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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Köln


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We dragged the kids out of Phantasialand with enough time to make a couple of dents in our itinerary before heading to our Airbnb in Köln. This was important because we were now sure of having enough time to visit Cochem en route to Koblenz. Our first stop was half an hour away at Schloss Drachenburg. This castle is often dismissed as a fraud by connoisseurs of classic German architecture because it was built in the late 19th century by the son of a bar owner who amassed the fortune in financial markets and then purchased his title of nobility. The building combines a variety of styles in an effort to replicate the majesty of the medieval and Renaissance castles of the Rhine Valley, but is considered by many to have no architectural merit of its own. The castle passed through a succession of owners, some of whom furnished it with phony historical artifacts that remain inside. The castle is now owned by the state which maintains it as a museum. Since we aren't particular sophisticated in matters of art or architecture nor sticklers for authenticity, Drachenburg's questionable provenance was less important to us than its renowned beauty. The castle sits halfway up a tall hill called Drachenfels, German for dragon's rock, due to local legend that it is the site were the dragon Fafnir was killed by Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied. We chose to drive rather than taking the cog railway from the small town of Königswinter at the base of the hill, only to find that the parking lot was almost as far away from our destination as the train station. Our long walk was finally rewarded by the sight of a truly beautiful stone castle that looked perfectly authentic to my untrained eye. If one day I came into more money than I knew what to do with I imagine that Drachenfels is very much like the castle I would build for my family.
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The interior of the castle seemed very similar to others we had visited but there was a pleasant array of spiral staircases and terraces that were open for exploration. From the highest levels there were excellent views over the town and the Rhine Valley. If we had taken the railway we could have continued upward to the ruined castle at the top of Drachenfels for even better views but by this time our stomachs had begun growling and we decided to proceed onward to dinner.
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There are several small towns on the Rhine famous for their well-preserved historic centers. The closest one to Drachenfels was Linz Am Rhein so we decided to have dinner there before finding our Airbnb in Köln. It was interesting to see the sharp demarcation between the drab, utilitarian modern section and the idyllic old town. The cobblestone squares were lined with classic German half-timbered houses in pristine condition. We seemed to be the only gawkers in the streets despite it being a warm and clear summer evening. There were just a few clusters of people hanging around in the outdoor cafes who could have been locals.
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Despite the absence of tourists we had surprising difficulty locating a restaurant. We bypassed the bland cafes in the main square but the targets we had selected were either closed or had ceased to exist when we arrived at the address. We braved an underpass to reach a large brauhaus on the river that informed us they couldn't take us despite appearing to be half empty. Back in the old town we came across a small traditional German restaurant we hadn't noticed before that was completely empty but open for business. Inside called Am Strünzerbrunnen we had the undivided attention of the owner as we studied the menu with the assistance of my online German dictionary. There was a wide selection of different meats which were expertly prepared with light creamy sauces generously laden with chanterelle mushrooms. As happens so often when we leave our dining plans to chance, a series of disappointments culminated in one of our better meals of the trip.
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Our Airbnb was an apartment whose host owned a Ukrainian restaurant on the ground floor. I'd decided to reserve accommodations with air conditioning for the last two weeks of the trip in case of a July heat wave but due to the limited selection we had to compromise on other features. We had no off street parking and when we arrived in the late evening cars were packed tightly along the sides of the narrow streets. I was prepared to search for a subterranean garage but Mei Ling convinced me to duck into an outdoor lot where we found exactly one open spot and discovered happily that it was municipal parking.
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In the morning we braved grey skies and a stuttering drizzle at the daily market at Wilhelmplatz in the northern suburb of Nippes. It was a utilitarian market with low priced produce for locals but not much in the way of things to be eaten right away. We found a Turkish restaurant on the square that was open for breakfast and ordered a substantial amount of food, in contrast to the other patrons who were having coffee and perhaps a pastry. I'm sure an American family consuming a massive breakfast wasn't a common sight at that place and one of the other customers came over to our table to check us out. He was from Turkey and we discussed my strong interest in visiting the country for awhile. He told us there was a large Turkish community in Köln and gave us some tips on neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Turkish restaurants and stores.
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After breakfast it began to rain harder. We drove by the neighborhood the guy from the restaurant had recommended but it didn't seem that interesting to walk around in especially considering the weather so we proceeded onward to a garage downtown. We emerged very close to the chocolate museum, a place I had noted on my research but had no intention of visiting since I considered it to be a tourist trap. As we walked by I felt a few drops of drizzle again and made the impulsive decision to cross the short bridge to the attractive building in the Rhine harbor. The museum was founded by a German chocolatier named Hans Imhoff but is now operated in coordination with the Swiss company Lindt. It was a pleasant enough place to spend a couple of hours with some free samples and a few games for the kids but I preferred our chocolate-making experience in Nicaragua.
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Once we left the skies had cleared a little and I felt more comfortable wandering the streets. Köln didn't have much of an old town largely because much of the historic neighborhood was destroyed during World War II. There were some attractive cobblestone streets and older buildings but nothing with a medieval or Renaissance era feel. My favorite edifice was the Romanesque Great St. Martin Church with its four lofty towers.
