All posts by Rebecca Michelle

Educator, traveler, reader, blogger. Loves learning, black coffee, and friendly people.

Travel Guide: Amsterdam and Haarlem

The impetus for my trip to Europe was to visit my brother during his semester studying in London, but prior to meeting him, I spent time in Leiden and The Hague, Brussels, and Ghent and Bruges. We chose to meet in Amsterdam because KLM has a direct flight from Amsterdam to Singapore so it would be easy on both of us.

It was raining, windy, and unpleasantly cold when we found each other in Amsterdam’s central train station. I was reading a book next to a baby grand piano that invited travelers to sit and play, heard my brother call my name, and looked up. I hadn’t seen him since July and it was so great to reunite, give him a hug, and go off on an adventure in a place new to both of us. As travelers, we both enjoy just walking around and seeing what there is to see. So, after dropping our backpacks at a storage facility in the middle of the city, that’s mostly what we did for the couple days we were there.

Growing up in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York in a city built around a canal and a river, we’re both used to life along the water but Amsterdam was constructed differently from any city we’d been to. It felt like it was designed for people instead of people fitting themselves around the design. Being in Amsterdam made it easy to understand the emphasis on commerce and exploration that made the Netherlands a European imperialist power. Of course, we loved all the bikes and houseboats, too.

As we wandered, we spent a few minutes in the Begijnhof, the former residence of a Catholic sisterhood who took no vows lived like nuns . . .

. . . stepped into De Krijtberg to verify that it was indeed a church (the Jewish stars above the doors left us a little uncertain) . . .

. . . and walked through a lovely flower market. It’s April in Amsterdam, after all!

Before returning to pick up our bags to take them to our Airbnb, we snacked on Dutch waffles (very different from Belgian waffles) at Albert Cuypmarkt. It sells everything, as markets do, and is located in a cool neighborhood. Market visits are my favorite travel activity because of the diversity of people and products. Look through a market and you’ll know what people buy, what they eat, the cost of living, and how people get along with one another.

We were lucky to find Café Gollem Amstelstraat our first afternoon in Amsterdam and made friends with the bartender while enjoying the largest cheese plate we’d ever seen. I loved that the bar had wifi and people were there working on laptops. Reading the chalkboards on the walls, my brother noticed that they sold Westvleteren 12, often voted the best beer in the world (though this may be changing). Oddly enough, we’d talked about that beer earlier in the day and just looked at each other for a moment.

We asked the bartender if the bar indeed had it in stock. They did. We asked if it was actually the best beer in the world. He hesitated. He told us that it’s been called the most perfect beer and that it’s unique, special, and really indescribable. He confirmed that the scarcity and mythology around it only add to the appeal and assured us that we’d enjoy it, but that we should be aware that we were unlikely to immediately experience a “wow” moment.

At 10.2% alcohol, our second drink of the afternoon, and a price tag of €15, we figured we’d split a bottle. Koen, the bartender, poured the beer into two glasses that looked like wine glasses, reserving the last couple swallows to split into two shot glasses. He told us to wait until the beer warmed up a bit and to drink the shot glass pour, where all the yeast settled, slowly, alongside the glass of beer.

The first thing we noticed was the aroma. Koen was right that we wouldn’t be able to describe it, but it was indeed unique and special. As advertised, the taste of the beer was not a “wow, how delicious” moment; it was more like experiencing beer for the first time in its most perfect, pure form as in, “Oh, this is what beer tastes like.” The liquid in the shot glasses tasted and felt completely different; it had more texture and a deeper taste than the rest of the drink. The whole experience was new and interesting and one that my brother and I were glad to share.

Before we left, Koen told us he’d be hanging out at the bar that night if we wanted to stop by again. He taught us the word gezellig, which I had recently come across (though had no idea how to pronounce) in a book on language and emotion. It means feeling pleasant and cozy with friends, which is certainly how we felt leaving the bar and when we returned later that night.

