Five days in Netherlands – My first Solo trip to Europe
Amsterdam, from what I had read and heard due to drugs being legal, was a city more frequented by a younger party going crowd. But Amsterdam was a very pleasant shock. With its canals, bridges, old architecture, compact walk able (and cyclable) is an absolutely romantic city.
There are canals, canals and more canals. The tree lined city with medieval buildings and cobbled streets just made me happy. And the first thought that came into my mind when I entered Amsterdam on a pleasant Sunday morning was that this is definitely not a city for a single person. You have to come here with your significant other.
The city is more famous (infamous) for its red light district. I went for a Red Light District walking tour. The girl who guided us gave us insights and insider info on the trade. Most of the women who are into this trade do it for the money usually to support their education. There are strict rules on the entire operation and the girls watch each other’s backs. This walk is a must do in Amsterdam. The tricks employed by the girls to make money are funny at times. Men most often end up making a fool of themselves. The RLD is restricted to only a few lanes and surrounds the old church. Yes. That’s quite ironic. There is an interesting story behind that too.
Spent two days exploring Amsterdam. I stayed in a small town – Zaandam which is a 15 minute train ride from Amsterdam. Zaandam is equally quaint though with lesser number of canals. My AirBnb host Dewi - was an Indonesian and was absolutely delightful. Non intrusive and spoke very little English and very motherly.
There are three main canals in the city and the entire city is around these canals. These are crisscrossed by smaller canals. You can walk from one end of the city to another in about 45 minutes. That’s basically what I did there for two days. Just walked by the museums and took pictures. I am not too fond of museums. Else the Rembrandt and the Van gaug museums are supposed to be good. Also skipped the Ann frank museum cause I would’ve found it depressing. Did the free walking tour on first day which again was good because it told about the history of the city.
On the third day did a whirlwind tour of Delft, Den Hague and Haarlem. These are cities around Amsterdam. I thought Delft was pretty. Its like a typical European town with an old town square and a couple of other squares. It’s quaint with a couple of canals and a zoo. Nice place to walk around and spend a couple of hours.
Den Hague is where all the govt offices are. It’s also close to the sea and has a long strip of beach. Since I had not been to any beaches in Europe decided to visit. I took a tram from Den Hague train station, it’s a 20 minute ride to the beach. The beach was crowded with lots of people sun bathing. It was a very hot day. There is a watch tower a little away into the sea, I decided to go up for the view. I had the entire place to myself. It gave a birds eye view of the beach, and the greenery beyond the beach. Was picturesque. Also saw a few ships sailing in the distance. The tower is quite high and spent some time there. Since it was very hot, though I had planned to get off to see the city and the govt offices on my way back, I did not do so. Den Hague is a combination of modern and old and seems to be a busy town since lots of offices are located there. People travel from nearby places for work there.
Stopped at Haarlem on the way back to Amsterdam. Again, Haarlem is like another European city with a big square and medieval buildings. But it also has a bigger canal on its periphery. This canal is more like a river with bigger boats on it. It also has a few high end shops, can spend a few hours here again walking and exploring the town.
On the fourth day, I visited two places- De veluwe national park and Geithoorn. Both these are across the country and take around 2 hours each one way to reach. But since these were more or less on the same route, decided to combine them on one day.
The national park is beautiful. it’s a domesticated version of the national parks in India with lovely trees and there is also a patch of sandy area in the centre of it. There is also a museum which I obviously skipped. The entrance fees to the park include free bicycles which I was very excited to ride. There are no wild animals in the park and there are a couple of routes which you can ride through. It was absolutely lovely. I wanted to ride a bicycle in Netherlands but did not do not in Amsterdam as the roads are smaller there and the locals ride at a break neck speed. I was not very confident of riding it in the city. I made the most of my bicycle ride in the park. Most of the occasions there was no other human being in sight and had a very lovely 3 hours in the park. End to end the park measures just 10 kms and can explore it well. There are some patches where the trees are so dense that the sunlight does not reach the ground and the views were like the tree lines forests that you see on computer wall papers.
