Friday, September 30, 2011

The Ballad of Margaret and Julian

This post is all about how Chris, Kent, and I ended up having dinner at the Captain's Table one night of our cruise.

Spoiler alert: it's not because we're classy. Actually it's because we are the complete opposite of classy.

Our first day on the ship, we went to the show where the officers and the entertainment staff (including the cruise director) introduce themselves. When it came turn for the Hotel Director to speak, I was instantly smitten. Never mind the fact that he was in his late 40s, didn't have a lot of hair, and was married. He was from England! So that's all you need.

So from that point on, I was determined to get to know Julian.

But our tale really begins with an explanation about where our cabin was located on the cruise ship. That stuff above was just setting the scene. Chris loves to be at the front of ship (or the bow if you want to get fancy). I'm not really sure why, maybe it's posher? Anyways, this time our cabin was right next to the door to the bridge and the officer's quarters. No lie, right next door.

While walking down the hall one day, Kent passed Julian on his way to or from his quarters. As there had been a shocking lack of towel animals in our room, Kent stopped the Hotel Director and asked if we could get towel animals. Most people would probably just take this up with their cabin steward, but Kent decided to go right to the top. Julian was very gracious and promised to see to it that we would get towel animals.

And we did!

In response, on our comment card, I wrote the following message: We <3 Julian! I then dropped the card off at Guest Relations. Was this an adult way to thank someone? No. Were we really excited about getting those towel animals? Hell yes. So it seemed appropriate.

And then! The next day, after returning from lunch or something, we came in to find a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries had been delivered to our room. With compliments, from Julian. So now we were feeling really special. I composed a lovely thank you note and sent it on its way.

But we were only getting started. We decided that it would be nice to invite Julian, Mr. Hotel Director, to join us for dinner one night. After all, we had this big table for 8 all to ourselves (the other people assigned to our table never showed up). So we decided next time we saw him, we would invite him.

That night, while playing craps in the casino, the cruise director, Sue, wandered past us. Sue was a lovely older woman (also from England). Chris and I exchanged a look, grabbed our chips and took off after her. And when I saw "took off" I mean that we literally ran down the hall yelling her name. We finally caught up to her and breathlessly asked if she and Julian would like to join us at our table sometime. She gave us the typical "we're very busy in the evening" line but took down our cabin number and promised to call us and let us know if they were available.

The next day we had a phone message from Sue. While she and Julian were not free for dinner, they invited us to drinks at the martini bar the next night. Success! We ended up having a great time; we chatted with them both for more than an hour, which was more time than we thought they would give us. And apparently Sue and Julian had a good time too. And let's be honest: we probably the only people on that ship under the age of 50, so it must have been nice for them to talk to some spry people. They also both expressed surprise at our dinner invitation, apparently this was the first time someone had extended it to them. Usually they were the ones who asked people to dinner! We also learned that Julian's cabin was next door to ours. Awesome.

We parted ways good friends, and looked forward to seeing them around the ship. Imagine our surprise a few days later when we received a printed invitation to join Julian at the Captain's Table in the main dining room for dinner.

At last, we were in.

It was the last formal night of the cruise, so we were dressed in our best. We met up with the other people dining at the table that night in the wine bar and enjoyed some hors d'oeuvres, wine, and champagne. Julian and his pregnant wife (who had joined the ship in Copenhagen) joined us and then we walked to the table in the dining room. Actually it was more like parading, as they led us through the center of the room and everyone got a good long look at the cool kids who got to sit at the main table. Chris saw that some of the people older people looked as us askance, I say let them. They were just jealous.

Dinner was excellent; we had the main maitre des as our servers, and all the wine and champagne we could drink. It also seemed like the quality of the cuts of meats and such was slightly better than you find at the normal tables. That was very gratifying. They even took our picture and gave the ladies roses. You guys, we were so fancy. We had a wonderful time just eating and chatting with Julian and his wife and I think I can honestly say that the table would have been much more boring without us. But isn't that true of everything?

All in all, it was a perfect way to begin the wrap-up of our vacation. And it just goes to prove that persistence can get you almost anything. If you stalk someone long enough, chances are you'll get what you want! Not sure that's really the lesson here, but whatever. It's Friday. I don't have time to come with a moral for every blog post I write.

