The details of our days in Europe continue in this spectacularly captivating post. Well, it’s spectacularly longwinded at the very least.
Day 4: Going, Going, Gogh
We woke up early to check out the Van Gogh Museum. The Van Gogh Museum holds 200 of Van Gogh’s paintings and 500 of his drawings. It was a pretty remarkable place with some fascinating insights into a creative and complicated man.
Antwerp’s Centraal Station is the prettiest train depot I’ve ever pulled my luggage through.
After Gogh, Jason and I headed to Antwerp. This required just a 1.25-hour train ride, which sounds easy enough until you add in luggage, unfamiliar public-transportation systems, and incomprehensible languages. Then, a short jaunt quickly spirals into the fatiguing realm.
The grandeur of the Cathedral of Our Lady took nearly two centuries to finish.
The Cathedral of Our Lady’s Gothic nave is enormous.
However, our exhausting relocation didn’t keep us from checking into our Antwerp hotel and then promptly checking out Onze-Lieve Vrouwe Kathedraal or the Cathedral of Our Lady. This magnificent church dates back to 1352 and features works by masters like Peter Paul Rubens. Plus, you can walk through its crypt. Yes, the Cathedral of Our Lady was stunning, artistic, and creepy.
The Brabo Fountain is centrally situated in Antwerp’s Grote Markt.
Day 5: Lace and Chocolate
We spent the following day in a place that hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages, the town of Bruges. Bruges was enormously wealthy until the River Zwin silted up in the 15th century, which completely halted its development. The last five centuries have passed Bruges by but the tourists haven’t and for good reason. Bruges oozes old-world charm from its arched bridges to its colorful medieval buildings.
The canals in Bruges are surrounded by well-preserved building from the Middle Ages.
Our first stop in Bruges was the Markt, its 13th-century market square. Then, we took a half-hour tour of the canals on a motorboat before checking out the Gothic Hall in the Stadhuis and the massive 16th-century alabaster, wood, and marble chimney next door in the Brugse Vrije.
The Markt in Bruges has served as the town’s center for over a thousand years.
Next, Jason insisted on getting a Bruges waffle, believed to be the best waffles in the world, and subsequently insisted on spilling it all over himself in the middle of the Markt. Nicely done Jason!
At the Heilig Bloed Basiliek, we saw one of the holiest relics in Europe. The Basiliek’s sacred phial was brought to Bruges during the crusades and is believed to contain a few drops of the blood of Christ.
Bruges’ Stadhuis dates back to around 1400.
Afterwards, we visited Kantcentrum. Belgium was once known worldwide for its exquisite handmade lace. Although lace is now made by machines, the craft of lacemaking has not been entirely lost in Bruges. At Kantcentrum, we witnessed bent 90-year-old women tossing bobbins faster than our eyes could follow. It was kind of amazing.
After being thoroughly impressed by Bruges’ lace artisans, we walked down to the Begijnhof and Minnewater lock gate. Yes, Bruges also once had a sanctuary for non-nun-non-non-nun ladies. I guess it was pretty “in” to be a nun that wasn’t a nun 700 years ago.
Although not the best picture, it will have to do because there aren’t any others of Jason and me together in Europe.
Our last mission in Bruges was very critical. We needed to buy lots of chocolate. We accomplished this task with finesse. Between our endeavors in Bruges and Brussels, we came home with over 10 pounds of cocoa goodness. If you are nice to us, we might share… maybe.
Before we caught the train back to Antwerp, we stopped for dinner at a Flemish café. Jason decided that herrings are better suited to unpickled waters but the local fare suited me fine. I especially enjoyed the mussels I ordered; they were the best I’ve ever eaten, mostly because they didn’t taste like sand and kelp had been added as flavoring agents. As yummy as they were, I couldn’t gobble all of the roughly 50 I was given.
In Bruges, I relished the tastiest mussels I’ve ever eaten.
Day 6: Cathedrals and Pis
The next day we took another train, this time to Brussels. In contrast to some of the other towns we toured, Brussels felt busy. It was still worth the visit though.
