July 23, 2014

We Made it to Deutschland: Cologne & Heidelberg

Back on the bus, we were an excited group because our next stop meant that we had crossed over into Deutschland. I was looking forward to Germany because my parents had spent much time here and it was technically my second time on German soil.

After traveling for a bit, we arrived under grey skies to Cologne for a visit to the world's largest gothic cathedral. The detail and gothic nuances throughout the facade were even more impressive to me than Notre Dame!

Side Note: If I could sum up this trip in one word it would be scaffoldings. But seriously...almost every. single. major site was done up in scaffolding for restorations. This is mild compared to sites coming up in later cities. Sad.

It was Sunday and service was actually being held, but we were still able to pop in for a quick peek. 

We also had the option to climb one of the spires up to a viewing platform. Any chance you get to climb and have a tip-top view of the city is prime sightseeing in my book, so up I went.

After what seemed like forever on the never ending sets of stairs, we finally made it up all 533 steps. Through the gloomy fog you can see the Rhine river cutting through what looks like a typical city. What I found breathtaking was the close-up view of the cathedral's exterior. It makes the intricate detail for such an old building even more mind-boggling.

It seemed a bit early for lunch and all I really wanted was coffee so a couple of us popped into a bakery where I grabbed some kind of cheese bread. I wasn't snapping pictures at this point because I was panicking that my phone wasn't in my purse. Luckily, it was back on the bus! Whoops!

Next on our schedule for the day we jumped on a ship to cruise the Rhine River. Some ate lunch; I enjoyed my first German beer while taking in the view. The lush green hills were dotted with small towns below and a few castles and fortresses tucked in. 

Our final stop before getting to our Heidelberg hotel was the Heidelberg Palace. Heavily damaged by war and fire, these ruins are known for the romantic setting amongst the lush green forests up-top the hill.

The sun did its best to peak out from behind the clouds while we were there, but at least it wasn't raining! 

After a long day of travel, stop, sightsee, travel, stop, sightsee I welcomed the hotel with a loving plop onto the bed only to hop back up and ready myself again, this time for dinner. 

Having experienced good ol' Steinkeller in Oxford, trips to the Hofbrauhaus, and many Oktoberfest celebrations, I knew that German food was GOOD food! Claudia (in the picture below) took us to a restaurant within walking distance of our hotel called, Zum Guldenen Schaf (The Golden Sheep). 

I ordered pork schnitzel with spaetzle and ate every last bite.  Claudia recommended the dark German lager, dunkel. Although I don't typically like dark beer, it was delicious!

We rounded out the evening by visiting a local bar where we young, obnoxious fun Americans were the only customers. Remember, it was a Sunday. The German bartender was wearing a 49ers hat and there were American dollar bills with previous travelers names written on them hanging from the ceiling. He chatted with my Californian travelers about his visits to San Fran and made us delicious drinks with a smile. We sure livened up his otherwise customerless Sunday night!  I enjoyed a lighter beer this time, but saved my liter drinking skills for our next stop--Munich!

July 21, 2014

Amsterdam Day 2: Dutch Countryside, Cheese Farm, and an Indonesian Meal

Dancing feet well rested and hot coffee in my belly, day 2 started off with one of my favorite excursions of the trip. Our group traveled out of Amsterdam to the small Dutch town of Edam. As a charming little town known for their cheese, Edam sits near the coast of the North Sea.

When we arrived we had bike rentals waiting for us and our guide Claudia led us over small canals, past cute little houses, and along the coast. The weather was absolutely gorgeous. After spending quite a few days in large and busy city centers, biking through the fresh air on a sunny day was simply perfect.

Jess and I tried our best at bike selfies!

The Dutch were playing in the World Cup the following day, so naturally every neighborhood we passed through was decked out in orange!

After riding around for a bit we stopped off along the coast for a photo op and a brush with the North Sea. 

When our blissful ride ended, we popped into a cheese shop for an Edam cheese history lesson, but more importantly--samples! We tasted a variety of cow, sheep, and goat cheeses as well as flavored cheese such as garlic and herb. They were so unbelievably delicious that I brought a small wheel back as a souvenir. I'm afraid to cut it up as I'll not be able to stop myself from devouring it!  

Next we walked over to the shoe shop to watch a traditional wooden shoe demonstration. It's impressive how quickly one pair of shoes can be made with the machinery they have. Almost all shoes are now made strictly for tourists of course. 

Before heading back to Amsterdam we walked the pier of a nearby fishing village and grabbed some nibbles to munch on. 

My friend Megan and I split seafood salad on a roll and some yummy fried cod bits.

Back on the bus I had a little snooze and once we arrived back in the center of Amsterdam I couldn't put myself in the mood to walk any museums. I'd been warned the Heineken brewery tour is just a tourist gimmick and I just wanted more time to walk outdoors and explore the true Dutch culture anyway. 

