Amsterdam: Day 9

Hello from Holland! Our day began bright and early with a 5 am wake-up call. We showered and ran out the door of the the Hotel Metropole. The running continued at the train station as we jumped on the Thalys training without a minute to spare. Once the train started moving, we both fell asleep as we traveled through Antwerp and Rotterdam. When we arrived in Amsterdam, we got oriented and checked into our next hotel — Citizen M Amsterdam City. This particular hotel has a modern Ikea vibe. Half of the room is taken up by a square extra-long King size bed. The other half has two glass capsules — one with a shower and the other with a commode. You can adjust the light color for both the capsules using the room’s mood-pad. I am calling this our spaceship room.

After checking in, we got some breakfast at a cafe and decided to hop on a canal cruise to start exploring the city. Joe’s first impression of Amsterdam was that it reminded him of Minneapolis. It’s not too hot and not too cold. The city feels very clean and new. I was pretty surprised — I was really expecting something with more of a New Orleans vibe, but I haven’t felt that way so far. There are bicycles and canal boats everywhere you turn. There’s modern architecture in some neighborhoods while others contain long lines of tall, skinny historic homes with gabled roofs.

The city natives speak Dutch to one another, but it seems like everyone also speaks flawless English to out-of-towners. The canal tour included a narration that looped in 4 different languages.

After the tour, we did a little more exploring on foot. We wandered the flower market, which offers every variety of flower bulb. I wish I had some room in my suitcase for the “Queen of the Night’ black tulip bulbs! We also toured some cheese shops, sampling all the locally made varieties — again, more room in the suitcase would be great!

After shopping, we headed in to tour the Van Gogh museum. Vincent is one of my favorite artists, so I was really looking forward to touring all 4 floors of his work. The curators of this particular museum did an amazing job of creating exhibits that draw you in to he story of Van Gogh’s life. While I think a lot of his life story is common knowledge, I felt I was hearing about it all for the first time, sort of like when you read a good novel or see a good movie about a historical event. One thing I was surprised to learn that Van Gogh wasn’t actually a self-taught prodigy. He actually struggled to develop his artistic talent and often relied on artistic tools that were frowned upon by other artists. He also engaged a number of meticulous processes to develop his masterpiece, often creating multiple practice paintings on site before even starting the version inside his studio. His style swung like a pendulum, starting out exclusively with dull, almost black earth tones before swiftly transitioning into the century’s first modern colorist. I was thrilled with this particular museum!

Next, we hit of the Hard Rock Cafe for supper. The restaurant is located right on the canal and we got a table with a great view of the water. We are back at the hotel now and getting ready to watch a movie and rest up for tomorrow. Good night all!

Brussels: Day 8

Hello from Belgium! I’m typing this post in a huge puffy bed in the Hotel Metropole — our one and only 5 star accommodation on this trip. Joe and I are both pretty thrifty people, but since Brussels is the EU capital city, hotel prices are slashed in July and August when their government is out of session. I was excited about the birdcage elevator and the lavender crystal chandelier above our bed.

We packed up this morning and headed for the train station. The morning was pretty uneventful until we sat breakfast in the train station. We were chomping away at our final french pastries, when suddenly I heard a plop and Joe’s doughnut was covered with something. I was so confused, for a second I thought he had thrown up. But, Joe set me straight — a pigeon had flown into the station and pooped right over our table. How’s that for keeping it real?

After the train ride and checking into our hotel, we set out to stroll the streets of Brussels. This is by far the smallest city we’ve visited so far with a population of about 1 million people. While Brussels doesn’t have many well-known ticketed attractions, it’s high on ambiance. Our first destination was the Grand Place, which is known as the most beautiful square in Europe. We ate a late lunch — ordering many belgian specialties including waffles, beer, and frittes (french fries, cooked twice and served with mayonnaise). Joe also ordered some lasagna and we shared everything. It was all amazingly delicious.

After lunch we took in some of the action in the square. We checked out a few of the shops which host other Belgian trademarks — chocolate and hand-made lace. Due to pouring rain and neither of us feeling the best (Joe has a cold and I ate too many waffles) we decided to call it an early night. We have both been enjoying some R&R — I took a bubble bath and Joe has been watching Wimbelton. Tomorrow, we head out on the early train to Amsterdam — good night!

