21 May 2011

I AM-sterdam!

Day 8

We've mastered the trains!  We cabbed it back to the Bruges train station, got on the correct train to Brussels, and linked up perfectly with our Thalys train, enjoyed lunch and drinks, and arrived in Amsterdam at 186 MPH right on time.  Well, we *did* slow down to about 30 a few of minutes before arrival at Amsterdam Centraal.

Yes, they spell it with two A's.  Speaking of spelling, they have more English-invalid letter combinations in Amsterdam than I have ever seen.  Pick any permutation of J, K, L, and T, toss in a vowel or two, repeat at least once, and that's a perfectly good name for a street.

We cabbed it to Hotel Amistad, and began our Amsterdammer adventure.  This is gonna be fun!  We walked around the area, as we always do when arriving in a new city.

It's Friday, and tonight is "disco night" at the Van Gogh Museum.  Our host at Amistad, Jost, suggested that we buy tickets ahead of time so we don't have to wait in the ticket queue; excellent advice.  We got to bypass the 15-minute queue for tickets.  The museum is open until 10:00 on Friday nights, so we arrived around 7:00 PM.  DJ, bar, energy, and art.  What a great combination!  I noticed that their audio tour headsets only have one earpiece.

We ended up at dinner across the street from the hotel at a Portuguese spot, which was great.  It's a family-owned and -operated spot that serves great fish dishes.

Day 9

Today is "tour day".  We follow Rick Steves' walking tour and learn lots about the city.

Another aside here...  European floors are numbered from zero.  So the ground floor (what we'd call the first floor in the U.S.) is floor zero.  That means the basement is negative one, and if you're on the third floor (as is our room at Amistad sans lift), that's the 4th floor in the U.S.  We will have very shapely legs by the time we get back to Dallas.

Because of Amsterdam's renaissance tax history, buildings are skinny and tall.  They used to have to pay taxes based on the size of their plot and the height of the entry stairs; servants used a ground-level entrance, and elites ascended several steps to the front door.  Our hotel building was only as wide as our compact queen-bedded room.  Our room was street-facing, 3 flights of stairs up.  Thankfully, Jost was better fit than we, and hauled our 2 carry-ons up for us.

We learned the lay of the land (which used to be marshland) and scoped out some potential eateries.  Amsterdam is much like the U.S. -- there really is no "native" food, as, say, Italy or Spain.  (Sorry, France.  Y'all know how to dramatize food, but there didn't seem to be anything really "native".  We love you, though!)  There is a lot of every cuisine here.  And since Holland used to own Indonesia, there is a lot of that here.

Dinner was at De Kas, a large organic spot southeast of the city center that grows much of its own veggies and herbs.  It was good, but I think its hype is bigger than its bites.  Its prices certainly are.  But my dinner was free!  My fish was WAY over-cooked (mushy, not flaky), so I reported that to our head waitress.  I was comfortably full on the house-grown organic veggies, which were grilled to perfection, so I didn't need the fillet anyway.  Tom and I shared the cheese plate for dessert.  The bill arrived one "menu" (my 4-course meal) short, and the waitress explained [in perfect English as they all speak] that the chef appreciated my comments and complimented my meal.

Day 10

Mothers' Day at the Rijksmuseum, the national museum of The Netherlands.  Rick Steves was right again -- Dutch art is "meat and potatoes" compared to the rest of Europe's stuff, and way more up my alley.  We did the "approximately one-hour" audio tour, and 2-1/2 hours later were glad we did.  The main museum is closed for renovation until 2013, so all the stuff we saw was in The Phillips Wing, which was added recently in 1890 (yes, eighteen-ninety).  The "meat and potatoes" exhibits are like a U.S. fireworks show -- start with some bravado -- a 1/12 scale dutch war ship model --slow it down with a bunch of still life paintings, then have the grand finale -- Rembrandt's "The Night Watch".

After the museum, we had a late lunch at a chic Indonesian restaurant, sharing "The Indonesia Plate for Two".  It was a selection nice of small dishes, each of which was great.

After lunch, we toured the red light district, which, as you might imagine, is not terribly active on a Sunday afternoon.  Still interesting, though.  And it's really a pretty small area.  From there it was back south toward the hotel and happy hour.

We didn't know about Sunday happy hour; we just came upon it.  We found a "friendly" [as if not all bars in Amsterdam aren't "friendly"] neighborhood spot near the hotel called Taboo.  There were lots of vacant sidewalk tables, so we parked at one and had a glass of wine.  Within the hour, the place filled to capacity and spilled into the street.  It was orchestrated almost like a flash mob.  (See pictures.)

