Nov 17, 2008

Brussels and Brugge

The last morning of our trip we checked out of the hostel and loaded on the bus for Brussels. It quickly became clear that I did not want to be the party responsible for what was about to happen.

We made it to the outskirts of Brussels without incident, and stopped long enough to take touristy pictures of ourselves in front of the Atomium which was built for the 1958 World's Fair. The copyright claims over the Atomium image are very strict and rather absurd... I'm not selling the images and am going to post them for personal use, no matter what Belgium wants to claim. However, if these pictures are ever removed in the future, you'll know why.

Kat and I on the bus heading into Brussels, before we realize we're about to spend the next half hour plus stuck in traffic.
Making it further into Brussels was difficult. There was a parade and a protest, and the usual route that our tour guide would take into the city was blocked off. At one point our bus driver had pull a u-turn in a busy city street. It took a while, but the overall effort was impressive and elicited an applause from all of us.

When we finally made it to the city center we had very little time to browse and eat. I seem to recall our guide briskly walking us past a few restaurants to a square before giving us an hour to eat and make it back to the bus. We found a place to eat within a few minutes, and ate just as quickly. Several of the restaurants are packed in alleyways right next to each other, and we had to pass them to make it back to the bus. Most of the maitre des were trying to drag us into their restaurants by calling Jackie "Barbie, Barbie come here darling!" It was hilarious. And their English was flawless. We hit up a few chocolatiers shops and bought some truffles before running for the bus. Somewhere around here I have a 15% off card, and yes they deliver internationally.

I give you the church across the street from where our bus was parked. Beyond that I know nothing.
Once back on the bus, our next problem was getting out of the city, which was nearly as difficult as getting in. We were stuck in traffic for quite a while, and our tour guide was clearly growing frustrated. After leaving the city I stopped paying attention to the view out the window and must have napped at some point, because I don't remember much between Brussels and Brugge.

We make it to Brugge and unload near this random bench with a bean shaped overhang. We had to walk to the city center... it was very over the river and through the woods, until all of a sudden there was this cute little town made of bricks. There were lots of shops, and we headed straight for a waffle shop.
Belgium waffles are everything you think they can be and more. Waffles in Belgium aren't a meal, they're dessert. It's like trying to compare ice cream to gelatto, they are not equal. The waffles were so good we had to have seconds, I mean it's not like we were going to be back any time soon. I looked in a few more shops trying to find a wind chime and came up empty. After what seemed like less than an hour we had to go back to the bus to make sure we could catch the Chunnel back home.

Amsterdam - Part 2 Continued

When I left you, my friends and I were walking to the Anne Frank House. What seemed like 7 blocks on the map turned into three times that, and it took us at least an hour to finally make it to our destination.

If not for the Anne Frank statue and the line of people outside, I think we might have missed it all together. The building is unobtrusive and almost cookie cutter. Externally it blends into the building beside it, and the building two doors down.
Somehow, I don't remember how, but we already had our tickets. We didn't have to wait in line and went right inside. Photography isn't allowed, so unfortunately this is straight from memory. The exhibition begins downstairs with Otto Frank's office and the rooms his secretary used. These rooms are large and open, and I remember more than one desk.

We wound through the museum and came to the stairwell leading to the secret annex. The stairwell was blocked by a large bookshelf which is moved off to the right and out of the way for people to pass. The shelf was attached to a rope, which I think is what they used to move it.

The stairs were steep and large, and never seemed to end. As I ascended the stairs I felt the temperature rise and the air become thick. According to the website, a climate control system was recently installed which I'm sure I would have appreciated. Calling the annex unlivable is a stretch, but I can see how being cramped with so many people in such a warm, small dark space must have been trying.

The other thing that was interesting was that there was no furniture. After discovering the annex and arresting its' inhabitants, the German soldiers raided the rooms of anything valuable. When Otto Frank returned to the annex after the war he found the rooms empty, and it was his wish that the rooms remain they way they were left by the Germans. For each room there is a single photograph of the room staged with furniture, but the space is bare. There's the occasional artifact behind glass against the wall, but nothing more.

