Sunday, April 17, 2011

Amsterdam and Copenhagen

What’s the first things you think of when you hear about Amsterdam?  Drugs and sex?  I think that’s what about 95% of people think.  There is so much more to this amazing city than that!  There are beautiful canals, cheese, clogs, tulips, windmills and gorgeous countryside.
I spent the better part of a day riding a bike through the Holland (I’ve decided to refer to The Netherlands as Holland, even though Holland only comprises a small part of The Netherlands, because I prefer the name) countryside!  I first went with a tour company and then rented a bike and returned on my own.  The gorgeous weather, warm temps and cool breeze combined with the amazing locale was enough to make it a pretty perfect day!  Navigating through the city on the way out of town was much more difficult than it looked after watching the locals breeze through on their bikes.  Other tourists walked unknowingly in the designated bike paths and sometimes darted out in front of you to get away from another biker, cars came out of nowhere and since there are about 25 bikers crossing an intersection at any one time the chance of getting through an intersection unscathed is pretty thin.  But once I made it through that and into the countryside where I could feel the wind through my hair and the warm sun on my skin, I was sittin’ pretty. 
I’ve been sick as of late (thanks Contiki!) and have subsequently lost my sense of smell, which miraculously came back to me just as I rode past an odiferous cow pasture, and then it was gone again.  I saw the gorgeous tulips that Holland is known for, old windmills that look like they were put up yesterday.  I stopped at a cheese and clog farm where we were taken in and shown the ins and outs of the farm.  Next time you’re at the supermarket look at the label on your cheese; if it’s rounded or square it was made in a factory but if it’s rounded with four points in the corners it was made on a farm.  I had heard in the past that clogs are actually very comfortable, but I never bought it because how could sticking your foot in a block of wood be comfortable?  I saw how they were carved from one piece of wood, hung to dry, painted depending on their purpose, shipped to be sold and I got the chance to try a pair on and I could tell that once they were worn in and conformed to your foot they would be really comfortable.  Don’t knock it until you try it I guess.  After hours riding through the countryside and the city I ended up in Vondel Park, an “English Park” that was designed with the beautiful parks in England in mind.  <3
For the historical part of my trip I visited the Anne Frank House and was reminded of what an amazing little girl Anne Frank was.  Her home, while in hiding in Amsterdam, was so simple yet holds so much historical value.  I was so intrigued I wished there was more.  What a sad story captured so perfectly by a little girl who never knew that her diary would allow as much insight to the world as it has.
I don’t exactly know how to segue from Anne Frank to drugs and prostitution so I’m just gonna launch right in!  Contrary to popular belief, marijuana is not actually legal here.  It is in fact illegal but the offense has been de-criminalized as the police chose to look the other way.  The coffee shops (which is code for “We sell marijuana!”) that currently exist are the only ones who hold licenses to sell marijuana and no more will be issued.  These coffee shops cannot be bought or sold, passed down to family members or have ownership transferred in any way to ensure that they eventually will die out.  But there were a lot of rich hippies that bought the coffee shops so they’ll still be around for awhile. 
I went on a tour that took us through the Red Light District and I was shocked by how sad and miserable the girls in the windows looked.  Almost all of them looked depressed and were probably longing for a different life.  And many of them looked bored, spending more time yawning, texting or putting on makeup than trying to lure men to their windows.  There is an elementary school in the neighborhood and the kids, at least the younger ones, see the women in their windows in bikinis and think that they’re waiting for the bus to come along to take them to the beach.  Haha!  What innocence!  J  While we were walking through, a mother paraded her 4 young boys through the alleyway and one of the prostitutes looked horrified as the little boys oogled at her and she hung her head in shame.
Hopping across the border now into my first Scandanavian country I visited Copenhagen, Denmark!  My first impression of Copenhagen was that it seemed to feel more European to me than other places I had been.  But I discovered soon enough that it was not more European than other cities, there were just fewer tourists taking away from the true ambiance of the city.  Months ago when I was searching through travel photos online for a suitable background for this very blog, I came across a beautiful picture of Nyhavn that I fell in love with.  Alas I decided against using that picture though because I wasn’t planning on going there so it wouldn’t feel right using it on my blog.  But lo and behold I ended up in Copenhagen, and more specifically Nyhavn at the exact spot the photo was taken.  If things are meant to be they will be!
I visited the most unique and quirky town, Christiana, which is a completely free town that declared its independence in 1971 and governs itself.  The approximately 900 residents live in the town where the streets are made of dirt or gravel, there are no sidewalks and no street signs, there are old, dilapidated but brightly colored buildings all over.  Every few blocks there is a fire in a large, black barreled trash bin and there is artwork on buildings everywhere.  Pictures are strictly forbidden as indicated by the giant spray painted camera inside a red circle with a line through it on many of the buildings but I was able to take a couple of pictures at the entrance which give a modest preview into the eccentric town.  Go read about it on Wikipedia or visit it yourself, it’s quite the place!

