As I look to summer, I start thinking about summer festivals. One of my favourites is Castlefest in the Netherlands. It is a fantasy world — actually several fantasy worlds — with music other other performances.
I loved the variety of musical performances, however my favourite was seeing the performance of The Dolman on the main stage.
There were also activities for children, including a battle royal, complete with a piper!
There is always a lot to see in Amsterdam and, because of its location, it is an important port, both for cruise lines heading North and as a starting point for river cruises. There are roughly around 900 cruise ships that use this port — 100 ocean-going and 800 river vessels. Over 250, 000 passengers pass trough this terminal yearly.
The port terminal is very easy to get to, and once there, it is very modern and easy to navigate. It is an easy ten-minute walk from the Central Station — one that I’ve done with my luggage and an umbrella due to a light rain. Central Station is a great connection point, not only for trains to Schiphol Airport and other parts of Europe, but also for trams and buses that travel throughout Amsterdam. You can also take Tram 26 and Bus 326 that both drop you in front of the cruise terminal. There is Tourist Information in front of the Central Station.
Central Station also has a stop for the different canal cruises — a great way to get to know Amsterdam if you are only in port for a day.
Leaving Amsterdam to travel to the Baltic Sea, you sail through a canal. It is a beautiful sailing.
Would you believe it – it was cold, foggy and damp as we docked in Amsterdam. I could get the impression that the sun never shines here! The ship’s foghorn blared all night long. When it stopped between 2 & 3 AM, I realized the ship was already docked in Amsterdam. We weren’t scheduled to be here until 6 AM. The Master of the Constellation, Captain Tassos, did a remarkable job getting us around the Baltic, usually arriving early. After a night surrounded by fog on our cruise back into Amsterdam, it was now time for me to bid farewell to my home for the past 12 days, the Celebrity Constellation. I loved the ship, the crew, and the experiences.
At breakfast, I ran into several of the friends I’d met during this sailing experience. Then, too soon, it was time to head through the main lobby, use my Sea Pass one last time, and head into the cruise terminal in Amsterdam. My bag was easy to find – and now I was off to catch a train to Paris.
It was an easy walk from ship to Amsterdam Centraal Station. Even dragging my suitcase, it only took me about 20 minutes. Once in the station, I was able to find an ATM machine and the platform for my train. I was very early, as it was before 9 AM and my train did not leave until 11:19. While I was waiting, I met a couple from Waterloo, ON. They had been on a barge-biking tour of The Netherlands and were on their way to Brussels to meet family.
Check out the Thalys website for information on the train to Paris. I setup an alert to let me know when I could reserve a ticket for the day I wanted – it allowed me to get a discount ticket for 35 Euros!
For some reason, the ticket I printed off did not contain all the information I needed to board, mainly the coach and seat number. I was directed to the Station Master who was able to check the barcode and give me the information I needed. Getting on the train was a bit tricky as there was a big gap and three steps to get from the platform to the train.While there was plenty of room for my suitcase, it did get very tight as more people piled into the car with enormous bags! It was pretty crazy – how can you get around Paris with bags that my bag would fit in – twice. Luckily, I was able to find a place for my luggage and I was the only person in my row, so I had a comfy seat with a table and a window. The train seemed to fly across the Dutch country side.
The train ride to Paris is about 3 hours and goes through Belgium. I wish I could say I saw Belgium – but really, there was not a lot to see from the train. Soon, we were entering Gare Nord, the final stop in Paris. I got a shuttle from the station to my hotel in the Arrondissement 7 – Hotel du Champs de Mars. This is a beautiful hotel on a pedestrian street that is just a couple doors down from Rue Cler which is a pedestrian street filled with different shops and cafes. My room was on the 5th floor – and fortunately there was a small elevator, otherwise, I would have to climb the every-spiraling staircase. My room overlooked a private courtyard, so was very secluded and quiet.
After dropping off my luggage, it was time for me to get to know my neighborhood, the 7th Arrondissement.
