Florence, Italy

30 Oct

Our next stop was the beautiful city of Florence. We left the train station and walked through the rather cosmopolitan city which was full of tall and glamorous shops and delectable looking Italian bakeries. We arrived at our hotel which had an incredible location – right in front of the famed Battistero di San Giovanni (scaffolded, but of course!). We proceeded to relax for a small while, as became our norm after city-to-city train journeys. We noticed in the lobby an ancient painting of Florence, and our hotel was so old that it was actually in the painting. Pretty incredible!

When it came time to tour the city, of course, our first stop was the glorious Il Duomo cathedral, which too was directly outside our hotel. Wow. This was one of my favourite buildings on our trip. The detail of the deep green, pink and white marble is impeccable.

We noticed the Florentine city prices were hefty. After some severe lunch-hunting we eventually settled on a colourful cafe with an extensive menu featuring all the Italian delights you could imagine. I tried an authentic butter and sage ravioli, Alex a mushroom calzone. We enjoyed ourselves. We continued browsing the laneways, seeking out places to watch more World Cup action in the evenings to come.

Our dinner consisted of goods purchased from our favourite Italian supermarket, à la Venice. We had developed an affection for this specific supermarket’s salad, which consisted of orecchiette pasta, arugula, olives, tomatoes and caciocavallo cheese. Rather than buy a huge bag of plastic forks for €2, we decided to eat our salad by scooping up chunks of it with potato chips (the chips were half the price of the forks). Dinner redefined with edible utensils and savvy shopping skills.

That night we watched Brazil v Mexico at a local Irish pub. We were thrilled because this particular bar had free food. This does not happen in Australia.

The following day, Alex went inside the main cathedral without me (I was forbidden due to my thoughtless attire, although I did get a 5-second glimpse of the internal structure). On a positive note, this rejection provided me with more time to admire the outside of the cathedral.

We headed south towards the Arno river until we reached the magnificent square of La Signoria. The square features several impressive attractions. First there is the Fountain of Neptune – an imposing statue of Neptune surrounded by fancy waterworks.

Then of course there is the Palazzo Vecchio. This astonishing palace was built in the 14th century, particularly to show the world just how impressive and powerful Florence was. We entered the palace via the front doors decorated by a replica Statue of David (where the original once stood) and were overwhelmed by the detail in the front courtyard of the palace.

My favourite attraction of the Piazza della Signoria is the Loggia dei Lanzi, an arched structure filled with incredible statues – an outdoor sculpture gallery. My favourite statue is Perseus with the Head of Medusa, because, well, it’s pretty epic. It was created in the mid-1500s.

We continued our journey past the Uffizi Gallery. The last time I was in Florence I didn’t bother going because the queue was enormous and my time was limited. We decided not to go this time either because we’d checked online for tickets the night before and the website stated that they were unavailable. Out of curiosity we decided to have a look to see just how busy it was. Whaaat? There was no queue? We walked straight to the ticket booth and got in within 2 minutes. Very pleased! The gallery was just huge. The artworks featured in the gallery were varied, from severely religious ancient Italian paintings to a little more recent Dutch paintings. My tour guide, aka Alex, informed me why there were such variations of Jesus paintings. Some showed him on the crucifix happy, others sad. Some healthy, others bleeding. Very interesting. Of course, the most famous painting in the museum is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, which was extremely impressive. A very lovely painting. There were also works by other very famous painters, such as Da Vinci and Caravaggio.

We had a lovely view from the gallery of Ponte Vecchio bridge as well as the top of Palazzo Vecchio. This enticed us to have a bit of a closer look at Ponte Vecchio so we could admire the old colourful structure. (Our Ponte Vecchio day was supposed to be the next day). We crossed but dared not go further. Not until tomorrow at least.

We walked home up the shopping strip Via Santa Maria. We purchased a gelato near Il Duomo and got completely ripped off. It was a big scoop at least.

