Thus far, my time in Europe has been spent in some pretty fantastic places that aren’t necessarily prominent tier-1 fixtures on the classic tourist trail. Istanbul and Budapest, while massive and popular destinations in their own right, aren’t really the first cities I’ve historically thought of when I think ‘Europe’. Certainly Kiev and Chernobyl are well off the beaten path, and Switzerland, while very much a first-rate Western European destination, seems a bit more niche on the backpacker circuit.
I’ve taken great joy in discovering these places for myself and finding in each of them a tremendous amount of good; I found it really rewarding getting to know places that I didn’t necessarily have a lot of preconceived notions about. (Next time I find myself in this continent, I plan to really run with that idea and delve into less-touristed destinations like Poland, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Denmark, etc.)
There’s a different sort of joy on tap in Europe as well, though, and that comes from exploring its ‘Greatest Hits’ and recognizing what exactly it is that makes them so sensationally and universally adored. It was with this in mind that I planned the next leg of my journey, which would include stops in heavy-hitters Amsterdam, Paris, and Rome (the last of which I’ll talk about in a later post). Along the way, I’d be stopping briefly in Rotterdam (Amsterdam’s progressive, modern little brother) and Brussels (with a singular purpose in mind).
I was also pretty excited to share this leg of the trip with my good friend Scott, the first of my everyday inner circle back home in Atlanta to come abroad and say travel alongside me. This would be his first time in Europe, so the classics seemed like a great place to start.
Amsterdam: Sins & Friends
Scott and I would start our journey together in Amsterdam. Interestingly enough, this is the sole destination in my journey to-date where I’d already been once before, during my college years. At the time, I was pretty smitten – so I was eager to see how my admiration would hold up upon a return visit. Turns out, I’m still a big fan.
The primary allure for my return to a destination I’d already seen before lied in the fact that I made some really terrific Dutch friends during my time in New Zealand. Given that I’d loved Amsterdam so much the first time around and I now knew some great people living nearby, I decided it was worth doubling back. This turned out to be a great decision.
Just as soon as we’d hit the ground, stowed our bags, and had a quick drink at the bar, Scott and I were already off to meet my good friend Jerry – one of the closest new friends I’ve made this year, as well as one of the very first! Amsterdam is a town that loves a good party, and Jerry told us about a great one happening at a really cool outdoor festival venue nearby. De Sluwe Vos (Dutch for ‘The Sly Fox’) is a local DJ known for his techno and house tunes, and he’d be performing a 10-hour long set(!) on the day we landed. Who were we to deny the hand of fate? We met up with Jerry and his lovely girlfriend Annemiek, and thus began a fantastic day that would turn into a fantastic night.
During the show, we also met some cool new people like Julia here and a big group of her friends. As the party wrapped in the late evening, they invited us back to their place for some social afterparty fun. Not 12 hours into our time in the Netherlands, and already we found ourselves in a stranger’s home, laughing at our complete inability to understand conversations in Dutch but enjoying the great company regardless.
(I know, right? Dutch people are all so good looking! What gives?)
After we’d mingled for a bit at Julia’s place, Annemiek and Jerry realized they’d miss the last train back home – so we all got a kick out of cramming into the hotel room that I’d booked for Scott and I that night with some of my hoarded hotel points. Imagine our surprise when we came back to this note under the door, left by a member of the hotel staff I might have been casually flirting with when we checked in. The Amsterdam vibes were STRONG so far!
After joining us for a delicious Dutch breakfast the next morning, Jerry and Annemiek had to bid us farewell – they had normal daily lives to resume, after all – but it was such a pleasure spending time with them. They really made our time in Amsterdam special, and I can’t imagine a better way to kick things off.