My first stop was just outside my door – Rue Cler. This is the heart of the neighborhood with cafes, and shops for all sorts of specialties. This is where people come to but their bread, fresh fruit and veggies, cheese and wine, meat and fish. You can sit at one of the cafes and watch both locals and tourists. There was even a chocolate shop directly across from my hotel! I loved it all!
My hotel was centrally located with several major sites to see: Les Invalides, the Eiffel Tower, Ecole Militaire, Assemblée Nationale, and Musée d’Orsay, what a a perfect location! I thought I’d head first towards Les Invalides, just because I did not go there on my last visit to Paris. Also, it looked like rain, so I did not want to stray too far just yet. So, an easy stroll took me to this vast park and massive building that houses the Musée de Armee and the Tomb of Napolean.
After a few raindrops, the sun came out and I headed in the opposite way past my hotel to the Champs de Mars and the symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. So far, I had a leisurely and calm walk – then I approached the tower and the crowds of people in lines that snaked in many directions. It was confusing to see where any of the lines actually ended and it felt like the entire world was represented in this space. I decided to forgo the crowds – I have pictures of being on the tower in 2001 with the lights sparkling. This trip was about doing different things and just soaking in the energy and the magic of Paris. I enjoyed the park, people watching and taking pictures.
Heading back to Rue Cler, I spent the rest of my evening at one of the corner cafes, enjoying a nice dinner, wine and espresso.
I slept late, at least for me. By the time I got to breakfast, I was rewarded with warm, fresh croissants. I guess that is a good reason to sleep in! After breakfast, I took one last walk around the city – this time to the Nine Streets area. This is an area with small boutiques, cafes and interesting architecture. Being that it was Monday, I was very surprised at how quiet it was in the streets. I found out that it was a holiday – just like in Canada (Victoria Day). It was very peaceful as I wandered around the streets and over canals. Back at the hotel, it was time for me to check-out and head for the next part of my adventure. When I arrived, there was a nice man who helped me bring my suitcase down the very narrow stairs. I was lucky that he was waiting for me to do this again! It would have been a real challenge for me – not because the case was heavy, but because the stairs are so narrow. I was warned about the narrow stairs but some things \you are never really prepared for!
I talked a bit more to the hotel staff before heading out for my tram adventure. Research – and double-checking with locals – informed me that I could take a tram to Centraal Station and another one to the Passenger Station. Of course, on the way to the station, it started to rain – but I had my new umbrella handy! The transfer was easy and I made my way to check-in for my Celebrity cruise.
Check-in was very long. Okay in comparison to Barcelona or Athens, it was long but in comparison to Brazil at least they had a place to check the luggage. Once on board, the rooms were not ready and finding a place to sit was at a premium. But really not a big deal as the buffet was open and people were already eating as if they had not seen a meal in days. For once, I did not partake, but found a quiet corner to wait until the room was ready. Once in the room, I started to explore the ship.
Of course, this meant heading to the Spa and fitness centre. You gotta love the enclosed pool area that has a full-figured larger than life Goddess watching over the pool!
The spa was typical of Celebrity – now to decide how to indulge! Next stop was to see how much internet services were going to cost. My travel agent, June, is amazing and always gets me a ship-board credit and I usually use some of it to get an Internet package. My timing was good – there were only a couple people there (latter, there was quite a line of people waiting to talk to the techies). Wi-fi is available all over the ship, however sometimes it is really slow because we have to connect via a satellite.
I thought I would check to see if my luggage had arrived at my room – and it had. So, I spent some time unpacking and getting settled in my new home. I’m on the 7th deck on the starboard side, closer to the front than I normally am (I am usually more in the middle). This means that I will be doing a fair bit of walking. Good news is that the Spa and pool are 2 flights up. Bad news is the dining room is at the opposite end – but there are several bars between here and there!
It started raining really hard about the time we were set to leave the harbour, so the Sail Away really did not happen. But I have a balcony, which of course means lots of pictures of harbour sights. I did miss going through the locks to get from the protected waters of Amsterdam to the North Sea – I think I was in the Martini Bar.
