Our plan was a good one. Stay in Brussels and go on a few day trips to neighboring countries. Paris we love, so that was on the list. Germany is famous for its Christmas markets, so Cologne quickly made the cut. Bruges was a short trip and I wanted to see it, so that was the third. With just one slot left, Amsterdam narrowly beat out Luxembourg and the schedule was set. Unfortunately, almost nothing went right.
I’m being negative, that’s not quite true. Paris and Bruges were both fantastic, the trains were on time and we spent our time wisely in both cities. Cologne never happened due to an ill-timed strike which paralyzed all modes of transportation except for planes in Belgium. That was frustrating, but there was nothing we could do, so we tried to go with the flow. Amsterdam was different. Everything went right, but at the same time it was all mucked up.
The train roared out of Brussels Gare du Midi train station at O-Dark-Thirty under yet another grey sky. I swear it rained every day we were in the low countries, adding a damp and gloomy feel to everything. Maybe I was being arrogant or just misguided, but I didn’t really plan any of our day trips, except to make the train reservations. Here’s why.
I assumed, mostly correctly, that there would be tourist offices in each train station to help us sort out what we wanted to do in each city. I had done a little preliminary research and had a vague idea of what we should do. For Amsterdam, I even read a blog post by Keith Jenkins of Velvet Escape Blog describing how to spend a day in his hometown. His post was excellent, and provided what little clarity I had that day.
When we finally found the correctly presumed tourist office in Amsterdam, I was lost. It was little more than a booking center for tour groups, we even had to buy the map we wanted. It’s not their fault, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to be there, in Amsterdam, the famed city of canals, merchants and a bohemian subculture. The problem is, that sounds great on paper, but in practice it means you kind of just wander around and get in people’s way.
So I took Keith’s advice and we went on a canal tour, what turned out to be a great idea. I usually hate these types of things, huge coaches that thousands of tourists board every day in every major city in the world. The boat cruise was different though, it was intimate, it was special. Amsterdam is a city of the water, and truly the best way to experience it is by floating along the canals.
An hour later we were done and once again, lost. We ate, we wandered, we went to a museum, walked through the famous Red Light District and glanced at our watches. it was 2pm. Our train was scheduled for 6pm. I felt guilty. We weren’t having a great time, just an ok one. Amsterdam was ok, but not great. It seemed dirty and there were a lot of sketchy groups of young guys prowling about. It just didn’t click with me.
And so we left. That’s right, instead of pulling ourselves up and try to find the ‘real’ side of the city, we knew our limitations and hopped on an earlier train headed to Brussels. We were tired, a little dejected that we didn’t like Amsterdam and decided to call it quits for the day. And you know what? That was the best decision we could have made.
Why? Because had we stayed, we would have ended up even more miserable and we would have hated the city, instead of just having a mild level of annoyance and apathy for it. At least now I’ve preserved the opportunity to go back and see the city some other time.
Sometimes it’s best to know your own limitations when you travel and to trust your gut. We can’t all be Rick Steves who, I bet, has bad days when he travels too. We put a lot of stress and pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and GET SOMETHING out of our travels, even if it means making ourselves miserable. It’s your trip and don’t let anyway tell you how to take it. Only you know what makes you happy.
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