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Trip Report Bicycles, art, frites and chocolate: Amsterdam, Brugge and Paris

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CAST OF CHARACTERS
Me, DH and our 8yo DD: we travel quite a bit but last trip to Europe for me and DD was in April 2006 (Paris). DD studied various artists at summer art camp and was thrilled with the opportunity to see works by Van Gogh, Monet and DaVinci.

TRIP BACKGROUND
DH was planning to travel to Orleans for a four day work trip and since his father lives in Paris and we hadn’t been to visit for awhile, we decided to take a ten day family vacation in early October to Amsterdam, Brugge and Paris, all places DH and I had been before. Our dates were based around DH’s work schedule and keeping the airfare reasonable. We initially planned to stay in Brussels in the middle, which we had never been to before, and then make a day trip to Brugge.

ADVANCED TRANSPORTATION PLANNING
We bought the airline tickets (into Amsterdam and out of Paris on Delta) and outlined a rough travel plan (Amsterdam for 3 nights, Brussels for 2 nights with a day trip to Brugge, 4 nights in Paris) but then I procrastinated on making any more plans. I finally got my act together and purchased Thalys train tickets www.thalys.com - Kid & Co tickets which are reduced fares for those traveling with children - between Amsterdam and Brussels and then between Brussels and Paris two days later. I selected trains with departure times around 10 or 11am based on when the less expensive Kid & Co tickets were still available. I was initially unsure of how to purchase on-line because you have to select a country of residence and only some seemed to allow for printing of the tickets from an email. So I picked whichever country allowed that and proceeded. Despite calling both credit card companies to tell them we were traveling overseas and I was planning to buy train tickets in advance on-line, my credit card was frozen after the first on-line train ticket purchase. I used a different credit card to make the second purchase. I didn’t seem to have any choice of seats but we ended up with three of four around a table on both legs.

ADVANCED HOTEL PLANNING
I got overwhelmed with the hotel possibilities and prices! We prefer to stay in suite hotel rooms so we have a little more space but I knew that would be highly unlikely to find in these cities, except at higher prices than we were willing to pay. I was primarily concerned with finding rooms that had enough bed space for all three of us, preferably not three twin beds.
AMSTERDAM: I selected an Executive Room at the Park Plaza Vondelpark www.parkplaza.com/amsterdam-hotel-nl-1075-cz/netvonde - the rate was inexplicably different each night (€175, €135 and then €219) but everything in Central Amsterdam seemed to be even more expensive. We would also receive goldpoints with Carlson (Radisson, etc.) for this stay.
BRUSSELS: I could not seem to find anything for under about 300euros per night which just seemed exorbitant to me! We were staying mid-week which I had read was the most expensive time to stay in Brussels since most mid-week travelers are there on business (expense accounts). I tried to use Priceline (which I had never used before) but bid too low and got frustrated! I finally found the Courtyard Brussels www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/brucy-courtyard-brussels/ was available for only 10,000 Marriott miles per night, in lieu of a ridiculous euro rate. The only problem was the hotel’s location - nowhere near Midi where the Thalys ran in and out of or a metro station, but I figured with the money we saved on the hotel room, we could pay for a lot of taxis!
BRUGGE: The day before we left Amsterdam, we cancelled the Brussels’ hotel reservations because we decided the hotel was just too inconvenient to public transportation and reserved a triple room at the Hotel Adornes in Brugge www.adornes.be, based on a review in the Rick Steves’ book.
PARIS: We reserved the office and living room at my FIL’s 7th floor apartment in the 16th.

ADVANCED ACTIVITY PLANNING
We specifically decided to be flexible and not arrange very many activities in advance.
AMSTERDAM: We bought tickets on-line to the Anne Frank Huis www.annefrank.org for a timed entry on Sunday.
BRUSSELS and BRUGGE: nothing.
PARIS: FIL got us tickets to the Paris Auto Show (Mondial de l’Automobile) www.mondialautomobile.com which we could use any day; FIL bought tickets on-line for the Monet Exhibition at the Grand Palais www.grandpalais.fr for a timed entry on Thursday afternoon.

