Friday, February 28, 2014

I Am Sterdam

After a weekend in Brussels with Olimpia, we said goodbye and I headed alone to Amsterdam. Seriously only like 2 minutes after the train crossed the border into the Netherlands, I starting seeing a lot of these...

Don't you love when stereotypes are true? I took this through the train window because I thought it was hilarious.

It was a little disconcerting arriving in Amsterdam because I don't speak a word of Dutch. This was the first time in Europe that I've been somewhere not knowing a single word of the language- not even 'hello' or 'thank-you.'

It took a while, but I was able to figure out where the tram was, how to buy tickets, and how to get to my hotel. I found a pretty good deal and I got to stay in a much nicer hotel than I usually do, which was fun! 

Right after checking in, I had to rush to make it to a tour that I'd booked in advance.

I barely made it in time for my tour at the Rijksmuseum, which is the Netherlands' most famous art museum. I've never done a tour of an art museum because usually it's nicer to just wander at your pace; but I decided to this time because I had very limited time here and I didn't want to miss anything important.

The title of this post comes from the letters that are in front of the museum. I'm just not that creative on my own, guys.

That is most definitely NOT my picture of the museum, though. There were so many people climbing on and posing with the letters that you could hardly see them when I was there. The Rijksmuseum was actually closed for 10 years (for remodeling) and only reopened recently, so it's really crowded right now.

Here are my pictures.

And a sampling of the more famous paintings that I saw-

The museum is pretty completely made up of paintings by Dutch artists. There are a TON of Rembrandt paintings- in the picture above it's 'The Night Watch' and 'Isaac and Sarah.' Also there's Vermeer's 'Milkmaid' and a Van Gogh self-portrait.

I especially liked the Rembrandt paintings. I didn't know a lot about him, but apparently he's kind of known as the 'grandfather' of impressionism. He was the first artist to use impressionist techniques, and his paintings were sort of a mixture of classical and modern styles. I thought all of the details in his paintings were beautiful...and I'm in good company, because they LOVE this guy in Amsterdam. There are so many things named after him in the city.

After the tour, I wanted to do a little more sightseeing before it got dark. I headed to the main city plaza: Dam Square. And I won't lie...I had to pass through this place several times to get to the sites I went to, and every time in my head I said "I have to go back to that Dam Square." Yeah, that's really stupid. But it entertained me every time. #mature

After finding dinner and doing some shopping, I went back to the hotel to plan the rest of my time in Amsterdam. The most important part of my planning was watching BBC's Anne Frank movie online, in preparation for my visit the next day!

Visiting the Anne Frank house was approximately 50% of the reason I came to Amsterdam. The other main reasons included checking another country off my list (#16!), and seeing the pretty canals. I must say that visiting the house lived up to my expectations and then some. I highly suggest that everyone try to make it to this place in your lifetime (even all of you Mormons who are afraid of a place where they smoke marijuana openly and that has a Red Light district haha).

The Anne Frank house is is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Amsterdam. Her house (okay, not her house...her hiding place), is 3rd from the right. The 2 buildings to the right of it are also part of the museum. You can see the long line to get in, too!

Fortunately, I didn't have to wait in line because I bought my ticket online. The main part of the tour is just going through the house room by room. The building was Anne's father's office. So first, you go through the office part, and then you get to the Secret Annex. 

In every room there are quotes from Anne's diary about what the room was used for, and pictures of how it was furnished. Anne's father requested that none of the rooms be furnished when the building became a museum because he thought it would be a better memorial that way.

You're not allowed to take pictures inside, but I found some online of my favorite parts of the museum. This is the bookcase that was in front of the hidden rooms. You can see it open and closed.

I thought it was REALLY cool that the original bookcase was still there.

My first impression of the Secret Annex was that it was bigger than I imagined it to be. Anne's room is tiny, but there are also 2 fairly large rooms, another small room, the attic, and a bathroom. Of course, when 8 people lived there I'm sure it was still very claustrophobic. They lived there for about 2 years without ever stepping outside.

