We had a few hours of free time this morning before our drive to Germany from Amsterdam, so I decided to go to the Anne Frank House. You aren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so unfortunately, I don’t have any. The Anne Frank House is a self-guided museum. You get to pass through all of the rooms in the building where Anne and her family hid during World War II.
The rooms are mostly empty except for the museum artifacts, including Anne’s original diary. Apparently, Anne’s father insisted that the rooms remain empty to symbolize the void left behind by the millions of people who were deported and never returned. The most thought-provoking part was when you passed through the opening behind the bookcase to the secret annex and went through the rooms where Anne and her family hid. Anne writes in her diary about the black-out curtains that had to be kept shut at all times. The museum has covered these windows with black- out fabric as well. I got a really eerie feeling walking through the room that was Anne’s which still had the newspaper clippings of celebrities she had glued to the walls to make the room less gloomy behind a protective plastic layer. This is probably the most worthwhile tourist attraction in Amsterdam.
. . . stays in Amsterdam! I’m not going to post much from Amsterdam for obvious reasons, but I will tell you about it when I get home if you really want to know. In the meantime, enjoy some G-rated photos from Amsterdam and Volendam, a small town on the coast where we enjoyed a nice dinner. Those of you who watch Covert Affairs may recognize the picture of the bicycle parking garage. This is supposedly the world’s largest bicycle parking space.
We headed out to a cheese farm in Katwoude in the Netherlands. We met Charlotte, a pig, and were told about how they produce their cheese. Then we were given a demo on how to make clogs by hand. Afterward, we sampled several types of cheeses and raspberry wine.
After arriving at our hotel on the outskirts of Brussels, we had about an hour to relax before heading to La Grand Place, Brussels’ main square. The buildings in La Grand Place are so incredibly beautiful and detailed. There was some sort of festival going on in the square. They had set up a dance floor and were blasting hip hop music. The juxtaposition of the historic buildings with the modern music was amusing. We walked to the Manneken Pis, the famous statue in Brussels. It was much smaller than any of us had expected!
After that, I grabbed a waffle from one of the many nearby waffle places with my new Australian friends. I have to say, the area around La Grand Place has got to be the best smelling place I’ve ever been. You can’t beat the smell of fresh waffles! The classic Belgian waffle is dusted with sugar, but I decided to go with a more touristy version that had sliced bananas, strawberries, and chocolate. It was heavenly!
In our remaining free time, we got some pictures, looked in a few shops, and most importantly, tried some Belgian chocolate! The entire group then met up for dinner. We had a three course prix fixe dinner of fried mussels, steak with French fries, and chocolate mousse. I had a local Belgian beer with my dinner. I was pretty impressed with myself for having tried all of the foods Belgium is famous for in the span of a few hours!
By this time, I was so full that I thought I would burst. It was nice to be able to walk around a bit more before heading back to the hotel. On the walk, I got to know a couple of people from South Africa. I’m having a great time meeting people from all over the world! A few people decided to stay out drinking in the city center instead of taking the bus back to the hotel. Most of us decided to get a good night’s rest because we are planning on going hard in Amsterdam tomorrow!
Our tour bus departed London this morning for Dover, where we caught a ferry to Calais, France. I had seen pictures of The White Cliffs of Dover before, but I never realized how big of a port it is. It seems that a lot of freight trucks use the ferry from Dover, along with the usual passenger vehicles and tour buses.
When I saw the line for the ferry, I thought we would have to wait for quite a while. It turns out that this ferry, named The Spirit of France, is enormous compared to any of the ferries that I’ve been on in Washington. We were actually able to get on the next ferry, so we didn’t have to wait long at all. This ferry has 6 decks for vehicles, and two decks with restaurants, bars, shops, a video arcade, and even slot machines!
I met a nice couple on the ferry from Wales. They asked about my vacation plans, and when I told them we were going to Belgium today, they made a face and said that Belgium is the armpit of Europe. I had never heard anyone say that before and was kind of surprised. If it’s not that great, we’re only going to be there for half a day, so oh well!
