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Trip Report Trip Report: Amsterdam/Bruges/Paris May 2009

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I have never written a Trip Report before, but have benefited greatly from reading ones on Fodor’s so thought I would make a stab at it. Here goes:

The travelers: My husband and I and another couple, good friends with whom we have traveled with before. (Prior trips with them were to Italy, Spain/Portugal, and Thailand/Hong Kong). It has been almost ten years since our last trip together, not because we hated the trip or anything, but because our children as they got older always wanted to go with us. Now, our children- teenagers – don’t mind if mom and dad go off for a week or two without them.

The itinerary: May 21st to June 1st, 2009 -Amsterdam 3 nights; Bruges 2 nights; Paris 5 nights. We chose our destinations based on our never having been to Amsterdam or Bruges before, and having been to Paris before (10 plus years ago) and wanting to go back. We thought Bruges would be a good place to stop between Amsterdam and Paris in order to break up the train journey and stay in a smaller city for a couple of days.

The planning and preparation: I planned the trip and booked hotels and restaurants with limited input from my fellow travelers, partly because they don’t have the time (I do.) and they don’t have the interest (I do.) I love reading guide books and the forums here on Fodor’s. I got so much good information that made our trip better. Thank you fodorites!

The packing issue: We are not light packers and neither or our friends. We are trying to do better and have improved over the years, but it is highly unlikely we will ever be carry-on only people. We do all tote our own stuff; that is the rule. For that reason I bought an Eagle Creek combination backpack-bag with wheels, which I have now used on several trips and love. You can stuff it unbelievably full, roll it most of the time, but place it on your back when you need both hands free, like when getting on and off trains. It serves as my “I can live out of this bag if my checked suitcase gets lost” on the way to my destination and provides a bag for my most prized souvenirs for the return home.

With regard to travel clothing, my favorite items for daytime wear were actually made for golf. I don’t play the game, but I love the clothes, because they are lightweight, easy to wash out, and dry overnight. I like Addidas brand for pants and Tehama for shirts. For shoes I alternated between a pair of black Ecco ballet flats (but with more support) and a heavier Keen mary jane type shoe. Both were very comfortable and I had no blisters after miles of walking. I also took a dressier black shoe (taxi cab only). I had one basic ensemble for night time wear: black pants; dark blue jacket (Liz Claiborne, cotton/poly/spandex blend, very comfortable, didn’t wrinkle, and looked good! Or so I am told.); white, black, or pink sleeve-less shirt; and some nights a scarf. I usually buy at least one scarf a trip, usually at a museum because they usually have such pretty ones. I also buy a coffee mug at one or more of the museums we visit because I like starting my day with a reminder of Amsterdam, or Paris, or Marathon. Good Memories.

The flights over/back: We flew Continental out of Austin and our friends flew Delta out of Atlanta and we both had uneventful flights, arriving at Schiphol Airport as scheduled a little after 8am. We met up in baggage claim and were on our way. At the end of our trip we left Paris in the early morning and they left mid-afternoon. Neither of us left as early as we would have for the airport because June 1st is a French holiday, Pentecote, so there was very little traffic to worry about causing a delay. Our flights left on time and were once again uneventful, just like you want.

Amsterdam

The train from the airport into the city:
We tried purchasing train tickets from the automated machines, but none of our credit cards worked in the machines (we had read this might happen) so we went to the sales desk and bought tickets for the next train and were told to go to Platform 3, which we did. We then had our first (so soon!): “We are so confused” incident. A train came and we asked the attendant if it was the train we should get on to go to the center of the city and he said no we should be at Platform 1, so we dutifully went there only to be told that we should be at Platform 3, so we returned there only to be told….. Thankfully, a fellow traveler who had a schedule showed us how trains were scheduled about every 10 minutes, Platforms 1, 2, or 3 and our timing was simply off. We stayed put, got on a train, and had an easy, inexpensive 4.40E pp, 15 minute trip.

The cab to the hotel:
We took a cab from the central train station to our hotel, the American Hotel in the Leiseplein area, which is about 2 miles. The cab fare was 18E, which was considerably more expensive than the return fare, which was 13E. I don’t know why there was a price difference; it was for all four us both times.

