I knew next to nothing about Brussels, apart from the fact that is the capital of Belgium, where a friend of mine is from. Upon arrival I discovered that most public signage is in Dutch, which is much harder to muddle through than French. But I was able to eventually make a connection to the local streetcar system and get to my next hostel. Along the way I noted the mix of architectural styles and seemingly random building heights.
By this point in the trip, I was developing a pretty good routine. I’d drop off my backpack at the lodgings, find something to eat, then search for postcards to mail home. I found European souvenir shops also sell stamps, which is definitely not the case in the U.S. Later in Copenhagen I tried to buy a stamp alone, but I was required by law to purchase something else with it (so I got an extra postcard). Later I’d freshen up and go out to dinner, and usually have a drink at a local watering hole to get a feel for the different restaurant and bar scenes. Sometimes the hostel staff (who all spoke English) made helpful recommendations.
I found a cafe name Jat, which had a sign out front claiming “caffeine makes you sexy”. I couldn’t pass that up, of course. Recharged, I started my recon and discovered a heavily-guarded United Nations conference facility nearby. I also ventured uphill and discovered a massive commercial street called Avenue de la Toison d’Or, which has separate lanes for parking on both sides of it, along with a tram line in places. The main traffic lanes dive underground at several points. So Europe is not immune to inner-city highway-type roads, but certainly this one fit in well with its trees, stoplights, tunnels, and frequent pedestrian crossings.
Curiosity satisfied, I made my way back downhill, but not before stopping for a chocolate-drizzled Belgian waffle served out of a yellow van parked next to a Ferris wheel, perched at a stunning viewpoint looking over the city. Looking out over this vista, and realizing the city was huge, I had a sudden bit of homesickness. My spirits were dampened from earlier in the walk when I accidentally walked through a massive puddle in a pedestrian tunnel – resulting in the second day in a row for soggy shoes. The waffle, thankfully, introduced itself to my life at just the right moment, and reinforced me greatly.
I circled back to my hostel, and while changing socks I decided to go for a jog to see more sights. It was early afternoon and chilly, but the sidewalks were mostly clear. I stuck to the wider streets with smooth paving, and wound my way through the central business district and the royal Brussels Park. I stopped at the edge of Old Town, which is a delightful maze of pedestrian streets. I was drawn in with the intense amount of shops, eateries, and people. The place is an amazing example of medieval design, and I’m sure the amount of economic activity and tax dollars is something American town leaders can only dream of. There’s also chocolate and waffle shops in seemingly every other storefront, advertised with spectacular and colorful window displays. I picked up two bags of genuine Belgian chocolates, one of the only souvenirs I bought on the whole trip due to my tight backpack space.
Anyway, I finally made it to the center of the neighborhood, a grand plaza known as…the Grand Place. It is surrounded by ancient, towering guild houses decorated with all manner of architectural ornaments and golden-colored metalwork. I later learned its origins date back some 900 years, and today the plaza is surrounded by a mix of private residences, the town hall, and guildhouses (some of which are now museums). Some of the guilds with headquarters here included the greasers, carpenters, boat builders, haberdashers, bankers, butchers, brewers, tailors, painters, and some surrounding streets are named after sellers of butter, cheese, herring, and coal. Clearly, commerce is celebrated here. The plaza also has excellent acoustical qualities, as I learned when people across the plaza turned to watch a man and woman arguing about something. Aside from the human wildlife, the space might benefit from some trees to soften its acres of pavers, but nonetheless it was once rated the most beautiful plaza in Europe.
I also investigated the Little Pissing Man, a centuries old fountain that apparently embodies Belgians’ sense of humor and independence. One may recognize it as a garden ornament used across the world.
After happening upon a local restaurant that served lasagna and amber beer, and a night cap at a gothic-themed basement pub, my day in Brussels came to a close. It was a surprisingly pleasant city and I wouldn’t mind visiting again, although I’m told next time I’m in Belgium I must visit the even more beautiful cities of Bruges and Ghent.
