Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Amsterdam - the first time

Bike parking - 3 layers!
Old bridge - had operated
I love Amsterdam! It is so much fun to walk around this city and check out all of the beautiful parks, canals, and old buildings. I also love the fact that you can get everywhere by walking, biking, or taking a tram or bus. In fact, honestly, I think it would be difficult to drive. The roads converge constantly. There are arrows everywhere and the wonderful dotted lines showing you where to go. Some roads allow cars, some don't - and I've yet to figure out how to tell. Bikes and motorcycles are on the same road, except when motorcycles travel with the cars. Sometimes you can follow a tram, sometimes not. Then you must add the thousands of bikes and pedestrians who wander about in a seemingly random pattern. You never hear horn honks...except from the bikes. It's an amazing web. Have to wonder how the dance changes in the snow.

Dam Square view
Imagine walking through green parks, grass, trees, wonderful willows, as well as paths winding round ponds, canals and flower gardens. These wonderful parks are dotted across the downtown area of Amsterdam, able to be found at any bend in the road. We discovered a rather long rambling one that semi headed in the direction we were going in so we wandered along its paths to discover fairy lights! The brilliant sun was reflecting off meandering waterway, sending dappled lights dancing through the trees. It was so cool to walk through them and check out the infinite variations found on the different trees, different lighting, and different angles of the sun on the water. The video came out pretty good - although I must admit it was best seeing it in real time. Sadly, it's not loading here but if you go to my account on Facebook, it is posted there. 

Our Harry Potter door
under the stairs
We stayed in a small B&B in Amsterdam, located nearer the various museums. This one was quite small but homey and I have to say I loved the entrance...a small door under the stairs...though this time it led to more stares and a basement apartment. We had a fabulous view of a great potential garden. It was sadly overgrown but out in the middle was a beautiful Japanese Maple. I have to admit that I really wanted to go out there and liberate the poor plant! I mentally planned that garden out - wish we could do stuff with our garden back home. Ah well...frustrated gardener here. He has plans to get the garden in order so I hope he posts pictures.

Brugge...Land of Canals

On the train early in the morning, heading for Brugge. We had a steady drizzle all the way down, making us feel like we're right at home. Never poured, never rained, just stayed gray and misty all day. Fortunately, we were on the train so it made no difference.

Honestly...the canals are wider
than most of the roads! The view is
from our window
We arrived in the drizzle, standing outside, sans umbrellas, trying to snag a cab or figure out the bus system. Not easy when they insist on writing everything in Dutch...doing lots of guessing. Got the cab and was SO glad that we did. The roads are crazy narrow - Japan has wide roads in comparison! We wove through the town, totally lost - and so was the driver! She mistook where we were going and when she realized it; we had to wind back through the narrow lanes to find our apartment. I think we could navigate the bus now but glad we didn't try first thing.

OMG The place we have here is fantastic! Jeff has been reserving small apartments through a new website and boy has he found some wonderful places. This one has two great rooms downstairs along with a wonderful a great sitting room/kitchen upstairs. We have a view of the canal and houses across the way - old brick houses bedecked with ivy, ferns, and window boxes filled with flowers. The room is rustic modern - a great blend of old style wood and furniture with a modern twist.

One of many canals
Roaming through the rain-soaked streets we found history oozing at us. Brugge is a canal-based city and is sometimes called the "Venice of the North" because so much of the city is build around the many canals meandering through the area. Historically it was the chief commercial city of the world because of its location on trade routes. Like other cities, it has gone up and down but now tourism has taken over with millions coming to check out historic monuments and churches. Well, we're here to vouch for thousands roaming the streets! It's interesting staying in a home instead of a hotel. This side of town (the area is a whole 1.5 miles or so across) is relatively quiet; a few restaurants nestled in the houses, a small bar here or there. Across the market area, things change, with many more pubs and bars with outside seating and lots of music surrounding the various hotels.

An evening ramble took us through some of the gorgeous churches in the area. The Church of Our Lady has one of the tallest brick towers in the world. It dominates the city skyscape. The church was built over the period of 200 years - apparent in the various styles and structures found around the building. It follows one of the many canals, giving picturesque vistas of the building and surrounding water at sunset.

