Follow by Email

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Who Knew.... Miscellaneous Things We Learned Along The Way

Brasov, Romenia
Best pizza: in a small pizzeria in Bucharest: thin crust, hand made, tasty. $4 for a large one.
Worst pizza: in Emmen, Netherlands. Ordered the pepperoni pizza but had no pepperoni on it at all!

Who knew people are still allowed to smoke in restaurants, coffee shops and all public places in Romania. 

Who knew that Romanian is very, very similar to Italian. They sound and gesture just like Italians and the words look very similar, ‘formaggio is cheese’, etc.

Did you know that both Romania and Czech Republic do not use euros (yet)? The first has ‘leis’ or RON, the latter uses Czech koruna.

Bran Castle in Romania apparently stood model for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The author was never there but the castle is now famous as Dracula’s castle and you can buy bloodsoaked vampire teeth in the gift shop. I bought a hand embroidered blouse instead, as my Romanian souvenir.

If you travel on trains in The Netherlands you can select the ‘Silence’ car where conversations and cell phones are not allowed. A real treat, especially after spending 3 hours on a train in Romania next to two ladies who rattled like absolute waterfalls, nonstop.


Bakeries in Czech Republic and Romania produce breads, croissants and pastries second to none. 

The Romanian railway system (especially the rolling material) reminded me exactly of the Märklin model train designs I had as a boy 60 years ago. 
Watch out when getting into a taxi in Romania. The fare per kilometer is noted on the fender outside of the taxi. But fares (per kilometer) differ between companies by as much as 400%. Check before you get in any taxi.

The Czech Republic is very ‘western’, modern and clean. Romania is still stuck in the 20th, or even 19th century with a broken down infrastructure. Prague has many beautiful old buildings which have been restored and are maintained. Bucharest too, has many old buildings but unfortunately not many are maintained and allowed to disintegrate. 

Compared to North American standards the food is excellent and cheap both in the Czech Republic as well as Romania.

Who knew that the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heyn is all over here, too? ‘Albert’ was the supermarket of choice in Czech Republic. C & A clothing stores are everywhere too. And Starbucks carries ‘stroopwafels.’ Let’s hope that those wonderful syrup wafers will reach North American Starbucks, too, soon.

Who knew we couldn't afford to eat in Brussels' restaurants? Coffee alone is double from what we've seen so far.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Czech Your Wallet - and other Misadventures

Cesky Krumlov
One morning in Prague, we boarded a bus for a three hours ride to a village in southern Czeck Republic, on the border with Austria. For 15 euros, we bought tickets on a comfortable, airconditioned bus. We mostly wanted to see what the Czech countryside looked like. 

Through rolling, green farm fields we reached the UNESCO World Heritage Village of Cesky Krumlov: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/617
The castle on the hill dates to the 13th century and the lovely village is like that from an old world picturebook, with crooked cobblestone streets and little shops leaning into each other, all conspiring to lure tourists inside and dazzle them with souvenirs. 

We resisted most of the temptations but did have coffee and apple strudel on the edge of the Moldau. The very second we started our stroll through this medieval village, an elderly lady approached us, asking if we spoke German or French or Dutch. I told her we did. She gestured wildly, explaining that she couldn’t find her friends back and that their bus was almost leaving. After some questioning we found out that she had left a friend on a patio while she was going to look around the village. But which patio? She remembered seeing the castle on her left and coming across a bridge. The village is full of patios and bridges but we decided to see if we could help her to find her friends. 
We walked down one alley, traipsing through puddles, the Moldau on our left and the castle up on the hill. Finally we spotted a patio that she thought looked familiar. But no friends. A waitress explain in Czech and broken English that her friend had left for the bus. 
Rosalie, as she was called, told us many memories and stories as we walked along, but no recollection of where she had to catch the bus. Kees decided to sprint ahead and let the bus driver know that she was coming. She did remember the tour company but there are at least three bus parking areas around the town. Kees took off - I yelled a Plan B as he left. Just in case we’d never find each other again.