My favorite part was seeing Anne's room, because you can see the pictures that she glued on the wall. Here's a picture of a recreation of what it looked like furnished, and how the actual room looks now. 

I loved this because it seems SO typical of a 13 year old girl. Most of the pictures were of movie stars, and I saw a few of Queen Elizabeth when she was a little girl. Another interesting thing was seeing the pencil marks on the wall where they measured Anne and her sister Margot every few months. 

At the end of the tour, you can see all of Anne's diaries. She filled up the first one, and actually used up several notebooks. While Anne and her family had been hiding, 4 people from her father's office staff helped them and supplied them with food. After someone betrayed the family and they were arrested, the 2 men that helped them were also arrested, but the 2 women remained free. They were the ones who kept the diaries safe and gave them to Anne's father after the war when no one else from his family returned.

Her father found out from the diary that she had dreamed about being a published author...which led him to have her diary published. He also dedicated the rest of his life to telling his family's story and starting this museum. It worked! Her diary is one of the most translated books in the world, and the museum is the most popular tourist site in Amsterdam. I think it resonates with so many people because at the same time it's the story of a typical little girl and someone who was wise beyond her years. You can't know about all 6 million victims of the Holocaust, but it's nice to put a human face on one huge historical event. So, I could probably go on about this for a while longer...but I won't. Just know that you should visit this place! Even though it's sad, it's one of my favorite places I've had the chance to visit in Europe.

Right next door to Anne Frank's house is the Westerkerk. If you've read the book, these are the church bells she mentions hearing.

I stopped inside for a minute. I found out later that this is where the Queen of the Netherlands was married.

The next place I went to- go figure- was also an attic. Catholicism was outlawed for a few centuries in the Netherlands, so Catholics that still wanted to worship built this secret church in the attics of 3 adjoining houses. It's called "Our Lord in the Attic."

It was pretty interesting. You also get to tour the houses underneath the church so you can see what typical 17th century houses were like here. I appreciated the cute tile walls.

I also appreciated the pretty view from the attic window.

Something funny about Amsterdam is that apparently it's famous for steep stairs. Even at the newly remodeled art museum, they're twice as steep as normal stairs. At the Anne Frank house, it was basically like a ladder. I almost got kicked in the face by the man in front of me. At the attic church, they provide a rope to help you climb the stairs.

I'm a little disappointed you can't tell how crazy these are from the picture. I want more credit for surviving stairs that are basically vertical.

So something I didn't realize while planning my day was that the attic church is right in the middle of the Red Light district. I figured that the Red Light district would be in some seedy part of town away from the touristy, pretty city center. Nope! It's pretty much just a peaceful, picturesque neighborhood without any red lights (during the day time).

It did smell slightly more strongly of marijuana than other parts of the city did. That is not a very pleasant smell. It almost makes me appreciate that France smells like cigarettes all the time.

My only 'encounter' was when I stepped into an alleyway to get a better view of a pretty church. I took these pictures...

...before turning around to see that I was standing only a few feet away from some girls 'working the window.' Let's just say that I never knew that full-body fishnets existed before now. That was a bit disturbing, but at least I only came across that once.

The rest of my day was spent doing a free walking tour. It was nice to spend a few hours learning more Dutch history and admiring the canals. Pretty much immediately when I got out of the train station, I was already in love with the beautiful architecture. It's definitely one of the most beautiful places I've every been. I love all of the brick houses, and of course all of the water! 

Can we discuss how it would feel to parallel park right on the water with no barrier? No thanks.

Some things the guide showed us were Rembrandt's house,

The Dutch East India Company headquarters (once one of the most powerful organizations in the world),

and the former Jewish Quarter. I didn't take a picture of that because it's not cute. It's only made up of modern (ugly 1970s) buildings. We learned that before the war Amsterdam was about 10% Jewish. Almost all of those people were deported and killed. Since their houses were emptied out, Amsterdam residents used all of their houses for firewood at the end of the war when things were desperate. I thought that was an interesting tidbit.

