Frankfurt, Prague, Rome, Amsterdam, Cologne:

A Trip Journal, April 7-17, 2007

by Todd & Sue Mecklem ( )

Text and photos ©2007 by Todd Mecklem & Sue Mecklem.

Additional photos can be viewed at

SATURDAY, APRIL 7, 2007: Portland, OR to Chicago, IL to Frankfurt

We got a taxi to the airport—at 5:15 AM—leaving the cat in the apartment. Colleen will look in on him. Our taxista was a young hip dude—Iggy Pop on the radio. Weather turned warm yesterday...just in time for us to leave!

It was an easy flight from Portland to Chicago, where, at Wolfgang Puck's at O'Hare Airport, we shared a goat cheese and mozzarella pizza—luckily with mild enough goat cheese that Todd would eat it! We also ordered beers that turned out to be rather larger than we expected, and then we got a little sleepy. (Didn't help that we got 5 hours of sleep the night before.)

The views of the Rocky Mountains on the flight East were awesome.

The Chicago to Frankfurt flight was an easy one.

Downtown Frankfurt

Downtown Frankfurt

SUNDAY, APRIL 8, 2007: Frankfurt, Germany

The plane sat on the tarmac quite a while. We got the local train downtown and walked from the train station just a block to the Colour Hotel, a hip but inexpensive place. We checked in to #49. Small room, but nice enough, with a view of a few skyscrapers from the small window. Checked the TV-surprise, a channel of free porn! Only in Europe...

We showered and hit the street. Walked past some sex shops...the red light district is right in front of the train station. We had lunch at a small Turkish restaurant, sitting at a sidewalk table and enjoying some rice & veggies, a sausage, and french fries. And also enjoying the strangeness of being in Europe again.

We walked down Kaiserstrasse (past the European Central Bank with the huge euro symbol in front) to an old church, walked past a mall (closed on Sunday), and circled back past a Starbucks and the Bourse (the stock exchange), which has statues of a bull and a bear out front.

We walked down a walkstreet—the Fressgasse—lined with restaurants, and saw the opera house and a huge fountain out front. Skyscrapers are scattered throughout the district. We walked through a long, winding park that seemed to follow an old streambed back to the giant euro symbol. Then we went back to the hotel, where Sue napped while Todd watched TV and dozed a bit.

Todd in front of the European Central Bank, Frankfurt

Todd and the giant euro

We got up after a bit and went out and explored the train station. We found the Maoz falafel stand we'd read about, but it was closed. We bought some snacks and a bottle of applewine—a local specialty, not at all sweet—and went back to the hotel again. We watched some local Easter specials, and a show about classic German commercials. Exhausted, we went to sleep about 8:30 PM.

MONDAY, APRIL 9, 2007: Frankfurt, Germany to Prague, Czech Republic

We got up at 6 AM and started to prepare for the day. Sue turned on the bathroom light--and the power went out in our room. We went down to breakfast, and the guy managing the hotel fixed the problem while we ate.

The breakfast spread was at the affiliated 4-star hotel next door, and it was sumptuous. Just a few of the food items on offer: sliced turkey, smoked salmon, chilled fish, eggs, baked beans, pickles, breads, fruit, yogurt, juices, and carbonated water.

We went for a walk to the Main (pronounced "mine") river, where we walked along a waterfront park path. We saw a huge swan, and a number of morning joggers. We passed a pedestrian bride and looked at a photo display of how crappy the shoreline looked before a recent cleanup. We passed an old crane left from when this was a "working" riverfront, saw a lot of nice apartments overlooking the river, and also spotted a homeless person sleeping under a bush.

We went back to the hotel and packed, storing our bags in the lobby. We walked back to the Fressgasse via the red light district, where we saw rows of five-story brothel buildings. We needed some bismuth tablets, but we couldn't find an open pharmacy (Apotheke in German) this Easter Monday. We walked to the main square—with new "old buildings" built after the wartime bombings—and had lunch, outdoors again, at a restaurant in front of the cathedral.

We trekked back to the hotel, got our bags, and headed out. As we bought tickets for the train to the airport, a German man tried to strike up a conversation, but we quickly realized he was trying to scam us, and brushed him off. Confused as to where to get our train, we caught an ICE train to the airport, afterward realizing that the notation "kein ICE" on our tickets meant NOT valid on the ICE. Luckily we didn't get caught...though we inadvertently punished ourselves by sitting in a smoking car for ten minutes.

We checked in with Lufthansa and went looking for medicine. I spotted Sue's doppelganger while Sue was in a small grocery store, but she was gone before Sue reappeared. We tried to head to the gate, but were turned away...too early. We found a place to sit, and I finally found an open pharmacy. We headed to the gate, and were soon off on our 4:05 PM flight to Prague.