With a quick trip on another red Thalys train, on March 7 I emerged onto the Centraal Station plaza on a beautiful blue sky day. From the station architecture and my vantage of the city skyline, I was instantly struck by the amount of red brick and colorful facade details. I was going to be checking out the famous bike paths here, of course, but I would soon see how much quality urban design Amsterdam has to offer as well.
A fleet of streetcars stood at the ready outside the train station. One whisked me through the city center, where there were a lot of construction works going on. After hopping off across from the Van Gogh museum, I walked the rest of the blocks to the hostel. Along the way I noticed most residential streets had a lot of cars parked on them, and I was reminded this had been the case in most of the previous cities. Indeed, cars, motorbikes, and small delivery trucks are everywhere in the major cities, zooming along with precious cargo or parked on side streets. The transit and bike infrastructure may be excellent, but that doesn’t mean people still don’t own cars – it’s just that, as I saw here in Amsterdam, the roads are not designed to cater to the every whim of cars. On the rest of the trip I very rarely, if ever, saw large parking lots, street parking in pedestrian districts, or any type of high-speed freeway.
Most buildings are not very tall, often only four stories at most. Despite this, it feels like a proper city, with plenty of vibrancy and amenities around every corner. Further, most residences are skinny rowhouses, and I’m guessing the windows are wider than the stairways, because they tend to have a beam for rope pulleys built into the very top of the facade. It must be how furniture is moved in and out, and possibly used for other deliveries.
Not only was the weather and the aura of the city making a good impression on me, but this was also the first stop I’d be renting a private room. I had been advised to do this once in a while on the trip, and I’m glad I did, because it gave me a chance to recharge and, frankly, scatter my stuff around without worrying about the mess or security. The private shower here was also a luxury on my budget, though most of the hostels I stayed in on this trip had very high-quality shared restrooms too.
On my way back out, I talked to the friendly staff and rented myself a bike and chain lock. They were stored on the pedestrian street right outside the front door. The rentals were curvaceous, heavy orange things, but that was okay because Amsterdam is nearly flat as a pancake. The city is basically at sea level and divided into numerous islands by canals that were dug centuries ago to facilitate water drainage, sewage, and commerce.
I’d only be spending one day here, so I pedaled off to round up some key attractions. First was the infamous Anne Frank Huis, where the globally-known Jewish girl hid from German occupation for several years. I had been interested in getting a tour, but didn’t register online in time. Still, it seems the house draws a crowd outside year-round. It was a bit strange seeing people smiling for photos outside such a sad place.
Onwards, I was delighted by the sight of a new canal every couple of blocks. The bike paths are as nicely paved and connected as I had hoped, and when alongside motor traffic the paths are slightly elevated and/or physically separate. At one point I was delayed by the cutest bike-path-sized street sweeper. I also found myself riding precariously alongside canals, only a few feet from a cold drop. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a few cars take a swim each year. In general, Europeans definitely rely more on common sense for these situations than robustly engineered protection.
I generally ambled toward a cafe I had heard about, Winkel, where I enjoyed their famous apple pie. Outside the cafe several streets were occupied by large market, with sellers hawking everything from potatoes to vinyl records to leather bicycle seats. Later on I passed through a large plaza, where a crowd was holding some kind of demonstration related to Israel and Palestine.
At one point, the bike lock opted out of returning to the hostel, and I didn’t discover it missing until I got back. I actually don’t remember how I resolved that situation. The memory is easily soothed over with my jog around Vondelpark, a large and busy park near the hostel that appears to the be largest green space in the city core. It had a great scene of ponds, art, and families biking around. That night, I ate at a higher end restaurant recommended by a friend, but felt completely out of place in my travel-style clothes. Backpacking is a bit of a hamper on fine dining fashion.
