After being very active for seven straight days, the exhaustion finally hit me. The day would be spent being very lazy. Post-late morning birthday run, I made a sandwich for lunch at home and then lay down in bed. Within a couple of minutes I was dead to the world.
When I woke up it was about 3.30pm and we really didn’t want to waste a beautiful day, so Derya and I headed out to the Cologne cable car, which takes you across the Rhein from the zoo to the Rheinpark. Unfortunately the cable car was closed for the season, so we headed to the Koln Triangle instead, a 28-storey building (considered a skyscraper in Cologne) across the Rhein from the Dom with a 360-degree view on its rooftop. Unfortunately the glass barrier encircling the circumference of the rooftop didn’t help with getting great photos, but it was still nice to have a bird’s eye view of the city.
From there we took a stroll along the bank of the river and there I got acquainted with Cologne-style rock climbing. People on ropes were attempting to scale the 15-20 metre high wall at the end of the Hohenzollernbrucke, Cologne’s main bridge that straddles the Rhein. I thought it was very interesting and creative indeed…
We caught the sunset while having a drink at the Rheinterrassen, a hip riverside outdoor bar/brunch place with a small artificial beach and deck chairs. It was really chilled out, really serene, a great quiet way to spend my birthday.
For dinner we met up with Kerem and Irina at an Argentinean steakhouse. The food was great but the company much better. I am truly fortunate and blessed to have met these people and to have the opportunity to visit and stay with them during such a wonderful sunny week in Europe. A 32nd birthday to remember for sure.
After a good night’s rest, day two in Amsterdam started out bright and early with a morning run past some of the key landmarks in the city. I had tried to do this loop the day before, but it gets a little tricky navigating a map and riding a bike at the same time. It’s much easier on foot and also better for stopping to take photos. So, with map in hand and Fuji x100s in my running bag, I headed out for a fun trot. I know I keep raving about the weather, but it was truly perfection on this day. Crisp, cool and super sunny.
The first major stop was the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) over the Amstel River – you may find it familiar as it has appeared in some films, including the James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever. The bridge is said to have been built – at least an earlier, much skinnier version of it – in 1691 by two wealthy sisters who lived on opposite sides of the river and wanted to be able to visit one another every day. It’s definitely a super pretty sight looking across from one bank to the other.
From the bridge I headed to Waterloo Plein, where people were just beginning to set up their stalls for the day at the Waterloopleinmarkt. The huge daily flea market is one of the city’s many street markets, which I planned to explore later in the afternoon. A short jog away is De Waag, a 15th-century building on Nieuwmarkt square in Amsterdam’s Chinatown that was originally a city gate and part of the walls of Amsterdam. A run through the adjacent Red Light District brought me to Dam Square, the city’s town square. The square is bordered by the Royal Palace, the 15th-century Gothic Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the National Monument, a white stone pillar designed by J.J.P. Oud and erected in 1956 to memorialise the victims of WWII.
From Dam Square I ran through De 9 Straatjes, so named for its nine alleyways of shopping, back to Leidseplein where my hotel was. I highly recommend Hotel Freeland, by the way, which for 45 Euros a night was a great price for a clean, cosy and comfortable accommodation in an excellent location. The room comes with a great breakfast – eggs, ham, cheese, toast, yogurt, jams and spreads, all sorts of tea, juice and some other nibbles like rice cakes and ontbijtkoek, a traditional Dutch breakfast spiced cake.
After a hearty breakfast I checked out and hopped on my bike for the day’s adventure: market hopping. First stop was Dappermarkt, considered to be the most affordable and multicultural of Amsterdam’s markets. Getting there was simple enough – a straightforward ride along the Singelgracht, through Oosterpark (where I couldn’t help but stop for a photo) and then you’re there.
At the Dappermarkt I picked up a couple of blocks of Gouda cheese as gifts, one with nettle and the other with olives, tomatoes and garlic. I also bought a pair of Birkenstocks for a steal. Most of the stalls sold clothing and handbags and accessories, or local food like fish and cheeses and bread. I was tempted to buy the whole bread stall!