In the Prague airport, in the tiny arrivals hall, Todd got some Czech money ("koruna," or Czech crowns) at an ATM. We booked a shuttle van into town, which was leaving almost immediately. It took us to within a couple of blocks of our hotel, the Ibis Old Town, part of the French Ibis hotel chain.

After getting settled, we walked into the center, a short distance away. There was an Easter Fair going on in Old Town Square, with sausages, beer, and various kinds of snacks and crafts for sale. A large egg made of tree branches was on display, and "eggs" were hung from trees. At dusk the historic buildings around the square were lit up. We had dinner: a "rindswurst" sausage on a bun, with mustard, for Sue and a pork skewer for Todd, and beer for both of us; for dessert, a "wafel" (pronounced "vafel"), a heated, delicious thin cookie with caramel inside. We walked down some tourist-thronged streets, then headed back, getting lost briefly on the way, but finally found our hotel again.

Night view of central square, Prague

Old Town Square, Prague

TUESDAY APRIL 10, 2007: Prague

We were up early and ate at the Ibis hotel buffet...overpriced and not nearly as good as the one at the Colour Hotel. Still, it was fuel—and there was plenty of coffee. We walked to the train station planning to take a day trip to Kutna Hora to see the Bone Chapel there, but Todd decided it would take up too much of the day (our only full day in Prague). A rude saleslady had ripped Todd off for an extra dollar on the tickets we ended up abandoning (they still cost less than $15 total). Maybe we could've gotten a refund, but we were sick of the hectic station by then. We walked back—past an elaborate and beautiful synagogue that turns out to be 100 years old—to the hotel, where Todd logged in to the Web and found out that his boss Bill had been named Director of the library where Todd works.

We took a long walk through the center of town. It was a cool, cloudy day. The Easter Fair was still in business. Sue was wearing a skirt without hosiery, and felt very out of place—in some way, Prague is still a conservative place. We got mildly lost but happened upon Wenceslas Square, which is actually a long public area lined with old buildings and popular shops. This is where many historic gatherings in Prague's history have taken place. We got coffee in a hip local coffeeshop, then walked along the "square," slightly uphill, to the statue of King Vaclav (Wenceslas) himself.

We caught the Metro (after puzzling over the ticket vending machines for a while) to a stop near the river. Here we had a great view of the castle of Prague atop a hill to the east. We walked along the riverfront to the Klementinum; we only visited a small part of the historic building that was an early university and now houses the Czech National Library. We saw an exhibition of entries for a competition to design the new national library; the controversial winning entry looks like an Octopus or a space alien-green, with purple spots, which are windows!

Meanwhile, the sun had come out at last. We walked onto the Charles Bridge, which was thronged with tourists and arts & crafts vendors. Interesting old statues line the bridge. We crossed into a picturesque district below the castle, and stopped for lunch—sandwiches, a sangria for Sue, and Turkish coffee for Todd.

Charles Bridge, Prague

The Charles Bridge

We walked past a church below the castle-topped bluff and then walked through a district where we passed the Polish, Indian, and Belgian embassies. We also passed the Czech Senate building, before finding the Metro station we were searching for and heading back to our hotel.

We had a doze and rested our tired legs. Later we headed out again, to the supermarket, then to a shop selling garnet jewelry that we decided was too expensive. We wandered, passing the Kafka statue, then finding a Czech restaurant that's famous as the setting of the satirical novel "Good Soldier Svejk"—there was a stained-glass window of the main character near our table. Sue had roast duck, sauerkraut, red cabbage, potato dumpling, and garlic dumpling. Todd had a similar platter, but with pork instead of duck. And we both had good, dark Czech beer.

After eating, we walked to the central square, where crowds were enjoying the Easter fair, or trying to-a crazed woman was shrieking religious statements at passersby near the Old Clock. We walked back to the hotel, stopping to look through a Czech department store on the way.

Exhausted as we were, we left the hotel yet again in the evening, getting some gelato and then buying souvenirs (and chocolate) in the supermarket. However, we didn't buy any of the absinthe or cannabis vodka that was on offer there. We did stop at the Netopyr Bar ("netopyr" means bat-the kind that flies) across from our hotel, though, an authentic (and smoky) local place where we had to wait a few minutes for the barmaid to quit flirting with her boyfriend at his table to come serve us. She tried to take our orders, anyway, finally summoning another woman from the back who spoke some English. Sue had a Campari and water, and Todd had an absinthe—lighting the sugar on the spoon with the woman's well-used cigarette lighter. Sue tried the absinthe but wasn't overly impressed.