Day 11

Today's plan was to take the bus out to Keukenhof Gardens, a renouned botanical garden open only two months each year in the spring to show off their spectactular tulips.  A colleague had told me about it.  (Thanks, Julie!)  RAIN.  So instead we made this our "lazy day", which every vacation needs anyway.  Shop, sip, and savor.

Day 12

It's our last full day on the trip. We figured we'd do Keukenhof today since we had rain yesterday.  Well, today, more rain.  We don't really want to tour the tulips in the rain.

So instead, we did a canal tour on a boat and a walking tour of Jordaan ("yor-DON"), a great quiet neighborhood (except for canal maintenance -- see the pics) where the Franks hid during WWII.  We had an hour before our boat set sail, so we found a sidewalk cafe (imagine that) and enjoyed a salad and some wine.  I'm sure Grand Island, Nebraska, is close, but I'm pretty sure I should have been born into cafe society.

The boat tour was fun,  if not predictable.  It lasted an hour and took us on a large loop around the city.  We learned several tidbits about Amsterdam.  For example, this is the only city that built a multi-deck parking garage for bikes.  (See pictures.)  And they've already outgrown it!

Sushi seems to have taken Amsterdam by storm, so we decided on a sushi spot for the last supper.  I hope that the restaurant we chose is not representative of Amsterdammer sushi.  It was adequate at best.

We returned to the hotel and asked them to book us a taxi to Schipol (they call it "skipple", but everyone else calls it "shipple".  Since they own it, we should probably go with their pronunciation.) at 5:00 AM for our 7:20 AM flight.

19 May 2011

In Bruges

Day 6

Today is travel day to Bruges, and what a day  it will turn out to be...

The day started with breakfast at our morning standard, Cafe Parvis.  From there, we checked out of the hotel and headed on the Metro toward Gare de Nord.  On our map, red and orange look very similar...  After a few stops, we realized that we were not headed to the gare, so we hopped off and grabbed a cab.  But for other reasons (my incorrectly set watch) we missed our train to Brussels and had to buy another ticket.  No worries...  164€ down the tube.  Arghhh...

But it gets better (worse, actually)...  We got to Brussels, finally, a couple of hours later.  We LOVE the Thalys high-speed (186 MPH) trains.  Smooth, quiet, food and drink service.

OH!  I think I forgot to mention that with the EU, there are no passport checks or customs when traveling country-to-country.  And while on the subject...  When we arrived in Paris after Miami, there was no immigration paperwork to complete and only a quick passport check at CDG.  I bet it won't be so smooth next week when we return to Dallas via Heathrow.  But we'll burn that bridge when we get there.

Back in Brussels...  We're just here to change trains to get to Bruges.  On the Belgian trains (state-run) there is no first class (the difference in first and second classes on European trains is not as it is on airlines), no reserved seats, and no reserved schedule.  You buy a 24€ ticket and it's good on any train (to a specified destination) for 30 days.

We found the track, ascended the escalator, and hopped on the train.  [Insert high-pitched conductor whistle here.  Really.]  After about 20 minutes up-rail, the conductor passed to check everyone's tickets.  Tom presented his, and the conductor replied (in perfect English) "This is not the right ticket."  I presented my ticket, which was the same, pointing out the we both at tickets to Bruges.  "The tickets are okay, but this train does not go to Bruges."  Red faces reigned.  The conductor was the perfect gentleman and explained to us that we need to get off at the next stop, swap tracks, go back to Brussels...

In Bruges!  (If you haven't seen that movie, rent it.  Colin Farrell and Ralph Feines.)  We cabbed it from the train to the hotel, where Tom has booked the "honeymoon suite" on the canal.  That is an exaggerated description, but it was an adequate hotel.  (See our canal-view pictures.)  Rick Steves hit the nail on the head with his description of the hotel -- big and basic.

We walked up to Market Square, Bruges' main one.  Bikes, taxis, city buses, and horse-drawn carriages whiz by.  High energy old world.

Dinner was at a "tapas bar" called Rockfort.  I had foie gras (imagine that) and Tom had eel.  The place was as modern and chic as any Dallas restaurant, but architecturally set 300 years ago.  The food and service were fantastic (the latter of which we would learn is unusual in Bruges).

Day 7

We did Rick Steves' walking tour of Bruges, hitting all the highlights, including Michelangelo's "Mary and Jesus" sculpture, "the only Michelangelo sculpture exported from Italy while he was alive".  What a specific claim to fame.

The rest of the day included lunch at a sidewalk cafe (Still lovin' the cafe life!) and turning in early.  We're leaving tomorrow morning and don't want a repeat or the previous day's train fiascos.