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Although most of the historic area was fairly empty that changed as we approached the most popular attraction in the city and possibly the whole country of Germany, the Kölner Dom. Construction of this Gothic cathedral began in medieval times but was not completed until the late nineteenth century, after which it was the tallest building in the world for ten years. The Dom was the only place we saw in Köln that fit the description of a typical tourist attraction, and it seemed like every tourist in the city was collected around it. It is a massive building topped with a forest of Gothic spires, made even more formidable by its location in the center of an open square with no other tall buildings to distract from it. The other feature of the Dom that stands out right away is that the entire building is unevenly discolored with varying quantities of black grime. This is the result of environmental pollutants that adhere to the sandstone and the reaction of sulphuric acid in rain with the calcium carbonate in the stone. It would be completely impossible to remove this black patina from the entire cathedral but the building is in a constant state of piecemeal restoration and the stone is gradually being replaced with material of lower limestone content. Having recently seen the golden cathedral at Metz and so many other exquisite churches on our travels it was difficult not to be distracted by the grubby exterior of the Dom.
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We continued our walk north of the cathedral but found ourselves in a rather boring shopping district so we doubled back to our car. I was glad we'd killed some time in the museum because it was mid afternoon and I had very little left on the itinerary. I felt a pang of guilt for having pried the kids away from Phantasialand early the previous day, because we would have had plenty of time to drive out of town to see Drachenburg Castle this afternoon. There was an interesting beach club with an artificial lake called Blackfoot Beach just north of the city but that was out of the question due to the weather. We drove all the way to the station of the Seilbahn, the cable car that crosses the Rhine, just to find out it was closed due to high winds. We then proceeded to the Stadtgarten, one of the few beer gardens in Köln. The tables in the beer garden itself were bare and empty, probably because of the weather, so we sat indoors. The menu looked good so we ordered some dishes even though I had planned for us to have dinner at an evening market. I asked our pleasant waitress if they had altbier, a dark beer I had enjoyed on our last stop, and she laughed and asked me if I thought I was still in Düsseldorf. It would seem that beer is a very local phenomenon in Germany.
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Even though we had eaten we proceeded to the Thursday evening market at the Rudolfplatz. We had to park a few blocks away which caused us to walk through a very energetic and hip neighborhood with a lot of boutiques and street sculptures. The lack of parking had led some shoppers to find very creative solutions.
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I wasn't counting on finding the Meet and Eat market where we expected it but it was there and even better than I had expected. It was almost all food trucks but very high quality and with a lot more seating than there had been at the evening markets in Brussels. I was kicking myself for having wasted our empty stomachs with a boring dinner at Stadtgarten, but we still found enough room to enjoy a few snacks and a couple of glasses of wine while absorbing the vibrant atmosphere of the gathering.
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Our visit to Köln was almost over and we still hadn't explored the neighborhood of Severins around our Airbnb. This was another busy area filled with restaurants and bars. We had noticed an interesting structure close to our apartment that looked like a small castle. When we took a closer look we realized it was one of the surviving gates of the old city walls which have mostly been destroyed. Four of these gates remain, one of which we had practically ignored earlier at Rudolfplatz.
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Oddly enough our appetites had returned by this point and we soon discovered a Turkish barbecue restaurant with a quite appetizing selection of meats. We created a beautiful sampler of their specialties along with a pile of barbecued chilis that were so spicy that even Mei Ling couldn't finish them. Exhausted, we returned to the Airbnb for our final night in the city.
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In the morning we visited the Apostelnmarkt not far from Rudolfplatz. This Friday morning market in the shadow of the Romanesque St. Aposteln church specializes in gourmet foods. The kiosks looked more like miniature stores in contrast to the haphazard plastic crate tables and tattered canopies of Wilhelmplatz, but we couldn't see any real difference in the quality of the produce. There were delicatessens with ready to eat food here so we were able to satisfy our breakfast needs before continuing our journey south through the Rhine Valley.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 22:30 Archived in Germany Tagged road_trip family cologne family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog drachenburg linz_am_rhein stadtgarten Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Düsseldorf


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Our apartment was a stiff walk from the old town so we drove to a garage close to the daily market at Carlsplatz. There has been a market in this square since the thirteenth century but the current iteration can't bear much resemblance to the version that was there in medieval times. The Plexiglas canopy created an atmosphere of a covered market without walls and the emphasis was more on pricey specialty foods than produce. Although the market is open every day except Sunday many of the stalls were closed on Tuesday morning and there were few customers. One vendor told us it would be busier later in the day and later in the week. We copped the solitary table of a Japanese mini restaurant and supplemented our noodles with bread and fruit from other stalls.
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Düsseldorf is the seventh largest city in Germany and the capital of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. However the city did not become a major population center until the nineteenth century which may explain the relative smallness and paucity of interesting sights in the Altstadt close to the bank of the Rhine. We stopped at Marktplatz to see the Town Hall and the equestrian statue of local hero Jan Wellem that has stood in front of it for three hundred years. A block to the west was the spacious cobblestone square of Burgplatz, watched over by the Castle Tower which is the solitary remnant of a long-ago incinerated Baroque palace. I had expected the Rhine promenade to provide us with an interesting walk but it was a bland stretch of asphalt lined with shuttered snack kiosks. At least we had finally reached this legendary river of Western Europe that would be a significant feature of the rest of our journey. We had technically encountered it in Netherlands as well but in reality the river loses its singular identity once it separates into the different channels of the Rhine delta.
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If the promenade had been more alluring we might have walked a mile to the Rhine Tower which we could see in the distance but as it was we decided to return to the car to visit one of Düsseldorf's midweek farmers markets, the Rheinischer Bauernmarkt in Friedensplätzchen. This proved to be a rather small market but it provided another look at the authentic daily life of the city residents. Seeing as how our next destination would be a wildlife park we picked up a dozen apples and a bunch of carrots to feed the animals.
