Stefanie Weisman Holland 2011 journal Saturday, April 2: Flying into Amsterdam, the first thing I noticed is how flat and green the landscape is, with canals everywhere. I got into Schiphol airport around 7 am and found Bus 197, which took about 45 minutes to get to my stop, Leidseplein. I saw a lot of rabbits and avocets (?) on the airport grounds. As we got closer to the city, I was struck by how charming the architecture is. All the buildings have interesting features and there's so much attention to detail. I got off at Leidesplein and found the Owl Hotel without much of a problem. As soon as you get off the bus you're in danger of being run over by bicycles, trams, and cars though. They come from all different directions. The Owl Hotel was behind a huge Marriott, on a quiet side street. I checked in but my room wasn't ready yet. The man at the desk was a very lively, friendly fellow with a slight British accent. Everyone in Holland speaks English flawlessly. When I came in he didn't even ask for my name, he just said something like, "Your room's not ready yet!" He asked what my plans were and I told him I wanted to get an IAmsterdam card. He wasn't sure if it was worth it, but I asked him where I could get one anyway. There was a tourist office in Leidseplein he directed me to, but it didn't open until 10 am so I had to wait a little while. I left my luggage at the hotel and walked around Leidseplein, which is a lively area full of touristy shops and restaurants near a cute canal. I went into a Delft pottery store and saw how expensive real Delft is. When the tourist office opened I got the IAmsterdam 24-hour card for 39 euros (more about this later). It entitled me to a free canal cruise, which I did with the Blue Boat Canal company which started a block or two away from my hotel. I was really jetlagged by this point, but I couldn't rest because my room wasn't ready. The cruise commentary was pre-recorded in several different languages, and just provided a bare bones description of what we were seeing. I usually don't find cruises too exciting. The canals and architecture are really charming, though. All the buildings have their own unique character. Saw a lot of houseboats, many of which were covered in potted plants. We went into the harbor and saw the NEMO science discovery center, and the largest floating Chinese restaurant in the world. After the cruise I still had some time to kill before my room was ready, so I walked around Leidseplein and saw a kid playing chess with a chess master (maybe) on a gigantic chess board on the ground, with a crowd of people watching. The chess master won. Then I walked around some more and saw some fake but very real-looking iguanas on a lawn planted with tulips. Amsterdam is full of quirky things like this. I was taking pictures when all of a sudden I noticed some old guy coming out of a green tubular structure right next to me. He looked a little surprised, and I realized that the green thing was a public outdoor urinal. I hope he didn't think I was taking pictures of him. Amsterdam has lots of these urinals, and they leave the man's feet and head exposed. Very weird. I later found out that in the Red Light District, they have a different type of urinal that leaves the man even more exposed. They're just enclosed on the sides. I went to the main street on Leidseplein and got some fries with cheese dip and hot dogs (without the buns) from Vlaamse Frites. I got them because Amsterdam is known for its fries and I wanted something cheap and fast, but they were pretty nasty. Then I walked through Vondel Park, which is right next to my hotel. It was very warm out and the park was extremely busy. Saw lots of people lying on the grass and of course bike riders. The park has nice flower arrangements (the Dutch take their flowers very seriously) and interesting bird life. I saw some Eurasian coots, a heron, and lots of ducks including some babies. The residential streets next to Vondel Park have beautiful homes and mansions. After this my room was finally ready, so I went back and took a nap. My room was just adequate, it wasn't too cozy or anything. It looked like a dorm room, it was a single so it was very narrow, and it was on the second floor (first floor in Europe) so people could see in if I didn't close the blinds. It had gotten very good reviews on tripadvisor but I was a little disappointed. Hotels in Amsterdam are very expensive and this was costing me 485 euros for five nights. I guess this was a good deal since a lot of hotels that cost the same were much farther from the city center and didn't include breakfast. Also if you pay much less for a hotel in Amsterdam you risk finding yourself in bedbug territory. After my nap I walked to Museumplein, which is 5 to 10 minutes away from Leidseplein, saw the outside of the Rijksmuseum and the park where they have the gigantic "iamsterdam" letters that people can climb on, and used my IAmsterdam card to get into the Van Gogh museum. It has an excellent collection, however I'm not the biggest Van Gogh fan and was still very jetlagged. After this it was past 5 pm and all the other museums covered by the card were closed, so I wandered around the city. I think the best thing about Amsterdam is just walking and looking at the architecture and all the quirky things they have lying around. For instance, I saw a fake cow standing on a roof, and