Netherlands & Belgium, Sept. 28th to Oct. 6th, 2012


Marken, Volendam & Zaanse Schans
Bruges (aka Brugge)

Amstel Bridge, Amsterdam

September 28-29th – Toronto, Amsterdam

Charming start to a vacation when, after 3pm on a Friday, when you’re arriving at the airport, you get a call from the body shop letting you know that your insurance claims guy screwed up your claim, the adjuster won’t approve the repairs, and could you fix it? (Oh, and said insurance guy was on vacation.) I did my best, which accomplished nothing, and left the whole mess behind me when we departed, since… what else was there to do?

The flight from Amsterdam was uneventful and the time passed fairly quickly. Watched movies rather than slept: Prometheus, Snow White and the Huntsman, and the first part of Dark Shadows. Y’know, when Chris Hemsworth gives the best performance in your movie, you may not have an Oscar contender on your hands…

Got into Amsterdam and to the hotel not long after 8am, however we couldn’t check in until 2pm, so left our backpacks there and off we went. Unfortunately it was a bit early yet for a lot of places to be open, so we mostly got our bearings. We would soon learn that Amsterdam mostly opens at 10, 9 in a few places.

At 10am we went in to Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic church in English), founded in the 1600s by a wealthy merchant when Catholicism was illegal. Eventually the church spanned the top floors of three buildings and could hold 150 people. It remained a church until the late 1800s, when it became a museum. (Catholicism had been legal for some time by then.)

After that we had brunch, and moseyed over to check out the Anne Frank house while I tried to find an Ortel mobile SIM card. (Note: recommended cuz the service is great in Germany, but not at all common in the Netherlands, where it’s all Lyca all the time. Eventually gave up.) The line for the Frank house went around the block, and it appeared that they’d built the museum, restaurant, etc. around the original house, since you can’t see it from the street. We took a picture or two and then went on our way. Weren’t inclined to join the everlasting line. Wandered some more and got some nice pictures of old architecture on side streets instead.

Came back to the hotel lobby for a bit, then headed over to the Oude Kerk (Old Church), which opened at 1pm. The oldest parts of it date to the 1200s, and there are certainly plenty of architectural styles on view. Much like the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), the church houses thousands of graves — the floor is basically all tombstones. Some famous people, some just wealthy or notable enough to be granted the space.
After that we headed back to the hotel to check in, but had to wait a while. I napped in the lobby after trying to read. I didn’t realize how out of it I was until later when I went to continue my book, and realized there were pages and pages I had no recollection of reading.

Eventually we got our room and cleaned up, then slept for a couple hours. Felt MUCH better. After that we went on a half-mosey/half-search for dinner. We ended up not far from the hotel, at Villa Zeezicht, with the lesson that you DO need reservations for good places on a Saturday night.

Back to the hotel by 9, and ready for bed by 10. We had also begun our tradition at this point of watching the BBC in our downtime. And I believe Sherry embarked on her love affair with the Big Book of Amsterdam. (A sizeable tourist tome supplied in the hotel room.) At this point we’d been up since Friday morning, Canadian time, and it was Saturday night in Amsterdam… Zzz…

Amsterdam - Bloemmarkt

September 30 – Amsterdam

Enjoyed plenty of late-night singing and drunken revelry, thanks to our room being at the back of the building, directly overlooking at least one bar, and, as mentioned, it was Saturday night. Sherry swears she heard renditions of Paul Anka at some point.

However, slept alright, and we were up fairly early, at least for this town. Found a breakfast place in the Bloemmarkt that opened at 9, and after another ham and cheese omelet, we made the rest of the trek to the Museum Quarter.

First was the Rijksmuseum, which was smaller than I expected (I believe it’s temporarily smaller due to renos). Had some stunning furniture and art, though. Couldn’t help but think of the Gardner museum heist when I saw the Vermeers.

Headed over to the Van Gogh museum, stopping for coffee and a waffle, then learned that the Van Goghs the weren’t actually at their museum. They’d just moved them to the Hermitage to get started on extensive renos on the museum.

