**Please forgive me for taking so long to put this post out. The internet connection at the hostel/campground is sporadic, especially when it has to try to upload photos or stream video. It has taken a number of different attempts to make this post successful. Ah, the various challenges faced on the road.**
A HUGE shout out to my former roommate, coworker and dear friend, Jeremy, for inviting me to join he and his family in visiting these two vastly different destinations. The timing worked out perfectly for my travels and was a wonderful joy to spend time with my friend exploring new places.
What brought me to Luxembourg? Great question. It was Jeremy. His aunt Karen loves genealogy. She was able to trace part of their family ancestry to Luxembourg. In doing so, she found out if a person can legally prove ancestry to Luxembourg government officials, he/she can gain dual citizenship. Jeremy and a few of his relatives decided to make the trek together to submit their paperwork. After submission, it is a bit of a waiting game while the Luxembourg government is processing which could take another six to eight months to have final decision.
The tiny country of Luxembourg is located towards the west side of mainland Europe, sandwiched between Belgium, France and Germany. Like mostly all of Europe, it has a long history and has been greatly impacted by World Wars and EU (European Union) regulations. Interestingly enough, many of the buildings in the business district of Luxembourg City are locations where the EU makes some of its major decisions. I do not know enough of Luxembourg’s history to give solid information but what I did learn was fascinating.
Departing from London, I took an overnight bus and ferry to Brussels, then boarded a train for Luxembourg. I was scheduled to arrive a couple of hours ahead of Jeremy and family so I decided to walk the 30 minutes to the hotel. Instantly, I noticed how clean and manicured the parks and streets of Luxembourg are. Aside from cigarette butts, I saw no litter which was a stark difference from being in London. I understand Luxembourg is significantly smaller than London with far less population in residents and visitors but the difference was obvious.
I was taken captive by Old Luxembourg City. Completely surrounded by TALL rock walls, the Old City gives off what I can only describe as a Disney fairytale vibe. The streets are narrow and winding, lined by rows of connected, stucco-type buildings. Bright green plants and flowers flow from the perfectly maintained window wells add splashes of vibrant color to the off white buildings. Small cafes and restaurants on the street level waft delicious aromas into the air calling the passerby to stop, relax and enjoy the incredible scenery.
Built into the walls of the Old City are tunnels and caverns (called the Casemates) which were used to fortify and protect the city. The first of the tunnels were built during the mid 1600’s. We were able to explore the Casemates to see old water wells, prisons, officers planning rooms, officers bedrooms, cannon look outs and more. The views were incredible as they look over the city itself as well as the landscapes beyond the walls. Of course, Luxembourg City has grown up beyond the old city walls leaving the current sight of modern buildings, bridges and construction cranes, but you can imagine the views the soldiers would have had once upon a time.
We also took a tour of the Grand Ducal Palace which was first built in the late 1500’s as a small city hall. The building’s purpose, design and structure has changed over the centuries but in 1890 Grand Duke Adolphe was the first Duke to take up residence in it. Later during WWII, the Nazi party invaded Luxembourg and took over the palace as their headquarters. Unfortunately much of the décor and collections were destroyed during their occupancy. Today, it is the official residence of the Grand Duke and the location where he carries out his official duties. Interestingly, while the palace does have high fences and gates, it is right in the midst of the tight buildings and narrow streets just a few blocks from city centre.
Many more sites are available than we could fit in to the few days we were visiting. But this is one location I would love to revisit again if the opportunity ever arises.
AMSTERDAM & outlying areas
After our few days in Luxembourg, Jeremy, Kathy and I enjoyed a peaceful train ride to Amsterdam. As soon as we stepped off the train, the contrast from Luxembourg was immediate. First, the increased number of people was obvious just by walking through the train station. Second, the city noise was thick. You know how it goes – layers of constant noise from voices to bicycle bells to the hum of scooters to music from restaurants to car horns to emergency vehicle sirens. The noise never faded until we left the city for a day. Third, noticeable litter. We did see a number of street sweepers around but with the number of swarming tourists, I am guessing it is difficult to keep up with. Forth, the smells. If you have already been to Amsterdam, you probably remember the smells. The continuous aroma of marijuana mixed with exhaust, cigarettes, food stands and of course that sewer type smell that most large cities seem to have.
Upon leaving the train station, we embarked on a wild taxi ride of zigzag roads and too close for comfort tailgating with bicycles and cars. We arrived in one piece to the boutique style hotel, Hotel de Paris, located a short fifteen minute walk from the main square – Dam Square. After taking a little time to get settled in our room, we decided to go on a dinner cruise through the canals of Amsterdam.
Before the city was built, the land was mostly all swamp. Much like Venice, Italy – Amsterdam made use of the swamps by establishing water canals allowing most of the city to be accessible by boat. Rows upon rows of homes have built up along the canals and are now some of the most expensive real estate. Once upon a time, ships would pull right up to front doors of homes to unload their cargo.
