Monday, March 30, 2015

My Euro Trip - Stop One, Amsterdam

So, as you know by now, just over a week ago I was in Europe. 

Since I've been back, I've been getting a ton of the same questions - how was it?  what did you do?  where did you go?  Etc., etc., etc.  To help myself from being on constant repeat, for the next week I'm going to devote my blog to recapping my trip, posting photos, and telling you all about what went down. 

Each day this week I'll recap one of the aspects of my trip.  Enjoy!

Update:  read all the recaps back to back!  An Overview (and how to pack), Stop One - Amsterdam, Stop Two - Paris, Stop Three - Munich, Stop Four - Rome Day One & Second Day Bike Tour, and of course a follow up summary.


My European Vacation - Stop One, Amsterdam

On Friday night, after a long day's work, my husband and I headed out to the Minneapolis airport.  Our flight was scheduled for 8 pm, so we arrived a little before 6 pm to ensure plenty of time to clear security and check in for our international flight.  Not thinking, once we cleared security we grabbed dinner to kill time pre boarding... only to turn around and be served another dinner around 2-3 hours later on the plane.  D'oh!

Overall, the flight over was very nice.  My husband opted to purchase the Economy Comfort ticket, which meant we had slightly more space in our chairs and free booze.  Whoop! 

The upgrade was definitely nice, and I enjoyed the extra leg room while I dozed.  But no matter how much extra space you have, an airplane seat is still no bed.  So after 8 hours in the air, I arrived to Amsterdam feeling a little exhausted.  And wilted.

But, this was it.  Our big trip.  And I had no idea if I'd ever get to come back again.  So I refused to waste even a minute.  I was ready to go, Go, GO!

First things first - hotel check in.

Amsterdam Hotel

As I mentioned in my overview, in Amsterdam we stayed at the Sheraton at the Airport.  This was amazingly convenient because we literally did not have to exit the airport to get to our hotel.  Once we cleared customs, we dumped out into the main terminal area where the restaurants, gift shops and escalators for the trains are located.  There, we just followed the signs to the up escalators that took us through a hallway and straight to our hotel.  We didn't even have to go outside.  Score!

Unfortunately, since we arrived at about 10 am and check in time was around 3 pm, we were much too early to get our room.  The staff was very friendly and welcoming despite our early arrival, and offered to hold our luggage while we waited for our room.  Although we were both a bit ... as I said earlier, "wilted" from a long day at work the day previous and an international flight, and thus would have liked a room to freshen up, that definitely wasn't an option.  Given the circumstances, we opted to just dump our bags and keep moving.

Before I leave the topic of the hotel, by the way, I'd like to put in a few comments about our stay there.  The room was very clean and modernly decorated, the staff was friendly and prompt, and the room was actually very quiet despite being connected to the airport.  The only down side to this hotel was that it was quite a distance from the downtown area, so we did need to ride a bus or train to get into the city.  However, it is quite easy to get around in Amsterdam, and a train or bus only takes about 20-30 minutes to get you into the downtown area from the airport, so it's not a major hassle to stay at this hotel.  If you are looking for a reasonably priced hotel, I would definitely recommend this location.

Heading into Amsterdam's City Center

I had done some researching prior to our trip and had tentatively planned to take a tour of Amsterdam on the first day via bike ... if our flight arrived on time .  And in fact, we landed a bit early, so after hotel check-in, off to the tour we headed.

Amsterdam has a fantastic metro transit system, and is really easy to navigate.  Using the advice of the bike tour service (Mike's Bikes), we hopped the #197 bus in front of the Airport to Leidseplein in order to join the tour.  Side note: the bus fare for that one trip was something like 5 Euros each.  Had we realized sooner that it was available, we could have purchased an unlimited ride tourist pass and saved money on the first day's worth of bus fare ... but we didn't do that until the second day, whoops.  These passes are available for purchase from the metro information desk in the airport, and come in 1, 2 or 3 day options.  BUY ONE, they are worth it!  Ours came with a city map attached, which was extremely useful for the rest of our visit.

While we rode the bus to the bike tour's office, we passed some of the major museums of Amsterdam, including the Van Gogh.  I was immediately disappointed to see the length of the lines to get in to any museum we passed - they were easily a 2-3 hour wait each.  When I considered this, and factored in that a museum visit once inside would take easily another 2-3 hours+ ... and then remembered I only had 2 days in each city ... I made a decision that I would likely not go into any museums during our trip.  I simply couldn't see myself sacrificing 6 hours for a visit inside ONE building, when I could be outside experiencing the ENTIRE CITY instead. 

