Amsterdam & Belgium

The thing that no one ever tells you about Amsterdam is that it is BEAUTIFUL.  Who knew that the Mecca of pot, prostitutes, and pleasure would be so pretty?  One of the coolest things about Amsterdam is its super relaxed and accepting vibe.  The city takes you for who you are (or want to be during your time there) no questions asked.
I got to Amsterdam after sitting on a bus for a few hours in England, crossing the English Channel on a ferry, driving through France, Belgium, and then the Netherlands.  Interesting fact about the Netherlands/Holland:  Holland refers to every region of the Netherlands except for one, so calling the country ‘holland’ excludes some of the population!

After arriving in Amsterdam the bus driver and tour guide took us on a short walk through the Red Light District.  It was definitely not as seedy as I expected it to be—in fact, it was almost classy (or as classy as an area within the sex industry could possibly be).  If you want to keep your camera, you aren’t allowed to take pictures of the girls (or guys) when they’re working or even pictures of empty doors, as anyone caught taking a perpendicular picture of a RLD street will have their camera confiscated and thrown into the canal.  There were only a few girls working while I was there in the afternoon, but one can imagine how it would be a bustling place at night.
Coffee shops are the other main attraction of Amsterdam.  The name is a bit of a misnomer, as they certainly don’t sell coffee.  If you want that, you have to go to a café.  Haha.  I didn’t get anything but I’m glad that I went into one—it definitely was an experience.  After busting residents for smoking last year in the dorm, it felt rather odd to acknowledge the smell wafting out onto the street and not think anything of it.  You also know you’re traveling with a laid back tour company when the bus driver smokes pot the entire weekend. In addition to taking us to the RLD and coffee shops, there was an optional planned trip to a live sex show that evening.  When in Amsterdam…except that it was 30 Euro ($50).  I heard that it was entertaining from an Aussie friend that went, but that it got old after the first act.  Apparently Hollywood/US TV has desensitized us to the extent that even Amsterdam’s finest isn’t shocking.  It was interesting to learn that most of the couples that perform in these shows are actually married and make their bedroom antics public for a little extra money.  I hadn’t expected that!

The next day involved a cheese and clog factory, a bus tour of the city, and a canal tour.
Following the canal tour, my friends and I rented a canal bike (aka a paddle boat) and spent our free afternoon enjoying the sunshine and the water of the canals.  I’ve learned through traveling that you can either pack your day and rush from attraction to attraction (seeing a lot but not fully experiencing everything that you’re seeing) or choose 1 or 2 things that you really want to see/do and take the time to do them well.  I personally prefer the second option, so spending a few hours touring the city on our own terms via pedal power was a perfect afternoon.  Our boat’s steering was a bit finicky, which definitely provided some amusement to both us and the people watching from the banks until we got the hang of it.
We stayed in a small fishing village 5 minutes outside of Amsterdam.  The hotel was cozy and the nice thing was that it included a free bar, 3 course meal at night, and breakfast in the morning.  Breakfast in Europe often means sandwiches and so I also got lunch out of the hotel by taking a bit more than I could eat each morning.  Oh shameless college student money-saving tricks :)

After a day and a half in Amsterdam, we headed to Brugge (or Bruges) Belgium.  Brugge is often called the ‘Venice of the North’ due to its architecture and extensive canal system.
The city was pretty quiet (we were there on a Sunday), but walking around, eating a Belgian waffle, and checking out the artists’ fare was a very relaxing way to spend a few hours.
Après Brugge, we stopped at a Belgian chocolate factory (delicious), drove through France, went through UK border control in Calais, France, crossed the channel via a Ferry, and then made it back to London around 11pm.  I could get used to this.