Usual cruise stuff ensued: an opening show, music throughout the ship then dinner. Waiting in line for the dining room to open, I met a couple from Denver. My table has an interesting mix of people – with three couples and another single woman. The couples were from Ohio, Sidney Australia and New Zealand and the single woman was from somewhere in the US, but I do not know where. Our waiter is a woman from South Africa and our asst. waiter is a guy from Serbia. We had a lot of fun the first night, so I think it will be a good cruise – at least from a dining perspective. Tonight’s dinner:
Wild Mushroom soup
Spaghetti with a meat sauce
Red Wine from Argentina
Now, I am in my room with the door open and a nice breeze and the sound of the foghorn.
I spent the morning sailing on the canals and taking lots of pictures. Besides getting to see more of Amsterdam, I wanted to get a better understanding of the where the Cruise Terminal is, since the canal boat would stop there. And yes, I got lots of pictures of houseboats – even finding the one I was going to stay in. I also get a better understanding of how the city is laid out – and I really walked more than I thought yesterday (I’m feeling it today). The sun actually came out today – and now I am sunburned! At least I’m not cold and wet.
One of the things I liked is that I did not have to fight crowds. Of course, as soon as I got off the boat at Centraal Station – crowds galore! From Centraal Station, it is a very easy walk to Dam Square, which was packed with more people than on Saturday. Once you get off the main streets, you are into the Red Light District – and yes, it is everything people say it is and more — lots of coffeeshops, sex shops, clubs, a Sex Museum, and people watching other people.
There were some times walking in this area that I felt a little nervous being by myself – I was glad it was in the middle of the day! At night alone would not be a good idea as there are so many large groups of very rambunctious people – mostly guys here to party, but not always! It would be much better to explore this area in a group.
From there, I thought it would be good to find something to eat. I know I said that Mexican food it usually NOT good in in Northern Europe, but something told me to give it a try. So, after checking the menu to make sure there was no salami, I gave this little place a try. It wasn’t the best, but the beef enchiladas were not bad and even the guacamole was halfway decent. The Corona was perfect.
I then took the tram to the area where I was supposed to stay to see if I could find the houseboat – and yes, there it was – easy to find and across from the Heineken. Someone else had booked it, so it was probably good I changed my plans. As for the Heineken Experience – free beer anyone? From there, I walked along the canal back to Leidseplein.
On the canal, there is a Pancake house – they are everywhere! So, I thought It was time for a sweet snack and a coffee.
Then back to the hotel to write this update, organize my pictures and rest so that I can go out dancing tonight.
While writing this, I finally met Mimi, the hotel cat. She comes to the sound of opening a bag of chips, of course!
Since the weather was a bit “iffy” with more possible rain, I headed out fairly early in hopes of beating some of the crowds at the newly re-opened Rijksmuseum. Both trams 2 and 5 head there from Leidseplein, so easy to get there. I arrived about 9:30, and there was virtually no line. Perfect. The museum is massive with the collection laid out by year and floor:
0: Special collections and 1100-1600
1: 1800 – 1900
2: 1650 – 1700
3: 1900 – 1950
One thing you can say about the Dutch Masters – they liked to work BIG. Rembrandt’s Night Watch is large. It is also much darker than I anticipated. The William Rex room contained a fascinating replica of a ship and, of course, I was drawn to the library. I did not get as “lost” in this museum as I did in the Prada in Madrid. I’m not really sure why. Maybe I’m still a little groggy from jet lag. The building is beautiful with vaulted ceilings in the Great Hall. Or maybe I prefer El Greco or the Italians. I did like the Italian room a lot, so that may be the reason.
When I left, the line was very long – and confusing. I’m not sure how they were sorting people out, but there did seem to be some sort of order to the madness. The weather was still dry, but cloudy and cold, so I continued to experience the museums of Museumplein by going to the Van Gogh Museum. This one has also been renovated, although one part of it is still not open.
