Monday, September 05, 2005

London / Peterborough Part I

I leave my Amsterdam hotel room before the sun comes up and walk the 30 minute walk over to the train station with plenty of time to spare, before catching a train to the Hook of Holland. I've ridden enough European trains this summer, that this one should be fairly routine, but as the time approaches closer and closer to departure I start to get worried when the sign on the platform I'm supposed to be on, doesn't show the train I need. I see a family of American's and ask if they are going the same way as I am. They say yes, but are looking just as worried as I am about the train. 5:00am approaches and there's still no sign of the train so we frantically look around at the other platforms to see if there's a train. No luck. We eventually find a station agent, and he informs us that the train already left on a platform around the corner (there was a change that was announced in dutch!). I start to panic knowing that if I don't get to the ferry by 7:30am, I will then have to wait until 4pm before the next ferry arrived. The station agent points myself and the stranded American family to a train that's about to leave. He says its a bit slower, and we have to change trains in the Hague, but there's a slim chance we may still be able to make it in time. We hussle aboard, and I chat a bit with the family I just met. They're from Philadelphia, and were in Amsterdam visiting friends. We all cross our fingers, and end up pulling into the port at about 7:25am. Everyone is already aboard the ship and we run with luggage in hand through customs. I'm relieved as I run up the ramp to find the colossal Stenalines Dutch Flyer still docked in port. The ship is a behemoth, and has 2 movie theatres, a casino, bars, restaurants and room for thousands of people and their cars on board. I settle into my chair and just read and sleep during the 6.5 hour journey.

We dock in Harwich and I breeze through customs, stopping to chat a bit with the agents before I board my train that takes me to Victoria station. My final destination is Stepney Green and seeing Jazzy after 3 very busy weeks apart. We spend a couple of hours sipping tea and catching up, and I try and fill her in on some of my more memorable trip moments. I feel good knowing that I'll be finishing up the last 9 days or so of the trip with Jas, and that it will be with family that I haven't seen in about 8 years or more.

Given that we have so little time to spend with everyone, we decide to call my Uncle Ronnie and Aunt Catherine in Peterborough (which is about an hour north of London), and make plans to meet up tonight instead of tomorrow. We rush to get to the station, and in all the commotion of purchasing tickets and running to the train, we manage to lose them. We probably could've just stayed on without the ticket people checking them, but because we don't know the system or how much fines will be, we decide to play it safe and get off at the next stop. We buy another couple of tickets (they aren't cheap either!), and end up being over an hour late by the time we get into Peterborough.

My uncle is there waiting for us at the train station, and we get back to his place (where we'll spend the next few days). My aunt, uncle and cousins have really bent over backwards to host us. My cousin Alexander even had to give up his bed so that Jas and I would have a place to sleep. Its so late when we get there that just my Aunt and Uncle are still up. We chat and have a snack, then turn in for the night.

The next day, they take us to a quaint little village just outside of town called Stamford. We go to a nice tea shop for lunch, walk around a bit and just explore some of the shops. After explaining my broken camera story, my aunt and uncle decide to surprise me with an early, very unexpected, and very very unnecessary birthday gift. They buy me a new digital camera to replace the one that died in Belgium. I was totally shocked when they handed it to me, but we definitely did make good use of it during the rest of the trip.

My older cousin comes round for a visit, and we catch up for a while, then my grandpa comes over and we all go out to a really nice Italian restaurant for dinner. We're stuffed to the gills, and decide to take my aunt & uncle's dog Bonnie out for a walk, and burn off some of the excess calories we consumed. We spend the evening just relaxing; chatting and watching a few of the several thousand tv channels my uncle has on satellite.