08 May 2011

Europe Days 3-5, Still in Paris

Day 3

Sunday was a restful day, sort of.  It's Labor Day here, but as our concierge told us, that's a "light holiday" in France - no special festivities or cook-outs.  We started late with brunch at one of our favorite hang-outs, Cafe Vito.  I had orange raisin bread, baguette, butter, and jam.  Tom had a soft-boiled egg.  Nothing about which to get excited, but it served its purpose.

We spent the afternoon at Pere Lachaise cemetery, home to Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Chopin, Collett, and thousands more.  In addition to Montmarte, this has to be one of the hilliest parts of Paris.  We ended our tour in the section with many monuments to the many thousands of French Jews who were Nazi victims.  We study this stuff in world history in high school, but seeing these monuments and memorials really hits it home.  Don't miss the pics on my "The pictures" section.

Day 4

Today's agenda:  A day at the opera.  Or at least a visit to the famed Opera Garnier.  You may have heard of the phantom.  (Never mind that its author is an Englishman.)  We suspected that one of the escapees from Pere Lachaise cemetery was probably the phantom.  The opera house itself is pretty, but most of the lobby was closed.  We got to peek into the theatre from one of the balconies, but we were pretty disappointed with the visit.  At least the queue was short.

We decided on an impromptu dinner in the Marais -- we'd just amble about until we saw a place that looked good.  Bad idea.  9:30 PM and everything that looked good was packed.  Finally, on the far-east side of the Marais, almost to Bastille, we came across a cool-looking spot with a couple of open tables.  We're in!  I had not had my foie gras fix for the day, and the only thing on the limited carte (menu) with foie gras was a salad.  No kidding.  Foie gras salad.  It was interesting, and really pretty good.  It reminded me (in concept, not flavor) of when I was in Australia and had fettucini with chicken livers and cream.  I never would have put those two together, either, but each worked pretty well.

Apparently, the salad threw me for a loop and I lost my sense of direction.  We headed on foot back to the hotel, or so we thought.  As we got into sections of town we had never seen, I figured I'd better pull out the 'Pad to see where we were.  It oriented us, and we headed in the other direction.  Or so we thought.  After five more minutes, so no recognizable sights.  I fired up the 'Pad again, and we were even further away.  Yikes.  TAXI!  We were back at the hotel shortly.
Oh...  16,212 steps today.  These dogs were tired!

Day 5

After so much walking yesterday, we slept in.  Our Fodor's guide suggested a Taiwanese dim sum spot for lunch.  So after showers, we headed out for Zen Zoo.    How did we navigate before our devices and GPS?  Zen Zoo was hardly dim sum -- more bento box than bite-size Taiwanese -- but delightful nonetheless.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the laundromat.  Actually, the laundromat was in the Marais, so after depositing the dirty clothes in the washer, we ambled some more.  Since we've had automatic dryers my entire adult life, we were not good estimators of how long things took to dry.  Thirty minutes?  YIKES, that industrial dryer must be powerful.  I bet 10 minutes would have done the trick.

For dinner, as is our tradition when we travel, we returned to our favorite spot of the trip -- Le Hangar.  And it was on this night that I reached gastronomic orgasm -- foie gras soup.  It was a creamy mushroom-based puree from heaven topped with 3 or 4 bites of the best goose liver this side of France.  Oh wait...  We ARE in France.  My main course of seared scallops was sumptuous as well, but I don't think that soup will ever be toppled from my gastronomic pyramid.

02 May 2011

European Adventure, Part 1

This is the second time I'm writing this because the one I was working on for 2 hours yesterday was eaten by the crappy app I bought to publish (Blogsmith, FWIW).  Now I'm using the iPad's Notes app to write this.  I know it is stable.

I apologize in advance to my Francophile friends because I don't have a French keyboard to type the accented and cedille letters.

I also apologize for not having pictures herein. But you can see those in my Picasa album. Just go to gregtaylor.com and click "The Pictures".

Day 1

Our flights from DFW to MIA to CDG were [thankfully] uneventful.  We arrived around 9:30 AM Central European Time (CET) and cabbed it to the hotel.  We rested a bit, fresshened up, and set out for our traditional first-day walk-about.  Having had an adequate breakfast on the plane just before landing, we decided to skip lunch in order to build our hunger for tonight's feast.  (More shortly...)

In 6,218 steps (count courtesy of my new HP-provided pedometer, err probably pedometre here), we walked from out hotel in the Marais near Centre Pompidou down to Hotel de Ville (City Hall), across the Seine to Ile de Cite and past Notre Dame, across the other brance of the Seine to Rive Gauche, back across the Seine to the Marais, then back to the hotel.  Time to get ready for dinner...

