Monthly Archives: January 2011

Serene and Sacred in Bury St. Edmunds – Part 2

The warmth of the cathedral’s interior was a welcome respite from the icy cold outside. We had come to Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk for the afternoon and we had just entered the serenely beautiful St. Edmundsbury Cathedral. Our eyes were immediately drawn upward as we absorbed the vast height of the interior.

This massive structure was typical of a European cathedral since it was built in stages over rather a long period of time. Construction of the surrounding abbey had begun in 1065 and building on the church began in 1503. But ongoing work has continued over the centuries that followed and the Gothic style tower was only completed in 2005.

St. Edmundsbury Cathedral-centre aisle

Those blue items that you see in the photos above and below are kneeling cushions — and what an array of them there are. Lovingly handstitched in tapestry, they bear the coat of arms of various villages, parishes, and organizations.

Kneeling cushions in St. Edmundsbury Cathedral

Light floods in from the lantern tower overhead and from all sides through the vast windows making the interior bright and airy.

St. Edmundsbury Cathedral altar

St. Edmundsbury Cathedral altar

In spite of its turbulent beginnings and oft-times violent history, the remnants of the abbey and the current beautiful cathedral are tranquil places to visit when in Suffolk.

We spent about an hour walking slowly through the cloisters, the cathedral, and the side chapels. There is a very welcoming sensation inside and there is none of the cold or austere atmosphere that you sometimes encounter in buildings such as this.

It must be a massive and expensive undertaking to maintain such an important building, so it is certainly worth taking the time to consider a donation to the cathedral if you have enjoyed your visit. Their amusing but accurate donation box makes that easy to do.

Donation box at St. Edmundsbury Cathedral

Copyright ©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
Please respect the copyright of all text and photos on this website. All rights reserved.

Serene and Sacred in Bury St. Edmunds – Part 1

Grateful for a rain-free day, we set off across the Suffolk countryside toward the historic town of Bury St. Edmund. Our destination was the medieval abbey ruins and St. Edmundsbury Cathedral. Both of these lie side by side right within the town itself instead of being in a separate location out in the nearby countryside.

As we entered through the arch beneath the Abbey Gate seen in the photo above, we emerged into the Abbey Gardens.

Even with the winter-muted palate and bare-branched trees, the gardens are a peaceful place to walk or sit quietly on a bench.

Other than the entry gates and the beautiful old wall that formerly surrounded the compound, there is very little left of the old abbey since it was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 during the reign of Henry VIII.

We meandered through the side garden, following the sign for the cathedral’s restaurant, The Refectory. Although we weren’t looking for food or drink, entering on that side of the building allowed us to walk the full length of the enclosed cloister and enjoy the austere beauty of the stone walls and floors, the vaulted stone ceilings, and the plain timber benches.

Cloister of St. Edmundsbury Cathedral

In tomorrow’s Part 2, I will have photos of the stunning interior of this cathedral. Make sure to check back!

Copyright ©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
Please respect the copyright of all text and photos on this website. All rights reserved.

Teeny Tiny Transport

What fun! I have recently seen some of the tiniest motor vehicles possible on the streets of Amsterdam — so here is a selection of them. Pay particular attention to the size of the vehicle compared to whatever vehicle or bike or person is next to it.

Microvan chained to a ship's anchor to prevent theft

The first vehicle was so brightly coloured that it caught my eye several times during the week and ended up being a repeat performer in my photos. Apparently since these vehicles are so small, they are quite easy to steal. As a result, I noticed that they were frequently not merely parked, they were often chained to something sturdy. The vivid green microvan was spotted the first time chained to a ship’s anchor at the side of a canal!

The second shot gives you a true insight into the diminutive scale of this vehicle as it whizzes by the huge blue truck parked on on the street.

And if you click on the third picture and enlarge it, you will see that the head of the bicyclist nearby is actually higher than the top of the green vehicle.

How delightfully funny it was to approach the entry of the Rijksmuseum and see this tiny white expresso van parked alongside the footpath.

When you click on the picture on the right and allow it to enlarge, can you spot what is inside? It isn’t your imagination — that really is a crystal chandelier hanging on the ceiling of that wee vehicle!

We were walking back from a cafe one afternoon when we spotted this blue vehicle a few feet away. The first thought that sprang to mind was that it looked like a toy — or like one of those cartoonishly tiny cars that full-sized male clowns drive into the ring at the circus.