Giethoorn was advertised as a village without roads. It takes around 2.5 hours one way to reach from Amsterdam and have to change 2-3 trains. It’s a very quaint village on a tiny canal and there are no roads in it. All the transportation is done via small boats on the canal. The canal would be around 5 ft wide. The village had very delightful little cottages on both sides of the canal. There would be around 50 cottages with lovely gardens and lawns. Its really not required to have roads in the village cause it so tiny. I had a lovely walking through the village gawking at the homes. There should be a limit to the no. of pictures that can be taken of the village. The houses and the setting is itself so picturesque. I missed the boat ride on the canal cause none were happening that day. There is nothing much do here except walk around which in itself is delightful. Since it was a lovely sunny day, the locals were outside reading on the benches. Also since it was a weekday, not may tourists around. Spent around 2 hours here. The village is beautiful but can go here if you have plenty of time and have seen other sights in Amsterdam.
One the fifth day took a regional pass and went to the northeast of Netherlands just outside Amsterdam. The regional pass was a free one day pass on all buses in a region. I spent my time loitering in Zaandam in the morning and began the actual trip around 12 in the afternoon. Ideally I should’ve started in the morning because this day was the best day of my Netherlands stay.
I took the pass from Amsterdam central and the route was in four different directions. The girl who sold me the pass told me to visit the north East part cause that was the prettiest and I was really thankful to the girl for this advise.
This region was a revelation. This is not in any of the must visit places in Netherlands. Atleast I had not read it in my research. This according to be is so much better that any of the places that I have visited in all my trips to Europe. The places that I covered were Voldendam, Monnickendam, Edam and Merkel. All these harbour towns. I remember when I was landing in Amsterdam I saw loads of sails in sea which looked very beautiful. And the water body looked to be close to Amsterdam. I was wondering what the place may be and I really wanted to see it. I did not know that I will visit this place unknowingly when I got off from the bus at Voldendam. There are some places which you imagine to be something but when you see them they are totally different. Voldendam was one such place.
When I got off from the bus, I did not know where to go and what I was supposed to visit. I looked around and saw an ancient windmill and decided to walk in that direction. The windmill was in the middle of nowhere surrounded my meadows and I could make of the horizon. There was a small hill close by. Calling this an hill would be an overstatement. It was more like a meadow on some height. You could see just this windmill in with greenery and meadows as far as the eye can see. This location was so serene with just a couple of bicyclists passing by. How I wished I had a cycle that day. The location was made to cycle. Though I could feel that there was a water body close by I could not make out where to go so I generally followed the direction of the wind. And shockingly came to a harbour where rows and rows of sailing boats were parked. There were so many of them that I could hardly see the sea. On second thoughts there were more sailing boats there than the total no of people in the town maybe. This is exactly what I had seen from the flight and I was so glad that I stumbled upon this lovely location. This made me hurry to see the other towns in the region. Something told me that the other towns were going to be as pretty.
Next stop was Edam which is a quaint little town again in the midst of meadows. And very scenic. The sea breeze could be felt everywhere. There were such beautiful houses and generally the atmosphere was very peaceful and domesticated. There was a castle somewhere there- atleast the map said so but I could not find it anywhere. So I did the thing which I love. Walked in a random direction through the town. There was beautiful tree lined street which was again picture perfect. Not a soul in sight. A small little church was in the middle of the town. It was closed so could not explore. Lovely town. Wished I could see the castle but sadly could not locate it.
Next stop was Monnickadam which was more like a place to change buses for Merkel. The entire place was in the midst of a green meadow. I saw a lovely sight on the way to the bus stop. We were made to stop on a canal just before the crossing of the bridge. And funnily the entire bridge lifted up to let a boat pass by and then it was brought down. Nice experience.
Monnicadiem is again a small town with serene surroundings.
