Day One: travel day. Now, before anyone goes off and starts thinking this was some sort of fairy tale adventure, I want to assure you that we have two children who like to keep us firmly grounded. Max did his part by vomiting in the car, a whole 40 minutes down the road. After that, it was smooth sailing across Germany and in to the Netherlands. Germany has nice highway oasises with everything you need in one stop. Much like driving the Ohio turnpike, but with better coffee. When traveling in Europe (I’ve found in my limited but growing experience) especially in Germany and France, keep a couple dollars worth of Euro coins with you and never spend them. You need to keep them as your toilet toll. Many places will want you to pay anywhere from 50 cents to 2 euro in order to use the WC. As long as the facilities are clean enough to warrant a fee, I don’t really mind. In Germany the toilet seats automatically spin after every flush and complete a full 360 degree wipe down with a little sanitizing sponge that comes down on an mechanical arm. Leave it to the Germans. What did anyone do before such cutting edge technology? I hear they’re even better in Japan.
Anyway, that was a lot more than I intended regarding public restrooms. But its important stuff! We were en route to Amsterdam. Which is where we spent. . .
Day Two: We stayed just outside of Amsterdam in the neighboring city of Zaandam. I highly recommend staying here on your next trip to Amsterdam for a few reasons. One, Airbnb prices were waayyyy better for what we were looking for (parking, at least one bedroom in which to hide ourselves after the boys’ bedtime) this time of year (that awkward week between Christmas and New Years). Two, the town itself was adorably Dutch and had its own canals and sweet new shopping district and a square with many restaurants. Which made finding a good supper after our semi-late arrival a breeze. Finally, three, the nice and newly renovated train station is a less than 5 minute walk from this new little shopping area and the train leaves frequently every hour, depositing you directly in to Amsterdam Central Station within 12 minutes. If there’s one thing I love, its convenience. I’m American, I can’t help it.
So we arrived in Amsterdam via the main train station at about 9:30 in the morning, hopped off the train, and out in to the city, where we immediately crossed our first of dozens of canals we were to cross that day. When you arrive in Amsterdam Central and you walk out of the station, do not forget to turn around and get a good look at the building. It is gorgeous. The other thing to keep in mind is that the infamous Red Light District is nearly impossible to miss from this arrival point. Walking through in the morning hours with a tight grip on your kids, blinders, and/or a sense of humor, is recommended. If your kids are older, you might want to find a way around because the shop windows don’t really censor for their audience… if you know what I mean. I think if you walk right, instead of left, you’re able to go around it… check your maps.
We found a spot for brunch and sat down. This spot was just down the block from the “popular” spot with all the 5-star reviews and the line out the door. With our ticking time bombs, I mean, boys, we don’t have time to wait around when it comes to mealtime/anything. So we opted for this second place without a line, and with just fine reviews, and were not disappointed with our perfectly good brunch. The place even had its very own real live kitty cat, if you’re in to that. Which the boys really were. I’m here to tell you that it is OK to just dine, and not feel like you must dine at the best place, as I often do because I love food. There are plenty of other good, authentic places to eat.
After brunch we wandered. Like we do. When I arrived in Amsterdam, really all I wanted to do was see Amsterdam. So besides tickets for a canal boat tour which I will tell you about shortly, we had no agenda. We walked along canals and over little bridges and stopped in shops that caught our eye to pick up a few souvenirs. Everything was as cute and adorable as I imagined. Some row homes were barely wider than the front door and other buildings appeared to be leaning askew. I imagine setting up house would come with extra challenges in Amsterdam. We made our way past the Anne Frank house. What struck me about this house was how busy the area was, not just because of tourists now flocking to see the infamous structure, but because it faced a broad main canal and wasn’t at all sneakily hidden. Just the opposite of what I had expected. This is why I love to explore. Surprise me, world!
We decided we wanted to check out the VanGogh museum in early afternoon. But by the time we arrived the line was out the door and down the block and all online tickets were sold out until much later in the day. Its ok though, this is how we roll. Instead, we implemented Plan B and went across the sidewalk and in to the Stedelijk Museum of contemporary art and design. Miles enjoyed a few of the interactive exhibits and Max took a stroller nap. Woop! If you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam, this museum is open 365 days a year and located in the same area as the VanGogh, Rijksmuseum and Moco museum. So take your pick.
