Our Proposal Story

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When people ask for our proposal story, I always feel a little weird about telling it. Not only because I have repeatedly told Keith throughout our relationship that I didn’t want a proposal or a ring, but also because I want to counter-ask “How much time do you have?” I mean I can tell you the story of how a couple months ago, we both decided that it was time for us to upgrade from our civil union/common-law status to marriage. Since his family was coming for Christmas to meet my mom, it was the perfect time to tell them the happy news. We were going to have dinner at the hotel where his family was staying at, but after having a less-than-satisfactory Christmas meal there, we decided to just have a low-key night at the pub across our apartment where we go for half-price wings every other Tuesday. It just so happened to be Tuesday that night and the server who had been with us since we started our wing nights was working. He overheard the news so he brought over a complimentary bottle of bubbly to celebrate the occasion. Our families were super supportive and they were getting along so splendidly that I hated having to break up the conversation to go to work the next day. Keith and I could not have asked for a better night.

But then it became even more special when Keith’s mother brought over his grandmother’s engagement ring in case Keith had wanted to give it to me. I feel very honoured that she would even consider me family enough to let me wear her mother’s ring. So on New Year’s Eve, Keith ordered sushi from our favourite sushi place and picked out a great bottle of champagne with a label that matched my Tiffany blue kitchen.

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We had a lovely dinner and sat down to watch An Affair to Remember, which was not only one of the first movies we had watched together, but also starred Deborah Kerr. Keith’s grandfather met the actress when he was a shoe salesman in Hollywood, the same grandfather who had bought the engagement ring for his grandmother. I left the room after the movie and when I came back Keith was on his knees, frantically looking under the couch claiming he “lost it”. My concern and irritation quickly turned to relief and joy when it turned out that obviously he had the ring all along. For all my reservations about the one-sidedness of proposals and absurd cost of engagement rings, I could not help but say “Yes, of course!” when faced with the love of my life on one knee asking me to stay committed forever. Then we drank more champagne, ate macarons which he remembered to get since I love them and watched the countdown.

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That’s the short version of our proposal story. The truth is that Keith and I have actually been proposing to each other for the past seven years. He proposed to me the first night we met, at a viewing of How I Met Your Mother’s 100th episode, when he made a Tim Gunn reference that only I got. I proposed to him a month later when I asked him if we could define our relationship status before I left for spring break. We proposed to each other when we entered into a civil union one year after dating then moved in together. He proposed to me by picking up the slack when I had just graduated and couldn’t find a job for months. I proposed to him when I told him it was his turn to pursue his dream career and my turn to take care of the bills. He proposed to me when he adopted a rescue dog without my knowledge. I proposed to him by accepting to keep said rescue dog and it’s been one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. We propose to each other every time we support one another, make up after fights, forgive each other’s mistakes and celebrate one another’s accomplishments. And I am so glad we will get to keep proposing to each other until the wedding (whenever that will be) and  that we will continue to do so long after.

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A Filipino Foodie’s Review of Filipino Food

Ever since I made the move from Quebec to Ontario, I have been on the lookout for Filipino restaurants. There are more options here in Toronto than in my home province and I am super grateful since I crave Filipino food at least once a week. I live at Yonge and Lawrence so my go-to has been Casa Manila. They serve the classics family-style in huge portions and I’m never disappointed. However, I have been wanting to try Lamesa for years and when they opened their sister restaurant, Lasa by Lamesa, I added that to the list too. Lo and behold, this past week all the stars aligned and I was able to hit both restaurants and satisfy my craving…at least until next week.

Lasa by Lamesa serves traditional Filipino dishes in a casual setting. The restaurant is styled like a bright, colourful cafeteria and the reason I know this, despite never actually having eaten in there, is because my friends and I tried to come for dinner once but it was full and we were forced to go to Sea Witch next door (probably the best fish and chips in the city, highly recommend!). Fast forward to this past Saturday, we were celebrating our close friend Greg’s birthday and he just so happened to live in Forest Hill, a few blocks away from Lasa. So before we TTC-ed it to his aparment, I placed our dinner order on Foodora. We arrived on his doorstep at the exact same time as the delivery guy so I could not have planned it better. Lasa’s menu is easy to understand even if you have zero experience with Filipino food because they break it down into categories (Fried, Grilled, Stews, and Vegetables) with a description for each dish.


