Day 6: Brussels

Aug 31

Our last day in Brussels was spent with me finishing my paper in the hotel room while Anja went to the Museum of Natural Sciences to see their dinosaur exhibits. Since I have no interest in dinosaurs or anything of the sort, and I had a final project to write for my last class, which is akin to a thesis, I wanted to stay in. After a while I knew I needed a break, so I ventured outside for a stroll. The receptionist recommended that I go to the Bailli stop on the tram, and if I head west on the street I will get to a plaza called Place du Chatelain. It was quite a long walk to the Bailli stop, and I don’t think I ever saw the plaza, but I did end up at a little square where a church stood. It was drizzling a bit during this time, and it was a little inconvenient to have my camera out in the open as I feared it would get wet, but I managed to take some shots of the church and the surrounding scene. I continued to walk some more, with my hoodie up on my head. There were a lot of shops all around, mostly boutique clothing and furniture shops, as well as cafes and restaurants.

This was the Ixelles neighborhood, which I think was nice, quiet livable and in close proximity to rich streets like Avenue Louise. If I were to live in Brussels, I wouldn’t mind getting a place in that neighborhood. I walked around some more and I spotted so many boutique stores that carry clothing and accessories that I like, but all of them were closed. I spotted a store that caught my attention, and there I was, with a coffee cup in my hand, looking through the glass window, hand in my trench coat pocket… and it occurred to me that I was in a “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” moment. It was quite marvelous 🙂

I proceeded to walk some more and find my way back to Chassures de Charleroi, where our hotel was located. I eventually found it, but not until stopping by a boutique shop that was opened (but didn’t see anything I liked) and a Carrefour store. When I got back to the hotel, Anja was back from the museum, and so we made our way to the city center for our last stop in Brussels before we take our trains going separate ways the day after.

Our last stop in Brussels was at St. Catherine Church, going all the way to Rue de Antoine Dansaert. The neighborhood was quite low key but trendy; the huge church was there, and also a ton of restaurants and shops that varied in price and offerings. There were a few stores that I wanted to check out, but since it was a Sunday, they were all closed so I was not able to get in. I did list the store names in case they have available selections online or if I find myself back in Brussels, I’ll make sure to check them out then. We walked around, taking in the sights, stopping by bakeries to pick up some pastries that we will miss when we leave Brussels, and had dinner at this nice Italian restaurant called Il Primo Piatti. We had carbonara, tiramisu and coffee, and our waiter looked like Anthony Bourdain. It was a great location to round out our Brussels experience. It was definitely a hip neighborhood attracting various kinds of people, from rowdy young teenagers to more reserved older adults.

We got back to the hotel and packed our bags to check out of the hotel the very next day — Anja would be heading to Germany, while I to London.


Day 4: Brussels

Aug 30

As soon as we got off the train in Brussels, we looked for directions toward Ixelles, the neighborhood where our hotel was located. We asked the guy behind the Kiosk and he told us to take the metro and the tram. So far, so good.

The journey from metro to tram to hotel was easy, at least easier than in Amsterdam. Riding on the tram on our way to our hotel and looking at the landmarks we were passing by, it made me think of Paris. Brussels is like a smaller Paris. You can definitely see the French influence not only because of their use of the French language, but also because the design of the buildings, gardens, and street names were French inspired.

We were pleasantly surprised that our hotel was tucked on a smaller street adjacent to Avenue Louise, where the high-end designer shops are, comparable to Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It was also next to a take-away Paul bakery location! Needless to say, we went there a few times a day during our stay in Brussels for our coffee and pastry fix.

I was so tired and sleep deprived when we got to Brussels, and opted to stay in the hotel to take a nap instead of exploring the city right away. I was also mindful of my call appointment with my professor, which was rescheduled that first night in Brussels since the original plan didn’t happen. Anja went on her own to the city center because she had the energy and wanted to make the most of her time there. I woke up at around 8 pm, and we headed to a French restaurant nearby where we had very delicious risotto and pasta. It was a great dinner. We went back to the hotel and I had my call with my professor, which went well albeit there were a few interruptions with the connection. Overall, our first night in Brussels was pretty productive!

