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Trip Report: Amsterdam and Antwerp, May-June 2014


Aug 5th, 2014, 06:32 PM
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Trip Report: Amsterdam and Antwerp, May-June 2014

This year we decided to change our travel pattern, so that instead of touring with a few days in a major city, we spent two weeks in Amsterdam with side trips to various Dutch towns and one week in Arles before going to our usual stay in the Dordogne. We stopped for two nights in Antwerp on the way from Amsterdam to Arles. We consider it a transition period because it is our last year with an extended stay in our house in the Dordogne. We will no longer have a familiar anchor that we previously had during our European sojourns.

Our rentals were as follows: one week in a Airbnb room (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/804019?s=HTdS ) in the Jordaan section of Amsterdam, one week HomeAway apartment rental (http://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p945023 880€) on a house boat in North Amsterdam, 2 Airbnb nights in Antwerp and 1 week Airbnb apartment rental in Arles. None of the accommodations were perfect, but all were very acceptable. Our stay in the Provence will be in another trip report.

We left SF on May 15, flew to NYC and spent a few days with family and yook a one day excursion to see the Philip Johnson Glass House (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca...57646072757273 ), and then took Aer Lingus to Amsterdam via Dublin. The return was from CDG to JFK via Dublin, and then NYC to SF a couple days later to end our trip on July 15. The total cost of the flights per person was about $1200 (I give prices whenever possible because terms like “cheap” and “affordable” are too dependent on an individual’s point of view).

We arrived at the Amsterdam airport and immediately purchased a anonymous OV Chipkaart to use on public transportation. Here’s my take on the card: Unless one has a Dutch or German bank account, the individual chip card is not an option. I tried to arrange one by using my German cousin’s bank account, but it simply was too complicated. I have been told that even the Dutch find the card unnecessarily complicated and problematic. The anonymous chip card can be used by anyone. It must be purchased for 7€ plus a base amount for the actual usage. To use it for train travel, it must have a minimum of 20€ available when purchasing a train ticket. It therefore cannot be used for the last train ride to Schiphol or out of the Netherlands without losing the remainder of what is on the card with a base of 20€ to purchase that last ticket. My recommendation is to have the 20€ added to the card to go from Schiphol to Amsterdam (or wherever one goes from the airport by train) but then to refrain from using it except for urban public transportation. Even so, one must be careful when leaving the Amsterdam train station. I was warned that I had to use the card upon exiting and that any reader would do…Wrong!!! the readers on the Amsterdam central station platforms are for international trains and the check-in check-out location for Netherlands travel are at turnstiles (always open) at the entrances of the station itself. I made that mistake and discovered the next day that we had only 4€ left on the card when we should have had more than 20€ on each card and with the help of our friend who resides in Holland we tried unsuccessfully to get a reimbursement into his account.

The chip card is useful for urban transportation. It is generally cheaper than the standard fixed fare (the fare on the card is by distance) and more convenient; for example, we went to Utrecht to see the Rietveld Schröder house and just hopped on the bus using our card to get within walking distance of the house. There is an office next to the main tourist office in Amsterdam where money can be added to the card for a .50€ fee. In the train station there are free standing booths where on can add to the card without the fee. Given the price of the card itself the card might not be worthwhile if one stays just a few days in the Netherlands, but since we were there for two weeks, it was worth the original purchase price. I left our two cards with just a few cents value on them on the table of our last rental, hoping that the host would have the sense of giving it to the next renters with an explanation of how it works.

Our first rental was the Airbnb room. The host was very friendly, even insisted on doing our laundry so that we did not have to wait around for the machine to do its job and then hang the clothes on a rack. The room was large and we shared a new bathroom with a nice roomy shower with the host—this did not present any problems. His bedroom was on our floor and his living area (open kitchen, dining area, living room and laundry room) comprised the entire floor above us. He was in the process of redoing his part of the building (there were two more floors above and a unit on the ground floor), and our room might have been recently finished, as it still had some leftover floor boards tucked behind the wall radiators. But the room had no storage space for our clothes (the armoire was full), and we lived out of our suitcases. We had a small refrigerator and a coffee machine and toaster oven in the room, but we preferred to have coffee in a coffee shop and pick up a croissant in one of the many stores selling them—on the whole the croissants were better than in France. Our location was a couple blocks from the Haarlemmerstraat which has many restaurants and coffee shops and a couple of supermarkets.

