Europe Trip Day 6: Zuidland and Delft

You can find all my Europe Trip posts here.

A year or so ago, my mom mentioned to me that someone from Zuidland, a small town about 30 minutes southwest of Rotterdam where my great-grandpa was born and raised, had reached out to our family. The person from Zuidland had put together a history of my mom’s family and wondered if we’d be interested in copies of the book he had written. I was certainly interested, so I got a copy. The author mentioned that if anyone happened to come visit the Netherlands, he’d be happy to give them a tour of the town, so I took advantage of that offer while there.

Zuidland was completely unlike any other town we visited in the Netherlands. It’s not a tourist town by any¬†means–it’s just a normal town where normal people live normal lives. And I really liked that about it!

zuidland-ring

We walked around the whole town in about two hours and learned a lot about its history. The highlight for me personally was seeing the house where my great-grandpa grew up, of course.

zuidland-house

But I also loved learning about the town in general. Most of the buildings in the center of town are from the 1600s (!!), which isn’t all that old by Dutch standards, but it felt a lot different seeing buildings from the 1600s that haven’t been all gussied up for tourists to take pictures of vs. the ones surrounding town squares in bigger towns in the Netherlands. There are also a couple of buildings in the town square that were built in the late 1940s, because their predecessors were bombed during World War II. The Germans had set up spotlights outside of Zuidland to look for Allied planes, so the Allies were trying to bomb those, but hit the buildings in the center of Zuidland instead.

We also learned about the North Sea flood of 1953, which reminded me a lot of Hurricane Katrina: the barriers meant to keep water back failed during a storm, and mass casualties followed. In fact, the North Sea flood killed almost exactly as many people in the Netherlands as Hurricane Katrina killed–the flood killed 1836 people in the Netherlands, while Hurricane Katrina killed 1833 people–though almost 1000 people died outside the Netherlands from the flood as well. About two dozen people died in Zuidland alone during the flood, most members of two different families who weren’t able to get to the center of town in time (the center of Zuidland being on higher ground than the outskirts).

zuidland-floodlevel

The plaque in the picture shows the water level during the flood.

While I loved the entire trip to Europe, visiting Zuidland was definitely the stop that meant the most to me emotionally. I didn’t know my great-grandpa all that well–he died when I was nine–but seeing where he grew up really felt like everything came full circle for me.

zuidland-church

After our morning in Zuidland, our next stop for the day was Delft. Having grown up in a Dutch bubble, I was under the impression that everyone knows was delft is, but after returning to the U.S., I’ve quickly learned that that’s not the case. Apparently not everyone has grandmas with china cabinets full of the stuff. If you’re unfamiliar with delft, this is what it looks like. If it looks like Chinese porcelain to you, you’re onto something: the Dutch initially encountered Chinese designs through the Dutch East Indies Company and, liking them so much, decided to make them for themselves. The pottery from the Netherlands came to be called delft because it was produced in the city of Delft.

We arrived in Delft around lunchtime and stopped at Stadsbakkerij de Diamenten Ring for lunch. It was delicious, but it only accepts Maestro credit cards (not the only place we encountered in the Netherlands that only takes Maestro), so you’ll need cash if you’re don’t have one.

After lunch, we walked to Royal Delft, the last remaining delft manufacturer from the 17th century. We took a tour of the facility, where we learned about how delft is made and saw some artists painting pottery. A variety of delft was on display, from plates made to commemorate the births of royals to a gigantic tile reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. The last stop on the tour is where the pottery itself is made, which was really cool to see!

delft-royaldelft

They had a large tile display there as well commemorating its 355th anniversary last year (but I don’t remember for sure, so don’t quote me on that) where, instead of the factory’s master artists, visitors from around the world painted tiles that were put into a gigantic map of Earth. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think the design in the upper left corner of this tile looks suspiciously like the Chicago flag, don’t you think? I’m allowing myself to believe that’s what it is, at any rate.

delft-guesttile

It started raining pretty hard at the end of our tour, which gave me ample time to wander around the gift shop and blow through a fair portion of my souvenir budget ūüėõ I really wanted a handpainted item, though–it’s never too early to start building your old Dutch lady china cabinet inventory, after all!–so I didn’t mind the high price tag.

Once the rain eased up, we headed back to the center of Delft for–what else?–a Rick Steves walking tour. The walking tour centers around the markt, but the markt was actively markt-ing while we were there (i.e.: there were vendors set up selling things), so it was hard to get an idea of the square’s scale. But it was very easy to understand what it looks like in action, so that was nice! We split a freshly-made, large stroopwafel in the markt (under the stand’s awning) while we got ourselves oriented. Our sightlines were not what they would be had the square been empty, but we could still pick out the Nieuwe Kerk and stadhuis (not that was a difficult task – they’re both pretty gigantic buildings).

delft-stroopwafel

(Stadhuis in the background)

The rain had slowed to a drizzle by that point, so we walked past the shops lining the square and popped into Henri Willig to remedy the previous day’s cheese-purchasing debacle. I bought a little gift set that came with a block (circle?) of baby gouda (side note on the gouda situation: I learned that gouda gets named based on how long it’s been aged, with young (baby) cheese having been aged for less time than old cheese.), a pair of little delft klompen (wooden shoes, though in this case, not made of wood), a wooden tulip, and a cheese board. It was every bit as delightful as it sounds ūüôā

We also popped into a delft shop right next door to Henri Willig (which, in case you visit Delft, is labeled “Cheese & More” on the outside) at a store the receipt called “Delftware Best Buy,” but didn’t have a particularly obvious name from the outside. It just says “Original Painted Delftware” on the window. There, I bought a little vase for my newly acquired wooden tulip and a delft penguin, because obviously.

