Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
Amsterdam knows how to throw a party fit for a queen
Saturday 29 April 2006
Assuming you are reading this on the morning of publication, it is most unlikely that you are in Amsterdam. Even though The Independent has an extensive distribution network across Europe, functioning newsagents are likely to be thin on the ground in the Dutch capital today. Business is certainly not as usual, because this is Queen's Day: the biggest, wildest party in Continental Europe.
The excuse for such civic frivolity is the monarch's birthday. Last weekend our own Queen celebrated her 80 years in style, but few of us reciprocated by taking to the streets in revelry and devotion. It's different in Holland, which makes Queen's Day one of those events that every traveller should attend at least once. The main spectacle is the Dutch themselves. For 364 days a year, they tend to be a more conservative people than they are often given credit for. But today plenty of them will dress in orange and make an early start in toasting Queen Beatrix with Heineken, or in some cases rolling up a regal spliff. The people who maintain a degree of sobriety may be doing so because they are hoping to sell their unwanted possessions: this is the one day of the year when anyone can flog anything they wish on the streets.
Each Queen's Day, Amsterdam turns into a vast flea market - like a gigantic car boot sale, except without the cars. Strangely, Queen Beatrix is notable by her absence: she keeps a respectable distance, in the prim surroundings of The Hague. There is no reason why she should join in, because Queen's Day technically falls on 30 April; Holland still respects the Sabbath enough to shift the celebrations to today.
Yet tomorrow isn't her birthday, either. Queen Beatrix was born on the last day of January, a time of year that can be fearsomely cold in Amsterdam and is therefore most unsuitable for street festivities. Pragmatic as ever, the Dutch use the birthday of the late Queen, Juliana, who was born on the last day of April. Which is tomorrow. Confused? You will be, especially if you happen to be in Amsterdam today.
BIRTHDAYS ARE not celebrated enough by the travel industry, with a few honourable exceptions. KD Line, the Cologne-based shipping company that runs boats on the Rhine, offers a free ride to anyone celebrating their birthday.
The Budapest Hilton, which overlooks Europe's other great river, the Danube, offers a birthday special: an upgraded room with a view, a cake, a bottle of sparkling wine and a candlelit dinner. When I made a test booking, I was not asked for proof of my date of birth; perhaps because the price of €470 (£335) for a two-night stay is not exactly a gift. Still, anyone who has had the pleasure of wandering through the mostly lovely Old Town of Buda will realise the big advantage of the Hilton: when you are inside the five-star eyesore that the communist government plonked unceremoniously next to the beautiful St Matthias Church, you can't see the way it has blighted the Hungarian capital.
Winter babies can instead spend their birthdays skiing in the attractive resort of Pinzolo in Italy. You will get a free lift ticket - and a three-course lunch in the mountain restaurant.
ONE DATE of birth has been causing me some stress. Next week, I have the privilege of meeting the winner of The Independent's Christmas charity auction, in which I promised three square meals in a journey covering the three Eurostar cities: breakfast is to be taken in a café overlooking the Place des Vosges in Paris, lunch on the Place Rihour in Lille and dinner at a restaurant on the Grand Place in Brussels.
One of our readers, Doreen McInerney, bid an extremely generous sum for this gastronomic trilogy. So I have been booking our train tickets.
Paris to Lille is a bargain at €20 (£14), as long as you book in advance at the excellent voyages-sncf.com website. You can even print out your ticket at home or in the office. But there is a catch; to avoid travellers selling their tickets to others, personal data must be supplied - and is duly printed on the tickets. This includes date of birth.
I would not dream of asking our generous benefactor when she was born; therefore, I typed in my own date of birth. The ticket collector is unlikely to be impressed, and Doreen will be either flattered or furious. I shall let you know whether we make it as far as dinner.
AIR FARES' POSTCODE LOTTERY
In the contorted universe in which the travel industry resides, you should never assume that the price of a journey from A to B is the same as the fare from B to A.
For example, British travellers benefit from a wide range of cheap tickets to South America, but if you start in Argentina, Brazil or Peru, you will typically pay £100 more. Airlines put this down to variations in market conditions - bluntly, they cannot get away with charging such high fares for journeys starting in Britain, now the world centre for cheap flights.
To have a discrepancy of 40 per cent for a domestic flight within the UK is strange indeed, but that is what BA has announced. The lowest one-way fare on the new BA Connect route from Belfast to Birmingham is £25. Start in the West Midlands, though, and the fare jumps to £35.
Is this because Brummies have deeper pockets and are freer with their cash? No, says BA. The airline blames the discrepancy on Birmingham's airport charges being £10 higher. Yet FlyBe offers the same route for a flat £20 each way.
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