And finally, yes, I investigated Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District. I was expecting to be on the lookout for muggers and pickpockets in dark alleys, but the experience was the complete opposite. The district is a bustling and brightly lit tourist draw. I felt like I was in lines at Disneyland. There were even ambassadors in official jackets, and I was warned bouncers tend to throw peeping cameras into canals. I probably saw 100 women displaying their wares, and more than one man entering doors to seek services as early as 10pm. It was also the first place I had seen police officers anywhere in the world running on their feet to a disturbance, rather than roaring by in patrol cars.
With a full day under my belt, I departed the next morning for Berlin. I realized the Dutch do not wake early. I had booked an early train and gotten up before the sun to try to grab food on the way to the station, but not a single bakery or coffee shop in the three kilometers between me and the train was open before 7am, according to Google Maps. Except, of course, a Starbucks, which was not my style. The streetcars also did not run early, so I took my first and only local bus ride on this trip. I’ll add that Google Maps and the Transit app was indispensable throughout Europe and worked well for all of my intercity transit wandering.
I had been warned something would go wrong eventually with the trip, but the last place I was expecting it was the German train system. Germans are known for their efficiency and reliability, aren’t they? Well, my Deutsch Bahn Intercity Express train from Amsterdam to Hannover ended up being 40 minutes late, causing me to miss the transfer to Berlin. Thankfully, staff at the station got me on another train 30 minutes later, but my original seat reservation did not apply to this new train. I ended up hanging out in a vestibule between passenger compartments, and wasn’t sure that was allowed until I saw another person in my situation, who happened to be a German solider in fatigues, and when a conductor greeted me. I did manage to snag an empty seat for the last 15 minutes of the ride.
This would not be my last dance with Deutsch Bahn.
On pulling into Berlin on March 8, I was immediately struck by the different scale and pattern of the city. Buildings tended to be spaced much further apart, streets are wider, and the public plazas and parks are massive. Trees seemed sparse, making streets and open spaces feel bare. Maybe it’s my bias towards WWII history, but the city struck me as designed for military rallies, marches, and convoys. It may also be that Berlin isn’t as limited or oriented to waterways, unlike many European cities, and therefore has had room to spread out. The Germans’ straightforward manner also shows up in the design of Berlin’s commercial and residential buildings, which generally lacked the intensity of ornamentation and facade details I had seen up this point.
I failed to find the local bus stop at the train station, but didn’t mind huffing the 45 minutes to my next hostel. My route south from Berlin Hauptbahnhof took me through Großer Tiergarten, one of the largest parks in the city, and past landmarks such as the Reichstag Building. Near the Brandenburg Gate I came across a band outfitted in funky costumes playing the American hit Uptown Funk. Nearby I fortuitously encountered shared scooters, for which I already had an account, and used one to complete my trek.
Checking in at my hostel here, I was greeted by very friendly staff. I was not only given a quick orientation and map of the area, but also a cup of coffee and and a dinner recommendation. I also picked up on the fact that the hostel was much quieter than usual, and as I selected a bed in my shared room, the stillness seemed to emphasize that travel was being damped by the virus situation. The hostel was huge, though, and apparently rated one of the best in country, so I felt like I had the run of a fine mansion to myself.
For all of the differences in urban design I was discovering, that evening I found Berlin has a bustling cafe and restaurant scene. On cold and rainy nights anywhere, people can be drawn toward the promise of warmth, beer, and food, even on outdoor sidewalk decks. After a dinner of rindgoulash at Felix Austria, I found myself at a dimly lit dive to take in the local characters. It turns out you can still smoke inside here. A jug of beer on the wall behind the bar started leaking, resulting in quite a spectacle.
The next morning, a drizzly one, I worked my way toward central Berlin by way of U-Bahn (underground) and S-Bahn (suburban) trains. I was headed to another bike tour, this one originating in the shadow of the Berliner Fernsehturm, a 1960s television tower that was built by the government of Eastern Germany to demonstrate its power to the West, and today remains the tallest structure in the city.
