Prague

Salut à tous et à toutes!

I’m sitting in my apartment wrapped in a million layers, alternating between mango juice and my favorite Smith tea as I have tragically caught a cold. Less tragically, I am using said cold as an excuse to write this blog instead of cleaning my bathroom!

Two Friday’s ago, I awoke to a text from one of my teachers saying that my classes with her on Monday were canceled and an email from another teacher saying my classes with her on Tuesday were also canceled. I then went to my Friday classes when another teacher informed me that my classes with him were also canceled on Monday. This left me with a five day weekend. When God blesses you with a five day weekend, you do not just sit around your apartment the whole time! After a quick internet search, I found that Prague was the cheapest destination for a next-day plane ticket. I’ve heard a ton of good things about Prague and so was excited to spend 5 days there!

I made quick arrangements, told my roommates I was off (they were so jealous), and made my way to Charles de Gaulle for the impromptu adventure.

Day 1:

I stayed in the Czech Inn (see what they did there?), which while a bit of a walk from the city center, was a great hostel! Felt more like a hotel than a hostel. After arriving and dumping my bags I began exploring the city. It took no time at all to discover that Easter in Prague is celebrated much the same as Christmas. According to a tour guide, the Czech Republic is ~75% atheist, but Easter is traditionally a very important holiday and the commercialized version remains. I loved this because there were several Easter markets throughout the city! It was like Christmas markets all over again, but less cold.

The Czech traditionally paint beautiful Easter eggs that are for sale. Each region has a different style, and there are more modern styles too. The markets also had quite a variety of street food. From sausages, to grilled cheese (not sandwich, just literally cheese on a George Foreman), beer was everywhere, there was this very strange fried piece of dough with garlic, ketchup, and cheese (Langoš), and the MOST delicious pastry called trdelnik. I continued eating through Wikipedia’s “List of Pancakes” but was severely disappointed by the potato pancakes here.

All I did Day 1 was wander and eat. (I did not eat all of these in day 1 though!!!!)

Day 2:

This was a Sunday. I went to an English-speaking church in the morning, which while nice, was dull. Afterwards, I went to a gym with a really cheap drop in rate (~3 euros) called Fitness Centrum. I then attempted to go the Gastronomy Museum but I think it is closed. Happily, it was right next to a Patagonia shop and I spent wayyyyy too much money on a great jacket that was a great price!!!

Famished from shopping, I had a hot chocolate/drinking chocolate from Choco Cafe which while delicious, reminded me in little time that I do have a small chocolate intolerance. Before heading home, I watched the little show on the 600 year old astronomical clock in the Historic Square. I had the BEST fresh pasta of my life that night at a restaurant called U Bulinu.

Day 3:

Day 3 consisted of the Castle District. I started at the monastery that is at the top of the hill. The monastery itself was not worth seeing but the view was great! I proceeded to Petrin Hill Tower, which is a mini Eiffel Tower with a view over Prague. There was a bit of line to get in, but it was a good view!

After a quick coffee break, I went to the castle grounds to see what was there. I timed it right for the changing of the guard, which was kind of cool. The castle area itself was fine. I wouldn’t go there again, but I was glad to have seen it. I got lucky with the sun and stained glass in the cathedral, which was nice. Afterwards, I was hungry and decided to have a late lunch. I had goulash! Does that not sound so Eastern European?! Goulash is meat cooked for a long time in a paprika broth served with a roll. It was pretty good. Everything in Prague is so cheap, that I would have been happy even if it was bad (6 euros for the plate and a beer at a sit down restaurant). Restaurant called U Knihovny. I ended the day by wandering around Letna Park, where there are some great views of the city.

Day 4:

My last full day in Prague started with a trip to the Mucha Museum. It was the perfect size, in and out in about 45 minutes. I then climbed the historic center tower, which had great views of the old town.