Still to come in the vacay recap: posts about Tallin, Estonia and Copenhagen, Denmark. Are you psyched??

Sunday, September 25, 2011

St. Petersburg, Part Deux

Ah, another day, another day long tour. We basically went whole hog for St. Petersburg, after all, how many times are you in Russia?

We spent very little time in St. Petersburg proper on the second day of our tour. Instead we took to the country to enjoy some Russian royal hospitality. Our first stop was Catherine's Palace, the summer residence of the Romanov tsars. Located about 30 minutes drive from downtown St. Petersburg, it was first built in 1717 by Catherine I (NOT Catherine the Great, but the wife of Peter the Great who took over Russia after he died without designating an heir). It was later expanded by Empress Anna and it's current appearance was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the same architect who designed the Winter Palace and Peterhof Palace and was a favorite of Empress Elizabeth (the expansion was completed in 1756).

Exterior of a small part of Catherine's palace (seriously the thing must be half a mile long from tip to tip) as seen from the back park.

Cupulas of Catherine's Palace

Chris and I do our impressions of the statues in front of the Palace.

It was known for its lavish interiors and trust me, this place does not disappoint. Unfortunately, almost everything inside the palace is a reproduction as it was occupied by the Nazis during WWII (1941-1944) and used as a soldier barracks. They ripped everything out and left the place a hollow shell. Damn, Nazis. God, they sucked. Fortunately, many of the most valuable contents were evacuated and archivists were able to document most of the interior. A large portion of the palace was reconstructed for St. Petersburg's tercentenary in 2003, but there were still many rooms in the huge palace that haven't been tackled yet. Hopefully one day the entire place will be restored to its former glory.

Main Staircase of Catherine's Palace

The Great Hall (or Light Gallery) was designed in the Russian baroque style and was used for balls, formal dinners, and masquerades. If you've seen the movie Anastasia , this is where the opening ball takes place. All the gilding would have originally been solid gold, but as it's a reproduction, it's wood covered with gold leaf. Still, not too shabby.

Detail of one of the walls in one of the courtiers-in-attendance dining room. The large blue porcelain columns are actually fireplaces, they have small openings at the front where the wood inside would be lit.

The rooms in the palace are layed out in a long line so you can look through one doorway all the way to the end of the palace (or you could if you could see that far down). But it's gold gilding as far as the eye can see...

The Green Dining Room, first of the rooms in the northernmost end of the Palace.

After spending the morning at Catherine's Palace, we went to a local restaurant called The Red Restaurant (after the red facade) for another traditional Russian lunch. This time it was beef stroganoff which was delicious, and served with fingerling potatoes rather than noodles. And of course, vodka. All in all, yum.

Stroganoff. It may not look super-appetizing, but trust me, it was AMAZING.

We got back on the road and headed to another Romanov residence, Peterhof Palace. It was built in 1714 by Peter the Great who wanted a palace to rival those of the French and a place to glorify Russia's recent naval victories over Sweden. It was the summer residence of Peter and the grounds contain over 150 fountains. The palace was called the Versailles of the Russia, and after walking through the grounds it is easy to see why.

The Grand Cascade at Peterhof Part I...

Part II...

And Part III.

Looking over the Grand Cascade, down the canal, to the sea beyond.

The "palace" is actually comprised of many different buildings and a chain of parks facing the sea. The water for the fountains is pumped through a unique hydraulics system that uses no machinery or pumps. Don't ask me how they do it, I'm just a tourist. Enjoy the pics!

The Lion Fountain (the temple portion is flanked by two lions, you can see one in the background on the left).

In this fountain, ducks circle as they are chased by a small dog. The fountain actually makes quacking and barking noises. Popular with the kiddies.

The Adam fountain. Eve is located across the main walkway of the park.

The Sun fountain.

The Dragon (or Chess Board) fountain.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

There's a rumor in St. Petersburg...

....and it's not that Anastasia was alive; it's that Maggie was coming!

Let's face it--the highlight of this cruise was always going to be the two days we were docked in St. Petersburg. And as luck would have it, it was the jewel in our vacation crown. But before I get into the details of our visit, how about some historical background? It's kind of my favorite.

