Strasbourg

The gang decided to split up and I decided to go on a small trip to Strasbourg. Strasbourg is a cozy town with an odd mix of German and French cultures and cuisines. THe city has a cathedral in the centre that is in the gothic style and is even called the Notre Dame cathedral of Strasbourg. Since it was a European holiday, the city was filled with local tourists and the streets were full of people and lively. We walked around the city and got a feel for the old style Gothic architecture, the medieval architecture, and then saw post WWII clean-ups.

The food is also quite decent. I thought that it would be difficult to find vegetarian food in France, but the Alsace region is known for their tarte flambees (pretty much a super thin pastry pizza). I had veg flambees for both lunch and dinner and indulged in a Nutella crepe for a mid-afternoon snack. The Europeans know how to eat… now I just need to figure out their secret to staying thin!

After lunch, we crossed into the German/French border; now with the EU in place, crossing countries was a breeze sans customs and it was a bit disappointing to not even see a flag to distinguish the German side from the French side… only the Loire river.

We came back to the bed and breakfast for a wine/grape juice tasting and then went out for dinner. I decided to try the Munster cheese, and I will have to say that I will never be a cheese kind of gal… at least not the French cheese type.

Here are some photos from Strasbourg

Here
are some from Colmar

-P

Visit to the Alsace region

Colmar is in the Alsace region of France which is known for their wine and cheese production. We are all staying at a charming bed and breakfast built in 1603 that is owned and run by a family that produces fabulous white wines.

Following our arrival into the town yesterday evening, we went out for dinner, chatted, and walked around the city. I seriously feel as if I am in Disneyworld! The homes are built of large wooden beams and most are at least a few centuries old and lean in one direction or other.

Today was filled with hiking. We all had breakfast in the morning at the B&B and shortly after left for a hike in the Vosges mountain area. The views were spectacular and so was the weather and the ambiance. I felt so peaceful and connected with the earth. After hiking for a couple of hours, we stopped at a cafe in the middle of the valley that is famous for their Munster cheese (cheese I detest). I enjoyed an omlette while others in the group devoured the cheese and we left again for our climb back up to the apex of the mountain. I love this part of France; it is clean and simple… that’s how I like things in life to be.

Life doesn’t get any better than this.

-P

Amsterdam – Day 2

My final day in Amsterdam was full of walking. I noticed a sign for a free guided tour at the hostel so I decided I would check it out in the afternoon.

Since Amsterdam is full of canals, I thought that a boat ride on the canals would be a nice way to start off the day (I made the incorrect assumption that an early morning boat ride would be less crowded). I made my way to the boat excursion booth and paid 9 Euro for the 75 minute ride. I hopped on the boat along with a Parisian couple. Within 5 minutes, a Chinese group of 23 decided they wanted on the boat as well. In total, there were 26 passengers and 1 driver, 23 of which spoke only Chinese, and boy could they talk. I realized then that I had gotten suckered into a tourist trap, but I decided I’d make the most of it. I learned a lot about the history of the city and seeing it from the boat provided a different perspective.

After the boat ride, I went to Vondel Park and ate a panini I bought cheaply at a deli. I soon meandered through the southern part of the city around posh shopping districts. I went to a cafe to buy some coffee and met a couple of people from the states who were also touring Europe. It was nice to talk to Americans with the same silly accent as me and who were just as excited about traveling as I was.

After leaving, I walked north to get to Dam square where the free tour was going to happen. I liked the ambiance of the city. The historic homes make the city feel like a village, and the outdoor bulb sellers made me feel as if I were walking in a postcard of Holland.

I was expecting the free tour to be mediocre, but I actually learned a lot about the city, and got a bit of a feel for the Dutch mentality. It was interesting to learn that homes there are taxed by width, and that the narrowest home is merely 1.04 meteres wide! Walking in these homes is also a bit of a challenge due to the narrow halls and steep stairways. Moving furniture up through the homes without a lift would also be a pain, so they placed pulley systems at the gables to allow for large furniture or stock items to be transported. Who knew?

By the end of all of the walking, I felt as if I had seen what I wanted to see, I ended up sitting on a park bench, ate some ice cream, and studied the map of all the places I had gone. Because the city was small, I was able to cover the inner city thoroughly. Knowing that the Amsterdam train station is complex, I headed off early to the station to make sure I was on the platform in time.

Needless to say, I made it back to Brussels happy and safe.

Here are some pictures of my adventures in Amsterdam

Now I’m off to Colmar, France for the next 4 days. I’ll try and post again soon.