We got our tickets and a map to the Hermitage at the gift shop, then headed off through another area of town. We got a little worried when we saw the crazy lines at the Hermitage, but it turned out we were geniuses. Having tickets already, we got to go right in. (And it was only the second day the exhibit was open after being closed for five days for the move.) Many others weren’t so lucky and the wait must have been over an hour. Least the weather was nice for those waiting outside…

The Van Gogh exhibit was really well done, and had a combination of well-known and lesser known works, letters, and some artifacts. It was also arranged really well to tell his story, phases of his life, progress of his career, etc. Thanks to a dumbass at the coat check, it’s the one museum we don’t have pictures of, since he told us no cameras, when, in fact, the policy was the same as all the other museums — cameras are fine, but no flash. Oh well.

There was also an Impressionist exhibition on, which was also really interesting and well done, though while it did represent plenty of well-known painters, it didn’t have all that many well-known works. They did do a really good job of showing the evolution of art from the Neoclassical, salon-run system to the Impressionists and beyond. It made it a lot clearer why Impressionist art was seen as such an affront at the time, and how the artists involved fit in to society, or didn’t.

Of course, Dr. Who came to mind in the Van Gogh exhibit, and Chris Moore came to mind in the Impressionist exhibit. 🙂

After we left the Hermitage, we wandered back in the direction of the hotel in search of lunch, which turned out to be rather harder than anticipated. Admittedly, it was mid-afternoon. We ended up at a pub around the corner from the hotel (across the street from where we’d had dinner the night before). I tried Chouffe beer, out of Belgium, which is quite nice. (Ed discovered it first, and while to date we have only found three Chouffes, I maintain there MUST be seven. Their coffee liqueur doesn’t count.)

After lunch I picked up more Mark Raven t-shirts for the girls (we’d bought a few before going to see the Van Gogh exhibit), then I hit Die Beerkoning (Beer King) for some Westvleteren 8s. Amazing shop, so many craft beers… The brands I’d seen before or could find at home might just barely cover half a shelf… alas. A guy came in looking for some particular beer, and the girl working told him they didn’t have it. It was “too commercial” and “we don’t like it”. 🙂

Then headed back to the hotel and had a nap. Attempted to try Côte Ouest for dinner, but it looked like there was private function. (Tried several times to reserve or eat there, and it never worked out. Oh well. We ended up hunting down an Indonesian place that got quite good reviews, and it was quite tasty. And filling. We had the Rijsttafels Batavia. They also had my favorite Tropical Fire tea, and Sherry said their decaf was the best.


October 1st – Utrecht

General note: I have never passively smoked so much weed in my life. I am getting trained to expect to walk through a big waft any time I see “Coffeeshop”. And often when I pass a guy smoking anything (always guys…) on the street. One runs into it surprisingly early in the day, too. But hey, nowhere seems to be open for breakfast before 9 or 10, so I guess it’s something to do.

We headed for Utrecht on a morning train a bit after 9. Quick jaunt, though at that time it would have paid to spring for a first class ticket to ensure getting seats. Since nothing else would have been open, we ate the hotel’s buffet breakfast. Which turned out to cost €50. Don’t do the conversion math… just don’t.

Got to the city and got oriented, heading over to the Domkerk (St. Martin’s Cathedral). It wasn’t open yet, of course, though we did check out the cloisters and garden. Had a look around when it opened, but due to a hurricane leveling a significant portion of it a few hundred years ago, and restoration not beginning until the 1800s, much of it’s not that old. Some interesting smashed stone carvings and such, thanks to the Reformation.

And that was pretty much our last success. The Catherine convent museum was closed, which we noticed after we waited the better part of an hour for it to open. Several other museums we might have been interested in were also closed. We could have done the Dom Tower tour and climb, but it didn’t start until 2pm, and it was barely noon. (It seemed most things opened in Utrecht at noon, or 1pm, unless it was Monday — which it was — when everything is closed.)

I bought a pair of Miffy mugs for the girls, Utrecht being the home town of Miffy’s creator, Dick Bruna. We ended up seeing Miffy in the mascot-sized flesh at the airport heading home (while waiting in the wrong security line…)

Then we moseyed through one of the shopping areas a bit, had a coffee (and fresh mint tea) in a sunny square, and decided to take the train back to Amsterdam, then grab lunch.

