Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Best trip ever: Bruges and beyond - part .... Is anybody reading this?

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Doesn't really matter. I have hit a small roadblock in my work today, so I decided to take a break and keep on writing about our trip.

Bruges - what a wonderful little town. The center of it, where we stayed, is chuck-full of little streets and restaurants on the corner and churches and historical buildings, and everything else you can possible image a historical European town should be.

Burg and surroundings

behind Church of our lady of Bruges 
Who cares, it's pretty.

Bruges considers itself to be a chocolate capital of the world, so there is a chocolates and sweets store every 20-30 feet or so, especially around more touristy spots. Every and each one of them claims to sell the best Belgian chocolate there is. We of course tried a few, and then a few more, and actually ended up in Chocolate History Museum, curated by on the major chocolate producer in Belgium. Because they are not paying me for it, and truth to be told I don't remember, I will not endorse their name here. The chocolates were really good, though.

Bruges has several museum and churches available to visit, but truth be told I enjoyed more just walking around and absorbing the atmosphere of it. We tried our best to avoid more crowded areas, which was not entirely possible, for it's smallness Bruges is still a big tourist attraction.

We took a free tour, organized by local historical society and activists, and the guide showed us a bunch of places we could have possibly missed. We didn't do a lot of research coming into the Bruges, and there are some sights that are worthy a check mark. If you, the reader, ever visit, take a walk around the canals, visit the cloister and the surrounding areas, take side street to the smaller marketplace, and if you get lucky visit the flea market there.

If you want to sit down and enjoy people gawking I would suggest avoid the tourist trap of the main market place and go eat some mussels at Poules Moules on Stevinplein. The mussels there are really really good, and the place is not a super "tourist trap".

mussels at Poules Moules

Maya, pretending to be royalty at Historium Bruges

Inside the cloister

This is behind our Lady of Bruges church.

The ancient owner of this mansion was one of the Society of Golden Fleece membership holders

The next and the last chapter we'll visit Paris - our final destination.


Monday, April 18, 2016

South of Netherlands and beyond, part vier!

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It's getting harder to recall some of the things, so I have to keep on writing. It just happens to be a slower work day today than usual.

Delft was a one night stop over for us. The town itself could be perfectly described by words "quaint" and "little". There are a couple of churches, like most of ones we've visited they are devoid of decorations and sport high beam beautiful ceilings. There is a big central square with restaurants and souvenir shops around it. It fun to peruse those for a little bit, but most of them try to sell the famous blue Delft glaze in one form or the other. The square gets some traffic, so ignoring "tourist trap" vibe of most restaurants, you get a good "people watching" experience. The locals seem to eat and drink there as well. so it's not a bad sign. Being a "student town", as we were told by our wonderful B&B owner, the town is mostly quiet and dead in the mornings. After spending an evening and having leisurely stroll around the square and near about, we've decided to head for Bruges. Given that it was one of our main destinations for the trip, we've headed out from Delft around noon, hoping to spend a little more time in Belgium. Overall we've spend an evening and couple of hours in the morning in Delft, and I personally think it was enough to enjoy all it had to offer.









Drive to Bruges is a little longer, so while driving we were looking for spots to make a quick stopover and either see something, or at least have meal. One of the things we failed to realized is that there is no such thing a quick stopover in Europe. First of all, a lot of places offer something interesting to see. Second of all, driving through fast in Europe is near impossible, unless you keep yourself on the highway.

Take for example the city of Antwerp - the stopover that we've decided on. The streets in the center are narrow and one-way. We have actually ended up going the wrong way once and ending up on the street forbidding motorized traffic. With assistance of a nice fellow we managed to back down the street about half a mile, and turn into the right one, without causing a major problem for ourselves or pedestrians around us. Antwerp center is very nice, we've planted ourselves in the first cafe on the main square and ate our first Belgian Waffles, which were quite excellent by the way. Spending around an hour just sipping coffee, eating a waffle and watching (later strolling about) a flea market unfold right in the main square was one of the pure European experiences we try to do. Still, it added about two and a half, rather pleasant overall, hours to the trip. I'll reiterate: no such thing as a quick stop, and we kind of went with the flow with the idea.