Sue wanted some wine, so we stopped at the Ibis hotel bar—very different atmosphere from where we'd just been!—and had a glass of red while Todd had another absinthe, curious to see how the presentation would differ. The Ibis hotel matchbox and gleaming drink glasses were quite presentable, but absinthe is more fun in a dark, gritty bar. Rome was playing Manchester United in a soccer game on the telly in the bar, but we were tired so we soon went up to bed.

Absinthe ready to prepare at the Ibis Hotel bar, Prague

Absinthe ready to prepare at the Ibis Hotel bar

WEDNESDAY APRIL 11, 2007: Prague, Czech Republic to Rome, Italy

After a good 8 hours sleep, we got up about 7 AM. We opened the windows for air, and construction noise wafted in. We were lazy and decided to get the hotel breakfast again—by the time we got down there the kiwis and bananas were cleaned out already! You snooze you lose...

Checkout went smoothly, and we walked to the airport shuttle stop, chatting with some American businessmen who were on layover on a trip from Bucharest to Brno. The shuttle passed through workaday Prague neighborhoods and then through an embassy zone. At the airport, we changed some koruna back into euros, had a cappuccino, and people-watched.

We flew Alitalia to Rome. Todd was taking a picture out the window of the Alps when a stewardess told him "no camera"...phototaking is apparently not allowed on Alitalia planes!?! As we disembarked at Rome, Sue left behind the black wool scarf that she'd bought years before in Italy—or, having returned home, it abandoned her. She soon realized she'd lost it, but an interesting visit to the airport lost-and-found failed to recover the scarf--the cleanup crews claimed not to have found it.

We caught the "Leonardo Express" train to the center-past slum dwellings and, closer in, only slightly less depressing high-rises. Termini train station was thronged, but we made our way through the crowds to our nearby hotel, the Aphrodite, on Via Marsala. After showers and a brief rest we went out in search of food. We had a meal of pizza, veggies, and red wine at a restaurant not far from Termini. Then we walked, passing a vendor selling banners of Mussolini(!) and other scenes. We walked to Piazza dell Reppublica-now an upscale shopping mall-then caught the Metro to the stop next to the Spanish Steps. The area was crowded with people enjoying the warm weather. We wandered the local streets, which were lined with very pricey boutiques, and made our way eventually to a spectacular high-ceilinged mall named after the actor Albert Sordi.

Crowded subway car in Rome

A crowded Metro car in Rome

We walked to the Trevi fountain, Todd trying to keep the destination a secret, but Sue finally spotting local shops named "Trevi" which gave the game away. The fountain in the evening was a romantic spot, notwithstanding the crowds and the local insistently trying to sell us a flower (or to pickpocket us while distracting us with the flower). We stopped at a wine shop and bought a couple of minibottles of wine, then got briefly lost before finding the metro again just before it was going to shut down for the night. We had a chocolate gelato in Termini station, then went back to our hotel.

THURSDAY APRIL 12, 2007: Rome

The breakfast at the Aphrodite (in a rooftop sunroom) was uninspiring...cheese in individually wrapped slices? We didn't want to try the meat slices or the corn flakes, so were mostly left with croissants and jelly (or honey), but at least there was strong coffee and hot milk. There were also tiny packages of fiber-rich German bread, which Todd ate with cheese.

We got the Metro to the Colosseum, and walked around, avoiding the tour groups and the "gladiators" hoping to pose for photos for a fee. We marveled at the ruin, but didn't pay for entry, just peeking in where we could. We saw a friendly local cat who likely prowls the Colosseum by night, hunting rodents.

We walked the length of the Roman Forum, the center of ancient Rome, now a scattering of unsigned ruins, which Todd tried to make sense of with his guidebooks. We sat for a while on huge stones carved with the heads of cows. We saw the site of the temple of Vesta, and the remains of the temple of Saturn, before climbing a flight of steps to the Piazza Campidoglio. Then we walked down more steps to a busy street, turned left, and wandered towards the Tiber River, finally crossing the Ponte Palatino. There were flowers on the bridge, at a point where someone had jumped to his or her death on the rocks below.

A well-dressed older gent hailed us from his car near the riverside. At first he asked Todd directions to the Vatican, but it quickly became clear he was hoping to sell us some "designer" clothing, or at least scam some money from us. Before Todd could tell him no he pulled ahead to seek a place to park, and we quickly crossed the street to avoid him and headed into the warren of roads that makes up the Trastevere neighborhood.

