A Travellerspoint blog

Europe By Rail 2004

May 12-19. 2004

sunny 0 °F

We left Newark this morning, stopping in DC & ending up in Amsterdam for our 8-day city tour of Europe! So we get to Schipol airport & needed to catch the tram into Centraal station, but we couldn’t figure out how to get automated tickets from the machines, since they were all in Dutch, which is not to say we didn’t try! We wound up waiting on an exceptionally long line to get them from a teller. Finally we were on the train! It was nearly empty, was efficiently run & was scenic for the 20-minute ride into town. When we left Central Station & started our walk to our hotel we were really psyched. We heard so much about this place. It was so quaint with canals and buildings on quiet tree-lined streets.
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We ended up walking right past our hotel...we were wandering and not paying attention! It was located in an old canal house so it was easy to pass up anyway. We doubled back & checked into the little place. At that point we ran into another couple our age from Boston, who booked through go-today, doing the same trip we were doing, who we'd see at breakfast in the morning. We also noticed that there were cats everywhere and were missing our little Cleo, who had just passed away that January....

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We wandered around the compact and very European city & I bought a jacket, as it was much cooler than we expected. We slipped into a little café and I had a cucumber sandwich (they are popular there). The place was full of trendy-looking young people. The Europeans have such a sense of style. The service was really slow by American standards, but these people just aren’t in a hurry (& neither were we).

For some reason I was feeling really nauseous & had to lie down for a minute, & we discovered that our feet on our bed were higher than our heads! It was an OLD canal house. I ended up running into the bathroom & getting sick, but afterward felt totally fine. I don’t know what it was, I guess I just needed to get it out of my system! So we headed out for the night & sample some of Amsterdam’s nightlife. In Amsterdam there is legalized prostitution & soft drugs. Women stood in windows waiting for a passer by to stop in & there were people selling hard drugs everywhere in the Red Light district, which is a whole different place after dark. It was strange: we saw one heavy set middle aged couple leaving one of the “establishments” with the women in the window. The women were mostly Indonesian, which is their minority group in the Netherlands. We saw some Japanese (or Chinese?) tourists yell mean things to one of the women, who gave it right back to them. In this one alleyway in particular, it was very shady. During our late night walk back to the Singel Hotel one guy tried to sell us crack. I know it seems crazy, but other then these few things, it really is an awesome city! We loved it there & felt safe – just realize that the Red Light district is shady after dark.

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In the morning we had the free breakfast included in our room & checked out the floating flower market, which was gorgeous. We saw more cats. This is the most cat-friendly place we'd ever seen! Today we went on the Canal Bus, riding on a canal boat, which is a great way to see the city. We also checked out this one area, where if you stand in a certain spot, you can see like 15 bridges. We wanted to check out the Cat Museum, but when we got there, there were black Land Rovers with tinted windows & security everywhere & the street was closed off. I walked over to some local cops & asked what was going in on broken Dutch (after studying my phrase guide). They were so entertained by my attempt! One of them knew enough English to communicate to me that Ocean’s 12 was being filmed in there & that Brad Pitt was in there waiting for me! They called him "your Brad Pitt” since I was American. They were funny! We all laughed. We checked out the Posenboot, which is the city animal shelter, which happens to be on a houseboat, which isn’t too surprising considering it is a city full of canals (& bicycles, by the way). We chatted up the locals there and they let us pet some of the cats. There were so many! Ironically, a bird built her nest right outside the front door.

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It was a very long & leisurely walk to Hertz in the morning to pick up our rental car. We especially liked the Jordaan neighborhood in town. We hopped into our Ford Ka & headed out to Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse. All we had was the Hertz map with us, so it was a challenge to get around, since the signs there don’t indicate North, South, etc. Rather, they just point out town names (many of which weren’t on our map!) As the navigator on our travels, this was a bit frustrating for me, especially since I navigated us all over the Irish countryside in the middle of nowhere back in '98. We did figure it out & the place was amazing. There were brilliantly colored flowers everywhere, & it was a nice place to walk around, & just BE. It was crawling with international tourists, & English seemed to be the common language. We asked a number of foreigners to take our photo by simply pointing to our camera. It was a fun day. We even got to see them milk-feed some baby pigs & we made a wish in a wishing well. On the way home, we saw children getting out of school, which was really cute. We drove on shady streets with thatched houses & even spotted a couple windmills.

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That evening we went to a cheese store for some Gouda and hit the Bulldog Coffeeshop, before hanging out in Dam Square.

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It was back to Centraal Station to catch a train (the Thalys) to Brussels. We asked a couple if we were on the right platform (they were locals) and they kindly explained that we were on the right platform and made some conversation with us. Goodbye Amsterdam! On the train, the husband of the local couple, bumped into me & said "Alstublieft" sort of softly, which I understood as being a catch-all phrase, "Excuse Me", "Have a nice day" kind of thing. We dig those simple experiences! Anyway, it was a comfy 2-1/2-hour ride to Brussels. The train wound through the countryside, after passing Antwerp, the Hague & other well-known cities. We traveled right through the very fields where World War 1 was fought and that was eerie. We saw scattered memorials. It made me think of Carl Sandburg's poem, "Grass", which is about grass growing over an old war site covering what once was.

