My final stop in Holland was the town of Arnhem, located on the eastern border of this awesome country. Over the past 70,000 years (since the Neanderthals lived in this part of Europe), Arnhem has amassed a population of 151,356 and I’m happy to report that the intellect and kindness of the population has significantly improved. Mostly.
My main reason for stopping in Arnhem was that it is close to the border of Germany and would afford me good transport links to Düsseldorf, which was my next port of call. I also thought it would be a nice place to explore, as it isn’t as well-known as Amsterdam or The Hague and I wanted to go somewhere a little off the tourist trail.
I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay and I thought I would try out Couchsurfing, to see if someone would let me stay with them for the duration of my time there. For those of you who don’t know about Couchsurfing (like I didn’t, until I was told about it by Julia, another backpacker who I met in the Lake District), it is a site where you request to stay with people in their homes for free and they are kind enough to say yes. You then return the favour when the host comes to your home city or you pay it forward to other backpackers and they do the same. It’s such a lovely, trusting and kind concept, I really wanted to be part of it. I had tried to do my first couchsurfing in Amsterdam but unbeknownst to me, along with Paris and Berlin, it is one of the most difficult European cities to secure a couch in and not only that, I had no recommendations from other hosts to support me, I wasn’t verified to prove my identity and had no couchsurfing friends to vouch for me.
Hoping Arnhem would provide me with the first chance of trialing this unique and super cost-effective initiative. I got myself verified and reached out to about 12 hosts but kept getting the same response from all of them ‘sorry, that’s over King’s Day and I won’t be here’ or ‘sorry, that’s over King’s Day and I’m not looking to host’ or just ‘sorry, that’s King’s Day’. I had no idea what King’s Day was so decided to look it up. Previously Queen’s Day on 30th April but now King’s Day, held every year on 27th April (the King’s actual birthday), it is a public holiday for the whole country to celebrate the King’s Birthday and this year was his 50th. Not only do the people get the day off work, every town, city and village has a massive free festival to celebrate. Huge stages are erected and well-known music acts and DJs provide music and entertainment from King’s Night (the night before King’s Day) and then all day until midnight on the day itself. It is a huge celebration for the whole country and I was so lucky to be a part of it.
Out of all my responses from couchsurfing hosts, one conversely wrote back and said ‘it’s King’s Day, it would be great to host you and have you come and celebrate with me and my friends’. That’s when I met the nicest person in Holland – my very first couchsurfing host called Vincent.
Vincent was kind enough to pick me up from the station and I was to stay at his home, as his guest for the next 3 nights. As I was getting into his car it did feel strange that this complete stranger was going to let me stay with him for free, with just my gratitude being enough for food and lodgings. It even felt stranger when he drove me to an abandoned looking lock-up on the outskirts of the city. Luckily after a tinge of aprehension, it turned out that Vincent had a really awesome converted flat inside and a very comfy mattress for me to sleep on for the duration of my stay.
We sat in for a short while with a beer and started to get to know each other. Being King’s Night though, the plan was to go out and for Vincent to show me around all the different stages and DJ stations around the city. We made our way on the bus and once we arrived in the city centre, Vincent got a couple of travellers out of his bag and we enjoyed drinking them, as we wandered the streets, seeing so many people partying and revelling and all in awesome spirits. We saw so many huge stages, each with large crowds dancing and just really enjoying themselves. We took a quick detour to his friends flat and chilled out for a short while, only to be told it was compulsory to come to his pre King’s Day party the following day from 12pm. Moving on, we found the city square called Jansplaats (renamed Danceplaats for the day) and found a group of his friends who we stayed with to party for the night. Initially, it was a bit odd just going out clubbing with a group of strangers who didn’t speak the same language. I was just this random guy nodding along to the music, drinking beer quickly to calm his nerves and smiling every now and again, when I made eye contact but it quickly became evident there was no need to be nervous. Considering how nice Vincent is, it shouldn’t have been a surprise at how nice his friends were either. Everyone spoke with me in English and were equally as receptive and fun, it felt like spending time with friends I’ve had for years. The music was so good, the vibe was amazing and the company awesome. After a while, a few of us moved on to another, even bigger stage and we danced, sang and had a bloody good time. Agreeing to leave at midnight, to ensure we made the most of the following day, we headed back to the lock-up and I slept soundly and comfortably for the whole night.