From that point on, Scott and I set out to explore the city on our own. We’d have no trouble finding things to do! Amsterdam is famous for so many things. For many, the first thing that comes to mind are its ubiquitous ‘coffee shops’. Don’t be fooled by the name, though – these cafés aren’t purveyors of lattes; they’re sanctioned, legal places to buy and enjoy marijuana. Love it or hate it, this is an integral part of Amsterdam’s identity as a liberal bastion and safe haven for virtually any vice that doesn’t involve hurting yourself or others. Somehow I forgot to take a photo of any of these… for some reason my memory must have been hazy 😉 Here’s one I stole from the web of a particularly famous coffeeshop in town!
The other half of Amsterdam’s notorious naughty side comes from its sanctioned Red Light District – an area of town in which you can stroll through narrow alleys and peek through crimson, neon-lit windows where you’ll find beautiful, scantily-clad, predominately Eastern European women vying for your attention and your Euros.
Yep, these girls are prostitutes, and they’re big business here in Amsterdam. Because the city keeps the industry on a tight leash and mandates strict rules, laws, and sexual health checks, the practice is generally accepted and tolerated locally. Photos here are strictly forbidden for obvious reasons, and this is enforced with a pretty heavy hand, so I didn’t take any – but once again Aunty Google comes to the rescue.
Naturally then, the fun touristy thing to do in Amsterdam is to walk through these areas rife with coffeeshops and red lights, soaking in the novelty of it all. These areas are also littered with tons of late night junk food for its many drunk and/or stoned wanderers – famous french fry stands and unique spots like FEBO, which serves hot, freshly made fried goodies from vending machine-esque windows. Yet another vice that this city embraces with open arms!
Before you get the wrong impression, though, understand that Amsterdam is famous for a lot more than its sinful side. This is a city with a rich pedigree that goes much deeper than sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, of which it’s merely tolerant. Damsco (as some locals call it) is also world-renowned for its gorgeous canals and its position as a cultural juggernaut, boasting a dizzying array of museums and art galleries. Though we didn’t visit this time around, it’s the famous home of the Anne Frank House, in which the young Jewish girl and her family hid during World War II. It’s a sobering visit that I’d like to make on a subsequent trip here.
We did manage to visit the Stedelijk Museum, the city’s world-class modern and contemporary art museum.
Another classic we explored was the Van Gogh Museum, which – again – doesn’t allow photos. I’m sensing a trend here. Go Go Gadget Google!
For me, the highlight of our Amsterdam tourism came from the fantastic canal tour we took with a local company called Those Dam Boat Guys. This was a highly informative and highly fun tour, piloted by an American expat who told us so many fascinating things about the city and its history. Best of all, it was BYOB/Picnic – so Scott and I put together quite the spread to munch on as we learned about this great city.
Some fun facts for you: Amsterdam is made up of 165 canals. It’s a series of manmade islands, and homes along the canals have a distinctive look because they were made to order, per the specs of the original buyer. This is why styling is so disparate amongst them, and explains why the width of each home varies, based on buying power (whereas depth is uniform). These homes are supported by wooden poles – 11 million of them in all of Amsterdam, in fact – and that’s why some of them droop or lean.
Perhaps most fascinating of all, there are more bicycles in Amsterdam than there are people! That figure includes the very young and very old, too – so there’s well more than 1 bike per person here. The Dutch love their bikes! As a result, they’re quite fit, their city is very ecologically friendly, and traffic jams aren’t as prominent an issue as they are elsewhere.
We were really lucky and had a particularly special treat during our time on the canals, when we stumbled into this fascinating local personality who puts on a bizarre – but beautiful – musical performance. This local legend is Reinier Sijpkens, and thankfully some other lucky prior witnesses have captured him on video!
Among our other notable stops in Amsterdam were a craft brewery situated in an old windmill:
A cafe famous for its incredible Dutch apple pie, as suggested by another dear Dutch friend of mine, Nick, and his wife Tianne:
And an incredible private auction collection of cars that we had to peek at through holes in a privacy gate. Scott spotted this hidden gem, and it absolutely made my day.
It was a brief visit, but we also got a chance to catch up with Michelle, another awesome Dutchie who I travelled with in New Zealand.
