After a rather challenging 2016, one of my resolutions in the new year was to make myself happy, and that meant getting back to traveling again. A sale on Icelandair flights was the catalyst I needed for me to rather impulsively decide to take a trip to a wild new place. Iceland had always been in the back of my mind as a place that would be fun to see but never somewhere I thought I’d get to for awhile.
The evening 5-hour flight was relaxed, with blankets, a nice touch screen display and even a “northern lights” display on the cabin ceiling before takeoff (spoiler alert: these were the only northern lights I’d see). Flights from North America tend to get in around 6 am, and so I hopped on a bus and headed to the Blue Lagoon, the famed geothermal hot spring between the airport and Reykjavik. It was a well-oiled machine, complete with fancy plastic electronic wristbands that opens your locker and make purchases while in the lagoon. Sinking into the 38 C (100 F) lagoon after scurrying from the main building in the rain was definitely sublime. The sun had not yet risen, so I bobbed around in the milky waters in the cool darkness. Part of admission includes a series of silica and algae mud masks, which you apply yourself, and a drink. So I rather bemusedly drank prosecco at 10 am and enjoyed the rain on my face and the hopefully rejuvenating water. The combination of my 3-hour night’s sleep and morning wine made me fairly sleepy. That and I was thoroughly prunified, so I hopped on the bus to continue on to Reykjavik.
I got off in the city centre and headed uphill to Arcturus Guesthouse. A small but charming room with a shared bathroom (which had to be the largest bathroom I’d ever seen). I fell asleep almost immediately and didn’t wake up for several hours. I eventually got my butt in gear and headed out to explore the town a bit. I made my way down to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur for a famed Icelandic hot dog, with raw and fried onions, mustard and remoulade. Delicious! This stand is particularly famous apparently for not only its hot dogs but its patrons, including Bill Clinton (though he only wanted mustard—missing out).
I strolled down the rain-soaked Laugavegar, one of the main shopping streets in town, peeking into cute shops. The brightly-coloured buildings and unadorned aesthetic (except for murals and graffiti) reminded me of other Nordic destinations, like Copenhagen and Stockholm, but with a small-town feel, which isn’t surprisingly considering the population of Reykjavik is smaller than the suburb I grew up in (less than two hundred thousand). I eventually stopped into Bravó, a laid-back bar with a very Bohemian feel, for a glass of wine and WiFi. I’d bought a SIM card on the flight over and was still trying to get it working (later Googling led me to figure it out).
I eventually wandered down to Kex Hostel for dinner. Kex apparently is the hip hostel in town for young back-packers but also happens to have a tasty restaurant, Saemundur. It definitely had a hipster vibe to it, with its copper bar, exposed brick and do-it-yourself feel. I nursed my white wine (alcohol, much like everything else, is prohibitively expensive in Iceland) and thoroughly enjoyed my fried ling, pickled lemons and almonds, before making the walk back to my guesthouse for the night.
Last but not least: Amsterdam! With just one weekend left in my trip, I knew it had to be spent in Amsterdam. Thankfully, it’s only about an hour and a half train ride from Nijmegen, so after morning subject-running, I was soon rolling into the city. One of the things I’ve loved about the Netherlands is the universal transit pass (OV chipkaart), which allows you access to trains, buses, and trams all over the country. You just need to load it with money. It was an easy tram ride to the AirBnB, and I managed to just escape inside as the rain started torrentially downpouring. Once it had subsided, I took a walk over to the Foodhallen, an indoor food market, where I bee-lined for the bitterballen vendor and feasted on veal, goat cheese, truffle and even satay flavoured bitterballen. Delicious!
The clouds were starting to part as the sun set over the city. I hopped on a tram and made my way down to the House of Bols, purportedly the oldest distillery brand in the world. The tour was self-guided through a very glossy, interactive exhibit of the history and distillation of jenever, a traditional Dutch liquor and the precursor to gin. At the end of the tour, you received a cocktail of your choice and a couple tasting shots of jenever. My cocktail, a chocolate-honey mixture, was actually super tasty. I sampled the jonge jenever, called “young” because of its use of more modern distilling techniques, as well as a barrel-aged jenever. They were both rather potent (mind you I don’t tend to drink a lot of liquor straight up), but I did prefer the jonge jenever as it had a cleaner taste. I picked up a bottle of the barrel-aged for David, since its potency reminded me a bit of whisky which I figured he’d appreciate before heading out.
Just across the street was the Van Gogh Museum, which on Friday nights remains open until 10 pm. It’s so common for things to close at 5 or 6 pm, that it’s great when something stays open later. Nevertheless, the line was still quite long (and unfortunately outside in the blustery cold). My museumkaart unfortunately did not allow me to jump the line at this particular museum. Once I got inside, the lines were super long for the coat check, so I opted to carry my purchases around the museum. Photography wasn’t permitted, so I contented myself with taking in the collection. I’ve always been a fan of Van Gogh–his thick use of paint lending his work an almost sculptural quality. I saw his Almond Blossom painting, which hangs in the dining room, as well as his lilies and sunflowers. It’s great to see so many works by the same artist on display. You can really get an appreciation for the artist’s range, both of subject matter and techniques. They also had an interesting exhibition comparing the works of Edvard Munch and Van Gogh, where they would display thematically or stylistically related works side by side. In many cases, they were surprisingly similar. Ultimately, I preferred Van Gogh’s often glossier, textured paintings over Munch’s more matte work. After I’d had my fill, I did a quick search of the surrounding restaurants and decided to give The Seafood Bar a try. It seemed to be a popular spot, as it was bustling and full of folk (even had to wait for a seat at the bar). I started with a salad with smoked salmon and horseradish and, because I wanted to sample something else, their lobster salad sandwich. The nice thing about sitting at bars is that it’s often where solo travelers/diners sit, so I ended up striking up a conversation with the nice gentleman sitting next to me, chatting about travel, linguistics and fish.