We had pancit (noodles), chicken adobo (stew made with vinegar, soy sauce and garlic), lumpia (spring rolls) and lechon kawali (deep fried pork belly), plus garlic rice, of course. Lesson number one of Filipino cuisine is you always need to have rice. The portions were more than enough for three people and they nailed the taste of each dish. The pancit was citrusy with crisp vegetables. The adobo was so flavourful. The lumpia and lechon were good but not as great as the first two dishes. The lumpia lost a little of its crispiness due to being in a container and my only gripe about the pork belly was that it needed sauce. We drizzled some of the adobo sauce over it and that made it better. All in all, it turned out to be a great takeout experience that I would definitely do again.

My second Filipino food experience this week happened on Wednesday when my girlfriends and I went to Lamesa in Queen West to catch up over dinner. From the first sip of their Lolo Cool J cocktail, I knew we were in for an amazing meal. Lamesa does a modern take on Filipino cuisine, which basically means they take a typical Filipino dish and update it. Please do not come here expecting traditional. If you want that, go to Lasa. That being said, I was looking forward to their interpretation of dishes that were very familiar to me. The following is a detailed description and review of each course we had at Lamesa but if you just want the highlights, skip to the end.

They were offering a tasting menu of $40 that night, not sure if that’s a special on Wednesdays but regardless we took full advantage. We immediately knew we made the right choice after devouring the amuse-bouche of Kinilaw (Filipino ceviche): pieces of albacore tuna with coconut, guacamole, calamansi (kinda like a small lime but sweeter), chili on a shrimp chip. It was fresh and bright with a kick from the chili and satisfying crunch from the chip. Kinilaw usually doesn’t have avocado in it, but the pairing of the guacamole with coconut worked so well.


The first appetizer was their take on arroz caldo (Filipino congee): it was made with butternut squash, ginger, miso, had a poached egg in the middle and charred brussel sprouts on top. They told us to break the egg and mix it in with the rest, which we did. Now this was a standout dish. I never in a million years would’ve thought to put butternut squash in arroz caldo, which usually uses just standard chicken broth. The squash gave it beautiful colour and depth. My friends who have limited experience with Filipino food loved it. The second appetizer was lumpia (spring rolls): stuffed with house corned brisket, Swiss cheese and cabbage with mustard and banana ketchup as dipping sauces. I was looking forward to this because I love corned beef (normally lumpia is filled with ground beef) but it didn’t impress me as much as the arroz caldo did. I really liked that they provided mustard not just ketchup but I couldn’t taste the Swiss cheese.


Now onto the main courses: the first of which was the national dish of the Philippines, adobo. Their version: seared chicken thigh with a soy vinegar jus, confit garlic and chimichurri drizzled on top. Absolutely enjoyed this, it reminded me of a fancier version of the classic chicken adobo served at Lasa. Both used chicken thighs which I prefer. The jus was a more concentrated version of the traditional adobo sauce but I really liked the crispy skin achieved by the searing and the clever addition of the chimichurri. This was accompanied by a vegetable dish of broccolini in a sauce of bagoong (fermented shrimp paste which sounds weird but don’t knock it until you try it), raisin, garlic, peanut and chili. The combination of those ingredients resulted in a sauce that can only be described as umami. Garlic rice accompanied these two dishes.


The second main course that took a little more time to make it to our table, providing us with a well-needed break from eating, was their take on Bicol Express (stew in coconut milk): pork shoulder in a spicy coconut jus on coconut polenta with poblano and jalapeno. The second vegetable dish was ginataan (which literally means “done with coconut milk”): house made squash bread topped with coconut ranch, cauliflower with sambal and fennel. Both of these dishes had similar flavour profiles: coconut and spice. It was a good thing all three of us enjoyed coconut. Being the carnivore that I am, I liked the pork shoulder more. The others preferred the vegetable dish, especially the spicy, crispy cauliflower which was the surprise highlight. Jasmine rice accompanied these last two dishes.


By the time dessert was served, we were full but more than willing to make room for their ube leche flan: purple yam custard with calamansi gel topped with puffed rice. I was skeptical when I read this on the menu but it was deliciously executed. Leche flan is the Filipino version of crème caramel. Similar to what they did with the arroz caldo, the addition of the purple yam made it prettier and more interesting flavour-wise. The sour calamansi balances out the sweetness and my friend who didn’t like it at first bite quickly realized it was only because she didn’t eat the gel with it.