We went from the train station directly to the Grand Place. This square offers 360 degrees of historical and architectural brilliance. Its Hotel de Ville and town hall were built near the end of the 15th century and its ornate guildhouses were added in the 17th. We didn’t know where to gawk first.
The Hotel de Ville was completed in 1455. It is commonly regarded as the most splendid civic building in Belgium.
On our next stop, we checked out a whiz kid. The Manneken Pis is a two-foot-tall statue of a boy relieving himself into a pond. This tiny urinator has become a symbol of Belgium, like a cheeky leaky Eiffel Tower. The Manneken Pis has also become an ambassador for Belgium. He regularly receives outfits from dignitaries worldwide; he wears three such ensembles a week on average.
The Grand Place is encircled by gilded guildhouses.
After the wee whizzer, we ate lunch at an “American” joint called Rachel. Perhaps you can guess our reason for picking this particular restaurant. Its burgers and bagels didn’t seem very familiar to us but they were quite tasty. We watched the couple next to us cut their hamburgers up using forks and knives with amusement and then did the American thing. Yup, we made a mess.
The Manneken Pis is unimpressively small but his cheeky stream makes him endearing.
Space invaders don’t usually attack via urine but when in Brussels…
Later, we stopped by the Cathedrale Sts Michel et Gudule. Though not as impressive as the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, this church contains some beautiful stained-glass windows and a huge baroque pulpit. Plus, it gave Jason the chance to visit another crypt. That made him happy… and me uneasy.
We spent the rest of our time in Brussels shopping (More chocolate needed to be purchased, obviously.) and walking around the Quartier Royal where the Parc de Bruxelles, a green created in the 1770s from a duke’s hunting grounds, and the royal palace are located. The park’s tree-lined paths, mossy statues, and peaceful fountains were a quieting break from Brussels’ bustle.
Return next week for the particulars of our fascinating return to the Netherlands. Hey, someone might find it fascinating; there are a lot of boring people out there.
Guildhouses form one side of Antwerp’s charming Grote Markt.
A Few Traveler Tidbits
Renting a car is not necessary in many parts of Europe and, frankly, probably increases stress. Jason and I did not get behind a wheel at all during our stay. We took trains, trams, and metros everywhere, along with using our footsies plenty. This worked out pretty well but we did experience a few tense moments while trying to navigate these unfamiliar transportation systems, like when we took the metro going the wrong direction. (They go both ways… who knew?) Or when Jason randomly decided to jump on a train that wasn’t even coming in on the correct platform because his phone told him to. (Tip to men: always listen to your wife over your phone.) It’s not easy to use a system you know nothing about, especially when its signs are in a language you don’t speak. But we never veered too far off course.
Since I had a little break between my summer and fall semesters, Jason and I decided it was the perfect time to take a trip to Europe, a continent we’d been contemplating traveling to for a while.
Tempted by the convenience of a direct flight, we decided to land in Amsterdam and tour sections of the Netherlands and Belgium. In case you are wondering, even ten hours on a plane is agonizing. Sure, you basically just sit, sleep, and eat but boy is it miserable. Our trip was fabulous though. Here’s my full account of more recollections than you’ll recollect wanting.
Day 1: Royal Jetlag
Although long flights are about as fun as colonoscopy parties, the hardest thing about going to Europe isn’t the plane travel but the jetlag. The eight-hour time change is exactly enough for Europe to be getting up when it should be going to sleep. Thus, our early days there were hazed by jetlag’s cloud of drowsy oblivion.
Jason and I arrived in Amsterdam around 8 AM, midnight back home. We had only slept an hour and a half on the plane but we were determined to stay up as long as possible to exhaust ourselves out of jetlag quickly. This plan worked better than expected, at least initially. The options for distractions were plentiful.
The Koninklijk Paleis is still used by the Dutch royal family.