No one in the world (IMHO) can prepare and present a five-course dinner like the French.  As on our last trip to Paris in 2007, we opted to have our first dinner at Le Train Bleu in Gare (train station) de Lyon.  Think back to "Hello Dolly", and Dolly's fabulous entrance into Harmonia Garden.  Remember the energy of the waiters singing dancing and dancing around with reckless abandon?  Le Train Bleu is the Harmonia Garden of Paris.  The waiters don't sing or dance, but zest with which they scurry around the restaurant is invigorating to watch.  Even if the energy weren't there, the restaurant itself is a wonderful example of French Baroque (or maybe Baroque Revival) splendor.  And the place is HUGE.  The place is laid out like a French garden (formal and symmertical), with a wide central corridore flanked by perpendicular rows and rows of tables.  Unlike the cramped sidewalk cafes (more shortly...), the tables are close, but you have plenty of elbow room and privacy.  And the food?

Tom and I opted for the menu.  Here, the "menu" is what in the States we would call "chef's menu" or "tasting menu".  The menu was a five-course parade of food, including:
- asparagus mousse with a dollop of smoked salmon mousse (a courtesy of the chef, not one of the five courses)
- a trio of Vichyssoise, salmon tartare on a small biscuit, and mozarella atop diced tomato with basil puree
- fois gras with raisin and apricot toast
- fillet of turbot with sweated spinach
- raspberry sorbet in Champagne (the palate cleanser, not one of the courses)
- potato-crusted veal chop with asparagus risotto
- a dessert trio of chocolate mousse, berry sorbet with strawberries, raspberries, topped with a meringue; and a rum mousse served with a rum injector (think disposable miniature turkey baster with a sharp tip filled with a shot of rum)

Everything was delectable, and after three hours, our gastromonic parade was over.  We Metro'd it back to Hotel de Ville and walked the 4 blocks back to the hotel.  After a LONG day of flying, walking, and eating, it was time for bed.  We were eager to shake the jetlag...

Day 2

We awoke at 7:30 with our bodies comfortable adjusted for CET.  On our last visit, we discovered a small sidewalk cafe (Imagine that in Paris!) where we'd spend our mornings sipping cafe creme (what they call "cafe au lait" in New Orleans), grazing on croissant, and planning the day ahead.  We continued that tradition this morning, ingesting copious quantities of butter, puff pastry,  caffeine, and cream.

We charted our course for the day:  Musee Rodin, lunch on Rue Cler, Musee d'Orsay, and dinner TBD.

The Rodin Museum is great:  manageable size, pretty house and gardens, and smaller crowds than "the big boys" of Parisian museums.  The museums of Paris offer what is called "The Museum Pass", which has two huge advantages over doing museum tickets "a la carte":  first, you get admission to MOST museums in Paris for the price of the pass (50 euro for 4 days in our case), and immediate admission -- you don't have to wait in line with the other tourists who are queued to purchase tickets, apparently not knowing of the great deal the Museum Pass offers.  You can see pictures of our visit to Rodin's place in my "The Pictures" section at gregtaylor.com.

After Rodin, we hooved over to Rue Cler, which has to be one of the world's best market and cafe streets.  We popped in at one of our favorite sidewalk cafes, Cafe du Marche.  Another gastro delight, Tom enjoyed seared duck and I carnivorized (a new word!) steak tartare.  Apparently, most foreigners don't realize that tartare (whether beef or fish) is raw -- it's just seasoned with a few additives, like chopped olives and onions.  So the waiters always confirm that I know it's raw meat when I order it.  It's good stuff.

We Metro'd it back to the hotel to plan dinner.  We had a few places in mind from our previous trip, but wanted to try something new.

We asked the hotel concierge (also the desk clerk, as the hotel is small.  The recommendation was  Le Hangar, a small (friends in Dallas, think the late York Street) cafe at the end of a hooked dead-end alley that nobody would ever find unless you were looking for it.  We asked the concierge to book us a reservation for 9:00 PM, having come off such a meaty lunch.  The earliest they could get is in was 10:00, and so it was.  As you may know, Europeans eat late by our stateside standard, so we were fine with that.  We arrived at 9:50 and were seated around 10:10.  What was to follow was simple and sublime.

Tom had sardines with toast (These were not the canned salty kinds.) as an entree (The entree here is what we would call an appetizer.) and I had salmon tartare.  Both were sinful.  For his main course, Tom had "beef stroganoff", simmered beef and mushrooms surrounded by small bites of fried mashed potato balls.  No noodles here.  I had [drumroll here...] seared fois gras and potatoes.  The potatoes were very nicely creamed and seasoned, and spread in a thin layer across the bottom of the small plate.  The three slices of fois gras were beautifully sauteed, laid to rest (RIP!) across the thin layer of potatoes, then drizzled with olive and truffle oils.  Need I say more?

Back to the hotel, and another day of walking, Metro-ing, and grazing complete.  Oh, 14,274 steps.