Onto the Bruges in the next part. I think Bruges deserves a post of it's own.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Amsterdam.. part twee punt vijf.. or some thoughts on Anne Franks house

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My brother has asked me to search deep within and give an opinion of Anne Frank's House museum in Amsterdam. I think in my previous post the only thing I mentioned was that the lines were huge.

I only know the gist of The Diary, having never read the book in its fullest. Going into the museum I had very little expectation of what I would see and what would be presented. By the way photography is strictly forbidden inside, so I can't share to many pictures.

The museum is small, by design actually. It really does reside inside the house where the families lived for couple of years during the Nazy invasion of Holland. The point of the museum is to show how cramped, dangerous, and harsh the living conditions were for those hiding. The exhibition rooms are devoid of any furniture, since that would hinder the movement of visitors. The walls are a restoration with paintings, old photographs and writings that Anne herself used to brighten their existence.

One of the interesting touches is that rooms are set with TVs showing interviews of those who survived about Frank family. And at the very end a nice movie of TV and movie stars reading from the book and giving their thoughts of what it means to them. It is a nice and moving touch to round out the museum experience.

Maya absolutely loved going to the museum. She said she learned a lot and had a renewed interest in the book. She forced us to by her a copy at the museum and re-read it 3 or four times during the trip. Lena said it was worth it as well, she read the book before and seeing the house brought the reality of horror a little closer. Plus, you have to consider that Anne Frank is a Dutch national Hero, so the museum, although small, carries a lot of importance to the Dutch and is a major landmark.

I don't think I feel the same way. The museum is about a person and a book, which moves Holocaust to the background. The reality of it seems to be muted. To me it was as if I would be visiting 221b Baker Street.

To be perfectly honest, if I was travelling alone I would have skipped it. There are museums in the world, Berlin's Jewish history and holocaust museum for instance, that tell the horrifying story much better and with more overall impact.

If you are travelling with kids, make sure they read the book first and ask them if they want to go. If they do buy the tickets in advance for timed entry.
Line to the museum entrance, which is actually behind my POV

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The best trip ever, part drie.

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It was suggested by my lovely wife that I should post more pictures of the trip with the blog posting. While I would rather have words, I think it can help the narration. But fear not! I am not giving up creative control.

Before we move on from Amsterdam, let me share several more wonderful and weird sights we saw.

Fish on a tree

Rembrand's Night Watch sculpture

A crab biting fox's tail

View from Westerkirk

Me holding my crap together while climbing up Westerkirk
We had this bright idea of driving from Amsterdam to the rest of our destinations. There were couple of small roadblocks along the way to that. First off, it is unusually hard to find a car with automatic transmission in Europe and it costs more, with me learning how to drive in US, I have no clue how to drive manual, nor do I wish to learn at this stage of my life. Another is, that renting a car in one country and returning car in another will more or less double you rent price. This didn't stop us of course, and neither did the fact, that the only thing I knew about driving in our destinations is that they drive on the right side of the road, literally and figuratively.

Our first planned stop was Keukenhof tulip gardens - a huge botanical park devoted exclusively to tulip growing. We worried that with cold weather there wouldn't be much to see, but a lot of plants were already started to bloom, and the enclosed galleries have always something beautiful growing. We did not spend too much time in there, walking a looking around a leisurely pace took us maybe two an a half hours total.






This day, for some reason, we've decided to push ourselves. We kind of wanted to see Mauritshuis and the Escher's museums at the Hague, but wanted to also spend a little more time in Delft - our next stop over. As we left tulip gardens, and looked at our table we've decided to skip all of them and instead entertain the short-attention ones in the group (Maya and yours truly) and go to Madurodam on the outskirts of Hague.

Madurodam is a small park that hosts miniaturized versions of almost all of notable structures in Holland. It's not really a big place, but i has plenty hands on activities for kids, moving airplanes and trains and cars, and just a fun quick place to see. It is expensive though, so beware.


Lena trying to control herself and not stomp out civilization
birds attacking miniature people and trains

This weird human body museum we passed on the way to Hague

model of the Maritime museum in Amsterdam

I will continue on the Delft and Bruges in the next post. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

The best trip ever, part twee!