It took only a few minutes to walk to my hotel from the Tube stop. It was not an easy walk, however. I had issues getting my suitcase to cooperate with the uneven pavement. Combine this with the crowded sidewalks and sleep deprivation, and I was ready to crash by the time I checked in to the hotel. I had had grand plans to sprint to the London Eye before the tour group’s kick-off meeting at 6 pm. By the time I got to my room, around 5:15, I decided to forgo the London Eye and just relax for a minute and freshen up before leaving for the meeting.
Contiki, the operator of my travel group, has a nice space in the basement of the Royal National Hotel. It sort of reminds me of a miniature student union on a college campus. After the conclusion of the meeting, there was an optional happy hour at the pub upstairs. The last thing I wanted to do was to drink beer, as I was feeling dehydrated from the plane ride and had an empty stomach. I ended up joining two Australians for dinner at an Italian restaurant instead of going to the happy hour. They thought I was only 25 years old, which I thought was precious. The funny thing is, they asked me why I “was taking such a short holiday?” They added onto the beginning and end of this tour for a total of 5 weeks. I cannot ever imagine taking that long of a vacation! A lot of the other people here, mostly Australians, are taking vacation extending beyond this tour. One girl is taking 7 weeks off of work. It’s interesting to note the difference in mentality about taking vacation. In the US, everyone told me that they couldn’t believe I was taking this long of a vacation, at about 3 weeks.
I stopped in a couple of souvenir shops after dinner before hitting the shower and then bed. Our group meets at 6:45 the next morning for Belgium via France by ferry. I wish I could have at least gone on the London Eye, but I knew I was going to return one day anyway to see more attractions like the Tower of London. I also want to see the English countryside, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales someday. I will return!
I took the lift down to the Underground, got a ticket, and hopped on the Tube to Russell Square. Anyone who has known me longer than a few minutes knows that public transportation is not exactly my forte, but I found the Tube to be very easy to navigate with many maps posted inside the cars and announcements at every stop. It was very clean and safe as well. Incidentally, the Tube is 150 years old this year!
The terminal where I got on was the first stop on the Picadilly line, so the cars were empty and it was easy to find a place for my luggage. Once we got to the South Kensington stop, it got really crowed inside the cars. By the time we got to my stop, Russell Square, I had to be a bit aggressive about getting my bag and getting off the Tube car. All in all, I would definitely recommend using the Tube. My only complaint is that I wish they had an express train with fewer stops. It took an hour to get from Heathrow to Russell Square, but I would still recommend the Tube for its ease of use, convenience, and cost effectiveness.
The border control agent seemed very skeptical about a solo traveler staying in the UK for only one day. For a moment, I thought there was going to be a problem, but he let me through and I got my bag without any issues. I found it amusing that you had to pass through a duty free shop in order to exit the customs area. Once you pass through the customs area, you get to the arrival area which was exactly like in the movie “Love Actually”. Alas, there weren’t any Colin Firths or Hugh Grants waiting for me. . .
I was worried about having only one hour and 40 minutes for my connection in Amsterdam to London, as I was not sure if I would have to go through immigration and/or get my bag, go through customs, and re-check my bag. Luckily, I didn’t have to do any of that and had plenty of time to make my connection.
The gate from where my connecting flight departed was enclosed by walls on three sides with the fourth side being a security screening area. When I got to the gate, there were several people already sitting in the screening area, but no one was manning the security check. I walked through the metal detector and found a place to sit. Sometime later, a person with the airline came over and asked everyone to leave the seating area and make a line outside the gate so we could all go through the security screen. A few people with the airport security came over and did a very thorough check of the now vacant seating area, which included a pat down of the vinyl seats and screen of the garbage. I thought it was strange that they didn’t just close off the waiting area until it was time to screen the passengers to save them the step of having to screen the waiting area itself. The security check took quite a while and was more thorough than I expected, including the need for everyone to remove their tablets from their bags and take them out of their cases. They even made the flight crew go through the security check, including the pilot! It was strange to see the pilot taking off his shoes and belt for the security check.