Vacation 2014: Western Europe

13 September 2014

Synopsis

Notes and impressions from our July-August 2014 trip to Western Europe: 5 countries in 10 days.


 Preparations

The timing for our trip was determined, for the most part, by my wife’s cousin in Korea who had plans to visit with her husband in Belgium who is currently working there on a temporary assignment for Hyundai. My wife and her cousin have kept in touch since they met during our trip to Korea in 2012. And not only was my wife’s cousin coming to Europe, but her niece also and the families of two other Korean friends whose husbands are also working for Hyundai in Belgium. Considering all the facts, we thought this would be an opportune time to make the trip since we would see some familiar faces and we wouldn’t be totally on our own during our first trip to Europe.

Our first destination in Europe would be Eindhoven in the Netherlands where my wife’s cousin’s husband, Mr. Seo, has an apartment or flat. So, the first thing we needed to do was to book our flights. I was somewhat hesitant to fly a U.S. airline but U.S. Air (now merged with American) offered a deal we couldn’t refuse, $2,500 round trip. So we booked flights from Orlando to Brussels, Belgium with a plane change over in Charlotte, NC right from the U.S. Air website.

Since we were going to be traveling with my wife’s Korean relatives on the weekends, it was difficult to know exactly where to book our hotel rooms, especially for Friday and Sunday nights. And since I personally like the Booking.com website, that’s where I made all our hotel reservations. As it turned out, we needed to make a few changes during our time in Europe.

In addition to having to get from Brussels Airport to Eindhoven, we also decided to visit Amsterdam and Paris during the week, so train tickets were a necessity. I used the Rail Europe website and after spending a few hours trying to sort it all out, I purchased all the train tickets I thought we would need.

So, with airline, hotel and train tickets booked, we were ready to go.

Traveling to Europe

Checking in at Orlando Int’l went smoothly and somehow we made it on to the TSA PreCheck list so we didn’t have to remove our shoes and belts; getting through security was a breeze. The flight from Orlando to Charlotte departed and arrived without delays. I think the Charlotte Douglas Int’l airport is a nice alternative to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta. Atlanta is always overcrowded and the terminal tends to make me feel claustrophobic. In contrast, the Charlotte main terminal area is wide open including lots of glass which affords travelers some nice views of the runways. Our U.S. Air flight from Charlotte to Brussels also left on time and we even arrived about 40 minutes ahead of schedule.

At the time I made our flight reservations, I really wasn’t aware of the U.S. Air and American Airlines merger until we boarded our first leg of the trip in Orlando. According to some articles on the Internet, the U.S. Air and American Airlines merger will create the world’s largest airline which is predicted to have a detrimental effect on competition. Really? What has “competition” really given us but lousy service and baggage fees? What we lost was in-flight entertainment, meals, and courteous flight crews. Remember the good old days back in the ‘70s. The only thing airlines are competing on is price and the easiest way to reduce price is to cut customer service and all that goes with it. So, you pay less for your ticket but you get an all-around lousy flying experience. Efficiency reduces waste which reduces cost. Why can’t the airlines become more efficient? If there is to be competition in the U.S. airline industry, what I would like to see is competition in QUALITY! And no, I’m not asking for meals served on fine china. What I am asking for is more comfortable seats, more legroom, decent meals, in-seat entertainment, and USB ports for recharging mobile devices. Don’t let anyone kid you, any flight longer than 3 hours is a long fight, especially crammed into a tight seat with no legroom. Does it really have to be this way? Can’t a country who put a man on the moon in the 1960s and built the Space Shuttle, the most complex flying machine ever constructed, come up with a way to make commercial air travel a much more civilized experience? I certainly hope so.

U.S. Air is using Airbus a321s for its route between Orlando and Charlotte, a flight of little more than an hour. The a321 had better seats and more leg room than the Boeing 767-200er being used for the 8 hour flight between Charlotte and Brussels—go figure. On top of that, the Boeing 767 didn’t have in-seat entertainment, which really disappointed me. On the positive side, the food on our Brussels flight was pretty good and we did arrive almost 40 minutes ahead of schedule.