St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great and was modeled on the great cities of Western Europe. After touring the other cities of Europe, Peter was determined to "modernize" Russia and build a city as beautiful as Paris, Venice, or London. He hired French architects and built the city on a series of islands spanning the river Neva. St. Petersburg was the capitol city of Russia from 1712 to 1918 and is currently the second largest city in Russia with 5 million people (Moscow is the largest). The city has also had several name changes in its time; during WWI it was called Petrograd as the Russians changed all German-sounding names in the country. It was then renamed Leningrad in 1917 following the Bolshevik revolution until 1994 when the residents voted to restore the original name of St. Petersburg.

My first impressions of the city were that it was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. It's full of buildings dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the Russians prefer to restore existing buildings rather then rely on new construction. I was also surprised by how many of the architectural details remain; I assumed during the Soviet era many of them would have been torn down, but the truth is that any damage done to the city was caused by the Germans during WWII. It's loaded with palaces (as each Romanov was given their own palace and there were 60 of them in 1916) cathedrals, and other beautiful old buildings.

Our first stop on our grand tour was the Hermitage museum. It's the second largest museum in all of Europe and houses the largest collection of Renoir paintings in the world. There's also an impressive collection of French Impressionist paintings including Monet and Van Gogh (who was Dutch but did his best works in France). It was founded by Catherine the Great in 1862 and is currently comprised of 5 buildings including the Winter Palace where the ruling Romanov tsars had their home in St. Petersburg. Our tour guide, Tanya, was incredibly knowledgeable about almost everything in the museum and took us on a path that avoided most of the other tour groups. Coupled with the museum opening an hour early to accommodate the many cruise tours, we had an experience few people get (as the museum becomes impossibly crowded during the summer).

The tour began in the main stairway of the Winter Palace and then curved through the official receiving and throne rooms of the tsars. Each room is filled with not only exquisite pieces of art including paintings, sculptures, and antique furniture, but the rooms themselves contain impressive gilding and floors. There was so much to look at it, but my personal favorites were the Impressionist paintings and the marble sculptures which looked ready to come to life at any moment.

Entrance to the Hermitage, aka, the Winter Palace

Grand Stairway of the Winter Palace

Rooms inside the Hermitage

The Three Graces, in the lobby of the Hermitage

We spent the entire morning wandering the rooms until after noon when we headed to a hotel for lunch. Russian food is very hardy, and we had a typical Russian meal which of course includes vodka. The first course was a light salad with raw salmon and caviar. The second course was a thick potato soup (which was delicious). The main course was chicken kiev, which as soon as you touched it with your knife and fork virtually exploded with butter and garlic and herbs. For dessert there was a thick cream with berries and as I said, vodka.

After lunch we spent the afternoon on a panoramic tour of St. Petersburg seeing the most famous sites such as St. Isaac's Cathedral,a Russian Orthodox Cathedral that took 40 years and 3 tsars to construct. It was also designed by a French architect and includes 48 columns weighing 114 tons. The interior reminded me a lot of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, but with even more icons and mosaics. We also got a look at one of St. Petersburg's most famous landmarks: the Church of Spilled Blood. It's coloful exterior and onion shaped domes are quintessentially Russian and it's now the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the city (you should google it--seriously).

St. Isaac's Cathedral

Statue of Peter the Great with the dome of St. Issac's in the background

Church of Spilled Blood

After some time shopping (where I got some Russian nesting dolls--so cute!) we were back on the bus for the ride back to the ship. When I write it out like this it doesn't seem like very full day, but trust me--it was a long day.

Coming up next: St. Petersburg Day 2, with even more palaces!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Traditional Fish-Schlapping Song

This post is not as long or as exciting as most of the others. Simply because we didn't spend a lot of time in Helsinki.

We hadn't booked an excursion for this one; there wasn't really anything that grabbed our attention and we figured we'd be ok walking around on our own. The cruise company operated a shuttle from the port to the city center, and everything about our plan worked perfectly. Except for the pouring rain. Literally, it poured rain the entire time. But we did get a nice feel for the city.

