Travel Diary 21/4/16

Here we go, another update on just what I’ve been up to the past… nine days. I promise I’ll start doing these more often.

Day 13
My first full day in Amsterdam, and what a day it was. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, and preservation laws keep it that way, property owners cannot change the facade of their building without express permission from governing bodies, keeping a vast majority of the buildings in the central area looking almost exactly like they did centuries ago.

I went to my number one Amsterdam sight first. The Anne Frank House. They don’t allow photos, and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have taken any out of respect, so I can’t share it with you. Suffice to say, it is a very moving experience. Well worth waiting in line for an hour.

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Night Watch, Rembrant

I then walked to the Rijksmuseum, which I honestly found a little underwhelming. For the price, I was expecting a multiple-hour experience like the Louvre or Musee d’Orsay. Instead, I was through in just over an hour. Sure, there are masterpieces there, Rembrant’s Night Watch, a Van Gogh Self Portrait or two, Vermeer’s Milkmaid, but a lot of the art just gets kind of same-y. When you’ve seen one portrait of a minor Dutch nobleman, you’ve seen them all.

Day 14
I started late today, and found myself at yet another slightly disappointing gallery. This time the Van Gogh Museum. I wouldn’t be so mad about it if they didn’t charge so much, to basically see three paintings. All of Van Gogh’s major works are in other museums, Musee d’Orsay, New York Museum of Modern Art, Rijksmuseum and the J. Paul Getty Museum, to name a few. The Van Gogh Museum has everything else.

That night, I met up with my friends from Paris and together we checked out the infamous Red Light District. We basically pubcrawled until we found a cheap place. But along the way, we saw exactly what the Red Light District is famous for, and, quite frankly, it’s pretty weird.

So basically, there are these glass doors facing out into the street. Standing in the windows are prostitutes, in their underwear, tapping on the glass to get your attention. Every now and then you see a guy approach, ask how much, and go into the room, where a curtain is drawn and… well, I don’t have to paint a picture.

I’m all for women doing whatever they want with their bodies, it’s their right, but it just seems incredibly demeaning to me. Standing in a window like a literal product… It’s just creepy.

Day 15
This day, my mate and I decided to check out some of the seedier museums in Amsterdam. We started out at the Sex Museum, went on to the Museum of Erotica and finished up with the Museum of Prostitution.

To be perfectly honest, the first two were kind of boring. You can giggle at the art, the mannequins and whatnot, but eventually the novelty wears off.

The Museum of Prostitution is actually interesting. It’s a proper museum, with information, recreations of the rooms behind the window, first-hand experiences and the history of the industry in the district.

Not-so-fun Fact: It is estimated that between 10 and 90 percent of the prostitution in Amsterdam is forced. Which basically means authorities said “Stuffed if I know, it definitely happens, but I’m pretty sure some of them are willing”. They do have a hotline to call if you suspect your prostitute is being forced into it though.

Ended the day with a canal cruise, combining my three favourite things: sightseeing, dinner and drinks. One of the cruise companies runs a pizza cruise together with Heineken. So you basically get a full 90-minute tour of the city, eat a personal pizza, and drink bottomless beer and wine.

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Canals of Amsterdam

Day 16
Day 16 was a bit of a cruisy one for me. I wandered around the city on foot, got a closer look at some of the places I saw on the cruise the previous night, and just enjoyed my surroundings.

Day 17
Day 17 I took a day trip out to The Hague, the centre of The Netherlands’ government (Amsterdam is the official capital, but all the government buildings are at The Hague).

I walked around the city centre for a while, and looked at all the 17th century buildings, but the main reason I made the trip out was for one special lady, Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring, which is housed at the Mauritshuis Museum, along with a number of paintings by the Dutch Masters.

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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, Rembrant

Day 18
This one was a travel day, as I caught an early train to Rotterdam. I did manage to get a bit of sightseeing done, not that there are too many big-ticket items within Rotterdam, it was just nice to walk around and look at a city, without having any expectations.

