A Day at Kinderdijk

There are some places in this world that – with their natural beauty – remind me why I travel. Kinderdijk in western Holland is one such magical place that will transport you into another time.

Kinderdijk from Marsh, Netherlands

View of Kinderdijk from the marsh

It’s hard to believe that Kinderdijk is just a few miles away from Rotterdam. In fact, Rotterdam’s modern architecture and developing skyline offers the perfect contrast. You exit a multi-lane highway and pass through a small town and then down a winding road. This transition gradually prepares you to experience something completely different.

Kinderdijk Boat, Netherlands

View of Kinderdijk from a boat tour

We began our day by taking a boat tour around the whole Kinderdijk site. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Kinderdijk has 19 windmills dating back to the 1700’s. They were used to gradually pump water out of this low-lying area into the Lek and Noord rivers which meet at Kinderdijk. You get a sense of the sheer scope of the site from this boat tour.

I personally find the idea of a mill fascinating. Think of a time where your job is ensuring that the neighboring village doesn’t get flooded. You need to vigilantly manage your windmill/home to advert disaster. Talk about a high pressure job. If you are a science/technology nerd like me, you will enjoy the video in the visitors’ center. You can learn all about the history of Kinderdijk and evolution of mill technology. If that isn’t enough, you can enter and explore a fully functioning mill!

Kinderdijk Spinning Wheel, Netherlands

Spinning wheel of Kinderdijk mill – keep your hands clear!

Perhaps the most fascinating thing I learned was that millers and their families lived within the confines of the mill. The rounded walls and tiny windows have a certain charm. I’m sure that after awhile the ambient noise could almost be relaxing. Almost.

Kinderdijk is a jewel of The Netherlands and is among the most wonderful destinations I have ever visited. I say this not just for the pure ‘Put me on a postcard’ scenery. Yes, the mills are complimented by dynamic clouds and wildlife while modern civilization is barely visible in the distance. I think there is an even greater significance.

Kinderdijk Mill with Reflection, Netherlands

Kinderdijk Mill

The people in the village of Kinderdijk in the 18th century learned a lesson that at times eludes us today. They understood that they all needed to work together to keep their feet dry. I think we can all learn a little from that.

Please click here if you would like to see some additional pictures of Kinderdijk and other locations!

A lovely day trip to Bremen, Germany

“A week in Hamburg?? What are you going to do for a whole week in Hamburg?” was the response we heard from some people when we mentioned our travel plans. Well, part of what we were planning on doing for a week in Hamburg was to take day trips to smaller nearby cities. The second day trip we took was to Bremen, Germany.

Honestly, I had never heard of Bremen before Dan started doing some research into potential day trips from Hamburg. But once we decided we were going to go there, whenever I mentioned it to anyone they said “the musicians of Bremen?!”. I had no idea what they were talking about, but upon our arrival to Bremen I learned!

The Musicians of Bremen

The Musicians of Bremen

This is a rooster on the back of a cat on the back of a dog on the back of a donkey. The story is a bit weird, but in the end the animals live happily ever after, and that’s a story I can get behind. See the Muppet version of the story (parts 1-6) here.

Anyway, Bremen is a short hour long train ride away from Hamburg. Once we got to Bremen, the walk to the old city was about 5 minutes. The old city, which no longer has any of its old walls or gates, is still exceptionally beautiful.

A Bremen windmill

A Bremen windmill

The old city is on an island, so we figured we would just walk around for a few hours. We had plans to watch the Bremen vs. Hamburg football match (that’s soccer to you American folks) at a beer garden somewhere in the city at 3 in the afternoon, so we have a bunch of hours to kill until then. Then, just 10 minutes into our walk we spotted these buildings across the river just outside of the old city:

Yes, that building says KABOOM! on it.

Yes, that building says KABOOM! on it.

We had to check it out. It looked like it was perhaps a comic book art exhibit, and guess what? It was! Plus, it was free admission, so we had ourselves a little bit of artsy fun! By the time we left it was after noon. Back across the river, in the old city, we spotted what looked like a craft fair.  This was no crappy NYC-style street fair, folks. People were actually making crafts right there next to the river. We saw two guys with lathes making little wooden objects. One guy was making wooden spindles for yarn. Weird and random, but fun to watch!

Then we saw a guy making rope! Actually making rope! What a nice change from the plastic stuff most people buy online, made by machines, for pennies.

Man twisting rope with his helpers while a crowd of people look on.

Man twisting rope with his helpers while a crowd of people look on.

Who knew rope-making was so fascinating??