I could not have asked for a better dining experience at Lamesa. While there are definite standouts on their menu (the kinilaw, the arroz caldo, the adobo and the ginataan), all the courses we were served from their tasting menu were very creative and a delicious take on Filipino classics. I didn’t know it was possible to transform the dishes I fell in love with as a child into fancier, more modern fare. Filipino food deserves its place on the more high-end spectrum of the culinary world and I for one am super grateful that Lamesa is leading the way. I can’t wait to come back and try their Kamayan (no utensils) option on Sundays. 

Verdict: If you have never tried Filipino food before, I would suggest going to Lasa first so you can experience the authentic Filipino staples then visit Lamesa to be blown away by the inventive flavours they dish out. If you do try Lamesa, I recommend making a reservation because it’s a small space and they had to turn people away when we went. Happy eating!

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We’ll Always Have Paris

img_7479First Impressions

Keith and I were coming into Paris from very different standpoints. He doesn’t speak French and has never been before. He’s slightly intimidated by the city’s size and reputation. I, on the other hand, fluent French-speaker and second-time visitor, could not wait to be back in the city of lights. I adored my high school trip to Paris and I guess I did romanticize it a bit since I didn’t remember it smelling like pee so much the last time.

Accommodation

Our second Airbnb experience went just as well as the first. Check-in and check-out was a breeze. Luckily the heat wave did not follow us from Brussels to Paris so the lack of air conditioning wasn’t a problem. The six flights of stairs however were not fun. At least we had a view of the Eiffel Tower which made it worth it, in my opinion. The place was tiny though, unlike the apartment in Brussels. Everything, from the bed, the kitchen, the shower and the toilet was crammed together, not an inch of space was wasted. Located in the 10th arrondissement, we really enjoyed how close it was to Gare du Nord train station and several metro stops. Plus the neighbourhood which was near the Canal Saint-Martin was super charming.

Getting Around

img_7370The Paris metro system is a modern marvel. There are so many lines that it doesn’t matter where in the city you end up, there is always a station nearby that connects to somewhere you’re going. I’m convinced that even if you don’t speak French, you will be able to figure it out. If you don’t want to take advantage of the metro for some unknown reason, then walking is the next best thing. The streets of Paris were super easy to navigate, I found. Keith said I looked like I had lived there all my life with the way I zipped around all over the city. The highlight of our transit experience was riding the driver-less metro train.

Attractions

We had reconciled with the idea that it would be impossible to see all or even most of Paris in three days. We also had two of our friends who were there at the same time and had to adjust our itineraries accordingly. Our first day there, we just walked around our neighbourhood, passed Porte Saint-Denis and had dinner near Les Halles.

img_7389On the second day, a Monday, we explored the Canal Saint-Martin in the morning, where there was more locals around than tourists. Then in the afternoon, we walked from our apartment to Notre Dame, passing City Hall on the way. Avoiding the line to go in, we opted to just walk around and stay in the surrounding park. We crossed the Seine to get to the Latin Quarter, stopping by several bookshops like Shakespeare & Co. and Album Comics. I really enjoyed this neighbourhood and I loved just walking along the river. We caught a glimpse of the Sorbonne and then crossed a bridge again to find ourselves on Ile Saint-Louis. I wish we could’ve stayed a little longer on the island since I felt like I could pass a day just getting lost in the streets but we were trying to get to Place de la Bastille. Funny anecdote, once there, our friend asked if that was all there is. I had to remind him that the Bastille was torn down. He was unimpressed that only an obelisk stood in the middle of the square where the prison once stood.

Our last full day in Paris, a Tuesday, was spent hitting the big tourist spots: Trocadéro, Eiffel Tower, Champ de Mars, Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées. A memory that’s so vivid in my mind from my first trip to Paris was exiting the Trocadéro subway station and rounding the corner to be hit by the view of the Eiffel Tower. Recreating that moment with Keith was very special. Then on our way to the Arc de Triomphe, we passed by the Place des États-Unis, which Keith appreciated, being American.

