We have officially booked our next trip! October 2020: Disney, here we come.
We need something to look forward to. We need the promise of a long weekend, just the two of us (and baby) somewhere happy where we can stroll, see sights beyond our neighborhood, and relax. We need to know that life will go on and we will get back out to enjoy the things we love.
It’s a baby step (it’s certainly not an international destination), but it’s us getting back out there, supporting normalcy, and planning some kind of future. It’s the idea that we will make it through this crazy time, and we will be on the other side in blue skies, sharing a magical place with our baby boy.
While we were at it, we decided to check off one of the “big three” (the resorts closest to the Magic Kingdom) resorts: we will be staying at the Contemporary! Even though it’s not the best looking resort on property (sorry, but it’s true!), there’s something about the location and the fact that the monorail goes through the main building (I’m a grown woman and still find it exciting!) that we just have to experience.
I have officially begun my trip countdown! The end of social distancing may be elusive… but I’m holding onto our October date. Time to start planning something other than what pajamas to wear 🙂
I hadn’t realized that so much time had passed since I sat down to write about one of our adventures… Seeing the date of my last post is admittedly quite shameful, as I truly do enjoy writing here, and had promised myself to spend time enjoying the exercise of writing creatively and reliving our experiences. (and hopefully entertaining the one or two readers who find there way here…)
So, what on earth have I been doing with my time?
Well… in the past 18 months, we have: remodeled our kitchen and most of the house; gotten married; gotten engaged (yes, in that order); each accepted wonderful job opportunities (and work full-time +); we got pregnant!; had some family changes resulting in more time with our other children; had a baby… and, of course, continued to travel here and there whenever possible.
I always have the best of intentions to share our travel stories… every time we go away, I take notes – business cards of places I want to make sure to recommend, photos of significant things, and outline posts in my mind with every intention of typing them up and clicking “publish”…. BUT somehow, I end up putting my ideas in my mental “later” file, promising that “someday” I’ll catch up.
…Enter Maternity Leave, which I thought would be a great time to pick up where I left off, and blog away…
…Then reality set in. My pregnancy was not the easiest (though, quite thankfully, we are both healthy and happy now). I ended up going out earlier than planned; only to spend two days per week at the doctor’s office, a couple of days in the hospital, and the rest of my time cramming in as much prep as I could get done (freezer meals, cleaning what I could, washing baby clothes… the whole nine yards) and trying not to work or worry myself into labor. Baby’s birthday was also expedited… abruptly putting an end to the “relaxing” pre-baby time that I had set aside. After a few nights in the hospital, and readjusting to the cadence of life with a newborn… COVID-19 came.
Preparation for our family’s safety became our number one. Getting what we needed, pantry staples to serve as back-up if stores stopped carrying certain items… jokes about toilet paper (no, despite having a household of 7, we did not stockpile) … the usual. After getting baby and I to our first checkups, my husband and I stopped at the nearby Target to grab some things… lightheartedly joking about the “Doomsday Preppers” and trying to think logically about what we would actually need. A couple more days passed, news coverage escalated, and we soon realized that we had to have real plans. We made the decision pretty quickly to close off our home to any visitors for the sake of our newborn – and I stopped leaving the house other than to get fresh air and walk around the block. We then found ourselves planning for our worst-case scenarios. What to do if one of the kids got it (our other 4 move between our house and their other parents’); what to do if my mother-in-law got sick? How to use the attached apartment (where my mom lives) as a quarantine area… and how to somehow stay safe and set up decontamination once my husband, an ICU physician, went back to work after his week with us.
At first, my thinking was that it couldn’t be a worse time to blog about our travel… adding unnecessary fuel to anyone’s wanderlust (including my own) at a time when we should all be hunkering down and staying put for everyone’s greater good. After giving it some more thought, however, I don’t ever want to lose sight of the great big world outside of home – especially as these walls feel smaller by the day.
When the immediate threat is over, we will all need and want to get out there again. We will all be hurting – some financially, some potentially with health concerns… some by loss, some by the pure experience of it all. None of us will ever be the same. We need to remember that the world is not as small as we think, and we are all in this together.
So- I will do my best amid sleep deprivation and homeschooling chaos to share my stories- my love letters to the places we’ve been, (from Disney to Thailand) and promises to future destinations. On the other side of this crisis, we will be back out there.
After our very full and delightful day in Brussels, our late train, and perhaps even the jet lag finally hitting us, we slept-in quite soundly on the morning of our last day.