We DID manage to get service that day at the cafe by the Nieuwe Kerk (also closed, but for a week, so no visit for us, even though it was literally across the street from the hotel), while there was a Syrian protest going on. We had Tomas, the cutie waiter with the nice butt. It started to rain at the end of lunch, so we headed back to the hotel for reading and napping instead the original plan of reading outdoors at a cafe. Was fine by me, as I was a bit of a zombie that day after not sleeping terribly well the previous two nights.

Post-nap time we decided to hunt down Café De Fles, which Ed recommended, for dinner. It was quirky and tasty and played very eclectic music. We had tiny chickens. 🙂 It would have been more fun during the day, though, as it has a sort of indoor balcony that would facilitate excellent people-watching.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a grocery store and got breakfast for the next day (we got smarter!) since nothing was open early enough, except the wildly expensive hotel cafe, and we needed to meet up for our day tour by 9am.

Zaanse Schans

October 2nd – Marken, Volendam & Zaanse Schans

Heading out of the city! We breakfasted in our room while Sherry managed to sort out the snafu that was the Belgian rail strike, which she blessedly stumbled upon before we were, y’know, trying to take the train to Belgium… Ended up getting up earlier than planned and taking a bus to Antwerp. All in all, things worked out alright. But I get ahead of myself…

We headed down to the tour office for 9am and learned that we hadn’t actually had to buy the city tour part of our tickets, and that as a result we were only maybes for the first country tour. (The way they did things still doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to me, but I guess it helps guarantee buses are as full as possible.)

When it turned out the morning tour was full, we were assigned to take the city tour in the morning, then be back for the country tour at noon. As we’d already seen plenty of the city, we left and went to sort out printing our new tickets and getting Sherry some more substantial breakfast.

After that we had a coffee and a sit and did some people-watching by the Dam square. Also the pert buttocks of Tomas, the waiter at the restaurant next door… Then we headed back to the hotel for a little bit before returned to the tour office.

We finally departed around 12:30, after they found the two people on the bus who were on the wrong tour (they were sitting in front of us and we took their seats, which had a better view). First stop was Marken, a little village that used to be an island, out on the IJsselmeer. We saw a cheesemaking demo, or, more accurately, observed a sassy woman telling us how it’s made.

Then there was a wooden shoe-making demo, which was pretty mechanized, as these things go these days. Apparently a million pairs of wooden shoes a year are still worn. Great for working in wet places to keep the feet warm and dry.
We saw some of the traditional houses, which used to be on stilts, and which now have their main entrance on the second floor and a brick main floor or cellar, which was added later on when they closed in that main floor. Other houses were built on small hills. All of these measures are to protect from flooding, which is not uncommon.

The houses were also almost all either dark green or black. This is a remnant of tradition, and because the people of the area were traditionally quite poor, and couldn’t afford the regular repainting required due to sea air and weather. The black is from tar, which also sealed the wood. The green is from grasses, which were cheap and plentiful to make pigment for poor man’s paints (formula unknown).
Next we toured through the back byways of the village, then headed down to the harbour to catch our ferry to Volendam. (Dam means dyke — all these cities ending in “dam” have them.) Volendam is a fishing village that also used to be an island, but now has a causeway to the mainland. It’s very picturesque, and touristy. And has excellent fish. Sherry and I had fabulous fish and chips for lunch.

Apparently the fishermen catch eels in the bay, which are typically eaten smoked, and head to the North Sea to catch most of the fish, like cod, since the Dutch aren’t typically big fans of freshwater fish. Since the major project to build a protective dyke around the bay in the 1930s, the Zuiderzee, which was a saltwater bay, is now the IJsselmeer, a freshwater lake. I’m sure that did interesting things to the marine ecosystems.

After lunch we strolled through the old part of the village, known as the labyrinth. All the houses had different front doors, a sign of wealth back in the day. There are also very traditional ways to have your front window/curtains/decor set up, but I don’t recall all the details. We learned that you can tell a Catholic church/village at a glance because the steeple is topped with a cross, but in a Protestant village it will be topped with a rooster. We also passed an awesome apartment building demolition on the way back to the bus. Because buildings tend to be attached to each other, it was pretty common to see demolitions, or the results, where they were only tearing down part of a building. I’m sure the process is delightful for the people living on the other side.

