Europe 2017: Gent, Amsterdam, and Feeling Crappy

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Castle in Gent

Although my primary goal of this trip is riding the trains, one of the disadvantages of spending only a small amount of time in any given place is that when something happens, you now have even less time to explore that place than you did before.
Such was the case with this leg of the trip. It actually started on the second night in London when suddenly I was experiencing a nausea-like feeling from my stomach. I’m still not sure what it was – maybe a stomach acid thing – but fearing a stomach bug, it sent me back to my room rather than seek out food that night.

I would note that I was still transitioning to the time difference, travel fatigue and all, as well as having kind of pushed myself the first day to stay up, so that may have been part of it.

Regardless of the cause, I was able to get up and to the station for my Eurostar trip to Brussels.
Thinking that maybe the issue was lack of food, I grabbed some breakfast after passport control in St. Pancras. The train trip itself was indeed fast and uneventful. We passed through the Channel and into France and then Belgium.

Upon getting to Brussels, it was clear this stomach issue wasn’t going away. Still thinking it might be food-related, I found some lunch, and then pushed off to Gent, my destination in Belgium. After some previous discussions, it was clear there isn’t a whole lot to do in Brussels, anyway, so I’ll visit properly another time.

It wasn’t long to Gent, about 25 minutes. Once off the train, I found myself in a bit of a bind. I knew I had to take a tram to a street near the hostel, but it wasn’t immediately clear to me how to get a ticket. The machine only took certain coins and even after getting them, it still didn’t work. I finally was able to ask a waiting passenger if they sold tickets about – turns out the answer is yes.

Once I checked into the hostel, I was feeling better, so I took a walk around the old part of the city. It’s a nice area, with some thin streets, some wider ones, and even a castle and some churches. All in all, it’d be a nice place to stay for a few days and I will return.

Although I was able to walk a decent distance, my stomach had other plans, and I had to return to the hostel. I got a few hours sleep. I wasn’t happy about it but thought it better than getting ill. After waking, I thought I’d better get some food, so went to a nearby place. Nothing special – just some nuggets and fries. Something was definitely up, though, because my appetite was shot. I ate as much as I could and returned to the hostel.

One thing becoming apparent by that time was my constipation. It is unusual for me not to need the bathroom at least once per day, and with Crohn’s it’s usually more. I now wonder if that was part of the problem, perhaps in combination with crap food and not a lot of food. The next morning I was feeling better, so it was off to Gent station and to Amsterdam.

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Less Than 7 Days Until Europe!

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I haven’t written much about this trip, here or on Facebook. In fact, I haven’t written about a trip here since the big Cross-Country train trip in 2015, even though I’ve been to San Diego (on business) and to Orlando and Canada (Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Montreal – for pleasure) since.

I’m heading to Europe for 16 days in just under a week from now. I’ll be getting back to the continent after 10 years away, the last trip there being to Greece in 2007. It’s going to be a bit of a whirlwind of a trip. Why? Because I’m my own worst enemy. What started out as a desire to travel to London and then east to Belgium and The Netherlands has since turned into a bit a monster of a trip that will see me travel in all four cardinal directions. I’ll again be going on a massive train ride that will take me to seven countries in this time period.

Europe Trip 2017 Train Route Map

The above map shows more or less the route I’ll be taking through Europe. Starting out in London for a couple days, I’ll continue on Eurostar to Ghent, Begium for a day, and then the intercity train to Amsterdam for a couple days.  I’ll continue into Germany, stopping in Cologne and Bonn for a couple days. Then I’ll have what I think will be the first big highlight of this trip with a ride along the Rhine River on my way to the little southern German city of Freiburg. I’ll be there for a couple days as well.

Part of what turned this trip into a monster is that, before deciding on much else, I got taken by the prospect of a trip through the Swiss Alps by train, which will be the second and probably prime highlight of the trip (I’m a sucker for a nice mountain range). After a night in Zurich, I’ll be taking the popular Bernina Express on that route, from Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy.

I’ll continue on to Turin via Milan, and stay there for about a day and a half. Afterward, I’ll take a TGV train to Paris, where I’ll explore for another couple days. Then I’ll grab a Eurostar back to London for another day and then head back home.