But the icing on the cake was Merkel. The place on the map looked like an island. The stop where I had to get down was not specified. Since Merkel looked like an island, I wondered how the bus will reach there. So was pleasantly surprised, when after 15 minutes of the bus drive, I road suddenly turned to be on a strip of land just big enough for the road and there was sea on both sides. With sailing boats on both sides. It was such a beautiful, beautiful sight. I wanted to get off there but the bus did not stop there. I thought maybe the scene was similar on the last stop. When I got off at the last stop, there were just a couple of houses there and wilderness throughout. I took the bus back one stop where there seemed to be a fair no of tourists. It was Merkel village. A little quaint village with around 50 houses. They were more like row houses and there was an ascent in the village too. But I was looking specifically for the bay which I saw on the way. I toured the entire village but did not find it. I was disappointed and decided to head back to the bus stop to take a bus because I also wanted to visit zaanse sachs. The buses were after every half an hour so did not want to miss it. On the way to the bus stop I got lost and was going around in circles. And suddenly it happened. I saw the bay with a strip of land going into the sea with water on both sides. This was exactly what I wanted. There were also many sailing boats anchored close by. I was the only person there and it was an awesome experience. Spent some lovely moments there. It sometimes good to get lost.
Next stop was Zaanse Schans. It was called industrial heritage area and the pictures that I had seen on the net were of many windmills on a river. And it was exactly that. About a dozen old green windmills around a river. The windmills did not seem to be operational and it was a beautiful sight. There were just a handful of tourists there. Since the windmills were spaced out was a very pleasant walk. Even the houses across the river were of similar colour palette as the windmills. It was a very quaint village. And with the sun setting in the horizon, its reflection falling in the water was a beautiful sight. I crossed the bridge across the river which by bus driver had told me too and caught the bus back to Zaandam.
Three days in Belgium
Next day I took a bus to Antwerp. Was a 2.5 hours journey to Antwerp by bus. I took Flixbus which was very punctual. I left my luggage in the railway station lockers and went off to explore the city. The friendly tourist office guy gave me a map and told me the general direction to walk. Said it was just a 20 minute walk to the old city. I also wanted to go to the port. He said its walk able from there. I had breakfast in the station complex and off I went. Antwerp was so very different from Amsterdam. It’s a very modern city though the buildings were old. Lots of high end shops on both sides of the road and I browsed through a few. Since it was a Friday there were many shoppers around. I heard a Didgeridoo being played by a street artist and somehow I just felt happy that I was in Belgium. The road suddenly opened up into the old town with a church and surrounded by the town hall and other medieval buildings. It was a beautiful day and there was group of giggling school girls around. Walked around and just took in the atmosphere. There was another square bang next to this one. Just sat there for sometime and people watched. Saw the famed Leonidas café at the square and went in for a hot cup of hot chocolate, they gave a complimentary milk chocolate to go with it and it was so delicious. No wonder people go gaga over Belgium chocolates. Made a mental note to buy my quota of chocolates from Leonidas.
Spent some time just people watching in the town square. Since there were lots of shopping options especially for clothes, spent a bit of time window shopping. After passing through the two main town squares, reached the end of the road which had the river Schelde across it. It is a beautiful quay with shall ships (boats) usually cargo ships. I expected it to be a bigger river considering that Antwerp is a major port. However it was a very beautiful day and spent some time there catching up on the view. Walked towards the port which took some 15 minutes at a leisurely pace. There was a beautiful red building at the port which housed the MAS museum. People were generally hanging around there and spending a lovely afternoon outdoors. There did not seem anything much to sight see there. Since the first time I was on this trip, I spent time sitting around and watching the world go by.
Walked back through the city again and took a train to Ghent. Ghent is an hour from Antwerp.
When I reached Ghent, it started drizzling. There was no internet on my cell which made it difficult to find my way to the homestay. Thankfully I met a couple of teenagers who guided me. The railway station was around a kilometre walk from the station and since it is in the old part of town, there were no trams or buses to there. My Airbnb host – Trui had given me perfect directions to her home and in spite of the rain, I reached there without getting lost or calling Trui.
Trui’s place was a medieval 15th century home with winding staircases and slanting roofs. The same houses which I’ve seen across Europe and which I always wondered how it would be to stay in them. Finally I got a chance to stay in one of these houses. I had the entire floor to myself. Trui was on the floor below me. My room had a double bed, slanting roof, wooded floors and was almost like staying in an Enid Blyton house. It had a massive bookshelf with lots of interesting books. If I had had the time I would’ve just spent a day looking at the books and lazying around the lovely house.