Next we were off to Zaanse Schans, village of windmills. Unfortunately it had started raining before we got there, so things were a bit soggy and dark. Plenty of windmills, though, both the smaller kind used for pumping water out of the fields, and the big kind used for grinding grain and the like. There was also a fair number of sheep. They don’t really use the big windmills anymore, but apparently you have to turn them every couple of weeks or the bearings they turn on get flattened, and then you can’t turn them.

Finally we headed back to the city, went back to the Villa Zeezicht for soup and wine for dinner (they have really excellent lentil soup). I also got apple pie, most of which I kept for breakfast. Apple desserts are really popular in the Netherlands, since they grow a lot of apples, and the pie is uber-deep dish. In my world, “Dutch” apple pie always described pie with no top crust or lattice. However, possible it’s a corruption of “Deutsch”, like “Pennsylvania Dutch/Deutsch” is, since Dutch apple pie has… something on top, that kinda looked like some sort of cookie or madeleine.

Our earliest morning the next day, so showered before bed and whatnot. We headed downstairs by 7:30am the next morning to check out and get a cab to the bus station, which was out at the edge of town in Amstel and not the one by the Central Station.

Antwerp - Grote Markt

October 3rd – Antwerp

Time to move on! Early start, but our cab driver was nice. Had no trouble finding the right place to get the bus, and even managed to find a decaf for Sherry. (Should have gotten my latte at that shop, too. Mine was terrible.) Bus was pretty full, though quiet. A lot of people slept most of the way. It rained fairly hard at times, so nice to be in a vehicle. I had a bit of a nap, which felt good. Sherry and I both managed to not kill the guy who was snuffling and sniffling and snorting CONSTANTLY behind us.

We attempted to cab it to the hotel after we arrived in Antwerp, since we weren’t quite sure of directions given we weren’t dropped off at Central Station, which Sherry had routed from. But the cabby we approached told us our hotel was only two blocks away. When we got down to Central Station, we realized he’d thought it was a similarly named hotel. From that point we were fairly clueless about where we were going, so got a cab at Central Station. Walking would actually have been less circuitous, since there were some one-ways and such, but at least we didn’t have to hoof it with our packs with rain threatening.

The new hotel room was fairly tiny, and the bathroom microscopic, but we weren’t allergic to the beds like in Amsterdam. And the poppy-patterned carpet in the halls was kinda nice, even if it did smell like Quaker oatmeal out there. Amusingly, they were quite proud of their new beds, which turned out to be a huge pain in the ass, because the mattress topper wasn’t attached in any way, so the slightest movement would shift it and potentially send you sliding toward the floor.

We headed out in the direction of the Harbour, looking for lunch along the way, and ended up having pizza. For whatever reason, Antwerp has a LOT of pizza places, with rather obnoxious barkers out front of many. Pretty good pizza, though, and, like France, they use interesting cheeses on a four cheese pizza. After that we dropped by the Cathedral of Our Lady, which is HUGE, and under restoration, but still impressive and with several Rubens paintings. Sherry wanted most of the tile floors and wall paintings. At one point we saw two of the workmen just kinda standing there, looking around and up. Initially I thought they were planning something upcoming, but eventually we concurred that they appeared to just be taking an art break. I approve. 🙂

After that we headed into the Grote Markt(market square) with all its 17th century guild houses and sculpture and such, then to the Harbour with Het Steen (the castle) and questionable statuary (apparently depicting Antwerp’s legendary marauding giant). After that we decided we needed chocolate, so we headed down a few side streets and whatnot and hunted down some chocolate bars for gifts and snacking, as well as picking out individual pralines and truffles. (Got them all home and distributed without eating them!) Any town with that many chocolate shops is alright by me. I got some for Mom and Dad, Chad and Patience, and Linda. Then remembered I needed some for Andrew and Shawna, so got some more the next day.