The next morning, I ventured over to the Rijksmuseum and met up with Susanne, who hadn’t visited the museum in a long time. We grabbed a quick breakfast in the museum café and got her tickets (with surprisingly no line). We wandered through the collection, sticking mostly to works after the 1600s, as we’re both not big fans of paintings from the earlier centuries. Some of Rembrandt’s most famous works were featured, including TheNight Watch, which were fairly heavily trafficked by tour groups.
After we’d satisfied our cultural inclinations for the morning, we headed off in search of lunch. Susanne took me through De Negev Straatjes (the nine little streets), a neighbourhood with small shops, galleries and restaurants interwoven with the canals. I was so tickled by the narrow, often very slanted buildings. Things just seemed to be falling into each other, holding each other up. We chanced across Van Harte, a tasty looking eatery in a stylish space. The weather was blustery and cold (very Chicago-like, so I’m well-prepared), so it was nice to warm up with a drink and sandwich. From there, we wandered up through the Jordaan district, an upscale neighbourhood which Susanne noted many locals consider to be a reflection of a more real Amsterdam (relative to the more tourist-trafficked areas near the city center).
As Susanne had a prior evening engagement, I saw her off at the train station, a gorgeous building in its own right. I ended up booking an evening canal cruise, so I’d have something to do in the evening. I wandered my way back down Damrak, the city’s main thoroughfare lined with major brands and tourist shops. I stopped in at De Drie Fleschjes, an historic jenever tasting house for a tulip glass of it. I was told that traditional Dutch establishments like this one always have sand on the floor (to keep things clean apparently), no music and hardboiled eggs on the bar as snacks.
I continued my wanderings and ended up walking so far that I came across the Nationale Opera and Ballet theatre. I had discovered last week that the Dutch National Ballet was putting on Giselle and had decided to seize the opportunity and grab one of the last tickets. I picked up my ticket and decided to head back to the apartment for a bit. While waiting for the tram, I did see the aftermath of a scooter-pedestrian collision. Thankfully, police and ambulance were quick to respond, but it was a sobering reminder of how easy it could be to get hit. Bike lanes also permit scooters, which I’ve never really liked since they typically move so much faster, so they can be easy to miss.
It had unfortunately started to rain when I headed back out to grab dinner at Haesje Claes, a traditional Dutch restaurant, with wood-paneled dining rooms and an old-timey feel. There seemed to be a mixture of locals and tourists. I started with a goat cheese salad and ordered chicken liver with mashed potatoes and bacon as a main (I’ve come to realize that starters here are really not meant for one person, as they are quite sizable). The American couple next to me started chatting with me, and we had a pleasant conversation about travel and my work. I must have been particularly charming because as were getting our checks, I discovered they paid for my meal! The kindness of relative strangers never ceases to amaze me. I thanked them profusely but had to run to catch my canal tour. The rain-streaked windows of the tour boat did make photo-taking impossible, so I just sat, sipping my mojitos (it was a cocktail cruise) and enjoying the view. One of the great perks of touring the canals on the water is the glimpse into house-boating life (apparently there are around 2500 house boats in Amsterdam), peeking into their often gorgeously-appointed water-bound homes.
The next morning, I had a scrumptious breakfast at Gartine, a tiny, sweet little eatery that Susanne and I had tried to get a reservation for the previous day but had been all full up. What better way to start one’s morning than with eggs benedict and smoked salmon? It was just a short but rainy walk up Dam Square, which the Royal Palace of Amsterdam overlooks. Originally built as a city hall in the 17th century, it eventually housed King Louis Napoleon (the first king of the Netherlands). I’m a sucker for gorgeously appointed rooms and lavish furnishings, so the palace did me well. Most impressive was the Citizen’s Hall, with its soaring ceiling and ornate carvings.
They were already starting to set up for the Sinterklaas parade in Dam Square. His helpers, Zwarte Pieten, are typically portrayed in blackface, a matter of some controversy. But there were plenty of them wandering about, handing out candy to children and repelling down buildings. I had toyed with staying to watch some of the parade, but ultimately it was a bit too cold and windy for me to stick around for a glimpse of Sinterklaas. I hopped on the metro, which has a stop right next to the Nationale Opera and Ballet theatre. I still had an hour to kill, so I stopped in to Café Langereis across the street. I lingered over my prosecco and sizable cheese plate, watching the busy traffic controllers directing a steady stream of cars and bikes. Various road closures, no doubt because of the parade, made things particularly hectic.
I hopped over to the theatre to see the matinee showing of Giselle, their last show of the run. It was a beautiful performance–gorgeous and melancholic. The Wilis (spirits of women who were jilted by their lovers) were particularly haunting, row upon row of women clad in white romantic tutus and long veils. (see them here on the company’s website), bourrée-ing eerily across the stage. There’s nothing like watching a ballet to transport you out of the insanity of your own life into another world. I had left my overnight bag at the train station for the day, so it was easy enough to catch the train back to Nijmegen. I left the city to a gorgeous sunset behind the skyline. Dank je wel, Amsterdam, for a lovely visit. Methinks we’ll meet again.