Our second World Cup match in Florence was supposed to be Australia v Netherlands. We headed back to our Irish pub, bought some large beers and took some free bar food. The match wasn’t on, even though advertised. Alex asked the bartender and we were advised that the Sky TV was down. We sculled our drinks and found another nearby pub playing the match. We had missed the first 20 minutes and Australia was winning. We’d missed the goal! Although disappointed, I wasn’t really expecting us to beat the Netherlands due to their excellent earlier performances. I cheered along with a few other Australian tourists, and avoided the Dutch tourists once the match had concluded. Obviously, we did not beat the Netherlands, although we still had lots of fun cheering whilst drinking delicious Peroni.

We were planning to perhaps do a day trip to the gorgeous Cinque Terre for our last day in Florence, however it was going to be costly and absolutely exhausting for a day trip. So we ended up having an unplanned day. This is unusual for me, but Alex thoroughly enjoyed it.

Our final touristy visit for our last glorious day in Florence was the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. We recognised the same tile work on this cathedral as Il Duomo. Very Florentine.

We continued on our walk until we reached the Central Market. The Central Market was very lovely and was full of many delectable looking gourmet Italian foods. I wanted to buy many food items to bring home, such as pesto flavoured pasta and almond nougat, but as I may have mentioned earlier, my luggage was one small backpack, therefore, there would be no bringing of food home. Very sad. On the way home we stopped at Ladurée for a macaron, seeing though we missed out when we were in Paris. Very happy with our decision.

Later in the day, it was time for a good look at Ponte Vecchio. We returned to the gorgeous jutting yellow-toned bridge, bold over the Arno river.

We continued walking on the south-side of the river until we reached the base of a hill, which we climbed to find the most magnificent view of the city. We spent a good part of early dusk awing over the wonderment of the ancient city draped in terra cotta.

Venice, Italy

25 Sep

The Night Train to Venice. Sounds pretty glamorous, or murderous, depending on the books you’ve read. For us, the night train to Venice was enduring. After a poor sleep due to the constant rocking and racket of the train, we were awoken by the steward with our fancy breakfast. By 7am we had arrived on the picturesque island of Venice via the Liberta Bridge. What a sight to wake up to.

It was a Sunday and rather humid, peculiar seeing though it was so early. We navigated our way around the maze-like laneways, finally finding our hotel after 40 minutes of luggage lugging up and down hundreds of stairways, including that belonging to the magnificent Rialto Bridge. We later discovered that the water taxi – or valporetto – was a much smarter option of transport. However, we didn’t mind, because we got to discover the beauty of the city even before we had really arrived. It was Sunday and early and so quiet and peaceful so we were able to fully embrace the scene around us. Canals, old buildings, fancy bridges. Oh yes, and a new country to experience!

We were looking forward to Italy because, well, the food, but also because we thought we could “get” the language easier as it is somewhat similar to Spanish. Of course, the hotel owner was Spanish, so no Italian for now. She was very accommodating and let us check-in early. Oh, and she had a washing machine! Machine-washed clothes for the first time on our trip. What a luxury! The hotel was quaint and our room overlooked a pretty laneway with a beautiful arch right outside our window (in fact, any window in Venice overlooks something attractive).

We needed to nap before our first big day in Venice (3 hours sleep on the night train was not very sufficient). By midday, we were recharged and ready to explore the city.

But first, lunch. We noticed the prices in Venice were rather high compared to other cities we had visited. We settled on a restaurant in the nearby square, Campo Sant’Angelo. Venice is full of lovely colourful squares. This one had a view of a very leaning tower, which we later realised Italy was full of. We shared a pizza and then continued on our way.

Coincidentally, the Venice Biennale for architecture was in full swing during our visit. The Venice Biennale is a kind of city art exhibition. Obviously, Alex was thrilled. We ventured out past the grand Piazza San Marco and the thoughtful Bridge of Sighs (where convicts walked through before their imprisonment in the adjoining prison) towards the Arsenale on the eastern side of the city, which was where some important parts of the Biennale were held. After gasping at the ridiculous admission prices, we decided to instead attend the free exhibits of the Biennale, which were spread all across Venice and consisted of art installations created by a few different countries. We viewed two exhibition spaces at this point: one containing fancy images of Moscow, and then another featuring photographs of abandoned Taiwanese buildings. Rather curious.

