Travel: Diamonds in the black

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The rain had slackened overnight, and we were treated to the faintest hints of clear skies. After a quick breakfast from the hotel buffet (I heavily favoured the cheese options), we piled into our minibus and made the short drive down to the Reynisfjara beach to watch the sunrise. Part of the reason I wanted to visit Iceland was I wanted to see places unlike anything I’d seen before. This was one of those places.

Reynisfjara black sand beach
Reynisfjara black sand beach

Soaring basalt columns–symmetrical hexagonal pillars that looked like man-made sculptures–rose up from the beach, born out of basaltic lava cooling following a volcanic eruption. It definitely felt like I’d stumbled onto a scene out of Lord of the Rings, staring up at Isengard. I half-expected to see Saruman peering down at me. We were there relatively early, so there weren’t too many people, with the exception of a tour group of teenagers, who unfortunately had decided that the basalt columns made an excellent jungle gym. Nevertheless, we spent about 45 minutes admiring the sea stacks and rugged cliffs before heading out.

basalt pillars Reynisdrangar
basalt pillars Reynisdrangar

I’d spotted a beautifully-situated church on our drive to the beach, which thankfully someone else in the group (who was a bit of a photographer) had also noticed and requested to stop at. The clouds were hanging low, curling around the tops of the surrounding hills, to great eerie effect.  DSC_3648

We drove through rugged, barren hills to the nearby town of Vik, the southernmost village in Iceland for a quick pit stop, first at another church overlooking the town and the ocean and then at a gas station. François recommended checking out the Icelandic wool factory, so I took a peek. My leather gloves were still damp from my intimate encounter with a waterfall the day before, which made for cold, clammy hands, so I bought myself a waterproof pair of Icewear gloves. Warm fingers are just heavenly!

Vik
Vik

Since we were making good time, François decided to take us to a “secret” spot, not normally on the tour itinerary, about an hour away from Vik. Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, whose name is basically unpronounceable, was a gorgeous place. There were a few other tourists, but relatively quiet compared to other places we’d visited. We hiked up the tourist path running parallel to the canyon, peering out at at look-out points at the Fjaðrá river 100 metres below. There was a feeling of stillness there, a place relatively untouched by humans. It was calming to stand on a cliff’s edge and hear nothing but the sound of rushing water. Well, occasionally interrupted by the whir of a drone. I’d watched enough travel videos on YouTube to know that drones were becoming increasingly common, but this was the first time I’d encountered one on my travels. Even someone from my own tour group broke out their drone.

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overlooking Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

We continued onwards, making a brief stop in Hof to see a turf church (apparently it was a day for churches). We drove past mountains and glaciers shrouded in cloud and battered by rain, including what François referred to as the “Hollywood” glacier. The locals call it that because of all the movies that have been shot there (Batman Begins, Interstellar, etc.). It wasn’t long before we were pulling into the parking lot next to our day’s final destination, Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. The rain had started up again, but I didn’t care because this place was magical, unlike anything I’d seen before. Ethereal blue icebergs float silently in the water, and chunks of ice were strewn on the black sand shore.

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon

Normally, the lake overlooks the Vätnajokull glacier, but the cloud cover did an excellent job of obscuring it. Despite no glacier, I was glad to see the ice (apparently, our guide had taken tourists a couple of weeks before and there were no icebergs at all). In addition to the chunks of ice, there were also a congregation of seals floating in the water–all you could see were their adorable heads bobbing and staring at us curiously. While we were watching the seals watch us, we heard a low, rumbling. We watched in awe as icebergs not far out into the water crashed and tumbled over each other. Mother nature’s power at work!

ice diamonds on the beach
ice diamonds on the beach

Per the recommendation of our guide, I wandered away from the lake under a bridge and found another black beach scattered with chunks of ice. Despite the overcast skies and drizzle, I was amazed that some of the ice chunks seemed to glow.

It was a relatively short drive to our hotel for the evening, and we ate as a group together again (though the French contingent had their own table, as there wasn’t a table big enough for all of us). I continued my seafood trend and had some delicious arctic char and chatted more with our guide. I learned a little more about Icelandic culture. Iceland has no standing army and apparently, search and rescue services are largely voluntary (you can read an interesting New Yorker article about it here). Because the population is so small, it simply isn’t feasible to maintain a force of rescuers, so people actually volunteer their time and equipment and are highly-regarded by their countrymen. I found it cheering, particularly in this day and age, to learn that voluntary service (rescuing others in often times dangerous conditions) is such an important part of their culture.

Travel: Touring the Golden Circle

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I had rather foolishly spent the previous night in a YouTube spiral of viewing insanity and so had went to bed really late. For whatever reason, the five alarms I’d set also conspired against me and decided not to go off, so I woke up at 9 am. This would not normally be problematic when on vacation except the pick-up for the 5-day tour I’d booked was 8 am. Panicked, I threw my things together and ran the block to the pick-up site, trying to figure out how to call the company. Now, my original email had indicated that my pick-up time was 9 am, and a second confirmation had said 8 am. Miraculously, after waiting 10 minutes, the Arctic Adventures minibus came into view. The pick-up time had in fact been 8 am, but thankfully they assumed I might have been confused by the two times and had circled back around to see if I was there.

