Monday, July 18, 2011
Sunday, July 17, 2011
As we were riding the tram from the train station to the hotel last night, we decided Amsterdam was to Europe what New Orleans is to the United States. By far Brussels was the highlight of our trip if you haven't guessed by now...not to sound like a broken record but the people were so friendly, the city had a very cosmopolitian feel to it but still felt small and welcoming.
With my travel buddy taking a flight out today and the weather forecast a bit grim, I decided to forego my original plan of a countryside bike tour and opted for the city's hop-on/hop-off tour...a good thing as the rain definitely came and went throughout the day.
After the initial loop of the tour, I hopped off at the flower market and wandered around eventually making my way back to the hotel to enjoy a little lunch I picked up at the local market (definitely needed a respite from the weather).
After lunch, I hopped back on the bus and made my way to Central Station and headed over to St. Nicolaas Church. We were told on our boat ride earlier in the week that St. Nicolaas was the patron saint for sailors. For the second time in my life, I've attended mass in Amsterdam and didn't understand a word said (the first time was in 1987 when it was in Dutch and I was in an Reformed Catholic Church)...this time I was in a Roman Catholic Church but it was in Spanish. The good thing about a Catholic mass is you can pretty much tell where you are in the mass by the number of times you've stood, kneeled and stood again!
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering the streets before packing up from my little holiday across the big pond. As always, it has been fun and I look forward to my next adventure...
Saturday, July 16, 2011
This is by far one of the friendliest cities I've ever visited and one I truly wish to revisit! Brussels is a city of contrast...the giant atom in the background was built for the 1958 World's Fair. Throughout our bike ride on Thursday, Titch would point out the different types of architecture throughout the city.
Before our 5:00 pm train back to Amsterdam, we took one last walk to the Grand Place and made our way to Chez Leon as it came highly recommended by Titch for a place to try the mussels...a must while in Brussels.
Of course we got a little side tracked in the Grand Place with the pretty flowers and all the people. In most European towns, the town square (or squares depending on the town size) really are the gathering spot for folks and the Grand Place is no exception...locals and tourists can be found here.
So the menu at Chez Leon was quite overwhelming with choices. We finally decided on sharing the shrimp and cheese croquette, frites (can't have a meal in Belgium without them) and the mussels with garlic, butter, herbs and cheese. A bit skeptical if the mussels in Brussels really were any different than mussels anywhere else, we were both pleasantly surprised to discover that the mussels in Brussels really are the best! They were tender and less salty than most...and yes we could actually taste the mussels with all the fabulous toppings we had on them!!
On our bike tour, we passed the Manneken-Pis' dog the Kinneke-Pis so of course we had to make our way back over to him for a quick photo op!
Here are a few photos of our last look at Brussels...
Friday, July 15, 2011
Not quite sure of the correct way to spell the town as it is writen all three ways so we'll stick with Bruges for this post.
Today was our much anticipated trip to Bruges so we headed to the station for the 10am train. We heard Bruges was a touristy spot but nothing prepared us for the hordes of tourists we encountered! There were clearly more people per square meter in Bruges than in Brussels. It was definitely not the quaint little lace-making town I read about many years ago.
After taking the bus to Market Square, we attempted (and I do mean attempted) to follow Rick Steves’ walking tour of Bruges…I love Rick’s tour books but this is the first time I’ve ever tried to actually follow one of his walking tours. Now Julie and I are two very intelligent women but either Rick is really bad with maps and directions or Bruges is one confusing town! We think it was the later as it did seem quite challenging to get around the town.
Somehow we ended up at Burg Square and found a little café for lunch. They had a nice prix fixe menu and for just €16 we had a salad, waterzooi with chicken and chocolate mousse. Waterzooi is a classic Flemish (or Flemisch) stew with a heavy cream base…yum yum!
After lunch we tried to pick-up the walking tour to find the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Legend has it the church has a vial of Jesus’ blood…not sure how accurate the legend is but we thought it was worth a look. We wandered all over town and just before arriving at a church, we saw a lacemaker in a doorway…she was making bobbin lace (a dying art in Europe).
