Thursday, December 22, 2016

Antwerp, Belgium + Amsterdam, Netherlands: Day 4

Andi and I started our final morning in Antwerp, Belgium with a sweat session in the hotel gym. We had big intentions of exercising every day during our Europe trip, but that didn't happen. Though, we kept pretty active, walking 25,000+ steps every day of our trip! Not surprisingly, we were the only people in the hotel gym that morning. I don't think Europeans place much emphasis on exercise, at least it didn't seem that way. Very rarely during our trip did I see workout studios, supplements or any mention of healthy eating.

We showered, packed up our things, and headed down to the breakfast buffet in our Radisson Blu hotel. This all sounds terrible, doesn't it? We traveled to a new-to-us city in a foreign country, yet we ate hotel breakfast food! The simple answer is that it was easy for time's sake. To the hotel's credit, the breakfast buffet spread was very nice. Andi and I enjoyed a cup of coffee with hard boiled eggs, croissants, yogurt, granola and fruit.

After breakfast, we left our bags with the hotel concierge and walked across the street to meet a private tour guide we'd hired to show us around the city. Andi and I planned to stay in Antwerp for only 24 hours, so we wanted to see as much of the city as we could during that short time. Andi found this particular guide on Trip Advisor and he was the kindest gentleman. His name was Jamil and his company, Voyage Locale, was only a few months old. He told us he specialized in showing tourists sights in the outer ring of the city where most wouldn't have access without a car, and that being a tour guide had always been a dream - now he's living it! 

His celeste blue-colored Renault Estafette van definitely attracted attention from pedestrians. More than once, people stopped to photograph the van or point to it as we drove by which felt a little like we were animals on display at the local zoo.

Jamil took us through various neighborhoods and districts in Antwerp, and told us about the history of each. Next he drove us to the pier and docks and once around town again. He was so eager to please and asked about a dozen times if we were enjoying ourselves.

Andi asked Jamil to drop us off at the FOMU Foto Museum at the conclusion of our tour. This was one of those times while traveling where I gave Andi a raised eyebrow look and silently wondered why on Earth we'd go there when we could go to the adorable Christmas Market in the old town square? Alas, we said good-bye to Jamil and wandered into the FOTO Museum for a look around.

This was also one of those times where Andi and I kicked ourselves for not wearing more layers of clothing. My one reservation about traveling to Europe in December was that I didn't want to be cold (I hate being cold!) so we both brought warm coats, hats, gloves and long underwear to protect against the weather. On this day, since we thought we'd be riding around in a van all morning, we left our heavier coats at the hotel with concierge. Bad idea! It was a long, chilly walk back to the center of town following our time at the museum.

Antwerp's Christmas Market officially opened that evening, but unfortunately we were leaving town. The entire old market square was filled with vendors setting up their stands to sell merchandise, foods and beverages. A lighting crew practiced their display on the side of the cathedral and a Zamboni prepared an ice rink in the city center. Local families and tourists milled around the cobblestone streets as a chorus of singers serenaded us with Christmas carols - it was all so lovely!

I wanted to stop and buy one of the warm Belgian waffles so many of the stands were selling, but Andi wanted to sit down somewhere for lunch. He consulted Yelp! on our iPhone and found a restaurant close-by with great reviews. The restaurant was cozy and warm (and we were still freezing!) and packed with people. We snagged one of the only open tables and sat down for lunch. Though, upon further glance, the menu didn't look like food Andi and I were very interested in...

It was all casseroles and comfort foods - super heavy and not healthy at all. Just like Grandma's cooking (hence, the photos on the wall)!

We considered leaving to find another restaurant, but we were cold and hungry and didn't have much time before our train to Amsterdam. "How bad can it be?" we said to one another, and agreed to split a pot pie casserole with cauliflower and potatoes.

This concludes the story of the worst meal we ate in Europe. Blech!

I wanted to erase the taste of cream of mushroom soup from my tongue so I begged Andi to stop at one of the waffles stands in the market square, but we had to catch our train to Amsterdam. We grabbed our bags from the hotel and walked over to the Antwerp train station.

