Holland and Antwerp (April 3-6, 2015)

I have been dying to take a trip to Holland to see the tulips, and I’m thrilled we had the opportunity to go! We decided to stay all 3 nights in Rotterdam and take day trips from there to see Utrecht, the tulips, Zaanse Schans, and Amsterdam.

Friday
We made it to the city of Utrecht around 1:00pm, which was just under a 5-hour drive. Our first stop was the Dutch Railway Museum, which turned out to be even more fun than we thought it would be!  We started with sort of an amusement park “ride.”  There were a few startling moments when we were about to run head-first into an oncoming train, but luckily Connor enjoyed it and wasn’t too scared!  Next we walked through an area with an audio-guide depicting some of the railroad history for The Netherlands. We began by stepping into a “time machine” which jostled us around, and it felt like we were stepping back into the early 1800s. Afterwards, we went outside so Connor could ride the mini-train. We loved watching him smile and wave as he rode past us!  Across the tracks was a small play area with slides, and Connor enjoyed running around there for a few minutes.  We looked in the gift shop and grabbed a quick sandwich in the cafeteria before walking back to the car.

Dutch Railway Museum (Het Spoorwegmuseum)
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Choo-choo!!
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Our next destination was the Dom Tower in Utrecht. I found out that you could only climb the tower with a guided tour, so I had already bought tickets online for the English tour at 3:30. We found a parking garage and walked to the tourism office to pickup our tickets, arriving with a few minutes to spare before the tour started. There were only 465 steps in this tower :). For me, it was one of the easiest climbs we have done because Connor decided he wanted to ride on daddy’s back!  33 less pounds for me to carry!  (He fell asleep shortly after we started walking up.)

Dom Tower
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Climbing the tower
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View from the top
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We enjoyed the views from the top of the tower, then walked back down to see a little more of the city. Unfortunately, one of us dropped Charlie’s hat as we were picking up our backpack from the locker in the tourism office, and once we realized it was missing a few minutes later, the office was closed for the evening! He found a new hat at a nearby store, and Connor was thrilled that he and daddy “matched” since both of their hats now have a “puff ball” on top. The other disappointment was that the Dom was already closed by the time we came down from the tower, so we never saw the inside of the church. Utrecht was a beautiful city to walk through. There was a canal running through, and buildings on either side were just inches from the water.  We found Starbucks for our souvenir mugs, then Charlie navigated us flawlessly back to the car even though I had no clue where we were.

Utrecht
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The Tour de France will come through Utrecht this summer!
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Next we drove about 45 minutes to our hotel in Rotterdam. After parking, checking in, and finding our room, we were more than ready to find some dinner. The hotel restaurant was overpriced, so we walked a few blocks to find a restaurant. The first few that we walked into were crowded and didn’t have any open tables, so we just decided to order our food to-go from an Italian restaurant. Connor certainly didn’t mind having a scoop of strawberry gelato while we waited for our food!  Thank goodness for the time change last weekend…it was late in the evening but still light out as we walked back to the hotel!  We shared salad and calzones before getting ready for bed. Connor’s favorite activity in the hotel room so far is playing with his “ladder,” which is the wooden tray that fits across the bathtub. Love his creativity!

Saturday
My original plan was to see the tulips in Lisse this morning, but it was supposed to rain, so we decided to go ahead and see Amsterdam today instead. We all slept in until just after 8:00, then got ready for the day.  The hour-long drive was thirty minutes longer with all of the traffic as we got into Amsterdam.  We finally arrived at the parking garage near the central train station, walked into the train station to find Starbucks (to add to our mug collection!), then waited in a long line for the restrooms. Once outside, we managed to navigate through the sea of people and find the tourist center to pickup a map.  It was probably almost 1:00pm by now, and we were finally ready to see Amsterdam. It started to rain lightly, but thankfully it stopped and cleared up. It felt glorious when the sun was out, but it was definitely still cold when it was cloudy!

Our first destination was the Anne Frank House. I tried to buy tickets online before our trip and they were sold out, so we did not have high hopes of actually being able to get into the museum. Along the way, we stopped in a toy store to look for a few minutes, stopped at a bakery to pickup sandwiches for lunch, and walked through Dam Square. Connor enjoyed listening to the bagpiper at Dam Square!  We walked across several canal bridges and enjoyed the views. Once we arrived at the Anne Frank House, our suspicion was confirmed:  the line was winding around the block!  Content with the scenic tour we had on the way to the Anne Frank House, we weren’t too disappointed that we couldn’t actually go in. Meanwhile, Connor had been riding on Charlie’s back for quite a long time and he was perfectly content.

Anne Frank statue
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Sights as we walked around Amsterdam
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We continued our walk to the Begijnhof, a courtyard with a chapel surrounded by medieval buildings. It was such a quiet, beautiful, and serene place…quite the welcome change after the crowds we had been walking alongside all day. Did I mention how many people were in Amsterdam??  The sidewalks were completely packed. Connor was ready to get down and walk, and this courtyard was a perfect place for him. We made a quick exit when he realized he needed to go potty, and we made a beeline for the nearest restaurant. Crisis averted, we turned down a main shopping street that was completely packed with people. We stepped inside a cheese shop and all enjoyed sampling a delicious variety of cheeses. Charlie picked out a cheese with chilies in it, and I chose to buy a jar of specialty mustard. Energized after our cheese-sampling snack, we managed to make our way through the crowds of people until we reached Dam Square again.

