Eurotrip recap: Amsterdam

The train ride in had been a bit stressful, but Amsterdam quickly helped us put that in the back of our heads. When we got off the train, it was a nice day out; the sun was shining, there was only a gentle breeze and the temperature was just right. Looking around, we saw mostly people our age. Even better: there wasn’t a toddler or little kid in sight. Catching a more mindful breath of air, we remembered why.

We stayed at the Eden Hotel, which was pretty fantastic as a centric starting point to go around Amsterdam. Everything was close, and the glorious buffet breakfast gave us plenty of energy to walk to all sorts of places. There was one minor annoyance, that affected Kelly much more than me; our room was the first room on the very first floor, so we were close to the elevator and its engine room. A high-pitched screeching noise seeped the walls and into our room non-stop. However, the noise didn’t vary on volume or tone. That might make you wonder why I’m sharing this strange detail, but we spent many hours talking about how to fade a sound into the background of the curtain of noises that feed into our ears. While on the subject, we somehow deviated into spiritual chat about bodies being vessels of our true selves, and all sorts of really deep stuff that there’s no way I’m blogging about them. What’s important is that some of my favorite moments of our entire trip took place in our hotel room in Amsterdam; reinforcing my beliefs that it’s not where or why that matters most, but who.

On the note of being shmoopy and romantic, I must say that I found Amsterdam much more romantic than Paris -the City of Love. You know, having been to both those places now, I don’t feel entitled to saying snobby things like this, but I think it’s worth explaining. In Paris, the fear of a gypsy stealing your soul, the masses of people everywhere, the shitty traffic and the sheer smell of piss everywhere,  make it a bit difficult to feel all the love. We certainly tried, having candle-light dinners and making out smooching at the Eiffel Tower for hours.
Amsterdam’s vibe of “be and let be” was much more conducive to romance for us. Walking everywhere hand in hand or hugged together wasnot a problem; there weren’t dozens of people trying to rush past you. We felt like sitting by a canal and let our feet dangle together; no one gave us a dirty look, tried to sell us a souvenir or came to sit right next to along with fifty other people crammed in a river bank. Not even! It was easy to feel like it was just the two of us.

We rode bikes and it was great. Although it was with a tour company, it was probably for the best. There are so many bike paths that you could get lost without a guide! Mike’s countryside bike tour was a ton of fun. We went from being downtown and an actual part of bike traffic (they really are everywhere!) to the countryside in less than 20 minutes. Suddenly, farms, lakes and windmills are all you can see. The tour took 4 hours, and it taught us a bit about Amsterdam, Holland and The Netherlands (not the same thing!), cheese (a cheese farm was the lunch stop of the tour) and those crazy and fun-loving dutch people.

We did go by the red light district. A quick walk-by of De Wallen gave us enough to talk about back home: the professionals are definitely better looking than any we’d ever seen before in real life and we saw a satisfied customer paying and saying goodbye.

Out of all cities, Amsterdam was my favorite. It felt like a little big city, with tons of things to see and do. There is a lot of interesting and entertaining history to it. There are weirdos around, lots of them. It’s easy to get around, but big enough that you need a map to know how to get somewhere. We liked that talking to the locals was super easy, because everyone spoke perfect English.http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicoyogui/6028392590/in/set-72157627398685778/ But what I liked the most had to do with the same topic as our hotel room chats: noise. Or rather, the lack of it. Partly because most people are on super comfortable and silent bicycles, and because the few cars that there are, are not ridiculous SUVs, being in the middle of the city felt nothing like it to our ears. Such a nice feeling, being able to talk to the person next to you without having to yell or get a mouthful of smog.

To summarize: I’d go back to Amsterdam. One thing’s for sure: don’t take your kids there, I wouldn’t!

