I have generally maintained that birthdays ending in five or zero are the significant ones. Other birthdays are just minor events. So as Jane was approaching a zero-ending birthday, I knew that something special had to be done. An April birthday trip to Paris was the answer. So, late last year, planning started for a spring trip to Paris. As planning progressed, the journey expanded to include three European capitals, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris.
Our American Airlines flight from Albuquerque, via Philadelphia, arrived at Schiphol airport around 8:30 in the morning on April 11th. After proceeding through passport control, it was a short train ride from Schiphol to the Amsterdam Centraal train station, followed with an even shorter taxi ride to our hotel. Arriving in the morning as we did, meant we could not check in at the hotel. So, we parked our bags there and headed out to explore our first European capital.
It took only a few blocks of walking to realize that Amsterdam was a city of, and for, bicycles. Cyclists appeared to have right-of-way over cars and pedestrians alike. A large degree of caution was exercised as we explored the city. Amsterdam is also a city of canals (grachts). Our hotel, aptly named Canal House, is a converted old, 17th century, canal house along the Keizersgracht. After leaving the hotel, we navigated our way on this first day of discovery by counting and noting the names of the grachts we crossed. It was at the Museum Of The Canals that we learned that canals were built to accommodate Amsterdam’s growth in the middle ages. Construction of canals was integral with water management, creation of buildable land, and transportation. Amsterdam’s canals are now a UNESCO World Heritage.
Before going back to the Canal House to check in for our four nights stay, we walked the busy streets of central Amsterdam familiarizing ourselves with its many landmarks, museums and restaurants. We visited the Willet-Holthuysen House, a grand mansion on the Herengracht, turned into a museum featuring period décor and an extensive collection of nineteenth century art; lunched at the Blue Restaurant with its bird’s eye view of the city; and strolled by the Bloemenmarkt (flower market).
Amsterdam is home to a host of museums and during our three full days in the city we enjoyed many of them. In addition to the Willet-Holthuysen House and Museum Of The Canals, we joined the crowds at the Hermitage Museum, Van Gogh Museum, House of Bols (gin) Museum, Rijksmuseum, and the very popular and congested Vermeer Exhibit. Favorite restaurants included the Pancake Bakery, Seafood Bar, and d'Vijff Vlieghen (Five Flies) where we celebrated Jane’s zero-ending birthday.
A spring journey to Holland cannot be complete without a visit to the famous tulip fields of Keukenhof. These gardens are a magnet for tourists, so Jane had made arrangements for our tour several months in advance of leaving home. Contrary to the cloudy, chilly days we experienced in Amsterdam, our day at Keukenhof was warmer and sunny making the myriad flowers sparkle in the sun.
My nephew Wim lives with his girlfriend Marina in Middelburg, located in the south of the Netherlands. Jane and I embarked on the train journey to Middelburg after our stay in Amsterdam to spend a couple of days with Wim and Marina. We started that visit on a bit of a sad note. Wim showed us the cemetery garden where my older brother Dick’s ashes were scattered. Dick passed away, at age 97, shortly after Jane and I had visited with him last summer on our way to the Alps (see the Europe 2022 Blog of July 13, 2022).
After that emotional experience, we continued our visit with Wim and Marina on a much lighter note. One day we drove the short distance to Veere, one of our favorite rural villages, for a meal of mussels. We also made a day-trip to Ghent, in the Flemish portion of Belgium, with its medieval castle and cathedral. Wim and Marina were perfect hosts and we very much enjoyed visiting with them. But, we had two more European capitals to visit, so after a farewell dinner, Jane and I continued our journey by train to Bruxelles.
The train from Middelburg, via Rotterdam, arrived at the Brussels Central Station around 2 PM on April 18th. Although we had travelled to Europe at least a half dozen times, we had never been to Brussels. Jane had completed a lot of “armchair” exploring of Brussels before we left home and created a list of potential sites to visit during our three days in this capital city of Belgian. Our accommodations were at the Juliana Hotel, within walking distance of La Grand-Place de Bruxelles. This UNESCO Heritage Site is a collection of late 17th century building around a cobble-stone paved square. The buildings are an eclectic mix of municipal, ducal, and guild houses with a multitude of gilded architectural ornamentation.
For the following morning, Jane had arranged a private tour of the European Quarter of Brussels where the European Commission has its offices. Although we did not enter any of the commission buildings, we found the modern architecture stunning and in dramatic contrast to the historic buildings of the Grand Place. We visited the nearby Royal Museum that also included the Magritte Museum (Magritte is the artist famous for men in bowler hats) and the Library of the Dukes of Burgundy. Dating from the 1,300’s, the collection of manuscripts in this library were copied by hand and illustrated by artisans of the Middle Ages.
Several decades ago, when Jane and I were first dating, we spent several weekends in San Francisco where we frequented the Mozart Café for dinners. Now when we travel through Europe's major cities, we always look to see if there is a Café Mozart. We found one in Brussels. And, of course, we had to have their dinner special, all you can eat ribs, accompanied by their own red burgundy wine. During our walks around central Brussels we found other interesting pub-like restaurants where we imbibed local beer and food.
Needless to say, any trip to Brussels is not complete without a visit to the Manneken Pis landmark. This pint sized, 22 inch, bronze fountain statue of a little boy peeing into a basin draws hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists a day. A short walk from the Grand Place, Jane and I found ourselves among these tourists to see this obscure, small fountain wedged between buildings on the corner of Stoofstraat and Elkstraat.
It was an hour and half ride on the Thalys train from the Midi station in Brussels to the Gare du Nord station in Paris. From Gare du Nord, it was a twenty minute taxi ride to the Hotel Raphaël for our seven night stay in Paris. The Raphaël was a boutique hotel with traditional classic French décor. Located on Avenue Kléber, the hotel was a five minute walk from the Arc de Triomphe and fifteen minute walk from the Trocadéro with its amazing view of the Eiffel tower. The Kléber Metro station, right in front of the hotel, was our transportation link to Paris’ many attractions.
Upon arrival at Gare du Nord, we purchased Paris Museum and Metro passes at the Tourist Information store. The museum pass allowed us to skip the long queues at museum ticket counters and the metro pass meant we could bypasses the confusing ticket machines and just tap our pass to enter any metro station. Both passes were used extensively during our week in Paris. We spent a lot of time at the Louvre, of course, and visited the Monet’s l’Orangerie Museum, the Rodin Museum, the Jacquemart-Andre Museum, and made the ascent to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
In addition to our time in the city, we also made a couple of day trips. The first was to Monet’s garden in Giverny. We arrived before the large tour busses and thoroughly enjoyed the uncrowded garden with its variety of colorful flowers and famous lily ponds. We walked the short distance from the Giverny garden to Monet’s grave, located at the nearby Église Sainte-Radegonde de Giverny. Our second day trip was to Château de Fontainebleau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, both impressive, ornate French architectural landmarks with opulent gardens.
We walked a lot in Paris, exploring the Montmatre area around the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur; strolled the length of Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe, past Place de la Concorde, all the way to the Louvre Museum; sauntered through the Latin Quarter past the Sorbonne Université and Panthéon; wandered around the Hôtel de Ville and the Palais Royal; and made the easy trek from the Raphael to the Eiffel Tower several times.
Alas, our spring break to three European capitals had come to its conclusion and on April 28th we boarded American Airlines flight 25 back to the USA, Jane having graciously come to terms with her zero-ending birthday.