Surprised and blessed with another day of good weather (cool, but less rainy than forecasted), we wanted to enjoy being out in the city as much as possible- soaking in the beautiful buildings, toying with the idea of renting bikes, catching a few of the sights we had left on our list… and eating.
Our first stop for the day was the Van Gogh museum. Having purchased our tickets in advance (I would definitely recommend doing this! We saved a tremendous amount of time, and it made our visit much more enjoyable!), we were able to arrive at the museum during our designated timeframe, and essentially walk right in. As Rabbit stood in line to check our coats, I was able to quickly obtain our audio tour devices. The audio tour was a definite highlight of the museum. The paintings were beautiful and at times very moving, but the ability to hear the story of both Van Gogh, and his artwork while moving through the open, chronologically arranged galleries was really wonderful and enriching. The opportunity to watch his style evolve and take in the beautiful details of his works- from The Potato Eaters to Almond Blossoms to Sunflowers to Roots, and everything in between.. was truly remarkable. The audioguides also allowed you to dial in to specific exhibits to learn more- meaning that when we were not particularly interested in a particular room, or wished to avoid a crowd, we skipped over those exhibit numbers, and took the tour at our own pace. The morning at the museum was one of my highlights of the trip- enabling me to get my fix of local history, and enjoy some beautiful art. (Pssst… friendly spoiler alert: A bit to Rabbit’s disappointment, Starry Night is displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC – though that just means we have more to enjoy closer to home!)
After our museum stroll, we had surprisingly worked up an appetite. During our previous sightseeing day, we had noticed that Amsterdammers seem to have a love of burgers… as fate would have it, so do we. So, we set out to find the best burger in the city… after a bit of a struggle with Google maps, and some on-the-fly research through google, trip advisor, and some other random travel blogs… we set our course for “Burger Bar”. The location we found looked very intriguing… and smelled delicious. A glass storefront opened to a simple space filled with a large natural wood community table, flanked by interesting side high-top seating, all leading up to an immense billboard-like menu at the back, with an open kitchen/grill as the focal point. The possibilities were seemingly endless- able to choose your bun style, protein type (varieties of premium beef, wagyu, Angus, vegetarian, or chicken), cheese, and mouthwatering toppings… I knew that we were in the right place.
This burger (above, right) was one of the best things I have ever eaten. Delicious. I’d go back in a heartbeat, just for the architecture, and this burger. It. was. that. good.
Next, we strolled the city a bit more… deciding that although we were unable to secure tickets for a tour, we wanted to visit the Anne Frank House museum. Even if it was only for the opportunity to get a glimpse of the exterior, soak in the feeling of her neighborhood and the incredible history of the area and it’s people, the trip to the area around her home and the Prinsengracht was something I am so glad that we did. For me, the experience of being at her former home, and acknowledging the weight and importance of the history of the neighborhood was very sobering. The neighborhood felt unlike the other parts of the city that we had explored, and had many new beautiful buildings and row homes to enjoy.
Our final stop for the day was to Pancakes Amsterdam, located just near the Anne Frank museum. We had learned about the small chain during a travel video we watched at home during planning, and I had been very anxious to taste what made their pancakes special. Pancakes being a go-to favorite weekend breakfast at home, I wanted to see how these differed from what I am accustomed to mixing up. They certainly did not disappoint! The menu offered 30 different pancakes- from poffertjes (I had the raspberry!), American pancakes (we skipped these), and crepe-like Dutch pancakes (Rabbit had the apple and cheese). Yum!! It was the perfect light-dinner that we had been hoping for, comforting, familiar, and new at the same time- it was a great way to end our day out, and send us back to the hotel to pack.
Amsterdam was a beautiful, tasty, and remarkable city! Though considered a major metropolis, the pace was slower than what we are accustomed to at home, and we were able to relax and enjoy the sights, sounds, and experiences that the city had to offer. Extensive, yet easy to utilize mass transportation throughout the city made it easy for us to navigate the area, and the friendly locals made us feel right at home. I can definitely see why so many people love coming to the “Venice of the North” – and I would be very open to coming back… and maybe even braving the bike lane!
On our second full day away, we made an amazing day trip to Brussels. In keeping with our goal to visit as many destinations as possible, it was important for us to make a side trip. Just a two-hour train ride away, Brussels was a perfect spot!
