11 January 2011

Holiday Travels

Over the past few weeks, I have been traveling quite a bit. One of the perks of being a teacher is that you get an extended holiday break, and in Spain that means 17 days of rest and relaxation, or in my case, travel. I spent a long time contemplating how I would spend those 17 days, and in the beginning I had grandiose ideas of hopping from place to place with a confidence and swagger that now seems ridiculous. After settling into my life here, I realized that money was going to be more of an issue than I had once thought, and as a result I pared down my holiday travel plans to just a couple of places, and, now having completed the journies, I´m glad that I took the modest route.

After some consideration and collaboration with friends, I settled on three places for my holiday travels, Amsterdam, the Alps, and Geneva. Amsterdam would be my Christmas destination, while the Alps and Geneva would be a beginning of January treat. In between these trips, I would spend time in Madrid, ringing in the New Year in my new, albeit temporary, home.

A look down one of Amsterdam's
many canals
Amsterdam turned out to be an amazing city and one that I hope to visit more throughout my life. The people were nice, the atmosphere was relaxed, and the city was beautiful. Over 70% of people speak at least two languages in the Netherlands, and most of those 70% speak English as their number two. Dutch and English are actually quite similar, and listening to Dutch is like listening to someone speak jibberish English. The cadence is the same, the inflection is the same, but the words are slightly different. Food in Amsterdam is not anything particularly special, but it is also not particularly expensive, which is a plus. The canals that run through the city, built in the 17th century for residential development and defense purposes, turn the city into a grid of beautiful bridges, boats, and closely knit houses. Bicycles rule Amsterdam, with over 50% of its street traffic comprised of bikers. A light rail runs throughout the city, connecting the various areas of the already small community via a cheap and efficient system. Amsterdam is clean, not over populated, and it doesn´t try to wow you with any sort of ridiculous gimmicks or flashy innovations; its simply a nice place to be.

While in Amsterdam, I walked around taking pictures and eating various foods from street vendors and restauranteurs. The highlights, however, were the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. The Van Gogh Museum is a collection of over 200 of the famous impressionist´s works, displayed in chronological order and narrated with amazingly detailed literary murals. The museum is small, so as not to be overwhelming, and the art is incredible. Van Gogh perfected the art of appearing to have no idea what he was doing. At first glance, one might even think that a child was the artist, but upon studying the brushstrokes and intentions that are imbedded in the works, Van Gogh´s genius quickly becomes evident. Some of his most famous works are housed in this museum, while others spend their days traveling around the world for all to see. Following the halls of the museum and, consequently, the natural progression of Van Gogh´s work, I was able to gain a stronger appreciation for his talents and his niche in the art world.

The front door of the office building
where the Frank family was in hiding
The Anne Frank House was, hands down, my favorite part of Amsterdam. As a history nerd (coincidentally with a history degree), I was quite excited to be able to step into a piece of history as well known and heartwrenching as this. Having read Anne´s diary in middle school (but regrettably having forgotten most of its contents), I am aware of the story of her family and their attempt to hide from the Nazis. Approaching the building which houses the museum and which, at one point, was the office in which the Frank family hid, I was excited and nervous at the same time. I knew that I would have some strange emotions once inside, reading plaques, viewing pictures, and listening to audio about a 13 year old girl and her family who were all but one killed because of their genetic make-up, but I wasn´t quite sure how exactly I would feel. Inside the museum, no one spoke. I found this to be incredible, considering that your average Joe has no idea when to respectfully keep his thoughts to himself. I have walked the halls of the Vatican, stood in the depths of the Sistine Chapel, and peered at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and during each of these experiences, silence was nowhere near. At the Anne Frank House, silence reigned, and rightfully so. As I and fellow travelers walked through the secret annex and loft of 267 Prinsengracht, we couldn´t help but feel humbled at what we were witnessing. There, in that very house, in those very rooms, lived one of the most recognized families of the 20th century, a family that, like thousands of others, was subject to the wrath of a regime more evil than most of us can conceive. Standing in the room where Anne slept, where she spent most of her time studying languages, reading books, and, most notably, writing her diary, was the most moving of the entire experience. The 13 year old girl who spoke well beyond her years and whose diary has been read by millions and continues to be a living testament to courage and resilience against all odds, spent two years of her tender life hiding from people whom she had never met because of something that was no fault of her own. Knowing what happened to her at the end of it all, and helplessly recognizing that even if I were alive during that time, I could have done nothing to help, is a hard pill to swallow. To describe my visit to the Anne Frank Museum as fun or entertaining would be to show no respect to the atrocities that took place there and the others that it represents. Rather, my Christmas morning stroll through the secret annex of the Frank family and their friends was very much as I expected it to be, enlightening, upsetting, and most of all, humbling.

