Roadtripping in the Netherlands

Düsseldorf is not only conveniently close to Berlin, but also to the Netherlands with the North Sea and Amsterdam. I somehow came up with the crazy brilliant idea to go mud flat walking in the Wadden Sea, so that’s what we did. Besides, road trips with Toby and A are historically known to provide a delightful combination of adventure and entertainment.

The Wadden Sea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the unique ecological area between the coasts of the Netherlands and Denmark and a series of islands in the North Sea. It lives off the ebb and flow of the North Sea, whose tides bring in sediment and plankton that support a community of fish, birds, and seals. Because the Wadden Sea is so shallow, you can walk across the mud flats at low tide to one of the many islands. We chose a tour from the town of Holwerd to the island of Ameland.

Mud walking, wadlopen in Dutch, is an amazing experience, even other-worldly if you’re used to the deserts of Arizona and southern Utah. You’re surrounded by nothing but mud, sea water, wind, and, in our case, rain (yes, we were that lucky). We spent four hours slogging through ankle-deep mud that tries to suck off  your shoes and belly-deep channel-crossings that lap at the dry clothes in your back pack. The near-constant rain got us as wet from the top down as the channels did from the bottom up. I think we loved every minute of it, despite the blue lips and goose bumps (the air was 13°C and the water was 16°C – even one of our tour guides commented on how bad the conditions were).

Once at the island, we caught a ride with a tractor-pulled trailer that brought us closer to the village of Nes and, to make sure our North Sea baptism was complete, sprayed us with beach sand (imagine a sugary snickerdoodle). At that point we could only laugh and shiver, but it was nothing a tomato soup and hot chocolate couldn’t cure (after a hike over a grassy hill and a deck change in the bathroom at the lifeguard station – do you know how hard it is to pull off sopping wet skivvies when you’ve lost practically all fine motor skills in your fingers due to frozeness?). I imagine the whole thing is quite lovely when the sun is shining. But, since it wasn’t, we caught a bus to the ferry station to get back to the mainland. By the time we got back to the car, the rain had stopped and the sun was coming out. Oh, the twisted ways of Mother Nature.

We’d had our fill of the North Sea though and were looking forward to Amsterdam. The weather wasn’t much better (we never left the hotel without our umbrellas), but the canals and quaint buildings provided an inspiring contrast to the wilderness from the day before. Did you know that Amsterdam has more canals than Venice and that the buildings were all built with a forward tilt to allow goods to be hoisted up to the attics without breaking any windows? A law dating from 1565 restricted this lean to 1:25 to help keep buildings from collapsing into the street.

After having been in Amsterdam, I don’t think I can legitimately complain about driving in Düsseldorf anymore. Not only are the streets extremely narrow, but there are something like half a million bicycles in Amsterdam and nearly every single one of them is driven by a crazy swift-maneuvering, don’t-believe-in-brakes-even-at-a-red-light person. We also tasted Dutch cheese, visited the floating flower market, and had famous Dutch pancakes. What more could you ask for from Holland? Maybe a little sunshine.

A tip from the locals – the weather in the Netherlands in August is drier. Good to know for the next time around.

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Big city Berlin

For our big city adventure, A and I chose Berlin. Neither of us had ever been, and it seems like one of those places you should go, especially if you’re already this close. So we packed ourselves into a train and arrived in Germany’s vibrant capital a little over four hours later.

We spent our first afternoon getting to know the city on a Fat Tire Bike Tour. This is a great way to explore a new place – not only do you cover a lot of ground, but you also hear its stories from a person passionate enough to want to lead tourists around on bikes all day. The pace was very relaxed as we cruised from point to point, always learning more about the 1871 German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, East Germany, and the reunified Germany. We saw places like Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz, and Brandenburg Gate; Red City Hall and the Reichstag building (Parliament); Checkpoint Charlie, parts of the Berlin wall, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; Berlin’s Cathedral, Museum Island, and Humboldt University; and a beer garden in the Tiergarten.

What left a lasting impression on me was how the face of Berlin had changed over the course of its recent history. Sure, like many other European cities in the 20th century, many buildings had been bombed or burned down, either in full or part. But it was interesting to learn that some of them had been exactly rebuilt, but in a different location, or that parts of buildings had been kept and integrated into new buildings. Kind of like a way for the city to remember pieces of its history while still moving forward.

A bike tour can make you hungry, so we settled into a cafe on Gendarmenmarkt for dinner. We enjoyed an open-air jazz concert that ended with an impressive show of fireworks followed immediately by a crazy downpour. We were outside but under the roof and had the perfect vantage point from which to watch the concert-goers scrambling for cover. The rain gave us a good excuse to stay a little longer with some hot beverages. It was a nice way to spend our only evening in Berlin.

On our last day we explored on our own. We started with a visit to the Ritter Sport chocolate store. We’re girls. That’s what we do. Our second visit to Checkpoint Charlie provided a great photo opportunity with its popsicle-eating ‘guards.’ We ate what must be the best waffle on the face of the planet as we wandered past old Trabant cars repurposed into tour cars. We read our way through Topography of Terror (a free museum about the history of repression under the Nazis). We took a short subway ride to Charlottenburg Palace to see a different part of Berlin and treated ourselves to afternoon coffee and hot chocolate in the palace gardens. And then it was time to head back to the train station.

It was a fun two days for the traveling sisters!

Summer treat

What’s the best summer treat? Ever? Watermelons, frozen margaritas, and ice cream sundaes got nothin’ on it? Twelve full days with A!!!