After getting some shopping done at the Champs-Élysées, we said goodbye to our friends for a little bit, since I had planned a surprise excursion for Keith. We discovered the musical Hamilton earlier this year and we have been obsessed. A key figure in the musical and in history in general is the Marquis de Lafayette. Thanks to a little research, I found out that he was buried in Picpus Cemetery, the larger and one of only two private cemeteries in Paris. Lafayette is known as the Hero of Two Worlds after being involved in both the American and French revolutions, which is why an American flag is permitted to fly above his grave at all times and he is buried in American soil that he brought back from his visit to the US. Aside from Lafayette’s tomb, it also has two mass graves of the victims executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror. The cemetery itself is very peaceful and secluded. While we were there, we didn’t encounter anyone else. It was the only time during our entire trip that Keith and I found ourselves completely alone in public. If you’re looking to visit a site that’s off the beaten path, this would be my recommendation.IMG_7547.jpg

Food Recommendations

IMG_7349.jpgA friend of ours from university gave us an extensive list of restaurant recommendations and I cannot thank her enough for them. For the best brunch, go to Holybelly which was super close to our apartment. It gets very busy though and we had to wait awhile but it was all worth it, especially since we were celebrating a friend’s birthday. Everything from Du Pain et des Idées was phenomenal. But my favourite meal of the entire trip has to be the pizza at Pink Flamingo. I didn’t believe it when people told me to eat pizza while in Paris but there’s something about it that makes it so good. Plus Pink Flamingo has amazing flavour combinations: I got the paella one. All of these restaurants are around the Canal Saint-Martin, which has got to be my favourite discovery during my second time in Paris.

IMG_7577.jpgWe also had crepes near the Champs-Élysées and of course got some macarons from Ladurée. Plus one night we hit up one of the grocery stores near us for some charcuterie and cheese to go with our baguette from Du Pain et des Idées. The cheese we got had cumin in it which was amazing.

Souvenirs

If you’re brave enough to try and fly macarons back, then by all means. I was not and instead opted to buy French soaps to give out as gifts instead. For myself, I also brought back a Longchamp bag since they were way cheaper to buy there than back in Canada.

Final Thoughts

img_7583While we didn’t go to the Louvre or visit Montmartre, I think we took full advantage of our short trip to Paris. It is one of my favourite cities in the world and I could see myself living there. I love the Parisian way of living, taking the time to enjoy everything from an espresso to an expensive meal. I didn’t mind the holier-than-thou attitude we sometimes got in but Keith wasn’t having it. He attempted to order a coffee in French and was met with a blank stare. So Keith liked it the least out of all the cities we visited but on our last night, when we had an impromptu meet-up with two more of our friends who just happened to be there too and sat outside a café drinking and laughing the night away, I knew Paris was finally growing on him.

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“How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s thing?!”

img_7282First Impressions

If you understood the reference I made in the title, then you must have seen “In Bruges”. I’m not embarrassed to say that I discovered the magical town of Bruges from that film. It’s a pretty stellar movie and it was the reason I put Bruges on top of my must-visit list. I was afraid that building Bruges up in my head would leave me disappointed and in a way it did and it didn’t. I wanted to get to Bruges early but I was still feeling sick so we couldn’t mobilize until 11 am and got to Bruges at half past noon. The reason I wanted to get there super early was to avoid the crowds, which were the main reason I was a little let down. The Bruges I fell in love with was the one featured in the scenes in the movie that had no tourists. In reality, during the hours of 10 am to 6 pm, the streets are filled with visitors. In my mind, it wouldn’t be as touristy, but being a tourist myself, I couldn’t really complain.

Accommodation

We did not stay in Bruges but I wish we did if only to be able to experience dawn and dusk there, when the tourists have all gone home.

Getting Around

We took the train from Brussels Central Station to Bruges’ Railway Station. Initially we didn’t know which train to board since on the big board at the station, they only show the train’s final destination not all the stops it’s making. We asked a helpful attendant and figured it all out. Once at Bruges’ train station, there are buses or taxis that can take to the main square but we opted to walk and I’m very glad we did because it allowed us to take in and savour all the sights Bruges had to offer.

Attractions

img_7220The walk from the train station to the town center took us through a few of the major landmarks in Bruges: Minnewater park, the Béguinage and the Church of Our Lady. The main event for us was definitely the Belfry and the market square. Unfortunately there was going to be a concert in the square and they had already set up the stage and seats right in the middle so that took away from the view.

The two things we did in Bruges was walk around to all the different places we remembered from the movie and take a canal ride. The canal ride is a must since you get to see a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise have seen in a short amount of time for very little effort and the captain we had was hilarious.img_7237

Food recommendations

We didn’t stay long enough to have a proper meal. My cold was also getting worse so I couldn’t indulge in all the beer I desperately wanted, but I’ve heard just the best things about Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan. We did get to sample some chocolate, again from a shop whose name I can’t remember. I would say it was comparable to the chocolate from Brussels, although I also didn’t find the famous chocolatier Dumon that apparently makes the best chocolates in all of Belgium. I definitely need to come back.

