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

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