A rather late night (recently started watching Downton Abbey, which has become a bit hard to tear myself away from) meant I got a relatively late start to my day. I said goodbye to Brussels and hopped on the train to Bruges, just an hour away. It wasn’t long before I was making the walk from the train station, along with a sizable number of other tourists. There was a quiet simplicity to the edges of town surrounding the old town.
I didn’t have a clear sense of the layout of the city and didn’t have cellular data on my phone (which I’d admittedly come to rely on in the Netherlands), so I contented myself with aimless wandering. I did eventually come across what appeared to be one of the main streets, lined with a surprising number of big brands for what seems like a relatively smaller town. I soon spotted the famed 13th century belfry, centered in the town’s Grote Markt. I made my way through the impressive town square in search of the canals. It wasn’t long before I found them, picturesque–lined with autumn-leaved trees and charming buildings.
I hopped in one of the canal boats for a tour, which gave a good sense of the town’s layout and interesting viewpoints. Actually taking photos on the boat was a challenge, as it was a very low slung boat and the people sitting in front me were leaning out of the boat to take their own pictures (I was bemused/mildly irritated at the volume of selfies being taken by the woman in front of me). After we’d finished our tour, I walked canal side to re-visit some of the sights we’d seen.
The canals were beautiful, and I eventually wandered my way across a few that were off the more tourist-trafficked path, which made them much more peaceful.
I didn’t have an action-packed afternoon planned. There were of course museums I could have seen and towers I could have climbed, but I opted for a simpler day. I appreciated the weathered corners and cobblestoned streets who have remained, watching quietly for many hundreds of years. In a riotous world, that kind of consistency is reassuring. In my wanderings, I eventually decided on a restaurant to have a quick bite of dinner before heading back–tasty enough though perhaps a little (unsurprisingly) overpriced.
It was a lovely, peaceful day, marred only by the return journey. Getting back to Nijmegen ended up being a bit of a debacle. Due to track work, my journey would consist of train, train, bus, train, bus. Because of an initially slightly late train, I ended up missing the subsequent connections (a product of their tendency to plan itineraries with often just 5 minutes between trains). I eventually returned to my guest house close to midnight, after a long over 5 hour journey.
After a morning of running subjects, I was excited to take the train out to spend the weekend in a brand new country! From Nijmegen, it was about 3 hours to get into Brussels, so I still had a bit of late afternoon light to explore the city. I grabbed myself a locker at the train station for my overnight bag, which I am liking more and more as a way to minimize overnight stays and maximize time spent touring new places. Not going to lie, the Brussels train station did smell a little like waffles when I went upstairs, which I took to be a good start. It had started to lightly rain, but I was undeterred! I took a meandering route, past St. Michael’s Cathedral, through the Galeries des Hubert (one of the oldest shopping arcades in Europe) and out into the Grand Place.
The Grand Place, which has roots dating back to the late 11th century, was a truly awe-inspiring site, and it was hard (even in the soggy rain) to not marvel at its splendor and ornateness. I wandered my way through the winding, darkening streets and came across a hip little café (Café Capitale), where I enjoyed a delicious cup of hot chocolate and their wifi. I had planned to stay one night with my friend Paul, who lives in Brussels, so I hopped on a packed bus out to Ixelles to find his place. It’s a fantastic two-level apartment, with a large spacious kitchen and soaring ceilings. It was great to catch up (we’d met up 7 years ago in Chiang Mai), meet his wife and play with his adorable dog Puddles before heading out to grab dinner at a local burger spot, Burger Republic, that they’d been wanting to try. The fries and mayonnaise were, unsurprisingly delicious, and the burger was one of the better ones I’d had–juicy and flavourful.
The next morning, we visited the local weekend market, where Paul picked up some cheese and tasty goodies. I love walking through markets, even if I don’t buy anything, if only to admire all the delicious possibilities. As his sister-in-law was coming into town for a visit, I said my goodbyes for the day (as I’d be meeting them later for dinner) and headed out to explore the city in the daylight. I’d spotted some impressive looking buildings on my bus ride the night before, so I made sure to hop off the bus to check them out. Turns out it was the impressively grand Royal Palace of Brussels that had caught my eye–reminded me a lot of the architecture in Paris.
I wandered down, past the beautiful, art-nouveau Museum of Musical Instruments and through the Mont des Arts, which afforded a nice view of Brussels, even glimpsing the massive Basilica of the Sacred Heart in the distance. From there, I made my way back to the Grand Place (I probably ended up going through it 6 or 7 times during my stay, as it made for a good point to orient oneself) and found my breakfast spot: Maison Dandoy. One cannot visit Belgium without, at least once, sampling their renowned waffles. I actually opted to try a liège waffle, with strawberries and ice cream (naturally). This type of waffle, while not the closest to the classic North American “Belgian” waffle, is a popular choice in Belgium. They are sweeter, denser and richer, which results in a surprisingly filling little waffle.
Being a Saturday, the streets were bustling with folk, predominantly tourists. I was a bit surprised, given that it was November, that there’d still be so many tourists in town. I made sure to pay homage to Manneken Pis, the famed bronze statue of the little boy peeing into the fountain, purportedly an emblem of the city’s somewhat irreverent and rebellious spirit. It had started to clear up and was turning into a beautiful day, making for a pleasant walk through the cobblestone streets. Brussels is renowned for its street art, with murals and smaller works dotting buildings throughout the city, from Tintin and Christopher Walken to a hip hop version of Manneken Pis (I barely scratched the surface with what I saw).
