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NL BE trip - Amsterdam Netherlands,
plus Brugge and Brussels Belgium

a visit by Jenny and Charlie Plesums

October 24 - November 1, 2012

What is an NLBE trip? We needed a short name for two countries and three cities. Finally we came up with NL (For Amsterdam Netherlands, abbreviated NL) and BE (for the two cities in BElgium)

Getting There

The trip to Amsterdam was uneventful - Austin to Dallas-Fort Worth Wednesday afternoon, then DFW to London Heathrow (a miracle occurred - enough empty seats that Jenny got three in a row and slept). Then the usual long transfer in LHR from Terminal 3 to British Airways Terminal 5, and on to Amsterdam arriving Thursday evening.

Amsterdam - October 25-28

We stayed at the Hilton DoubleTree hotel next to the central train station (great hotel and location). Amsterdam is a city of bicycles... more bikes than I have seen anywhere. In Rome it is mopeds. In Muenster, lots of bikes but nothing like this. To cross the street, there is a narrow pedestrian sidewalk. Then a generous two lanes for bicycles (and mopeds). Then a car lane. Then a trolley lane. Sometimes even a separate bus lane. Cross all those and you have gotten to the middle of the street. There are different stop lights for each lane, but the sneaky silent bicycles whip around the corner and try to get you.

Venice is famous as a city with canals everywhere, but the reality is no cars, so pedestrian bridges everywhere, up and over the canals. In Amsterdam, there seemed to be as many canals, but the bridges supported cars and trolleys as well as people. Many of the "streets" even had tiny draw bridges, just large enough to allow a sailboat to go through (but we never saw one open).

The canals were also beautiful at night.

The Amstel river (as in beer) flows through the city, connecting many of the smaller canals.

The weather in Amsterdam was cool, especially since it was 40 degrees less than what we left at home

Along the river and canals were many barges converted to houseboats, with permanent sewer, water, electric, and gas plumbing (as you can see in jumble of cables and hoses between these three houseboats)

Some residents obviously have a sense of humor, with this fake cow and calf on the deck (roof)) of their houseboat. The satellite dish is real, the cows are not.

One of the historical "canal houses" was open as a museum. 150 years ago these were the social center of the wealthy, where the locals would entertain each other. Behind the house was a formal garden - this is only about half the garden, and only shows part of the four story home - Kitchen in the basement, Living and entertaining areas on the first floor, Bedroom and study on the second floor, and laundry and servants quarters in the attic. Fine linen and china were stored on a "half" level above the dining room.

We visited the flower market

Lots of bulbs were for sale, especially for the tourist market - see the yellow sign that specifically offers bulbs for USA and Canada. Some of the bulbs were huge - that is Jenny's hand (in a black glove) next to some bulbs.

We are both suckers for a "factory tour." Walking down the street we saw a couple folks getting ready to make the round hard candies with a design in the center - in this case a red heart. Note the white blob at the bottom of the picture in front of the guy - that is the 10% that is wasted as they start pulling. Yes, we bought it for €2 - about $2.60.

The Hermitage museum is in Moscow. Right? Well, back when Tsars and Queens cavorted, some friendships were formed, and the Hermitage (which only ever displays a few percent of their treasures) agreed to create an annex in Amsterdam. In addition the Amsterdam VanGogh museum was closed for construction, so much of their collection was also on temporary display at the Hermitage. We had a great visit.

The Amsterdam red light district is famous... block after block where half the buildings on the street have windows (or doors with big windows) facing the street, lit with (surprise) red lights. Bikini clad girls model in the windows, and if someone would like to visit, a drape is pulled across the window to announce "I'm busy." A few of the girls are even attractive. There were far more tourists to the area than customers. It is not considered polite to take a picture of the "merchandise" so I found a substitute picture.

On the train trip from Amsterdam to Bruges we saw our first windmills. Unfortunately they were the large electric generating type seen around the United States and elsewhere. Later on that train ride we finally saw one traditional "mechanical" rather than electric-generating windmill, with it's sails unfurled, but not operating. (A couple days later we did see a traditional windmill - but only one - with it's sails moving, from the train between Bruges and Brussels.)

Bruges - October 28-30

The history of Bruges (or Brugge) can be traced back about 2000 years, with the formal city charter granted in 1128, and much of it's medieval architecture still in tact. At one point it was the chief commercial city of the world. Auto traffic is discouraged in the historic city center, but busses and bicycles still compete with the day-trip tourists for right-of-way. The entire center city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.