I then took a city tour. I don’t really care for the tours very often, but I was running out of other things to do. I was the only one there, so it was a private tour which was kind of cool. I was pretty tired after the tour, and ended up back in my hostel where I took a long nap. I’d been logging 12+ miles a day of walking plus my workouts… time to nap! There is a really well known vegetarian restaurant I went to for a late dinner, called Lehka Hlava. It was really good! I ended up sharing a table with two Americans my age since it is a pretty popular restaurant and I didn’t have a reservation. They were very cool people, I ended up going out with them after dinner, which was really fun! Nice way to break up a couple days alone. I stayed up way later than I had expected to and celebrated my last night in the way of the Czech – with Pilsner!

Day 5:

I spent the morning at the Museum of Communism in Prague before heading to the airport. It was an interesting and well done museum… just about the length I like (~1 hour). Worth going to and learning about how communism affected the day-to-day life of the Czech people.

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Flat Jane liked Prague too!

All in all, Prague was awesome! Cannot recommend it enough. It was definitely worth the sizable dent in my bank account 🙂

A bientôt,

Amy

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Amsterdam

I finally made it up to the Netherlands this past Saturday. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Amsterdam, and was excited to check it out! I was able to save quite a bit of money by taking a bus to and from Amsterdam in one day, leaving really early and returning quite late. This was a full day!

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Amsterdam Central Station – pretty grand for a train station!

When we arrived, I had the intention of heading straight for the Anne Frank House, as lines there get really long and I knew I wanted to see it. Upon arrival, however, coffee and food took priority and I could not be bothered to do anything else right away. I really did not mind this, because Amsterdam was great to just wander through. I ended up searching in the Haarlemmerbuurt neighborhood, which was a very pretty and nice area. Plenty of good shops, bakeries, and cafes. I settled on the local breakfast/lunch chain, Bagels & Beans. They were very reasonably priced, had free wifi, and the coffee was great.

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Everything bagel with walnut and honey cream cheese and a latte (6€)

Bagels and Beans was nice, but it definitely was not the quickest option. After I finished eating, I continued my wandering. Unfortunately, rather than in the hour or so I spent inside eating, the rain waited for me to be outside 😦 A huge downpour! Fortunately I had my rain boots on, and eventually I found a grocery store to duck inside of for a few minutes. I love going to grocery stores in other countries — they always have slightly different and unique stuff! I stocked up on some chocolate, and cheese while I was in the store and by the time I left it was only drizzling.

Amsterdam is a great city for wandering. The canals and canal houses are beautiful, there are markets scattered throughout the city, and lots of pedestrian/bike-only streets to walk through. I wanted to see the status of the line at the Anne Frank House, so I headed in that direction. I found myself in front of something advertised as “The Cheese Museum” while I was enroute so I  had to stop in. It was actually more of a store than a museum, but that worked out for me because they had about 41641315 cheeses out for you to sample. Can we please just take a moment to appreciate a well-aged Gouda??!!? The shop was great, the owner was obnoxious, but I overlooked him for the sake of Gouda. This cheese shop was Step 1 on the bombing my budget took in Amsterdam.

After eating a meal’s worth of cheese samples, I finally ended up at the Anne Frank House. By now, it is around noon and the line is RIDICULOUS. So I veto that and continue onward. I walked by the palace in Amsterdam, really not anything special, and went down to take a canal boat tour. I took a tour with the Rederij Kooij company, and felt like it was informative and nice. It was also the cheapest one I found, for €10.50. I had about half an hour between buying my ticket and the boat leaving, so I went to find some fries at the nearby Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx, which were really good! The Dutch eat their fries with mayo, which I don’t really care for usually but decided to try anyways. I’m glad I did, their mayo is different… sweeter, less oily. Good.

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My tour started shortly, and I learned a lot! Most interesting thing: in the 17th century, canal houses were taxed based on their width. This is why houses in Amsterdam are so narrow and really deep. Also, if you look towards the gables on the houses, they all have hooks, because staircases are too narrow to carry furniture. Everything is done through the windows.

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If you look closely, you can see a small ledge at the top of all the houses, that is where the hook is.

After the tour, I went to Museum Van Loon. This is a smaller museum, but I really really liked it! It belongs to the Van Loon family, one of whom helped found the Dutch East India Trading Company in the 17th Century. The house has been restored and shows what a formal canal house would of been like in that time period. I felt like I was in Pride & Prejudice. The kitchen, garden, and coach house were especially cool. Many canal houses have gardens in the back, which were quite, pretty places to relax. In June, you can go visit many of different gardens throughout Amsterdam. I wish I could come back then!