We continued walking, Dan secretly wishing he could buy all of the awesome stuff for sale at the market, until we got to a tunnel taking you under the road back to one of the oldest parts of the city. It was about 5 minutes to 1 at that point. We walked between all of these old, beautiful buildings that have found new like as stores selling crafts and unique trinkets. Then we walked through a small square filled with people. I couldn’t figure out why they were all standing there until we heard the bells.

The Glockenspiel of Bremen.

The Glockenspiel of Bremen.

What an awesome coincidence! Bremen’s Glockenspiel played us 10 minutes of music and the tower bit on the left of the picture turns every 30 seconds or so the whole time with new images of famous Germans throughout history. It was so, so great. I especially liked that the chiming of the hour at the start of the music was actually the same exact tune that the bell at my university played every hour. Oh, nostalgia…

Then we headed north a few blocks which lead us into Bremen’s town square.

Bremen's Rathaus

Bremen’s Rathaus

This is where the Musicians of Bremen are located (just to the west of town hall), and the Rathaus (town hall), Bremen’s cathedral, and Bremen’s parliament building. We checked out all of the buildings, going into any that were open (and all that were open were free!), but then it was time to get some lunch!

We began walking east, and on our way off the island we spotted a beer garden and made a mental note to head back there for the football game! Eastward we walked until we reached our destination:

Tom and Karo!

Tom and Karo!

Tom and Karo is a vegetarian restaurant that is really vegan with a cow’s cheese option. It completely knocked our socks off!

Dan's vegan cheeseburger with fires and a hummus dipping sauce. Dan says this is the best vegan cheeseburger he has ever had.

Dan’s vegan cheeseburger with fires and a hummus dipping sauce. Dan says this is the best vegan cheeseburger he has ever had.

My vegan fish burger with fries and mango curry dipping sauce.

My vegan fish burger with fries and mango curry dipping sauce.

The food was so good that we ordered food to go for dinner later that night, which was great, too, even though we ate it about 8 hours later! Also, the decor is pretty eclectic and the bathrooms are covered in animal rights stickers, which was awesome.

On our walk back to the beer garden, we took a slight detour to the other super old, craft area of the old city of Bremen. It should be noted that the old city of Bremen is very small, it probably takes 15 minutes to walk across east-west, and 5 minutes north-south. It is perfectly sized for a day of exploring. Yet somehow the city of Bremen actually has about 550,000 people in it, so obviously the old city is not the entirety of the city. The tiny crafty area we were in was a perfect example of why cities in the middle ages tended to just go up in flames, though. Some of the side streets were as little as 3 feet wide. It would be pretty easy for fire to pass from house to house with all the houses that close together!

Then it was game time! We found a bench at the beer garden, each got a brew and a pretzel, and settled in to enjoy the game. I had a wheat beer and Dan had the beer garden’s original beer, which he enjoyed in a big ‘ole beer stein.

Beer and pretzels are made for each other.

Beer and pretzels are made for each other.

The game was Bremen vs. Hamburg, and actually took place in Hamburg while we were in Bremen! Woops! But this is apparently a big rivalry, so tickets were actually very expensive anyway. We though this was actually the perfect way to experience the game. It didn’t hurt that Bremen won 2-0 so everyone in the beer garden was singing songs and cheering their heads off. A good time was had by all.

Germany is really the first place that Dan and I have gotten to get out of the big cities to explore the smaller cities and towns, and we have really enjoyed it. We plan to do more small-town exploring as we head south!

Anywhere in Germany we should try to visit that you have been and loved?

Madurodam and Miniatur Wunderland

The Hague’s Madurodam and Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland are big attractions in their respective cities. They take historic buildings and skylines and break them down into accessible miniature replicas. The architectural accuracy of the models alone at both sites makes them worth visiting. However, they each have a number of additional features that you will remember for years to come.

Madurodam is pretty straightforward as a tourist attraction. The models there focus exclusively on The Netherlands and will give you a great representation on the architecture across the country. I can tell you this; many people had a lot of fun putting together Madurodam.

Madurodam, The Hague

Madurodam, The Hague

Scattered around the park are dozens of videos (in Dutch, but with English subtitles) that explain buildings, Dutch culture and weird facts. The humor really strikes a tone with all ages. Even if you think looking at scale replicas isn’t your thing, you will be pleasantly surprised. You can try your hand at a simulated flower-auction, purchase a pair of mini-clogs delivered by truck from a mini clog-factory, watch model boats go through fully functional locks and lift weights that look like cheese wheels!

Madurodam clog factory

Madurodam’s mini-clog factory!

Madurodam, Dike

Madurodam – Molly is holding back the flood!