The roads were narrow and the homes and shops picturesque (and often marked with graffiti)...and we had definitely lost all the other tourists in town. We found a corner store/café, where we had toasted prosciutto-and-cheese sandwiches and tiny cups of espresso: total bill 5 euros and a dime.

A snack in an off-the-beaten path café in Trastevere, Rome

Our simple lunch in Trastevere

We walked back to the river and crossed Ponto Garibaldi, near the pointed end of Tibertina Island, where sunbathers were resting on the concrete bank. Garbage floated in the river, caught in an eddy. We wandered and chanced upon a children's library, taking a quick look inside. Walking the narrow streets we had to listen for Vespas and motorcycles coming up behind us, and for the tiny buses that prowl the backstreets (larger buses couldn't make the turns).

Todd Mecklem in front of the Church of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e delle Morte, Rome

Todd in front of the Church of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e delle Morte

We found the Church of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e delle Morte (Our Lady of Eulogies and of the Dead), renowned for its crypt full of bones and the symbols of death on the façade and inside; alas, it was closed, with no clear indication of when it would be open. (One website says it's usually only open on Sunday, for mass at 6 PM.) Other tourists wandered by, also stymied. Looking at the map, we saw that we were very near Campo di Fiore. The market was still open, and we looked at the vegetables and spices—and other miscellaneous goods—on offer there. Sue bought a peck of pepper (maybe a little less than a peck) and we bought some strawberries to eat, washing them at a public tap.

Campo de Fiore market, Rome

Campo de Fiore market

We shared some gelato, then walked to Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a main boulevard. We saw graffiti there supporting the Oaxaca rebellion in Mexico. Sue went into a McDonald's (but only to use the toilet), and then we caught a bus to the Vatican.

We were overheated by the time we disembarked, but a large drinking fountain saved us. We sat a while in the shade just inside Vatican City (Sue claiming her 10th foreign country!), then crossed St. Peter's Square. The lines were long to get into the basilica, and we decided to come back the next morning. We reentered Italy and stopped at a touristy café for dessert and cappuccinos, which were quite good, but ridiculously expensive. We hiked to the Metro, hitting an ATM on the way, with Sue standing guard as Todd got out more euros.

Bombings in Algeria filled the newspaper headlines. The atmosphere seemed tense in Italy, with reporters speculating on whether their country was next.

Back at the hotel, we took a much-needed rest, then bundled up our dirty clothes and took them to a nearby laundromat, where one of the proprietors, Babu, told us about the visit of an American boxer to the place. Free of our dirty clothes, we headed to have dinner at a restaurant not far away. We got the antipasto bar, which was quite impressive, with lots of wonderful veggies—not the antipasto salami and cheese plates that you see in the U.S. It was an enjoyable meal, even though large tour groups invaded the place right after we sat down. Dinner cost 35 euros, including wine.

We walked to Termini and visited the international bookstore there. Todd spotted a large selection of Chuck Palahniuk books in Italian, including his book about Portland. Then back to the hotel, where we watched TV, seeing bits of quiz shows (ubiquitous in Italy) and news of new attacks in Baghdad. Then we went to sleep, in spite of the loud teenagers wandering the hallways.

FRIDAY, APRIL 13, 2007: Rome

We were up early, had the hotel breakfast (with view of the side of Termini Station from the sunroom), then headed to the metro, which was crowded for rush hour. We had to push our way to the end of the platform, and waited for the second train—the first was just too crowded.

Sue in St. Peter's Square

Sue in Vatican City

We got to Vatican City about 9 AM. The lines looked daunting, but the basilica is so huge that the wait wasn't long at all. We joined a line of people who turned out to be headed to the crypt beneath St. Peter's basilica. We passed the tomb of Pope John Paul I (who some think was murdered by conservative forces within the church), then to the resting place of John Paul II, which had a crowd in front resisting the efforts of handlers to move them along. Some young women were crying. In the center of the crypt area there was a small, open-sided chapel, where a service of some type was just breaking up. Photography is banned in the crypt, but the rule was being pretty generally flouted; one guy's job seemed to be just to stand next to JP2's crypt saying "No photo! No photo!" over and over...

There were miscellaneous popes buried in the place, mostly from the last couple of centuries. Todd snapped a non-flash pic of the crypt of Pope Pius XI, who died just as World War II began. He's also rumored to have been murdered, as he was a strong anti-fascist.

We could see up through the ceiling into the basilica's main level. We'd go there soon...but first, as we exited the crypt out a side door, we spotted a wall with a door and arch. The German Cemetery. We walked seemed to only draw a trickle of visitors, being off the usual tourist paths. There were a variety of interesting old tombstones and wall crypts, mostly of Germans who must've been patron of the church. There was also a stone path-made of broken pieces of headstones!

