Or, Sherry and Melle do another trip.
This time we went to the Netherlands, staying in Amsterdam, and Belgium, staying in Antwerp.
Starting in Amsterdam
Flight in was pretty uneventful and we managed to keep going until check-in at 2pm, which left us with no sleep for 24 hours or so. Hotel location was excellent, just off the Dam Square and walkable to the train station. The other good thing about our hotel? It was the repository for the Big Book of Amsterdam. I managed to read it from cover to cover and it was like the Delphic Oracle of all things Amsterdam – much to Melle’s chagrin, I’m sure.
On first glance, Amsterdam is a bit like Temple Bar in Dublin and not fair for the comparison–dirty, lots of garbage, and always looking like there was a crazy party the night before. Mostly this is the case around the Red Light District and they clean it up pretty quickly.
Walked past Anne Frank’s house but about the only thing you can see is big line-ups. We also saw the Old (Oude) Kerk and the New Kerk. Old Kerk had some beautiful paintings on wood that are sadly disappearing.
Another interesting museum was the Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Dear Lord in the Attic) – it’s a house that has a full Catholic church in the attic that was hidden when Catholics were no longer allowed to worship in public. The sheer logistics are boggling, and it has some nice furniture and tiles.
As one would expect, there are enough cobbles to make high heels a hazard. Wisely, most Amsterdamians (Amsterdammers?) wear sensible shoes, which also makes it easier to ride their sturdy bikes. Bikes are EVERYWHERE. We contemplated how many would be left if they had a bike clean-up day, since it’s pretty obvious that more than a few have weather a few seasons or twelve in the place they’ve come to rest.
After a 2-hour nap, we set off on the longest search evar for a restaurant to eat at, and ended up back at the first one we saw and liked. I had a great lentil soup and a decent duck, with mediocre wine (the norm, as I soon discovered – beer choice is awesome, but not so much the wine).
Then came Museum Day, or should I say part one of Museum Day, since we ended up hitting many museums during our trip. We started off in the Flower Market, which is a lovely spot of colour in the morning, then we made our way to the main museum (Rijksmuseum) – some amazing Vermeers, furniture and so on.
Then in a park we noticed a ticket kiosk for the Van Gogh exhibit, since the Van Gogh museum was closed for repairs. So we bought some.
Turned out to be the smartest thing in vacation planning history – by the time we got to the Hermitage where the exhibit was, there was a line about 3 blocks long to get in. And like the rock stars we are, we went straight to the front and straight into the museum just by waving our little tickets around. We found out that, not only was this the first day the exhibit was open at the Hermitage, but they had a special touring exhibit of the Impressionists at the same time. Double-score.
Snarfy attendant wouldn’t let us take in our cameras, and they we got in there and everyone else seemed to have their cameras and iPads fully operational. I was not impressed.
Speaking of iPads, this is the first trip where the tablet has made an impression. I must say that people still look kind of weird walking around the streets or exhibits holding up their tablet to various things and taking pictures. Still haven’t figured out what the advantage would be, and it sure is a lot more to carry and position (besides being a nice beacon to people with less-than-welcoming intentions).
At this point we were starving for lunch, but could not get service for love or money. First place had no server, second place had stopped serving lunch… Finally found a cafe for sandwiches and beer. Thanks to the big walk among the museums, we had now seen most of the cultural areas in Amsterdam.
Had an amazing Indonesian meal that night, finished with the best decaf espresso I’ve ever tasted (I’m sure the mango-papaya sorbet didn’t hurt either). Thanks, Yelp.
Only downside to our hotel was that the back street was a thoroughfare from one bar area to another, so we were treated to intermittent catcalls and singing through the night. I swear I heard Paul Anka about 2am. I had no idea he was popular with hen parties.
Then there is morning in Amsterdam. We started to feel like we weren’t off to a good start until we had our “breakfast weed” (aroma only). Usually it was just a wiff as we went past a coffeeshop, but sometimes it was a dude (always a dude) walking down the street. Also, they don’t like to eat early. Nowhere to eat before 9am except for one or two intrepid cafes and our hotel restaurant which had a buffet for the price of a nice pair of shoes.
We took the train up to Utrecht on a Monday, and discovered the second rule of Netherlands – which is the Netherlands is closed on Mondays. And the third rule, which is that Utrecht doesn’t open until noon, unless it opens at 1pm. Nevertheless, we did manage to get to see the cathedral there, and it is a pretty little university town.
Very interesting story with it – there’s a tower and the cathedral, and a kind of square in between. Turns out there was more cathedral there, …until a tornado whipped through there in 1674. Though the history of this church is more complicated than that – it was fought over, half-completed, Catholic, Protestant. In fact, many of the statues and religious decorations are defaced – thanks to some hooligans in the Reformation who wanted to take vengeance on idolatry.
Seeing as everything else was closed, we settled in for some tea on the canal, literally. There was a cafe built on a bridge. I had my usual – “fresh mint tea”. This is something I found in Amsterdam, but it’s all over the Netherlands. Basically, you pick some mint from the garden, shove a fistful in a glass, then pour hot water over it. It’s usually served with honey and a biscuit. I keep meaning to see if mint in large quantities turns into something other than “medicinal”. We were also offered mayo only with our fries whenever they were ordered – when I asked for ketchup the one time, they thought I was nuts.