A word about credit and debit (ATM) cards—a repeat from a previous posting:

It was rumored (here on Fodor’s) that local establishments other than international hotels and such no longer accept U.S. cards which lack the chip and pin number. We had no problems with either non-chip card except for purchasing a ticket at the Centraal Station in Amsterdam through a ticket agent. They are not allowed to accept non-chip credit cards, although the agent offered to do it for us anyway. This is not a universal policy as we were able to purchase train tickets in Enkhuizen with our credit card—but this was at the tourist office next to the train station; there was no agent at the station. We ran into three no cash coffee shops that accepted our credit card to pay for the coffee. The self-serve ticket machines at the train station accepted our debit cards, but I had to regularly try two or three times before the card was accepted; and then I entered my pin number to complete the transaction. I did warn my American bank that I would be abroad.

In Amsterdam we visited the high tourist places with the exception of the Anne Frank house. But we did visit the Dutch Resistance Museum (http://www.verzetsmuseum.org/museum/...torinformation ) because we happened to fall upon it—my wife wanted to see the Plantage area which was not what she expected. The museum probably gives a better overview of the occupation of the Netherlands than the Anne Frank house, and it is completely uncrowded—a handful of visitors while we were there.

We visited the big three: Rijksmuseum ( https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en ), Stedelijk (http://www.stedelijk.nl/en ) and Van Gogh museum (http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm/inde...ge=101&lang=en ). The Stedelijk was disappointing because it was missing a whole period of 20th cent. paintings. They exist in the on-line collection but the museum is more oriented toward special exhibits. We had gotten a taste of that art (approximately 1910 to 1940) in the Kröller-Müller museum in Otterlo and had wanted to see more of it. I am also not crazy about the “bathtub” addition to the museum which does not enhance the overall view of the museum from the outside. The Rijksmuseum is a national museum in the sense that the bulk of its collection is Dutch (that’s my impression). In that regard, it is not comparable to museums like the Louvre, the New York Met or the Chicago Art Institute. But it’s a must for its Dutch masters, and the galleries outside the main hall leading to Rembrandt’s Night Watch are relatively uncrowded. The Van Gogh museum is unfortunately very crowded. It is difficult to consider the paintings in a contemplative manner, but I’m glad we saw it. Vondelpark (http://www.amsterdam.info/parks/vondelpark/ ) is close enough to provide a nice break from the museum shuffle. The Concertgebouw at the end of the Museumplein has a nice café which was not crowded.

Other lesser venues we visited were the Amsterdam Museum (http://www.amsterdammuseum.nl/en/node/43 ) which we found too busy in its interactive mode, and a couple of mansions: http://www.museumvanloon.nl/eng/home.php and http://www.willetholthuysen.nl/en/node/43. Both mansions were interesting although I preferred the Willet-Holthuysen. We also visited the Rembrandt house which we found most interesting for its special exhibit of Livio Ceschin etchings (http://www.livioceschin.it/Home_eng.html ).

We walked around a lot in Amsterdam. My cousin had a German guidebook that gave three specific walks. One was courtyards of the Jordaan district, another of the western docks and the third of the eastern dock area. The first walk was within the traditional tourist area. The book gave specific addresses where courtyards were accessible (we skipped the Beginjhof that we had visited before his arrival), interesting and quiet enclaves in an otherwise lively area, particularly along the main canals (Prinsengracht, Kaizersgracht and Herrengracht). The western dock area is a mix of old and new and the eastern dock area is brand new. All the buildings are modern in the eastern dock area, some single family row houses, others apartments, an interesting modern urban area, but not attractive to those who seek historical Amsterdam.