So definitely a lot going on in a relatively compact amount of time but it’s definitely going to be exciting.  I look forward to seeing a lot of cool architecture, some of it very old, as well as mountains, valleys, and the backyards of seven countries. It’ll also be my first time on a high-speed train (including our own “high-speed” Acela), so that’ll be very interesting to experience.

I’ll be missing three big events during my time in Europe, either by choice or by coincidence:

  • Queen Elizabeth’s birthday will be four days after I leave London for home.
  • The French Presidential election will be seven days after I leave Paris.
  • I thought about including Rome on this trip but there is no way I wanted to be near there close to or on Easter Sunday. I imagine it’ll be a madhouse as people go to The Vatican.

I hope to do some updates while I’m there. I’ll be spending a lot of time on trains, so surely there will be some time. We’ll see how it all goes, though. I’ll have at least something on Facebook.

 

Leg 4: Southwest Chief, Sept 7-9

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Not long after getting to Union Station, we boarded the final train trip of this vacation, the Southwest Chief. As its name implies, it goes through Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, in the Southwest particularly, then up into a sliver of Colorado, into Missouri, a sliver of Iowa, and into Illinois.

I have to say that I think I liked the California Zephyr better. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good mountain range, but there was definitely greater range of landscape to see, including desert, mountains, rivers, plateaus, and yes, grassland. The Chief mostly goes through miles of desert then miles of grassland. Also, I slept through the one trip through high elevation we had.

There were some highlights, though. The people, for one. I had dinner on the first night with an elderly man, a Korean War veteran with loads of stories of his time in the Navy. There was also a guy starting his first semester of college in Arizona. His stop was during the early morning and his classes started just a few hours later. I wished him luck with that! There was also a breakfast with a guy going to play a gig in Kansas City but who felt flight too much of of hassle these days. And the couple taking the Chief to Chicago connecting to the northerly Empire Builder en route to Glacier National Park.

The second highlight was stars. Didn’t get a chance to see any the first night, but the second night was clear skies. It wasn’t perhaps the best view, given that we were moving, and we were often still pretty close to some light source, but it was the kind of star display we just don’t get in Connecticut.

The last highlight was my sleeper car’s attendant, Tom. Before taking this trip, I’d read that the car attendant could make or break a trip. I never had a bad one the three train rides, but Tom was definitely the best. He seemed to be a veteran of Amtrak, but was still quite personable, willing to get to know his passengers, and had a wealth of knowledge about the route.

At one point, during the mountain climb I missed, he was sure to point out that there might be animals to see and a ghost town from years ago. His second bit of knowledge was during the trip across Missouri, pointing out an old bridge and fort used during the Civil War. He showed an enthusiasm for these things and made the journey that much better.

I opted for the larger bedroom during this trip, and though I didn’t mind the roomette, the bedroom was better in many ways. I didn’t have to decide which thing to do first in the morning – medicine or brush my teeth – and having a shower and larger bed was very nice.

There wasn’t anything really new to report about food here, since I mostly had the same meals as last time, though I did try their salmon dinner, which was excellent.

That is it. The last entry will cover my couple days in Chicago.

 

Leg 3: Coast Starlight and Los Angeles, Sept 6-7

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I decided to get to the next cross-country train by way of Los Angeles by taking the Coast Starlight, a train that goes from Seattle to LA. I only took the Southern portion of the route.

After Billy Joel the previous night, my intention was to get some sleep on this train, but that didn’t really happen. Oh well. This ride did give me some insight into the extent of the drought. We passed by hundreds of miles of grass that had a dull yellow color to it, other than on the top of some hills and mountains.

The most exciting part of this trip was being next to water for a good extent of the length of it. On the train itself, the best part was the Pacific Parlour Car, a 1940s/1950s-ish style car with couches, armchairs, and a full bar. It even had wi-fi enabled when we were in an area with reception.

We got into LA’s Union Station about an hour early. I found my hotel pretty quickly – nothjng special – but it was near the hotel and good for a night. I’d had dinner on the train, so desperate for some sleep, I headed to bed.

The next day I got up early to take a trip to Santa Monica to visit Ed, one of my cousins. I got to see his recording studio (he does recording and the Santa Monica pier. We also had breakfast at this great Mexican place that also serves a traditional breakfast. They had like four full pieces of toast and a few pieces of bacon for about $7.00. That’s a lot of food! The pier was busy but not unmanageable, and I was able to see the Pacific Ocean and the promenade.

