2013 Europe on $500 a Day

We paid a visit to three northern European capitals in the summer of 2013, with teenaged grandson in tow.  That itself may be worth another article!  Here I will recount our experiences in these places, and how they have changed since we last visited – in particular the expense of relatively modest travel. (For more photos, see the album)

Our last visit to Brussels and Paris was five years ago, and to Amsterdam some twenty years ago when we lived in Belgium.   We flew to Brussels, a familiar airport, and drove to Paris; Dick navigated in from the autoroute using a new GPS program that was amazingly good.  Getting a reservation on the train was surprisingly difficult and we ended up needing a car for the entire trip.

Bathroom-Door-web

Paris seemed little changed, except that prices for hotels and meals had climbed.  (Fortunately the euro has dropped from its high of over $1.60, and hovered around $1.33 while we were there.)  In part because we needed two rooms, and in part because the prices had increased so much, we downshifted to a more modest hotel than our previous stop.   Hotel le Relais du Marais was very near the Place de la Republique and a handy Metro station.  Its rooms were not the smallest ones I have ever seen, but close; there was enough room to walk around the bed and open the bathroom door (brushed glass, ensuring that if you got up in the middle of the night and turned on the light in there, the other person would be well aware of it!); but if you had the mini-closet door open, you could not open the bathroom door. At least there was an elevator, which we greatly appreciated in hindsight when we got to Amsterdam. 

We spent two days and three nights in Paris – time enough to have Alsatian and Basque cooking and a classic French meal in a Belle Epoque/Art Nouveau café; and time enough to stroll down to Notre Dame, which is celebrating its 850th anniversary this year.  Entry is free!  It is simply gorgeous inside; whatever your religious views it’s a must-visit.  From here it’s a short walk to the Ile Saint Louis, which offers a beautiful perspective on Notre Dame from the west end – a fine spot for a photo.  Ile Saint Louis is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Paris.  It’s compact, has interesting little shops and restaurants, and the inhabitants are friendly and quirky!  

St.Louis

A scene from the street in Ile St Louis

Everywhere was some of the most amazing graffiti seen anywhere on the trip, often several stories above the ground – how the creators got up there to perform without being seen was a mystery.  Unless, of course, they were seen but no one cared to bother them!   

We moved on to Compiegne to stay with friends whom we first met in Madrid.  Here we greatly enjoyed our touristy excursions in the area, particularly to Château de Pierrefonds, an amazing medieval castle wrecked by Louis XVI – who did not like his aristocrats having such strongholds.  It was reconstructed in the mid-19th century by Violet le Duc and is full of interesting collections.  Compiegne itself has a magnificent chateau, also stuffed with displays, and a museum dedicated to lead soldiers, including a complete Waterloo battlefield.  And just on the edge of the city is the Clairiere de l’Armistice, where Germany surrendered at the end of World War I, exactly at 11 a.m. – and then Hitler forced the French to surrender in 1940 in the same railway car.  I had a strange experience in Compiegne – on the way into town we stopped for lunch, and a portly gentleman across the way observed us while drinking a large carafe of rosé wine.  The same man was in the restaurant where we had Sunday lunch two days later, again drinking rosé wine!  (And he appeared again…but wait for it)

On to Brussels, where we stayed in an apartment for a week, located through the Vacation Rental by Owner site (highly recommended – we had lots of room, a full kitchen and two baths, for much less than two hotel rooms would have cost).   The flat was close to the area where we used to live…which enabled us to see how much our old neighborhood had changed.  The European Union, which is headquartered in Brussels, now has 27, going-on-28, members, and money has flooded into a city that cannot expand its boundaries; real estate and services have accordingly sky-rocketed.  We blundered into one restaurant, in far from the most-ritzy section of town, which was charging hugely-inflated prices for just reasonably-good Italian food.  And while in the past we thought that it was not necessary to look up a restaurant for its reviews, as restaurants in Belgium were always good, that’s really not the case anymore.  The fantastic displays of seafood on the “restaurant streets” adjoining the Grand Place are a thing of the past, probably due to some order from the EU bureaucracy citing health concerns.  (Olive oil must now be displayed on tables only in bottles of a certain size, with labels from the supplier.)  