I did get one picture of myself in Amsterdam. It's not that great of a location for a picture, but you can tell it's Amsterdam so I'll call it good.

After the tour, I spent some time at the souvenir stores and of course I found my love, Zara (country #12!). I even got myself a pair of wooden clogs because I felt obligated to.

I took a 10 hour long night train back to Strasbourg. It sounds painful, but it was actually great! I had my own compartment that I could lock and everything.

There's my little room! I got 7 hours of sleep on a train; it was amazing. Why oh why can't airplanes be like this?!

This sums up part 1 of my vacation. Next week: Munich, Vienna, and Prague. I'm so glad I decided to go to Amsterdam! I'd love to go back someday.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Waffle Country

Well, my official country count is up to 16! It’s been a productive weekend in that department. As I’ve talked about before, France is very into the concept of vacations. In my 7 short months of work, I have 8 weeks off. Right now I’m in the midst of the 2 week winter break.

Before we were even accepted to this internship, Olimpia and I had planned on a trip to Germany. We're headed there next week! Pretty last minute, we decided to go on a short trip to Belgium together as well. Why not, right?

So last Friday, we met up in Brussels. It didn’t take very long to get there on the train. We got there in the early afternoon and then started the adventure of finding our hotel. The hardest part was knowing what direction to start walking in when we got out of the metro. I have ZERO natural sense of direction. Thankfully, Olimpia does so that’s usually helpful on our trips. 

When we got out of the metro, we turned left. After walking for a few minutes and not finding the right street we came across a Scientology building. We kind of giggled at how random that was, and then trekked back to the metro to try again. This time we turned right and a few minutes later we found a ward building...directly in front of the street we’d been looking for for the last 15 minutes.

Choose the right, people.

That metaphor made us laugh so hard. Less than an hour in Belgium, and the country was already teaching us life lessons.

Thankfully, it was easy to find our hotel after that. :)  Pretty soon, we were back on the metro and ready to see the city. Since we’d both been working all week and this trip was last minute, we hadn’t done a ton of research about what we actually wanted to do there. Basically, we just knew that we wanted to eat waffles.

Without really knowing what we should do, we started out in the main town square, the Grand Place. I’ve got to say that this was one of the most impressive, beautiful places that I’ve seen in Europe! The entire square was lovely. Of course, I have a million pictures of this. You have to see all the different angles to appreciate it.

This building is the town hall.

This one was a king’s house. He built it to show off how much money he had, but never actually lived in it.

These smaller buildings are guild houses. Each guild had their own little headquarters here because this was the main market square where everyone sold their products. 

The building second on the right (with the swan on it) was where Karl Marx came up with communism. Seems like a pretty deluxe place to come up with that ideology.

And lastly, here's my attempts to get a picture of the whole square!  Pretty impossible, but it helped when we found a staircase to climb up for a better view.

Olimpia has some friends that have been to Brussels, so she knew about the next place we went to....

I thought I’d show the picture first, because in this case a picture is worth a thousand words.

Believe it or not, this statue, entitled the “Manneken Pis,” is the most famous symbol of the city of Brussels. A tiny. peeing. baby. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Rome has the she-wolf, and Brussels has this. You see this image ALL over the city, and you can buy models of it everywhere. Also, there’s always a ton a tourists taking pictures here. The statue is from the early 1600s.

Manneken Pis mania:

We did a tour the next day, and the guide told us 3 legends about why this statue exists. I think all of them are entertaining, so I’ll share. 1. During a fight against the Flemish, a little boy peed on Flemish soldiers and saved the day. 2. A rich man lost his toddler and promised to donate a statue to the city if anyone found the kid. When someone found the kid, he was peeing. 3. This was the location of a medieval urine market. Leather makers needed urine to make leather, so it was in this spot where they paid poor people for their urine.