Traveling Around Europe

After getting through customs in Brussels, our next destination was Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Since we were early, around 7:30 AM, the airport and train platforms were deserted. After figuring out which track our train to Antwerp would arrive on, we only waited about 15 minutes for it to pull in. After getting on the train, the conductor didn’t even check our ticket.

After the short ride, we arrived at Antwerp Central Station for our first connection on the way to Eindhoven. According to pages on the Internet, Antwerp Station is a tourist destination in and of itself. So, you would think that such a popular place would have numerous rest room facilities—well you would be wrong. After a lengthy search we finally found one. In Europe, rest rooms are indicated on signs as “WC” which stands for water closet. Make sure you have some coin ready because it costs €0.50 to use the water closet. Fortunately, our facility had a bill changing machine. From that point on, we always had a supply of €0.50 pieces.

After an almost 4 hour wait, our Thalys train to Rotterdam Central Station finally arrived. When the train doors opened, all you could see was luggage. Since luggage was crammed into every nook and cranny in the rail car, we were forced to sit with our luggage alongside of us in the aisle.

Our train tickets from Brussels to Eindhoven included a connection in Antwerp and another in Rotterdam. What our tickets didn’t make clear was that another connection was required in Utrecht. So, after asking a number of other passengers for help, we were advised to get off the train at the next stop and to return to Rotterdam to catch another train to Utrecht. From Utrecht we finally caught the right train to Eindhoven.

I spent about $800 on our train tickets which I ordered on-line, and with the exception of two of our three reserved Thalys trains, none of our tickets were checked on board. I was expecting a conductor to walk through the train and check everyone’s tickets, but it didn’t happen. Maybe it’s some sort of secret honor system going on. Anyway, I was thinking we could have saved almost $500 on train tickets.

During our first weekend in Europe we visited Cologne, Germany; Luxembourg City; and Roermond, Mr. Seo had the itinerary all worked out so he acted as our tour guide. Since there were so many of us, we had to drive around in three cars, one of which was rented. All the cars had GPS systems so getting around was fairly uneventful except for the drive from Cologne to our first hotel somewhere between Bastogne, Belgium and Luxembourg. Somehow, Mr. Seo’s friend and co-worker who was driving the car I was in, programmed the wrong address into the GPS system. I couldn’t tell for sure, but based on the speed and time we were traveling, I estimated we were between 50-100 miles off course. All was well except that our fuel tank reserve light came on while we were still on the motorway. Fortunately, we were at the exit for Bastogne so we got off to look for a fuel station. As we got off the exit ramp, instead of turning in the direction of the signpost which pointed to Bastogne, our driver turned in the opposite direction. Realizing he was lost again, he pulled off the road and then miraculously, another car pulled alongside of us out of nowhere. The occupants in the other car helped us with directions back to Bastogne where we could find fuel.

By the time we found a service station, it was almost 9:00 PM, starting to get dark, and the station attendant was closing up shop so we couldn’t get assistance or even use the toilette. In 1944, a major battle was fought between American and German forces in the town of Bastogne. Now, in 2014, another battle was fought between an American, three Koreans and an unmanned fuel pump payment machine. Then, General Patton’s 3rd Army rescued Bastogne from the German army. Now, four tourists were rescued by a local patron who knew how to use the payment machine. After getting our fuel, we finally made it to our hotel.

During our second weekend in Europe we visited Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges. Since it was just the two of us, Mr. Seo’s family, and his friend’s family we only needed two cars instead of three. Remembering our previous experience at Bastogne, we fueled up the cars before starting our trip. After our stay in Bruges, Belgium, Mr. Seo graciously offered to take us to our hotel in Brussels. Since our hotel was at the airport, I thought it finding it would be a no-brainer. Well, even though GPSs supposedly have brains, they don’t have common sense. And while there is no way an airport hotel could possibly be located in the middle of a residential neighborhood that was exactly where it was guiding us! I knew we were in trouble because I didn’t even see any planes flying overhead nor did I even see any signs indicating an airport was nearby. For some reason, the GPS just couldn’t handle the address, Berkenlaan 4, B-1831 Diegem, Belgium. After over an hour driving around Brussels, we finally made it to the Thon Hotel.