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Wildpark Düsseldorf is located in the Grafenberg Wald, a large forested area on the eastern outskirts of the city. Within the park there were quite a few large enclosures in which various species of deer and boar roamed freely. They were quite adept at tugging the carrots away from the kids who were trying to drag the feeding out as long as they could.
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The Düsseldorf harbor is ingeniously constructed within a sharp bend in the Rhine in order to avoid any obstruction to boats that are passing through. In the Medianhafen section of the harbor is a remarkable complex of buildings called Neuer Zollhof that have the characteristic curvaceous flowing design of Frank Gehry creations. Gehry was chosen as the architect for the complex by the local advertising magnate who was running the project and the buildings were completed in 1998. Although they appear residential the buildings are designated as an art and media center, although there was no sign of any activity in or around them in the middle of a business day.
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The Rhine Tower, or Rheinturm, is just a five minute walk downriver from the Gehry buildings. This telecommunications tower is the tallest building in Düsseldorf and has a restaurant and observation deck at the top. It is a majestic structure and it felt quite terrifying to stand at the base and look directly upward. We've wasted enough time ascending tall structures just for the sake of getting to the top that we've established an unwritten rule against the practice, and we followed our rule when it came to the Rhine Tower. The view from the ground was perfectly adequate.
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After a quick lunch of sausages in Medianhafen we crossed to the left bank of the Rhine for the first time. The promontory within the sharp meander is divided into the leafy residential neighborhoods of Oberkassel and Niederkassel. Despite its name of Abenteuerspielplatz Oberkassel, our destination here was located in Niederkassel. Abenteuerspielplatz means "adventure playground" and I only knew of its existence because I'd done extensive research on things to do with kids in Düsseldorf. After parking it wasn't clear where the playground was located so I went exploring while the boys finished up their naps in the car. Eventually I located the playground down an unmarked path and messaged Mei Ling to bring the kids. They took a wrong turn and ended up in the Japanese cultural center next door. Düsseldorf has a sizable Japanese expat community due to business links and many of them live in Niederkassel. The Japanese center contains a Japanese school and a traditional garden.
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The adventure playground was a place that probably couldn't exist in the litigious United States. The park was dotted with rusted metal equipment and other minor hazards, although these dangers were more than outweighed by the profusion of unusual playground activities that delighted the kids. There was a shallow pool with a raft, ziplines, and pedal cars. The families in the park seemed to be equally divided between expats and locals, and I'm confident not many tourists ever made it there. The experience made us feel like a regular German family enjoying a sunny summer afternoon with their kids.
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We drove to the northern reaches of Düsseldorf for an early dinner at Galerie Burghof, one of the few beer gardens I had been able to locate in the city. One of our best memories from Bavaria was the communal joy of eating and drinking in beer gardens and I was disappointed to learn that the same tradition wasn't prevalent in the Rhineland. However there were still some beer gardens scattered around and this one had the added bonus of a view over the Rhine and proximity to the ruins of Kaiserswerth Castle. The adjacent parking lot was full so we had to walk a lengthy bike path to reach Galerie Burghof. The beer garden was made to resemble a clearing in a forest with seats and tables made from planks and tree sections set on a gravelly floor. Sturdy live trees stood adjacent to the tables. The waitress helped me understand the procedures for ordering beer from the bar and food from the kitchen and we put together a light dinner of sausages and schnitzel.
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The gate to the castle grounds was being closed just as we left Galerie Burghof but we could still appreciate the thickness of the walls of the crumbling ruin from the bike path. The castle was originally built in the twelfth century by the renowned Frederick Barbarossa, considered one of the greatest of the medieval Holy Roman Emperors, in a strategic location overlooking the Rhine. The walls were gradually destroyed by sieges in later centuries and eventually many of the stones were cannibalized to construct neighboring buildings.
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The last place I wanted to see in Düsseldorf was the Königsallee. This impressive boulevard with a central canal close to the Altstadt was constructed two hundred years ago and symbolized Düsseldorf's maturation into a major German city. The wide canal is fed by the Düssel, a small tributary of the Rhine that is the city's namesake. The Königsallee became a magnet for fashion showrooms, luxury boutiques, and upscale hotels. Affectionately known as the Kö, it is also a favorite place for strolls on summer evenings. I had been here once before on a whirlwind tour of Germany just before I graduated from medical school in 1994 and it had seemed like quite a hub of energy. Strangely on this perfectly temperate evening the Kö was quite empty of people, almost deserted. We walked the entire length of the canal hoping to experience the magic I had felt on my first visit but aside from some attractive statues and imposing buildings there wasn't much to be seen. Perhaps it was too early in the evening or too early in the week for there to be much street life, or perhaps the city had changed in some subtle ways since my original visit.
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We usually prefer breakfast in a farmers market if there's one available so Wednesday morning we visited Wochenmarkt Eller on the Gertrudisplatz before leaving town. Although the name translates to "weekly market" it runs all day from Tuesday to Saturday. It was another small and attractive market that had very few customers. The produce stalls were particularly alluring here. We quickly assembled and consumed our usual Germanic market breakfast of sausage, bread, cheese, and fruit.