First, we set out for the Anne Frank Huis but ended up going on a tour of the Royal Palace (Koninklijk Paleis) instead. Once Amsterdam’s town hall, that royal residence was opulent and stately. After a brief respite to eat a cheese sandwich in a tiny outdoor café, we were off to the Anne Frank Huis once more but somehow ended up searching out the Begijnhof instead. Long ago, the Begijnhof was a sanctuary for a group of ladies that lived like nuns without taking vows. These women sought to assist the sick and educate the poor. Houten House, Amsterdam’s oldest house and one of its two remaining wooden-fronted residences, is enclosed in their once-haven. (Wooden houses were banned in 1521 due to their propensity to go up in smoke.) The Begijnhof was a peaceful place worthy of the term “sanctuary.”
The Begijnhof’s gates have been providing a sanctuary for single women since the 1300s.
Next, we were off to the Anne Frank Huis again but ended up in the Amsterdam Museum. How did that happen? I blame our unfocused jetlagged brains. The Amsterdam Museum is an intriguing institution devoted to all things Amsterdam. Its collection includes everything from a giant Goliath statue to a Rembrandt. (Who doesn’t have a Rembrandt in Amsterdam?) Unfortunately, shortly after we entered the museum our jetlag became insurmountable. The museum’s fascinating signs and videos became blabber that floated around us like an incoherent soup. We stayed at the museum until it closed, a little over an hour, but the last 10 or 15 minutes we were both having a hard time not falling asleep standing up.
At that point, our empty stomachs and Amsterdam’s curiosities were completely forgotten. All we could think about was snoozing. We went to bed at 6 PM and, with the help of a couple sleeping pills and our lack of sleep, we were able to rest 12 and a half hours, waking up at 6:30 the next morning. Our jetlag was under control and didn’t manifest itself too severely thereafter… well, except for the occasional falling-asleep-without-knowing-it episode.
Day 2: Anne and the West
Before Jason and I left on our trip, I vowed to eat nothing but chocolate, cheese, pastries, frites, and waffles while in Europe. I broke that vow during our very first breakfast with delicious smoothies and fresh fruit. But I did eat a lot of cheese and pastries during that meal so my promise was not entirely hollow. Incidentally, the pastries in Europe weren’t as good as I remember but the cheeses were even better.
The canals in Amsterdam don’t resemble Farmer Joe’s waterways at all.
Following breakfast, we were off to the Anne Frank Huis again. This time we actually made it, after a little dilly-dallying to check out points of interest in the Jordaan neighborhood. However, it turns out that getting into the Anne Frank Huis is not as simple as just making it there. We had to purchase tickets online for three hours later because admission was completely sold out until then. In the meantime, we decided to go on an hour-long canal tour. This proved quite interesting. Then we visited the Westerkerk church, which was built in 1620. There we walked up 186 of the steepest steps I’ve ever ascended, so steep in fact that we had to come down them backwards. The views of Amsterdam from the top were impressive though and worth the rung shenanigans.
From the Westerkerk’s tower, the tallest in Amsterdam, miles of colorful rooftops and canal grids are visible.
Some of the stairs spiraling through the Westerkerk’s spire are so extreme they have to be descended backwards.
Finally, we got to tour the Anne Frank Huis. Seeing the untouched bookcase, the dim rooms with their blackout shades, and Anne’s bedroom walls covered with movie-star ornamentations was quite sobering yet powerful.
The Westerkerk is just down the street from the Anne Frank Huis.
After visiting the Anne Frank Huis, we did some more wandering and then enjoyed our hotel-room balcony until the breeze became too chilly. Sitting out on that perch at 7 PM when cathedral bells assaulted us from every direction, Amsterdam’s 20+ churches all seemed to be ringing at once, was one of my favorite moments of our trip. When the balcony got too cold, we headed downstairs for a fabulous dinner at the Bord’Eau Restaurant Gastronomique.
Day 3: Royal Blue
We decided to take a train to Delft, the home of Delftware and Vermeer, the next day. We toured the Royal Delft factory where hand-painted white-and-blue porcelains have been created since the 17th century. I may have purchased some of their uber-pricey knickknacks. Maybe.