Anne's room is the one I remember the most. The wall where her bed used to be is covered in pictures, and the website says that even more have been restored. I remember the picture of a young Queen Elizabeth, the same one I saw hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

After leaving the annex you enter a room filled with artifacts from Anne's life after she was put into an internment camp, and other relevant items. There is also a video interview with Otto Frank talking about his daugther. I tried to listen to the interview, unfortunately Otto was drowned out by the sound of techno booming outside. One of the gay pride floats was outside on the canal and the music ruined the mood. If I could do one thing over, it would be to visit the House when there wasn't a party being thrown outside.

We left the house and walked back towards the hostel. We were famished... starving even, and decided to go to the Hard Rock Cafe for the free refills. Free refills are a purely American idea. There are no free refills in Europe for anything. There's also no free water. Let's just say you learn to sip and quickly.

The line at the Hard Rock was ridiculous, and we decided to walk around to find another place to eat. Eventually we gave up and returned to the Cafe for dinner. Long story short, they moved us to the back of the restaurant, forgot about us, gave us a buzzer that didn't work, forgot about us some more, and all in all left us waiting for more than an hour before we were seated. If looks could kill Christina would have felled the entire staff. In retrospect it's pretty hilarious, but at the time we were eating sugar packets and lemons just to fend off starvation while waiting for our food. I don't think it was worth the free refills.
Me pissed... and ranting with my eyes closed ?Jackie about to throw the buzzer into the canal...And Christina about to lay the beat down.
Following our long awaited dinner we headed back to the hostel for our last evening before leaving for Brussels the next morning.

Nov 2, 2008

Amsterdam - Part 2

The early morning windmill tour didn't happen. I mean I'm pretty sure it did, but it didn't happen for me. I don't even remember the alarm going off... I just remember waking up hours after the tour had left. Sure it was disappointing, but if I had gone on the tour I'm not sure I would have been able to see everything that we managed to fit into our day.First we grabbed some breakfast at a restaurant that we'd walked past several times. It was a small little place, but it was very cozy. I seem to remember my hot chocolate being very good. We started with the Van Gogh Museum, which is pretty cool as far as museums go. You can't bring in any bags or liquids, but they have a baggage check area. They also have a web cam that you can use to record videos and send them to family and friends. Kat and I recorded a video that we sent to our parents, but I think I made it home before it arrived in my parent's inboxes.

Anyway, the museum is set up in a chronological order. The first room you enter is about Van Gogh's early career. All of his works are arranged in a manner that you can easily follow, and as you progress from room to room, you move forward in time. The museum is clearly designed to help you understand how events in Van Gogh's life affected his work, as well as how his style evolved as he grew older. It was very informative, and well done. Photography inside the museum is strictly prohibited, which is a policy that I'm guessing was put into affect after a few pieces of art were stolen. I didn't sneak any photos inside, but I did get a short video clip of Van Gogh's Sunflowers. It's not the greatest, but it's still better than nothing.

We eventually saw the entire museum and went to the all important gift shop. I'd seen people walking around with Van Gogh Museum bags and print rolls since we'd arrived, and I wanted one of my own. I bought a print of one of my favorite works by Van Gogh, The sea at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. I love the colors of the ocean, and his bold signature in red.

Next was the I amsterdam sign... where I was determined to spell out my name. I needed help creating an "F" and Adrienne obliged.
video


After several pictures, I had enough to shots to spell out my name. With some quick editing, here is the result!Third on the day was the Rijks Museum, which I'd mentioned in my previous post. In celebration of Rembrandt's 400th birthday, the museum gathered the largest collection of Rembrandt's paintings ever to be in one location, and they rearranged many rooms of the museum for the exhibition. I'm not a big Rembrandt fan, but I did like the way they displayed and explained one of his most famous works, The Night Watch. After waiting in line and finally seeing the painting, we headed for the doors and walked to the Anne Frank House.

Walking was a bad idea, and it took much longer than anticipated. For the rest of our day, see Amsterdam - Part 2 Continued.

Sep 23, 2008

Amsterdam - Part 1

I'm being honest when I say that time has not been kind to my memory. I know that late one Friday evening in the first weekend of August, our group loaded up our bags and walked to the edge of campus where we caught our bus with other Sussex students who had signed up for the trip. I remember some people being late at our first stop, and then something about some people being lost and needing to be picked up elsewhere because they were utterly confused. Then again there was hardly any "official word" from the tour guide surrounding these events, so perhaps I have it all wrong. I suppose my perspective was that I was on the bus and going to Amsterdam... as long as we made it there, I really didn't care.

