Woes and Joy in Amsterdam

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Grey skies, intermittent drizzle, blustery winds, temperatures in the 40’s and a hotel in the suburbs! Not exactly the welcome we had hoped for in Amsterdam! We were there for a two-night extension before our Viking Rhine River cruise. When we booked the extension, our accommodations were to be at the Movenpick Hotel in City Center or “similar”. I’m sorry Viking, but the Pestana Riverside Hotel is not “similar” to being in City Center! It was a lovely hotel, but we did not come to Amsterdam to see the suburbs! Enough of the negatives – here’s what we DID see:

The capital of the Kingdom of the Netherlands is a city of canals, bridges and quaint houses in quirky colors topped with unique gables. It has an ethnically diverse and tolerant culture, and more bicycles than inhabitants. A stroll through the streets of this picturesque city would be a pleasant experience if not for the constant need of caution from the bicyclists who WILL run you over if you get in their way!

On our first full day in Amsterdam, the weather had improved and we took the two-hour walking tour included with our extension. A Viking guide led us through the city’s main park, a quiet oasis popular with dog-walkers and nature lovers.  Near the park is Albert Cuypmarket which has been in existence for over 100 years. With approximately 260 different stalls, it is said to be the largest outdoor market in Europe. Without a doubt, the canals and nearly 1,500 bridges are what give Amsterdam its charm. We got great photos of the waterways as we walked to Museum Square. As the name suggests, this area is surrounded by Amsterdam’s most famous museums – Van Gogh, Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk. This is where our walking tour ended, and while it was lovely I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like for the Viking guests who got to stay in the heart of the city. (Oops, the negativity snuck back in!)

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We had booked an afternoon tour to the historic town of Haarlem, so we met our new tour guide and a bus driver at Museum Square. The half-hour drive outside the city gave us a welcome break from walking. First order of business in Haarlem? Lunch at the unique restaurant Jopenkerk, a former church which is now a brewery. Three different Jopen beers were served with plentiful and delicious food! Haarlem is a city of remarkable culture as is evident by the cathedral, the monuments and the “hofjes”. Hofjes (or almshouses) have been provided since the 14th century to house single elderly women who have nowhere else to live. We toured the Frans Hals Museum to admire the world’s largest collection of Frans Hals paintings and other works by Haarlem’s Old Masters. Along with the beautiful art were many impressive floral displays.

On the morning of the second day, we still had not seen the historic center of Amsterdam, so we left our luggage for Viking to transfer to the ship and set out on foot to find the Amsterdam we came to see! After a 45-minute walk we found Dam Square, home to the Royal Palace and other impressive highlights of this centuries-old, yet vibrant city. We took a relaxing cruise on the magnificent canals to enjoy the city from a different perspective. No trip to Amsterdam is complete without a stroll through the famous Red-Light District, but we did it during the day! We marveled at the view from the bridge in front of Central Station where the City’s eclectic architecture is on full display. Central Station itself is an impressive Neo-Renaissance building which opened to the public in 1889.

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Our ship, the Viking Lofn, was easy to find from Central Station and even though I’ve been  critical of Viking to this point, let me just say that from the moment we stepped on the boat until we disembarked seven days later, they did everything right! Next post: Beauty on the Rhine – Day One!

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City Scene: Copenhagen

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For the second installment of City Scene, I have decided to re-visit Copenhagen, Denmark. It was from Copenhagen that we departed for our 35th wedding anniversary cruise. We had a wonderful time cruising the Northern European ports on the Baltic Sea, but it all began with an overnight stay in Copenhagen.

After a lengthy flight delay in Kansas City, we frantically ran from gate to gate for our connection in Newark. Once we caught our breath and settled in, the flight across the Atlantic was uneventful – thank goodness! We transferred from the airport to the heart of the city where we, along with good friends who were also celebrating their 35th anniversary, checked in at the historic Palace Hotel.

The hotel, a city landmark in Town Square, is right next to Tivoli and within walking distance of art, culture and museums. We had purchased tickets from home for the Hop On-Hop Off bus tour, so after 30 minutes to rest and freshen up, we made it to Stop One at the designated time – quite an accomplishment, I must say! Unfortunately, it was so crowded and confusing that we thought it best to compose ourselves over lunch. We found a quiet pub across the street from Tivoli Gardens, had a nice beer & burger, then tried the Hop On-Hop Off again. Success!

From Tivoli Square we traveled to Rosenborg Castle, the National Gallery & Botanical Garden, and the Langelinie Pier for a photo stop at the Little Mermaid statue. The Edvard Eriksen sculpture was inspired by the short story by Denmark’s favorite son: Hans Christian Andersen. It is supposedly the most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen, so we took a picture of her like all good tourists do!

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We “hopped” back on the bus and passed Fortress Kastellet, the Resistance Museum, and St. Albans Church on our way to the next photo stop at Gefion Fountain. From there it was on to Amalienborg Royal Palace, a place we would have explored further if we’d had more time; then to Nyhavn, or the “New Harbor” area, where picturesque houses along the river bank are over 300 years old.

One of the things we noticed about Copenhagen was the large number of bicycles in the city. It is known as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. Nearly 70% of Copenhagen’s residents cycle throughout the year, so the city’s bicycle paths are extensive and well used. Cycle lanes are not shared with cars or pedestrians, and often have their own traffic light which gives cyclists a couple of seconds lead, allowing them time to accelerate.

Back on the Hop On-Hop Off, traffic was heavy and slow near Tivoli Park, but eventually we returned to the Palace Hotel for a brief rest. We met up with our friends again for dinner as a light rain began to fall.  Lucky for us the Stroget, a cute cobblestone, pedestrian-only thoroughfare with numerous restaurants and shops was just around the corner from the hotel. We ducked into the first little pub we came to, which turned out to be a wonderful choice. I had the Danish Sailors Stew, or Labskovs, a traditional dish originating on ships back in the 1700’s. It hit the spot on a cool, damp evening! The rain had stopped after dinner, so we continued our walk down the Stroget. A little souvenir shopping, some sightseeing, a stop at the pastry shop; then we found our way back to the hotel and wearily put ourselves to bed!  It had been a long day!

We awoke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and after a great breakfast at the hotel, were excited to start the day! We had the rest of the morning to further explore Copenhagen before cruise embarkation, so we walked a short distance to the canal area where Christiansborg Palace and Ruins are located. Once there, the buildings were impressive enough to coax us into taking the tour and I’m so glad we did.

The palace was the fifth building to be located on the site. The first one was Bishop Absalon Castle built there in 1167. In 1369, the Copenhagen Castle was located there and was the seat of the royal family of Denmark for more than 350 years. The first Palace was built on the site in the 1700’s, but it – and the second Palace (built in 1828) – both burnt to the ground. We saw the remains of these former buildings when we toured the ruins beneath the Palace. Rebuilt in 1928, the current Christiansborg Palace is home to the Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the Supreme Court and is used by the Queen for formal receptions.

We had just enough time for a few more pictures at New Harbor and to buy one more scrumptious Danish pastry… then we transferred to the docks to board the ship! As we sailed away, we said goodbye to the colorful, captivating “City Scene” in Copenhagen!