fake cats climbing up the sides of buildings. A lot of the buildings are 16th or 17th century. They all have hooks coming out of their gabled roofs to hoist stuff up and down, since their stairways are so narrow. A lot of them lean because their pilings are built on swampland. Some of them have roofs that are terraced like rice paddies. The canals make everything picturesque. I went into a cheese shop (Henri Willig) and had some Gouda samples, a clog store, and window shopped at the magic mushroom and hemp/ cannabis shops. I smelled a lot of weed in the streets. Amsterdam is such a weird mix of high and low culture. Eventually I stumbled upon the Anne Frank house and saw that it was open until 9 pm, although it wasn't covered by the IAmsterdam card. I waited in line for about 20 minutes. It was a moving experience. I saw the offices in the lower floors, and then the secret annex. All the rooms were bare because Otto Frank wanted them to remain that way. But they still had the original wallpaper (in parts) and floors, and Anne Frank's room still had the magazine cut-outs she had pasted on the walls. You could also see the measurements they had taken of Anne's and Margot's heights over the years on a wall. They were both much taller than I am. They also had books owned by the family (prayer books, a Dutch language book, Dickens), a map Otto had used to keep track of the Allied invasions, etc. In a corridor following the annex they showed what happened to each person in the annex, with the papers showing their names on the deportation list. In the lower level of the modern attached building, they had Anne's diaries and the foolscap papers she had used to start rewriting them. The rooms were actually a little larger than I had expected. There were two floors for the two families living there. Not that the rooms were comfortable, but they weren't terrible, either. After this I wanted to get something to eat, but didn't want to stop for a sit-down meal. I eventually settled on a fast-food wok place (which they have a lot of) and got something with rice, chicken and oyster sauce. I thought I would sit down and eat in Dam Square, but it took me a while to find it, and when I did find it I realized that sitting down would be a very bad idea. It was dark out and there were huge crowds of guys on their way to the Red Light District, which made me feel uncomfortable, so I took out my food and walked while I ate. Lots of guys gave me funny looks. One guy who was passing me kind of tapped me on the shoulder. I realized I had to keep moving or else the guys would harass me. Single females in the RLD are pretty rare, I guess. I didn't think I would be attacked or anything, but I still felt very uncomfortable and out of place. I gathered up my courage and walked towards the Red Light District. The area was packed and people were spilling out of the bars and coffee shops. Eventually I reached the streets where you could see the prostitutes standing in the windows under the red lights. A lot of them also had black lights that made their bikinis glow. I didn't look at them very carefully because I felt awkward and I also didn't want to attract guys' attention. There were lots of groups of men from the UK and Australia and US egging each other on. What can I say about this? It was bizarre, disconcerting, and revolting. They say that the prostitutes are free agents, but I've read that a lot of them are really controlled by pimps. Down one of the canals lined with sex shops, I could see a flock of swans floating in the darkness. Amsterdam's a weird place. I think it would be a much nicer city without the prostitution and drugs, because they attract undesirables. It's mostly the tourists who get out of control. The Dutch do things more discreetly. I got kind of lost on the way back to the hotel because I kept thinking I was going south, but then the canal I was following would turn and I wouldn't wind up where I thought I should be. The canals are ring shaped, so nothing goes in a straight line. I also didn't know what buses or trams to take. Eventually I found a tram going to Museumplein, so I got on that but I wound up missing my stop and had to walk back along the tram line quite a ways. Amsterdam's actually not that hard to navigate once you get used to the ring system, but I was really tired and wasn't thinking clearly. Sunday, April 3: I had breakfast at the hotel buffet. I was expecting them to have hot food, or at least a large continental breakfast, but the pickings were pretty meager. They just had cereal, fruit, bread, slices of meat and cheese, and hard-boiled eggs. Again, I was a little disappointed. The hard-boiled eggs were partly raw inside, so I couldn't eat the yoke. Europeans seem to like undercooked eggs. As a side note, the water in the Netherlands is one of the best European waters I've had (which isn't saying much because I hate European water). Still, it was good to have breakfast included so I didn't have to start scavenging for food in the morning. The hotel also had a temperamental cat (or two) who would be nice to me sometimes but then would lash out at me. I've read that a lot of Dutch hotels have cats. I think it's a nice touch. I went to the Rijksmuseum and used my IAmsterdam card. They're doing renovations so I think some of the rooms were closed, but I saw all of the major works – Vermeer, Rembrandt, etc. The