I went to go to the Museumplein afterwards, where 3 of the biggest museums in the Netherlands are, as well as the IAmsterdam sign. I would have liked to go to the Van Gogh Museum, but that will have to wait for when I am a better financed traveler as admission is €17!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I still went to the museum store and bough some Van Gogh art postcards, my favorite souvenirs when I travel. I somehow also convinced myself I needed a Van Gogh cookie jar. Not sure why, I mean I like it, but another case of bombing my budget. 🙂 The park/place here got a lot of hype but I regretted walking over there as it was just way too busy to be enjoyable.

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not worth it

At this point, I wanted to get some of the market food before it closed, so I went over to the Albert Cuyp Market, which was pretty close by. One of the best things I’ve discovered in traveling is the “List of Pancakes” Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pancakes). Every time I go somewhere now, I have to know what their pancake is and how I can eat it. In the Netherlands, it is the poffertjes and they are like mini pancakes served with butter and powdered sugar. mmmmmm good. I also got a stroopwafel while at the market, which is two thin waffles with a caramel/syrup concoction in the middle. The stroopwafel, while fresh and nice, was not that good, especially compared to the poffertjes.

 

Now, I decided to test my luck and return to the Anne Frank House. On Saturdays, they are open quite late, so I was able to get in within about 90 minutes. Advice on waiting in line: bring a coffee or tea as the line is outside and it is cold & you can access the museum’s free wifi from the line.
Anyways, I was really glad I made it into the house before I left. It was really incredible to see what the area was like where the diary was written, and to have a visual image of how small and confining (physically + emotionally) it would have been to live in that space silently for two years. The museum was well done and told a story of the experience. I ended up eating dinner in the museum cafe before taking the bus back to Lille.

All in all, Amsterdam was great! I would love to go back!

A bientôt,

Amy

Fitness in France

Okay… Lets talk about health and activity in France.

We’ve all heard it – Americans are disgustingly obese, French people eat smaller portions and walk everywhere and are all the vision of health, all striking the seemingly-impossible balance between being able to eat dessert and baguettes every day without eating the entire dessert and baguette everyday. Exampe: the book French Women Don’t Get Fat. After living here for a few months I can’t say I fully agree.

First of all, there is a stereotype that everyone here is slender. Nope. I can definitely attest to the fact that that is not true. Yes there are plenty of slender people, but there are overweight people all over the place. There are plus size clothing stores. Statistically, France is around 40-50% overweight (including ~15% obese). What I have observed is that people in general are smaller than in the US. Whether or not they are overweight, their frames are just smaller than those for Americans.

I find the French approach to activity hilarious. I shouldn’t… it is probably much more balanced and sustainable than the way Americans do things. I have concluded that whatever Americans do, we do to an extreme. Fit people in America tend to be really fit. People who don’t exercise in America really don’t exercise. In France, I routinely see people running home from the boulangerie carrying a couple baguettes. Women wear their scarves at the gym, and Nike wedge heels have somehow been accepted as workout shoes?!?

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WHY ARE THESE EXERCISE SHOES?

The French (Europeans in general, really), walk and bike places so much more than we do in the US. Cars are not very practical or really necessary, so there is more activity weaved into their daily and weekly rhythm than a lot of people in the US. A number of the French, however, don’t go to the gym or do routine workouts. Since I joined my gym here, I’ve seen their idea of a workout. Yes, there are some people here who are really quite fit. The majority, however, are not. Their workouts are much more mild than what you tend to see in the US. You just aren’t going to see very many really athletic people here. I’ve never felt as strong as I do here…. I lift just as much or more than so many of the men in my gym (can’t complain about that!).

As a competitive, all-or-nothing type of person, I can’t say I don’t catch myself looking down on the French style of activity and movement. But, the truth is, they have a much more balanced + accessible movement lifestyle than what people think of fitness in the US. This is probably also related to the prevalence of sports in the US vs. France. Sports are not a big deal here, only some people participate, and they are not nearly as time consuming… there isn’t really a competitive side to exercise.