We get up the next morning and meet my cousin Ronnie and his wife for brunch. Again its more catch up, and chit-chat, then after a brief pitstop at their house to meet their lovely deaf dog, we head over to the football (soccer) pitch and watch him play. Its a successful result for their team, then its back to my Aunt & Uncle's for a big dinner. We go out with my cousins for a couple of pints and a game of pool, but don't stay out late as we have an early flight to Scotland the next morning. My Uncle has the unenviable task of getting up at 5am (on a Sunday no less!) to drive Jas and I out to Luton airport, which is over an hour away. We were spoiled absolutely rotten by my aunt, uncle, and cousins, and leave Peterborough eternally grateful for their amazing hospitality. Once we arrive at the airport, we discover it packed to the brim with travelers (even though its 6am). This is actually the busiest travel weekend for the UK as the schools have just wrapped up there. We spend about an hour just getting to the check-in counter, but with all the other travelers in the same conundrum, are pleased that we still catch our flight. Its farewell to England (for now), and on to more family fun in bonnie Scotland.

Amsterdam de Eerste

Amsterdam Day 1:

Our train pulls into this watery city in the early evening, and we hop on the tram to check into our hotel room. Upon check-in, the girl behind the counter informs us that we can do whatever we want, but not to smoke hash in the rooms because it could stain the paint (she said something along those lines anyway). I've checked into a fair number of hotels in my time, and I can honestly say that its the first time I've ever heard that from a desk clerk! But after all, this is Amsterdam, a very very surreal place (as we were about to find out). Our room is nice but small, complete with 3 single beds (think goldi-locks and the 3 bears) and a large window. We unpack a bit, and decide to walk around the town and get familiar with the city.

As we walk I'm struck by similarities to Venice, with the many narrow canals and elongated motor boats drifting under footbridges. Architecturally its fairly bland (for European standards!) and nothing really sticks out in my mind. We walk past the sex museum, then decide to ditch our prudishness at the door and go in. We're greeted by an animatronic flasher, a staircase with bums on the wall that pass gas as you walk past and other silly and totally graphic items throughout the building. The museum "tries" to seriously outline the history of sex, but mostly its just filled with all sorts of naughty pictures and the like. We giggle and laugh, but soon grow tired of the place, so we decide to stop and grab a pint at a waterfront tavern. Ouch! We never asked the cost, and were gouged for 19 euros for 3 pints of not so stellar Stella. We make a pact to always ask the cost before buying beer from here on out.

We walk around some more and eventually stumble into the red light district. For those that haven't seen it, this touristy area is complete with scantily clad women standing behind glass-doored, low-lit rooms awash with neon red and purple lights. Its completely bizarre, and unlike anything I've ever seen. You aren't allowed to take pictures (we saw one guy trying, then one of the women ran screaming from her glass enclosure telling him to delete the picture). There are also plenty of sex shops, peep show booths and places offering live shows. As I walk I'm surprised to see tourists of just about all ages walking around, all of them soaking up the spectacle that is the red light district. We stop for one more pint, before calling it a day, then head back to our hotel to rest.

Amsterdam Day 2:

We sleep in, so our first full day starts late (10am). We start by making our way over to Anne Frank's house. I've never read her diary, but its still a fairly neat place to see. The information is well presented, and gives enough of a background that reading her book is not a prerequisite for visiting the place. Its fairly packed, and because you actually walk through her old place, is completely stuffy in the non air-conditioned heat. We leave there and I discover the difference between a cafe in Amsterdam, and a "coffee shop" in Amsterdam; there's really quite a disparity between the two! If you actually want a cup of coffee, you'll have to go to the former. We decide to check out the latter, just to see what they're all about. Its basically a regular bar, but with a glass display case where you can purchase marijuana and associated paraphernalia. We decide to order a beer, play some pool, and watch some of the other patrons indulge. Its interesting for a little while, but the novelty quickly wears off, and we decide to go out exploring some more.