I'll tell you what really kept us going was singing this song from Monty Python's Spamalot:

We walked down one of the main streets to the city's old center, called Senate Square. There's a large cathedral (Lutheran) and the old government buildings. We then walked through the market square where there are lots of street vendors selling food and crafts. It was nice, but again, the rain made it all kind of a bummer. On the way back to the shuttle we managed to do some shopping--and found a three story shoe store--but we probably only spent two hours at most in the city. One interesting point: while walking around we noticed packs of students acting strangely, dressed weird (in animal costumes and like clowns) and some off behavior. When we finally asked the bus attendant what was going on, we learned it was the initiation day for the freshman university students, when they have to wear costumes and perform tasks all over the city assigned by the upperclassmen in their colleges.

Lutheran Cathedral and statute

Park in downtown Helsinki

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sweden, ya.

Our first real stop on the cruise was in Stockholm, Sweden. Now, I say "real stop" because the ship actually docked on its second full day in a small town called Warnemunde in Germany. There wasn't much to do around there; it's really just used as a gateway to Berlin, but since that required a three hour train ride each way, we decided to pass. We had signed up for a Segway tour of Warnemunde, but that tour was canceled due to "lack of interest." Basically, nobody else on the entire ship had signed up for that tour so it was canceled.

Since we no longer had a tour lined up, I basically treated the Germany stop as another day at sea--relaxing and not doing much. I did get off the ship and walk around the port town for a bit, but not a lot. Napping seemed a higher priority.

So the first real stop for me on the cruise was Stockholm! Before actually arriving at Stockholm, the ship had to travel through Sweden's archipelago islands--24,000 of them to be exact that were formed in the most recent Ice Age. They are beautiful and dotted with summer homes and chalets that can only be reached by private boat. The captain opened the helipad (which is located at the very front of the ship) so we could go out and watch the ship sail through the islands. Several of the ship's officers (and a crew member dressed as a viking) were also out there and posing for pictures with the guests.

After taking some pictures of our trip through the islands and grabbing some breakfast at the buffet, we headed down to check-in for our shore excursion. This time we had booked an excursion called "Sweet Stockholm" that included a tour of the city with a stop at a chocolate shop for a tasting of various Swedish chocolates. When we went to our meeting place and went to check-in for our tour, Chris noticed that there were only 3 tour number stickers (you wear the number of your tour on your shirt so the crew and tour guide know where you belong). He asked if we were the last 3 people to check-in for the tour and the guy looked at him and said "Actually, you're the only 3."

Here's the deal: we were the only people to sign up for this tour. But since we had the same circumstance for our German Segway tour and they had canceled that one, the shore excursion staff felt bad canceling our tour for a second time in a row. So they left the tour going and we ended up with a private tour!

It became something of a joke; we were tour number 22 and we spent the rest of the day saying things like, "Ok, everyone try to keep up!" "Do we have everyone? Look around and make sure everyone made it back to the bus!" I am sure this wore thin with the tour guide, but we had a great time. Our tour guide and driver (named Hans, OF COURSE) was somewhat surprised that we had such a small group, but it worked out for the best since it's always easier to talk to 3 people than it is 30.

Tour 22, where are you?

After boarding our van and meeting our tour guide and driver, we set out for Stockholm! The city is actually located on a series of 14 islands that are connected by 57 bridges. It's called the Venice of the North and while it doesn't have canals per se, the Baltic Sea flows all throughout the city. Our tour started with a drive through the city with the tour guide pointing out some of the more important points (such as various museums and government buildings) and then we drove to the chocolate shop.

The shop was called Chokladfabriken and they had a whole tasting area prepared for us. The young lady from the shop told us all about how chocolate is made, and we tried some basic white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate to get started. Then the fun part! They had 9 different truffles prepared for us with all kinds of exotic ingredients randing from ginger, tea, and a sea salt caramel with licorice flavor. It was all delicious and was over much too quickly.

Looking out over one of Stockholm"s islands

In the chocolate shop!