 

All our pictures are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicoyogui/sets/72157627398685778

Eurotrip recap: Paris

Time for part deux of our report, when we boarded a train in London, somehow traveled in a Chunnel (in a Tunnel under the Channel) and ended up in France.
There were several little tunnels on the way, so we weren’t sure about when exactly we had made into France. We didn’t see any signs, there wasn’t a greeting played and we certainly didn’t smell baguettes or armpits -yet. Clever enough to figure it out, we knew we were in the old Gaul when we saw that cars were driving on the right-hand side of the road.

After the first few footsteps in Gare du Nord, I knew our vacation’s time for adventure had come. Trying to hide my “holy shit, I don’t remember any French” face, I guided us to where all the taxis were hovering. I flagged one down, and the first words that came out of my mouth were not perfect French. Far from that, they weren’t even in broken French! It probably would have been excusable if I’d gave it a shot in Spanish/French, but nope. I might as well have been wearing a Hawaiian short sleeve button-up shirt, because this was me:  “Excuse me, Do you speak English?”.
Luckily, the cabbie said “Yes” and we managed to get to our hotel, giggling the whole way there because we just had a small preview of what our next 3 days were going to be like.

We stayed at the Hotel Eiffel Capitol Paris, a pretty modest little place that made up for its lack of modern amenities by its service, charm and above all: location. We were three blocks away from the Eiffel Tower, which we went and saw right after we put our suitcases away. And we saw it again, and again and again.

Time for the list!

  • Unlike England, Paris was difficult to get around in. Sure, it was partly because everything seems to be named the same: Take two spoonfuls of maple syrup, hold your breath, and all the subway stops end up sounding the same.
    In addition to the language barrier, the subway is not entirely a subway. There is a combination of underground trams, above-ground trains and inter-city long-distance trains that make it worthwhile to double-check what train you’re getting on. Fortunately, we didn’t end up taking a train to anywhere we didn’t want to go, but we did sit on a train that didn’t move for 5 minutes until an inspector came by to politely ask us to disembark, since we had arrived to the end of the line for the day, since the rest of the route was under construction.
  • Paris was the place where we wanted to be for our first anniversary of married life. In fact, that’s why we planned our trip! The other cities, all the other stuff… that’s just filler. Really awesome, memorable filler.
  • The Eiffel tower is great. We did many things around it, as it meant something for Kelly and I before we even got there (and now it means even more).
    We took the elevator to the very top (reservations are the way to go!, we waited 5 minutes with a dozen people unlike the poor fools that were in line for hours with hundreds of others), took pictures and marveled at how vast and humongous Paris is.
    On one evening, we decided to go have an dinner appetizer on the fields by the tower and wait until the sun set and the tower is lit up.
    Waiting for the sunset...
    It turns out that this is a very popular thing to do, even amongst Parisians. Right next to us was a group of about six young adults that were not only obviously locals, but painfully superior in their partying ways: They had coolers full of hard alcohol, mixers, champagne, wine and beer. Oh, wait, they’re locals, so don’t forget to include the cigarettes that they all smoke like it’s the age before knowing that they’re cancer sticks. Anyway, these guys were pretty loud and fun to watch. We debated befriending them, but we had enough for ourselves with our modest plate of cured meats and a little wine bottle.
  • Besides the Eiffel Tower reservations, we didn’t have much planned. We figured we’d play it by ear, and that’s how we ended up going to the Louvre on the day that it was closed. Oh well, we still got to walk around a lot.
  • Since the subway was more trouble than it seemed to be worth to us, we ended up walking around a lot. This yielded a much richer experience in my opinion, there’s no way we would have walked by what seemed like an abandoned public showers underground plaza – and was now being used instead as a gigantic urinal that you could smell from a block away.
  • One of the most picturesque walks we did was from the top of the Avenue des Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Walking past famous shops, seeing people ranging from dressed up model wannabes to the stereotypical fat tourist, being almost run over by someone on a Vespa or trying to take a picture without a huge tour bus in it, we could have spent all day just hanging out there and not getting bored.
  • Eating in Paris was pretty fun. Most of the fun comes from not knowing what something on the menu means and ordering it anyway by pointing a finger to it.
    However, most restaurants cater pretty well to foreigners, despite the preconception that the French will treat you like a second class human if you don’t parler le français. Once you understand that in Europe, waiters are laid back and you have to be assertive, the whole feeling of “service sucks” goes out the window. I have no complaints about the way we were treated, au contraire.
    While on the subject of food, I do have to say: The French know how to make fries, but they don’t know how to eat them. Mayonnaise is not complimentary at all!
  • The gypsies are present in Paris, but they share their annoying ways with trinket salesmen with some sort of African origin. The gypsies hustle with their petitions just like in London, but the African tchotchke slingers are all over the place with tiny Eiffel Towers, magnets, t-shirts and whatever else one could imagine would be a good souvenir. They are all ready to take off in a split second, with all their goods on a blanket that transforms into a bag with a draw string.
    We saw this in action a lot by the Eiffel Tower, where the way of the black market (ouch, no pun intended) is to whistle when a cop is near. Suddenly, you see a bunch of thin and dark-skinned men running in one direction, and they’re all smiling and laughing because they know they could run two marathons before a pansy cop in full uniform would catch them.