Also found some Westvleteren 12 and a third Chouffe at a shop boasting 275 Belgian beers, but don’t plan to buy any more, since I’ve had the 12, and I don’t have much room left. (Ok, I ended up finding the Westvleteren Blonde in Bruges and buying one…)

Started to rain as we were finishing up, so we headed back to the hotel, stopping along the way to get a chocolate-covered waffle for me, which was very tasty. Waffles really are everywhere in Belgium, and so the air frequently smells quite delicious. We checked on trains to Bruges and pubs for dinner, ate chocolate and watched quirky British TV (yay, the BBC!) and slowly dried out.

General note: tourists with tablets were surprisingly common pretty much everywhere we went on the trip. Like, using iPads as cameras on tours and such. Seemed a bit odd, but hey, could make for an interestingly interactive experience if you had a data plan. Then I recently watched this video, and the potential of wandering around Europe with a tablet really opened up.

Headed out in the rain to try and have dinner at a place Sherry had previously been to, which is next to the cathedral, and is decorated in hardcore cathedral kitsch. Alas, it was closed, so we ended up at another cafe, under the awning. The beef stew hit the spot, and there was the added entertainment of a Japanese salaryman and his boss, who drank copious amounts of beer and didn’t really eat anything. The junior guy ordered assorted food, but his boss would eat one bite and that was it. And since his boss wasn’t eating, the other guy couldn’t, either. In the time they were there the junior guy went through five or six big beers. His boss had at least three, but was more interested in smoking.

Headed back to the hotel after dinner, had a shower, and enjoyed some more BBC. Next up… Bruges!


October 4th – Bruges

Up early to head to the train station and hunt some breakfast, then off to Bruges. Nice train jaunt, good reading time, and blessedly the class of kids went elsewhere eventually.

Pretty straightforward jaunt to the old city from the train station is Bruges, and a lovely, picturesque walk to get there. First stop was the old Sint Jans Hospitaal (St. John’s Hospital), dating from the late 12th century and actually in service until 1976, after which it was converted into a museum.

From there we wandered past Sint-Salvator Cathedral, the bell tower of which I did not climb. We wandered streets, bought chocolate, beer and textiles, lunched in the Markt (Market Square) in the sun, and took a boat tour in the canals. We also found the Stadhuis (Town Hall) without knowing it, then went back for a tour, most specifically to see the second-floor Gothic hall, which Sherry basically wanted to import whole for her library. After had coffee outside in the square, then returned to tour the hospital on the way out of the old city, but it was rather more godly than terror-inducing medical instruments and such, which was too bad, but a pattern we’d come to expect.

Definitely took more pictures than any other day. Mom and her exclamation points were right, we loved Bruges. Though we discussed it over dinner and Carcassonne still wins for favourite medieval city, though hard to articulate why, aside from “magic”.

Train ride back was more of a milk run, and the tablet battery died, but still got some good reading in. Had a brief respite at the hotel — definitely very tired after the day’s exertions — but then headed out to Het Kathedraalcafe Het Elfde Gebod (The Eleventh Commandment Cathedral Cafe), beside the cathedral, same place that had been closed the previous evening.

It’s delightful. Packed to the rafters with high kitsch religious iconography, much of which was broken, missing arms and such, which contributed to the charm of the place, as did the retro jazz. (We had an ongoing discussion of what kinds of music would work best in a place like that.) The food was excellent, too, and I had a fabulous St. Bernardus Prior 8 Trappist ale — on draught, no less. Possibly an even better dinner than the Indonesian place in Amsterdam.
Headed back to the hotel, mildly buzzed, to plan out our last day of adventure!

Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp

October 5th – Antwerp, part 2

Bit of a change of plans — kind of a wet and crappy day — so we decided to forgo Ghent (more canals…) and remain in Antwerp and see a few more local sites. Had our best breakfast to date, at Grand Café Horta, which was, conveniently, just around the corner from the hotel, then headed to the Rubenshuis, which was just around the corner from the restaurant.

Lovely house, and made it pretty clear just how successful painter Peter Paul Rubens was in life. Introduced us, too, to gilded and painted leather wall panels, which we would see a lot of over the course of the day. Plenty of art throughout the house, but apparently a pittance compared to the vast collection he had in his day.