We ended up at what we thought was the Basilica only to discover it was the Church of Our Lady. As luck would have it, we arrived just before a concert for a group so we were able to enjoy the music for a bit before heading back out.
Of course a day in Belgium would not be complete without some chocolate so we stopped off at Dumon for a little treat. Dumon gives little samples to help you make your decision...really can anything be better than chocolate samples?!
One last attempt to find the Basilica and as it turns out, we were sitting right in front of it during out two hour lunch! Now, don’t laugh because to our defense, the entrance looked absolutely nothing like a church entrance. Unfortunately photos were not allowed in the church and the funny thing is, had we realized the church was there while having lunch, we could have gone in while they were doing the Veneration of the Holy Blood but we just missed it when we arrived around 4:30…go figure! **Note the very small doorway to the left of the red awning...that is the entrance to the Basilica..no wonder we missed it!
As you can probably tell, Bruges was not one of our favorite spots so we decided to head back to the train station and get back to Brussels a little early. To the town’s defense, I’m sure when it is not swarmed with tourists, it is a charming little place.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
One word describes today…RAIN!
Remember when I said we were in a food coma yesterday and that we’d work it off today…well we did and then some! We met up with our guide from Brussels Bike Tours and three other adventurous souls for a four hour bike tour of the fabulous city!
Some of you will find this part especially humorous…I had to get a kid’s bike because my legs are so short! The beauty of the kid’s bike though was pedal breaks which came in very handy going downhill in the rain.
We literally went all over the city today and I must stay I was quite pleased with the way the drivers look out for bikers and yielded to us...definitely impressive for the capital of the European Union and headquarters of NATO.
First stop on the bike tour was our little friend the Mannekin-Pis. This morning he was still au naturel, however, stay tuned to see how he was dressed later in the day in celebration of France’s Bastille Day.
Titch, our guide, took us through parts of the city we would not have seen on our own which was great. We went through the poor part of town, the rich part of town, the government sections, parks and of course tourist areas. Because of the rain, not too many pictures today but the sights of the town are imbedded in my memory.
Titch did take a little pity on us and stopped under the cover of the EU Parliament buildings so I did manage to get a few pics before we braved the rain again.
Thankfully our next stop was for frites and beer! I opted for the small order with the traditional Specialé Sauce (mayo, curry ketchup and chopped onions)…yum yum!
The latest in rainy weather fashion! Don't hate us because we're beautiful!
Our final stop on the tour was at Saint Michael’s Cathedral.
We made our way back to the garage…downhill thankfully! Only twice during the tour did I come close to crashing…and one of those times I almost took out an old lady and lamp post but fortunately we all returned in one piece!
Desperate for something warm to drink and a dry place to sit, we headed back toward the Grand Place but made a pit stop at a little chocolatier. I tried dark chocolate with chili pepper and dark chocolate with Earl Grey and Julie tried the Earl Grey and a dark chocolate with almond pieces…we both concluded our choices were quite wonderful. We enjoyed our chocolates in a little café with a fire and cappuccino.
Refreshed and ready to brave the on again/off again rain, we headed back over to see the Mannekin-Pis decked out in his little French ensemble. For all world holidays and other important dates, he dons on one of his more than 800 outfits and his hidden behind flags of Brussels until the special parade makes its way to him. At which time, the flag is removed revealing him and to retaliate he no longer pees in the fountain but on the crowds.
Once again, we could not resist the smell of the Belgian waffles and picked up one to fortify us on the walk to the central train station where we bought our tickets for tomorrow’s day trip to Bruges. Today we decided to forego the “tourist” waffle (Belgian waffle with all the stuff on it) and opted for what the locals get…a plain waffle for only €1 and it was perfect as it is sweet enough without all the toppings.