The next morning, we woke up and didn’t feel too bad, so chowed down on some breakfast and watched some of the King’s Day celebrations on TV which showed the King and his family arriving in Tilburg (the Royal family go to a different town each year) to enjoy the festivities. As orange is the national colour of the Netherlands, there were a lot of people dressed in this colour and everyone looked super festive and bright, which really added to the atmosphere. Vincent then produced a very orange mid-morning snack of an orange cake, orange and ginger tea and a very strong orange and bitter liqueur. Start as you mean to go on!
Around midday, we headed back into town and to his friends party, not forgetting our travellers to drink on the way, all courtesy of Vincent. We got to the party and I met even more of his friends along with his brother and they were all so good to include me in all their conversations, either translating for me or speaking in English so I could be included. Every time I put a beer down a new one was thrust into my hand and the place was full of excitement. It seemed a shame that they we weren’t joining them at the major hardcore dance party they were going to but Vincent and I, being 10 years older than most of the crowd there, had left those days in our past and decided to carry on to see more of his friends and enjoy some less hardcore dance. The whole of the city was packed and everywhere you looked were people decked out in as much orange as they could find. There was such a good atmosphere and no animosity or threat of idiots ruining the day that it was really good fun just being among the crowd and getting swept up in the merriment of it all. As I wrote this, I can tell I’m 10 years older than my clubbing days, because I use the word merriment.
We joined some more of Vincent’s friends (he seems to have so many) in one of the smaller dance tents and again, they were so welcoming. Everybody was getting rounds of drinks and the conversation flowed so freely, it was just super good fun. The only issue was that I wasn’t feeling so good and try as I might to purge myself of beer and ill feeling, I couldn’t shift it and by 7pm, I had to take myself back to Vincent’s flat and fight a fever, which saw my temperature spike and my ability to sleep completely diminish. I ended up just laying in my bed shivering and watching an entire series on Netflix before welcoming my drunk host home, who was able to fill me in on what I missed out on, which was basically lots of super good fun. After Vincent went to his room, I finally managed to sleep and woke up feeling considerably better than I had for the past 12 hours.
Although we both weren’t feeling 100% (for different reasons) we didn’t want to waste the day and as Vincent had taken annual leave for the Friday, he was really hospitable and decided to spend it with me, to show me round. We decided to go to the National Park nearby, to hire bikes and cycle around the place, letting the fresh air cleanse our party souls. It worked and the Hoge Veluwe National Park was beautiful to see by bike. It is a 55 square km park, which consists of heathlands, sand dunes and woodlands. We were able to see a little wildlife, including a stag and the shift in landscape from woodland to sand dune created a beautiful blend of scenery which was stunningly knitted together as we rode through them.
We headed back via one of the city parks, where we took a stroll to appreciate the calmer aspects of the city, with no revellers in sight and it was a really good way to wind down, after a fairly active few days. Heading to the supermarket, I got everything we needed for a superfood salad and worked my limited magic in the kitchen to make us something filling and healthy, to accompany Vincent’s delicious broccoli soup, allowing us to both replenish vital vitamins and minerals we were both no doubt lacking, following the King’s Day celebrations.
The next morning was my last in Holland and I was gutted. My entire time in Holland was exceptional. The people are some of the nicest you could meet and the reunions I had with long acquainted friends as well as meeting so many new ones were brilliant. Being there to celebrate King’s Day was phenomenal and I’m super keen to return to Arnhem in 2018 to enjoy it all over again. With Vincent’s overwhelming hospitality to me (a complete stranger to him) the end of my time in Holland went with a bang and I left with some more amazing friends, memories and a desire to come back and explore even more of this brilliant country. I guess its safe to say… Holland, I love you! See you again soon.