City Hall

Brussels: Quick Jaunt

After a two night stay in Amsterdam, we had to catch an early morning train to Brussels. Luckily, we had enough time to have breakfast at our hotel at 6:30am (and even left with a to-go box of fresh croissants), walk across the street to Centraal Station, and get to our platform with 15 minutes to spare. Originally, I was looking for tickets from Amsterdam to Paris but the fare was so high that I ended up booking the trip in two parts, which not only lowered the cost of the train but also allowed us to fit in one more destination on our trip. We booked a 2-for-1 promotional rate, which got us to Brussels for €25 per person in Comfort 1 (First Class) on Thalys. Comfort 1 was very comfortable and included complimentary wifi (yay!) and meal service. We were already full from our hotel breakfast so we used the time for nap.

Street art

Street art

When we arrived at Brussels Midi Station at 9:10am, we were met by Roland, a volunteer with Brussels Greeters. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how much I love “free” tour services. There are generally two types of free tour guides: 1) the type that do group tours and make decent money through tips, and 2) volunteers who are truly free. The former category is very easy to find and includes the Undiscovered London Tour and SANDEMANs New Amsterdam Tour we took on this trip. The latter category includes organizations such as The Global Greeters Network (which Brussels Greeters is a part of), Goodwill Guides in Japan and South Korea, Saigon Hotpot and HanoiKids in Vietnam.

Roland and us

Roland and us

The latter group generally consist of volunteers feel passionate about their homeland and want to share it with visitors. Roland definitely falls into that category. He knew that we were only in Brussels for four short hours and he tried to show us the main attractions in that time. Highlights included Manneken Pis, the beautiful buildings surrounding Grand Place, the pioneering Les Galeries Saint Hubert shopping center, various historical churches and interesting neighborhoods.

Manneken Pis - he's so small in person

Manneken Pis – he’s so small in person

Buildings surrounding Grand Place

Buildings surrounding Grand Place

Grand Place

Grand Place

Les Galeries Saint Hubert - an old shopping center

Les Galeries Saint Hubert – an old shopping center

Mont des Arts

Mont des Arts

Along the way we stopped for crisp Belgian waffles, wonderful fries (the fries-loving Henry has been talking about them ever since we left Brussels), and high quality chocolates. We never stopped walking on our tour and we got more out of our four hours than I had anticipated. By the time we got back to the train station and said goodbye to Roland, our legs were tired and we were so eager to sit down and relax.

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One of the many canals

Amsterdam: City of Tolerance

We flew on Vueling (again) from Barcelona to Amsterdam on a very inexpensive paid ticket. Amsterdam is a compact city and I love that it only takes 15 minutes to get from Amsterdam’s airport to Centraal Station, the main train station, by direct train.

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Art'otel guest room

Art’otel guest room

We stayed at the modern and hip Art’otel, directly across from Centraal Station, using 50,000 Club Carlson points for two nights (last night free through the co-branded credit card; the redemption rate has subsequently increased to 70,000 points). As soon as I walked out of Centraal Station, I felt like we had been transported to another world. The city is so much more charming than its shady reputation leads you to believe. The Old Centre and Canal Ring areas where tourists tend to spend most of their time is full of quaint storefronts, stunning canals, and bicycle-riding locals.

Many bridges

Many bridges

When we arrived, it was already evening and time for dinner. We settled on the Indonesian popular restaurant called Kantjil & de Tijger. We don’t have very many Indonesian restaurants in California so we didn’t exactly know what to expect. We each ordered a mix plate of flavorful dishes whose names that I can’t pronounce. All I can say is that the food was very tasty and we really liked it.

The next morning, after gorging ourselves with a fantastic breakfast at our hotel, we headed out for some sightseeing.

We only allocated one full day in Amsterdam so we had to jam all our activities into that day. I wanted to take a canal tour because the view from the water lets you see the city from a different perspective.

Canal boats

Canal boats

Canal Tour

Canal Tour

Given our limited time in the city, we decided to join a walking tour. We chose SANDEMANs New Amsterdam Tour, a “free” tour company. Our guide was a hilarious and energetic German student who lives and studies in Amsterdam. In three hours, we covered many major sights, learned about Amsterdam’s golden period and subsequent downfall, and discussed the Dutch attitude of tolerance (as it relates to cannibis and prostitution). The tour group was very large (~40 people) but the tour guide was incredible and he was able to keep everyone engaged.

