Sunday, April 22, 2018

Tiptoeing Through The Tulips.....In The Netherlands......

I have to admit that about all I recall from my school days of learning about Holland and the Netherlands, is there were tulips, wooden shoes and windmills there, but who really cared? That part of the world seemed SO far away from my neighborhood in Jersey City, New Jersey and surely I would never get there. Or would I?

Not only have we been there and done that, but even caught the tulips, and other flowers in bloom at the precise time of year. Our house sit in Belgium ended a week ago and since we had some free time on our hands, we had to explore the Netherlands.

Holland OR the Netherlands.....that is the question? Clyde and I both admit that we always used the terms Holland and the Netherlands simultaneously, thinking there was NO difference. But I recently did some research and here's what I discovered.

                                             Fields Of Flowers As Far As Our Eyes Could See

 While the whole country is officially called the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Holland is the name given to two of the provinces, North and South Holland. Since the most commonly visited cities like Amsterdam, the Hague and Rotterdam are in those provinces, the name Holland tends to be used instead of the Netherlands.

With the time we had left we opted to spend a day in the Hague, and two days in Amsterdam. While Rotterdam was on our list we later found out that the original city was leveled in 1940 after WWII, so Rotterdam today is a new, modern city, not something we wanted to see since we like the old, historical parts of a city.

The Hague is a lively, lived in city full of shopping, historical buildings and boasts about being the Diamond Capital of Europe. The city is known for having the U.N's International Court of Justice located in the Peace Palace along with the International Criminal Court. Finding a place to park near the Peace Palace was difficult since it is surrounded by embassies and consulates from just about every country, with parking only allowed for ambassadors and other important people. And since the Peace Palace is a working palace there are no tours offered during the work week, so we were only permitted to snap a photo from the outside.      

                                                                     The Hague


On route to Amsterdam the following day I was in search of tulip fields since I knew this was the time of year they were in bloom. The perfect spot to view acres and acres of flowers is the famous Keukenhof Gardens. With 32 acres and over 800 varieties of flowers, this place is ONLY open 6 weeks every year when the flowers are in bloom. Needless to say, they pack in hoards of tourists in that short period of time,  nearly one million visitors from all over the world. The price for admission is around $22 (18 euros) EACH and with limited time we decided to pass on this place.

However, being the cheapo that I am, I did some online research to discover where to view flower fields for FREE. On the way out to Keukenhof is something called, "the Flower Route," where the largest concentration of flowers grow in the Netherlands. There we merely had to stop along the roadside to take photos for free of the lovely flower fields. What we found were breathtaking, colorful fields with ribbons of color as far as our eyes could see, of pure gorgeous flowers in their natural state. Wow!

From there we headed into the popular city of Amsterdam to find our overpriced apartment and spend a few days fighting the crowds of people. Last week when we finally got around to looking for hotel rooms in Amsterdam we were shocked at the prices. $250 per night, $500 per night and up, and even the hostels with shared dorms and shared bathrooms went for around $200 a night. Then we turned to apartments outside of the city center where we might find parking? Even those went for $200 per night with additional charges to park our rental car, and most that seemed to be available on the websites, were NOT.  Eventually, after some headaches we did manage to find a small apartment for the low price of $153 per night, with easy access to the trains into the city center.

What we found when we got here was a tiny, run-down apartment located near the University of Amsterdam Science Park. In other words, we are staying in student housing for kids going to college nearby. While the apartment is nothing special, the location is within a few minute walk to the trains into the city, a quick 10 minute ride with just two stops. The trains are SO close that we can see a maze of train tracks from our balcony and even hear them running all night long. Actually the noise is not that bad. Another perk is there is a small grocery store directly underneath the apartment complex, so picking up something to eat for dinners is a breeze, and cheaper than eating out.

