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...

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