The American Hotel:
We stayed at the American Hotel at the recommendation of some friends who have been to Amsterdam multiple times and said it was a comfortable hotel in a fun area. True. We booked the 21 day advance internet rate (210E) for a deluxe double room, which included breakfast.

My husband does not normally eat breakfast and I like to, so that is one of the benefits of being the trip planner. It was the normal buffet of meats, cheeses, fruit, cereal etc., but they did offer made-to-order omelets and champagne. A good way to start a vacation day! Having breakfast together also gave us a chance for our foursome to talk about our plans for the day. We all had cell phones so we could go our separate ways if we wanted to and meet up later, which we did on several occasions.

Our room had a balcony which overlooked the plaza in front of the hotel, which made a great people-watching spot. It meant that we did not have total peace and quiet (our friends opted out of having a balcony for that reason) but we figured it was worth it and the noise really wasn’t an issue- especially the first night when after arriving in Amsterdam so early (8am) and then going all day (no naps!) we were exhausted when we got into bed around 10pm. The hotel only had one room ready when we checked-in, so we stashed all the luggage in it before heading out.

The Sights:
In my younger years I was one of those with a list who rushed around to see everything. It worked for us then and we actually found it fun (Europe as a big scavenger hunt) but being older now (50!) I still have the list and we try to see an important item on it first thing in the morning and then just wander or see whatever we come across for the afternoon.

I Amsterdam Card
You can buy an I Amsterdam Card for 24, 48 or 72 hours for 38E, 48E, and 58E respectively, which entitles you to transportation on trams and buses, entrance to many museums, discounts on stuff, and free gifts. I liked the idea of getting on the trams with no fuss (when we were in Italy a couple of years ago we got on a bus only to be asked to get off because we didn’t have a ticket or the correct change or something, there were no taxis in sight and my feet were tired) but we never rode a tram or bus. And I liked the idea of being able to pop in different museums for a short visit that we might not otherwise visit. That we did do. There is a Tourist Information kiosk directly across from the American Hotel, which sells the cards, museum tickets, postcards, etc. and that is where we purchased our cards.

Canal Boat Tour
The first thing we decided to do was take a canal boat tour figuring it would be a good introduction to the city and not too strenuous on our travel- addled brains. You could catch the boat directly next door to the hotel, which also played a part in our decision. It was a fun and relaxing introduction to the city and since it was beautiful, sunny day I got some wonderful photos of the quintessential Amsterdam: Canal Houses, houseboats, and flowers. We also saw a good view of the huge bicycle parking garage by the central train station. I remembered seeing it on the Amazing Race, my favorite show and there it was!


Anne Frank House
We arrived in Amsterdam on Friday and we planned to visit the Ann Frank House on Saturday morning. Friday afternoon we used the hotel’s computer to get on-line to book the tickets (they also provided a printer so you could print off your tickets). All times for Saturday were sold out (May 22), as was Sunday and Monday. So, we had no choice but to stand in line, which we were told that unless we got there early for the 9am opening, the wait could easily be over an hour, sometimes two. So, Sunday morning we got there at about 8:45am, we were behind about 20 people, and we got in at 9:20am. It is not covered by the I Amsterdam Card.

It is very well done. We spent about an hour watching the short movie, going through the living quarters, and reading the exhibits. It is hard to believe it really happened: so many people, in such small rooms, no sunlight, having to whisper, walk lightly as possible, living in continual fear and then their fear being realized. People always ask what is a must-see; well this is one for Amsterdam, which explains why the museum has already had almost half-a-million visitors in the first six months of the year. (Last year they had 913,000 visitors total).

Van Gogh Museum
We bought our tickets on-line the day before and we had no problem getting the time-slot we wanted. There was a line at the museum when we arrived for our designated time (11am-12pm) so we were glad we already had tickets. The museum is covered by the I Amsterdam Card, but not the special exhibit which was there when we were (It ended June 1). We did not have to check our backpacks which were small and we carried them like purses rather than on our backs. I love Van Gogh so I expected this museum to be a trip highlight for me and it was. It was so enjoyable to be able to look at the painting and then often read what he was thinking when he painted it. He wrote about his paintings in letters to friends and family, so you can read his own words rather than art critic speculation. Two out of our foursome spent about an hour-and-a- half “arting” before joining the rest of the group in the museum café for a beer and a bite before proceeding to the Rijksmuseum next door.