We walk through one of the main plazas and find Madame Tussauds wax museum. We contemplate checking it out, then see the astronomical 23 euro entrance fee. Too rich for our blood, we start to leave when one of their ticket agents informs us that she would knock 3 whole euros off the ticket price. Me being the "frugal" Scotsman that I am brush off the paltry discount, and after a bit of negotiating, we get three tickets for 10 euros a piece... sometimes being cheap has its advantages after all. The museum itself is pretty much like the one in London (which I had been to in the past). We, I mean Julie, snaps lots of pictures with her camera. Highlights include Sean Connery, Mao Tse Tung, David Bowie, Bob Marley, and Albert Einstein.

We're pretty exhausted after all the walking, and have a lot to pack in the next day, so we order some extremely delicious cones of french fries called "vlamse frites" completely slathered in gooey mayonnaise, and call it a very early night.

Amsterdam Day 3:

Well rested, we get up and start our day by seeking out the Vincent Van Gogh museum. It sits in the middle of a large park, surrounded by a few other museums and galleries. There's a really good chunk of his work on display there, though only a few of his masterpieces. I'm really struck by how he's able to create such strong work with so few strokes. I leave the museum with an even stronger appreciation for him and his work.

From there we walk over to the "Heineken Experience". Its essentially a brewery tour, but they don't actually do any of the brewing there anymore. For 10 euros you get to tour a former brewery complete with large bronze kettle drums, interactive games, perpetual brand identification, crass self-promotion, 3 glasses of watery Heineken beer, and a half-pint glass that's yours to keep at the end of the tour. Still worth the money given the fairly expensive prices for everything else in the city.

After that, we rent "canal bikes". These are identical to the paddle boats you see at places like Ontario Place. Brad (the workhorse of our trio) does most of the paddling, and Jupo and I take turns at the helm, as we explore some of the canals, and generally try and get out of the way of the motorboats. Its a lot of fun, but also a fair amount of work for how far you travel.

Our daily exercise complete, we head back to the hotel to change and check up on neglected email, then its off for dinner and a pub crawl around some of the bars.

Amsterdam and The Hague Day 4:

Our last day together consists of taking an hour train ride out of Amsterdam to the Hague. The main reason we're here is to check out the MC Escher collection in the Het Palais museum. Its something that I've looked forward to for quite some time, and I more or less dragged the other two into it (though I suspect they enjoyed it just as much as me). Escher is my all time favourite artist, and I love the mathematical nature of some of his work. The Hague sports the only permanent Escher collection of prints in the world, and all of his famous stuff is on display. I get to see "the portrait gallery" up close and personal, and later I find out that Julie and Brad clandestinely managed to purchase a copy for me (thanks soooo much guys!) There's also a neat virtual reality headset that Julie and I put on, and we get to explore Escher's world in 3-d. We compete against other headset-wearing foes in a series of Escher themed puzzles, but I do terribly and actually end up feeling a bit noxious by the end of it. We walk around a bit and try and avoid the rain. We don't get to really explore the Hague, but some of the buildings are appealing, and it seems like a fairly relaxed, but small city. We grab the train back (I beat Brad in a game of crib), and we decide on our favourite dutch meal (Vlamse Frites!) for dinner.

We all have to be up extremely early the next day (me at 4am for my train-ferry-train-tube to London, Brad and Julie at 6am for a flight back to Toronto), so after dinner we decide to take in a flick. Choice is limited, so we end up suffering through a sneering, grimacing, crying Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds. Blecch! Its a unanimous 6 thumbs down from the 3 of us, but serves its purpose. We pack up our stuff and say our goodbyes, and the next morning I'm out the door before the sun rises en-route to catch my train.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Bruxelles le 1er

First off a caveat: I'm writing this more than a month and a half after the actual events, so you'll have to excuse much of the missing details. What follows is the best recount my fallible memory can muster at this time.

Where I last left off in Cologne, the solo portion of my journey was coming to a close and I was just getting ready to meet up with my fellow Georgetownian best friends Brad and Julie (who were doing their own UK/Europe trip).