After we felt sufficiently cultured, we found a brewery for a rest, a snack and a brew. Then made our way to the dock for our 5pm canal boat tour and light show. Every December through mid-January, artists create lighted public art displays that are exhibited throughout the city. One of the most efficient ways to see them is via boat through the canals. I really thought this was going to be a sure-fire hit. Boat rides and festive holiday lights. Two things little boys like mine are in to, right? Wrong. From the moment we stepped on board, the only, and I mean ONLY thing that held their interest were the small handheld squeegees provided at each seat to wipe condensation off of the windows when they began to fog over. After they were informed they could not use their squeegees to hit each other, all hell broke loose. I have no idea what happened. They’d been fed, pottied, appropriately dressed and both took decent naps on the stroller that day. It was like they’d been saving up for their collective biggest meltdowns to date when it would pack the biggest punch. Time stopped. I think I died a few times. If the glass ceiling hadn’t been there I may have jumped off, or at least recommend our fellow passengers reach up and cling to the underside of the next bridge we went under in order to save themselves. It was awful.
Eventually, mercifully, the hour and 15 minute ride ended and we were deposited back in front of the main train station. Where we hopped the next train back to Zaandam. You really win and lose some when you travel with your children. During things like meltdowns on glass-top boat rides that were supposed to be the highlight of the day, I just keep thinking all things come full circle. I’m 100% certain my parents put up with vacation ruining moments like that when my sisters and I were younger. I can remember a few of them (sorry guys! it came full circle!). My prayer is that my children will grow up and be blessed with children of their own, so that they too may know the extreme joys and pains that come along with parenthood. Some might call it Karma. But the moral of this story is, (and please remember this when you’re considering your next family trip) even the bad stuff is cast in a warm retrospective glow. Traveling with your kids is like birthing a child. It can, and will be, painful in the moment, but you’re so in love with your baby that eventually you decide to do it all over again.
Day 3. There is no way I was going to the Netherlands without seeing windmills. We hadn’t really written a windmill stop in to our “official” itinerary, but as we drove down the highway to our next destination, the city of Brugges, Belgium, I started spotting windmills all over. They stand out in the low, flat land and you can easily see them dotting the countryside as you drive along. Being the curious lady that I am, I needed a closer look. I popped open a map and noticed our route would be taking us right by the little town of Kinderdijk, with its UNESCO protected group of 19 windmills. Naturally this required a stop.
I learned so much! First of all, you’ll notice when you’re driving in the Netherlands that it really is low, flat country. You’ll drive along dykes with water on both sides, and under aqueduct bridges, and you can see forever with hardly so much as a bump in the farmland. The Netherlands were essentially originally an uninhabitable bog. Windmills pumped water out of the lowlands and back in to rivers and other waterways, so people could live and farmers can grow things. The original windmills have been mostly replaced by modern electric and diesel pumps, but the windmills have stood for hundreds of years and still remain standing tall!
We made our way on to Brugges. A city surrounded and intersected by canals. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Venice are of course, famous for their canals, but I really didn’t know that Brugges is known for them as well. The historic center of Brugges is a UNESCO protected cultural world heritage center. It has been inhabited as a city since the Middle Ages, with brick architecture that has stood for centuries and city layout of streets, canals and open spaces that has not changed.
I honestly don’t know what to tell you to do in Brugges, except walk around and drool. Literally and figuratively. Chocolate shops every few yards, Belgian waffles handed to you street-side out of waffle shop windows, world famous beer on tap. Untouched medieval architecture in the form of bridges, churches, clock towers and neighborhood buildings. Just walk around and consume everything. We were blessed with a sunset that would not quit that night, and end of season holiday markets still open with twinkle lights and festive stalls with hot wine or hot chocolate and Christmas-y crafts for sale.
We were only three days in to our journey and I was already mind-blown with everything we had seen. We spent one night in Brugges and I didn’t feel like I needed another. I was excited for the rest of our trip and our one night in Brugges had been a dream.
We woke up on Day Four, Monday, and beat it out of Brugges. Now, it takes a very special kind of family to walk in to a brewery before noon on a Monday. We are that family. But this was a special brewery and we really didn’t have any time to wait around for a more “appropriate” beer-drinking hour. Besides, beer drinking hours are wayyyyyy more flexible in Europe. Lest you judge. This was the Trappist Westvleteren brewery, tended by cloistered Cistercian monks of the Saint-Sixtus abbey. One of six official Trappist breweries in Belgium (11 total in the world) and ranked as a world’s top brewery. While there are other Trappist monasteries around the globe, a Trappist brewery is legally one in which beer is brewed within a monastery, supervised by monks and fulfilling a few other strict standards. They produce and sell only enough beer to support themselves, their monastery, and give the remaining profit to charitable works. Perhaps its this elusive exclusiveness that gives them fame. I’m no expert, but I really thought the beer was tasty. However, the hot chocolate we ordered for Miles, was to die for.
We didn’t stay long. We had places to go! Any ideas where we were headed from here? Get out your maps, take a look, and drop your best guesses below. Or, go take a peek on Instagram, where I’ve already spilled about the whole thing.