Night Watch is a huge piece. Overall I liked the museum, though it wasn't super exciting. At the gift shop I got a pretty Delft style 27 euro tulip vase, which seemed to be selling like hotcakes. Afterwards I walked towards the Amsterdam Historical Museum. I passed the Bloemenmarkt, which I liked a lot. They have an amazing collection of tulips and bulbs and the stalls float on the canal. I bought a little Dutch ceramic shoe filled with three tulip bulbs, and a little pot of lavender seeds (that expired in 2009, as I found out when I opened the package back in America). There are some cute crafty shops in the street alongside the Bloemenmarkt. I kept walking and went into the Begijnhof, which is a beautiful collection of houses around a courtyard originally used by the beguines (and still inhabited by poor women today). It was filled with tourists, but the residential pathways were off limits. Eventually I made it to the Amsterdam Historical Museum. I gave them my IAmsterdam card, only to be informed that it had expired. I had assumed that the 24 hour card meant that I had two full business days to use it, but it actually meant you had exactly 24 hours from the time you bought it. I was upset and complained to the nice young man at the cash register, saying that it was silly to expect tourists to use it at night, since nothing was open. The guy mentioned that it could be used for transportation at night, but he seemed to understand the unfairness of it. I think it's very misleading. It might just barely have been worth it for me to buy it. Maybe I broke even. It was museum weekend in Amsterdam, so the museum was discounted and I got in for 7.50 euros. The museum was interesting, but again I didn't find it super exciting. They had a lot of leather shoes from the Middle Ages (they seem to have had smaller feet back then). They had some interesting videos on the Dutch East and West India Companies. This museum was also undergoing renovation, so I'm not sure if I got to see all the rooms. One thing I was surprised at in this museum and others is how little time is spent to the Eighty Years' War. The modern section was interestingly done, but I was getting kind of restless and sped through it. After this I went into the New Church where they were having an exhibit on Islamic art. You had to pay for this so I only saw the front of the church, where they had a gift shop. It didn't seem too impressive. I walked to Dam Square which is much more family- oriented in the daylight. It's very touristy there, with Madame Tussaud's and a dungeon exhibit with live actors. The Palace had recently reopened (though it was still undergoing renovation and was covered by a huge sheet) but I've seen a lot of palaces and didn't feel like paying to see this one. I then went to the Old Church, which is about 10 minutes away and in the Red Light District. It was free admission for museum weekend. I really liked this church. It was the only place in Amsterdam where I could really smell and feel the history. The floors were covered in carved tombstone slabs, the wooden ceilings were painted, and one of the stained glass windows had the coats of arms of wealthy families. In one of the chapels they had a spiral staircase and, next to this, the room where Rembrandt and Saskia were married. Saskia's tomb was on the other side of the church. What I really liked about the church was that you could go into the choir (at least, you could on the day I was there). I could get a really good look at the medieval choir stalls, which I usually can't do, which had very interesting grotesque carvings including a man defecating money, a woman getting whipped with her pants down, a bird with a man's head, and a three-eyed male head. When I left the church, I was surprised to find myself in the middle of the Red Light District. There were prostitutes in the windows directly across the street (although they were kind of fat and dumpy, since it was off-peak hours). I walked a block away and went into the Church of Our Lord in the Attic, which had discounted admission. It's also undergoing renovation and I don't know if it's usually open. In the lower levels are quaint 17th century Dutch rooms, although a lot of the furniture was missing due to renovation (it seemed like everything was being renovated while I was there). It was a classic example of Dutch Renaissance architecture. Some of the staircases were original. I went up to the attic and saw the church, which had been constructed out of the attics of three separate buildings. It was pretty cool. They had just repainted it with the original color, a dark purple. Then I went back downstairs and saw a kitchen with original Dutch tile, and a very primitive toilet. I stayed till closing time. After this I just wandered around some more and saw more houseboats, Anne Frank's statue outside the Westerkerk (though I couldn't go into the church), and the Jordaan. I stopped to eat in a diner across from the Westerkerk and got a hamburger, which was very mediocre. It had a taste I'm not used to. While I was sitting there a young Dutch guy walked in and came up to me and said he liked my scarf. I was a little taken aback. Then he said, "I think you are a tourist, is that right?" and I said yes hesitantly. He asked if I was alone but I tried not to give him a straight answer to this. He said, "I know, you're waiting for your entourage