Brussels Day 1

The train ride from Cologne to Brussels covers most of Germany, and all of the afternoon. I had arranged to meet Brad and Jupo at the train station, and after an unplanned delay in their chunnel journey (someone on the train had a medical emergency) we finally meet up. Its really really nice to finally see some familiar faces. We chat about our trips thus far as we make our way to the next in a series of never-ending hostel adventures. This place is massive and actually occupies a series of buildings up and down a side-street. We check-in and discover that our room is actually in an adjacent building on the 3rd floor. En-route to our room we are shell-shocked to witness a fairly serious motorcycle and car accident. Instantly a crowd gathers, but us without phones or knowledge of emergency telephone numbers we can only stand back and survey the scene. Fortunately several other people are instantly on the phone, and an ambulance and police car arrive within minutes. A very freaky start to our Belgian adventure.

After much grunting and heavy lifting, Brad and Julie successfully haul their stuff to our room on the third floor. The accommodations here are pretty average as far as hostels go, but for the amount of time that we end up spending there, they definitely do the job.

We decide to walk into the center of town and check out the grand palace. Its really ornate looking and reminds me of the plaza San Marco in Venice. I pull out my camera and snap a few pics, only to find that when I pull it out next, it fails to open, and I can hear something rattling inside the body of the camera. Oh no! I had gone this long without anything bad happening on my trip, and then my digital camera decides to call it a day. It had served me so well over the years, and had seen a lot of places (BC, Alberta, Wisconsin, Japan, Korea). Fortunately Julie also had a digital camera, so pictures from Belgium and the Netherlands should still appear (once I get around to getting those pictures that is!)

We walk through narrow streets and end up at the Mannequin Pis. This tiny bronze statue is exactly what it sounds like. Yup, its a little boy taking a leak into a water fountain. One legend has it that this unknown boy saved the city of Brussels from fire by extinguishing it with uhhh, his own firehose. Every single shop in the city sells trinkets and corkscrews featuring the Mannequin Pis, and when you actually see the size of the real statue, it seems quite bizarre that this would become the focal point of tourist trappery in Brussels.

From there we literally stumble into an out of the way small bar that is teeming with chatty patrons. We order cheap pints of Hoegaarden and the locals (including a toothless harmonica playing old timer in the back corner) mistake our citizenship and serenade us with the stars and stripes. We quickly clear up the confusion and we learn that this bar was a major hangout for surrealist painters in the 1920's and was where Magritte had his first exposition. Our pints consumed and our bellies aching for food, we head over to Pitta Street, for some really excellent... Pitas!

Its getting late, so we had back to the hostel for a nightcap. Brad and I play pool, then the 3 of us play cribbage and down pints of Stella. I go to bed feeling happy that I've managed to sample one prong of my personal Belgium trinity... beer! We make plans to satiate the other two starting with waffles for breakfast, and chocolates for dessert.

Brussels Day 2:

Day 2 is actually only a half day or so in Brussels, as we have to catch our train for Amsterdam in the early afternoon. We peck a bit at our crappy hostel breakfast, served highschool cafeteria style, then make our way into the center of town for real breakfast. Belgian waffle huts can be smelled before they are seen, and with noses at the ready, we successfully locate some not too far from the Mannequin Pis. The belgian waffle is really more of a dessert than a breakfast proper, but we don't complain as we gobble up sugary-sweet soft waffles topped high with bananas, strawberries, chocolate syrup and whipped cream. Julie and I both end up wearing part of ours, in our overzealous excitement, but Brad remains unscathed. Julie does some gift shopping (as an aside, I had no idea that Belgium was the birthplace of the smurfs... yet another useless trivia nugget to add to my collection!) and Brad and I split a box of delicious belgian chocolatey pralines, that disappear even before the 3 hour train ride to Amsterdam finishes.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

(Some) Photos finally added

Yeah I know I know, its been ages since I've added any entries. They will appear (one frosty day). In the mean time I've gone through the time consuming process of adding images to some of my earlier posts. If you look back through my London, Paris, and some of my Rome posts, you'll see some of the photos I took at that time.