While it was just a short walk to the museum and it was before noon, the lines were formed here as well. There were several people helping to get you in the correct line, depending on if you had a pass, e-ticket, I Amsterdam Card, or needed to buy a ticket. As people left the museum, more were allowed in. I think I may have been in line for 20 minutes, so really not so bad. Once in, you had to go through a security check – something that did not happen at the Riiksmuseum.
They re-opened this museum with a special showing depicting Van Gogh’s development and sources of inspiration called Van Gogh at Work. I kept thinking that my friend Lydia would really enjoy seeing this progression. There was one room where two paintings displayed side-by-side showed the difference in how he captured the lighting of water when he painted at the seashore and in the studio. The one done in location had bits of sand added to the paint, giving it an added texture and depth. The light seems to catch the grains of sand and make it sparkle. The second one showed boats on the shore, but the texture was not as rich. I was fascinated by this. There was one section devoted to the artists and their subjects that inspired Van Gogh – and now we get to some of my favorites such as Paul Gaugin and Manet. We all know Van Gogh’s many self-portraits, but he also requested some of his friends to do their own – with some interesting outcomes! I loved this exhibit a lot.
So now, it really was time to find food. In the area between these two museums, there are several outdoor kiosks for food. I got a grilled brie cheese and tomato sandwich and coffee, and sat outside watching people climb on the I Amsterdam sign.
Next, I thought I should explore more of the city, so I headed to Dam Square. Not sure what I expected – this is supposed to be the central plaza for Amsterdam and I found it dirty and really uninteresting. Madame Tussauds Amsterdam is in a large building on this square – never a place of interest for me. I did go into De Nieuwe Kerk – the new church – which is where are the coronations for the Dutch monarchy occur. Since Queen Beatrix stepped down on April 30th, there was an exhibit of the coronations of the House of Orange, including the Letters of Abdication from the last 3 monarchs. As a church, it was very plain. Again, I like the ornate churches in Spain and Italy and I’ve never really liked the plain ones in northern Europe.
In my trip planning, I downloaded several “walking tours” that all started at Dam Square, so I thought this would be a great time to do one – of course, I left the information in my hotel room! So, I decided to “get lost”. I found the floating flower market, and strolled along several smaller canals. I caught the beginning of a wedding (and latter saw the bride and groom leave the church on a boat). I saw many coffee shops – but I thought they were all very dark and a bit uninviting. And everywhere I went, there were crowds of people. I finally had enough and needed a break.
For dinner, I needed comfort food. I needed something familiar. I needed … something Spanish! So, after reading several reviews, I headed to Rancho Argentinian Grill. I was greeted by one of the cooks – in Spanish – and all of a sudden I was having a conversation in Spanish and feeling right at home! Yeah me for working on my Spanish! I continued speaking it with my server. Next, I looked at the menu at the bar and they made caipirinhas – the right way (no added “club soda” like they try to do in Toronto). Another Yeah! So, I had an Argentinian meal and felt so satisfied. After dinner, I wandered a bit around Leidseplein before the crowds of futball fans got too much for me (again, not Spanish league – I am really learning where my heart lies) and headed to my home. Still looking for the tango school, but I found the salsa bar.
So, finally my journey for 2013 begins. I’ve been planning this for over a year – and anyone who knows me can get a small inkling of how obsessive my planning can be. For Amsterdam I changed my hotel plans so I would be more “in the heart” of things and not sitting alone on a houseboat. Both are aspects of myself – the centre of a crowd or the hermit – but this past year I’ve spent too much of my time as a hermit. It was time to venture out and meet the world.So, what am I doing on my first night? I’m alone in my hotel room writing about my first day. Don’t get too down on me – I’m jet-lagged and feeling a bit like a drowned rat after an afternoon of pretending that I that the rain is not making me cold. Besides, I’m on vacation and I have several more days and nights to explore Amsterdam.
KLM: I’ve never flown on this KLM before and I really enjoyed it. Granted, my flights last year were 8 to 12 hours, so a short 6 hour flight “flew by”. But there was more to like than a short(er) flight. KLM has a handy app for smartphones that allows you to check-in and receive a boarding pass through your phone. Check-in was a breeze – I just showed the pass on my phone. I was also able to get an “economy comfort” seat for a little more – and it was worth it. There were only 2 seats on my aisle and we each had access to an aisle, so neither of us had to disturb the other.