After that, I thought I should get back to downtown LA so I could get my luggage, which I left at the hotel and head back to Union Station. By the way, they need better signage for the subway. The sign says Red Line, but is the entrance for all the lines served out of Union Station.

I was able to spend a little time in the station’s Metropolitan Lounge, which was pretty swanky. After about half an hour wait, I boarded the Southwest Chief back to Chicago.

 

Leg 2: San Francisco, Sept 1-5

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So I arrived in San Francisco – actually, Emeryville, which is just outside the city, near Oakland – only to find out that I forgot to add on a bus trip connection from the trajn into the city. Whoops. Got an pass in the station and got on the bus to Fisherman’s Wharf. Not knowing the bus routes at all yet, I took a taxi to my hotel.

The Chelsea Motor Inn, in the Marina District, is part of a set of hotel that emulate a motor inn. It was pretty no-thrills, but I needed a place to sleep, and it was relatively cheap for a hotel in the city proper. It is surrounded by bars and restaurants, especially brunch places.

Just getting in and it being pretty late by then, I took it pretty easy, especially as I hadn’t slept very well on the train. Got some necessities at a nearby Walgreens and took a walk of the immediate area, selected a nearby Italian place for dinner, then went to bed.

Got a late start the next day due to wanting more sleep. I think people oftentimes want to get a full day of activities, but I think a late day here or there during a trip is okay. I’m having a very early day on Sunday, so it’ll balance out.

I decided to start with Fisherman’s Wharf. Before the trip, I purchased a CityPass, which got me access to several museums, a cruise in San Francisco Bay, and most importantly, unlimited travel on the Muni system of electric and diesel buses, light rail, historic street cars, and cable car trolleys. Basically, no more taxis (except, as of this writing, maybe on Sunday morning.

I took the cruise and it was a pretty good way to get an up close look at the Golden Gate Bridge, and some history of the city. Very cold and windy, though! In fact, that was my first lesson when arriving in the city. I knew it would be cooler than Los Angeles or even Chicago (making my clothing choices, if you didn’t know my plans, look like I couldn’t decide what to bring), and even windy, but I wasnt prepared for the intensity of the wind. I brought my coat and jeans, so I was prepared, but I tried to go out the first night without it. Rookie mistake.

I next went to the Aquarium at the Bay (my other option was the Monterey Aquarium, two hours away). It had a lot of cool fish and I got to touch a ray! I think they knew the game of which they were a part, as they kept coming right up to people. I thought the aquarium was okay for what it was. True to its name, it featured animals mostly from the Bay Area.

I walked around Pier 39 some more, had some lunch, and then decided to leave. I decided to board one of the hisoric streetcars. It was pretty much like one of the regular buses but from the 1950s. I up ended up in the Embarcadero area, thinking to o
ravel to the Transbay Hub, but I felt a little lost still, so turned back. I ended up grabbing a cable car trolley (no, I didn’t hang off the side). Without the city pass, it would have cost $7.00, but with the pass, it’s like having another bus option.

I got off on a street that had the bus I needed to take and found myself in Chinatown. When I salked to the bus stop, there was some kind of performance going on across the street. I later found out it was in front of the Kong Chow Temple, dedicated to the god of war, Guan Di. It was after closing time, so I’m not sure of the occasion. A private event, perhaps. Boarded the bus when it arrived and headed back to the hotel.

I either ate too many of my snacks, or maybe it was from my hotdog lunch, but I did not have a great night Wednesday night. Feeling kind of woozy, I just stayed in my room on Thursday and got some rest.

I felt better on Friday morning, so I went to Home Plate, a popular brunch restaurant near my hotel. There wasn’t much seating, so I thought there’d be lengthy wait, but being a solo traveler has its advantages, and I got a seat at the bar-like area quickly. I had a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and apple juice. It was pretty good. There were only two pancakes, and I thought maybe there wouldn’t be enough to fill me up, but it did. The restaurant is also known for its scones, which it gives before the main meal. Not really having scones before, I thought it was okay.

After breakfast, I returned to my room to wait for my pickup en route to the redwoods at Muir Woods. The trip took about 40 minutes, with switchbacks that reminded me a lot of ones I experienced during a bus trip in Greece. The park was pretty nice, with trees that were younger than some of the redwoods upstate, but still really tall. Spent about an hour and a half there – way too little time to get very far – so definitely will have to go back someday. Returned to the hotel, got some food, and called it a day.

