Brussels/Netherlands/France (Days 5 – 8)
Due to the boombing terrorism in March 2016, Brussels Airport had beefed up its security measures with armed military personnel throughout the airport, especially at various entrances of the airport.
To supplement the older version of GPS TomTom, I added a portable WIFI device into my rental car package for 45 euro in hopes to leverage the google map if necessary. Unfortunately, the poor reception made it a poor choice.
The motorways between Amsterdam and Paris via Antwerp were very congested with 14-wheelers and semi-trailers, making the drive extremely challenging and at times dangerous especially in a rainy day. My comparatively small rental car was in their blind spot often and nearly got run over a few times. By all means, take the train if travelled solo, or avoid the highway and take the longer route through scenic countryside road, which we did on our way back to Charleroi.
Amsterdam, Netherlands (Day 5)
Wind power, seen as a renewable energy source, has been used since its inception of the country. The traditional windmills used the water-powered for milling the grain to now the modern wind turbines for supplying the household energy. Netherland is definitely a leader in this field. Therefore, windmills are an iconic part of the Dutch landscape.
Our first stop in Amsterdam was to view of the windmills in Zaans Schans, 15 minutes train drive from Central Amsterdam. The beautiful tall windmills were sighted on the highway way before we pulled into the parking lots. We arrived late at 6pm, and the free outdoor park with a collection of eight historical windmills, a museum, and shops for souvenir, cheese, and clogs were already closed. The traditional wooden houses in dark green walls, white trims, and gray roof surrounded by small short bridges and greenish trees were picturesque. The four line-up windmills facing the river were just plainly gorgeous.
Most hotels in the Amsterdam ring are old and without lift. Most buildings were built tall and narrow to reduce land coverage for tax saving purpose. As a result, their staircases are narrow and steep and extremely handicapped unfriendly. We stayed outskirt, very close to the airport, to take advantage of cheaper car parking fees and disabled facility. We took the bus into Amsterdam central the next day, simple and easy.
The traffic within Amsterdam ring was as chaotic as it could be whereby trams, buses, cars, and the bikes are all jammed on the same lane. It was certainly something I had never experienced else where. Crossing the streets was extremely challenging because we were clueless as to which direction/vehicles to look out for first. I was surely glad for not driving into the city. We reached the downtown during the morning rush hour. Adults were rushing to work and children to day-care center/school. To watch parents bike effortlessly with their kids sitting in front of the big basket of the bike was a scene that had impressively been ingrained in my mind. It is common to see females biking with tight short skirt and high heels; the same for men with a set of formal suit and tie on. I would venture to say that in addition to the great DNA make-up, biking may be attributed to their great physical shape with fine tune legs. The canals are filled with countless little boats and bikes are parked alongside the canals, bridges, and streets make the scenery specifically unique to Amsterdam. Strolling along the canals with lined up centuries old buildings on the sides, to me, was unbelievably relaxing and serene. We bought over twenty euro worth of Chinese pastries as snack for journey down to Paris later. Wished to have a hearty Chinese food in Chinatown, but were disappointed that no Chinese restaurants were open until noon. Our growling stomach forced us to resort to flour for lunch called Pancakes Amsterdam, cute little store but crowded. The pancakes are topped with various fruits, such as oranges, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and etc. The final presentation of the pancake with colorful fruits/cheeses/sugar powder was quite a piece of art. A bit expensive though. Overall, Amsterdam is the priciest compared to Brussels and Paris.
We simply wander around this city of bicycles, enjoying its uniqueness for a few hours before driving south to Paris.
Paris (Days 6 – 8)
The drive from Amsterdam down to Paris was awfully long and tiring due to the rain and the ‘outdated’ google map. Two critical exits, provided by google map, were closed for whatever reason, which turned a supposedly 7-hour drive into 12-hour drive, from 1pm to 1am. Google map is very useful in USA, but I can’t say the same when used in Europe and Asia. I was teary when I found the second exit that was supposed to take us to the hotel was closed. It was already 11:30pm. My exhausted body and eyes were tempted to forfeit the hotel I had paid for and to just check into any hotels I could find. Not knowing where we were and what else to do, I pulled over into a quiet residential street for about 15 minutes to recompose myself and to PRAY. Only my mother was awake, the rest was in their dreamland. I knew she was worried too and also praying hard. Given the same situation in USA, I could easily call the hotel for direction, but we were in France, and I spoke no French. After the 15-min composure, I pulled up my cousin’s TomTom’s GPS and punched in the city name where the hotel was located in hopes to find the hotel along the way. TomTom GPS did not accept the hotel address, and that was the reason I didn’t use it in the first place. After another 15-20 minutes drive in light rainy night we reached the city. I woke up my sister to help identifying the hotel name as I drove along the main street. Only God knew how relieved and thankful we were when we found the hotel.
