Canadian Abroad – Amsterdam and Cologne (and Brussels) Visiting Off Season and Travel Tips

Late November in Amsterdam presents itself with lots of opportunities.   Hotel prices are cheaper and the city is less crowded making it more comfortable for tourists.   This time of year as well, the city sparkles with Christmas lights dancing along the pedestrian shopping streets that weave throughout the downtown core or circle.   Amsterdam is a city of contrasts, night-time is definitely a younger party crowd with way too much access.   The city then awakens each morning to an old world fascinating medieval town with alluring charm.  I was spending just over a week in Holland on business and for the first five days the weather was cloudy and rainy, but not too much to keep me from exploring.

The trip kicked off with a concert at the Heineken Concert Hall,   Billy Idol was in town.  Thanks to a former work colleague, who now works for the promoter Live Nation, myself and a guest got to see the revival of our formative college years.   Taking the train to the show from downtown was really easy.   Transportation is always a daunting challenge for tourists from North America who do not live in cities with a rail or a subway system. Best to go online and figure out your route first and get your bearings.  The train stop for the concert was steps away from the arena.    The arena or concert hall was really interesting, it was like a big bar and a skating forum combined with standing room only on the floor and stadium seating in the back.  We could buy beer with tokens, and take our drinks on the floor.    We arrived just before Billy Idol took the stage.  Once the 80’s music began, it was nonstop singing and dancing by the crowd, plus Billy was on stage.  And the crowd did yell out for “More, More, More.”

Me and Dave at Billy IdolBilly IdolBilly Idol Swag

Being a tourist in Holland, however, has its challenges.  International visitors do not like to carry much foreign currency.  We prefer to pay for almost everything by credit card.  Even at home we use credit cards so we can earn points or rewards.   In Holland, many small shops and cafés would not take plastic.  One store was charging 10 euros for a baseball hat, when I presented my credit card, the price changed to 20 euros – I walked away.   After this incident, I shopped in the larger stores which took credit cards.   It’s a pity for the small business person who does not want to incur fees from the credit card companies. Even my cab driver didn’t want to take my card.  But, credit cards are a staple for tourists so the shop keepers must suck that up. Needless to say, I had to get cash at an exchange desk, the rates are horrible and I burned through the cash pretty fast.

By the time the weekend rolled around the sun had finally come out.   I changed hotels from Double Tree Hilton by the train station to the Inntel Amsterdam, a 4 star I found through Hotwire.  If you are comfortable and knowledgeable of the area, the mystery hotel for a cheaper price is a great deal.   I saved around $100 a night going through Hotwire.    This hotel is on the edge of the party area, so it’s best to ask for a room higher up and in quiet location.

Next to the hotel was an excellent restaurant, Humphries.   They have a set three course menu for 26 euros, this includes tax and tip.    All main course meals comes with salad, French fries and apple sauce.  It was awesome and I came back a second night.   Each night, the restaurant was busy,  while others on the street had people standing outside trying to get patrons to come in.  Food is expensive in Europe compared North America, for example, a cup of coffee at Starbucks is around $7 Cdn.   May be it’s why people there are thin, or it could be they are not as big on salty snack foods like potato chips.

Dining Companion at Humphries, the restaurant's house cat.
Dining Companion at Humphries, the restaurant’s house cat.

When you only have a weekend in an interesting city, you need to prioritize what you want to do and what is important to you.   I usually love going to museums and art galleries, but the weather was nice and I didn’t want to spend my time inside.  As well, I knew I was returning to a Canadian winter and I was relishing the last time I could comfortably stay outside for long periods without freezing.

In the AM of Saturday morning, I decided to visit one of Amsterdam’s out door markets.  To get there the street car was the easiest means.   The street car was almost 2 euros, when I boarded, I looked for the money receptacle and there was none.  The driver asked me what I was doing, and I explained that I am trying to pay him.   I guess most people have passes.   I gave him my money and he gave me a magnetic card, good for an hour and I had to flash it by the door infra-red reader or it would erase.  (Ironically, I later read online that a transportation consultant recommended for Toronto to adapt this technology.)

I sat with a lady who told me that Canada was her second home and her sister lives in Edmonton.  She advised me to hold onto my purse at the Albert Cuyp Market.  As well, there was a huge sign at the start of the market with the same warning.

They love their fries1
They love their fries!

Like many markets, lots of vendors  are from the nearby stores.  The market began trading in 1904, and now over 300 stalls line both sides of the street. Stalls sold everything from fruit, vegetables, cheese, fish to clothes, and toiletries.  Unfortunately, there was little in local crafts and too many stalls with cell phone accessories and other goods from China.  The best stands were the Dutch cheese and meats.   The cheeses were marvelous, bring on CETA.  But they were pricy, I would hope the prices are adjusted to Canadian culture when the cheese hits our stores.

