A Travellerspoint blog

The Wrap-Up

The best and worst of everything

Four months, thousands of miles, and thirteen countries. My European adventure was absolutely amazing and the trip of a lifetime! I really had an incredible time, and so many interesting adventures. I have now been back in the states for about a month and have had some time to reflect on my journey. Here are some random thoughts and ruminations.

Favorite Places
The first question everyone asks: "What was your favorite place?" I can honestly say that I loved everywhere I visited. There really wasn't a place that I didn't like. Each place was a little different, and of course some were bigger highlights than others. I haven't been able to pick a favorite place, but I have managed to narrow it down to five, in no particular order.

1) Paris -- Paris is just a lovely, lovely place. It is a city that is filled with beauty and elegance. I really enjoyed just walking around the city and exploring the neighborhoods. I also loved the sites -- the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, Ste Chapelle, Sacre Coeur. Paris was the first stop on my trip, and it was a little surreal to be there. I kept pinching myself to make sure that I really was in Paris and seeing all of the things I was seeing.DSC_0176.jpg

2) Greece -- I loved Greece and everything about it! Athens was really incredible, and it was so fascinating to visit the Parthenon, the markets and temples of ancient Greece. And the Greek Isles were stunning! So beautiful and relaxing -- I will definitely be going back there someday. DSC_0482_2.jpg

3) Scotland -- Scotland was easily one of the most scenic places I visited. Rolling green hills with stone fences, pastures full of sheep and cows, small villages with stone houses -- just idyllic. Of course Scotland was also great because I was with great friends and Lisa's family and friends. It was so nice to be with "locals." And we had such a great time!DSC_0678_01.jpg

4) Slovenia -- Slovenia was a real surprise to me. I really didn't know what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised. The mountains were absolutely stunning and the capital city, Ljubljana, was just a pleasure to explore. The architecture, the layout of the city, the atmosphere -- I just loved it! Of all the places I visited, it would probably be on the top of the list of places I would want to live. DSC_0007.jpg

5) Belgium -- I really loved Belgium. It was such a conglomerate of all the good things of Europe. Brussels was a perfect combination of a modern, bustling city and a historic center. I loved the food -- cheese, chocolate, fries and awesome beer! Ahhh, the good life! DSC_0405_02.jpg

Least Favorite Places
Everyone also asks which places were my least favorite. While I really like everywhere I visited, there were a couple of places that weren't as great as the rest.

1) Ireland -- I think under other circumstances I would have really loved Ireland. As it was, I had just left some great friends in London and was again on my own, which was a little sad. In addition, I was travelling by bus and staying in hostels. Had I been with friends, rented a car and stayed at village bed and breakfasts, I probably would have loved it. But the hostels weren't the greatest, with a lot of drunk people around, and the buses keep you confined to the major roads. Plus it rained non-stop the entire week I was there. Despite all of this, Ireland really was beautiful and I definitely would go back someday to do some more exploring.

2) Naples, Italy -- Naples would not have been on my agenda, if not for my good friends Mel and Jamy who moved there in December. I was really excited to visit them, and that part was great. Naples as a city was not fantastic. Of course, I wasn't in the tourist areas, and I was seeing the city through Mel and Jamy's eyes. They had a very tough move and transition to Naples, and I am sure that colored my view of the city. We had a great trip to Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, which I loved; Naples as a city just didn't do it for me.

Best Food
Okay, so most of you known by now that I loved the food everywhere! But easily the best food was in Greece. It was so fresh and delicious, from the yogurt and honey for breakfast, yummy olives and pistachios straight from the islands, great seafood, greek salads and gyros to baklava to die for -- good eatin'.

Best Drinks
This category is a big toss-up. Of course the wine in Italy (especially Tuscany) was great. The beer in the Czech Republic and Belgium was amazing! But I think the overall winner has to be the UK -- solely for the amount of alcohol I drank while I was there. This was mainly due to the Nicol family who insisted we have something to drink in our hands at all times. London was a great town to drink in, from sampling Pimms at Wimbledon, drinking our new signature summer drink in Covent Garden, to sampling beer and sausages in the pubs. DSC_0156_02.jpg

Best Dessert
Hands down -- caramel shortbread. Best. Dessert. Ever. Lisa and I enjoyed sampling the many different versions the UK has to offer.

Most Beautiful Place
This is another hard one, but I think I would have to go with Switzerland. The mountains are just gorgeous! DSC_0382.jpg

Biggest Surprises
1) Barcelona -- I loved this city! It was such a pleasant city to explore and I really like the historic area and the market at Las Ramblas. The other parts of the city were filled with wide tree lined boulevards with amazing architecture. DSC_0458.jpg

2) Slovenia -- I had no idea what to expect and it was great!