Our shopping complete, we continued the walking tour. We saw the waag, right behind the stadhuis, and nearby meat and fish markets, before crossing the Boterbrug (literal translation: butter bridge) and walking along the Oude Delft Canal. There, we saw the Water Authority building and learned a bit about water management in the Netherlands: an important task, given how much of the country is below sea level.

delft-waterauthority

We saw the Oude Kerk (but couldn’t go in, due to some sort of academic ceremony that seemed to be taking place that day). We walked by the Prinsinhof, a former monastery where Willem I, the man considered to be the father of the Netherlands, was assassinated (but, for the millionth time this trip, couldn’t go in because it was already closed). We also saw Phoenixstraat (though we had seen that pre-walking tour, as we drove in on it) and the windmill at the end of Phoenixstraat as well.

We then returned to De Waag to have dinner! De Waag, no longer needed for waag purposes (i.e.: weighing house/customs purposes) is now a restaurant and was a really cool place to eat. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip, which was appropriate, as Delft was probably my favorite (Dutch) city of the trip as well. It was a really adorable town, and I definitely recommend making time for it if you find yourself in the Netherlands.

delft-stadhuisnieuwekerk

DELFT SUMMARY

Food

Sights Seen

  • Royal Delft
  • Markt
  • Nieuwe Kerk
  • De Waag
  • Meat and Fish Shops
  • Boterbrug
  • Oude Delft Canal
  • Water Authority
  • Oude Kerk
  • Prinsinhof
  • Phoenixstraat
  • Windmill

Europe Trip Day 5: Gouda

You can find all my Europe Trip posts here.

After our night in Brugge, it was finally time for the main event: The Netherlands!

We took an intercity train from Brugge to Brussels Midi/Zuid, then took the Thalys to Rotterdam. I learned later that, despite the fact that Rotterdam is in a different country than Brussels, we still could’ve taken an intercity train to Rotterdam Centraal (and, I would imagine, could’ve saved some money in the process). This was not the only time I had such a realization on the trip. There were almost always multiple trains from multiple operators that could’ve gotten us from Point A to Point B. God bless Europe and its investment in rail.

Some sort of accident happened while we were traveling from Brussels to Rotterdam (not to our train, but along the route), which delayed our arrival by about an hour. Fortunately, we weren’t in any rush!

Once we arrived in Rotterdam, we walked a couple blocks from Rotterdam Centraal to a Eurocar outpost to pick up the car we had rented. While the Netherlands has perfectly sufficient rail service, there were a few places we planned to visit where, logistically, it would just be simpler to have a car than having to rely on trains. Coincidentally, the woman at the Eurocar desk who helped us get our car was from one of those towns! But more on that later.

After we got our car, we headed straight to Gouda: a city whose name you probably recognize from the cheese. In fact, I originally planned to go to Gouda on Day 6 of the trip so we could see the recreated cheese market that they do on Thursday mornings, but a conflict arose, so we we went on Wednesday instead.

We parked the car in a garage outside the heart of the town (right by the Best Western, in case you ever find yourself driving to Gouda) and walked along the canals to get to the main square. Because Rick Steves didn’t have a walking tour for Gouda, we swung by the VVV (Tourist Information) in the Waag and picked up an informational packet on the city. I, somehow, summoned the self-control to keep myself from buying all the corny Dutch souvenirs they had in the shop (spoiler: that self-control waned significantly as the trip went on ūüėõ ).

gouda-waag

It was nearly 2 p.m. by this point, so lunch was high on our priority list. We walked around the square eyeing restaurants and finally settled on Swing Gouda, where, naturally, I had to get a cheese sandwich.

gouda-swinggoudasandwich

Yes please.

I also got a side order of fries so I could inaugurate myself into the traditional Dutch way of eating fries: dipped in mayo.¬†I don’t care how weird it sounds: fries in mayo > fries in ketchup. It was one hundred times more delicious than I expected, and I’d like my fries served with a side of mayo from here on out, please.

The informational packet we picked up in the Waag mentioned an app you could download that contained several walking tours of the city, so at lunch, we downloaded the app and picked a “hidden gems” walking tour. A Rick Steves tour it was not, but it got the job done and gave us a lot more direction than we would’ve had wandering around aimlessly on our own.

We then visited the stadhuis in the center of the square. The side of the stadhuis has a carillon that plays two minutes past every half hour, and we happened to walk up at 3:31. We watched the carillon do its thing, then paid for entrance into the stadhuis.

gouda-stadhuis

I believe it was the informational packet that mentioned that a lot of couples get married at the stadhuis, and I could see why! If you’re in the market for a wedding venue in Gouda, the stadhuis was quite the location!

gouda-stadhuisinterior2

This fancily up-lit space is the lower level of the building, which was originally used for selling meat, but other levels of the building were just as pretty.

gouda-stadhuisinterior1

After that, we went to SintJanskerk, the longest church in the Netherlands. While many old Dutch towns have equally old Dutch churches, visiting churches in the Netherlands is a very different experience than visiting, say, the churches I visited in Belgium (or St. Paul’s in London, for that matter). Many churches in the Netherlands were built as Catholic churches, and from the outside appear to be towering, grandiose structures. And they are often towering grandiose structures. The interiors, however, do not at all correspond with what you’d expect based on the size and architecture of the building. In 1566 Calvinist iconoclasts destroyed much of the artwork inside these churches (a situation Wikipedia explains thoroughly, in case you’re interested in learning more) and, by and large, turned them into Dutch Reformed churches.

This is neither the time nor place to discuss the ins and outs of the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, but a difference worth mentioning right now is the difference in service emphasis. While Catholicism emphasizes the Eucharist (communion) as the main part of a church service, Protestantism emphasizes the sermon (or teaching the congregation about the Bible) as the main part of the service. I don’t think this shows up particularly in modern church design, but the difference in emphasis resulted in a dramatic change inside Sint-Janskerk. Instead of congregational seating facing the altar at the front of the church, it now faces the pulpit in the center.

gouda-sintjanskerk2

(The pews in the front of the picture are from the Protestant-ization of the church. Note the pulpit on the right. The center towards the back–what’s lit up–is what used to be the choir when it was a Catholic church. Maybe it technically still is? But it doesn’t look like the choirs I saw in Catholic churches in Europe if it is.)

