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BeNeFrance - A Detailed Journey from the North Sea to the Mediterranean


Oct 23rd, 2010, 05:32 AM
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BeNeFrance - A Detailed Journey from the North Sea to the Mediterranean

October 6 – 22, 2009

First of all, this is a year late, but I would like to thank the many members of the Fodor's Community who helped in the planning of our journey, particularly the Francophiles, whose advice was well heeded. It was their insistence about renting a car in Provence which really made our whole trip come together. Thank you to everyone for sharing your wisdom and insights. And now, I would like to share my journey with all of you.

BACKGROUND: After four years of dreaming and planning, my husband, B.J., our friend, Roger, and I embarked on a 17 day, 15 night journey from the North Sea (well, we really didn't get to the North Sea, but we were close) to the Mediterranean, riding the high speed rail lines, while chasing the ghost of van Gogh, and paying homage to the ancient art of plumbing… something for everyone on the trip.

B.J. and I have travelled several times to Europe, but this was Roger’s first trip, so we let him set the itinerary. His three requests were to, “visit a coffeeshop in Amsterdam, eat bouillabaisse in Marseille, and ride really fast trains.” That leaves a lot of real estate in between to be explored. What to choose from, where to go? This is the itinerary that we ended up with:

Day 1 – Tues, Travel Williamsport, PA to Philadelphia to Amsterdam
Day 2 – Wed, Amsterdam, Hotel Nadia
Day 3 – Thurs, Amsterdam, Hotel Nadia
Day 4 – Fri, Train to Antwerp, Hotel Postiljon
Day 5 – Sat, Train to Brussels, TGV to Avignon; pick up car, St. Remy, Hotel du Soleil
Day 6 – Sun, l’Isle-sur-la-Sorge, Gordes, the Luberon, St. Remy, Hotel du Soleil
Day 7 – Mon, Nimes, Pont du Gard, Uzes, St Remy, Hotel du Soleil
Day 8 – Tues, Les Baux, Millau Viaduct, St. Remy, Hotel du Soleil
Day 9 – Wed, St Remy, Arles, return car, Hotel Le Regence
Day 10 – Thurs, Train to Marseille; eat bouillabaisse, Hotel Kyriad Vieux Port
Day 11 – Fri, TGV to Paris, Hotel Tourisme
Day 12 – Sat, Paris, Hotel Tourisme
Day 13 – Sun, TGV to Strasbourg, TGV to Paris, Hotel Tourisme
Day 14 – Mon, Thalys to Amsterdam, Houseboat BK48
Day 15 – Tues, Amsterdam, Houseboat BK48
Day 16 – Wed, Amsterdam, Houseboat BK48
Day 17 – Travel Schiphol to Philadelphia


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Oct 23rd, 2010, 05:39 AM
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DAY 1 – Tuesday: TRAVEL

We usually fly out of JFK or Newark when we travel to Europe, but for this trip we found tickets from our regional airport in Williamsport, PA to Philadelphia to Schiphol, Amsterdam (and return) on US Airways for $542.13 (less $325.00 in Chase reward points = $217.13). So instead of a harrowing 3 ½ hour journey down Interstate 80 and around NYC to get to the airport, we enjoyed a 35 minute car ride through the countryside, having to pause along the way for a flock of wild turkeys to get off the road. It was definitely a less stressful start to our journey.

Our friend, Phyllis, dropped us at the Williamsport Lycoming County Airport in the morning, where we boarded a de Havilland Dash 8 for our 55 minute flight to Philadelphia, which I really enjoyed. We flew just east of our home town, over the mountain range with the large wind farm, past the Limerick power plant, and Valley Forge, and finally into Philadelphia. It was really cool to see these landmarks from a different perspective. We landed just after 1:00 pm.

After a five hour layover, and beer and sandwiches at Jack Duggans Restaurant in the Philadelphia Airport terminal, we started boarding our plane to Amsterdam. We flew a Boeing 757, with a 3 seat-aisle-3 seat configuration, the three of us sharing 3 seats together. The flight was only partially full, so we were able to spread out, with Roger getting his own set of 3 seats to stretch out on.