Our train ride from Antwerp to Amsterdam, Netherlands took about an hour. Once again, we were pleased with the smoothness of train travel and our accommodations. By the time we arrived in Amsterdam, it was evening. The sky was dark and it was pouring rain, which made it challenging to familiarize ourselves with our new surroundings.

Got my waffle! Turns out, they sell them in Amsterdam too. Each waffle stand offered lots of topping choices (whipped cream, chocolate, fruit, sprinkles, etc). I ordered mine plain and it was still plenty sweet and delicious.

The airbnb apartment Andi rented for us in Amsterdam was within walking distance of the central train station in Dam Square. Thankful for our warm (and waterproof!) winter gear, we pulled up our hoods and navigated our way to our new home for a few days.

Ten minutes later, Andi and I found ourselves standing in a neon-lit cobblestone alley as we waited for the airbnb host to let us into the apartment building. I think our exact words were, "WTF! Where are we?" as people completely stoned out of their minds stumbled past us. A couple of thugs hung around the outside of a marijuana supply shop inviting people into their store.

I could tell Andi was nervous as he messaged the airbnb host repeatedly to see where she was. The address was right, but this couldn't be the location of the beautiful apartment we'd rented. Ten or fifteen minutes had passed by when a well-dressed Dutch woman rushed up to us. She apologized for being late and ushered us through the locked apartment building door. We followed her up four flights of stairs to find a breathtaking apartment in the city. Andi and I both looked at each other in amazement -- we couldn't believe this place was located mere steps away from that craziness on the street below. 

Andi had some great restaurant recommendations from friends back home, so we dropped our bags and set off for dinner. We were both pretty overwhelmed with all the craziness in Dam Square as we navigated our way to the restaurant. Eventually we entered a neighborhood by the canals that wasn't so much of a party scene. Now, this is more like the Amsterdam we were expecting!

We found the restaurant and were wet and cold from our walk in the rain. (Our upper bodies weren't wet since we had waterproof coats on, but our pants were wet since we weren't wearing full body rain gear - who knew we'd need that?) Unfortunately, we didn't have a reservation and there were no openings that evening. The hostess recommended another restaurant around the corner, so we decided to give it a try. Pianeta Terra warmly welcomed us inside and sat us at cozy table in their upper balcony. Our servers were both super friendly and suggested a bottle of wine and the chef's surprise tasting menu - yes, please! Bring us all the wine and delicious food.

Our photos are terrible quality because of the dimly-lit room, but Andi and I enjoyed a wonderful meal there. Our four-course chef-picked menu included squid, ravioli, steak and tiramisu. 

Now with full bellies and a little buzz from wine, Andi and I felt ready to take in the city. We walked back to our Amsterdam apartment and talked about our adventures thus far. As we walked, we were both surprised to see a sex worker advertising her services in a ground floor full-length window right beside us. We hadn't realized we were walking right through the city's famous Red Light District!

Tomorrow, a full day of exploring in Amsterdam...

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Antwerp, Belgium: Day 3

Andi and I woke up in our rented Paris apartment on Day 3 of our European vacation. We'd slept in until 10:00am again after staying up late the evening before which is so unlike us! I guess our internal clocks hadn't adjusted to the 8 hour time change.

We had a train to catch to Antwerp, Belgium that morning so there wasn't time for a proper Parisian breakfast. I kicked myself for not waking up earlier since it's not everyday you're in Paris with fresh croissants and baguettes at the ready. Andi called Uber for a ride to the train station. We could've taken the Metro, but thought it'd be easier to navigate by car.

We arrived to the train station around Noon and quickly determined which train was ours. We had about 20 minutes until it departed, so we enjoyed a quick breakfast of chocolate croissants in a nearby cafe. Andi ordered a fresh-squeezed orange juice which seem to be popular around Paris. I had an Americano.

