A Survey of Europe: London, Dublin, Brussels, and Amsterdam!

Written by John March 26, 2014

Whew, am I tired!  I have just returned from our travel week and after walking countless miles exploring the cities of London, Dublin, Brussels, and Amsterdam my body is begging for some well-deserved rest.  For those you may not be aware, one aspect of the CIMBA program is an entire week off from classes to travel wherever we wish.  Students traveled all over Europe, some even expanding their horizons to Morocco!  My friend Ricky and I decided to plan a trip around visiting Dublin for St. Patty’s Day and ended up with a solid survey of some popular Northern Europe cities.  Our journey began in London…

To first give context to our stay in London, I think that it is valuable to know that I had been fortunate to travel to the Calabria region of Southern Italy this past summer with friends from my freshman dorm.  There, I befriended a local Italian, Valerio, who was studying in London.  We remained in contact and he invited me to visit him in London!  He picked us up in the Clapham Junction train station and led us across the street to the student residency area where he was staying.  The first thing I noticed when we entered his London apartment was the Italian touch Valerio was able to maintain.  Wine bottles lined the wall as well as pasta galore and plenty of olive oil!  He welcomed us with open arms like a genuine Italian hosting guests and made sure we were more than comfortable.  Once we were settled, he introduced us to his friends who came from all over the world.  I am talking about countries as local as Scotland and Slovenia to countries as far away as Pakistan, Israel, and Argentina.  This led to an incredible cultural experience and we had a great night talking together over delicious Korean food (at a very popular restaurant among the local university students) and some gelato afterwards!  On Sunday, Valerio acted as our personal tour guide and brought us around the city.  We were able to knock out sightseeing in half the time it would normally take us and see much more!  We saw Big Ben, the Buckingham Palace, the London Bridge, the London Eye (London’s large ferris wheel to view the city), as well as some lesser known sights such as a medieval fortress and an awesome St. Patty’s Day afternoon festival!   I will admit that I originally had no intention of visiting England as I viewed it as very similar to the USA.  While there are obvious similarities, London bursted with a culture that I had never previously experienced.  The architecture, the British accent, the landmarks, the diverse people, and even the fulfilling English breakfast (a nice surprise from the small, croissant breakfast in Italy!) made London one of my favorite cities!  It is interesting to visit other countries, but traveling to a place where English was the primary language was “comforting” to say the least.  I definitely recommend traveling to London if you want a cultural experience without the communication barrier.  Just be prepared to pay because the British pound is not cheap!

Panoramic picture of Big Ben!

A panoramic view of Big Ben!

The crew on the London Bridge!

Ricky, my Italian friend Valerio, and myself on the London Bridge!

The London Eye

The famed London ferris wheel called the “London Eye”!

“Beep! Beep! Beep!” The clock on my phone read 4:00am on Monday, March 17th and it was time to wake up and prepare for our flight to Dublin!  After a short flight, a long wait in customs, and an hour bus ride we arrived at our Airbnb apartment in Dublin.  It was almost 2pm so we missed the parade, but we made our way to the city center.  The streets were packed in the Temple Bar area.  The roads looked like a green sea of boisterous people from all over the world having a great time.  We stopped in a pub that was hosting a live band playing Irish music.  We remained there for the evening jamming out to local Irish tunes and making a fool of ourselves as the locals taught us some Irish dances.  It was a great time.  Afterwards, we continued to stroll through the streets and I noticed that the Irish police were exceptionally friendly.  Unlike my image of the typical police officer, the Irish police were acting more as friendly older brothers.  They were willing to pose for pictures, crack jokes, and hold a conversation, but would also lay down the law when necessary.   An Irish man I met informed me that drinking on St. Patrick’s Day is mainly done by tourists.  St. Patrick’s Day is a holy day for the Irish and they did their celebrating the weekend prior. Either way it was a blast and I am beyond glad that I was able to experience St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin!  Check one off the bucket list!

St. Patrick's Day in Dublin!

St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin was awesome!

Some St. Patty's Day fun!

St. Patty’s Day fun in the pub!

Dublin's police officers

I told ya Dublin’s cops were cool!

We had fun the other two days in Dublin as well.  We treated ourselves to some Irish pies and took the tourist route to check out the Guinness Factory.  It exceeded my expectations.  The Guinness Factory is more of a self-guided experience where you walk through the levels of the beer brewing process.  It shows the process from step 1: the ingredients all the way to the final step: tasting!  It was also a mini history lesson in that we learned about the founder Arthur Guinness, the impact Guinness has had on Ireland’s economy, and we could see the first advertisements by Guinness.  I was dumbstruck when I saw an early advertisement campaign: “Guinness Is Good For You”.  They claimed that a Guinness a day could calm the nerves, improve strength, help digestion, act as a sleep aid, etc.  It is hard to fathom that advertisements such as the “Good For You” campaign were legal!   And yes, in case you are wondering, Guinness tastes much better in Ireland than in other countries (in my own opinion)!

On Wednesday, at the advice of our hostel staff, we took a 30-min metro ride north to the small fishing village of Howth on the Irish coast.  We could not have asked for a better day as the sun was shining (as it had been all week miraculously because Ireland is known for its rain) and the weather was warm.  I had the best seafood chowder at a local bar and then we headed for a two hour hiking path along Ireland’s coast.  The terrain was rough with high grasses and bushes just as I imagined when I think of Ireland landscape.  The trail ran along the coastline the entire time offering beautiful sights and picture opportunities.  The pictures below are the best way to describe the experience!