The next stop was the Albert Cuypmarkt at the very hip De Pijp district. Compared to the Dappermarkt there were more stands and a better mix of stuff for sale, from shoes and luggage to fresh vegetables and fish, to typical Dutch treats like raw herring or warm, freshly made stroopwafels. I bought more gifts here: another slab of cheese, this time Old Amsterdam, and a bag of stroopwafels in a Delftware tin. I also had my lunch – a couple of sticks of super yummy satay chicken and the most amazing froyo I’ve ever tasted!
The final stop for the day was De 9 Straatjes. I tried on a couple of pieces from a local designer but it was useless trying to buy with the bump. I did however come away with a very cute bee print swaddle from one of the shops called Mint Mini Mall.
In fact, save for a pepper mill, the Birkenstocks and a couple of magnets, I haven’t bought anything else for myself the entire trip. I’ve bought lots of cheeses, chocolates and waffles as gifts. And I finally started buying clothing and toys for little M. Picked up a bunch of local Dutch branded things you can’t find in Asia: adorable onesies, a lazy goose stuffed toy and this super cute Delftware edition Miffy!
When little M can finally understand me, I’ll tell her of all the adventures I had while carrying her for 10 months. Being half-German, hopefully this trip has also acquainted her a bit with some German food and language!
The day was rounded off with a quick ferry ride across the water to Amsterdam Noord. A quick snap of the sun setting on central Amsterdam, and I was back on the ferry to Central Station for my train back to Cologne. Thirty-three hours in Amsterdam is way too short – I’ll definitely be back!
Amsterdam, you had me at hello; at the first canal I walked over and at the first breeze of a Dutch bike zooming by. There’s so much to love about this city: awesome architecture, compact, vibrant, bicycles, bicycles, bicycles have priority, green parks, cobbled streets, a great eye for style and design, fit and good looking friendly folks, English is spoken everywhere, Vlaamse frites, waffles and pancakes, Gouda and Old Amsterdam cheese… I could sing of your praises non-stop!
I arrived in Amsterdam at 9.30am via a 2h 40min high speed train from Cologne, and I didn’t get the warm welcome I’d expected. The sky was overcast and gloomy, and it was freezing cold made worse by wind. Had my luck with the weather come to an end?
I looked on the bright side: my agenda for the day was museums – the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum – and so it didn’t matter how bad the weather was. I walked the 3km or so from Central Station to my hotel at Leidesplein, a square known for its bustling nightlife, just a stone’s throw from Museumplein, where the two museums are located. Along the way there I passed by Dam Square, the Kalverstraat shopping street, and the Flower Market, and couldn’t resist a warm fluffy sugar sprinkled waffle for a snack.
Navigating the streets and canals is pretty easy; they ring outwards like a soundwave from Central Station. They’re also very well sign-posted, and anyway if you stop someone to ask for directions, it’s very likely he or she will speak English. I didn’t meet any local who didn’t speak English, and in fact everyone seemed to have a very good command of the language.
Once at the hotel, I booked tickets online for the museum (do it here and here). You’re highly advised to do so to avoid the queues. For the Van Gogh Museum, you have to pick a desired day and time slot. It’s hassle free and you get an e-ticket which is scanned via barcode at the door.
The Van Gogh Museum is pretty small relative to other museums I’ve been to. I guess the guy could only paint so much with a career that lasted just 10 years before he admitted himself to a mental institution. As you walk around and up the four-storey museum, you see his works develop from novice student painter to the fat sweeping and swirling brushstrokes he is known for. You also see the change in colours from dark to vibrant over the years. My favourite painting of his would be Almond Blossoms, which was made to celebrate the birth of his nephew and namesake, son of his brother Theo and sister-in-law Jo.
After about two hours, I exited the Van Gogh Museum to be greeted by a clear blue sky and sunshine. My lucky streak was still intact! (The lady who sold me the waffle claims the forecast is snow next week.)
With the stunning weather, I was tempted to save the Rijksmuseum for the next day, but decided to go ahead anyway and leave a full day for other things in other locations on day two.