Having scoped out the train station, and picked up our tickets the day before, we were able to relax a bit in the morning, and grab some breakfast before our early morning train. We took the extra time to explore the train station a bit while waiting for our train- Amsterdam Centraal Station is beautiful. High ceilings of glass and open air made it far more enjoyable than the train stations I am used to in the Northeast, and it was a gorgeous place in its own right.
The train was immaculate, comfortable, and very relaxing. (So much so that I was lulled to sleep, and admittedly missed most of the ride).
Two hours later, we arrived in a station that felt quite different. Still open and simple, it felt more city-like and more utilitarian. After finding our way to the bathroom for a quick pit stop (remember to have change or small bills to pay for the toilet!!) We were on our way to explore the city.
Pay for potty…
Rabbit loves Tin Tin!
Unsure about how easy it would be to find our way, and how long it would take to see and taste all that was on our list, we scheduled ourselves for a pretty late train back to Amsterdam, leaving us a whole 9 hours in Brussels. Admittedly, we did not see an extensive portion of the city, but thoroughly enjoyed our experience.
On our list of sights were the Grand Place and the Manneken de Pis – both within walking distance of each other and the train station, allowing us to set off in one general direction to see what we could see. I had not done any advance planning for the day, and left the agenda to Rabbit, who had wanted to visit Brussels during a prior trip but was unable to get a train ticket! (Tip: reserve Thalys or other train tickets in advance, as soon as you can because they do sell out!) The goal was not to pack the day, but more to experience it, take in what we could, and enjoy. Given that we were visiting in March, we were unable to see the beautiful flowers and related warm-weather sights, but knew that we would still find the beauty of the city.
Not really knowing what to expect (other than the statue of the little boy peeing…), it was a really beautiful surprise. On our way to the area surrounding the Grand Place, you could feel the history, life, and age of the city- it really filled me with awe to take it in and realize that the city had been around in some form for over 1400 years, (settled in 580) and there we were. I felt connected to the city somehow, and very comfortable as we strolled along. Given that Brussels is the capital city of Belgium, it is somewhat what you would expect from a major city, similar in tempo to Philadelphia, I think…
Faithfully following Google maps, we made our way towards the Grand Place, and after turning the corner from a rather unsuspecting side street, we were welcomed into the most incredibly stunning and beautiful square I have ever set foot in.
Destroyed by fire in 1695, and rebuilt during the following four years, the square is absolutely captivating… gold-leafed buildings, imposing facades, ornate details, and a sense of mystery surrounded us, and I was left speechless.
After taking our picture from as many angles as we could think of, and staring at the buildings for a solid 10 minutes – which seemed to be about the average amongst the other tourists as well – we explored the Town Hall (which is the one remaining medieval building in the square.. and my favorite).
Next, we found ourselves a spot at one of the outdoor cafes, and enjoyed some lunch – the mussels were delicious!! Here, we found the most intimate shared mens/women’s room in all of what we have seen of Europe, and attempted to stay warm while dodging the raindrops.
After lunch, we strolled to some of the other buildings in the square, finding several chocolate shops (Neuhaus and Mary’s being our favorites), and an indoor mall area (Galleries Royal Saint-Hubert) with some interesting shops – including a great bookstore! – before making our way to see the Manneken de Pis and grab our first Belgian waffle! I could have happily eaten waffles all day! The yeast dough, and bits of caramelized sugar baked right in… perfection. I am determined to find some appropriate sugar so that I can attempt to recreate them here at home. (Though I have found a restaurant who serves authentic waffles nearby!).
We strolled the city a bit more before making our way (gravitating back) to the Grand Place to spend some time in Rabbit’s favorite building – the King’s House, which is now the Museum of the City of Brussels. I would highly recommend including the museum as part of your visit to the city- beautiful paintings, artifacts, the city’s story, and an exhibit dedicated to the Manneken and his many costumes – added to the incredible sight and experience of the building itself.
Next, we made our way to another cafe in the square for some dinner and to experience the Grand Place through sunset, soaking in the beauty of the buildings in the evening glow, and watching it transform as the nighttime lights came on… the Grand Place is one of the most beautiful places I have been – and certainly the most romantic. It was such a great trip, and a welcoming city! I hope to make it back to see more of Belgium someday.
After more pictures (its hard to say goodbye to a perfect view!), and gaining our energy for the walk back to the train, we made it back to the station in time to grab a light second dinner, and climb aboard our train back to Amsterdam, and another full day just around the corner!
