Saturday, May 19, 2007

Ooh La La - Paris, Bruges and Amsterdam.

On first impression, I must say that I actually found French people very friendly. On the bus from the airport, three people went out of their way to try to explain to me (in sign language) how to get to my hostel. Once I arrived, my bags had hardly touched the ground and I was off to the laundromat. Clean clothes - at last!
While my clothes merrily tumbled around in suds, I went to get some dinner. I ended up in the Artisans cafe, where the waitress looked puzzled when I just asked for a plate of vegetables. Little did she know my diet of late had consisted of little more than bread! The veggies were fantastic, but the glass of red wine I had spent almost half my dinner-money on was mightily disappointing. It was served cold. Cold!?
Once my lovely clean clothes were packed away (and shortly following the announcement of the new French president), I walked to the Eiffel Tower. I actually felt myself jump a little when I first saw it. And then the lights started sparkling all over it - just beautiful.

The next morning I returned to see it by day. Still very pretty, but I was able to appreciate the intricacies a little more in daylight.

[spot the tourist]
I then continued on a bit of a walking tour of Paris. I didn't go in anywhere (as I figure I'll be back in Paris in the next few months), but saw a huge number of Parisian landmarks: the Arc de Triomphe, the Concord, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Pantheon and I tried to go to the ninth floor of the Institute du Monde Arabe (as per EasyJet's recommendation for a good view), but the restaurant was apparently closed... or they'd had so much unwanted attention from tourists, they were just saying that.

Then, following my fabulously overrated sense of direction, I got a little lost on my way back to the hostel, but quite enjoyed myself - discovering parts of Paris a little bit off the tourist trail.

When I returned to "Aloha," I sat and chatted to some fellow backpackers for a number of hours. They were enjoying the cheap local alcohol, but I had to be up at the crack of dawn the next day to hop on the Busabout bus. After my shower on Tuesday morning (which, unlike the previous day, I gave a few minutes to heat up - beginner's mistake), I caught the Metro to Anvers station. I really like the Paris metro - once you've got your head around it, it's pretty straight forward.
I met a few people at the Pick-Up-Point - all from Australia - and then forty or so of us boarded the bus to Bruges. I sat next to a guy from Melbourne named Greg who's been working in Liverpool for a few months. This seems to be a common theme amongst Busabouters!
Arriving in Bruges, we all settled into the "Snuffel" - the worst-organised hostel I've stayed at. I was supposed to stay there four nights (turns out accommodation in Amsterdam's almost impossible to get at weekends), and was supposed to change rooms for each night! Very strange.
After sorting out my Amsterdam situation (I think I'll be booking everything well in advance from now on), I grouped up with a few people, and went to see the sights. It took about twenty minutes. No, there's quite a lot to do in Bruges, but having seen the very quaint main square (the Markt), it started to get pretty chilly. After a lunch of chips and mayonnaise ("frietsaus" - when in Rome), we headed to the local Irish pub (of course). It was actually pretty cool - through the table, we could see into the basement, where there was an old ruin from 950AD that they'd discovered when building the pub.
After a mini pub-crawl to a hole-in-the-wall that was seemingly only visited by locals, we went back to the hostel in order to participate in the free tour they were putting on. The tour was led by a very hippy-looking local named Ziggy. Even though it was freezing cold, it was a very enjoyable and informative walk around Bruges.

Happy Hour started at Snuffel at 9pm, but after only a few hours in the company of my new friends, this little Happy Camper was buggered, so toddled off to my giant room to attempt to make my bed in the dark.
Even though it was miserable-looking on Wednesday morning, I got up early to go for a jog and am really glad I did. Even though my 20-minute jog turned into a 40-minute Where Am I? it was quite nice to get lost along the cobbled streets and canals, even in the wind and rain.
After traipsing through the bar/kitchen/common room to have my shower (I'm really not a huge fan of Snuffel), I went up to the grocery store and got a few days worth of veggies. After a ridiculous breakfast of bright pink, very fatty strawberry yoghurt, muesli and possibly the tastiest strawberries I've ever eaten, I met up with Lou and Mel (who - the poor thing - had just had her credit card eaten by an ATM!) and I went back to the Markt to have another look around. They were having a bit of a farmer's market - it was gorgeous, especially the cheese stalls, which I had to drag myself away from...

[the Markt]

We went to the Chocolate Museum, but realised that the 5 euro entry fee would be better spent on a big bar of chocolate, so instead we walked around the shops and chocolatiers for a while before returning to the good old Disco Duck for lunch. Lou had to be back at Snuffel at 2 to check out (No Room at the Inn), so Mel and I went with him and, because of the hideous weather, didn't leave for a number of hours. She played checkers with Cass (a costume designer from Albury) while I tried to absorb some of my Lonely Planet, and figure out my next few weeks' movements.

[the Disco Duck - traditional (bad) Belgium food]

Eventually we went and bought some bits and pieces for dinner, and while at the supermarket I saw the coolest product ever - thin pieces of chocolate specially designed for eating with bread. Genius!

