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Trip Report If This is Tuesday it Must be Belgium-Amsterdam-Scotland-London

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Trip report: 7 nights in Belgium-Amsterdam, 6 nights in Scotland, 2 nights in London.

And yes for fans of the movie "If this is Tuesday this must be Belgium", we arrived in Belgium on that day of the week. I'll start with logistics: the 'experiences' part starts p 2.

Daily itinerary: Gent (Ghent) - 1 night, Bruges - 1 night, Antwerp - 1 night, Haarlem - 4 nights, Edinburgh - 2 nights, Ballachulish (Glencoe) - 1 night, Ratagan (near Isle of Skye bridge - 1 night), Inverness - 1 night, Crieff (1 hour drive from EDI airport) - 1 n, Ldn - 2 nights.
Total: 7 nights on the continent, 8 nights in the UK, plus overnight plane to Paris, is 16 nights (17 if you count the night at home following our late afternoon return from London.) I think this is a record 4 countries in 16 days for us (5 if you count the 4 hours or so in France), but we have lived to tell the tale.

Transport: Open jaw ticket into Paris, out of London; we used trains in between CDG-Ghent-Bruges-Antwerp-AMS airport. We flew on one - way air tickets Amsterdam to Edinburgh via LGW on BA and flew EDI to LHR on one way tickets on BA. (Normally I'd have done the BA tickets as an open jaw, but we decided relatively last minute to ditch driving from Scotland to York and just flew to London from Scotland instead.)

Buying train tickets: Using capitainetraine.com, prebooked a TGV from Paris CDG to Lille (Flandres). Note: we arrived in CDG on time at 08:30. We could have made an 11:00 train to Lille, i.e. with 2.5 hours layover in CDG. As it was I booked us an 11:57 train CDG to Lille. *** We bought half of our rail itinerary Lille to Ghent (i.e., Lille to Courtrai) from CDG airport SNCF ticket office (the one signed 'grandes lignes'). The first leg, leaving Lille about 1 hour after our TGV arrival in Lille, took us to Courtrai (Kortrijk) in Belgium, and on that train (which turned out to be run by Belgian rail) we bought a ticket from the conductor for the commuter train Kortrijk to Gent. Note: SNCF would only sell a strange routing from Lille to Gent, plus we wanted to avoid going via Paris Gare du Nord OR Brussels stations, so this is why we did it this way. Overall this rail route from CDG to Gent St. Pieters station took 3.5 hours. The entire trip CDG - Ghent;Ghent-Bruges;Bruges--Antwerp, Antwerp-AMS, AMS- Haarlem cost about 80 euro each, including the Thalys Antwerp-AMS.

In Ghent rail station, we bought a bulk ticket good for 10 rides on a bus company that provides local service to all of Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp (although we walked in Antwerp, it was faster that way believe it or not!) We bought our Ghent-Bruges rail tickets at the station machines (using "chip" credit cards.) Our Bruges hotel provided free bikes.

Tickets onward from Bruges to Amsterdam we booked thus: We prebought THALYS tickets from Antwerp to Amsterdam using the Belgian rail site, and the terms of the ticket allowed us to take any connecting train in Belgium (Any Belgian Station, ABS) the day prior to departure to Antwerp, so we used those terms to connect from Bruges to Antwerp. Note: we actually booked tickets from Antwerp to Schiphol airport, not Amsterdam; we then took bus 300 from Schiphol to Haarlem, which was our actual base for Amsterdam.

(For local transport within towns and cities, read on)

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    Local transport within towns and cities :

    Within Ghent: used 4 tickets of our bulk 10 ride ticket purchased from lijn company as mentioned above.

    Within Bruges: used another 4 tickets of our bulk 10 ride ticket. Our hotel (Adornes) thoughtfully provided bikes, which we loved.

    Within Antwerp: the TI at the train station was right, it's faster to walk 'downtown' even towing bags.

    Within Amsterdam:
    on arrival : before leaving Schiphol airport, we bought "Amsterdam and region" 24 hour tickets which we saved for our last full day plus transport back to the airport from Haarlem our last morning, as that ticket is good on both Connexxion buses and Amsterdam buses and trams. We bought our outbound ticket to Haarlem from the airport from the driver of 'bus 300'.