Our chocolate spread

It was then back on the bus as we traveled to the Gamla Stan; the oldest part of Stockholm founded in the early 1200s. Cobblestone streets are lined with shops and (expensive) old town homes as well as numerous churches and squares. The Gamla Stan is also home to the Royal Palace; Sweden has a constitutional monarchy and let me just tell you, their royals are VERY good looking people. Seriously, google them. Tall and attractive, just the way a monarchy should be.

We strolled with our tour guide through the Gamla Stan and saw some beautiful buildings and heard lots of stories of Sweden's history. We then had some time to wander about and do some shopping. Our tour guide, who of course became instantly enamoured with us probably for the reason that we were 1) fun and 2) under the age of 80 bought us some Swedish sweetcakes from a lovely little pastry shop near the Royal Palace.

A square inside the Gamla Stan

Shopping in the Gamla Stan

Posing with a statute of a Swedish troubadour

At that point, there was just enough time to drive back to the port before the ship left rather early for our journey to Helsinki, Finland! Once we were back on the ship, we went to a comedy magic show which was actually very good and better than expected. My experience with cruises thus far has been that the main shows are kind of unbearable, but the side acts are always really enjoyable. Then it was off to dinner (we had the second seating at 8:30) and then Chris and I played some craps in the casino. Right when we finished playing the cruise director, a lovely older British woman named Sue, walked by and we chased her down the hall (literally) and stopped her and invited her and the Hotel Director to dinner.

More on that later--since we ended up having quite the relationship with the Hotel Director on the ship. But I don't want to get ahead of myself....coming up tomorrow: Helsinki, Finland!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

After 6 days of traveling on our own it was time to hit the ship! We were all excited to get the chance to indulge in some ultimate laziness (nobody more than Kent), but first we had to get to the cruise terminal, which is located about a 10 minute walk east of the Centraal Station.

Our trip onto the ship was something of an adventure. Despite willing to go on vacation practically every month, it has become something of a joke how cheap my friend Chris is when it comes to taking cabs. Since we still had time on our 24 hour tram access card, instead of simply taking a cab to the cruise passenger terminal, we dragged our suitcases the three blocks to the tram stop where Chris assured us we could take the #25 all the way to the terminal. The trouble began as we were pulling our suitcases; it began to rain. Once we got on the #25 we found out that it wasn't in fact going to the terminal, which would mean we would need to take a bus or walk 15 minutes from Centraal Station. AND THEN. Before we got to the station, the tram in front of us was hit by a small truck, and we were kicked off the tram along with all our luggage. As it was now pouring rain, we FINALLY convinced Chris to
take a cab to the terminal and the rest of our journey was completed without incident.

Getting onto the ship itself was relatively painless. You hand off your baggage to one of the many porters waiting at the front of the terminal (the cruise company provides pre-labeled luggage tags that you put on before you get to the terminal). You are then handed a boarding number and go through a check-in process similar to an airline. I would say within 30 minutes we were on the ship in our cabin and our bags arrived only a few hours later.

These first few days on the ship have been quite relaxing, a welcome change from our sight-seeing in Iceland and Amsterdam. We started off with a day at sea while we travelled to Germany (specifically the port at Wernemunde). Many people had booked excursions into Berlin that required a three hour train ride each way, but we had gone with a more relaxed Segway tour of the port town. Unfortunately, our tour was unceremoniously cancelled (maybe due to lack of interest?) and so we just kind of wandered around and enjoyed the sunshine and cool breeze for a few hours. Then we had another day at sea which basically involves laying around, participating in some activities (such as a lecture about the history of St.Petersburg, Russia) and relaxing.

Compared to the other cruises I have been on, which were with the more budget cruise line Carnival, I can definitely tell a difference being on Celebrity. The ship is smaller and the food, rooms, and shows are of a better quality. But don't get me wrong: being a cruise ship the entertainment show are still extremely cheesy. But that's part of the draw (for some people).

There were many performance groups on the ship including an a capella men's quartet (called Lemon Squeezy--you can find them on Facebook), a classical trio, party band, DJ, guitarist, and piano bar player/singer. And of course, there are the Celebrity Constellation dancers and singers who put on such shows as the Salute to Hollywood. They are really talented, but oh my goodness it was cheesy. We only made it to that one main-stage show, it was just too much ridiculousness for me to handle--at least while sober.