Paris: Day 7

Good evening from Paris! Today was our final day in the city of light — sad! I really loved the time we spent here. Last night after I finished my post, we decided to do a little laundry in the bathroom sink. We packed some travel packets of Tide that are intended for hand-laudering. Joe strung up a make-shift clothes line and we took turns washing, rinsing, and wringing. At first it was kind of fun, but the process lost it’s luster quickly and by the end of it all — we sort of missed the washing machine. In the morning, Joe woke up before me and brought all the clothes to a laundromat to finish drying them. On his way out, he actually stumbled upon a laundromat that was a lot closer than we had thought — like, you could see it out the hotel window. So the whole laundry situation was kind of humorous.

For breakfast, we both enjoyed some treats from the boulangerie across the street — Joe had a chocolate chip baguette and I had a broccoli and ham quiche. Next, we set out to tour St. Chapelle. This particular church is quite small, with two sanctuaries stacked atop one another. It’s know for its immaculate stained glass windows, which tell stories from the first several books of the Old Testament. It is quite amazing that these windows still exist as much of church was destroyed during the French Revolution. Back then, the church housed relics of the Passion of Christ including His crown of thorns, which was purchased by the church for more than the value of the entire building itself.

Next, we took a walk across the Pont des Arts bridge near the Louvre. This bridge is known for undying love as demonstrated by the thousands of locks, inscribed with 2 names and a date, clamped on by its visitors. Once the lock is clamped, the lovers throw the keys over into the river. Joe was somewhat hesitant to join in this tradition, as recent news stories have shared concern about the added weight of the locks on this particular bridge. But! I have confidence the civil engineers of France are dealing with the matter. Don’tja know wives can be much more convincing than news stories? It’s true, for those with nice husbands anyway:)

Our next stop was the Opera Garnier — Paris’s opera house. The interior decor drew me towards this particular sight. The ceiling in the auditorium was re-painted by Marc Chagall in the late 60’s — his paintings of ballet dancers are his most well-known work. This site was truly beautiful — I’ll post pictures when we get home!

Next, we ate lunch at Pomme de Pain, which is like a European equivalent of Panera. I had a vegetarian baguette sandwich and Joe had the lasagna. Both orders came with a bottle of water and a raisin croissant — very good, very filling!

Next, we decided it was time to do some shoppingI We are not much for souvenirs, but Paris is the fashion capital of the world so I decided some shoes would make a great souvenier! The Galleries Lafayette, Paris’s largest department store, has an entire floor of shoes, so we went there first. I found exactly what I was looking for — kelly green pumps. The photo in the link is not the right color, but it’s close enough. Next, we hopped back on the metro and headed towards the Arc de Triumphe and the Champs Elysees. After taking a few pictures near the monument, we continued shopping on the most famous street in Paris. This boulevard has 6 lanes of traffic and many high end stores — Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Cartier, etc. I got a dress from Zara. We also checked out all 3 car stores — Toyota, Renault, and Mercedez Benz. I love the Renaults! Joe loved them all — he is a car guy, after all! I can’t really imagine ordering a car from a store with 5 showroom models you can’t take out the building, but hey, whatever works for Paris — it was fun to look.

It was a great day — tomorrow we leave for Brussels on the high-speed Thalys train. Our internet was out yesterday, but it’s back now (obviously); click back here for Day 6 and Joe’s food commentary.

French Food

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The food here is pretty good. I am actually surprised. I purchased a baguette with chocolate chips this morning from the bakery across from the hotel. It is amazing. Super light and fluffy. The Fanta here is amazing too. I remember hearing that it is different but it is great. Not knowing any French, it looks like there is 10% juice in it. There is actually pieces of orange floating inside of it.

We went to McDonald’s yesterday for the first time over here. That was different in a very good way. The McNuggets were smaller than in the states, but they tasted fresher. They weren’t as salty and fatty. It seems consistent that portions are about a third smaller than at home. Not a bad thing when you keep trying different things.

Paris — Day 6

Late post from yesterday — the internet was down in our hotel!

Hello from France — it’s almost 8 PM here and I’m probably the only person in the whole country not watching the World Cup right now — France v. Germany — poor France is behind!

Today we traveled to the Versailles, a suburb of Paris and the home a historical french palace. The trip took about 45 minutes, using a combination of metro and RER (suburbs) trains.

King Louis and Marie-Antoinette were the last royals to inhabit the palace before they were driven out by peasants during the French Revolution. Louis and M-A weren’t exactly in touch with French society. As the people of France complained of not having any bread for their families, M-A responded with the infamous retort “Let them eat cake.” Their lavishness is shown throughout their sprawling estate.