If you can’t tell already, I really love Dutch folks. And they all speak English! And Dutch! And on average, one or two other languages as well. They’re some of the most multilingual people in the world, as well as some of the most fun and most relaxed. If ya don’t know… now ya know.
And thus, our time in Amsterdam had drawn to a close after one hell of a ride. I love this city to death, and it’s a place I’ll look forward to revisiting again and again over the years for its warmth, its accepting attitude, its incredible art and culture, and its embrace of all things weird and wonderful. Despite the bummer of leaving this wonderful place, however, we were eager to see its kid sister Rotterdam: a city with a fascinating history and an even more fascinating skyline.
Rotterdam: Dutch City of the Future?
1940, World War II: German bombers lay waste to Rotterdam, raining fire on the strategically significant harbor city and reducing the city center to ash and rubble.
In the wake of the destruction, post-war Rotterdam decides not to rebuild, but to completely remodel. They opt for forward-thinking architecture, art, pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure, and public spaces. A few decades later, the all-in bet has paid off, and a very globalized Rotterdam is beginning to emerge from rival sibling Amsterdam’s shadow.
This is an exciting city right now, and it’s growing progressively more interesting by the day. Edgy design, interesting public spaces, and progressive art are popping up everywhere. Construction is constant, and change is blisteringly fast. Take, for example, Markthal: a mixed-use development with shops, restaurants, and apartments that was completed in October of 2014. (Yes, Atlanta folks, this is a European Ponce City Market)!
Also fascinating are the city’s famous cube houses
Even the train station turns heads!
We stumbled into some pretty cool street art, and even a synchronized dance flash mob (why not!?)
While Rotterdam lacks the cultural clout and classic good looks of Amsterdam, it’s a city that feels very lived-in, and a place that’s becoming progressively better with every passing day. This is a city that’s finding its identity and making its own rules, and it’s something pretty special to watch unfold. It’s going to be REALLY interesting watching Rotterdam come into its own over the next few decades, and I think this is a city to really keep your eye on.
Our time here was short, though, and by now we were ready to get to Paris – one of the world’s great metropolises. But on the way, we decided to make a quick one-day detour in Brussels, for two main reasons. One, it’s conveniently right along the way there. And two – it’s the home to the best traditional beer styles in the world, and one of the best breweries on Earth.
Brussels: Beer & Waffles
No, not at the same time. That’s gross. Anyway, listen folks. There’s more to Belgium to beer and waffles. I’m sure of it. It’s just that we didn’t really bother finding out for ourselves – our hilariously brief stop here was really and truly for these reasons only.
Priority one was visiting the Cantillon Brewery – a famous name amongst hardcore beer nerds the world over.
Cantillon specializes in a special, rather ancient style of beer called the lambic. Lambics are brewed in open vats, which allow wild strains of yeast and bacteria like Lactobacillus to take up residence. Before you turn your nose, keep in mind that this isn’t entirely unlike yogurt – it’s perfectly safe for consumption. The yeast and bacteria present in Brussels are uniquely special for this kind of beer production. They do, however, impart a funky, sour flavor that’s an acquired taste for many. I love sour beer styles, personally, but that’s me.
Cantillon makes their beers the old-fashioned way, and not much about their process has changed since opening in 1900. Everything is done by hand, devoid of expensive industrial equipment, and much of the mastery of their beer is due to the artisanship of their master brewers and blenders. These beers are aged in oak and then blended together, not unlike whiskey, to impart balanced flavors and characteristics.
Chances are, though, that you really don’t care all that much about these little details. Suffice it to say, the tour we took was by far the most interesting brewery tour I’ve ever attended – and I’ve probably attended a hundred+ of them (I like beer a lot, sue me). The guide was hilariously curt, to-the-point, and took every opportunity to poke fun at people. Most of all, though, he just wanted to share their incredible beer and fascinating history. It was an awesome experience and well worth the detour!
While we had beer on the mind, we also made a stop at Delirium Bar – famous for having the world’s largest selection of beer on their menu. This might surprise you if you don’t know how much of a juggernaut Brussels is in the beer world – it’s a rite of passage to come here!
