It’s a little misleading to call this post a country recap, because we only went to one city in the Netherlands. Amsterdam was everything I expected it to be: beautiful, cultural, fun, and filled with vice. We loved it!
The layout of the city is extremely confusing and difficult to navigate. The center is made up of concentric half-circles of streets and canals, so you might think you’re walking to the west, but in reality you are slowly curving north. Plus, I swear every single street looks identical. They all have brown brick buildings, a bridge, and bikes parked everywhere. It probably makes sense if you’re familiar with it, but as a visitor, I typically had no idea which area of the city we were in.
Of course, we took a walk through the infamous Red Light District. We went during the day, which made the experience especially weird, because the whole area is basically a normal part of town. One minute we would walk by a fetish shop, then we’d see a florist and a fruit vendor, then lingerie-clad prostitutes posing in the windows, and then right after that elderly tourists rolling their suitcases into a hotel. It was like, what is going on here?
The other thing Amsterdam is infamous for, of course, is marijuana. Even though I was expecting to see it around, it was still very weird. We saw plants growing in some of the windows and it wasn’t uncommon to see people smoking. The stores that sell pot go by the euphemism “coffeeshop” and they are pretty much all over the place. They are not allowed to use garish advertising, so usually the only thing that gives them away is the Jamaican colors or the smell of joints. For the record, pot is illegal in the Netherlands, but the Dutch have decided to tolerate its use. However, it sounds like a conservative government has been voted in and tourists will no longer be allowed to enter the coffeeshops starting in 2013, so if you want to join the masses of “marijuana tourists,” you’d better buy your plane ticket.
Top three experiences?
- Going out. It’s a lively city!
- Seeing all the bicycles. I love that biking is a primary form of transportation here!
- Hanging out in Vondelpark, Amersterdam’s giant park.
- The transport system. Their tram system is wonderfully convenient, and the inside of the subway cars was covered in artwork. Not to mention all the bikes everywhere! The roads were designed for bicyclists, trams, and pedestrians, not vehicles.
- Just like in Belgium, the junk food was really, really good. We ate a lot of fries, and my waffle with chocolate and whipped cream was yummy.
- The Vondelpark was a great place to hang out.
Bottom three experiences?
- Getting lost all the time.
- Dealing with bad weather. It was nice our first day, but after that it rained off and on.
- Watching the Packers. That was the first Packer game we’d seen in over a year, and of course they lost!
- Amsterdam is an expensive place! Just our tiny Airbnb room cost more per day than most Asian countries’ per-day costs, and this was one of the cheapest options we could find.
- All of Amsterdam really does look the same–brick buildings and a canal running through the middle, bordered by small roads, a line of trees, and a bridge with maybe a tram line running over it. Most of the time we didn’t know where we were.
- The nonalcoholic beer fiasco, only because Nikki kept calling me a buffoon afterwards. Strangely, it tasted fine.
Nikki: Frites and mayonnaise. I know, it sounds gross, but Dutch mayonnaise is a little different than ours and it actually tastes great with fries.
Brad: We had fries a lot here, and they were really, really good.
Nikki: I don’t remember anything especially bad. Everything was so expensive, though! It was hard to find reasonable prices.
Brad: We had a picnic lunch ready, but the weather went to pants so we ate it indoors. However, the baguette I got didn’t taste very good. The outside wasn’t firm at all. Definitely not in France anymore.
Nikki: Our night at the jazz club. I wanted to hear some live music while we were in town, so we did a little research and found a club that everyone said was awesome. We went there early to get a good seat and the place seemed perfect–all wood interior, dim lighting, chill atmosphere, good mix of customers. I thought it was going to be one of our most fun nights…until the band started playing. They were AWFUL. It sounded like elevator music with an 80′s synthesizer. We gave it about eight minutes before we called it quits, but a couple other people left thirty seconds into the first song.
Brad: Nikki gave me some money and sent me to the store to get lunch supplies, including some good beer. I, in my infinite wisdom, really only looked for the cheapest beer in the “good” beer section and ended up with Amstel 0.0% alcohol-free beer. Oops! Strangely, that beer tastes better than many American beers.
