Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Amsterdam, Netherlands

What can be said about a city as beautiful and unique as Amsterdam? It's a city that has more canals running through the streets than Venice. It's a city at the center of the bicycle culture where more than half of its residents use bicycles to get around, and is designed in such a way that makes it easy. It's a city where the locals pride themselves on their liberal and tolerant attitude, as marijuana and prostitution are legal and the "beer flows like wine." It's a city where the people are some of the nicest and friendliest that we've come across in our travels.

A quiet, quaint street 

The best part about this trip was that we met our friends Charlie and Ayessa there. Team Toler moved to Naples the same day we did a year and a half ago, and lived here for a year before they were transferred to Lisbon. Amsterdam was the perfect place to reunite and have a fun weekend. Their good friend Mark was visiting them, and the five of us got along effortlessly. (From henceforth, the trio of Mark, Ayessa and Charlie will be referred to as MAC.)

We flew into Amsterdam earlier than the others so we decided to rent bikes and tour the town the way the locals do. Riding a bike was so easy there, with bike paths on every street, people using hand signals to let others know where they are going, and cars watching out and moving out of the way of the bikes. I think this was my favorite thing about Amsterdam. We found it to be very refreshing to see a healthy, economically and ecologically friendly way to commute to work, go out to dinner, or go to a friend's house.

In Dam Square

After we met up with MAC at a nearby pub we walked over to the Anne Frank House. The visit to the house had such an impact on us as this was the actual house that Anne Frank and her family hid in for two years during World War II. To actually walk through the rooms, up the steep staircases, behind secret doors as not to be discovered, have no access to outside light because of blackout curtains, and watch testimonials of her father and friends, was very powerful and well done by the museum. It really gives you an insight into what life was like for them during that time and even if you have no background knowledge on Anne Frank or have never read her diary you will come out of this experience well informed and very moved.
The entrance to the museum part of the house. The actual house is on left. 

We decided that a few drinks might snap us out of our somber mood so we changed courses immediately and headed towards Dam Square. Dam Square lies in the historical center of the city and has government buildings, a national monument, a wax museum, a church and a large department store. It is frequently the site of demonstrations, events, and a lot of pigeons!

We then walked towards the infamous Red Light District. Located in one of the city's oldest areas, this district leaves nothing to the imagination and everything that you have read about it is probably true. Scantily dressed women stand in the windows of the tall and thin buildings, with a glow of red light surrounding them radiating onto the streets. There are live sex shows and sex shops around every corner, with owners on the streets advertising the services. Surprisingly though, the district wasn't as seedy or sketchy as we thought it would be and was perfectly safe and fun to walk around in. After watching a matinee of something that I will not describe here and doing other activities, we found a bar in the district, had some local Heinekens, and enjoyed each other's company.

Red Light District. Taken from here

The following morning, we had breakfast at a quaint pancake house near the hotel. The Dutch pancake seems to be a combination of a crepe and a pancake. They were delicious!

Yum! A Dutch pancake with bananas!
After breakfast we walked to the Heineken Museum/Experience. The former brewery has four levels of interactive experiences where you can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste everything Heineken. We saw past equipment, vats, and other machinery with explanations of the brewing process. The experience was unique in the fact that there was a 4-D ride in a screening room, along with other rooms that allowed you to record and send music videos and e-cards, and buy customized bottles of beer. Three beers were also included in the ticket price which made for some good fun at the end.

Brewing up something special
The ingredients 

MAC enjoying their beer

Jon won 10% off with rock, paper, scissors!

The only thing we weren't able to get to that we had wanted to see while in Amsterdam was the Van Gogh Museum. Jon and I had set aside two hours to walk to the museum, tour it, then walk back before our flight. Unfortunately, we didn't find out that the museum is under renovation through April until we showed up there, and that Van Gogh's works are being held in a different museum across the city. While disappointing, it gives us another reason to come back to Amsterdam (as if we needed another reason). So we spent some extra time walking back to the hotel and took in the beauty of the different buildings on our route.


We had a fantastic time in Amsterdam and being there with our friends made it all the more memorable. Between the old historic monuments, open-air markets, local cuisine and drinks, the Red Light District, and so much more, we were able to experience everything that this city has to offer. We will definitely be visiting this city again in the future, possibly when Jon's out of the Navy ;).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Florence and Venice with Mom and Dad

After we saw Jon off on a train to Naples, my parents and I took advantage of the last hour and a half of daylight left in Florence. We walked to the Duomo, known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The Duomo stands tall over the city with a striking Renaissance dome. The outside of the church is decorated in a mix of pink, white, and green marble and is stunning to look at. Compared to the outside of the cathedral, the inside isn't as decorative, but is nicely adorned with mosaic pavements and large frescoes painted in the dome.