Souvenirs

Chocolate would be a good bet. But there is also, if you can afford it (we couldn’t), lace. My boss mentioned to me that Bruges is famous for crocheted lace and I had no idea. Once you get there though a lot of shops showcase the intricate pieces in their windows.

Final Thoughts

img_7152Keith said Bruges seems like what all the other ski towns in the US try to emulate, with the cobbled lanes and colourful buildings. We didn’t go inside the churches and the museums, but at the end of the day we were perfectly happy just being in this charming medieval city that really does look like it leapt out of a storybook.img_7153

Next post we find out if Paris is always a good idea…

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The Thing About Brussels…

img_6926First Impressions

On the Wednesday of our first week in Europe, we woke up early to snap a photo of the iamsterdam sign before it got swarmed then took the Thalys train from Amsterdam Central Station to Brussels-South Station. Two hours later, we found ourselves in Brussels. I read in another travel blog that Brussels was a bit of an enigma. And we understood exactly what the author meant when we found ourselves in Belgium’s capital. In fact, we couldn’t quite form an opinion about it while we were there. Did we like Brussels as much as Amsterdam? Did we even like Brussels at all? The vibe is completely different than the Dutch city we left behind. Gone were the bicycles and canals, to be replaced by the hustle and bustle of the de facto capital of the European Union. It was bigger and busier, more diverse. There were soldiers patrolling and vagrants sitting on the ground with signs. It reminded us a little of Toronto. Sure the architecture was nice, as in most of the cities in Europe, but what set Brussels apart? We hoped at the end of our stay, we would figure it out.

Accommodation

We were staying three nights at a fourth-floor apartment in the center of Brussels through Airbnb. Admittedly, I was a little nervous since this was my first experience with Airbnb and I had visions of somehow not ending up with a place to stay but luckily, the host was super responsive and arranged for her neighbour who lives in the same building to greet us and give us the key. Since I had always stayed in hotels or hostels with lifts, the narrow, steep, winding staircase took some getting used to. So did the no air conditioning. And we had just arrived during a heat wave. It was brutal at night, even with a fan. Other than those two things, the apartment was very spacious and I loved the bathtub. There was a kitchen and dining room that we did not really take advantage of and a living room with a pull-out couch. Another bonus was being near a church whose bells rang so you didn’t need to set your alarm. All in all, I would recommend staying here, but only during the cooler months.

Getting Around

Our only experience with Brussels’ transit system was when we took the tram to get to our Airbnb when we first arrived. Being fluent in French, it was easy to navigate for me since the signs were in both French and Dutch. But aside from that, we once again relied on our feet. Our apartment was so close to all the attractions that we didn’t really need to take public transport. All of the street signs in Brussels are both in French and Dutch as well. I suggest picking one language and sticking with it when following directions. For some reason, I found it easier to navigate the winding streets of Amsterdam, but luckily Keith picked up the slack. The whole “everything is much closer together” rule still applies here. We would sometimes have to double back because the street we were looking for was really more of an alleyway or a short strip that was an offshoot of another street that you wouldn’t really consider a separate one in North America. Some streets, especially the ones that were around the tourist attractions are pedestrian only.

Attractions

img_6919Our first day there, we headed straight to the main event: the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels. It was breathtaking, without being hyperbolic. When we rounded the corner coming into the square, we were both just taken aback and stopped breathing for a little bit. It was just like nothing we had ever seen. I had seen major monuments before but the Grand Place just surrounds you in amazing architecture and stupefying splendour. There was the King’s House on the north side then the City Hall on the south side and then guildhalls on the east and west sides. Tourists just sit down or stand in the middle of the square for hours, just admiring and taking photos.

After gawking for I’m not even sure how long, we explored all the little side streets and shops around the Grand Place. There were so many pubs, bars, restaurants, chocolatiers and souvenir shops. Then we went down a street where we saw a crowd of people was gathered and it turned out to be the site of the Mannekin Pis, a small bronze sculpture of a naked little boy peeing. It was smaller than I imagined and I honestly don’t get what the fuss was all about. Keith liked it though. He said it helped him understand Brussels more. He said it meant the city didn’t take itself too seriously.