And then it was back to the touristy parts of the city to sit and admire. The majestic Basilica di San Marco was of course scaffolded, as seemed to be the norm throughout our trip. The square itself was just terribly charming, what with the repetitious buildings enclosing the space and the soaring Campanile overlooking us.

We continued to just walk through the gorgeous lanes for the rest of the afternoon, being completely fascinated by the design of the city and being overwhelmed by its endless beauty.

Before returning to our hotel for a rest we found a gelateria. I chose the Nocciotella ice-cream, which was a mix of hazelnut gelato and Nutella gelato. Oh. My. This was truly the best ice-cream I have ever tasted. Unfortunately, we forgot where the gelateria was and were unable to return. I do plan to perhaps attempt my own but I’m sure it just won’t be the same.

After rest number two of the day (because you know, when you’re not working, you can nap two times a day), we headed out again. It was late but still light, a factor we thoroughly enjoyed whilst holidaying in the northern parts of the world during summer. We encountered another free Biennale exhibit, this one organised by Cyprus (I’m half-Cypriot so I was excited). The space was full of layer upon layer of corrugated cardboard with huge images of buildings on them. We were given a cutter and were allowed to cut into the images to make new art. It was kind of kooky. I especially enjoyed the second room, however, where they had old photographs of Cyprus on the wall. This really piqued my interest because my grandparents are from Cyprus, and the only old photo I have seen of Cyprus is an antique photograph of my young grandmother standing outside her village shack, so I always assumed Cyprus was very poor. I was wrong. It was very industrialised back in the day. And it looked very European! I will have to go sometime.

Moving along, we also encountered the Luxembourg exhibit, which focused on modernity, and also the Montenegro exhibit, which was really quite interesting and featured photos and models of abandoned buildings.

We came across the Accademia Bridge, which gave us an incredible view overlooking the Grand Canal.

We found a supermarket and I had to hold myself back from buying the hoards of Italian delicacies that caught my eye. Instead we settled on a pasta salad to take back to eat at the hotel. Before heading back we walked through the trendy Dorsoduro district to the very tip of this part of the island, which overlooked central Venice in the distance, including Piazza San Marco and the Campanile. We rested by the water for some time before heading home for dinner.

The following day we decided to make use of the valporetto. Our first stop was another island about 45 minutes north-east of Venice called Burano (not Murano, mind you, which is another nearby island famous for its glass). Burano is famous for its absolutely gorgeous multi-coloured, bright buildings. So pretty.

We admired the streets for an hour or so before stopping for lunch. Burano was small, touristy and therefore expensive. We were able to collate sufficient funds for lunch: eggplant parmigiana for Alex and pasta for me (in Italy, pizza is always cheap, pasta is always expensive). I finally tried aglio e olio, which is a delectable garlicky and olive-oily spaghetti with a few sprinkles of dried chilli, which I’d been wanting to try forever. Yum! We also tried some Italian beer, which we quite enjoyed.

In the afternoon, we jumped back on the valporetto after admiring even more buildings. We decided that the valporetto was amazing because it took a fraction of the time than walking to get anywhere. We returned to our favourite supermarket in the southern Dorsoduro district and this time purchased eggplant parmigiana and another pasta salad to eat back at the hotel.

After dinner, I persuaded Alex to go out in the dark to the Campo Santa Margherita, which was about a 25 minute walk from our hotel, but I had heard it was a very nice and youthful district. We were so disappointed… that we waited until our last night to go there! It was really a great area, full of restaurants, bars, young people and TVs airing the World Cup. We had a beer or two, enjoyed a slice of pizza and watched a bit of the game whilst being harassed by rose-sellers. Next time we go to Venice we will have to return to this Campo during the day. It was a very laid-back and exciting square at night. The night time weather was perfect too.

Venice – what can I say. We felt safe, embraced and imbued with its perfection.