A visually obvious and interesting fact: The vast majority of the structures along the canals lean one way or the other due to building on the soft, sinking swamp land. Most of them no longer have level floors. Luckily they are packed in so tight that they wind up leaning against each other providing support. Also, a great number of the buildings angle forward on purpose for when cargo is hoisted from boats, using a hook at the peak of the roof, it will keep a safe distance from swinging into the windows.
Also, Amsterdam has more bikes than residents. Nearly 1 million bikes grace the streets and fall into the canals. Over 100,000 bikes are stolen each year. Residents have the goal of creating the ugliest bike possible they can to deter theft. Watch out as your cross the street, they may ring the little thumb bell but they will not stop for you to cross!
The following morning we headed to the Anne Frank House & Museum. I think this was the highlight of my time in Amsterdam. As you very well know, Anne Frank was a Jewish teenager whose family went into hiding for two years during WWII when Amsterdam became no longer safe from the Nazis. Anne’s father operated his own business and secretly transitioned part of his factory into a safe house where the Frank family and four others hid with the help of a few precious coworkers/friends. When the Nazi party eventually discovered them, they were separated and sent to various concentration camps. Anne and her sister were sent to Bergen-Belsen camp where they both died just months before it was liberated. Anne’s father, Otto, was the only house member to survive the Holocaust.
Even as a young teen, Anne Frank wanted to be a writer. She kept a journal of her time during these days. One of the dear trusted family friends discovered Anne’s journal after the arrest and secretly kept the diary, waiting for her return. When Anne’s death was proven in the records, the diary was handed over to Otto. After much agony, Otto decided to attempt to have the journal published and as they say, the rest is history.
If you find yourself in Amsterdam, please take the opportunity to visit the Anne Frank House. You will climb through the secret bookshelf passage which leads to the safe house, stand in the actual rooms they occupied, see the walls Anne decorated with magazine clippings, view the windows they were not allowed to open and hear some of Anne’s words as she describes her life as a teen in hiding. Fall in love with this little girl who longed to be a published writer and did so unknowingly; she inspired the world after her death.
Afterwards, we took a free walking city tour. Did you know that many cities offer free walking tours? The guide works solely for tips so you can decide how much the tour is worth to you. They usually have a website which gives the location and time of the tour(s) but do think ahead because some prefer you sign up before the tour as there may limited spaces available.
Our guide was a writer who grew up in Amsterdam. She said she wanted to get out to meet some people and share stories, knowledge & experience of her city. She was energetic and informational as we walked for about two hours around Amsterdam learning the highlights and some of the more hidden details we would not have found on our own. For example, once a prison where prisoners were subject to public capital punishment by drowning, the structure was later turned into a recreation center (like a YMCA) and now a shopping mall. I never would have known the prison element but when it was pointed out, I could see the architecture of old prison catwalk. The information was fantastic and the typical going rate for a free walking tour is about $10 (or whatever the currency of the country you are in).
On our final day in Holland, we took the time to leave the noisy city behind and head into the country. It did not take as long as expected to get outside the city walls, only about 15 minutes. We went to see the working windmills of Zaanse Schans, wooden shoe making near Marken and cheese making in the fishing village of Volendam. My recommendation: if you plan to see these sites, take public transportation. Aside from our time in Volendam, the “guided tour” was extremely rushed in each location. We did not have adequate time to hear about the mill operation and directions were very poor at the wooden shoe carvers. Our included guide provided very little information to contribute value to the tour. I think this is doable on your own and you will enjoy it more at your leisure.
But moving on…aside from looking beautiful, the windmills in Zaanse Schans are still working, operational mills providing products such as wood, chalk, oil and spices. With a history in windmills, you can imagine wind farms are also around the country to help provide energy.
The wooden shoe factory was an unexpected delight for me. The presenter was entertaining and humorous as he demonstrated the process a chunk of wood goes through to become a polished wooden shoe. Did you know the wood has to be wet in order to carve it correctly? With current machinery and technology, the carving process only takes about five minutes per shoe, then are hung for two weeks to dry. The shoes are still worn today to protect feet from heavy animals or dropping heavy mill products. Also, the shoes can be sprayed down with a hose when dirty without causing damage, making the wooden shoe multi-functional.
We took a small ferry from Marken to the fishing town of Volendam where we took in a cheese making talk. Coming from Wisconsin where nearly every elementary school class visits a cheese factory, the talk was not new information and was difficult to hear above customers in the store but I did enjoy sampling the various cheeses. One thing Western Europe is not lacking is good cheese! My favorite was the smoked cheese from both cow and goat milk.
Jeremy, Kathy and I went out for a wonderful Greek dinner to wrap up our time in Amsterdam together. I had to leave for the airport at a staggering 4:45am the next morning to head to Rome. Yikes!
Thank you Jeremy and Kathy for inviting me to join in your wonderful adventure to Luxembourg and Amsterdam. It was an honor and privilege to spend time with you guys!