The end of the market featured the ever popular French fry stand.  The fries in Europe stay hot.  Here, ours are cold by the time you sit down.  I wonder what type of coating or grease they use?  Maybe I don’t want to know. Sauces cost extra, but there are lots of variety than just ketchup or mayonnaise.

From the market I walked to the Heineken Brewery.  Since I took the Guinness tour in Dublin, I thought it would be good to contrast the experiences.  Each tour reflected their brand and their target market.  Guinness is for the more mature beer connoisseur.  Heineken is for a younger party crowd.   Heineken was more about technology and creating the experience through interactive games.   The Guinness tour was okay to do alone, it was about the process and how to pour a perfect beer.  Heineken, I felt it would have been better to have someone with me as the experiences needed a buddy or team to help play with all the games and gadgets.    I sent a video message to a friend, which was neat.

Making a personal video and emailing to a friend.
Making a personal video and emailing to a friend.

After the tour was over, I took the Heineken canal tour which was included in the admission price.  The tour boat took people from the Brewery along the canals and disembarked closest to their souvenir store.   The tour guide talked about where to go party at night.   The funniest thing I heard, one man asked about where a type of dance music was played.  The guide said, “Oh, that is so 2010”.   I didn’t even know what he was talking about in the first place.  A couple sitting across from me were from Finland, they laughed and remarked..where do we go for 80’s music?  The store is a short walk from the canal.  Here we got our free Heineken glass souvenir.

Tour guide
Tour guide

Near the Heineken store is Rembrandt Square.

Rembrandt Square
Rembrandt Square

Vendors were constructing stalls for the outdoor Christmas market.   A few were already complete, one stall was a cured meat vendor selling a variety of wild and tame meats including horse!   Not something I was too keen on trying.   I opted for the waffle with Nutella, cherry sauce and whipped cream (they love Nutella in Holland).  From the Square I walked back to my hotel.   I took a detour through the Red Light District, they were open early!  Something to see for fun, and enjoy the fun of it and turn a blind eye to the social implications, it’s not my place to judge.

The next day I decided to get up early and walk to Anne Frank’s house.  Tickets were sold at my hotel and apparently they allowed you to bi-pass the line.   It was a lovely day, with my map in hand I leisurely walked to the museum. Church bells were ringing, it was really charming.   But darn, I forgot to buy a ticket at the front desk.  I was told the line-up could be two hours long, but on an off-season early Sunday morning I thought it would be okay.   Boy was I wrong.   The line went around the block.

Anne Frank Museum
Anne Frank Museum

I didn’t see a separate line for advance ticket holders or people going in…hmmm.  There must be a better way to coordinate.  Like viewings, 10 am – 12 pm, and sell only X amount of tickets.   Across the street from the Anne Frank Museum was a canal tour stop ….sold.   I bought a Hop-on/Hop-off day pass which allowed me to travel on three separate canal tour lines throughout the Amsterdam circle.   All lines were very similar to the other, may be added or deleted a street canal or two.   I like taking tours where you can sit back and relax  and enjoy hearing about the history of the town, while looking at the architecture and taking in the culture. Some people brought beer and cheese with them to add to the ambiance.  During my first ride, there was a group of Italians who talked loudly throughout the tour.  I actually put in my ear plugs to drown them out.   Like in Dublin during my bus tour,   people need to have courtesy.  Why take a tour if you are not going to listen and be disruptive to others.    I got off at Rembrandt Square to see if more vendor stalls had been constructed, but there was only a few new ones.    For the rest of the day I rode the canals, as the weather was nice and it was stress free.

Architecture along the canal
Architecture along the canal
Dom Cathedral
Dom Cathedral and Square in front of the train station

The next morning I took the train to Cologne, Germany.   Cologne is reputed to have the best Christmas markets in Germany.  Thousands of tourists from around the world travel to Cologne to visit their markets.  My hotel was in the train station, located on the square and facing the famous Dom Cathedral.  A perfect location for a train traveller visiting for a few days.  My first visit was to the Cathedral, how could I not, it was right in front of me and omnipotent.  The original Cathedral was built in 1170, and has survived fires and wars.

Inside the Dom Cathedral
Inside the Cathedral

The church is the home of the remains of the three Maji and is subject of many European pilgrimages. The Cathedral was bombed 14 times during WW2 and is in a constant state of construction.  Many different stones have been used in its formation, and with the weather and pollution, the appearance of the stones are black.  Outside the church is the main pick up point for the Hop-on/Hop-off bus tours.  Since there was time left in the day, I thought it would be a good opportunity to see the city before the sun set.   The bus had a pre-recorded description for people to follow along the route.  The bonus for taking the tour is that I got to see where the other Christmas markets were set up and places I would like to visit during the next day.  The bus ticket I purchased was good for 48hrs.