OTHER ADVANCED PLANNING
In order to minimize any added costs overseas, we got a credit card through Capital One - no conversion fees! www.capitalone.com

BOOKS
Rick Steves’ Amsterdam, Brugge and Brussels - purchased on the spur of the moment at our local Barnes and Noble simply because it covered those three cities. DH and I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time selecting restaurants and I was trying to head that off a bit by having something in hand to help us narrow down the choices. I also took with us Paris with Kids by Valerie Gwinner and Cadogan Guide take the kids: Paris that I had purchased before our last trip to Paris.

TECHNOLOGY
I printed a few maps and we picked up maps from the hotel front desks but we primarily used Google Maps on DH’s Blackberry. It was certainly convenient, especially when we wandered aimlessly and eventually needed to figure out where we were and how to get to wherever we wanted to go next! We also used it to find instant restaurant reviews when we were standing in front of place trying to decide if it was a good choice or not. We also used (when we remembered!) a Garmin Forerunner to keep track of how far we walked.

FLYING TO EUROPE
We flew from Iowa to Detroit and then to Amsterdam on Delta. We had two pieces of luggage to check (we knew we could do laundry at my FIL’s but we aren’t particularly frugal packers – and DH needed his own bag after DD and I headed home) and we each had a backpack. The flight was uneventful but we did have personal video screens with a wide choice of movies and games, which would have been more useful if it wasn’t an overnight flight!

AMSTERDAM

TRANSPORTATION: Despite my insistence that our credit cards would not work to purchase train tickets on the machine or via a real person, DH still tried the machine and when that didn’t work, he tried to use a credit card with the person behind the window. Once he admitted defeat and paid in cash, we were on way! Based on what I thought was sound research, I mistakenly expected the train to take us to Amsterdam Zuid. Because it didn’t seem straight forward to take the tram from Zuid to our hotel with our luggage, we planned to take a taxi to the hotel. Not realizing which train station we actually ended up at (Amsterdam Central - duh!), we then took a taxi to the hotel which retraced half of our steps back to the airport! In reality, it was a straight shot on Tram 2 from Central Station to Vondelpark! Live and learn, I guess. Each day we bought 24 hour tram passes on the tram for €7 each (not necessarily the cheapest option for us, but certainly the most convenient - there are other museum / transportation passes available but we didn’t think they made sense for us). We should have bought the 72 hour pass but didn’t go out of way to stop at the one or two places where they could be purchased. We took the free ferries from Central Station – one is very short and boring; the other was longer and allowed for a great view of the city on the return trip. www.gvb.nl

ACCOMMODATIONS: We arrived at the Park Plaza Vondelpark before 11am and were pleasantly surprised to find that our room was ready. I must have neglected to include our DD on the reservation but they quickly accommodated her presence. The hotel location was great - it was in a quiet residential area right on the Tram 2 line, stops just a couple blocks away in each direction. Our Executive Room was dominated by a king size bed, with about a 2 foot perimeter around it and a small entryway - where in the world would the rollaway bed fit? The bathroom was separated from the room by a frosted glass enclosure, allowing for very little privacy! The bathroom also had minimal lighting which meant putting contacts in and putting makeup on was nearly impossible. After returning from dinner the first night in the rain, we discovered the rain was leaking into our hotel room! We called the front desk and the night manager appeared very quickly. He acknowledged the leak but said they were all booked up so he couldn’t move us to a new room but we could have a free breakfast the next morning. DH then said that wasn’t enough - wouldn’t the room be free that night? The night manager consulted with someone (in Dutch, of course) and then suddenly a new room was available. We moved to the new room, which was larger than the first and worked better for us with the rollaway bed. It still had the frosted glass surround for the whole bathroom which I really didn’t like. The sink and mirror were in the room, making the lighting much better. The next morning, my husband spoke with the day manager and expressed his disappointment with how the leak situation was handled and somehow managed to finagle the free breakfast and free wi-fi for the duration of our stay. (DH did receive a response from an on-line survey he completed afterwards that acknowledged some short comings in the way the situation was handled by their staff.)