After a week in the Airbnb room we moved to a houseboat to share an apartment with my cousins. It required a deposit which I sent via xe.com, with some difficulty which turned out for the best because the constant upgrade of information verified the legitimacy of the host who is working for or is associated with a larger agency. Being in Amsterdam we were able to withdraw money over a period of days to pay the rest of the rental upon our arrival. There was nothing romantic or picturesque about the venue. The boat was a concrete bathtub with two apartments permanently anchored to its location. Ours was the less fancy one with two bedrooms upstairs and the common room (living, dining,kitchen) downstairs so that its windows were just a couple feet from the water level. It is located in the Zaandam district, a 15 minute walk from the 24 hour ferry (every six minutes during the day, and every 12 during the night) that landed behind the Centraal Station. It that respect it was well located. Every day we walked either through the Centraal Station or caught a train to wherever we wanted to go outside Amsterdam. A ten minute walk in the other direction took us to a super market in front of which there was a street food market two or three times a week. A laundromat was also near-by, with an attendant who did the laundry for us at self-serve prices. The outdoor market had predominantly foreign vendors for fruits and vegetables, and the Mediterranean produce (eggplant, zucchini, etc.) was cheaper than what we found subsequently in the Provence. Some Dutch vendors sold cheese and smoked fish. It was a nice change to be able to do our own cooking.

These are the pictures of Amsterdam.
If this does not work, eliminate “/show” from the URL

We took a few excursions outside Amsterdam. On our second day in Amsterdam we went to Otterlo. A friend of ours who now resides in the Netherlands met us at the Hilversum train station and we spent the day with him going to Otterlo to visit the Kröller-Müller museum and then back to Hilversum for the evening meal. The Kröller-Müller’s core are the rooms containing Van Gogh paintings presented in historical sequence. I was taken with his portraits from the potato eater period which were less cartoonish than the painting itself, and especially with a portrait from the Arles period that I had not known at all. It also has a selection of paintings from the early 20th century that piqued our interest, leading to subsequent futile searches for more paintings of that period. We had a brief look at the sculpture garden we we saw our first Rietveld structure. In Hilversum we went to our friend’s condo which was carved out of a late 19th-early 20th cent. mansion which kept its English style garden. We would have been jealous except for the fact that living at the edge of a relatively small town is not our style. For dinner we went to an Indonesian restaurant in Hilversum, and rather than having a rijstafel from the steam table, the four of us ordered individual dishes that all came with different vegetable side dishes. In essence we had the rijstafel made to order. We later ate Indonesian food in Amsterdam that simply did not match that meal.

Our next excursion was to Utrecht to see the Rietveld Schröder house. It’s a must for anyone interested in modern architecture, pictures are not sufficient. Guided tours only, for a limited number of persons, so reservations are necessary. We arrived for our 11 o’clock tour and were the only ones there. Another couple joined us, which shows that reservations are not absolutely essential but I would not want to take the chance if coming from Amsterdam. It’s a 15 minute walk from the bus stop, so one should be generous with the timing even if the train rides takes only 25 minutes. From there we walked to the Utrecht museum, stopping for a picnic lunch in a nearby park and passing by another Rietveld house (an expanded garage). The museum is almost as interesting in the way it combined old and new structures than for its collection. But if in Utrecht, do not hesitate to see it.

We took an excursion to Enkhuizen (the only time our tickets were checked on the train—in both directions) to visit the town and its open air museum. We spent so much time there that we had little time to see the Zuiderzee museum included in the ticket price. There is little food available in the outdoor museum, but we had purchased picnic items in town and ate by the harbor before going to the museum. There was a stand selling freshly smoked herring—but the herring is not fresh. It was explained to us that Dutch law requires all herring to be flash frozen to kill any potential parasites they might harbor. Therefore the freshly smoked herring might be last year’s harvest or this year’s (it was herring season), the seller did not know. Enkhuizen is definitely worth a visit for this museum and to see all the old coastal haulers which are now used as charter boats.

Haarlem was disappointing. There is nothing wrong with the town, and it is a nice change from Amsterdam; but one of the main reasons for going there was this chase after 1900-1940 art. According to Fodor’s (2013 edition), one Haarlem’s top attractions is De Hollen which has “an extensive collection of Dutch Impressionists and Expressionists, including …” (p.258). This part of the collection is now in storage as the museum has converted itself into a special exhibit gallery. If it does not have an exhibit on Expressionism, the items stay in storage. We had a nice picnic along a canal, watching the boats go by, and then visited the Frans Hals museum, which does not contain major works of Frans Hals; it is more a museum of 17th art and decorative arts in Haarlem.

Our only stop between Amsterdam and Antwerp was the train station in Rotterdam for a transfer from one train to the other.

These are the pictures of the Netherlands outside Amsterdam:
If this does not work, eliminate “/show” from the URL.

We did not always eat well in Amsterdam, and sometimes correctly but too expensive for what it was. But here are some of the restaurants for which I have the bill because we paid with a credit card. The prices are all in euros.