Two days in Bruges and Ghent:
Next day I decided to visit Bruges which ideally is a 45 minute train ride. But since it was a weekend many trains were not running, I missed my train cause I was lazing around in Truis home, the next train was late. I got chatting with a middle aged American couple from US – Texas. The mad had visited both Prague and Bruges and as per them, Bruges was more romantic and beautiful. They had got engaged in Prague so somehow Prague was special to them too. We got in an overcrowded train and had to stand in the pathway all the way. Was not very crammed and I had a group of teenage school going girls to stare at. These girls were like any other gang of school girls giggling and one of them was drawing random pics with pen on her friend’s hands.
The city of Bruge begins as soon as you cross the road from the station. I took a free map from the railway station. The crowd here was larger than I found in any of the places that I had visited by far.
I crossed the road and immediately landed on the most beautiful setting for a lake /pond ever. The name of the lake was Minnenwater. On one side was dense wooded part, another a small castle, a third lovely old red stone buildings and fourth a beautiful tiny bridge across the lake. Fell in love with the place immediately. It was a cloudy morning with no sign of rain. The weather was just perfect. I walked around, took pictures and decided to explore the path on the bridge. It was picture perfect with tall tree on both sides and very ideal for cycling.
On the way to the town, passed by rows and rows of chocolate shops of every variety. Saw a couple of Leonidas and decided that all my chocolate shopping will be done in Bruges. I have never seen prettier place than Bruges till date. It is a place out of a fairy tale medieval houses all over. A couple of small castles. I just was mesmerised here. I overheard a tourist guide telling his group that the northern part of the town was the most romantic and I decided to go there after I finished seeing the touristy sights. I reached the centre of the town which again had a huge square with a church and town hall. There were a number of small lanes opening up into the square. I crossed one and randomly walked there. I reached another small square with a gate. Across the gate there was a stone bridge with a beautiful canal flowing and of course boats. This was the prettiest sight in Bruges and is supposedly the most photographed one and not without a reason. I walked a bit and did the most important thing in bruges- took a boat ride. It was an open boat with a an English guide who showed us the important buildings. The canal circulated the entire town and is a must do thing in Bruges especially if you have to see the town from a different angle. There are innumerable bridges and each sight was a photogenic place in itself. Hands down, the most romantic place ever. Lovely flowering plants on the stone bridges, on windowsills and added to that the lovely weather. The boat ride was for an hour.
I walked across the town exploring the lanes and bylanes, bought loads of chocolates, had hot chocolate at a beautiful café. Here when they make hot chocolate, they add chocolate rather than chocolate powder which makes it taste even better. I then went to explore the outskirts of the city- the same area which the earlier tourist guide had mentioned and it was again mind-blowing. Since it was a Saturday, no locals were in sight, no tourists too and it was as if I had the entire city to myself. Not a person in sight. I walked by the canal, on the lovely cobbled stoned roads and just soaked in the beauty of the place. On the way I heard Punjabi. I realised that I was sitting under a place which belonged to a Punjabi family and I just sat there listening to the language for some time.
Spent a good one hour generally walking around. I then headed back to the town and from there to the railway station. But to the station also I decided to do a detour and went from a different part of the city. I landed in a very beautiful residential are. I met an old local couple who were really sweet and guided me when they thought that I looked lost. I reached the railway station through a lovely park. Took a train to Ghent which took me 35 minutes.
I reached Ghent at around 9 pm and I thought that since the next day I was going back to Amsterdam, I should explore Ghent and see how it looks at night since I will not be there the next evening even though I was very tired. And that is by far the most sensible impromptu decision that I’ve taken on this trip. Behind St Jacobs church I knew was the old town and I decided to just walk and see. And there I was greeted by a massive crowd surrounding the canal. A three storey ramp was made on the canal and there were musicians and singers on the ramp. They were singing classical English music. I asked someone what was going on and he said that that day was the first day of the opening of the Ghent festival. I bought a waffle from a street vendor and stood there listening to some lovely live music. I soaked in the lovely atmosphere. The crowd was very excited to see the fireworks which began at 11 pm. Since they seemed to be so excited, I also thought that it will be worth waiting for. And it was such an anti climax. They lasted all of 15 minutes and compared to our Diwali fireworks these were quite disappointing.
