Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Day 6 - Amsterdam - Cologne - Rhineland

From Amsterdam we travelled on... We were introduced to Germany by being caught in a bit of traffic on an Autobaun, ironically enough. There are so many drivers in Germany that slowed traffic frequently happens unless you are on a 6 lane highway at which point you might get a ticket for driving less than 70 mph in the slow lane. 

Our first stop was in the city of Cologne on the Rhine River. We walked through, took pics of and marveled at the very gothic looking Cologne Cathedral. It was a relief to be able to take pictures of the inside of the church rather than sneak a few crappy ones here and there because you are not allowed to take any and then feel guilty enough about it to feel like doing confession while you are there. Just sayin... no flashes are allowed though understandably... I did see a few people using them anyway. Argh, Heathens. The German priests in the church were sternly speaking to people about removing their hats as they walked through the door and it sounded like they were getting badly scolded. They were kinda scary and I wouldn't want to get on their bad side. German has much harsher sound than the sing songy musical language of Dutch we had just experienced in Holland. After checking out the church, we ate a decadent pastry pretzel at a delicious bakery and even found a music store where we strummed a few guitars. The weather was very drizzly but not really cold. It is customary to pay to use the bathroom in many places in Europe and this was the first time I've ever paid McDonalds to tinkle. The restroom attendant handed me a paper towel and said "Danke Shin" which is German for "thank you". We saw and heard an amazing classical music band in the main square and even met an angel.

We passed through the twisty turns of the lush, Rhine Valley surrounded by lush Forrest and paused for a photo op. We visited a mid evil town called Boppard dating all the way back to the 4th Century. There are several wine festivals in this area and several vineyards tucked along the hillsides. Famous for its ice wine which yields a small yet valuable product, other vineyards don't do so well and many have stopped making wine altogether due to the high cost associated with hillside winemaking, it must be done by hand rather than assisted by machines as is customary for flat land vineyards.

We took a romantic cruise on the River Rhine past medieval hilltop castles and steep vineyards. We passed the Lorelei stone where legand has it a beautiful girl once lived and because of a betrayal by the man she loved, she jumped high off the cliff to her death and then in the afterlife, continued to sing along the rocks while brushing her long golden hair, luring unfaithful sailors to their deaths. We snapped pictures of the many hillside castles along the river and were transported to another world. One castle actually served as a toll station long ago and if boats didn't pay, they would raise a chain out of the water preventing them from passing. Our comfortable ferry boat was equipped with a nice restroom, stocked with local beer, wine and a food menu which consisted of bratwurst, chicken nuggets, fries, etc. I sampled local wines that came with complimentary wine glasses to take home as souvenirs: Klein Hainfeld 2011 Dornfelder Rotwein and 2012 Reisling Feinherb. We ended our boat ride in stopped in the quaint town of chalk full of amazing and elaborate Cuckoo Clocks, beer steins, cobblestone streets, and Birkenstock shoes.

Back on the road, we navigated slowly to our hotel. German auto traffic is a common occurrence in the highly populated area just outside of Frankfurt and merging was a bit tricky but we are familiar with that coming from the SF Bay Area, just glad we weren't driving! It was about an hour drive to our hotel where we checked in and headed down to dinner, a large buffet with fish, potato salads, green beans, bow tie pasta with rich Alfredo sauce, pineapple fritters and I even scored a free glass of wine due to the music trivia game I won earlier on our coach :) Q: Guess the song A: The Pretenders 1980

Check out more pics on my Facebook Page: Facebook.com/amberlynnsnider 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Day 4 & 5 - London - Amsterdam

We travelled from London to Amsterdam very early starting at 4a. It was 11pm California-time so we felt ok. Our new hotel was fantastic! It normally costs 300 Euros a night and we stayed for 2 nights, the included 2 breakfasts we had costs 30 Euro per meal and worth every penny! Of course everything was included in our package so we basically got everything half off through our travel company Trafalgar. 

We went through a guide tour of the canals and the red light district where we learned about the history of how it all began. Amsterdam was built on water and every square inch is expensive because they literally have to create land to build on. Many of the buildings are very old and tend to lean into one another due to the underground shifting of the man made foundation over the water. The canals all smelled very clean because they are constantly being "refreshed" with the nearby salt water from the ocean. We visited just after the King's Day celebration and the big soccer win which created some excitement in the city streets. The city is always maintaining the buildings, streets and canals with constant renovations so as to keep everything safe and secure.

King's Day Carnival pic.
The Red Light District... The last time I took a picture here I was beaten over the head and my camera was stopped into the ground! I didn't know you weren't suppose to take pictures of the perdy ladies in the windows... This is not allowed. We had a marvelous Dutch guide named "Lanika" but she told us if we couldn't remember that than we could call her "Heniken" :) She fearlessly led our group of 20+ through the chaos of the busy streets talking to us through walkie talkies with headphones so we could hear her every word within a block radius. We passed all the marijuana filled coffee shops, massive snack shops with giant displays of decadent pastries, pizzas, etc for the late night snackers. We passed through tiny alleys on cobblestone streets that we could barely pass through. We walked past the small glass windows containing Red Light Ladies of the Night in their UV hot pink lit rooms which illuminated their brightly colored lngerie which glowed neon colors. It felt a bit like we were in a haunted house with strangely lit creatures lurking around every corner. We watched as groups of guys pushed their friends into these rooms while shouting "happy birthday!" Our guide told us that the Dutch look at these women as doing a public service as they started by offering the sailors who ported there years ago many of whom had been away for many years, holding up lanterns from the land so the ships could see them as they sailed in. Flash forward a few hundred years, the Red Light District Escorts take in men of all psychologies and statures sometimes even keeping the psychos from raping women by providing this service. The Red Light District has churches and schools on the same block as marijuana caf├ęs and prostitutes. It is widely accepted by the Dutch people that this is all just a part of life and should not be hidden, and even regulated as any other legit business.

The next morning we went to a Dutch farm where they made fantastic traditional cheeses and wooden clogs and we also visited the small seaside picturesque and traditional village of Volendam on the Ljsselmeer where we did some shopping. We had Dutch pancakes called Poffertjes, drizzled with chocolate syrup and powdered sugar. It was in this village that I experienced a local Dutch girl's dry sense of humor when I asked where the bathroom was and she pointed to the sea saying "over there" with a straight face. 

In the afternoon, we walked downtown for an incredibly lunch at The King's Day Carnival where I bravely ventured on a haunted house roller coaster ride that turned out not to be thrilling at all. I was poked three times in the belly by the Grim Reaper dude as I exited the ride, that was probably the scariest part of the ride. 

That night, we went to one of the oldest Dutch restaurants in the area which served basically the same menu as they did 400 years prior. The building was an old Dutch house with dark wooden walls, lots of paintings and very steep stairwells primary because the buildings are tall and narrow. We had prearranged three course meals with unlimited wine that flowed nicely as did the conversations with our fellow travelers. The waitstaff still dressed in the same red and black attire as was depicted in the many old paintings throughout the building. The food was amazing as was the service, I'm so glad we went!

Kevin, our travel guide. Based in the South of France, he travels throughout Europe 200+ days a year showing travelers the insiders scoop for each country. He has given numerous helpful tips saving us a lot of time and frustration and allowing us to focus on having an amazing vacation. Thanks, Kevin!