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Düsseldorf had proven to be a less touristic city from a historical and architectural perspective than I had anticipated. Thanks to the paucity of things to see the old town we had gone through my entire list of points of interest in a single day. We had still had an enjoyable time pretending we lived in the city and doing all the fun things that a local family with young children might do to keep them amused. It also meant that we had plenty of space in our itinerary that day to visit Phantasialand, one of the most popular amusement parks in Germany. I had placed this on the itinerary as a possibility for the day we left Köln but we were already overloaded with castles and towns to visit on the way to Koblenz. Now that we had accelerated our timeline in Düsseldorf we had the perfect opportunity to surprise the kids with hopefully their best day of the trip. We bundled the kids into the car with their books and arrived at the park an hour later. Cleo looked up and asked where we were and I told her it was another castle, eliciting a grumble. The park has a wall around it so the castle story remained believable until the kids could hear the screams coming from the roller coaster inside. It was hilarious to see Cleo's expression as she slowly worked out what was going on and then the look of delight on her face when she was sure she was at an amusement park. Naturally the boys were oblivious until Cleo told them where they were. My biggest fear was that the park would be completely mobbed with customers creating hour long waits for every ride but I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't by any means overrun on a cool Wednesday morning.
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It's weird how much Cleo and Ian enjoy amusement park rides, given how much Mei Ling and I hate them. Even as a kid I can remember going to amusement parks occasionally and hating the feeling when the roller coaster plunged downward. I think those visits were rare mainly because I never requested them. I certainly don't feel any different as an adult. I don't get motion sick and I wouldn't describe the feeling as fear, since I'm perfectly aware how safe the rides are from a statistical perspective. It's just a very unpleasant physical sensation and I can't understand why others consider it enjoyable or thrilling. I would liken it to sitting in a chair and having my blood drawn. The kids are at an age where they always want to go on rides that they are only allowed on with an adult chaperone. Some of them I'll do but I categorically refuse the large roller coasters and the rides that drop people from a height. Being at an amusement park for us is a constant series of negotiations where I end up tolerating a good deal of discomfort and the kids miss out on the biggest thrills. I can't wait until they are all tall enough to go on any ride they want without me. I did agree to do the water flume with them a couple of times since the drop wasn't too awful, although being splashed with cold water was an additional noxious insult.
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Mei Ling does get motion sick and most of the rides are out of the question for her so we split up with me taking the two older kids and Mei Ling taking Spenser. She was a trooper and accompanied Spenser on a few rides that I know must have been miserable for her. Meanwhile I did everything I could to convince the kids the lines were too long at the big coasters while hunting for fun activities that didn't involve plunges. I was very impressed by the design of the park, which was divided into areas with different cultural themes that I thought had been executed quite masterfully. I thought it compared quite favorably to Disneyland, that temple of American materialism that I have vowed never to return to. Mei Ling and I stood it as long as we could but after five hours I was desperate to move on with our itinerary. What seemed like an eternity to us must have passed like the blink of an eye to the kids, who implored us for one more ride and then once that was granted for another. After seeing how much they enjoyed the park I resolved that all future European road trips would include days set aside for amusement parks from the beginning, not just if our schedule happened to allow for them by chance.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 02:22 Archived in Germany Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog grafenberg_wald rheinturm galerie_burghof kaiserswerth_castle phantasialand Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Amsterdam to Dusseldorf


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The one hundred and fifty mile leg from Amsterdam to Dusseldorf was the longest single day drive in the itinerary but we had several interesting stops along the way. We made a brief stop in Amsterdam proper to visit the Dappermarkt, a daily street market just east of Centrum with an emphasis on Middle Eastern and Surinamese goods. The only street food was a shawarma stall but we found an amazing cafe where the food far outshone the humble surroundings. Adequately fortified, we drove onward for another fifteen minutes to Muiderslot, a fourteenth century brick castle that is one of the most well-preserved in the Netherlands. Despite being seven hundred years old, this was not even the first version of the castle. The original was demolished in the thirteenth century after the grisly murder of Florian V, the Dutch count who had it built.
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Much of the interior of the castle is devoted to the story of Florian V, who earned the condemnation of his peers for being excessively fair to the peasants who worked in his domain. The interior of the castle has numerous displays of medieval armor and other accoutrements and there is a picturesque garden outside of the moat.
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The town of Muiden prospered under the protection of Floris V but receded after his death in the shadow of the growing power of Amsterdam. Muiden is now a small town crisscrossed by rivers and canals. Most of the commercial activity is along the shores of the Vecht River near the locks that control the flow of water into the IJMeer. The locks are traversed by a bridge that intermittently rotates to allow boats to pass through. The cafes along the riverside flourish due to the tourists visiting the castle as well as boaters who decide to take a lunch break while waiting for the bridge to turn.
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Our next stop was De Haar Castle, a relatively modern reconstruction of a ruined Renaissance castle that was in turn a reconstruction of a burned medieval castle. The De Haar family owned the medieval castle but their line died out centuries ago and the property was passed on to another Dutch noble family. The modern castle was made possible when a distant descendant of that second family married a scion of the wealthy Rothschilds who funded the reconstruction. The brick construction and the conical roof tops were very similar to Muiderslot and I wondered if this was true of the original De Haar castle or if the Rothschilds simply wanted to build a bigger and better Muiderslot. Either way it was undeniable that De Haar was a castle straight out of a fairy tale.
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Having toured Muiderslot earlier in the day we had neither the time nor the inclination to visit the interior of the castle. Instead we explored De Haar's extensive grounds which included an elaborate hedge maze that the kids loved. After the obligatory stop at the cafe in the gardens for ice cream we were back on our way.