Over the next few days, I saw several versions of this car called a Canta. I did a bit of research on them and at a starting price of £12,000, these are not inexpensive in spite of their size since they are primarily designed for people with mobility issues.

According to several websites, no driving licence is required and these micro-cars can be both parked on the footpath and driven through a shopping centre quite legally.

Wouldn’t that do your head in a bit to be walking through the mall and have a car glide past you — a car that you towered over? Boggles the mind!

For my final example we have another Canta. — a bright red GLX version this time. We watched the woman driver and her child passenger pull up outside the movie theatre and stop to check the times of that day’s screenings. Look what a tiny portion of a parking space is being used!

Copyright ©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
Please respect the copyright of all text and photos on this website. All rights reserved.

Life Amongst The Bikes in Amsterdam

Look left, look right, and be aware! There are more bicycles in Amsterdam, used on a daily basis for every purpose imaginable, than any other city in Europe. According to, 40% of the total traffic is made up of bicyclists.

Many other cities around the planet now aspire to be equally bike-powered and green, but ask yourself these questions while you peruse the photos.

Could you ‘car pool’ your children to school without a car — or shop for a week’s worth of groceries and get them home via pedal-power?

Bike riding parent with children

Bike riding parent with children

What if you purchased a piece of furniture, didn’t want to pay a delivery fee, and decided to just have a go at bringing it home on your bike?

Walking the table home

Walking the table home

Can you hitch a sidesaddle ride on a bike for a breezy afternoon outing?

Hitching a ride on the back of a bike

Hitching a ride on the back of a bike

And as to parking them? Bikes are chained up simply everywhere including along the railings of bridges and fences, to window grilles along building fronts, and to lamp posts.

Bike on a bridge

Bike on a bridge

Even though bikes in this city are chained/latched/attached to anything that seems remotely stable and firm — as you can see by the sign below, that is not always appreciated by the owners of various buildings!

No parking sign for bikes

No parking sign for bikes

Another option is to park in someplace safe and secure like this 3 story garage for cycles which is looked after by security guards and is situated quite close to the front of Central Station. BELOW: 3 level bike parking lot. Photo by Mark Harmes

3 level bike parking lot. Photo by Mark Harmes

3 level bike parking lot. Photo by Mark Harmes

During our recent 8 day visit, I was especially impressed with the Bakfiets that I saw simply everywhere carrying children of all ages and sizes in the front section as the parents steered from the back. And whether used with or without the hooded ‘convertible top’ to keep the child passengers or shopping dry, the families that we saw using these sensible vehicles all looked relaxed and happy in spite of the winter temperatures.

Bikes with attached cart-style child carriers

Bikes with attached cart-style child carriers

This is one of the most charming cities in Europe and any visit to Amsterdam is made all the more delightful by being able to navigate through this beautiful city and enjoy scenic streets which are not clogged with noisy or air-polluting cars.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photography is by Deborah Harmes.
©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
Please respect the copyright of all text and photos on this website. All rights reserved.

6 Simple Steps To Save On Your Trip To Amsterdam

The misty mornings, the postcard-perfect views over almost every canal, the ease of getting around, the sensible and eco-friendly bicycle culture, the friendliness of every single person we met — these are just a few of the joys of travelling to one of my favourite European cities, Amsterdam!

Brouwersgracht Canalside

Here are 6 simple steps that helped us save money by ‘living like a local’ while we were there for 8 days recently.

1. Rent an apartment instead of staying in a hotel. I did a web search on “short term apartments in Amsterdam” and the links that caught my eye were not the very expensive commercial ones. Instead, I was drawn to two very similar sites — Roomorama and AirBnB. After searching through the options on both sites for an arrival on a prime travel-booking date of New Year’s Eve, I chose Roomorama based on the variety of apartments still available and was very pleased with the apartment that we rented in the Jordaan area. Both sites contain a range of prices and neighbourhoods.

2. Cook your own meals in that apartment — and that means shopping for groceries!

Cracker aisle in Amsterdam grocery

Grocery shopping in Amsterdam

Just by getting out and walking around the neighbourhood on our first day, we quickly discovered that Albert Heijn grocery stores were scattered all over Amsterdam in every district.

The word “winkel” means shop, so the click-on link above takes you to a map of their shops both within Amsterdam and in other parts of the country.

Even when you are moving past the obvious and easy choices of fruit and vegetables, food looks pretty much the same all over Europe, North America, and Australia or New Zealand in spite of the name on the package being quite different.

