We spent the last few days of our trip in Amsterdam, one of our favorite cities. As we have been there several times before we are now content to just walk around enjoying the sights and people-watching rather than exhausting ourselves running from one attraction to the next. Amsterdam is such an eclectic city with water canals crisscrossing the city and its very liberal laws regarding smoking pot and prostitution. As we walked by the “coffee shops” (pot houses) we wondered if we could get high from just the smell that drifts out to the street. We never tried buying any as all the guide books say that the tourists get sold the bad stuff that just leaves you with a nasty headache. I am sure two 60-year old, middle class Americans would have been ripped off royally. We love the bicycle culture of Amsterdam. Bicycles rule and take priority over vehicles. There are huge three-story bicycle parking garages filled to the brim with bicycles as everyone rides. One noticeable benefit of all the bicycle riding is that the Dutch people are noticeably thin and lean. You see very few overweight people.
This year we logged 5,547 miles on our motorhome and visited seven countries: Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, England and Scotland. We often get asked “what is our favorite country?” We don’t really have a favorite but we do have some favorite (and not-so-favorite) things with each country we visit. Below are some of our trip highlights, likes and dislikes, and blathering observations.
Netherlands – We love the bicycle culture and the ability to ride anywhere and everywhere on protected bicycle paths. There are beautiful beaches and some unique, but small, wilderness parks. The Dutch people are friendly and their ability to speak multiple languages is amazing. In the first year of school, Dutch students study Dutch and English. A few years later, they add French and German to the curriculum. Around middle school, most students elect another language, usually Spanish, Italian or Chinese. Most Dutch people speak perfect English (better than most Americans). Our favorite foods in the Netherlands are real, hand-cut French fries served with your choice of about 30 different sauces, and wafer cookies filled with caramel. The downside to the Netherlands is the weather. It rains a lot and is often overcast, windy, and chilly. But when the sun comes out it is a beautiful place.
Belgium – We only spent a few days in Belgium as we drove through it on our way to other places. However, we have spent more time in the county in our previous trips. Belgium has some great cities such as Brussels, Bruges and Ghent. Many think the main square of Brussels is the most beautiful in the world. Our favorite food/drink is the great Belgium beer. Hundreds of years ago, beer brewing was in the hands of the monks. As the water wasn’t safe to drink, beer became the drink of choice. Today, many of the monasteries still produce some of the best-tasting beer to be found anywhere. They say it is all in the yeast they use which has been kept alive for hundreds of years.
France- Viva la France! If we had to pick one of our favorite countries, France would be near the top of our list. Contrary to popular belief the French people are very nice. There are fewer English speakers in France but in the tourist areas and campgrounds there is usually some English spoken. Most French people speak more English than we speak French so who are we to complain. No matter what region you are in, there is always something of interest to see and do in France. This year we especially enjoyed our time in the French Pyrenees and the champagne region. One big thrill for us was to see three stages of the Tour de France and to ride our bicycles on some of the same mountain passes. The French pastries and breads are the best to be found anywhere. We did a lot of scientific taste-testing in search for the fluffiest croissant. The French take their bread, wine and cheese very seriously. One downside to travelling in France are the very, very expensive toll roads. You can avoid the toll roads by taking secondary roads but it takes forever as there are tiny villages with oodles of round-abouts about every five miles. Your average speed on the secondary roads might be about 20 miles per hour. Not good if you are trying to get somewhere. In France, most of the campground shower and toilet facilities are co-ed. It takes a while to get used to stepping out of the shower and seeing a man shaving, (or woman brushing her teeth) but after a while you get used to it. Viva la France!
Spain-We only travelled through northern Spain. We learned very quickly that Spain is a huge country and to travel the entire country could have been the entire trip. In June, we were shivering in chilly northern Spain while southern Spain was over 100 degrees. We were surprised by the thousands of people who were walking the Camino de Santiago and really liked our stay in the destination town of Santiago de Compostela. Other highlights were hiking in the Pico de Europa mountain range and visiting the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Our favorite foods were chilled-gazpacho soup from the grocery stores and very good, yet very inexpensive, red wines. Fuel prices were the least inexpensive in Spain which helped offset the expensive Spanish toll roads.
Portugal- An easy country to travel through, we really enjoyed Portugal. We found it to be a relaxing place with very friendly and down-to-earth people. Prices in Portugal were the lowest in the entire trip but this is probably due to the hurting economy. We really liked our time spent in Lisbon and Porto, the two largest cities. The Portuguese people really like summer-time festivals and every little town seems to have one. Most of the festivals started as celebrations to the village’s patron saint but now days it is just to have a party. Portugal is all about the beaches. There are some of the most beautiful beaches to be found anywhere here. Our favorite new food-find was an egg custard tart. We did tasting of Port wine and toured the region where it is produced. Legally, Port can only be labeled as such if it is produced in Portugal. Portugal also had some very expensive toll roads and the method of payment was confusing. On some roads you just pay at a toll-booth when you exit. But on other roads, your license plate is photographed and you pay through a prepaid card or online within three days. As we didn’t always have secure internet we chose to buy the prepaid card. But we couldn’t figure out which roads needed a prepaid card so we ended up buying way too much. The Portuguese toll roads were practically empty. I think the Portuguese are boycotting the toll roads as they were just recently mandated by the European Union as part of an austerity program to help solve the debt problem. One odd thing about Portugal is no toilet paper in campgrounds and a lot of public places. So we never went anywhere without our own little stash of TP. Overall, we found Portugal to be a great place to visit.
United Kingdom (England and Scotland) – Richard loves these countries. He says it is because his ancestors were from here. I like it here, except the lousy weather gets to me after a while. Plus, driving on the left side of the road is really, really stressful. It makes your brain hurt! The UK has the best mountain biking of any country we visited. They have embraced building mountain bike centers with trails that are especially built for mountain bikes with excellent signage and trailhead services. They have done an excellent job of constructing trails that are rideable even when really wet, which is most of the time. We enjoyed exploring the west coast of Scotland and some of the islands including the most famous Isle of Skye. This area is absolutely beautiful. We hiked Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. Even though the top is just over 4000 feet, the weather on top is equivalent to being on top of a 14,000 mountain at a more southern latitude. It did not disappoint; the weather was horrible on top. Our favorite UK city is Edinburgh where we spent a week enjoying the Fringe Festival. What a great time. We highly recommend to everyone to visit Edinburgh in August on your bucket list. We found the food in the UK to be most similar to what we have in the USA. The grocery stores carry a lot more processed food and brand names familiar to us. We missed the great, fresh bread that we found in the European countries across the English Channel. The English do have their scones which we liked with tea. In general, we found English beer to be yucky; warm and flat. Scottish whisky is good. Interestingly, we can buy some Scotch whisky cheaper in the United States than in Scotland because of the heavy liquor tax imposed by the UK. One thing we really disliked about the UK was all the dog poop! It seems like everyone has a dog or two and dog poop is everywhere. We did enjoy being able to listen to the news, read newspapers and street signs in the UK. Even though we share a common language it was often difficult to understand the Scottish, especially when they talk fast.
Well that’s about it for this year. We are back home in Tucson where it is still hot, hot, hot for a few more weeks. Thanks everyone for reading our blog. We hope you enjoyed it.
"Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” Jack Kerouac