Then we had to wait for 20 planes stacked up in front of us before we could take off. We were finally in the air again around 7:00 pm. It was an uneventful flight, except for the guy in front of me who kept passing the smelliest gas. Dinner was chicken or pasta, beer and wine was available for an extra charge, as were the earphones for the movie and music. The blanket was a piece of polyester that wasn’t even worth removing from its plastic bag. (US Airways suck) Sleep was sporadic, usually interrupted by the pungent wafting air.

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Oct 23rd, 2010, 05:57 AM
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Oct 23rd, 2010, 07:30 AM
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Hi Robyn, I'm looking forward to this, even though it's a year late! Hope all is well with you and BJ!
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Oct 23rd, 2010, 09:37 AM
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DAY 2 – Wednesday: AMSTERDAM

It was 8:00 am and misting when we touched down at Schiphol, so our first view of the Netherlands was obscured by clouds. We quickly made our way through customs and baggage claim, tapped the money machine, and then stopped at the NS Railway counter to activate our rail pass (BeNeLux/France 5-day pass), and buy our train tickets into Amsterdam. We went down the escalator to the train platform where we boarded the next train to Centraal Station. Within 25 minutes we were schlepping our luggage onto tram #13, exiting at the Westermarkt, just down the road from the Hotel Nadia (Raadhuisstraat 51).

We rang the doorbell of the hotel, the door buzzed open, and there in front of us… was the steepest and tallest set of steps – 37, in fact, two flights, just to get to the reception area, with our luggage. Before we could begin hoisting our bags onto our bodies to make the climb, a kind voice instructed us to leave the luggage downstairs, and they would send someone to bring it up for us. So the first 37 steps weren’t really that bad, after all. After our ascent to the reception area, we were offered a complimentary drink (water, soda, juice, coffee or tea) as we processed the paperwork for our stay. Pretty soon a young man appeared at the top of the stairs, loaded to the hilt with most of our luggage. We felt humbled by his youth.

Since our rooms weren’t ready yet, we left our luggage in the care of the young man, while we traversed back down the 37 steps, and on to conquer Amsterdam. Our first stop would be on Roger’s to-do list, a visit to the BlueBird Coffeeshop (Sint Antoniesbreestraat 71), which was a brisk walk across town.

Since this was Roger’s first experience in a coffeeshop, we decided to let him make the selection from the menu. His eyes were wide as he read through the various names, such as Blue Cheese, White Widow, Northern Lights, G-13, Kali Mist, Laughing Buddha, etc.. Luckily, there were samples attached to the notebook-size menu so he could see what was being offered. He wanted to try a little of everything (of course), but settled for Lemon Haze and Zero-Zero hash. He made his purchase, and then we settled into some seats along the counter, and proceeded to get over our jet lag.

As we were enjoying our refreshments, I noticed a young woman and man come in and take a table near us. The woman was wearing a T-Shirt with Easton written on it, so I asked if she was from the home of Crayola Crayons. She was! Easton, Pennsylvania is not far from my home town. It sure is a small world!!

It was raining when we left the BlueBird, so we quickly scurried across town, and back to our hotel to pick up some rain gear. Back up the 37 steps to reception. Our room wasn’t ready yet, but we could go up and get our gear from our luggage. Go up?!? Yes, two more flights of stairs, another 36 steps, to room #412.

The room was typically small, with a double bed, but there was enough area to store our luggage and still have room for my husband to pace. There was a built-in counter desk with two chairs, and shelves which contained a television, mini-fridge, and a coffee/tea service. A closet at the other end of the room had a built-in safe. The bathroom was small, particularly the shower, but had the necessaries. The room was clean and nicely decorated. There were heavy black-out curtains on the windows which helped with the street light.

But the best part of the room was the little covered balcony off the front of the hotel, on the Raadhuisstraat, overlooking the Westerkerk and the Keizergracht, with an excellent view of the Homomonument. We had to climb through the window/door to reach the balcony, and it was large enough to accommodate three chairs (perfect, since there were three of us travelling together). We would spend a lot of enjoyable moments here, watching the city go by.

Back in the misting rain, we walked up the Kalverstraat to the Amsterdam Historical Museum (Kalverstraat 92 or NZ Voorburgwal 357, Museumkaart), where we purchased a National Museumkaart for Euro 39.95 each, and proceeded to tour through the museum. Several rooms into the tour we realized we were thirsty, and decided to leave to look for something to drink. Since we had the Museumkaart, we could return later and finish our visit.