The European rail system is so easy, I wish we had something similar in the United States. Within minutes, we boarded the train and found our assigned seats -- two comfortable lounge chairs facing one another with a small table in between. The entire process was simple and painless. Soon, we were on our way to Antwerp, Belgium.

Shortly after the train departed, a train attendant served drinks and lunch to passengers. She gave two options: a chicken dish or something else (?) which I think was vegetarian. Andi chose "chicken" so I picked the other, just so we'd have a sampling of both plates. Whatever mine was, was really tasty!

I love the way Europeans eat dessert with every meal. Our lunches were served with cute individual apple pies. Speaking of desserts, every cup of coffee or espresso came with a piece of chocolate. Andi and I called it "pocket chocolate" because we'd stash it away to eat later (which burned me in the end when I washed our travel clothing and accidentally dried one of those pocket chocolates).

Antwerp is half-way between Paris and Amsterdam by train, and it's also a place Andi's sister and her husband traveled to and recommended, so Andi and I decided to spend 24 hours there during our travels. Antwerp is a bit smaller, about 500,000 people, and claims fame as the diamond capitol of the world. Our biggest plans for our 24-hours in Antwerp were dinner reservations at inVINcible.

The train station in Antwerp was truly magnificent. We walked around there a bit, then wandered across the street to our hotel for the evening. Andi booked us a room at the Radisson Blu since it was in close proximity to the train station and we'd only be in town one night. No pictures, because the hotel and our room were exactly as you'd expect. Very nice! American-style. We typically like to stay in bed + breakfasts or rented apartments but for simplicity sake, this seemed easier. I have to admit, it was a bit of a relief to read signs in the English language since the people of Belgium speak Dutch.

Andi and I chilled in our hotel room for a bit, and then hit the town. It was about 3:30 - 4:00pm, so we walked through a pedestrian mall area just as the sun began to set. Twinkling Christmas lights all around made it feel truly magical. We continued to wander the streets of the old quarter and eventually stopped into a pub for a beer. Neither Andi or I are big fans of beer, but when in Rome Belgium, right?

One more stop at a cozy cocktail bar while we waited for our dinner reservation.

We arrived early for our dinner reservations, anxious to start. Andi and I were both hungry since we hadn't eaten much since the train and were now feeling warm and fuzzy since we'd been drinking to kill time.

Lindsay and Kyle recommended we have dinner at this restaurant and it did not disappoint. The restaurant was small with a bar of seats fashioned around the open kitchen. We sat and watched as the chefs prepped food for dinner. Andi ordered mussels for his first course and blood sausage as the second; I ordered the pasta (tossed in a wheel of cheese!) and the halibut. We shared our plates and enjoyed every bite. The food and the experience was wonderful.

For dessert, I ordered cheesecake and Andi ordered an boozy eggnog with a dollup of ice cream in the center. I can't remember the exact name of this dish, but it was delicious. We called it "boozy ice cream."

Tipsy and full, we wandered back to our hotel room and called it an evening. Antwerp is a beautiful, old city and I'm glad we took time to visit here. Tomorrow - Amsterdam!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Paris: Day 2

Andi and I woke up Thursday morning feeling rested and ready to enjoy a full day in Paris. Somehow we both managed to sleep 13 straight hours, waking for the day at 10:00am! I can't remember the last time we slept so long. I'm sure the time change and jet lag had some to do with it. We hadn't slept the night before since we flew in on the red-eye.

Hungry and ready to get a jump-start on the day, we walked down the street in our Marais neighborhood in search of coffee and croissants. A small Parisian cafe on the corner looked perfect, so we found a table inside. 

Our street - Rue de Rosiers  

Andi ordered a cappuccino, I had an americano and we split a flaky croissant. We asked for two, actually, but our order was lost in translation. A guy seated at the table next to ordered cheesecake with (what I assume to be) a delicious strawberry sauce drizzled over top, and I couldn't help but think how much I enjoy being in a place where desserts are such an everyday part of life. Bread, coffee, chocolate, wine - my favorite things!