Best Experiences
1) Wimbledon! -- Without a doubt one of the highlights of my trip. We had such an amazing day at Wimbledon -- it was a once in a lifetime experience! DSC_0058_02.jpg

2) The Vienna State Opera -- Amazing to see an opera in this famed opera house, but the ballet was even more incredible. The ballet Romeo and Juliet was so beautiful and moving. DSC_0090.jpg

3) Hiking the Cinque Terre trail -- Beautiful 5 hour hike encompassing all five villages of the Cinque Terre. Loved it! DSC_0579.jpg

4) The Munich Zoo -- This zoo was great, and even more fun because I got to go with my nieces! We had a blast playing on the playground and watching the animals. The Siberian Tiger eating his lunch (a rabbit), the rhinos, and the penguins were big highlights. DSC_1013.jpg

5) Biking in the Netherlands -- I spent a great day biking out to the North Sea and through the fields and flowers of North Holland. The perfect way to see the countryside and pretend I was a local! DSC_0523_02.jpg

Tours I Went On
1) Normandy D-Day Beaches Tour -- This was a fascinating look at the D-Day beaches and the operations during WWII in the Normandy area. It would have been impossible to see all of these sights using public transportation, and the information the guide gave made it totally worth it. Plus this year is the 65th anniversary of D-Day which made it even more special. DSC_0294.jpg

2) The Sound of Music Tour -- A fun tour out of Salzburg that hits all the highlights of the Sound of Music movie and the real life locations of the von Trapp family. Gotta love a bus load of tourists singing "My Favorite Things!" DSC_0297.jpg

3) The Vatican Tour -- The best way to see the Vatican and the Vatican museums. Without pre-booking this tour, we easily would have stood in line for 2 - 3 hours. The guide was great at pointing out the highlights and helping us to not get overwhelmed with the massive amounts of art in the museums. The Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Apartments were real highlights. So glad my sister planned ahead and booked this tour! DSC_0741.jpg

4) Stonehenge and the Cotswolds -- A great way to see a large amount of the English countryside. I especially liked the visit to the villages in the Cotswolds, which would have been near impossible on public transit. DSC_0238_02.jpg

5) The Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula -- I took bus tours to these scenic areas of the west coast of Ireland, and despite the rain, it was a great way to go. Beautiful scenery and lots of interesting tidbits. DSC_0350_02.jpg

Best Museums
Europe has a lot of incredible museums. Here are a few of my favorites:

1) Louvre, Paris, France -- Hands down one of the best art museums in the world. I could have spent an entire week in this museum. My favorite piece: The Winged Nike of Samothrace. DSC_0127.jpg

2) The British Museum, London, England -- Probably the best all around museum I have ever been to. The collections of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, and Asian art were remarkable. I loved seeing the Rosetta stone, the original Parthenon sculptures, and the Royal Lion Hunting relief sculptures from Nineveh. And amazingly, this museum is free to all! DSC_0175_02.jpg

3) The National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Greece -- An amazing collection of Greek art and antiquities. Through this museum you can trace the origins of art from simple tribal figurines to sophisticated Greek statuary and architecture. I loved this museum! DSC_0228_2.jpg

4) The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam -- An amazing collection of Van Gogh's work and life. So cool to see his progression as an artist. DSC_0220.jpg

5) Orangerie, Paris, France -- Monet's Waterlillies were so beautiful in the round. DSC_0248.jpg

6) The Prado, Madrid, Spain -- Greatest collection of European paintings anywhere.

7) Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain -- I am not much into modern art, but this modern art museum was spectacular.

8) Kunsthistorisches, Vienna, Austria -- Great collection of European paintings, as well as ancient Egyptian and Roman art.

Best Churches
This is a tough category because there are so many beautiful cathedrals and churches in Europe.

1) Notre Dame, Paris, France -- Absolutely beautiful, iconic cathedral. DSC_0089.jpg

2) Amalfi Cathedral, Amalfi, Italy -- So beautiful. Even better because we were there on Easter Sunday. DSC_0641.jpg

3) St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City -- This building is enormous. The sheer size and scope of this cathedral were breath-taking. DSC_0776.jpg

4) St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy -- This church has a very Byzantine feel to it. The mosaics, especially on the domes, were stunning. DSC_0057.jpg

5) Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain -- This modern cathedral is amazing, and will be even more so when it is completed. It was very moving to see a large scale cathedral being build in modern times and made me wonder even more about the construction of older cathedrals without modern tools. DSC_0500.jpg

6) Sainte-Chapelle -- The stained glass windows here are absolutely stunning! Easily one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever been in. DSC_0098.jpg