Our visit to France went pretty smoothly, except for the very last hours. We boarded our train to our next destination, settled into our seats and we were away! Relaxing and looking forward to the rest of our trip, we weren’t expecting the bucket of ice-cold water that was coming our way.
The train captain came by asking for tickets, we handed him our passes. He told us that there was a problem, and that we hadn’t gotten our pass validated right before boarding, and we were going to have to pay a fine of €150 because we were missing a stamp. He gave us a shake of his head, literally asked us: “Have you not read the tickets’ instructions?”, told us to get our stuff together and that he’d be back to see what could be done.
Freaking out because that was a lot of money, we read and re-read the train pass booklets. He was right, we apparently needed to check-in before we used the pass on Continental Europe (this train pass didn’t count for the Chunnel trip, but was our transportation for everything else). It would have taken us less than 5 minutes to get it validated, but we were already miles away from Paris.
After about 10 minutes of panic, Captain MeanPants showed up again. He told us that he’d decided to waive the fine and proceeded to stamp our passes without much problem. Although relieved that we didn’t have to spend a ton of money to cover up for a small oversight, we couldn’t help but wonder why he had to be so rude about it all. Sure, we could have paid attention to every single word on the tickets, but if he had the power and ability to make it all work out with a simple little stamp, we only had one conclusion to draw from this experience: he was a dick because he could, and also, because he’s French.

We certainly look back into our time in Paris with much fondness, despite the small hiccups. The many wonderful memories will definitely outlast the bitter time on the train. Even so, we have even gotten to the point where we can laugh about it all, and that’s when you know that not even a snotty train captain can ruin traveling with your better half.

Oh yeah, the pictures are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicoyogui/sets/72157627273975309/

Eurotrip recap: England.

 Better late than never! Our trip to Europe this past summer was tons of fun. It’s embarrassing that it’s taken me this long to write about it. So anyway, here it goes. Part one of four is about England, as you might have already figured out.

London:

  • We stayed at the Waterloo Novotel. It was a very nice hotel, just a couple of blocks away from the subway (aka, the Tube) and also from the Parliament. The only bad thing about the hotel was that they didn’t include breakfast. I don’t think pegging the hotel for the rude Italian tourists would be fair, so I’ll leave that for later.
  • England was definitely the easiest city to get around in that we visited. Perhaps this was because the maps we got were well designed, clear and understandable. Perhaps it had to do with everything being in English, and the lack of a language barrier. It definitely helped that the Tube was straight forward and not a spaghetti-like mess of lines and stops.
  • It only rained once on us! We were expecting to experience the famous London crappy weather, but we saw the sunshine more than half the time we were there. However, when it did rain, it was pretty awesome, and we walked around under an umbrella in the early evening as we tried to find a place to eat. The day after the rainy night, there were puddles everywhere.
  • For anyone traveling to London for more than a couple of days, look into the London Pass. We had one, and it helped us figure out what we wanted to see, and there are plenty of discounts in there that in the end, the Pass ends up paying for itself. We even got a free canal trip out of it, which saved us time and gave us a unique view that we probably wouldn’t have sprung for if we had to pay for it.
  • There are tons of tourists everywhere! Specially with the “nice” weather, walking around the major attractions (the Big Ben, for example) was pretty hectic. People pile up trying to get a picture, gypsies bring on the hustle and try to get you to sign a petition of some sort(which I think is a distraction to get into your pockets, bags and purses). On one hand, it’s a pretty colorful experience because there are people from all over the world, but it can be a bit stressful if you’re not ready for it. Luckily, we didn’t have any bad experiences (or got robbed by a gypsy).
  • On one day, we walked several miles and tried squeezing in as many sights as we could. Our feet got pretty tired early in the day, but we kept on keeping on.
  • An early morning, we took a trip to Abbey Road, which turned out to be lots of fun and costing us a trip on the subway and nothing else. We crossed Abbey Road on the same intersection as the famous Beatles album cover, and got tons of pictures.
    Kelly told her mom that we’d be there, and since it was early morning, it was only about 10pm in Reno. Kelly’s mom happened to be looking at the Abbey Road webcam, and saw us goofing off live over the internet! She says that she could hear us laughing and yelling “Go over there!” and counting down for pictures and the like. Good times!
  • As many will tell you, the most forgettable thing about London is the food. Our best meal was at an Indian restaurant! We did experience “pub food” at a very friendly little joint near the hotel.
    If I had to talk about our culinary experience in England, it’d be pretty simple to explain: Fish & Chips, Indian food and above all: beer.

Liverpool:

  • We took a day trip to Liverpool because we wanted to do the Magical Mystery Tour. Kelly is a huge Beatles fan and looked forward to this for a long time. I like them too, but I pale in comparison to Kelly’s knowledge of their history and music.
  • The trip started by taking a train from London to Liverpool. It was my first time on a train, ever!
  • From the Liverpool train station, we walked all the way to the Beatles Story museum. It’s a self-guided audio tour that takes a good hour or more to go through. I learned lots of new Beatles trivia, got to hear some music from before the band was official and enjoy my wife being a happy fangirl.
  • After the museum, we got on with the actual tour.  The bus was pretty goofy, very old fashioned and smelled like cabbage. Ok, maybe it didn’t smell like cabbage, but it wasn’t a fresh smell either.

    The bus took us around to many places in Liverpool, like the houses were each of the Beatles were born or raised. Everytime we went to a place that had a song named after it, they played the song through the bus; for example: “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields”. Pretty fun!
    We’d stop at most of the places and take pictures. A total act of herding tourists, but we enjoyed playing our part and we absolutely got out, took pictures and looked around with big eyes taking it all in.
  • The tour guide on the bus definitely made this worthwhile. We had to look him up after we got home, so we’re not 100% sure about his name being Neil Brannan. Anyway, he was funny, witty and shared a lot of cool stories about the Beatles. He was even in the movie “In His Life: The John Lennon Story“. Here’s a YouTube clip I found of him giving out the tour: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZFAk8lqrSQ. If you’re going to Liverpool, do this!
  • Liverpool was a perfect one-day trip. We got in, we did everything we wanted to do and we even had time to spare to hang out downtown. We debated going to Stonehenge and having a day trip for that as well, but it just didn’t happen. No regrets though, Liverpool was definitely worth it and a very cherished memory.

All of the pictures from England are on Flickr, so go there to see a bit of what we saw. Here’s a link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicoyogui/sets/72157627396790814/