On Saturday, I traveled to Golden Gate Park to see the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum, an art museum. Also didnt have enough time to see either, nor did I see the Legion of Honor, another art museum. I had to get across town to get my ticket back to Emeryville, then to AT&T Park to see Billy Joel.

He did a fantastic show – a mix of hits and catalouge songs. He definitely still has a lot of the range he used to. Some artists sound terrible when they get older, but not him. The audience was also very cross-generational. There were people 18+ at least. Sometimes with older artists, you wonder if they’ll attract a younger audience, and he definitely does. Everyone was singing along and I could tell they enjoyed it, too. The park was in a great location right next to the east bay. Just a great night.

That’s it, really. Will have to get back to see the many things I missed, but despite being sick, I still had a really great time.

Next, a day in LA, then a train to Chicago!

 

Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

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Had a pretty low-key night in Chicago, what with a train to board the following afternoon. Woke up, got dressed, got some snacks for the trip, and headed for Union Station.

Got a cab to the station, which is in a quite scenic part of the city.  Headed inside, got some lunch, and located the waiting room. One nice thing about being a sleeper car passenger is having access to the station’s Metropolitian Lounge, which comes with nice chairs, better climate control, and it’s own access to the train. I didn’t have long in there by the time I ate. About 10 minutes. Oh well, I’ll have another shot at one in LA.

Finally got on the train, about 20 minutes before departure. I put my big luggage in the rack; poor thing was alone pretty much until Denver. Good for me, though, as I needed to get something Monday morning.

As you can see, my Superliner Roomette was pretty small, but it worked well enough for me. There are two seats, both of which fold down into a bed when needed, or when the car attendant comes around at night. There’s also a bunk above for the second person. There’s a single outlet, two reading lights, two overhead lights, AC control, speaker volume control, and a small closest. That’s about it.

I spent much of my time in the lounge car, which is equipped with large picture windows and a smaller window toward the ceiling for sky views. The entire point of this trip for me was to see the country, and so I spent as much time there as possible.

An attendant came around shortly into our departure to take dinner reservations, which I set for 6:45pm the first night. There were several options; on the first night I chose chicken, mashed potato, veggies, and ice cream for dessert. Amtrak does not skimp on its meals – not the chicken one, anyway, which was a very meaty half – and I left feeling pretty full.

Due to space restrictions, diners are forced to sit together. I enjoyed it, though. I got put with an exuberant older couple, and another older woman also traveling to San Francisco. The couple were traveling to a place in Colorado for fishing and other activities. They seemed to be heavily traveled. I think England, France, Iceland, and Sweden were all in there somewhere. Yes, I’m jealous!

After dinner, I returned to my room for a bit and then made another attempt at the lounge car. Unfortunately, it was dark by the and there was nothing to see, so I returned to my room to wait for bed service.

I can’t really complain about sleeping on a train, which I knew would present challenges. I did wake up every two hours, but I’d been doing that for the previous week when I was hacking up stuff.

After spending the previous day seeing farm after farm after farm, I woke for a final time on the second day to the short grass of Colorado, just outside Denver. As it was a longer stop, I took my chance to get in a shower, then headed down to breakfast just in time for us to begin climbing the Rocky Mountains. Met a nice man a breakfast who originated from Boston before also heading to San Francisco. Breakfast consisted of French toast and applewood bacon, and was very good.

Switchback after switchback, we climbed and climbed, from Denver’s 5,000 feet to just over 9000 feet. The trek through was filled with tunnels, culminating in the 9 mile Moffat Tunnel, which was the longest one of the 43 tunnels traversed during the trip through the Rockies.

After that, we had a short air break just outside a resort. Then back on the train for the next leg of the Rockies trip, bringing us to the Colorado River and three canyons. One of them, Byers Canyon, was the victim of a fire just last week. I could still see the charring from the flames, which went all the way over to the highway alongside the canyon.

After working on this entry a bit, went to the lounge car to see more mountains. Had lunch with a doctor, a woman who used to work in medical ethics, and a woman heading to Burning Man. Lunch was a fried chicken piece with onion sauce and potatoes. If I’d known it was fried, I may have selected differently, but it was still good.

Much of the rest of the day was spent in the lounge car, punctuated with a couple failed attempts to read a book. By lunch, we’d mostly passed through the mountains and were entering the desert, with its own rocky features. Took an opportunity to get off and stretch my legs at Grand Junction, CO.

