Posts tagged “Europe

My 2011

Before ringing in the new year tonight, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and do a quick summary of how my year looked like on the travel front.

– Countries

Although some of my original plans fell through this year, I still managed to visit my 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th countries in 2011. 3 out of those 4 countries, namely Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, had been in my plans since my non-trip in 2008 so I was more than happy to finally visit them. I also spent a quick week in Panama, which was, to date, my favorite experience in Central/South America.

I also roamed around Canada a fair amount and got a few more U.S. stamps in my passport but the “new countries” are definitely the highlight of my year.

I didn’t quite make it to my 5th continent but that will happen in 2012 and I’m more than satisfied with the experiences I’ve had while traveling this year.

– Bucket List

Do I keep a bucket list? Yes, ,I do. Do I plan my trips around it? No, I don’t. That being said, I still managed to cross a whopping 3 items off of it this year and also did some work on a fourth item, making 2011 a very successful year in terms of shortening the proverbial “list”.

I flew first class for the first time on my way to Belgium, which was a rather uncharacteristic splurge for me and although the flight wasn’t overly long (just over 7 hours), I absolutely enjoyed the experience. For the comfort alone, I would be more than willing to replicate the experience in the future and let’s be honest, the food and booze aren’t half bad either!

Although my visit to the Netherlands was a little short for my tastes, I managed to see Ann Frank’s house, which was definitely one of the things I didn’t want to miss out on while in Amsterdam. I had heard horror stories about the never ending lines in front of the museum but I lucked out and although pictures aren’t allowed inside the house (one of my biggest pet peeves about museums in Europe!), I was happy with the experience and glad to have included the visit in my itinerary.

In Germany, I finally managed to visit a concentration camp (I actually visited 2, considering they are plentiful in Germany), after failing to do so in 2008 and coming so close while in Belgium a few months before. While Auschwitz remains a place I desperately want to visit in the future, getting to spend a few hours in Dachau and Sachsenhausen was the highlight of my trip to Germany.

One of the long-lasting items on my bucket list is to visit 100 countries, which is obviously a work in progress but adding 4 countries in a year is a step in the right direction.

– The Road

I rarely travel with other people, both by choice and because I don’t always pick the destinations my friends are thinking of when they have time to travel, so when a friend of mine said he would like to visit the Gaspé peninsula and see Percé Rock, I was more than happy to tag along for a quick road trip. The tip of the peninsula is located at the far end of the province of Quebec and although the drive was rather dull at times, it was definitely a cool way to spend a long weekend. I had been meaning to visit the region for a long time but never quite got around to it so getting to explore that little corner of my province was something I was glad to finally do.

– Business

Although Ontario is the neighboring province, I somewhat ironically visited it more for business purposes than as part of an actual trip (layovers at Pearson excluded, of course). I had planned a few things to do while in Toronto but the schedule got a little hectic and it turned out to be all business. On the bright side, I got to see Suzie McNeil and the Barenaked Ladies perform, the Staal brothers being interviewed by TSN’s James Duthie and hear a speech by Bell Canada’s president George Cope, which made the whole event fairly cool to attend.

– So Many Ways

Blame it on my habit to travel solo or on some weird quirkiness but every once in a while, I tend to start counting random things involving travel. How many nights slept in a hotel/hostel, how many flights I was on or how many means of transportation I used are among the things I usually work with as they are somewhat easy to recall and count. Obviously, those are totally random facts and don’t have much of an impact on anything but the fact that I don’t spend months traveling each year makes it more than doable to simply sit and add up those things. They’re also a good way to pass the time when flying; which is usually the moment I choose to count those little stats.

For the record, in 2011 I;

Was on 10 flights
Used 8 different means of transportation
Spent 30 nights in a hotel or hostel

That’s it; a short (and sweet?) post about my travels in 2011.

Happy New Year & safe travels!


Banning the Hand That Feeds You

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, the old saying goes, but say it ain’t so according to new legislations by the Dutch government. The Dutch, it turns out, are moving forward with a plan to restrict access to their famous “coffee shops” as part of a movement to tighten the rules surrounding what is often known as “drug tourism”.

Although very liberal on their policies involving “soft” drugs such as marijuana, Dutch politicians brought up the idea of limiting access to the coffee shops to locals and even bringing forward a registration program that would be mandatory for those seeking membership to one of the Netherlands’ many coffee shops. The plans are part of a nationwide program targeting crime and promoting health; those particular restrictions aiming to reduce the risks of avoidable criminality surrounding the country’s current policies.

While the introduction of restrictions isn’t unexpected due to the country, and particularly its Capital’s desire to revamp themselves and appeal to tourists for reasons other than the Netherlands’ infamously open soft drugs policies, the complete exclusion of any and all tourists is the true head-scratcher.

The parallel between acceptance and legality seems to be behind these changes as it comes down to what the Dutch government tolerates for their people as opposed to what they wish to offer tourists visiting the Netherlands. This brings up an ethical concern though as it creates a double standard which could easily get out of hand in the future. After all, would a lot of people go to Vegas if casinos were illegal to anyone who didn’t live in Nevada? There’s no real difference between gambling in Nevada and the liberal policies surrounding soft drugs in the Netherlands; either these things are illegal or not, but they cannot be both.

