Amazing Amsterdam

Four days in Amsterdam, enjoying all the city has to offer

We spent four days in Amsterdam and I wish we had more time.  Visiting Amsterdam is like tasting a bite of a wonderful desert, you leave wanting more.

We stayed in the Museumplein section of the city, not far from most of the museums that Amsterdam has to offer.  I think the first thing that you notice when you arrive in Amsterdam is how friendly everyone is.  When we left the airport several different people offered to help us find the transfer bus to our destination.  Once off the bus we walked with our incresingly heavy baggage for a “ten minute” trek to the house which, in reality was about twenty minutes. The neighborhood was beautiful but when we saw the eighty-two narrow stairs winding up and around, we were less enthused.  We were huffing and puffing when we finally reached the top floor.

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Jut a few of the eighty two steps in our flat

The flat is well designed with a new kitchen, dining and living room, and a  large balcony.  I had forgotten when I looked at the Airbnb listing to notice where the bedroom was.  It was up a twelve step ladder in a loft with a low, peaked ceiling.  How exciting to climb up and down a ladder every night and several times during the night!  It was like sleeping in a tent, but with a hard mattress. Low ceilings and the fear every night that one of us would slip down the ladder and kill ourselves made for very little sleep.  This is definitely a flat for someone under fifty.

 

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Our apartment in Amsterdam, yes that is a very steep ladder to the bed

In Amsterdam there are 800,000 bikes, more than one for every man, woman and child in the city and most of them are basic three speed bikes.  Mothers, fathers, kiddies, old and young all riding in the city.  Amsterdam is flat and has designated bike lanes that we mistook for sidewalks and narrowly avoided being plowed down by a bicyclist drinking coffee and attending to the child behind him.

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A spoke side view of the canal

While in the city we enjoyed all that Amsterdam had to offer.  The tram stop was just up the street from our flat and was so easy to hop on and off to get around all parts of the city.  We also took a cruise  on the canals to get a different view of the city.  The captain, like everyone we met in Amsterdam spoke English.  He said that the Dutch watch American television and movies with only Dutch subtitles and therefor easily learn to speak English as they grow up.

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A view of the bridges from the canal

Amsterdam is so much more than just the Red Light District and the Coffee shops offering pot everywhere.  It is such a beautiful city with delicious food, friendly people  and we experienced beautiful weather when we were there. We visited the Ann Frank House and had an informative session prior to going into the house.  The session was very moving and I learned a lot about young Ann’s life.  However, the visit to the house was extremely crowded and even claustrophobic.  I was concerned about how to escape a fire in the crowded space and worried about terrorists,  I needed to leave the house as soon as possible.

The Red Light District is really a tourist area with lots of cafes and pubs to watch all that is going on in the red lit Windows.  The Coffee Shops serve pot brownies, Space Cake and various other forms of pot, but they do not serve alcohol.

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A Coffee Shop serves Space Cake not cappuccino

 

Following our canal cruise we were fortunate enough to meet up with Greg’s cousin and husband who were leaving Amsterdam to begin their river cruise.  We went inside Grand Central and met them on their cruise boat for a drink.  So often it is nice to leave time in your schedule for kismet events such as this one.

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The really beautiful Grand Central Station in Amsterdam
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Our impromptu visit with cousins in Amsterdam

We Decided to take a short train ride to Zaanse Schans to see the windmills and rent bikes.  It is a lovely little town and we thought it was so picturesque.  For only about seven euros we got on the train to the town with windmills.

 

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Biking in the town of Zaanse Schans

On our final day in Amsterdam I visited the Van Gogh museum, while Greg drank up the local culture watching The British Open in a pub.  The museum was the best I have experienced.  I bought a “skip the line pass” for 9am when it opened.  The museum was uncrowned inside and I had ample opportunity to see the artworks of Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec up close and at my leisure.  The best part was that the museum was absolutely quiet and no one was taking photos.

We had some amazing meals in Amsterdam including mussels and salmon.  The sweetest place we went to had no menu, nor prices.  The waitress simple came to your table, stooped down and recited what the offerings were for the evening.  We jumped right in and ordered.  The food was so delicious and realitively inexpensive for wine, beer, appetizers, main dishes and desert the tab was about 60 euros.