We began by touring the Chateau — the main palace. The decor was immaculate; in fact, one might say that “fancy” threw up all over the place. The restoration and preservation of the palace is impeccable — I could not tell that the place was old — it truly felt like we had been transported back in time to view the everything as it appeared in the 18th century.

We finished the palace tour around 2 pm and got a late lunch at McDonald’s. I was really curious about the European McDonalds and Versailles really doesn’t have too many restuarant options. We entered our order on a touch screen computer that offered menus in 8 different languages. The menu options themselves were much different than those we have at home. I ordered ordered a Pomme de Terre Salade pour onions (Potato Salad with onions). This entree included a layer of seasoned boiled potatoes with skins on, followed my a layer of lettuce, followed by a few red onions and some deli turkey and onion dressing on top –very tasty. I also ordered a Eropean version of French fries which came with a sauce made from cream, garlic and herbs. To top it off, I also got a 4 piece McNugget which seemed pretty similar to the US nuggets (clearly, I was hungry!) Joe got nuggets and European fries too, sans salad. Our bill came to about 20 Euros (about 30 dollars) — a little pricey for fast food, but we wanted to try it!

After lunch, we headed back towards the palace to tour the gardens as well as the additional properties. In addition to being out of touch with society, M-A didn’t keep a firm grip on reality either. To get away from her stressful palace life of being waited on, she created a second palace to get away from it all. After getting settled in there, she still wasn’t satisfied so, she had a small town built as well, where she would go and pretend to be a peasant. This town included a vegetable garden and some livestock, which are both still there today. Vey odd — but, beautiful and fascinating to see.

The estate gardens were probably my favorite part of Versailles. They had fountains, fancy hedges pruned into shapes, mazes of tall hedges, gardens planted in geometrical patterns and a lake where we rented a row-boat. Joe rowed most of the time, but I tried it too. While the motion of rowing looks simple enough, I’d say it’s something that takes a little getting used to. Joe had some rowing experience though so we went around the lake with no problem at all. Storybook moment, for sure!

I got some gelato on our way back to the train — nom nom! We stopped a grocery store on our way back too and now we are back at the hotel, both a little sore from a LOT of walking. If I were to guess, we probably covered 10-12 miles. There are some petit trains (little trains) that shuttle folks around Versailles, but Joe Jackson is too cool for a petit train. If you can’t beat ’em join ’em — I’m officially rising above any need or affinity for petit trains as well.

Paris: Day 5

Bonjour! I am re-writing this post after losing it all when my iPad battery died — whoops.

We slept in until 10 today (9am London time). We purchased Paris Museum passes at the Jewish museum (strategy: Paris isn’t really known for this particular museum and as such, the line to purchase the museum passes was non-existent). Since we were there and we both have an above average amount of curiosity, we checked it all out, quickly. On our way out, the door man asked “Did you go in yet?’ After we we said “Yes;” he asked “Did you run?” Hardy har har!

Next we went to the Louvre, which was big and impressive. Did you know the Louvre was once the largest building in the world? It has 12 miles of master pieces including the mother of all masterpieces — the Mona Lisa. I was surprised how close we were able to get to the painting despite a large crowd of other eager admirers!

After a late lunch-early supper at a cafe, we toured Notre-Dame cathedral. The exterior is massive and ornate and the interior was covered in stained glass windows. We had planned to climb the steps to the tower, but it was unexpectedly closed today and tomorrow. Hiking plans quelled again — oh well! Guess we’ll take it easy, we’re on vacation!

Next, we hopped on Paris city bus #69 as recommended by the author of our guidebook — Rick Steves. The bus traveled by many of city’s main sites and the book provided a commentary we read along the way. I’m glad we did this, but the bus was really HOT. We were moving slow through the traffic and there wasn’t any air conditioning — c’st la vie!

That’s all for now — bonsoir!

Paris — Day 4

We began the morning with a 5 am wake-up call for a 7:30 train to Paris. I was so excited to leave for Paris, I couldn’t get to sleep the night before. I took French courses in both high school and college. They were required by my alma mater and none of them came easily for me. Some practical application has finally occurred — 12 years later. So anywhoo, Joe was really looking forward to the Eurostar experience as evidenced by his previous post. I enjoyed breakfast on the train — une crossiant et un cafe au lait.