Monday, April 11, 2011

England, Scotland and Ireland - Oh my!

I didn’t realize how much I missed being in an English speaking country until I arrived in England and could understand everything everyone said!  I wanted to talk to everyone just because I could!!  This portion of my trip is being done as a group tour with Contiki.  We are traveling through England, Scotland and Ireland over 16 days.  Our first stop was London where I saw most of London in one day – the Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, the London Eye, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park and Kennsington Gardens.  The parks were absolutely gorgeous.  I wish we had more of these back home! 

I also took in the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, enjoyed the peaceful Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, and got a healthy dose of the hoopla over Prince William and Cate Middleton’s upcoming nuptials.  We headed out of the city just in time to avoid the riots that broke out in the center of town.  We continued on to Bath where we saw the Roman Baths, and Stonehenge where we saw a bunch of big rocks in a circle.  Just kidding, it was much more than that, in meaning, not necessarily in what was physically there. 

We continued on to Liverpool, the home of The Beatles!  Everything in that town is Beatle themed from A Hard Day’s Night CafĂ© to the Sergeant Pepper Bistro.  We played Beatles hits on the bus and were taken to all the best spots for Beatles nostalgia!
We continued onto York, England which houses the largest cathedral in Northern Europe and is the most haunted city in all of Europe.  We took a nighttime ghost walk with Clive who scared the bageezus out of us!  When he took us to a dark, cold alley and told us the story of Mad Alice who sometimes appears, screaming, in the window overlooking the alley one guy in our group summed up what we were all thinking – “Why did you bring us here?!?!”  When I got home I tried to write down some of the ghost stories, all of which have factual evidence (further proven by the top spot on the Guinness Book of World Records’ most haunted city), but I scared myself all over again so I abandoned the writing quickly!!
One of our last stops in England was Bowness, the home of Beatrix Potter and Lake Windermere, a perfectly calm lake that reflected like a mirror.  I visited the Peter Rabbit Shop and the Beatrix Potter Shop.  The town was best viewed from a cruise on Lake Windermere which took us through the most pretty parts of the area. 
Scotland was by far my favorite of the three countries of this trip.  It was such a perfect mix of history, gorgeous landscapes, cute towns, majestic castles and bagpipes!  We had a full on Scottish evening at Murrayfields in Edinburgh complete with haggis and a bagpiper!  One of my favorite sounds in the world is bagpipes playing.  It reminds me of the days at Monmouth when a bagpiper would walk through the halls early in the morning.  I had to give myself a shot of reality when I almost bought a red, white and black plaid kilt, because really, when would I ever wear a kilt in normal life?!
In Edinburgh, one of my favorite cities, I visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse which is the Queen’s residence when she is in Scotland, and is open to the public when she’s not there.  The rumor was that she was in Edinburgh the evening that we arrived but alas there were no Queen sightings.  The Palace was beautiful and very old.  I also visited Edinburgh Castle, perched high above the city.  Edinburgh is really old and is filled with cute curvy cobblestone streets.  I could have stayed there for days!