This tour was to be slightly more lively than Paris, headed by a redheaded Irish ex-pat, several staff members along for training, and two other tourists. We stopped at a number of historic buildings that have significance both for Germany’s early history and the activities of the Nazi government through WWII. Stops included the Checkpoint Charlie (now neighboring a McDonald’s), pieces of the Berlin Wall, the low-key site of Hitler’s bunker (today an apartment complex), and the Brandenberg Gate, which is flanked by the American and French embassies.
I was particularly struck by a longer stop at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed as a whole city block of concrete columns. Over six million Jews were systematically killed in the Holocaust, and the somber nature of the memorial just begins to hint at the scale of that tragedy.
After the bike tour, I chomped down a street gyro with fries and hopped on another subway to the outskirts of Berlin. I was in search of the of the Autobahnüberbauung Schlangenbader Straße (Autobahn development on Schlangenbader Street), a colossal social residential development built over a 4-lane highway. It was a form of a lid or deck over the highway, which I advocate for in Seattle as a volunteer project. The Autobahnüberbauung is over a quarter-mile long, has some 1,700 homes, and has a maximum height of 14 floors. When it was built in the 1970’s, West Berlin was facing a housing shortage, so it was worth making more productive use of this land. It also has some ground-floor commercial space and lovely courtyard gardens. The complex is so large it was difficult to get a representative photo from the ground – check out the Wikipedia link above for more info.
I returned to the center city and took a jog through the neighborhood around my hostel. One unique sight was a guy juggling pins in front of drivers stopped at a red light – for tips or his own amusement, who could say? Later I found a strip of small restaurants, one offering sidewalk pizza sales, and I indulged. The next morning on March 10, back at the main train station, I also finally found a “proper” croissant with meat and cheese. I was having a lot of fun with the food on this trip! And overall, I really enjoyed Berlin and its inhabitants, and would come back with more time. I also want to visit the other major German cities of Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Stuttgart, and Munich.
Slightly less fun was my journey to Copenhagen. For the second time on a Deutsch Bahn train I missed a transfer, this time in Hamburg (set for 8:53am), because my first train was delayed due to a signal failure. This cascaded into an early deboarding at a small town, where the entire trainload was asked to switch to a local light rail train that took us to an intermediate station in Lubeck, but not before a door malfunction caused another delay. At least people were laughing at our collective misfortune. We finally arrived into Lubeck at 10:10, where staff held up a regional train to get us all to the original Hamburg destination.
The bright note from all this was meeting a friendly German man named Mike, who had been seated with me the entire way from Berlin. He offered very helpful interpretations of the announcements and acted as my guide as we schlepped from train to train, naturally taking on his role as tour leader. He operates a “running sightseeing” company and even gave me a brochure. Mike biked across America 40 years ago and shared fond memories. He closely follows American politics and had a lot to share and ask me about. We also discussed urban planning in Berlin, Paris, and New York.
Arriving in Hamburg at 11:00, I had a couple hours to kill waiting for my final transfer to Copenhagen, leaving at 12:53. After showing me the best food the station had to offer (spicy sausage curry at the impressive food court), we bid farewell. Mike was transferring to Bremen to care for his mother who had just had surgery. I talked to train staff at the DOL-style customer service office to get a seat reservation for my final link, and some paperwork to apply for a partial refund.
I wandered around Hamburg a bit, and found the city center a little more familiar and compact. There is a great mix of old world and modern buildings side-by-side. I noticed a lot of heavy bus traffic. But, overall, I know I saw only a small slice of the many sights and opportunities that Hamburg has to offer.
Returning to the train station, I encountered the first paid restroom on my journey, with a gate that required payment. Certainly the facility was clean and worth the minor fee. When planning this trip I hadn’t been sure I was going to use much cash, but I’m very glad I brought a lot. It ended up being very useful for making these type quick transactions at ticket machines, small shops, and restaurants where handheld card readers take awkwardly long to process. I also encountered a few restaurants that were cash-only.
That’s the end of Part 2. Go to Part 3 here.