-P

Amsterdam – Day 1

My last couple of days have been spent in Amsterdam. I had arranged to stay there for 2 full days because I thought the city was big based on hype and online reviews, but it is actually quite small.

I took the Thalys train from Brussels to Amsterdam and arrived in Amsterdam at 11 am. I was too cheap to buy the city maps that were for sale at the train station, and I figured that since the hostel I was staying at wasn’t too far from the central station, that I’d manage to find it okay. WRONG.

Unlike modern cities that are planned, Amsterdam is an old city that just sort of ‘happened.’ the roads meander through the city and it is only outside of the city limits that a grid-like system exists. I somehow managed to find an English bookstore and the guy working there pointed me in the right direction.

I found the hostel, and moved in. Up to this point, I had never stayed in a youth hostel before, I’d only heard and read about them. For 21 Euro a night inc. breakfast, it was a steal. I was placed in a room of 20 girls and the room could not have been more than half occupied. The girls were quiet and respectful at night, I got a free map of the city, the beds were comfortable, and the sheets were soft and clean… I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

After unwinding, I meandered around the city, first walking through the red-light district (which is absolutely fine and safe in the daytime) and got lost for a while and found my way to the Anne Frank House. I think getting lost in a city like Amsterdam is the best way to see the city. You see cafes and delis that normally would escape your eye if you were on a metro or in a car, and you get the true feeling that you are a local.

I had read The Diary of Anne Frank as a child and had imagined the way her house would have looked. I was surprised at how large the house was and was impressed by the secret life the family had to live.

After leaving the Anne Frank house, I again walked the city a bit and on my way, I found a knitting shop! I ended up purchasing an Addi Clik set for my mother (they are more than double the cost in the States) and shared some thoughts on knitting with the nice counter clerk.

I’ve forgotten to mention up to this point that the city is gorgeous! It was built on canals and everywhere you go there is a canal of water following you on the side. The roads are flat (except for the bridges going over the canals) and bicycling is a breeze as a result. The city is infested with bicycles and in addition to theft, parking is a problem.

The forecast beforehand had scheduled rain and cold weather for the days I spent in Amsterdam, but I was fortunate to not catch any rain… just cloudy weather. By the end of the day, my feet were tired from walking the city and dodging bicycles, so I went back to the hostel and retired early.

Another day of rest

I spent much of the day today resting. I booked hostels in Amsterdam and London and did a bit of reading on the areas. Tomorrow I leave for Amsterdam for 2 days. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on what all occurs.

-P

In any case…

Today I spent the day resting. After the bike trip and my injury (sprained ankle – long story), I really needed it. After dropping H off at work, T and I went shopping for groceries, looked for a certain souvenir (garden gnome – don’t ask), and came back to the house. The trip to find the garden gnome was unsuccessful, and after coming home I fixed some lunch, and did some laundry.

Having a sprained ankle makes life hard… especially when you have to walk everywhere. I took a rest in the afternoon and then went to the train station to buy tickets for my trip to Amsterdam this week and my trips to London/Paris next week. After spending a small fortune on travel tickets (via Thalys and Eurostar), me, H, and T went to visit Emmie (a friend) at the market in St. Gilles. We bought fresh foods and went up to her flat and enjoyed the scenery and evening on the terrace.

I love the calmness and what seems to be the idyllic nature of the city. I’m trying to soak every bit of it in. Tomorrow will be another calm, but full day I presume.

-P

Money Spent:
Round trip ticket from Brussels to Amsterdam = 52 Euro
Tickets from Brussels to London to Paris to Brussels = 193 Euro
Brussels Metro Card (10 uses) = 10 Euro

Back in Brussels

I’m back in Brussels as the title suggests. I’m ridiculously tired and injured from the trip so I will leave a link to some photos from the trip for your amusement:

Bike Trip photos

I’ll retro-post tomorrow.

Enjoy.

-P

Retropost – Bike trip: Day 1

I am writing this post and the following retroposts after my recent 500 km bike trip. I would have written/posted them sooner, but had no internet access so the posts had to wait.

On this first date of the bike trip (the departure date), the 3 of us (me, H, and T) started the morning off with a hearty breakfast and finished packing and loading the bikes up. I had no idea it was going to be such a long day. The 80 km we had to travel was not the problem; the wind and the heavy luggage coupled with a bike that was slightly larger than I was used to all made the trip a bit more challenging.