Day 3: Amsterdam, Brussels

Aug 29

We woke up, got ready for the big day ahead wherein we’ll be en route to Brussels at noon, and checked out of the hotel. We left our bags by the reception and made our way to Bakhuys again. The great breakfast we had the day before needed to be repeated, so we got our coffee there along with some morning pastries. Afterward, we took the tram and got to Mac Bikes where rented bikes to ride in Vondelpark. I was a bit nervous cycling in Amsterdam because riders were pretty aggressive – they feel like they’re driving cars instead of riding bikes. Amsterdammers also know exactly where they’re going when they’re on bikes, which means that if you’re on your bike unsure of where to go, there’s a risk you might get run over or crash into another cyclist.

Anyway, we made it to Vondelpark. Biking in that park, with nice sunny and breezy weather, was one of the best feelings in the world. I enjoy feeling the wind play with my air, and I miss operating a vehicle like a bike or a car. Being mobile, even for a few minutes on a bike, is very freeing, and I really like that too.

After Vondelpark, we rushed back to the hotel to pick up our bags so we can finally go to Amsterdam Centraal to catch the ICT train that will take us to Brussels. We got to the station with about 5 minutes before the train leaves, asked around which platform we should be going to for Brussels, and was able to take the train in time. Whew. Luckily, the person we asked was an employee at the station who knew exactly where we should be going and told her very clear, direct instructions: “Head straight down, and go upstairs to Platform B.” We thought it was “V” initially, but quickly figured out it was “B.” We took our seats, spread our ourselves and our belonging, and took naps as the train made its way to Rotterdam, where we’ll be catching out connecting train to Brussels.

I find it interesting that the trains coming from Amsterdam (and Brussels, which we found out when we got there) translate the announcements in 3 languages: Dutch, French and English.

Day 2: Amsterdam

Aug 28

We woke up ready to take on Amsterdam. I actually woke up at an ungodly hour of 4 am, and couldn’t sleep anymore after so I started getting ready for a packed day ahead. We first had breakfast at Bakhuys, filling ourselves with coffee and delicious pastry made in the Dutch style.

Our next stop was the Rijksmuseum in the city center. This museum is Amsterdam’s national museum, featuring the works of famous Dutch painters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt. I love being in museums; they inspire, educate and make you imagine. We spent a good two hours there, and after seeing the Yves Saint Laurent dress on display, which was perhaps part of a special exhibit, we decided to have Indonesian cuisine for lunch.

It was my first time trying Indonesian food, and in Amsterdam, no less! We went to Kantjil & Tijger, which was a contemporary Indonesian resto with a nice upscale and breezy ambiance. It was a casual spot during lunch time, but I can see it turning into something a lot more classy at night. The menu was extensive, and the drinks were interesting. We settled on getting a rijstaffel, which means “rice table,” and includes rice with a variety of dishes in small servings. We had a vegetable dish, a beef dish, cucumber, a chicken dish and prawn chips. I had the lemongrass ginger iced tea, which was probably the best iced tea I’ve had. The meal was fantastic! I would love to have Indonesian food again, and try other traditional dishes. I found it interesting to eat Indonesian food in Amsterdam, especially due to my interest in all things postcolonial. This cuisine is actually quite popular in Amsterdam, since there’s a huge Indonesian population there. Many of Dutch people must’ve thought I was Indonesian, and I even overheard conversations by passersby where “Indonesie” was mentioned, perhaps pertaining to us. I definitely look Southeast Asian so I’m not surprised if they think I’m Indonesian!

After lunch, we took the tram back to the Museumplein area, where Rijksmuseum stood, along with other museums. Van Gogh museum was our next step, but before then, we wanted to stop by for coffee at a nearby cafe. We ended up at La Boutique del Caffe Torrefazione, where we had cocoa drinks. These were very rich chocolate drinks, and we indulged in every sip. We walked around the neighborhood, took picture of typical Amsterdam streets and houses, and ended up at a Filipino store, of all places! There was a Philippine flag hanging at the store, but it was closed so we weren’t able to go inside.