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Utrecht was established in the first century as a fortress on the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. The Romans retreated a couple of centuries later but the city survived and then prospered during the Middle Ages. In the nineteenth century Utrecht became the main hub of the developing Dutch rail network which solidified its standing as a major city. The center of Utrecht is surrounded by a moat that is the last remnant of the old city fortifications. The moat was only recently restored to its former splendor after having been drained in the 1970's to create a ring highway around the city center. It is connected to the Vecht which goes on to Muiden where we had observed it earlier that day, demonstrating to us once again that every major city in the Netheralnds and Belgium is connected in some way by water. Two canals traverse the city center from north to south. We parked at a garage close to the larger of these two canals, the Oudegracht. Because the excavated dirt from the canal was used to build up the banks, the promenade along the Oudegracht has two levels connected by staircases. It is a remarkably beautiful canal with an entirely different feel from the canals of Amsterdam.
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The major landmark of Utrecht is the Dom Tower, the tallest belltower in the Netherlands. It was built as a part of the nearby St. Martin's Cathedral but the unfinished nave between the two buildings collapsed hundreds of years ago leaving the Dom as a freestanding tower. Once we crossed the canal all I could see in the spot where the map indicated the Dom should be was an extremely incongruous modern skyscraper. I had to look from several angles before I realized that what I was looking at was the Dom completely surrounded by scaffolding such that the entire original structure was completely obscured. Somehow I had missed in my research that the tower had been undergoing restoration since 2019 that was not projected to be complete until the summer of 2024. We had to content ourselves with the view of St. Martin's Cathedral, on the opposite side of a rather featureless square from the tower.
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The shopping streets around the Oudegracht were busy and lined with brightly colored storefronts. One intersection was crowded with so many cafes with outdoor seating that we couldn't resist. We sat outdoors and had a couple of beers and some small dishes while enjoying the energetic local vibe. It was easy to see why some Netherlanders might prefer the beauty and serenity of Utrecht over the madness of Amsterdam.
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From here it was a straight two hour drive to Dusseldorf. Our itinerary had given short shrift to northern and eastern Netherlands but it was simply impossible to cover every province in the amount of time we had allowed ourselves. We had still managed to see the four largest cities in the country which was quite an accomplishment in just four days. Dusseldorf was the first stop of a six day leg through the German Rhineland. Our Airbnb was in a highrise close to the center of town without reserved parking. Our host had advised us that parking wouldn't be difficult and surely enough there were cars parked along the sidewalk a block away with several free spaces. It seemed a little unorthodox but the signs seemed to indicate we could park free of charge until the morning. As we unloaded the car someone pulled into a nearby space, got out scratching his head, and asked me in accented English if the parking was legal. It's always entertaining to be asked for directions or some other local information on my first day in a new country.

One of the benefits of our Airbnb is that we were just a short walk from a neighborhood with so many Japanese and pan-Asian restaurants that it was called Little Tokyo. There were plenty of popular noodle restaurants, some of which had long lines and others that were closed on Mondays. We eventually found a place that could take us right away and had a decent selection of sushi, so our first meal in Germany had nothing to do with German cuisine at all.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 01:30 Archived in Netherlands Tagged utrecht road_trip family family_travel travel_blog muiden tony_friedman family_travel_blog muiderslot de_haar Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Haarlem


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On Saturday we had limited our visit to Haarlem to the morning market so as not to compromise our tour of Amsterdam but we returned the next morning to finish the job. We parked close to the centerpiece of the old town of Haarlem, the St. Bavo Church. The church was originally constructed as a cathedral but was confiscated by the Protestants in the sixteenth century. Interestingly a new Cathedral of St. Bavo was constructed in a different part of Haarlem in the early twentieth century leading to some degree of confusion among visitors. This was the second church we had seen that was named for Saint Bavo, a seventh century Benedictine monk from Ghent who abandoned all possessions and spent his final years living in the hollow of a tree.
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The center of Haarlem was like a pint-sized version of Amsterdam without all the cafes and crowds. Cleo was looking very Euro chic in the striped bellbottom pants we had bought her at the Cuypmarkt. It was pleasant to be able to absorb the atmosphere of the cobblestone streets and brick buildings without being distracted by a lot of pedestrians and commercial activity. One thing that amused me was that Haarlem probably isn't even as well known around the world as the neighborhood by the same name in New York City. Thanks to the proclivity of European colonists to christen new lands after their own cities many of the originals have been eclipsed by their namesakes. Ask most people outside of the Netherlands about Haarlem and they would probably answer something about jazz or basketball.
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It was kind of tough finding a breakfast place that had more than pastries and coffee on a Sunday morning but eventually we found a cool cafe with wraps and yogurt. Ian was the first to discover that the discarded cigarette packages on the street were festooned with grim photos of body parts disfigured from smoking. The gangrenous foot was our favorite but I've seen worse in the emergency department. I'm sure if the Netherlands awarded me a contract I could help them eradicate smoking in their country within a month.
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The most popular sight in Haarlem is the Adrian de Molen windmill museum on the bank of the Spaarne River, just east of the center. This is a replica of the original mill that burned down almost a century ago. Unlike the wind pumps we had seen in Kinderdijk this was a true mill that used wind power to grind limestone, tobacco, and corn. We hadn't reserved a tour but there wasn't anyone waiting so we were able to jump into the first available. The museum was more elaborate than the one at Kinderdijk with some interesting models and historical photographs. From the observation platform we could see the spire of St. Bavo's church as well as the ornate white Bakenesserkerk tower.