You'll have to look through the entry archives at the bottom of this page to find those entries. More to follow shortly!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Long Overdue Update

Just a quick note to let you know that I've fallen well behind in posting journal entries. I'm currentlly in Edinburgh, getting ready to head to Falkirk for a couple of days. Since I'm trying to maximize time spent with rarely-seen family, I don't think I'll be able to post anything until after I get back to Canada at the beginning of August.

Check back then for the rest of my trip details (I hope!)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Koln der eins

Cologne day one.

Pull into the train station in the early evening, find my hotel (a cheap 1 star affair), check out an enormous gothic cathedral, then call Jordan's friend and we arrange to meet at a bar a bit outside of where my hostel is. His friend is having a birthday get together, so I'll be hanging out with a friend of a friend of a girl I met 2 days ago. Strange, but I look forward to getting a chance to mingle with some of the locals.

I just happen to spot the name of the bar while riding the tram, so I consider myself lucky to find the place. Its got an outdoor patio, and even with my not quite 20/20 vision I spot Jordan and her friends. They're all really friendly and speak excellent english, so I feel quite at home hanging out with them. One of them works as an independent real estate agent, and seems to be quite happy in Cologne (she seemed to sort of loathe berliner's, which I found a bit surprising). The birthday boy informs us of the European birthday tradition of him buying a round for everyone, and I sample some of the local brew. Its quite good really, and I in-turn inform him of the North American tradition, of everyone buying the birthday boy a round. We stay out till the wee hours of the morning, stopping for a late night kebab on the way home. I say my goodbyes to Jordan and her crew, wish her the best on the rest of the trip, and manage to stumble all the way to the hotel without getting lost once.

Cologne Day Two.

My second and last day in Cologne is actually only a morning. I have to catch a train at noon to get on to Brussels where my solo adventuring will come to an end, and I'll meet up with Brad and Julie. I'm really looking forward to the company, and spend the morning on a park bench just watching the boats sail up and down the Rhine river.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Berlin der Zwei

Berlin Day Two.

Jordan and I make plans to grab breakfast and head out to the Einstein exhibit. We find a cafe and I eventually settle on cold scrambled eggs on an open-faced baguette... interesting, but I'm still on the fence as to whether or not I like it. We make our way out to museum island, where Einstein: "Chief Engineer of the Universe" is showing. I hadn't even known of its existence until I stumbled upon a big red E during my first night in Berlin.

The exhibition itself is amazing, and me being the big nerd that I am, enjoy lapping up all the sights and sounds and interactive displays. They project a heated debate between Einstein, Newton, and Aristotle on the laws of motion, gravity, and relativity which is quite humourous. There's plenty of original Einstein items including notes, letters, scrapwork, and a very funny postcard that he scrawled on and sent to a friend while completely drunk. I was pretty surprised at some of the facts surrounding his life, namely that he was offered the presidency of Isreal (he refused) and how well he could actually play the violin. Again we discover while trapsing through the museum that we have to rush to catch our trains, so we leave the exhibit without fully enjoying the last floor. We quickly dash into the store where I can't help but splash out on an Albert Einstein action figure! Its really great, he has the full head of crazy grey hair, and chalk in one hand.

When we go to reserve train tickets, it turns out that Jordan and I are actually on the same train. Me with the peasants in second class, and her (because of the way her rail pass works), with the upper crust in first class. She's heading to meet a friend in a small town en-route to Cologne, and then gives me her friends number as they are supposed to be heading to Cologne that evening. Jordan and I say our goodbyes, as the train continues to rumble toward my next destination.