to come and pick you up, right?" Then he said I look different or something and asked, "What makes you special?" but I told him I couldn't answer that. He seemed nice enough and I didn't really feel threatened. In general the Dutch are very open and friendly and aren't afraid to look at you or come up to you. It's not like New York where it's practically taboo to make eye contact with a stranger. I think he said his name was Chris and he asked if I had ever met a Dutch person before, and I said not really. He asked me if I was Brazilian or Portuguese, and I laughed and said no, and then he said, "Please tell me where you're from," and I said New York. He seemed impressed by this and asked me to do a New York accent, but I refused and said I couldn't and would feel stupid trying. I really can't do a New York accent. Then he asked me what clubs or bars I would recommend he go to in New York. I said I didn't go to bars so I couldn't tell him. Then he asked what museum I would recommend, since, "You've got to have something to do in the day and in the night." I recommended the Met, and he said, "Oh, I've seen them on the steps of the Met on Gossip Girl." I laughed and said I didn't watch Gossip Girl, but I knew of the show. I thought how sad it is that the Dutch watch Gossip Girl, and that that's their introduction to American culture in general and New York in particular. He asked me again what made me special, but I didn't want to answer such a silly question. Then we shook hands and he went away. After dinner I walked down the Brouwersgracht in the Jordaan, which is full of old warehouses converted into loft apartments. The Jordaan is quirky and much more quiet and residential than the rest of Amsterdam. It was weird walking past people's windows which were flush with the street, so I could look in and see everything as if they were shop windows. At first I thought they were shop windows, but then I saw people reading and working on their computers inside. I also saw a pipe "wearing" a crocheted fabric that had been made by the Lady's Fancywork Society. I went back to my hotel a little early because I didn't want to be wandering around in the dark like I did last night. By this time I had gotten used to the ring system and found my way back easily. Monday, April 4: The next day I went on my first tour of the trip. I had to take the tram to the Central Station at the other end of Amsterdam, which is a very impressive building on the outside, not so much on the inside. I went to the Lindbergh office on Damrak, handed in my voucher and got a ticket. The tours run kind of like an assembly line. They had a huge number of people going on the morning tour. I got on a double decker bus and plugged in the earpiece they had given me to hear the pre-recorded English commentary, which actually wasn't bad. I was sitting next to a boy who had come with his family. They were from the US (his father was from New York) but now lived in New Zealand. When we left Amsterdam, the landscape turned into farmland almost immediately. There's very little suburban sprawl in Holland, which is nice. Our first stop was Zaanse Schans, a cute little windmill town. One scary thing about the tour is that they kept telling us that if we were late in returning they would leave without us. (The morning tour really did leave promptly at all its stops, so I wouldn't be surprised if some people did get left behind.) The guide took us through part of the town to get to a cheese factory, where they gave a short and cursory demonstration of how they make Gouda. Then they let us into the gift shop, where they were selling the same cheeses as I had seen in Henri Willig in Amsterdam, with samples. I liked the sheep cheese, but I didn't get anything. I left the store and had about 20 minutes of free time. I walked through the town and past the windmills for as long as I dared. It's a really cute town with canals, a lake or inlet and charming architecture. All the houses had pointy finials on their gabled roofs. There were sheep lazing around in several of the yards. Unfortunately the guy who was in charge of the public bathroom tried to hit on me, yelling, "Hey, baby," across the canal. Our free time was up far too soon and I had to retrace my steps. I asked some Australian girls to take my picture in a giant clog near the bus parking lot, and as I got out I dropped my camera bag. I didn't realize till I got to the bus and had to run back to get it. Our next stop was a coastal town called Volendam. Its main street on the water is very touristy but pretty. I went to a restaurant recommended by our guide. He said the seafood was very good here but I didn't feel like seafood, so I got an apple pancake. After I ordered the Australian girls invited me over to their table. They all currently lived and worked in London. They got fish dishes and said they were excellent. My pancake was so-so. Kind of dry. Oh, and at one point I got near the tour guide while we were walking and he told me that this was the first time he had led a tour with pre-recorded commentary. I asked him if he was getting bored, but he said no. Afterwards I only had about 15 minutes of free time, so I rushed to see the rest of the town while the Australian girls stayed put. The back streets are really charming, with cute decorations like clogs and potted plants, and narrow alleyways. In one of the yards