Our very nice Martins Hotel (a domestic chain) was just off the central square, and a long walk or short bus ride from the train station. We were surprised how vacant the center square seemed, until a local explained that early in the day, the "day trip" visitors had not yet arrived. By the middle of the day it would be quite busy, but they would leave by late in the day.

This ornate building is city hall, with countless additions at the side and back over the centuries.

Yup, that little thing in the corner is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Presumably Joseph of Arimathea collected some of Jesus's blood as he was moved to the tomb. That venerated relic was brought from the Holy Land to Bruges by a count returning from the Crusades in the 12th Century. For several centuries the red stain in the crystal container was said to become liquid annually. A sign in the second floor chapel basically says, if you want to believe all the details, go for it. The first floor is a separate chapel.

A block or so from the main square we finally found the canals... that at one point led to the sea, making Bruges a commercial center.

But if you have canals going through town, why not any in the center of town? Simple. Build the houses over the canals.

Maybe no boat will go under this house, but the water does, continuing the canal.

As we wandered the city, we saw this building on the other side of the canal. No idea what it was, but with the apparent religious statues at the left, along the canal, we speculate it may be a retreat house, or a conference center, or (with the big awnings) just a restaurant. Neat building, though.

With the loss of men to wars and crusades, there were an excess of women. Many were interested in a devout life, but didn't really want to enter a convent as nuns, so communities were formed, called Begijnhof, where these women lived in private apartments, around a church, forming a devout, but not monastic community. We toured this one, as well as another in Amsterdam.

Never let it be said that we missed the opportunity to tour a cathedral.

The back of this pulpit may be even more dramatic than the front.

Michelangelo's carvings were largely kept in Italy, but one piece, that it is said he carved as a break between larger works, is in Bruges. It is reputedly the only piece that left Italy during his lifetime.

When archaeologists excavate, what level do they go to? Over the centuries, cities are built on top of cities, and houses on top of houses... which should be restored? In the cathedral, in one of the chapels, they put hinges on really old pictures on the walls, so you could see the really really old walls and carvings underneath.

Many classical paintings are on wood. But hundreds of years ago there was no plywood, masonite, or MDF. Behind the altar there was a major painting on a perfectly smooth surface. How did they do it? I could get behind the altar and see how the wood had been milled and put together centuries ago. The back is nowhere near as smooth as the front. If you aren't a woodworker, sorry - you probably don't care.

A cafe in the center of town had a rather impressive model train setup, open to the public. To entertain our many friends who love model trains, here are a few pictures. There are two moving trains in this picture.

At the other end of the setup, I captured a different train and a work car on the track above it.

The setup cycled through day/night modes

For months Jenny has been planning on a mussel dinner (for which Belgium is well known) and a real beer (her doctor allows her two per year). When they say mussels, they don't mess around. The metal trash bowl was basically full when she was done, and fortunately we couldn't measure her cholesterol level. And they love French fries - even to the point of "walking around" snacks purchased in the cities.

Belgium is known for chocolate, lace, beer, and mussels. Not all chocolate has such creative shapes, but none of it is cheap. We finally purchased one small piece to share - for about $4.00

The belfry of Bruges is an 83 meter (275 foot) tall structure dating to 1240, but burned and rebuilt three times (the current tower is not as tall as the maximum it has been). It has had a carillon since 1604, currently with 47 bells, played regularly by a musician hired by the city. The tower leans about 3 feet towards the east. We must be getting old... we did not pay to climb the 366 narrow steps to the top.

Brussels - October 30 - November 1

The Kingdom of Belgium is almost two separate countries - the Northern half, Flanders, is largely Dutch speaking (includes Bruges), with 60% of the population, and the Southern half, Wallonia, with 40% of the population, is largely French speaking. The capital city of Brussels is separate and officially bilingual, and near the dividing line in Flanders, but seemed entirely French to us. Brussels houses the headquarters of NATO and the European Union and other international activities (such as the IBM training center where I lectured years ago). Ironically, we had more language challenges in Brussels than anywhere else we have visited, including Japan. We called one restaurant where reservations were recommended, and they hung up on us when we couldn't speak French.

Our IBIS hotel was in a great location, a couple blocks from the central train station, and on an active plaza. (Of course those in the plaza partied from early to late - something to consider in future trips).