Todd peeked through a gap between two tall doors into a chapel featuring a statue of death. A service—though not an obvious funeral service—was taking place, so we didn't enter.

We climbed the steps to St. Peter's basilica, the largest church in the world. We wandered through the place, admiring the incredible statuary (including Michelangelo's "Pieta"), rubbing the feet of the statue of St. Peter (Hey, "when in Rome," right?), and buying some postcards at a souvenir store adjoining the cathedral. We wrote postcards while resting on the front steps, watching tourists photograph the Swiss Guards in their colorful costumes (designed by Michelangelo—very retro!). We mailed the cards at the Vatican Post Office.

People rubbing the feet of a statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's basilica in Vatican City

Tourists (pilgrims?) rubbing Peter's feet in his basilica

We walked down the main boulevard from the front of St. Peter's Square all the way to Castel Sant'Angelo (passing Vatican City's only two homeless guys sleeping in front of a church), then crossed the Ponte Sant'Angelo—dodging vendors of cheap handbags and other crap—and entered a warren of narrow streets. We stopped for a snack of pizza bread topped with zucchini, eaten outside, watching Roman life unfold. We walked through a zone of antique stores to the Piazza Navona, home to three great fountains (the biggest was under repair). We sat in front of the Fountain of Neptune. Groups of supposedly tough Roman kids were passing by—one, about 11 years old, was smoking a cigarette.

Detail, Fountain of Neptune, Piazza Navona, Rome

Detail of the Fountain of Neptune

We left the plaza and stopped to sit outside a café that turned out to be a famous one: "Sant Eustachio in Caffe." Good cappuccino. It's next to the Italian Senate; posts kept rising from the roadway and then dropping to allow passage of cars—a security measure.

We walked to the Pantheon, the best-preserved ancient building in Rome, once a temple to all of the gods, now a Catholic church. The building has a circular opening at the top of the concrete dome, and there are drains in the floor below to clear away rainfall. The kings of Italy—both of them—are entombed here. Some homeless drunks were sitting near the entrance...they sleep on the immense "front porch" of the Pantheon after it closes (at least Todd saw some doing so in '04).

We walked a block to the church of Maria sopra Minerva—a church dedicated to Mary that was build over a temple to Minerva. Out front, there's a distinctive statue of an elephant topped with an obelisk. Inside, priests were performing a ceremony for an audience of just three people, in a side chapel. We walked through the church and exited out a back door, wandered through a university district, crossed the Corso boulevard, pushed past a bunch of kids waiting to get into the "Time Elevator" attraction, and headed to Trevi Fountain again. It was crowded—when isn't it?—and vendors were tossing annoying noisemakers into the air. We didn't stay long.

Sue at a drinking fountain in Rome

Sue at a fountain—it dispenses water, not wine, unfortunately

We got Caffe Macchiatos at a tourist-trap café. On the boulevard, some of the buses had the immense face of Mr. Bean plastered on their rears: adverts for the new movie. We headed towards the Church of Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione to see the Capuchin crypt with the mummies and bones. The place was still closed for the midday break, and a couple of dozen tourists gathered by the time the doors opened. We briefly toured the church to kill time. Once inside the "crypt"-really just a long hallway well above street level, with small rooms beside it—we saw the mummies of monks and thousands of bones formed into designs. Over a loudspeaker came the voice of God-sounding rather like the bored girl who'd taken our entrance money in the gift shop-exhorting us all: "No photos!" (The Italians seem to love banning photography.) At the end of the hallway there was no exit-we had to turn and go back "against the tide" of bemused tourists. Todd bought a book about the place (available in Italian only) and Sue bought a couple of postcards. Then we caught the metro back to the hotel for a rest.

Heading out again, we got a spinach and mozzarella sandwich at a lunch bar and ate it as we walked through Termini. We happened upon the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the most important Marian churches in Rome. We saw the silver-plated corpse of a pope beneath a his marble statue in a side chapel, and saw a live cardinal in another chapel conducting a ceremony (at first Todd thought it might be Pope Benedict, but it wasn't).

We walked through a tiny Chinatown to the MAS "department store"—we're putting it in quotes because the place has seen better days and mostly sells remaindered clothes and miscellany. At the entrance there was a decrepit room full of cubbyholes, as if for shoppers to check their bags, but a bored guard waved us through. Todd bought a German army shirt for 2 euros and Sue found something as well.