The Rijksmuseum reopened in April last year after a 10-year refurbishment. With the world’s largest collection of Rembrandts, it’s been the heart of the Netherlands’ cultural scene for almost 140 years. It’s not nearly as massive as the Louvre but it still will take you a good three to four hours to explore and appreciate fully. The museum pretty much charts Dutch history and art. The fact that the East India Company (or VOC in Dutch) had such an active and important role to play in Singapore’s history helped me to relate to many of the artefacts and artwork on show. I didn’t get this feeling when I visited the Louvre last year.
By the end of the museum visits my feet were pretty close to failing. Since arriving in Cologne last Thursday, I’d done three runs, one hike and spent many many hours walking. So, I decided the best thing to do was to rent a bike and refuel with some high-calorie frites!
I got a single speed hand brake Dutch bike for 17.50 Euros (13 rental and 4.50 insurance) for 24 hours from Black Bikes. It was heavy as hell – I could barely lift the front wheel off the floor. But Amsterdam is pancake flat so it doesn’t matter if you’re riding an elephant.
Having a bike really opens up the sightseeing opportunities in the city; otherwise you’d have to walk or take the metro. Most people get around by bike – it’s quick, convenient, healthy and green. There are dedicated bike lanes everywhere and cyclists seem to get priority over pedestrians and cars. All locals are very steady on the bike – they ride in their office wear, in heels, with a cello on their back or a baby in front or even sandwiched between two toddlers, they ride while talking on the phone, while smoking, while listening to music, they ride with one hand or even with hands in their pockets. Everyone has very good spatial awareness – in such organised chaos that’s vital – and they all give hand signals. And 99 per cent of them seem to ride without a helmet. If you’re not too confident on a bike and you’re riding one as a tourist in Amsterdam, you might find riding there a bit intimidating.
I loved it. I rode to Dam Square and picked up a sandwich and frites at shops nearby, and wolfed down the food at the square while enjoying the cool evening. Then I hopped back on the bike and rode to nowhere, swallowed up by the endless wave of passing cyclists. Eventually I ended up at Vondelpark, a central park of sorts with lakes and dirt trails and lots of green. I made a loop of the park as the sun went down, and then rode back to the hotel for an early night.
A compact city that’s less than two hours away by train from Cologne, Brussels was a perfect day trip. I spent about nine hours in all exploring the major attractions, wandering the cobbled streets, tasting lots of chocolate, practising my rusty French and soaking up tons of 20 deg C sunshine.
Some random trivia: did you know it is the home of the Smurfs and also the Capital of Tintin? You can even folllow a comic book trail and discover some pretty cool wall murals, like this one.
There is a public bike rental scheme with several stations across the city, but the area is small and convenient enough to be covered and enjoyed on foot, which I did. (That way you also don’t miss the murals.) First stop: Grand-Place, via the Bourse de Bruxelles.
The Grand-Place is the central square of Brussels and a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is surrounded by guildhalls, the city’s Town Hall and the Breadhouse (Maison du Roi), and has a few alfresco cafes and restaurants too. Standing in the middle of the square, there’s a certain majestic and magical feeling… broken only by noisy mainland tourists, I kid you not.
Moving on: Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a shopping passage built in 1847. I picked up a couple of items here – a super delish hazelnut praline spread at one of the bakeries, and a Tintin comic book from a museum bookstore.
A short stroll from the arcade strip is the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, set atop a small hill and fronted by a grassy park with blooming purple and yellow flowers. The park was packed with people and their picnic lunches – what a great sunny spot that I wish Hong Kong had!
A couple of minutes down the road was a much bigger sunny lunch spot, the Parc Royal de Bruxelles. In addition to picnickers, there were many lunch runners trampling across the dirt/sand paths that criss-crossed the green space. It wasn’t the prettiest park – could do with better landscaping – but there were a few beautiful sculptures dotted around it.
Exiting the park on the other side, I walked past the Palais de Bruxelles, through the museum street, down the Jardin du Mont des Arts, to Manneken Pis – that famous 15th century bronze sculpture of a boy taking a piss.
By now it was about 2.30pm and I was starving, which was exactly how I wanted to feel to enjoy a good lunch of moules-frites!
Walking down an alley of restaurants adjacent to the shopping arcade, I simply followed my nose and it led me to Chez Léon. Its reputation was unknown to me till after I’d finished my lunch, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Mussels in Brussels – that’s another strike off my bucket list!