After it got dark, we spent some time in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s infamous red light district. For obvious reasons, photography isn’t allowed there. (Though everything else seems to be, so maybe it’s not that obvious.) The red light district is full of bars, weed cafés, and shops selling all sorts of interesting objects. And women beckoning provocatively behind glass doors. And promoters advertising shows of all kinds. It took me until much later that night to accurately articulate my reaction to what we’d seen. Without knowing it, and as a result of its absence, I realized that I had expected the atmosphere to playful; it was anything but. Human bodies were up for sale and people were shopping and buying. Sex is an industry and one can buy, sell, and commoditize any and every part of it. The whole thing becomes really dark and grim when you realize you’re walking through a flesh market alive and well on city streets.

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We got up late the following morning and decided to escape the city for a while. We took a train to Haarlem, just 20 minutes west of Amsterdam. After the busy day and late night were glad to be in a much quieter, sunny little town. We stopped for hot chocolate, the special kind where you choose a real piece of chocolate and stir it into steamed milk, and followed my usual plan without a plan of walking towards the tallest building. We found the town’s central square and toured St. Bavo’s Church . . .

. . . and then spent our time wandering through the cobblestone streets and looking into windows of shops and restaurants. We mostly just enjoyed being away from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam and looking at pretty gardens down little alleys in front of homes and small businesses.

We also enjoyed the architecture outside of the Cathedral of St. Bavo (Bavo was born in Ghent but is the patron saint of Haarlem) . . .

. . . and only stepped inside for a moment to see some very interesting stained glass. Hebrew and other Judaica are very common in Christian buildings if you know where to look, but somehow always surprise me.

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Our bartender friend suggested we check out one of his favorite bars in Haarlem, and naturally we did. My tiramisu stout was delicious and my brother had his first sour. Of course, there was cheese to go along with it.

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Haarlem also had a bit of an attitude, which made us laugh:

The sun was still out when we walked through Kenaupark along a canal on our way back to the train station late that afternoon. We agreed that Haarlem would be a lovely place to live, both because it’s really nice and because it’s close to a real city.

Back in Amsterdam, desiring to maintain some of the peace and quiet that we had experienced in Haarlem, we followed the canals towards their source in the tributaries off the North Sea. The sky had grown cloudy but I was glad to be on the docks with the boats.

The next morning, we brought our bags to the same storage facility in city center and made our way to the Rembrandt House Museum. I really love seeing how people lived way back in the day. Rembrandt’s life looked quite comfortable and, as my brother pointed out, it’s rare that an artist was so celebrated while still alive.

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Amsterdam also has a really cool statue dedicated to Rembrandt in the aptly-named Rembrandtplein, the city’s central square:

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Feeling cultured, we decided we’d visit one more museum that day. On our way to the museum district, we walked through a flea market selling clothing, shoes, and cool pieces of art . . .

. . . which led us to a statue of Amsterdam native Baruch Spinoza (the birds were symbolic, but I can’t remember why) . . .

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. . . and a memorial to the victims of World War II. . . .

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“O that my head were (full of) waters and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people.” – Jeremiah 8:23

Amsterdam has a historic Jewish Quarter but we didn’t spend much time there. We happened across the Portuguese Synagogue one evening and meant to come back, but that’s the day we went to Haarlem instead. Normally, we would have visited the Anne Frank House, but it was unfortunately closed for Passover until the night that I left. Lucky brother went without me.

Our plan for the last afternoon was to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Vondelpark, full of people on the first warm day all week. On arrival, though, we learned that new rules meant tickets were timed and only available online. Unable to get tickets for that day, we opted for the Rijksmuseum just across the park, which houses very famous Dutch art, including several pieces by Rembrandt we’d learned about that morning.

There were street musicians playing in the covered museum courtyard and we stopped to listen. I’m always impressed with just how talented some people are and it reminds me over and over how difficult it is to make it in the arts worlds.

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We had a very late lunch after the museum and wandered around a little while longer, enjoying the canals and the sunshine, before I took a train to the airport. There was a lot I enjoyed about just being in Amsterdam because the people of this city have something to say and want to be heard.

