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AUSTRALIA | Thursday, 9 June 2011 | Views [499]

Like so many Dutch cities Leiden is built around the series of canals that link the river with the farming, mercantile and manufacturing interests of the town. Everywhere you walk there are low bridges, clear waterways, and flat bottomed boats moored or simply making their way around.

It is a tranquil life. The streets each side of the canals are too narrow for cars to park so the locals go everywhere by bike. They have dedicated lanes and undercover parking at the central train station. It is nothing unusual for parents to ride with children stacked three deep in an assortment of stands, seats, and specially constructed barrows.

Of course this idyll probably only applies to the older parts of town. On trains in and out of the city you see flashing by newer suburbs, banks of grey apartment blocks, motorways.

On Sunday we travel to Rotterdam. Once the busiest port in the world, and still the biggest in Europe, the city was flattened in WWII and then rebuilt. As a result not much remains of its historic core, and the streets bristle with new buildings and high rise.

But there are some. Just over the Erasmus Bridge is a single warehouse left from the days of the Dutch East India Company. A brick building, almost black with age and deposited soot. Just below the roofline the names of places once part of Empire. Java. Borneo. Celebes.

The Pakhuismeesteren sits below the new terminal of the Holland America Line, this building itself dwarfed by the enormous liner that is berthed and awaiting passengers. Both J_______ and D_____ say how terrible it would be to be trapped on a boat for seven days across the Atlantic. Only a week I reply, and so much less the month and a half journey that brought M_____'s family, and my own, to Australia, so long ago.

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