So Rosalie and I trudged, arm in arm, across bridges and through alleys. I dragged her up steep staircases toward the castle. Through the courtyard. “I was here this morning,” she’d say. 
“Good,” I thought, “at least she came this way.”
She was panting and puffing and I thought she’d collapse right there and then. No sign of a bus or a parking lot.
Across another bridge, up more staircases. “I’m 84, you know,” she puffed. But she kept on trudging.
I asked in a shop “Where are the bus parking lots?”
They pointed and gestured - a long way away.
We went through the castle grounds and found more long roads around. No Kees in sight. No bus in sight. I finally spotted a car with a lady in it and ran over. “I don’t know this lady,” I explained, “but she can’t walk much further and she’s going to miss her bus!” 
“I’ll drive you,” the lady said.
We got in and this kind lady drove us way around, across the main road and to a bus parking lot! A frantic, white haired lady with a cane spotted us and came running! 
“Don’t tell her what happened!” hissed Rosalie, kissing me on both cheeks.
The bus driver had been at the intersection on the look out for our missing lady. He,too, kissed me on both cheeks for returning what he had lost so carelessly. They should not let little old ladies loose in this medieval town without a map or a phone number for a taxi! 


We saw the entire village in record time while racing around with Rosalie. But we did relax over a nice dinner in a "medieval castle" that night. What do you eat for dinner in a castle in Czech Republic? Why, wild boar of course!

Wild boar for dinner
At least this chapter had a happy ending. Unlike the adventure we had in Prague itself. 
When we moved into the Old City, we took the metro. Pulling our little suitcases, we came up from bowels of the city onto a large square hemmed by ornate buildings. As soon as we stopped to look around and get our bearings, a guy approached us and asked if we wanted to exchange money. Of course we looked like total tourists.
“No thanks,” we waved and briskly walked away. Ten minutes later we had found our hotel and Kees discovered that his wallet was gone. “That guy!” we both said.
Kees hurried back but of course, no one was there. We spent the next several hours canceling credit cards. It was no problem and everyone was very helpful. Within ten minutes of having the card stolen, a cash withdrawal was already made. We found out at which ATM and spent the rest of the afternoon at a small police station. We hope they will actually follow up by finding the guy on the ATM’s video. The police were very thorough and helpful. The worst thing now is a missing driver’s license but that, too, can be replaced.
Local tradititional pastries

What we learned from this mishap was that we had done the right thing by only carrying one or two credit cards in the wallet and keeping another card in a different place. Keep your passport separate from a wallet and behind zippers! Velcro isn’t good enough for professional pick-pockets! Keep a piece of paper with your account numbers but also with your social security number handy. And 1-800 numbers to call if needed. We were grateful to have money on our Skype account so that we could use our own laptop to phone.

Live and learn… 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Small Country for Small People: The Netherlands with Children

Amstel Park in Amsterdam has a huge playground, including this giant furniture!
The Netherlands is likely one of the best countries in the world to visit with children! There are so many special facilities and attractions for kids, that it is hard to select just a few.
It already starts at the airport: Touch Down restaurant offers pancake and chocolate milk together with the best views on planes taking off and landing from the Panorama Terrace. There are also playgrounds and family washrooms throughout this attractive airport.


Once in the country, there are restaurants everywhere with elaborate playgrounds. It is very common to find special children’s menu’s. Attractions are too numerous to mention in one article, including Artis, a well established zoo in the heart of Amsterdam or tropical swimming pools everywhere. 


In Amstel Park, Amsterdam

A train playground

Playgrounds everywhere!



A huge jungle gym in Ouwehands Zoo
We chose to visit a larger zoo called Ouwehands Dierenpark: http://www.ouwehand.nl/english
Ouwehands has roomy pathways through various parts of the zoo that each have a specific theme like ‘jungle’ or ‘bears’. Almost every section has an extensive playground so that you are not just walking from one animal to the next but kids can climb, swing and slide everywhere. In fact, the zoo includes one of Europe’s largest indoor playgrounds, complete with a pirate ship, sand and water playpark. A small train takes you around a portion of the zoo - all at no additional cost. When you arrive at the zoo you can rent, for a small fee, a wagon to pull the kids in all day.
Elephant shaped slide in Ouwehands Zoo

Real monkeys on the loose in Apenheul!
We also visited a park we remembered fondly from the past: Apenheul: http://www.apenheul.com 
Apenheul features monkeys and primates of all shapes and sizes. The unique feature is that the smaller monkeys are not in cages but loose throughout the park.They might sit on your shoulder or swing from branches just inches away.
A free carousel ride in Apenheul
However, this time around the park was incredibly crowded, making it difficult to even walk on the paths and to see any animals. This was due to the fact that holiday time in The Netherlands is very concentrated. Most people get a specific time of the summer during which they can go on their annual holidays. Two of the three regions overlapped during August so 2/3 of the country still had school holidays and were making the most of the last warm summer days. 