Begijnhof
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From there we walked a bit further and saw a church. Not in the mood to pay just to see inside a church, we walked around the outside instead. Suddenly we heard the drumline of a marching band, and we rushed to the street corner to catch a quick glimpse as the band marched by! As we continued walking through the area surrounding the church, we realized we were in the Red Light District. Luckily, Connor conveniently always had his head turned away from the “sights.”

The skies were turning ominously gray, the wind was getting colder, and we felt like we had experienced Amsterdam, so we decided to head to our car. Just as we started driving, the rain came down!  We really lucked out!  Amsterdam had some beautiful buildings and areas to see, but it was just so crowded.  We were also amazed by the number of bicyclists. There are designated lanes for bikes between the road and sidewalks, so walking can be especially treacherous. There are even parking garages just for bikes!

Amsterdam Central Train Station, and its bike parking lot!
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Sunday
Happy Easter!  Our day began with the little man full of energy at 6:15am. At 8:00am we went to the lobby of the hotel for an Easter egg hunt. Connor had fun collecting chocolate eggs, and then we got into our car and drove 45 minutes to the Keukenhof gardens in Lisse. Unfortunately, the tulip fields were not actually blooming yet, but there were plenty of orchids, hydrangeas, daffodils, and many other flowers. We all had fun in the central area where we climbed up a windmill, ate a fresh and warm Dutch Waffle (“Stroopwafel”), took pictures with Dutch ladies, watched traditional Dutch dancing, and sat on an old tractor. Connor was thrilled beyond belief to sit on the tractor, and he just wanted to do it again and again.

Posing with the Dutch ladies
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Tractor!
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Enjoying the flowers with Daddy
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Just imagine the whole field filled with tulips…too bad we came too early in the season!
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Finally we were able to continue on from the tractor and see more of the gardens. We also came across an animal area, and we all had fun looking at the peacock, pigs, goats, ducks, and chickens. Connor played on a nearby playground for a few minutes before we finished walking through the gardens. We were all starving and Connor was beyond exhausted, so we grabbed a “Dutch hotdog” from a food cart on our way out (it was basically a red smoked sausage…nothing special).  Getting out of the parking lot took so long that Connor fell asleep before we even got out!  Thank goodness he took a nap…things were getting a little dicey this morning :).

With the little man fast asleep, we drove a little over half an hour to Zaanse Schans, an area along the Zaan River full of old windmills, traditional crafts, and souvenir shops. We were lucky to have absolutely gorgeous weather today, and that made our time at Zaanse Schans even more enjoyable. We especially loved walking past the windmills and looking across the water at the beautiful homes. The demonstration on making wooden shoes was neat, too. Connor was still asleep for most of our time there, but he was awake to see the big tools and machines used for the wooden shoes. Zaanse Schans was an area I was really excited to see, and I’m so glad Charlie enjoyed it, too!  He said it was what you would typically imagine when you think of Holland.

Windmills at Zaanse Schans
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After driving an hour back to our hotel in Rotterdam and letting Connor run around the room for a bit, we went to the restaurant in the hotel for dinner. We all enjoyed the meal, as well as our view of the Erasmus Bridge and the harbor. Right before bed, the poor little man dropped his beloved wooden bathtub tray (his “ladder”) onto his pinky toe. It was immediately an interesting shade of gray/purple, but thankfully he felt better after some snuggling and ice.

Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam
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Monday
Note to self:  don’t sneak away from your sleeping toddler at 6:00am to use the bathroom unless you want him to wake up and not go back to sleep. After getting ready, packing, and jumping on the huge pile of hotel pillows a few times, we were ready to say goodbye to our Rotterdam hotel. Our next stop was Antwerp, Belgium, which was about an hour away. Connor had his heart set on a Belgian waffle ever since we told him we were stopping in Belgium :). He also kept asking if we would see “that instrument,” and I finally realized he remembered the Hang player that we saw outside the bell tower in Brugges last year (similar to a steel pan, but with a much more mellow timbre).

We parked right in the center of town and walked to the Grote Markt, basically the big town square. The view was majestic and we were certainly ahead of the crowd today, for a change. First we found the tourism office to pickup a map, then toured almost the entire old town area as we searched for a restroom and an ATM. Next we toured the Cathedral, which was beautiful of course. By the time we finished there, we were sure Connor was ready for a nap. With him strapped to my back and a small chocolate egg from Leonidas in his belly (and all over my back), we started the long walk to the central train station. Connor jabbered the whole way there. The train station is absolutely spectacular!  The outside was impressive, but the inside was just incredible.

Antwerp
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Antwerp Central Train Station
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On our way back to the center of town, we stopped at a bakery to pickup a quick lunch to-go. I enjoyed my spinach quiche with Brie and offered to share, but Connor chose to hold out for the waffle cart down the street. The three of us shared a warm Belgian waffle covered in chocolate sauce. Yum!  We finally arrived back to the center of Antwerp, wandered around the fabric market taking place in the Groenplaats, and stopped for a few dried apricots and enormous Medjool dates at the dried fruit stand.  We found our car and drove about 20 minutes east of Antwerp to a shopping mall that has a Lego store. Unfortunately, it was closed for Easter Monday!  Thankfully the boys weren’t too disappointed. Now it’s time to head home…

We had a smooth and uneventful trip home. Connor hadn’t napped all day and woke up too early this morning, so he was asleep in bed before 7:15pm!  Because it is currently spring break for the military schools, Charlie was able to take another weekend pass for next weekend. Vienna and Prague, here we come!

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