Best Parks and Gardens

1) Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain -- I spent a wonderful sunny afternoon exploring this huge urban park in central Madrid. There were so many people out playing in the sunshine -- walking, biking, playing soccer and rowing on the lake. It was fun to be a part of it all. DSC_0354.jpg

2) The Gardens at Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria -- The gardens were enormous and really beautiful. The grounds contain small formal gardens, a Palm House and Europe's oldest zoo. And the best part is the grounds have been free and open to the public since the 1700s, when the Hapsburgs decided to share their land with all the people of their empire. DSC_0097.jpg

3) Wallenstein Gardens, Prague, Czech Republic -- I spent a lazy afternoon enjoying these beautiful gardens, which are tucked away in the Little Quarter of Prague. I loved the tulips, lilacs and roses. There was even a decorative beehive in one corner! DSC_0235.jpg DSC_0236.jpg

Random Thoughts
1) Everyone thought I was Swedish! A lot of the people in the hostels didn't think I spoke English because I looked Swedish. I guess those family roots are still pretty strong. Of course as soon as I opened my mouth they all knew I was American.

2) Hostels really aren't so bad. I was a little nervous about staying in hostels originally, since I hadn't done it before. But for the most part they were really pretty decent. There were only a couple of hostels that I didn't like. I found it was a great way to meet new people.

3) Somehow during my travels I managed to hit a lot of historic anniversaries. Not sure if this happens every year, but there seemed to be an abundance of important anniversaries in the places I visited. Here are a few of them: 65th anniversary of D-Day, 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, 90th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Scottish Homecoming (250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns), 10th anniversary of the reinstatement of the Scottish Parliament, 10th anniversary of the euro, 500th anniversary of the reign of King Henry VIII, 80th anniversary of the independence of Vatican City from Italy, 60th anniversary of the Republic of Ireland's independence from Britain, 250th anniversary of the British Museum, 30th anniversary of the first EU Parliamentary elections, 50th anniversary of the premiere of the Sound of Music on Broadway. It was fun to be in many of these places as they celebrated these historic events. There were several great museum exhibits dedicated to the above events, and it really made history come alive for me. In addition, I was in London during th 4th anniversary of the London underground bombings. I probably wouldn't have realized it, except I was staying right by the Russell Square station, one of the main targets of the 7/7 bombings. A huge makeshift memorial sprung up at the station that day and it was really very emotional to see people observing an event that is essentially England's 9/11.

4) One of the beautiful things about travelling is that it helps us connect with people who may be different than us. I was struck many times during my travels by how people are pretty much the same everywhere you go. People want the same things out of life -- to be happy, have work that is rewarding, and watch their children grow up healthy and strong. The sooner we can recognize that at our core we are all the same, the sooner we will be able to live in a world full of peace.

Posted by jenniesue 14:58 Comments (0)

Food, Part 3

Grocery stores and markets

One of my favorite things to do when travelling to new places is to explore grocery stores. I know that might seem a little weird to some, but I feel that you can tell so much about a culture by browsing in the everyday places where normal people shop. And since I love food and eating, it is fun to see how people shop for food. I find it fascinating to see what types of food different stores sell, how things are packaged, and just what American foods are imported for sale. I also really enjoyed exploring the open air markets. There seem to be a lot more community markets in Europe than in the U.S. During my travels, I browsed grocery stores and markets from Paris to Amsterdam and everywhere in between. Here are some of my observations and thoughts.

FRANCE: In Paris, there are not a lot of what we would call grocery stores. Most stores are really small, with just the necessities. One of the things I loved about Paris is that people don't seem to shop at big one-stop-shopping centers. Instead there are small bakeries, butcher shops, cheese shops, and produce stands in each neighborhood. People just buy what they need for a day or two at a time, because the shops are all so convenient. I loved walking along Rue Cler and several other small streets filled with shops and vendors spilling out onto the sidewalks. DSC_0231.jpg

Nice had one of the best markets of any of the towns I visited. Set up on the main square of the old town and just a block from the beach, the market was filled with produce, olives, flowers and sweets. During my 3 days in Nice, I found myself at the market each day buying little snacks for the day ahead. So many different kinds of olives!DSC_0512.jpgDSC_0515.jpg

SPAIN: In Madrid, my hostel was only a block from El Corte Ingles, the huge (and I mean HUGE) department store that is the staple for most Spaniards. It is mainly a department store, but two floors are a grocery store as well. This store had a lot more prepared foods and quick snacks to take on the go. In Barcelona, I absolutely loved the Mercato on Las Ramblas. This was one of the biggest markets that I saw during my trip.DSC_0374.jpg With a protective roof overhead, the market spread out in all directions and sold all different kinds of goods. Produce, fresh squeezed juice, meats, seafood, sushi -- anything you could ever want. It was fun to explore all the different kinds of fruits (including some I had never seen before -- still not sure what a pitahaya is) and sample all kinds of goodies.