In terms of diet, it is another case of extremes. I’m not sure they ever got the memo about a lot of the popular diet ideas in the US (like no white starches, for example). A balanced French meal has a starch (rice, couscous, pasta, potatoes, bread), a meat, some veggies, bread, and a dessert (often a fruit + dessert yogurt). Let me tell you…. these meals can be BIG & rich. Frenchies won’t snack in between meals though, which is a huge difference. But this way of eating is standard, even for the body-builder types I’ve observed.

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What we eat for lunch at the lycée, a pretty standard example of a cooked French meal. (zucchini soup, beets, potatoes, cauliflower with sauce, cassoulet, a pudding type dessert)

I can say the French style of eating does NOT work for me. I can’t eat really large lunches and dinner everyday. It feels like too much, and I find it very difficult to not snack in between meals (regardless of how much I ate with my meal). Moreover, I find that eating a dessert at most lunches and dinners (even if it is just fruit or yogurt) makes me want to keep eating desserts after I finish eating. Also, once I start eating a baguette, I can’t really stop 😉

Anyways, these are my generalized observations and opinions. Not true for everyone, but definitely what I’ve noticed up here in Nord-Pas-de-Calais

Bruges

So after several weekends of catching up with people since Christmas, Netflix binges, and penny pinching, I decided it was time to go somewhere.

Well actually, I was thinking about going somewhere and told my roommates I was going somewhere and then one of them wanted to come, and then I was committed! The thing that is nice about Lille is that there are a fair number of nice day trips nearby (both within and outside of France). The two places I’ve had left on my list in Belgium are Bruges and Antwerp, and we ended up in Bruges.

Lets have a quick breakdown on how trains work. You have two types of trains, regional trains (slower, cheaper) and high speed trains (faster, $$$$$$$$$$). Also, each country has different train pricing schemes and discounts available. Some countries don’t offer any advantages for buying in advance, some have great discounts for group travel, some have weekend discounts, etc. etc. This is why if you are looking at booking train tickets between 2 countries, you should always check out the price from each country’s train company. SNCB, the train organization in Belgium, has tons more discounts available than SNCF, the French train organization (https://www.b-europe.com/Travel/Promotions/Discounts).

Living in Lille is great because Gare Lille Flandres is serviced by both Belgian and French regional trains, so not only can I access the great discounts from Belgian Rails, but I also get to start with a cheaper, regional train rather than just high speed options.

Josephine and I arrived in Bruges around 11 and spent the next hour and a half just wandering the city. It is a fairly small city that has preserved and restored it’s medieval, Flemish, architecture and has some canals wandering through it. We really lucked out as it was a sunny, January day! We were able to see the majority of the city within an 90 minutes of walking.

After wandering, we wanted to find lunch and a bathroom. My #1 first thing I look for in a city is a soup restaurant. They are awesome… cheap, warm, nutritious + almost always with free wifi. So, we had lunch at Soup. It was good! The local beer in Bruges is a Zot, so I had soup, half a panini, and a Zot blonde.

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Souuuuuuuuuuuuuup! (€12)

There are a bunch of smaller museums in Bruges, so after lunch we visited two of them. Firstly was the Groeningemuseum, an art museum featuring local art and artists. It was pretty good… a smaller museum, but about the biggest size art museum I can actually enjoy. What was nice was that there was a range of time periods, styles, and techniques represented so it was more interesting than 465132165451 religious paintings from the 15th century.

After that, we ended up at the Bruges City Hall, the Stadhuis. This is a 2 room museum, but the main room is amazing! The building itself is centuries old, but the interior was redone around 1900 into a Gothic Hall, with murals depicting the history of the city (and explanations are provided). Fairly interesting and very striking!