Being from a hot climate, I was not used to seeing such lush and green landscapes. The cows, sheep, bugs, and horses were abundant, and it was nice to ride the bikes and get the fresh air and wind blowing in my face. I took several pictures of the cities to start with on the trip, but after realizing that every city had a church of architectural interest, and a city centre of equal awesomeness, I gave up on taking pictures of everything and became a bit more selective of things I photographed.

We took several short stops through cities visiting cafe’s, pub’s, and city centres of interest. The first city we stopped in was Dendermonde; a quaint city with a cute center and charming homes. After our visit to the city, we continued on until going to a pub where I had my first encounter with kas kroketten; a Belgium dish consisting of fried cheese (I know, sinful). The pub gave me a warm feel for how typical old timey pubs look and it was nice to escape the dreary cold and cloudy weather for lunch.

We hopped back on the bikes and rode until we got into the city of Brugge. Throughout the whole trip we camped in cabins (trekkershut – about 37 Euro/night). After a bit of a rest, we took a bus into the city and walked around. I immediately loved the architecture, the cafes, and the culture. I have several photos posted on my picasa site you can have a look. The pictures say more than I could write here of course. All in all, the day was everything and more than I could hope for.

I remember my shoulders being in pain from hunching over the bike and poor postural technique, but in the end, I was so excited from the cultural experience, all the pain was forgotten… until later in the bike trip.

-P

Money Spent:
Coffee: 1.50 Euro
Lunch: 8 Euro
Dinner: 7 Euro

Prepping

Today was a bit of a lazy day here in Brussels. I caught up on some rest and packed for the one week long bike trip me, H, & T are about to go on through Belgium. I was a bit restricted on what I could pack for the week as I can only take what I can carry on the bike, so we’ll see how it all works out in the end.

In the afternoon, we made an outing to see some of the Chinese and Japanese building contributions to the 1958 World Expo held in Brussels:

After that, we headed over to get some ice cream at a parlor located behind Eddie Merckx home/bike shop. Merckx is essentially the European cycling version of Lance Armstrong.

We ended up coming back to the house quite full of ice cream, so T and I went on a 20km bike ride through the countryside. I love riding here in the country. The air is so clean and the scenery like nothing I have seen; so lush, green, and peaceful.

I won’t be posting for the next week since I will be on the bike trip, but I’ll be sure to take pictures and post lots when I return.

-P

Parlez vous Flemish?

I fortunately got a great night’s sleep last night and was able to wake up at a decent hour this morning. I think I am over my jet lag (even though I am still awake at 1:45 am).

After eating breakfast, T dropped me off at the train station and I was on my way to explore the city. The first thing I saw at the train station was the Atomium:


It is a monument built for the 1958 Expo and the Brussels World’s Fair. Its a good 335 ft tall and forms the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 1.65 x 10^11 times!

Becoming oriented with the trains is quite tricky. They’ve supposedly re-done them in the last month and several people are finding it confusing (at least I’m not the only one). If you decide to go to Brussels, I highly suggest taking the trains, while they can get crowded at rush hours, they are the cheapest and most efficient means of getting around.


I first had meant to go to the European Union building district, but instead I walked the wrong way and ended up at the Cinquantenaire which wasn’t a bad thing.

There are very lush, green parks in the city, and Jubelpark is a nice one to walk/eat a lunch in.


There’s a military museum and Autoworld museum currently inside the wings of the building, and I had no interest in seeing either. I walked through the park and went about searching for the next thing.

After all of that, I walked to the Palais de Justice (court house) and was amazed by the architecture of the building. A lot of it was covered in scaffolding, but even the inside was nice.

Left: Outside of courthouse
Right: Picture of the apex of the courthouse from the inside

On my walk from the court house to the King/Queens palace, I saw many neat things that I wish the U.S. would implement…

The bicycle idea is a nice thing to have for tourists, or even for locals who want to minimize their carbon footprint. The recycling option is lovely too!

The shops here are expensive and either completely elegant or ridiculously tacky. I haven’t decided yet how the people are here, tacky, or just spendy. In any case, I made it to the Queen’s palace just before the rain started pouring.


the Grand Place,

and other touristy things in the center of town. I mentioned yesterday that Belgium waffles actually come from Belgium and are consumed regularly by Belgiums. I enjoyed a waffle and walked around the city:

I realized the time a bit late, and tried to hurry back to meet T. I didn’t realize that the trains experienced a ‘rush hour’ and sure enough I made it in time to experience it. People literally pushing each other on and off the train. When it gets so crowded, you have to be careful of pick-pockets, and I learned quickly of this.

Finally, I made it to the train station to meet H&T and we made our way back to the house. It was nice to have a relaxing evening after a long day of getting lost in the city.

-P