We arrived at Brussels Midi Station, only to find out it was this big city. We thought it would be smaller. I guess we didn't consider it IS the capital of the European Union! We took a 15-stop subway ride out to Hotel Vendome, which was right by the subway station. People were all talking in different languages while we stood on the train with our bags between our feet. It was an exciting ride in such a different place. We were bumped up to a 4-star hotel, due to lack of availability in the 3-star category that we paid for. Needless to say, we were pleased with our accommodations. In Europe, 3-stars is considered 'tourist class', like a 2-star hotel here, but older and with more charm and history. Anyway, after getting settled in, we headed out to the part of town we'd be spending most of our time in, near Grand Place. There were a ton of shops and people with a joie de vivre, which is the coolest thing about being in Europe. We got to Grand Place and the place was huge! I couldn't fit the magnificent buildings in my camera screen!
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L'llot Sacre is a sort of "restaurant row" on these old, windy, cobblestone pedestrian-only streets. On this night, we went to La Petite Provence there for free champagne & an awesome dinner. Again, people were talking in different languages all around us, none of them English. It was cool to be in this busy street with mouth-watering smells and people drinking, eating, & laughing at colorfully-set tables outside.
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People began to gather into Grand Place for an outdoor concert, except it was some HUGE act in Europe and literally thousands of people & beer vendors crammed into the square. So we followed them in & enjoyed the show although we never heard of the group. People were going crazy! What was a quiet square turned into a party in a matter of hours. Incidentally there was also a jazz festival going on in the square while we were there. After the show, thousands of people left and crowded the windy little shop and restaurant-lined streets. I was admiring beautiful scarves and necklaces in one crowded little store. That was a fun and unexpected night.

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On this day we checked out the different parts of town, everything from the EU building, to a beautiful gothic church, to the Royal Palace.
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It was a quiet Sunday exploration of Brussels. For lunch, we went to La Legende which is right by the Mannekin Pis which has to be an inside joke among the locals, since people come from all over to see this statue of a little boy urinating. It is even decorated at the holidays!

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Steve had sampled a chocolate-covered Belgian waffle. It was HUGE and messy, but he polished it off. Now the Belgians are internationally-known for their handmade chocolates. So we bought a box for ourselves and decided to hang out in Grand Place and people-watch while gorging on delicious freshly-made artisan chocolates. We chatted up the owner of one of the many shops in town, Helen De Troiles, & grabbed a few boxes. After polishing off an entire box, Steve was feeling sick...too much chocolate! Anyway, it was fun to people-watch. Brussels is VERY European. That is, people are very young, both literally and figuratively. They have a real zest for life and are a romantic bunch. It is inspiring to see people living like that.

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We took the subway back to our hotel, which was near the red light district. We decided to look for an internet cafe & after passing a few sex shops, we wandered into this quik check type place that appeared to be in apartment building. After climbing 3 flights of creaky stairs, we entered a room with people sitting at computers and messaged friends and family. In the morning, we'd leave for Paris!

Of course we've all heard so much about Paris, so we were pretty psyched to go there! When we arrived at the Paris Nord station, we needed to take two subway trains as our hotel was on the other side of town and Paris is a LARGE city. So after our long ride on the subway, we wandered around with our map, looking for the tiny hotel we'd be staying at and we found it on a side street. The guy behind the counter was really nice and chatted us up when we checked in. There was a hot spell, there was no A/C in our tiny room, & the only window was one that lead out to the hallway and their little courtyard. It was so hot at night, we slept with this huge window open that was right across from the bed looking into the hallway and courtyard. We didn't have anything worth stealing, and gave up the privacy, but it was cooler, so it worked out alright!

Anyway after checking in and cleaning up, we decided to head out to Montparnasse to check out the cemetery where Sartre is buried, plus it was a beautiful, albeit macabre walk. Incidentally, Montparnasse is where many great writers/artists came to philosophize about life (Hemingway, Sartre, Picasso). Next, we decided to go to Montparnasse tower, which we got a tip that it is a huge skyscraper that has beautiful views over Paris. Again, the clerk there was super nice and threw us student discounts to go up there.
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Keen on going off the beaten path, we thought it would be cool to check out the catacombs. From http://triggur.org/cata/, "Far below the city streets of Paris, in the quiet, damp darkness, seven million Parisians lie motionless. Their skeletons, long since disinterred from the churchyard graves their survivors left them in, are neatly stacked and aligned to form the walls of nearly one kilometer of walking passage. Welcome to the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary-- The Empire of the Dead."
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Here's funny anecdote, so got off the Denfert-Rochereau Metro stop and looked awhile for the nondescript entrance (we even had to re-consult our map to ensure we were in the right place), & w spotted a ticket-taker. We get our tickets and another young American couple gets on line. A group of middle-schoolers is there on a trip and the American couple squeezes by them saying "excuse me" in English. Well the kids got a kick out of this and were imitating the American accent saying "excuse me" over and over again, like only a group of 12-year olds can. It was pretty amusing. The Americans should have known to say it in French. There are a few phrases you should know when visiting any country, of course.