Delft is famous for its blue and white pottery. Rembrandt is famous for a few things.
Next, we climbed 370 steps to the top of the Nieuwe Kerk, the second-tallest church in the Netherlands. These wooden and stone steps twirled around a tiny turret with significant gaps between them. I must admit, between the stair rifts and the dizzying views from balconies where the railings barely came above our waists, I had some height-dread moments. But what a scene! On a side note, the Nieuwe Kerk is the burial site of William of Orange and many other royal family members. It is still the burial site of choice for Dutch royals.
The Oude Kerk’s tilted tower adds skewed interest to Delft’s pretty scene.
The Nieuwe Kerk is the second-loftiest church in the Netherlands. It felt like it after 370 steps.
Delft’s Renaissance-style town hall was built in 1618.
The Oude Kerk, AKA Old Church, was our next stop with its crooked spire. Built in the 13th-century, it’s the final resting place of 400 Dutchmen, including the painter Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope. Both the churches we visited in Delft were a little morbid but intriguing. Their floors were paved with gravestones ornamented by a bizarre mix of skeletons and cherubs.
The Oude Kerk’s tower went wonky in 1325 during its construction.
I was utterly delighted by Delft. Its Markt, surrounded by outdoor cafes and quaint shops, was charming and quintessentially European. It was there that I ate one of my favorite desserts of the whole trip, a vanilla yogurt curd served with oranges. Wow!
Delft’s Eastern Gate was built around 1400.
My wordy account of Europe will continue next week… whether you want it to or not.
A Few Traveler Tidbits
Here are a few of the notable differences between the Netherlands and the USA:
- Stop signs have not made their way to Amsterdam. A few stoplights adorn Amsterdam’s busiest streets but at most intersections you are on your own.
- Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day. In fact, it seems that many Dutch people skip it entirely. So finding a breakfast spot outside your hotel can be challenging. Luckily, most of the hotels provide excellent breakfasts.
- Although bikes in Amsterdam outnumber cars, no one wears a helmet. Even the little kids being transported via wheel-barrel-like bike attachments don’t… no one.
- Most of the people are a normal weight. America really does have some fat issues.
- Street musicians are much more talented. We heard Mozart concertos and Bach toccatas gracefully performed by groups on curbs.
- Meals move at a different pace, as do their checks. Although the Dutch value efficiency, when it comes to food they take their time. Asking for your check can prompt confusion.
- Cars are minimally present compared to bikers and pedestrians.
- In July it doesn’t get dark until about 10:30 PM. I can only imagine how miserably black it is in the winter.
- Tipping isn’t done very regularly. It’s hard to include a tip at many restaurants because there isn’t a spot on the tab for it. Some Americans would probably enjoy this change but we felt obligated to figure out how to leave a tip anyway.
- Besides restaurants, almost everything closes at 5 PM. This means you have to get up pretty early to make the most of your time. We usually arose between 6:30 and 7:30 AM… so much for a relaxed vacation.
When it comes to birthdays, many people are of the mindset that denial is the best policy. However, I am of the opinion that that is stupid. We have no control over the passage of time. Time passes whether we acknowledge it or not so why not party? This conviction is one of the reasons I never let Jason’s birthday go by without a whoopty doo. He’s supportive of my whoopty-doo policy since he loves his friends and rowdy get-togethers with them.
Bowling isn’t usually considered a wild sport but…
This year, I decided to throw a bowling party for Jason’s birthday in a private four-lane suite at Jupiter Bowl in Park City. About two dozen buddies joined us for this pin pig out. We had the room for three hours but, thanks to all our yakking, those in my lane only made it through one game and part of another. No, it wasn’t my fastest bowling or my finest for that matter; I was too distracted. To be honest, I’m not even sure who amongst us won. The distractions suited Jim though; he bowled five strikes in a row. I don’t know if that has an official name but I’m going to call it a turkey sandwich.
Jupiter Bowl’s private suite was pretty classy and comfy.
The food was rather unhealthy and we consumed rather a lot of it.