Rijksmuseum
The museum is under a huge renovation, so only one wing is open which works well for the traveler who wants to go to the museum and see the highlights in an hour. We are and we did and we enjoyed every minute of it. It is covered by the I Amsterdam Card.

Amsterdam Historical Museum
We did pop in here when we might not otherwise because of the I Amsterdam Card. While two of our foursome drank beer and people watched nearby, we took a quick tour of the museum for the main purpose of seeing the “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Jan Deijman” by Rembrandt.

Red Light District
We walked around the Red Light District both in the daytime and at night. It was not as seedy as I expected. We always felt safe, even at night, but we didn’t stay later than about 11pm.

Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum
This museum is not covered by the I Amsterdam Card, but we went in out of curiosity. It is described in guidebooks as small and it is very. The exhibits are interesting with information on the history of how marijuana has been view in the U.S, -not favorably, as we know. And there are some rather large pot plants on view in a grow room. That isn’t something I see every day, at least since college. The museum is 9E which is way high, sorry couldn’t resist, for the experience.

Amstelkring Museum/Our Lord in the Attic
We were at a café nearby and we saw this museum and since it took the I Amsterdam Card we popped in and it was a good way to spend a half hour. You got to see a restored 17th century canal house and a Catholic church that was built in the 1600s (when the city became Protestant) in the attic of the canal house, thus “Our Lord in the Attic” church.


Transportation

I had planned for us to use the trams and buses, a benefit of the I Amsterdam Card, to get around because although it a very walkable city there was a lot of ground to cover between our hotel and the various sights we planned to see. My husband is not a mass transit kind of guy, so when he saw scooters for rent sitting outside our hotel, he asked about renting them for the day and the desk clerk suggested we go to Gilex Motors down the street and rent from them, since it was cheaper and they had more of a selection. So that is what we did. We rented a scooter for 2 days for 80E, as did our friends. We enjoyed having our scooters to hop on and we found it fairly easy to get around and it was fun to do so. Of course having sunny, clear weather helped in that regard.


Restaurants

One of the reasons we travel is to eat. We love eating at nice restaurants, hole-in-the-wall places, and from street vendors. We did all three in Amsterdam. We tried the French, excuse me, Belgian fries at both Manneken Pis near Central Station and Chipsey King near Dam Square and thought they were equally good, no preference. We ate hot dogs, “Real American” ones according to the sign from a street vendor near the Van Gogh Museum and we ate at three very good restaurants:

Envy Restaurant
I had read about Envy Restaurant, “Mediterranean tapas, in a casual atmosphere” in the Zagat Guide amongst other places. I made reservations early for 7pm figuring we’d be tired and might only want a small bite before heading to bed. We all said that was exactly what we wanted, but when we got there the food was so good, we ate large. We sat at a table outside, - in Amsterdam, next to a canal- how could it get any better. (In the Eiffel Tower, perhaps? But, that came later in the trip.)

We started with a platter of Dutch cheeses and a platter of salame ventricina, prosciutto di parma, mortadella, and jamon iberico, served with warm, rustic bread and a couple of different dipping sauces and an olive spread. It was so good we moved on to risotto, tuna, crayfish, and halibut, accompanied by a bottle of Brunello.

Nevy Restaurant
We probably would not have gone here if we did not have the scooters we rented. It is off the beaten path, back behind the Central Train Station. It is on the water and we thought it would be a good lunch spot to go chill for a bit. It was and we did, drinking a bottle of chardonnay and eating some Dutch dim sum (shrimp dumplings and tuna croquettes).


Bordewijk Restaurant
I selected this restaurant to be our fine dining experience in Amsterdam, since it is suppose to be one of the city’s best restaurants. It was good, with the “Death by Chocolate” being the most memorable to me. When I asked my husband what had been his favorite part of the meal, he couldn't remember the meal or the restaurant at all. Oh well. I think that is partly because we ate so many wonderful meals during our trip. But, he could remember Envy and what he ate there.


Next up, Bruges.

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