By now it had stopped raining, so we wandered around, eventually making our way over to the Red Light District, so Roger could see some of the old architecture during the daylight (he works in construction). We ended up at the Amstelkring (OZ Voorburgwal 40, Museumkaart), which is a perfect example of a creative use of space. From the outside of the building you would never know that a three-story church was hidden in the attic of this canal house. More importantly, though, the Amstelkring is a lesson in Dutch tolerance. And oddly, for us, we had another “Small World”/”Twilight Zone” moment, chatting with the museum clerk. It turns out that his girlfriend is from…. Easton, PA… of all places!! What is it about today, with chicks from Easton?!?

It was now 14:00, and our rooms would be ready, so we headed back to the hotel and back up the 73 steps to Room 412. Roger had a single room just down the hallway from us, which was convenient. We were delighted when we opened the door and found a vase of fresh cut flowers brightening up our room on such a dreary, gray day in Amsterdam. The hospitality at the Hotel Nadia was first rate.

After a quick nap, a shower and some people watching from our balcony, we went out in quest of something to eat. This was our 6th time to Amsterdam (Roger’s first), and each time we visit we enjoy eating Chinese food at Nam Kee (Zeedijk 111-113). I usually order Teppen Noodles with Chicken and Vegetables, which is served sizzling on a hot plate. Tonight would be no different, except when my dinner was served, it wasn’t sizzling. There was no snapping & popping. In fact, it was kind of bland. It certainly wasn’t the same meal that I have enjoyed eating there on many occasions. We left Nam Kee, vowing never to return. We would have to find a new favorite Chinese place to eat in Amsterdam.

It was raining again after dinner, so we walked down the road, past the Nieuwmarkt and the Waag, to the BlueBird again, for some desert. It was too wet to enjoy walking around town at night, so we did a grocery supply run (beer, chips, snacks, etc) at the Albert Hein Market on the Waterlooplein, then caught tram #14 back to our hotel. This time, I was beginning to feel the burn in my legs from the 73-step climb. The three of us spent the rest of the evening, sheltered from the rain on our balcony, as we watched the traffic pass by on the road and the canal in front of us. The boats, the trams, the cars, the scooters, the bikes, the people. It was like a well choreographed dance.

We finally collapsed into bed from exhaustion around 22:00.

http://en.ahm.nl (AMS Historical Museum)
http://www.opsolder.nl (Amstelkring)

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Oct 23rd, 2010, 09:43 AM
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Oct 24th, 2010, 07:06 PM
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Hi yk - Thanks for the reply. Life has been so hectic since last October, but I'm finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Now let's see if I can get ths trip report done. I've always admired you for getting your reports done so quickly. I'm still reading your latest, with rk. I think I last left you somewhere around the Bodensee.

Hey Cath - More to come...

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Oct 24th, 2010, 07:24 PM
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DAY 3 – Thursday: AMSTERDAM

We were up and ready for breakfast by 8:30 am, which was located in the Breakfast Room on the reception level. It was nicely decorated, with a small outside terrace in the corner of the room, overlooking a great view of the Westerkerk and the Keizergracht. Breakfast consisted of cheese, breads, rolls, jams and spreads, coffee/tea, juice, yogurt.

We paid our hotel bill with cash (you get a 6% discount), and then headed out for a walkabout of the Jordaan area. We walked past the Anne Frank House, but didn’t go in because it’s not covered by the Museumkaart (we’ve been there several times previously). As we were wandering some of the side streets, we stumbled upon the Paradox coffeeshop, which was just opening for business, so we stopped inside for some quick refreshments. We then spent the rest of the morning just wandering around the streets and canals, enjoying the views, taking lots of pictures, and dodging fietsers.

By 11:45 we had made our way to the Café de Vergulde Gaper (Prinsenstraat 30) where we had a noon GTG planned with hetismij, and DeborahAnn and her husband, Ron. The café was virtually empty, so we were able to grab a large table at the back of the restaurant. Pretty soon, the rest of the group arrived, and we spent the next 2 ½ hours meeting new friends, laughing and sharing travel stories, while enjoying a nice lunch and libations.

By 14:30 we were parting ways, with DeborahAnn and Ron heading off to Haarlem, hetismij returning to her home in the Netherlands, and the three of us heading back to our hotel, with a quick stop at the Grey Area coffeeshop along the way.

