Sunday, 15 April 2012

Bruges & Amsterdam

We've just returned from another wonderful vacation/holiday.  Our destinations were Bruges, Belgium and Amsterdam (The Netherlands).  We had 3 nights in the former and 5 in the later.  This was a nice, relaxing vacation that enabled us to see a different part of the world and enjoy things and at a somewhat relaxed pace.  Now, I wouldn't put this trip in the Rome/Paris/London category but it was quite enjoyable and we are glad we went.

Hopefully you enjoy the pictures -- I know there are a lot!

We had a hybrid transportation scheme for this trip -- train in / fly (and bus!) out.  Part of that was to specifically try new things like the Eurostar high-speed train from London to Brussels.  We took the train from Derby to London St Pancras and then the Eurostar to Brussels.  We took a very short inter-city train from one Brussels station to another (Midi to Central), stored our bags, and walked around for a bit in Brussels.

The Eurostar was nice but it's not that much different than your plain Jane train (though a little faster).  It would be awesome if we didn't have the extra bit to get to London on the front end as it is much nicer than dealing with airport lines.

So here we are on our nice sunny stop in Brussels (this is Good Friday, btw).  New Town is behind the family and Old Town which we visited is behind me.

We had 2 main objectives for the Brussels mini-visit.  The famous Mannekin Pis was #1.  Having been before, I had properly warned the crew to be underwhelmed.  He's only about 18" tall.

Still funny to see a peeing boy, though.  He apparently has different outfits on during the year.

Belgium is chocolate country.  We saved our chocolate shopping for Bruges, but this was a cute window display.

Goal #2:  waffles.  Helps to not think about the cost (especially in dollars) but the overall mission was accomplished.  Verdict:  yummy, but Dad's (mine) are better.  :-)

 another interesting window display:  cat butt art for all the cat fans out there

This is for my buddy, Jay, who is on a quest to acquire different branded beer glasses in the UK.  Come to Belgium my friend where they have a different size/shape for practically ever beer.

Back to the train station and in an hour we are in Bruges (this is still the first day).  It's a bit chilly as you can tell but not too bad a day.  Bruges is touristy, not too large, and has a nice medieval feel to it.  The crowds and chaos die down in the late afternoon though which is nice if you are staying there.   

Now this is what I'm talking about.  I've been waiting to return to Belgium to get back to the beer.  To each their own, but I much prefer the Belgian beers over the English bitters/ales/lagers/whatever.   

Look at the size of that menu . . . most of it is beer.  The food was great too (a pleasant surprise all around for the trip).  I'll save the food photos to the end.  400 beer choices at Cambrinus paralyzed me and we each went with a house beer (blonde/bruin).  One of the better ones I had actually.

beer, beer, beer, beer -- :-)

In Bruges, we stayed at a wonderful B&B called the Gallery Yasmine.  Yasmine (the daughter) is the artist and the ground floor was her gallery.  Albina (the mom) was a wonderful host.  Could not have been nicer.

Day 2 -- first morning in Bruges (cool and cloudy).  We climbed the Belfort (Bell Tower) first thing -- 366 steps.

 another view across Bruges

 a view of the Bell Tower from below

after the tower, we jumped into this small art exhibit nearby 

not sure why this struck my fancy . . .  Confucius?  Kung Fu?  Grasshopper, snatch the pebble from my hand . . .

more climbing . . . this time during the brewery tour (only brewery left in Bruges) at De Halve Maan (link)

and a look down a canal from the brewery

enjoying our tour samples (juice for the kids) . . . we met a nice couple on the tour (she took the family photo above this one) and it turns out she was from Ft. Wayne, IN.  We also met a family in our B&B from Indianapolis.  Also during the tour we found out there was another couple from Derby.  Small world day!