I made a quick stop again for wifi and pie at Café Capitale, before heading in the general direction of the AirBnB I’d be staying at. On my way, I did go back to the Museum of Musical Instruments, however, as I’d heard that the view from the café on the top floor was superb. It was bustling with folk, but I managed to snag a seat near the windows. Unfortunately, the rooftop deck wasn’t open, so I had to content myself with my window-side table (still a nice view), where I had a glass of wine before heading back out. I stopped in to see St. Michael’s Cathedral, a beautiful Gothic church dating back to the 11th century. I do love visiting churches, not only to appreciate their often soaring grandeur but also to enjoy a quiet respite from all the bustle and pavement-pounding of the day. I headed up past the Grand Place and across Bourse, a broad, pedestrianized street and home to the Brussels Stock Exchange, lined with restaurants and fast food fare. I found the AirBnB apartment and acquired my keys, chatting briefly with the host, before heading back out.
I walked down Bourse to find the metro and was soon whisked off to another area of the city. I wanted to visit Cinquantenaire Park with its impressive Arcades du Cinquantenaires. The light was already beginning to fade as I walked over, but it did not diminish the scale and impressiveness of the triumphal arches. I walked through the quiet park and back to the metro, deciding that I’d head over to Paul’s apartment a bit early to meet them for dinner. After 7 hours of standing and walking around, my legs were starting to object.
It was quite the dinner party we ended up having, with 9 people (friends and relatives of Paul and Emily’s). We made our way over to a place known for their moules frites, a classic Belgian dish. Volle Gas was a bustling spot in Ixelles–so busy we ended up being taken upstairs to their second floor dining room (empty when we arrived but soon after filled up as well). I ordered garlic and cream moules frites, which was absolutely delicious. The mussels were fresh and flavourful but not overly fishy tasting, and they were not kidding around with the garlic or the portions, for that matter. I laboured ardently to make my way through my sizable pot of mussels. Stuffed to the brim, we waddled our way through what looked to be a lively area with bars and restaurants. We snagged ourselves some outdoor tables and settled in for a drink, enjoying the fact that we could still sit outside despite being November!
I arrived in The Hague from Delft in the late afternoon. As it is about 2 hours from Nijmegen to this part of the country, I figured I’d stay the night to save myself the commuting time. My AirBnB was steps from where my bus dropped me off, and I met with my lovely and welcoming hosts, who offered me a glass of wine and for me to join them for dinner later in the evening. I had a few hours to kill before dinner, so I took a walk in the area. The city felt much more like a city than the other places I’d been to–a little grittier, busier and more diverse. I came across Grote Markt, a relatively small square lined with restaurants and bars, which connected up with a maze of pedestrian streets. It was shopping central, with major international chains (e.g., H&M and Zara) along with a few I didn’t recognize. After I’d had my commercialist fill, with the sun setting over the city, I headed back to the apartment. There, I had a tasty Moroccan-inspired dinner and some lovely conversation with my hosts before calling it a night.
With just one day in The Hague, it was a bright and early morning for me. It was an easy tram ride to the center of town, where I grabbed a quick bite to eat. My first stop of the day was Mauritshuis, a renowned art museum housing Dutch Golden Age painters, including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Rubens.
The museum had recently been renovated, and its lower levels were modern and clean-lined, which stood in contrast to the older, more ornate upper levels that housed the art. I bought myself a museumkaart for 60 Euros, which gains me unlimited access to a whole bunch of museums around the Netherlands (apparently it pays for itself with about 4 or 5 visits). The museum was lovely with a beautiful, and not overly large, selection of Dutch art. I admired Vermeer’s famed “Girl with a pearl earring” for a time, which had a wonderful luminous quality to it as well as Rembrandt’s darker portraits. They also had a special exhibition on Dutch Self Portraits – Selfies of the Golden Age, where it was interesting to learn about the different self-portrait customs (e.g., in the middle of painting, playing a role like that of a lute player) of the period.
The Mauritshuis is right next to the Binnenhof (Dutch Parliament), which is the oldest parliament in the world still in use. I walked through the complex, largely empty apart from a few tourists, and admired the imposing Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights). It’s perched elegantly on Hofvijver lake, which was pleasant to sit out next to and bask in the (apparently unseasonably) warm autumn sun.
It was a relatively short walk over to my next stop, the Escher Museum. I’d always been a huge fan of M.C. Escher’s–I remember hanging his work up in my bedroom as a kid and just being fascinated by the complexity and impossibility of his work. I had never actually realized he was Dutch until I researched this trip! It was great to be able see the full range of his work on display.
From there, I walked through golden leaf-laden streets to catch a tram out to Scheveningen, a nearby seaside resort. My AirBnb host had recommended checking it out, as so many tourists forget that The Hague is basically the only major city in the Netherlands located by the ocean.
It wasn’t long before I was smelling fresh, sea air and walking along the bustling esplanade, lined with restaurants and shops. It was amusing to see folk out on the beach in their coats and scarves, but I could understand taking in the sunshine before the long cold of winter arrives. I was hungry for lunch, and my host had recommended trying the seafood in Scheveningen, particularly at Simonis Aan Zee. It was a bustling sort of place, and I pointed out what I wanted (fish & chips) and asked if I could just have one herring. Raw herring (Hollandse Nieuwe) is something of a Dutch delicacy, so the gastronomical adventurer in me figured I should give it a try. They have not been cooked though apparently it is subject to a degree of curing. The fish and chips ended up coming in a massive portion (I think originally intended for two people). I did appreciate that it automatically came with not only tartar sauce for the fish but also mayonnaise for the fries. Love Europe! The herring was surprisingly delightful–meaty and flavourful, without being overpoweringly fishy-flavoured. After I was stuffed full of fish, I made my way back to the tram and headed back to town.
seaside at Scheveningen
I hopped off and took a peek at Paleis Noordeinde, which houses the working offices of the Dutch king, before taking a stroll around the area. Filled with boutiques and restaurants (a surprising number of Italian), it was still surprisingly lively despite being Sunday. I took my time meandering my way through the pedestrian streets back to the apartment to pick up my overnight bag to train back to Nijmegen.