Finally, our bus stop arrived.  We hopped off and walked towards the tour office, where essentially we had arrived about 20 minutes before the tour was to start.  So, once we purchased our tickets, we just wandered outside to kill some time.  As we wandered, people watched and window shopped, there was no mistaking that Amsterdam has ... uh ... "de-criminalized" marijuana.  And "magic" mushrooms.  And other things.  It's fair to say my eyes were opened.  Or rather, my nostrils?  I think I got a contact high just passing by people on the street.

Finally, the tour began.  We hopped our bikes and away we went.

Amsterdam traffic is ruled by bikes.  I heard once that per capita, they have more bikes than any other country in the world (don't quote me on that, it may not be true).  Since bike traffic there is insane, our tour guide started our tour in a very smart way - down some untraveled side roads for a few minutes with a stop at a nearby park to let us regroup.  This allowed us to get a feel for the bikes, and to stop for our first photo opportunity.  Where I promptly almost fell into the canal.

I'm not kidding.  This is the first photo of our trip.  You can practically see my eyes bugging out in fear.


Luckily I did not fall in.  In celebration, I posed for a second photo with my bike.

After the brief photo op - away we went.  The tour guide took us all over the city, showing us various churches, points of interest, the Anne Frank house ... he even pointed out and explained some of the current political issues of the city and its angst - there were some protesters in one area "occupying" a building to protest the change coming to the public education system for college students, and another location where some "squatters" were protesting/celebrating their last day in the building where they lived, having been recently evicted by a judge.

The halfway point of the tour brought us into the most notorious area of Amsterdam: the red light district.  Prior to arriving, our tour guide explained that the red light district is centered around one of the first Catholic Churches of Amsterdam (his commentary included something like "makes sense that the Catholic Church would be so nearby to these services, no?" followed by a wink), and then he told us that the streets in this area are much too narrow and crowded, so we would need to dismount our bikes and walk for this portion of the tour. 

I braced for the worst.  Ok, I thought.  Let's do this.

But no matter how much I braced in anticipation, it wasn't enough.  Immediately I was shocked to my core.  Here's why: after dismounting our bikes, the tour guide turned down a narrow alleyway.  I had no idea where we were going, so I was looking forward to see what was down the road.  But, I was quickly distracted by a thumping sound to my left.  So, I turned to figure out what the noise was, and realized it was coming from a woman behind a glass window with round, hard, fake, grapefruit sized breasts. 

She was mashing her boobs against the glass to make the thumping noise. 

She was calling to her potential customers.

But it wasn't just her in this alley.  I was face to face with an entire alley of windows filled by scantily clad women, most of them in just "panties and bras" (are they really panties or bras if they only cover the most important bits, or do I just call them Band-Aids?).  These women and their windows were stacked one right next to the other down the alley like dominos.

And before I could even let the shock sink in, I came down the alley into the intersection to see a woman of maybe 50 or 60 years old, bent over a canal, retching her guts out while her husband stood by in a marijuana induced haze. 

Well, I thought to myself, welcome to the red light district.

The tour guide directed us to the nearby square where the church stood, explained some of the history of the area and its dangerous past, spoke about how the women now are all independently employed and licensed by the state, and then proceeded to lock up all our bikes so we could ... choose to entertain ourselves.  He pointed out a few places that had good snacks for sale, and then the group dissipated.

I opted to go to a rather "safe" looking shop to purchase a pair of gloves (it was much colder than I anticipated it would be and my fingers were frozen), and then my husband and I went into the café that is inside the church to have some carrot cake and coffee (which was excellent, by the way).

After a 30 minute or so break, we resumed the tour, which eventually wound back to our starting point.  By the time all was said and done, it was about 3:30 and we were both exhausted with jet lag.  We thanked our tour guide with a tip, returned our bikes, and in a drowsy stupor managed to make it onto the bus and back to the airport where our hotel room was finally available.

At which point, I think I had one of the best showers of my life.

Feeling a little fresher, but still extremely exhausted, my husband and I decided to grab dinner in the airport - simply because of convenience.  We were pleased with the Dutch café we chose, and also happy to find a grocery store nearby.

Once we finished eating and getting some simple groceries, we decided to go back to the hotel.  At 6:30.  To "just relax".  Which in jet lag speak, for me meant - pass out asleep, dead to the world, waking up at 1 am.  After a little tossing and turning, I managed to fall asleep again, waking up around 7 or so.