During our late tea back at the Dam, Melle discovered that the pigeons of Amsterdam don’t have all their toes. Them are some mean streets. After a nap, we went off to a neat restaurant on a canal that is built into the cellar and had lots of meat and a few vegetables. we were into the swing of things by then – not finishing dinner until close to 10pm.
Tour to the islands
The next day we went on a tour to Marken, Volendam and a UNESCO heritage site that has some of the original traditional windmills (there aren’t that many left compared to the heyday).
We had brief demos of cheese-making and clog-making at Marken. The village has a lot of traditional houses – many of which were originally built on stilts back when it used to flood all of the time until the Dutch built a dam (as they are wont to do). So now the lower areas are all closed in – no doubt for the rec room and mod cons.
From there, we hopped on a ferry to the island of Volendam. Mostly a tourist kind of place, but we had amazing fish & chips for lunch – like, fish right off the boat fish, and since it was a bit blustery and rainy, it was hot and perfect. By the time we got to the windmills, it was pouring, but it was quite neat to see the saltbox houses and windmills along the small canals. Felt very Vermeer. Thankfully, we didn’t have any complete douchebags on this tour, though we did have one lady who talked on her phone through most of it.
Big pet peeve of the modern age – a tour guide is NOT TELEVISION. Why pay money to take a tour if you aren’t going to listen to it??
Off to Antwerp
I was very thankful to have the tablet along for the trip – while planning the train trip to Antwerp the night before, I stumbled on the fact that the train union in Belgium was staging a one-day strike on the day we wanted to travel. I was able to book bus tickets instead, but seriously – random train strikes are not cool.
Again, we lucked out with hotel location, though we couldn’t find it for the one-way streets on the way in. It was a short walk to the Grot Markt and not far from the tain station for the ride home – and blissfully quiet.
If The Netherlands doesn’t open until noon, Belgium closes at 7pm. Also, lots of pizza places.
Cathedral was impressive as cathedrals go. Bonus art exhibit while were there – not that we needed more art, but it became the them of the trip. We also walked out to the harbour front and saw a plaque for Canadian soldiers who liberated it in WWII. Back at the square I had an excellent beef stew, and the night’s entertainment was watching a young Japanese business man trying to keep his senior happy – they ended up ordering most of the dishes on the menu and half the beers and hardly touched any of it.Also noted: Belgians really like pop music, especially from the 80s.
It’s everything you heard. Definitely a must-see. We were there for a full day. Square was cool. Tons of great architecture and museums. Took a boat ride on the canals. Saw still more art. I still pick Carcasonne for pure “holy shit, history!”, but it was a great day. The beautifully preserved medieval town hall would do nicely as a library, if a bit ostentatious. Had a great mussel soup for lunch and the first real salad of the trip.
That night’s meal back in Antwerp was our favourite–at Het Elfte Gebod–a bar/restaurant across from the cathedral that is famous for its collection of religious statues. Great meal – duck confit with orange jus and veg, followed by lemon tart and an Oban. When I specified “no ice”, the server said “but of course”. He was a good man. Melle had a huge St Bernardus beer (10% alcohol) and was a little tipsy by the time we got home.
For our final day in Antwerp, we picked out a few more museums. Went to Rubenshuis first. He was a very wealthy man in his time, that’s for sure, but if you have a royal patronage, that’s the way it goes. Unbelievable how much they have preserved, and painted leather wallpaper was the decorator’s tip for the day. Also saw way more Jesii (Jesuses?) than strictly necessary for one day. After a bit of shopping and a coffee in the main square, we went to the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Plantin was a well-known and successful printer and publisher in the early 1600s and his son-in-law Moretus took over the business after him. The place is like it was 440 years ago – with working presses (2 from 1604), print machinery, stamps and an impressive collection of early books, including a Gutenberg. Melle was well pleased she got me out of there, and without my trying to stuff anything in my bra.
After another pizza lunch, we hit our last museum. A modest one where there used to be an “orphanage” – where women used to drop off their girl babies to be raised by nuns. The twist is that they would often leave a half a playing card with the baby, in case they wanted to have a reunion sometime later in life (one assumes poverty or lack of a husband drove them to do this). The building once had a purpose-built “shelf” on the outside where people could deposit their babies. There was one for boys as well.
And that was pretty much it – one final nice meal and then a looong and interesting day of travel home.
Ended up taking a taxi to the train station instead of walking because it was pouring rain, and as if to mark our departure, the cabbie had 80s pop blasting – we were entertained by a particularly campy, talk-singing earnest song about “Geanie”, made all the more delightful when Melle figured out it is by Falco and has a video almost equal to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.
Anyway, we printed out our boarding passes only to find out that we were on standby, and could not know if we actually had seats on the plane until about 45 minutes before final boarding. After lunch we made our way to the gate, got through a full bodyscan at security, only to be told that we were, in fact, in line for a flight to Mexico City. Hoofed it to another gate, waited. Then heard the announcement that our flight was delayed 2 hours. Waiting at the front of the line. Lovely man at the counter could not find tickets with our names on it, but after some exchange in Dutch with his supervisor, we had tickets! Upgraded to comfort class! From there, the flight was A-Okay, if late.
Very tired when we got home, though, since it was about 4am as far as our body clocks were concerned.