At the end of the tour of the museum, I bought a copy of Anne´s diary. I have read it once before, but I was a child and was only able to understand it within particular contexts. Now, as an adult, I am tackling the book again and with great pleasure. I have read about half of it so far, and at times, I have trouble putting it down. As I read, I am delighted, sad, encouraged, and angry all at the same time. Sometimes I laugh at cute things that she says while other times I cringe in anger at the knowledge of how the story ultimately ends. I know that I will be a better person for having read the book and digested it thoroughly, but the process is a bit challenging emotionally, to say the least.

After Amsterdam, I returned to Madrid to rest and relax for 8 days. During that week plus one, I spent the days with friends, exploring the city and just hanging out. We stayed up too late, slept too long, and did nothing of any real consequence, but it was a good respite. In the middle of those 8 days was New Years, and I spent that in La Puerta del Sol, counting down the seconds and eating grapes at the stroke of midnight.

A view of the Alps in Chamonix
After New Years, I headed to Chamonix, France, in the southeast of the country. There, along with another friend of mine, I skiied in the Alps and took in the natural scenery. The Alps were incredibly breathtaking, and while I took several pictures, they do little justice at portraying the true majesty that these mountains possess. Skiing down the mountain and looking out at some of the most beautiful landscapes that the earth has to offer was surreal, to say the least. At the foot of the tallest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc, my hostel was home to several passing travelers, many of whom were quite good company. I met people from Finland, Australia, England, Poland, and France. I cooked my dinners on a camping stove and wore two pairs of pants to stay warm, all worth it in the end. Chamonix is a town much like those in Colorado that serve the same purpose. It is a ski town, full of transient people looking to enjoy the slopes, some for a few days and some for the whole 5 month season. It was a pleasant place to make a quick stop, and skiing at my doorstep was definitely the highlight.

After Chamonix, I headed to Geneva, Switzerland for a day before making the trek back to Madrid. In Geneva, I was able to see the European headquarters of the United Nations, the Red Cross Museum (just the outside, as it was closed when we arrived), and lake Geneva. I ate Swiss chocolate, walked the streets of old Geneva, and strolled across a lighted bridge that spans one of the most famous bodies of inland water in the world. For dinner, my friend and I decided on an Iranian restaurant, which turned out to be an excellent choice. No one there spoke English, and I surely do not speak French, but it was not really a problem. With a few points, grunts, clicks, and whistles, I was able to order and dine with ease. The food was incredible, and while I could not understand a word that they said, the staff seemed to be quite agreeable. After dinner, we headed back to our hostel, and at 4am, we were on our way to the airport to head back to our temporary home. Our vacation was over.

My holiday travels were amazing, and I cherished every moment. I saw some amazing sites, ate some incredible food, did some unforgettable things, and relaxed a bit along the way. I missed Christmas with the family and my little sister´s 16th birthday, but Skype was able to connect us for a bit, which is better than nothing. During these holidays, I was able to take advantage of the longest break that I will have here and perhaps one of the most convenient traveling times of my life. I am quite pleased with my travels and with the memories that I now have of my experiences. And, while I have no trips planned until my Morocco excursion in April, I will be searching for an interim destination with which to fuel my appetite for travel.

Next stop? We´ll see.

To see my pictures of Amsterdam, click here.

To see my pictures of Chamonix and the Alps, click here.

To see my pictures of Geneva, click here.


  1. Thanks for submitting this to the Byteful Travel blog carnival, Timothy! Suggestion for next time: why not put some photos inline with the text?

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading about your experiences.
    Congrats, this is going on BTBC #5.

  2. Alps in Chamonix is fascinating! They show breathtaking views perfect for you to relax on a holiday. Share more travel experiences!