Mindfulness on the Irish Coast!

Mindfulness along the Irish Coast!

View of the trail in Howth

A view of the trail we hiked in Howth!

Scenery in Howth

Typical terrain along the hike

That night we stayed at the hostel and met some interesting people.  One man from Croatia had arrived in Dublin for work a week earlier only to have the company drop him when he did not accept their new contract.  Luckily, a German firm had expressed interest and he was now traveling to Germany.  An American student from Miami was completing her masters in philosophy in Berlin as she discovered it allowed her to save much on education costs.  An Australian engineer working in London came to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day as well as to look for other job prospects as his English Visa was set to expire in a month.  These conversations are only small blips of the experiences you will have while traveling that are almost impossible to communicate through a blog post.  Sure, it is great to see the famous sights and taste the local delicacies, but the people you meet along the way are what make traveling, in my opinion, so rewarding

Okay, after that short digression it is time to describe Brussels! On our shuttle from the airport to Brussels, I sat next to an amiable Belgium student who had returned from visiting his girlfriend in Dublin and was more than happy to offer advice on how to navigate Brussels.  He had a few hours before he had to be home so he invited us to follow him to see the major sights the city to which we happily accepted.  He led us through the Grand Place (also called the Grote Markt), the central square of Brussels, which had been voted one of the most beautiful squares in Europe!  There he showed us the city hall, Breadhouse, and guildhalls.  Learning that I was studying Economics, he showed us the guildhall where Karl Marx had written the Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels!   From the Grand Place, our Belgium friend led us to the Mannekin Pis, a small bronze sculpture of a naked boy urinating into a fountain. Sounds strange, I know, but it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Brussels and on certain occasions the city will dress the boy in different outfits!  Afterwards, we enjoyed savory Belgium chocolates and I included a Belgium waffle to my meal as well. It was my favorite lunch combo by far!

Brussels Grand Place

Brussels’ central square, called the “Grand Place”

Brussels Grand Place at night

Brussels’ Grand Place was incredible at night!

Anyone who has heard of Belgium knows that it is famous for three things; two of which we had already sampled (chocolate and waffles).  Thus, the last thing we needed to taste was Belgian beer!  We chose Celtica to begin our beer connoisseur experience as it has a special 2 euro per beer all day happy hour.  The bartender gave us a list of his favorite Belgian beers and we made it a goal to taste every one.  After exhausting Celtica’s supply of Belgian beers on our list, we moved to Delirium CafeDelirium Cafe is the world record holder for having the most varieties of beer commercially available…over 2,000!   Needless to say, we were able to complete our Belgian beer tasting quest at this cafe and had a great time doing it.  I discovered a personal favorite: a bright Belgian abbey beer called Grimbergen Blonde.  Definitely worth a taste if you have the opportunity!

Now onto Amsterdam to conclude my travel week!  My first impression of the city was that it was predominantly tourists coming for the novelty of the Red Light District, plethora of coffee shops, and crowded nightlife scene.  but the city has much more to offer.  Amsterdam reminded me of Venice with plenty of beautiful canals.  The Vondelpark is the largest city park in Amsterdam and is beautiful.  Ricky and I took an afternoon stroll through the park and were impressed by the fit lifestyle of the Dutch.  It seemed every Dutch  person was out jogging, rollerblading, walking a dog, or riding a bike.  At times, it seemed as if everyone was riding a bike!  There were designated bike lanes and it made it even more difficult to read a map while walking because now I also had to watch out for bicyclists!

A beautiful canal in Amsterdam!

One of the many beautiful canals in Amsterdam!

All the bikes in Amsterdam

I wasn’t kidding when I said there were bikes everywhere!

Amsterdam also hosts plenty of interesting museums to visit.  Ricky and I limited our museum excursion to the Van Gogh museum so that we could immerse ourselves in the artwork. The works by Van Gogh are astounding!  Many of the artworks were created with thousands of tiny brush strokes that, when viewed closely, seem to be a random collage of colors.  However, after taking a few steps backwards, it transforms into a magnificent picture!  I had never seen art quite like it.  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed, but a quick google search on “Van Gogh” will show you his skill.  Another popular museum that we did not have a chance to visit was the Anne Frank house.  My advice to those planning to travel to Amsterdam is to book your museum tickets well in advance because the lines can last for hours!  Our additional free time we used walking the city neighborhoods.  We window-shopped in the Nine Streets district and did some small shopping in the local outdoor markets.  Perhaps my favorite, non-tourist experience was finding a local bakery on Sunday that sold typical Dutch pastries.  I treated myself to a  Chocolade Broodje; a sour dough loaf of bread mixed with either dark or white chocolate.  It was as good as it sounds!

Amsterdam National Museum!

Amsterdam’s National Museum in the background!

White chocolate broodje

My delicious white chocolate broodje!

And just like that, the travel week was over!  It sped by in the blink of an eye!  I will admit that I was not greatly upset as I had begun to miss Italy as well as my family and friends at home.  I cannot believe that this is my second to last week in Paderno del Grappa… where did the time go?!  I cannot wait for the upcoming and final weekend at CIMBA when almost half of us are traveling to Cinque Terre!  Talk to you then!