I was so happy to pick A up from the airport – I had tears in my eyes. Same for her. We spent that afternoon at my favorite coffee house, talking and enjoying the simple fact that we were breathing the same air. Conversation flowed like always, with each of us finishing the other’s thoughts. For the next 11 days, we never ran out of things to talk about, even in the more heated moments (it’d be boring if we didn’t challenge each other a bit).

Time flies when you’re having fun. And boy, did we have fun! I showed her our new hood and my new work. We rode our bikes with Toby along the Rhine on a sunny day and in the rain on a not so sunny day (the true Düsseldorf experience). I of course showed her all the favorites – the coffee house, the bakery, my chocolate croissant dealer, our little Italian place, the Mexican restaurant, the Devil’s of Düsseldorf. We discovered gummy bear heaven. I tried to take her to boot heaven, but we were about a month early still. We spent a Wednesday night on Ratinger with Altbier and Wienerschnitzel. Toby cooked for us, and we played Yahtzee and Boggle. For a bit of adventure, A and I took the train to Berlin, and A, Toby, and I took the convertible on a road trip to the Netherlands.

Before I was ready, it was time for A to go. I was so sad to leave her at the airport – I had tears in my eyes. Same for her.

Tank tops and miniskirts and flip flops, oh my

Barcelona in June is good for a Düsseldorf girl – they actually have summer there. I did nothing but run around in all of the above for three days and two nights, relishing in the feel of bare knees and bare toes. It was Fabulous. Yes, with a capital F!

Three days doesn’t sound like a lot of time for a city like Barcelona, which has so much to offer, but we achieved a very satisfying combination of playing tourists and just bumming around. I have decided I am in love with the city. I love its warmth. I love its vibe. I love its heart. Barcelona is to Düsseldorf what San Diego is to Phoenix – the perfect weekend getaway for a change of scenery.

Our hotel in the heart of the Barri Gotic served as the ideal place from which to base our explorations. On our first afternoon we wandered aimlessly and happily toward Port Vell, soaking in the sun and the sights. We stopped for an afternoon snack in the shade of Plaça Reial before meeting a friend (and Barcelona local) to watch some German soccer in one of the bars near La Rambla (yes, there’s always soccer). Unfortunately neither Toby nor I are big fans of Spanish food (we’re too near-vegetarian and anti-fish for that), but the Tinto de Verano, a summer red wine specialty, goes down easily. We also got a taste of the Spanish lifestyle – the city and its people really come alive once the sun goes down.

Barcelona – Port Vell

Barcelona – La Rambla

The next day started off a little later than planned (also part of the Spanish lifestyle) with a visit to the Mercat off La Rambla. I love marketplaces even more than I love grocery stores – they’re so colorful and lively.

Barcelona – Mercat

Barcelona – Mercat

After a slice of fresh pizza and some freshly pressed fruit juice, we headed to Park Güell for our first taste of Gaudí architecture. Here’s a free tip – take the subway (a pleasant experience in Barcelona, regardless) to Vallcarca. From there you can ride a series of escalators up the hill of El Carmel, a sweat-saving plan for a hot summer day. While you don’t walk through the park’s main entrance, you are immediately rewarded with vistas of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea.

Barcelona – escalators up El Carmel – trust me on this!

Barcelona – view from the top of El Carmel

As we walked along the meandering paths, I couldn’t help but feel at home – it was probably the dirt between my toes and the park’s agaves and bougainvilleas. The Gran Plaça Circular, with its reputedly longest bench in the world, was the perfect place to take photos, people-watch, and soak in the splendor of the day. And, as the daughter of an architect, I appreciated Gaudí’s unique style and attention to detail, visible in the concrete forms of the Hall of a Hundred Columns and the many ceramic and glass mosaics.

Barcelona – main entrance of Park Guell

I could have stayed if I hadn’t been so hungry. We spent the afternoon coffee housing and window shopping in the Barri Gotic, the towers of La Catedral sneaking in and out of the background as we curved our way through the jumbled, narrow streets. The sheer number of shoe stores we ran across, each with a unique and clever way of displaying their goods, tells me that the Spanish love their shoes. We even stumbled upon what must be ballerina heaven (yes, I bought a new pair in Barcelona).

Barcelona – Bari Gotic

Barcelona – Catedral

Barcelona – ballerina heaven

We happened to be in Barcelona for the much-anticipated annual celebration of Sant Joan. We started the night off with a delicious dinner that renewed our faith in Spanish food – an appetizer of spinach sautéed in olive oil with raisins and pine nuts followed by vegetable paella. Then we headed out into the crowded streets to join the revelers. There was laughing, dancing, and firecrackers everywhere. I heard the party was still going when the sun came up.

Barcelona – Sant Joan celebration

But we had plans for our last day in Barcelona – a visit to the famous La Sagrada Família, another one of Gaudí’s works, still under construction since 1882. This place was awesome! From the outside it seems dirty and strange with its many brown-colored façades covered in sculptures, some more friendly than others. The inside is completely different – cool, crisp, and flooded with a grayish blue light, pierced by points of color from the many stained glass windows. The central nave is a forest of columns whose face changes with every few steps you take. I was truly mesmerized. It was a nice last impression to have of Barcelona.

Barcelona – a La Sagrada Familia facade

Barcelona – La Sagrada Familia’s forest

Barcelona – La Sagrada Familia

I hope we return to Barcelona. The city is interesting, and the sunshine made my soul smile. I guess you can take the girl out of Arizona, but you just can’t take Arizona out of the girl!