Taking a group to Amsterdam


I love Costa Rica.  I love to travel there, and it is my business.  But my wife and I are now “empty nesters”, and are finally getting the chance to travel to some other destinations.   I thought it would be fun to share some of our experiences to other places. 

Every year, I arrange a large group trip to somewhere fun for the gang in my Mardi Gras krewe. The groups have at times exceeded 40 people, but most of the time we have 12 to 20 people. Since we now had a little experience in Amsterdam, we thought that this would be a fun place to take the gang.  On this trip, eighteen of us traveled to Europe. 

We worked it out so that most of the group would spend a full week in Amsterdam. Everyone then went in different directions. Some went to Paris, others to Rome, and some to Germany. We went to Prague after Amsterdam with three other couples. My Prague experiences are detailed elsewhere in this blog. 

We flew overnight from the US.  We arrived at the Amsterdam airport at 7:00 AM.  We then took the local train to the Central Station in downtown Amsterdam. This was pretty easy, except that it seems that the ticket vending machines were experiencing problems with credit cards. We learned later that this was indeed the case. But at the time, we figured it was just “operator trouble” brought on by jet lag. We finally were able to get some euro change and purchased our tickets. After a short train ride we arrived at the Central Station. From there we walked the short distance to our group’s lodging, “Amsterdam Escape”. 

We had stayed in Amsterdam Escape (http://www.amsterdamescape.com/) the previous year, and had a very positive experience. This year was no different. We rented the “Chillout”, “Nest”, “Home” and “Suite”. The apartments are a little pricey, but this is such a great way to go. Especially with a group. The apartments are fully furnished, and include computers with Internet access, stereos, full kitchens, cable, DVD players with movies, game system, etc. Two of the units even had full laundry facilities. Everyone quickly made themselves at home. These apartments are located in the Nieumarkt area, right next to the red light district. This was a group that likes to have a good time, and the close proximity to bars and restaurants was just the ticket for them. 

This is a fun group, and we had some good house parties. We would also meet at different apartments in the mornings for coffee to compare experiences, and to plan our days. Our first night, we had an amazing throw down dinner at Restaurant Gusto (http://ristorantegusto.com). This is right next door to the Chillout. We have eaten here on previous visits, and highly recommend it. The house specialty is pasta, that is finished by placing it into a huge hollowed out parmesan cheese wheel. The hot pasta melts the cheese, and it is all scraped together on the plate. They have lots of delicious Italian specialties and appetizers. We ate until we couldn’t eat anymore, and washed it down with copious amounts of red wine. It didn’t really cure our jet lag, but it sure was fun! 

Within a day or two, the members of our group started to do their own thing. My wife and I spent a day in Haarlem, only a 15 minute train ride away. We had visited Haarlem last year, and had been unable to get inside the ancient church that dominates the town square and skyline. We were luckier this time. They were getting the massive 300 year old pipe organ ready for a concert, and we were lucky enough to hear the “sound check”.  Some of the pipes are 30 feet tall, and the rumbling sound was nothing short of amazing. 

Some of us also took a day trip to Zandvoort aan Zee, a beach resort. It was freezing cold and rainy in early October. But we were just there for the mussels. It cleared a little, and we had an opportunity to walk on the beach. 

We also took an afternoon to go to Zaandam. There are some authentic old windmills here, and scattered nearby there is the Dutch equivalent of a colonial Williamsburg. The little village has a pewter shop, with ongoing demonstrations, and cheese factory, a wooden shoe factory, several old buildings, and of course a gift shop. We got the chance to crawl around inside an old windmill that was grinding chalk for paint. It was fascinating to see how these actually worked.  My wife is an amateur artist, and this windmill had actually produced pigments for paint used by Rembrandt.  She was thrilled for the opportunity to buy some pigments here.  I am waiting for her masterpiece! 

Our own apartment at the Amsterdam Escape actually fell through. The apartments are scattered over several buildings, and our building failed the annual fire inspection. So we were forced to scramble a little at the last minute. But it all worked out. My wife and I were able to obtain lodging at a very small B&B, called “Sunhead of 1617″ on the Herengracht (http://www.sunhead.com/). This is only about a block from the Anne Frank house, and considered one of the better neighborhoods in Amsterdam. 

This really wasn’t a bad thing.  I love my friends like family.  But escorting any group is a little stressful.  This B&B was located about a mile from our group.  The separation was good for all.  They learned that they did not need us for every little thing, and we were able to enjoy some private time in what has become our favorite European city. 

