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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Amsterdam 101

Iconic Amsterdam sits smartly at the convergence of the Zuiderzee and the Rhine River. Its storied history, amazingly vibrant attitude, and progressive stance on social issues make it a top tourist draw for many. And for very good reason! It seems that Amsterdam has cracked the secret code of balancing the honor of the past with the energy of the future. So, what makes this city a traveler’s paradise? Read on, dear traveler.

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Amsterdam Central Train Station

Whether you arrive by plane or train, your first glimpse of Amsterdam might happen as you pull into one of Europe’s great train stations. The scene that’s set seems to be a choreographed dance. Backpackers searching to stow their bags for the day at the left luggage counter. Commuters of every age hopping off the north side ferries. Travelers, like you, figuring out how to roll big bags over the bumpy tiles. Plenty of languages for all over the world seems to hang in the air as people dash in and out of the cafes, pharmacy, and market. Then, it seems, that 95% of the people that just whizzed by hop on a bike. You have arrived at the heart of Amsterdam.

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Bikes and Canals

Those bikes, just like the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, have become the default symbol for this town as the number of wheels far out paces the number of residents that power them. Thousands of bikes use the designated lanes knitting the city together from the main stretch, Damrak, over each of the five canals that ring the half a dozen neighborhoods.

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Renting a bike

By far, the cheapest transportation in town is also the easiest to find. More than twenty storefronts offer hourly, daily, and long term rentals that come with locks. Plenty of these bikes can also be fitted with simple baskets that make carting your bags easy peasy. Using a bike to ride around the Jordaan District and then down to the big museums is a breeze in this super flat city. Pedal power is, by far, the way to go. check out Black Bikes in the 9 Little Streets Area for great service and easy pick up and return. Expect to pay about $10.00 for 3 hours. If you don’t feel confident to ride with the locals, get out there early in the morning when the streets are not as busy.

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Canals and Boat Rides

If bikes rank as the number one mode of transport, then boats certainly try hard to oust them. The biggest part of Amsterdam’s charm comes from its tree lined canals that helped put the city on the map. A canal ride, though, can seem a little cheesy if not thought through well enough. And, there are so very many to choose from! From rentals that allow you to control the power to barges that herd a couple of hundred visitors around town, there seems to be no lack of choice. Two faves include a dinner cruise which keeps the ride moving along in the evening or a self propelled option that allows you to hop on and hop off as you cruise round and round. A great place to start figuring out what kind of cruise works for you is the Amsterdam Boat Center. For private charters, Those Dam Boat Guys do a great job for the adults in your party.

Look Around

Amsterdam’s unique architecture stems from the days of the Hanseatic League. Societies were just figuring out how to keep governing without a royal figurehead while adjusting to new religious views and plenty of new trade opportunities. All of this, believe it or not, is evident in the architecture that is all around. Narrow houses that tend to be three stories high were historically a shop, a home, and attic storage that took up as little taxable street width as possible. Today, the city is full of such buildings: the oldest, narrowest, widest, fanciest, crookedest, and even the secretest all make Amsterdam the perfect place to wander and wonder.

brown and white concrete building near body of water Amsterdam
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The most distinct feature in all of this architecture has to be the gables: Simple flat rooflines sit next to step gables, point gables, and the fancier neck and bell examples. Put together, the mix and match rooflines create their own kind of urban artwork. Use those bikes and boats to take it all in.

Plan Ahead

If there is one drawback to this city, it’s that you are not the only one who wants to be there. In fact, Amsterdam often finds itself ranked among the most visited in all of Europe. As a result, a few sites on your list may need a little pre-planning. At the front of the pack is the Anne Frank House. Be ready the month before your trip to get online and work through the ticket process as this museum sells out quickly and does not have any “day of” sales. In short, you snooze, you lose! Be sure to also arrange for the Van Gogh Museum as well as the famed Rijksmuseum which are both very busy as well.

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Anne Frank House

Anne’s story is a sad one. And visiting the place where it all happened allows you to better understand how the events of WWII and how Amsterdam was affected by the actions of the Third Reich. Anne’s father, Otto, unselfishly shares his daughter’s thoughts with visitors and the entire one way experience tells what happened before, during, and after the stairs behind the bookshelf hid a group of eight brave souls. In addition to this museum, check out the Dutch Resistance Museum on the south east side of the city.

The Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum

The Netherlands lays claim to quite a few major artists. Among them, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Eyck, and, of course, Van Gogh. All of these artists brought something spectacular and unique to the evolution of art and all of them can be seen here.

Van Gogh tumultuous life is on full display thanks to his brother, Theo. This modern museum profiles not only the timeline of Van Gogh’s life as well as SOME of his greatest works. Look to see such greats as The Potato Eaters, Almond Blossoms, and more self portraits than you can count. Beware that there are certain famous works like Starry Night and Irises are at other museums.

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Meanwhile, over at the Rijksmuseum, everyone else is waiting. Art for the middle classes was the mantra for many of these heavy hitters. Check in to see Vermeer (sans Girl With The Pearl Earring, that’s down at The Hague), Rembrandt and his Night Watch, as well as Jan Steen’s merrymaking. This national treasure has room after room of iconic “I’ve seen this before” art that makes strolling the galleries anything but boring. From Ice skaters on the canals to Napoleon and all his glory, the Rijks is a can’t miss.

Look for these fantastic museums to be connected by a pedestrian friendly plaza known as Museumplein. Here, you will find plenty of shops and restaurants to enjoy and people watch.

city water street building Amsterdam
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Amstelkring or Our Lord In The Attic

During the Dutch Golden Age, there were a lot of factors at play. The Protestant Reformation was in full swing but Amsterdam was a tolerant city. While the official party line was christianity without a pope, leaders understood that allowing people to worship as they choose was just fine as long as it was not advertised. Enter Jan Hartman. He was a prominent businessman during the 15th century who decided that his quiet catholic community needed a proper place to worship. He reworked three floors in his grand home to create a church where all who chose could privately worship. From the outside, the home looked like any other but inside, this amazing space provided comfort and prayer. There were several such churches throughout the city but this one located ironically in the Red Light District is the most famous.

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Speaking of which…

The Red Light District is infamous for its trade and adult themes. Amsterdam’s progressive policies have allowed this for centuries and, for them, it works. It’s time to move on from thinking that the Red Light District is for tourists. Sex workers in Amsterdam are taxed and unionized. They treat their choices as a business and they expect to be treated with respect in return. The time has passed for touristy gawking. There is simply no shock and awe to be had. Let people live their lives and move on to other interests. Besides, there is so much more to Amsterdam than this story.

Jordaan District

The other side of the pendulum is the leafy Jordaan Neighborhood. Here, you will find plenty of locally owned shops, cafes, sleepy canal bridges and the best dose of atmosphere that this bustling city has on offer. It’s here that you will find the Anne Frank House and the local flower market close to Spui Square. Jordaan’s laid back feel (especially compared to the RLD’s hype) makes for a great home base. For a splurge, reserve a room at the fabulous Hotel Estherea on the Singel Canal. A room at this locally owned, well curated, hotel makes this entire town accessible by foot or bike.

bicycles parked on the street near the apartment buildings Amsterdam
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A few last thoughts…

  • Take care of laundry at Eland Laundry in Jordaan (Hazenstraat 65, 1016 SN). It’s a quick bike ride there and if you chat with them, they might just deliver it back to your hotel for a small fee.
  • The flower market on the Singel Canal is very close to Spui Square. Be sure to get there sometime in the morning for the best blooms.
  • Another interesting stop just off of Spui Square is the Begijnhof. This quiet community is accessible through a gate. Inside, you will find the church that claims to be the one used by the pilgrims on the Mayflower as well as another hidden Catholic church.
  • Dig into The South Seas connection and try to put away all 27 dishes on a Rijkstaffel. These Indonesian classics with a Dutch twist are quintessentially Amsterdam. Eater beware! It can get a little spicy!
  • While no windmills are in Amsterdam itself, there are plenty of opportunities to see these wind warriors. The best places to see windmills include Edam to the north and Kinderdijk to the south.
  • Take advantage of The Netherlands’ small size and get over to Delft to see a small sized town close up. Pair this with a quick stop at the Hague to see Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery: a worthwhile stop.

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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Europe 101: Plan Perfect!