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Mussels in broth

On our two last evenings we found our way to the Maxim Piano Bar.  An American from Detroit was at the keys singing all familiar tunes.  Both Dutch and Americans were singing and dancing along.  The bartender was funny, friendly and remembered our names when we walked in again on the second night.  We stayed well past midnight and although the trams were no longer running we didn’t mind walking the couple of miles back to the apartment, enjoying the evening all the while.

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Fabulous Four

We have been traveling together for over a month.  Typically my husband and I get along well with one another.  We don’t argue very often and because he is very agreeable and easygoing we are a good match.  We can finish each other’s sentences and we often do. But even two people who love each other lots need other people in their lives.  We were very anxious to visit our friends from Arizona who are expats in Switzerland. They are a fun and active couple, but never did we imagine all of the experiences we would pack into a four day visit to their home in Gland Switzerland.

In only four days we did wine tasting, rode several gondola lifts to the top of Mont Blanc, stood on “The Void” at 12,500 feet, traveled by train up to a glacier cave, rode a luge ride, took a chocolate making class, visited a chocolate factory and sampled everything, toured a Gruyere cheese factory, ate cheese fondue, visited the Gruyere Chateau, heard the traditional Swiss horns, drank in a “Alien Bar”, took a boat ride to France, enjoyed a number of delicious wines and local dishes at restaurants in both Switzerland and France, crossed the border multiple times,  went shopping, hiked in the woods and saw firsthand a Swiss WWII bunker and toblerones, drove through some local farms and picked a turnip, used up all of my memory card on the camera, and lastly enjoyed a fantastic home cooked barbecue with our friends.

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Standing in “The Void” on Mont Blanc
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Half way up Mont Blanc
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The very interesting “ALIEN BAR”
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Inside the glacier cave and yes it is melting
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The chocolate cooking class was a blast!
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A view of the garden at Chateau de Gruyere

 

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Not the boat we took to France
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A local cow-bike parade
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Fields of sunflowers
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Views of the Swiss countryside
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WWII Swiss bunker
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Dinner in the lovely garden with friends

Lessons learned………..thus far

I have started to compile a list of the lessons I have learned on this very extended vacation to Europe.  This list is by no means complete but it does represent much of what we have learned in our travels.

1. If you are visiting Italy or Spain bring only a pair of flip flops and buy the rest, the shoes are gorgeous and affordable in Europe.

2. After you pack your suitcase and backpack with everything you are certain you will need for a two month trip, take half out. Those damn things get really heavy climbing seven flights of stairs.

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Its a long way up and down with heavy luggage.

 

3. Enjoy eating in outside cafes but realize that you will likely be sitting next to smokers.

4. Always secure the laundry that you hang outside with extra clothes pins, because your downstairs neighbors will not give you back whatever fell on their balcony.

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Greg’s shorts, now the property of our downstairs neighbor

 

5.  Topless beaches are really not what they’re cracked up to be, typically old, overweight ladies and hairy men dress with interchangeable bottoms. No picture necessary.

6.  Any restaurant or cafe with the word “American” in it is a tourist trap where you will end up paying triple for a cappucino and pastry.

7. Pay the buskers, they are providing you with entertainment and it’s hard enough to to earn a living as a musician.

8. Don’t let anybody fool you, that lovely historic, charming building will NOT have an elevator, so choose wisely, but you will get your exercise.

9.  If you are driving in Italy be prepared for motorbikes passing you on both sides.  And realize that there are more cars in Italy than parking spaces.  Better yet, don’t drive.

10. Do not get your hair colored or cut in a salon where you don’t speak the language.  What you will end up with is lost in translation.  Speaking from experience here.

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Yes, that was really my hair

 

11. Get off your mapquest app and look at the street signs.

12.  Stay at an Airbnb.  The hosts know the area and can really help you get comfortable in the neighborhood.

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Our lovely flat in the center of Barcelona

13.  Eat like a local, it may be your only chance to try a real delicacy.

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Calamari, and some delicious little fish that looked back at me.

14.  Smile, be friendly and remember you are representing your country.

15.  See all of the sights that YOU want to see but take time for relaxation.

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Relaxing in Tuscany

16.  Talk to the people sitting next to you.  You may make some new friends.

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Our new friends from Malta

17.  Bring digital books only.  They weigh less.

18.  Realize that the television will likely be in another language, so read your book.

19.  Bring clothing with quick drying fabric, virtually nobody has a dryer in Europe.

20.  Get your husband a murse (men’s purse)-these guys need to share the load.

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The twelve pound purse, time for me to get him a murse

21.  FaceTime is a great way to keep in touch with friends and family, but they will never remember the nine hour time difference and will wake you up at 3 AM.