Besides, it’s fun to pick up your winkelwagon (shopping cart) and put some items in there like unknown cheese varieties, milk or butter in many shades and sizes, or these crackers to the left with mystery names.

Home cooked dinner in Amsterdam

Here’s an example above of one of the delicious meals that we cooked in the apartment with locally sourced groceries.

3. Use public transport such as trams, trains, and buses.

Tram at Museumplein

OV-Chipkaart for Amsterdam

One of the nicest things about Amsterdam is the ease with which you can traverse the city by using a combination of trams and buses along with trains for the suburban trips. A sensible way to save money is to refrain from buying individual tickets for each journey and to instead purchase a multi-trip pass sold by GVB — the public transportation company.

After doing some online research, we decided to purchase an OV-Chipkaart which would allow us several days of travel on any of the trams or buses in Amsterdam. These durable plastic cards are the size of a credit card, are valid for 5 years, and are rechargeable with a credit card at ATM style machines scattered all over the city. These ‘hole in the wall’ recharge machines are usually located right next to a bank ATM.

There is a wonderful series of network maps and tourism site maps on the GVB website. Just click on the link to find them.

We purchased our cards at the GVB Ticket Office in the Tourist Information building at Stationsplein, directly opposite the huge Central Station. But they are also available from dispensing machines in places such as Schiphol Airport.

4. Buy a Museum Pass and save, save, save!
Most visitors to Amsterdam will be planning on a visit to one or more of the stunning museums here such as the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank House, the Stedelijk Museum, the Amsterdam Historisch Museum, and many more.

For the avid museum-goer, you can purchase the Museumkaart which is sold at the entry of most of the major museums for €39 plus a one-time €4.95 administration charge for issuing the card. We used our card at all 5 of the museums that I have just named and once you get past 3 admissions at an average of €15 each, the card has paid for itself. Our next two museum visits after that were essentially free.

You will receive another plastic card that is the size of a credit card and this one is valid for a full year. It certainly encourages you to come back for another visit during that 12 month period because the card covers over 400 museums, castles, and sites of significance all over the Netherlands, not just within Amsterdam.

5. Shop and eat where the locals do and avoid the streets where the tourists are.

Taking a break in a local cafe

Expresso at a Turkish cafe

Whether you are buying a croissant at a bakery, taking a break for lunch and a coffee, or stopping for a cocktail and some snacks, save yourself a lot of money and get off of the main tourist thoroughfares. Run away from cafes or restaurants where you see tourists with guidebooks on the table! Instead, seek out the neighbourhood cafes where the locals are reading their newspapers in the local language.

A perfect example of the shopping locally concept was the pastry run that my husband made one morning for croissants. He was up quite early on one of our first mornings in Amsterdam and he walked down to one of the main tourist streets and purchased four of them for €7. The following morning, after we had done a thorough perusal of our neighbourhood, he purchased four much nicer and much fresher croissants in our local bakery for €3.20 — a more than 50% savings.

You can apply that same principal to just about everything including the ubiquitous cup of coffee. Instead of paying €3.50 for an expresso or €3.90 for a far-too-milky latte, why not head down to the local Turkish cafe for a rich, fragrant, and strong cup of java at the budget friendly cost of €2.25 or less. Yum!

6. Sort out how to access money before you leave home.
Two of the fastest ways to burn up extra cash are by making too many visits to the ATM machine for cash whilst travelling and by using your credit card too liberally. A far better set of strategies are to
(a) have a few hundred euros with you upon arrival. We ordered this currency from our local bank in Australia and it was free of any transaction fees. Your own bank will almost always give you a much better exchange rate than those airport stands or street-side foreign exchange shops.
(b) keep your withdrawals to a minimum and take out more than you normally would back home. Your linked bank back home will most likely charge you a foreign ATM fee in addition to the foreign currency exchange fee. If you are withdrawing €100 at a time instead of €300-500, you will be paying an average of $8.50 in US or Australian dollars/£5.50 in British funds for each of those €100 withdrawals. So it is far more sensible to take a larger amount out each time.
(c) use a linked banking network. You will probably always be charged the currency exchange fee by your bank since they are simply passing on the cost of conversion to you. But what if you could find a way to bypass the on-average $5-or-more fee for using an overseas ATM machine that does not belong to your own bank? I made a point of opening an account in Australia with a bank that was a member of the Global Alliance. By using a bank that is associated with this international group of banks, I can access my money for FREE (not including the mandatory currency exchange fee) at banks throughout the world. Check with your own bank prior to departure to determine if they participate in such a network. Then you can use the same method to save you some money that you can happily spend on food or fun instead of fees!
(d) find out what it will cost you to use a credit card overseas for purchases. You certainly get the most accurate foreign exchange rate when you use credit cards, but they also attract rather a lot of fees with every purchase. On average, most banks charge a whopping 5% of the cost of the purchase for the ‘convenience factor’ of using your credit card abroad. And on top of that, you will also be charged a currency conversion fee. Save yourself the resultant shock when you check your online bank statement and be informed about your options and the costs involved before you depart on your trip.