Sint-Janskerk had a fantastic audio guide (in English! And various other languages) that you could use to direct you on a tour around the church. The building is particularly famous for its stained glass windows, so that makes up the bulk of the tour, but you also learn a bit about the organ and the setup of the space.

gouda-sintjanskerk

(Organ, very poorly pictured, in the center. This is the view of the pews from the above picture from the other side.)

One thing I thought was particularly interesting: since the stained glass windows are so important to people, they actually removed all of them during World War II and stored them, pane by pane, in boxes so that they wouldn’t be damaged. After the war ended, they were all reinstalled. There are over 30 windows in the church, all of which are multiple stories tall, so you can only imagine what kind of feat it was to take all these windows–some of which date back to the 1500s–out and then reinstall them!

gouda-sintjanskerkstainedglass

(This is one of the two tallest windows in the church, but hopefully gives you an idea of just how gigantic these windows are.)

We left Sint-Janskerk a little after 4 p.m., then crossed the square to get siroopwafels (also known as stroopwafels) at¬†Kamphuisen¬†and windmill cookies at¬†de Vlaam¬†next door. We planned to spend more of the evening in Gouda, but quickly learned that just about everything closes up shop around 5 p.m. We could’ve stayed for dinner, but I was 1) tired and 2) disappointed that all the cheese shops closed before I had a chance to buy any (“crushed and devastated and crying because I literally came to Gouda to buy cheese and missed my chance” is a more accurate way of describing how I felt), so we drove back to Rotterdam to check into our hotel for the night instead.

gouda-markt

GOUDA SUMMARY

Food:

Sights Seen:

  • De Goudse Waag
  • Markt
  • Stadhuis
  • Sint-Janskert

 

Europe Trip Day 4: Ostende and Brugge

You can find all my Europe Trip posts here.

After a great day in Brussels, it was time for the second half of our Belgium time: Brugge!

brugge-belltower

Brugge (or Bruges, if you prefer the French spelling. I’m using the Flemish spelling due to the fact that the city is in the Flemish region of Belgium.) was–all together now!–another place in Belgium I had never heard of prior to this trip. In case you, like me, are apparently wholly ignorant about anything related to Belgium outside of waffles, chocolate, and fries, Brugge is best known for its preservation of the look and feel of the town during medieval times. It was a bustling port town from the 12th to 15th centuries, but once the river leading into town began to fill in, that obviously got in the way of the whole port town thing. Brugge declined, and since it declined, there wasn’t money available to tear down old structures and replace them with new ones. Consequently, a good amount of the city’s architecture remains intact (or, at the very least, was replaced by structures that look similar to the original ones), which makes it a gigantic tourist draw.

We took an intercity train from Brussels Centraal to Brugge, then walked to Hotel Academie, our lodging for the night, to drop off our bags. We then got on another intercity train to quickly pop over to Ostende, a town on the North Sea. My traveling buddy’s grandma’s great-grandfather had owned a costal hotel in Ostende, so continue in our family history vein, we went to see the area where the hotel had once stood. The building itself is long gone–Ostende suffered a lot of damage in both World Wars–but the location is still there, of course.

At my instance, we popped into St. Petrus and St. Paulus Church on our way to the beach. Once again, I was blown away by how beautiful this place was. They just don’t make churches like they used to.

ostende

It was decently warm, but not exactly beach weather, so we found the hotel’s location and then walked down the promenade until we came across Lido Sole, where we stopped for lunch.

Then it was back to Brugge for the day’s main sightseeing.

There were tourists and tour groups¬†everywhere in Brugge, most of the time spilling off the sidewalks and into the streets. There wasn’t too much vehicular traffic in the main parts of town, but carriage rides went by frequently, so you had to keep an eye out before venturing off the sidewalk.

Rick Steves had a walking tour of Brugge, and having throughly enjoyed our walking tour of the Grand Place in Brussels, we decided to do the Brugge one as well.

We started at the markt, the main feature of which (aside from the medieval architecture surrounding it) is the bell tower. The bell tower (pictured at the top of this post) has stood over the markt since the 1300s! You can pay to climb up it, but we had plenty of other sights to see, so we opted against that.

brugge-markt

After the markt, the walking tour brought us to Burg Square. While the markt is the center of town, Burg Square felt much more like the center of town to me, especially based on the buildings that surround it. One of these buildings is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. This basilica contains a relic, purported to be the blood of Jesus, brought back by to Brugge by Theirry of Alsace in 1150 after he received it from the patriarch of Jerusalem in the Second Crusade. You’re free to go into both the lower chapel and upper chapel of the basilica, the upper chapel being the one with the relic.

From the basilica, we went to the Stadhuis, or city hall. (One of a few stadhuises we’d visit during the trip – but I’ll get to those in later posts.) You can see the main floor of the Stadhuis for free, but the real attraction is the gothic room upstairs. This room was once where city council met, and its walls are covered by murals depicting the history of Brugge. It’s really a sight to behold!

brugge-stadhuis

Next to the stadhuis is the Renaissance Hall, which currently serves as the city archives. In addition to holding the archives, it also holds a room decorated in renaissance style. It has a pretty impressive fireplace mantelpiece that was worth seeing, in my opinion.