Day 19
The one must-see item around Rotterdam is the Kinderdijk. It’s UNESCO World Heritage listed, and is really quite impressive. The series of windmills, reservoirs and dams is part of the massive, nationwide effort to keep the country’s vast swaths of land that is below sea level, dry.

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One of Kinderdijk's many windmills. Also, some cows.

Day 20
And that brings us to today. It was a travel day today, I’m now back in Belgium, but this time in Antwerp. I had a quick walk around, but tomorrow will be my main sightseeing day.

Travel Diary 12/4/16

I have left longer between these entries than I had intended. However, the WiFi aboard the Eurostar leaves a little to be desired, and then I went ahead and made friends in Paris, so my downtime turned into drinking time. Anyway, here’s the last ten days.

Day 3
Having a whole day left on my London Pass, I decided to make use of it. First stop was The Tower of London, which was originally built by William The Conquerer, and is therefore pretty much as old as England itself. Plus there are Roman ruins on the site, so it’s even older than that. A nice way to spend a morning, but there is a lot of walking up stairs, so it might not be for everyone. Disabled access wasn’t an issue back in 1078. Come here for the Crown Jewels (which are 100% worth seeing), and stay for the cool history and ancient castle. I didn’t take the tour, but I did jump on a tour right at the end, so I could see inside the church where they buried poor Queen Anne Boleyn.

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Tower Bridge, London

The afternoon saw me just a little ways up the Thames, at Tower Bridge (you know, the one everyone thinks is London Bridge). I say ‘a little ways up’, and I mean on the flat plane. Vertically… That’s a whole other matter. It’s over two hundred steps up to the top of the towers. There is an elevator, but I got impatient, as I am prone to being. There are some great views from the stairwell though, as there are windows positioned regularly all the way up. Once at the top, you then walk across the upper walkways, which includes a glass floor, through which you can look down at the pedestrians and cars below. From there, it’s down to the engine room, where you can see the huge hydraulic pumps that are used to lift the bridge to allow ships to pass under.

In the evening, I once again found myself above the city, this time at ArcelorMittal Orbit, the bizarre-looking tower next to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I would have given it a miss, since they haven’t built the world’s biggest slide there yet (it’s on the way though), but they had a Lego Exhibition this weekend.

Day 4
Day 4 was primarily a travel day. I travelled from St Pancras station in London to Paris Gare du Nord via the Eurostar, through the Channel Tunnel. Which was pretty cool. That’s a Modern Wonder I can cross off my Bucket List.

I found my hostel easily, in the 18th Arrondissement, Montmartre. It was a little place called Le Village Hostel, which is a very cool, nicely located place, for a good price. Five minutes from Sacre Couer, and two minutes from Anvers Metro station.

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Sacre Couer, Paris

I decided to take advantage of the proximity to Sacre Coeur and visit a little earlier than I had intended, again walking up hundreds of stairs, but this time to take in what I would have to say was the greatest view of Paris I saw, the entire time I was there.

Day 5
I picked up my Paris Museum Pass (Not the Paris Pass), and immediately made a beeline for the Musee d’Orsay. I spent the entire morning, and a good chunk of the afternoon there, admiring the works of Monet, Renoir, Manet and my personal favourite, Van Gogh. I also have to admit to having taken at least a dozen, but probably two dozen, photos of the huge clock that dominates one end of this former train station.

To end the day, I decided to cross off another Bucket List item, and climbed the Arc de Triomphe, for yet another amazing view of Paris.

Day 6
This was the biggest day for me. Two of my absolute must-do items. The Louvre to start. I got in early, to avoid crowds around the Mona Lisa, and enjoyed a fairly unhindered walk around the gallery. It goes without saying that I was also excited to see Venus de Milo, and the painting of that guy from that one internet meme.

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Notre Dame, Paris

I rounded out the day with Notre-Dame de Paris. One of the most famous, and beautiful, cathedrals in the world. And the setting of one of my favourite Disney movies, but that’s beside the point. Which also meant that I got to finish my day with yet another amazing view of Paris.