Had I another day in the city, I would've definitely visited the Van Gogh museum and the Anne Frank house. No worries, just means a second trip is in order!

When most people think of a canal city they think straight away of Venice. However, Amsterdam also has an abundance of them making the city quite picturesque. A couple of friends and I walked to a cafĂ© for a coffee and then spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets admiring the canals and flower market. 

The Dutch were some of my favorite native people to interact with on the whole trip; they were so friendly. Their ability to speak perfect English is very impressive. They begin learning English just like any other subject when they start school as youngins. 

As Americans we're quite spoiled by the fact that English is so widely known. I wish we would teach a second language, perhaps Spanish, from the very beginning of school in the States. No matter how smart I may feel, there is nothing that makes me feel more uneducated than talking to people all of the time who fluently know many different languages. 4 years in high school doesn't cut it. Someone get me Rosetta Stone so I can master my French!

After a bit we met back up with the group in front of the I amsterdam sign and went for a group dinner where we had a traditional Indonesian meal.

The integration of Indonesian culture amongst the Dutch comes from a long history of colonial interactions and even today the Netherlands is one of Indonesia's most important trade partners. The meal was spicy and delicious!

After a jam packed day I was beat, but we had one more event which was a canal boat cruise. The canals are gorgeous but unfortunately the cruise was quite uneventful and boring. We did pass the Anne Frank house which I was glad to see since I wasn't able to go to the museum. 

Some of the group opted to stay in town and did club night round 2, but Will, Laura, Megan and I settled on picking up a couple beers from the market and snuggling down into the comfy hotel beds to watch Columbia and Uruguay in the World Cup. It was a nice way to wind down after such a busy day, plus the following day was an early start to head to Germany!  

July 19, 2014

Brussels & Amsterdam Day 1

If you're following along on this little European series of mine, I last left you with my last day in Paris.

Still on a high from such a wonderful stay I cheerily said not good-bye, but see ya later to the City of Light and settled into my bus seat for the long drive to Amsterdam. We had a stop in Brussels, Belgium for lunch and more importantly--waffles!

When we arrived in Brussels it was early afternoon. Our group guide, Claudia, walked us first to the Manneken-Pis which is a naughty little statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain. It's a silly little thing and the statue is often dressed up by a local organization.

You would walk right past it if there wasn't a huddle of tourists crowded around as it sits nestled into a small corner of two small streets. There are many legends behind the statue including one that a small boy went missing and when found he was peeing so as thanks to the town for finding him the father gifted the fountain. 

After snapping a picture almost our entire group made a beeline for the nearest waffle stand. You can find one or two on every corner which creates a soft, sweet aroma in the streets. The waffles are treated more like dessert than breakfast although they also make savory waffle sandwiches and other things. I wasn't sure what topping to get until I spotted Speculoos on the menu. You don't have to ask me twice if I want cookie butter spread on anything! 

Let me just say you have not had a waffle until you've had one in Belgium--not an American "Belgian waffle" but a real Belgian waffle! They are more dense and sweeter than our breakfast waffles. My friend Megan had chocolate (or nutella?) and strawberries on hers and couldn't stop talking about it for the rest of the trip! 

After the decadent waffle I wasn't quite in the mood to sit down and eat a full restaurant meal so I wandered the shopping area and picked up some Belgian chocolate souvenirs from the fancy Chocolatier, Neuhaus. Don't be shy, ask for samples!

The overcast sky and quaint city center was the perfect setting to cozy up with some coffee. I sat in the medieval square with my shopping treasures and watched a beautiful wedding party outside of the Grand Place.

Feeling nice and satisfied we hopped back on the bus to continue on to Amsterdam. Little did we know that bad weather and traffic was coming our way and it took us almost double the anticipated amount of time before we arrived. I never want to be on a bus that long ever again. 

Our very nice hotel room in Amsterdam more than made up for it, but no time for sleep! After freshening up and grabbing a bite to eat. We took the tram into the city and Claudia walked us through the famous Red Light District in the early evening. 

Curious as we all were, prostitution is certainly not my thing. The atmosphere was actually milder than I was expecting and the women in their infamous red lit windows are not nude. It's really just a big tourist attraction to be honest. 

Along with the legal prostitution Amsterdam is of course known for their "coffeehouses" which means they sell marijuana--not coffee! Again, the pot smoking is milder than you would think. It is very well organized and regulated by the government. It's mostly tourists taking advantage of the legalized substance and aside from the occasional whiff of weed (which was kind of funny to me that it's a normal smell) you won't notice anything unordinary except that the houses exist. 

No I did not try it, legal or not. ;) 

As you can see I didn't take any photos this evening. You weren't allowed to in the Red Light District and afterward we were having too good of a time drinking Heineken (brewery is in Amsterdam and it tastes better there, too!) and later danced ourselves into a sweaty mess at a club playing American music!


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