The absolute best part of the day was after the Stadhuis. There was a gelato/waffle cart just across from it in Burg Square. OMG. OMG. So good. What I’ve learned about Belgian waffles:

  • there are 2 types, Bruxelles + Liège (Liège is 456116874 better than Bruxelles)
  • they can be served with toppings of all sorts. Maybe with Bruxelles waffles you would want toppings, but DO NOT be tempted to order toppings on Liège waffles! Plain, without even a sprinkle of powdered sugar is best
  • go somewhere with a line and good smell. Most waffle places make a bunch of waffles in advance, and then reheat them in the waffle iron as ordered. These are good, but not that good to be honest. AMAZING waffles will be found at places where they have either ran out of pre made waffles or only make them fresh to order. They are piping hot, the inside is not completely cooked, and the outside is sticky from the sugar. These places usually have a line because they aren’t pre cooked.
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Praise the Lord, oh my soul

The rest of the evening was spent popping into and out of some churches, eating frites, buying beer + chocolate, and window shopping. I went to Chez Vincent for the fries, but really not nearly as good as the friteries here where I live or in Ghent. Really they just tasted like normal fries. We got chocolate at Dumon, as I’ve heard it was good and was reasonably priced. We went to The Bottle Shop for the beers – they have tons of different varieties of beer and the appropriate glasses for each one.

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All in all, it was a good day 🙂

Things I wanted to do but didn’t:

  • visit The Folklore Museum, showing the historical Belgian way of life
  • tour De Halve Maan Brewery
  • climb the belfry
  • visit The Beer Museum
  • rent bikes and bike to the beach + in surrounding natural areas

A bientôt,

Amy

Les Soldes!

Les Soldes translates into The Sales in English. In France, sales are regulated by the state. France allows businesses two periods each year to mark down their merchandise, one in the summer and one in the winter, each lasting six weeks.

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The fact that France has national sales means that every store has a sale starting and ending on the same days throughout the entire country. Since these are the only two times each year where stores can use sales to clear out the last year’s merchandise, almost everywhere has sales. Anything from the local boutique, to the big department stores (Printemps, Galaries Lafayette, etc.), to designer brands, to the hardware store… even the supermarkets mark down some of their goods! And these sales are a good deal, merchandise is marked down anywhere from 30-50%. As you approach the end of the six weeks, things just keep getting cheaper… it is the only time where stores have the right to sell merchandise at a loss.

Additionally, the stores are not allowed to bring in special merchandise for les soldes. That means whatever you’ve been eyeing for the past month will probably be on sale. Of course, there are the things with the biggest markdowns that nobody wants to buy, but then most of the normal merchandise is also on sale. Shoes, handbags, backpacks, clothes, coats, decor, books, hardware supplies… you can get great deals on normal things you need! My cell phone company even did a promo for les soldes, giving everyone free and unlimited data access on the weekends for 6 months!

For example, I was able to get a great wool coat for 50% off! Which is great because I spend way more time outside here waiting for a bus, or walking to the store, and am always freezing.

On one hand, it is nice to be able to expect the sale coming, know how long it is going to be, and know that it is going to be everywhere… it almost ensure finding a good deal if you can wait until January or June. On the other hand, I find it a big strange that the government controls the sales… and it is inconvenient not being able to look for sales or clearance prices all the time.

A Bientôt,

Amy

Cologne

I’m addicted to Christmas markets. Like addicted. And Germany is supposedly the place to be when it comes to Christmas markets.

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You know what one of the best things about living in Lille is? You can hop in a car and depending on the direction, you can go to five different countries within 3-4 hours (the Netherlands, Belgium, England, Luxembourg, and Germany). So whats a girl to do other than high tail it to Germany to partake in Christmas festivities?

Cologne has not one, but SEVEN Christmas markets scattered throughout the city. I only had one day there, because I went with a tour group that provided a there-and-back bus trip for only 35€ from Lille. This was great, because it meant we went straight there (whereas on the train, or a bus, you will have to make connections) and it was cheap! The one day limit did not prevent me from getting a lot done, however.

The number one priority of the day was obviously the Christmas markets, but Cologne also has the #1 most visited tourist attraction in Germany, the Cologne Cathedral, and several nice museums. I spent the morning getting a sense of the markets (i.e. deciding what to buy), then went to the cathedral and a museum, then returned to the best markets to buy some stuff and eat dinner.

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From the Cathedral market

Let me tell you, German Christmas markets are magic! The ones in Cologne had so many lights, decorations, good food, and general festive-ness.