Nikki: The Red Light District. The sex stuff on its own didn’t really weird me out. It was more the mix of normal, everyday things along with the sex shops and prostitutes that seemed extremely odd.
Brad: The red light district is so strange: strip clubs, window prostitutes, and coffeeshops were intermixed with average businesses, homes, shops, and the Chinatown.
Nikki pretty much summed up our short stay in Belgium: lots of wonderful food and beer, in a relaxed, laid-back, pretty surrounding. I wish we could have stayed longer in Belgium, perhaps cutting some time from France, so we could see more of the country.
Top three experiences?
- Hanging out with Jeltse in Antwerp.
- Walking around Brugge.
- Eating and drinking!
- Brugge. It’s such a beautiful, old city. It was fun just to wander on the quiet roads and canals.
- Belgian beers. Trappist beers, which is a protected name like Champagne and Chianti, are really, really good.
- I had a great time in Antwerp when Jeltse showed us around, and especially the dinner of currywurst and fries!
Bottom three experiences?
- Staying with the weirdos in their disgusting house.
- Trying to find a cafe that was open for breakfast in Brugge. For some reason, they were all closed while we were looking.
- It was always tough to find a bathroom while we were wandering around.
- Our Airbnb experience. It was not a nice place and the hosts were weird.
- Finding breakfast in Brugge was difficult, and we ended up just eating an early lunch at a massively overpriced restaurant in the tourist district. Apparently people don’t go out for breakfast in Belgium.
- Only having three days in this awesome country.
Nikki: Hard to pick just one, but I’ll say the fish and potatoes I had in Brugge.
Brad: We had a great dinner in Brugge. I had the roast beef with tomato sauce and Nikki had fish, with fries and good beer.
Nikki: The ridiculously overpriced sandwich I had in Brugge.
Brad: Probably the dinner that never happened on our first night. Our Airbnb hosts took us out, and kept taking us to places they said had dinner, but all we ended up getting was beer and appetizers. I felt like they hijacked our night. We ended up ditching them and going home without a dinner.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Jeltse’s sisters were both just as friendly as she is. Too bad we couldn’t meet the whole family!
Brad: I’d say Jeltse, but she was my answer for Mongolia. So it’ll be Antony, one of Jeltse’s friends who we met up with. He explained a lot about Belgian beers.
Nikki: No major disasters.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: With Jeltse and her family in Antwerp! So much fun and a very nice house.
Brad: With Jeltse. Her family has a really nice house, and I’m grateful for her taking us in for the night.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: The house in Brugge.
Brad: In Brugge, with the crazies from Airbnb.
Best thing we didn’t blog about?
Nikki: Dinner at ‘T Ganzespel in Brugge. The restaurant is only open two nights a week and the owner serves homemade classic Belgian dishes. It was a really cute place and the prices are great. Definitely recommend going there!
Nikki: Jeltse translated Dutch names for us and some of them were pretty funny. The new mall is “The City Party Room” in English and one of the street names apparently translates into “Jerking Off Road.”
Brad: That Antwerp is named after throwing a hand and there are hands all over the place.
Cheesy travel guides are always talking about “the hidden gem” of a certain area. Since I think I have yet to refer to anywhere as a hidden gem, I’m going to go ahead and say Belgium is the hidden gem of Western Europe. Let’s be honest; since most of you reading this are American, you probably don’t know much about Belgium. It’s okay, you can admit it. I myself didn’t know it was an independent country until somewhat??recently. Well friends, I’m here to tell you, not only is Belgium a country, but it is also one of the greatest countries in all the land.
However, our first night in Brugge was quite weird. We stayed with a couple that I would describe as hillbillies. The guy, Pascal, had yellow teeth and thinning hair. He looked like he was about 45, but he told us he was only 30. His girlfriend, Yannick, was pimply and boisterous. Their house was filled with old junk and had mold on the walls. I felt like I was in an episode of Hoarders. We went out for a drink with our hosts–or, rather, they invited themselves along with us. At the first bar we went to, the waiter came over to tell Yannick to be quiet. She was honestly the loudest person I’ve ever met. It was like that SNL skit where Will Ferrell can’t control the volume of his voice. Then, at the next place we went to, while Yannick and Pascal were talking to a friend, the waiter came over and told us, “I feel bad for you, that you are stuck here with her, because she is so loud!” At that point, we were also feeling sorry for ourselves, so we left and spent the rest of our time in Brugge avoiding our hosts.