The most jarring building in Burg Square is the¬†Crowne Plaza Hotel. Built in 1992, it is hundreds of years younger than its neighbors, and seeing the name of an international hotel chain on the outside of a building in the square feels completely out of place. You wouldn’t think that this building is anything worth mentioning, but in fact, it was built on top of the ruins of the original fort, which eventually became St. Donatian’s Church, in Brugge. If you go to the lower level of the hotel, you can see artifacts they found during construction of the hotel–dishes, pipes, coins, etc.–and even more interestingly, you can see both the foundation of the fort/church and some of the original pilings used to construct the fort in 950. The pilings are over 1000 years old! This was my favorite hidden gem in Brugge, and I¬†highly¬†recommend popping into the hotel if you’re able.

brugge-crowneplazapilings

We walked through the¬†Blinde-Ezelstraat, saw the¬†Vismarkt¬†(fish market), bought some lace at a shop immediately right next to the Vismarkt, walked through Huidvettersplein, and were rewarded with a lovely view of one of Brugge’s canals. Due to the fact that seemingly everything that wasn’t a dinner restaurant or bar in Belgium closes at 4 or 5 p.m. (same thing with the Netherlands), that was essentially the end of our walking tour. There were a few more buildings to see, but based on Rick Steves’s notes, it sounded like the insides of the buildings were more interesting than the outsides.

brugge-canal1

I was hungry, so we stopped at I Love Waffles for, you guessed it: waffles. This was my favorite waffle shop of our trip, because they did waffle “frozen yogurt style,” if you will–i.e.: they give you a waffle, and you can load it up with as many toppings as you want. I, obviously, went overboard. No regrets.

The last two stops on the walking tour, the begijnhof (kind of like an abbey) and Minnewater (a picturesque area home to many swans), were both close to our hotel, so we went to see both of them before heading back to the hotel to relax before dinner.

brugge-begjinhof

We ate at L’Estaminet, which came recommended to us by Rick Steves. I don’t remember exactly what time we left the hotel to walk to dinner–probably some time between 6:30 and 7:00, but it was WILD how empty the city had become. Brugge is a popular (and easy) day trip from Brussels, and it showed. Streets that had been overflowing with tourists were now quiet. All of the stores and tourist-geared shops (waffle places, chocolate stores, etc.) were closed up tight for the night. Fortunately, Pralifino, a gelato place right down the road from our hotel, was still open so I could get some ice cream before bed ūüôā

I enjoyed Brugge, but I’ll be honest: it was a little too crowded with tourists for me. Obviously, I was a tourist myself, so maybe I don’t have the right to say that, but Brugge was one of the places we went where it felt like the tourists outnumbered the locals 10:1, and I found I prefer the ratio to be a little less lopsided. That being said, Hotel Academie was my favorite place we stayed during the trip (they leave a FULL CHOCOLATE BAR on your bed. Yes please.), so I’m glad we spent the night.

Brugge was our last stop in Belgium, but between the architecture, the canals, and the fact that Dutch was definitely the primary language in the area, I kept forgetting we were in Belgium, not the Netherlands. It proved to be a great transition city before heading off to the Netherlands the next day!

brugge-canal2

BRUGGE SUMMARY

Accommodations: 

Food:

  • Lido Sole (Albert I-promenade 67, Ostende). 2/5.
  • I Love Waffles (Katelijnestraat 26, Brugge). 5/5. (I couldn’t find a website for the actual place, so the link takes you to the TripAdvisor page for it.)
  • L’Estaminet (Park 5, Brugge). 4/5.
  • Pralifino (Wijngaardstraat 16, Brugge). 5/5.

Sights Seen:

  • St. Petrus and St. Paulus Church (Ostende)
  • Markt
  • Burg Square
  • Basilica of the Holy Blood (lower and upper chapels)
  • Stadhuis
  • Renaissance Hall
  • St. Donatian’s/fort ruins
  • Blinde-Ezelstraat
  • Vismarkt
  • Huidvettersplein
  • Canals
  • Bridge near Church of Our Lady
  • Begijnhof
  • Minnewater
  • Koningin Astridpark

Europe Trip Day 3: Brussels

You can find all my Europe Trip posts here.

After a lovely weekend in London, it was time to head to the Continent for the remainder of our trip. First up: Brussels.

brussels-road

We took the Eurostar train from St. Pancras in London to Brussels Zuid/Midi, but first, we had to get from my cousin’s apartment to St. Pancras. We did this via the Tube, which conveniently let us off at Kings Cross Station, which conveniently provided us with the chance to see Platform 9 3/4 of Harry Potter fame.

When you take an international train out of St. Pancras, you actually “cross the border” (i.e. go through passport control) before you get on the train. I had no idea this would be the case until my cousin mentioned it, so we made sure to get there with plenty of time to have our passports checked. The waiting room for international trains is France, apparently, so I’m now the proud owner of an EU France stamp on my passport, despite the fact that I haven’t really been to France. The train does go¬†through¬†France to get to Brussels, so I was kind of there, but that doesn’t feel like it really counts to me.

Anyway, we eventually got to Brussels Zuid/Midi, and I instantly felt out of my element. On the train, all announcements had been made in English, French, and Dutch, but once we got to the platform, we were clearly in French and Dutch territory. French, Dutch, and German are all official languages of Belgium, but the languages used in practice seemed to depend highly upon which region you were in. Regardless, I only speak English and Spanish with any level of confidence (I know een beetje Nederlands, if you will (a little Dutch), but definitely not enough to get by in a place where people speak it as their first language. Or their second language. Or their language at all.), so being in a place where next to nothing was in a language I speak well was very overwhelming.

We needed to get to Brussels Centraal to get closer to our hotel. As far as we could understand, if you have one paid train ticket to get from Point A to Point B on a particular train line in Belgium, you’re free to get on another train line and take that train to Point C (at least, that’s how it worked for us on two occasions, one of which was when a conductor checked our ticket.). Knowing (or at least, being pretty sure that we knew) that, we got on the next intercity train headed towards Brussels Centraal (only a few minutes away) and found ourselves in the heart of the city.

