From Canals to Geysers: Netherlands and Iceland

Backtracking a bit, our bus took us from Cologne to Brussels…but the stop was less than 5 minutes before the driver pulled out again, intent on getting to our final destination: Amsterdam.  A brief train ride from the dropoff to Centraal Station and stepped out into bustling plaza in front of the train station.  We plunged into the historic, canal riddles streets and found our hostel, with our room opening out onto the water below and a view of the shenanigans on our corner.  After sitting for almost 7 hours on the bus, we were happy to get out to explore and stretch our legs.  Cheese tastings…stumbling into the Chinese district…discovering that we were only a block from the red-light district…it was a very educational walk.

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The next morning, we set out on a very long walk around the city.  We walked past the harbor area behind the Centraal Station, and continued until we spotted a promising looking windmill and followed that canal past the zoo and into residential areas (both on and off the water).  Eventually, we passed the Heineken Brewery,  Rjiksmuseum and continued to a large park, which funneled us into the entertainment district (as in theaters, not the red light kind).  I was overjoyed to find a Maoz falafel place…where we would proceed to eat at almost daily for the rest of our stay.

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Just up the street, we found a long line for the Anne Frank House, which we did not opt to enter, but I surprised myself with the amount I remembered from middle school to tell Sangbyeong about her life and unfortunate death.  On that somber note, we wove through a confusing tangle of canals and alleyways to get to Dam Square, where the Royal Palace looms over one side, although the royals have not lived there for years.  After watching a couple street performers come and go, we made our weary way back to the hostel after having been on our feet for hours.

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The next morning, we set out on a field trip out of the city to the nearby township of Zaanse Schans, famous for its windmill village.  There is a little walk through the regular town…past a cocoa processing factory!  Oh the smells!  Over a bridge and the windmills spread out in front of you.  The village itself is built up out of traditional style houses for merchants and workers, with traditional workshops for coopers, clog makers, cheese makers, diamond cutters, and so on.  We had WAY too much fun at the clog workshop, where we were just in time to watch a demo after we had gone through the historical and artistic clog gallery.

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The wind whipped around us every time we stepped out of doors, so we felt more encouraged to visit all the different buildings and buy the occasional cup of hot tea or hot chocolate.  But the wind made the windmills especially fun to stand and watch as they creaked around.  There was one that was over 400 years old, and some that were reproductions, lovingly rebuilt here.  The smallest was made by one man over the course of 20 years.  That is dedication.

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For our last night day in Amsterdam, we went to the pub that adjoins the little brewery we had discovered across the street.  The beers tasted even more amazing on tap, and it was Jazz Sunday with live music.  We snagged the prime seat right in front of the band and treated ourselves to four different beers (two each).  The next morning, we left bright and early for the airport.  The flight was unexciting, but as we circled over Iceland for landing, we were treated to bird’s-eye views of the unearthly landscape.

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By the time we reached Reykjavik, it was 5pm and already full dark outside, so we opted to cook our dinner and plot the following day.  With really only one full day in the country and it being December, the only feasible way to see any of the sites outside of the city is to sign up for a tour….so it was that the next morning we awaited our shuttle for the Golden Circle tour at 7 am, in the pitch black of hours before dawn.  Our first stop was a geothermal power plant, followed by a windswept visit to Skalholt Church, where the winds literally knocked over several people in our group.  Then it was a long ride in the bus, with horizontal rain falling outside to Gullfoss, officially the largest waterfall in Europe.

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We thawed our fingers in the visitor’s center, Sangbyeong was helped along by a couple bowlfuls of the traditional lamb strew…but I snagged many of the free buns.  A ten minute drive brought us to the Geysir area….the geyser which all others were named for.  That one no longer erupts, but Strokkur goes off every few minutes, so no one misses out.  The crowd hovered near the sulphur-smelling thermal pools for the warm steam, and we even saw a couple “baby geysers” merrily burbling away next to the walkway.  Our last stop was Þingvellir (pronounced thing-vell-ir), the site of Icelandic Parliament’s birth back in 932…which has almost continuously met until the present day!  It is located in the valley that stretches between the North American tectonic plate (the black wall in a few pictures) and Europe’s tectonic plate (out of sight).

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We arrived back in Reykjavik, damp and shivering and very glad to change into dry clothes.  However, we felt that we had used our five hours of daylight very well, and were left stunned at the raw beauty of the landscape here.  On our final morning in Europe, we waited for the sun to come up (well, it was hidden behind clouds, but whatever) around 10:30 before walking up the main street of Reykjavik itself.  Our first stop was Hallgrimskirkja, the iconic church that sweeps the eye upward, with the statue of Leif Erikson out front.  Inside a choir was rehearsing their Christmas program, which was magical in the unique acoustics of the building.  From there, we continued to explore the cheerfully colored little city that is the northernmost capitol on Earth.  We even found the harbor and the nearby hot dog stand that is world famous!

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As the time approached for our airport shuttle to pick us up, we made one last stop at one of the few veg*n haunts for coffee and a luxurious raw chocolate cake.  And with that, our European journey (or marathon, depending on how you look at it) was over.

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