Next we did a spot of shopping so Sherry could check her remaining family off her list. Several scarves and t-shirts later we were all set, but it had also started pouring rain. We stopped for a bit for a hot chocolate to wait it out. (Outdoor dining is lovely and everywhere in that part of Europe, at least, but can be tricky to find a try table under the awnings when it rains.) As a side note, apparently saying yes to whipped cream on your hot chocolate in Belgium gets you about four inches of it. At least it was the real thing…

After that we headed to the Plantin-Moretus Museum (history of printing, named after the two most prominent families in the biz back in the 17th to 19th centuries), which is apparently Antwerp’s number 2 attraction. They had the oldest printing presses in the world, and a wonderful collection of type, equipment, and old papers, plates and books. Sherry was particularly happy. Took a lot of pictures and have high hopes for some of the type shots.

Got lunch after that, pizza again, which was very tasty, then headed to the Maagdenhuis, a former girls’ orphanage, despite wanting a nap instead. Like St. John’s Hospital, it would have been more interesting with more history and operations and less religion, but they did have a fair bit of art they needed to do something with, and given the place hasn’t been in operation since the 1880s, it’s understandable that keeping all the things together would be well nigh impossible, especially original items from the 17th century.

After that we headed back to the hotel for reading, napping, and watching BBC. Eventually we headed out and found a nice dinner close by at The Bistro — neither of us fancied a lot of walking, and thanks to a kitchen screw-up, our meals came out super-fast. Started raining again before we left the restaurant, and we’d just dried out our umbrellas, too… Headed back to the hotel to digest and do a bit more reading and BBC watching before our last sleep in Belgium.

October 6 – Antwerp, Schiphol, Toronto, home… eventually

Kind of a lazy day, since we didn’t have to leave until noon-ish. Weather also continued to be windy and rainy. We went back to the Grand Cafe Horta for breakfast, then returned to the hotel where I began the time honoured game of backpack Tetris to get all my stuff and purchases safely home. (I did it!)

We cabbed it to Central Station due to the rain, and I grabbed a hot chocolate. Even Starbucks does a damned tasty hot chocolate in Belgium. Train arrived around noon, and we managed to get our big backpacks stowed on the overhead racks without killing anyone or putting our backs out. Mostly just read during the two-hour trek to Schiphol.

The adventure began once we returned to the airport. We wanted to get rid of our backpacks, so we checked in the joined the line to check baggage. Got sent to a service desk, where our bags got checked, but where we were informed that they’d oversold the flight and we were on standby — just a random thing, apparently, and having bought our tickets months before was no protection. Apparently we had to go to the desk when the flight started boarding to see if we’d be on it. Awesome.

Had some ridiculously expensive lunch, though I found a penny, so I was a bit happier. Got another hot chocolate, then headed to the gate and enjoyed waiting in the security line. Went all the way through before finding out our gate had been changed, so I’d enjoyed a porno scan and sexy time pat down for nothing. Instead of jetting off to Mexico City, we headed to our new gate and waited some more… And waited… And were informed that there was a “technical issue” and the flight would be delayed until 7pm, and we should come back at 6. We still didn’t know if we were going home or not.

So we wandered off for a bit, then returned, and got in line around 25 minutes before 6. When they started the security process pre-boarding, we went to the desk, and — glory be! — were on the flight. Economy Comfort, even, which is a step up from Economy and had some nice room. We weren’t sitting together, but didn’t really care. We were a little worried when the desk agent flipped through a small stack of boarding passes and we weren’t in it, but fortunately we were in the other one.
Sat next to a nice Danish woman who was going to Toronto for five days to visit a friend who’d married a Canadian guy. She offered me licorice, and not realizing what it was, I ate a piece of salted Danish licorice and nearly gagged.

Not wanting to sleep on the way back, I watched movies: The Amazing Spider-man, the rest of Dark Shadows, Men in Black 3, and most of The Avengers. The wine I had with dinner was terrible, but the ice cream was really tasty.

Customs and baggage went smoothly, and it didn’t take long for the car to come up to get us (I’d emailed from Schiphol to tell them about the delay). Unfortunately, we got a chatty driver, who talkedtalkedtalked all the way home. Got home around 11pm, and was in bed by midnight (6am to my brain), with family Thanksgiving at my parents’ the next day. But hey, was up at 6:30, made garlic squash and a pumpkin pie, and had a good day with the family.

The End!

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