After dinner, we settled in for a night of checkers, chatting, sangria and cards. I learned how to play Rummy (I was taught, somewhat Ironically, by a Canadian basketballer named Remy), and I've got to say, it's a stupid - and addictive - game. At around 1am, Mel, Dave (again, from Melbourne) and Remy convinced Stewart, our Busabout guide to go to Bruges one and only discotheque. Poor Stew may never live it down - he will forever be known as Disco Stew.

On Thursday morning, Greg and I decided to hell with it - we were going to Amsterdam. We were both, I think, just looking to avoid another confrontation with the woman at Snuffel whom he had dubbed "Nanna." Even though neither of us had accommodation booked, we signed up for the last couple of seats on the 1pm bus to Amsterdam. This meant, though, that all the sightseeing I'd been putting off doing due to bad weather had to be done by noon!

[Bruges: cobbled streets, bicycles and crazy architecture]

Mel and I went with a New Zealand girl named Michelle, who was travelling with her mum, to see Michelangelo's Madonna With Child, though Mel kept referring to it as "Madonna's Kid." It was pretty funny - while we were in the church, the four of us weren't a very Christian bunch, so Mel had to ask the man at the door: "Madonna is Mary, right?" Bloody tourists.

["Madonna's Kid"]

After meeting the others at the Disco Duck (now a Bruges institution), we went back to the hostel to make some lunch and pack up our last few bits and pieces. I now had a whole lot of vegetables and no fridge! Luckily, it's been very cold, so they've lasted quite well.

["on the road again..." Remy, Dave, Greg and Mel.]

The bus was delayed out of Paris, so we didn't leave Bruges til almost 3pm, which meant arriving in Amsterdam just before 7pm.

Arriving at the StayOkay Vondel Park, we all looked like drowned rats, but this lucky bugger, who'd planned to sleep on the floor if she had to, hit a spot of very good luck. Mel had - somehow, unbeknownst to anyone - accidentally booked two beds!

Once we'd settled in, she and I went to meet the others at a coffeeshop as recommended to us by Dave who, even though he'd only been to Amsterdam once before for a total of four days, seemingly knew the place inside out and back to front. "The Rockery" was a strange place - like a badly lit cafe with a strange smell wafting through the air, all to the beat of some hippy, slow electronic music. And it was in such a strange location - along the Epcot Row of restaurants: everything from Indonesian and Greek to steakhouses and Indian.

After an hour or so at the Rockery, where I chatted to an American named Nick who'd just spent four months at a remote Indian village and was so jetlagged and culture shocked he probably didn't need to purchase anything from any coffeeshops, a few of us headed to the Red Light District. Again, Dave led the way, and I'm still impressed by his memory!

It's such a strange, seedy place, and though I'm not sure what I expected, it definitely wasn't what I'd expected. For one thing, the girls were all at ground level, in identical little booths, standing right next to the glass. It was as if they were part of a living, breathing catalogue. And I was so surprised that most of them were actually quite stunning. But it was pretty sad, really, seeing the look on some of their faces. Some clearly didn't want to be there.

We stopped by a pizza slicery at one point and bought a slice of very bad pizza each. Big mistake on my part. I'd added extra chili to make it taste a little better, and randomly, a big spot of rain hit my pizza and projected a chili flake right into my left eye. I've not been in that much pain for quite some time! Mel, the lifesaver, ran across the street for a bottle of water, and I proceeded to pour water into my eye (and down my shirt) fora good few minutes. When we went to the "Bulldog" (a coffeeshop chain), I popped to the ladies' and discovered that I looked both high as a kite (thanks to an extremely red eye), and, due to non-waterproof mascara, a missing member of Kiss!

[some of the produce available in Amsterdam]

On our way back to the main square near our hostel (the Leidsplein), we caved and took a tram because were were so cold and wet. When we got to the Leidsplein, however, Dave decided he was hungry and took us halfway back to the Red Light District in search of some food. We finished our evening, in the end, at Burger King.

Friday morning I had breakfast with Remy while Mel slept. With some strange looks from the kitchen staff, I retrieved my bag of vegetables from their fridge and made sandwiches for lunch. Cutting carrots with a butter knife was interesting!

Remy, Mel and I waited for Cass for 45 minutes before deciding she wasn't going to meet us as we'd arranged, so we headed for the Anne Frank House without her. We ran into Greg and Dave on the way. It turned out that Greg hadn't met us the night before because he'd spent two hours walking around lost in the Vondel Park. Apparently, when he finally caved and, soaking wet, got into a cab, the driver told him "you should probably buy an umbrella."

Following Mel's sense of direction rather than a map proved almost successful in getting to the Anne Frankhuis, but we caved and pulled out a map when we said goodbye to Dave and Greg at a coffeeshop somewhere near Centraal Station.