ITALY: Italy is somewhat similar to France in that there are a lot of little neighborhood stores selling just produce, meat, or baked goods. Because I was staying with friends, I was out in the suburbs and away from the tourist areas of Naples. There were several small (by US standards) grocery stores in their area. Of course the pasta section was huge! I was also surprised at the size of the freezer section. I couldn't believe the size of the fava beans -- I have never seen beans that big.

AUSTRIA: In both Vienna and Salzburg I enjoyed the markets. In Vienna, the Nachtsmarkt was huge and full of a wide variety of food.DSC_0112.jpgDSC_0113.jpgDSC_0114.jpgDSC_0110.jpg Vienna is considered the gateway to the East because of its proximity to the Balkans and the Middle East. The food available in the market definitely reflected this. So many different types of foods, especially middle eastern, turkish, and greek. There were great dried fruit and nut vendors in the market, and I had some of the best turkish delight there. There were also lots of bakeries and olive vendors. In Salzburg, the market was a lot smaller and not as international. Huge pretzels, fresh produce and flowers made up most of the market.DSC_0318.jpg

CZECH REPUBLIC: In Prague, I couldn't believe how high the food prices were in the restaurants, especially considering that the grocery stores were dirt cheap. I think they have found a way to make some serious money off the tourists. The grocery stores were actually quite big and very modern. The store in Prague was a Tesco, a British supermarket chain. This store probably had the biggest frozen food section of any I visited. And because it was a British store, there were plenty of British and American brands being sold.

SWITZERLAND: Switzerland easily had the biggest and most modern of any grocery stores I visited. I couldn't believe the enormous selection of foods there. You can buy boxed Thai foods, taco shells, and sushi trimmings. I also couldn't believe the size of the chocolate and the cheese aisles. You can definitely tell what is important to a culture by the amount of space dedicated to a product in a grocery store. The grocery stores in Switzerland also had a really high amount of packaged and processed goods. In the other countries I visited, it seemed that the majority of space was dedicated to fresh produce and baked goods. That was a relatively small part of the Swiss stores. Another observation: eggs are stored on the shelves and not in the refrigerated section. This was true in most of the stores I visited in Europe and made me wonder why we are so adamant about refrigerating our eggs. In Swiss stores, some eggs are dyed bright primary colors. I had to ask Erica and Ryan about that one. Apparently it means they are already hard boiled. They weren't sure why so many different colors were used.

GERMANY: In Germany, the grocery stores had a huge selection of different types of breads and pastries. And of course gummies! A whole aisle full of gummy candy. In Munich we explored the Viktualienmarket, a huge semi-permanent market complex selling everything from fresh bread and beer to black forest hams. There were also lots of handicrafts and flowers.

GREECE: In Greece, the grocery stores tended to be quite small with mainly produce, dairy products, wine and a few packaged goods. Almost all of the stores on the Greek Isles had fresh baklava too! The Greek potato chips were great. And the selection of yogurt, honey, olive oil and spices was amazing.

UK AND IRELAND: I had so much fun exploring (and shopping at) the grocery stores in the UK. They are really big and somewhat similar to US stores. One big difference was the amount of prepared foods. I couldn't believe how many prepared, pre-packaged, ready to eat foods were on sale. Most stores had at least four long aisles of prepared foods. It was great for travelling because it was really easy to pop into a grocery store and get a sandwich or a salad for lunch and not have to pay too much for it. And the foods were really delicious! I loved Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Sainsbury's. While on my own, I ate most of my meals from the grocery stores. I wish we had similar stores in the US. I guess Whole Foods would be the closest equivalent. I was also amazed at the way produce was packaged in the UK. It seemed like all the fruits and vegetables were already parceled out and in sealed plastic bags. Very weird.

BELGIUM: The grocery stores in Belgium were mid-size, with large cheese and chocolate sections. They tended to have quite a few French and German foods as well, probably due to the close proximity to these countries. The produce and bakery sections were quite small and without a lot of variety.

NETHERLANDS: The grocery stores in the Netherlands were similar to those in Belgium. DSC_0506_02.jpgHuge aisles of chocolate and cheese (No wonder I loved eating in Europe so much)! There were also a lot of pre-packaged Indonesian foods and sauces. The market in Haarlem was really great, with produce, cheese, bakery, stroopwaffel and fry stands. I had a great lunch just browsing and sampling different things.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS: I was surprised at the amount and variety of American foods imported to European grocery stores. One thing that I seemed to see everywhere was Special K cereal. I was a little surprised at that, but I guess that women everywhere are watching their figures. Of course there were Coca-cola products everywhere and occasionally some Pepsi products as well. Another thing that surprised me were potato chips. Cheetos and Pringles were all over Europe, but they weren't the familiar chips we are used to. Cheetos were not the neon orange twists (I didn't see any of those in Europe), but came in all different flavors. Pringles also came in unfamiliar flavors, including steak and prawn cocktail.