We stayed at 9Hotel Central, which was steps away from Brussels Centraal. My traveling buddy’s grandmother was born and raised in Brussels and actually grew up in one of the buildings that is now the 9Hotel, which is why we ended up staying there. It was¬†really¬†nice – not in a ritzy way, but in more of a loft-chic sort of way. The location was fantastic as well. I’d definitely recommend it, even if your grandma didn’t grow up in the building.

brussels-9hotelcentral

After dropping off our bags, we trekked over to the¬†European Parliament. It was the Monday after Easter, and that area of the city seemed to be pretty deserted, leading me to assume everyone had Easter Monday off. I know people had Easter Monday (and Good Friday) off in England–or at least that’s what my cousin said. At any rate, it was a lot less busy than I anticipated. We went to the¬†Parlamentarium, a free museum that explains the history of the European Union and gives information about the current state of the EU and its member countries. It probably would’ve been a lot more impactful if I were an EU citizen, but it was still interesting to see. Parliament itself was certainly closed by the time we got there (and might’ve been closed regardless, due to the maybe holiday), so we only saw the outside of the building.

brussels-europeanparliament

We headed back towards the center of the city via the¬†Brussels Park, which I believe I described as feeling “European AF,” when I mentioned that I could use some food. Due to all the traveling we did on this trip, the whole “three meals a day” thing routinely went out the window, and we often would eat one or two meals and supplement with snacks throughout the day. There turned out to be a food truck selling waffles right outside the park, across from the¬†Royal Palace, so we got a chocolate-covered waffle to split with some good views to go along with it: the first of many of our time in Belgium, both from a waffle and good views perspective.

brussels-royalpalace

After that, we continued our walk past our hotel to the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, which was basically right behind where we stayed. HOLY COW. It was STUNNING.

brussels-stmichaelandstgudulacathedral

I could¬†not¬†believe I had never heard of this cathedral before (a theme that came up many times during our days in Belgium). It was an outrageously beautiful building with so much history and incredible detail. Why don’t people talk about this place more often??

brussels-stmichaelandstgudulacathedralinterior

Once we were done picking our jaws up off the floor at the cathedral, we started to head towards the Grand Place. Again, this is something I had never heard of prior to this trip, and though the name obviously implies that it’s something, you know, grand, I could not have possibly imagined just how grand it was.

brussels-grandplaceatday

ARE YOU KIDDING ME.

brussels-grandplacetownhall

How is anything allowed to be this beautiful?!

brussels-grandplacekingshouse

I was obsessed.

brussels-grandplacedetail

For Christmas, I got two European guidebooks: the Rick Steves Belgium Guidebook and the Rick Steves Amsterdam & The Netherlands Guidebook. I’ll admit that when I got them I didn’t know how useful they’d be. After all, who needs a printed guidebook these days, when Yelp and TripAdvisor and Google Maps and Wikipedia exist? Couldn’t the combination of those things answer all my questions about where to eat, what to do, how to get there, and the history of what I was seeing?

Let me tell you, those guidebooks proved to be¬†invaluable¬†tools, and if there is ANYTHING I’d recommend everyone get before taking a trip to Europe, it’s a Rick Steves Guidebook. They were helpful for recommendations, of course, but where I found them to be more than worth their weight in gold was with the walking tours he includes. We were¬†all about¬†that Rick Steves walking tour lifestyle, starting with the first one we did through the Grand Place and surrounding areas in Brussels.

On this walk, we saw the Grand Place (obviously) and learned about the buildings that surround the square, the Galeries Royales St. Hubert, the Rue des Bouchers, The Bourse and Art Nouveau cafes, and included a little detour to see the (apparently famous, though once again, I had never heard of it) Manneken-Pis, a statue of a peeing little boy built in 1619. Really.

brussels-mannekenpis

Rick Steves also included an optional “choco-crawl” during the Grand Place walking tour, which was definitely not optional since I was taking the walking tour. We went to five (!) different chocolate shops and bought something at all of them (see: I was taking the walking tour). During the choco-crawl, we went to¬†Mary,¬†Neuhaus (inventor of the Belgian praline – VERY different than the brown sugar pecan concoction I would call a praline, but no less delicious), Galler¬†(who does not export, so we took plenty advantage of the opportunity to get their chocolate while we were in Belgium),¬†Leonidas, and finished at¬†Godiva. I’m pretty sure I spent at least 75 Euro on chocolate, and I have exactly zero regrets.

We got dinner of waffle sandwiches at¬†Waffle Factory¬†(recommended by Rick Steves, though we didn’t realize that until we had already ordered #winning) before going to Godiva for dessert, and then made our way back to the hotel to crash for the night.

I really enjoyed Brussels, despite, as you may have gathered, knowing next to nothing about it prior to visiting. I was blown away by the historic architecture (get ready for me to say that a hundred times in these trip recaps) and one million precent obsessed with the narrow, winding roads around the Grand Place. I would absolutely go back–after all, there are two more Rick Steves tours we didn’t have the chance to take! ūüėČ

brussels-grandplaceatnight

BRUSSELS SUMMARY

Accommodations:

Food/Drinks:

  • Random waffle/ice cream truck outside the Royal Palace. 5/5
  • Belgian Frit’n Toast (Rue de la Madeline 1-3, Brussels). Frites. 5/5
  • Golden Bar (intersection of Rue des Chapeliers and Rue du March√© Fromages, Brussels). Beer. 4/5.
  • Waffle Factory (Rue du Lombard 30, Brussels). Dinner of waffle sandwiches. 5/5.
  • Godiva Grand Place (Grote Markt 21/22, Brussels). Dessert. 5/5.

Sights Seen:

  • Parlamentarium
  • European Parliament
  • Brussels Park
  • Royal Palace
  • St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral
  • Grand Place, including
    • Town Hall
    • King’s House
    • Guild halls
    • Swan House
  • Galeries Royales St. Hubert
  • Rue des Bouchers
  • The Bourse, including the nearby 13th-century convent ruins
  • Place de la Bourse
  • Manneken-Pis

 

Thursday Things

1. Since I was abroad when Avengers: Endgame came out, it was obviously high on the priority list to see it after returning. I went to a Thursday late afternoon/early evening showing (and miraculously stayed awake for the whole thing: the only night I kept my eyes open past 8 p.m. all week).