After a short respite at the hotel, we took the tram to the Leidseplein and Boom Chicago, to book a boat tour with the St. Nicolas Boat Club, only to find out the tours have been shut down for legal reasons. Darn! We were all looking forward to a boat ride when we return to Amsterdam in 11 days. Not to waste the trip to the Leidseplein, we each bought a beer and found a seat at an outdoor table, and just soaked up the atmosphere of the city.

Afterwards, we walked up and down the streets around the Leidseplein, checking out the many different types of restaurants. Since it was too early to consider eating dinner, we popped into the Rokerij coffeeshop, only to find it buzzing with activity. There was a camera crew set up inside, filming a young woman. Everyone was speaking Dutch, so we never did find out what exactly was going on.

We proceeded with our walkabout through the Bloemenmarkt to the Muntplein, past the Rembrandtplein and over to the Seven Bridges. Since we were in Amsterdam on a Thursday evening we had to participate in the weekly residential event of strolling down the Kalverstraat, window shopping and people watching. I was surprised how crowded it was, for October, but then this was one of the first days that it hadn’t rained in Amsterdam for a week.

We ended back at our hotel where we rested and re-grouped before heading out to dinner. Earlier in the day, we had passed a restaurant on the Leidseplein that was offering all-you-can-eat-ribs and frites, which had caught the guys’ eyes, so back on the tram we went in search of this particular restaurant, which turned out to be the Sportscafe B.V. It wouldn’t have been my first choice of places to eat, but we were here, and we were hungry, and by now I had ribs on the brain. As it turned out, the food wasn’t that bad, there was plenty of it, and we all walked out of the restaurant feeling pretty sated.

After dinner, and a quick stop at the Dolphins coffeeshop, we strolled down the Keizergracht, admiring the wonderful old architecture and the lights of Amsterdam. We arrived back at our hotel, where we finally fell into bed after 23:00, exhausted after another wonderful day in Amsterdam.


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Oct 25th, 2010, 12:37 AM
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Hi Robyn - I'm enjoying your report sp far and looking forward to hearing how the rest of your trip went.
It was good meeting up with you all.

A couple of days after we were at the Vergulde Gaper The Boss was there, at our table, enjoying a quiet drink with just his manager. No bodyguards. Until some spotty youth recognised him that is. Apparently he was very generous and happy to have a couple of photos taken, but asked spotty youth to stop telling all his friends he was there, as he wanted some down time.
Spotty youth thankfully agreed, and left him in peace. The photos and story of the encounter were on a TV programme later in the year.
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Oct 25th, 2010, 02:06 AM
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Good report -- hurry up! ;-)
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Oct 25th, 2010, 12:40 PM
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Hi Robyn,

I'm still enjoying this. Originally, DH & I were thinking of visiting Amsterdam this Fall. However, we have to put that on hold as I wasn't able to find acceptable airfares. So, in a sense, I'm "visiting" Amsterdam through your trip report.

I'm sorry to hear Nam Kee was no good anymore. I had a pretty decent bowl of noodle soup there in the past.
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Oct 25th, 2010, 03:00 PM
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Arrrggh! Gasman on the plane-maybe he was trying for a move up. If there were enough complaints, it might have worked.

After all the steps in your Amsterdam hotel, a boat sounds pretty good.

Keep it coming, please!
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Oct 25th, 2010, 06:41 PM
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DAY 4 – Friday: ANTWERP… and AMSTERDAM, again (huh?)

We were up early, had breakfast, and packed for our travel day south to Antwerp, Belgium. We really enjoyed our stay at the Nadia, and left there, hoping to return again in the future (watch out what you wish for).

By 9:00 am we were settled into our seats on the train and heading across the Dutch countryside, towards Belgium. Although it wasn’t a high-speed train, Roger was thrilled to be riding the rails. We were all thrilled, just to be on vacation in Europe! However, about an hour into the two hour trip we had an “OH SH*T!!!” moment. Roger realized that his passport pouch, containing his passport, extra credit card, driver’s license, and some money, was still in the room safe at the Hotel Nadia!!!

