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Art, history, and visits with friends in Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and York

I started my two-week trip with 3 days and 3 nights in Amsterdam. Though I'd been there 3 times already, there were still many things I hadn't seen yet. At the airport I had to buy my train ticket to Centraal Station (about 4 euros) from a manned desk because the ticket machines only took chip and PIN credit cards. Signs in English specified this! I have a Capital One Visa chip and signature card without PIN capability, according to a rep I talked to at Capital One.

I bought a 48-hour transit pass which cost 12 euros and was a great deal. I took trams on both full days that I was in the city.

One of the sights I toured in Amsterdam was the Museum of Our Lord in the Attic (great name!). It's comprised of two 17th-century canal houses which share a wall. Families lived on the bottom stories - the kitchens and living/sleeping quarters remain, including the beds they used then. Called bed boxes, they are about half the length of modern beds and are nooks in walls. People at that time slept half-reclining on pillows, which seems very uncomfortable. The third through fifth stories in both houses contain a miniature Catholic church, with pews on the "ground" floor and an upper gallery. Catholics in 17th-century Amsterdam weren't allowed to practice their religion openly, so they created these hidden churches inside ordinary canal houses. There were many hidden churches but this one is the only one or one of very few remaining. I took the audio tour which was very interesting. It discusses details you might not notice otherwise, such as a decorative doorframe that looks like marble but is actually wood painted to resemble marble.

The highlight of my visit was a tour of the Six Collection, a private art collection in a grand canal house. The Six family's ancestor, Jan Six, had his portrait painted by Rembrandt. This picture is in the family home when it isn't on loan at museums. Every firstborn male in each generation is named Jan Six. The newest member, Jan Six XII, is three years old. The family doesn't use the first two floors of the house except for special events; they live on the top two floors. The collection is made up mostly of family portraits created through the centuries, and a lot of decorative objects. The rooms are beautiful, like a mini Versailles: decorative panels on the walls, sumptuous wallpaper, beautifully upholstered furniture. Behind the house is a lovely garden. The tour is free, but you have to go to the website and fill out a form to request a visit. You must print the e-mail and bring it with you to the house; they take the printout when you arrive. The family receives federal money to take care of the collection and as a result, they're required to open the collection to visitors.

Of course I went to the Rijksmuseum (I was there only once, in 2007) and spent 5 hours there. One of the benefits of traveling alone is that no one is at you saying they're hungry or tired or asking when can we leave.

Then I took the train to Hamburg from Centraal Station, to visit a friend there. I bought my ticket online on the Bahn website. It was very easy. I changed trains in Osnabrueck with a 15-minute "layover". When my train came up on the TV monitor at the correct track, the monitor announced Berlin Hbf and I freaked out for a second. Where was my train to Osnabrueck? But then all of the stops came up, and my change destination was there. Whew!

I hadn't been to Hamburg since July 2010, during the awful heat wave that struck Europe. This time it was rainy and cool, and my friend and I did a lot in 4 full days. He's a high-school teacher, and he also volunteers to teach German to refugees from countries like the Congo and Somalia. The evening that I arrived, we went on a harbor tour with a fellow teacher and the eight class members.

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The next day he and I walked the Elbetunnel, the tunnel that goes under the Elbe river which divides the city. It was built in the early 20th century and has wonderful Jugendstil (the German version of Art Nouveau) plaques and decorative tiles with marine themes. The north and south sides of the river at the tunnel both provide beautiful views of the city.

We went to St. Michael's Church, which is near the river, and climbed the steps to the tower, 300 feet up. It was so cloudy and foggy that we could hardly see anything, but I enjoy being up high. We also visited the Hamburger Kunsthalle, an art museum which has late medieval up through contemporary art.

One day we went to the Baltic Sea and Luebeck as a day trip. It rained all day but we didn't care. A marathon was winding down in Luebeck so a number of streets were blocked off, but that didn't impact our visit. The town has a beautiful, huge 15th-century gate, a medieval marketplace, and a number of churches. We went up the tower of St. Peter's Church, first built in the 13th century and enlarged in the 15th and 16th. The view was better here - it wasn't as cloudy.

On our last full day in Germany I dragged my friend to the remaining medieval sites in Hamburg. We climbed 544 steps (that's 1,088 total, including going down, and I felt the effects of that for days afterwards!) to the spire. Literally. The spire has 6 porthole windows and a small wooden platform next to the stairs with room for 3 small folding chairs. That day was sunny and gorgeous. The views were amazing. My friend had no trouble with the climb but doesn't like heights, so he wasn't up there for very long. I had to stop and rest 10 times on the way up but could have spent an hour sitting in the spire. After I recovered, we went across the plaza to see the remains of the Hammaburg fortress from which Hamburg gets its name. The huge foundation stones are behind glass and underground. It was really cool to see them.