there was a beautiful blue-eyed cat, and another had a rooster and a hen. Then I had to run back to get on the ferry to our next destination, Marken. The ferry ride was kind of boring and very windy. Marken is another quaint and picturesque town. It used to be on the sea but now sits on a freshwater lake. All the houses are black and green because those were traditionally the cheapest colors (green from plant pigment and black from tar). Some of the houses had sheep in their backyards. A lot of people still wear clogs here. Our guide led us through the town to the clog factory, where a woman in pink clogs painted with flowers showed us how they were made. Initially it's like copying a key, with the machine tracing the original pattern onto a piece of wood. She was pretty entertaining. She said she thought clogs were sexy. She also explained that clogs were worn because they were cheap, which was good for (formerly very large) Dutch families, and easy to put on and take off when working in the wet, swampy landscape. She told us that to buy clogs you had to wear a thick sock and a thin sock and buy a pair that were one size bigger than what you normally wear. Some of the clogs (for engagements) had patterns carved on them. The clogs were cute but I didn't get anything. Outside the factory there was a meadow with some fluffy white sheep. Overall the tour was a good way to see cute Dutch towns, though I wonder if I would have been better off just going to Vaanse Schans by myself for the day. After this we got back on the bus and went back to Amsterdam, where I was immediately transferred to a smaller bus for the afternoon tour. For this one our tour guide gave commentary instead of a prerecorded voice. He was an Italian guy called ___ and said everything in English and Spanish. I sat next to a Mexican guy (Raphael) who was there with his family. He was very friendly and through much of the tour spoke to me in Spanish while I answered in English. I could understand almost everything he said. He is or was a COBOL programmer. ___ was a likeable, very Italian guy (funny that he should lead a tour of Holland). Our first stop was a Delft pottery factory (called Pauw, or Peacock). The traditional way of making Delft pottery is disappearing. They gave us a brief demonstration of how they make and paint the pottery, then showed us into the gift shop. It's very expensive stuff. A large vase costs several hundred euros. I was pretty happy with the tulip vase I had gotten in the Rijksmuseum gift shop, which was 27 euros and looks just as nice (I think). We then went to the main square of Delft, which is a very pretty town with an impressive medieval tower and more nice canals. They have some kind of Vermeer museum but I didn't have time to go in. Nor did I have time to go into the church were William of Orange is buried (although maybe I could have done it if I rushed, but you have to pay to see the tomb). I just walked through the town, which is like a much smaller, less exciting version of Amsterdam. We had about 15 or 20 minutes before we had to return to the bus. Next stop was The Hague, which we just drove through while ___ commented. The Hague is a very modern city with concrete instead of canals. The governmental buildings are impressive. We saw the Queen's Palace and lots of embassies. We made a stop at the Peace Palace (International Court of Justice) and took our pictures in front of it. You can't get too close because there are gates. A young Saudi Arabian guy who was studying English in England took my picture and started talking to me. What I really didn't like about this tour is that we spent so much time at our next stop, Madurodam, while speeding through Delft and The Hague. Madurodam is right outside The Hague and contains a model of important Dutch buildings at 1/25th the actual size. It's somewhat interesting and I'm sure must be thrilling if you're into models, but I'm not. Plus the weather changed drastically and I was freezing, so I went inside early. The Saudi Arabian guy asked if he could tag along with me, and I said okay. His English was good but not great. He asked if I wanted to hang out with him and his friend the next day, but I couldn't and wouldn't. One problem with being by yourself on these tours is that strange people start talking to you. I generally don't want to spend the time and energy talking to someone if I'm never going to see them again. I think the tour should have left out Madurodam completely and let us walk around the Hague, although it's a very spread-out city so that may be difficult. Or they should have at least given us more time in Delft. Tuesday, April 5: This was my day to go to Keukenhof Gardens, which was one of my main reasons for going to Holland in the first place. I decided to go by myself instead of in a tour group, since it seemed pretty easy to get there with a Combi-ticket (25 euros for round trip transportation and entrance fees) and I could come and go as I pleased. Also the guided bus tour charges you more if you stay there longer, but I couldn't see why because it's not like they were doing anything for you while you were in the gardens. Anyway, I went to the tourist office to pick up a ticket, but they didn't open until 10 am, so I walked around Leidseplein some more and went into Vondel Park. It was drizzling off and on but the park was very nice and peaceful. I saw a