    We had three full days in Haarlem/Amsterdam. Two were spent in Amsterdam and we bought round trip rail tickets to Amsterdam from the Haarlem ticket office for those days. For one day we used a 1day bus/tram pass bought from Amsterdam station machine. Our second full day was spent in Haarlem and we rented bikes from the station depot and otherwise walked. Our third full day in Amsterdam we used the Amsterdam and region ticket as described, and our day of departure to the airport, ditto.

    Note: we didn't buy a museum pass for Amsterdam, as in 3 days we had plenty to do and only visited the Dutch Resistance and Rijksmuseums, plus the de Adriaan windmill in Haarlem which isn't covered by the museum pass anyway. Doing it 'as you go' saved us enough to pay for roundtrip train tickets on 2 days Haarlem-Amsterdam, plus a bike rental.

    Within Edinburgh: a local bus to our hotel was cheaper and only slightly less frequent than the special express bus. Edinburgh was easy to walk otherwise.

    After our time in Edinburgh, we rented a car (automatic) from Alamo/Europcar for 4 days, picking up and dropping off at EDI airport.

    Transport within London from LHR-downtown was by the usual 1 day Travelcard out of a machine.

    That's it for the summary, now the details.

    Day 1: Arrive CDG, commute to Gent. It's plane, then TGV, then train, then train, then tram, and here we are by late afternoon. We gratefully check into our hotel, the NH Gent Belfort, as we've been traveling for over 7 hours since our plane touched down in CDG. We take a preliminary stroll around the surrounds, scoping out the church where we'll visit the altarpiece tomorrow and taking a quick look at St. Michael's bridge. We dine on overpriced Croque Monsieurs from a nearby restaurant. It is the purpose of tourists to support the local economy, and we sure did. But we're here at last.

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    Day 2/Wed. Ghent, commute to Bruges. Sunny. After splurging on the hotel breakfast, as we need a good meal after last night, it's off to see 'Adoration of the Mystic Lamb'. The audioguide was very helpful as this altarpiece is an intricate artwork full of symbolism and detail. We spend an hour viewing the altarpiece and about another half-hour viewing the church and scoping out the gift shop, etc. etc., and then follow the DIY walking tour suggested in our guidebook. We have a light lunch at our hotel (squash soup, salad) and then take our time commuting to the station where we hop a fast train to Bruges.

    It takes almost as long to connect to the correct bus in Bruges as it did to take the train there from Ghent, but we do make it to the hotel Adornes by late afternoon. We take advantage of their free bikes to get acquainted with Bruges, which is truly lovely in the soft light of a spring evening. Swans swim along the canals, there's a lovely park with trees, and the square by the bell tower is not nearly as cramped as it will be tomorrow. We also pass through the Bejignhof.

    Supper is simple but tasty: smoked salmon salad and Belgian waffles with strawberries, taken in a cafe with a superb view of a medieval church with more decorations on it than a wedding cake. This town was rich and fat in the Middle Ages (something to do with wool) and it shows in the multitude of treasures it possesses.

    Day 3. Bruges, commute to Antwerp. Another fine day. We grab the bikes again and set out for the Groeninge museum (no connection to Matt of 'the Simpsons' TV show fame. ) En route we pass through the square, or rather we walk the bikes through, it was that crowded. Very different feel from last night.

    I actually like the modern (e.g. Magritte) art section of the Groeninge better than the medieval section. I'm not particularly keen to see pieces featuring people being flayed alive, even if they were corrupt judges. It's a relief to escape back to modern times and the pretty garden outside the museum.

    We take a longer and more scenic bike ride back to our hotel, on a route that avoids most of the tourists; this helps make our short time in Bruges feel leisurely rather than rushed. We've toured breweries before, and this, along with not being beer drinkers, means we don't miss not having time to tour the brewery. I briefly thought of climbing the bell tower but the guys in the film 'In Bruges' didn't have to face that line. That said, Bruges is lovely, so had we an extra night, I would have made it a collective 3 nights for Ghent-Bruges. But if 2 nights for the two is what one has, it's enough, and it beats having to day trip in and out.