Food was served periodically throughout the night. I’m glad I requested that it be supplied in stages; it would have been way too much all at once. A selection of cheeses, dried fruits, and crackers awaited our arrival. An hour later, crab and corn fritters with basil aioli, tempura shrimp with yuzu-soy dipping sauce, curried cauliflower tempura, and Jamaican jerk chicken skewers with pineapple salsa were all brought out. An hour after that, we sang happy birthday to Jason with chocolate-hazelnut-banana puff pastries and vanilla ice cream topped with five-spice poached pears in a port reduction.
Jason rarely gets embarrassed but for some reason this outpouring of masculine attention made him self-conscious.
It was an ear and pin-splitting night. Thanks everyone that came to celebrate my fantastic man! Time passes but I don’t see why that means opportunities for great memories need to be passed up as well.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a chance to vacation with Jason’s family so we were happy that our schedule allowed us to go camping with them up American Fork Canyon on his mom’s birthday. It was a weekend of a little exertion and a lot of ease.
Do I look cool? I was actually rather hot and soggy.
We started the outing with a trek to Timpanogos Cave accompanied by Jason’s parents and brother. We’ve done this hike several times in recent years but the cave, really three caverns connected, is a fascinating hole wholly worthy of multiple visits. Although intense, the overheating brought on by our trudge across the sun-blasted switchbacks leading to Timp Cave was over quickly. We were unpleasantly sweaty when we entered the monument but cooled promptly thanks to its 60s insides.
The formations inside Timpanogos Cave look like God’s doodles.
The trail to Timpanogos Cave winds across rockslide regions and cliff faces.
We spent the rest of the night hanging out with Jason’s family at the Little Mill Campground. Many of the camping spots at Little Mill are pretty compact, as in sardines in nylon, but the spot Jason’s parents reserved for their RV was shaded and roomy so everyone convened there. We devoured more tinfoil dinners and birthday cupcakes than we should have while conversing around the jigging flames of a hearty fire. It was great getting to visit with no time constraints and only the chatter of the American Fork River to distract from our chatter.
Jason’s family takes pictures on this rock every time they hike to Timp Cave.
We had planned on going on a hike the following morning but the appeal of lounging got the better of us so that’s all we did until Jason and I had to depart.
This gnarled root marks another standard picture spot for the Sabins.
The perfume of the pines, the allure of cave squiggles, the warm turbulence of the fire, the sizzle of crisping potatoes, the contrast of the spotted sky, and the relaxed company of family made for a mighty fine camping trip.
Family reunions are peculiar things. They are entertaining reminders that being related is relative.
I don’t know most of these relative strangers.
For most of us, the family-reunion experience follows a predictable pattern. Swarms of largely-unfamiliar faces make you wonder how it is that one couple managed to produce such a wide variety of progeny. Streams of shrieking children flow without purpose, leaving havoc in their wake. Questions about your life choices, lot in life, and living will stimulate endless debates amongst the few attendees that you do recognize. Piles of potluck food prompt you to pray for luck as you fill your plate. Yet, despite their recognized shortcomings, family reunions are a summer rite of passage that cannot and shouldn’t be avoided.
Watching the bubbles coalesce was rather amusing.
Reunions are one of the few times, outside funerals and weddings, that extended families conglomerate. And why wouldn’t you want to conglomerate and communicate with a bunch of people that you are mysteriously related to through a few knotty twists in your family tree? Just admit it, those knobby loops are mighty intriguing and often amusing.
My jumping skills have not been tested for many years but I’ve still got the rope stuff.
We recently went to Jason’s family’s reunion. His Aunt Kathy did a great job organizing this one, a daunting and frustrating task no doubt. There were games for the kids, lots of delicious and not-so-delicious grub, and bubble soccer. Plus, some multigenerational jump roping, which spontaneously erupted and I participated wholeheartedly in.
Jason jumped like a pro… and so did that kid.
Thanks Kathy for getting the entire gang together. You can’t have summer without a reunion, as everyone knows since we’ve all tried.