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Tag Archives: EuropeMarch2010

The whole brouhaha over the lack of air travel due to Iceland’s volcano eruption reminded me to continue blogging about our Europe trip and how we didn’t fly as much as we could. We did fly to Amsterdam but decided to take the scenic route back in order to visit a few more cities. Our last leg was to go from Brussels to London.

The easy way to do this would be to take the Chunnel and that was the option we were considering at first. It would have been cool to take a train under the English channel, but in the end we decided to take a bus. The bus ended up being a better option because it was significantly cheaper (I can’t remember but at least half the price) AND it was an overnight bus so we would save a night of hotel in London. After finding out this option, we booked our seats online.

In retrospect, we probably should have put more thought into this. First the bus ride was scheduled for 8 hours even though the distance between London and Brussels was about 360km. Sure you need to cross the water and customs, but it shouldn’t take that long! And also, you need to cross customs so you can’t actually sleep for the entire time. We didn’t end up with a lot of sleep that night!

It wasn’t all bad though, and actually an interesting experience. We got a good seat at the front and was able to watch the bus driver navigate and jostle for position amidst the narrow streets of Europe. But the most interesting part was when we had to cross the English channel. We didn’t do any research, and considered that the Chunnel might support vehicles in addition to trains. Well we still don’t know because we took a car ferry across from Calais, France to Dover, UK. This was our first time on a car ferry!

The ferry was actually pretty nice, and not like the ones that you would take to Centre Island. Once on board, you had to exit your vehicle and go up to the passenger cabin. There was a restaurant, a couple of bars and lots of seats for the passengers. They also had gambling machines and a duty free shop for when the ferry was in international waters!

And it really doesn’t take that long to cross the channel, about 1.5 hours for the 34km. Even with the customs and onloading/offload we ended up in London an hour early, which meant that we got there at 5 in the morning. Unfortunately, nothing in London is open at 5AM, not even McDonalds.

I always mean to, but usually end up forgetting, to try and take some panoramas. On this trip to Europe, I remembered for once (or twice)! I think the catalyst was that there Belgium had a large number of public squares where there was a lot of open space surrounded by intricate buildings. Each building by themselves is not noteworthy to take a picture of, but the environment that they contribute to is memorable. I ended up doing two panoramas. One in Brugge and one in Brussels, and I put together a little page to view the panoramas (and any future ones I put together).

Whilst reading the wikitravel entry on Brussels, they advised us to try a couple of things in Belgium: mussels, fries, waffles and of course chocolate. Well being tourists, we tried all of them!

Chocolate was the easiest. There were chocolatiers EVERYWHERE. They were like the cell phone stores in Canada, and every single one of them had some cute Easter display in their storefront.

I’m not a connoisseur of chocolate but high quality chocolate is much more accessible in Belgium. And the best part is if you browse around the stores, you will get lots of free samples!!

Waffles were also quite easy (and cheaper) to acquire. They were like the crepes in France, and good if you needed something to fill your stomach (or a Nutella infusion). But surprisingly, we had quite a difficulty with the fries. In the Netherlands, we saw many stores selling fries on the street, but Holland wasn’t known for the fries so we waited until Belgium. Except when we got to Brussels we couldn’t find any place selling frites! We walked around for an hour or so around the Grote Markt before finding a store. In Belgium (and Holland) you had to pay extra for the condiments. Even ketchup. We paid for mayonnaise even though I am not a fan of it but because that’s how people in Belgium traditionally eat them. The mayonnaise wasn’t that bad, but I don’t think the fries were that special.

The last specialty were the Belgian Mussels. I think a lot of places expect that tourists would come and try it and so the prices that we saw were exorbitant (€20 for mussels with a side of fries at your generic restaurant). In the end, we found a small fish bar beside a market in Brugge which were a bit cheaper.

I think they were good, but now I don’t really remember how they tasted. We did get a lot though so it was worth the money, although like most seafood nowadays I don’t know if it can be a local specialty anymore. I believe the mussels we had came in from Normandy, but it sounds like a lot of them come all the way from New Zealand!

This trip to London, I had a desire to watch a west-end London theatrical production. Last year when we went to NYC, we had similar intent and went up to the TKTS booth at the South Street Seaport to look for some discount tickets. Unfortunately we weren’t successful because the tickets weren’t that cheap and there weren’t any shows that we were keen on seeing either.