Another great thing about cruise ships (and why a lot of people go on them) is the food. For those of you who haven't been on the cruise, let me lay it out for you. Every night, there is a sit-down dinner in the main dining room. You sign up for an earlier or later seating when you buy the cruise, and eat at the same table with the same waiter staff through the cruise. Usually, you have random people assigned to your table, ad while Chris, Kent, and I sat at an eight person table, our assigned seatmates never showed up. Maybe it was something we said.

For breakfast and lunch there is open seating in the dining room, but most people go to the 24 hour buffet where you have more options and more flexibility. You have your standard buffet food, but also a grill with burgers and fries etc. and special late night offerings. The reason why so many people gain weight cruises is because there is always plentiful and free food to be had no matter the time of day. Thank goodness they also have a really good gym and even an outdoor running track that I was able to take advantage least until I busted my ankle.

There are also two specialty restaurants on the ship: one French, one Italian. There was a $25 charge to eat at these, but they offered two 20% off nights that we took advantage of. Both times we ate at the Italian one and the food was AMAZING. Totes worth it.

Even though our assigned dinner partners didn't show up, we did meet some nice people who decided to randomly sit at our table one night. Two older couples from South Africa who have been extensive world travelers (and are Jewish!). One of the ladies is one of the premiere South African diva opera singers and we got along with them all famously. We met up with them for drinks on several occasions and would often bump into them around the ship.

Coming up next: Stockholm, Sweden!

The Celebrity Constellation

Our stateroom aboard the ship, the couch in the back opened into my bed.

Chris orders dinner in the main dining room with our head waiter, Bobby

The dessert spread at the special Sunday brunch (note the ice sculpture)

Me doing my best bathing beauty impression at the indoor pool

Our South African friends at the martini bar

Our main dining room water staff: Bobby (from Indian), Tarjeche (from Macedonia), and Peggy (from Nicaragua)

Out waitstaff at the specialty restuarant, the Tuscan Grill. Mustafa (a giant flirt) and Sennon.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Stop and smell the sunflowers

On our third day in Amsterdam, we finally had some sunshine. Our first sight-seeing stop that morning was the Museumplein (meaning museum square) a large park-like area bordered by some of Amsterdam's finest museums. We headed to the Van Gogh (as the Dutch say, Van Kkkkkokh) museum on the north side where the 200 paintings owned by Vincent Van Gogh's brother, Theo, are housed. As with the Anne Frank House, we had bought advanced tickets and were able to skip the sizable line and go right into the museum.

Here's a little blurb from my Rick Steve's travel guide about Van Gogh and his art: "You could see Vincent Van Gogh's canvases as a series of suicide notes--or as the record of a life full of beauty...perhaps too full of beauty. He attacked life with a passion, experiencing highs and lows more intensely than the average person. The beauty of the world overwhelmed him; its ugliness struck him as only another dimension of beauty. He tried to absorb all of life, good and bad, and channel it into a canvas, and the frustration of this overwhelming task drove him to madness. If all this is a bit overstated--and I guess it is--it's an attempt to show the emotional impact that Van Gogh's works have had on so many people, me included."

The museum is laid out chronologically with Van Gogh's earlier works in the Netherlands first moving into his time in Paris. His first paintings focused on the reality of peasant life and were painted with dark somber colors. The style was crude, but Van Gogh's technique of applying thick paint was still clear. When Van Gogh went to Paris in 1886 he began to experiment more with the impressionist style and began to perfect his own techniques: thicker paint, broad swirling brush-strokes and bright clashing colors that "made his subject pulse with life" (example: Starry Night). Unfortunately, his mental stability also began to fluctuate and after mutilating his own ear with a knife during a fight with Gauguin (whom he shared a studio with briefly), he checked himself into a mental hospital in May 1889. When he left a year later in May 1890 he moved back to Paris, but in July walked into a field and shot himself in the chest. He died several days later.

Walking through the museum left me with a huge sense of sadness. Here was one of the most brilliant artists of all time, but he only sold one painting during his lifetime and eventually became so despondent that he saw no other recourse but to end his own life. How different would our culture be if Van Gogh had lived and painted through a full lifetime? There is no way to know...but wastefulness of any kind makes me sad, especially the waste of such talent.