Day 7
This was another travel day for me, unfortunately. Due to a mistake with the dates on my UK Residency Permit, I couldn’t pick it up while I was in London, so instead I had to travel back for an afternoon just to pick it up. On the bright side, I read two books on my Kindle on the train.

I should also mention at this stage that staying in a hostel is a great experience. You meet the best people in hostels. You also meet the worst. Which is why, today, I changed rooms at my hostel. I’m not going to go into detail, but suffice to say, I was not looking forward to spending the rest of the week with the roommates I had. I’m glad I changed, because I got to meet some great people in my new room, and we had a great time in the bars of Montmartre.

Day 8
Which, of course, led to a late start the next day. We did manage to drag our butts out of bed to go see Napoleon’s Tomb, and part of the military museum at Les Invalides that afternoon.

Of course, the absolute highlight was that night, when we finally went to the Eiffel Tower. I’m glad I saved it for night time, because it was simply magical. Every hour, blinking lights bounce around the outside, and we stayed to see it twice. Once from inside the tower, and once from the ground.

Day 9
The Palace of Versailles was the last thing on my list for Paris, at least this time around. I’ve spent the last week becoming increasingly aware of just how much I want to see.

I thought the Palace was very nice, even if the areas open to the public were quite few, and the Gardens were beautiful, even if everything was trimmed back. I’d love to come back at the height of summer.

Day 10
Another travel day, this time taking a bus from Paris to Brussels. I found my way to the place I was staying, this time an Airbnb, and spent the rest of the day there, talking to my host. His apartment was sparsely furnished, and I didn’t have any room to blog, or else you’d have this two days earlier.

Day 11
I got to explore Brussels, which I think is a very underrated city for tourists. It just doesn’t rank among the Parises and the Romes. But it is a very pleasant place, even in these troubled times. You can still sense the scars of the people, it’s a very quiet place, and everyone seems to be in a hurry to get everywhere, and no-one makes eye contact with anyone.

I couldn’t help but go to the famous Mannekin Pis, and his lesser-known sister, Jeanneke Pis, but I was primarily in Brussels for one man: Tintin.

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Gare du Midi, Brussels

Who would have thought, someone who wants to be a travel blogger grew up reading Tintin comics, and watching the cartoon series. Well, Brussels is his home, and they are proud of him. Art adorns a number of walls, including within one of their main train stations. A large section of the amazing Comic Strip Museum is dedicated to Herge (and the number of comic book stores for a city that size was astounding). The official Tintin Shop is just off the famous Grand-Place, and there is a museum dedicated to Herge (which was unfortunately closed today).

I finished the day by meeting up with one of the guys I met in Paris, and we had drinks at Delirium Cafe, followed by a cheap, but good-quality dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Day 12
Which brings us to today. I’m blogging to you live from Amsterdam, at my hostel, waiting for check-in. And, quite frankly, it’s probably the coolest-looking hostel I’ve ever been to. And conveniently located, just a short (free) ferry-ride from Amsterdam Central Station. It’s called ClinkNOORD, and you should stay here if you’re ever in town. I won’t post until after I check-in, since all the cords I need to download photos from my camera are in my bag, which is in their luggage storage.

Note: Actually posting the day after, but I’ll leave today’s activities for the next one.

Travel Diary 2/4/16

Well, I’m nearing the end of my third day in London, and I thought I should give you an update. This isn’t going to be a daily thing, just whenever I get a spare minute and a decent spot to write. So, here goes:

Day -1
I left Melbourne on a Qantas flight to Singapore, which was really quite lovely. The seats were comfortable, the service was good, the food was good (for an airline), the movie selection was fantastic (I watched three films I’ve been meaning to see for a while) and it was a pleasant flight.

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My last glimpse of Australia for quite a while.

Changi Airport in Singapore was a sight to behold, quite unlike anything I have seen in my very limited experience as a traveller. Being one of the busiest airports in the world, and one of the most common stop-overs on the way to Asia and the Pacific, they know how to keep you occupied while you wait for your connecting flight. Their smokers’ areas are actually themed gardens (I was quite fond of the Cactus Garden), they have cinemas, video games, koi ponds, as well as the standard Duty Free shops, bars and food outlets.