Next up:  Church of our Lady and the rare Michelangelo outside of Italy.

w/ kids (I must have said something funny as Alex doesn't normally smile during photos)

Historically significant (if I could remember) Charles the Bold and daughter, Duchess of Mary.  I think their premature deaths led to some different management (royals) running the show
 impressive stained glass inside the Church

Bruges is known for chocolate and The Chocolate Line was highly recommended (and good).

A little hard to see, but these aren't Hershey or Cadbury prices (that works out to about $34/lb).  [You may recall we could get a 1 kg Cadbury bar for £5 in Birmingham!]  We got the 8-piece at the bottom.  The store is known for its more unique selection (e.g. lemongrass chocolate, chocolate w/ chili's, etc.).  They were very good.  This is what you buy to treat yourself and you go down the street to buy your gifts.  :-)

Perhaps a little foreshadowing for Amsterdam, but this (lingerie?) store had live models in the window.  (I was encouraged to take this picture, btw).  We called it even after the Abercrombie (male) display we saw at Christmas.

Still on our first full day in Bruges, our final stop was at the Basilica of the Holy Blood.  (The actual blood of Christ!!! -- or so they say).  I tried to get the churches out of the way on Saturday rather than on Easter.  Since it was Easter weekend, the vial was out on display rather than on the wall.  I found it quite comical that this priest was watching/guarding it.  People could walk by to take a closer look though there was a "suggested" donation.  I guess you know where you get to go if you don't pay.  Alex was fascinated and actually walked by 3 times (he took off his jacket and then his glasses to go in disguise).  Probably didn't fool anyone.  LOL.

 postcard Bruges
Day 3 (Easter) -- first stop:  Memling Museum at St. John's Hospital.  This former church was a hospital back in the day.  Now it is a museum/gallery.

Painting of what it might have looked like.  That had lots of paintings of Christ on the cross to help comfort the dying (since they couldn't do much else back then).

They also had a collection of some pretty scary looking medical instruments.

 as well as a painting of an early autopsy

Next museum:  Gruuthuse (mansion of a very wealthy family next to the Church of our Lady).  Artwork and collectibles.  A guillotine is always a big hit at the dinner parties.

I thought it odd that there were silver platters with scissors but these were from the Tailor's Guild.

They were so rich, they had a private balcony to the church so they wouldn't have to mingle with the commoners.

Next museum:  Groening Museum and some "Flemish Primitive" art.  Crooked judge captured in the left panel.  The punishment -- why let's skin him alive.  They hung the skin on the judge's chair as a reminder for the next guy.  Thank goodness for the cruel and unusual laws these days.  It's amazing what we have been (and are) capable of.

 a little closer look -- background info on the legend of Cambyses here

not sure why they horned hair do look didn't stick

 I liked this deal with Death

The museums were small and we could leisurely take them in without rushing around.  For lunch, we sought out the oldest pub in Bruges (though it was a decent little walk across town).

Not the massive selection of more modern places, but fun nonetheless.
cute bar dog

with a guilty past!

Next stop:  The Chocolate Museum.  The photo above is a model of a cocoa pod with the cocoa beans inside (I never knew).  The museum required a lot of reading but it was still worthwhile and informative (if a little pricey).

Best part was the demonstration (and sample) at the end.
 my two cocoa beans


Day 4 (Monday):  After having breakfast, we took the 4-hr train journey from Bruges to Amsterdam via Antwerp.  Amsterdam is the Venice of the North and a very pleasant city though it is known for its sex and drugs.  We stayed on the quiet side of town (in the Jordaan neighborhood) in a very spacious 2-BR apartment.  The space and location were wonderful (apartment link here).   The day was pretty much spent getting to Amsterdam, finding the apartment, settling in and buying some groceries.

Loads of canals in Amsterdam.
Day 5 (Tuesday).  We had an informal walk around before our formal walk around!  This is actually a shopping center.

The Royal Palace.  It's looking a little dark, dingy and crooked (okay, the last bit is my fault).  There's still a royal family in The Netherlands though they actually spend most of their time in The Hague.

