, followed by a lovely cup of tea and a slice of cake, is there?

Yesterday I had a lovely evening walk around London, going to look at the Christmas lights. I also wanted to look at some of the streets in Westminster that are still lit by gas; I had no idea that there were whole swathes of the city that retain gaslight until I read an article about it in Country Life magazine (article not available online, though this different one is, and it’s very good!). Once I read about it, I was determined to go and investigate whether there really is a pronounced difference compared to electric light, and now I know that there certainly is! Carlton Gardens is a wonderful example; just off the Mall, and home to the Royal Society, it’s a beautiful corner of stucco houses that, as soon as dusk settles, glows gently through the gloom in a haze of soft gaslit luminescence. However, just around the corner, the darkness is illuminated with the harsh, garish splendour of Christmas lights festooning a neighbouring street of shops. Turn back, and it is as if you have crossed a fault line into the past; on the gaslit pavement, you can almost hear the horses’ hooves and the squeaking of carriage wheels. It was enough to give me the shivers!

Reading wise, I’ve been doing my best to motor through the piles of books I’ve bought and not read over the last few months. I devoured Elizabeth Strout’s new book, Olive, Again, in one sitting; she is such a revelation. What makes her characters so compelling is their utter ordinariness, and in their ordinariness is revealed the extraordinary nature of all our lives. Behind every door are quiet tragedies, gnawing disappointments, aching regrets – but also the glorious joys of unlooked for love, of receiving forgiveness, of an awareness of the freedom that comes with accepting who you are. It’s a glorious, life-affirming book – a true celebration of what it is to be human. You must read it. I’ve also finally finished Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s wonderfully strange novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which is my first foray into modern Polish fiction, and I absolutely loved every minute of it. A murder mystery with a brilliant, eccentric main character and plenty of twists and turns along the way, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I must also say, the translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, deserves considerable praise; this is a superbly written translation. If, like me, you love a good vintage mystery to get stuck into during these cold winter evenings, then the British Library Crime Classics’ compilation of short detective stories that take place on or around railways, Blood on the Tracks, is fantastic. I was particularly delighted to find a lesser known Dorothy L Sayers story inside, as well as a wonderful short story by F Tennyson Jesse, whose novel A Pin to See the Peepshow, is a spectacular account of the real-life Thompson-Bywaters case. Non-fiction wise, I found myself unexpectedly fascinated by Catherine Bailey’s Black Diamonds, a doorstopper I’ve been meaning to read for years; the story of the fortunes and tragedies of the Wentworth-Fitzwilliam family and their enormous house, Wentworth Woodhouse, that was built on the money made from their coal empire, reads like a novel, it’s that eventful. From heirs being born in Canadian log cabins to tragic deaths in plane crashes (alongside Kick Kennedy, JFK’s sister), this family had enough skeletons in their closets to pad out several volumes. Thankfully, since the book has been written, Wentworth Woodhouse has been saved from ruin, and can now be visited; I shall definitely be dropping by next time I go up north! The only disappointment I’ve had in my reading over the last few weeks was Salley Vickers’ new novel, Grandmothers; I shouldn’t have been seduced by the beautiful binding. Rather pedestrian, I was bored by the half way point and struggled onto the end. Such a shame!

Over the holidays, I’m going to be thinking about how to take this blog forward. It’s been ten years (!) since I started, the blogging world has changed enormously, my life has changed enormously, and the way in which I use the blog and what I want to write about are entirely different to when I began. I don’t plan on going anywhere – but I do plan on making some considerable changes. Any suggestions welcome. If I don’t have time to post again before Christmas, I wish all of you – old and new readers alike – a wonderful holiday with your loved ones.

The Netherlands

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As the grinding of the government machine creaks slowly and inefficiently towards removing the UK from Europe, I’ve become increasingly aware of how little I’ve appreciated being part of this continent that is filled with so many diverse and fascinating countries that have such distinct cultures and histories. When something is always there, you tend to take it for granted; now I am being severed from it, I feel hungry to experience as much of it as possible. The Eurostar recently started a direct service from London to Amsterdam; in less than five hours, you are whisked under the Channel, through northern France and Belgium, and then into the Netherlands, catching tantalising glimpses of Lille, Brussels and Rotterdam as you go. I have been meaning to go to the Netherlands for years, but somehow never got around to it; my new spirit of European discovery coupled with the prospect of a pleasant continental train journey made me decide that this half term was the time to go. For only £35 one way – cheaper than a train ticket to the seaside in Britain! – I was off to Amsterdam, and what a glorious surprise awaited me!

