Saturday, November 8, 2008

Fall Break: Germany and Holland

I think my blogging hiatus may have earned me the title of worst blogger ever. My excuses? Since returning to Hungary I really haven't been doing much worth writing about. My increased teaching load and having founded an English club that meets after school means I spend much more time working on school stuff both in and out of the classroom. When I'm not teaching or lesson planning I occupy myself with trying to get into grad school. After years of working up to this moment, now I'm trying to get letters, essays, research samples, and applications in order, a process that has eaten up all my spare time for the past two months. The end is in sight - just a few more weeks and I'll have it all done.

But though life in Szentes has become all business, life abroad still offers exciting travel opportunities and I finally did something worth writing about over late October's fall break. I met my old pal Gayle in Dusseldorf, Germany a couple of weeks ago for a wonderful trip to Holland. Though Gayle and I were both in need of a lot of unwinding from our hectic lives at home, we did manage to do a lot of sightseeing and I think we really got a good look at Holland. We began our trip in Amsterdam, where we took in some great museums, including the Van Gogh Musuem, the Rijksmuseum (the premier collection of Dutch masters) and the Anne Frank House before proceeding to Utrecht for a more authentic feel for Dutch life. Below are some of the best pics from the adventure, but find all of them on my flickr site: Flickr page for Holland/German trip.

Amsterdam is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. Townhouse mansions built during the Dutch Golden Age, when the Netherlands was one of the world's great mercantile powers, line peaceful canals. Even though the weather was abysmally gray and rainy for most of our trip, we were both overwhelmed by the city's beauty and spent the majority of our time just walking around and taking in the atmosphere:

A boat slowly makes its way down a peaceful canal in one of Amsterdam's surpsingly abundant quiet neighborhoods.

Gayle pauses to smile in front of some beautiful old Amsterdam mansions.

During our 4 days in Amsterdam we had only one day of good weather, and we took advantage of the sunshine with a long day of walking around and enjoying the city sans rain (though there were still a lot of puddles).

The city is full of small architectural gems, like this statue on one of the canal bridges.

The Netherlands is a land of many flowers. Springtime tulips are a particular speciality. Here is a picture taken in Amsterdam's floating flower market. Can you find the Ram hiding in the flowers? He is the mascot of T. Rowe Price, Gayle's employer, and his name is Trusty (personal motto: "Charging with confidence"). The company has an ongoing competition for the best picture of Trusty in an interesting place, so Trusty was our companion throughout our trip.

Say cheese! We both love it, though I must admit that Gayle is more of a cheese gourmand than I. The Netherlands offers inumerable cheese shops, serving up what an American would consider to be hoity-toity gourmet cheeses at prices that clearly indicate that delicious specialty cheese is a staple of the Dutch diet. Gayle even went online to check customs laws on how much cheese she could bring back, and entertained an Utrecht cheesemaker greatly as she went a little crazy in her sampling and spending.

Open windows. There is something very open and accepting about Dutch culture. In a country where soft-drugs and prostitution are legal there is no shortage of strange behavior to be seen on the streets. The locals seem unperturbed, just accepting that people do strange things sometimes. This openness is reflected in the way the broad windows of Amsterdam remain open, letting passersby peer in to people's living spaces. We wandered the streets and observed people's intimate lives with almost unnerving ease. Dutch homes, like so much in the Netherlands, have a very special feeling, both cozy and highly-practical.

Gayle and her new friend Cheeto in the restaurant/cafe of our hotel. We stayed in a budget hotel just a couple minutes from the central Dam sqaure by foot. Though it certainly wasn't the Ritz, the Hotel Belga was convenient and a suiteable place to rest. It also offered a very good free breakfast, complete with the company of Cheeto, the resident feline and Breakfast Quality Assurance Officer.

Me in front of the Rijksmuseum. Though it is currently undergoing major rennovations, the museum still offers a huge collection of really interesting Dutch masters. Unfortunately photography is prohibited in both the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum. Suffice to say, the paintings were pretty awesome.

Amsterdam has some of the world's best people watching. It is the most diverse city in Europe, and when you add its laid back attitude to many things that other societies strictly prohibit, you get a true spectacle to behold. Here we spend our one afternoon of beautiful weather in a park watching people stroll and bike by.

Inspired by the dominance of biking as the local method of transport, Gayle, Trusty and I spent a Sunday morning biking around the city, covering almost all of the downtown area. Unfortunately the weather was cold and rainy, so we got drenched and severely chilled. Nothing that a delicious meal in a cafe afterward didn't fix.
Gayle and one of the towers surrounding the outer canal of the downtown area.

Me and my hog.

Biking around the park.

Gayle bikes towards Westermarkt Church.

Westermarkt Church close up.