MEALS/FOOD: We had (free) breakfast at the hotel one morning and then found a bakery near the hotel for croissants the other mornings. We had unmemorable lunches at cafes on Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein and near Museumplein. DD loved the snacks of frites and waffles, as I expected! Each night, we took Tram 2 away from the Central Amsterdam to Amstelveenseweg to find dinner. The first night we ate at a great Greek restaurant called Olive 63 www.olive63.nl. The second night we ate a Blauw www.restaurantblauw.nl, a rijsttafel which was a culinary adventure for me and my DD; both of us are not very adventurous eaters! The third night we ate at Mezza Luna www.mezza-luna.nl. All three restaurants were very good and we would gladly return to any of them. After walking through the touristy Leidseplein restaurant area, I was grateful that we had discovered the restaurants on Amstelveenseweg, which had a great neighborhood/local feel.

ACTIVITIES/SIGHTSEEING: We explored Amsterdam by foot, tram, ferry and canal boat tour, specifically avoiding the red light district. Keeping DD alert and out of the path of bicyclists kept us all on our toes! DD had fun posing for photos in each letter of the I Amsterdam sign!

The Anne Frank House visit was a sobering experience – DD and I are in the middle of reading her diary and DD was excited to see the secret bookcase entrance and go into the actual Annex. The line was already an hour long when we arrived with our timed entry tickets at 10:45am; we rang the buzzer and went right in – definitely getting the tickets in advance on-line was worth the extra €1.5!

We went to the Jewish Historical Museum www.jhm.nl, which included an interesting audio tour for the Old Synagogue. The Portuguese Synagogue is directly across the street and has been kept in its original state without electricity or heat; another interesting audio tour. The Children’s Museum part is fantastic – DD even got to make a little challah!

We all loved the Van Gogh Museum www.vangoghmuseum.nl; we bought tickets the day before so we wouldn’t have to stand in line or make a concerted effort to arrive right when they opened. They have a great treasure hunt for kids with a choice of postcards as a reward upon completion. DD was disappointed that some major works (The Bedroom and some self-portraits) were on loan to an exhibit in Tokyo.

BRUSSELS

TRANSPORTATION: We took the Thalys to Brussels. The train car numbers are tiled into the floor making it easy to locate the correct car. We had three of four seats around a table and directly across from us were two Japanese women and four young kids, all of whom were very noisy throughout the entire train ride, despite nasty glares and shushes from DH. They seemed oblivious to the lack of noise in the rest of the car. A couple from Nebraska was sitting behind us and we ran into them at the airport upon our return; they said the kids got even more out of control after the stop in Brussels, running up and down the aisle! When we got off the Thalys at Midi, we planned to take the metro to Central station and store our bags there and then take a train from Central station to Brugge. We found the luggage storage at Midi and confirmed that they had the same setup at Central; we are surprised these still exist with the elevated terror alert levels. We took the metro from Midi to Central station www.stib.be which necessitated making a change and knew there had to be a better way – well there was! Lots of trains go from Midi to Central station and we probably could have just hopped on a train (without a ticket?) but we weren’t sure.

MEALS/FOOD: We grabbed frites and other lunch food at a corner take-away place and had a requisite waffle at one of the little waffle shops near the Manneken Pis.

ACTIVITIES/SIGHTSEEING: We walked to Grand Place and basked in the beauty of the square. Then walked to see the Manneken Pis (it is so little!) and to pick up a souvenir.

BRUGGE

TRANSPORTATION: We bought tickets on the spot at Brussels’ Central Station for Brugge (in hindsight, we probably could have bought the ABS – Any Belgian Station - supplement to the Thalys tickets but I wasn’t sure how those worked). We took a taxi from the Brugge train station to the hotel because we weren’t up for a bus ride with all of our luggage; we took a taxi back to the station on the morning of our departure.

ACCOMMODATIONS: We stayed at the Hotel Adornes www.adornes.be, a lovely inn on the northeast side of town. We had a triple room on the top floor in one of the connected canal houses. DD loved it – they had a cute dog named Arthur who played soccer with her and they had bikes available for guests to use, including one her size.