Bistrot Neuf, Haarlemmerstraat 9, 1013 EH Amsterdam, Netherlands
Good food,, although my wife thinks she mis-ordered with the lamb, good service.
We did not have reservations. Here’s what we ate and drank:
1 Menetou-Salon 8.75
1 Lindes de Remelluri 8.50
1 Bouillabaisse 11.00 (declared excellent even if not Marseille style)
1 steak tartare huitre pauze 15.00 (raw oyster in the tartare—interesting)
1 Agneau de lait 25.50
1 turbotine 25.50 (a whole pan fired fish)
1 tarte au rhubarbe 8.00
total 102.25

Caffè Restaurant Toscanini, Lindengracht 75, 1015 KD Amsterdam, Netherlands
reservations essential, and we were switched without warning to a later hour.
Good food, but service was not great—wrong order and another never came on time.
1 Polo all brace 15
Fettucine gricia 15
Corvina all brace 23
Finanziera 22
1 complementary Torta ricotta (for delayed service)
4 glasses of wine 15.20
total 90.00

Eetcafe Roserijn, Haarlemmerdijk 52, 1013 JE Amsterdam, Netherlands
1 Wine glass 3.75
1 vegetarian plate 13.95
1 liver plate 15.95
total 33.65
These are single (generous) plate meals. Simple. basic (traditional Dutch?) food. The clientele appeared to be tourists and older Dutch persons. The two previous listings had a younger and more affluent clientele.

Proeverij 274, Prinsengracht 274
the food was good but expensive for what it was, service was good—Bistrot Neuf was more interesting.
1 rood divers 10.50 (don’t remember what it was)
1 glass of house wine 4.95
1 chef’s menu 45.50
1 pea soup 14.50
1 pot stickers 24.50
total 99.95

Café Restaurant Mamouche, Quellijnstraat 104, 1072 XZ Amsterdam, Netherlands
excellent service & food.
2 glasses Grüner Veltliner 12
1 cuvée première glass 5.80
Total 94.80

We also had lunch in Bazar, Albert Cuypstraat 182, 1073 BL Amsterdam, Netherlands, and The Seafood Bar  Van Baerlestraat 5, 1071 AL Amsterdam, Netherlands, both of which were very good. One Indian restaurant was forgettable and had unfriendly service—no tap water available, it’s not drinkable (Mamouche has the same no tap water policy). We also had dinner at Café Kadjik, Kadijksplein 5, 1018 AB Amsterdam, Netherlands, which is out of the way from most tourist locations. The food was good, but did not match the Indonesian food we had in Hilversum. The Trip Advisor positive reviews are somewhat over the top. My two favorites were Bistrot Neuf and Café Restaurant Mamouche.

1967 was the last time we were in Antwerp to deliver a car for overseas shipment. I have little recollection of it—an image of a Flemish central square and a hotel keeper who asked us if we were married, the only time that happened in the ten weeks of travel. I lied.

I decided that it would make sense to stop by Antwerp on our way to France and asked friends who lived in Brussels for a few years if they had any recommendations. The waterfront, they said. So we decided to stay there two nights, and reserved an airbnb studio apartment (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/230492?s=kbQe - the twin of our lodging. $173) for that time. The apartment was fine, although the kitchen area was very limited and the apartment as a whole was decorated in a neo-colonial style with dark walls and low lighting—it was on the dark side and a change of the IKEAesque furnishings of the other locations, which was not a problem since we stayed there only to sleep. The bathroom was new, but the paint job and low lighting made it look old. The apartment was located between the train station and the old center of town, closer to the center than the train station, and in that was ideally located.

It turns out that the people who purchased our house in the Dordogne live close to Antwerp and they had expressed a desire to meet us, so we arranged to meet while we were staying in Antwerp.

Antwerp did not overwhelm us. Its traditional architecture is similar to the Netherlands’ and therefore did not offer the same sense of discovery even though the main market square is quite impressive. The waterfront that we saw was in need of restoration and general improvements. We walked long it to the Maritime Museum, a Rem Kolhaas building, but did not have the time to visit the museum itself. On the way back to the center of town, we stumbled upon Antwerp’s red light district, a single street with storefronts where prostitutes sit in their lingerie. and louche looking men loiter in the street. That evening we decided on moules-frites, presumably the national dish of Belgium, which should not be very expensive. All the restaurants near the central market square offered them for about the same price 22€ for a pot of plain mussels and fries, neither of which were particularly good—I’ve had better in the Dordogne for 9€.