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As usual, I appreciated the flavor and feel that street art and graffiti lend to a city. It’s a way of getting to know the people of a place and understand a bit about who they are and what matters to them.

In all, we really enjoyed being in Amsterdam. A city built on canals and for bicycles feels different than many places I’ve been. The graceful bridges and buildings that go right up to the water lend a lot of beauty to the city and I think the locals have a right to be concerned with negative impacts of tourism. Our Airbnb away from city center helped us understand what it means to live in Amsterdam and made me like it a lot more than I did in the crowded tourist areas. As usual, I haven’t seen everything yet, which means I’ll have to come back. Amsterdam, thanks for having us!

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Travel Guide: Ghent and Bruges

Perhaps it’s fitting that my last solo travel day in Europe before meeting my brother was also my favorite solo travel day. I started my trip in the Netherlands in Leiden and The Hague and then spent a day in Brussels. By day four, I had fallen into a comfortable rhythm of walking around, reading and writing in cafés, and eating wherever and whenever I felt like it. I did remarkably little thinking about anything in particular and didn’t listen to or follow the news at all during my week away. In regular life, my days start with NPR; when I travel, I’m much more attuned to the physical experience of being somewhere else and mentally try to do the same thing.

I left my Airbnb in Brussels early in the morning, before the cafés nearby were open for breakfast. I had some raisins and almonds in my bag and figured I’d eat when I got to Ghent (which happened before any cafés were open for breakfast). I took the metro to the train station and bought a ticket for Bruges, which is where I planned to spend the afternoon. Bruges is about an hour northwest of Brussels and Ghent is almost exactly between them.

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It was bright and sunny when I arrived in Ghent. I grabbed a map from the tourist information desk and fell in love upon reaching the lobby of the train station.

With its cobblestone roads and architecture dating from the twelfth century, Ghent was like going back in time to a world of castles, knights, and fairy tales (and war, famine, and disease, but I wasn’t thinking about that). Since reading a map is not my forte and I don’t travel with cellular data, I employed the time-tested strategy for travelers arriving in medieval cities – head for the tallest building (most likely a church). But as this is the modern world, I met an Argentinian traveler who gave me a piece of chocolate, a map of Bruges for later, and showed me where Google said we were. He headed off to a join a tour group and I wandered through Ghent with a smile on my face. The words, I’m going to move here tattooed themselves on my brain.

Ghent was just beautiful and I would have loved to spend more time there and would definitely recommend if you’re planning to go.

I oriented myself around the Belfry . . .

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. . . stared up at St. Bavo’s Cathedral . . .

. . . watched the wind whip the flags of City Hall . . .

. . . and just stood for a while in front of the old post office. . . .

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I went inside a chocolate shop advertising cups of hot chocolate and purchased one for takeaway. The clouds were back and I was chilly but I wanted to spend as much time exploring Ghent as I could. My hot chocolate came with a real piece of chocolate shaped like a dragon. (You know that feeling when all you want to do is giggle and perhaps do a cartwheel in sheer delight? That’s the feeling I had eating my dark chocolate dragon in a medieval Belgian city. That and, I’m going to move here.)

I crossed a bridge to get a better view of St. Michael’s Church . . .

. . . and spotted some street art that really intrigued me. In addition to being a beautiful medieval city with real castles that I missed and must go back to see, Ghent is also known for a cool street art scene. Most of the art is located in more residential areas and outside the old city center, so I wasn’t able to see as much of it as I would have liked. Yet another reason to go back!

I’d planned on about half a day in Ghent so I took my time walking back to the train station and took a circuitous route through more modern parts of the city where people actually live. Completely by accident, I found the best cup of coffee I had all week (and really, a darn good cup of coffee) in a café with a menu only in Dutch. (Filter coffee is rare enough in Europe that Café Labath was the second Google hit when I searched “filter coffee in Ghent” while writing this because I couldn’t remember where I was.) Another reason I’m moving to Ghent.

The sun came out as I neared the station and Ghent became even more enchanting!