Our feet and a tile floor, Rome

A mosaic floor near the MAS store

We found a better store, and Sue bought some clothes. We luckily noticed before leaving that the cashier had screwed up—a manager refunded the overcharge in cash!

We bought some cheap food to go (veggies, pasta, and fried calamari) and some beer and went back to the room for a picnic. After dinner Todd marked our wanderings on a map of Rome. It's amazing how far we walked!

SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2007: Rome, Italy to Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We got a good night's sleep and went to breakfast at 8. The pastries were already gone. Some German guy was loading a plate with meat and cheese—breakfast of champions. Todd headed to a photo shop on the street to burn our photos onto a disc for safekeeping, and shuffling along the sidewalk again was the dirty, buttcrack-displaying bum that we'd seen almost every morning. We walked through Termini yet again and headed to a grocery store for some supplies. Todd spotting some "Hell Bier" on the beer shelves.

We walked back, and on one corner there was a prostitute and a couple of nuns. Rome definitely has a virgin/whore complex. We bought our train tickets to the airport, and checked out after listening to "Mr. America" complaining about the slow drain in the shower, the noise when he opened the windows, and the fact that the air-con didn't work (the woman at the desk told him it was still shut off "because it's still Winter"—never mind the warm temperatures). He also mentioned "the urinal": i.e. the bidet! His wife was standing out by the elevator, and we gave her a sympathetic glance as we left.

We just missed the 10:52 Leonardo Express at Termini, so we sat down to wait. Thirty minutes later we headed out. The train wasn't very crowded. Someone had left their walking stick behind, still in its box. At the airport we checked in—no line—and had a light lunch of salad and fruit before heading to the gate.

A group of elderly American Catholics was waiting for the same plane as ours, but we wished we'd ended up sitting near them instead of behind the annoying, loud Italian guys we had to suffer with. The views of the multicolored Dutch tulip fields as we descended did distract us from the antics of the vacationing Italians, as did the free Heineken we were drinking.

Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport: home of clean bathrooms! The atmosphere in the Netherlands is much more relaxed than in Italy. We made our way to the airport train station and luckily had enough euro coins for our tickets into town; American credit cards don't seem to work (or at least we couldn't figure it out). We caught the 5 PM train, leaving behind the annoying Italian dudes who were still puzzling over the ticket machines. On the train, we sat near some two excited French couples ready for their holiday, and a stern-looking businessman who looked like he wished he'd popped for the first-class compartment.

Centraal Station was humming as weekenders poured into town on this warm Saturday evening. Todd had been to Amsterdam in '04, and we stopped at the Maoz falafel stand where he'd first tried Maoz. All we had was a bitter lemon soda, while we waited for 6 PM to roll around so we could check in at our hotel.

The Hotel My Home on Harlemmerstraat is a funky little place where Todd had stayed on his previous trip. It's owned by a cool Dutch guy, and features a long, steep stairway and microscopic rooms (barely larger than walk-in closets) with shared toilet and shower. A guy named Michel checked us in—he remembered Todd from '04—and gave us Room 5, overlooking the street. As we rested on the bed (which almost filled the room) we heard a cat meowing: the hotel cat, which was on the window ledge of the dorm room next door. We poked our heads out to say hello. Below, the traffic was mainly made up of bicycles and pedestrians.

The resident cat at Hotel My Home, Amsterdam

Welcoming committee at the Hotel My Home

The sun was still up, so we walked into the center to check out the red light district (henceforth the RLD). We hit an ATM on the main drag, next to a some outdoor tables in front of a bar, where some British women were having a bachelorette party. There was a line at the ATM. The town was packed.

We had some beer at an old-timey bar tended by a British woman; she scolded some regulars that she didn't want to hear them blaspheming. Then we walked to the Dam, the central square of Amsterdam (once the site of the Amstel Dam—dam of the Amstel River—that gave Amsterdam its name). We walked south into the RLD, passing quite a few drunken Brits, and a few disturbed--and disturbing--people. We saw some of the window prostitutes, one wagging a dildo right across from the Old Church.

Red light district, Amsterdam

Red light district, Amsterdam

We walked back to an Indonesian restaurant we'd passed, Sukasari at Damstraat 26. A pretty nice place, with great food. We had chicken and veggies, and more Heineken. Some diners were having tasting menus with many selections. Then we went back into the RLD as dusk fell. The area was getting more crowded, and there was even a tour group passing through a window prostitution zone. We walked down the narrowest alley in Amsterdam—lined with the windowed doors beneath single red bulbs—which was barely wide enough to exit at the end.

