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Tag: Europe

Travel \\ Amsterdam

Travel // Amsterdam

Amsterdam was the first stop on our 2017 Europe Beer Tour, as I would jokingly refer to the trip we took with my family earlier this summer. This trip had been on my bucket list for years. Now that it’s over, it seems almost surreal. We saw a lot & covered a lot of ground over the course of our three weeks in (mostly) Northern Europe. Maybe that’s why I’m only starting to post about it now. Or maybe I’m notoriously slow at sorting through all the media & memories after a big trip. The latter, most likely.

But here we are, a little over three months after the fact, ready for some bonafide Europe recaps. Whenever someone asks me what my favourite city in Europe is, I freeze. One city? You want me to name one city in the whole of Europe as my favourite? Nuh uh, no way, impossible! I won’t even entertain the idea. There are so many different cities that hold special places in my heart for different reasons. Three days in Amsterdam was all it took for it to win a place on that list. What makes this city so special, you ask? Let’s take a look.

The Canals

Known as the Venice of the North by some, Amsterdam has over a hundred kilometres of canals. Our first day in the city, we spent most of our time wandering around, exploring the different neighbourhoods. I’ve mentioned before that this is one of my favourite things to do in a new city. There’s nothing like having no set destination or plan & just taking in everything around you.

N & I wandering on our first day in Amsterdam

Wandering the streets in the famous canal ring, or Grachtengordel, is essential to any trip to Amsterdam. I especially loved the bohemian Jordaan quarter, a grid of tiny lanes dotted with specialty shops, restaurants, art galleries, & the incredible Anne Frank house.

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We spent the morning at the Anne Frank House on our last day in Amsterdam, & it was a visit I won’t soon forget. Having read her book as a young girl, it was so moving to be able to put her experiences & memories into a tangible space. They’ve done a really lovely job of preserving the families’ memory in a museum. Tickets sell out early for good reason. (If you have trouble getting regular tickets, the introductory program is only a few dollars more & is usually available for longer.)

The bike Culture

We only rented bikes for a few hours one afternoon & it might have been the biggest mistake of the whole trip (at least for me). I loved biking around the compact city centre & wish we’d rented them for longer. It’s busy & a little bit chaotic, but a lot of fun. We biked through the centre to the Museum Quarter then along the Singelgracht to a great brewery.

Bikes in Vondelpark

Biking around Amsterdam

Afterwards, we biked around Vondelpark, before heading back through town to drop off our bikes. If you’re less confident on a bike, I’d recommend a tour around Vondelpark. Its wide, paved pathways are easy to navigate & there are lots of lovely spots to stop & enjoy the park, or some food & drinks. It’s also a worthwhile stroll if you’re really not sold on biking. Our apartment was a few short blocks away, so we did just that on on our very first day in the city.

Albert Cuyp Market

You’ll find anything from electronics to clothing at this eclectic street bazaar, but as usual, we came for the food. It was herring season, so we went looking for a classic herring sandwich as soon was we arrived. Traditionally, soused herring is eaten with just raw onions, but broodje haring (on bread) is also popular. My dad did not enjoy the texture of the fish at all – it’s a little bit slimy – but N & I enjoyed ours. I’m glad we tried it since it’s one of N’s grandpa’s favourites.

We also picked up some cheese to snack on later that evening.

Next up were stroopwaffles. You’ve probably seen these traditional waffle & caramel cookies before. I know I had. They’re even better fresh. The stall we bought ours from made them right in front of us so they were nice & hot – the perfect way to enjoy them. They seem just a little more special when the caramel is soft & melty from the warm waffles.

Our last market food find was well earned, & probably my favourite. Just as I’d given up on finding kroketten as the Van Dobben store that was supposed to be at the corner of the market had shut down, we found their market stall. Hurray! Kroketten for all! A kroket is mashed potatoes and meat, breaded & deep fried, on a bun with a side of mustard. No complaints here.

Market snacks

There’s lots of different food to try at the market, so it makes a good lunch stop between wandering the canals in the centre & the museum quarter. Snack along the way or pick up some things to eat later, in one of the cities many beautiful parks.