Salzburg, Austria

4 Sep

Different country, same language – we were off to Austria. Namely, the highly acclaimed city of Salzburg – birthplace of Mozart; filming location of The Sound of Music*; home to the delectably rich Sacher Torte; but ultimately, a most gorgeous city bordered by mountains and full of decorative buildings sitting atop cobblestone lanes. All this along the charming Salzach River.

We were pretty hungry due to the fact that we had developed the habit of not eating breakfast on our trip. We dropped our bags off at our hotel and walked down the picturesque streets until we reached the old town. The main attraction of the old town is the Getreidgasse, probably the most Salzburgish street you can find. All the buildings are in the old-style and marvellously maintained, with subtle guild signs all along the lane.

Also, this is the street that houses Mozart’s unassuming birthplace.

We ate at a quaint little Italian restaurant that was literally built into the base of the Mönchsberg mountain, one of many mountains that cosily borders Salzburg.

We continued on to the heart of the city and reached Residenzplatz, a lovely square which houses a stately baroque fountain.

We also found another beautiful square which has its own little fountain, belonging to St Florian.

We went a little Mozart crazy by taking photos with life-sized Mozart signs, admiring window displays of little Mozart-styled rubber duckies, finding Mozart’s statue, thoughtfully appreciating Mozart’s Geburtshaus (birth place) and purchasing Mozartkugel chocolate marzipan balls and Mozartkugel chocolate liqueur. We’re not really huge Mozart fans, but when in Salzburg…

By this stage it was time to return home to watch the World Cup, but not before traversing through the trendy Linzergasse, a lovely strip full of shops and restaurants. We agreed to return the following day for dinner. However, we had eaten dinner out almost every night on our trip, and as we had a kettle and fridge in our hotel (finally), I was intent on 2-minute noodles. We visited a nearby supermarket and to my sadness there were no 2-minute noodles to be found. However, there was cheap German chocolate aplenty (Ritter) so our shopping basket was full when we reached the check-out.

After watching a match or two and realising our dinner of champions was not a very sufficient dinner, we headed back to the Aldstadt (Old Town) to take some night time snaps and hopefully find something to eat.

We admired the beautiful lights of the city from the Makartsteg bridge on the way to the Old Town.

We made the most of the beautiful Getreidgasse without the hoards of tourists we had experienced earlier in the day. It was so quiet and peaceful.

We encountered a food van, and in typical Austrian fashion it was a hot dog van. However, the hot dog van was selling veggie burgers, and as Alex was hungry he decided to purchase one. I took a bite. Then two. Oh my. It was quite possibly the best veggie burger we have ever eaten. I think it had something to do with the pickled onion in the burger. Yum!

The following day was a very, very long day because we had to check out of the hotel at 11am as our accommodation for the night was a night train to Venice. So we tried to take it easy for the day as we had nowhere really to rest.

We headed back towards our favourite Altstadt, but on the way we paid a visit to the famed Mirabell Palace and Gardens. We spent hours there, sitting and admiring. The gardens are immaculately designed and kept, and the palace itself is grand and majestic. We admired mythological statues, colourful flowers and a wonderful view of the Salzburg fortress in the distance.

We arrived back in the old town for lunch, and specifically, we were on a mission to find the hot dog van that sold us that mouth-watering veggie burger the night before. It was not there! Saddened, we continued on our lunch journey, encountering the busy Saturday market at Universitätsplatz, which was full of local produce, but namely, many, many sausages. We settled with pretzels for lunch, one savoury and one sweet, and ate them in the hot sun whilst watching an entire life-sized chess match in Kapitelplatz, another imposing Salzburg square.

We walked through the elaborate Petersfriedhof cemetery before reaching the uphill walkway leading to the Festung Hohensalzburg, or Salzburg Fortress. The fortress provided the best views of the beautiful city.

After spending a long time admiring the city from up high, it was time for dinner. We found a cheap and delicious restaurant serving healthy curry and we couldn’t leave Salzburg without trying their famous Sacher Torte, so we ordered one at our hotel (our luggage was still there). It was very decadent.