Anyway, it was a dark and windy walk among skulls and bones. There was a family from Indiana in there with us (luckily the school group was nowhere around). We noticed lots of Americans in Paris. Anyway, Steve was loving this part of the trip - we always find our way to a cemetery, haunted house, or in this case, underground catacomb!

We returned to our hotel asking about a Seine river cruise. So the guy behind the counter started pulling out all kinds of dinner-cruise brochures & we were looking for something cheaper. Perhaps he was charmed by our poverty, because he gave us two free tickets to hop on a boat that night! It was a long leisurely walk over to Port de Suffern, where we were to pick up the boat. It was dusk, as we strolled hand-in-hand along the Seine. There's a perosnality to Paris, you know. We passed by quite a number of houseboats, where people took up permanent residence. Can you imagine living on the Seine?! It was interesting to see the different "houses", plus there were residents wandering around. The walk itself was nice. We presented our tickets and waited. Since it was at night, and it was the shoulder season, only about a dozen people boarded (they had a smaller boat for our group), so that made it more intimate. Off we went viewing the city of lights from the Seine at night. A woman was kind enough to snap our photo. When the trip ended and we approached the Port de Suffern, we noticed that the Eiffel Tower, all lit up, started to glisten and sparkle! It would do it again every hour at night, and the lights began to twinkle. It is understandable why Paris has a reputation for romance. The river cruise was one of the most memorable parts of our adventure.

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After our boat ride, we went to the Eiffel Tower and just chilled in the Champs de Mars - the park leading up to the Eiffel Tower (which is kind of like the Mall in Washington, DC, but in Paris!) There were a lot of people there, like us, just enjoying the warm spring night.

Later, we looked around for a bite to eat (not a full meal, just a bite) & spotted this cool bistro. So Steve ordered an onion soup, assuming there'd be no cheese on top of it, but we were in France, so they aren't going to call it "French Onion" soup! It did have the cheese on it, just like French Onion Soup. Anyway, that was just a side note.

Here we are hanging out in the Champ de Mars.
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We hopped on one of those red double-decker buses that you see crusing most major cities. We were able to get a great view of the city and tour from up there, plus it was hop-on-hop transport for the day. From up there we got a bird-s eye view of the Louvre, the Bastille prison, the Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde, Champs-Elysées, the Paris Opera, Notre Dame and all this cool gothic architecture.

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We hopped off in the Latin Quarter. This is where a lot of artists and students hang out. We wandered the streets aimlessly for a while....

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before settling down at the Sorbonne, where we people-watched. We heard there was a 400 year old tree in the city, so we tried to hunt it down. After looking at the wrong one for awhile, we finally spotted it!
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As if we hadn't done enough walking, we thought it would be cool to climb the 300+ steps up through Notre Dame for some killer views of the city. It wasn't the stairs per se, but it was over 80 degrees and the stairwell was tiny and windy and there were no windows or ventilation, so it was a bit rough, but it was worth it to get a gargoyle's view of Paris. I snapped a few photos:

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At the end of the day, we hopped off the red bus the tour at the Trocadero, where another tourist was kind enough to snap our photo. Paris rocks!
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After cleaning up at the hotel, we headed back out to the Metro, planning a night in Monmartre, which has long been known as an artist’s haven & it's a great area for finding interesting cafés. The streets were flooded with artists, musicians & people looking for eats and drinks. We hit an internet cafe to touch base at home. We were exhausted from all the traveling we had done on this particular adventure. We decided to treat ourselves to a real dinner on our last night before returning home. The Metro stops are in the art nouveau style, by the way. Art nouveau was created in Paris and is a cool style if you ask me. Here is a photo of the Monmartre metro stop.
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Anyway, we went to this one place for dinner & were given French language menus. I guess we didn't look like tourists. Cool! We didn't protest as we wanted to figure it out ourselves. There were a number of things on the menu that were not in my phrase book. We finally gave in and got English menus, only to find out that what Steve was looking to order was a scoop of raw beef! Thankfully, we ordered different things and had an awesome last meal. We wandered around Monmartre afterward, passing the famed Moulin Rouge.
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Like they say, "We'll always have Paris". The Europeans have such a lust for life, that it affects you. This whole adventure has been a whirlwind. Felt like a lifetime of experiences in 9 days! We were exhausted by the end of the journey, running from city to city. What a way to cap off the end of my grad schooling! It was time to return home......remembering fondly Europe....

Posted by stevedana 17:00 Comments (0)

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