The line at the Anne Frank House was a little intimidating, but after seeing Laura and Jed, a Melbourne couple who'd just spent three months working in London, they told us that it'd be a 45 minute wait. We figured that, despite the rain, we'd come all that way so we may as well brave it. In the end, it only took 20 minutes in which time Cass actually turned up!

["singin' in the rain..." Mel and Remy brave the cold.]

The Anne Frank House is a great museum - very sad, with lots of poignant quotes on the walls and excerpts from her diary. I thought it was very well done and look forward to reading the book. The one thing we all agreed on was that we'd thought the house would have been smaller. From what we'd all remembered, we thought she'd lived in an attic - not numerous rooms in the annex of a building. But having thought about it, remaining inside day in day out for many years would make even the largest of houses feel cramped.

The four of us stopped off at a mall for lunch - Remy and I having to walk around eating our sandwiches thanks to a prissy waiter at the cafe we'd sat at. But I was just so happy to be out of the rain and wind!

We went back to the Bulldog to meet Greg, Dave, Laura and Jed, and after a few minutes of being glared at by a grumpy waitress for not ordering drinks, Laura, Jed and I headed back towards the Red Light District. They went to see the girls, and I went to find the World Press Photography exhibit. I'd read that it was going to be in Amsterdam around the same time as I was, and was so excited to find it. I don't think it was as good as last year's, but there were still some stunning photos - the National Geographic photographer's work was amazing.

[the canals are so pretty!]

WhenI got back to the hosetl, Mel was there and we headed back to the Rockery (an easy meeting place) to meet Greg, Dave and Remy for dinner. Remy didn't show, and Greg had a lot of trouble trying to decide what type of food he wanted (so many choices!), but we ended up going to a steakhouse. Mmm, salad!

For the third time that day, we ran into Jed and Laura, who agreed to meet up with us later for another tour of the Red Light District. This time, Dave took us up and down every nook and cranny, which led to some interesting conversations abotu window real estate. I think Laura should perhaps quit her job as a teacher and take up property work!

We saw Lou at one stage, who insisted it was his first time in the Red Light District, but we weren't so sure... We also saw - for the first time - men going into some of the girls' rooms. It was so odd. There was also a group of English men mouthing off about a large girl, saying things about her paying them. Laura quite rightfully said "isn't it funny that these guys think they can be picky?"

There was also a very funny man outside the "Moulin Rough," touting for customers. He started trying to sell his shows to the girls - too funny.

We went back to the hostel, agreed to meet Greg at 9 the next morning, and - after chatting to Shane and Rachel (a NZ couple on their honeymoon, whose names I remembered by thinking "Shane and Angel... no, Rachel!") for a while, were off to sleep.

It turned out the Van Gogh Museum wasn't opening 'til 10am, so Mel and I met Greg and took him back to our hostel for breakfast. After killing some time on, trying to get ourselves sorted out (and my trying to get in touch with an internet-less Frecerick in Berlin), we went to the museum.

[Mel and Greg getting some culture]

It was a great museum. One level was dedicated almost purely to Van Gogh, showing his work in more or less chronological order, and the floor above was filled with works by his friends and collegues - a few portraits of Van Gogh, and works done at the same studio, etc. There was also an exhibit on Max Beckmann - a German artist who fled to Amsterdam in '37 due to artistic persecution. He was a little Picasso-esque, but to be honest, I was getting a little tired so only wizzed by a lot of his paintings.

Mel and Greg had left me at the museum - they were going to the old Heineken brewery, but having done the Carlton tour in Melbourne, I wasn't so enthusiastic. Instead, I went back to the hostel and made my lunch - the veggies had kept quite well on the window sill. And thank God for good old Swiss Army Knives!

I spent the next few hours just enjoying being out of the chilly wather, reading and trying to figure out my plans for the next few weeks. [After the Bruges near-disaster, I want to keep my Busabout bookings at least a few days in advance.] At one point, Shane and Rachel had a bit of a scare - he'd lost his day bag, which contained his passport! It was quite a tense little hostel room for a good while there, but it turned out fine - the Amsterdam Police had called his family in New Zealand to tell them his passport had been turned in. That's certainly one advantage of travelling alone - you keep track of all of your own belongings AT ALL TIMES!

Sunday started early - I tried to call Mum at home to wish her a happy Mother's Day, and after a 10-minute chat with Dad found otu she was in Queensland visiting Nan and Da! When I called there, no one answered, so I went to have breakfast and figured I would jsut call from the first rest stop on the way to Berlin. But there turned out to be no payphones! Just before arriving at the second rest stop, Nicole, our new guide, reminded everyone on the bus to call their mums, due to my having asked her about payphones at the previous rest stop. This meant the three payphones were very busy, but I eventually got to call Mum in Queensland, but again - no answer! By the time we'd reached the thirld rest stop (by which time we were in Germany), it was early Monday morning in Australia. Bugger!

To Be Continued... Berlin & Prague.