But I digress. Brugge is an awesome place to visit, even if you’re sleeping in a disgusting house with loud rednecks. All the buildings in the historical center are brick and about four stories high. Only the church steeples and towers poke up past the??surrounding roofs. The chocolate is incredible. Switzerland is going to have a hard time winning the best European chocolate award.
After our short stay in Brugge, we went to Antwerp and stayed with Jeltse, the enthusiastic girl we met in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Jeltse was??the best hostess, taking us on a walking tour of Antwerp and showing us all the sights and different??neighborhoods.??She made sure we ate good food, including waffles, fruit pies, stoofvlies, fries, and other things that I forgot the names of. We learned that what??us Americans typically call a Belgian waffle is actually more specific to Brussels.??The Belgian waffle that is popular all over the country is??smaller and has??chunks of sugar crystals??mixed in with the batter. Also, even though they’re called French fries, those delicious fried potatoes were (supposedly) invented in Belgium. (I can’t guarantee that’s true, but the Belgians definitely think it is.)
That night Jeltse and her friend Antony took us out for some good Belgian beers. Really, they’re all good. Belgium might just have the best beer in the world. Apparently the monks brewed them in the monasteries, and for whatever reason, their techniques were preserved and are still used today. Monks are still involved in production of some beers. Just like wine, certain beers have to follow strict regulations to earn the Trappist??appellation. The Belgians are also very particular about the type of glass??used, the temperature, and the??cleanliness of the tap. (Apparently, if the tap isn’t cleaned properly, you get a headache the next day. Again, I can’t guarantee the veracity of this claim.)
I think we would have enjoyed Belgium no matter what, but meeting up with Jeltse again really made our time there special. We had so much fun hanging out with her, learning about her country, and meeting her sisters. (Unfortunately, her parents were out of town, so we didn’t get to meet them.) I just wish we could have spent more time there! If we could do our trip over again, I would take time from France and add it to Belgium. At least we got a (delicious) taste of this great place!
While France might not have had the “wow” moments that other countries had, we still had a good time. We went straight up the country from the Catalan border with Spain to Belgium, stopping to take in the unforgettable sights of Paris and even have our own multi-stage tandem bike tour through the French countryside.
The food was delicious, yet simple: when in doubt, we just went to a bakery and bought a baguette. The French train system was equally simple, and public transport in cities was great in general. The language barrier posed a problem a couple times, as the French are very proud of their language and English isn’t generally spoken as much as in other countries. Still, after months and months of pantomime and pointing in Asia, we got by just fine.
Strangely, from here on out, the longest we’ll be in a country is five days! The trip really will be ending very soon!
Top three experiences?
- Biking in the Loire Valley
- The bread! French bread is so good, I probably shouldn’t eat it because I know I’m going to crave it after I’m gone. I love how bread is such an important aspect of French life. There’s a bakery on almost every block. Each evening you see people coming home with their daily baguette. If a restaurant doesn’t give you free, fresh bread, you’re allowed to be scandalized. No wonder they stormed the Bastille when they didn’t have enough bread!
- Biking the Loire Valley. We had a nice tandem to stroll through this great place.
- Paris. I really liked the Montmartre neighborhood where we stayed.
- Our picnic lunches. We’d get ham, Edam cheese, a baguette, apples, dessert, and a small bottle of wine and eat in a park. Looking back, buying freshly baked baguettes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was awesome (and cheap).
Bottom three experiences?
- Trying to sleep during the heat wave in Toulousse.
- General lack of “wow moments.”
- Leaving Paris.
- The heat in Toulouse! Actually it was hot everywhere, but in Toulouse we didn’t feel like doing anything.
- Nantes. It was nice, but for whatever reason we didn’t really enjoy it as much.
- We lost one of our days in La Rochelle because of rain. It was a really cool city and I wish we could have seen more of it that first day.
Nikki: The bucket of mussels I had in La Rochelle.
Brad: The omelet served with fries I had for lunch in Paris.
Nikki: The flan I ordered for dessert in Nantes. Completely wrong texture.
