Over the last year and a half, I've had the distinct pleasure of calling Amsterdam my home. It is a place that defies any description or platitudes that you may heap upon it, as words inevitably fail to describe the ever-changing nature of this city. But that won't stop me from trying.
Join me on an exploration of the spectacular mushrooms and mountains of the Belgian Ardennes, a range just South of Holland. I set out on a hike in the region with Stefje and her family on a crisp fall day and we were amazed to see the wealth and diversity of mushrooms after a recent rain storm. Nature is truly bountiful!
Last Friday morning, Stefje and I bade farewell to the grey skies and perpetual cold of December in Amsterdam, transporting ourselves both mentally and physically to sunnier locales. Just a few hours later, we were walking on the beach outside the town of Albufeira in Portugal, happily reunited with our friends Diana and Luca a few months removed from their last sighting in Europe.
Perched in the hillside amongst a dense grove of trees was the perfect Austrian bar. As we reclined outside to soak in the spectacular panorama of the lake, music, shouts, and singing erupted from the packed interior. Inside the bar people had clearly been drinking since early in the day, providing a welcoming and engaging atmosphere that enchanted Stefje and me.
Through three layers of forest and 2,000 feet of elevation gain, we pushed through fatigued muscles to truly earn the resulting vistas. The only constant here was remarkable beauty. Frequent rains in the Soca Valley meant the entire forest floor was covered with vegetation: mosses, ferns, sapling, and thick-trunked trees made our surroundings feel more like a jungle than a pathway.
After a refreshing dip, we decided to set off for a hike along the hills in hopes of capturing a gorgeous afternoon view of the coastline. The path wasn’t too steep but it was unyielding in its incline. Switchback after switchback punished our valves and poured sweat down our backs, yet I was too occupied with the view to feel the pain. Instead, I just found myself gazing in wonder at the spoils of this natural paradise.
Amidst walking tours, an overwhelming number of pedestrians, and restaurants lining every square inch of available real estate, we kept our eyes craned upwards at a wealth of ancient architecture that transported us back in time. A long walk along the city’s port had us relishing in the atmosphere of the city: a crisp sea breeze, a hidden cove of ships, and finally a perfect sunset that struck just as we crossed the in front of the city’s largest palace.
What seemed like just a few minutes later we were awoken by the sun on a clear Friday morning in Budapest, eager to set off and see what the city had to offer. It only took a few minutes for our eyes to bulge with outlandish neo-classical architecture in the form of the grandiose St. Stephen’s Basilica. It hadn’t hit the priority list of our vague plans for the day, but we immediately made a detour to accommodate exploring the massive dome which rose up like a sentinel standing guard of the city center.
Our path continued across the plaza to Las Ramblas, perhaps the most famous street in Barcelona. Cutting diagonally from the plaza directly to the Mediterranean Sea, the wide avenue was packed with exactly what you might expect from any shopping experience in a developed country: McDonalds, Nike, H+M, and all the other popular brands. Yet halfway down the street we turned straight into something decidedly Spanish, La Mercado de La Boqueria. The market was an onslaught to the senses: fruits of every color were stacked to the ceiling, pungent whiffs of fresh seafood assaulted our nasal cavities, and each stall was staffed by boisterous salespeople shouting for our attention.
So far my favorite aspect of living in Amsterdam has been the ease of traveling to other wonderful European cities. In November I was lucky enough to have my parents visit in Amsterdam and after a week of exploring the Belgium and the French countryside, they agreed to meet us for a weekend in Paris.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the dietary lifestyle between Americans and their Dutch counterparts is the inclusion of gluten. Unlike the Paleo and low-carb dieters that I had grown accustomed to in the states, the residents of Holland love their bread!
The Amsterdam transportation system is dominated by the bicycle. Regardless of the distance, weather, or time of day, there’s nothing stopping Amsterdam natives from pedaling their way to the next destination. These are just my observations as an American outsider.