Berlin is the first city I've left where I've felt that I had missed many important attractions. I know that I have missed a lot in every other city due to the nature of the trip, but Berlin I feel especially strongly about. If I had to do it all again I definitely would've alloted at least another day or two, but I'm still really really glad to have seen it.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Berlin der eins

I wake up late, but still manage to make breakfast, pack and get on the train headed for Berlin. Its a 5 hour journey, and I'm particularly impressed by some of the small German cities we pass, there was one along the river near Dresden that really sticks out, but I can't recall its name.

Pull into Berlin late in the evening, decipher how to ride the S-Bahn trains, and a few stops, and several minutes later I'm walking to my hostel. This may be the best one yet. Its certainly one of the cheapest (14 euro's a night), awesomely centrally located right underneath of the TV tower in East berlin, and insanely clean and secure. The rooms look very Ikea (which I think is common of most newer European hostels anyway), and I'm really glad I found the place.

I head out for a walk and purchase really cheap, yet really tasty fish and chips, that come in a paper cone and are drowning in tartar sauce. I walk over to the museum island, through the Karl Marx park, and stop to relax for a while at the TV tower. The thing that first strikes me about the area is how new all the buildings are (I think almost all where built after the wall came down). There's lots of glass, its very clean, and the people seem to be happy, smiling, and very laid back. Stop at the hostel bar, and chat with another Aussie named Pam who works in a hostel in a small town in Austria. We had both decided to do a walking tour the next day, so it was a fairly early night.

My first full day in Berlin, I get up, eat bacon and eggs and am in front of the hostel ready to meet the rest of the walking group. There's only 3 of us, myself and Pam included. Our third companion is a fellow canucklehead from Vancouver, is my age, wonderfully sarcastic, and about 2 months into her big European adventure. We walk to a nearby coffee house, meet our guide and about 30 other tourists from other hostels/hotels. Our tour guide is insanely enthusiatic, and actually works as the director for some theatre house in Edmonton, when not escaping to tour people around Berlin. He's extremely knowledgable and completely loves this city. He keeps the information flowing, but still cracks jokes and keeps everyone entertained.

We start the tour by walking through east berlin and past some older buildings that are still bullet and bombshell scarred from the war. We walk into a former squatters area that now thrives with graffiti artists (whose work is now UNESCO protected). We make our way to the Reichstag, and learn about the rise of Hitler and the third reich. We cross into west berlin through cobblestone and copper markers showing where the walls stood not 16 years earlier. Now in west berlin, we move through to federal palaces, see the air-lift, and march on towards the Brandenburg Gates. Our guide recounts the JFK "I'm a jelly donut" line, shows us the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his kid out the window, and from there we move onto the newly completed holocoust memorial. Its a site of much contrevorsy as one of the top ranking nazi officials was killed in his bunker that actually shares the site, and the 2700 monuments of varying size were protected in a special anti-graffiti paint that was manufactured by the same company that used to make the cyclone gas used in some of the chambers 60 years ago. Our guide takes us to the site where Hitler's bunker was and where he commited suicide (its now a parking lot!). From there we walk to a place where part of the wall still stands (I'm surprised to find its only 3 meters tall), and into checkpoint charlie (complete with a local dressed in military uniform infront of a couple of sandbags, that the American tourists practically line-up to get pictures with). Quick drink/lunch break and the tour marches on to Humboldt university, a roman looking plaza, past museums and the former east berlin parliament. Our guide has trouble holding back the tears as he explains all the events that lead to the fall of the wall. Tired, but filled to the brim with amazing sights and important historical knowledge 6 hours later, we join our guide for a pint at a nearby bar.

I chat with Jordan (the Canadian) and Pam, and we decide to head out to the Jewish museum, then the topography of terror exhibit (its about the gestapo and the SS). The jewish museum is really good, and we all learn a lot, but we realize that we have to rush if we want to make it to the other exhibit and grab dinner. After dinner, we reach the outdoor exhibit only to find it closes earlier than we had thought. So we all head back to the hostel, have a few drinks then its bedtime for all of us.

Entry Archives

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