Brugge - continuing the adventure

Rob with baby Jack
Contented dog...watching
Spent the day today with some other ASD teachers; Rob, Lauren and their newborn, Jack. Took Jack on his first boat through the canals, under bridges, and into areas not easily seen from footpaths. We even got to see a contended dog, lazing about on a pillow protruding from an open window. He was so still you first thought he was a wax figure but no, his eyes followed the boat as we motored by. He was the star of the show! I'm still amazed with the history here - we have so little of it in the states and here are buildings some of which have been around since the 13th century (though most have been renovated, many during the 1800's).

The rule of the day was movement - Jack really liked the cobblestones and as long as we were moving, he was content, quiet, and usually sleeping. Lauren and Rob did the typical passing baby along so that each one could take turns eating and we left shortly after we finished eating, allowing Jack to catch up on his bouncing. We wandered through the streets, checking out the chocolate shops (omg do they make delicious chocolate), all in the name of entertaining Jack.

At one time in its history, Bruge was a walled city. While virtually all of the walls are gone, four gates still remain with bits of pieces of 14th century walls. The walls were surrounded by a moat and today you can walk along a park that follows the old wall. Along the way there are four windmills that were used to grind grain into flour. Supposedly there are small museums in a couple and one at least still turns, although we found none of the above at any of them. We did see a man open the gate and enter one of them. We stuck around, hoping he was going to "start" it but alas, it was not in the cards.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Brussels...a great place to explore

We met with another teacher from ASD, Arianne, who is from Belgium. She was visiting her mother and so volunteered take us on a tour! She met us at the apartment and whisked us off to a walking trip through old town, a view of numerous churches and historical buildings, and then off to the countryside.

Belgium apparently is quite divided between the southern French speaking portion and the generally northern Flemish (Dutch). 

Brussels, the capital, is one of the few places where things are available in both French and Flemish, although admittedly, there are things like the information booth where there's one for the Flemish portion and one for the French. Pity the poor tourist just looking for information!

TinTin - famous
cartoon character
European cities of old always have a town "square" or market place. Generally various important buildings surround the squares; government, shops for different trades, religious, as well has houses. It was generally considered to be the most important place in the city, a place to gather what you needed, along with the local news and gossip. Their function has generally remained, with tourist shops and restaurants taking over the trades and tourist groups gathering information from guides fluent in numerous languages. Performances of various kinds often occur, from jugglers to musicians. Belgium did not disappoint.
We headed off through the streets towards a park called Tervuren, located outside Brussels. It is a huge natural area with paths wending through a sloping forested area with large and small bodies of water. A few buildings are present there including the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Apparently King Leopold bought an area in the Congo, making it a Belgian colony.  During the 1897 World Fair, a huge building was built to house a colonial museum. Sadly we were there too late in the evening to have to opportunity to explore it.

 Had to include the cartoon clip - it was found on the wall of a building. There are stores here that specialize in selling TinTin dolls, all the books and all sorts of paraphernalia. My kids at school would go crazy with it - the books are extremely popular!

The Royal Artis Zoo

Unfortunately, Jeff had to go back to Doha - works beckons and I guess we need to do some of it to afford these fabulous vacations. I, however, being of sound mind, chose NOT to return to the desert until I absolutely have to. Therefore...I'm still in Amsterdam enjoying the sights. While Jeff flew threw the air, I headed for the zoo.

The first zoo ever established in the Netherlands was the Artis Royal Zoo, located in what was once the center of Amsterdam. It's a great place to spend time wandering around, of course I would think so anyway. There are quite a few waterfalls built into various exhibits with the mountain goats jumping up the steep mountain cliffs, and drinking at the bottom of the falls. The grounds are gorgeous with fabulous flowers and greenery (big on that after living in the desert). They boast that the zoo is in bloom throughout the year.

Monkeys from one of the island cultures are housed in buildings that match the kinds of buildings you would find in that culture. The architecture throughout is interesting and varied with modern streamlined terraces for eating next to the partial ruins of a brick building from the 1700's - artfully done, naturally. The signs are far more graphic than ours would be and they have multiple places where children can play and climb. There are even free carts that you can use to haul little kids around in! There's even a planetarium, aquarium, and a zoological museum. In the museum, they have sculptures of various animals with the braille name on it, allowing blind children to feel the animal to "see" it.
Had to check out one of my favorites - the elephants! They have a baby that looks to be 5 or 6 years old. She seemed to enjoy throwing sand on all the elephants! The butterfly house had some very cooperative butterflies - or else I was just very fast with the shutter - I managed to get some open wings this time!