Eurotrip 2014, Part 17: My Amsterdam Walkabout

It has been five months since the last installment of my Eurotrip journal (and two years since the trip actually happened), but we are finally hitting the home stretch with this penultimate chapter covering my one full day in Amsterdam. Before we begin, just a quick announcement that my novel, The Eyes of Mictlan, is available for free at ‪Smashwords‬ during the entire month of July (enter the code SFREE at checkout). And now, back to the journal…

July 12, 2014: My first morning in Amsterdam began with breakfast at the hotel, where I enjoyed American-style bacon for the first time on this two-week trip (bacon in the U.K. is more like ham). I chose to skip my tour group’s morning excursion to Zaanse Schans since we had not had the opportunity on the previous day to see much of Amsterdam. From what I’ve read, Zaanse Schans sounds a bit like a tourist trap anyway, so although it would have been neat to see the old windmills, I don’t feel as if I missed much overall.

Instead, I preferred to spend my only full day in Amsterdam exploring the city, so I began the long walk toward the city center from my hotel, which was located far outside the main part of the city. When I later spoke to other members of my group, they were stunned that I had walked all the way to the city center and back again–one guy said a taxi had cost him 26 Euros each way. But, as I’ve learned from my travel-savvy uncle as well as through my own experience, a long walk is the best way to truly experience a city.

Along the way, I meandered through areas with hardly any tourists and stumbled onto a large outdoor market where I was able to buy an authentic stroopwaffle. I also diverted my route to swing by an old windmill in town, so I didn’t leave Amsterdam without seeing at least one classic windmill. Between these diversions and numerous photo stops, it took me about two hours to reach the city center.

Here are some photos from my walk:

The walk back to the hotel took much longer than expected. For some reason, although I normally have a very good sense of direction, I kept getting turned around and walking in circles. Eventually, I found my way out of the circular city center and on the road back home. I kept looking for somewhere to eat dinner but nothing was striking my fancy, and before I knew it, I was back at the hotel.

I had been walking basically nonstop for five straight hours over hard surfaces on a hot summer day, so I was pretty beat and not feeling up to heading back out to look for somewhere to eat, especially since the hotel wasn’t really located near anything. So I settled for eating in the hotel, which turned out to be one of the worst meals I’ve ever had: a chorizo sandwich with such a thin slice of meat that it was basically like eating bread, and a bland appetizer platter which came out with raw ground sausage. I took a little bite just to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me, but it was indeed raw. Perhaps it is a delicacy there, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it.

I then headed back to my room to pack, thus ending my time in Amsterdam. When I had first seen the city via cruise on the previous day, I hadn’t been overwhelmed, but it grew more charming during my long walk off the beaten path and into the old city center, then less charming when I reached the red light district. In the end, I was glad to have visited once, as it is a very unique city with its various canals, waterfront buildings, and heavy bike traffic (as well as some other amenities you don’t find in other cities), but I was already looking forward to the next day’s visit to Bruges, which, for me, had been the main attraction of this entire tour. Unfortunately, my time in Bruges would be mostly ill-fated, but that’s a story for the next installment.

View more of my photos from Amsterdam and Bruges.

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Eurotrip 2014, Part 16: Long Road to Amsterdam

July 11, 2014: Today was the beginning of my ill-fated, three-day trip to Amsterdam and Bruges—to call it a disappointment would be an understatement. Before getting into it, however, I want to first state that the tour company, International Friends, was very attentive to my complaints and issued me a partial refund. It should also be noted that the three-day Scotland tour I took with the same company on the previous weekend was phenomenal, so I would feel comfortable using them again; I’ll just chalk the Amsterdam tour up to an outlier for an otherwise reliable tour company. That being said, I feel it is my responsibility to write about my experience without sugarcoating it…

As I mentioned above, I had an amazing tour of Scotland with this company the week before (it was my favorite part of the entire two-week trip). Because of that experience, I was expecting this tour to be just as wonderful. It would quickly become apparent, however, that this tour would not live up to those expectations. The biggest difference, as far as I could tell, was that the Scotland tour was professionally handled by an engaged and competent guide, while the Amsterdam tour was mismanaged by a disengaged guide and an incompetent bus driver.

We were late for everything on the entire trip, which gave us little time to actually enjoy anything on the itinerary, culminating in the disappointment of only getting two hours to spend in Bruges, which had been the biggest selling point of this tour for me, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Things got off to a bad start when the bus was 30 minutes late picking us up at our location in London. The bus driver did not seem to know where he was going for most of the trip. He repeatedly made wrong turns throughout the weekend, including pulling into the wrong ferry in the wrong town on the way back to London. According to the tour company, the bus driver was given an itinerary for the trip but did not appear to read or refer to it (the drivers for these tours are not affiliated with the tour company but are hired out from a third party, and there was an apparent personality clash between the driver and the guide).

Eventually we reached the ferry in Dover and waited to board. I was stunned at the size of the ferry—it was massive enough to hold big buses and tractor-trailers. Once on the boat I was afforded a much better look at the white cliffs than I got earlier in the week, though it was raining so the pics below are not the clearest.

The inside of the ferry was like being on a cruise ship: they had dining, shopping, gambling, etc. I started getting a bit seasick at one point. Normally I would just step outside and I would be fine since it’s only inside ships that I start feeling the motion sickness, but all of the smokers were out on the deck, so I stayed inside.

After exiting the ferry in Calais, France, we sat in a major traffic jam, which led to our extremely late arrival in Amsterdam, 12 hours after we first departed. I don’t know if the traffic jam could have been avoided by a more experienced bus driver, but it’s worth noting that one of my fellow tour members observed the bus driver making several wrong turns during this drive, which likely contributed to our hitting the freeway during rush hour.

On the way, we stopped for a 45-minute lunch break that I could have done without, but it was apparently a legal rest period that the driver had to take. I wasn’t able to eat anything at the rest stop (or even use the paid bathroom) because I did not have any euros yet and the rest stop did not have an ATM, so I waited on the bus.

Eventually we arrived in Amsterdam, but we were so late that the city walking tour was canceled (and never rescheduled), checking into our hotel was skipped, and we went directly to the boat cruise. Here are some photos from the cruise:

We were not able to check into our hotel until 9 p.m. While we were waiting to check in, we discovered that our guide had sent two girls to the wrong hotel–the two girls did not have a firm enough grasp of English to understand that they were supposed to depart the bus with the guide in the city center and walk to the hostel, so they ended up taking the long ride with those of us who chose the three-star hotel. The guide was forced to send a cab to our hotel to pick them up after we discovered this error. This problem could have been averted if she had bothered to take a simple head count, as guides usually do (later, in Bruges, instead of taking a head count she just asked if everyone was off the bus. I thought, “Take a head count, then you’ll know!”).

Anyway, the guide scheduled the optional Red Light District walking tour for 9:30. This left no time for those of us in the three-star hotel to eat dinner because the hotel was so far outside the city center (per the company’s web site, we were supposed to have a hotel in the city center, which they apologized for not being able to secure). So we had a choice: take the Red Light District walking tour or eat dinner. I chose to eat in the hotel (since I hadn’t been able to eat lunch), so I missed the tour, but I figured I could see the Red Light District on my own the following day.

After dinner I decided to call it a night. In the morning we were scheduled to visit Zaanse Schans, a touristy village featuring historic windmills and other buildings, but since I had not yet had any opportunity to actually see Amsterdam, I chose to skip this tour and instead spend my only full day in Amsterdam exploring the city, which will be covered in the next installment.

View more of my photos from Amsterdam and Bruges.

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