Europe is an icon of the travel world. With so many places to choose from and so many details to consider, any traveler can become overwhelmed! Fear not Euro-traveler! We are here to answer the most important questions! Let’s make your trip to Europe plan perfect. If you are just getting started, we highly recommend checking out our first Europe 101 post and podcast to get your basic plans started.

What can I do to make my trip to Europe better?

Hundreds of destinations and thousands of experiences await anyone traveling to Europe and the best advice we have is to go with your gut and create a balance of activities that you know you will truly enjoy. We love to share our ideas to help you decide if an icon or smaller experience is just right for you. With so many details to consider, here’s our list of starting line tips to make your plans work for you!

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  • When considering booking an Airbnb, be sure to check out if the owner is local instead of a corporation that has a resident manager. It puts money back into the local economy. Ask your Airbnb if they have bikes or other equipment to use. Airbnb is also taking donations to help out Ukrainian refugees so, if you can, consider donating a night or two.
  • Driving a standard can be one of the biggest cost savers in Europe (or anywhere for that matter). The reality of rental car pricing means that more efficient cars like standards are cheaper to rent. Learn to drive the standard!!
  • Be mindful of Spring events surrounding Holy week. Many festivities and closures could put a damper on your best laid plans and create quite a hiccup. Conversely, seek them out! They are fun!
  • Be a responsible shopper and always buy local especially when you are looking for travel souvenirs. Check out where things have been manufactured and only reinvest money into the local economy. There’s no reason to make someone on the other side of the world money.
  • Look up and go down! Europe is full of so much! As you make your way through your trip, be sure to check out Europe’s fascination with ceilings. Then again, plan a few excursions to see what’s under your feet. Here are a few examples: in Rome, look up at all the church ceilings, in Edinburgh, check out the cool closes, in Paris explore the sewer museum, in Nuremberg learn the history of the WWII art bunkers, and in London, take a ride on the mail rail.

Are hop on hop off busses worth it?

Yes and no. Hop on, hop off busses are incredibly popular and there are a few cities where we think they are totally worth it. On the other hand, there are quite a few cities where they clog up the roads and make life miserable. We think that so many choices come down to whether or not there is a good reason to take the bus other than just ride around. Here are our picks and why:

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Yay!

  • Edinburgh: Use it to go out to see the Brittania
  • Rome: The bus links all of the major piazzas together in a efficient ring
  • Paris: but only at night to see the uplit magic of the city of lights

Nay!

  • Dublin: they clog up the streets with the Viking tours
  • Athens: traffic! traffic! traffic!
  • Amsterdam: the canals are far better to get around
  • Munich: bikes or a bike taxi are a better choice

What are the best city passes in Europe?

It’s a decision we go back and forth on often. Is it worth buying the big city museum pass or should we skip it? Our rule of thumb is if you are staying for more than three days and you are attending at least three venues that are included in the pass, then there is a good chance that a museum pass is for you. We do, however, have some favorites:

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  • Paris City Pass: It covers hundreds of places both big and small including The Louvre and Versailles. It does NOT cover the Eiffel Tower.
  • London Oyster Pass: Everything that’s not part of the Royal Household including transport.
  • The Vatican: If you want to see anything past St. Peter’s Basilica, you NEED this ticket!
  • Krakow City Pass: Art, archeology, WII sites and more are included.
  • Amsterdam City Pass: Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum are both included making it well worth the price.

What tickets do I need to get before going to Europe?

As much as we would all like to just hop on a plane and wing it, the truth is that some of the most popular venues sell out weeks and months in advance. Here are some of the most popular as well as some popular places that really don’t need pre-planning.

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Pre-plan it!

  • Nueshwanstien Castle, Bavaria
  • Anne Frank House, Amsterdam
  • Sagrada Familia, Barcelona  
  • The Vatican Necropolis (St. Peter’s Tomb) Please see our information on Rome by clicking here.                                

Wing it!

  • Blarney Castle
  • Auschwitz
  • Parthenon
  • Mont Saint Michele

What destinations in Europe need a car rental?

  • Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way awaits and the public transport in this area is not that great. It’s time to drive on the other side of the road.
  • Bavaria, don’t get us wrong, German trains are super great. But, driving these back roads lets you stay on your own time schedule and, quite frankly, they are super fun to drive!
  • Tuscany, a car is certainly needed to explore this countryside. Use the great trains to get you close then pick up a rental near the train station.
  • Normandy, you can also pick up a rental at the Bayeaux train station and then explore the coastline on your own time. This means that you are not depending on public transport to get you to the most important sites.
  • Scottish Highlands, yes there are trains but like Ireland, Normandy, and Bavaria, a car will allow you to coast through the countryside at your own speed.
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6 last tips about very specific places:

Lots of little tips can help you feel more comfortable as you travel. For example, using “international” words like photo and toilet can be far more productive than saying picture or restroom (isn’t that a room where you rest?!). Here are some more little gems that might apply to your next European adventure:

  • Bullfights in the Azores do not kill the bulls! It’s an ethical way to experience this culture.
  • Worst traffic in Europe is in Istanbul!
  • Royal Ascot tickets may be available through your embassy in London. Google their site because you need to apply.
  • You can river raft on the lochs of Scotland! Just on certain days. Check out our coverage of Scotland here.
  • The Notre Dame is scheduled to open back up in 2024 just in time for the Olympics!
  • Your Louvre Ticket will allow you to leave and come back throughout the day whether you use a City Pass or not.
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We can answer:

  • Where should I rent a car in Europe?
  • What tickets do I need to buy in advance in Europe?
  • How can I decide on what to preplan for my tip to Europe?
  • What are the best travel tips for Europe?
  • Should I use a hop on hop off bus in Europe?
Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

France 101: Remembering Our Fallen

Memorial Day is here. In our family, like so many others, it is the kickoff to our summer season. The holiday seems iconically American as Memorial Day has its roots firmly planted in the Civil War. As time marched on, the day of wartime remembrance became the bank holiday we all know today- the official start of Summer. While fun and sun seem to dominate the landscape, this is the most solemn of military honors. It is meant to assist us in remembering our fallen in battle. It’s a moment of gratitude. While the US honors the fallen, our allies wish to say thank you as well since so many of “our boys over there” paid the ultimate price for their freedoms as well. Join me as we travel to France.

Understanding military family sacrifice…

One way other countries honor the military sacrifice is to honor the sacred battlefields of both WWI and WWII. A great example of this is what you can find when you travel to France. Last summer, I had the honor of meeting two heroes while I visited and the experience was life changing. My mom and I hopped into a sporty euro rental in Belgium and made our way west across the French border to an area out in the middle of nulle part– that’s French for nowhere. We were stopping to visit Private First Class Thomas McGovern. His address is one I can share: Plot B, Row 18, Grave 11, Somme American Military Cemetery, Bony, France.

Thomas is my great, great uncle and died in the famous Battle of the Somme on September 27th, 1918. Visiting the cemetery is quite amazing. The superintendent escorted us out to the grave, among impeccably manicured grounds and explained to us the play by play of the battle and exactly what fate my uncle met. He produced a small container of sand from Omaha Beach to rub across the marble stone so that Thomas’ name was easily read. There, in the summer sun out in the French countryside, I became the first family member- military or not- to come and pay my respects to him. I was all at once proud, connected, elated and humbled. It was a once in a lifetime experience!

My journey to understand family connections continued the next day. While the Somme had 1,100 bright white graves, Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery holds 10 times as many. And it is here at Meuse-Argonne that I meet another uncle. John McGovern also died on that fateful September Day. He is Thomas’ brother. Attached to a completely different unit, it’s hard to imagine their mother losing both of them on the same day. But, it happened. And I pay my respects with sand and flags.

This WWI cemetery has very few visitors but it is far from empty. And on this Memorial Day I remember. I think of those McGovern Boys and many others from my family- for they are not the only ones. I look at this picture of a wild poppy so bold in color and so fragile to touch. It is a metaphor for each marble stone. I take time this Memorial Day to remember.

Where do you start to find your ancestors?

Many families look to make their travel more meaningful by connecting with their destination in a bevy of ways. Visiting a relative who sacrificed is definitely a great place to start. But how? First, check out your family tree. Once you have some information to work with, connect with the American Battle Monuments Commission. This is the governmental office that maintains all of these military sites overseas. They will point you toward the correct site for your ancestor. If you find that you do not have a familial connections, try choosing someone from your hometown. Contact your local VFW to get started. Good Luck! You won’t regret your experience!

American cemeteries are all over the world but the ones that you are most familiar with are ones that you will see when you travel to France.