 The national monument in Dam Square.  You can tell it was a rather ominous looking day.

 singing in the rain back down by Central Station
Sandeman's New Europe puts on a free (tip based) 3-hr walking tour (link).  I was surprised at how many people turned up given the cold and rainy weather.  We split up into 4 groups (3 English) and ours had about 30 people.  We all really enjoyed the tour and fortunately the weather cleared.

This is the Oude Kerk (Old Church) that dates back to 1306.  On the way there, we did pass through the Red Light District (purposefully) to show how the sex workers and the church have lived close to each other (symbiotically) for all these years.  We did see a couple of workers in the window on the way and that was that.  There were plenty of "coffee" shops (marijuana houses so to speak) around but we of course let them be as well.  I guess there are plenty of people that go to Amsterdam for those reasons but it doesn't have to be.  We had a really nice family vacation there (though it helps to be naive like us!).

Former Jewish neighborhood rebuilt after WWII  in a rather garish modern style (evidently bombed out Rotterdam looks like this all over).  Notice the bike lane and cyclists.  In Indy, only a handful of people I know cycle to work.  There are many more in Derby (5%?  more?) but that's nothing compared to Amsterdam.

 postcard Amsterdam

 Rembrandt Plaza
the legend goes that two guys and a dog settled in what was to become Amsterdam after praying for a safe landing during a storm

A hidden scantuary within the city called Begijnhof (link).

another inside Begijnhof
We went back to the apartment for a quick rest after the walk.  This Mini nearby appears to be parked on the post.  It stayed there a couple of days but eventually moved off (hopefully in one piece).

After a short break, we walked to the nearby Houseboat Museum.  Not really worth it.  

From one houseboat to another.  Most of the houseboats looked rather derelict to me.  I don't see the allure; perhaps it's nice on a sunny summer day but what about the rest of the time?  Small, damp, cold and expensive.

Check out the black house in the middle.  Notice the forward lean?  Canal frontage was expensive and the stairs in these buildings are very tight.  As a result, one's heavy goods were often winched up from the canal.  The forward lean helped provide access to the top (though a strong cantilevered beam might have worked a little easier).

Day 6 (Wednesday) -- with a break in the gloomy forecast, we headed to the Keukenhof Flower Garden which was about an hour outside of Amsterdam (link).   It's only open 2 months of the year in the height of tulip season (and is one of the main reasons I chose to visit at Easter).  We were perhaps a few weeks early but it was still a nice display.

The climate and soil make Holland ideal for bulb growing -- an information film said 10 billion bulbs are grown per year.

Enjoy the numerous photos -- I had a hard time filtering them down!  It was a gorgeous day though still a touch cool.  We took a picnic and had a nice leisurely walk through the park.  Those bored with flowers can keep scrolling down . . .

had to start with our tourist photo

 little man as well






  blue skies -- rare during our visit


 nearby fields

Another reminder that we should take the time to play and not rush.  Alex enjoyed this and the other playground equipment that they had here -- it was good to run around and be a little boy!  It's not always about the sites, Dad!




 coats off!

Okay, back to the regular (non-flower) programming.  On our return, we stopped at the Hermitage Museum for some Flemish paintings (Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens).  Nothing really grabbed me so no photos.  We picked up our Museum Cards (link) there.  One reason we like to do that is to encourage us to try extra museums even if we don't necessarily "save" money in the process.  I don't think the Hermitage is "worth it" on its own but it was okay since it was "free" with the Museum Card.  (Kuk liked it -- she appreciates the art a little more than the rest of us).

Couldn't pass this up.  At least it wasn't a whine shop (though to be fair, he was pretty good this trip).

Day 7 (Thursday) -- every morning when we set out we would see all the commuters going about their daily business.  I tried to capture all the cyclists -- many more than I could capture in a single shot, that's for sure.

Art Museum Day.  This is in front of the massive Rijksmuseum (link).  Fortunately, it was under reconstruction so they've condensed the highlights into a manageable section.  This was our favorite art museum of the trip.

