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!

20160130_103153
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.

20160130_110930
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.

20160130_124441

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.

20160130_130622
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.

20160130_151831.jpg
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

Advertisements

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.

20160123_121457.jpg
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.
20160123_153658
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.

20160123_144933.jpg

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

Cologne

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

20151205_105517

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.

20151205_182009
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.

20151205_121038
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.

20151205_173423
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.

20151205_160022 (1)

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