For London, we were a little more prepared. First we looked up what shows were playing and there were several that we were interested in seeing. Plus, with the Sterling being weak against the CDN dollar, the tickets weren’t that expensive (at half off, of course they are almost never 50% off). Then when we in London we planned to be in Leicester Square by 10AM to get the best discount seats for the day.

On the actual day, we ended up being there about an hour early so we walked around Leicester Square for a bit first. There is a block that is almost entirely filled with discount theatre ticket stores, and because we were so early, they were still setting up and we saw the same people/owners running around the different stores. In the end they weren’t that cheap so we lined up for TKTS, and of course they weren’t cheap either (they were selling seats in the £40 range which is still $60 after currency exchange).

What we ended up doing was going to the actual theatres themselves and buying tickets directly from the box office. The seats weren’t as good as the “discount” ones but they were cheaper! Our first pick was Les Misérables at the Queen’s Theatre. Neither of us had seen it in Toronto and Pauline really wanted to watch it. I was a bit worried about our seats since we were in Upper Circle, but the theatre was not that big and we had a reasonable view that wasn’t three stories up like we would be in Toronto.

The west end production of Les Mis is impressive because it is the first English production and has been running non-stop in the London west end for the last 25 years. It is the longest running show in the west end with over 10,000 performances. And it was still sold out (or close to) when we went!

I was impressed by the performance for a couple of reasons. First I was able to understand what the performers were signing! I remember watching Phantom and not really understanding what was going on. I don’t know if it’s because the cast had better enunciation or if it was because the English accent is more distinct, but I was able to pick up and understand the details of the story and song.

Secondly, they used a very simple mechanism of rotating the stage to great effect. They would use it to show travelling/movement or do setup of the stage while the play was still going on. It’s such a simple device but I’m sure it saves a lot of money for stage costs.

Lastly, the story itself was touching. I suppose this is mostly to the credit of Victor Hugo who wrote the novel which the musical is based upon. But other musicals I’ve been to such as Phantom and Lion King also have a story as source material and were not able to create the same sort of emotional connection. In the end I think it was a very worthwhile experience to see Les Misérables in London!

I heard that Amsterdam is the “Venice of the North” because it has a bunch of canals. I think it’s kind of silly that if a city has canals, then it’s considered a “Venice”. Amsterdam isn’t even the only city that is known as the Venice of the North; there is a list of 10+ cities with that honor, including Brugge.

Because I was just in Venice three months ago, canals within the city were just not that unique nor appealing to me. In fact, the canals in Amsterdam weren’t as neat as Venice since there are roads on both sides. Without the charm of the canals, Amsterdam didn’t really have the European flavour and feel to me. The neighborhoods are different and quaint, but the buildings and their step wave-esque facades were not what I expected from European architecture (in fact their most intricate buildings ended up being their malls).

I think it’s because of this reason that I was so impressed when I reached Antwerp. Antwerp was our first stop in Belgium and by contrast their historical buildings were very ornamental in comparison. The Antwerp central station was a beautiful mix of modern construction within a historical setting.

And while old, the buildings seemed to have aged gracefully. In fact I liked Antwerp a lot, maybe because I just came from the uninspiring architecture of the Netherlands, but maybe also because it seemed to be just the right mix of beauty and size for walking around and exploring.

Ok, I’m not a Harry Potter fan. I’ve never read the books although I’ve seen some of the movies. Well we went to King’s Cross station in London anyways because that’s where Harry Potter gets transported somewhere or something like that.

Unfortunately for us, we had not done any research beforehand, for while we knew that King’s Cross station was where there was some Harry Potter thing, we didn’t exactly know what. We ended up taking a picture at platform 5. Which was totally wrong.

Later, we met with Julian who told us the we were (obviously) at the wrong track! We were supposed to go to 9¾ instead! So off we went, back to King’s Cross station again and the right track this time. Here is me on my way to Hogwarts (or whatever).

I’ll blog about that part of the trip maybe later…

Between our stops in Antwerp and Brussels, we felt like we were a bit ahead of schedule so decided to head up to Brugge (which is pronounced like rouge except with a B). It is supposed to be a tourist town that is very scenic.