A friend of Andi's recommended a restaurant called Grand Coeur for lunch, so we decided to start walking toward that direction. After all, we'd started our day so late it was almost lunchtime! Paris is such a walkable city and since we've only been here once before six years ago, there's so much to take in. Last time we were in Paris in December, the weather was cold and rainy but this trip, the weather has been rather pleasant - around 45 degrees with sunshine. Obviously summertime would be ideal, but thankfully we're dressed appropriately so walking outdoors for hours isn't an issue. 

Grand Coeur turned out to be an excellent choice for lunch. The cozy restaurant situated within a courtyard was tucked away from the street-view hustle and bustle. We arrived around Noon and had no issue getting a table. Andi and I enjoyed wine and some of the tastiest food we'd eaten on our trip thus far. He ordered the lamb and I selected a steak with salad. We also shared a plate of scallops and every single bite was amazing.

Following lunch, Andi and I rode the Metro to Paris' Montmarte area. This area of Paris is famous for its artists and shops, and was on our list of places to get lost for the afternoon. We spent a few hours happily wandering the streets and stopped for espresso at a cafe in Saint George square. 

Later we met up with Natasha, a Parisian food and wine expert, we'd hired to take us on a secret tour of her favorite spots in neighborhood. Another couple from Venezuela and a woman from China were also part of our tour. Together, the six of us spent the early evening strolling along Rue des Martyrs, one of the best food streets in all of Paris.

Rue des Martyrs is named after Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, who is said to have loved food, wine and women. According to the legend Natasha shared with us at the beginning of the tour, Saint Denis was beheaded in the market square and somehow managed to walk several miles through Paris with blood dripping from his head carried in his hands. The blood trail along the streets sprouted the many great restaurants along the avenue.

Our first stop during the tour was to Chataignier, a dairy shop that's been in business for over 50 years. Natasha spent her childhood in the neighborhood and shared her memories of shopping at this very cheese shop for her family's cheese, eggs and milk. She shared information about the production of cheese this time of year as we sampled cheese with a wine pairing. Andi's favorite was the black truffle brie only produced this time of year.

Next, we walked a few doors down to a local jam shop called La Chambre aux Confitures. Nothing from the outside store front would have caused us to give this store a second look, but the second we stepped inside - oh my goodness! - the comfort and warmth were truly overwhelming. Tiny jars of jam were arranged on floor-to-ceiling shelves in a way that made it feel more like shopping for fancy perfumes than jam. Natasha invited us to take several sampling spoons as she passed around jars of some of her favorite local, fresh-made jams. Each taste was simply amazing! Our favorite was the champagne and strawberries. A traditional Parisian breakfast includes a fresh baguette with butter and jam, and now having sampled its vibrant flavor it's easy to see why.

The next shop we visited was that of Sebastien Gaudard, a highly-regarded pastry chef. We sampled chocolate eclairs as we wandered around his beautiful patisserie. It all felt very Parisian!

If that wasn't enough, our next stop was to Henri Le Roux, the chocolatier who famously invented the salted caramel. The chic elegance of this shop, with hundreds of perfectly square-sized chocolates displayed underneath a movable glass case, made it feel like we were shopping for diamonds in a jewelry store. We each sampled a few different pieces of chocolates infused with various spices before trying his delicious salted caramel chocolate.

For a more savory sampling, we visited a shop next door (which I sadly forgot the name of) for charcuterie. Natasha passed around samples of various cured meats to try with a pairing of red wine. I don't think we'd have noticed this store in passing, and never would have entered in to purchase anything. That's what made Natasha's food tour so fun - to see and experience things from a local perspective.  

Next, more desserts from a newcomer to the Parisian pastry scene, Laurent Favre-Mot. His pastries are viewed more "edgy" and less traditional by French food critics, according to Natasha. We sampled two different items there which were both decadent.

Our last stop was by Popelini, a modern-style bakery serving one of Paris' trendiest desserts - a cream puff filled with different flavored custard. Natasha called macaroons passe in France; the dessert Parisians bring to a dinner party now is choux a la creme. We each ordered one one and split it amongst the group. Oh my goodness, I'm not sure if it was the intense food como we'd reached by this point, but these little desserts were so sweet. Whoo!