On the way back to the hotel we bought a package of "stroopwaffels" to snack on, and some shampoo. There was street noise with the window open—it was a warm night—but we were too tired to be kept awake by it. The smell of cannabis wafted over from the dorm room. The cat stood vigil in the hallway, yowling whenever one of us passed it on the way to the bathroom.

SUNDAY, APRIL 15, 2007: Amsterdam

We slept nine hours, getting up about 8:30 and heading down to the common room for breakfast (included in the 60 euro price of the room). A man and a woman were making breakfast; the owner, Chris, chatted with us while his employee (could've been his wife, possibly) cooked us up some scrambled eggs topped with cheese. We also had some much-needed coffee. Each table had a toaster, a loaf of bread, butter, jam, and some colorful sprinkles that the Dutch eat on toast (we didn't). Most of the other guests were younger than us. Chris greeted a young Asian woman, asking: "Too much drinking, too much smoking? Too many mushrooms? You look like you were on mushrooms." We talked with Chris; he said the building has been a hotel since 1948, and he'd owned it now for 20 years. "It's a living." He said the area has improved in the last few years. Todd had noticed that Harlemmerstraat had built up a lot since he'd seen it three years before: more boutiques, "coffee shops" and head shops, and a new hotel being built fronting the street.

Pink Floyd coffeeshop, Amsterdam

The Pink Floyd "coffeeshop" on Harlemmerstraat

We walked to the main drag and stopped for more coffee (and some excellent apple strudel), then went to take a boat tour on the canals. We saw many sights, including a boat-shaped maritime museum, a duck and group of ducklings navigating a canal, the site of a future library, and every size and shape of houseboat (including several built on old barges). The weather was unseasonably warm: August weather in April. There were a lot of pleasure boaters on the water. We ventured out into the Amstel River before returning through the network of canals to our starting point.

We went to C&A, a clothing store, and Todd bought some work shirts. Then we went to Maoz near Centraal Station for lunch. The falafels were fine, but the service was crappy. One of our bitter lemon drinks was just carbonated water, and the employees acted like Todd was crazy when he took it back (though they finally made it right).

Back to the hotel, Todd stopped in at the common room and met Mara, an American woman with cool tattoos who works at the hotel. Todd asked her how long she'd been in Amsterdam. "Too fucking long."

3 PM. It was hot. We showered and took a short nap. Then we got up and headed out, walking south along a canal, past the Anne Frank House, past funky houses (one with toys in the window) and funkier shops. We stopped at a bar one long block from the canal and tried two brands of interesting beer (Wittekerke & Palm) and some peanuts (which we had to pay for). We saw some herons walking beside the canal.

Canal scene on a hot April day, Amsterdam

A canal with houseboats and pleasure boaters

After a long walk, we came to a lively district. A flower market there was just closing. There was a cool old art deco movie theater, still in use. We were hungry, and puzzled over where to eat, finally ending up at an Italian place with indifferent service, but the artichoke pizza, salad, and wine were OK.

Maybe the wine was a bad idea, though, because we headed in the wrong direction somehow, away from the center, and by the time we turned back towards the Dam (after asking directions from a couple of bike cops) we had a long trek to make, which wore us out. We stopped and bought a couple of t-shirts at a convenience store, one for Todd, one for Kyle; and stopped again at a bar near the Dam, the "Corner House," which had attached rooms; you retrieved your key from a rack on the wall of the bar! We ordered (small) Amstel beers—fittingly enough, since we were sitting almost over the original "Amstel dam." An odd guy walked in and ordered a Pernod with ice, which seemed to unnerve the bartendress. She was surprised and moved when we left her a good tip—she thought we were leaving the change behind by mistake! (The Dutch are notoriously bad tippers.)

One last schlepp back to the hotel...past a lightpost ad for a shop selling marijuana seeds, and, right across the street, a Scientology "kerk." Also walked past some folks smoking a bong at a sidewalk table outside a coffeeshop.

Mara was just taking off on her bicycle as we reached the hotel. We were exhausted and soon crashed.

MONDAY, APRIL 16, 2007: Amsterdam to Cologne to Frankfurt

We got up around 7, got packed, and showered. To breakfast at 8:30; Mara was cooking-eggs and cheese again.

We walked down to a nearby cheese shop and Sue bought some gouda, then we wandered briefly around the neighborhood near the hotel. Finally we checked out and walked to Centraal Station. We found our seats on the train to Germany but had to suffer the antics of a group of spoiled and hyperactive Dutch teenagers all the way to Dusseldorf; their chaperones were completely useless. We commiserated with a Canadian couple across from us—the woman was born Dutch and they were on a first-ever trip to the Netherlands together to see the tulips. She said that with the hot weather there were plans for a very early harvest this year, before all the flowers wilted.