The Van Gogh Museum

Concert Hall on the Museumplein

After spending the morning at the museum, we grabbed a quick lunch from a hot dog vendor. In case you didn't know, they are mad about hot dogs in nothern europe. In Iceland you couldn't go 3 feet without tripping over someplace selling hot dogs and the trend continued in the Netherlands. I'm not sure what it is about them (the cheap price? the easy portability?) but they sure love them.

Chris and I then decided to follow the self-guided Amsterdam City Walk described by Rick Steve in the guidebook and for the first time in our three days in the city fully immerse ourselves in the history and story of Amsterdam.

Rick Steve will guide us through Amsterdam!

The walk began outside the Centraal Station, which was built in the early 1800s during the city's economic revival. It's of the neo-gothic style and directly ahead lies the Damrak, the main street of the city. The area along the Damrak and in front of Centraal Station is known as the Times Square of Amsterdam, due to its hustle and bustle and also, of course, for the number of tourists and tourist traps.

As you walk along the Damrak, on the left you pass over the Amstel River which is now channeled into canals throughout the city. The next stop is the stock exchange (Beurs). The old building was constructed of nine million bricks (and 5,000 tree trunks hammered into the marshy ground) in 1903. Stocks used to mean anything that could be loaded or unloaded unto a boat, and this was where Amsterdamers always came to trade, even before the building was constructed. The architect who built the stock exchange was a famous socialist, and in a triptych frieze above the door, indicated that capitalists and brokers would lead to disaster in the future. Not exactly the message the stock exchange would want to send out, but whatcha gonna do?

Amstel River (looking towards Centraal Station)

The triptych above the stock exchange; the last panel shows people being crushed by capitalism.

Next down the Damrak, you hit Dam Square the cultural and political center of the city. On one side is the Royal Palace. It was constructed in 1650 and was used as a Town Hall, but got its current name in the 1880s when Holland was invaded by the French and Napoleon named his brother Louis king. The Netherlands currently has a monarchy--but it's in the British style where the King or Queen is the symbolic head of state (and not the head of government). The current queen, Queen Beatrix, uses the Royal Palace as her official residence when in Amsterdam. She normally lives at the Hague. Not too shabby, eh?

In the middle of Dam Square is a National Monument shaped as an obelisk depicting a crucified Christ, men in chains, and howling dogs. It was constructed in 1956 as a WWII memorial and is considered a monument for peace. The Nazis occupied Holland from 1940 to 1945 and deported and murdered over 100,000 Amsterdam Jews (including Anne Frank and most of her family).

The tour then took us down the pedestrian-only street, Kalverstraat, which is loaded with cheesy shops. There are some cool sights though; one of which is the "hidden" Catholic Church. In the late 1500s when the Protestant Reformation took control of the country, Catholicism began illegal and although it is now legalized, the Catholic churches in town keep a low profile. The church is called hidden because it's an unmarked row house between a McDonalds and H&M and you would literally never know it was there unless you were looking for it.

Royal Palace

Dam Square and the memorial

Dam Square looking towards the Royal Palace (the memorial would be at your back)


Another hidden treasure off the Kalverstraat is the Begijnhof, a beautiful courtyard lined with houses and a church that has been used as a woman's shelter since 1346. The Beguines were women who removed themselves from society and dedicated their lives to God--but were not nuns. The church on the side of the courtyard is called the English Reformed Church and is where the Pilgrims on the Mayflower stopped to pray before beginning their overseas voyage to Plymouth Rock. A stained glass window in the middle of the sanctuary commemorates the Pilgrims' visit.

Courtyard of the Reformed Church in the Begijnhof

Homes in the Begijnhof

By this time, our feet were pretty much shot, so we headed back to the houseboat for a little R&R. For dinner, we headed back towards Centraal Station and the Central Library which is located next door. Believe it or not, the library has a great cafeteria-style restaurant at the top terrace and the best view of the city.

Coming up next: we board the ship and enjoy some lazy days at sea! Also, I try not to eat so much that I swell to the size of a beluga whale. Mission somewhat accomplished.