The rooms at the Sunhead are small, but well appointed and decorated. I had to keep in touch with my office.  I had my laptop, and found the free WiFi a huge plus. Of course, the stairs are a killer. But that is typical of 400 year old houses in Holland! The B&B is owned by a gay couple.  One of the guys is Dutch, and his partner is Filipino.  We enjoyed our mornings chatting with Carlos (from the Philippines) and savoring his fabulous breakfasts. We enjoyed the other guests as well. Over the course of a week, we shared meals with Russians, French Canadians, and Brits. It was a wonderful way to start each day. 

After breakfast, we had to walk a bit to meet up with our friends.  We found that we enjoyed our morning strolls across Dam Square and through the neighborhoods to Nieumarkt.  Because this was our second visit to Amsterdam, we had done much of the major “tourist” things. So we were able to slow down and enjoy Amsterdam. We enjoyed eating in the neighborhood restaurants, and actually started to establish a relationship with the staff at a local pub.  We would stop by for a last drink every evening on our way back home. After a few nights, they would have our favorite drinks ready within a couple minutes of us hitting the door.  We had arrived! 

All in all, we always found our Dutch hosts to be friendly, and they always seemed to approach everything with a sense of humor.  They were usually very willing to have a conversation, and were happy to share history and insider tips about their city.  I can’t share all of our memories here, but suffice to say that Amsterdam is the perfect introduction to Europe.  Easy and forgiving.  We found that almost everyone we encountered spoke some English, and most were quite fluent.  Even a rookie traveler can feel comfortable here. 

We have so many places to see, and we have been to Amsterdam twice now. So I guess we will have to put it on the back burner for awhile. That is hard to do. It is a wonderful place, full of history and interesting people. I do not know when I will return. Actually by the third or fourth day, everyone in our group was musing about living there and scheming about how to make it happen. No solutions yet! 

From Amsterdam, we flew to Prague for a week.  Look for that trip report on this blog!

Our visit to Prague

Our last European adventure started in Amsterdam for a week, when I escorted a group of friends.  Our group then scattered all over Europe.  Some went to Paris.  Some went to Rome.  My wife and I flew to Prague with two other couples. My Amsterdam trip report can be found elsewhere in this blog. 

Before I start. Let me tell anyone considering a trip to Prague that your first step should be to buy Rick Steve’s book on Prague. We used it as our bible, and it never steered us wrong. 

The six of us flew from Amsterdam to Prague via SkyEurope. The tickets were extremely cheap, under $60.00 per person. We purchased them online at http://www.skyeurope.com/. Their list of destinations is short, but we found the service to be quite good. It kinda felt like Southwest here in the States. Not a lot of frills, but the plane was clean, and the staff was very friendly. You do have to watch the tight luggage restrictions, though. But we were forewarned and packed accordingly.  The flight is kind of like being in the audience of the Home Shopping network.  The flight crew had everything for sale from chocolates to Swiss watches to travel gadgets.  The beverage cart rotated with the merchandise.  We got a kick out of the whole experience. 

We rented apartments through a rental agency: http://www.prague-city-apartments.cz/. They came with a free transfer in. This was a very good thing, because we arrived at 11:00 PM and the airport was deserted. We do not speak Czech, and really had no idea where our apartments were from the airport. Details regarding the airport pickup were sketchy, and my emails were not responded to in the last couple of days prior to our flight. So it was a relief to see the guy at the almost empty airport holding a sign with my name on it. We piled into his nice clean Mercedes van, and it was off to our apartments. Once there, we met up with another couple who had flown in from the States earlier in the day.

I should mention our group of travelers.  My wife and I have been lucky enough to fall into a group of friends / traveling companions, that have proved to be a perfect match for us.  We have traveled with everyone on other trips.  But this was only our second trip to Europe together.  Our little group of four couples are all fast friends, and easy companions.  We all love travel, and usually are up for anything.  Traveling with a group can sometimes be problematic.  But that is not so here.  We have never had any drama.  Nothing can be better than finding the right group of travel mates.  We are working on a trip to Italy soon. 

“Old town” is the area that you always hear about in Prague. We rented four apartments in the “New town” section of Prague. This turned out to be a perfect choice. Old town is the tourist section of the city, and can be very crowded. All of the bars and restaurants in Old town cater to the tourist trade and are more expensive. 