I've not talked much about the history, but back in the 1600s, Holland (and Amsterdam) was in their golden age and on top of the world.   This was largely due to figuring out how to trade and using their seafaring prowess.   Here's a scale model of an escort ship.

large doll house

 The Threatened Swan -- a typical (?) style of the era

Rembrandt's Dutch Masters -- I think my grandfather had those cigars around because it's buried in my memory somewhere

Alex's favorite -- heh-heh

Vermeer's The Kitchen Maid

 Vermeer's Woman Reading a Letter

After the Rijksmuseum we went to the nearby Van Gogh Museum (no photos allowed).  So glad we had the pass to skip that line.  It was very crowded and Van Gogh doesn't do as much for me.  I'd pick the Rijksmuseum if only going to one (but that's me).

After a picnic and playground break for Alex we headed to the very good Dutch Resistance Museum (link) which tells the story of the Dutch people during WWII when they were occupied by the Germans.  I continue to be fascinated by the European WWII experience -- it really wasn't that long ago.  Lots of reading but well done and informative (though not too many photos for the blog).  The photo above is of an Amsterdam census map that plots out where all the Jews were living (you can see the dark Jewish neighborhood).  Jews either went into hiding or were eventually forced into concentration camps in Germany and elsewhere.

A fun moment while waiting for Mom to finish reading (every word) in the museum.  We were all pooped even though it was "only" 3 pm.  Rather than squeeze in another museum, we simply headed back to the apartment to relax.  (another lesson learned along the way)

we liked this red shuttered building along one of the canals

Day 8 (Friday) -- starting off with a visit to the Anne Frank House (link).  Extremely well done and a definite can't miss site.  Pre-book, pre-book, pre-book.  This is the actual location where the Frank's hid out during WWII until they were discovered.  The rooms are unfurnished so you get an idea of the size of the place that 2 families stayed for over 2 years.  There are lots of photos and videos to help with the story.  Very sad, but an important message to hear.

This is the line at 8:55 a.m.  We had 9 am reservations and walked past all of those people and were the first ones in.  It pays to plan, my friend.

This is the line when we got out.

I stopped to take this photo en-route to our next activity.  This is a sample of all the bikes parked outside of Central Station (there's actually a much larger bike-park as well). 

Next stop:  The Science Museum (NEMO, link), the green flying saucer in the background.  The museum was excellent; very hands on, and we all enjoyed it.  This was the kids favorite activity of the trip.  It offered a range of activities for all ages.  The adults particularly liked the psychology area.

Alex's favorite part was the bubble area, though he had fun all around.

 This display had slotted mirrors so you saw half your face and half of your partner's.

 more mirror fun

conductivity test
this activity enabled you to spell out letters using a binary code which Alex enjoyed

 Well done!

The Food

As I mentioned, we were pleasantly surprised by the food during the trip.  We did our usual strategy of having breakfast in the B&B or apartment and something lite for lunch (a picnic when staying in the apartment) and a nice meal at dinner.  I did some research ahead of time to get some ideas that were close by (for Amsterdam).  For Bruges, I asked our host for some recommendations and she even made the reservations for us since it was a holiday weekend.

Another travel lesson for us is that our overall enjoyment is highly influenced by food.  It pays (for me) to do some planning and throw a few extra euros of our budget this way.

Cambrinus (Bruges).  Excellent beer and food.  We both went with local specialties and I took a chance with the rabbit, prunes and applesauce in a brown beer sauce.  Excellent.

Kuk had white asparagus with smoked salmon

Alex taking a break from his pasta

Had paninis and frites (fries) for lunch the next day (Alex had a waffle).  This was near the brewery tour -- can't remember the name (probably not that important as there are many such options).

Second night in Bruges at Pro Deo near our B&B.  Two more beer examples.
I had the white asparagus Flemish style as a starter (an in-season dish).  Eggs and parsley and ??.