Our night train to Venice was to leave at 1.30am so we had a few hours to spare. Lucky for us, Costa Rica’s first World Cup game was airing at a bar near the train station. We enjoyed several rather tall Austrian beers in an authentic smoky pub and enjoyed every minute of it, especially CR’s unlikely win against Uruguay.

*We still haven’t watched The Sound of Music.

Munich, Germany

18 Aug

It was time to leave France and the French language for now and head into Germany! We arrived in Munich around noon. The weather was pleasant. The Western European heatwave was subsiding. We headed to our hotel which was not too far from the station. Our hotel was in a very hip area, right near the Sendlinger Tor, a beautiful historic city gate on the south-western edge of Munich’s old town.

Our first stop was lunch. We ate at a restaurant right near the hotel, in front of Tor. We were planning to buy 1L glasses of beer in traditional German fashion, but we actually hadn’t drank any alcohol on our trip yet due to all the illnesses. Therefore, we had to ease ourselves into the booze and shamefully our first beer in Germany was only a 500mL glass. We were the only people at the restaurant drinking such small beers.

We quickly headed back to the hotel because we hadn’t been able to find anywhere to do our laundry yet, and it was time. On the way we visited a cute little fruit vendor and bought absolutely delicious, sweet and cheap cherries and raspberries.

With laundry in hand, we asked the hotel receptionist where to go. She directed us to a place behind the hotel. Upon arrival, it appeared to be more of a dry-cleaner. We dropped our laundry back at the hotel and decided hand-wash would be the way to go from then on.

It was time to start exploring Munich! We headed towards the Marienplatz, Munich’s main square, which was a relatively short distance from our hotel. The Marienplatz is home to the magnificent Neues Rathaus, or New City Hall, a delightfully ornate and grand building. The New City Hall is also home to the famous Glockenspiel, which is a little merry-go-round of happy dancing figurines which performs for the crowds a few times a day.

Nearby was the Viktualienmarkt, a market showcasing Bavarian fare, local and exotic produce, cured meats, sausages, breads, cheeses, and candied fruit.

 We proceeded north via Munich’s main shopping strip, Neuhauser Straße, until we reached the grand square Odeonsplatz, whose focal point is the epic loggia Feldherrnhalle. This is the site of the 1923 Hitlerputsch, or Beer Hall Putsch. The incredible thing about Europe is that you have so many opportunities to stand where something monumental once occurred.

It was getting late so we decided to head home. We passed the Karlstor, another historic city gate, but of a very different style to the Sendlinger Tor.

We arrived back at our hotel ready to watch the first game of the World Cup. After the game we headed out for a small dinner on the strip of Thalkirchner Straße. The street is full of bars and attracts a crowd of young intellectuals, or university students if you will. We ate a delicious New York-style pizza slice whilst drinking a beer and watching the sophisticated youngsters enjoy their Wednesday night.

The following day, we decided to have our first day of absolute nothing. By that I mean that we didn’t want to plan any sightseeing and we just wanted to relax after a week and a half of walking several kilometres per day. We came to realise that Munich is actually a rather small city and a place that was easy to see the main sights in only a few days.

But we ended up doing something anyway. Firstly we stopped for a quick breakfast at a traditional Bäckerei. So cheap and so good.

Across the road was the most amazing church I have ever seen in my life. Asamkirche, or  St Johann Nepomuk Kirche, is an unpretentious baroque church on the outside, but upon entering, is the most beautiful, gilded, extravagant and ornate church in the world. Quite possibly the best attraction in Munich.

We decided to spend the rest of the day at the Neue Pinakothek art gallery. This was a good decision, because the gallery was pretty amazing and we were able to see works by the likes of Van Gogh (and his damned lily pond), Klimt and Degas. Our first European gallery visit was a good one.