22.  Remember the bum passed out in front of you on the beach is probably somebody’s son “studying abroad”.  #couldbemykid

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The “exchange student” sleeping on the beach after the party

23;  Everything you buy has to be carried for the rest of your trip. Think packable.

24.  One good cappuccino can convert a lifetime tea drinker.

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They didn’t all look like this but this cappucino in Florence was fabulous

25.  Memories cost you nothing but are with you forever.

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Visiting Mont Blanc in the French Alps

 

26.  The siesta has been a common practice for hundreds of year, take advantage.

27.  Go with the flow, stores often open at different times than you are used to and close whenever either earlier or later than you expected.

28.  Take public transportation, the worst thing that can happen is you wind up with a good story.

29.  Climbing stairs at twelve thousand feet is much more difficult, after only a couple of flights you may be out of breath.
30.  Wine is cheaper than water so drink more of it.

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Rambling Las Ramblas

A rambling account of our activities, tastes, sights and sounds of Barcelona

 

We arrived in Barcelona ready to walk Las Ramblas, (the  pedestrian center for shopping, sightseeing and people watching)  Barcelona is packed with visitors, shopping opportunities, restaurants and really interesting neighborhoods. On our first morning we took part in a walking tour of the old city.  We saw Roman ruins of the old wall that surrounded Barcelona, ancient churches and learned much of the history of Barcelona.  We have been warned by many about pickpockets and it is apparent that you must be aware and vigilant with your purse, wallet and cellphone.  But this is a spectacular city with so much to do and see.

This week we have had some wonderful experiences.  The weather has been fantastic.  We have loved walking and dining outside in the cafes along the plazas. Often  buskers (street musicians who rely on tips) surround the area with the lovely sound of their music. Barcelona is an extremely walkable city and we have walked nearly everywhere.  We visited the beach which turned out to be a crowded, urban beach. A young  guy was passed out  the sand in front of me for quite a while.  I thought he might be a bum, but later his friend came and gave his something to eat and drink.   He went into the ocean and didn’t even have a towel.  Apparently he and his buddy went to the beach from the last party. They were foreign exchange students from Australia.  When we left the beach I gave him my unused towel.  The guy was so sweet and grateful.

We also visited La Sagrada Familia, the famous unfinished basilica designed by architect Antoni Gaudi.  The inside was spectacular with changing colors as the sun moved in the sky.  We were relieved that the visitors were limited, which afforded us time in the church so we could appreciate it’s beauty and simplicity.  It is definitely a good idea to purchase tickets online to reserve a specific time so you don’t have to wait in line.

We went to Tibadado mountain up a funicular to see the view of Barcelona from the mountain to the sea.  At the top of the mountain is a beautiful church, Temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  We climbed around a bit and had an early dinner at Mirablau, with a view of all of Barcelona.

It’s fun to visit several local markets.  I loved seeing all of the unique local fresh produce, fish and meats available. We both enjoy cooking and we love paella so we jumped at the chance to book Marta’s Private Paella Cooking Class which we found on TripAdvisor.  After a bit of a difficult time finding her building (we will blame Mapquest and not my husband) Marta warmly greeted us to her home.  We met six other people from around the globe who shared our interest in cooking. Marta, a former teacher explained the fundamentals of paella with patience and charm.  We learned about the importance of quality ingredients and the order in which they must be cooked.  Everyone took part in the preparation of the meats, fish and vegetables.  Marta has a large propane powered paella pan on her patio that easily held enough food for a dozen people. Within a few hours we learned all of the elements of paella typical of  Catalonia.  It was great fun to be part of this diverse group of people who worked together and produced a truly delicious meal! We sat down at the table toasted one another and enjoyed the best paella ever.  If you are interested in joining Marta’s class you can contact her at:ambtucuinem@gmail.com

 Bon Voyage to Barcelona

A picturesque spot in Eze, France
Bon Voyage-good journey, yes indeed it was a very good journey aboard the Celebrity Equinox.  We stepped onto the cruise ship for a seven day cruise from Civitavecchia to Barcelona.  It was a needed change of pace for us.  We went from cleaning up after ourselves and finding places on our own to explore and dine at, to letting the cruise line take care of everything.  Our only responsibility is to show up on time for medals and get back to the ship before it leaves port.

