This morning I left Amsterdam for Lille, France, and I realized there were a few things I didn't mention in my postings of the last couple days. Amsterdam, like many of the places I visited, wasn't quite what I expected. Given the fame of this city's Red Light district and pot smokers I kind of came here expecting to see a lot of that, but I was surprised to see how small of a part it plays in what goes around here.
The Red Light district, which I toured yesterday, covers a relatively small area of the city. And, like sleazy neighbourhoods in most cities, it's mainly just ignored/avoided by the locals. The pot smoking on the other hand is more wide spreed but it doesn't seemed to be a big deal. You see or smell folks smoking it here and there in cafes, parks, the train station, and so on, but its not like the sky is falling in or anything. In fact, things seem to be a bit tamer and cleaner here than places like Copenhagen where it's too expensive for the younger crowd to drink in bars or night clubs, so there they buy beer in dispensers (like pop machines) and hang around on the streets drinking all night leaving a mess of beer, beer cans and/or broken bottles behind.
The thing I will remember most about Amsterdam is definitely the bike riding. The experience of getting around by bike along with all the locals was definitely unique. I will also of course remember the Anne Frank house and the story of her and her family. The Red Light district and the pot smoker will probably be remembered for what they weren't.
You know, the thing that surprised most about Amsterdam was the lack of pan handlers or street beggars of any sort. I never saw a single one and that is definitely unique amongst all the cities I visited here in Europe.
When I left Amsterdam I had to switch trains in Brussels to get to Lille and that stop was a few hours long, so I took the opportunity to do a bit of site seeing in Brussels. I was also going to make a stop in Antwerp because I recall it having some significance in WWII, but the connections there were a bit of a pain so I was satisfied with taking a few photos from the train as we passed by.
The weird thing about switching trains in Brussels was that I technically went to the UK along the way. I had two options to get to Lille from Brussels, the French TGV or the Eurostar. It cost the same for both, an extra 3 Euros with my rail pass, and both had the same travel time, but the Eurostar left 15 minutes sooner so it fit my schedule better. But, because the Eurostar was headed to London I had to go through UK customs in Brussels even though I was getting off the train in France. And, or course, when I got off the train in Lille I had to go through French customs to get back into France but it was just a wave through because I was coming from Brussels.
The extra hassle taking the Eurostar made me wish I just waited 15 minutes and took the TGV instead. However, with the TGV I still would have had to go through the security check and the early check in that is required on the high speed trains. This all makes me wondering about the future of train travel over here in Europe. The new high speed trains are more expensive to ride on then the old ones and they require extra time to board due to the extra security checks and airplane like boarding procedures, so in the end they don't really save the passengers a whole lot of time for the extra cost, especially on shorter trips. They are still better than airplanes because they get you to the city centers, but the old trains did that, so where's the real benefit? I think it's probably in the security, or the "perceived security". That is, the time gained by the high speeds is used up with the extra security checks and more controlled boarding procedures.
The train ride to Brussels was kind of an eye opening in that Belgium seems to have much more than its fare share of run down areas along the rail line and definitely the most I've seen so far. Because of that I was surprised to get this shot of what looks like a decent neighbourhood along the rail line passing through Antwerp.
I was also surprised to find a rather impressive city center in Brussels, but there were pan handlers there! This is the central train station in the centre of Brussels
Just a monument of some sort near the city center. Note the sunflowers the kids are holding. They were something from a Flemish holiday celebration going on today in the Brussels.
This is the town hall.
A couple other buildings that surround the square in front of the town hall.
This is the Eurostar train station in Lille. My hotel for tonight is the brown building in the back ground.
This is the view from my hotel room. One thing that is nice about travel during the tourist season is that you can sometimes get real nice business class hotel at a very reasonable rate. The hotel I have tonight is definitely one of those cases and probably the best I've stayed at during my entire trip.
When I arrived in Lille I stopped at the car rental place and confirmed my reservation for tomorrow morning. The car rental place is in the train station, so staying in the hotel next door is handy. I will be returning the car here in a week, so using a rental agency at the train station means I will be able to hop on the Eurostar right away to London. Definitely the most convenient of all the places I considered for a rental car.