Luxembourg was almost instantly better than Brussels, and not just because the sun was finally out. Catching the bus to the hostel from the train station I quickly got a good look at the rocky crag the old town (and originally fortress) was built into. Soon I got an even better look as the hostel was at the bottom and the bus only dropped us about ¼ of the way down. Walking down with the heavy bag without falling as tough and in fact a girl off my bus did stumble, luckily reaching the handrail before she did a full header. I’d gotten here fairly early, but my room was ready (and I was the only one in it) so I settled in for a few minutes before exploring.
The hostel was gorgeous, only 3 years old or so and quite spacious. There was a restaurant (I’d probably call it a cafeteria) with a garden patio. A lounge with TV and pool table was in the lobby with another massive patio outside on which were several ping pong tables. I really got the feeling this place was often booked as a school retreat as they also had conference facilities, and a large open hall in the basement with extra bathrooms and showers where they could easily set up cots. The rooms themselves were spacious with large lockers and ensuite toilets and shower. About the only sour note was the continuation of northern European ‘large windows that only open at the top and not much’ and the abysmal pillow (which I solved night two by stealing a different one from the empty bed before the new roomie got there.)
Walking up into the city again I began to dread doing that climb early in the morning with my heavy bag trying to catch the bus. Putting it out of my mind for now I walked across the narrow bridge/causeway to the crag, discovering that halfway across there was access to the old fort casemates and kilometres of tunnels under the mount. I paid my three euros and began to explore, narrowly avoided cracking my skull open a few times and wondered just how so many people with armor and halberds etc got through there at any speed. Long practice I guess. The casemates are well worth the visit for both the tunnels themselves and the magnificent views you can catch out the various cubby holes as you look down at the lower town or up at the towers above.
Once I’d emerged from the ground I made a less positive discovery. It was apparently a catholic feast day and Lux is fairly hard core R.C. so most of the little cafes that are my usual meals were closed. The big touristy places on the plazas were open, but a dinnertime meal was averaging 25-30 euro (around $42 cdn when I was there.) I’m definitely going to treat myself to an expensive meal a few times, but it’s not going to be someplace where that’s the average. Though god was I tempted to hit up the first remaining Chi-Chi’s location I’ve seen in two decades. Annoyingly (and probably because it’s almost all tourists and shopping up there) there were no super-markets anywhere remotely accessible from the old town or the hostel according to people I asked. I ended up with what tasted like (and felt like in my stomach later) a slightly undercooked chicken pita. Despite the food issues I really enjoyed the city and explored the various squares, walked around the Grand Duke’s palace and inspected various old carvings that popped up somewhat randomly.
Unfortunately I was also basically out of clothing so when I got back to the hostel it was time for laundry. Let me preface this by saying that this hostel has 240 beds, 5 floors and enough room in the cafeteria to seat ~200 at once…. There was one miniature washer and one miniature dryer. I spent the rest of my night checking every 15 minutes if it was free, finally getting my chance around 10:00pm only to find that the instructions were in german. Thankfully I’d brought my laptop down so I sat there playing peggle forever since I’d apparently chosen the 112 minute german special cycle where the dirt particales are shamed slowly out of the clothing. The dryer wasn’t much better taking 1.5 cycles to get things to a “mostly dry” state which is the best I could do because at this point it was 1:45AM and I’d been up quite a while.
I notice now that I haven’t mentioned my roommates. We got a 4th guy the second night, but the first night it was just me and this father and son duo on a cycling trip from Germany. The son was quite pleasant, had worked in Newfoundland in fact and knew Canada well, the dad didn’t speak any English. We’d talked a bit when they first arrived until I went out for my long walk and a few minutes later on. In between checking laundry status I’d gone for another little walk in the darkness and upon returning finally found the damned thing free. Getting up to the room, I noticed it was dark and I figured they were tired and sleeping, so I tried to be quiet, but clearly I had to turn on my over bed light (at least I didn’t have to turn on the main lights.) You would have thought I’d shot the dad, he made this enormous annoyed grunt and looked at me like I was General Patton (Fun fact: buried in Luxembourg.) I said: “sorry, laundry is free” and got out of there as fast as I could. Altogether, my evenings weren’t really looking up.