We found better prices on food and drink in New town, and enjoyed the more local crowd. It was only a short walk to Old town when we wanted to do the tourist thing. We also found that our section of town (more below) turned out to have quite a lively weekend scene. Several of the small bars nearby had live music on Friday and Saturday nights, and there were some excellent restaurants in the neighborhood as well. New town was the site of widespread demolition of ancient buildings in the 1900’s. Sad as that sounds, they were replaced by art deco buildings. Some of these are magnificent, and every single one seems to have great statuary or bas relief, or some other kind of elaborate decoration. One of our group members loves to photograph architectural details. He had a huge camera lens, and was a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of subjects. 

Our studio apartments were all more or less the same, and cost us about $100 per night for each. Each came with a bath, full kitchen, and living room / bedroom combo. They were not luxurious, but very clean. My only real complaint was the thin threadbare towels. We only got two of them, and they were changed out twice during our week. But all in all, the apartments were very livable and were the perfect home base for our stay. Our group adapted quickly.  So it quickly developed into an almost dorm like atmosphere. Lots of popping up and down the stairs for morning cups of coffee (sometimes in bathrobes), or bedtime nightcaps after an evening out. 

These were the Opatovicka apartments, on Opatovicka Street. Very close to the National Theater (http://www.prague-city-apartments.cz/product/gallery_en_OPATOVICKA_APARTMENTS.html). I would stay there again. 

On our first real night, we stopped for “one beer” at a local pub. What a mistake that was!  But in a good way (I guess). We stopped at the Styl, a small bar and restaurant up the street and around the corner from our apartments. We got to know the waitress and chef working there. Delightful young people in their twenties. We quickly developed a very friendly rapport with them. We told the chef (Peppa) to just feed us, and feed us he did. We had a wonderful meal and too many drinks, including real absinthe. I won’t bore you with details of our evening here. But suffice to say that Peppa was serving flaming drinks, and occasionally would spill one to light the whole bar on fire!  He was ex Czech military, and in great shape.  As we could tell by his skill at turning cartwheels across the restaurant floor. What a night!  Our behavior was bad too, but I ain’t tellin!  Hmmm, maybe there is a reason that absinthe was once outlawed in the US!  

But our meal was awesome. We returned later in the week for another meal.  One of the members of our group was celebrating her birthday.  Peppa served some of the best duck I have ever tasted. If anyone wishes to visit the Styl, be aware that the name is not on the front of the bar. There is just a Budweiser sign. It is located on Opatovicke St., just after the street makes a bend towards the river. Free Wifi (wee-fee) here too. 

Another benefit to our location was close proximity to a major tram stop and the Tesco department store. Tesco was pretty handy. They are actually like the Walmart of the UK, and recently opened a store in Prague.  There is a grocery store in the basement, and just about anything else you need on the other three floors.  We were able to buy coffee and snacks there to stock the apartments. 

The Tesco shared a building with the tram station.  Here is a secret that I learned from Rick Steve’s excellent guidebook. There are two “tourist” trams that leave from here. They take a loop past most of the things that you wish to see in Prague. They go past the National Theater, across the Vltava River to the Little Quarter and Prague castle. You can buy a 90 minute ticket with unlimited transfers for about a buck, and just take a ride. Then make your stops at the castle, the funicular up Petrin hill to the tower, the Church of St. Nicholas, The Monument to the Victims of Communism Who Survived, etc. There are lots of reviews of these sites elsewhere, and this is getting long. So I will let you do your own research. But every single one is worth looking at. It would be hard to pick a favorite. You want to ride on tram #22 or #23. For some reason, #23 was always less crowded. 

Our only bad experience was that one member of our group was pick pocketed while taking pictures of the changing of the guard at Prague Castle. We all knew this was possible, and took precautions. But it still happened.  Be careful y’all. These guys are good. Fortunately, there was no cash in the wallet.  He had to cancel his credit cards, but his wife still had hers.  So he barely missed a beat. 

But Prague Castle and the St. Vitus cathedral were still the highlights of our trip, and not to be missed. 

We enjoyed Old town as well. Lots of little cobblestone lanes.  Easy to get lost, and impossible to navigate.  But we had fun trying.  This is where you find the famous Astronomical Clock, interesting shops, and fun restaurants. But this is the priciest place in the city to eat or drink. After a morning on our own, Melissa and I met up with our group to watch the clock perform. The sidewalk cafe served us what we dubbed “the most expensive beer in CZ.”   I think it was about $6.00 for a draft. Triple the price you would pay elsewhere in New town, and about four times what we paid at our local pubs. We shopped hard for crystal, and found the best prices at Crystalex, just off the Old Town Square on Male Namesti. 