I didn’t like the movie as much as I think I was supposed to. I will admit that one of the things I like most about Marvel movies is the humor, and, as with Infinity War, there wasn’t nearly as much humor in this movie as in, say, Thor: Ragnarok. But beyond the minimal joke-making (which is a personal preference), I had a couple fundamental problems with the plot of the movie (presented below in white text that you’ll need to highlight to see to protect you from spoilers).

I need to get this out of the way to start: I’m on Thanos’s side, and I think he’s the real good guy here, not the Avengers. Maybe he’s not a good guy in the traditional, wholly-pure-with-no-bad-qualities sense, but–and I said this when I left Infinity War–I really believe his heart was in the right place with the snap. He saw a problem with overpopulation and found a way to solve that problem in the most humane way possible. As we learn from what Spider-Man says towards the end of Endgame, being dusted wasn’t a painful or excruciating experience. It was just a thing that happened, and then half of life was gone. Sure, that’s not so great for the people left behind, but as far as wiping out populations goes, that’s about as good of a way as it could happen. No pain, no suffering, no starvation, no horrible illness, no gruesome murders: they were just gone, like that *snaps* (pun moderately intended).

Of course, this belief that Thanos was in the right is based on the assumption that his fundamental argument–the universe is overpopulated–is objectively true. If the universe’s overpopulation is his subjective opinion–if people are not actually running out of resources necessary for survival–that changes things. But since no one ever seemed to argue against his belief (at least not that I remember), I’m operating as if that’s true.

Ok, now that we’ve established that Thanos was in the right, I would like to voice three other complaints (two connected and one not-connected).

Complaint #1: There is no way–NO. WAY.–that all of humanity would still be in shambles FIVE WHOLE YEARS after the snap. I absolutely reject that premise. We as a species are far more resilient than that. Would people still mourn the loss of those they loved? Absolutely. But to the point of being completely unable to function? To the point where wreckage caused by the snap would still be sitting in the parking lot of Citi Field five yeras later?! Absolutely not. I realize that complaining about unrealistic scenarios in superhero movies might be a little ridiculous, but I stand by my complaint. Unrealistic scenarios in superhero movies are usually due to superpowers and/or being in space, not how humans function as a species.

Complaint #2: I also COMPLETELY reject the premise that the Avengers did good by bringing back all those who had been dusted. In fact, I think that was more harmful than dusting all of them in the first place. CAN YOU IMAGINE if the world’s population doubled in an INSTANT?! That would be so destructive. Sure, it’s nice to see your loved ones again. But, in theory–see complaint #1–the world should have adjusted to the new normal by the time everyone came back. If Thanos thought overpopulation was a problem initially, I’m sure it was NOTHING compared to what would happen if the entire population instantly doubled! They should have left well alone and used their superpowers to get people back on their feet after the dusting, not look for a way to go back in time to undo something that probably was for the greater good in the first place.

Complaint #3: I think it is LUDICROUS that the entire end of the movie was a sobfest over Iron Man (who, for the record, is one of my favorite Avengers! I was definitely crying in the theater during his funeral!) while Black Widow got NOTHING but a couple of minutes of Avenger angst. If she hadn’t sacrificed herself so Hawkeye could get the Soul Stone, Iron Man wouldn’t have been able to snap (thus sacrificing himself) in the first place!!!!!! If we’re going to celebrate all the dusted being brought back to life–which I think we shouldn’t, but since the movie thinks we should, let’s just go with that–she absolutely deserved the same level of pomp and circumstance that Iron Man got. She’s the real hero here, and I will not hear otherwise. JUSTICE FOR BLACK WIDOW.

/endspoilers

2. I’m getting a little ahead of myself in the Europe timeline, but I saw this article in the New York Times Morning Briefing on Monday and HAD to comment on it now, since I planned on commenting on the topic later on anyway.

The article is about Duolingo and its extremely limited usefulness as a tool for learning language, and I could not agree more. While the article author has a 500-day streak on Duolingo, I am the proud owner of a 970-day streak – a 970-day streak that should be a 1,223-day streak in my opinion, because I lost my streak in August 2016 over a streak freeze fail. The point is, I started using Duolingo to learn Dutch on January 1, 2016, and have done at least one Dutch lesson every day (except one or two) since then. Even if I only spent five minutes per day on these lessons, that would add up to 6,115 minutes, or 101.92 hours, at this point. If you use my college language classes as a metric for “time spent learning a language” (an imperfect metric, admittedly, but the best one I can come up with easily), a student with perfect attendance would get 2,400 minutes (40 hours) of language instruction in one semester. If that’s the case, I’ve then taken approximately two and a half full semesters of Dutch by now.

The point is, I’ve spent a lot of time learning Dutch on Duolingo: enough time that you’d think I’d be at least moderately capable of handling myself in the Netherlands, right? Or basically capable?

WRONG. I was BLOWN AWAY by how utterly incapable I was of using Dutch in the Netherlands. I could do next to nothing other than say, “Twee” (pronounced tway) when asking for a table at a restaurant (“twee” is “two” in Dutch) and offer up feeble “Dank u wel”s (“thank you”s) when given something – food, silverware, an entrance ticket, my passport back at the airport, etc.

Duolingo did help me understand some basics of Dutch pronunciation, and while it was moderately helpful to know how to pronounce words, it didn’t really do much for me when I didn’t know what the word meant in in the first place, how to use it in a sentence, or how to put together a sentence at all. Sure, I knew more Dutch than I would’ve known if I never did Duolingo. But I didn’t know enough to even come close to getting by after three full years–three full calendar years, plus a quarter!–of using the app daily. That’s a pretty poor review on the usefulness of the system, if you ask me.