Luckily, Roger was carrying a cell phone, so he immediately called the Nadia so they could retrieve the pouch and contents from the room safe. They offered to have it expressed to us, but that wasn’t going to work. It was Friday, the beginning of the weekend, and we needed Rogers “papers” so we could rent a car tomorrow to get us to our hotel in Provence. We needed to retrieve the passport pouch today! After discussing several options, we decided to proceed on to Antwerp, where we could check the train schedules back to Amsterdam. Luckily, we were travelling with a Eurail pass, so it wouldn’t cost any additional money to return to Amsterdam, then back to Antwerp, again. The only stipulation was we had to all travel the journey again, together.

By 11:00 am we were arriving at the most splendid Antwerpen Centraal train station. B.J. & I have travelled through many train stations in Europe, and we both think that the Antwerp station has got to be the most magnificent one that we’ve had the pleasure to visit. It certainly is an architectural masterpiece. We checked the train schedules and confirmed that we could spend the afternoon in Antwerp visiting the museums, and then head back to Amsterdam to grab the passport. Instead of enjoying good Belgian beer in an old bar, we would spend the evening on the train.

We figured out the tram system in Antwerp (after having to get off because we were heading in the wrong direction), and arrived at the Melkmarkt. From there it was an easy walk to the Hotel Postiljon (walk towards the church tower), where we checked into Room #11. It was a nice room with a sink and shower ensuite, and a shared toilet down the hall. This was our first time booking a room with a shared toilet, so it would be interesting to see how our middle-of-the-night pee breaks would go. The hotel sits right across the street from the Liebfrauenkathedrale, so after freshening up a bit we walked across the road to check out the Peter Paul Rubens paintings.

Peter Paul Rubens has a very special place in my heart and history, as it was his art that I was first introduced to as a child of 6-8 years old. I was particularly drawn to his paintings of Rubenesque women, because they looked like my mom. He helped me to see the beauty of my rotund mother, instead of being embarrassed by her weight. So it was important for me to pay homage to Mr. Rubens.

The Kathedrale had a special exhibition mounted, REUNION - From Quinten Metsijs to Peter Paul Rubens: Masterpieces from the Royal Museum Reunited in the Cathedral. We spent about an hour viewing the wonderful paintings, and taking in the majesty of the building.

Afterwards, we strolled through the Grote Markt, checking out the Brabofontein and admiring the Stadhuis with the many colored flags flapping in the wind. We walked through the historic Vlaeykensgang, which is just off the Oude Koornmarkt, and ended up on the Groenplaats. We grabbed some lunch from a Belgian equivalent of a Subway sandwich shop, the Delifrance, and sat outside on the plaza while watching the pedestrians shuffling about.

We finally made our way to the Rubenshuis. I was surprised at the largeness of his house. He certainly was not a “starving artist”. In fact, he was quite wealthy, which is reflected in his living quarters, studio and gardens. We enjoyed the tour of the house, and B.J. was thrilled that the guard let him ring the ancient door bell on the front of the house (literally, a bell that rings).

Since our ticket to the Rubenshuis also included entrance to the Museum Mayer van den Bergh, we quickly scooted over there, primarily to see “Mad Meg” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Frietkotmuseum (French Fry Museum) which was a poor excuse for a glorified French fry stand. The woman behind the counter was quite mean, yelling at the customer in front of us because the customer put sweet & sour sauce on some chicken nuggets. Apparently you have to pay extra for the sauces, including ketchup, although I didn’t really observe any signs saying so. The counter person was just rude, and kind of made us nervous to deal with her. It was like an episode of Seinfeld, only it was the French Fry Nazi… “No sauce for you!”

We picked up our heavier coats from the hotel, jumped on the tram for the train station, where we checked the train schedules once again. We were back on the rails by 18:00, headed north to Amsterdam. Upon arrival back in town, we quickly made our way to the Hotel Nadia, where Roger retrieved his passport pouch, with contents intact. Everything was going according to plan; so much so, that we even had enough time for a quick visit at the Grasshopper coffeeshop (WARNING: total rip-off, do NOT visit) before catching the 21:54 back to Antwerp, the last train of the evening.