Our small group wandered back to the Saint George metro station and said farewell. Andi and I both agreed Natasha's tour of the Rue des Martyrs one of our most enjoyable travel experiences. A definitely must when visiting Paris!

Now stuffed to the brim, Andi and I could've easily called it an early evening ... but we were in Paris! We had to make the most of our last evening there, so we bundled up and decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower. Distance-wise, the Eiffel Tower was about 4 miles away from our rented apartment in the Marais neighborhood and our walk would lead us along the scenic Seine River. Our walk may have been one of my favorite memories of Paris this trip. Andi and I walked and talked and took in all the beautiful sights lit up at night.

Hotel de Ville

Seine riverfront

The Eiffel Tower from a distance

After visiting the Eiffel Tower, Andi and I concluded it's much more magnificent to view from afar. There's a secured entry and exit around the Eiffel Tower now which wasn't there when we visited six years ago. (That's a good thing, I suppose, given events in today's world.) But, it was honestly the only time in our two-day visit to Paris when I ever felt unsafe.

As we approached the entrance, a young man bust through the gate with a security guard chasing after him. She was shouting something at him in French, so I have no idea what he did wrong, but it left an uneasy feeling in both Andi and I's stomachs. Then, standing underneath the Eiffel Tower with metal gates closing us in all directions, I felt claustrophobic. As we left, peddlers selling tiny Eiffel Tower statues pestered us to buy their junk. It all felt ... yucky, and I far preferred our peaceful, romantic view along the Seine river.   

Andi and I rode the Metro back to the Marais neighborhood and grabbed a falafel to-go from L'au Du Fallafel outside our apartment building. It's surprising we were even hungry again after our food tour earlier, but we were. Our last night in Paris came to the perfect end over take-out and iTunes episodes of Mom.

Tomorrow - Belgium!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Paris: Day 1

Bonjour from Paris! A few weeks ago, Andi came across some inexpensive airline tickets to Europe and we wondered, "why not take advantage?" Sometimes traveling with a last-minute itinerary is the way to go.

Andi's mom, Janie, agreed to watch Tory and Aden for the first few days of our trip, so we kissed them good-bye Tuesday afternoon and headed to the airport. We flew direct from Minneapolis to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport overnight and arrived in Paris around 7:00am local time on December 7. I slept for a bit on the plane (well, as much as one can rest seated upright in an uncomfortable airline seat) but Andi wasn't able to fall asleep at all. We were both jet-lagged and exhausted by the time we arrived in Paris, but the hustle and bustle around us indicated everyone here was starting their day. It's mind-boggling really, how you can hop on an airplane in one place and wake up a few hours later in a place that's completely new and different.

Shortly after departing the airplane, Andi discovered his iPhone had reset at some point. He tried to reboot it, but it wouldn't register in a new network. So, our first order of business in Paris was to activate an international service plan on my cell phone so we'd have access to GPS maps and communication during our trip.

We quickly learned the city of Paris had issued an extreme smog alert given the current atmospheric conditions (basically, the dense cloud cover during the winter forces the smog to hang close to the ground) so all public transportation was free to use. Paris' mayor had also placed a ban on all automobiles with an odd-numbered license plate to limit the number of vehicle pollutants. I didn't find the air particularly difficult to breathe, but I did notice all the "smoke attacks" (aka: what Tory calls cigarettes) everywhere. Everyone in Paris seems to smoke cigarettes and Andi and I both found it hard to miss when walking around the city streets.

In an unrelated event, one of the main trains traveling to/from Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport had broken down the morning of our arrival, so there were reports of many travel delays. Fortunately, we didn't have any trouble in navigating our way to the city center. We rode the RER B train from the airport to the Saint Paul metro station in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, then walked to a neighboring cafe to refuel with coffee and a croissant. I could tell Andi was exhausted when he politely responded "gracias" to the server as he brought us our order - ha! A shower and a quick nap would've done wonders to pull ourselves together, but we couldn't check into the Airbnb apartment we'd rented until 3:00pm. Instead, we walked a few blocks through the neighborhood to Notre Dame.