I got up a bit late the next day since it was going to be local sightseeing in Ghent. While leaving, Trui told me to do a boat tour in Ghent. Ghent is also a medieval old town like Bruges but a little different. There is a canal which runs through the town and is surrounded by beautiful stone medieval buildings. The morning too was an extension of the Ghent festival and a group of people was playing English classical music on a stage set up in the town square. It was a Sunday morning and not many locals and tourists were around. It was like having the whole square to myself. Had breakfast listening to the live music. Did not understand a tune, but it was a very pleasant experience. I then went off to do the boat ride. It was a beautiful morning with a group of European and French tourists. Our boat driver cum tourist guide was quite a character. He had funny anecdotes for all the buildings that he was giving a commentary on. The boat ride gave an overview of the town and its culture. There were a couple of castles on the canal. Lots of bridges across the canal. I felt Bruges is a better looking and romantic town when you compare Ghent and Bruges.
Spent the morning roaming around and exploring the beautiful town. As the day became sunnier, lots of locals came out and were generally soaking the sun and playing with their kids. I spent a leisurely afternoon strolling the town. Also bought loads of chocolates from Leonidas. Had a beautiful time strolling around and enjoying the day. Came back to Truis place and left to catch the bus back to Amsterdam. Reached Amsterdam at 11 in the night.
Back to Amsterdam
This was the last day of my trip. Headed to Utrecht in the morning. Utrecht is a university town about 45 minutes from Amsterdam. There is a small town square in the centre of the town surrounded by a canal. It was a mini version of Amsterdam. But more peaceful with lesser crowds. The canal here was different compared to the ones in Amsterdam though. Here the canal is one level below or rather the city seems to be built one level over the canal. To reach the canal, there are steps close to the various bridges, a path surrounds the canal and I was told that at night the canals become a party zone with various restaurants and bars. In the morning all were closed though. I spent a couple of hours walking through the town by the canals. Came back to Zaandam to do a bit of shopping at Primark and then headed to Amsterdam to spend some time by two of my favourite spots in the city- the port area behind Amsterdam central and the canals. Took a tram to Princengracht and walked to de Duif. This was my most favourite canal in Amsterdam because I had discovered it myself and it was where I found it most peaceful. Spend about an hour here, and said goodbye to Amsterdam.
Next time I visit Amsterdam, I decided to walk all across the city by the canals and just take in the sights without having an agenda.
One week Netherlands and Belgium Itinerary
10th September 2016. Landed at Amsterdam. Reached my AirBnb
11th September – Amsterdam – Free walking tour in the morning, Bloomenmarket, Walk around Jordaan and Damark, red light district, Kalverstraat, Beginof, national monument qquare, Anne Frank house, De Oude Kerk, Prinsengracht, Herengracht and Red Light District Walking tour in the night.
12th September – Amsterdam – Oosterpark, De Duif, Rijiskmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Vondelpark, Hoofstraat, 9 streets, Canal tour, Leiden Square, Museimplien.
13th September – Delft, Den Hague, Haarlem, Amsterdam – ride on tram 2.
14th September – Veluve National Park and Geithroon
15th September – Amsterdam north region
16th September – Antwerp
17th September – Bruges
18th September – Gent
19th September – Amsterdam – Utrecht, De Duif.
All my travel within the two countries was through the incredibly efficient public transport of both the countries – trams, trains and buses.
20th September – Istanbul – Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Grand bazaar – This was thanks to Visit Istanbul tour by Turkey Tourism. If our Turkish Airlines has a stopover for more than 4 hours at Istanbul, Turkey Tourism organises free Istanbul tour. This tour is for 4/6 and 9 hours depending on the time of your layover. You do need a valid Turkey Visa tough. I could get the visa easily through eVisa online. Since my layover at Istanbul was for 16 hours, I took the 9 hour tour. The tour included breakfast, lunch, pick up and drop from and to the airport in a mini bus alongwith the major sightseeing and a tour guide- all for free 🙂
Total Cost of this 11 day trip to Netherlands, Belgium, Istanbul : Under Rs. 1,00,000.
(Airfare, Visas,Travel Insurance, Accommodation, Food, travel between the two countries and within countries)