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A big part of visiting Europe is having a plan for Sundays. Unlike in the United States a lot of things shut down completely on the traditional day of rest even in major cities. That's great if you want to recuperate from a long week of work but it's not a lot of fun if you're trying to get as much out of a long road trip as possible. We had been lucky the previous two Sundays where we had found the Croix Rousse market in Lyon and Marché de la Batte in Liège and now we were hoping to top both of them at the famed Beverwijk Bazaar. This self-proclaimed "largest covered market in Europe" is a cluster of several warehouse-like buildings that focus on different themes such as flea market, electronics, produce, and prepared food. We were mostly focused on the edibles but there was plenty of weird and interesting stuff to look at in the other areas.
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The outdoor area between the covered markets was largely devoted to food trucks. The crowd included a diverse mixture of Arabs, South Asians, and East Asians along with typical Dutch people. The high energy, international atmosphere was really enjoyable. We tried to eat in as many different places as we could without overdoing it on any one cuisine.
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The produce market wasn't very large and was mostly focused on Middle Eastern delicacies like olives and dried fruits. At the very end we found a large food hall with a wide variety of Arab cuisines including some that were totally unfamiliar like Yemeni. We were totally full by this point so there was nothing we could do but look on helplessly.
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The Beverwijk market was quite a sight but not as engrossing as I had hoped since a lot of it was dedicated to clothes and household items. We still had a few hours to spare before dinner and the top item I had left on my list was the Ridammerhoeve goat farm in the Amsterdam Bos on the outskirts of the city. The Bos is a man-made forest created on unused wetlands in the mid-twentieth century that is now one of the largest urban parks in Europe. It contains numerous lakes, hiking trails, and even a tall hill for sledding and snow tubing in the winter. Ridammerhoeve is a working farm in the center of the Bos that supplements its income from cheese and milk with a small restaurant and children's activities including feeding baby goats from small milk bottles.
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The feeding sounded more fun than it was. There were way too many toddlers stumbling around in the goat pens trying to feed reluctant baby goats and often dumping the milk on top of their heads when they wouldn't take the nipple. Goat poop and pee was everywhere and the local parents seemed to have no qualms about letting their kids tromp around and fall over in the thick hay with God knows what underneath. Fortunately our kids lost interest in the goats quickly and I was able to get away with just spending a few quarters on food pellets for the older goats. There were so many full and half empty milk bottles lying around it would have been a waste to buy any.
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Ridammerhoeve had been somewhat of a bust but it seemed like we still had time for the kids to enjoy another attraction in the Bos, the Fun Forest climbing park. I thought arriving two hours before closing would have given us enough time to do the course but apparently we had just missed the final entry point for the day which was quite disappointing for everyone. The kids were allowed to play around for a bit on one of the training elements and we then retreated to a snack bar across the street. I bought them ice cream to make up somewhat for the missed activity. On the side of the snack bar was a free book exchange which had a number of kids books in English. I dug some of the ones that we'd finished out of the trunk of the car and we now had an ever larger supply of unread books. The kids played a game of chess at one of the tables and we decided we might as well have an early dinner although we weren't particularly hungry.
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We made a brief stop outside the EYE Film Institute for a close look at its unique architecture. Its prominent position on the northern bank of the IJ across from Centrum has made it an iconic feature of the shoreline. The building was designed to suggest the properties of light, space, and movement that are indispensable to the film-making experience.
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For dinner we went to Amsterdam's lone food hall, aptly called Foodhallen. It was located in a hip neighborhood called Oud-West just outside of Centrum. The atmosphere was busy and energetic without being excessively crowded and the food options were good if unspectacular. It wasn't quite as good as Wolf in Brussels but it was much better than Food Traboule in Lyon. This would be our last easy meal at a food hall for the trip and we would have to contend with restaurants from that point on.
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Our time in Amsterdam was rapidly coming to an end. I had mixed feelings about our experience because although the city was undoubtedly beautiful and exciting, I didn't feel that I had done as well as I could in creating our own unique experience. We had mostly trodden the well-worn paths carved out by millions of tourists, although in a somewhat condensed manner. I think the main problem was that having the car had forced us to base outside the city and I had then tried to see all of Amsterdam in just one day. If I had to do it over I probably would find a way to stay in Centrum and split the walking tour into at least two days, which would have allowed us to see some more local neighborhoods without getting exhausted. I thought our experience in Brussels had been much more successful. It was an important lesson to take to heart going forward as we would be beginning our swing through the German Rhineland the following day.

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:26 Archived in Netherlands Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog beverwijk foodhallen ridammerhoeve Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Amsterdam


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Although most of the day would be dedicated to our walking tour of Amsterdam it began in the Grote Markt of Haarlem. Every Saturday the main square in front of the cathedral fills with vendors selling artisanal foods and crafts. We found some tasty items including some surprisingly good empanadas that would tide us over until the first market in Amsterdam. There was no time to waste so our full exploration of Haarlem would have to take place the next day.
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Amsterdam occupies a lofty position on any list of the most visited European cities, somewhere around the level of Prague or Barcelona. When one considers that those tens of thousands of daily tourists are concentrated within the semicircular Centrum district between the Singelgracht canal and the IJ river the prospect of a walking tour of the city seems somewhat intimidating. Couple that with the high cost of parking in the city and its reputation for pickpockets and purse snatchers and it was with some trepidation that I drove into the heart of Amsterdam on Saturday morning. I had reserved a discounted spot in a garage through one of the online sites, although it was still expensive. One might think that Saturday wouldn't have been the optimal day if we found crowds unappealing but with regard to markets it was by far the best option. We parked close to the main train station and the first thing we saw when we exited the garage was a ransacked wallet that had been tossed over a railing. I patted my shorts to ensure that my wallet and phone were safely ensconced in my deep front pockets and reminded Mei Ling for the tenth time to be aware of her surroundings when she was taking pictures. We then proceeded west in the direction of our first market of the day.