The Museum Quarter

If you’re looking for the “I amsterdam” sign, this is where you’ll find it. If you’re looking for a photo op without a ton of people in it, best of luck. It was extremely busy when we went mid-day, however, we took the last tram back to our apartment one night & there wasn’t a soul in sight. Aim for early morning or late evening for a better chance at some photos without the hoards of people.

Surrounding the museumplein, you’ll find three major museums: the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum. My parents went to the Van Gogh Museum & really enjoyed it, but N & I were content to wander the park in this beautiful area.

If you do decide to visit one of the popular museums, it’s a good idea to purchase tickets online first. Even the Heineken Experience gets some crazy lines. An e-ticket will save you wasting time waiting, if you can plan what time you’d like to go in advance.

Enjoying food & drinks on the water

The tilted, gabled canal-side buildings make the perfect backdrop for lunch, dinner, afternoon drinks, or a fun night out beside the water. There are no shortage of places to enjoy any of these things in Amsterdam.

Boat touring

There’s no shortage of great spots to relax along the canals

We found a number of great bruin cafés (brown cafés are laid back bars – you’ll find them all over the city) & restaurants along the canals in every neighbourhood. My favourite dinner was at Gent aan de schinkel near our apartment. We sat outside & watched boats go by on the canal, enjoying a lovely meal together.

Dinner along the canal

I’m a sucker for spending time near the water, & Amsterdam delivered on this. We took a boat tour one day, one of those big touristy ones. Next time, I think we’ll rent a smaller boat for the afternoon & enjoy some drinks & a meal as we tour around the city. Watching others doing just this from our crowded boat definitely made it seem like the better option.

The Architecture

I absolutely loved the renaissance architecture in the center of Amsterdam. The tall, tightly-packed homes sometimes look like they’re holding each other up. On our Free Walking Tour, we were told that residents paid taxes based on the width of their homes. This is why you see these characteristic tall & narrow homes in Amsterdam. Since this makes for tight staircases & hallways inside, they also tend to have have a hook above the top floor to hoist larger items into the home or business.

These narrow, long homes are actually what made Amsterdam the perfect place for the Frank family to hide. From the street, it’s hard to tell how far back many of the homes actually go.

The Red Light District

We visited the Red Light District during the day as well as on a lively Saturday night. It was interesting to see both. In daylight, De Wallen almost seems like any other neighbourhood in Amsterdam.There’s a beautiful church, the Oude Kerk, a market, & many great cafés & restaurants. Even in the morning, you’ll notice a few women behind windows here & there, as you sip your coffee & wander the area. It’s quite the juxtaposition. We did the morning free walking tour with New Europe & had a lovely time learning about the center of Amsterdam & the Red Light District.

The side of the Oude Kerk & the narrow streets of De Wallen

N & I went back late that evening, after dark, & the district seemed to have come alive. The narrow streets were so crowded that you could barely walk down them sometimes. Bars were overflowing. It almost felt like there was some kind of festival going on, instead of just another Saturday night. There were also a lot more windows with women behind them. & many of them were putting on a bit of a show to entice customers, sometimes even knocking on the glass to call them over. The atmosphere at night was completely different than it had been during the day.

The main canal in De Wallen

Heading towards the Red Light District

If you have the time to check it out both in the morning & evening, I’d definitely recommend that. Grab a drink in one of the pubs & enjoy watching the debauchery on a Saturday night. We went back on a Sunday & while it was busy, it wasn’t quite the chaos of the night before.

The Beer

It wouldn’t be a Europe Beer Tour if we didn’t drink any beer. You’re likely already familiar with Heineken, but there are so many other great beers too. & even better, there are so many great places to try them out.

Wandering around on our first day, we took a break for some drinks & fantastic lamb meatballs at De Ysbreeker. Named for the icebreakers that docked in front of the building, it has a beautiful terrace & a great selection of local beers like de Prael. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a beautiful summer day.