                                                        View From Our Apartment

There is plenty of public parking at the nearby university at the cost of 24 euros per day (about $30 per day), too costly but the only option. The cost of a train ticket from here into the city center is 11 euros each (about $13.50 round trip per person).

The city of Amsterdam is known for it's elaborate canal system, millions of people all riding bicycles, along with trams, buses, cars and tourists. Some 2500 house boats line the canals, while tall, thin homes stand tall against the skyline. Tourist buses and boats are numerous, with plenty of others like ourselves walking to see the sights, trying hard not to get run over by cyclists whizzing by, since they DO have the right of way. It's a chaotic mess of people, many walking around high since recreational drugs are commonly sold here and even put into a variety of food products. Prostitution is legal here and the well known Red Light District features women posing in windows and flirting with passers by, even in the daytime.

Our first day we spent the afternoon walking around the city, taking in the sights, sounds and smells. We stumbled upon the Museum of Sex and Clyde, being the pervert that he is insisted we go inside and take a peek.

                                                                Not Sure What This Was

                                                     Inside The Museum Of Sex

The next day we hopped on the Hop On, Hop Off Boat first and took to the canals. After lunch we hopped on the Hop On Bus for an afternoon of touring the city the easy way. And when in Amsterdam trying some chocolate chip cookies laced with cannabis was a must, which made our afternoon a bit more mellow.

                                                   Chocolate Chip Cookies With Cannabis

                                                              Beautiful Amsterdam

The Netherlands is a lovely country, full of flowers, sweet people, wooden shoes, lovely sights and more. Amsterdam is one of those places that we just had to see while here and while we are glad we had the experience, there are places out there that we enjoyed more. Tomorrow we are back to Brussels, Belgium for one last look before heading on to our next adventures.....along the gringo trail.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Exploring The Cities Of Bruges, Ghent And Antwerp, Belgium.....

As our current house sit in Belgium came to an end a few days ago we bid farewell to our lovely hosts and hit the road for more sightseeing. Our goal was to explore the further away towns of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, Belgium. From the quiet little countryside town of Soumagne we landed in the popular tourist destination of Bruges.

                                                      The Picturesque City Of Bruges, Belgium

First stop was our hotel that sat perched high along the river in a lovely brick facade that is undergoing a face lift. While it was too early to check-in we put our luggage in the storage closet and headed out into the streets to see the town. Literally hundreds to thousands of tourists filled the streets of this gorgeous, riverside town and we began our trek through the cobble stoned lanes dodging people at every step along the way.

Since waterfront towns are best seen from a boat, we quickly made our way into one of the many tourist boats for a tour down the river. After that we walked around the city taking in the sights of medieval architecture, churches, plazas and more while the smells of Belgium waffles and chocolate filled our noses.

The next day we left Bruges and drove about 45-mniutes to the city of Ghent. Several people we had talked to in our travels including our Belgium friend from Texas, told us that while Ghent was similar to Bruges, it was more natural with far less tourists. Indeed, Ghent offered all that and more and we did enjoy it being less touristy and more of a real city, instead of just a tourist destination. Once again we took to the river for a narrated tour of the history of the city that was delightful.  Then we walked around this charming city, taking in the sights, sounds and smells that we have come to love.

The City Of Ghent, Belgium

                                                    Far Less Tourists, Still As Lovely

The next day found us in Antwerp, a port city on Belgium's river Scheldt with history dating back to the middle ages. The city center has long been known as a Diamond District for many centuries and still today there are plenty of shops offering the little gems. As in many European cities, Antwerp features a main square called Grote Markt in the old town. Lined with Flemish Renaissance-styled architecture and a huge fountain in the center, the marketplace is the place to sit and have a drink while watching people go by. Works of Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens can be seen around the town, especially in the Cathedral of Our Lady.

                                                       The City Of Antwerp, Belgium

Tomorrow we are leaving Belgium and headed into the Netherlands to explore the Hague and Amsterdam, for more travel adventures.....along the gringo trail.