The weather was not great while in Antwerp, rain on and off, sometimes quite hard. This may have influenced our impression of the town. On our full day in the city we visited the Rubens house which offers a view of a very successful 17th cent. painter and what he could afford as a house (fancier than Rembrandt’s). We had lunch in the restaurant next door, which was one of these expensive for what it was museum restaurants—33€ for a bottle of water and two plates.

We then went to see the Uncannily real. Magic realism and new objectivity in the Koningin Fabiolazaal, Jezusstraat 28, 2000 Antwerp where we finally saw what we had been seeking in the Netherlands. The exhibit was well organized, with films of the period reflecting the milieu in which the artists operated—one was a long documentary on the 1934 (?) general strike which I would have liked to see in its entirety. From there we visited another 17th century mansion whose interiors did not impress me—I took no photographs, or if not allowed, have no recollection of the interior—but it had a nice garden. We then met our buyers at a recommended café.

For dinner we went back toward the Maritime Museum. We had seen the menu of a French restaurant that looked interesting: Restaurant Marcel, Van Schoonbekeplein 13, 2000 Antwerpen, Belgium. It turned out to be less than what we read. Well prepared, within the same price range as others of that category and I remember the amuse as being promising , but the menu Marcel was not memorable and it charged .50€ for half a liter of tap water. With a 35€ menu, two glasses of wine, the water and one dessert we paid 90.50€. In terms of dress it was one of the more upscale restaurants we ate in; I had the impression that it is a businessman’s place.

The next morning we left for Brussels where we caught the TGV for Marseille and on to Arles. The French part of our trip will be in another trip report.

Here are the Antwerp pictures: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca...055169772/show
Michael is offline  
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Aug 5th, 2014, 06:43 PM
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Congratulations on having the courage to try the anonymous OV chipkaarte. I looked at it and realized that even if one avoids using it for trains (which you would not have wanted to do given your desire to travel outside of Amsterdam), one still has to carry a minimum 4 - 5 euro balance on it (which one could use up on the bus back to the airport I suppose.) Along with the nonrefundable 7 euro deposit and all the headaches of properly topping it up, I gave up. Just as well, we walked more than I thought we would. But our stay was much shorter than yours.

Your food price analysis tells me we were wise to do self-catering in our apartment. Aye karumba!

Thanks for such a detailed report.
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Aug 5th, 2014, 08:08 PM
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I still would get the OV Chipkaart if staying in Amsterdam for a week or more. 3 tram rides will take care of the 5 euro minimum for a recharge.
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Aug 6th, 2014, 09:19 AM
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You must never eat mussels outside the mussel season. In Antwerp you probably had Canadian mussels, which are in no way comparable to 'Zeeuwse mosselen' (mussels from Zeeland, Holland). The season starts in July with 'hanging culture' mussels. It's only in August that we have the *real* 'bottom culture' mussels. They can easily compete with French mussels (although I must admit that my preference goes to the small moules de Bouchot).
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Aug 6th, 2014, 02:26 PM
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You must never eat mussels outside the mussel season

Why not? Léon de Bruxelles in Paris is open all year (http://www.leon-de-bruxelles.fr/la-c...z-la-carte.php ).

I thought that traditional bi-valve season was in the months with "R"--which certainly still applies to wild mussels in California, along with a check with the public health authorities before picking them whatever the season--but I've had excellent oysters in the summer in Scotland and in Arcachon, and good mussels elsewhere while traveling in France (usually May-June). Connoisseurs may scoff at that idea, but good mussels can be had in almost any season, except where we ate in Antwerp.
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Aug 6th, 2014, 02:59 PM
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Most Locals don't eat mussels outside of season. In season, from July until April they come from Zeeland in the Netherlands. I'm sure some restaurants serve mussels all year round, as it is what tourists expect.
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Aug 7th, 2014, 05:20 AM
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Myriam: You are a great Belgium commentator, but I have some points to add.