Another spot we came to love was Hoppe. It’s been in operation for over 300 years & has a great selection of beers. Inside you’ll find antique stained glass windows, old gin barrels, & sawdust on the floor. A table on the covered terrace is a nice place to spend a few hours with friends (& maybe some bitterballen to snack on), but more often than not the after work crowd spills out into the bustling Spui square. Come here for the great local atmosphere, & some fantastic beer.

I saved my favourite spot for last: Brouwerij ‘t IJ. We biked to this microbrewery in east Amsterdam, next to the old de Gooyer windmill. Share a long table with other customers on their tree-covered terrace or head inside to their tasting room, lined with an impressive bottle collection. On weekends, they do a brewery tour for 5 euros. Arrive early to sign up – it fills up fast (as we, unfortunately, learned).

The terrace at Brewerij ‘t IJ

With a large selection of interesting (& tasty) beers, it’s a great spot to spent an afternoon. Check it out before 3 pm if you’d like to try a flight. It’s a little bit off the beaten path, so you’re more likely to find yourself amongst locals here, a welcome change after spending a couple days playing tourist.

‘t IJ Flight

Part of the bottle collection

One of the entrances

I could go on about all the great places we saw in Amsterdam (& all the great beer we drank) for a lot longer, but I’ll leave it off here. There’s something about the laidback Dutch vibe that takes all these incredible sights & experiences to the next level. Thanks for a great introductory visit, Amsterdam. I hope to come back again someday.

Honeymoon 015 \ Venice

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Despite a very late night after Dubrovnik, we managed to get ourselves out of bed early enough on our final cruise day to watch the approach into Venice. It is definitely worth finding a spot on a forward deck for, if you find yourself onboard someday. The port requires all ships use tug boats & at some points it looked like we were going to run them over.

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We met up with some family friends who had boarded early, studied the map for our walk into the city, & got directions to meet up for dinner later one before heading out to explore Venice. We wandered from the terminal to the Ponte Academia, where we shared a pizza & a drink. From there, we continued to San Marco, getting lost in the maze of bridges & dead ends a few times. The city is beautiful though & getting lost seems to be a right of passage there.

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Making our way into Venice

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Gondola Builder

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Ponte Academia

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drinks by the bridge

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venice life

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a man & his flying lion

Piazza San Marco is impressive. The people feeding pigeons grossed me out a bit, but to each his own, I suppose. I’m happy to take photos of it, but I’ll refrain from actually letting them land on me. We eventually made our way to the Rialto Bridge & grabbed another drink (after getting lost a few more times). I loved watching the gondolas & wandering the narrow streets. The boats speed along as if they could brake if need be. It’s incredible to watch.

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Feeding the birds in the square

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So narrow!

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Busy Venice

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View from the Rialto Bridge

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At 8, we found our way to the very hidden restaurant to meet everyone. It only took us two stops to ask for directions & a couple wrong turns.

Dinner was exactly what you’d expect from an Italian meal – incredible hospitality, lots of laughter, simple, delicious food, & all the wine you could ask for. To start things off, the owner put together an amazing set of seafood platter for our table. We all shared clams, calamari, shrimp, & a few unknowns. It was all delicious! For our main course, N & I both chose risotto. By this point, I was quite full though & barely made a dent, which was a shame because it was perfectly creamy & full of seafood. I’m so glad we were able to join everyone in Venice – it was such a wonderful evening & a great way to cap off our cruise.

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One of the many seafood platters

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risotto

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interior of one of the gorgeous hotels

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Last shot of our home for the week, Ventura.

We took a boat back to the ship for our last night on the ship. It was a pretty quiet one since we had to be packed & out of our room pretty early the next day.

Honeymoon 12 \ Naples

If you don’t travel mostly for the sake of experiencing another culture’s take on food, then this is probably going to sound pretty bizarre to you. When we decided to go on a cruise as part of our honeymoon, there were two options: one that included Naples, & one that did not. While this grungy port town with a bit of a reputation certainly isn’t on everyone’s list of places to visit, it placed high on ours. You may be scratching your head on that one, like many of our fellow passengers, so let me explain: Naples is the birthplace of pizza.