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I better take off my lazy shoes and keep on writing, the memories seem to dull with time and start forgetting things.

Amsterdam - our first stop. My first impression? Cold and windy, unfortunately. The weather did not favor us the first couple of days, with intermittent rain and fairly windy conditions. Admitting to too much wind is really something for somebody from the plains of Midwest.

This trip we did not stay in any hotels, but decided to go with renting apartment space. This leads to my second impression of Amsterdam.


These are the stairs that we had to drag our luggage up, and then down. We've climbed so many stairs during our stay in Amsterdam, that we've decided to avoid it for the most part for the duration of the trip.

One of the things that we do when arriving to a new city is search up if SANDEMANs free tours are available, We always have a lot of fun on those and get information of the place, also occasionally good advice from the tour guides. Amsterdam tours did not let us down. The guide was a very lively Scottish fellow, who was put in the somewhat awkward position of having a child on the tour. We went through the Red Light district fairly quickly, and he definitely avoided retelling some of the saucier stories.

My next impression of Amsterdam is that it absolutely reeks of weed. "Coffeeshops" are on each corner, and it is very hard to distinguish them from actual Cafes that could serve you a coffee. Also, because space is very limited in the city, very few restaurants offer you an opportunity to sit outside and gawk at the crowds.

In Amsterdam everything is within walking distance. A lot time it is much easier to just hop on the tram and get to your destination through public transport. Do not drive in the inner city if you can help it. Amsterdam is also full of tourists, and it feels like that because the city is cramped. However, it's very easy to step away from the crowds and go inside less crowded areas, like Jordaan, which is very quiet. You can find quaint little streets like this.


If you have kids go to Maritime Museum to climb all over old Dutch galleon. One of the best views of the city is from the cafeteria in the Oba - Amsterdam central public library. It was extremely windy on the day when we went there, to the point of being extremely uncomfortable. If you like paintings, the best places to go are the Rijksmuseum, with Rembrandt's The Night Watch, and the Van Gogh Museum. For kids specifically, Rijksmuseum offers cardboard maps of the famous paintings full of cool information and Easter eggs hidden by the masters. Van Gogh Museum, on selected nights (one of which we caught), turns into a pretty happening place, with musical performances and happy hour drinks.

On of the best things we did in Amsterdam is taking a canal boat tour. Do some research before going on one. By that I mean don't read about them on the internet, information is scarce, but go talk to the companies and pick the one you like most. If the weather is nice take an open boat tour, the views are excellent enough that you don't want glass standing between you and the city. The one we took was right behind Anne Frank's house, and we enjoyed it (don't try to get the best priced or the best deal one, the natives know what they are doing and are not above exaggerating things).

Speaking of Anne Frank's house. Maya really really wanted to go. Thanks to Lena and her ceaseless tracking of ticket sales we were able to get them ahead with a preset time. Lines are huge to this museum, bigger to any museum in Amsterdam. Sometimes the wait can be up to 2-3 hours long. With Museumkaart (get it if you plan to hit at least 3-4 museums, that savings are great for adults) we were able to enter without standing in the line.

A curious happening occurred when we took our tour. At the Anne Frank's museum (lots and lots of people by the way) we were accosted by a woman, who looked perfectly sane by the way. The interesting twist to her rant was not the usual anti-Jew, anti-Israli fair, but that somehow the existence of the museum was promoting anti-Semitism and anti-Isralali feelings and rhetoric, instead of supporting the state of Israel. I was not ready for this and missed part of it, since I was trying to figure out the ways of protecting my own, if the shit was going to be hitting the proverbial fan.

If you dare, climb up the Westerkirk. It's only six flights up but at some point stairs turns into ladders, for almost vertical climb. I don't do well in the high and open spaces, but the view is breathtaking, and you get a guide to actually tell you about the place and things you can see from up top.

Food is average in Amsterdam. Nothing really stood out for for me with the exception of this.