I planned to take the weekend in the eastern part of the Netherlands, specifically Delft and The Hague. Armed with free wifi on the trains (which I love) and some train station snacks, it was a very pleasant, sun-soaked two hours to Delft. I had intended to leave my overnight bag at the train station, as I would be going onto the Hague later in the day but their lockers were not available. Thankfully, I remembered reading that one could leave luggage at the tourist office, so I made my way into town. Cobblestoned streets and tree-lined canals made for a charming walk to the office, which happened to be located in the town square. The square was dominated by the imposing Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and City Hall. Before venturing into the sights, I figured I’d get the lay of the land first. Warm and sunny, it was a perfect autumn day for a walk around town.
The largely pedestrian-filled streets were lined with cute shops, cafés and restaurants. There were a goodly number of tourists about, which made the increase in English signage (relative to Nijmegen) not so surprising. It was a short walk over to the Oude Kerk (Old Church), which you’ll note has a rather distinct lean to it (in fact it leans about 2 meters from the vertical). The interiors were relatively austere–white walls with minimal ornamentation and a few stained glass windows–which actually gave it a quiet sense of elegance. It is also notable for being the resting place of Johannes Vermeer (who spent his life in Delft).
Much of what I love about traveling is the people-watching, so it was nice to just sit along the canals and watch bikes roll by with flower-filled baskets or the darling old couples sitting out at cafes in the sun.
I continued my wanderings through town and stumbled across the Saturday market. Bustling with folk, admiring cheeses, flowers, meats and all those good things. I just love walking through markets, even though I don’t typically buy anything. It’s just such a lively place, full of activity and color and smells (the smell of the stroopwafels was absolutely heavenly!).
It was just a short hop around the corner to the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Paying admission for one church gained you access to the other, which was handy. This particular church, while not possessing a particularly noteworthy interior, does house the tombs of many members of the Dutch royal family, including William of Orange, who was assassinated in Delft in the late 1600s.
I wanted to grab a snack before heading out to the Hague, so I did another lap of town in search of a cozy spot. In my wanderings, I came across what looked to be a grand opening party for a concept store. They were passing out glasses of wine (and who I was I to pass that up?). It was a hip kind of store, selling clothing and other lifestyle items. After I enjoyed my free wine, I eventually settled on Kek, a funky little café/restaurant that seemed to have a cheerful amount of character and enthusiasm. I ordered a slice of cheesecake and a hot chocolate, which were both super delicious. The cheesecake in particular was perfectly creamy. Filled to the brim with sweets, an ideal state to be in really, I picked up my overnight bag and waddled my way out to the bus station to take a 40 minute bus ride to the Hague for the night.
On the road again! I have the great pleasure to be visiting the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands for a 3-week research trip. While I do plan on getting (hopefully) a fair bit of work done while I’m here, it won’t be all work and no play. Things won’t be in full swing until Monday, so I took the opportunity to do a bit of exploring of the town I’ll be calling home for the next 3 weeks.
The transit system here is, perhaps unsurprisingly, clean and efficient. I got myself an OV-chipkaart, a country-wide transit pass that you pre-load and use and top up as needed, when I first arrived, which makes things even more convenient. It’s an easy 20-minute bus ride into the center of town from the Max Planck, and it wasn’t long before I was strolling through the bustling pedestrian thoroughfares. Nijmegen is considered the oldest towns in the Netherlands (over 2000 thousand years old!), though not many of the original buildings are left, as it was ravaged during World War II. It wasn’t long before I came across Grote Markt, the grand market square in the center of the town. Beautiful cobblestones and tiny, narrow buildings. I was amused to see the open-air patios spilling out onto the square. Nearly November and folks still out on the patio!
I wandered down to the river Waal and along the riverfront to find the Velorama, the only bicycle museum in the Netherlands. I’d always heard about the prevalence of bikes in the Netherlands, but I don’t think I could’ve really appreciated it until I got here. Bicycles truly are everywhere, ridden by young and old, on ubiquitous, beautifully-maintained biking paths. It seemed fitting then to visit a museum devoted to this well-loved machine. It was a quirky, if not a little musty, place. Three floors documenting the strange evolution of the bicycle, with some pieces dating back to the early 1800s. The signage was all in Dutch, so I settled for just appreciating the art of the machinery. That is actually a surprising thing I’ve noticed elsewhere–despite the prevalence of Dutch speakers knowing English, there are actually relatively few English translations posted.
After I’d had my fill, I went in search of a snack. We do have kitchen facilities at the Max Planck guesthouse, so I will be doing my best to not always eat out. But it is nice to try out a few fun spots. I came across De Bruijn in Grote Markt and grabbed a seat on the patio. In addition to blankets, the chairs had heated cushions (which is genius!). De Bruijn is a kind of small lunch plates place, so I ordered a couple sandwiches (tomato/mozzarella and brie/walnut/honey) along with bitterballen. A bitterbal is a Dutch meat-based snack, akin to a croquette, filled with a beef or veal mixture in a roux, breadcrumbed and deep-fried. Super delicious! I happily munched on my snacks, sitting next to another solo traveler, who I later learned spoke Finnish, Swedish, German and English. I just love the kind of casual multilingualism that you get here in Europe.