We arrived back at Amsterdam Centraal Station (déjà vu), with 20 minutes to spare. We checked the departure board in the main hall, but couldn’t find the 21:54 to Antwerp listed anywhere. Now that's odd! So we walked down to track 13-A, where the train was supposed to depart from, but again, we couldn’t find any train to Antwerp! Okay, what the h*ll is going on?!?! That's when we noticed a train on track 14 which was going to den Haag, so we jumped on that, thinking it would at least get us further south, and maybe we could catch a train to Antwerp from there. Or should we?? On second thought, maybe it would be better to be stuck in Amsterdam than den Haag, so off the train we jumped, just in the nick of time.

Okay, where did we go wrong?? To try to figure out what happened, we looked on the boards with the International train schedules, which are posted in various places throughout the station. It was then I realized that the little letters, Ma – Di – Wo – Do – Vr, under the train schedule were the days of the week in Dutch, and, worse yet, there was no Vr under the 21:54. And since it's Friday, that means there is no 21:54 back to Antwerp! The last train leaving was at 20:54!!! We are now officially stuck in Amsterdam. We checked with the Information Lady at the station and she confirmed what we had figured out. Apparently, they close the tracks earlier on a Friday evening to allow cargo trains to run the route. She also told us the first train out in the morning would be at 5:54am.

Now here’s our dilemma: Other than being stuck in Amsterdam, with no hotel, no luggage, not even a comb between the three of us, tomorrow morning we need to be on the 9:03 leaving from Antwerp to Brussels, where we catch our reserved TGV train to Avignon, then we pick up our reserved rental car to drive to our hotel in St. Remy. Of course, we have to stop in Antwerp first, to pick up our luggage, which is now sitting lonely in our paid for, but unused hotel room. Yes! I think we can pull it off. We’re going to have to.

Now, where to stay!? Hang out in the train station for the night? I don’t think so! Since Roger already had the Hotel Nadia’s phone number on his cell phone, we dialed them up and explained our situation. Lucky for us, they could offer us a triple room (on a Friday!) for the night, so back to the Nadia we went. Little did we realize when we left this morning, and talked about one day returning to the hotel, it would happen so soon!

Even though it was close to 23:00 by the time we got to the hotel, we were graciously greeted by Osam, the manager. They put us in a triple on the first floor (yeah! Only 17 steps.) When the staff delivered a fresh bouquet of colorful flowers, it made the room feel so comfortable and warm, and really helped to drain a lot of the stress out of me, kind of like I was home again, safe and sound.

I sent the boys back to the train station to double-check the train schedule for tomorrow morning (and make sure there’s no important abbreviations we should be looking for), and to hunt down something for dinner. They returned with some unappetizing pre-packaged sandwiches from Albert Hein, and a couple of bottles of beer. Not quite the Belgian evening we had been looking forward to. In fact, we didn’t even have Belgian beer! But it had been quite the adventure, and we were safe and warm, and asleep by midnight. Now let’s see if we can pull off this crazy schedule tomorrow….


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Oct 25th, 2010, 08:22 PM
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Oh Robyn, you stoners get in so much trouble. (Kidding, kidding!) I am enjoying your report and wish you had done it before I visited Amsterdam last June...

I love Rubens too and what you said about your mother choked me up a bit.

Can't wait to read more. And very much hoping there will be a photo link at some point.
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Oct 26th, 2010, 12:44 AM
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I love your report! I could feel my stomach churn when I read your discovery of the missing passport! Oh S**T moment for sure! Maybe even an Oh f**** moment....
Please continue with your alarming adventure!!
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Oct 26th, 2010, 01:22 AM
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Excitement! Dilemmas! Surprises!
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Oct 26th, 2010, 04:57 AM
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Thanks, everyone, for reading along. I promise, there's more to come. It just might be slow going though, what with life getting in the way of living (weekends are good for writing, workdays suck).

Leely2 - This was actually our first trip with a digital camera (I don't know why I waited so long!) so I would love to share my photos. I'm just not sure how to go about doing it; which online program to use. Any suggestions?

Stay tuned everyone...

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Oct 26th, 2010, 04:58 AM
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Those Alice B. Toklas brownies do wonders for your memory! Just kidding, been there, done that. Maybe that explains a few things.

Really enjoying your trip report, warts and all.
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Oct 26th, 2010, 05:04 AM
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Great story! Please continue with your advedntures!
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Oct 26th, 2010, 11:29 AM
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Oh my! Not the kind of "adventure" I'd like on my trips!
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