After a solid night’s sleep, and some strong coffee to fight the jet lag (I made friends with the hotel’s cappuccino machine!), we started off on a full day of exploring the city!
We had an idea of what we wanted to see, but mostly set out with our bus passes, good appetites, the curiosity and desire to see everything we could, and plans to take in an evening canal boat ride. We walked about 9 miles during the day, and really enjoyed every step.
A few words of wisdom for those who set off to explore Amsterdam:
As per our research, the weather really does change throughout the day… we started with a drizzly rainy, cloudy day, had some great periods of blue skies and perfect breeze, and ended with a cool and drizzly night. Definitely dress in layers, prepared to take it all on!
Be aware of the bicycles! No kidding, there really are over 100,000 bikes in the city, and they definitely have the right of way. Both Rabbit and I had our near-misses, and we heard a few tourists yelp as they had theirs. The bike lanes are much more intimidating than the car lanes, with motorbikes and bicycles sharing the lanes and moving in many directions. Look in every direction before attempting to cross!
We knew that we wanted to at least see the Rembrandt and Van Gogh museums while we were in town, but the weather changed from rain to bright and sunny, so we snagged advance tickets for Van Gogh, and took advantage of the sunshine by walking the city.
Amsterdam is a very clean and beautiful city (other than the red-light district, perhaps), filled with friendly locals and tourists – most, if not all, of whom speak English- making it very enjoyable and easy to navigate and enjoy everything Amsterdam has to offer.
We passed through a canal-side street of market stalls selling tulips, souvenirs, and local wares, and a row of old shops, including the Amsterdam Cheese Store (a must stop!! try the coconut cheese – it is amazing!). It was at one market stand that we got to taste our first stroopwaffel… WOW! Freshly made thin, tender, cinnamon infused waffles brought together with a wonderfully gooey layer of caramel… one of my new favorite foods!
We strolled through an open market in a beautiful town square, and perused through a local bookstore – and a few other local shops, letting us get a real taste of the city. The buildings of the city are so beautiful and inviting- it was difficult to resist the temptation to walk into every building, take photos of every archway and facade, and explore every corner. It helped that there was an unexpected power outage in the city, which closed about half of the city’s shops and restaurants.
After our adventures we found a perfect spot for lunch, enjoying the outdoor deck of a cafe, overlooking a gorgeous view of a canals and an amazing row of crooked canal homes. The menu was full of delicious things to try, including the long-awaited bitterballen!
Bitterballen are deliciously bad-for-you, fried balls of diced meat (beef and/or veal), swimming in a rich, comfort-food worthy, delicious mac-and-cheese like roux. Served with coarse mustard, and REALLY hot inside, they are an incredibly decadent must-try Amsterdam bite. (…now my mouth is watering and I’m wondering how I can make them at home).
Bitterballen – let them cool first!
Rabbit staying warm
After enjoying the sights and tastes of our lunch, and attempting to warm up under the cozy fleece blankets on the patio, we set off to explore again, this time headed towards the Rembrandt museum. The museum, which is housed within Rembrandt’s actual home, includes rooms of artifacts the artist and his students, pieces of his original furniture and belongings, and a chance to interact with his studio. Moving through the space alongside the audio tour provided a great chance to learn some history, enjoy the surroundings and be immersed into the artists’ home.
Next, we headed back towards the Centraal Station, and the ticket counters for the canal boat tours. Due to the research I did in advance, and their prime location, we decided to go with Stromma tours. As luck would have it, the rain started to drizzle as the sun was setting, and our (dry, warm, enclosed) boat pulled away from the dock! The tour guide provided a great narrative of the city’s history and descriptions of the buildings, as we coasted through the waters, taking in the beautiful city illuminated by the white lights on the canal’s bridges, and streetlights. It was a perfect, romantic, relaxing way to finish our day’s tour of Amsterdam.
After grabbing some dinner at one of the Argentinian steakhouses in town, we headed back to the hotel to relax and prepare for our day-trip to Brussels – coming on day 2!
…Another title for this trip could be… “Amsterdam and Brussels: The trip that almost wasn’t!”.
This past March, we were both thrilled to plan a trip to Amsterdam! This time, we snagged train tickets for a quick day trip to Brussels- something that had been on Rabbit’s list for a while, and we were both very excited for.
