Belgium, Amsterdam, France

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Four cities in six days…this was easily our busiest port yet. We had our fair share of road bumps, with a missed bus, a struggle to find a place to stay and a less than ideal hostel, but all these problems were well worth it and as always, part of the adventure. I LOVED all three countries and wish we had more time in each…if SAS has taught us one thing though it is to the make the most of whatever time we have.

Our first day in Belgium we found the train station, wandered in and out of cathedrals and museums and ate the first of too many Belgian Waffles (I’ll never eat an Eggo again). We went to a printing museum and saw tons of old manuscripts, typesets, printing presses and documents. My favorite was a very old map from when the world was believed to be flat; South America is shown as a small oval and Antarctica takes up almost the entire bottom third of the map.

The next day we walked through the city center again and down to a big park that had lots of university-age students hanging out and reading. We went for round two of the waffles (mmm) and later that night had Belgian fries…the Belgians tell us they are the real inventors of fries, not the French! Belgium was by no means our healthiest port, but we told ourselves all the walking balanced it out.

On day three, we took a train to Amsterdam. It took a little longer than expected to get there because of delays, but we made it around lunchtime and had a super delicious lunch along one of the many canals in the center of town. I’m still dreaming of the bacon-wrapped dates and goat cheese Shannon and I ordered. Afterwards, we made our way to the Anne Frank house. I was surprised at its location…I imagined it in a more residential area of town, but it was on a fairly busy main road and looked like it could be an office building from the outside. Inside, the walls were filled with quotes from her diaries, videos of her father and the people who helped hide her family, and the history of the period. It was an intense experience to climb all those stairs and imagine what it must have felt like to be climbing them knowing you couldn’t leave, and spend day after day in the blacked-out rooms.

In a different but also disconcerting experience, we walked through the red-light district on our way to dinner…definitely a strange bit of culture shock. At the suggestion of a local who took our picture, we went to a noodle place and afterward, an ice bar. Our group had been trying to find one since Russia so we were very excited to finally go. It was -12 degrees Celsius inside, so despite the giant puffy coats and gloves we were given, we only lasted long enough to finish our two drinks (served in cups made of ice!) and take a few pictures.

Our original plan was to take a night bus to Paris from Amsterdam, but we didn’t quite gauge the time the tram to the bus station would take. After running like crazy people through the subway station out to where the bus should have been (but was long gone), we realized we needed a plan b…especially since we were now roughly 40 minutes away from the main part of town. Luckily, a hostel nearby had room for us, and it ended up being SO nice in comparison to our next hostel and the stories we heard of others. In the morning, we were all happy we had been able to have a hot shower and comfy bed.

We got to Paris the next afternoon around 5, and made a mad dash to the hostel to drop off our stuff and head to the Eiffel Tower. It was a bit of a trek, but I was mesmerized as we passed the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe and through pretty parks and open squares. We were in Paris!!! On our way we stopped at a grocery and bought food for a picnic dinner. Shan and I got goat’s cheese, salami, prosciutto, jam, crackers and wine…always the perfect meal. We sat in a park right next to the Eiffel Tower and ate our dinner, soaking in everyone else around us and taking a million pictures. For five minutes on every hour the tower lights up and shimmers; we made it just before 9 so we got to see it pretty soon after we sat down. I had heard people say Paris can be underwhelming and is too dirty, but to me it was nothing short of magical, especially at the Eiffel Tower.

The next day we went to the Louvre, which is just incredibly massive and has so much to see. We also went to the Lock Bridge and Notre Dame, and walked through a cute flower market where I bought some postcards. The cashier was so sweet and asked me lots of questions about America; his dream is to visit San Francisco and Chicago, funnily enough. When I left he asked me to “kiss America for me!”

That night we walked down to the Arc de Triomphe and had another picnic under the Eiffel Tower. This time we went up it too. You take four or five elevators to get to the very top, some of which move diagonally. The view from the top is unreal, especially at night. Going up was the perfect ending to our time in Paris.

Before the trip, Shan and I were told Le Havre is the Newark of France. When we arrived there on our last day in France, we found a cool bridge and really beautiful and simple church, though, and walked out onto the beach as the sun was going down, so all in all in exceeded our expectations. Overlanding was definitely the way to go for this port!

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