Hundreds of euros can be saved by following the strategies that I have outlined above. By doing a bit of advanced planning, you can relax and spend your travel money where you want to spend it, not where you are forced to spend it.

NOTE: All prices were current at the time of writing in 2011.

Copyright © Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
Please respect the copyright of all text and photos on this website. All rights reserved.

Short break while we do set-ups

You may have noticed that a week has gone by since my last post from Amsterdam. Everything is fine, but I’m taking a few days off from posting for some necessary ‘housekeeping’ chores.

We sailed from the Netherlands to England on a lovely (and smooth!) night passage and are now living temporarily in a small village in Norfolk. The countryside is glorious (pictures coming soon!), the house is huge and comfortable, and we’re getting rather used to the daily gray skies and drizzle, drizzle, drizzle that is the norm for an England winter.

This past week has been eaten up with looking for and finally purchasing a car, setting up bank accounts, getting registered with a local doctor, and other unavoidable settling-in tasks like stocking the house with groceries and figuring out how to use the washing machine.

It has been an interesting learning curve — and I’ll be back to posting in a few days!

Marching Through History in Amsterdam

How small they were, those suits of armor. How diminutive were the heroes that defended the realm and bore that metallic outer layer upon their arms and chests. Marching, marching — doing what was expected of them.

Suits of Armor

Suit of Armor

I was surprised when I stood quite close to several of the exhibits and realized that the men who wore those metal suits were, in many cases, quite a bit smaller of frame and shorter of stature than most contemporary 20th or 21st century women. And these tiny men fought quite furious battles on land and sea to conquer lands or defend their homes. They were certainly smaller than I am and I’m not a very big person at 5 and 1/2 feet tall.

Perhaps it was the gloomy palette of the winter day outside and the icy-gusty rain, but between the paintings and exhibits of military life or the life aboard a sailing ship in both the Rijksmuseum yesterday afternoon and the Amsterdam Historisch Museum today, I experienced a strong sense of sadness for those lives that may have had intense boredom or bodily discomfort layered into their daily existence. I actually shuddered at one particularly vivid picture of two ships, side by side, engaged in a fiery, bloody battle. None of it seemed remotely stirring or the least bit grand or glamorous.

Exterior of the Rijksmuseum

Our afternoon at the Rijksmuseum was quite pleasant in spite of the mid-winter crowds and it was marvelous to revisit the work of Rembrandt after two decades, see his evolution as a painter, and compare the work of his contemporaries.


Corbel known as The Milkmaid

Corbel known as The Milkmaid

Wooden statue from 15th century

Wooden statue from 15th century

1960s-70s Kitchen

1960s-70s Kitchen

For me personally, the most enjoyable parts of our visit to the Amsterdam Historisch Museum were the fine wooden carvings that were displayed on the exterior of buildings during the 15th through 17th centuries and the exhibits on daily life in Amsterdam. There were cross sections of model houses that showed how the citizens of this city lived in various eras and set-ups of entire period rooms.

Some of the exhibits were both difficult to view and eerily fascinating at the same time. We had walked through room after room, era after era until we reached the top floor of this large museum and we came upon an entire series of displays that illustrated what life was like for Amsterdam citizens during the 5 year long German occupation of World War II. It was compelling viewing and I have included a few photos below of propaganda posters that can be enlarged if you click on them.

Picture of Judenstrasse during German occupation

German Propaganda Posters

This is a particularly comprehensive one-city-only historical museum that is housed in a splendidly large building. The exhibits are quite easy to understand, even if you don’t speak a word of Dutch! In fact, almost all of the museum has both Dutch and English captioning. A visit to this museum is a highly recommended way to spend several hours in Amsterdam.

©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
Please respect the copyright of all text and photos on this website.
All rights reserved.