Then… a nor’easter came. A real, two-feet-of-snow, state-of-emergency type nor’easter, coupled with power outages, zero visibility, hazardous roads, and – of course- cancelled flights. Determined to make it, we packed our bags and started our very snowy trek to Newark Airport, hoping to be able to take off. Upon arriving at the airport, we learned that pretty much every flight had been delayed or cancelled due to the weather conditions – except ours. Lesson learned: fly an Icelandic airline during the winter months- they can take off in anything. Somewhat shocked at our good fortune, we heard the pilots commenting before boarding that this storm was pretty run-of-the-mill for them (insert huge sigh of relief here). We did have some delay due to the de-icing process (which per the pilots was far less organized than it is for them at home), but took off and had one of the smoothest flights of all time.
After racing through the Keflavik airport to switch planes, we landed safely, happily, and a bit exhausted in Amsterdam!
Whereas we relied upon taxis and (mostly failed) Ubers in Athens, this time we decided to utilize the public transit system the city had to offer. Upon doing our initial research, we learned that the city is only a brief train ride away from the airport (which is also the train station), and that a bus line could bring us directly to our hotel, just outside the main city. Though very hesitant, I finally got Rabbit to agree to give it a go, and we purchase transit passes for the duration of our stay. The trip was surprisingly even easier than anticipated, and the passes were one of the best parts of our stay in Amsterdam!
After finding our way to the hotel, and taking a much-needed nap, we used the bus to get back into the city where we took to the streets in search of dinner, and an opportunity to explore.
While in the hotel, the tourism channel had been sharing information about various places – one in particular, Blauw – a highly rated and reviewed Indonesian restaurant – had caught my eye. Though we didn’t pay particular attention to where we were going within the city, we followed the traffic, and figured that we’d stumble upon something good. We ended up in the Red Light District (more on that later), and when we stumbled upon a sign saying “Blauw”, we hungrily jumped at the opportunity.
…Where we ended up was far different than the publicized Blauw, and even more incredible than we could have hoped for. We had stumbled into Blauw aan de wal, and simply and honestly, the best meal I have ever eaten.
Housed on a side street, the quiet and un-assuming building was a complete surprise. The intimate dining room itself, with exposed beams, brick walls, and candlelight had ambiance like no other. Greeted by our waiter at the door, we received a quick run-down of the menu/plan for our meal. Our choice was simply the number of courses, (which were explained to us after we asked). The menu was set, but we were able to easily request a simple modification to one dish that was happily received. Everything was incredible. Our 4-course menu for the evening included: razor clams with pearl couscous, sous-vide octopus (Rabbit’s favorite bite of the whole trip!); beef with bone marrow mashed potatoes; and a chocolate mousse for dessert.
Three months later, I am still in complete awe of the composition, presentation, and flavors of our meal- the entire experience was absolutely wonderful. Though we were lucky enough to snag the last walk-in table of the evening, I would highly recommend making reservations if you ever find yourself in Amsterdam. It is the most perfect spot for a date-night or special meal that I could imagine.
After our meal and experience was complete, we returned to the streets to see what we could. Outside of the Red Light District the city was pretty quiet, so we tucked in – and away from the drizzly rainy night – to prepare for a full day ahead of sightseeing.
Ahead in Day 1: walking the city, a canal boat tour, and yummy eats!
Our last day in Greece was a full, but relaxing day spent strolling the city to enjoy our favorite places to say goodbye, and taking in some new sights.
First on the list was getting to Syntagma Square to witness the changing of the guard ceremony at the Hellenic Parliament (Old Royal Palace). The tomb was unveiled in 1932, and serves as a monument to Greek soldiers who have lost their lives in various conflicts throughout history, through to WWI. The ceremony was a nice way to honor the people we had come to visit and enjoy, and to get a glimpse of some not-so-ancient history. The soldiers were impressive, and after learning that their shoes weigh 3 kilos, I am even more impressed by their ability to remain composed while moving through the ceremony’s kicks and controlled movements while maintaining such perfect composure.
After the ceremony, we took our time strolling the streets near the Ancient Agora, stopping to have lunch and to enjoy the street vendors who had set up for the day. Of course, stopping to grab a few last-minute souvenirs for our family (and some gelato), we made sure to soak in all of the fresh air and beautiful sights the city had to offer before catching our flight.
Boarding the plane was a little bittersweet!! I have to say that my first international trip was a tremendous success – full of wonderful moments and memories, delicious food, and very friendly people. We both agreed that we would love to come back to Greece to explore the islands someday in the warmer weather – and I hope that we are able to make it back.