Sunday, August 26, 2012

Europe - Pit Stop 5 - Amsterdam - Day 1

Paris, day 3 - The alarm goes off at 5am in the morning, I wake up sleepy and dazed. Our train for Amsterdam leaves at 7am. Quickly I brew a cup of coffee for both of us and wake up Siddharth. 6:30am and I am standing in a slow moving line at the hotel lobby to check out. Cursing the inefficient staff, I try to keep my calm even though my mind and heart are sprinting. 6:35am we hop into the cab and request the guy to drive us to the station as fast as he can. He looks at us like we are crazy and nods his head as if we should be prepared to miss our train. Whizzing through the empty streets of Paris, I pray we make it on time. As soon as the cab comes to a screeching halt we spring out of our seats and I begin to run. 6:55am - huffing and puffing we board the train and take our seats. I check 3 times to make sure we are in the right train in the right seats! 

The next 3hr 20mins are a breeze. Smooth as silk! I weave in and out of dreams, eat my scrumptious breakfast and wait in excitement for our final destination. Finally the train pulls into Amsterdam Central train station and I am AWAKE. 

Amsterdam is called "Venice of the North". It's known both for it's canals and it's past position as an economic powerhouse. It's a place of good living, cozy cafes, coffee houses :), great art and the attitude of live and let live. It has 790,654 people and almost as many bikes. 

We checked in at the Renaissance Hotel (read my review here) and headed out for lunch. Based on 
Rick Steve's recommendations we decide to try out an Indonesian restaurant,  Restaurant Kantjil en de Tijger. They are famous for their three rijsttafels (traditional rice tables with a dozen small courses). You can read more about my restaurant review here. I'd just like to entice you with some pictures of the scrumptious meal we had. 

Iced ginger, lemongrass tea
Veggie Fritters
Spring Rolls
Chicken Skewers
5 minutes in the city and you will realize 2 things: There are bikes and canals EVERYWHERE. I must admit it was intimidating to walk on the streets because you really had to look out for the bikers. They would come from nowhere. There were bikes in all shapes, sizes and colors. It was a feast to the eye.

Canal boat tours like the one shown below are a popular way to see the city. You can see the entire city from a different level.

Here are some typical houses in Amsterdam

And here is a house boat
A typical boathouse 
Walk to the museum
Flower museum outside the Anne Frank's house 
After a quick nap in the afternoon we decided to visit the Anne Frank's house. Now if you are someone who had read the book "Anne Frank's Diary" you would understand the significance of this house. On the other hand if you are clueless and have never heard her name, I would recommend you go with an open mind. It's hard to understand what's so special about this house/museum.

The house immerses you into the struggle and pain of the war years. It's converted into a museum and you can walk through the rooms where for two years, eight Amsterdam Jews hid from the Nazi persecution. Tickets to the museum are available online but you have to purchase them well in advance.  if not you will have to stand in line which can take anywhere between 45 min - a few hours depending on the crowds. Each adult ticket costs 9.50 Euros.
People sitting outside the Anne Frank's museum
The line to get into the museum
More line for the Anne Frank museum
I was very excited to visit the museum. Once inside, I quickly noticed how they have done a fantastic job at maintaining everything in it's original condition. The house is really narrow and the stairs are steep. You can wind your way in and out of the rooms. My heart skipped a beat when I reached the secret annex hidden behind a bookcase. I was in awe when I entered the annex and realized how small and narrow it was. 8 people cooped up here for 2 years in pitch darkness was unimaginable. The rooms were filled with pictures, sayings and memorabilia each one trying their best to transport you back into the the 1940s. It definitely was an emotional and a very heart touching tour for me.

Located right next to the Anne Frank's museum is this landmark church - Westerkerk. It's famous because it houses Rembrandt's body somewhere under the pews and also has Amsterdam's tallest steeple. The interiors of the church are barren but the tower is open for tours for 6 people at a time. It's a beautiful church but we decided to skip it because the lines are really long.
Walking around Amsterdam is a delight. One could just be entertained by purely walking around. Cafe's like this are all along the canals and buzzing with activity at various hours of the day. Evenings are the best, people are relaxed, happy and it feels like the entire town is enjoying themselves. All you need is a beer, some yummy fries and a seat to gaze around. It was just perfect!! 
A beautiful cafe on the canal