On our return to the city, we walked through a park and came to realise the rumour about Germans sunbathing is parks is very true. We passed the grand Königsplatz and Glyptothek, grand structures located to the north-west of the old town. We returned to the Neuhauser Straße for a spot of shopping, and then it was time to return home to rest our feet. On the way, we visited a supermarket. We were amazed by the low cost of groceries in Germany. I had been observing the prices of Milka chocolate in every country we visited, and so far, Germany was the winner of cheapest chocolate, at about $1 per bar (Australia’s chocolate is about $4 per bar. We do suffer so). Cheap chocolate means an excellent place to consider moving to. Beer is also cheaper than bottled water. We were enthralled.

Our last German dinner would be typically German. I ordered spätzle (a sort of cheesy noodle), which is probably my favourite German food ever, but I’d only ever eaten it outside of Germany. It was yummy. Our dinner was finalised with a delicious apple strudel. All massive servings too, as seems to be the norm in Germany. No complaints from us.

We ended our night with another World Cup match, accompanied by a pretzel and two Munich beers.

Germany, you will be missed.

 

P.S. Happy 100th post to me!

Strasbourg, France & Weil am Rhein, Germany

1 Aug

We left Brussels nice and early as we had a long trip ahead. We had to return to Paris to catch a train to Strasbourg, a quaint city in Alsace, to the east of France by the German border. Alex’s old friend from Costa Rica lives there.

Our train to Paris was slowed down due to a broken window. We arrived back in Paris at Gare du Nord and only had 5 minutes to catch the connecting train which was departing from Gare de l’Est. We ran and managed to find the station in record time (it’s only about a 5 minute walk but via the streets so a map was required). It turned out our train to Strasbourg was running late so it was no big deal in the end. We noticed that Paris was much warmer than when we left it a few days earlier. Since arriving in Brussels, Europe had been experiencing a late-Spring heatwave.

In just over two hours, we had arrived at Gare de Strasbourg and were welcomed with a scorching 35°C.

We met Alex’s friend, his wife and their two absolutely gorgeous children. We had lunch and wandered around the phenomenal city for a while. Strasbourg is just so perfectly beautiful.

We caught the tram closer to the city centre and walked a few blocks until we reached La Petite France, a small island in the city centre which houses some of the most gorgeous buildings I’ve ever seen. We lunched at a restaurant serving true Alsatian cuisine, which is almost a mix of French and German cuisine, but also with a few dishes particular only to the region. We ate in the beer garden overlooking the river and many spectacular timber-framed buildings.

After lunch we continued our short tour of the city and came across the enormous gothic cathedral of Strasbourg, which is very grand, beautiful and even more intricately detailed than the Notre Dame.

We purchased some delightful gelato (Speculoos flavour for me!) to at least allow our insides to cool down somewhat. We sat down for a while to people-watch. It was a public holiday (Lundi de Pentecôte) yet there weren’t many people to watch, probably due to the weather.

Alex’s friends drove us to our hotel to drop off our luggage, and then we headed off to the nearby Mont Saint-Odile, a mountain housing a medieval convent that also overlooks the magnificent Alsace region.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at our friends’ house in a nearby town called Obernai. The town was gorgeous and we could have spent a day there just waking up and down the streets. The buildings there, like Strasbourg, are very Germanic in style and have their wooden trusses showing. Our friends live in one of these styles of buildings, although the interior was much more modern. From their window you could see the ruins of a fortress and a moat, which was literally across the road from them. It was unbelievable to be in such a fairy tale town.

Our friends served us a variety of French cheeses, from mild to smelly. We preferred the mild as we’re not very experimental when it comes to smelly cheese. All served with a baguette, of course.

Before leaving Obernai we took a walk around the beautiful city at twilight.

The following day after my follow-up x-ray (my arm was healing well, yay) we went on a one-hour road trip to Weil am Rhein, a small town in the south-west of Germany, by the French border. I like that we went on a road trip to another country. I wish we could do that in Australia. We were also contemplating road tripping into a third country (Basel in Switzerland) but ran out of time. Europeans are so lucky!

