…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.
It has been too long since my last post, (I blame school) but I am happy to finally share the stories of the rest of our trip to Athens and Istanbul!
…I warn you, this is a long one; we packed the day full!! (for lessons learned, and quick favorites, scroll to the end)…
The fourth day of our trip we spent on a whirlwind trip to Istanbul – though it was an incredible day, and we saw most things on our lists, we both agree that we would like to go back for a longer trip if we ever find ourselves back in that corner of the world.
We started with a quick flight from Athens to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. It was a little plane, but the staff was incredible and the flight was smooth – I honestly fell sound asleep and even missed the snacks! (Unlike me, though I’m starting to have a pattern of falling asleep on mass transit…)
The airport in Istanbul was quite a different experience from the smaller and slower airport in Athens- we were immediately greeted in Istanbul by lines of car services, tour groups, and others trying to get our attention… we did end up registering for a car service to take us to our first stop (which ended up being our rendezvous point), but the jury is still out as to whether or not that really was the best way to go. We had a clean car, safe drivers, and a pleasant experience… but perhaps paid a bit more than we could have.
Our first stop in Istanbul was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or Blue Mosque, built in 1616. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and one which I will never forget. I have been in many different places of worship, but this was my first trip to a Mosque. I was humbled to be taking in the beautiful building, the history of the place, the feeling of the religion, and the reverence in the air all at once. I think if we had more time, I would have liked to find a quiet place to sit and just soak it all in. It was a very peaceful, yet captivating visit – remembering brings a smile to my face. (*Please note, out of respect, all visitors adhere to an appropriate dress code – head coverings and material to cover legs is available for use for women during their visit; all visitors are asked to remove their shoes while inside; and visiting hours are adjusted to allow for prayer times).
Our second stop, just a short walk across an open square, was the Hagia Sofia. Built sometime around 532-537, it has served as both a church and mosque, and is now open to the public as a museum. The line to purchase tickets was a little daunting- particularly in the cold weather- but after getting a snack from the vendor outside, and chatting about the plans for the day, time passed quickly. (I definitely recommend trying some simit while you are in Turkey- simple sesame covered savory pastry – ours were filled with Nutella- they are the perfect little snack. Not too sweet, but definitely satisfying!). I am still not sure which was more spectacular- the view of the outside of Hagia Sophia which we enjoyed while in line, or the many views that we enjoyed as we walked through! Stone corridors, massive doorways, marble worn from years of visitors, prayer, and now admiration for this incredible place. I am so glad that we were able to make it here and take it all in!!
View of the interior
One of the many mosaiqs
Next, we took a short walk to the nearby strip of sidewalk cafes and shops to find some lunch. As per our experience so far in Greece, the service was a bit slow- for the first time, I actually witness Rabbit become impatient as we waited- he was anxious to continue sightseeing!
After lunch, we stumbled upon our first Hafiz Mustafa location, and were totally enticed by the beauty of the desserts on display. After purchasing two boxes to take home as souvenirs (they vacuum pack in the store for you, at no cost), along with some loose tea in a souvenir tin- we continued on our way through the streets of little shops and sights. [The baklava, by the way, kept really well through our journey home and was delicious! Light, not too sweet, filled with pistachios- I thoroughly enjoyed it!]…
We walked the stone streets passed the Basilica Cistern and through the entryway to the Topkapi Palace Museum before catching a cab to take us towards Istiklal Street, and the other sights on our list. We did not visit the inside of the Palace, due to the long lines for tickets, but the grounds were beautiful. (If we go back someday in warmer weather, I would like to go back and really see the palace).
We successfully hailed a cab somewhere to take us to Istiklal street, which is across the water (I believe the Bosphorus strait) from where we began our day… it was then that we really got a good look at the city as a whole- getting to see the modern city sights near the bridges, in contrast to the incredible history we began the day taking in.
I have walked busy streets, I have spent hours in Times Square, I have fought crowds in Philly, New York, Boston, and a few other major cities… I’ve been to Disney in the middle of summer when everyone in the world seems to be on summer vacation seeing Mickey… but I have never seen and experienced something like Istiklal Street. It was an amazing (and slightly overwhelming) mix of old and new, a massive mix of people, music, language, architecture, shops, foods… everything. Rabbit commented that he had never known me to be as quiet as I was when we walked down the street- it was almost impossible to take it all in! (I have noticed that I have no photos, either!). Although slightly exhausting, it was completely worth it, and something that I would revisit in a well-rested heartbeat.
We meandered down the street, past Galata Tower and through to another, less bustling area of restaurants and shops. We stumbled upon an interesting steakhouse, and had a restful and delicious lunch, enjoying the heat of being inside, and a chance to talk and process the sights of the day! The service was wonderful, everyone was very attentive (even insisting upon taking my steak back a second time to make sure that it was perfect), and delighted that we had come to visit their beautiful city.
After lunch/early dinner, we strolled a bit through Taksim Square and the remaining streets in the area before hailing a cab back towards the Blue Mosque. The view of the Mosque and the Hagia Sophia at sunset was an unforgettably peaceful and beautiful site to behold… I might have 15 pictures just trying to capture it.
We successfully found, and met up with our hired driver at our rendezvous spot, and embarked on our trip back to the airport. Thankfully, we had been a bit early to meet him; traffic heading back to the airport was intense- the main road was even shut down for a period due to a diplomatic visit, or official motorcade of some kind. After enjoying the airport for a little bit, we had another great flight back to Athens, and somehow stayed more-or-less awake until we reached our hotel!
This side trip was a likely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see amazing places, meet the friendly and delightful people of Turkey, taste some delicious food, and get some exercise (about 8 miles walking…); and it taught me a few travel lessons:
First, we have decided to try to limit our “second city” trips to places we can reach by car or train on future trips- although the flight was great, the time and stress added due to the airport experience, etc. was something that we’d prefer to do without for a day trip. (That being said… it depends on what the second city is!).
Second, I learned the importance of preparation… this day was planned entirely by Rabbit, who did an incredible job putting together our must-see list, and accounting for the logistics of it all, however, I wish that I had done some more prep in advance for myself, accounting for the historical background of the places we were seeing, etc. to enhance my understanding of the sights such as the Palace, the tower, et al.
Third, plan ahead for transportation! We had looked into it and saw that Uber, taxis, etc. were all available, but didn’t have it priced and planned ahead of time. In the heat of the moment, tired, and concerned with getting our day started, we likely overpaid for our transportation – our less than reliable Uber experiences in Athens made us question it here, also.
Most wonderfully… this trip reinforced that I could and would go anywhere with Rabbit. Taking on an itinerary such as this one with just any travel companion could have been disastrous… but, once again, he proved to be my perfect match, and my home away from home.
This was an incredibly long post, and I’m sure I’ve lost some of you by now, so here’s a quick recap:
Favorite Sight: Blue Mosque
Favorite Bite: simit – with Nutella
Favorite Moment: sunset in Sultanahmet square
Any questions, comments, feedback?? Please share!! We’d love to hear what you think!