27 April 2013

Visitors and Highjinks (Part I)

I'm trying this again after Blogger decided to mess with me yesterday and forced me to make another post. We've been absent from the blog the last couple of weeks since we had a visit from Ace's family (known to the Little Man as Mormor, Bumpa, and Uncle E). They visited with us for a week and a half and we traveled around the Netherlands and saw some different places and new things; and we also shared some of our favorite parts about living in Europe and the Netherlands. Since we did so much together, I'm breaking a recap of the visit into two parts, and if Blogger is willing (yes, I'm still bitter) we'll get Part II up in short order.

We met Mormor, Bumpa, and Uncle E at Schipol International Airport on Thursday 11 April. After hugs and hellos and a quick explanation of the OV-Chipkaart (similar to the ChicagoCard available through the CTA), we were off to Zandvoort, a pretty coastal town that is a huge tourist area during the summer. We decided before our visitors arrived that we should make use of staying in another area of the country to better see the sights, and Zandvoort is a short train ride from Amsterdam and Haarlem while being a nice area to stay. Off-season it was easy to find a place to stay and eat in the restaurants, but in the middle of the season we're sure this place would be near impossible to stay for a reasonable price. After checking into our hotel (with studio-apartment style rooms), we found dinner at Cafe Neuf, a local restaurant with good beer, delicious food, and an interesting history: the building was once a small village church and the inside has and amazing art-deco interior. Well watered and fed, everyone called it a night to rest up for the adventures of the next day.

Art-deco ceiling lighting at Cafe Neuf, Zandvoort


On Friday 12 April we took the 30 minute train ride to Amsterdam for a day of exploration in the city. True to the Dutch experience, it was pouring rain the entire time we were in the city (though it cleared up nicely after we had boarded the train back to Zandvoort). We took a canal tour which was nice for a different perspective of the city. We also attempted to use the hop-on-hop-off bus tour system through Tours and Tickets Amsterdam, but this was a MAJOR bust. For a brief moment, I'll digress for a moment just to convince you not to use their services:
  1. Tours and Tickets has several satellite offices around the city center through which you can purchase your tickets, but you have to go to their main office to trade in your receipt for the physical ticket that will get you onto the bus. This leads to a lot of walking back and forth just to get onto the bus (or canal boat) that you just paid for - not recommended if you are in a time crunch.
  2. Tours and Tickets sells tickets for two different hop-on-hop-off bus operators and keeps the route information for both bus lines on the same stupid tourist map with little detail. This wouldn't have been so problematic if the first employee hadn't told us the wrong operator for the tickets we had purchased.
  3. There are no signs for the bus stops. If you're thinking to yourself, "Gee that seems problematic for a company catering to tourists (i.e. people that aren't familiar  with the streets on the poorly detailed map," then you would be correct. We spent almost an hour walking around in heavy rain looking for the stupid things.
  4. When we did finally come to a bus, the Tours and Tickets employee wouldn't allow us to get on and then proceeded to tell me that she didn't know where the other bus stops we located but that we should go to another one to get on a different bus.
  5. Fed up, we went back to the main office to request a refund. The guy at the counter wasn't going to budge on a refund, but after insisting that I'd talk to the manager and witnessing 2 or 3 other groups of American and German tourists with the same complaints, we at least got our refund.
Unfortunately, we didn't see as much of Amsterdam as we would have liked (though we took several nice photos of Station Amsterdam Centraal while looking for the foolish bus stop); but we did get to see some noted parts of the city. We saw the inside of the Sint-Nicolaasbasiliek (St. Nicholas Basilica), a gorgeous Roman Catholic basilica initially built in 1887 - it's not exactly "old" as far as European churches go, but the inside was beautifully restored in 1999 and worth visiting the interior. We didn't visit the museum, but we did view the Anne Frank house from the exterior and found a great English bookstore. We took the train back to Zandvoort and ate at another local restaurant, Grandcafe Sjans - which had fantastic staff and probably the most delicious and well-presented food we've ever eaten.