The next morning after being very nice and navigating my way to bed with my laundry by the light of my laptop screen they got up very noisily at 6:45AM despite the fact that they weren’t riding on yet. I eventually got back to sleep for a while but was grumbling and making murderous plans to come back at 9:30 that evening and start flashing the lights randomly on and off with some dubstep playing since quiet time isn’t enforced until 10. Once I was up and degrumpified I went for another long walk, this time circling the lower town and seeing more examples of the old fortifications, most of which were pulled down in the late 1800s as a treaty requirement. There were a number of beautiful parks surrounded by ancient buildings and canals. All of these places connected to the rest of the city by very steep cobblestone streets that were a pain to walk on at times. I eventually made the discovery that for many businesses, the holiday wasn’t over. In fact it seems a very common thing in Luxembourg for businesses to close for most or all of august completely for holidays. We’re not just talking small taverns and mom & pop grocery stores either, one of the bigger hotels in town that had two restaurants and a great location near the casino and overlooking the cathedral square was completely shut down for 3 weeks. I guess their hotel economy isn’t so focused on summer tourists that that’s the kiss of death, but yikes. Even so tons more was open and I managed to get a cheap and delicious helping of four cheese pasta a beer and a raspberry ice cream cone for less than a ¼ of what Chi Chi’s wanted for fajitas.
That night after the sun began to set I went back to the hostel, grabbed a beer and sat on the patio reading. I’m currently alternating re-reading Terry Pratchett books with finally getting into George R.R. Martin, a few biographies and some of Jeremy Clarkson’s rant collections. If this sounds like a bit much to you and you don’t know my reading speed I’ll put it this way. I bought myself a Kobo e-reader for this trip, and on my four hour train ride the other day I read two full length novels before starting on a third. Later in the evening two very weirdly intense german children began to play table tennis on the table across the patio from me. I don’t know how they managed it but they proceeded to hit the ball so it span and bounced towards me at a 90 degree angle somewhere around 40 times before the night was out. Their parents ended up having to come out and sit near them as well since they couldn’t stop arguing with the younger one at one point throwing the paddle at his brother.
In between grabbing their balls for them ( >< ) I watched the various other new guests trickle in. There’s one thing that a lot of HI (hostelling international/yha) hostels have in common and that’s the number of quite older people that use them. I don’t mind this at all (after I’m older than the average backpacker) but I have to say I get really peeved when I see people obviously in town for business using them. In Sydney one of the guys told me that his brother often stays in a YHA and either keeps his big budget hotel expense payout or spends it on booze and food. I’m amazed there are still companies that wouldn’t require a hotel receipt or invoice, but given the number of be-suited people I see with roller briefcases at these places I think the practice is alive and well over here too. That’s not what hostels are for though and it ticks me off to think that I’m having to overpay for some fleabag motel because somebody is scamming their company and taking the last hostel beds.
The following morning it was Amsterdam time. I was planning to take a different route back into Belgium (supposedly more scenic) then cross into the Netherlands before heading up to Amsterdam. Thankfully I decided to check before boarding the first train or things might have been worse. The lady in the international office gave me a different itinerary, 4 changes and a lot of hours but still relatively scenic. Don’t get me wrong, it was quite a pretty ride, but the smallest of the trains broke down or had a warning signal or something and delayed us into the station by 5 minutes (unfortunately I had a 6 minute layover there…) With some slapdash rearrangement (thank goodness for the eurail pass) I hopped a different route and eventually got into Amsterdam with an extra train change. Unfortunately I had to get right back on a different one and head to a different station (one that rather dauntingly sounds like MURDER PORT!!! When they say it,) but no matter. Having heard a few less than auspicious Amsterdam hostel stories I’d booked in a big and modern but well situated hostel a little ways out of the core. Some might argue that I’m losing out on the experience of staying in the nuts areas, but I’d rather do that when I can afford a nicer hotel down there. Besides this place is right on the tram line and I can be almost anywhere within a few minutes.