The next day, we were supposed to go to Bruges but due to unforeseen circumstances (I wasn’t feeling so well, I was starting to get the travel cold), we decided to switch Thursday and Friday’s itineraries. We stayed in Brussels and crossed off number two on Keith’s list: The Belgian Comic Strip Center. As soon as we found out there was a museum dedicated to comic books in Brussels, we knew, being the nerds that we are, we needed to pay a visit. Luckily this was also just a 10-minute walk from the apartment. The museum was fascinating for both of us, as someone who works in comics (Keith) and someone who is a big fan of the medium (me). It goes through the history of the comic book, the process, and highlights some of the pioneers and current creators. Belgium has a rich history with comic books. You may have heard about Hergé’s Tintin or Peyo’s The Smurfs. Much like the Rijksmuseum, the museum itself is a work of art with its Art Nouveau design. Needless to say, we were both glad we could make the pilgrimage.

img_6975The rest of our stay in Brussels consisted of just exploring the streets near our apartment. There were two smaller squares near us, the Place de la Monnaie and the Place des Martyrs. We also tried to find as many of the comic book murals that grace the side of the buildings in the city. If we had more time, we would’ve done the Comic Book Route to see all of them. Another thing on my list that I didn’t get to do was visit the Mont des Arts, apparently the best view of the city.

Food Recommendations

As a lover of beer and chocolate, Brussels did not disappoint. I don’t have specific recommendations when it comes to beer since I have come to the conclusion that you cannot get bad beer in Brussels. As for chocolate, there are so many stores but my co-worker recommended the chocolatier that invented the praline, Neuhaus, which I loved and even non-chocolate aficionado Keith enjoyed.

img_6947As for the famous waffles, just pick a stand and they should all be comparable. I got mine from Vitalgaufre and devoured it. Definitely get fries with mayo from a frites stand. Keith does not like mayo but for some reason, he didn’t mind Belgian mayo and he almost didn’t need my help to finish a whole cone by himself. We had moules et frites from a place I forgot the name of beside the Grand Place. It was ok but it didn’t really impress. I prefer the Thai mussels I make at home.

The one restaurant I absolutely recommend is Peck 47. Our Airbnb host suggested it. They’re located near the Grand Place and their food is fresh and so yummy. It may seem a little hipster at first but all of that won’t matter after you try their homemade lemonade and their delicious brunch. The bacon is probably the best bacon we have ever tasted. Ever.

Souvenirs

If you can ensure that they won’t melt, then chocolate from Neuhaus is a good souvenir to take back. We only had carry-on though so we opted for Speculoos cookies from Maison Dandoy. They come in the cutest packages so they don’t need to be gift-wrapped. We also taste tested them first, obviously.

Final Thoughts

img_6939By the end of the second day, we were starting to get what Brussels was all about. They had incredible monuments but their most beloved statue was a naked child peeing. They were the headquarters of the EU but they also had comic book murals on the side of their buildings. It seemed like anything goes in Brussels. This is probably just an ignorant tourist’s observation but the city seemed to be dealing fine with the aftermath of the terrorist attack. Then again, we don’t live there so the reality could be very different. When everything was said and done though, we realized we actually really liked Brussels.

Next post is all about the time we were In Bruges!

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Adventures in Amsterdam + Love in Limburg

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AMSTERDAM

First Impressions

After months of planning and almost a year anticipating, it was finally time for us to fly to Amsterdam from Pearson Airport in Toronto. We landed in Schiphol Airport around 1 pm on Monday, August 22nd. Let me just quickly say that I loved Schiphol airport. I’ve done my fair share of airport hopping (what with travelling to the US & Asia) and Schiphol is probably my favourite so far. It’s super easy to navigate, very well-organized plus it has a ton of cool shops and nice restaurants, some of which are open 24/7.

The number one great thing about Schiphol is that you can take a train from the airport to Amsterdam in 20 minutes. So we did just that and found ourselves in Amsterdam Central Station. As soon as we got out of the station, we got our first glimpse of the city. It was gorgeous. From buildings to the canals, everywhere we turned was picturesque.

Accommodation

We made our way to our base for the next two and a half days: Hotel Die Port van Cleve. For Keith’s very first European destination, I decided to splurge and book us a nice hotel that is central to everything. We can’t say enough great things about the service at this hotel. They went above and beyond to make sure we had everything we needed during our stay. They even helped us when Keith needed to see a tourist doctor for his toe. Long story short: it hurt to walk so he got it checked and the wonderful doctor prescribed a treatment that helped him survive the large portion of our trip spent walking around.