FOOD/MEALS: We had nice European continental breakfasts (included in the hotel rate). We had a lovely dinner at de Gastro www.degastro.be – the Den Gouden Karpel www.dengoudenkarpel.be had been recommended by the hotel but neither DD nor I are fish eaters so we stumbled upon de Gastro; DH and I both had price fixe menu (steak and moulles, respectively). They had a €75 bottle of water on the water menu, but we settled for the cheapest one which tasted just fine! We had another great dinner at Bistro in den Wittenkop www.indenwittenkop.be which we selected based on a recommendation from the Rick Steves’ book. They split a meal into two plates for DD and me. We had dessert at Gelateria da Vinci on Geldmuntstraat which was fantastic!

ACTIVITIES/SIGHTSEEING: We explored the city on foot, taking in the shops and the Wednesday market. We enjoyed the smells in the chocolate shops but actually bought chocolate in a grocery store we came across. Much to DD’s dismay, we didn’t go to any museums – chocolate, frites or beer – but spent most of our time walking around, taking in the quaintness of the town (boring, according to DD). We saw the filming of a British movie, “Hot Potato”, on one of the side streets. We used the hotel bicycles to ride along a canal out of the town up to Damme, a cute little village about 3 miles away. Unfortunately, it rained on the ride back but we did stop to watch a long barge go through the locks on the edge of town.

PARIS

TRANSPORTATION: We took a train from Brugge to Brussels Midi and had plenty of time to transfer to the Thalys to Paris. There was less obvious indication of the car number at this station but since the train seemed to originate here, we had plenty of time to find the correct car. This Thayls train had been redone and was nicer than the train we took from Amsterdam to Brussels. (I saw on the Thalys website that they are in the process of renovating their cars and were selling old seats and other interior décor on eBay!) We bought a carnet of ten RATP (metro/bus) tickets at the Paris Nord station www.ratp.fr– and a carnet of reduced fares for DD. We took the metro everywhere (we were two blocks from a metro station) except for a bus / tram combination to get to the Paris Auto Show. They are apparently replacing the bus route by sections with a tram that will eventually run around the entire peripherique. We also did the usual high amount of walking, much to DD’s chagrin! We took a taxi (not sure which service we used, FIL reserved it the night before) to the airport.

ACCOMMODATIONS: We stayed with my FIL and his French wife at their small two bedroom 7th floor apartment in the 16th, near Rue Mozart. All I will say is that it was quite cozy for all five of us and DH and I felt like we were always in the way! They have a lovely terrace covered in beautiful flowering plants where we had most of our meals. There was some repair being done outside in front of their building that resulted in the hot water being shut off periodically – so I had several cold showers!

FOOD/MEALS: Breakfast was croissants and baguettes from local boulangeries on Rue Mozart; we went to a different one each day because some were closed on the weekend mornings. Lunch was usually on the fly, either something prepared by my FIL’s wife or when were out walking around. DD even had two hotdogs in a long baguette! We had drinks and crepes (nutella!) on two occasions, once around the corner from the apartment and once near the Place de Voges. We had two lovely dinners prepared by my FIL’s wife, out on the terrace. We had dinner out with my FIL’s wife’s son and his wife on the far east side of Paris (technically Saint-Mande) at La Tourelle; food was good but nothing special. We ate at Le Mouton Blanc www.gerard-joulie.com/moutonblanc-1.html , a favorite haunt of Moliere’s, on our last night! The food was great; DD had a hamburger that looked like it was on steroids! I also need to mention that twice we stopped in at different Starbuck’s to use their ever clean bathrooms!

ACTIVITIES/SIGHTSEEING: DD was able to spend some time with her grandfather and his wife, without us; DH and I were able to explore on our own a few times, which was great!

We went to the Mondial de Paris (Auto Show) at Porte de Versailles; FIL had purchased tickets in advance for us so we didn’t have to wait in the short line to purchase tickets. We were surprised by the high number of people who were there, even at 3 on a weekday afternoon; there were so many people swarming around some of the cars, especially those right at an entrance. As former Big 3 engineers, we have been to our share of auto shows but this one was enormous and spread out amongst many buildings at the expo center. We noticed a heavy emphasis on reduced fuel consumption and smaller vehicles – even more than what we know to expect for Europe. There were a lot of little electric vehicles with low top speeds (45mph) which don’t require any kind of drivers’ license – several European countries allow these types of vehicles. I also noticed a lot of boutiques selling a given automaker’s merchandise; I don’t recall the extent of these shopping opportunities at other shows I’ve been to.