For dinner we chose Cafe Restaurant de Reiger. Famous for its fresh ingredients and delightful bistro ambience, served us one of the best meals on this trip. Read my review here. It does get crowded in the evenings and on the weekend and it does not take reservations. The food however more than makes up for the wait. It's absolutely delicious!
An awesome restaurant 
Loved the table decor- simple and elegant
Started off with a crisp bread and olive tapenade
How cute are the wine carafe?
Tuna Tartare served in a sesame cornetto 
Tomato Basil soup
Lemon Pasta - Excellent 
Burrata Salad 
House Salad 
French fries with mayo
Lemon Cheesecake
After an amazing day and two very satisfying meals we strolled around a bit more before heading back to our hotel. I was absolutely smitten by Amsterdam and could not wait to explore it more on Days 2 and 3. Next to come is the Van Gogh museum, the Red Light District and more. Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Europe - Pit Stop 4 - Paris, Day 2

Paris in two days? Impossible!! I knew two days would not be enough to see the city so we didn't even try. I had created my priority list and stuck to the plan. I definitely wanted to see:

1. Eiffel Tower
2. Louvre (Mona Lisa)
3. Notre Dame Cathedral
4. Champs-Elysees

That's it, nothing more, nothing less! So we started day 2 (read about day 1 here) with the Champs-Elysees. Posed in front of the Arc de Triumph (The India Gate of France). Beautiful and imposing. Once we got our desired pictures with the Arc, we moved on.

Arc de Triumph
Us at Arc de Triumph
Another one at the Arc de Triumph
Since we were in no hurry to get anywhere, we strolled the famous avenue and wondered what's so beautiful about it. It's crowded, commercialized and nothing like what it used to be in the olden times. It's lined with tonnes of stores and luckily for us each of them had a SALE :). The Avenue is one of the most famous streets in the world for upscale shopping. Traditionally it was home to popular brands like Louis Vuitton, Hugo Boss, Guerlain and more but now stores like Gap, Sephora, Zara, H&M, Bennetton etc. occupy most of its space.

This is what it used to look like in the 1890s!

The avenue in 1890 - Source:
This is how it looks now, sigh!!

Champs Elysees - Source: 
After spending almost the entire afternoon on the Avenue (blame it on the sales) I decided to make a quick trip to the Louvre again, to pay my homage to Miss Lisa. So while Siddharth headed back to the hotel, I hopped on the subway and headed in the opposite direction.

I had butterflies in my stomach, I was finally going to see the "Mona Lisa", not judging just going. Since I had only an hour I did not bother checking out any other section in the museum. I quickly bought the museum ticket (10 Euros) and the audio guide (which btw is extremely helpful, comes in seven languages and costs only 5 Euros) and scanned the large map for signs of Mona Lisa. I made my way to the Denon section (which is where the painting is). As I strolled through the corridor I was awestruck by large format Italian and French paintings. I was so engrossed in the beautiful paintings that I kept walking and reached the end of the corridor. Huh!!! Where is the Mona Lisa?? Only then did I realize that I had left her far behind and traced my steps back.

Denon section of the museum
Beautiful ceilings
Another look at the beautiful ceilings 

Tucked in the hallway was a small room with a large crowd, I instantly knew why!! There she was, in a small frame, smiling and greeting all. I am guessing, almost everyone who visits the Louvre wants to see the Mona Lisa. It's undeniably the greatest attraction in the Louvre and about 6 million people view the painting annually. I elbowed my way to the front and stood staring at it. The audio does a decent job of explaining the painting but leaves you wanting for more. While I admired the painting, I could not help but ask myself "So what's so special about it? ". I took one last look and walked out towards the exit. Apparently, the painting is assessed at approximately $720 million (adjusted for inflation) in 2010.

Mona Lisa
The crowd checking out the Mona Lisa
It was 9 pm and the sun was about to set. The Louvre bathed in golden light and I captured it some more before heading back for the grand finale of our trip.
The pyramid at Louvre

I had a date with Siddharth at 9:45pm at the Eiffel Tower. We stood in line for an hour to go up the tower. Btw the tower looks gorgeous in the night and both of us were super excited to go to the top. Here's a tip, you can skip the line by buying the tickets online. It will save you tonnes of time but the ticket is almost double the price (14 Euros online vs 8.50 Euros onsite). Had I known about it I would have totally opted for the online version. Here are some pictures while waiting in line!

Eiffel Tower

The views of the city from the second floor of the tower were spectacular. There was a gentle pitter patter of raindrops falling on our faces while we enjoyed this beautiful moment. It was absolutely breath taking and worth the wait. Unfortunately due to a technical problem the lifts were only going up to the second floor - the centre of the tower (another reason why you should not wait till the last minute before closing). Nonetheless we enjoyed every bit of it!!

Views of the city from the tower deck
Views of the city from the second floor of the tower

Here we are enjoying the moment!!

The journey down was even more exciting as we decided to take the stairs. 704 freaking steps is what we took all the way down to the bottom. My legs were shivering but my heart racing with happiness at this wonderful experience. Holding each others hands we walked back to the hotel and as I turned my head to take another look I saw it sparkle one more time!!