We made it all right, and I slept most of the way. Unlike the bus ride to Paris, my memory is blank. I remember Brighton that night, and then nothing until Amsterdam. We pulled into town and had to find a place to park our bus long enough for everyone to unload. If you've ever been to Amsterdam, you understand why this is a challenge. However, our tour guide had clearly done this trip several times over and directed our driver to this one spot that seemed perfectly designed for buses. Unfortunately, it was also raining when we arrived. Not pouring, but raining enough that the natives had out umbrellas. Which means one of the first things I see is a man in a full suit, complete with shiny shoes and bowler hat, sitting up perfectly straight and riding his bicycle with a huge green umbrella. This is quite simply one of the most amusing things I have ever seen, and I am still sad that I was not fast enough to snap a picture before he turned the corner. Kat and I tried to follow him, but a large group of tourists with luggage somehow aren't as fast as a man on a bicycle with an umbrella. Go figure.

Our guide led us through the city to our hostel. We didn't have to walk very far, but we did pass the Rijks Museum on the way. More on the museum later. We get to the hostel and check in to our rooms. Our travel group is the perfect size and the 6 of us get to share one room together. We drop our stuff, and head down to breakfast. Breakfast is almost over, so we grab what's available, squeeze into any empty seats, and eat quickly. Eventually we all gather at one table and wait for our first tour.

Trevor with a map in his hand... why am I not surprised? And Kat below in a very pensive moment. We leave the hostel and head back towards the Rijks Museum and the place our bus had dropped us off. Across the street from the museum is this place called Coster Diamonds, where they cut and polish some of the finest diamonds in the world.Our tour guide had arranged for a private tour, which was really a woman telling us about the four C's of diamonds before taking us upstairs to a secure room and showing us a bunch of pretty rocks. Even better, after her demonstration she pulled out trays of rings and necklaces and she let us try on anything we wanted. Did I mention that most of the people in our group were girls? It was fun, and just about pandemonium. Of course, leave it to me to pick out a €13,000 ring. We eventually put down the expensive stuff and made our way to the gift shop. I bought a pair of earrings and a ring. Cubic Zirconias, even when cut and polished by a famous diamond company, actually fall within my price range.

Back to the hostel for a round of showers, and everyone promptly fell asleep. It was hilarious. I'd post pictures, since I have them, but I'd like to live to see my 24th birthday

A few hours later we left the hostel for our second tour, which was a canal tour of the city. And now onto the boat...I miss that jacket. Nothing has ever fit me so well. It was amusing for the first half hour, but after the boat driver ran out of things to point out, we'd had enough. I was taking pictures like crazy in an attempt to amuse myself until the monotony was over.After the canal ride we wandered the city for a little while and then followed our guide to the Red Light district. I'm not sure if I can possibly convey how dirty and uncomforable this area of the city was for me. At first it wasn't so bad, more humerous than anything, but as we made our way further into the heart of the district, I just wanted to leave. The streets are narrow, with women in windows on both sides. Men, mostly drunk, fill the streets and stare hungrily at the females around them, both behind glass and walking the street. It's a meat market by any other name.

One of the girls in our group made the mistake of taking a picture of one of the women at work. The next thing I know this woman throws the door open, starts screaming her head off, and her security guard (I'll call him this for the sake of maintaining a more PG rating) comes flying out into the street, baseball bat in hand, screaming obscenities in english. Our tour guide, who I thought was a serious creeper, proved to be worth his weight in gold. He immediately comes running to the girls defense, even though he'd told us photography was risky and ill advised, and he literally throws her into the crowd of our group to prevent the crazed security guard from seeing her. The guy with the bat gets in his face, but our guide doesn't back down. He somehow convinces him that no harm was done, and the guy retreats to his hole in the wall. Weird or not, he saved someone in our group from being beat for their ignorance.

Our tour was short, and at one point our guide basically said the tour was over and we were free to do whatever we pleased. And then he just left. Kat and I looked at each other, both uneasy, and decided to make a run for it. Trevor agreed and we high tailed it straight out of the Red Light District as quickly as possible.

We eventually made it back to an area of town that we were more familiar with, and we ate dinner at a little Italian restaurant around the corner from our hostel. We returned to our beds very sleepy and ready to pass out. Our guide was leading a tour to some windmills early the next morning and I had every intention of going.