The Isle of Skye in northwest Scotland may very well be one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  As we drove along, a shallow creek followed along with the road, meandering through the landscape.  The water looked so crisp and clean and was a deep shade of blue topped with small white caps as the water cascaded over the rapids.  I wanted to get off the coach and go sit on the banks of the creek.  The banks gave way to flat land covered in brown grasses dotted with green shrubbery.  The river emptied into a lake set against a beautiful backdrop of mountains which are gray in color.  There were tall skinny pine trees neatly in rows off in the distance on the mountainside.  Soon the land changed to tons and tons of little hills, still covered with brown grasses still dotted with green shrubbery.  The land has so clearly never been touched that it’s unbelievable.  Nothing has been excavated, nothing has been designed, nothing has been landscaped or planted.  So pretty!  This is one of my favorite things about Scotland - how vastly the landscape changes and it’s all so beautiful.
You can’t call a visit to Scotland complete without a visit to Loch Ness to search for the Loch Ness Monster!  It was foggy and rainy and somewhat eerie the morning that we took our cruise of the lake.  We floated past ruins of a castle, beautiful countryside, and an osprey nest where one of the crew said that is brand new within the last few days signaling that the birds have returned from Africa.  When he said Africa my initial reaction was that it was so far away and I was wondering why on earth the birds would go such an odd direction but then I remembered I was in another part of the world where the south is simply Africa.  Sadly there were no signs of Nessie – maybe next time!
We visited the Eilean Donan Castle which was just off the road on an island separated from the mainland by nothing more than a very narrow river.  There was a long stone bridge walkway that went right out to the mysteriously beautiful stone castle.  We also visited the Sterling Castle that sat majestically on the top of a hill overlooking the town of Sterling.  This castle was my absolute favorite!  I love how we see pictures of all these castles that look like they’re far off in the middle of the country, hard to reach.  But in reality many of these gorgeous castles and their amazing backdrops are in towns, on the outskirts of the country and just off the side of the road.  Amazing!

Ireland had the cards stacked against it after the way Scotland blew my mind and had to do something pretty spectacular to move into second place (Australia has been, and always will be, number one!).  It fought a hardened battle and came very close but did not manage to surpass Scotland. 
My favorite part of Northern Ireland was Londonderry, or Derry, depending on who you’re talking to.  We went on a walking tour with Ronan, the most charismatic, passionate, engaging, sweet person you’ll ever meet, through the walls separating the old city from the new city.  He took us through the history of this interesting town and impartially presented the strife between the Republicans and Unionists, or Catholics and Protestants that was so deadly about 40 years ago.  There were vicious riots and fights and Londonderry was referred to by a few soldiers as the Afghanistan of the 70s.  The town was completely divided because of religion rather than the social, economic or political issues that usually are to blame.  There are murals depicting the trials and tribulations that occurred as a constant reminder of what was, and what could be again without tolerance and acceptance.  One giant mural showed a 14 year old girl who was killed in the riots and Ronan’s comment about this was so simple yet so profound and will stick with me until the day I die.  He said that it doesn’t matter whether the girl was Catholic or Protestant, she was someone’s daughter and we are all united in grief.

On a lighter note, yet not all sunshine and puppy dogs, the experience of crossing over to the Aran Islands via the Irish Sea was probably one of the most trying periods of 40 minutes of my life.  The sea was really rough causing the ferry to crash into huge waves, dropping back down into the sea probably about 10 feet from the crest of the wave, then rocking side to side.  This continued for the entire time and to add insult to injury instead of just thinking I was going to die out in the middle of the Irish Sea I also nearly got sick as well.  But the payoff was that the Aran Islands were pretty amazing, although if you were to ask me that day I was a huge Debbie Downer and hated everything about the day.  We rented bicycles and explored the island that way, riding along the deserted street along coast through the fog and mist which just enhanced the simplistic beauty of the island.  The land was filled with rugged green, rolling hills separated into pastures by low stone walls.  Homes speckled the countryside and I found myself imagining what life would be like so far away from modern conveniences.  The pinnacle of the Aran Islands trip occurred at the top of a hill where I laid down on my stomach on a cliff that dropped straight down into the sea.  Add to that some strong wind and slippery rocks and you’ve get a truly exhilarating, terrifying and awesome experience – a real WOW moment!   
Some other highlights were Giant’s Causeway, an incredible natural phenomenon caused by some type of volcanic eruption that pulled hexagonal columns of varying heights from beneath the earth.  I found a barbershop bearing my last name, visited the iconic Cliffs of Moher which were gorgeous and spectacular, explored Blarney and climbed up to kiss the Blarney Stone supposedly giving me eloquence, the gift of gab and overall good luck.
I had the most amazing whirlwind of a good time on this leg of my trip due in part to the really wonderful people I met, the tour manager of the century, Mark, the most gorgeous Aussie coach driver I’ve ever laid eyes on, GT, (I knew my love of Australia would extend beyond the country itself!), and the songs of the day “It’s a Beautiful Day” and “Galway Girl” which we requested at every pub we visited!  J