3. You will all be happy to know, based on my post last Friday, that I did indeed get tickets to see the Jonas Brothers when they go on tour later this year. Based on the schedules of my concert-attending buddies, I actually opted for tickets to the Grand Rapids show rather than the Chicago show, but I think that’ll be better anyway. Van Andel has literally half the capacity of the United Center, so I’m thinking that’ll make for a more intimate concert experience than I’d have at the UC. Plus, Van Andel was where I saw the Jonas Brothers (and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus) for the Best of Both Worlds Tour in 2007, so it feels appropriate to see them there again. This time, though, I’m paying for my own ticket (rather than my parents paying), so I could get as good of seats as I wanted ūüėÄ Aisle seats on the floor, here we come! If they use the center aisle at any point during the show and I get a high five from Joe, I will sob like a baby. #noshame

Europe Trip Day 2: London

You can find all my Europe Trip posts here.

After walking all over London on Saturday, we continued our time in London by…walking around more of the city on Sunday. Obviously.

Sunday was Easter, and we woke up to little Easter baskets from my cousin and his husband, which I thought was the sweetest thing. They made us brunch, and then we headed off to church.

We took the River Bus to Bankside Pier, where we saw The Globe (and I, proud owner of a BA in English (that I managed to earn without reading a single line of Shakespeare, bizarrely), paid my respects).

london-theglobe

We crossed the¬†Millennium Bridge, famously destroyed by Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and then continued straight on ahead to¬†St. Paul’s Cathedral, where we attended the 11:30 Sung Eucharist Easter service.

london-stpaulscathedral

Considering that my church has been meeting in another church’s basement for the past year, this was¬†quite¬†the upgrade from a facility/attendance/pomp and circumstance standpoint. No one else in the group is particularly religious, so I really appreciated that they were all willing to spend over an hour of their day at church with me.

I wanted to see the Tower Bridge, so after church we walked over to the London Bridge for a photo op of the Tower Bridge.

london-towerbridge

Then it was time for Easter…lunch/dinner/food. We ate at 2 p.m., so I’m not sure what meal to call it ūüėõ Anyway, before leaving for London, my cousin asked if I’d prefer an Easter meal with city views or more of a traditional roast at a pub. While the city views were tempting, a traditional roast was more tempting, so I picked that. We took a bus to¬†Chelsea¬†(another¬†beautiful¬†neighborhood) and ate at The¬†Builders Arms.

I had a pork belly roast (*drools*) and insisted on sticky toffee pudding for dessert, as that’s my favorite dessert of all time. I was introduced to it in Scotland when I spent three weeks there in 2011, and any time I can get it is a treat. I certainly didn’t¬†need¬†dessert after a filling roast dinner, but I was absolutely not going to turn down sticky toffee pudding while the U.K.!

My cousin had mentioned that McDonald’s in London sell Cadbury Creme Egg McFlurrys around Easter, which sounded like the most incredible sugar bomb EVER, so I insisted we go to a McDonald’s after eating to get one (even though we had already had dessert). When we got to the closest McDonald’s, though, they were sold out ūüė¶ Boo. They had Cadbury Caramel Egg McFlurrys, but I don’t care about the Caramel Eggs! I like the Creme Eggs! Oh well. Guess I’ll just have to go back during Easter another time ūüėČ

london-chelsea

We crossed the Albert Bridge and strolled for a bit through Battersea Park, where I forced everyone to join in my bird-watching ventures.

london-albertbridge

I was very excited to see a couple European Robins in the park, particularly this cooperative little fellow!

london-europeanrobin

An interesting tidbit about robins: American Robins are not actually robins. They’re thrushes. I guess they got the name American Robin because they have red breasts like European Robins, but honestly, that’s about where the similarities end. The European Robin is¬†substantially¬†smaller than the American Robin, and I really don’t think they look that much alike at all.

I also saw some Great Tits and at least one Eurasian Blue Tit, though neither were as interested in being photographed as my friendly robin above. (Also, seriously. What a name for those birds.). Great Tits in particularly look a lot like Black-capped Chickadees, which makes sense, since chickadees are in the same family as tits. They were a little bigger, though.

I also saw a Mandarin Duck couple!! That was probably one of my favorite sightings of the whole trip. I never imagined I’d see one on in the wild! Isn’t the male¬†stunning?!

london-mandarinducks

Having walked around plenty of London once again, we called it quits and headed back to my cousin’s apartment. I ended up popping out for a very quick 1.25 mile run after we got back so I could add England to my list of Places I’ve Run (becoming the first non-U.S. addition to that list!), and then we had a low-key night at home, playing games, enjoying the cake we picked up the day before, and FaceTiming with family back in the U.S.

I LOVED London. I didn’t have any real expectations about how I’d feel about London, and I was surprised by how enamored I was with the city. All the history and architecture was right up my alley. I definitely could’ve spent more time there and absolutely want to go back in the future.

london-londoneye

LONDON SUMMARY

Accommodations:

  • Cousin’s apartment. 5/5.

Food:

Sights Seen:

  • Westminster Cathedral
  • Buckingham Palace
  • Green Park
  • Wellington Monument
  • Hyde Park
  • Mayfair
  • Fortnum & Mason
  • Soho
  • National Gallery of Art
  • Trafalgar Square
  • St. James Park
  • Houses of Parliament
  • Westminster Abbey
  • Victoria Gardens Park
  • Lambeth Bridge
  • The Globe
  • Millennium Bridge
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral
  • London Bridge
  • Tower Bridge
  • Chelsea
  • Albert Bridge
  • Battersea Park

 

Europe Trip Day 1: London

This Europe trip had been a long time coming. I’ve wanted to travel to the Netherlands during the spring to see the tulips at Keukenhof since 2013 or 2014, and originally planned on taking this trip during the spring of 2016. Various circumstances prevented the trip from happening in 2016 (and 2017,¬†and¬†2018), so by the time spring 2019 rolled around, nothing was going to keep me from going.

Though, Easter came awfully close.