From there, I hopped over a few doors down to Cafe in de blaauwe hand, the oldest pub in Nijmegen (founded in 1524). Candlelit and wood-paneled, it was a warm, cozy spot. I enjoyed a cool glass of wine before making my way back to my guest house.
Do you ever wake up and just know it’s going to be one of those days? This was one such morning. I’d gotten myself an extra pastry for my trip out to Sintra the day before but never ended up eating it, so it sat in my ICPhS tote bag on the floor next to my bed. I started to get ready for the day and pack my tote and discovered it was swarming with ants (shudder). Thankfully, Susanne had given me her ICPhS tote bag as well since she didn’t want it, so I just threw out the entire tote with the pastry and ant infestation along with it. Onwards and upwards, right? In my research, I’d spotted an interesting café that would make an excellent breakfast spot (Tartine), so I set off in search of it. I headed up through the chic Chiado district, which definitely felt a bit glossier and more upscale, with its wide boulevards and trendy boutiques. I successfully located Tartine only to discover, of course, that it was closed for a holiday for the next few days.
I still was determined to have something for breakfast, so I meandered up the street and popped into an Art Deco bar/café and grabbed myself a ham and cheese croissant. One of the first things on my list for the day was to catch the number 28 tram. This famed tram route starts in Baixa and climbs up the steep hill into Alfama (which is what most people ride it for) before it heads back down the hill and out into westward districts. I had read that this was a highlight of any Lisbon visit, so naturally I figured I’d check it out. I was warned that lines could get long, so try to get there earlier rather than later. Well, mid-morning certainly wasn’t early enough, as there was already a lengthy queue. I rather resignedly joined it and discovered that it was a very slow-moving line if only because the trams hold 20 or so people at a time and seemed to come every 15 minutes or so. So yes, in keeping with my day, I waited over an hour to board the tram (I had also annoyingly forgotten my headphones). About half of the wait was in the shade, but a good portion of it was in full sun. You may ask, why continue to wait? And indeed that thought did cross my mind several times, but there comes a critical time point when you’ve waited in line just long enough that you think you’ve already committed, so you may as well continue waiting.
At long last, I boarded the tram and managed to snag one of the last seats. We were soon whizzing along, alarmingly close to buildings and road signs. I stuck my head out as far as possible to see what I could. It wasn’t long before we had crested the hill, with lovely views of the Church of São Vicente of Fora and the river, though somewhat obscured by the heads of the other tram passengers. I made a mental note of the plaza as we continued onwards, past Lisbon Cathedral and back into the Baixa district. I ultimately didn’t get off the tram in Alfama, largely because I’d waited so bloody long to get on it. I ended up riding it past the city centre all the way out to Basilica de Estrela in the west part of town (I didn’t actually know where I was at the point). I had noticed number 28 trams going in the other direction, so I figured I’d hop on one and head back the way I came. Luckily, I only had to wait about 5 minutes before one arrived (with basically no line). From this I deduced a Lisbon tourist top tip: instead of waiting for an hour in Baixa, just hop a bus out to Estrela and catch a number 28 tram going back towards Alfama.
I was definitely pleased to have so easily gotten back on the tram (and managed to grab a seat near the front, so that when I stuck my head out the window, there were no heads in front of mine). We wound our way through the streets and back up to Alfama, where I hopped off to take in the view at Miradouro de Santa Luzia. It was a gorgeous day, and the sea of red-tiled roofs positively gleamed. I sat on an outdoor patio and sipped a lemonade, taking in my somewhat hard-earned view. From there, I made my way down the steps and into Alfama, the oldest district in Portugal (and one of the few areas that survived the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake that leveled most of the city). I wound my way through the labyrinth of quiet, narrow streets. I eventually spotted a few pieces of art on display with the caption that they’d been in part painted with coffee and red wine. Intrigued, I perused the little shop, which had a multitude of interesting and unique paintings, using a combination of Japanese ink and occasionally coffee and wine. The smaller paintings were only 5 Euros and the larger ones were 15, so I couldn’t help but grab a couple pieces. One of my favourite souvenirs when I travel is local art, something small and fun, not only because it supports local artists but also because it is so much more unique and memorable.
Happy with my purchases, I continued onwards and passed by Pois Café, whose name I remembered from my guide book so I popped in to get some lunch. It had a great kind of Bohemian quality to it, with couches and mismatched furniture, books and art and generally convivial atmosphere. I sunk into a comfy couch and ordered a glass of wine along with a leek and 3 cheese pasta dish (both of which were tasty).
Pois Café was just around the corner from the massive and imposing Lisbon Cathedral. Finished in the 13th century, this Romanesque style cathedral was an interesting combination of austere and ornate, with the area around the altar adorned with brightly-coloured paintings, in contrast with the cold stone of the rest of the cathedral. I didn’t spend long in the cathedral, as it wasn’t terribly extensive. I headed back to the apartment to take a break from the heat, which was thankfully not too far from where I was.
I lounged until later in the afternoon before heading back out again to catch a bus bound for the Lisbon Oceanarium (about 30 minutes away), purportedly the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. I did make a brief pit stop at Amorino, an Italian Gelato place I first discovered in Paris (and have now learned has a location in Chicago!) to get 2 delicious scoops of gelato. I’d pre-bought my ticket, to avoid any additional lines, so it wasn’t long before I was face to face to droves of fish. The big feature of the aquarium is a massive, 5000 cubic metre tank, teeming with sea life. It wasn’t long before I spotted a sunfish, the heaviest bony fish in the world. It wasn’t definitely odd looking (kind of like a large flat rock with wings). I also spotted several shark and rays (including a devil ray). Unsurprisingly, there were also droves of families with loudly exuberant children. Now I appreciate the value of educating children about ocean life, but I don’t necessarily want to hear the process. So I happily put my headphones in and enjoyed a musical soundtrack to my time wandering through the aquarium. I visited the penguins and, of course, the sea otters (who are always my favourite), the sea horses and moray eels. I enjoyed just sitting and staring up at the giant windows into the hypnotic traffic patterns of sea life.