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While the area immediately around the train station was a little gritty it didn't take long for Amsterdam to reveal its charms, especially once we crossed the inner Singel canal into the Canal Belt. This iconic neighborhood of Amsterdam is traversed by four parallel canals that were the result of a seventeenth century engineering project to improve commerce within the city. Colorful houseboats lined the sides of the canals while smaller pleasure boats cruised between them. Bicycles were absolutely everywhere. There wasn't a single railing or post in the center that didn't have a bike chained to it.
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The Noordermarkt was in the Jordaan area, just on the other wide of the outermost canal of the Canal Belt. This was another energetic artisanal market that filled the cobblestone plaza in front of the Protestant church Noorderkerk. There has been some form of market in this plaza since 1623. As in Haarlem there was a mix of local farm produce, Dutch standards like breads and cheese, and crafts. We supplemented the snacks we had had at the Haarlem market with awesome savory crepes with freshly sauteed sausage and bacon. The array of small tables that filled the remaining space in the plaza was filled to capacity. The sculpture of faceless figures wrapped together commemorates the Jordaan insurrection of 1934 during which five people were killed by police during a brief economic uprising.
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Just a block away is the long Lindengracht market which extends along the wide boulevard created when a canal was filled in in the late nineteenth century. Because of its linear nature it was quite crowded but not to the point that we couldn't move through without being jostled. This market had some of the most beautiful cheese and fruit stands we had seen since France. The highlight was an array of tables laden with crates of used books. At first I thought there wasn't much for kids but when the vendors saw Cleo and Ian thumbing through the books they started bringing out more and more material for kids and young adults and we soon had as many books as we could possibly carry in our backpacks. Combined with the haul from Brussels a few days earlier we were set for the last two weeks of the trip.
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The Jordaan comprises the western part of the outer ring of central Amsterdam and is considered to be one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of the city. It's not as upscale and commercial as the Canal Belt but there are still plenty of delicious-looking ethnic restaurants, art galleries, and small boutiques. There was much more residential real estate here as well which gave the Jordaan the atmosphere of a real neighborhood rather than a shopping and tourism district. One constant was that even in the quietest areas there were always crowds of people on the bridges and the streets along the canals. We slowly worked our way south through the neighborhood using the ornate belltower of Westerkerk as a landmark.
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Westerkerk was built during the Renaissance and has the tallest belltower in Amsterdam. Its red clock face and lapis crown are icons of the city. Rembrandt van Rijn died in bankruptcy and was buried as a pauper in Westerkerk but the exact location of his grave has been lost. He is remembered with a concert at the church once a year.
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After passing Westerkerk we crossed back into the Canal Belt whose lower segment is known as Negen Straatjes, the nine streets. The idea of giving this small section of the city its own name is a fairly recent strategy designed to bring more attention to the upscale galleries and boutiques that pack the narrow lanes. It was pleasant to walk through but I didn't get a sense of anything particularly different from the northern part of the Canal Belt. By this point Amsterdam was starting to feel rather homogeneous. Regardless of which direction we turned there would be a canal, boats, cafes, bicycles, galleries, and crowds and crowds of tourists. It was picturesque but I felt like there weren't any discoveries to be made. It was a contrast to Venice where we often stumbled upon beautiful and empty courtyards just a block away from some overrun major attraction. We crossed the Singel again and brushed by the touristic heart of Amsterdam before turning south towards the Cuypmarkt. One of the main draws here was the Bloemenmarkt, purportedly the world's only floating flower market. If anyone visualized hopping from boat to flower-laden boat in the middle of a canal they would have been sorely disappointed. Although the rear sections of the stalls are technically floating on the canal, anyone browsing from the street would never know they were even near the water. Long ago the flower and bulb traders would bring their boats in from out of town and sell to pedestrians directly but this part of the experience long ago fell by the wayside. My research had advised me that the flower market was a tourist trap with overpriced and poor quality goods so we just stopped by one stall to see what the fuss was about. It was colorful but we didn't have much interest in the omnipresent tacky souvenirs that were sold alongside the flowers.
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I had misjudged the distance to the Albert Cuyp Market so by the time we arrived after twenty more minutes the kids were a little bent out of shape. We were soon restored because it turned out to be a really fun market with something for everyone. It felt more like a street festival than a market although there was no shortage of vendors of fruit, souvenirs, street food, and clothing. Of course most of the people wandering the long street were tourists but I think there were a fair number of locals sprinkled in taking advantage of bargains on clothing and partaking in the selection of ethnic delicacies available. There were some cool things I hadn't seen before as well, such as the guy doing bespoke monograms on baseball hats with a computerized sewing machine. The market is over a hundred years old and arose spontaneously from a collection of pushcarts and traders in a working class section of the city. I held off on eating anything until we found the perfect spot, the quintessential Amsterdam seafood joint with pickled herring and fried fish. The herring was an obligatory experiment and it wasn't unpleasant, although I probably couldn't have managed more than the small portion I had been served.
