Off to begin a European vacation

After a trip to Europe, it’s time to post again.  While Minnesotans sweltered in the September heat that followed a cool August, the French and the Italians bundled up to face an early autumn after a hot summer.  It was hard to pack for a trip in either direction.

I’ll write more about the trip after I catch up with the photo-a-day thing.  Here’s a pic from each day of Week #36 of 2017.


(9/3/17) I think our little back yard looks pretty good the day before we leave for 3 weeks.


(9/4/17) 4:30 PM – We taxi onto the runway and take off toward the approaching storm. It was a bouncy and discomforting way to start the trip.

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(9/5/17) Bonjour, Pareee!  After landing at 7:30 AM, we dropped our bags at the hotel and set off to stumble around and see a few things. In 2015, the city decided to remove all the “love locks” from the Pont des Arts Bridge. Since then, “lovers” (such as those in the middle of an argument in this picture) have found a new home for their romantic trinkets nearby. It’s probably just a matter of time before these locks are also scrapped. I think it’s interesting, but doesn’t strike me as a particularly attractive assemblage. ( I think that might be a French word.)

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(9/6/17) Speaking of lovers, these two lovebirds jump in the air in an attempt to take flight in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral. A photographer snaps away in an obvious attempt to get a good photo for their engagement announcement (I hope).

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(9/7/17) After a couple of nights in the big city, we pick up a rental car and head south to the Loire Valley for a little Chateau-hoppin’.  First stop is Chateau de Chambord, probably the largest and most elaborate of all.  Lunch was bread, cheese, and an apple on the bench.

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(9/8/17) We visited two Chateaux today. The first was Château d’Amboise (home several Kings of France) situated on a cliff above the city of Amboise, and the second was the Château of Clos Lucé, also in Amboise. This photo at Clos Lucé was shot through an old glass window which warps the light, resulting in an impressionist-like image of the gardens. Clos Lucé is where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life. He was persuaded to move here by his friend, King François I, whose city (and this house) made a better place for Leonardo to work than in Italy during it’s turmoil at the time.

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(9/9/17) One more chateau visit today, before heading farther south.  This is Chateau de Chenonceau, which is really beautiful because it spans the River Cher. It is nicknamed “The Ladies Castle”, because it was “built in 1513 by Katherine Briçonnet, decorated by Diane de Poitiers, extended by Catherine de Médicis and saved by Louise Dupin during the French Revolution.” (quote is from a blog post about the top ten Chateaux in the Loire Valley)




“That’s different.” – A Minnesotan visits Amsterdam

(This is the 4th in a series of 5 posts about my spring break trip to Belgium and the Netherlands)

A case could be made for Amsterdam representing either the best of civilization or the worst. For me, it’s unique city of contrasts, irony, and possibly the best people-watching I’ve ever seen.

After 3 days in European dreamland (see previous post) and a leisurely 3+ hour ride through some beautiful farm country, the first steps out of the Amsterdam Central Train Station are a shock to the senses.

The first thing you notice (and probably my most lasting image) is bikes, bikes, everywhere.

The central train station is in the background. Watch out before you step into the bike lane. (photo by Steve Date)

This is Biketown. Sure there is some car traffic, but you barely notice it as you walk through the city. Bicycles dominate the scene to an extent that I hadn’t imagined.

They are constantly whizzing past you in every direction. Toddlers to old fogies, business people, hipsters, families, tourists, locals, are all on bikes, and nobody — N-O-B-O-D-Y — wears a helmet.

Apparently wearing a bike helmet is one of the few things that's against the law in Amsterdam. (photo by Steve Date)

Kids often double- and triple-up on parents' bikes. (photo by Steve Date)

After our usual getting-lost-a-bit walk from the train station we found the Nieuwmarkt square, which is where the B&B we’d booked was located. When the nondescript door to the place was locked, there was a moment of mild concern — but only a moment. “Hello, Steve and Sandy?”, asked the young man who had just trotted across the square. “I’m Daniel. I didn’t know when you were coming, so this is good timing”.

Daniel is the owner of the “Inn Old Amsterdam” bed and breakfast. We’d booked it after a lot of searching on the internet. For some reason that nobody seemed to understand, many hotels were fully booked for the dates we’d be there. The photos of this place on the website looked nice and it got some good reviews — and they HAD a room available for the 4 nights we needed — so we took it.

Daniel led us up a steep, narrow staircase to our room. He looked to be in his mid to late 20s. Like everyone of his generation Amsterdam, he spoke English better than most Americans do. Daniel was friendly, helpful and informative. Like the city itself, the room was beautiful, but had an edge to it.