huge number of green parrots or parakeets (very much like the wild monk parakeets they have in Park Guell in Barcelona), some of which were playing around in the cherry blossom trees. I've got to say Holland is the best European country I've seen for bird life, probably because it's built on a swamp. There was a duck family hanging out by the edge of a pond with about 10 fluffy chicks. Once a dog came near them, one of the parents would herd all the babies into the water while the other parent would stand by and squawk at the dog. As soon as the danger was gone the duck and chicks got right back on land. It was really cute. The park also has a forest area where I saw a lot of warblers and other small birds. I walked on the streets lining the park where there are beautiful, really expensive homes – again with windows on the ground floor that you could see right into. While I was walking, a garbage man saw me and shouted "Hola" at me. Everyone thinks I'm Spanish. On the way back through the park I saw a heron at the edge of a pond stalking its prey. It caught one small fish. I got the Combi-ticket and got on the 197 bus to Schiphol airport, then transferred for another bus to the gardens. This bus was packed with tourists – mostly Asian – and I had to hang onto a very uncomfortable plastic hand grip that cut into my hand whenever the bus turned. It took about an hour to get there, and the park was pretty empty since it was a weekday and the weather wasn't good (rainy and cool). Keukenhof was beautiful, but it was a little too early in the season. The tulips were just coming up and a lot of the flowers were still closed. It was mostly daffodils, crocuses, hyacinth and very early tulips. This was disappointing, but then I found the indoor tulip exhibition. This was a huge greenhouse full of the fanciest varieties of tulips, all with different (sometimes funny and bizarre) names. They were pretty incredible. A lot of the tulip petals were fuzzy or crinkly, and they came in all different colors and sizes. Throughout the day I kept coming back to this exhibition. They also had lots of hyacinths, lilac, lilies, and other plants which made the greenhouse smell amazing. The tulips themselves don't have much of a smell. Keukenhof has other buildings with different flower exhibitions, including one with orchids and one with chrysanthemums. The buildings are named after Dutch royalty. I ate a warm tomato, mozzarella and pesto puff pastry in a cafeteria, which was pretty good. The gift shops were mediocre. They should have had books on the tulip craze and the history of the tulip in Holland, for example. There was also a very interesting Victorian organ by the entrance, which played modern and old songs. When I came in it was playing "Lemon Tree," which was weird. I went into a windmill they had on the grounds. There's a tulip field nearby but it only had daffodils coming up when I was there. There's also a "natural" Dutch forest whose ground is covered in shells, I guess because this area used to be on or in the ocean. Half (or a quarter?) of Holland is reclaimed land. There were interesting sculptures throughout the grounds with a "Mother Earth" theme, and I saw a flock of swans. Oh, and they had a small farm with some ewes and very cute black sheep, two very playful piglets, and other animals. It was definitely worth going to Keukenhof, but I think they should charge a little less before the outdoor tulips are at their peak. It would be absolutely incredible during peak season. When I got back to Amsterdam I was exhausted so I took a nap. I was going to have a nice dinner that night but I really wasn't hungry. It's also very hard to find authentic Dutch food in Amsterdam. I don't think they like their own food. Most of the restaurants are Asian (a lot of Indonesian and Chinese), American, South American, Italian, Turkish, etc. I just wanted to get something cheap and easy so I went to a FEBO automat and got a beef croquette, which is a fried and breaded beef stick filled with some kind of cream, which was pretty disgusting. Holland is not known for its food. Wednesday, April 6: This was the day of my second Lindbergh tour. We were going to Ghent and Bruges in Belgium. I actually had the same Italian guide, ___, who recognized me and said that he was sorry I would have to sit through the same jokes as last time. This time I sat next to a young Malaysian woman who was studying anesthesia in London. We got along pretty well, though whenever she talked about art and architecture I could tell she had no idea what she was talking about. She mentioned that she had taken a tour of the Red Light District, which is probably a good idea when you're a single female traveler. Anyway, it took a long time to get to our first destination, Ghent. Our guide took us to the main square, which is beautiful but undergoing massive reconstruction. There's a huge hole in the ground. I went into a lace store (recommended to us by the guide) and got a lace sachet with lavender in it and two lace butterfly pins for a few euros. I'm not a huge lace fan (it seems a bit old-ladyish), but the small pieces were nice. We had a fair amount of free time. I went into Saint Bavo cathedral and paid four euros to see the Ghent Altarpiece, which is in a separate room and very impressive and big. I listened to the audio guide for a while, but I felt pressured to get out and