Locations and Accommodations

The Netherlands

Our first destination in Europe was Eindhoven. We stayed at the Hampshire Hotel – Crown Eindhoven located in the center of town, about 2 blocks from the train station. We included breakfast with our room reservation which totaled €87.10. The breakfasts were typical European buffet style with cheeses, cold cuts, hardboiled eggs, scrambled eggs and bacon, breads, croissants, yogurt, cereals, juices, and coffee. The room was a little tight by American standards but still comfortable. The TV took some getting used to, since there were no English language stations.

Hampshire Hotel – Crown Eindhoven
Vestdijk 14-16, 5611 CC Eindhoven, The Netherlands
www.hampshire-hotels.com

Eindhoven is not exactly a prime tourist destination compared to other locations in the Netherlands, such as Amsterdam, but it is a tourist destination for those who are interested in the history of the Philips Consumer Electronics Corporation. We were told by one of the locals that the train station was designed after a vintage Philips tabletop radio—check out the picture in my photo gallery and see if you agree.

During our first weekend with made trips to Maastricht and Roermond with our Korean traveling companions. In Maastricht we visited Vrijthof square, the Cathedral Bookstore and took in some views by the Meuse River after picking up some pastries at a local shop.

Our stop in Roermond was at the Designer Outlet. If you’re looking to shop for only upscale brands then this is the place for you. While we were there, a pretty intense thunderstorm blew through but we later had the pleasure of seeing a double rainbow (picture in my photo gallery).

On Monday of our first week, my wife and I left on our planned a two-day trip to Amsterdam. We took the train from Eindhoven where we stayed over on Sunday night. Amsterdam is completely overrun with tourists. The streets immediately across the way from the central train station are full of pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, cars, trucks, and trolleys. To make matters worse, there was major construction on the Damrak, the main street used by travelers entering the city from Centraal Station, which just added to the confusion. Our hotel, the Tulip Inn, was only about three blocks from Centraal Station, but negotiating the crowded streets while pulling our luggage was still a challenge.

Tulip Inn Amsterdam Centre
Beursstraat 11-19, Amsterdam City Centre, 1012 JT Amsterdam
http://www.tulipinnamsterdamcentre.com/en

We woke up early on Tuesday morning so that we could purchase our tickets for the Hop on – Hop off sightseeing bus, canal cruise and Countryside & Windmills excursion. Greeting us as we walked out of our hotel were streets and sidewalks literally covered in trash from the overnight binging—totally disgusting.

The Tours & Tickets Countryside & Windmills excursion was pretty decent. The excursion included a tour of a cheese factory and museum in Volendam; a boat ride to Marken; a tour of a traditional clog maker’s shop in Marken; and a windmill tour in Zaanse Schans. The entire excursion lasted 5 1/2 hours and cost €40 each. The only thing negative I could say about the excursion was that the free time they gave us for lunch was at 10:30 AM! Our tour guide encouraged us to eat at a traditional fish restaurant, but it was just a little too early in the morning for fish and chips especially since we already had breakfast at our hotel. We decided to do some shopping instead.

That evening we had dinner at the Sea Palace Chinese Restaurant. The Sea Palace was the first floating restaurant in Europe. This restaurant is an attraction and photo opportunity in and of itself. In addition, the food was excellent and the service was great.

After having dinner at the Sea Palace, we decided to check out the Sex Museum on the way back to our hotel since it was located right on the Damrak. Besides, since we were staying near the Red Light District anyway, it seemed like the thing to do. Needless to say, they have everything so you won’t be disappointed. I took a lot of pictures, but I could only post a small sample in my photo gallery.