The breathtaking Amalfi coast, a short train ride away, tempted us for less than five seconds as we watched the rest of Ventura’s passengers offload. We had an important mission to complete: eat at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. We’d gotten general directions for this famous pizzeria, but stopped at the tourist office for a map & some more specific instruction. They weren’t sure on the exact address, but we set off in the general direction with our trusty map. At this point, we’d spent most of our time either in tourist centres or cities I knew very well, so despite knowing Naples was a little rough around the edges, it was still a bit of a shock to find ourselves in a much grimier neighbourhood than we were used to.

Without an exact address or the ability to google the location, we quickly realized we had no idea where to go. The only thing we knew was that we shouldn’t go past the train station. I quickly initiated to my usual backup plan when lost in a foreign country: find a hotel & ask for directions. The friendly maitre d’ showed us the exact location (just around the corner) on our map & we were back on our way. We’d heard that it was important to get there before noon, so we’d headed straight there from the ship, arriving just after 11.

If we hadn’t known about Pizzeria da Michele, we likely would have walked passed this unassuming little spot. It looks like any other local pizzeria in Italy. You won’t find a huge staff here either. In addition to a few servers & the cashier, there were two men running the actual pizza-making operation – one in charge of dough & assembly, another manning the brick oven. They respect Grandfather Michele’s memory to this day, serving the two classic types of Neapolitan pizza: Margherita or Bianca.

Since we were quite early, we snagged a table in the main room with a view of the whole process. I couldn’t have hand-picked a better vantage point. Their small menu makes ordering a snap. We each chose our own regular-sized Margherita pizzas, as well as a couple beers & a large bottled water. As we waited for our meal, we took in our surroundings. The walls are dotted with photos of celebrities & signs explaining the origins of this style of pie. The staff walked around, joking with regulars or shouting jokingly at each other in Italian (the Italian gesturing was on point!). We could only guess what they were saying,  but we thoroughly enjoyed letting our imaginations run wild. The older gentleman rolling out dough was particularly animated. He was by far our favourite! (Rumour has it, he’s one of Michele’s four sons.)

Our pizzas arrived quickly, hot from the oven. The smell was out of this world & neither of us could wait to dive in. I’m sure you can guess how this experience was (I mean, I just wrote a four paragraph introduction). It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best pizza I have ever eaten.

In true Italian fashion, the simplicity of the fresh ingredients blend to create the perfect balance of flavours. Buffalo mozzarella, san marzano tomatoes, the freshest basil, & a perfect dough: it’s an unreal combination. You couldn’t wipe the happy grin off my face. While I love prosciutto or creative toppings on my pizza just as much as anyone else, this pizza is on another level. It doesn’t need those extra toppings to shine. Trust me on this one. Go to Naples. Eat the pizza at da Michele. Thank me (& all of those who have come before me) later.

-Break for drool-worthy pizza photos (& a snap with my new buddy!)-
Our great server
Starting to get busy as we head out

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele could easily attach a hefty price tag to their fare, but I think our bill came in under twenty euros. A true steal, especially given the incredible quality. I wish I could have taken some back to the ship for later, but I’m not sure it would have held up that well in my purse all afternoon.

Honestly, we had no idea what else to see in Naples afterwards. We had a map & a lot of free time though, so we set out. (This blog is called Au fil de mes balades for good reason. I love exploring a new city without any real destination!) We started in the old quarter, with its crumbling infrastructure & graffiti everywhere. We were still getting used to seeing these incredible historic sights in such disrepair in comparison to other cities we’d visited. It was an entirely different experience from the rest of our trip & I was glad to see it. We took a break in a café at the base of the funicular, grabbing a cappuccino & catching up on Instagram, before heading up to the castle at the top. We decided to tour the castle (I know, I’m shocked too. There wasn’t any food inside either), & got caught in a rain storm during our visit. We waited it out with the other tourists in every alcove we could find until we got bored & decided to just brave the elements.

