Friday, November 28, 2014

A Taste of Europe, Part I

In the Spring of 2014 I received a catalog from Starr Tours.  I flipped through the excursions -- as I normally do -- and this particular description caught my eye:

Hmmmm, thought she.

After some thought (about 5 minutes) I decided I was going.  Initially, none of my usual travel suspects wanted to go along and, in an attempt to be brave, I booked the trip anyway — solo — confident that I would meet other nomads along the way…I’m pretty friendly! Eventually, my party of one grew to a party of five — Sister, Sister-in-Law, two friends and me — and we, along with our new compatriots from all over the world, bus-toured some of the most beautiful sites in Europe.

First up, was jolly old London, England. For me, the first day was a wash and we won’t discuss that any further, but the second day started off at the Tower of London and the Tower of London Bridge.  London is a Roman name and the city was founded by the mighty Empire in 1070.  The Tower of London -- a series of buildings that sit on the River Thames -- has been used as a prison, a residence and now as a popular tourist attraction.  The structure is 1000 years old and was built by William the Conquer.

We were in London right before the WWI Remembrance Day Celebrations and we were fortunate enough to see the memorial of poppies erected in honor of the 888,246 English soldiers who lost their lives during WWI.  Each poppy that dots the field in front of the Tower is a handmade ceramic masterpiece and, collectively, the sea of red fashions a moving and beautiful tribute.  

The Tower of London was used during the First World War to recruit and train English Troops.  Poppies, by the way, became the symbol of war casualties because the flower sprung up from the simple graves of fallen soldiers.
Next it was off to see the Crown Jewels.  

Photography is not allowed in the museum but the colorful array of jewels is a magnificent and stunning site that beautifully represents the pomp and circumstance naturally associated with the Royal Families.  There are crowns, orbs and sceptres since 1660; all jewels prior to that time were destroyed following the abolition of the monarchy in 1649.  Click here to see a slideshow of the Crown Jewels.

It was back on the bus and along the way we saw the Dragons that protect the old city of London and the London Eye.

Of course, I took the obligatory photo in a classic London phone booth!

Westminster Abbey is where most Royals since 1919 have gotten married.   Charles and Diana got married in Saint Paul’s Cathedral because their guest list was too extensive for the Abbey to accommodate. The Brits believe that not marrying in Westminster Abbey is a royal mistake and bad luck indeed….

Big Ben...

Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guards…

Trafalgar Square and The National Gallery where we swooned over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

And another memorial to the fallen soldiers of WWI.  

We had traditional English fare of Fish and Chips and beer at an old English pub on The Strand called the Coal Hole.  

As you can see, it was a lovely day in London.  As the sun was setting, we took the Tube back to Hammersmith to retire for the evening.

The next morning, we boarded a bus to Dover.  The White Cliffs of Dover are breathtaking and these photos do not do these majestic Cliffs justice with its striking facade of chalk highlighted by streaks of black flint.  In the past, the Cliffs were critical in that they represented a natural barrier to England, protecting the British from invasions.  The Port of Dover was the primary route into Britain prior to air travel. 

The boat on which we crossed the Channel in was like a floating shopping mall, complete with a Starbucks.  I had to remind myself, several times, that I was crossing the English Channel…it was all extremely dreamlike!  We crossed the Channel, landed in Calais, France and then boarded a bus for the 250 mile drive through Belguim to Amsterdam, Netherlands.  

When we arrived in Calais, we were greeted by our Tour Guide for the rest of the trip, Boudi, a delightful and knowledgable multi-lingual chap, born in the Netherlands and now living in Berlin, and our vigilant driver from France, Christian.

The day we crossed the Channel, we were in four different countries on one day! What excited me most about this trip was the chance to see the European countryside as we traveled by bus to our various destinations and, boy-oh-boy, we were not disappointed.  

The glorious European countryside is dotted with centuries-old structures as sheep, cows, and horses provide a watchful eye.   And, as a bonus, the rest stop food in each country was absolutely amazing…..fresh and tasty and, you could get a beer, so I had to get a Grolsch.  

We arrived in Amsterdam that evening and settled into our hotel, anxiously anticipating our cruise along the Canals the next day….I could not wait.

In the morning, we hopped on a tour boat to experience Amsterdam from the water level.  It was a wonderful perspective to enjoy the gables, bridges, bicycles and houseboats so popular in this water-locked town.  We learned about the old spice trade, sailed past Anne Frank’s house and got to see the houseboats up close and personal. 

Amsterdam used to be connected to the open sea and was an important port town.  Vessels from all over the world sailed into Amsterdam and trips to the East Indies were quite momentous because the sailors returned with spices.   Back then, spices — most significantly, pepper — were more precious and expensive than gold.   The house below is called “The Pepper House” and a local financier of spice expeditions built the house, complete with shutters, so that thieves could not peer in and inspect the newly transported goods!

Later, while strolling about, the not-too-faint scent of legal cannabis filled the air, no doubt procured from one of the many “coffee shops” that dot the seriously charming, tree-lined streets.  Those trees, by the way, are mostly elm trees, planted because their thirsty, long, and strong roots stabilize the buildings along the Canals.

Bicycles are the most common form of transportation in Amsterdam and there are more bicycles in the city than in Bejing.  Bicycle lanes abound and the cyclists have the right-of-way which gives new meaning to looking both ways!  Even the street lights have a bicycle light.

In the evening we took a tour of the Red Light District.  The legend is that sailor’s wives would wait, looking out of their windows, for their husbands to return from their voyages.  Since many vessels were lost at sea, some sailors never returned and the new widows had to find a way to support their families, hence the proliferation of prostitution. For privacy reasons, no photos are allowed in The District, and I was surprised by how friendly the workers were.  The ladies “advertise” behind a glass window and every now-and-then, one dressed in her Victoria's Secret finest would wink or waive to our curious group.   Since prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, the ladies register their business, rent “office” space, pay taxes and keep healthy (and beautiful!). Fortunately, no one in our group was unaccounted for that evening! 

The next morning we visited a windmill village, saw a demonstration of how wooden shoes are made and melted our way into a fantastic cheese shop.  Windmills served an important role in the Netherlands.  There are no mountains in the country and it also sits below sea level so the windmills were used to pump water out of the often-flooded city .  

We continued on our journey and stopped in the quaint port city of Volendam.  We feasted on local seafood (so incredibly good), strolled along the “boardwalk”, meandered into the lovely little shops and, all the while simply appreciated the wonders of our holiday.  I could not believe we were in Europe!  

We left Volendam and drove along the seriously charming Dutch countryside towards Germany.  I love the juxtaposition of the nature and the industrial feel of the modern windmills in the photo below.


I’ll write about Germany, Switzerland and Paris in Part II of this post.  
I took many notes!


Helene Michalko said...

Joanne, thanks for sharing your trip with us. For those of us who have never travelled anywhere, your sharing is so appreciated. It's also nice that you got to travel with Cathy and MaryBeth! Thanks again.

KnitOne, PearlOnion said...

You're welcome, Helene. It was a grand trip made better by our lovely travel mates. Keep an eye out for Part II! -- Joann