A few blocks away was an early shopping mall - longer than two football fields (with a slight bend in the middle to draw you through it), one or two story stores on both sides, with a third story that I could imagine, in past centuries, being the home of the owner. It was built in 1847, and has a steel and glass roof 3 stories high, over the center, to make it light and airy.

A few blocks farther we came to the "Grand Place. Jenny disappeared for a moment, and I found her talking to a couple carrying the same Rick Steves guide book, and getting hints for another trip. Already.

The amount of gold leaf on the buildings was amazing - the sun broke through, and I quickly took this picture.

A major tourist attraction is "Manneken Pis" - a small bronze statue from 1619 that... well you can figure it out. Later we found that in 1987 a modern (and less popular) "Jeanneke pis" was created nearby to give equal time for both genders. Manneken Pis is occasionally dressed in one of the 800 costumes made for it, and on the day of costume changes, traditionally emits beer that is passed to visitors, rather than water. Not an exciting item, but a required part of a visit to Brussels.

Never miss an opportunity to tour a church - this one was Notre Dame du Sabion. You are only subjected to a couple pictures. This is the back of the pulpit (a better picture than from the front).

The altar frontal at Notre Dame was woven/sewn with gold thread. Very impressive, especially the way they built it's 3D texture, but not something for my living room.

Walking through the city, between office buildings, we came upon part of the old wall of the city. The outside is more obvious, including slits for archers, but the inside was more interesting.

We also did the requisite tour of the Royal Museum of Fine Art. Nice museum, but the permanent collection was too much of the same type of art, with minimal "stories" about the individual pieces and artists, very little of which was in English.

The primary focus of the museum was paintings, with some sculpture, but there were a few pieces of furniture. This one especially caught my attention, specifically the pattern of mouldings on the front.

We didn't make it to St. Michael's during the day, but couldn't miss it at night. There were statues of some strange longhorn type cattle in the front.

One of the very interesting restaurants was Vincents - on a small side-street near the Galleries Royale. The entrance is, literally, through the working kitchen. Upstairs in the dining room, the waiters plate the food.

Vincent's walls are covered with artwork, made up of ceramic tiles. An Irishman at an adjacent table explained that his wife works for the EU, and this is the restaurant where they bring distinguished visitors. Not cheap, but worth it.

Almost across the street/alley is Ogenblik, another superb French-style restaurant (they are the ones who hung up when we couldn't use French to make the reservation). We went there anyway, without a reservation, and had another great meal with a very helpful (or at least tolerant) waiter.

Getting Home - November 1

If it can go wrong, it did

We had a flight at 10 am, so we planned on leaving the hotel at 7:30. Problem 1: The bakery we were counting on for breakfast was not yet open.

2: The vending machine at the train station would not sell us a ticket. Even though the machine offered a substantial senior discount, the agent explained that the senior discount was not available to the airport. He would issue a ticket, the machines would not, so we paid full price - no senior discount.

3: British Airways was not able to issue our connecting boarding passes, since we were standby on the flight to London. WHAT? The gate agent admitted that they were only oversold by one seat, and 10 minutes later we had our boarding passes for the first BA flight.

4: To go through the "in transit" facilities in London, you should have outbound boarding passes, so our flight attendants had us fill out immigration forms for England... how long will you be in the UK? 2 hours. Nobody checked for the forms or the boarding passes. We made it to the Admiral's club who issued the necessary boarding passes to continue our trip.

5: No gate assigned yet... even at the departure time. The Admiral's club finally admitted that they didn't have a flight crew (and with no gate assigned, probably didn't have an airplane). We were not going through New York, but suspect that crews and planes may have been in the wrong places because of the storm Sandy.

6: Finally they announced boarding for our flight. When we got to the gate, the agents were looking for us - they had been waiting! (In retrospect, we may have been the last to board with preferred boarding privileges, since a lot boarded after us.)

7: We waited a long time before departing. The 2:20 we were counting on in Dallas for customs, security, and transfer were rapidly evaporating. The AA captain (with a British accent) assured us we would make up for the late departure. Wrong, we lost more time.

8: Special agents met the plane, and gave us orange priority cards to get to the head of the lines for our transfer. It worked - got through Immigration fast. Then we had to claim our bags to go through customs.

9: We waited about an hour to get our bags. Agents kept paging us to be sure we had the orange priority cards, but they did nothing to get our bags. When the bags were finally delivered, the orange card got us near the head of the line through customs.