I personally enjoyed the birds wandering through the outdoor site clashing in scale with micro buildings and vehicles. Tons of fun. Pro tip: Don’t go when it’s raining.

Madurodam, Binnenhof

Madurodam, Model of Binnenhof in The Hague

Madurodam is a great way to feel like you’ve seen all of Holland in about two hours. Just a note, it took us three hours. We were simply having too much fun.  If you want to see more of the world in miniature, you need to head west to Hamburg.

Miniatur Wunderland – e.g. ‘Miniature Wonderland’ – is Hamburg’s most popular attraction for good reason. It is the largest model railway in the world! There is a good chance your first reaction will be “Who had the time to put this whole exhibit together?” As the truth would have it, there are many people spending a lot of time painting and crafting these convincing scenes.

Miniature Wonderland - Switzerland exhibit

Miniature Wonderland – Switzerland exhibit

The level of detail is astounding. Figures just millimeters high are bursting with character. It’s like playing a huge 3-D version of Where’s Waldo without knowing exactly who you are looking for.  The scenes themselves also have their moments of levity as well if you look closely.

Miniature Wonderland - Santa and Frosty!

Miniature Wonderland – Santa and Frosty!

Miniature Wonderland - Rabbits in School

Miniature Wonderland – Rabbits in School

Miniature Wonderland Tractor Race

Miniature Wonderland Tractor Race

Miniatur Wunderland has permanent exhibits which feature Switzerland, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, and the United States. (Coming soon – Italy!) The models effectively capture some of the most recognizable features of these regions. Authenticity of these regions is also enhanced by day/night cycles. Speaking of authentic, the working replica of an Airport is a wonder to behold.

Miniature Wonderland Carnival

Miniature Wonderland Carnival at night

In addition to these giant exhibitions they also have several rooms devoted to special exhibits which capture historical moments in miniature form. You can spend the entire day looking at miniatures and still feel like there is more to experience. We spent 6 hours at a very crowded Miniature Wonderland!

We enjoyed both of these museums and would highly recommend a visit to one or both. You will be surprised how compelling and engaging something so small can be!

For more pictures of Madurodam and Miniatur Wunderland, please check out our new Travel Gallery page!

A Cultural Day in Amsterdam

On Saturday, September 14th, Dan and I had plans to visit the Anne Frank house. Possibly the most famous thing in Amsterdam, other than the red light district and the “coffee”shops, it had been on our agenda for our week in Amsterdam but we had left it towards the end due to the fact that we knew the visit would be less than uplifting.

So at 4 in the afternoon on Saturday (they are open everyday until 9pm!) we headed over. And what do we see on the door but a “closed for Yom Kippur” sign. Now, I knew it was Yom Kippur, but seeing as they are open every Saturday, or the sabbath for Jews, I just assumed the museum would be open on Yom Kippur as well. In fact, later that night when we were back home the internet confirmed that Yom Kippur is the only day of the year that they are closed! Woops.

So to rescue the afternoon, we walked around the corner to the Old Church (or Oude Kerk in Dutch). When we got there we were handed a little booklet that did not explain anything about the church but instead explained that September 14th and 15th were “Heritage Amsterdam” days, which meant all kinds of cool buildings around the city were free and open to the public. We were running out of time on Saturday as all of the monuments close at 5 on these two days, so we made a plan to go and see some on Sunday as well, not wanting to miss out on such a cool event.

I will only highlight one “monument” and the Anne Frank house because 1) my mom asked me to write about them because she “may never get to see them” herself and 2) Yom Kippur had just passed the day before so it seems appropriate.

The morning of September 15th Dan and I headed out on a bright but blustery day to see the monuments. Our first stop was the Portuguese Synagogue.

Portuguese Synagogue interior

Portuguese Synagogue interior

The brief background that I’ll give about the synagogue is that it was built in the 17th century during the Dutch “golden age” by Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the inquisition. The Netherlands was known for allowing freedom of religion, which is why so many Jews migrated there. At the time of its construction, it was the biggest synagogue in the world, and I can confirm that it is very big. More info can be found on the Wikipeidia page. We particularly liked the high, barrel-like wooden ceilings. Many of the benches are also original to the synagogue, dating to the 1670’s. It was amazing to think that the previous day this synagogue had been filled with hungry, repentant Jews. It was so quiet when we were there!

I was certainly glad to have seen the synagogue, but I am especially glad that it was on that day where many famous spots in the city were free. Admission to the Portuguese Synagogue is normally 12 euros. In my opinion, that is ridiculous. In fact, the sticker prices on most monuments and museums in continental Europe are insane. It means I have to choose museums carefully so I don’t leave the place feeling stupid that I just spend $20 to see nothing of value. Okay, end rant.