    We hop the bus to the station (which comes on time) and thus make it to the station for an early afternoon Intercity train to Antwerp. We eat a picnic lunch on the train, knowing that Antwerp is full of restaurants. Though as it turns out, we ended up seduced by the view of one of Antwerp's fine squares, and chose a Tourist trap restaurant. Oh well. The crowd watching was fun.

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    Day 4. Antwerp, commute to Schiphol-Haarlem. Overcast.

    After a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, we stroll over to catch a bit of Rubens at the nearby cathedral. The church provides a pamphlet with interesting questions to ask oneself about the masterpiece visible near the altar.

    Having not seen Brussels, I can't say how well Antwerp's squares compare, but I found them pretty enough. We stroll through said squares before we pick up our bags and walk back through the shopping area and diamond district to the station, which really is a gorgeous piece of Art Deco. We have lunch here before boarding the 13:30 Thalys to Schiphol airport, and from there, having bought aforesaid Amsterdam and region bus ticket for use on our last day, we commute to Haarlem and our 'hotel' which is actually an apartment complete with balcony, washer dryer, and kitchen. We stock up on groceries from a nearby supermarket, and cook dinner for three as we're going to be joined by a friend later.

    After throwing a load of laundry into the machine, we set off to explore. I love Haarlem, so quiet compared to Amsterdam.

    Day 5. Dutch Resistance Museum, Walking through Amsterdam. Sunny, cool.

    The three of us meet up for breakfast at friend's hotel, and then proceed to the station and 'downtown' i.e. Amsterdam. I'd originally planned for us to rent bikes and bike along the Amstel river, but we decide to exchange this for a bike ride out to the dunes near Haarlem tomorrow. Instead we head straight for the Verketz (?) i.e. Dutch Resistance museum.

    Note: the Anne Frank Museum has an excellent virtual tour available on-line. For those who find the prospect of virtually mandatory pre-booked tickets (or hours in line) a bit daunting, this option combined with the Dutch Resistance museum makes for a good alternative. The DR Museum explores the unpleasant reality that was life for the Dutch under Nazi occupation, including the moral dilemma that presented itself: does one try for such tiny resistance as one can do at minimum risk, or does one search to find the courage to do something as bold as the family that assisted the Frank family did?

    It's a good museum but an intense experience, and after ninety minutes we retire to a nearby cafe for lunch and to discuss the exhibits we saw. Then, using our tram passes, we board a tram just to sit and watch a bit of the city go by. We return to the Leidesplein area and walk from the flower market to the Muntplein, wander in through the modern mall (I was sorely tempted to buy a Dutch style bike there but the shipping costs would have killed me) and thence up the 'tower' to have a coffee overlooking a fine view of Amsterdam. (We were extremely lucky to get windowside seats, this place is popular.) After coffee we head to the courtyard of the Amsterdam museum. This is well worth the detour as it's free and has some interesting exhibits and paintings on display.

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    Hmmn, I obviously can't count.

    Our itinerary was 3 nights Belgium plus 4 in Amsterdam, that's 7.
    Then THREE nights in Edinburgh (I forgot the night at the Edinburgh airport hotel) plus 4 nights Glencoe-Ratagan-Inverness-Crieff, makes it 7 nights in Scotland, not 6. Plus 2 nights in London, and a night on the plane coming over, makes it 17 nights, or 18 if one counts the night at home after the return flight home.

    Thank heaven I only made this kind of error in the trip report stage, not the booking-airfare stage.

    I'm getting old...

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    Day 5 (continued ) If we had had an extra day in Amsterdam, I think I'd have had us explore the museum itself. As it is we decide to hike to the National monument and the Royal Palace and Dam Square, and then gratefully sink onto a tram for the last stretch to the station and thence 'home' to Haarlem.


    Day 6. Haarlem - bike ride, Grote Kerk, de Adriaan windmill. Sunny and warm.

    We had a little trouble finding the best bike route to the dunes, before encountering a friendly English speaking local who offered to let us follow him as he was off in the same direction.