I was surprised to see grocery store checkers sitting down on the job. In all of the grocery stores I visited, checkers sit rather than stand. I can imagine that this must be much better for the people working. It was also interesting that most stores do not provide grocery bags. You bring your own or you pay extra for plastic bags. And you stuff as much as possible in each bag. This is a great idea and would really discourage shoppers from overusing plastic bags, especially in Texas where they seem to think only two items can fit in a bag, no matter what size they are.

I really enjoyed the markets and wish that we had more markets in the US. I know in many places farmer's markets are starting to be more popular. There is just something great about walking to a market, picking up fresh produce from the people who grow it and only taking what you need for a few days at a time. There is also something great about still shopping in stores that are specialties -- a butcher for meat products, a bakery for bread products, etc. It seems like in American we are going farther away from that and towards more superstores with everything you need in one place. While the convenience is nice, I think the quality suffers. And it is getting harder and harder to find local stores.

Posted by jenniesue 14:13 Comments (0)

Netherlands

Haarlem and Amsterdam

My first stop in the Netherlands was in Haarlem. Haarlem is a small city less than 30 minutes from Amsterdam. It is a market town and was once the center of Dutch painting.DSC_0513_02.jpg It has retained a quaint feeling and was easy to explore on foot. It is a beautiful town with a historic market square (Grote Markt). The day I arrived was market day and I headed straight to the center of town. What a great market! DSC_0506_02.jpgThere were great produce, cheese, seafood and bakery stalls. I ate stroopwaffels straight off the grill, still warm and gooey. They were delicious! There were several flower stalls filled with different blooms. On the train ride to Haarlem, I passed many of the flower fields. It was a little too late in the season for most flowers, but some were still in bloom. I can only imagine how beautiful the countryside must be during the springtime, especially when the tulips are blooming. Hopefully I can return someday to see that. DSC_0502_02.jpgDSC_0499_02.jpg

One side of Grote Markt is dominated by the Grote Kerk, the main church in town. It is a huge church, but by far the main draw is the enormous organ that dominates one end of the church. I was surprised when I walked in the church and all of the seating was oriented towards the organ and not the altar. But the organ was amazing. It was huge. Apparently both Mozart and Hayden played here. DSC_0494_02.jpg

On my second day in Haarlem, I decided to join the Dutch and rent a bike. The Dutch are known as being huge bikers, and even today it is the main mode of transportation for most of the country. There are bike paths everywhere, connecting just about every city in the country. I was surprised to see some bikes outfitted with big wooden boxes -- used to transport everything from groceries to children. DSC_0505_02.jpgI saw several families taking their children to school or shopping, with mom or dad biking and up to 4 children stuck to various places on the bike. It really makes a lot of sense. Not only is it environmentally friendly, but so much easier and healthier than driving. I am not really a bike rider, and other than a quick trip to the train station in Switzerland with Erica and Ryan, I haven't been on a bike in years. I forgot just how fun it could be.

I biked from my hostel out to the beach at Bloemendaal. It was a beautiful ride through fields and picturesque neighborhoods, along a national park and ending at a beautiful beach on the North Sea.DSC_0510_02.jpg Since it was a weekend, there were lots of other bikers and families out enjoying the day. The weather was perfect and it was just a lovely, lovely day. I had a great breakfast overlooking the North Sea and then biked back into Haarlem. I biked along the river in Haarlem and stumbled upon several old and new windmills, as well as numerous houseboats.DSC_0521_02.jpg

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Haarlem was one of the richest cities in Europe. It was the center of Dutch culture and especially of the arts. I have always been a fan of Dutch painting and was excited to visit the Frans Hals Museum. The Museum was great, with a huge collection of Frans Hals works, as well as other Dutch painters. I especially liked Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Netherlandish Proverbs. It is a painting illustrating over 70 different proverbs. Some of the depictions were really funny, and the painting was so detailed. It was fun to examine it and try to determine what each proverb meant.

I spent the rest of the day biking through the countryside. It was so beautiful and relaxing that I just kept going. I saw numerous tall ships out on the canals, and watched the drawbridge system in work (even on a freeway!). It was a great day and an amazing way to experience all the best of Holland.DSC_0523_02.jpg

The next day I headed to Amsterdam, my last stop on my European journey. DSC_0547_02.jpgIt was crazy to think that my trip was almost coming to an end, but at the same time I was really looking forward to going home. I was excited to see my family and friends again, and to sleep in my own bed and not live out of a suitcase for awhile. I was a little nervous about Amsterdam, as I had heard it was a huge party town. It is definitely known for it's liberal drug laws and red light district. I was a little worried that the hostel would not be a good situation and that it would be filled with drunk and high teenagers. Thankfully, it worked out perfectly. I had a room with 4 Australian girls who were all about the same age as me and not at all into the party scene.