A herring sandwich.Nothing really special, but I enjoyed the novelty of the thing, and the Dutch herring is really good, if you into that sort of thing.  Very few places, in the touristy areas, offer authentic Dutch cuisine. By the admission of the tour guide, Amsterdam is really a melting pot, so it is sometimes hard to understand what authentic Dutch cuisine is. Instead the city is full of Chinese, Indonesian, and the strange overabundance of "Argentinian" steakhouses.

That is about it about Amsterdam, next post will cover all the little stops we did while travelling to Bruges.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The best trip ever, Part Een!

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Dam panoramic view, Amsterdam NL

Oh, what a trip! We've hit so many places during the twelve days in Europe that sometime's everything is a blur. There are many memories, however, that are sharp and will stay with me for a very long time.

I am not going to list all of the places we've been to and all of the locations we've seen. This is not the point of this post. I will rather focus on specific details, and small stories that are interesting to me. I may also ask Lena and Maya to contribute to the narrative, maybe they'll offer a point that I either missed or re-interpreted differently.

We've build our original list of destinations based on the simple fact of where we could fly on miles, what we haven't seen yet, and the availability of non-stop flights. The starting point of the trip was to be Amsterdam and the final destination before going home was Brussels. Because of the tragic events in Brussels several weeks before, at almost the last moment we switched to Paris. We also decided to drive on our trip, which was the result of several notable stories to share.

I will take a moment to thank my brother and his excellent website burlaki.com for help in deciding which sights to see and general advice.

Maya! We've decided to take her with us. We told her several months in advance, and she was ecstatic. She literally counted days left before we go on the trip, weeks in advance.  Because of her, some of our itinerary had to include items that she would be interested to see. However, if you know my child she is interested in only one thing - food. Her itinerary included Netherlands' cheese and Belgium's chocolates and waffles. She knew what kind of waffles existed  and wanted to taste all of them. I won't even mention cheese and chocolates. When we told her about going to France, I think she may have lost it for a while, as I've told her stories of our past visit to Paris and the abundance of all sorts of bakeries and restaurants.

She did plan for us to go Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, for which, thanks to Lena, we were able to acquire tickets in advance (do it if you can, avoid the line that is always there). Upon getting to Paris, she also really really wanted to go up the Eiffel tower. That concluded her list of things to see.

We planned extensively. It could even be said that we over planned. The plan was to go to Amsterdam, and then drive to Bruges with quick stops at Keukenhof gardens, and Hague to see couple of museums, before stopping over for a night at Delft. during our two-night stay in Bruges we planned to go over to Ghent, before finishing up at our final stop with no more stopovers.

The resulting trip had us going the way of Amsterdam to Keukenhof gardens (couple of hours) to Madurodam's mini-Holland park (couple of hours) to Delft. The Delft to Bruges portion was a little longer, so we had an unplanned stop at Antwerp (which lasted a little longer then we planned). From Bruges the drive was much longer, and we decided not to go to Ghent, but did a small detour and a stop at the beautiful village and castle Chateau de Pierrefonds about 100 kms away from Paris.

Overall a bunch of places to see and enjoy.

I will break up this narration into several posts. I have to collect my thoughts on each destination and site separately. Hopefully you will stick with it.

Girls on one of the bridges by Anne Frank's House museum


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

How to keep a geek happy

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I have, some time ago, noticed that my Lego collection has outgrown the space I allocated for it. It has also outgrown my desire to spend significant amounts of money of them, therefore I have decided to take a break from purchasing anything big and exciting(Still dreaming about the Death Star though).

Then, on our family's trip to Michigan, I've noticed a bunch of models that are made out of pressed and engraved tin. I grabbed an X-Wing right away, but then noticed something I wanted for a long time. In my collection of geeky/nerdy shit I don't have a single representative of Star Trek verse.

The model itself looks OK, given the material being used to assemble it. There was a lot of frustrating moments in assembly, where alignment could not be achieved. The latching system is so small, that there were instances where I seriously considered a magnifying glass. The end result is also a bit front heavy, making the model topple forward, that is why there is a pen holding it down.

Here are the picture of pre-assembled and the final piece. I may take another picture.

There are plenty of models available by this company. I have seen they have original Enterprise, Vor'cha and A Bird of Prey.