After arriving in Paris, we experienced some shennanigans, which I’ll explain more later. We enjoyed a nice lunch at a cafe near the hotel. Then, we rode the metro over to the Eiffel Tower. While we had planned to hike to the top, we got in the wrong line for stair tickets and ended up taking the elevator all the way to the summit. The views were the best I’ve ever seen. Admittedly, my sights were set kind of low — I was prepared to be underwhelmed and to wonder whether or not this was really any different than looking out an airplane window. It certainly was! I loved it, Joe loved it, everyone loved it! Unhappy campers were nary in sight at the Tower d’Effiel! We spent much of the evening at the tower, snacking and people watching and waiting for the sun to set — after dusk, the tower has a 5 minute light show every hour, on the hour. Seeing the tower sparkle really was impressive and worth the wait.

Now, for some necessary debunking of Paris myths:
Myth 1: Everybody speaks English. Ummm, c’nest pas correct. All the folks I interacted with today seem to know about as much English as I know French. Yesterday, I phoned the hotel to confirm my reservation. After greeting the staff in French, I requested that he speak English. We were clearly not on the same page because he told me I would need to pick up my hotel key at a cafe down the street. After arriving at said cafe, I found out that they only give out keys after 9 pm (it was around noon). Not a big deal at all — but it’s just not as simple of an exchange as I was led to expect. Phrases and noun conjugations have been coming back to me which proved helpful when purchasing metro tickets, eating in a restaurant, checking into our hotel, and asking for directions. I was relieved that people seemed pleased that I attempted to communicate in their primary dialect. Those who I presume were able attempted to return the favor.
Myth 2: Paris is dirty. Ummm, encore, c’nest pas correct. I’ve traveled to some dirty places — this is not one of them.

Now, for an unanticipated non-myth that completely caught me off guard.
1. Non-myth: Some people in Paris are pretty hard up. At the train station, we were approached by a young woman, carrying a baby and an empty bottle. She asked if we could spare any change for formula. A few minutes later, a teenager came up to us in the metro ticket line, told us that those tickets were only for buses and that he could take us to the right line. The next thing we know, he is trying to trick us into paying for a re-load on his Navigo (metro) card. We almost fell for this — ugh. We were approached by multiple people later in the day begging for change. And finally, at the Eiffel Tower, we observed a gang of Champagne sellers who got busted by the cops. This made me kind of sad — there were a lot of couples taking advantage of their sales as they waited for the light show and the police made such a big show out of busting them all. I understand they aren’t an upstanding liquor licensed operation, but I felt for them, nonethless.

I wasn’t really expecting to observe or experience all of this in less than one day. France is a first-world country, no?

Alrighty, it’s after 1am here, so I should head to bed. We are sleeping with our 3rd floor balcony door open to the world tonight. The balcony is a little scary — pretty sure the height of the railing does not meet a regulatory standard — it’s just above knee level. And yet, I love going up there; I just hold on the rail/ wall for dear life.

London – Day 3

Good evening.  Here marks the end of our  third day in London.  We started out the day with breakfast at the cafe next door to our hotel.  They have the best blueberry muffin with a gooey blueberry center.  I also got a flat white coffee — not sure what this really means, but it was good.  Joe had a chocolate twist, which looks like a chocolate crossaint.   

London is currently hosting a James Bond exhibition, Bond in Motion, the largest showcase of James Bond cars in the world.  Joe is a big James Bond fan, so we went to check it out.  Movie clips showcasing the cars were all projected on the walls near the displays which really added to the experience.  Some movie memorabilia and story boards were mixed in amongst the cars as well. Movie making is certainly an interesting looking process.

Next up, we hit up the British Museum.  This venue is thought to have the most encompassing synapsis of human civilization on record.  It showcases artifacts like the Rosetta Stone, mummies, and the remains of many ancients civilizations including the Aztecs, Mesopotamians, and the American Indians. Some of the exhibits cataloged the development of a specific topic like timepieces and medicine.  One of my favorite displays showed  the health of two humans, one male and one female, as demonstrated by every pill  that they ever took. The display held thousands of pills from birth to death, along with photos from the individuals’ lives — vacations, injuries they sustained, weddings, graduations, babies being born, and finally, their funerals  The whole thing reminded me of what people say about the moment before death — being able to see your life flash before your eyes.  The milestones mixed in with the inconsequential — the pills you swallow.  Fascinating and unexpected from this particular museum.

We ate lunch late — around 2:30 in St. James’ square, a park with a small italian restaurant.  The food was fresh and delicious.  Next, we hopped back on the Tube to head over the British Library.  The library is a regular operating library where people go to study and borrow materials. However, they also have a special collection that is displayed in a museum on the first floor.  There were several amazing pieces — pages of Beethoven, Mozart, and Handel’s composition, parts of Leonardo and Michangelo’s notebooks, the Gutenberg Bible, hand written samples from Charles Dickens and Sylvia Plath, letters form Galileo and Winston Churchill.  My favorite piece was a scrap of Beatle’s memorabilia — the lyrics to “A Hard Day’s Night” written on the back of a one year old child’s birthday card.