With only one day left in Amsterdam, despite the early rise on a Sunday morning, it was time to get hoppin' again.  So after a quick shower, off we went.  And went.  And went.  I honestly wouldn't be surprised if we walked all of Amsterdam in that day.  I'm not exaggerating when I say this, either.

We started the morning by heading straight to the Heineken Experience since it opened very early.  We determined since there was no line, we could be in and out before it was even time to each lunch, so we went for it.  Which was perhaps a small problem, as I was not hungry for breakfast, and ended up having 2 or 3 pints of beer there before 11 am.

A cup of coffee and three beers for breakfast.  Drunk by 10:30.  Only in Amsterdam!!

Anyway, technically this Heineken location is not a brewery anymore, but essentially it's like taking a brewery tour.  And if you're not dumb like us and mess it up, you can also get a free ride in a boat down the canal after the tour.  (Needless to say, we did not get to partake in that part of the "experience".)

Despite the somewhat tourist trap nature of the Heineken Experience, my husband and I actually had a fantastic time.  In addition to learning about brewing, they have a bunch of really fun extras like being able to sample wort (unfermented beer), an interactive ride that simulates what if feels like to "be beer" (water splashes and bubbles included), an old timey photo booth with free print outs of the photos, and a handful of other photo opportunities throughout the tour:


After we were done, we both said - well, that was worth it.

Since we were on the far side of the city at that point, we decided to just start walking and explore.  We wandered for a long time - maybe two hours or more - before we finally stopped at some random café for lunch.  There I learned that regardless of how good someone's English appears to be, it is best to point to what you want on the menu, as I ordered a locally farmed Dutch cheese sandwich but somehow ended up with a Dutch meatball sandwich.  Oh well.  It was still pretty good.

While we wandered the city, somewhere along the way we passed the flower market.  There we marveled at the millions of bulbs for sale, and I secretly wished customs wouldn't catch me brining some home.  But I didn't bother buying, because I knew I would get busted.  Not to mention the hassle of having to haul them around the rest of the trip.

As we walked, we continued to gawk at the leaning row houses that the tour guide had pointed out to us the day prior.  Apparently, Amsterdam is built on a filled in marsh/swamp area, and in the old days they built the city on pilings that were just wood logs.  Now, as the wood rots and gives way, the buildings have started to lean.  Some of the houses are so distorted that the windows actually step down about 3-6" across one floor, and the windows are all kinds of warped out of square.  It's pretty amazing.

You can see how the buildings lean some in this photo.  Notice how the building with the red curtains is pitching forward while the building right of it is pitching back and to the side.

After being on our feet almost all day, we decided to have a rest at a another brewery.  This time, though, it was to an actual functioning brewery - Brouwerij't Ij.  It's pretty hard to miss this place, given its location in a windmill:

Aside from the obvious photo opportunity of a windmill in Amsterdam, the beer there is amazing and the staff was super friendly - they even tried teaching us how to pronounce the Dutch names of the beers, which we promptly slaughtered.  I enjoyed their seasonal Easter brew which had a clove/spicy flavor, while my husband sampled their IPA.

Being on the far side of town at that point, we opted to catch a tram (using our metro pass, of course) back into the city center.  There, we continued to wander, shop, and just generally stare wide eyed at our surroundings.  As tourists do.

Around 6 pm I started to have a mini meltdown, as my feel felt like they were going to explode and we were not in an area that seemed conducive to a decent dinner.  Somehow we stumbled across a hole in the wall British looking pub, where we had a snack of beirbitterballen.  Apparently they are a Dutch snack food...?  To me they were kind of what you'd expect for pub snacking: a breaded and deep fried meat and flour dumpling of sorts, with a hint of beer flavor, that is served with a side of mustard.  They were interesting to try, but a bit on the greasy spectrum of food choices.  Regardless, it was a nice break, and kept my hangry face away.

Eventually, as we wandered towards the main train station, we came across a restaurant called The Alley that looked suitable for a sit down meal (the majority of places we passed seemed to cater to the smoked up munchies crowd and really didn't suit my fancy).  The Alley wasn't anything too fancy menu wise, but the atmosphere was nice.  Not seeing much that caught my attention, I settled for - embarrassing to admit - a hamburger.  A live band was setting up to preform as we were finishing our meal.

Once we closed our tab, the exhaustion of having just arrived in Europe over 24 hours earlier settled in, and being close to the train station, we decided to call it a day.  We hopped the train back to the hotel, and crashed for the second night in Amsterdam, knowing the next morning would be an early wakeup call for our train to Paris...

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