Once I’d had my fill of ocean-y goodness, I hopped back onto a crowded bus headed back into town. I practiced my first position turn out, attempting to be as thin as possible with people squeezing by and jostling for a standing position. I eventually made it back to Alfama and enjoyed the low, warm dusk light filtering in between the buildings. I made a brief pit stop at a wine bar for a glass of sparkling wine before heading over to Cruzes Credo for dinner. I’d passed it on my walk up to the Lisbon Cathedral (just a few doors down from my lunch spot) and noted it, since it was also a name I’d recognized from my guidebook. When I arrived, they didn’t have any available tables, but the friendly (English-speaking!) waiter said I could order a drink while I waited outside. So I happily sipped my sparkling wine on the street and craned my neck up at the Lisbon Cathedral. I eventually got a table inside and ordered a cheese plate and toasted bacon and brie sandwiches. The waiter did warn me that the cheese plate was fairly sizable, but I assured him that I’d be OK. This is cheese after all. Everything was delicious, especially the chèvre and brie (I’m not going to lie, I did prefer the French cheese over the Portuguese cheeses). It was a bit of a slog, as I attempted to work my way through the cheeses, and I eventually gave in and asked for a doggie bag, wrapping up about a third of my foodstuffs to take with me to the apartment, which was only a short waddle home.
My first full day of Lisbon was actually not spent in Lisbon itself but in a town not far away called Sintra. This place is particularly notable for bursting with palaces and villas. I had bought my train ticket the evening before (4.80 round trip!), so I showed up to the station and just hopped right on the train. Now I knew that Sintra was a popular destination for day-trippers from Lisbon, myself included, but I wasn’t quite expecting the sheer volume that I would encounter. Once we’d arrived in Sintra, the line to get on the bus to one of the main palaces was probably a block long (when a bus arrived, I ended up being the first person to not get on, as it had filled up by the time I got to the front). I was ultimately grateful for that as that meant I was the first to get on the next bus, which guaranteed me a seat. It was a long, winding climb up a mountain road filled with other cars bound for the same destination. We eventually reached the top, and I entered my first stop of the day, Pena National Palace and Park (I’d pre-bought my ticket thankfully).
I had read that the park had stables and horseback riding, and I was eager for a chance to ride a horse again (it had been over a decade). So I set off through the park in search of the stables. The park itself was vast and densely forested and had a kind of mystical serenity to it . Thankfully, because of the park’s size, the droves of people had largely dispersed, and I didn’t encounter many along the way. I appreciated the peace and quiet, enjoying the sun filtering through the trees and the sounds of running water and birds, as I made my way to the stables. There didn’t appear to be anyone around, aside from the horses, though I eventually found a couple guys (looked to be farm hands) having lunch. The guy I talked to spoke absolutely no English and explained the situation to me in Portuguese, which wasn’t super helpful. I managed to extract something about needing to go to the chalet to buy tickets, which was a bit of a hike away from the stables. I ultimately decided to forego the horseback riding and find an opportunity back home to ride horses (it didn’t look like many people were partaking in the riding tour, and I didn’t want to be the only one in any case). I meandered my way back through the park in the general direction of the palace. It was quite an uphill trek (so many hills here!), but I did catch sight of the Castle of the Moors, a medieval castle precipitously perched on the neighbouring hilltop.
Panting and sweaty, I eventually made it to the palace. Being a Romanticist palace, it drew upon an eclectic mixture of exotic architectural styles (Islamic, Manueline, Gothic, etc.). It looked almost like a Disney palace, a riot of bright colours and over-the-top style. Being atop what felt like a small mountain when I was trekking up it, it afforded fantastic views of the town and surrounding area from its parapets. The palace walls were adorned with beautiful tile work and intricate carvings, so much time was spent staring up at its grandeur. I eventually decided to check out the interiors of the palace and discovered, to my dismay, that the line to get in extended from the entrance, through a large courtyard, and out around the other side. I resigned myself to my fate, threw in my headphones and waited (I ultimately spent a lot of time, even inside the palace, with my headphones in, as it was an effective way of tuning out the din of all the people). The line moved at a glacial pace, and it was probably a good 30-40 minutes before I actually got inside.
Usually, once you get inside, the hellish line experience is ameliorated as people dissipate to explore. However, the slow trudge of the line continued as people shuffled from room to room. I did notice that people were abandoning the line to move ahead if they didn’t want to see a particular room on the route and so I eventually followed suit, as I really couldn’t stand being in line anymore. I may have missed a couple ground floor rooms, but maintaining my sanity was worth it. The rooms were lovely, lavishly decorated and adorned with ornate carvings. The Great Hall was particularly impressive (as it should be, I suppose), and I spent time admiring its decadence.