Fun fact about our hotel: it is the site of the first Heineken brewery built in 1864 before it was moved to its present-day location. They have a nice restaurant that we did not try and a more casual bar. Another quirky interesting about this hotel is the Delft blue artwork found everywhere: from the toiletries to above our bed to the world’s largest Delft blue tile tableau in the bar.

Getting Around

Cycling is king in Amsterdam but I had no faith in my biking skills so we decided to walk everywhere. Since I was saving my cell phone roaming for Paris where we were actually meeting up with friends, we had to rely on a physical map of the city to get around. It wasn’t easy because of several factors: a) My not-so-stellar sense of direction, b) Years of relying on Google Maps made me forget how to use an actual map and c) The spider web-like way Amsterdam and its canals are set up did not help. Another thing we quickly realized was that everything was always much closer than we thought. Street blocks weren’t as big as the ones in North America, so on the map it would look like something was very far away when in reality it was right beside you. But as our friend Chris told us, Amsterdam is super compact and after the second day, we were able to navigate the streets comfortably, or at least I was. Keith’s usually good sense of direction was not compatible with the canals.

Attractions

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On our first day there, we had time to go to the Van Gogh museum before they closed. My mom, the biggest Van Gogh fan I know, would have been very disappointed if I hadn’t gone. I enjoyed the Van Gogh museum more than Keith did. His issue was that some of the more famous paintings such as Starry Night and Café Terrance at Night aren’t even housed in it plus it contained paintings that weren’t by Van Gogh. It still houses the largest collection of paintings and drawing by Van Gogh so I consider it a must-see. I really liked the way the museum was laid out. Each floor corresponds to a period in Van Gogh’s life. Some things to keep in mind: the tickets are issued for specific time slots and you cannot take photos of the paintings but there are designated social media areas.

We woke up early on day two to cross out the number one thing on Keith’s list: the Rijksmuseum. The building itself is a work of art from the impressive exterior to the beautiful interior. While all the different works of art inside were super interesting, the main reason we were there can be found in the Gallery of Honour: four of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. Keith has been fascinated by Vermeers since he watched the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, so we spent a large chunk of our time there. Of course, we had to admire the museum’s pièce de resistance: Rembrandt’s Night Watch. My one regret was not being able to visit the library. Also for such an impressive museum, their gift shop was smaller than the ones at Van Gogh’s.IMG_6751.jpg

After the two museums, we just basically spent the rest of the time just exploring the streets around us to see what we would stumble upon. Our hotel was located right beside the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk, a 15th-century church. We walked the 9 Streets and the Jordaan neighbourhood for a bit and saw the Westerkerk where Rembrandt is buried. We skipped the Anne Frank House because of the long lines. We passed Leidseplein a lot. We made our way to the 800-year-old Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest building that just happens to be a church right next to the Red Light District. We also passed by but did not go into the Rembrandt museum right next to the house he lived in.

Food Recommendationsimg_6842

For stroopwafels, we went to the Lanskroon bakery (which also had very good coffee and amazing cinnamon croissants). I bravely sampled and liked the raw herring from Frens Haringhandel near Bloemenmarkt, one of many herring stands in the city, while Keith got and loved their Kibbeling (cod croquettes). We also had traditional Dutch cuisine right beside the canal from Bistro Bij Ons which was tasty but very rich, if not too rich for our taste. We were lucky enough to have De Blauwe Parade as our hotel bar where we drank Heineken (because of course), ate Bitterballen and sampled jenever (Dutch gin). At the airport, go to Dutch and Delicious for their poffertjes (small Dutch pancakes). We found that some places were cash only and some were card only, so be sure to ask beforehand.

Souvenirs

If you love Van Gogh, the museum has multiple gift shops of all sorts of things featuring his artwork, but stroopwafels are definitely the one thing to bring home for yourself or as gifts.