Paris (Day 7)
It was a gloomy day; without the sun effect, Eiffel Tower was not as attractive. (Left) More than 10 different types of plants crawling all over the wall of the buildings. Arts in the form of plants and architecture combined.(Right)
We took the train, 5-minute walk from the hotel, into Paris center around 10:30am. The pastries we bought the day before was our breakfast. The roughly 35-minute train ride was especially pleasant and quick when engaging in a conversation with a local French lady who tried to provide some local information. We got off at the Eiffel Tower stop. As expected, no lift. Luckily, there was only one flight of staircase instead of multiple in other train stations. We indulged ourselves at a local restaurant first before starting our Paris sightseeing. Then, only then I realized certain things about Paris had changed since my last visit 4 years ago. One thing being restaurants no longer provide free hot water because some tourists ordered hot water and used their own teabag to avoid being charged when they in fact should have ordered teas. Tourists like me, who enjoy hot water, now become the “victims” of those tourists’ dishonest behavior.
The overcast weather made Paris very sentimental, a completely different feel from the sunny Paris I knew of. As always, the Eiffel Tower was very crowded. Notorious for its pickpockets, I reminded sisters/cousin to be vigilant when physically being too closed to strangers. We managed to take a few pictures before it started to drizzle. With poncho and rain jackets, we determined to walk along the famous Siena River. Boat rides on Siena River is one of the most tourist favorite activities. Eagerly to introduce my cousin/sisters of the river, we soon discovered something different about the river. The river was simply very quiet; no boats activities at all. The ramps for boats embark/disembark were buried under the water. Certain areas of Paris were flooded, the river included. We were advised to not visit Notre Dame for the same reason. In short, Paris was severely battered by thunderstorm the night before. At times we were baffled why certain inconvenient detours occurred in life until later. I would like to think some detours, as painful and/or inconvenient as it might appear to be, were there for our own good. Upon discussion, we all agreed that the detour that occurred the night before was to protect us. The heavy downpour might be more than I could handle in a foreign land and especially in an unfamiliar big city such as Paris.
The weather was just incorporative; the rain was just on and off intermittently. Our pictures of Paris were not as beautiful as it would have been in sunny day. The rain did not deter us from exploring this romantic city by foot and checking out some beautifully decorated local café for coffee and bathroom break.
Unexpectedly employees of certain train lines were on strike that day from noon to the rest of day, including the one to take us back to the hotel. Our original plan was to enjoy a good dinner in a restaurant nearby our hotel. By the time we got back to our hotel through a different train line, all restaurants nearby were closed. Vending machine food was our only choice.
Paris (Day 8)
Driving from our hotel to Versailles Palace was supposed to be 1 hour, but it took us longer due to the unclear instruction from TomTom at one particular junction whereby it has three lanes, and each lane goes through each tunnel with a separate exit connecting to different highway. It took me three times and still I ended in lala land. At the end of my wits, I decided to use local road to the palace.
Having been to the Palace before, I knew the sand/gobbled stone path would be very difficult for the wheelchair. After parking the car, I explained to a female security at the gate of my mother’s condition. She then provided instructions on what to do and I followed them to the tee. As I fetched the car, she gave orders to the guard at the other gate to allow my car in. It surely felt great to drive straight to the front of the palace main entrance, bypassing the long cobbled stone/sandy path.
Besides the main palace, we visited the princess room and the famous garden.
We then headed up to Charleroi, Brussels before Noon. We took the long local road to avoid the “14-wheeler infested” highway. The route was very scenic, passing numerous little ancient towns. I just wished I had stopped for some pictures, in hindsight. At mid way, we had Chinese food for lunch. It was pricey, but my loved ones would rather have rice than any food in the world. Being afraid they won’t have rice for another meal, we also preordered our dinner fried rice at the restaurant. We stopped by a local grocery store to get some snacks. The vast selection of desserts/breads/fruits indeed blew me away, let alone my loved ones. Undeniably France is well known for its French pastries.
Unlike USA, most gas stations are closed in the early evening and entire day on weekends, which is extremely inconvenient for car renters who need to return car. Some car return locations nearby airports are not strategically located and not well labeled.
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