After the library tour, we headed back over to Covent Garden where we had a picnic and observed a few so-so street performers. We shopped a little and then started walking back to the hotel.  On the walk home, we stopped on the River Thame ‘beach’ (sand hauled in by city every summer) and enjoyed a snack from a Mexican food truck.  

We’re headed out early tomorrow morning so we packed up our stuff as best we could and phoned our hotel in France to confirm our reservation.  I was pleased that the person who answered spoke some English at my request.  Apparently we have to pick up our room key at a cafe since the hotel desk does not open until 1 pm and we’ll be arriving around 11 am.  We’ll see how this goes.

London – Day 2

Well hello everyone! It was a great day in London! Last night, we turned in around 7:30 PM. Both of us woke up around midnight thinking it was morning. We’re staying in the basement of a hotel, so between the lack of windows and the jetlag, it’s understandable how one might get a little confused. We went back to sleep and I woke up again around 8:30 am — ready for a our first full day in the city.

We started out by hopping back on the bus tour we started yesterday. The Original Tour offers a 24 hour hop-on hop-off ticket on a red double decker bus. This once-over, lightly tour allows you to see a lot and learn a little. It also comes with a free boat cruise and a few free walking tours. We took advantage of the city cruise on the river Thames around lunch time. After that, we went back to the hotel to change. The Missourian in me did not trust that it would be as cold as the weather forecast predicted here. Yesterday, it was in the high 50’s and today, it warmed up enough around noon to put a dress on — yay!

Next, we went on the tour of Westminster Abbey. This ancient church, initially build in the 11th century offered an amazing amount of ornate architecture. It also houses of the graves of many famous folk including British royals (Bloody Mary!), famous scientists (Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton), many famous literary folks (Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens) and last but not least, a great composer, Handel — (you know him from the Hallelujah chorus). It amazed me how unprotected the building is from the public and yet I observed hardly and vandalism.

Around 3;30, we were pretty hungry. We went to The Feathers pub, located a few blocks from the Abbey. You can order food at most of London’s pubs by walking up to the bar. I ordered a Brie fondue appetizer to start, followed by my favorite meal in all the world — macaroni and cheese. I ate all of my food AND part of Joe’s food too– he got a chesseburger and chips with coleslaw. I’m not normally a big fan of coleslaw — but this version was made with basil AND dill — yum!

Next, Joe convinced me that we should go to check out Buckingham Palace. For whatever reason, this wasn’t on my list of things I hoped to see, but after seeing it, I’m not sure why. Viewing the font of the palace, I was reminded of a trip to the White House in 8th grade. Unlike DC, there weren’t any protesters or otherwise crazy folk parked out in front of the palace — just a happy crowd who were apt to cheer on command. We saw a bride a groom walk out in front of the palace and the crowd hooted and hollered in celebration. Along with the gauards who were marching back and forth, the palace was certain a site to be seen.

After the palace, our energy was running low. Given that shopping isn’t a very strenuous task, we decided to hit up Herrod’s, London’s luxury department store. While I didn’t get a picture since it was starting to rain, the exterior of the building is quite impressive with a small cathedral dome to boot. Inside, there are many luxury items — I looked at a purse that was on clearance for 900 pounds, marked down from 1,875 pounds. In the basement of the store, there’s a somewhat creepy shrine to the late princess Diana and her lover. It houses a dirty wine glass that she drank out of the night before she died as well as her engagement ring. Aside from pictures of the couple, there is a bronze statue of them touching a flying bird. I believe the store’s owner at the time of Dianna’s death was her lovers father.

On the way home, we hit up a grocery store. For whatever reason, I’ve been really fascinated by all the grocery areas we’ve been in over the last two days. There are so many products that look good enough to try.

We’re back home in the hotel now and getting ready to turn in for the night. We’re staying at Tune hotel Westminster. Pretty sure this room is tiner than every room we’ve ever had on a cruise ship! Two people can hardly stand up in here! But it’s a great location, just a few blocks from the London Eye and Big Ben. And it looks pretty new, so nothing too dirty-loking. No window in here though — not so sure about London’s fire codes? I also don’t have much confidence in the ambulances — they are motorcycles– I”m really uncertain of how or why this is okay! But anywho — the world is a wonder to me, and I am loving the opportunity to see this this special bit of it!

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