I think #3 sounds the most likely. But who knows haha.

Moving on to something more appetizing than discussing urine, Belgium is famous for its CHOCOLATE. Pretty much every street in Brussels smells like chocolate, which is magical. Also, it makes you hungry. At this point in our day, we stopped for our first waffle. I got one with dark chocolate, and I must say that it lived up to both Belgium’s waffle hype and chocolate hype.

Here's some more chocolatey pictures I took. I think that Belgium probably has the highest per-capita rate of chocolate fountains; we saw sooooo many.

From my quick researching on Tripadvisor before we left, I knew about some covered shopping galleries that were supposed to be pretty. So next we walked to the Galeries Saint-Hubert. Pretty, pretty.

This statue was outside of the mall. I really felt the need to pose with it. And I'll admit that I only posted this picture because I think my tights are cool haha.

According to our map we were close to the cathedral, so we went there next. The outside was definitely Notre Dame-esque.

And this would be St. Gudula. That name is the best.

We couldn’t see anything else on the map that was close by, so we just wandered around for a little bit before finding dinner. I have to mention one thing we saw...back to the urine theme haha. They have OPEN urinals in the middle of the city! As soon as we saw that, I vaguely remembered hearing about that in a French class or something. The best part was that as we walked by, a guy hit on us...while peeing. So check that off the bucket list, I guess. 

I took this the next day. I didn't want to get too close because it didn't smell too great over there.

Here's some of our more picturesque wanderings through Brussels...

The next day we decided to do a free walking tour of the city that we found out about from our hotel. We saw a lot of the same places that we’d seen the day before, but we found out a lot more about them.

A few places we hadn’t seen before were the parliament building,

this statue (that I improved upon),

and the palace.

The royal family doesn’t live there anymore, but the tour guide told us some fun stories about King Leopold II, who built it. He decided that Belgium should have colonies, because all the cool kids were doing it. 

However, this was the 1860s, so most places were already claimed. Leopold decided to take over the middle of Africa, the Congo. He personally owned it, and caused the deaths of about 10 million people by enslaving everyone and being very brutal. They found rubber, gold, and diamonds there, so the Belgians forced the Congolese to mine for them. Around the turn of the century, people starting finding out about what was going on there, so the Belgian parliament took over ownership of the colony instead of the king personally benefitting from it.

So long story short, this palace was built from money the king made by exploiting the Congo.

The tour ended overlooking this pretty view.

Besides chocolate and waffles, Belgium is famous for fries. So that’s what we needed for lunch. Yes, Europeans are so classy that they eat fries with forks. I tried for about 2 seconds.

Belgium invented fries. American WWII soldiers discovered them and brought them back to America, and then mistakenly called them French fries. Eh, they speak French here. So close enough, right? (By the way, it’s hard to imagine that America was fry-less before the 1940s...)

Side note. Brussels is a French-speaking city; which made things easy for us! Belgium is approximately half French/ half Dutch-speaking.

After our fries we went back to this little place that we’d seen when we were on the tour. As you walk through, each arch makes music. It was exciting.

At this point in the day, we split up so Olimpia could go to her comic book museum. That’s not really my thing. Comic books are something else that Belgium is obsessed with (along with chocolate and pee, of course). There are actually comic book murals all over the city.

Brussels is where the author of TIntin is from, and Olimpia LOVES Tintin. I still pretty much have no idea who Tintin is, but I do know that he has a little white dog, so he must be pretty cool.

While she went to the museum, I went shopping. I needed to find Zara; which I did! Belgium= 11th country where I’ve shopped at Zara.

By the time we met up again we were pretty much exhausted. We got some last waffles for dinner and then called it a night. These things are so darn good.

It was a great weekend in Belgium; I love seeing new places! Next post: my solo trip to Amsterdam!!