I don’t often write about personal experiences on here, mostly because I don’t want my blog to become a glorified LiveJournal. However, I’ve just returned from my third trip to Europe, and I wanted to talk about what my parents and I saw and did there. I’ll go city by city through this, starting with…
When I was just about to graduate college, I made a “travel bucket list,” to make sure I made it to all the places I wanted to go. Little did I know that I’d soon be crossing places off the list at a furious pace. Third on the list was Amsterdam, because I wanted to visit the Anne Frank House. I read Anne Frank’s diary when I was around her age, and it had a tremendous impact on me. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about her story was that it was both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Anne went through many of the same things that a lot of 13-15 year olds go through… changing relationship with parents, first attractions to the opposite sex, etc. I could relate those things because I was living them. But the extraordinary circumstances under which she had to go through them, and her uncommon courage in the face of such circumstances were what made her so interesting. Reading her diary was probably the first time I’d ever developed a crush on a character in a book. So, needless to say, visiting 263 Prinsengracht was not just a typical tourist stop for me.
The house was predictably Spartan, with many artifacts from her stay there still intact. While I knew a fair amount about Anne and the people that lived with her, I still managed to learn new things. For instance, there was a video interview with her friend Hanneli Goslar in one room, and she talked about her encounter with Anne while they were both in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
But there was much more to Amsterdam than that. We also visited the Keukenhof Gardens, which were exactly what you’d think… lots and lots of flowers. But there was more to it than that. There was a massive windmill that you could walk to the top of. The Keukenhof was also one of the surprisingly frequent times during the trip that I would encounter farm animals. There was also this bizarre contraption that would play folk and popular songs with an orchestral sound, but the whole thing was automated. It was like what I imagined watching the The Mechanical Turk must’ve been like, only it played music instead of chess.
The other major stop in Amsterdam was in the Rijksmuseum, which is home to many great pieces of art, most notably a few originals by Vincent van Gogh. It also featured many interesting works from artists you’ve probably never heard of, but are just as interesting. We got a great tour of the 17th-Century floor from one of the docents at the museum. A high-quality tour for the princely sum of… €5 per person.
We also took a walking tour of the city, which was quite interesting. Those sorts of tours are always fun because you learn unique tidbits about the city while seeing them for yourself. For instance, houses in Amsterdam are so narrow because they used to be taxed based on width. So to have a really wide house was a sign of wealth. Also, the city’s name comes from the Amstel River. The city was built as a dam for that river, hence the name “dam of the Amstel,” or “Amsterdam.”
Some other stuff I noticed about Amsterdam… they are single-handedly keeping the bicycle industry alive. There are probably as many bicycles in the city as people, and they drive their bikes the way people in Washington, DC drive cars. If you stand in the bike lane, they will hit you. The city’s reputation for liberalism and tolerance is well-deserved, given its world-famous marijuana coffee shops and Red Light District. The Red Light District is sectioned off from the rest of the city in a way you wouldn’t expect. It stays in its own streets and doesn’t bleed into the rest of the city. The cuisine in Amsterdam wasn’t anything to write home about, but we did have a nice Indonesian meal and snacked on stroopwafels, caramel-filled waffles which I can’t believe haven’t taken off in this country.
Next, we took the train into Belgium, staying in Bruges, a city I didn’t even know existed before our trip. One thing the Europeans do much better than America is train travel. The seats are comfy, they bring you lunch, and even have a place to plug in your phone. Eat your heart out, Amtrak. Mass transit in general is much better in Europe than in the US, perhaps because people are more willing to make the investment in it.
Anyway, while in Bruges we stayed at the Huis Koning B&B. If you ever are traveling to Bruges, don’t bother researching hotels. Just stay there. The couple that runs it, Lynn and Peter, are positively delightful, and Lynn makes the most delicious breakfast you’ve ever had in a hotel. She also brings you homemade desserts to your room every night you’re there. It was in the comfort of our room at Koning that I watched the second semi-final and grand final of the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest. It was the first time I’d ever watched the actual show, and it was interesting. The grand final features each country casting their votes for their favorites, one by one. It makes for edge-of-your-seat suspense as the votes slowly but surely roll in. I’m happy to report that one of the five favorites I picked in my Eurovision post won the contest, Måns Zelmerlöw of Sweden with his song “Heroes.”
We took two big tours in Bruges: one that went to several key sites from World War I, and a bike tour that went to some nearby towns. Both tours were interesting, but the guides were a bit overly caught up in themselves. Relatedly, I did encounter a certain amount of resentment and snobbishness toward tourists in all three cities we visited, which made me wonder why Americans have a reputation for being uptight.
Honestly, some of the most fun we had in Bruges was just exploring the city on our own. The place is filled with enough shops and restaurants to while away an afternoon. Belgium has some of the finest chocolate in the world, and there were many places trying to trade on this reputation. There are a few places in the city that are the real deal though, and Denon, the place we went, was one of them. Belgians are also known for their amazing fries, topped with mayonnaise that is (gasp!) edible, unlike in the US. Something Belgians probably should be known for is their stews. I had a beef stew made with beer and a stew-like chicken dish while I was there, and both were exquisite.
Our trip to Brussels was a bit truncated, as we just took the train in there for a day. The city is dripping with history though, and we got to take in a lot of it in a short time. We took a walking tour with the same company that did our Amsterdam walking tour, and this one was great as well. Our guide, Mick, was smart and knew a lot about Brussels. We saw a lot of great historical buildings, such as the royal palace and building where the Belgian parliament meets. We also saw one of the quirkiest statues I’ve ever seen, the Mannekin Pis. As far as I can tell, it’s the only statue of a peeing baby that’s a national treasure. The best part is, nobody really knows what inspired it.
We also went to the Comics Museum, but that was kind of a bust. The museum was badly organized and largely discussed comic strips I’ve never heard of (if anyone wants to give me an education on Thorgal, I’ll be happy to listen).
All in all, it was a successful trip. Part of why I love traveling so much is the opportunity to see and appreciate other cultures with different points of view of the world. I think, since I’ve crossed off many items on my old travel bucket list, I’ll have to revise it with new entries. Look for another post on that soon.