Ultimately, the network of rooms wasn’t that extensive, and it wasn’t long before I’d finished my tour of the palace. I felt like I’d had my fill of Pena Palace and Park and so I made my way back to the entrance and hopped on the bus back down the hill. During my wait in line for the bus earlier in the day, I’d noticed another bus line that ran to the smaller mansions and palaces, so I thought I’d try and catch it. Once we’d wound our way down to Sintra’s historical centre, I hopped off and managed to jog and jump on the other bus right away. I’d wanted to see Quinta da Regaleira, a Romantic palace and park that was built by a somewhat eccentric Portuguese millionaire in the late 1800s. It was only a short bus ride away, and it wasn’t long before I was waiting in line again (thankfully shorter than other lines of the day) to get my ticket. My time in line did give me an opportunity to admire the palace’s façade, exuberantly decorated with Gothic pinnacles and gargoyles.
Once I’d gotten my ticket, I set off to get something to eat at the palace café. I hadn’t had anything other than a pastry in the morning, so I was ready for sustenance. I devoured a delicious salmon and cream cheese sandwich in a lovely courtyard overlooking the palace before setting off, energy renewed, to explore the park. I loved the relatively more structured/landscaped nature of this park, punctuated by fountains and turrets (who doesn’t love a good turret?) and gardens. It also had a network of underground tunnels, one of which opens into the famed Initiation Wells, which is actually more of an underground tower lined with a spiral staircase. Its design is supposedly linked to Tarot mysticism, and it did certainly have a kind of mystical quality to it, staring up into the light. I enjoyed my stroll through the rest of the park and eventually wound my way around to the palace.
Mercifully, there was no line to enter, and I was able to explore unimpeded. There weren’t many rooms on display, but they were beautifully decorated. I made way up to the top of the octagonal tower, with views of both Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors. I was also able to get a closer look at the whimsical gargoyles adorning the palace, many of which were animal characters like a rabbit and a kangaroo. Satisfied with my fill of the palace, I grabbed myself an ice cream sandwich at the café and waited for the bus back into town. I made a brief stop in the historical centre of Sintra to take a quick look around the bustling town square area before continuing onwards to the train station and heading back to Lisbon.
I had a relatively early train to catch, but I was thankfully only a 5 minute walk to the station. I popped into a bakery just outside the station to grab a couple custard tarts for the road (they ended up being some of the tastiest I’d had yet, probably because they were still fresh!) and went in to find my train. I needed to go just one stop and then change trains to board one bound for Lisbon. I had managed to book a single seat (rather than a seat part of a pair of seats) on my Lisbon-bound train, so I had at least a bit of room and quiet for the roughly 2.5 hour trip. I had worked out how to get to the apartment from the Lisbon station via public transit, but ultimately I was feeling a bit tired and my bag seemed heavier (despite the addition of just one bottle of wine), so I opted to grab a cab. I ultimately think that I’ll start cabbing it when I first arrive to a new city (unless it’s extremely convenient by transit), as one never knows the particular geography of a new place. I’m glad I did, as a) it took about 10 minutes and so was cheap and b) more hills!
I hauled my bag up the four flights of stairs to the AirBnB apartment I’d rented and was met by my friendly host. The apartment was lovely, spacious and well-equipped, and I eagerly got myself settled. As it was after noon already, I didn’t have major plans for the day, other than to get a sense for the area. I decided to take a walk up to Igreja de São Roque. I got my first taste of the grandeur of Lisbon as I wandered through Praça Dom Pedro IV, with its ornate fountain and elaborately tiled plaza and made my way in the direction of the church, up the many stairs, through bougainvillea-lined lanes and passed restaurants spilling out onto the steps. The city, much like Porto, was brimming with colour, with its ubiquitous red-tiled roofs and brightly-painted buildings.
I finally made it to Igreja de São Roque and welcomed the relative coolness of its interior. As with many Portuguese churches, the rather austere exterior did not reflect the ornateness of its interior. It had an elaborately painted wooden ceiling, which was rather surprising, and lined with gilded chapels, all gold and marble and azulejos. One of them was decorated with an abundance of cherubs and little cherub heads, which was a bit creepy.
From there, I continued uphill to a nearby viewpoint in Jardim de São Pedro de Alcântara. I hadn’t eaten much other than my custard tarts, so I grabbed a couple of scoops of gelato (which were just divinely good) and enjoyed the gorgeous view overlooking Lisbon. A light breeze and shady areas to sit made it a lovely introduction to the city. After I’d had my fill, I made my way back down the hill into the Baixa district, an elegant area of town with wide boulevards, lined with shops from international brands and a goodly number of tourist-laden restaurants.
I noticed a rather dramatic arch at the end of one of the streets, so I thought I’d investigate. It turned out to be the triumphal Arco da Victória, centered on the truly massive Praça do Comércio. I basked in the sun for a time while admiring the scale and grandeur of the square before making my way back to the apartment to recharge for a bit. I did a bit of investigating as to reputable, tasty restaurants in the neighbourhood and decided on a little wine bar in the nearby Alfama district (up yet another hill). Unfortunately, when I got there, all their tables had been reserved, so I went in search elsewhere. My AirBnB host had recommended the little neighbourhood joint just around the corner from the apartment, so I figured I’d give it a try. It definitely felt like a local spot, as the older lady who sat me didn’t speak English, and there was no English menu available (just a menu written in Portuguese on a whiteboard). I ordered a glass of wine, and she asked me “meat or fish?” to which I responded “fish”. She then listed various fishes in Portuguese, and I went with the one I recognized (cod fish). The place was soon bustling with locals and a few tables of somewhat bewildered looking tourists. I eventually got my plate of cod topped with onions and what looked like grated cheese with a side of potato chips (what I assumed to be the “house” fish dish they give to the tourists). It was fairly tasty and relatively inexpensive, so I ended up enjoying another glass of wine before calling it a night.