The dome

Of course we had to climb the 463 steps to the top of the dome (was there any question?) On our way up we were able to see the inside of the dome up-close and admire the frescoes. We kept climbing up... and up... and up... and just when we thought that we might not be able to squeeze through another narrow staircase or climb one more step, our legs pushed through the burning because we knew what awaited us at the top. The final step had us exiting out onto the lantern of the duomo and extraordinary views of the city welcomed us at once.

Now we just had to go down...

That night at dinner we had a fantastic meal near our hotel. During dinner the owner made an announcement to the restaurant, turned on Mozart, and began playing the french horn for the table next to us. Many people were taking pictures and going up to the woman at the table kissing her hand. Confused, we asked the waitress if she was famous. As it turns out the woman who was sitting next to us was a very famous French actress (Sabina Azema) and her husband is in charge of the Florence French Film Festival every year. We struck up a conversation with her and she even posed for a picture with my parents.

The first thing we did the next day was go to the Accademia in order to see Michelangelo's David. David stands 17 feet tall and is an impressive sight to see! We admired the magnitude of it and the painstaking effort that must have gone into making this amazing piece. Even though I've seen it before, I couldn't help but marvel at the statue once again. We also spent a good deal of time looking at the many plaster molds of different statues, as well as the paintings in the museum.

Afterwards, we walked back to the Duomo complex and went to the Bell Tower, also called The Campinele, to climb it (what else?) Mom was not too happy with our decision to climb another tower (this was our third one), but she was a trooper the whole way up! Once again there were beautiful views of the city at the top as well as the duomo we climbed from the day before.

After climbing down the steps and exiting the tower we walked over the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) and towards Piazza Michelangelo to see a panoramic view of the city. We had gorgeous weather and the sun was shining down on the beautiful city.

In front of the Ponte Vecchio

Our last stop of the day was to the leather market where we made a few purchases and tried to avoid the pushy sellers attempting to unload their items. We did our best not to buy too much since we had to drag our luggage to the train station the next day and from the train station in Venice.

When we arrived in Venice the next day, my parents were enamored with the sight of the canals and small narrow streets around every corner. Our hotel was situated near the cruise port (since that is where they needed to be the next day) so we walked about 30 minutes to St. Marks Square. We were very lucky with the weather that we had as the week prior to our arrival the area saw a lot of flooding in the square. And as it turns out, two days after their cruise left Venice, the city saw the worst flooding in 20 years. We wouldn't have been able to walk around anywhere without getting soaking wet!

November 11, 2012. Taken from weather.com 
November 11, 2012. Taken from telegraph.co.uk

The famous piazza overlooks the water and is home to St. Mark's Basilica and government buildings. The basilica has a separate bell tower that Dad and I wanted to see, but Mom was not too keen on climbing. She decided to stay in the square and shop at the stores while we checked it out. It was of course, the only tower that had an elevator up to the top. We enjoyed the views of the city and even saw their cruise ship coming in from afar.

The ship they were boarding the next day, making its way into Venice.

We took a gondola ride through the quiet back canals as well as through the Grand Canal of the city. While this is a very touristy thing to do in Venice, it's one of those things that you have to do while here and I was happy to ride in one a second time (I did offer to let my parents have a romantic ride on their own). We had a relaxing time in the gondola and it was a nice way to spend the time with one another. The quiet canals provided refuge from the busy streets, and at times the only sounds heard were the gentle dip of the paddle into the canal. We passed other boats, gondolas, and even the hotel that Jon and I stayed in last year.

The next day, before my parents went on their cruise we visited the Jewish Quarter of Venice. The Ghetto Vecchio (Old Ghetto) is where all Jews were forced to live from the 16th to 18th century. It's now a very charming neighborhood where Venice's small Jewish community still lives. While looking at the buildings we were welcomed in by a rabbi who offered us cake and coffee. While my mom and I snacked, they invited my dad to put on tefillin (a set of small leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with versus from the Torah). They were very hospitable and friendly and it was nice to connect with Jews from the area.

Part of the Holocaust Memorial

The main square of the Jewish Quarter

It was soon time for my parents to board their cruise so we made our way back to the hotel, grabbed the luggage, and headed to the port. They were about to embark on a 12 day journey to Croatia, Greece, and Turkey. I was thankful for the time that we spent together before their trip and I was happy that I was going to see them at the end in Rome and then in Naples. Buon Viaggio Mom and Dad!