The sun stayed out (though it would again retreat) as I arrived in Bruges where I’d spend the rest of the day. Bruges is larger than Ghent and definitely the more tourist-trafficked of the two. But the canals are just lovely.

As usual, I headed for a tall building. This one was the local Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) and it housed a Michelangelo Madonna and Child sculpture. It’s relatively rare for Michelangelo’s work to be outside of Italy and I was really excited to see it.

Taking a boat along the canals to see the city by water is a common activity in Bruges, but I’d rather walk than wait in long lines. (I also used to work on a canal tour boat so there’s not much going for me in terms of novelty.) I followed the canals to Burg Square with its ornate buildings . . .

. . . and then walked to Market Square, which is definitely the big attraction of Bruges. I got some frites waited out the rain, thinking about the time, effort, and money it takes to build building like the ones I’d been seeing all week.

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Definitely my favorite activity in Bruges was climbing to the top of the Belfry, Bruges’ tallest building. I waited in line for over an hour to do it, an hour during which wind and rain made me a little doubtful. But I had a book to read and I can wait around pretty much anywhere with a book. (Except an airport. I despise being stuck in airports.) The staircase has 366 very narrow, twisty steps and I could immediately understand why everyone must be down by 6pm.

Afterwards, I sat down for my first real meal of the day, got a waffle around the corner and, because it was raining again, a visit to a wine bar that served me one of the most unique beers I’ve ever had. I asked for something local, as I always do, and the bartender suggested a beer brewed by a Bruges newscaster and his wife, who owns a coffee shop down the road. Doesn’t get more local than that! A regular customer (who is in the food industry and has worked all over the world) and I chatted about his children in international school, where he finds the best meals, and the merits of natural or synthetic wine corks.

The rain had stopped when I decided I should head back to the train station and back to Brussels. But before I left, Bruges gave me a rainbow. It was a beautiful end to a day that I think was life changing. I’d never been to Belgium until the day before and I am now certain that I will be back.

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Travel Guide: Brussels

Spring break this year took me to Europe with the excuse of seeing my brother who’s studying in London. After two nights in the Netherlands with days spent in both Leiden and The Hague, I started for Brussels on what should have been an easy journey of just under three hours with a change of trains in Rotterdam. Well then. For reasons that are still unclear to me but likely relate to the train strikes that are not entirely uncommon in Europe, the journey ended up being far more exciting (and only about an hour longer) than I’d expected.

It took about 20 minutes and two stations for the fun to begin. We were stopped for an abnormally long time in Den Haag HS before an announcement prompted grumbles, eye rolls, irritated looks, and a flurry of activity. I can make very little sense of Dutch, but I do understand the universal language of mass transit delays. We got off the cancelled train; I asked directions and took the next train to Rotterdam. This train was due to arrive about two minutes before my originally scheduled train to Brussels and those two minutes were surprisingly enough time to grab my backpack and change platforms. All was well and good on train number three until that train, too, stopped unexpectedly. This time, the announcement came in Dutch, French, and English so I was clued into what was happening by the second announcement. We were in Roosendaal, I found our later, and a conductor told me I had two options: I could take the train about to leave for Antwerp and then go to Brussels from there, or I could wait an hour and take a train directly to Brussels. The Antwerp train, he told me, would be faster. And Antwerp, as I learned from the Dutch lady who told me where we were, had a really pretty train station.

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In Antwerp, I again asked directions and finally got on the train to Brussels. Now that we were in Belgium, all announcements came in Dutch, French, and English and I was pleased that high school French left me able to understand and communicate what I needed to know and do. And after deciding not to take one train and listening again to announcements, I also learned that Bruxelles-Midi and Brussel-Zuid are the same station. Noted.

It took five trains and four hours but finally I was in Brussels! A few friends had told me to be careful there and that they had not felt safe, and I immediately understood why. Brussels is metropolitan and creative, gritty and unapologetic, with a metro system that has seen better days. There is very visible income inequality and poverty and all the social problems that come with it. Homelessness is hidden in Singapore and the small towns of Leiden and The Hague are not the places where that’s generally a problem. Brussels, however, was a different story. Brussels also has very large immigrant populations and significant racial, ethnic, and religious diversity and I know (though it’s upsetting to realize) that’s often intimidating to people. More than anything, Brussels reminded me of Manhattan and I had one of those moments where I missed it.