I think Amsterdam doesn't always get it's due as the amazing city that it is. For a lot of tourists, the main attractions are the red light district and the "coffeeshops" selling marijuana.DSC_0550_02.jpg But the city is absolutely beautiful. The canals, the buildings, the tree lined streets -- it is a picturesque city to just wander around. I spent the first day wandering the streets, visiting the flower market and cruising on the canals.DSC_0546_02.jpg I was so excited to eat good Indonesian food -- something I haven't had since living in Indonesia 8 years ago. The Netherlands colonized Indonesia, and there are still numerous Indonesian influences in the Netherlands. And the Indonesian food was amazing! So good, in fact, that I had to eat it two nights in a row!

DSC_0540_02.jpgDSC_0542_02.jpgOn my second day in Amsterdam I took a free walking tour. New Europe is a company that leads free walking tours of cities all over Europe. Basically the guides work on a tip only basis. I hadn't taken many walking tours during my trip, mainly becauses the tours only operate during peak season. I was a little wary of the free tours, thinking they might not be so good, but it was actually really great. I learned so much and saw quite a bit of the city. The guide was really entertaining as well. On the walking tour I also met a really nice guy from Sweden who had lived and studied in Eastern Washington about 45 minutes from where my parents lived. We had a fun time talking and exploring Amsterdam.

Amsterdam has some amazing museums. The Van Gogh Museum was especially impressive. I have always admired Van Gogh's work, but most museums will only have one or two paintings by him. It was amazing to see such a large body of work and to be able to see the progression of Van Gogh's art through the years. He really had a style that was all his own. I also really enjoyed the Rijksmuseum, although only a portion was open due to ongoing construction. The Rijksmuseum had a large collection of Dutch artwork, as well as various artifacts brought back by the Dutch East Indies Company. One of my favorite paintings was Rembrandt's Night Watch. It is a remarkable work of art.

I also visited the Anne Frank House and Museum. It was really interesting to see the house where Anne Frank and her family were hidden. Even though it has been many years since I have read the Diary of Anne Frank, the story has always remained with me. The space has deliberately been left empty since the family was seized. I really enjoyed seeing the actual original diary that Anne Frank kept. The best part of the museum in my opinion was the exhibit at the end called Free2Choose. This is an exhibit that shows small video vignettes of different situations that call into question discrimination and civil liberties. After watching each small video clip, everyone in the room can push a button and vote on the issues. The exhibit then shows the percentages of everyone currently voting, as well as the total votes of everyone who has visited the museum this year. Some of the questions were really thought provoking and show just how much gray area there is when talking about things like religious freedom and freedom of speech. It really made me think about how we as a society approach such issues, as well as thinking about the differences between the approaches of the EU and the US.

I really enjoyed my time in the Netherlands. It it such a beautiful country and the Dutch people are so friendly. As usual, I loved sampling the local cuisine -- including cheese, chocolate, stroopwaffels, and yummy Indonesian food. It was a great ending to a great trip!DSC_0532_02.jpg

Posted by jenniesue 13:06 Comments (0)

Books

Reading across Europe

Books were a constant companion on my travels. I really love to read, and especially while travelling alone, books can make good friends. They help pass the time on long train/plane/ferry rides, and they can make dining out alone not so uncomfortable. I have always loved to read and I tend to read anything and everything. For the first part of my trip, the thing I missed the most was English language newspapers, magazines, and books. I would visit any and every English language bookstore I could find. Most major cities had at least one English bookstore, and I would load up on books. I mainly read books related to Europe. Reading can give you such a great insight into historical events, cultural differences and different eras. Here is a summary of some of the great books I read.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
This is an absolutely great work of fiction that was found after being lost for several decades. Nemrovsky was a Russian Jew who considered herself to be a French Atheist. Unfortunately, the Germans didn't care so much. Both she and her husband were sent to concentration camps and died at Auschwitz. She was a well known author during her time, and was in the process of writing Suite Francais during her death. Originally it was supposed to be 5 separate books that were connected by similar stories. Only the first two stories were written. Suite Francais is an insightful look into the lives of ordinary people during the German invasion of Paris and the occupation. It is a universal story about love, life and survival in extraordinary times. One of the best points that this book made is that people are people, no matter which side of the war they were on. French mothers and German mothers were both worrying about their children; husbands and wives were separated on both sides; children lost parents. That love, pain, and loss are the same, no matter who you are fighting for.