Our tour guide with the group at Dam Square

Our tour guide with the group at Dam Square

Begijnhof: The Secret Garden

Begijnhof: The Secret Garden

One of the people on the tour brought his young daughter who was about 8 years old. Although the tour occurred during the day, we did briefly walk through the Red Light District because of its importance to the City. We all felt uncomfortable that such a young child was seeing prostitution in action; we hoped that she was too young to understand what was going on. Later that evening we returned to the Red Light District to “sightsee” and to watch a stage show at Casa Rosso. I can only say it was amazing and shocking. It was basically like watching porn, except it was live right in front of you.

Red Light District: Casa Rosso is on the left

Red Light District: Casa Rosso is on the left

From Mirablau (we bought a coffee and enjoyed the view)

Barcelona: So happy to be in Europe

After a week in Morocco, I was pretty excited to get back to Europe. Marrakech has an international airport with a decent selection of flights to Europe, including a direct flight to Barcelona four days a week. We flew on Vueling, the Spanish low-cost airline.

Vueling

Vueling

We landed at Terminal 1 and we took the airport shuttle to Terminal 2 in order to stop at the RENFE station and purchase a pack of T-10 tickets. T-10 (10 trips, can be shared with multiple people) only costs €10.30, while a single ticket on the standard city trains and buses within the city zone costs €2.15 a piece. Even though we had to go out of our way to buy the T-10 tickets, it was well worth the savings.

We stayed at the newly converted Crowne Plaza Fira Center near Placa d’Espanya for two nights. We had the option of taking the Aerobus for €5.90 per person but we chose to take the 46 bus using our T-10 tickets at just over €1.00 per person. The best part was that the 46’s final stop was just a block away from our hotel. The hotel was modern and clean and was a reasonably priced redemption for 30,000 IHG points per night. I would’ve loved to shell out 5,000 points more per night to stay at the more centrally located Hotel Indigo but I wasn’t able to find availability when we needed it. From Placa d’Espanya, there are two metro lines and numerous buses that connected us to every we wanted to go.

Placa D'Espanya

Placa D’Espanya

On our first evening in Barcelona, we pulled up Yelp and found Bosque Palermo, a neighborhood restaurant known for its paella. I had hoped that we were going to encounter a hidden gem and was kind of disappointed when we realized a majority of the patrons there were tourists speaking English. We stayed anyway and ordered the famous paella and we were pleasantly surprised by it. It was really really good. We paired it with a huge bottle of house red wine for only €3.50. We were in food heaven!

The next morning, we woke up fairly early to take the metro to Sagrada Familia. We weren’t actually there to see the magnificent cathedral (I had visited it 12 years ago when I studied in Barcelona); we were headed to the Vesping shop just around the corner. We rented a 125cc Vespa for €65 for 6 hours and followed the preset GPS tours for a ride around Barcelona’s sights and neighborhoods.

Beautiful church we toured

Beautiful church we toured

Roman ruins in central Barcelona

Roman ruins in central Barcelona

At first, we were following each of the stops in the tours but as the day went on, we became hungry (what a shocker) and decided to tailor our itinerary to cover food stops.

La Boqueria market

La Boqueria market

Chili pepper galore

Chili pepper galore

Veggie vendor

Veggie vendor

Preparing for Easter

Preparing for Easter

We headed toward Barceloneta to eat at the famously crowded hole-in-the-wall, Can Paixano. The GPS indicated that we had arrived at the destination but it looked like a construction zone. We ended up circling the streets a couple of times before we finally decided to get off the Vespa and follow the GPS signal on foot. I was second-guessing myself and was thinking about giving up when we finally saw a door with people spilling out of it. Inside was the noisy cozy bar we had been looking for. Henry and I shared a bocadillo, a plate of sausages, and a bottle of refreshingly cheap cava.

Can Paixano menu

Can Paixano menu

We were on the clock with our Vespa rental so we didn’t linger around too long after we finished eating. We climbed back onto the Vespa and I was feeling particularly tipsy because I had consumed a majority of the bottle of cava (I didn’t want a drunk driver). We had so much fun on the Vespa that day and highly recommend it as a means of sightseeing.

Vesping

Vesping

Don't I look cool on the Vespa? Don't worry, it's in park.