Makeshift Umbrella

Instead of taking the funicular back down, we opted to walk. This resulted in many wrong turns & us getting completely lost. In the process, we stumbled upon many beautiful hidden corners & got a peak into everyday life on the hill. It reminded me of Croix Rousse in Lyon in that respect. We ran into more than our fair share of dead ends, & there were definitely times when we felt like we’d never find out way back to the port, but we also saw a side of Naples we would have completely missed if we had simply taken the funicular back down. Vacations allow for many luxuries, namely time, so we were in no rush to find our way. Instead, we took advantage & reveled in the unusual opportunity of not having to worry that you’re a little bit lost.

Storm rolling in
It began to thunder & lightning as we were almost back at the ship. We’d been watching the storm roll in, but we still managed to get completely soaked as we tried to make it back. Neither of us were prepared for rain so we threw on our bathing suits & jumped in the onboard hot tub to warm up. Once the chill wore off, we got cozy in our slippers & robes to watch the sailways from our balcony. We were first rewarded with a beautiful rainbow over the city followed by a gorgeous sunset. Naples was certainly a memorable day!

Honeymoon 11 \ Sea Day One

Our first sea day, we really took advantage of the resort-feel of the ship. We spent a slow morning on our balcony enjoying coffee & breakfast, as had already become a routine for us. There was nothing but water for miles in every direction so even though we were technically surrounded by a few thousand people, it felt pretty secluded.

Eventually we decided to get moving for the day. Changing into bathing suits, we went in search of some lounge chairs near one of the numerous pools. Little did we know, these chairs are highly coveted. Any chair within view of a pool had been claimed early that morning. Rookie mistake. Luckily we arrived to the main pool just in time to watch the crew do the ice bucket challenge. We’d figure out our sun tanning situation later.

Our cabin
Main Pool
Ice Bucket Challenge
Husband vs Wife

The different ships in the P&O line were all raising money for their respective charities & decided to use the Ice Bucket Challenge to help raise funds. Department after department went up for their turn to be doused in icy water. Having just done the challenge ourselves the day after our wedding, we enjoyed it a little more as spectators. Judging from their reactions, I think their water may have been a bit colder than ours though.

Since we couldn’t find prime lounge chairs around the pool, we decided to grab a table near one of the bars. It seemed like a good time for some Pims anyway & it was quickly turning into the perfect pool day. Neither of us had much Pims before – turns out it goes down pretty easy, so we decided to switch to beer after our pitcher quickly disappeared.

The main pool had a pretty good set up, with a very shallow outer section before dropping off significantly. It was perfect for cooling off with a drink in the summer heat so we took full advantage of the opportunity to relax, sun tan, & keep cool. It was the first day of true relaxation since our wedding so we were understandably excited.

Drinks by the pool
Poolside beers
When we’d had our fill of the pool, we headed back to our balcony for a glass of wine before our massage. We don’t generally splurge unless it’s on food, drinks, & travel so I’d included a massage as a gift option on our honeyfund account. Thanks to a few generous friends, we were able to take advantage of the onboard spa & book a couples’ hot stone massage. I’ve had a few sports massages, but this was my first experience with a relaxing massage. I really enjoyed it (& in true Alanna fashion, I fell asleep at the end. I think I may have even started snoring. Signs of a truly relaxing day?).
Balcony Wine Time
Classy
Post Massage Sunset

That evening was the formal dinner & Captain’s Reception so we quickly got dressed in our best & headed over to the atrium. There were a few drinks followed by a speech & introductions of the senior staff by the captain. N had worn his suit from our wedding & I wore a sparkly little black dress. Leaving our cabin, we thought we were quite dressed up, but N was one of the few men not wearing a tux. Some of the ladies were even in ball gowns! At dinner, we sat with a group of six Scottish ladies. They were hilarious & completely enamoured with N (especially as he was the only male at the table!). They were probably my favourite seating assignment of the whole cruise!

Captain’s Reception
End of the night Formal wear

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