10: After customs, you re-check your bags to Austin. The baggage handlers wouldn't take it, since we were after the scheduled departure time for our flight. Go to the ticket counter to reschedule.

11: After waiting in the re-booking line, an agent realized we were going to Austin, and that flight had been delayed. Negotiating (bullying) the baggage handlers, they finally took our bag, and we dashed for the connecting flight - or for security to get to our flight.

12: It was late enough that the central DFW security checkpoint was closed. Where to we go? The TSA agent pointed in a direction, and we ran. The direction she pointed turned out to be at the far end of the terminal from our gate. We made it through security, and ran the length of the terminal to our gate, passing another open security checkpoint right near our gate.

13: Nobody in line, so we tried to board (thoroughly out of breath). Sorry sir, we aren't boarding yet. We made our flight to Austin, but it was about an hour late. I guess we should be happy we made it. And our suitcase made it. And our friends picked us up, despite the late hour. A lovely 23 hour trip home.

 

Travel Tips and general notes

Chip and Pin: North American credit cards use a magnetic stripe on the back that is swiped through the reader, and require a signature for confirmation. European credit cards use an embedded chip - that little gold square on the left in the picture - the end of the card is inserted in the reader to make electrical contact, and a PIN number is keyed for confirmation (chip and pin). Visa and Master Card say that all card machines in Europe must accept a magnetic stripe. Not true. The person ahead of us in a grocery store found out that their mag stripe card was useless, and begged money from her friends in the other check-out lane. A sign in one restaurant window said "chip cards only." In previous trips we could not buy fuel at some gas stations because we only had a mag stripe card. We were thrilled to have a Visa chip and pin card from Andrews Federal Credit Union (and it also has a mag stripe on the back for use at home). In addition, AFCU does not charge the extra 1% or more charged by most banks for foreign transactions.

Language: In Amsterdam the official language is Dutch, similar to German, but many people also speak English, German, French, Turkish, and Arabic. With so many languages, the Amsterdam airport has standardized their signs in one language - English! No problem at all using English practically anywhere. Practically no trouble using English in Bruges (or Brugge or other spellings, depending on the language). But in the cosmopolitan, international city of Brussels, practically everybody spoke French, and wanted us to also.

Waffles: We had a delicious waffle in Amsterdam with a thick chocolate frosting, bought from a bakery with lots of pastries - they offered to warm it in a microwave. So when we got to Belgium, we ordered a breakfast waffle with chocolate in a small cafe. The cook kneaded the dough like bread, and put it in the waffle iron. A few minutes later, it came out, and he poured some thin chocolate syrup over it, not like in Amsterdam. So when I got home I did some research. A Belgian Waffle is an American dish, not common in Belgium. It is made with a light batter, leavened with baking powder, and often served for breakfast. A waffle in Belgium is called a Liège (or Brussels) waffle, made with a yeast dough, crisp on the outside (stiff enough to be hand held), and eaten as a snack throughout the day. How foolish to assume a Belgian waffle was the type of waffle we would get in Belgium. The Liège waffle was good, but different than what we call a waffle.

Cooked Meat: "How would you like your meat cooked?" "Medium-Rare" "Which do you want? Medium or Rare" After a couple different restaurants, I learned that they do not recognize "Medium-rare" - you must choose which.

Beer: There are many stores that offer 400 or more different types of beer, with different shapes glassware associated with the various types of beer. The local beers range from alcohol-free to well over 10%, twice as strong as American beer. The locals are raised on beer at home (beer is cheaper than bottled water), but primarily low alcohol beers - they sip a stronger beer as someone in the states would have a liquor drink, not a pint at a time. We spoke to one restaurant owner who described the problem they have with tourists - visitors are allowed to drink at age 16 (so the tourists include lots of inexperienced drinkers). Both young and old drink quickly, not realizing that the beer may be very strong. Check the alcohol content before you order your Belgian beer.

Wine is often served in a restaurant, and the house wine is often very good. One brought a whole bottle, and promised we would be charged only for what we drank. It worked great - we drank half and paid for half. The liquor stores that have dozens of racks of beers may only have one rack of wine. The liquor or grocery stores may only have a one or two different brands of scotch/bourbon/gin/vodka, and only a few bottles of each. No bargains, so I came home without my usual liter of Scotch.


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