I’m not normally a tour person (in fact, I’ve never taken a multi-day tour). I’d booked a tour with Arctic Adventures in large part because I assumed it would be snowy and icy, and I wasn’t comfortable driving on my own in wintery weather conditions. However, it had been a shockingly warm winter in Iceland, and there wasn’t a snowflake to be found. Ah well! Our guide was François, a Belgian living in Iceland. We had a relatively eclectic mix of folk, 14 including myself, with pairs from Quebec, France, the US, China, and Wales. We were soon driving out of town, through the drizzly countryside, starting on the Golden Circle portion of the trip. I was undaunted by the weather and just eager to get my travel on—it’s felt like a lifetime since I’d really travelled.

Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. It lies in a rift valley that marks the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It was also the site of the national parliament of Iceland from 930 AD until the 18th century (hence its heritage status).

Þingvellir National Park

From there, we piled back in and drove to the Haukadalur valley geothermal area. Fun linguistic fact: geyser is an Icelandic word! Geysir, from which we get our word I believe, is actually currently dormant. Its neighbour, Strokkur, thankfully erupts every 5-10 minutes. I will say that even though you know it’s coming, staring at a smoking hole in the ground through a camera lens, it still gives you a bit of a start.

Geysir (from which we get our word)
Geysir (from which we get our word)

After an expensive but relatively tasty cheeseburger, we made the short drive to Gulfoss (“Golden Waterfall”)—a seriously impressive waterfall. The light rain in combination with the spray from the waterfall was making photo-taking a serious challenge. I was certainly glad to have brought Dad’s plastic camera bag with me, which is basically a plastic bag with a hole for a lens (and a drawstring to keep it in place), as I was able to keep the camera body from getting seriously wet. Though, nothing can really prevent spray covering the front of the lens. Who would’ve thought that a lens covered in water would be difficult to shoot through?

a rainy day at Gullfoss

Our last stop was Seljalandsfoss, a tall waterfall you can actually walk all the way behind. François first took us on a short walk, which involved wading through a shallow creek to get into narrow cavern which we shared with a waterfall. It was a crazy sensation to feel the power of a waterfall right next to you. Also, a very wet sensation. We headed over to the main waterfall and scampered around the rocks to stand behind it. It was wet and cold, and I was absolutely soaked at this point, but it was awesome (I happened to not be wearing my waterproof pants at the time, and discovered my parka and snow boots aren’t terribly waterproof). Thankfully, it was the last stop before the hotel.

behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall
behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Thankfully, I had a chance to shower and warm-up before dinner. As we were in a country hotel away from town, we ate at the hotel restaurant, and François made sure that we all had dinner together. I will say that a big plus for tour travel is having other people to talk to, especially at a meal. I have no qualms about eating alone, but it is always preferable to have a side of conversation with your entree. I sat next to François and learned about his background and living in Iceland. He was very warm and earnest, with a deep-seated respect for nature and its raw wildness (e.g., he would remind us to not climb over ropes that lined the paths in order to protect the flora of the area). He loves the laid-back nature of Iceland–apparently people really don’t make plans here, beyond a few days ahead. For instance, it would be an oddity to plan a party and send out Facebook invites a month in advance, as friends typically just show up to see if you want to hang out. As an obsessive planner, I think incorporating a pinch of Icelandic spontaneity into my life might be a good idea.

Travel: Reykjavik and the surrounds

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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.

Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon

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).

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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).
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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.

Travel: Canalside in Amsterdam

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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!

Foodhallen
Foodhallen

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.

House of Bols
House of Bols

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.

smoked salmon salad with horseradish sauce at The Seafood Bar
smoked salmon salad with horseradish sauce at The Seafood Bar

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 The Night Watch, which were fairly heavily trafficked by tour groups.

Rijksmuseum
Rijksmuseum

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).

strolling through the Jordaan district
strolling through the Jordaan district

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.

classic fare at De Drie Fleschjes (hardboiled eggs, pickles, etc.)
classic fare at De Drie Fleschjes (hardboiled eggs, pickles, etc.)

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.

Amsterdam Central Station
Amsterdam Central Station

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.

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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.

The Royal Palace of Amsterdam
The Royal Palace of Amsterdam

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.

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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.

Travel: In Bruges

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Travel: A Weekend in Brussels

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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.

Grand Place
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.

delicious fries and mayonnaise at Burger Republic
delicious fries and mayonnaise at Burger Republic

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.

Royal Palace of Brussels
Royal Palace of Brussels

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.

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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).

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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.

traversing Bourse St.
traversing Bourse St.

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.

triumphal arch at Parc du Cinquantenaire
triumphal arches at Parc du Cinquantenaire

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!

Travel: Raw herring and a pearl earring in The Hague

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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.

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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.

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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.

inside Mauritshuis
inside Mauritshuis

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.

Binnenhof
Binnenhof

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.

inside the M.C. Escher museum
inside the M.C. Escher museum

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.

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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

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.

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Travel: Delft

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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.

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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).

Oude Kerk (Old Church)
Oude Kerk (Old Church)

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.

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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!).

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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.

Nieuwe Kerk (New Church)
Nieuwe Kerk (New Church)

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.

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Travel: Exploring Nijmegen

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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.

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

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!

Grote Markt
Grote Markt

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.

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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.

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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.

the oldest pub in Nijmegen
the oldest pub in Nijmegen

Travel: Tramming around town – Day 5

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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.

riding the tram
riding the tram

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.

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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.

walking through Alfama
walking through Alfama

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).

at Pois Café
at Pois Café

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.

inside Lisbon Cathedral
inside Lisbon Cathedral

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.

at the Lisbon Oceanarium
at the Lisbon Oceanarium

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 dinnertime feast at Cruzes Credo
my dinnertime feast at Cruzes Credo