After nearly three weeks in Italy, Greg and I were more than anxious for the company of others.  We have met some wonderful people from the UK, Australia and the US.  Everyone was friendly and happily gave us suggestions for places to visit on the rest of our travels.  We have indeed met some new friends that we hope to visit with again.

The first port we visited Livorno, a nice little port town where we decided to walk the two miles to the train station and take a short train ride to Pisa.  Pisa is actually a lovely town with nice pedestrian walking and shopping areas.  I was surprised with how really beautiful the tower is.  

The typical tourist picture of me holding up the tower
 

Our next stop was Villefranche-Sur-Mer, near Nice France.  The port was an idyllic little town with cafes and a lovely beach.  Before we began our adventure we stopped in a cafe for some cappucino.  Apparently we looked a bit touristy to the proprietor and he tried to charge us 24 euros for our drinks.  I simply smiled nicely and said that there was some mistake.  He quickly apologized and decided to try his scam on the next unsuspecting tourist.  Since we have become so comfortable using local transportation we took the train to Eze, a small picturesque village overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. We initially attempted to climb up to the town from the train station however given the fact that we were not wearing proper shoes for the trip, and it looked like a humongous climb, we opted to take a local bus.  The steep, winding, narrow roads with multiple hairpin turns confirmed to me that as I get older my fear of falling off a cliff is as strong as ever.  The town was lovely and the view was spectacular.

Harbor in Villefranche-sur-Mer
 

Stairs, stair, stairs in the town of Eze

Corsica is a French island with a distinctly Italian attitude. We loved the food, fresh and delicious. The outdoor market was teeming with fresh cheeses, breads, produce and locals shopping for the day. 
We went to the beach to swim and enjoy the spectacular view of the sea with wifi and drinks served chair side.  It was my favorite port, and I hope to return again one day.

 

 

The beautiful beach in Corsica

The bleached white rocks in Corsica
On our last two days on the ship were in the port of Mallorca, Spain.  We enjoyed the city tour on an hop on hop off bus on our first day and a beach day on our second.  I made time for shopping for Mallorca pearls and other jewelry.  The prices for food and drinks were incredibly inexpensive.  

Greg, resting while my shopping continues

We are now onto Barcelona.  The adventure continues.

Touring          Tuscany

Siena from our cottage
Tuscan countryside
This week we have visited the Tuscan countryside towns of Siena, Buonconvento, San Quirico D’ Orcia, Montepulciano and Viterbo.  We picked up a rental car in Florence and began driving towards Siena.  It is very interesting to drive in Italy.  Immediately after we pulled out of the impossible tiny spot onto the ridiculously narrow road we were passed on both sides by motorcycles.  Greg is the calm, passive driver needed to avoid an international incident in this country.  Many times during our drive he would merely take a deep breath and continue driving, while I was yelling at the driver that cut us off or monitoring the pedestrians who stepped in front of the car. Because I am a bad driver we never considered the option of me driving in Italy.  I was the navigator, reading the Google Map directions and telling Greg what was coming next.  We did amazing well on the highways and the country roads.  When we attempted to locate sites in Siena, a beautiful city about fifteen minutes from our AirBnB, we ended up listening to the voice on the Google Maps and driving in circles time after time.  When we looked up from the cellphone we realized that there were signs clearly posted telling us where to go.  

In Siena we visited the Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral in the center of the old city.  Because we are chronically early we arrived prior to the ticket seller.  We enjoyed our new daily habit of enjoying a cappuccino before getting in a very short line for the tickets.  The cathedral was spectacular and the fact that we could enjoy it without massive crowds made it even more special for us.

inside the cathedral completed 1348

Italian Gothic and Romanesque architecture
In Siena we were lucky enough to be take a private cooking class featuring Tuscan cuisine at La Scuola di Cucina di Lella.  The school was located in the center of Siena and included a four course hands on cooking class and a fabulous lunch with vino afterwards.  It has alway been a dream of mine to learn to make pasta.  We began with a hearty soup, vegetables, pici (a thick spaghetti like pasta), a pecorino cheese sauce, grilled steak with dressing, and almond biscotti with sweet wine for dessert. Lella and her chef/translator Fredrico were knowledgable, patient, complimentary and just a pleasure to be with.  