Behind the Cathedral was the site of my first Christmas market.  The centre piece of the market was huge Christmas tree with a ceiling of lights.  The market had a variety of food stalls and spiced wine, and Christmas music permeated, it was all magical.  The stall attendees also dressed up adding the festive nature.   I first tried a potato pasta dish with onions and gravy, it was interesting. potato pasta and wine  Each Christmas market sold their own gluhwein mugs (spiced wine).  They were reusable and if you didn’t want to keep it, you could return it and get your money back.  This market also had a stage and performers in the evening.  This night a brass band played English Christmas carols.

The Cathedral Christmas Market was walking distance to another market.  If you didn’t want to walk, a Christmas tram took visitors from market to market for  an 8 euro day pass.    The walk from the Cathedral market wove its way through the pedestrian only shopping streets.   This was really helpful to see the sales while on my on pilgrimage.

The next market was the Old Town Market, this market’s theme centered up the house gnomes or the Heinzelmännchen.  Each alley had a different theme dedicated to the gnomes.  Here I tried a traditional sausage. Sausages In Canada, we may eat sauerkraut with a sausage but no vendors here served it any stalls.   I did wear my Canadian pin, though I think they thought I was British and the vendor sliced up my sausage and put it in curry sauce.  I still asked for a bun and like most Canadians, I politely wiped off the curry and got some ketchup and mustard.

This market was about fun, there was a skating rink, Alpine village and tavern.   One game being played looked like curling.  A family standing next to me, said…Oh look curling.  curlingThey were Asian but I knew once they said “curling” they were Canadian.  The family told me that they were from Vancouver and were also going to the different Christmas markets.   I then tasted the local beer and watched an Oom-pah band play Christmas music from atop of the wooden tavern or ski chalet.Old Market

The next day, I took Hop-on/Hop-off bus and toured the Angel Christmas Market.  Cut out and lit angels were strung through the trees. This market had a few seats for those to enjoy their wine and food. The one issue with these markets was that they don’t have seating areas, so if you have knees problems or can’t not stand for long periods, the markets may have to be coordinated so you have to find a nearby place to rest.

From here I walked to other markets.  The first was the Village of St. Nicholas, it was set behind the historic old wall of the Christmas Marketmedieval Hahnentorburg.  I had to buy gluhwein as their mug was in the shape of Santa’s boot.  This market’s theme was centred upon fairy tales.   Across the street was another market that was still setting up.  The stalls were decorated in tinsel and shiny wrap.  It wasn’t that impressive.  Only back in Canada did I find out that it was the Gay and Lesbian Christmas Market. That theme was not stated in my German brochures, besides most gay men have much better taste and decorator skills!  However, it may explain why a photographer was taking pictures of two scantily clad woman pretending to eat a long sausage.

Later, I caught the tour bus and got dropped off at the Harbour Christmas Market, this market was located next to the Chocolate Museum and the river.   After visiting the stalls, the sun began to set along the Rhine.  It was nice walk along the river back to my hotel.  The European River Cruise ships were docked along the river’s bank.  Viking river cruises It was cool to peak in the windows.  On the path, many people rode their bikes in the dark and wore flashlights on their heads, even little kids.  I thought it was a little dangerous to my Canadian sensibilities.

This route led me in to the back access of the Cathedral, there were some shady characters hanging around, so I walked fast and where there was street lights.   I returned to the Christmas Market at the Cathedral for one last mug of mulled wine and some apple strudel and listened to Christmas carols.Cathedral Christmas MarketApple strudel

The next day I took the train to Belgium.  As the train crossed the border from Germany to Belgium it was humorous to hear everyone’s cell and smart phone beep from text messages from their internet providers on long distances charges in Belgium.   It is cheaper to fly in and out of Brussels to Canada if you are selecting a European gateway.  However, it is very expensive to stay in Brussels.  I switched trains at Brussels Midi train station for Antwerp.  (Not a good choice if you have a lot luggage as there was no escalator or elevator from the track.)  The city of Antwerp is a 30 minute train ride to the Brussels International Airport and costs 8 euros from the Antwerp Station to the station within the airport.  Hotels are also cheaper in Antwerp.  I stayed in a decent hotel next to the train station for $110 Canadian.  A hotel near the Brussel’s Airport was around $300.

Me and the Hand in AntwerpWalking in the Rain in Antwerp

The flight back to Canada was interesting.  My TV or personal entertainment unit didn’t work so I had to switch seats.  At one point I smelled cigarette smoke but thought it must be something else in the vent system.  I later found out from other passengers that a lady was smoking in the bathroom.  The airline attendant was outside the bathroom door and made her hand over the butt.  Apparently, security was waiting for her to get off the plane in Montreal.  I guess there is a reason why the No Smoking signs still exist in planes and the airline has to announce that it’s a non-smoking plane.

Flights go direct to Montreal from Brussels. Security in Montreal Trudeau was also so much easier than Toronto Pearson.  In Toronto,  I have to explain,  yes I am woman travelling alone,  yes I own my own business…at least three times and yes I am bringing alcohol into the country.  All I was asked in Montreal was if I was coming from a country where there was an Ebola outbreak or was I near anyone with Ebola, that was a first, and a new reality.

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