One of the things I remember most about our trip to Paris five years ago was being wet and cold: two feelings I hate more than anything. We had a lovely time, of course, but I vividly remember laying my only pair of warm socks on a radiator vent to dry and being chilled to the bone the entire visit.

This trip, I was determined to be prepared. I'm sure I stick out like a sore thumb in my warm ski jacket, stocking hat, and waterproof boots but I don't care. I'm warm and ready to explore the city of Paris. 

Our rented apartment was walking distance from Hotel de Ville - such a big and beautiful building!

Andi reached out to our Airbnb host and asked if we'd be able to drop our backpacks at the apartment, and fortunately it was ready for check-in. The apartment we'd rented was conveniently located on Rue des Rosiers, at the center of the Jewish quarter in the Marais district. The neighborhood felt very Parisian as we walked alongside people rushing off to work, or families walking their kids off to school. Our small studio apartment was on the second floor above the street-level restaurants and shops, and offered the perfect amount of space for the two of us. Andi and I collapsed on the bed and were asleep minutes after our heads hit the pillow. Fortunately, Andi set an alarm to wake us because 45 minutes later, we were up and on the move to meet our hired tour guide for the afternoon.

Andi arranged for a tour guide named Raphael to give us a "behind the scenes" view of Parisian neighborhoods. We'd toured Notre Dame, the Lourve, Arc de Thiomphe and the Eiffel Tower during our visit to Paris five years ago, so this time we were interested in seeing more local flavor. I know Paris is famous for its many museums, but honestly that's not our thing. We'd much rather wander through shops and markets, eat great food and people-watch from quaint cafes.

Raphael was unable to meet us, so she enlisted her friend and colleague named Michel who met us at our apartment. Michel was a 64-year-old Parisian with much pride for his city. He briskly walked us through neighboring streets as he filled our ears with information about the history and culture of the area. What an awesomely efficient way to get the lay of the land as we weaved through busy city Paris streets! Scheduling a walking tour on our first afternoon in Paris was the perfect timing, as it forced us to push through the jet lag and get out to explore the city.

Michel took us through many "passages" throughout the city - a covered alley connecting two busy streets with shops and restaurants inside. Some were nicer than others - like this one with beautiful wood exteriors and fancy home and clothing boutiques.

Four hours later, we said good-bye to Michel near Champs-Elysees, then ventured off on our own. It was truly a "pinch me I'm in Paris!" moment as the sunlight faded to dark and city lights glowed all around us. Andi and I stopped in the center of it all to send the kids a quick video detailing our day.

We walked a bit further to find a Christmas market along the famous Champs-Elysees. Andi and I strolled through the various shops for a while, then decided we wanted a little snack to tide us over dinner. There were so many wonderful sights and smells to choose from - chocolates, cheese, baguettes, meat, and more. Andi decided he wanted a raclette sandwich, and we watched as the lady stuffed ham into a baguette and then poured heaping piles of hot, melted raclette cheese over the bread. Oh my goodness, how in the world would we eat all that? Surprisingly, it was the perfect amount of deliciousness.

We walked through the Christmas Market a bit more, then navigated our way back to our rented apartment via the Metro. Andi and I had each walked 30,000 steps by 8 o'clock that evening, and were absolutely exhausted. We grabbed a quick dinner at Camille's, a typical French cafe, on the walk back to our apartment. Andi ordered steak frites and I had beef tartare with salad. My dinner looked (and tasted) like raw ground beef on a plate which was most definitely not what I'd envisioned when I selected it. No matter, all I really wanted was a glass of red wine and to go to bed.

I think Andi and I were asleep seconds after we arrived to our apartment, and slept like rocks that night. We didn't wake up again until 10:00am the next morning - 13 hours later! We both needed the sleep, and were rested and ready to tackle Day 2 in Paris.