We started to make our way to Van Gogh museum, but got lost in the journey since we couldn’t tell which direction to go to. It’s hard to get used to Amsterdam streets, because not only are they winding, they also turn into roundabouts and branch out into several smaller streets at a certain point. We ended up at a small park and snapped photos as we’re trying to figure out where to go.

After a long while of figuring things out, we finally got to the Museumplein area, and finally saw the Van Gogh museum. The line was long, but we had prepaid tickets in hand, so getting in was a breeze. We took photos, talked about the lives of crazy and creative artists, mulled over Van Gogh’s mental disorder, and rested our feet every now and then. We shopped for souvenirs in their shop, and I got my best friend a set of coasters since her favorite painter is Van Gogh.

It started to drizzle, and my trench coat saved me from being drenched. We proceeded to go to Anne Frank House, and since it was farther away, we had to do a lot of walking. We also had to stand in line to get tickets, and it was a very long line. We chatted with two ladies behind us who both spoke Spanish – one was from Chile and the other was from Barcelona. They said their English was not very good, so I spoke to them in Spanish, which was good practice for me. Although I was a bit rusty, they kept telling me my Spanish was good! It was cool to speak Spanish in Amsterdam, especially if that was the best language through which we could speak to each other.

Anne Frank House was a great place to visit to understand how it was like for the Frank family to live during World War II. The story was quite tragic and there was definitely solemnity as we examined the house, the writings, the pictures, the documents the family had. There’s also no denying that the place had a lot of steps. Very steep steps. I was wearing heeled boots so it was inconvenient to get around, and by the end of it all my feet were sore.

When we got out of Anne Frank House, we had to rush back to the hotel because I had an appointment with my professor over the phone. After getting lost near the tram station, we got back to the hotel in time, only to find out that our internet connection was spotty, which meant I couldn’t make the call. I sent a note to my professor asking if we could reschedule to the next day when I think I’ll have better internet in Brussels. He obliged. Whew.

We wrapped up the night chatting about the day and shared ideas for future projects. It was a great conversation but it went on till the wee hours in the morning and we had to get all the rest we needed because the next day meant taking in Amsterdam one last time before departing for Brussels.

I’m realizing we planned the trip very well, considering that we were able to do all the things we set out to do, and while on the road, our schedule felt very manageable. Yet thinking about it now, two days each in Amsterdam and Brussels was not a lot of time!

Day 1: Amsterdam

Aug 26

When I left work on Tuesday, I took the bus back home and rushed to my apartment to pick up my bags so I can go to the airport. I didn’t want to take a cab so I took the 65 Grand bus going west to the Grand Blue Line station. It was rush hour at this time and I was there in a crowded train, trying to figure out where to best position my bags so they don’t roll in the train car nor block the doorway in case people want to get off or get on the train. Quite a hassle, but that’s a typical train experience any day.

I got to the airport and after security, walking the distance between the checkpoint and my gate, it was about 9 pm and I was exhausted. I had a full day at work where I had to wrap up a few projects and present a strategic plan, and all I wanted to do was get on the plane and rest for the 8 hours it would take to get to Copenhagen to catch my connecting flight. I don’t remember much of what happened on the plane in that trip, except that we were offered ravioli for dinner and yogurt for breakfast.

I got to Copenhagen airport, which was a nice airport that was clean and modern but did not have a major city feel to it. Copenhagen is, of course, a major city, and I think the airport is the main airport in Denmark, but it felt very homey. I guess that goes with the Danish notion of hygge, which translates to “cozy” in English.

After walking around Copenhagen airport, jetlagged and without a full night’s sleep, I somehow managed to get on my connecting flight and arrive in Amsterdam. Schiphol airport was such a large airport and it’s easy to get lost. I walked outside to take a picture of the sign, “I am Amsterdam,” and when I went back inside to look for directions to the hotel, two Amex representatives selling credit cards in the airport started talking to me. They asked if I was in town for business or for leisure. I said I’m not in town for very long and that I was en route to London, so they would stop bugging me. I proceeded to ask them for directions to the train, and they attempted to point me to the right way, but I could sense they didn’t know either, so I just went to the information booth. The guy at the information booth told me to take a few trains, with Wesserplein as my final stop.