I don’t have a lot of good to say about flying with Swiss. The next leg of my journey was the overnight Singapore to Zurich. The seats were too narrow and uncomfortable, the food was subpar and the staff were clumsy and rude. One of them spilled hot water on me during tea and coffee service, didn’t bother apologising and just handed me a napkin to clean up with.

The sole bright point of my Swiss experience was Zurich Airport. While the area I first saw after leaving my flight was stark and utilitarian, all concrete walls and linoleum floors, with several sections probably underground, when I found myself in Terminal D, I was greeted by a beautiful, modern terminal, and views of the Swiss Alps. Short-term free wifi aside, it was a very nice place to spend a few hours.

Day 0
Even though this is the day I reached London, I’m not counting it. Another Swiss flight, with uncomfortable seats (although the staff and food were better), an hour or so in the line at customs, and another hour or so to my hotel… and the hotel door was locked, because the owner had gone out to lunch. At 3pm. Then I found out my residence card wouldn’t be available for pickup until the week I was in Paris (silly me thought that if I told them my date of entry months in advance, it would be available on the day).

Day 1
Now it’s time to see if it’s all worth it. Two days of crap, but at least I’m finally in London. So what to do first? I’ve spent most of 48 hours on my butt, so it’s time to do some walking…

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The British Museum

The British Museum. It’s enormous. And worth feeling like your legs are going to fall off at the end of it. Thanks to the British belief that if you stick a flag somewhere, it belongs to you, there are thousands of wonderful things that have been looted, plundered, discovered and stolen, all right there to be looked at.
The Rosetta Stone is a big-ticket item. Such a big-ticket item that they have two. The actual stone, in a glass case in the Egyptian section, and another, a replica that you can touch. The Parthenon exhibit, which I’ll not go into the politics of, and I won’t be posting photos of, is another major exhibit.

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The Rosetta Stone (sorry about the reflection)

I’m crossing three Wonders of the Ancient World off my bucket list, The British Museum has pieces of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Helicarnassus and the Ishtar Gate on display, and since all three have been destroyed (the Ishtar Gate has been reconstructed in Berlin, but still), I’m counting them 100%.

Day 2
Today I picked up my London Pass (which I highly recommend doing), and did some sightseeing. I started at Trafalgar Square, where in addition to Nelson’s Column and the  various other statues, there is temporarily a giant Monopoly Board set up (albeit with a timeline of video game history, instead of the streets).
I walked along Whitehall and Parliament Way to The Palace of Westminster (aka the Houses of Parliament, aka the rest of the building Big Ben is in). Elizabeth Tower (renamed from ‘Clock Tower’ in 2012 for Liz’s Diamond Jubilee) is much, much bigger than it looks on TV.

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Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben)

Westminster Abbey was next, I’m far from a religious man, but even I had to pay my respects. Buried beneath this triumph of architecture, art and design, are many of England’s great leaders and thinkers. Queens Elizabeth I and Marys I and II, Mary Queen of Scots, Kings Edward I, III and The Confessor, Henry III, V and VII and James I (VI of Scotland) to name a few of the monarchs. Scientists such as Newton, Darwin, Lord Kelvin and Ernest Rutherford, along with artists such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Rudyard Kipling, Handel and Charles Dickens. Mixed in with memorials to those buried here, are memorials to those buried elsewhere. It’s almost impossible to see them all. I certainly missed more than a few, now that I’m looking at the list on Wikipedia.

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Tower Bridge (from London Bridge)

After Westminster Abbey, I hopped on a bus tour, which took me past Hyde Park, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and The Tower of London, the Monument (to the Great Fire of London) and the London Eye, as well as down some iconic streets (it was like Monopoly, but without the intra-familial hatred).
I had a look around the world-famous King’s Cross Station to finish my day, but the line for Platform 9 and 3/4s was too long just for a photo, so I ended it there.