A major attraction for kids in The Netherlands is Madurodam: http://www.madurodam.nl/en/
This miniature city features well known Dutch buildings and scenes, roads, trains, even a ‘working’ airport - all built in miniature. You can hear a street organ and see lights inside houses. We chose not to visit this site, this time around, because we weren’t anywhere near the vicinity and also because our grandsons, at 3 and 5, are a bit young. You can’t touch much in this ‘eyes only’ attraction. But when our own kids were around 9 years old, they absolutely loved it and it was definitely worth a visit
In The Netherlands you can rent bikes everywhere: at hotels, at train stations and, of course, at bicycle repair shops. You can rent bicycles with a child’s seat on the handlebars and/or on the luggage carrier behind you so that you can ride with two children on your bike. But you can also rent a bike trailer in which the kids can sit. Or, best of all, you can rent a ‘bakfiets’ in which the children sit in a wooden container in front of you, in seatbelts: 

Overnight accomodations can also be specifically attractive to children. We stayed in one resort, a park with cottages close to the beach in Noordwijkerhout. They are part of this chain: http://soleil.topparken.nl/en/
Thomas the Train offers children a free ride in a bungalow park in Lochem
The bungalow had everything we needed, complete with dishes and bed linens, a fridge and dishwasher. Outside we had our own lawn with lawn furniture. The restaurant had both an indoor and outdoor playground. And the resort had an indoor swimming pool with waterslide, included in the price of staying overnight. When we ordered a children’s menu, the kids also receive their choice of gift ( in our case felt markers and a pirate gun with gold coins).

All in all a very successful place to visit with children!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Amsterdam for Smarties




This city of over 800,000 people has enough dummies. So let's look at how to enjoy this world renowned historic city as a smart tourist.
Did you know that the city has the same number people as it has bicycles? Ever wondered what over 800,000 bicycles in a city look like? When they rent them to tourists, amazing things happen - as you can see on any bike lane or intersection in the centre of this busy city. It's a miracle that not more people get killed each day as they jump in front of bikes, get hit and run over... It's fun to sit back and watch the Dutch as they maneuver traffic, traffic lights, speeding trams and hordes of pedestrians all while carrying children, instruments, groceries, and dogs on their bike AND while texting!

Rather than jumping on a bike right away, it's a good idea to get a sense of the layout of the city's spiderweb-shaped centre by jumping on a boat. Taking a canal cruise will give you a feel for the water, the narrow roads, the tall houses and the history of this world heritage site. I learned all sorts of interesting facts, such as word origins, historic facts about trade and taxes and politics, as well as useful information on where to eat and which museums to visit. There are different companies to choose from and their cruises are slightly different. We used this one: http://www.amsterdamcanalcruises.nl and enjoyed the personal headsets and the tour of not just the inner city canals but also across the IJ and past the Scheepvaart Museum (ship industry).

Because we had our extended family with us, on this particular trip to Amsterdam, we rented a house rather than a hotel room or hostel. The house had typical narrow staircases up three floors and offered 3 bedrooms and a kitchen, allowing us to make our own meals. A blue AH is the symbol for Albert Heyn, one of the largest supermarket chains in the Netherlands. They usually offer fresh bakings as well as many ready made meals. So lunch and supper were easy.
Image result for AH
To get around Amsterdam, and indeed the entire country, the smartest thing to do is to immediately get an OV Chip card. OV means public transit: https://www.ov-chipkaart.nl/home-1.htm
If you will be traveling throughout the country, be sure to read this: http://www.amsterdamtips.com/tips/ov-chipkaart.php
Initially you have to pay 7.50 euros to obtain the card but it pays off since each ride using the card is almost half the cost of paying for individual tickets. You can use this card like a credit card by putting money on it and paying for all public transit: trams, busses, trains and more. You can even rent OV Chip bicycles using this card, at certain real stations.

Another smart thing to do is to plan your travel by using this website: http://m.9292.nl/en (Notice that these websites are in English!!) Here you enter your starting point, your desired destination, date and time of travel and voila! The site presents you with all options and easiest ways of getting there. If a schedule in Holland says that the train will depart at 10:32 AM you can pretty well bet on it to depart at 10:32 and not a minute later.












If you will spend more than a day in Amsterdam, you might want to invest in a museum card: http://www.amsterdam.info/museums/museumkaart/
This will allow you unlimited, and faster, entrance into many museums including the fabulous Rijksmuseum with its Rembrandt paintings where you can spend more than a day; also the Van Gogh museum, Anne Frank House and many more.

So, what's keeping you? Come and visit Amsterdam and, while you are here, be sure to spend more time in this hospitable, interesting country below sea level!

NEMO Science Center