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
This non-fiction work is about a writer, his wife and their new baby choosing to live in Paris for 5 years. It was very funny and full of insights into Parisian life. This is a great book for anyone who has ever lived or wanted to live abroad. It shows the beauty and the frustration of making a life in a country and a culture that is not your own, while also encountering the travails of being a new parent. Thanks Jenny W for the great book!

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
I can't believe that I have never read this book before! I loved and was instantly drawn into the story. It helped that I was visiting numerous museums and other sites associated with the French Revolution. I even visited Victor Hugo's apartment in Paris. This is a fantastic book, and I was so excited to see the stage production in London. And it didn't disappoint! A great adaptation. I was really glad that I had just read the book prior to seeing the show though; it helped me understand what was going on and I had a greater insight into some of the characters.

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
This is a non-fiction book about Venice and the fire that destroyed the La Fenice opera house in 1996, written by the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It is an entertaining book about the author and his investigation into the fire. It is also a great introduction to Venice. Venice is unlike any city on earth, and Berendt really brings to life its unique, quirky character. It was great to read this before visiting Venice, because I felt like I knew the city and its residents. I kept waiting to run into someone I "knew" from the book. It really helped bring Venice to life for me.

Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride
This book is about a group of African American buffalo soldiers fighting in Italy during WWII and the events that shape their lives. They find themselves stuck between the advancing German army and Italian resistance fighters. They also find themselves becoming part of a small village and the caretakers for a small orphan boy. This book was great at documenting the realities of war for Italy and especially Italians in rural areas, a part of the war that is often overlooked in current literature.

The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
I had read the DaVinci Code before, but it was great to read it in Europe while visiting many of the places mentioned in the books. This was the first time I had read Angels and Demons, and reading it in Italy was perfect. These books are great enteratinment, as long as the history is taken with a grain of salt.

The Broker by John Grisham
A fun, quick read from John Grisham. When I picked up this book in a hostel, I didn't know that it was mainly set in Italy -- that was just a bonus.

Berlin Game by Len Deighton
An old-school spy novel from 1983, set in a divided Berlin. An interesting look into the world of British espionage, and how the world used to be during the Cold War. Considering the world today, this book seems like ancient history, describing an era and a place that no longer exists.

Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink
This is the second novel by the author of The Reader. It is the story of Peter, a middle aged German man who is somewhat lost in life. He becomes obsessed with finding out the ending of a story of homecoming of a German soldier after WWII that he read as a boy. When he originally read the story, the final pages were missing. He goes on a quest (somewhat remniscent of The Odyssey) to find the ending to the story, and hopefully his own. An interesting example of how WWII and Nazi Germany continues to have an effect on modern generations of Germans.

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
A novel about the pantheon of Greek gods, who are still alive and living in modern day London. They are on their way out, with the power only coming from those who believe in them. So the whole divine crew lives in a dilapidated house in a London suburb and attempts to go on living in the 21st century. A great premise for a story; unfortunately, not very well written and a little stupid.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
A great novel about the construction of a cathedral in the English countryside in the 12th century. Despite the massive size of this book, it really was a quick read. It was fun to think about life in medieval times, especially as I was starting my travels through the UK. I never looked at a cathedral quite the same way again, without wondering about the construction, who built it and just how many artisans it took to make such a massive, beautiful structure.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
A great novel about a 17th century English village that sequesters itself from the outside world after the plague is discovered in the village. Told through the eyes of Anna, a peasant, this book chronicles the struggles of everyday life in a farming village. It also shows just how much the plague devastated everyone who came in contact with it. With time, the villagers become immune to the dead and dying, and yet somehow have to keep on living.

Persuasion by Jane Austen
I read this book while in Bath, which is where Jane Austen wrote it. It really helped to be able to picture the countryside and the city of Bath as she was telling a tale set there. As with all of Jane Austen's books, this was a fun read about the constraints of 18th century British society, and especially the role of women in love and life.

British Chick Lit
I am a huge fan of British chick lit, and have read all of Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes, Jane Green, etc. They are just the perfect entertaining books that allow you to shut your mind off for a few hours. While travelling, I read Undomestic Goddess and Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella, Me and Mr. Darcy by Alexandra Potter, and several others that I can't remember. Fun reads and I now have a better understanding of some of the things they talk about (like eating at Marks & Spencers, going for a curry, shopping at Top Shop, and taking the tube around London).

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave (released as Little Bee in the US)
A really amazing book about the lives of two women and how they are entertwined. I can't say more than this or it will give too much away. Just read it! Talks a lot about immigration policies and the detention centers in the UK.