Germany

Our first weekend excursion took us into Cologne, Germany. Among other things, Cologne is famous for its cathedral. Of course everyone wanted to climb the 533 steps to get to the viewing platform, including my wife who was still having knee problems; I decided to stop at the bell chamber but she continued on. The inside of the cathedral is awe-inspiring; pictures just can’t capture the enormity of the interior space.

After touring the cathedral we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. The waiter recommended a traditional German dish of boiled (crock pot) pork shank and cabbage. Everyone ordered the same thing except for my wife who ordered sausages and cabbage. For an appetizer, we had a potato pancake and smoked salmon which were very good. I’m not partial to boiled meat so I wasn’t exactly crazy about the pork shank but it was okay.

After lunch we took a walk to the Love Locks Bridge over the Rhine River and then left shortly afterwards since it started raining.

Luxembourg

We also visited Luxembourg City during our first weekend traveling in Europe. One of the most unexpected, unique and eye-catching sites in the city is the street with the colorful floating umbrellas (see Figure 1).

Rue Phillipe II
Figure 1
Rue Phillipe II

We past the Outdoor Market and the Grand-Ducal Palace on the way to Le Chemin de La Corniche. The views of the city, lower town (Grund), and valleys from the pedestrian promenade are really spectacular and a must-see when visiting Luxembourg.

France

From Amsterdam we took a Thalys train directly to Paris. It started raining as we arrived at Nord Station which by now was becoming an almost daily occurrence. I decided ahead of time to skip the Metro and just take a taxi to our hotel. As we walked from the platform into the main part of the station, we were greeted by an official looking person who said he could get us a van that would take us to our hotel. He said the fare would be €65. I thought that sounded a bit high since the postings I found on the Internet said the approximate cost of the trip from Nord Station to the Eiffel Tower area is around €13. Since the van was immediately available, we decided to take it.

We got to our hotel straightaway, and as I approached the person at the hotel desk, I greeted him with “Bonjour.” I could tell he was a bit surprised and after some hesitation, he responded back with “Bonjour.” Everything went fine after that.

We decided to get some lunch before touring the Invalides and Napoleon’s Tomb, so we had some soup and salad at the La Tour Maubourg Café, Brasserie. We also returned to the same Café later that evening with my wife’s cousin and niece who traveled to Paris earlier from Eindhoven and then met up with us at the hotel.

For our second night, we had dinner at a Japanese restaurant, Tottori, which was on Rue de Grenelle, just a few blocks from our hotel. I went for the tempura. Unlike how a lot of other Japanese restaurants serve tempura, Tottori’s portions are somewhat large but still tasty.

Paris was incredible! We liked everything, the architecture, bridges, cafés, tree lined streets, and of course the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower is definitely the must-see in Paris. We didn’t have time to go up in the tower but we did spend a decent amount of time taking pictures from the Champs de Mars. The tower is especially awesome at night since it’s all lit and it flashes for ten minutes every hour on the hour.

Eiffel Tower
Figure 2
Eiffel Tower

The highlight of our visit to Paris, next to the Eiffel Tower, was our Bateaux-Mouches evening boat tour on the Seine River. Since it didn’t rain that evening, we were really able to take full advantage of the ride. The boats are flat, wide, and open topped so you really can’t miss anything.

We spent our two night stay at the Jardins d’Eiffel hotel which is located between The Invalides and the Eiffel Tower. It’s a nice area, close to restaurants, cafés, and a metro stop. And, it’s only about a 15 minute walk to get to the Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower. The hotel staff were friendly and helpful. They have a courtyard off the dining room which provides a view of the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t allow us to have our breakfasts outside. I definitely would stay at this hotel again.

Jardins d’Eiffel
8, rue Amélie
75007 Paris – France
http://www.hoteljardinseiffel.com/en/presentation-hotel-tour-eiffel

Oh, getting back to that €65 van ride we took from Nord Station…the morning of our departure we had the hotel call us a cab to get back to Nord Station. This time the ride was only about €14—nice!