After the Portuguese Synagogue we walked clockwise along the Prinsengracht canal to the Anne Frank House. For those of you who have not read Anne’s book, you should. I was – when I read the book in middle school – and still am amazed that a 13-15 year old could have written so eloquently about a time and experience that my 27 year old brain cannot really comprehend.

The museum and house itself were interesting, but not new to anyone who has read the book. In 1960 Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the only person in the family who survived the war, turned the house into a living monument to what World War II did to a family from Amsterdam. He decided to keep the actual “secret annex” where the Frank family and 4 others lived empty so a visitor can experience the loss as well. Dan and I understand why that choice was made, but in a way it made it harder to immerse yourself in the story while walking around empty rooms. The part that touched me the most was after you walked through the annex, you went to a museum of Anne and her family, their deaths at many different concentration camps, and a room dedicated to Anne’s actual diary. Seeing her words written in her handwriting (though, I couldn’t understand it as it was written in Dutch! Luckily, the museum added English translations next to each page) really moved me. It was the physical diary that made her real to me.

The last thing Dan and I really like in the museum part of the house was the room where they give you examples of various situations happening around the world relating to racism and extremism and you have to pick what the “right” thing to do is. Often these relate to first amendment rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Do people have the right to express hatred of others, or say things that could incite violence? Where do we draw the line on our freedoms? Germany has many anti-antisemitic laws on the books, including a law making it a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust. But Germany also has laws meant to suppress neo-Nazism, such as that certain combat boots with white laces are illegal. Where do we draw the line on freedom of expression? It was an interesting debate and I appreciated it being there.

Sorry for the lack of pictures from the Anne Frank House. They do not allow pictures inside, so I will leave you with a picture Dan took of me while we were waiting on line to get in.

It's a little windy out. Anne Frank House Museum in the background.

It’s a little windy out. Anne Frank House Museum in the background.

And on that note… We will be back soon with some more travel posts!

Seeing September 11th From a Distance

Most of you, my dear readers, know that I am a lifelong New Yorker. I was born in lower Manhattan, lived my whole childhood in upper Manhattan, and went to high school in the Bronx. I only left my beloved New York City for 4 years to go to college in upstate New York. I left because I knew I would live the rest of my life in NYC and I thought it would be healthy to get a different perspective for a few years. So naturally, I have lived in New York since graduating college. New York City is part of who I am and I carry my city with me everywhere I go. When people ask Dan and I where we are from, I am proud to be able to answer “New York City”.

12 years ago today my city was broken. I did not know how to deal with it then, and I’m not sure I know how even now, as I have never been good with tragedy. And that’s what it was. A tragedy. We lost an icon of our skyline that I can still see in my mind’s eye. We lost so many people who were simply off to work on a brilliantly beautiful September Tuesday morning. And we lost trust in each other and the world. We Americans, at least. Maybe it only seemed that way to me, since I was only 14 at the time.

But our actions since that day 12 years ago have really changed more than the day itself, I believe. We have started wars. Many, many wars. So many people – Americans and non-Americans – have died. Many, many more people than were killed on that horrible day. And I don’t feel safer because of it. I felt safer before. Before September 11th, 2001, obviously, and before America started this current string of wars.

It couldn’t be any more evident to me than since I have been traveling. I haven’t personally feel unsafe anywhere, but walking by the US Consulate in the Hague or the US Embassy here in Amsterdam it is clear that the people working inside of those buildings don’t feel safe. They are both surrounded by high fences and many guard towers. Even here, in the Netherlands. And then you walk down the block and pass the German Embassy, for example, it just looks like a building. If it weren’t for the plaque and flag, you would never know it was special.

US Embassy, Amsterdam

US Embassy, Amsterdam

So far on our trip, our experiences talking with foreigners have all been wonderful. The cultural exchange has made us feel part of a global community. We may speak different native languages, we may live very different lifestyles, we may eat differently. We are all different, but we are all the same.

This is the first time I have ever been out of the country on September 11th. I thought it would be hard for me. But I honestly think it has been an easier day than I ever had in New York City on September 11th over the last 12 years. Not because I got to avoid the day and the subject (I have wifi and my lovely facebook family to remind me of it), but because I got to experience how different, but exactly the same we all are. And I am looking forward to getting to do it for the next 4 months or so as well. Travel can take you to beautiful places, but it can also renew your faith in humanity. And I am so grateful for having the opportunity. Today more than ever.