The United States of Europe by T.R. Reid
This is a great book describing the rise and importance of the European Union, and why Americans should care about it. Very insightful into how the EU was first formed and how its power and scope have made it the new world superpower. This book is about 5 years old, so some of the information is dated, but overall it was a good, easy read. A good introduction to the EU for most Americans.

Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
I highly recommend this book for anyone who is going to be travelling in Europe and wants a better understanding of the history behind many of the tourist sites and art movements. This is part of the Rick Steves guidebook series and is well written and easy to read. It is a basic overview of European history, with just enough detail to help bring understanding to the sometimes confusing and chaotic history of the continent. This book was especially good at describing the various periods of art history and how art has been transformed throughout the centuries. For anyone without a history degree, this is a perfect companion to European travel. I really enjoyed reading it, and it gave me a much better understanding of what I was seeing and experiencing.

For travel guides, I mainly relied on Rick Steves Best of Europe 2009 and Rick Steves Europe through the Back Door. I really liked the practical information that Rick Steves provides in his guides. It was especially good for getting oriented in a new city and finding my way around. I liked the self-guided walks that were included in many of the cities. I also really liked how the guidebooks rated sights by priority (what shouldn't be missed versus sights that might only appeal to some people). One drawback of the Rick Steves books: not a lot of history and background information about the places I visited. Overall, I thought they were good books and I would use them again. When I was spending more time in specific cities (or they weren't covered by Rick Steves books) I used TimeOut and Top10 travel guides. These are great city guides that offer a lot of detail, often breaking down cities into distinct neighborhoods. Top10 guides were really good at rating the best sights in a city. It was especially helpful for big museums (like the British Museum), where they rated the top 10 exhibits within the museum.

Posted by jenniesue 09:40 Comments (0)

Belgium

Bruges

Bruges is an absolutely lovely city! It is a small town, but a very well perserved example of Gothic Europe. The city center lies within a ring of canals that used to serve as a moat for the city. It is a beautiful place to just wander around and walk the streets. The city is so picture-perfect that it felt a little like wandering around in an old Flemish painting. It was such a relaxing place to spend a couple of days.DSC_0440_02.jpg

During the 14th and 15th centuries, Bruges was the place to be. It was one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in Europe (the population was bigger than London). It was known as a huge trading center, and eventually became the center of the cloth-making industry. In the 16th century, the harbor silted up and Bruges' heyday was over. The city was pretty much fogotten about for a couple of centuries, until tourists found their way there and discovered it's charm. According to the city map, tourists were initially drawn to Bruges for the wrong reasons. A book was published discussing how Bruges was a terrible place, full of dark Gothic buildings. People wanted to see it for themselves, so they started visiting. It is a little ironic, but the same thing is happening now. A couple of years ago the movie In Bruges was released. It is a funny movie, full of dark humor about two hitmen stashed away in Bruges after botching a job. The whole premise of the movie is how much they hate Bruges and what a terrible place it is. Of course, since the release of the movie, even more tourists are making their way to Bruges!

The city itself is centered around Markt and Burg Squares. DSC_0468_02.jpgMarkt square was the commercial part of the city, and is a huge open plaza full of cafes, horse-drawn carriages, and tourists. DSC_0466_02.jpgOn one side of the square is the Belfry. I walked up the stairs (all 366 of them!) and got an amazing view of the town. Burg Square is the governmental part of the city. The Gothic city hall, the Governors Palace, and the Church of the Holy Blood are all on the Square. There were so many beautiful churches in Bruges; it was so nice to wander in and out of them. I really enjoyed the Church of Our Lady, a church made famous by Michelangelo's Madonna and Child -- a statue that was purchased for the church during Michelangelo's lifetime. That's how wealthy Bruges used to be. DSC_0448_02.jpg

Bruges was also the center of Flemish art. Flemish painting is (in my opinion) some of the most detailed and beautiful art. At a time when the Reformation forbid the Protestant church from hiring artists, the Flemish masters started painting everyday scenes, rather than church art. Wealthy merchants wanted portraits of their families, their guilds and their towns. I really love the scenes of everyday life found in Flemish art. I especially like Peter Brughel, Jan Vermeer and Franz Hals. Bruges has a couple of great museums dedicated to Flemish art.

Bruges is very much a city of canals. DSC_0486_02.jpgI found it very easy to get lost just wandering back streets along the canal banks. It was so peaceful. Parks are dotted all along the ring of canals that forms the city boundaries. DSC_0487_02.jpgThere are even four windmills scattered along the banks. I absolutely loved it and spent most of my time there just walking around. The food was terrific too! I really liked the frites stands -- take away French fry stands complete with mayo for dipping.DSC_0460_02.jpgDSC_0485_02.jpg

Posted by jenniesue 07:19 Comments (0)

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