Our room at the Inn Old Amsterdam (photo by Steve Date)

The edge was that it was located over a bar on a busy square. I loved the view and the noise of the bar below didn’t keep me awake, but Mrs. D had some trouble sleeping because of the voices from below. I liked standing in the window, watching and photographing the scene below.

Nieuwmarkt from our window (photo by Steve Date)

Our room provided a great vantage point for visual eavesdropping on the sidewalk seating of the bar below (photo by Steve Date)

Amsterdam fans out from the area near the train station. It takes its structure from a series of roughly concentric canals. The layout seems logical and systematic on a map, but in reality it’s tricky to find places because few streets go straight for very long. The “spoke” or “radius” streets are pretty direct, but of course they get farther apart from each other the farther from the center you go.

The streets follow concentric rings of canals.

Because it’s so flat, Amsterdam is very walkable. But as I said, bicycles dominate the traffic. Residents and tourists alike fill the bike lanes with wheels. You don’t see a lot of expensive racing-type bikes. What most people ride is either single-speed or beat-up geared bikes, often painted bright colors and adorned with plastic flowers.





But for the time being, we’re walking. So let’s head out and see some of the famous, infamous, and otherwise interesting sights of this capital of all that’s good and bad about civilization.

Might as well dive right in and hit the Red Light District. It’s just a few blocks from our B&B. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the “RLD”, but we did walk around a bit, and I have to say it seemed pretty tame to me. Most people walking around are couples or groups of either young men or young women. I saw fewer drunk or high people than you would on an average U.S. college campus on any given weekend. The vast majority are just there for the same thing I was — to gawk at the whole scene. Apparently the RLD is actually one of the safest parts of the city, because of the many cops and bouncer-types around.

You're not supposed to take pictures of "the girls". I guess it's in bad taste or something.

There seemed to be very few actual customers. The window ladies were expressionless, for the most part — almost mechanical. Maybe it was the weird, red lighting, I don’t know, but they seemed like like ordinary-looking women with mannequin-skin, wearing lots of make-up and dressed in bikinis. It’s clear that it’s nothing more than a hum-drum job for them. We walked by one window where one of the prostitutes was sitting on a stool eating a Subway sandwich — working through her dinner break, I guess.

Variety is the spice of life. For an eerie experience, see the potato exhibit photo in my previous post about Bruges (photo by Steve Date)

In one of the brothels, a young man was trying to enter as another guy was leaving. The lady of the window was arguing with him, trying to close the door and asking him to not come in. She kept saying “no blacks”. After a couple of minutes he gave up. Wow, a racist prostitute. I lost all respect for her.

If I were walking through this area with children, I think the store window displays would be much harder to explain than women standing around in swimsuits. Here’s one shop that seemed to have a wider variety of the same basic product for sale than all the others.

Yes, you can also buy pot there.
Yes, you smell it from time to time as you’re walking around.
No, it’s not a big deal and no, you don’t notice a lot of people acting stoned.

OK, so now that we’re higher than a kite and have had our fill of prostitutes and marital aids, let’s switch gears a bit. How about some antique hunting to calm down that libido?

We found some great antique stores, markets and an antique shopping mall.

One of the rooms in a great antique mall (photo by Steve Date)

We got interested in Delft tiles. One shop had thousands for sale. They were salvaged from old houses — very old houses. We bought a couple of tiles, one from 1650 and the other from 1675. They have great pictures painted on them and they travel well in a suitcase — good souvenirs. If I was rich, I’d do a whole wall in my house with them.

Delft tiles date back to the early 1600s. (photo by Steve Date)

Amsterdam has some great museums.

We went to the Rijksmuseum, which has a lot of Rembrandt paintings, a few by Vermeer (including the iconic milk maid) and the other Dutch masters. It’s housed in a beautiful, old building. But I have to say I was a little surprised that the museum only uses a small portion of the building, and is actually not a huge collection. Still worth seeing, though.

The Van Gogh Museum is great. They have the biggest collection of his paintings in the world and while there are works by some of his contemporaries and influences, the focus is on Vincent. There was also a temporary exhibit about Picasso while we were there. This museum is a must-see.

"Crows in Wheatfield" poster outside the Van Gogh Museum. These tourists are in a lot better mood than Vincent was when he painted it. (photo by Steve Date)

The Anne Frank House is another must-see on any tourist’s itinerary, but one I chose to not-see. I walked by it a couple of times but the line was discouragingly long and people were talking about a several-hour wait. I didn’t buy tickets online ahead of time like I should have and didn’t want to wait around that long. You have to save some things for the next trip, right?

Amsterdam must have been quite a place during the late 60’s and early 70’s, where it was the epicenter of the counter-culture in Europe. There are a few remnants of the old hippie days, but the city has moved on. Let’s face it, young people today might smoke a little pot or tie some flowers to the basket of their brightly painted bike, but those who remember the real deal are getting on in age.