First off: Canadian mussels are not inferior to Zeeland mussels. Please beware of yet another "anything in Europe is better than the equivalent from North America" myth. Our shellfish export business flourishes because it's well monitored and regulated. European importers should be cut some credit, as well - they don't buy inferior products as a rule, and as always, the EU - a very, very regulated space - carefully monitors imports. Especially shellfish- waaaay too risky not to do otherwise. How the restauranteur (retail) handles them after purchase is another story. Good product can be degraded by bad handling.

Second: the Netherlands (and Belgium) are intensely farmed countries. Point being, that agricultural runoff can wreck havoc on a fishery. The pollution problems related to intense farming practices are recognized


but it's a tough nut to crack, especially when a country needs to keep its trade in balance, and especially given that densely populated areas put pressure on the local ecosystem. Both Belgium and the Netherlands are densely populated, far more so than Eastern Canada, which exports "blue" mussels. Dense population also imposes high demand, often demand that exceeds local supply. If Europeans think they eat only product harvested from local waters, they are kidding themselves, no matter what the restauranteur claims (and of course, no restauranteur ever exaggerates.)

Regarding season of shellfish: Natural mussel beds, especially, are carefully monitored for what most people know as 'red tide' - even though it's not always red. It refers to an algae responsible for saxitoxin poisoning (also known as PSP, paralytic shellfish poisoning.) Not all algae are harmful. Those that are, are no respecters of international boundaries. They also don't necessarily limit themselves to the summer, although they typically thrive when the water is warmer, and naturally enough that tends to be in summer. ****I'd never, ever trust any folk wisdom on this - only proper testing ensures the bed is safe to harvest. If it's closed by the authorities in December, it's closed - no matter how the month is spelled.*****

Shellfish have 'seasons' for various reasons, not just the above. The shellfish don't know what month of the year it is, but the local authorities may try to limit overharvest of the natural product by imposing time limits on the harvest in any particular area.
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Aug 7th, 2014, 07:19 AM
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I'm sure there are fine mussels from around the world. But the ones that are normally served in Belgium traditionally come from Zeeland. Where there is a season. My friends from Zeeland don't eat them outside of this season, neither do my Belgian friends. Just like there's a season for white asparagus in spring. And game in the autumn. Of course you can get anything the year round now, but would you want to?

For anyone who is interested, visit Yerseke and try the mussels there - from July.
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Aug 8th, 2014, 02:55 PM
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What Tulips says!
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Apr 5th, 2015, 09:08 PM
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I enjoyed your trip report but feel like a visit to Amsterdam may be "underwhelming"? I will be in Belgium for 2-3 days this summer. From there I thought about visiting Amsterdam for 3 days before heading to Paris. I'm wondering if I should visit somewhere else between Belgium and Paris instead? This will be my first trip. Do you have a recommendation?
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Apr 6th, 2015, 09:39 AM
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I would not say that Amsterdam is underwhelming. It has major museums, a recognizably unique historical center and on the harbor side, interesting modern developments. It is an eminently walkable city within its core. If you feel that two days will have satisfied you, you could always take a day trip as we did.

Go to a bookstore and look at all the travel books that concentrate on Amsterdam. There is a reason for it. I apologize if my trip report gave the wrong impression; it was not my intent.
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Aug 2nd, 2015, 06:39 AM
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I loved this trip report! I don't think it looks underwhelming. I can't wait.
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Nov 25th, 2015, 12:48 PM
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We will be visiting Amsterdam for a week next summer.

I enjoyed reading your report and took a few notes. Thanks for sharing!
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Aug 9th, 2017, 01:01 PM
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Thanks for Antwerp report and your photos (in another post). Will be there in a month.
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Sep 24th, 2017, 01:29 AM
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Thanks Michael.. great reporting
I know how it is with weather...can totally deflate a citys mood
(happened to us in st petes so we have fonder memories of Moscow which had long gloriously sunny days)

I'm still not sure now...base in brussels..in Ghent or Antwerp
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Sep 24th, 2017, 03:06 PM
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lanejohann, where are you going in Belgium? If you are only going to West Flanders (Brugge, Ghent, Antwerp and additionally Brussels), you can base in Ghent or Antwerp. If you are going anywhere to the east of Brussels (which I do recommend, the Walloon cities are quite different to Flanders), base in Brussels. It's all very close and you don't make many gains by basing in Ghent over Brussels - I think you only win about 30 mins or so by doing this (the distance between Ghent and Brussels by rail, not factoring in time to the station).

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