We spent three glorious days outside of Siena at an Airbnb.  The cottage was situated on a hill outside of the city with magnificent views of the countryside and the town of Siena.  This cottage also came with a lovely garden, hammock and table and chairs to enjoy the solitude and beauty of the countryside.

Our little yard in Tuscany
 
We left Siena for Viterbo a town about 120 kilometers away.  Along the way, we stopped at a few little hamlets to enjoy the countryside and unique towns.  We purchased some wine and olive oil and just took our time and enjoyed the journey.  Our last stop prior to Viterbo was Montepulciano, a town sitting atop a mountain with spectacular views and world renowned wine.  I had reserved a wine tasting and light lunch at Cucina  de Ricci.  We were given a tour of the wine cellar, that went back to Etruscan times and then were treated to a fabulous lunch and even tastier wines.  


Tomorrow we leave Italy and cruise to Barcelona, the journey continues…..

Seaside Sights and Siestas

A respite at the ruggedly beautiful Cinque Terre, Italy

 

We enjoyed our visit to Florence.  Although brief, our three days were packed with sightseeing and culture, lots of culture.  At times it seemed as if there were too many treasures to take in.  Our next destination is Cinque Terre (five lands), encompassing five picturesque villages along the Mediterranean. Once we left the Florence apartment, we walked along Via Panzani with our luggage and backpacks and were soon joined by many other travelers making the half mile trek to the Florence train station.  Upon arrival to the train station every few minutes there were announcements to beware of pickpockets, however there appeared to be no policia to dissuade the thieves.

Once we exited the train in Manarola (the village within Cinque Terre), we followed the tourists through a tunnel and up many flights of stairs and ramps.  One tourist asked if she could hire a Sherpa to carry her luggage up the hill. As we entered the center of the village, a lovely young woman approached us and said “Nancie?”  We were elated to have found our destination.  By the grace of God, Francesca carried my heavy suitcase up  the fifty-four stairs to our new flat.  That was quite the workout, it is no wonder that all of the women in this village have killer legs, no need for stair masters here.  We have gorgeous views of the town, and except for the construction next door, we would have a sea view as well.  We decided upon Cinque Terre, because it is simply beautiful.  Around the village we see spectacular views of the colorful homes clinging to the mountainside, at the edge of the sea.  Time for rest and relaxation.image
By about five o’clock many of the day-trippers and excursionists have left the village.  Although some shops shutter their doors awaiting the next rush of tourists, many stay open and offer simple fresh seafood and pasta.  We explored the village, found a great place for an aperitivo and took tons of pictures. We shopped at Terre 5 Coop for beer, wine and groceries a few times, so  I was upset when the door was closed in my face and I was told “we are closed now”.   I completely understand the importance of a siesta, I embrace the siesta.  However when the door was  reopened for the local man behind me, I felt a bit put off.  Following siesta time we again visited the market to buy some more supplies and get some bananas for breakfast.  When Greg picked up a couple of bananas, the woman behind the register began complaining loudly about “Americanos”.  We know we are tourists, guest really  in another country, so we approach everyone with pleasantries, buongiorno, grazie, Etc. Next we were then told “no credit cards”,  even though we used credit for the previous two days.  I am now boycotting that store for the next few days, but I don’t think they will notice.

We sleep like we have never known sleep here.  The sound of the waves crashing on the shore and our complete exhaustion is  enough to ensure a sound sleep. Both of us were anxious to do some hiking here in Manarola.  We ventured to another village for an early morning cappuccino and then onto another small town for a much needed lunch and vino.  This seven mile hike was spectacular.  My Fitbit tracked one hundred forty flights of stairs and 18,000 steps. These hikes are unlike any we do in Arizona.  The climb is straight up, and we hike through wine vineyards, olive groves, forests, all along narrow mountain trails.  I do not like edges!  While hiking, I avert my eyes at the edge of trail, with the perilous drop off into the sea below.  Greg enjoys all of the journey.  He is unafraid of edges and is not clinging on to grapevines like me.  He walks  behind me with the GoPro.  He claims that he’s there to catch me since I am about as surefooted as a three legged jackass.  However, I’m pretty sure he just wants to document my untimely passing for the insurance company.

Greg and "the edge"
Greg and “the edge”