Don’t I look cool on the Vespa? Don’t worry, it’s in park.

Our Vespa rental ended at 4:30pm and we had no time to spare because we had to meet our Taste Barcelona food and wine tour guide, Paul, at 5:00pm. There was only one other couple on the tour that evening and they also happened to be Chinese Americans. Paul took us to 4 different tapas restaurants and taught us interesting tidbits about the history and culture of Barcelona.

Tapas

Tapas

More tapas

More tapas

When I had initially signed up for the tour, I was somewhat hesitant due to the high price (€95 per person) and length (5:00pm-10:00pm). The time ended up passing by very quickly and enjoyably with good company and the price seems totally justified considering the small group size, the number of dishes we tried, and the fact that we opened a new bottle of wine at every stop. Barcelona is really a lively city that is beautiful during the day and at night.

Street life

Street life

La Rambla at night (Miro design in foreground)

La Rambla at night (Miro design in foreground)

The next morning, we packed for our departure to our next destination. With a little bit of time to spare, we explored Montjuic and Placa d’Espanya near our hotel. We had lunch (terrible food, by the way) at a mall at Placa d’Espanya that was converted from a bull-fighting ring. Bull-fighting has been outlawed in Catalonia since 2010 so the city explored adaptive reuse options and turned the space into a modern mall.

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

I can be a guard!

First time in London

If you know Henry and me, you know that food is a top priority in our lives. Of course that extends to travel plans and hence our trips to culinary destination like New Orleans, Austin, Portland, Vietnam, etc. Unfortunately, England doesn’t have such a great reputation when it comes to food so it never made it to the top of our list.

When we were planning our Europe/Morocco trip, we found an opportunity to build in a layover in London that would allow us to quickly tour the city without too much time commitment. And so we booked our flight to LHR.

It's us! (I know you can barely see)

It’s us! (I know you can barely see)

We took the convenient Piccadilly Line from LHR to the Intercontinental Park Lane at Hyde Park Corner. The journey took about an hour each way, which did eat up quite a bit of our short 22 hours in London. Since it was both of our first time in London, we decided to take a walking tour of the highlights upon arrival.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

Horse Guard Parade

Horse Guard Parade

There are many “free” tour services all over the world and this time around, we signed up for the Undiscovered London Free Tour that met at Green Park, 10 minutes away. Our tour guide took us to many of the major sights like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. We got a quick history lesson, tipped the guide at the end, and went on our way.

Big Ben

Big Ben

We ended up strolling over to the West End, which was far more interesting to explore on foot. We walked around Chinatown (Henry has a weird obsession with Chinatowns around the world), ate fish & chips at the trendy Golden Union Fish Bar in Soho, ate meat pie at Mother Mash, and then ate Indian food at Punjab. I think you’re getting the idea here. The fish was good, the meat pie was mediocre, and the Indian food was tasty but we were full at that point.

Woohoo, Chinatown for us Chinese people

Woohoo, Chinatown for us Chinese people

In the spirit of saving money, being green, and experiencing London to the fullest, we relied on buses as our main form of transportation. After eating until we could not eat anymore, we headed back to the hotel and went to sleep.

Iconic Double Decker Bus

Iconic Double Decker Bus

It was our first night in Europe and jet lag set in. We woke up at 2am, bored and…hungry. Using Yelp, we found a hole-in-the-wall authentic Chinese noodle shop a block away from Chinatown called Noodle Bar. After covering ourselves in some warm clothes, we headed out the hotel to the bus stop to get us to our noodles. We looked like slobs in the middle of the night and everyone else on the street at that time were going home from the club. The streets were full of drunk party people, which made people watching quite fun. After a bowl of warm noodles, we took a “romantic” walk along the River Thames. Well, it was romantic for the first 10 minutes but then we got tired and sleepy and luckily flagged down a taxi to take us back to bed.

London Eye at Night during our romantic walk

London Eye at Night during our romantic walk

When we awoke the next morning, it was time to head to the airport. Luckily, we had a chance to stop at British Airways’ Galleries Club for some awesome breakfast. That was the best airport lounge of our trip with a beautiful assortment of fruits, pastries, cheeses, spreads, juices, alcohol, sodas, and chips. We packed a few items to go but we ended up eating a full meal on the plane as well. We were stuffed.