We’re taking a little respite from the rain and will be heading out again to explore more of the city we both plan to revisit. The people here are ever so nice and feeling of the city is just so welcoming.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
You have to love a city where the smell of chocolate and waffles permeates the city!
It was fate when we arrived at the hotel our room was not ready and the concierge sent off towards Grand Place...and grand it was! We had a nice 30 minute stroll with of course several stops for photos along the way before we reached the Grand Place.
We had lunch in one of the cafes on the sqare where we had the most delicious Belgian cuisine...three kinds of meat, cheese & salami tray, frites and of course beer. The building dates back to the reign of Charles II of Spain so needless to say it had a lot of character.
After lunch we strolled around the square and then made our way over to the Manneken-Pis. Today he was au naturel and not in one of his over 800 outfits.
We could no longer resist the Belgian waffles and gave in...I mean, look at this picture and tell me how anyone could!
I went for the waffle with Nutella...a warm waffle with warm Nutella...does life really get much better?!
Now in a food coma, we headed back to our hotel via the subway. I know after the waffle we should have walked but did I mention it was in the low 60s, drizzling and windy...as much as we're enjoying the cooler weather we just couldn't make the journey back above ground. Julie is sleeping off her waffle and I'm blogging off mine...both of us will definitely work it off tomorrow when we go on our three hour bike tour of the city!
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Our original plan was to follow Rick Steves walking city tour so we took the train to Central Station. Outside of the train station, they have a giant bike park instead of a car park…everything we do in cars (eat, talk on the phone, text, etc) the Dutch do on their bikes!
We made our way to Dam Square – the center of the city back in the day and still today – and quickly succumb to the Dutch way of life and took up residence in an outdoor café. It is easy to see why the Dutch are the most content people in all of Europe as all they seem to do all day is sit in cafés watching the world go by.
The Dam was full of locals, tourists and street performers. This is also where all political protests as well as celebrations take place in Amsterdam.
The walking tour was also put on the back burner as we searched out an electronic store to buy a special converter plug for my laptop. After an illuminating conversation with the salesman, we left as he informed me my laptop was dual voltage and all I needed was my plug adapter. Who knew?! I wasn’t totally convinced he was right until we returned to the hotel later in the evening and confirmed with online support…was afraid I would fry my laptop.
While researching for the trip, I found a boat club called the St. Nicolaas Boat Club…a non-profit group that runs free canal cruises on original canal boats (they just ask for a donation to help maintain the boats if you can afford it, if you can’t no worries). This is the one we signed up for on Sunday when we arrived. The club is very typical Dutch in that it is completely laid back…they don’t have a phone or formal website…if you want to join a cruise you go to the Boom Chicago bar and sign up.
Our captain was Miguel who was originally from Lisbon but has been here for four years. We got really lucky and Ken (one of the original founders of Boom Chicago and this boat) was in town visiting so he joined us. Our boat was called Athena…Ken named her Athena. Athena was the daughter of Zeus and was born from an explosion of his head after a massive headache…the first year of the Boom Chicago running the boat was a massive headache for Ken so he thought the name was fitting!
The cruise was really nice as you just drift through the canals and if you have a question you ask. It is about a three foot jump from the dock into the boat…not so much a problem getting in the boat but for my short legs getting out was quite fun…definitely NOT a Kodak moment! You’re welcome to bring any food, drink or smoke you like…they just ask you don’t throw anything in the canals. Again, a very laid back city.
Seven Bridges – from the left of the boat you could see five bridge and from the right two.
Low bridge! We had to basically sit on the bottom of the boat to get through it…twice! The beauty of these canal boats is they are small and can fit in places the big tourist boats can’t.
House boats all along the canals – about 25% more expensive to live in a houseboat
About 20 minutes before our cruise was over, it started to drizzle…did I mention the three foot climb out of the boat?! We made our way to one of the outdoor cafés at Leidseplein and watched all of Amsterdam go by while sitting in the comfort of large umbrellas with heat lamps and enjoying a tasty dinner. Then it was back to the hotel to pack up for our trip to Brussels tomorrow.