I tried another local item, the beef and beer stew.  Nice flavor but the beef was a little dry.  Pro Deo was fine but would rank 3rd on our Bruges list.

Night 3:  the seafood splurge at Breydel de Coninc in the heart of Bruges.  A different salmon and white asparagus starter.

 mussels for the kids

 mussels and lobster for the adults

Amsterdam Night #1:  La Perla.  This got really good reviews on Trip Advisor and wasn't too far away.  I didn't realize that it was mainly takeaway with limited seating but the pizza was good (and one of our cheaper meals).

Amsterdam #2:  Pancakes! Amsterdam.  Perhaps a bit casual for dinner but we wanted to try it anyway.  Nice to try but nothing that special.  Alex got the "make your own" pancake.

I had a weirder one with Camembert, ham and raspberry sauce.
Amsterdam #3 -- now we are rolling.  This is Long Pura, an Indonesian restaurant.  The kids even got in on the act and enjoyed (most of) it.

The adults had the 3-course Rijsttafel/Rice Table.  Excellent!

Amsterdam #4:  Restaurant Luna (Argentinian), Lindengracht 152.  Started off with some unique appetizers.  Squid above.

and a hearts of palm and avocado salad (Kuk loved it)
Hmmm.  The main dish:  beef!  After a year in the UK this was a very welcomed treat.  I had a sample of 4 different cuts and it was oh so delicious.  Hard to say if this was better than the Indonesian place -- both were outstanding.

Amsterdam #5:  Toscana Italian Restaurant.  Decent but not outstanding (though cheaper, to be fair).  We tried to get into the highly rated Toscanini but they were booked up.  For the most part, I had still had Belgian beer in Holland, but much more cheaply at the apartment.  I thought I should at least have 1 Heineken while here.

funky toast starter

veal scallopini with mushrooms

Long blog entry -- hopefully you made it this far and enjoyed the journey as we sure did.  Have a good week.


  1. Loved the post! We want to travel to all those places, so we will definitely take your recommendations. And we will book the Anne Frank museum early because that line looked awful! Great pictures of the tulips, too. Hopefully we can go next year at the right time to see all of them!
    -Tara Schetzel

  2. I'm jealous of the flowers. They weren't in bloom like that when we were there.

  3. Thanks for the glass pic, you didn't get one for your travels? Impressive collection.

    Great postcard and food pics.

    Seeing all the bikes reminded me of us dodging the omnipresent bikers and two story bike rack in Copenhagen.

    My dad smoked Dutch Masters cigars also. Seeing the picture reminded me of the cigar boxes before I read your commentary, too funny.

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  5. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Tara -- you'll love it. I think you guys will see all of Europe while you are here.

    Ray -- Nope, decided not to fit it in given the Brewery Tour in Bruges. Plus, it wasn't included in our pass! (cheapskate Steve)

    Otrspc2 -- we did have to venture out to Keukenhof to see the flowers. There were starting to come up in some of the fields though. I think we were a touch before the peak

    Jay -- our tour guide said the most dangerous thing in Amsterdam were the bikes. We managed without a close call but you did have to really pay attention.

  6. Your photos belong in a magazine! Excellent framing. We are leaving in two days and going to the same places, only in the reverse direction! Thanks for posting on and including the food photos!

  7. Not sure if you are still checking this but can I ask about the B&B you stayed at in Brugge? Did you book two rooms or could all four of you comfortably use one room? I have two kids ages 3 and 5 yrs and we're thinking of seeing Brugge in June for a couple of days.


  8. Hi Carole

    We stayed in the family room which had plenty of space for the 4 of us (and it was cheaper than 2 rooms). However, one benefit for us was the fact that the 2nd bed was up in a loft. It created more space but it might be a little daunting for your young kids (or they might love it!). It had somewhat steep stairs with a rail.

    Albina will surely spoil them. She's very responsive. I'd suggest e-mailing her to see what she recommends in your situation.

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