LIMBURG

img_7299I will not be able to cover Limburg as extensively as Amsterdam but I still wanted to give it a special mention here since we did visit it, albeit for a day. It was at the halfway point of our trip after Brussels and Bruges that we made our way to this part of the Netherlands for the wedding. It took us three trains to get there which you think would be a pain in the ass but was actually super easy and efficient. I cannot say enough good things about rail travel in Europe. I’m sure if you live there, you can find things to complain about but as someone who has to rely on the ViaRail in Canada, train travel across the Atlantic is the absolute best. We stayed in Roermond which a small city, close to the border between Germany and the Netherlands that is funnily enough home to a huge outdoor designer outlet mall. Hotel Roermond where we spent the night after the wedding was a gem. They checked us in early so we can leave for the ceremony in nearby Swalmen and had complimentary breakfast. The reception was held at Restaurant De Busjop in Heythuysen. The venues and surrounding countryside were so beautiful. Everyone from the taxi drivers to the wedding guests from there was so friendly. All in all, it was a magical affair.

Final Thoughts

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We fell head over heels in love with the parts of the Netherlands that we were able to see. Everyone spoke English and was super friendly, plus super attractive. Seriously, they all looked like supermodels. And they were not kidding about the bicycles. Rush hour in Amsterdam was a sight to see. But as long as you watched where you were going, you shouldn’t get hit. The service in the Netherlands was hands down the friendliest, most efficient we have received the whole trip. We were really sad to leave Amsterdam and we cannot wait to come back and explore the rest of this beautiful country.

Next post will be on discovering Brussels!

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“Do you guys wanna see my itinerary?”

img_7443I am resurrecting the blog with a five-part post on our recent European vacation. Apparently one of the best ways to combat post-vacation blues is to share your experience. Plus it would be nice to have our memories written down somewhere so why not here? This first post is an introductory one followed by four posts that will cover the four destinations of our trip: Amsterdam with a bit of Limburg sprinkled in, Brussels, Bruges, and finally Paris.

Before diving into our first stop, let me give you the context of our trip. We were attending a wedding in the Netherlands in the middle of August so we decided to make the most of this joyous occasion by visiting a few cities nearby. It would be Keith’s first trip to Europe, his first time setting foot anywhere outside of North America. As I have been to Europe before, specifically Paris, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg and Munich, I was in charge of the itinerary and did most of the planning. No pressure.

After weeks of researching (i.e. obsessively reading blog posts on all our dream destinations), we had decided that our trip would last 10 days mostly because we had a dog that I didn’t want to leave with the sitter for very long but partly because Europe is expensive and I also had a full-time job I had to get back to. Once we set our day-count limit, it was easy to pick and choose which cities to visit. We were initially going to do the Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) plus Cologne and Dusseldorf but cut it down to just Belgium, the Netherlands and added Paris. We’ll save Germany for a separate trip in the future and there’s nothing to see in Luxembourg anyways (just kidding, I’m sure it’s a small but beautiful country worth visiting!).

Then I spent the months leading up to our trip booking our accommodations, buying train and museum tickets in advance and seeking out advice and recommendations from friends. The great thing about being Canadian and living in Toronto is that there’s almost a 100% chance of knowing someone that is a) European, b) has family in Europe, or c) is currently living, has lived or recently visited Europe.

A couple lessons I learned during the planning phase:

  1. Airbnb is your friend but unless you are completely sold on a place, you should maybe abstain from booking it especially when the cancellation policy is strict. I booked a place in Paris that was cheap for a reason then found a much better option so I cancelled the first one but could only get 50 % of my money back.
  2. For my own peace of mind, I needed to combine all the travel information I needed (from our flight numbers to our hotel and Airbnb confirmations and addresses to our train times) in one place. Enter Excel. I found the templates that worked for me thanks to the following link: http://protravelblog.com/free-travel-itinerary-templates/. I used number 9 to have all the references I needed and number 4 for a day by day breakdown.
  3. Even though most everything nowadays has an app and can be accessed electronically through your phone, it is always a good idea to have printouts of your confirmations and tickets.
  4. Scan and bring a printout of the first page of your passport just in case. Luckily we did not need them but one of the guests at the wedding got her passport, credit cards, driver’s licence and health card stolen in Brussels.
  5. No matter how much you plan everything down to the minute, welcome the unexpected.

Our final itinerary looked like this: Two and a half days in Amsterdam, three and half days in Brussels with a day trip to Bruges, back to the Netherlands in Limburg for the wedding for a day, then off to Paris for three and a half days.

The next four posts will pretty much have the same format: First Impressions, Accommodation, Getting Around, Attractions, Food Recommendations, Souvenirs & Final Thoughts.

Next post will be on Amsterdam and Limburg. Hup Holland Hup!

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