Since this was unplanned, we had no maps and didn’t know what to see; we ambled into the town from the train station. My first impressions of the city is that it looks like Quebec City. Can you guess which is which?

I guess that’s why they say that Quebec City is very European. Eventually we wandered our way onto the main tourist arteries and squares and it did not look like Quebec anymore (too many chocolate stores).

Brugge seems to me like a combination of the Netherlands (canals and the distinctive roofs) and Belgium (everything else) but because we had just been in Venice (lots of canals), the NL and Belgium; I didn’t think it was as unique as it could have been.

While I was unlocking content on The Beatles: Rock Band. I came across a story of how the Beatles came up with their album cover for Abbey Road

“At some point, the album was going to be titled Everest after the brand of cigarettes I used to smoke,” recalls Geoff Emerick. The idea included a cover photo in the Himalayas but by the time the group was to take the photo they decided to call it Abbey Road and take the photo outside the studio on 8 August 1969. The cover designer was Apple Records creative director Kosh. The cover photograph was taken by photographer Iain Macmillan. Macmillan was given only ten minutes around 11:30 that morning to take the photo on a zebra crossing on Abbey Road. That cover photograph has since become one of the most famous and most imitated album covers in recording history.

Eventually while planning our trip, I realized that Abbey Road studios is in London, so we added it to our itinerary. And lo-and-behold, the same zebra crosswalk is still there. I walked back and forth a few times, but of course could not duplicate the album cover because it was just one of me and they did not wear any backpacks. I think drivers who need to drive around this area must be super annoyed as random people will constantly stop traffic and cross the road here for no reason. I myself crossed it 3 times (4 if you count the time I jaywalked).

The studios themselves are unimpressive except for the wall out front. The wall is covered in writing where the numerous Beatles fans from around the world have arrived and written the song title of their favorite Beatles song. The wall we saw wasn’t as covered as in the link, but we noticed that all the dates were in the last 10 days! The wall was just repainted but was full of fanatic scribbles already.

And they are fanatics. We saw a gentleman arrive via taxi for the sole purpose of writing on the wall!

Remember way back when the RIAA used to sue people for sharing and downloading music? You probably haven’t noticed but they seemed to have stopped doing that, although it’s probably because it wasn’t a constructive tactic rather than that people learned their lesson and stopped pirating music.

In fact retail music sales are much worse. Back then, Toronto had Sunrise Records, Music World, Sam the Record Man, HMV and a bunch of retail places (Zellers, Walmart, Future Shop, Best Buy, etc). The music stores have since closed down or transformed into media stores giving much more shelf space to DVDs, games and even books than CDs. I don’t think Toronto is a special circumstance, in fact the best selling places to get CD in retail in America are places like Wal-mart or Target. Have you tried looking for a CD there? I hope you only want to buy something from the chart.

I don’t think people are listening to less music now, but where are they getting their music? If they’re buying legally online, they only real options are to buy from iTunes, Amazon or the Zune marketplace. If they’ve replaced music stores, then those must be cash cows! Even then, I suspect people are buying singles now instead of entire albums.

So I am guessing that the RIAA threw in the towel and the music industry is really tanking. Even in the UK, where a lot of great music is still being created, the HMVs look like the ones in Canada – selling mostly video games and movies. But the difference is that their CDs are now cheap! Many CDs were 2 for £10 (I picked up La Roux, MJ’s Off The Wall, and James Morrison’s Songs for You, Truths for Me deluxe edition) and some were only £4 (like Michael Bublé’s Call Me Irresponsible, but I resisted buying Lady Gaga’s debut). That works out to about $16 and $5.40 taxes in! And if you can wait until you get into a duty free zone, it’s 17.5% cheaper! If the prices were like this in Canada, I’d buy a lot more (but then again I’m not the typical consumer). In fact it’s impulse buy territory. I bought James Morrison’s double CD without having listened to it before. I knew him from his duet with Nelly Furtado (although I had him confused with an adult contemporary singer, maybe James Taylor?) but recently I’ve been listening to his older single You Give Me Something and I like his music:

The only “real” tourist attraction that we went to in Amsterdam was the Anne Frank Museum. In this museum you can visit and walk through the actual hideway that 8 people used for almost 3 years as well as learn about some of the history (in case you were like me and don’t remember much from the book).