But a few old people (my age) are still around from the heyday. We met some (and some a little younger) at a little bar called the Cafe de Gaeper.

Cafe de Gaeper was our version of "Cheers" (photo by Steve Date)

What pubs are to Great Britain, “Brown Cafes” are to Amsterdam. The names derives from the dark-colored wood often used in interiors, stained even darker by years of smoking. We stumbled into one of these our first night and liked it so much we ate there again a couple of days later. The food is burgers, sandwiches, and fries. The atmosphere is a friendly, VERY casual mix of mostly locals and a few tourists. It’s a European version of the “Cheers” TV show.

Cafe de Gaeper was our little glimpse into local life in Amsterdam. On our first visit, there was a dog sitting on a bar stool, looking ready to order. The half-dozen people at the bar, as well as the bar-tender and the people at another table all knew each other and it was obvious they came there all the time. I ordered fish and chips. They were delicious, and at €8.50 a relative steal. While we were eating, two young ladies came in and began talking to a man sitting at the bar. They knew each other, too. One of the women said to the guy, “Hey, I’m wearing the underwear you gave me on my birthday a year ago, remember?” With that, she turned her back to him, dropped her jeans to her knees and reminded him in a memorable way. It was all very innocent, friendly, not-drunk, and funny. Then she sat down for a beer. The dog curled up on the stool next to her.

I love that place.

This is the kind of place I want in my neighborhood - dogs on barstools. (photo by Steve Date)

The city of Amsterdam was fascinating, but the crowds and frenetic pace of the street get to you a little after a couple of days. The most enjoyable thing we did during our 4-night stay there was on the last full day of our trip, when we took the train to Haarlem and rented bikes for the day. My last post in this series will be about our day of biking through the flower bulb fields and to the sea coast. Look for it in a few days.

As usual, I have posted enough photos about Amsterdam on Flickr to bore anyone to sleep. But if you’d like to see more pictures, go to my Amsterdam Flickr set here.

Here are a few more random shots. See you soon in Haarlem!

Some of the old buildings seem to be on the verge of falling over (photo by Steve Date)

Mom's birthday, maybe? (photo by Steve Date)

Typical Amsterdamer of a certain age. (photo by Steve Date)

Spring break in Europe: 1st of a series

As a teacher, I get quite a few weeks off every year (not as many as you might think, but that’s another discussion). Travel abroad during the summer months and around Christmas is expensive and crowded. So Mrs. D and I have often used my week off in the spring to travel, usually adding a Friday or Monday to make a 10-day trip.

We’ve taken 7 spring break trips to Europe (plus a winter break trip to Spain) beginning with a visit to France with the kids in 1999. People tell me they wouldn’t go for that short amount of time, but it’s actually quite nice if you take it for what it is and don’t plan to do too much. I’ve learned through experience that it can be unnecessarily stressful and tiring if you have an unrealistic itinerary.

We hadn’t gone on any vacation for 3 years. Airfares had been high, the exchange rate not great, and home repairs and improvements were eating up funds. But it was time to go somewhere again. We decided that if a decent airfare popped up, we’d grab it. $900 – $1,000 was too much, and that’s where they hovered for a few weeks. Finally, when a $645 fare from MSP to Amsterdam appeared, we grabbed it.

So we decided on 3 cities we hadn’t been to — Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels. (Mrs D had been to Amsterdam many years ago)

After arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport at about 8:30 AM on Saturday, we hopped on a train at the convenient airport station and headed for Brussels.

From the train between Amsterdam and Brussels

The first day after an overnight flight is a tired, bleary-eyed affair, so rather than stumble around Amsterdam waiting for our hotel room to be available, we decided to watch the countryside go by for 2 and a half more hours, then start the week in Belgium and work our way back to Amsterdam.

We rode past early-blooming bulb fields.

I’ve rented cars in Europe several times, but the train has a lot of advantages, especially if you’re spending a large amount of time in cities. First and foremost, it’s relaxing. You just float along and look at the scenery. It’s not always beautiful, but it’s usually interesting.

There's a fair amount of this kind of scenery on the train, too. In many areas, Europe is just as ugly as the U.S.

I think this guy was trying to race us.

My first mishap of the trip happened as the train pulled into the station in Brussels. I realized my new jacket (the only one I had brought) was not in the luggage rack with my suitcase. Who knows why. There were multiple opportunities for forgetfulness between Amsterdam and here and anybody who knows me knows that I will take advantage of every opportunity to leave something behind. Oh well . . . or I should say, “C’est La Vie”. I was in Bruxelles and it was going to be fun — jacket or not.

I’ll post soon about our two days in the city of waffles, cartoons, pommes frites, beer, and a certain little boy who urinates all over town. Au revoir!