    The Dutch bikes are extremely comfortable to ride and we laugh when our 'guide' warns us that the dunes can be a bit hilly. What kind of hill can the Netherlands throw at us that would be worse than what we bike at home every day?

    Well, it turns out that these comfy Dutch bikes are built for the flat, not to take hills; one sits too far back to get good leverage, even with gears. So I am embarrassed to find myself huffing my way up a hill that would count as a bump back home.

    We bid good bye to our host once well onto the dedicated bike trail. This is a lovely ride that goes through wooded areas full of birdsong, past the sound of a racetrack (we park the bikes and hike up a hill to watch the victory lap of some stock car racing) and then arrive at a beachside cafe to have lunch.

    Note: I had briefly entertained having us bike out at Keukenhof past the bulb-growing fields, but once word reached us of the very warm spring that the Netherlands had this year, I realized that the bulb fields would be long past their flowering stage. So we contented ourselves with the 'parade' and this bike ride. The bulb field bike ride I was disappointed to lose to the caprice of nature, but Keukenhof itself had, sorry, no attraction for me. I realize I'm guilty of framing an opinion based only on photos of the place plus others' opinions, and what is more, I realize that many, many people have enjoyed this park. On the other hand, the fountains and late blooming tulips that we'll see in the small garden just outside the Rijksmuseum were completely charming, and didn't require a lengthy commute and an expensive ticket to Keukenhof. Okay, I'm done.

    Once back from the dunes we turn in the bikes and find that notwithstanding it's a Sunday, the Grote Kerk is open to the public (maybe because it's the flower parade weekend, who knows.) We enjoy exploring the churh, then say goodbye to our friend and head to the de Adriaan windmill. This offers a superb tour of a mill once used to grind flour, although they rarely put the sails in motion as it is too dangerous to have people tour a mill whilst the sails are moving. (I had briefly entertained the idea of a day trip to Zaanse Schaans, but decided to chop it in favour of an extra day in the UK. That's where I got my math wrong on the itinerary!)

    (continued)

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    Day 7, Mon, Jordaan and the Rijksmuseum. Sunny and mild.

    Our last full day. After much thought, I opted against buying Rijksmuseum tickets in advance. Instead, we'll time our arrival for early afternoon on a Monday - if the line looks manageable, we'll go. Otherwise, we'll do an alternate art museum with no line.

    So, after alighting from the train from Haarlem, we take a tram to Dam Square, and then do our guidebook's self-guided Jordaan walk, with a stop en route for a light lunch. There's lots to photograph - I am fascinated by the number of styles of bikes used, especially the ones with a kind of wheelbarrow in front that is used for transporting everything from groceries to children (it helps that the terrain is flat.)

    The tram onward to the museum area isn't easy to figure out, in fact Amsterdam takes a bit of getting used to - objects are further apart than they appear on maps. But we arrive at the Rijks to find, hoo-ray, no line at the ticket office. We go right in.

    The curators have chosen as a theme for the Gallery of Honour "Art as Therapy." Their remarks, in two languages, are printed in large type beside selected works. This, along with our guidebooks DIY tour, makes for a fascinating three hours in the Rijksmuseum, including a coffee break in the cafe, and a little time in the gift shop. There's lots more to see, but I've learned that it is best to settle for less is more with art and museums.

    Outside children are playing in fountains designed to provide silhouettes of whoever enters the 'core' of the fountain (you will have to view them to understand this) and there's a lovely garden with yes, a few late-blooming varieties of tulips. So we will not leave Holland without seeing tulips.

    We head home for another fine self-catered supper at the apartment and to do a laundry.

    Day 8 - Haarlem stroll, fly to Edinburgh via London.

    Well, it's been a week - and we're off to Scotland. There's enough time for a last stroll around Haarlem before turning in our apartment key and taking the bus to the airport. Schiphol is a sane airport, I wish they were all designed like this. One disappointment: the airport version of the Rijksmuseum is closed for renovation.

    The flight is not terribly exciting but both legs are on time, so we can't complain. I'm glad to have booked the first of our three nights in Edinburgh at an airport hotel as we're tired on arrival. Plus, the hotel has a pool and I'm keen to do a little light exercise to relax.

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