As a rule of thumb, anyone who travels must obey any and all local laws and will be prosecuted accordingly if those laws are broken. For example, the legal drinking age in Quebec is 18 while our neighbors in Ontario cannot legally drink until they are 19. That being said, the law goes both ways and an 18 year old Quebecer cannot purchase liquor in Ontario while an 18 year old Ontarian can drink in Quebec.

It all comes down to the fact that those liberal views are very attractive to some tourists and it’s hard to pretend that tourism won’t be impacted when we know that over 90% of the customer base of those coffee shops is foreign. Coffee shops are valuable tax-paying businesses and denying service to tourists is discriminatory, in a way, as it labels tourists as careless idiots who have no idea how to act decently if put in contact with products sold in coffee shops. On a financial standpoint, the loss of tourism looming over the Netherlands because of those changes should definitely not be ignored as a percentage of the current 20-something backpackers, travelers and general people who will “try it once” visiting Amsterdam will probably end up spending less as a direct result of these changes.

Socially, while the idea behind the new policies makes sense and follows the rest of the world’s views on the use or purchase of soft drugs, it remains to be seen if the double standard used in this situation will impact the way other countries view area-specific situations and create a precedent. Will tourists all of the sudden be unwelcomed from Mass at the Vatican? Will the Great Wall of China be limited to Chinese people only? Is it fair to look at tourists as being different and “unworthy” of being part of specific situations?

ETA; How timely; the Associated Press just posted something about how Thailand doesn’t want tourists getting ‘Bouddha’ tattoos when in Thailand.


6 Cool Facts About the Netherlands

Beyond things that you probably didn’t know about Amsterdam; here are some cool facts about the Netherlands.

1. Orange is the official color of the Netherlands because of the name of a powerful family that assisted the Dutch in fighting off Napoleon’s troops and even today’s royal lineage of the current dynasty are related to the powerful House of Orange.

2. The current queen of the Netherlands, Beatrix, was born in Canada, during the German occupation of the Netherlands. An entire hospital wing was declared Dutch soil in order for her to be eligible to be queen.

3. 50% of books published in the 17th century were published in the Netherlands.

4. Only 9% of Dutch people have used marijuana in the past year.

5. Tulips, a well-known symbol of the Netherlands, were the first commercial bubble (and the first crash); the highest priced bulb sold for more than the price of a medium-priced house.

6. While you can legally have sex with a prostitute, buy and use drugs or marry someone of the same sex, it is illegal to ride a bike without a light in the front and one in the back.


10 Things You Didn’t Know About Amsterdam

Most of us have a very precise vision of what Amsterdam is supposed to be like but beyond the drugs and sex, here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about the capital of the Netherlands.

1. Amsterdam’s Royal Palace was not only known as the center of Europe 400 years ago, it was seen as the center of the world!

2. Amsterdam had a revolution after the French occupation ended; effectively revolting against no one.

3. There are roughly 250 windows in the Red Light District and they are all privately owned.

4. The highest street in Amsterdam is roughly 1.5 meter above sea level

5. Amsterdam was once known as “The Second Jerusalem” for its acceptance of Jewish people.

6. Amsterdam is non-officially known as the world’s capital of multi-culturalism. There are 197 nations represented in the city.

7. Amsterdam has more canals than Venice

8. Coffeeshops are taxed by the government, although selling and buying marijuana is not technically legal.

9. Non-Jewish people in Amsterdam were the only ones to stand up against the Nazis in 1941 when they began deporting Jews.

10. Women who work in the Red Light District rent their window at a rate between 150 and 200 euros, depending on the location, for an 8 hour shift.


The Passing of a Law

May 16th 2011 is the day commuters in Brussels need to start paying their fare when using the subway; at least if they need to pass through the Gare du Midi. Although everyone should have been paying already, the electronic access gates were left opened and had a notice stating that they would become active today; no doubt trusting the good nature of people, even though they obviously could go right through the gate without paying for passage.

To say that the lines were long at the various ticket booths compared to yesterday would be an understatement, especially during rush hour at the beginning and at the end of the workday.

There were also growing lines at a few gates as people seemed at a loss as to what they needed to do for the gate to open. Some section of the station only had an handicapped gate available which meant that people had to push a button to open the first door, then insert their ticket for the second door to open.

The lines at the ticket counters and the confusion to go through the entrance/exit gates probably is a very good indication that the city made the right decision and will actually benefit strongly from a working access system for the users of it’s extensive public transportation system. The added funds collected from people who were already using public transportation will probably be much greater than the amount of money collected from fines seldomly collected from those who didn’t have a valid ticket.

There were a lot of security/prevention personnel at the station throughout the day to assist people and make the transition go smoothly and although the gates are only active at the Gare du Midi for the time being, it isn’t hard to understand that now that the city’s busiest station is officially charging for passage, other stations will likely follow suit in the future in order to cover most, if not all of the city’s vast public transportation system.