The reason we went to this small German town was to visit the Vitra Design Museum, which is a place that architect husbands dream of. The museum, or “campus” as they call it, is really a collection of buildings designed by famous architects. The collection is owned by this wealthy guy who happens to like collecting things, and in this case, designer buildings (as you do). We ate an extraordinarily delicious lunch of vegetables fried in butter atop the most amazing pesto spaghetti. We then went on a campus tour to view some of the buildings. Alex’s favourite was Zaha Hadid’s fire station.

Personally I liked Herzog & De Meuron’s houses-shaped house. I sound pretty clever reciting the names of famous architects don’t I?!

I also enjoyed a furniture exhibition they had in this house, which showcases many famous furniture and homeware designs over the past century. I love furniture exhibitions.

My favourites were all the chairs and also Alexander Girard’s dolls and colourful display.

The campus was also full of cherry trees, and we ate some of the cherries which were so sweet and delicious.

We returned to Strasbourg and farewelled Alex’s friend. We ventured back to the enchanting La Petite France one last time for dinner.

We tried an Alsatian kind of pizza called tarte flambée, as recommended by Alex’s friend. The base was thin like a tortilla and it was loaded with crème fraîche, onion and cheese. Our final French treat was a decadent and rich chocolate fondant.

Strasbourg was another one of my favourite cities on this trip.

Bruges, Belgium

28 Jul

The journey to Belgium took some time as we had to catch slow trains to Amsterdam airport and Rotterdam first. We finally boarded our train to Brussels, where the G7 summit had just been held. It was an eventful trip – towards the end of it the conductors warned us that there were pickpocketers on the train. Fun times.

We arrived in Brussels, the train passing the Red Light District which gave us a scenic view of several window girls. We were unaware that Brussels had this district. We departed the train at Brussels south station. We did not feel very safe at all. The station gave off bad vibes and walking to our hotel, we felt all eyes on us. Alex mentioned that the area reminded him of a scary part of San Jose. We hurried to our hotel and stayed there for the afternoon. We did not have a very good first impression of Brussels.

We stayed at the Pantone Hotel, a themed hotel where the rooms on every floor are decorated with one Pantone colour. Of all the beautiful bright lovely colours, we got brown! Alex reminded me that brown is the colour of chocolate so I guess I became okay with it.

We went out for dinner in the trendy district of Ixelles. We were having trouble determining if we should have been speaking French or Dutch, but the waitress ended up being Spanish. We were extremely dehydrated and were advised by my doctor earlier to stop drinking tap water, just in case, so we ordered two Sprites. The restaurant was Italian and we were informed the only drinks they had were the tiniest bottles of San Pellegrino mixed with fruit juice. I think we finished them in two sips.

The following day we had to choose between a day in Brussels city or Bruges. We chose Bruges and were very happy with our decision, even though we had to again venture into the deep darkness that is the south station.

We entered Bruges from a lovely and modern train station. To get to the city centre we followed a picturesque path via a quaint park until we reached a string of restaurants where we stopped for lunch. We also caught a glimpse of some incredible freestyle street soccer.

We continued on towards the historic centre. On our way we spotted many antique buildings. We noticed that many of the edifices in Bruges have particularly charming stepped gables.

We crossed a bridge which overlooked a breathtaking scene of medieval buildings resting alongside a dreamy canal. I had to pause to marvel at the beauty and serenity of the scene. We had arrived in the historic centre of Bruges and it did not disappoint.

We approached Markt, a huge public square enclosed by grand medieval buildings and filled with a marketplace. We visited the ornate Basilica of the Holy Blood, whose extravagant façade featured gilded figurines and whose interior was rather colourful.

We entered into the courtyard of the Belfry, the tallest building in the square, and enjoyed a brief moment of shade from the scorching sun (we were there during an anomalous heatwave).

We admired a row of differently coloured buildings, all with those lovely medieval gables.

We spent the rest of the day wandering through the cobblestone streets, visiting more medieval monuments, drooling over shop windows and admiring the canals.