The Diary of Anne Frank is a classic book, and I believe I must have read it at some point. But it was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten most of it in my old age. What has stuck with me is the gist of what happened and the emotional impact – I always thought that the family had to suffer being trapped in a confined space until finally (inevitably?) being captured. While visiting the museum, I was surprised to find that in fact the space they had to live in was pretty large. Yes, their voluntary confinement was tragic in other ways, such as forcing the kids to grow up being quiet and never having the freedom to go outside and play; but in terms of living space, their hideaway would easily be an apartment in HK! What my younger self didn’t get is that the book and the museum is a statement against racism and xenophobia.

In the museum, you walk through the actual rooms, but they are now unfurnished as per Otto Frank’s (Anne’s father) wishes. The actual house is the second one from the left (although there were a lot of people taking pictures of the adjacent buildings that housed the museum part). The scope of the museum is quite narrow, and it’s not particularly cheap; but what convinced me to go was because I remember the story from my youth and I was surprised to learn that you could actually visit the original house.

Whew we finally made it back early this morning after our flight was delayed for two hours. And then after a few hours nap, it was off to work. Even though I only had a week off work, it felt like I was gone for two weeks; well it was close I guess, being 9 days and a bit?

The one thing I regret not bringing with me though was my cellphone. I had figured it wouldn’t have been much since we were going to be in 3 different countries. Plus I couldn’t be bothered to carry around a charger for the trip. Although now in retrospect, it would have been useful to have 3G or wifi internet to catch up with Facebook, email or just moblogging.

Well now, I’ll be more prepared for next time. Will blog more when I have photos ready to blog with.

Our trip is all planned, booked and we’re ready to go! We have a packed and hectic schedule. First we’re flying overnight into Heathrow and then immediately flying off to Amsterdam. We’ll stay in Amsterdam for two nights and then head, via train, to Rotterdam (another city in The Netherlands) to visit some windmills. After that, we’re staying Antwerp for a night, then Brussels for a night and finally taking an overnight bus to London and staying there for another three nights.

We’re backpacking it of course, and now after a few times I think we have the backpacking tricks down. We’re really only gone for a week so we don’t even need to do laundry this time. Hopefully the temperature will be similar to our trip to Italy meaning that we’d have to wear our coats but they would double as rain gear!

So it seems like everything is in its right place and we are ready to go!

After some hilarity, I finally booked our hotel for London. I had my eye on a place listed for $79USD/night on Hotwire because it was relatively cheap. Plus, I was fairly confident that based on the amenities and information on Hotwire, that it would be the HIE in Southwark. That would be a great location for the price, right beside the Tate Modern and near Waterloo tube station.

With that information in mind, I set off to Priceline hoping to get the same location for cheaper. I started my bidding at $50 and ended up bidding $50, $55, $57, $60 using the same credit card on the same day! Why did I get so many chances? Because there are so many regions in the London area! I didn’t get any biters at $60 so I wait till the next day.

Then I tried $60, $62, $65, $70, $74, and finally $78 on the same credit card on the same day! I was able to get free rebids for star class and region (started with City/London Bridge, then added Westminster, Soho, Marble Arch, and Kensington). That’s five free re-bids! But in the end, I still didn’t get anything and had to book on Hotwire.

I came across an interesting link that said people are happy to just plan a vacation (I suppose in addition to taking the vacation). I think it’s true, except when you can’t plan it properly.

That was our issue earlier this week. We wanted to plan a vacation for March break, but because we were busy earlier this month, we probably missed the best time to plan. A bunch of airlines (Air France, KLM) were having sales but the dates we wanted were in low supply so the prices were still quite expensive. It was a waiting game until finally today, Air Canada put on a sale that was useful to us. Air Canada has had a couple of sales recently to celebrate Canada’s Olympic gold medals, like a 50% off Canadian destinations, but today’s sale was a 50% off international destinations.

We ended up booking a flight to Heathrow. It wasn’t cheap at all, but it was a lot cheaper than when I priced the same tickets earlier; and we maxed out our available time so we will be able to head to Amsterdam and Brussels as well.

So now we can actually book hotels, trains, regional flights oh my. And if we’re not happy, we can go to The Netherlands and let the researchers know.