“So what do you want to do for your 40th birthday?” My husband asked innocently.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” I said. “How do you feel about Europe?”
“In general?” He could see the way this was going.
“For a trip.”
“Europe is nice…”
“I’ve been doing some research. I think we could do three cities in ten days.”
“Which ones?” Interest piqued.
“London, Paris, and Amsterdam. In that order.”
“I really liked Amsterdam.”
So began our European whirlwind tour.
Our flight from Vancouver to London, Gatwick Airport (direct) took just over nine hours. The Gatwick Express train to Victoria Station in the heart of London took 30 minutes. We then took a black cab to The Byron Hotel on Queensborough Terrace. First leg done!
Once settled, we were hungry and thirsty. Thirsty won. A very short stroll brought us to The Black Lion Pub, (now closed) an 18th-century pub and former coaching inn once used as a recruitment centre for army volunteers, for our first London pint. And a second. We had a quick curry at an odd little Indian Buffet and then off for another pint at the historic Swan Pub, an old coaching inn. Back at our little room at the Byron we slept the travel and pints away.
I was up early on our first morning. Jet lag affects me oddly. At home I am quite the night owl; 3 or 4 in the morning is not unfamiliar to me. On long trips, I have normal hours. Up early, really tired by midnight. Really tired. It can’t just be all the walking. Or pints.
We knew we were going to take the tube to see the British Museum our first full day. I have a very finite tolerance for museums; at 3 hours in, I am ready to leave. No matter how amazing it is. And the British Museum is amazing. I liked that there were totem poles from British Columbia in the huge entrance atrium.
Left the museum to encounter pouring rain. We like to call it “movie rain”, rain so heavy it seems like someone must be holding a hose over your head. Luckily, being the good Vancouverites that we are, we had an umbrella. Lunch at the Bloomsbury Tavern nearby dried us out and filled us up.
The tube is the best way to see London; I found it straightforward and easy to get around. We tubed to St. Paul’s Cathedral but we didn’t end up going inside. It was closing soon to sightseeing and quite expensive to go in. Instead we went to Piccadilly Circus, walked down past Trafalgar Square, viewed Lord Nelson on his column, and then down to the river. We crossed the river via the Westminster Bridge, taking care to give Big Ben his due, and wandered over to the London Eye.
Yes, the London Eye is one of the biggest attractions in London, but as it was October, and I believe I mentioned the rain, there was absolutely no line up. We decided we could not pass it up. As luck would have it, as soon as we reached the top of the 450 foot arc, the sun came out and we had a glorious view of the city.
We tubed back to our hotel, there were another couple of pints involved at the Mitre Pub, and Italian for dinner.
Day two began with a trip to Harrods. Not for shopping, just for seeing. Unfortunately we saw what I thought was a really tacky statue of Dodi and Di at their memorial in the store. Just my opinion.
We tubed to Buckingham Palace to try to watch the changing of the guard. “Try” being the key word. All the tourists currently in London had the same idea. Instead we took a cruise down the Thames to the Tower of London. The actual London Bridge is very simple and seems in no danger of falling down. Many people think the Tower Bridge is London Bridge as it is much more ostentatious. Lunched at the Hung, Drawn and Quartered Pub. Best name ever.
The Tower of London is not actually a tower. It’s a fortress in the heart of the city. The Crown Jewels vault is the highlight. That and having a picture taken with the first female yeoman warder.
Near the Tower we purchased half price same day tickets to Spamalot, a hilarious musical at the Palace Theatre. Unfortunately, jet lag caught up with Mike and he napped through a portion of it, although he perked up enough for a late dinner after the show.
The next morning we had to pack up, check out, and head to Waterloo Station to catch the Eurostar train through the Chunnel to Paris. I spent most of my time reading and updating my travel journal. We did have a bite from the food car and it was really good so we joked that the French must have the food contract.
We arrived around 4 in the afternoon, caught a taxi and headed to the Hotel Saphir Grenelle. Good location, right near the Metro. My favourite thing about the room were the windows that opened wide to the view of the upper third of the Eiffel Tower. We were two stops away from the Tower so we went there right after we booked dinner reservations at a seafood gastro bistro for the following evening at Les Fables de la Fontaine.
We never did go up the Eiffel Tower, that first night due to poor visibility. On our walk back to the hotel we discovered a brasserie right around the corner that became our go-to place for coffee and some really excellent food, Le Bouquet de Grenelle. Our poor server was subjected to my mangled french as I tried to find out what kind of salad he had just delivered to another table. We worked it out and ordered the same.
After breakfast the next morning at the same brasserie (note: if you want a coffee with cream, order a “café creme” not a café latté or a café au lait) we took the Metro to the Musée d’Orsay. I believe I have mentioned my museum tolerance so by lunchtime we took the Metro to Notre Dame Cathedral where we lunched across from it. Notre Dame is stunning and impressive. There was a long line, but it moved quite quickly.
Our dinner at Les Fables de la Fontaine was delicious. Crusty prawns with basil vinaigrette, cod with bacon on lentils and chorizo, and a chocolate mousse to finish. Everything was flavourful and cooked to perfection. The space is small and you are likely to bump elbows with your neighbour, but worth it. We walked back to the hotel through the charming Rue Cler area.
The next morning, after breakfast at our favourite brasserie, we took the Metro to the Louvre. It simply cannot be done all in one day, but I think we managed to see all the highlights. The Mona Lisa is quite a small painting after all. There were several artists copying paintings around the museum. The process for copying an artwork is quite structured: “each canvas is signed, dated, and stamped three times before even a drop of paint hits it. And even then, it must not be the same size as the original or include the artist’s signature.”
Back on the Metro to the Place des Vosges, we were looking for another gastro bistro, La Guirlande de Julie, for dinner that evening. After much arguing over directions, we finally found it and made a reservation.
Upon returning to the hotel, we decided to go back to the Eiffel Tower. It was too busy to even think about lining up so we went for a drink instead.
At La Guirlande de Julie that evening, my final dinner in France was a tasty crab cake with coconut foam and steak frites. Mike and I shared a cheese plate and each had a glass of port for dessert.
We were staying at the Albus Grand Hotel in Amsterdam. Finally, a big room! Amsterdam is a very walkable city and that’s what we did for the rest of the day. Being near the Leidseplein we wandered that area and ended up in an Irish bar where Mike had some mussels which he said were excellent.
The next morning I noticed that my favourite band was playing in Amsterdam for the next two nights. We walked to the Carré Theatre to see if we could get tickets. The box office was closed but Mike got into a conversation with a man waiting outside the theatre. Turns out he worked for the opening band and put us on the guest list for the following evening. Sweet!
After buying some boots at the Waterlooplein flea market, we went to the Anne Frank House Museum. That is a very sobering experience.
That evening we went to the Boom Chicago improv show and laughed our heads off.
The next morning we decided to take a canal tour which was nice and relaxing. Afterwards, we took a walk through the Red Light district. Another sobering experience. So we went in search of some beer. We were ultimately successful.
There were tickets waiting for us at the Carré Theatre box office and the band (Crowded House) was awesome. A late dinner ensued.
The next day we flew back to London for one more night before heading home. This time Buckingham Palace was relatively tourist free so we were able to take some photos by the gates. Unfortunately, no one invited us in for tea.