Took my second dinner at 7:15pm, only to find myself with the doctor from lunch, as well as a nurse and another man. Had a flatiron steak with mashed potatoes and veggies. The previous night, one of my dinner partners sent her’s back because it was too well done, but I had no problem with mine. It was very juicy and an easy eat.

Returned to my room afterward, finally got a little reading done. Got ready for bed, but allowed myself a few minutes off the train at Salt Lake City.

We zoomed through most of Nevada during the night, and I woke up to us about to arrive in Reno. By the time I was all set for the day, we’d passed into California and climbed into the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Lake Tahoe area, with evergreen trees aplenty. I made my way back to the lounge car, where I spent most of my time. Had lunch with two women from Boston who started on the Lake Shore Limited in Massachusetts (this seems to be a somewhat common occurrence, going from coast to coast). Then returned to the lounge car one last time before departing in Emeryville with a bus then taxi to the city and my hotel.

 

Cross-Country American Adventure: Day 1

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I’ve made it to Chicago for a mini-stop before my Amtrak train to San Francisco, though it wasn’t without some minor challenges.

Stormu conditions in the area led to my first flight from Bradley to be cancelled. Luckily, I was able to easily rebook on a slightly later flight, which went off without a hitch.

Once at Chicago’s Midway, I had a little trouble finding the L train into the city, due to some poor signage, but eventually did. I was also worried about my luggage due to the flight change, but I needn’t have been. Southwest came through!

The train ride was low-key enough, if a litle uncomfortable. I got off at my station, and my suitcase would barely fit through the exit turnstile! With some re-positioning, I just got it through.

The hotel I’m at is pretty nice, with an art-deco look. No time for pictures, though. Perhaps on the far end of the trip, when I return here.

That’s it for now! Preparing to head to the train station for my journey across America!

 

Coming Soon: The Cross-Country American Adventure

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My Route Through America

Anyone who knows me knows that although I don’t stray away from conventional trips, I usually only go when someone else is planning the details. Left to my own devices, I end up coming up with trips that are a little out there. Or at the very least, I plan trips people don’t seem to expect out of me. When I went to Bonnaroo in 2012, it was definitely a trip that some folks I know were surprised I’d take.

So that’s why I can announce that I’ll be going on a cross-country, three-city trip at the end of August and beginning of September. Not just any trip, though. A trip by train.

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Wedding-Vacation 2013: Colonial Williamsburg

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For the last full day of the trip, I visited Colonial Williamsburg. The historical city aspect of it certainly isn’t new, but CW certainly has their own spin on it. There were interpreters aplenty, active smithing shops, and reenactments of key events of the Revolutionary War-era city.

I took a tour of the Governor’s Mansion and the Capitol, saw the gaol, the silver smith, and how the colonials made bricks for their buildings, sat down to hear some Q & A with Thomas Jefferson, and (partially) viewed a troop inspection and victory march. Perhaps most interestingly, I witnessed active archaeology at the hypothesized site of a market building.

I liked the site, but again expected all the interpreters/staff to be purely in-character. This wasn’t the case, though, as some people were, such as most tour guides, while others were not, and there seemed to be no particular rhyme or reason as to whom was or was not.

Still, it was very interesting to learn about the royal governor who was almost hanged after he removed the powder from the muskets, and that copper-based green over wallpaper was an ideal color for colonial-era dining rooms.

Well, everyone, this is the last post in this series, unless something of mention should happen on the train home tomorrow. It’s definitely been an interesting and challenging task to update this blog everyday on a vacation, but it was fun.

 

Wedding-Vacation 2013: Yorktown

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When the Siege at Yorktown concluded 232 years ago with Lord Cornwallis’ surrender, General Washington recognized the impact of the American success by commissioning a statue to commemorate the battle. But did anyone think that all those years later Americans would still be visiting the site?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But here we are in 2013, and we still go there, year after year, and for good reason. As I mentioned in the Jamestown update, it’s one thing to hear about the battle, and another to see where it happened.

Today, my cousin and I visited Yorktown, and it is still clear as day some of the conditions the American and French troops had to endure as they closed in on the British. Lots and lots of earthwork done to create a battlefield that perhaps neither truly knew would be the final one up until then last couple days.

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