At Dusseldorf, after the teens disembarked, we noticed a building next to the train station with large room numbers painted on the balconies. On one of the balconies, a buxom young woman was looking out over the station. It was the most ingeniously sited brothel we'd yet seen.

Very soon we were in Cologne—Köln, in German. The high-tech luggage storage system had just broken down, so we left our bags at the now rarely used left luggage office. We walked out of the train station and marveled at the tall spires of the Dom—the cathedral of Cologne. We'd been eager to see it; we have a painting of the Dom by Todd's old friend Roman Scott. We ate at the Lederer bar nearby, sitting at an outside table and ordering the Putensteak Brasil (a chicken steak) with "Pfeffersauce" and fries and salad, and glasses of the local Gaffel Kölsch beer.

Crowded walkstreet on a warm April evening, Köln

Warm-weather crowds on a walkstreet in Cologne

Rejuvenated, we toured the Dom. Inside, there were church police of a sort, wearing red robes, with donation boxes hanging in front of their ample bellies. One of them scolded a group of noisy kids. There was a lot of stained glass, a golden box on the altar which contains ancient and highly questionable relics, old tombs topped with effigies, and a modernized crypt containing recent church leaders from the area.

It was cool inside the cathedral, but it was getting hot outside. We walked past many coin shops and souvenir shops. There were postcards with photos of the destroyed Cologne bridge during World War II. We walked to the Rhine River waterfront, with beer gardens lining the edge of the shoreline park. People were lounging on the grass, enjoying the sun. We enjoyed the view of the now-restored bridge, the busiest railway bridge in Europe.

We walked up a street lined with bars--there are really a lot of bars in Cologne!--then passed a fountain (not working) decorated with romantic couples and topped with a pipe-smoking baby!

We came to a walkstreet lined with shops. The area was thronged with late-afternoon shoppers. Sue went into H&M, while Todd stayed outside people-watching. An old man dropped a packaged pill on the ground near Todd, then looked up and walked towards him. The man asked something in German—Todd, fearing a scam, said "No." The man looked around for someone else to help him, and Todd realized he just needed assistance picking up the pill. Todd gave it to him, and the man pointed at his own back and said "Kaput!" Sue emerged from the store with a new scarf, and we headed back to the train station.

Anthropomorphic food, Köln

Anthropomorphic food in Cologne

We needn't have rushed. The train was delayed—an hour, the monitor said. We sat a while on a bench on the platform, then went and had a couple of Kölsch Dom beers (in the cute little glasses with brand logos that abound in Germany) at the food court before returning to our bench. We had a great view of the railway bridge, which leads directly into the station, and watched the trains pull in--but not ours. It finally arrived about 80 minutes late; apparently there'd been a "medical emergency" somewhere along the route.

We took our seats, evicting a young woman squatter who'd been hoping to sit near a friend. The young men in front of us had used the delay enroute to build up an impressive collection of empty beer cans. We rolled into Frankfurt just before sunset and walked the short distance to the Hotel Paris (the Colour Hotel had been booked up for this date). The clerk was charming, and she apologized that the only double room left was four floors up, with no elevator. We told her not to worry.

The room was huge, especially compared with our digs in Amsterdam, though the place was falling apart-the soap dish in the shower was hanging by one screw, and part of one of the beds had broken off, with stubs of nails sticking up! Part of one wall was curved, as we were near the top of the building, though there was a higher, partial floor, with a steep wooden stairway leading to it. We were happy to notice a fire escape on our floor, leading down to the inner courtyard of the building. We were tired, and it was our last night in Europe, so we didn't really care about the problems with the room. We made the mistake of turning on the TV, though (or Todd did), and there was news of the Virginia Tech massacre in Virginia, which had just happened. Very sad.

We showered, then went out and walked to the train station. We shared some veggie lasagna and bought some applewine and a pastry to take back to the room for dessert. We looked at a glassed-in toy train that you could run with coins, something we'd never seen in a train station before. Then we left...some local idiots were getting rowdy, shouting at each other. We went back to the room to have our snack, pack, and crash.

TUESDAY, APRIL 17, 2007: Frankfurt to Chicago to Portland

We got up a little after 6 AM, finished packing, and went downstairs for breakfast. Nothing fancy: buns & cheese, cereal, coffee. Then off to the train station, and this time we knew where to catch the local train to the airport. Security was tight at Frankfurt airport. In Chicago, updated reports on the Virginia massacre were playing on the TVs in the airport.

And then we were home. Portland was wet. It'd been raining here almost all the time we were gone! We picked a good time to go.


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