Interior of the Sint-Nicolaasbasiliek


For the Saturday, the weather forecast predicted heavy fog in the morning that would clear up by midday and be warm and sunny the rest of the day. We initially planned to rent bicycles and take the coastal path to the Keukenhof, a beautiful garden open only during the tulip season. We used a Zandvoort bike rental company with reasonable day rental prices and made our way to the trail. We weren't prepared for the amount of wind we encountered (which in retrospect makes sense when you're on the ocean) or the fact that the path was all along the sand dunes and very hilly - unlike most of the country which is flat. We didn't make it to the Keukenhof that day, but we did manage to cross the border into the province of Zuid-Holland (South Holland).

Bumpa and Mormor riding along the coast


After calling the trip as good as it was going to be, we headed back to the hotel for some lunch before heading down to the beach to look at the Noord Zee (North Sea). The fog had mostly cleared from the morning, but in a matter of 15 minutes on the beach we watched it all roll back in. Before we abandoned the beach for a warmer place, the Little Man got in some shell hunting and designated Bumpa as the collection-holder.

Little Man and Bumpa at the North Sea


From the beach we decided to head to Haarlem to explore a bit of the city. We spotted the Molen De Adriaan (the De Adriaan windmill) and made our way over. The mill is "still" in operation - but it's important to note that while the mill was originally built in 1778 it burned down in 1932 (the cause of the fire is unknown, but the Little Man is pretty adamant that dragon-fire is to blame) and wasn't rebuilt until 2002. There is now, however, a museum with tours of the entire windmill and history of mills in Holland and a miller on duty regularly operating the mill. From the  mill, we walked toward the city center and explored the Grote Markt for the Saturday market and got beer and snacks at a local cafe before heading back to Zandvoort and enjoying local doner kebabs for dinner.

Molen De Adriaan, Haarlem


Sunday morning we checked out of the hotel and made our way to the Keukenhof (complete with all our luggage). We took the train to Leiden and then a special express bus directly to the Keukenhof. When you arrive early enough, you can access lockers that are big enough for large suitcases and we took full advantage of that before heading into the park. The Keukenhof combines everything "typical Dutch," so visitors can see tulips, windmills, wooden shoes, and women posted around the park in traditional dress - bonnets included. Usually by mid-April the park is a cacophony of color with all the tulips in bloom at once; but this year's unusually long and cold winter delayed the tulips' arrival. Most of the park was full of crocuses or tulip buds, but the pavilion buildings were full of flowering tulips of more varieties than I would have thought possible. The Keukenhof also keeps a petting zoo, which was equal parts delightful and terrifying for the Little Man as he got up close (and then backed away quickly) to some of his favorite kinds of animals. We spent a good portion of the day seeing just about the whole garden before heading back to our home in Tilburg by train. Once we did get home, everyone was able to settle in and relax while the cats skittered around the house, confused as to where we had been the last few days and why we brought back extra people with us.

The Keukenhof


Most shops (except for grocery stores) don't open until 10:00 or 11:00 on Monday mornings, so we decided to take our time in the morning so everyone could catch up on sleep, have a lazy morning, and get some grocery shopping done. In the afternoon, Ace took Mormor, Bumpa, and Uncle E to Tilburg city center for a look-around while Mark stayed with Little Man to ensure he got a much-needed nap. Monday was a welcomed low-key day after much traveling around the northwest of the country.

But we were right back in the action on Tuesday! Ace, Mormor, and Little Man went to the Safaripark Beekse Bergen (the same place we took Little Man for his birthday) shortly after opening time and stayed until late afternoon - and despite the whole day, 2 bus tours, and 1 boat tour, we still didn't see everything! Meanwhile, Bumpa and Uncle E borrowed some bicycles and took a trip across the border to Belgium. While there were no signs or any other obvious markers to signal the change of nation soil, they did spot the Belgian flag flying and took some pictures of themselves at arrival. More importantly, they made it back on the bikes the same day! That evening, Mark and Uncle E went out to a concert while the rest of us relaxed and planned for the next day's adventure.

Little Man and Mormor on the Safaripark bus


So... you've made it through Part I of our visitor recap. Part II to follow... hopefully sooner rather than later. Stay tuned!

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