Brad: We ate at a kebab place and I had a sandwich that had some strange sauce on it I didn’t like.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Francois, the retired Frenchman who hosted us in Amboise. No idea what he was saying, but I know he was hilarious and kind.
Brad: Christine and Francoise in Amboise. They were very nice and funny.
Nikki: Definitely our “kitchen moment” in La Rochelle. We were staying at a place on Airbnb, and I asked Eric, the husband, if we could cook in their kitchen. He said okay, but when Catherine, the wife, came home, we found out it was actually not okay at all. We just tried to finish eating as fast as we could while Catherine yelled at Eric in French. Awkward.
Brad: Figuring out what to do with our luggage while we were on our biking tour. The bike shop said they do luggage transfers from one city to the next, but when I emailed them they said they needed at least 10 business days to arrange. (!) In the end, we just left our bags in the bike shop and returned to where we started and taking a train to Blois, instead of just biking straight there. So it worked out, but it was a pain.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: Our studio in Montmartre.
Brad: We used Airbnb a lot in this country, and the places were all really nice. My favorite was our place in Paris. It was tiny, but it was in a nice neighborhood and cozy.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: Etap in Blois.
Brad: In Toulouse, where it was boiling hot, we slept in a loft without a fan. It felt like our hostel in Florence.
Best thing we didn’t blog about?
Nikki: I really liked the city of Tours.
Brad: Our stay in Orleans. Although we didn’t do any touristy Joan of Arc museums, it was still a nice town to hang out for a day in.
Nikki: The only weird thing I can think of is that, apparently, rabbit is a common meal. We never got a chance to try it, though.
Brad: All the gate jumping in the Paris subway. In our first half hour in the city, we saw four or five people climbing over the turnstyles and swinging doors behind them. And it wasn’t just homeless-looking people either. It appears to be a somewhat normal thing to do, and I only saw one person getting ticketed for doing it.
Statistics for France
- Days in the country: 19
- Places we stayed: 9
- Rainy days: 1
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 4
- Photos taken: 651
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 140, 22% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 15
- Hours traveling overland: 16
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 20
- Days on the road: 372
- Days remaining: 26
- Places we stayed: 154
- Rainy days: 58
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 44
- Photos taken: 16,463
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 3,885, 24% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 51
- Hours traveling overland: 805
In Paris we rented a cute studio apartment in the Montmartre neighborhood. Montmartre is more gritty than the central areas of Paris (you see a lot of litter and sex shops, for example), but it’s also a lively place with tons of cafes, bars, and boutiques. It used to be the creative center of Paris in??the 19th and early 20th centuries, but now I think the artists have moved on. Quite a few notable scientists and artists are buried in the Montmartre Cemetery, including Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.??The cemetery is actually an interesting tourist attraction. Instead of graves buried in the ground, everyone is put in tombs above the ground. Many of the tombs are grand works of art with statues and stained glass. Some of them are so old and worn, we couldn’t even read what was written on them.
The Moulin Rouge is just a couple of minutes away from the cemetery. Today it’s more of a tourist attraction than a scandalous cabaret, but the red light district of Pigalle is only a block or two down the road. From there, we walked up to the??Sacr??-C??ur Basilica, a white domed building on top of the highest hill in the city. It has impressive views of Paris.
We visited the typical sights as well. Notre Dame, with its dark, dungeon-like interior and huge stained-glass windows, is one of my favorite cathedrals. We saw the??Arc de Triomphe during the day, at sunset, and at night. One afternoon we bought a blanket and had a picnic beside the Eiffel Tower. We walked along the Seine and to the Louvre. (We didn’t actually go in the Louvre, though. At this point, we’re pretty tired of museums.) Each night we came back to our apartment, cooked dinner, and listened to French radio stations. It was like our own little home in Montmartre.
One thing about Paris that really stands out to me, besides the beautiful buildings and romantic atmosphere, is its diversity. I don’t know the exact figures, but there are many immigrants living there. Just walking around we saw all different races and religions. On our first day we ran into a parade and celebration of??Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu holiday. The first time I was in Paris, I wandered into an open-air market and suddenly felt like I was in Morocco or Algeria. The various ethnicities are interesting, especially since most people don’t think of them when they imagine Paris.