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The Angel Market

Of the markets in Cologne, I went to 6 of the 7. I will say that the Christmas Avenue market was the worst of them all. My favorite was the St. Nicholas’ Village market, and then the Cologne Cathedral market, they had the best decor, vendors, and food.

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St. Nicholas’ Village market at night

So what exactly are Christmas markets all about? There are plenty of gifts to buy, but I think the most important part is the food! Drinks including coffee + hot chocolate (spiked or not), mulled wine, and beer (for Cologne, this means the local brew, Kolsch).  Food including local favorites and standard market finds. Various wursts (bratwurst, currywurst, etc.), crepes and waffles, roasted mushrooms, spatzle, kartoffelpuffer (a fried potatoe pancake served with applesauce), and flammkuchen (thin pizza type dish) can all be found.

The drinks all come in reusable mugs you have to pay a deposit on. Each market has a different mug, so I kept my favorite as a nice little souvenir. I also visited NINE different food booths in one day…. so many foods and so little time 😉

In terms of items that can be purchased, there are many different things being sold! Popular items were: wool/knitted clothes and accessories (great hats and gloves!), Christmas decorations and ornaments (especially nutcrackers), wooden goods, candles and candle holders, jewelry,  cookie cutters, toys, and regional food specialties.

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Outside of the markets, I toured the cathedral and the chocolate museum. Both were interesting and worth dealing with the crazy crowds! (Shoutout to Grandma May, at the chocolate museum, I watched them make the Lindt truffles you always give us!!)

All in all a great day, very scenic, very crowded, and very filling! I really want to visit Bavaria in southern Germany, and this just made me want to go more.

A bientôt,

Amy

 

Amiens

This past Saturday, I took the regional train down to Amiens. Amiens is about halfway between Lille and Paris; the train ride was about an hour and very practical.

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Amiens is the capital of the Somme department within the Picardy region. In spite of this, it is a fairly small city. It has  been the site of several battles, and was occupied by both sides during both World Wars. Much of the city was destroyed during the German occupation of WWII, so many of the buildings are quite new, and the streets are wider than a lot of European cities.

I had a nice time! Amiens is a pretty place, with buildings that reminded me of France, Alsace, and Scandinavia. This was especially true for the St. Leu neighborhood, which was a great little area to just wander around in.

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Along the Somme

Amiens also had some great parks! I got so lucky with the weather! It is officially winter here and cold and wet. All the Frenchies complain about it, and make jokes about how horrible I must think France is (because of the weather in Nord-Pas-de-Calais) and no matter what I tell them, I cannot seem to convince them that it is the same weather as in Portland. Oh well. At least it doesn’t bother me. Anyway, it was cold but sunny on Saturday, so it was a great day to be walking through parks! Parc Saint Pierre was nice. I also walked through the Hortillonages, which is a large park with canals separating parcels of land used for various gardens. In the winter, you can’t do much other than wander on some paths, but when the weather is nicer you can talk boat tours through the canals and look at all the gardens.

There were also so many houses along the canals and along the Somme that had little bridges to get from the house, over the water, to the street! Each one had its own little dock and most people had canoes, etc. stored there. Who needs a driveway when you can have a bridge? 😉

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You can see one of the little bridges each house had in the top part of this picture.
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View from the path near the Hortillonnages

In the afternoon, I went to the Musée de Picardie, the regional museum in Amiens. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go there, but I found out it is free entrance for students under 26. Free is free, so I went and had a look. I then went to the cathedral in Amiens, Notre Dame d’Amiens. It has the largest interior of any cathedral in the world and is twice the size of Notre Dame de Paris! It was huuuuuge!

It was actually too bad that I didn’t go there a week later, as there is a colored light display at 7 pm every night on the cathedral in December.

The rest of the day was spent shopping. Amiens has a fairly large Christmas market, so I wandered through the market, ate a beignet, had some vin chaud, and browsed. They have tons of lights, and played Christmas music throughout the market so it felt very festive.

All in all, it was a good day! I am hoping to take more day/weekend trips now that I am feeling really settled and comfortable in Lille.

A bientôt,

Amy