Schipol Airport, Amsterdam: Easiest entry into a country ever (actually I should say easiest WITH a passport check because when I flew to Athens, the immigration people were on some sort of a break, so there was no checking at all). Once you get your bags, there is a train station right there – or follow the signs to the busses, which is what I did. There is a bus (197) that goes to Leidseplein where my hotel is. The cost was 4 Euros. Of course, once I got there, finding the right street was a bit of a challenge. I found one sign to point me in a direction — just not the way I thought it would be. So, my reading of the sign was a bit “off.” I finally asked someone (see Sue, I can learn) and soon found the right street and the right hotel.
Leidseplein: I could tell that a European football game had been played recently – the square had a lot of Brits drinking beer and one guy was dressed in a pink & black corset with fishnet hose. Too bad I was in “find my hotel” mode and not “take a picture of everything” mode. He was a brawny guy with reddish hair and a mustache – I’m sure you can fill in the rest of the details. Anyway, while it may be touristy, it looks to be a place where I could hang-out and people watch. There are lots of bars, restaurants and music venues. I also went searching for the Tango school that is in this area. Didn’t find the school, but found a street that has a number of South American-style restaurants (most Argentinian) so I’m on the right track. The milonga is on Sunday night, so I have time to find it.
Hotel La Boheme: This is exactly how I pictured it — great staff and nice, clean room. I have a single room and there are a total of 3 single rooms, all in the basement with shared washroom facilities. All the basement rooms can access a private terrace, so there is light and a way to get fresh air. I haven’t met Mimi, the cat yet, but I’m sure I will soon.
Food (people watching & bikes): I’m always hungry after a flight. I tried to ignore it today, but finally I needed to take shelter from the rain, so I ducked into the Grand Café Heineken Hoek and got a table overlooking a side street on Leidseplein. First off, do not EVER order nachos in a Northern European country. I learned this lesson in Munich where my hotel had a “Mexican” food buffet. Salami or bratwurst does NOT belong on an order of nachos. Fortunately, I knew this from past experiences and did not order the nachos with salami. What did I get? Fresh mint tea – made with real sprigs of fresh mint, a mushroom salad with asparagus, greens and bacon with Roquefort dressing, and frittes, severed with mayo, of course. It was very good and I got to learn about the rules of engagement with bicycles. Basically, bicycles rule everything – all other forms of transit wait for bikes. I wish more cities understood this – especially Toronto where they cut bike lanes instead of increase them. I would ride a bike in Toronto, if I felt safe but too many people get hit and it just feels too dangerous. There need to be protection and special bike lanes – real ones. In Amsterdam, bike lanes rule, no one wears a helmet, and you see all types of people riding (they ride talking on a cell phone, smoking a cigarette, carrying a passenger on the back fender, carrying a baby on the front handlebars…).
Transit & canal cruising: I got a transit pass for the time I am here – so this is easy. Lines 1, 2 and 5 go to and from the Centraal Station to Leidseplein. Tap the card when you enter a tram or bus, tap the card when you exit. I took the tram to Centraal Station to try to orient myself a bit (it helped) and to take a 1 hour canal cruise. The boats are covered, so it is something I could do in the rain – and I hoped I could get a better feel for the lay of the land (or in this case the water – it did not help, but the ride was enjoyable and I took some interesting pictures).
Food part 2: By now, it was getting late – especially since I was running on the sleep I had during my flight – and I was hungry again. So, I decided to stay “close to home” and go to the Italian Trattoria next door. I had heard it was good and I was not disappointed, although the penne with “angry sauce” was the spiciest version of that sauce I’ve ever had! I was glad they served a nice bread to help balance the sauce. During my meal, I saw something walk under one of the tables. Seems they have a ginger cat who casually walks through the restaurant, then sits at the door. Our health inspectors would not be too pleased, but it made me almost feel like home – at least he did not beg for food!