On our final morning in Amsterdam we got up early to make it to the Anne Frank House before opening in an attempt to avoid a long wait. This museum, occupying the space where Anne Frank's family hid during the Nazi occupation, was extremely well-done and presented the exhibits plainly but with appropriate gravitas. Anne Frank's diary is also on display - it is such an innocent looking little book bound in a red plaid print.

A self-portrait taken after exiting the Anne Frank House.

Gayle to Trusty: "Work it baby. Oh yeah, just like that. Pouty face, that's it. The camera loves you."

After a great time in Amsterdam, we made our way to Utrecht, which is a university town with a charming canal-lined old town that dates back to medieval times. Though we were unable to find couchsurfing hosts in Amsterdam (it's always a challenge to get a place to stay in a big touristy city where the hosts are bombarded with requests every day, plus Amsterdam's hosts are justifiably wary of the multitude of foreigners who descend upon their beautiful city in search of drugs and sex), we were successful in arranging hosts for our time in Utrecht. We had two different hosts, the first was a charming girl named Everarda, a student at a musical conservatory studying the organ. We also stayed with a guy named Lars, who took us out on the town to a number of really nice pubs and loaned us bikes so we could explore the town and its environs in a more traditionally Dutch fashion.

The view from our host, Everarda's, window, which looks towards the medieval downtown and its awe-inspiring cathedral.

A peaceful scene walking along the canal that surrounds the downtown area.

Up close and personal with Utrecht's cathedral. I am always so impressed by these cathedrals, their spires reaching towards the sky and really giving the feeling of a divine presence.

Inside the cathedral.

In downtown Utrecht, where apartments line the canals.

Downtown Urecht by night.

Trusty sampling some delicious beers from neighboring Belgium.

Though we pretty much avoided the touristy, crowded, and supremely sketchy Red Light District in Amsterdam, when our second host Lars told us there is one in Utrecht that is more normal and, almost charmingly, consists completely of house boats, and offered to take us on a bike ride past it we couldn't resist. Taking pictures of the working ladies is strictly prohibited, but here are a couple clandestine shots we snapped biking by at night and then the next morning:

Our last morning in the Netherlands was the highlight for both Gayle and I. Though our host Lars had to work, he offered us the loan of his two bikes so we could tour the city and some of the surrounding countryside. We had a great time biking around Utrecht and then the beautiful natural preserves and villages surrounding it.
Gayle biking into Utrecht's downtown, where we had delicious apple tarts for breakfast before biking outside of the city.

I check to see if we are still on the path recommended to us by Lars. He said that the areas to the north of the city were really beautiful places to bike and he was certainly right.

Getting off the beaten track.

The Netherlands is such an impressively well-maintained country. Even out here in the country the cobblestone paths are in perfect shape.

Dutch country scene.

Gayle captures the scenery and watches a swan in the canal.

Very happy travelers in the Dutch countryside

After our bikeride we returned to Lars's house to return the loaned bikes and pick up our stuff before sadly leaving Holland behind. We caught a bus to Dusseldorf, where Gayle's flight would leave early in the morning back to Baltimore (via Amsterdam, ironically, though flights to Amsterdam were 300 Euros more expensive...). We checked into a hostel in Dusseldorf, and enjoyed one last night out together, dining on Mexican food and spending a few hours in a bar trying to squeeze in a year's worth of conversations.

Early the next morning I waved goodbye to Gayle as one of those famed and efficient German trains took her to the airport.

After Gayle's departure I had a full day in Germany to bum around alone. I mainly just walked around and took in the sights. Here are a couple of shots of Dusseldorf:

After a few hours of walking around Dusseldorf I found the coolest bookstore I've ever been in - 6 stories!!! I enjoyed a coffee and a chance to record the trip in my journal in the bookstore's cafe.

After a few hours walking around Dusseldorf I had to make my way back to Cologne. This trip marked a new height to my travel thrift. I flew in and out of Frankfurt at very inopportune times (hey, my round trip flight cost under 50 Euros! who needs sleep!?) and had to take a bus to Cologne and then a train to Dusseldorf to meet Gayle. Though I didn't really see Frankfurt at all I did spend two nights in Cologne walking around, and I was very impressed by what I saw.

My point of arrival, Cologne's enormous central station.

Cologne's cathedral is one of the most gradiose in the world. Here it is along with the Rhine Riverfront.

The juxtaposition of ancient and very modern is something that Europe does so well. Here the southmost point of Cologne's medieval city walls stands surrounded by modern office buildings.

Cologne was founded 2000 years ago by Romans, and the region's main Roman road ran right through this old gate.

Well, back to grad school paperwork for me, but I will surely post more after I get all of this work done. I hope you are all having a wonderful Autumn! Sziasztok!