I went to the train ticket booth and the guy behind the counter was old and grumpy. He wasn’t a huge help to me, and I told him I needed to take two trains, one from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal station, and the other to Wesserplein. He issued me two tickets, which I took, only to find out at Amsterdam Centraal that I couldn’t use the second ticket to take the city metro line.

I learned that Amsterdam has several different modes of public transportation: intercity train, metro, tram, and of course, everyone’s personal bikes. The train I took from Schiphol to Amsterdam Centraal involved the intercity train, while the train I needed to take from Amsterdam Centraal to Wesserplein was the smaller “metro” train. I got on the metro, frustrated by the lack of helpfulness on behalf of the guy at the ticket counter in Schiphol airport. He knew exactly where I was going because he repeated my route to me, but still, he issued me a ticket I couldn’t use.

While I was on the train, I tried very hard not to show that I was lost, but it was hard. I kept consulting a map.

When I got out of the Wesserplein station, I walked around to figure out what I was supposed to be going. I couldn’t figure it out without consulting my trusty Google Maps, and the lack of a data plan meant that I had to figure out another way to reach the hotel. The map I had in hand said it was walking distance from where I was, I just didn’t know which direction. So I did what every smart tourist would do.. look for someone on the streets to bother. Just my luck, there was lady with her mother walking toward my direction so I asked them. She said she didn’t know which direction it was but she was willing enough to take out her Google Maps. She said I had to walk the other direction, but I was on the right street. I thanked them and headed to the right direction.

When I thought I was getting closer to the hotel, I couldn’t figure out if I had already missed it because not all houses had numbers. I stopped another person on the street to ask if he knew where the actual building was, and by his accent he sounded American. He said he didn’t know, but confirmed that I was going the right direction, toward the University of Amsterdam. After walking a few steps, I finally found it.

I met my high school friend Anja at the hotel, and was glad to see each other again after so many years. We rested for a bit, refreshed and took to the streets right away. We had a canal tour by boat planned that evening, so we took the tram to the city center and looked for the location of the boat tour. We figured out the tram system because it was close enough to our hotel, but when we got to the city center, the streets were quite confusing. Amsterdam streets were winding. Some are designated streets but they are narrow and looked like alleys. We walked around, stopping at every other corner where we saw information stations with maps, and after a while, we finally go to the destination. It was right across from Vondelpark, which was nice to know since it was part of our itinerary later in the trip.

We had about 45 minutes to kill before the boat tour starts, so we went to a nearby restaurant to have dinner. I had their special of the day, which was a cheeseburger with fries. Talk about eating American food on my first night on the trip!

The boat tour was great because it gave us a quick overview of Amsterdam. We took a lot of pictures, and even if we were almost snoozing in the middle of the tour because our circadian rhythms haven’t adjusted to the time difference, it was a great way to see Amsterdam from a different vantage point – its popular canals. I would prefer a live tour guide though, instead of a syndicated one that was broadcasted through radio by our seats.

We got back to the hotel dog tired but with renewed spirit and excitement to see more of Amsterdam!

Europe Trip: Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Edinburgh

I just came back from my 4-city European trip, and it was the epic trip I envisioned it to be. What started as a study abroad trip in London with some classmates in my master’s program became a much larger one as I added other cities surrounding London. The trip encompassed a variety of travel styles – with a friend, with a group, by myself. I loved every minute of the trip; moving from one place to another during my travels expanded the environments in which I was immersed. There were new sights, new sounds, new smells, new thoughts that came to me. Hauling around 2 heavy luggages was not the most convenient in the world, and I was always so tired at the end of every destination, but I loved being in the midst of all that traveling – the journey was the experience.

I must write about my adventures in each city, but before then, if I could describe each of the four cities in one word, it would be:

Amsterdam – Charming (tried Indonesian food for the first time)
Brussels – Nonchalant (ate waffles every day!)
London – Proper (drank tea like water!)
Edinburgh – Enchanting (drank more tea and ate scones!)