The old Jewish cemetery is not far from old town, and one of the most interesting and somber places I have ever been.  This is sacred ground, and it is estimated that as many as 100,000 people may be buried (in layers) in this tiny plot.  Maybe an acre or two?  The cemetery is centuries old.  In addition, thousands of Jews “disappeared” during the Nazi occupation of Prague.  The old Synagogue here has every single name listed on the walls.  The names are in small print, and cover every wall.  They also have exhibits of the holocaust children’s art.  I had been to the Anne Frank house not long before my visit here.  The Frank house made the holocaust personal.  The old Synagogue brought home the sheer enormity of this tragedy.   It is something that I will always remember. 

On a more cheerful note, we attended a classical concert at the Rudolfinum. This is where the National Symphony plays. This night, there was a twelve piece string orchestra. It was expensive, and the music was “top forty” classical. By that I mean the most popular pieces, like Bizet, Pachobel, Vivaldi, etc. But the musicians were from the National Orchestra and very professional. It was extremely well played and the concert hall was a jewel. So it was worth the price. 

Kutna Hora Bone ChandelierWe also hired a van for a day trip to Kutna Hora, about two hours from Prague (Google this.)  What a wonderful and strange day this was. There is an Ossuary there that contains the bones of 40,000 people. These are victims of plague and war, dating back to the 1300s. They have used the bones for decorating!  There are bone chandeliers, wall hangings, pyramids, etc. Very macabre and fascinating.  Our driver knew of a great little restaurant here.  We had another fabulous and inexpensive meal, and had big fun kibitzing with the owner. 

We also visited the beautiful little town of Sedic, with its magnificent Gothic church that was built in the fourteenth century.  Our driver was a very interesting character.  I couldn’t really call him a guide.  He spoke almost no English, and was an insane driver.  He was trying to right notes to us in Czech, while driving like a madman, and yelling “Communist!  Communist!” at the other drivers.  We really hadn’t signed up for an adventure tour.  But it kinda felt that way! 

After touring the church in Sedic, our driver couldn’t be found.  So we ducked into a pub to avoid the chill. Eight pints of beer, for six bucks. We dubbed this “the most inexpensive beer in CZ.”  Not bad! Good beer too. 

Overall we found the young Czech people to be open and very friendly. We enjoyed all of our interactions with them. The younger folks are fascinated by US culture and were very interested in whatever we could tell them about New Orleans (our home).  The folks our age (am I really middle aged?) were friendly too, once they loosened up. But you could see the effect that growing up under communism had.  We found that the older (60’s and up) folks working in the lower service jobs were the worst. Very abrupt, and impatient if you did not speak Czech. 

But we did not let these few encounters color our opinion of the locals. We found them interesting, bright, and well educated. They have a quirky dark sense of humor too, which we enjoyed.  The people watching was great. Someone told me that all Czech’s consider themselves philosophers. I can see that. You could spot the intense young men hurrying along the sidewalk, with a stack of books under their arms.  In their beat up blazers and with wild hair perfectly askew, they kinda looked like beatniks. My wife thought they were extremely cute.  A thought that I am sure would have offended them greatly! 

It is a developing economy, and you could almost smell the money. The nouveau riche status symbol seems to be a new Corvette, and we saw several on the street. I hope capitalism doesn’t screw them up too much. 

They are also still learning to do business. I experienced a couple of miscues as I tried to reserve our apartments. But Prague City Apartments was mostly professional. We were also stood up TWICE for our day trip, with no real explanation or apology. This was very frustrating for someone that works in the travel biz. But I am sure that they will eventually get the hang of it. 

The architecture was amazing, outstanding, and overwhelming. Very dirty. I am guessing that the communist administration didn’t bother with maintaining anything. So there are some beautiful statues and buildings that are just black from pollution. But we noticed that there was scaffolding everywhere for the cleaning crews. The city has a lot of tourist dollars pouring in, and they are using some of it to clean up their beautiful surroundings.  They haven’t got a handle on the air pollution yet.  The air was noticeably smoggy. 

All in all? One of the most fascinating places I have ever been, and I hope to return someday. It has only been twenty years since the fall of communism. It is going to be very interesting to see how the change affects these thoughtful and witty people. I can only wish them well.