see as much of Ghent as I could. I went into some other churches on the square and walked around a bit. The public bathrooms were located in the basement of the huge medieval tower (and cloth weighing house?). The city hall was an incredibly ornate Gothic building with statues of knights and merchants, but I couldn't go inside. I noticed that most Belgians are very fair and good looking. Ghent seemed pretty but not terribly exciting, although maybe that's because I didn't have enough time to really get a sense of the place. After this we got back in the bus and drove a relatively short distance to Bruges. Again our tour guide led us through the town to the main square, which is much more impressive and beautiful than Ghent's. It has another huge medieval tower and was lined with guild buildings converted into expensive restaurants with lots of outdoor seating. Down the street there's another piazza with the Gothic city hall and the beautiful gilded but tiny façade of the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Our guide led us to one of the canals where there's a canal boat ride, and he said we could go on the boat cruise (for an added fee), go to a restaurant with him, or go off by ourselves. I chose to go off by myself, although thinking back on it the cruise might have been nice. We had about three hours here. The city is full of quaint medieval buildings and a few canals, which is why some people call Bruges the Venice of the North, but I think that Amsterdam has a much better claim to that title. I walked down a street that was filled with chocolate shops and got a Belgian waffle. I asked for cream sauce but the guy gave me chocolate. It was good but not great. I probably didn't pick the best place to get it from, but I was hungry and wanted something quick and cheap. I looked at all the chocolate displays in the windows. Some of the chocolates were molded into "dirty" shapes. The really good, hand-made chocolates were very expensive. I got a small box of assorted chocolates from Chocoholic, a chain Belgian chocolate store, for about 7 euros. When I tasted them back in the States they were delicious. Also the lace stores here seemed better than in Ghent, but I had already bought my lace. I saw a traditional lace worker working in a little niche in a building. I also went into the Church of Our Lady and saw the Madonna statue by Michelangelo. For some reason I didn't find it or the church that impressive. I walked back to the main square and went into the Basilica of the Holy Blood. It's a very small church with modern (though antique style) paintings, a modern wooden pulpit in the shape of a globe, and a wooden roof – not what I expected at all. It's a pretty church, though. The relic of the holy blood is usually shown in a chapel, but it wasn't there. I asked a lady who worked there when it was displayed and she said between 2 and 4. It was a little after 4 so I had just missed it. I paid 1.50 to see the basilica's museum, but there wasn't anything too exciting. I walked around some more and met my group back in the main square where our guide led us to a chocolate shop to have free samples. It was good but I didn't buy more chocolate. After this I followed one of the canals into a more residential area. I saw a lace school and noticed that a lot of homes have beautiful lace curtains on their windows. It was a warm, sunny day and the city was very busy. I just kept walking till we had to go back to the bus. I kept hoping to see some really unexpected, quirky, or exciting things like in Amsterdam, but it never happened. Overall I would say Bruges is a very beautiful city, but not particularly exciting. Maybe I would feel differently if I had had time to go into some of the museums. It's mainly a place for tourists and rich Belgians to sit in restaurants and drink beer and eat long drawn-out meals and watch life go by. Thursday, April 7: The next morning I waited a long time for the 197 bus to take me back to the airport. While I waited I watched all the Dutch ride by on their bikes. I was struck by how well- proportioned, healthy, fair and generally good-looking the Dutch are. I had read that they are the tallest people in the world. All clothing looks good on them and they are invariably well dressed. I don't know how they manage to look so neat and put together even while riding their bikes. It was perfect bike-riding weather while I was there, but I wondered how they do it when it gets cold or hot out. There are bike lanes everywhere so the bike riders don't have to compete with oncoming traffic, although pedestrians get the short end of the stick, and it's an especially good place for riding because it's so flat. The flight back was uneventful. It was pretty empty and I had a whole row to myself. Oh, and I forgot to mention that several people I spoke to during this trip asked me how long I was here for, and when I told them they all expressed surprised at how short my stay was. Apparently they think that travelers (especially Americans who have an 8 hour flight) spend at least several weeks traipsing through Europe. I don't know where they get this idea from. People travel for all different lengths of time. Plus, most Americans don't have such long vacations that they can stay for as long as they want. Overall I really enjoyed my trip. I think Amsterdam is the weirdest European city I've ever been to.