As a Jew, I can't help but think about World War II and how different things were 65 years ago. Hamburg has a number of bunkers from the war which still exist and now house businesses like restaurants and retail stores. The ones I saw are round, made of brick, with tiled roofs. One is near the harbor on the north side of the river; another is across the street from the Barmbek U-bahn stop, the one closest to my friend's apartment. The eagles still decorate the bunkers but of course the swastikas are long gone. And every church we went into had informational signs that showed how badly the church was bombed in the war. We went up to the tower of the Nikolai Memorial, a church destroyed by bombs in World War II, and one of the signs had pictures that showed the devastation Hamburg suffered in the war: only shells of buildings remained, for miles around the church.

It was a bit screwy for me to go from that to London. The two cities were deadly enemies 65 years ago, and now it's effortless to travel between them. We flew easyJet from Hamburg to London Gatwick - very smooth and a great experience all around. Make sure you comply with all their rules to avoid fees: I paid to check my rolling suitcase and put my purse/day bag inside my backpack which I carried on. The seats are alarmingly close together. I'm only 5 feet tall but when I saw that, for a minute I wondered if I could slide into the row! My backpack fit under the seat in front of me.

The Underground doesn't go to Gatwick, so you have to buy a train ticket to get from Gatwick to Victoria Station in London. That cost 20 pounds - quite expensive, considering that it only cost me 4,50 euros to go from Schiphol to Centraal Station. Every option we looked at cost around 20 pounds. Even the bus, which would take about 90 minutes to get to Victoria, cost around 10 pounds.

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We bought Oyster cards at a machine in Victoria Station. The machine accepted only chip and PIN so my friend bought the cards and I reimbursed him in cash.

Every time I took the Tube, I thought about the brave London citizens who hid there during the Blitz. It affected me greatly. I thought about the bunkers in Hamburg for people to hide in as protection from bombs dropped by the Allies.

The next day I went to Heathrow to meet my sister who flew from St. Louis. She and I would spend a week in London; my German friend was returning to Hamburg in a couple days. She and I walked around Kensington Gardens - she wanted to see the Peter Pan statue - and she stayed up all day. She went to sleep early and I my German friend and I met my friend in London for dinner. She works for the Royal Astronomy Library and loves her job, but she's going to move outside the city because it's too expensive to live there on her salary. I read a couple of newspaper articles about that. She lives near the Elephant and Castle stop and her commute is about 30 minutes now, but after she moves it'll increase to an hour. She said even that wasn't too bad. The three of us took a nighttime walk along the Thames and went for a drink in a pub she likes. The three of us had an interesting conversation about our governments and the way they work (or don't work).

My sister and I went to Borough Market, a large indoor/outdoor food market where she bought local honey and bread from a French bakery. Then we had afternoon tea at Sketch, a really funky event space near Carnaby Street. It was expensive - 41 pounds! - but she really wanted to do it. She bought me dinner to offset the expense. After that, we went to Carnaby Street, which I admit I never heard of until she mentioned it before the trip.

The following day we went to Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium in Shoreditch, a cat cafe. We had to pay a 6-pound booking fee each, and that was on top of whatever food and drinks we bought while there. All of the cats were asleep while we there and the cafe doesn't allow visitors to bother sleeping cats. I've had cats my whole life and know they sleep 20 hours a day, but didn't think about this. Honestly, it was boring. I can have my own cat cafe in my house with no rules about not bothering cats while they're asleep. In fact, the best thing about having cats is being able to bother them when they're sleeping!

We took a double-decker bus ride on our way to the Tate Modern. The bus ride was much cooler than the Tate. Most of their permanent collection is meh. They have 5 gift shops, which seems like too much even for an American like me who is used to rampant consumerism, but I have to admit that the main gift shop has a stunning selection of books. I bought an exhibition catalogue for the John Heartfield exhibition I saw there 3 years ago, plus an exhibition catalogue for the Ai Weiwei show at the Royal Academy of Art which we saw on our last day in the city (my English friend was able to get us free tickets). So it wasn't a total waste of time. :)

I wanted to go to evensong at Westminster Abbey but we caught it by accident at St. Paul's. It was beautiful to listen to the men's choir and the organ in that amazing space.

We went on two London Walks during our week there and now I see what everyone here was raving about! The walks are very interesting and you definitely get your money's worth. They cost 10 pounds, you show up at the designated Tube stop, no RSVP, and you go on a 1.5-to-2-hour walk. We did the Street Art Walk - Bombing with Banksy & Co. which took us around the Shoreditch area. We saw lots of different street art pieces, including a real Banksy which I assume most people were hoping to see.