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At this point I was regretting my decision to park in the garage and walk the entire city. Central Amsterdam was larger than I had anticipated and we had spotted street parking around the Cuyp Market. Nobody was excited about walking all the way back to the car but there wasn't any good alternative. We took an alternate route directly through the central neighborhood of Binnenstad and it surprisingly felt quite different from the Canal Belt and the Jordaan. We walked in the direction of the train station along the Kloveniersburgwal canal until we reached the last market on my list at Nieuwmarkt just as it was closing. I don't think we missed anything that we wouldn't have seen at one of the other markets and the kids cheered when they realized we wouldn't be doing any browsing. At the end of the market was the fifteenth century Waag, a remant of the old city walls that currently houses a restaurant. This is a popular area with tourists because it includes the famed Red Light district which I was intent on avoiding. That was unfortunate because it was intermingled with Amsterdam's Chinese commercial area which would have been interesting to see but there was way more seediness than I wanted to expose my kids to. We got one quick look at the scene from a bridge and I don't think the kids realized it was any different from what they had been looking at the whole day.
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The area between the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal and the Singel contains some of the most majestic churches and government buildings in Amsterdam but is also crammed with tourist tack like franchises of Madam Tussaud's and Ripley's Believe It or Not. One of Amsterdam's odd little quirks is the proliferation of rubber duck stores around the city center. Many visitors have come to believe that the rubber duck is a symbol of the city and make a point of buying a rubber duck as a souvenir, but nothing could be further from the truth. The actual story is that one gift shop owner noticed she was selling a lot of rubber ducks for reasons unknown and expanded that portion of her store until eventually she was selling rubber ducks almost exclusively. A viral trend was born and now almost every souvenir store in Amsterdam has rubber ducks on display.
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The final stop on our walking tour was Dam Square, considered to be the heart of Amsterdam. The square is surrounded by some of the city's iconic buildings such as the Royal Palace and the fifteenth century Nieuwe Kerk. It was also the site of a tragic massacre by German soldiers of Dutch civilians celebrating the impending liberation of Amsterdam by the Allies in the final days of World War II. In modern times the square is frequently the site of festivals and protests. We arrived at the very end of some kind of conflict between someone delivering a religious oration and women's rights advocates. It wasn't clear which was the demonstration and which was the counterdemonstration but it was over very soon after we arrived.
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I had expected that we would be in Amsterdam through the evening and would have dinner there but by five thirty we were completely exhausted with the walking and the crowds. There was still plenty of ground we hadn't covered but I felt a strong conviction that it would be more of the same atmosphere, similar sights, and neverending streams of tourists. We had simply had enough Amsterdam for one day and there was nothing to be gained by pushing it. I decided that we had time to visit the villages of Volendam and Marken north of the city that evening instead of the following day as I had originally planned.
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Volendam is an idyllic fishing village at the shore of the Markermeer, an enormous fresh water reservoir that was created by damming the former Zuiderzee inlet at its border with the North Sea. This dam and another dyke created later are testimony to the incredible power of Dutch engineering in transforming the topography of the Netherlands. The skill the Dutch have developed over many centuries in this area is probably the signature achievement of their country. Less than an hour from Amsterdam by car or public transport, Volendam has become a popular destination for a day excursion for locals and international visitors alike. When we parked a few blocks inland it seemed like a sleepy, bland town but once we arrived at the lakeside promenade it was quite crowded and commercial. It reminded me a lot of seaside towns I've visited in busy parts of New England. There was a large number of bars and restaurants one of which had even brought in sand to create the impression of a beach. Some of the other options for visitors were the replica of the old ship Halve Maen and a cheese factory which is operational for much of the day. We planned on eating in Volendam but couldn't find a restaurant that suited our tastes since they were generally centered on pub-type food like fried fish.
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It was too late to take the ferry to Marken so we had to go the long way round by car. The advantage of this route was that it took us through some beautiful rural countryside that was dotted with wind turbines as well as the Zeedijk causeway that was built in 1957 to connect the island to the mainland.
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Marken was a much calmer and more intimate scene than Volendam. The village was tiny and at first I made the mistake of driving into it before realizing that the only parking for visitors was in the solitary lot at its southern edge. Next to the lot was a small canal with ducks and swans, and oddly enough a rather realistic plastic crocodile that was submerged except for its head. The funniest part was that there was a group of tourists who thought the crocodile was real and were quite agitated that the birds seemed to be unaware of it. We had some stale bread crusts in the car that we threw to the birds and I was finally able to show the tourists that the crocodile was plastic by bouncing a crust directly off the top of its head with no reaction whatsoever.
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Marken just had a small harbor and a few cafes and shops without any of the heavy tourist tack of Volendam. Because the ferries to Volendam were done for the day there was hardly anyone left in town except the locals. The conversion of the saltwater Zuiderzee to the freshwater Markermeer by the dikes deprived the island of its fishing livelihood in the mid twentieth century and most locals make their living from tourism or manufacturing. The village was very bucolic with traditional Dutch country houses and narrow bridges crossing the omnipresent canals.
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We were quite lucky because there was just one real restaurant at the harbor but the menu appealed to us much more than anything we had seen in Volendam. We had an excellent meal outdoors on a wooden patio overlooking the peaceful harbor, very pleased with ourselves for not having compromised with a safe choice in Volendam. It was the perfect ending to a long day exploring one of the most famous cities of Europe.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 23:57 Archived in Netherlands Tagged road_trip family haarlem volendam marken jordaan family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog cuyp_market Comments (0)

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