And oh yeah – I nearly forgot – I also promised you there’d be waffles. My mind wasn’t blown, really, but hey… we had to do it! I had mine Brussels style, with powdered sugar and hazelnuts.
Last but not least, a bonus (costumed) manneken pis sighting – and then back on the train we go!
Ravi d'enfin vous rencontrer, Paris.
Yes, this post is getting long, and yes, Paris likely deserves a post unto itself. But hey, this is my blog, so we’re playing by my rules!
I didn’t really go into Paris with any specific expectations, despite its reputation as a global powerhouse metropolis and cultural icon. Frankly, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t traveling with a lover, so the whole ‘city of love’ angle wasn’t really doing much for me (Nothing personal, Scott). Of course, as a hardcore fan of all things food, I understood that Paris is an incredibly important epicurean city, so I looked forward to sampling its gastronomic wares – but otherwise, I’d be going in pretty blind. I like that.
What did excite me about Paris was the fact that my sister Carla would be joining Scott and I, and sticking around for Rome as well. Carla has a long history in the food industry, and she too loves nothing more than to eat and drink, so if nothing else I knew we’d be in for some good meals together. It was really great to be with family for the first time in 6 months.
Our first stop was the Musée d’Orsay, a gorgeous museum on the bank of the Seine that’s housed in a former train station. We chose to go here in lieu of the Louvre, which was sure to be packed to the point of sheer claustrophobia – instead choosing a slightly more low-key, but still world-class gallery to fill our first morning together. The museum’s collection was extensive, but to be completely candid we were all far more taken with the building itself.
That afternoon, Scott and I jumped at the chance to watch France’s World Cup match in their own capital city. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet in my blog ramblings, but following the World Cup while traveling through Europe was a pretty fantastic experience. Europeans are incredibly passionate about their football, and there’s nothing more contagious than watching a country play for glory while within its very borders. Fortunately, spirits were high, because France would go on to win this one against Argentina. Eventually, they’d go on to win it all – though unfortunately we weren’t still around for the celebrations.
Later that evening, my incredible good luck seeing friendly faces abroad continued when we were able to meet up with my good friend Derek and his beautiful girlfriend Taylor, from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Derek used to be a client of mine when I was at IBM, and we became friends over the years. When I found out they were doing a European tour of their own and would have one day of overlap with us in Paris, I was thrilled to have a chance to catch up with them. More beautiful smiling faces!
The following day, Carla, Scott and I kicked things off by heading to a great local food market and bakery to gather some goods for a picnic in a nearby park. The usual suspects were all present: French cheeses, baguette, local beers, meats – a proper picnic lunch!
After filling our bellies, we took a stroll around the Butte-aux-Cailles neighborhood to scope out some interesting local street art – a favorite travel pastime of mine.
The neighborhood has a few notable churches, actually. Here’s a little-known obscure spot called Notre-Dame.
When we left, we realized we must have recently missed a pretty great party there. The view from their doorstep’s not bad, either!
Afterward, our final lunch came at the suggestion of Amanda, a friend back home, who recommended an incredible hidden speakeasy-style tapas spot where the menu is represented by cards hanging from the ceiling. This had to have been my favorite meal in Paris – #foodporn, anyone?
And that was pretty much it! It felt like we’d barely been in Paris at all, and indeed this was just a quick 2.5 day stop to get a quick feel for it. I’m still not entirely sure how I felt about the place – I definitely enjoyed my time there, but I didn’t really feel that ‘x’ factor that wraps itself around your brain and burrows deep inside you somewhere, beckoning you to return.
I did enjoy the city’s fascinating juxtaposition of grit and glamor, its classical beauty, and its delicious cuisine – and I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself there another time – but I won’t exactly be counting down the days. Here’s a few last random shots from around town
If you haven’t seen the film, I’ll warn you now – there’s more than a little bit of foul language in the dialog. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It’s particularly apropos, though, since Amsterdam and Paris both play prominent roles in this conversation between Jules and Vincent.