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I knew it would be charming – the canals, the gorgeous Dutch gables, everybody sailing along on gaily-coloured bikes – but I wasn’t prepared for just how stunningly beautiful it is. The canals are lined with terraces of breathtaking historical homes, all of which have enormous windows that you can peek through and enjoy some serious interior design envy (everyone in the Netherlands, judging from my peeping-tom activities, seems to be incredibly savvy about interior design, I must say – as well as incredibly gifted at floral arranging – if I have any Dutch readers, can you enlighten me as to how come these are such national talents?!), as well as fantastic, individual period details such as the varied types of gables, family crests, front doors, front steps, railings, etc. – there is no sense of uniformity in the way there is in London’s Georgian and Victorian streets. I could have walked up and down looking at these buildings for hours. Every canal has its own distinct feel, with some having been built for wealthier residents and others for more middle class, and some for larger boats and some for smaller, so as you walk around the city, each turn into a new street offers a subtly different vista that can’t fail to delight. The best way to take it all in is through a canal boat tour – there are plenty available and they’re all pretty cheap, so it’s well worth doing, as it really helps you to understand and appreciate the layout of the city and the canals and which neighbourhoods were built for which purposes.

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We were there for three days, and tramped our way all over the city, which is perfectly walkable if you don’t feel comfortable joining the cyclists! We particularly loved the charming, café and boutique-filled Jordaan and Nine Streets areas – don’t miss the unbearably beautiful hidden historic square built to house single Catholic women, called the Begijnhof. A little bit further afield in the old Jewish Quarter is a lovely botanical garden, which is well worth a visit for its gorgeous palm house alone, plus it has an excellent café. Museum-wise, we went to Anne Frank’s House, which was a very emotional experience – I’ve wanted to visit ever since I first read her diary as a child, and I found it incredibly moving and sobering to see the rooms in which she spent her final two years, as well as inspiring to read about the brave people who helped hide the Franks and the other two families who hid with them, at enormous risk to their own safety. The museum is excellent and really a must-see, though please be aware that you can only book a ticket online in advance and you will need to book at least a month before you plan on visiting. I’m glad someone told me this before I went, as I would have been so sad to miss out. We also really enjoyed the Willet-Holthuysen Museum, which is a perfectly preserved, stunning townhouse that was left to the city by its last owner, a very wealthy nineteenth century art collector, and is filled with gorgeous furniture, art and antiques. The Van Gogh Museum was another fascinating experience – again, you must book in advance – and though I’ve seen all the major paintings in London, Paris or New York, this museum has an extensive collection from across the entirety of his career, along with his personal correspondence, and so it’s well worth visiting not just for the art, but also for the ability to understand more about Van Gogh as a person.

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We could have happily stayed in Amsterdam all week, but my intrepid university friend Emma has a sister living in The Hague and she told me I must go there too, so I obeyed instructions! The train journey between Amsterdam and The Hague takes less than an hour, and you go through lots of lovely cities and countryside en route, with some tantalising glimpses of windmills and tulip fields. The Hague is very different to Amsterdam – as the financial and governmental centre of The Netherlands, it has far more official buildings, and is less picturesque, but it has plenty of charms of its own, and we loved exploring its stately streets. There are a particularly large number of art nouveau buildings, and some brilliant nineteenth century covered shopping arcades. A short tram ride takes you to the seaside at Scheveningnen, though it is a horror show of huge modern hotels and casinos and you do need to walk a long way down the front to get to the unspoiled white sand and dunes promised in the guidebooks! Another short tram ride in the opposite direction takes you to the charming mini-Amsterdam of Delft, home of Vermeer and of the eponymous Dutch pottery. Delft is gorgeous, and there is plenty to see and do – it’s definitely worth spending a day there. We visited the enormous and historic Old and New Churches, had delicious cakes and enjoyed wandering around the shops and along the canals. Back in The Hague itself, there are plenty of lovely cafes and shops to explore – amazing used and new book shops are aplenty in the Netherlands, and they all have an excellent stock of foreign language books – though the place to really not miss is the brilliant Maritshuis museum, which is where you’ll find Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring, along with many other masterpieces of Dutch art. We loved it so much, we went twice!

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I adored my week in the Netherlands and I already can’t wait to go back again. It’s beautiful, historic, friendly and very clean, with an excellent public transport service, brilliant museums and a very international outlook. Everyone speaks excellent English, which was enormously helpful, as my schoolgirl German really didn’t get me very far with Dutch! – and the Dutch seem to really value a much more relaxed, outdoors-y style of life. I could certainly see myself upping sticks and spending a year or so in the Netherlands at some point!