The major museums in the center of Brussels are undergoing, or have undergone, considerable renovation – to the point that we were not able to recognize much of the display area (just as was the case in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay).  The museum of “modern art” was effectively closed, preventing us from seeing the main works we’d hoped to share with the grandson.  Instead there is now a multi-floor Magritte Museum – I enjoy some of his work but am not enough of a fan to want to visit five floors of it.

Cities outside Brussels are close and well worth a quick visit.   We’ve always liked Antwerp, just 25 miles away; between Antwerp and Brussels is Mechelen, completely different!  Mechelen has a wonderful town square with a towering cathedral (just over 97 meters/318 feet, and 514 steps to the top).   (Admission charge to enter – you’d have to pay me to climb 514 steps!)  We stopped here for a quick coffee – and there in the next outdoor café was the portly gentleman with his rosé wine!  He departed quickly and I don’t think I saw him again although I kept checking!  

In Antwerp we found a wonderful new museum, the Museum on the Strand or the MAS.  It is an amazing architectural structure on the harbor, with a roof-top viewing area.  This can be entered without charge.  On each of the 8 floors are exhibits gathered from other museums that are, yes, undergoing renovation! There are, for example, treasures from Dutch colonies in Indonesia, beautiful gold work from Panama, truly something for everyone.  We did not stop in the café but if it is of the same quality it would be worth it.  Instead, we dined at Dock’s Café, an old favorite that has stayed the same, or perhaps become better.  The setting is spectacular as is the food.  Dick plunged into a plateau de fruits de mer (about the only French permitted in Flanders, which is still engaged in its language wars against French, or even English (at least on road signs), and we all enjoyed our seafood delights.   

We drove from Brussels to Amsterdam rather than taking the train as originally planned – three one-way tickets would have cost 342 euros, about $475 for short trip!  Instead, extending the car rental for a day ran less than $30.  Trains seem to be far more expensive than they were when we lived in Europe, or even some eight years ago when we stayed for a month and took several train trips.  Something to do with austerity policies?  We’ll find out when we visit Spain later this year, where austerity is really in force.

Amsterdam was packed with people, many if not most in the young adult category, perhaps lured by the “coffee-shops,” the designation for marijuana cafés.  You have to be 18 to enter, and there is an effort now by the very conservative to rightwing government of the Netherlands to discourage foreigners from entering.  The grandson was intrigued, but not old enough!  And we’re content with our wine and martinis.  

Flips

Amsterdam is also packed with bicycles, some 550,000 of them we heard on the canal boat, and you have to wonder how the riders extract them from the mass of bicycles parked everywhere. This was the most expensive city in almost every way.  5 euros an hour for parking along the canals (you do the math).   50 euros for a pair of rubber flip-flips – and that was the sale price! Museum admissions were also expensive, running up to 17 or 18 euros each at key sites such as the new Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh.  Even the small marijuana museum (yes, there really is one!) was 6 euros!  Once again we found that extensive renovation had changed our favorites.  We made a beeline for the Maritime Museum, only to find that it no longer housed the large collection of boats, such as the royal barge, that it once did.  Room had been made for a restaurant and a children’s area, pushing the boats away to a storage facility closed to the public.  

Bike Parking Lot

Amsterdam has a large restaurant district with insistent waiters in front of each place – we tried several, but the best was an Italian place away from that area, almost invisible to tourists.  Thank goodness for sites like Trip Advisor for a quick investigation before dining!  Many of the staff were east Europeans – e.g., a Bulgarian waitress at the Argentine restaurant, a Turkish waiter at the Italian place.  In the end we most enjoyed sitting out in the central square near our hotel, the Leidseplein, and having a simple sandwich (which would run to $25 with a glass of wine or beer).

Our hotel, the Boutique View Hotel, was a converted canal house.  It had a fantastic location – walking distance to everything except the Maritime Museum, which we reached by canal boat.  The staff was young and very helpful, which turned out to be essential – no elevator, and our room was at the top, four stories up the steepest flights of stairs I think I’ve ever seen.  Without help I would have had to unpack at the bottom and carry my clothes up a few pieces at a time!

Airport Roof

Amsterdam is full of flowers – even at the airport the roofs of some buildings are covered with flowers.    The airport also offers a small museum of paintings from the Rijksmuseum, with no admission charge – the only free museum in all our travels!  

Be sure to look at our photo album.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Richard W. Tripp, Jr.