I actually didn’t have any specific plans other than get out of the hostel and explore, but I ended up taking the tram to dam square and ranging about for a while until a glance at my map told me I was near Anne Frank House. As with many/most of you I imagine her story had always touched me deeply and the museum was open late so I braved the 90 minute line and visited. I’m not afraid to say that I was sniffling quite heavily by the time I left. The exhibits are powerfully presented and even though you already knew what happened, seeing how close they came to surviving only to be murdered is just devastating. I’m a fairly stoic person most of the time, but the darkness that exists in humanity to let something like this happen is simply more than I can bear. So many millions of people died in and around World War II with the slaughter of the Jewish people being the most well known, yet we in the western world rarely mention the others. Many of the roma people were hunted down as well and you were just as screwed if you were gay or suspected to be. The slavs, especially in the Ukraine and surroundings, who suffered first at Stalin’s hands before being worked to death by Hitler (or just flat out shot and buried in mass graves.) The eastern front saw the mass deaths of more civilians than in all previous wars put together. This is all without mentioning the atrocities in the Japanese theatre and at least the German government doesn’t deny any of the Nazi deeds. I’m an incredibly loyal person to my friends and I have one hell of a temper if someone mistreats one of them, but would I have had the courage to fight back? To join the resistance if I’d lived one of these places then? I like to think I would have but as someone who’s never had to face that tipping point of fear vs. outrage I think it’s an unanswerable question. Of course I’m a half breed myself so I’d probably be on the cleansing lists anyway.
Taking a circuitous route back to the tram in this state of mind I found myself in basically the polar opposite of where I’d been an hour before: the red light district. It’s everything I’d heard of course. Vast clouds of pot smoke pouring out of coffee shops, restaurants and hotels with prostitutes making come hither gestures in windows on either side and sex shops everywhere from the tasteful to the over the top. I particularly liked the couple tour groups of old grandmotherly looking ladies walking around with their eyes popping out of their heads. And speaking of grandmothers, I had not one but three different sex shop owners of the grandmotherly persuasion ask me if I needed something for me and my ladyfriend as I walked by during my visits in the red light area. Thanks for that lady, cause I didn’t already feel depressingly single enough on this trip. I suppose I should be glad they didn’t peg me as gay like the bizarre live sex show ticket pusher who didn’t want to take no for an answer. The other bizarre factor was the number of parents taking their children through the district. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty much anti-puritan in that respect and think kids should be taught and shown that sex is a normal part of life as early as they’re ready for it. The European attitude of the human body being natural but why the hell are you letting your kids watch someone’s head explode makes a lot more sense to me. That said, there’s a world of difference between letting your children see a movie with a tasteful sex scene and explaining it vs. taking them down a narrow alley where scantily clad women are pressing their breasts against the window with a riding crop between their teeth. But maybe that’s just me.
The next morning I got up reasonably early, grabbed a pear and some toast with chocolate sprinkles and headed off to the Van Gogh museum. It was magnificent, they have so much of his work and they’ve presented it with other pieces by artists who either taught/inspired him or were inspired by his work and continued his style. I’ve always been a massive Van Gogh fan but even I was surprised by the vast changes in his style over his quite short career. I don’t know why but his work speaks to me on so many levels and I actually visited some of the galleries several times. The Rijksmuseum on the other hand was a massive disappointment. It’s in the middle of a total refurbishment/reconstruction that has been going on for aeons and only a small portion of the collection is on display in one wing. This doesn’t stop them from charging nearly $20 cdn to see it and if I hadn’t been dying to see Rembrandt’s Night Watch I likely would have passed. If you’re going though, I definitely recommend buying your tickets in advance as you get to skip most of the line, really really don’t go to the Rijksmuseum though until it’s fully reopen.
Unfortunately after this the rain finally figured out that I’d ended up in Amsterdam and let loose as I was buying some cheese and having lunch back near the red light district. I toughed it out for a while, but didn’t have my coat so I decided to come back to the hostel and write for a bit. I’ve booked my train onward to Prague on Saturday but tomorrow’s plans will depend on this terrible weather. At the moment I’m hoping to rent a bike and tour the city a bit like the locals do.