Belgium

In Belgium, we visited the following cities: Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges. In reality, we made two visits to Antwerp; one with our Korean companions during our second weekend in Europe; and one on our first day in Europe while traveling from Brussels Airport to Eindhoven. Since our flight arrived in Brussels early, our getting through customs didn’t take as long as I had planned, we wound up having a four hour layover in Antwerp Station. Luckily, we were able to hang out in a café for the duration of our wait since European train stations don’t really have waiting rooms where you can sit. Since I had plenty of time, I took some extra photos.

We arrived in Brussels after taking the Thalys train directly from Paris. We were on our own that last Friday afternoon since we weren’t scheduled to meet up with our Korean companions until Saturday morning. So, we headed out from the Hotel St. Nicolas, where we were staying, to find a place for dinner. We turned up Gretrystraat which was lined with restaurants. We happened by Le Canebiere which had a sign outside advertising both meat and seafood platters for €18, or so we thought. That was just too good to pass up, so we sat down. The waiter explained that the platters we were asking about were intended to be shared by two people. We asked if one person could finish them and he said, “It’s possible,” so we ordered one of each. This restaurant has been given some horrible reviews on-line, but we didn’t find it to be all that bad. Our real surprise came with the check; it was for €113 just a little more than we were expecting! Anyway, we wrote it off to experience.

The only hotel we really didn’t like was the Hotel Saint Nicolas since it had long dark hallways leading to our room. Since they were trying to save energy, motion sensors were used to turn on the hallway lights, but it was still a little creepy.

Hôtel Saint Nicolas ***
Rue Marché aux Poulets 32
1000 Bruxelles Belgium
http://www.st-nicolas.be/

In Brussels we visited the Grand Palace Square; the Manneken Pis (highly overrated if you ask me); the Galeries Saint Hubert (walkthrough only); and the park outside of Saint Michael’s Cathedral.

Many cities in Belgium have grand squares with ornate buildings and Antwerp and Bruges were no exception. In Antwerp, we toured inside the Cathedral of Our Lady and in Bruges we took a canal boat ride. The Bruges boat ride would have been nice if it weren’t for the pouring rain we had right after the tour started. It rained so hard at one point that the driver had to stop the boat under a bridge to offer us a break from the rain.

On Saturday night, we stayed at the Hotel Gravensteen in Ghent while the Koreans made reservations at a Korean bed and breakfast nearby. After we all had dinner at the bed and breakfast, they drove us to our hotel. The Hotel Gravensteen was one of the nicest hotels we stayed in. Literally right across the street was Castle Gravensteen which is quite a sight at night since they have it all lit with flood lights.

Hotel Gravensteen Gent
Jan Breydelstraat 35
9000 Gent
http://www.gravensteen.be/

Traveling Back to the U.S.

We stayed at the Thon Hotel Brussels Airport for our last night in Europe. This hotel is very reasonably priced and they offer free shuttle bus service to the airport. The only problem with the hotel is that their restaurant isn’t open during summer months. The hotel website does point this out but the good news is that just a short walk through the parking lot takes you to the Holiday Inn and their restaurant is open.

Thon Hotel Brussels Airport
Berkenlaan 4, 1831 Diegem, Belgium
http://www.thonhotels.com/hotels/countrys/belgium/brussels/thon-hotel-brussels-airport/

Our flight departed Brussels and arrived in Charlotte on-time. Even though the flight back to the U.S. was only a little longer than the flight over to Europe, it seemed twice as long for some reason. While the food and service on the flight were pretty good, the entertainment left a lot to be desired. To U.S. Air’s credit, our flight from Charlotte to Orlando was also on-time, unlike our round-trip flights from Orlando to Atlanta on Delta two years ago.

Altogether it was a pleasant trip.

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Copyright 2014 Gerard Sczepura

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