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Another day we did a walk called The Old Jewish Quarter - A Shtetl Called Whitechapel. That was about the history of Jews in London and England in general. That walk took us past a section of the Roman wall very close to the Tower of London - you have to walk through the covered driveway of a hotel to get to it, so you really have to know where it is. That wall blew me away, and I was excited also because I wanted to see it anyway so how awesome that it was part of the tour!

The walks don't just cover the topic at hand, but include anything of interest in the area. On the Street Art Walk, our guide pointed out a house once owned by Keira Knightley; and on both tours we passed the Ten Bells pub where the last known victim of Jack the Ripper drank her last drink (I think I recorded that right).

We both planned to go to York for a day, but my sister didn't feel well that morning so I went alone. It turned out to be for the best. I did medieval stuff to my heart's content, and I know she would have been bored. York is a two-hour train ride from Kings Cross Station. It's a beautiful town and very walkable. You can see a section of wall and York Minster from the train station. I picked up a York Mini Guide from the tourist booth in the train station; it comes with a map and that's all you need to get around.

I was there for 6 hours and had enough time to see everything on my list. Most of the medieval walls are still intact and you can walk all of them, all around the old city. I loved that. They're built on top of Roman walls and in one section you can see Roman ruins from the top of the wall. They're in someone's back yard. That blew my mind. Imagine growing up with Roman ruins behind your house! I came to one of the city gates - brick; dates from the 15th century, I think - and below it a woman was weeding her garden. So cool.

I visited Clifford's Tower, a medieval structure built on the site of a castle built by William the Conqueror in 1078. This was the site of a Jewish massacre in the 12th century. There were riots against the Jews in York and 150 of them barricaded themselves inside the tower. Rather than surrender, they set fire to it and committed suicide. It's like Masada in Israel on a smaller scale.

York Minster is beautiful and they allow visitors to take pictures so I went nuts. I took the free tour they offer, which lasted an hour and was very informative.

And finally I went to the Shambles, a street that dates from the 14th century. The name is a corruption of a Middle English word for butcher - 700 years ago the street was full of butcher shops. The buildings, some half-timbered, are so old that they lean. The street itself is as wide as the sidewalks on either side. It was very crowded and difficult for me to appreciate its age and majesty.

On our last day in London, we went to the Ai Weiwei exhibition. I love his work and was excited to see it in person for the first time. Unfortunately, there were some badly behaved children and parents in there as well. The kids - British, on half term (semester break) - were 8 or 10, old enough to know better. They kept touching the art. The parents didn't say a word. I assume the museum guards didn't see anything. I didn't know whether to say anything but ultimately did nothing.

That evening we took the train to Manchester and stayed the night before we flew home the next day.

Epilogue: hotels. In Amsterdam I stayed at Hotel Brouwer, in a 17th-century canal house. Breakfast is included and was very good: a dense bread roll and fluffy croissant with butter, jam, and two pieces of cheese, and a soft-boiled egg. The hotel didn't double-glaze its windows or whatever it's called, so even though I was on the fourth floor, I heard the street noise (people laughing, rolling luggage, bikes whizzing by) as if it was in my room. The hotel is also in the midst of a mini red-light district.

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In London I stayed at Vancouver Studios in Bayswater. It's a great location, close to 3 different Tube lines, and in a vibrant neighborhood with many restaurants, supermarkets, and, oddly, bowling allies. This hotel also did nothing to soundproof its windows. My sister and I stayed in a room for 2 people on the ground floor and heard every street noise as if it was in the room with us. Rooms on the courtyard side are much, much quieter.

My pictures are up on Facebook so if anyone would like to see them, please send me a PM on this site and we can connect on Facebook.

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Thanks for the very interesting report. Hamburg was the first city earmarked for real horrific saturation bombing in July 1943. Nothing like that had been wreaked on German civilians prior to the Hamburg bombing. There is also a camp memorial near Hamburg....Neuengamme.

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Sounds like a great trip for you, sister, and friends! Just the right amount of sites, food and memories with people close to you. Thanks for the report.

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975 posts

Great report, Sarah! I almost wasn't going to read it because I wanted to wait and hear it from you in person next week, but I couldn't wait.

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2445 posts

Thanks for a great report. You are fortunate to have people to visit in Europe. I, like you, would spend hours in museums like the Rijksmuseum and also love Medieval stuff and, definitely Roman ruins, walls, etc. York will go on my list of places to visit. Hamburg was a major sailing port for immigrants to America and Ellis Island. I would like to go there too, sigh, so many interesting places.
Judy B