DD and Grandpa went to the Aquarium de Paris www.cineaqua.com which is under the Trocadero Gardens, across from the Eiffel Tower. She said they only had fish, sharks and octopi; they also had lots of videos and movies, including Surf’s Up! (with English subtitles). There were lots of little tanks and a few big tanks. They saw octopus squirt black ink! She enjoyed the touch pool with fish – and even grandpa touched them! She said it wasn’t too busy and she recommends it but likes the Chicago Aquarium better!
One morning we walked to Isle de Grenelle with the mini Statue of Liberty, which is fitting since we are probably going to NYC over the summer!

We went to the Monet Exhibition at Grand Palais www.grandpalais.fr; FIL purchased tickets in advance for a specific entry time but we still had to queue in the reserved ticket line. People who had tickets for the time thirty minutes before us were gradually let in over those thirty minutes; we had gotten there early (FIL misremembered our time much to the chagrin of his wife!) so we were let in promptly at the correct time. There was a long line for those who hadn’t purchased tickets in advance and a few people were let in periodically; I have no idea how long they had had to wait. We picked up two audio guides and wandered through the exhibition. At the start of the exhibit, it was very crowded and we spent less time there; the people thinned out as we proceeded. It is a fantastic exhibition and it was wonderful to see paintings in the same series together; I marveled at all of the far-flung locations some of the works were on loan from! After the Monet Exhibition, we walked just a bit up the Champs Elysee, enough to see the Arc de Triomphe in the distance.

DH and I spent a great morning wandering around, starting out at a design store that I wanted to go to called Pa Design www.pa-design.com in the 9th to purchase a baby shower gift for my sister. Then we wandered up Rue Des Martyrs towards Monte Marte and came across a market, primarily antiques, and then back down to go to Rue Montorgueil, a fun pedestrian-only area full of shops and restaurants. Then walked through the Jardin des Halles and then across the Seine to find Place Furstenberg in the Latin Quarter and the surrounding interesting artsy area behind Boulevard Saint-Germain. We stopped at Le Pre Aux Clercs for coffee and soda (ridiculously large bill, maybe because all we had was drinks?) a block up from a packed Les Deux Magots www.lesdeuxmagots.fr. We popped in to Laduree www.laduree.fr to see the famous macaroons! We walked back across the Seine, through the Tuilleries, which was packed with people as the weather was perfect, and back to the FDR Metro.

DD went to the Louvre www.louvre.fr with Grandpa and his wife; they used a “secret” entrance from the metro and there was no line for tickets. They took a self guided children’s tour (Thematic Tour – Outsize) and added the Mona Lisa (top on DD’s list of things to see in Paris) and other works by Da Vinci. DD had to fight her way to the front of the crowd to see the Mona Lisa, which I had warned her was much smaller than expected!

On our final day in Paris, a Sunday, we explored the Ile de la Cite with DD. We walked through Notre Dame but weren’t able to take the time to wait in line to climb the tower. We stopped for some Berthillon ice cream www.berthillon.fr on Ile St Louis- yummy! We took a great walking tour of the Marais (circuit 2) with Paris Walks www.paris-walks.com. Chris Spence was our guide and he was great! The walk lasted two hours and despite the large group (30+) and the heavy pedestrian traffic, we all learned a lot about the Marais. This was an area DH and I had never explored, so we retraced the walk on our own at a slower pace so we could do some shopping and tasting!

FLYING HOME FROM EUROPE
We flew from Paris to Minneapolis and then Minneapolis back to Iowa on Delta. The trip was uneventful but someone DD survived without electronic devices (my iTouch wasn’t working and DH had the laptop) or personal video screens - and she survived!

NEXT TIME
I promised DD that next time she will get to go up the Eiffel Tower (FIL didn’t want to wait in the long lines, although I have discovered that you can book tickets on-line now www.tour-eiffel.fr) and go up the tower at Notre Dame. I also discovered, albeit too late, Meeting the French www.meetingthefrench.com and various tours, including a bakery tour, thanks to Paris Jo. With our FIL living in Paris, there will most likely be a next time!

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