Easter is my favorite holiday, and given the choice, I would prefer to be in town so I can go to church at my church for both Easter and the days leading up to it. The problem with Easter, though, is that it always falls during spring, and this year it happened to fall on April 21: right when I wanted to be in the Netherlands. In the years since I originally decided I wanted to go to the Netherlands during the spring, the list of places I wanted to see on the trip expanded, and grew to include London after my cousin moved there a year and a half ago. Despite wanting to be in the Netherlands on April 21, it seemed to make a lot more sense to be in London on April 21, particularly from a church-on-Easter perspective. So I flipped London from being the last stop on the trip to the first stop (which was a little bit of a bummer, because had I been in London the following weekend, I could’ve spectated the marathon. Sigh.), and on Good Friday, boarded a flight from Chicago to London.

I knew I would get little to no sleep on the flight over, which helped me be a bit more zen about the situation. My flight had a few Headspace meditations meant to facilitate sleep on the seatback entertainment, so I plugged my noise-cancelling headphones into that and attempted to drift off. I’m pretty sure I slept for about 90 total minutes, though my Fitbit says I slept for zero minutes. Either way, it wasn’t much.

After landing and going through customs, we made our way to the Tube and took that to my cousin’s neighborhood. My sister had gone to visit my cousin last summer and gave me her Oyster card with a pound or two left on it, so I topped that off with a few more pounds and we were on our way.

Public transportation in London¬†blew me away. We just missed the train leaving Heathrow, and, having taken the Blue Line more than once from O’Hare, I figured we’d be in for a 10-15 minute wait, especially since it was a Saturday morning on a holiday weekend. Nope. The next train pulled into the station in¬†three minutes. When we transferred to a different line later on, we didn’t have to wait at all. It blew my mind. I generally consider the CTA to be pretty functional (especially compared to the horror stories I’ve heard about the MTA in New York), but London’s public transportation was¬†light years¬†ahead of anything we have here. Coverage, frequency, ease of use: everything about it was a hundred times better than what I’m used to. What I would give to see any city in the United States invest that much in public transportation….

Anyway, my cousin and his husband met us at the Tube, and we headed to their apartment for some snacks, showers, and general getting our heads on straight before heading out for a gigantic walk around London.

We started at¬†Westminster Cathedral¬†(not to be confused with Westminster Abbey, which is a totally different thing. I had no idea until we showed up at the cathedral and I thought to myself, “This doesn’t look anything¬†like it looked on TV when Will and Kate got married…”¬†).

london-westminstercathedral

After spending a little time there, we walked to Buckingham Palace.

london-buckinghampalace

It was sufficiently impressive.

We walked past¬†Green Park¬†and the¬†Wellington Arch¬†and then went for a stroll in¬†Hyde Park, which was decorated with signs reminding parkgoers that “cannabis is illegal,” despite it being 4/20. All the lulz. (The signs didn’t seem to bother those partaking at all, for the record.)

The birdwatching in Hyde Park was delightful, despite it being a pretty bustling place. (London was having its best weather of the whole year up to that point, according to my cousin, so the park was appropriately packed.). I saw parakeets (!!) flying between trees, and once we got to The Serpentine, I saw SO many new-to-me birds! Eurasian Coots, Mute Swans, a Eurasian Moorhen, Tufted Ducks, Egyptian Geese, a Black-Headed Gull, Herring Gulls, and a Gray Heron¬†were all in the water. None of those birds are particularly rare in London, but since I obviously don’t live in London, I was¬†quite¬†excited to add eight new birds to my life list (Herring Gulls live in Chicago too, so I already had them on my list).

london-muteswanhydepark

After our time in Hyde Park, we walked through Mayfair, which was stupidly beautiful:

london-mayfair

and Grosvenor Square¬†to get to¬†Fortnum and Mason¬†for some tea shopping. My cousin got me two tins of green tea from Fortnum and Mason for Christmas, and I’ve had it at work almost every morning since. It is SO good, and being in Fortnum and Mason was both amazing and so overwhelming. We ended up leaving with a tin of Peach tea, Wedding Breakfast tea (a blend created to celebrate Will and Kate’s wedding in 2011), and a tin of shortbread cookies.

After shopping for tea, we got afternoon tea for ourselves at The Wolseley. I was fading fast by that point in the energy department, but a gigantic pot of caramel tea (I KNOW) did a great job of reviving me.

london-thewolseleytea

It was my cousin’s birthday a couple days before we arrived, and his husband had ordered a cake for him from a bakery (whose name I don’t remember, unfortunately) in¬†Soho, so we wandered around there for awhile. I loooooooved it. I realize how silly this sounds, but it reminded me so much of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter! We just don’t have little nooks and crannies of streets like that in the U.S. (or at least, we don’t have them anywhere in the U.S. where I’ve been), and I kind of thought the general look and feel of Diagon Alley was just made up. Nope! That’s how the streets in London actually look. I was obsessed.

london, soho

By the time we picked up the cake and walked around a little more, all that tea I had had had worked its way through my system, and I was in pretty desperate need of a bathroom. I mentioned this when we were right outside¬†The National Gallery, so we popped in to use the facilities there. That was the only reason we stopped by, but they weren’t closing for another 15 minutes, so we decided to take a speed-tour through the gallery and ended up seeing a couple Van Goghs, a Monet, and a Seurat. Not too shabby for a bathroom stop!

We kind of saw Trafalgar Square, but it was apparently the Feast of St. George that day, so the whole area was set up for a related festival. We walked around the square, headed towards St. James Park, kind of saw 10 Downing Street, and then continued on our way to the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.

london-housesofparliment

We spent some time in the Victoria Tower Gardens and crossed Lambeth Bridge, and thus concluded our bonkers, somewhere-in-the-neighborhood-of-20,000 steps tour of London.

london-commonpigeon

(Yes, I realize that’s a pigeon. But it’s a Common Pigeon, not a Rock Pigeon like we have in Chicago (though they have plenty of those in London, too), and honestly, I think this is one of my best bird photos, so I’m showing it off.)