Our day ended with some Belgian waffles and a trip to a chocolate shop to buy some tantalising Belgian chocolate which unfortunately melted into a big mess and were eaten a few days later once we finally entered a cooler climate. Delicious, however disappointing at the same time as all the unique flavours I carefully picked out had amalgamated into one.

Bruges is an extremely picturesque town and very much a place where a fairy-tale might be set.

We returned to Brussels quite late and headed to dinner in a fancy pedestrian street full of restaurants called Rue Jourdan. We chose an Italian restaurant with delicious pizza but awful service. We noticed the pizzas in Europe are delectably cheesy and more like New York-style pizzas than the boring pizzas we have in Australia.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

27 Jul

Goodbye Paris! We were off to Amsterdam. I was feeling good. But, by the end of our train voyage, Alex and I were both feeling horribly nauseous. Upon arrival we entered into the rather chilly ‘Dam air and could barely move out of fear of being sick. We sat on the floor of Amsterdam’s beautiful Centraal Station, watching all the sophisticated locals rush by. We both were thinking about how carefree and fashionable the people of Amsterdam seemed, but at the same time we were thinking about how desperately we didn’t want to be sick. After chewing on a few anti-nausea tablets I was given the day before and not feeling any better, we asked some station workers where the nearest hospital was. This was not a good start to the day! The station workers advised us to go to our hotel as there was a hospital near it. They took us to a taxi and we survived the ride, feeling pretty awful but paying attention to the amazing city. A city that gives you a fantastic impression when you feel like death must be an amazing city!

We quickly checked into our phenomenal hotel (so grateful it was a good one) and spent our first day in Amsterdam in bed. I started to feel better but Alex not so much. Alex was sick only once (compared to my 6 times two days before – he’s a machine). I still blame the unwashed lettuce.

The following day, our first and sadly final day in Amsterdam, we were feeling a little better and we were able to leave the hotel. We weren’t feeling 100% but we managed to make the most of our day. We absolutely loved Amsterdam. It just had a tranquil feel to it.

We jumped on the tram and headed to the city (we noticed that the tram and taxi drivers are often young and cheerful). First we went to see the EYE Film Museum, which was on Alex’s architecture to-do list. We had fun at the museum, watching some really old films including a series of strange Disney films from the 1920s about a mischievous girl called Alice.

We noticed many, many bicycles on our way — there seemed to be more cyclists than pedestrians even. We walked along the port towards the Nemo museum, another building on Alex’s list.

As we walked back towards central Amsterdam we spent some time at the modern city library which had a lookout point with an obscured view of the city.

Lunch time! My first meal in a few days, and Alex’s too. I ate little but savoured the small amount of food as it dropped to the bottom of my poor empty stomach. We noticed many smokers in Amsterdam, which we’re not used to.

We spent the rest of the day browsing the beautiful city and walking up and down the canals. We found some fabulous shops and continued to discuss what a liveable city Amsterdam seemed to be.

We sat for an hour or two to wait for our tour of Anne Frank’s house. We still were not feeling superb and a long day walking out in the sun certainly did not help. I was so excited about Anne Frank’s house as I has just read her book. It was really remarkable to be there, and to see everything she’d described in real life.

We headed home via the Red Light District, which was full of loathsome tourists making lewd comments about the young girls enclosed in glass boxes. Many feminist soap box comments were made by me and then it was time to head home for our last night in a very cool hotel in an amazing city. Amsterdam is beautiful and currently our first choice of expatriation (although I’ve never seen it in winter so we should be cautious).

The following morning it was time to leave. I had meticulously planned our trip, including all hotels, trains and flights, but for some reason our train trip to Brussels turned out to be on a flexible ticket. So instead of leaving at 6am as originally planned (completely absurd) we were able to spend a little more time in wonderful Amsterdam and could leave later in the day.

We took our last tram ride to the museum quarter to see the grand square featuring my favourite Rijksmuseum, as well as the Van Gogh museum. No time for either but we had a wander and took some photos with the I amsterdam sign. Back we went to our amazing hotel to check out and we headed to the nearby south station to begin our short trip to Belgium.

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