As in Leiden, I dropped my bag at my Airbnb and headed out. I stopped at the first pancake restaurant I saw to get my bearings. Everyone in Brussels speaks multiple languages, much like in Singapore, and it was a great opportunity to practice my French. With the exception of a bar I’d visit later on, planning for my time in Brussels amounted to zero but the day was warm and sunny and that’s all I needed.

Not too long after I started walking along the Mont des Arts, I heard music coming from a group of street performers. Ed Sheeran gets me every time so I sat down on the steps, ate some almonds, and just listened to them play. Brussels and I were going to get along quite well.

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I really enjoyed the street art that I passed throughout the day. I like seeing how the people of a city want their city to look and I am fascinated by the social norms around street art all over the world.

Europe is easy to explore because every city, even the most modern ones, have stunning churches that act both as something to do and a landmark on map. Brussels was no exception and I stepped inside the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula when I accidentally found myself in front of it.

I followed signs to Brussels Park to see the Royal Palace . . .

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. . . and then more signs to the European Parliament, which was celebrating the life and work of early twentieth-century philosopher Simone Weil. I read an anthology of her work a year ago, so that was cool and unexpected.

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I realized that I’d accidentally skipped a whole section of the city I’d wanted to see, which happens when you lack a plan, map, and cellular data, so I doubled back to visit Notre Dame du Sablon but decided not to go inside. One church was enough for the day.

When it started to drizzle, I took a seat on a bench in the park front of Egmont Palace, which is not a palace but a mansion, to figure out a plan . . .

. . . and realized that I was right near the Great Synagogue. My dad’s voice in my head led me in that direction and I asked the four Belgian soldiers at the heavy side door whether I was allowed in. You can knock, they told me, but we’ve been knocking and no one’s answering.

I took that as a no because I know that the Jewish community of Brussels is almost always on high alert. Instead, I kept walking and came across a World War I memorial that wasn’t on the maps posted around the city.

Just beyond the memorial was a pretty view that really captures Brussels for me. The picnicking couple had actually climbed over a fence to get to their spot and they weren’t the only ones. You’ve got to love a city with freethinkers like that.

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The only actual plan I had upon arriving in Brussels was to visit Delirium Café, a Mecca for beer lovers. Walking there took me past Belgian souvenir shops that made my mouth water . . .

. . . through the absolutely stunning Grand-Place (or Grote Markt), which is impossible to capture in still imagery and where I took photos for several groups of tourists . . .

. . . past the famous Manneken Pis . . .

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. . . and down more than one little alley lined with restaurants and shops and decorated with fancy street lights. But get there I did!

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I wandered through what is essentially an entire complex dedicated to good beverages and then found a seat at one of the many bars. I ordered a beer and some cheese and took out my journal and a book, planning to stay put for a couple hours. When the bartender brought back my change, I was too distracted by where I was and watching all the people to remember that euros, unlike Singapore dollars, come in two-dollar coins instead of notes. I ended up leaving a really big tip but became friends with the bartender as a result. And with a French medical student an hour later who asked me whether the wifi was working (it wasn’t) and to help him understand a word in the English medical textbook he was reading. The student nodded approvingly when the bartender asked what kind of beer I wanted to try next, brought over two bottles for me to choose from based on my requests (local and dark), and waved away my wallet when I asked to pay before getting up to leave yet another hour later.

It was raining hard when I stopped for Mexican food on the street where I was staying. One thing I noticed throughout my travels is how spoiled I’ve been in Singapore and New York where everything – grocery stores, convenience stores, full service restaurants – is open at all hours. Europe closes early and after 9pm, one cannot be picky.

The following morning, though, was bright and sunny. I was heading out to Ghent and Bruges for the day but I’d return to Brussels for the night. Brussels is a city I was happy to explore and would be glad to spend more time.

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