Europe for the First Time

Going to Europe for the first time? Don't miss these expert tips!

If you’ve ever traveled to Europe, you know the feeling. You arrive bleary-eyed in a strange airport at what feels like two in the morning—because guess what? That’s the time your body thinks it is. You line up for passport control, find your luggage, and soon you’re in your rental car zooming along the streets of a foreign country. It’s mid-morning in Europe, but your body keeps saying, “Pull this car over and close your eyes. It’s time to sleep.”

Last month Peter and I, along with my college buddy Robin and her husband, John, went to the Netherlands on holiday. It was my friends’ first trip to Europe, so Peter and I were thrilled about sharing our favorite sights, smells, and flavors with them.

Whenever you travel somewhere for the first time, the experience is both memorable and overwhelming. Everywhere you turn, you’re seeing or hearing something new and different. Like architecture, for example. Whether it’s modern or centuries old, it’s so extraordinary that it makes you feel you arrived on a new planet. Being with two Euro-virgins meant Peter and I could re-live some of that awestruck wonder that happens when you suddenly find yourself a stranger in a strange land.

The problem is you just want to go to sleep. I speak from experience when I say you need to stay up that first day—no naps! Going to sleep mid-day your first day sets you up for sleepless nights, not what you want to deal with on vacation. You’ll acclimate better if you resist the urge. It will be tough, but just get in touch with your inner college student, the one who stayed up all night to study for finals—or watched the sun come up with friends after a wild keg party. You can do it!

In fact, getting in touch with your inner college student is good advice in general for traveling in Europe. Yes, we’re older now and we like certain creature comforts, but approaching a new country means putting some of your idiosyncrasies on hold. Just absorb, smell, taste, feel, see, hear, be. Let go of preconceived notions and go with the flow. Come along with Robin, John, Peter, and me as we explore the Netherlands and learn more about the Old Country—and ourselves in the process.

The Windmills of Zaanse Schans

Best Chicken Ever at Casa Piri Piri in Zaandam

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After arriving in Schiphol Thursday morning, our sleepy foursome headed to Zaandam, a cute-as-a-button city 20 minutes from Amsterdam, parked our car at the hotel, and proceeded to explore the city center on foot. While we left summerlike temps behind in Virginia, here in the Netherlands, it was in the low 50s. Brrr. First thing we did was pop into a fragrant bakery for hot coffee and crazy-good ham-and-cheese croissants. We needed caffeine and carbs to get through the day. Next Robin and I bought warm scarves, and Peter got a chip for his phone, so we were connected with the real world.

After more window shopping, our hotel room beckoned, but we pushed on and drove to nearby Zaanse Schans, an outdoor museum with 10 windmills of various sizes and shapes. Each has a distinct purpose, such as grinding grain to make flour or seeds to make oil and mustard. Some mills function as saw mills, and others produce chalk, paint, and pigment. The village also has museums, a chocolate factory, clog workshop, cheese factory—and swarms of tourists!

In fact, we could not believe how packed it was. You could barely walk on the pathways, much less go inside any of the shops and historic sites, without getting jostled by a flag-wielding tour group leader and marching troops conversing in Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Polish, and Russian. Overtourism is a huge problem in Europe and around the globe (see sidebar), so we made a vow to try to avoid the touristy spots as much as possible and seek out the smaller towns and villages.

Dinner our first night was fabulous. We were thrilled knowing we could sleep soon, but we lingered over dinner at a place I found on the Internet, Casa Piri Piri, a Portuguese restaurant with a simple, authentic vibe. Choosing a place based on its website and online reviews can be dicey, but this was a winner.

The restaurant’s specialty, piri-piri chicken, is a delicious Portuguese preparation bathed in oil infused with piri-piri peppers—spicy, just the way I like it. The flavorful, grilled chicken was melt-in-your-mouth tender and cooked perfectly with a slight crunch to the skin. We’d already had French fries earlier—the Dutch make the best fries—but our friendly server persuaded us to try to potato wedges served with a delicious sauce. They were the bomb. We balanced out our meals with salads of tomatoes and fresh greens. Lusty Portuguese red wine was the perfect accompaniment, and after a few toasts, we walked to the hotel in the dusky twilight and fell into our beds. Zzzz.

Alkmaar's Cheese Market—a Must See!

Or Skip the Tourists And Head To Hoorn

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Starting Friday, we rented a cozy bungalow in a park outside Amsterdam called Poort van Amsterdam beside the Markermeer, an inland body of water that used to be part of the North Sea. We love bungalow parks, which offer cute Dutch-style homes with a kitchen, living space, even outdoor furniture at affordable rates (our week’s stay cost only $700!).

We explored some of the little towns of North Holland, including Alkmaar, which holds a weekly cheese market every Friday from April to October. It’s touristy, but the crowds weren’t that bad, and we watched the men in traditional clothing carrying trays of cheese wheels to be weighed and loaded onto wagons. Young teens in cute Dutch costumes passed out samples of yummy cheese. It was the perfect postcard Dutch experience.

Another town we explored was Hoorn, and there wasn’t a tourist to be found. That’s when you can really connect with a place, take your time, and be where you are. After visiting the harbor and tasting some lovely fried fish nuggets—another Dutch specialty called kibbeling—we found our way to a brown café and chatted with the owner of the bar.

Hoorn gets busy on summer weekends, he said, when they have a tourist market and folk dances, but the rest of the time it’s just a normal small city—with cozy charm, historic sites, and plenty of terraces, perfect for people watching while catching some rays. We were destined for cool, cloudy, and occasionally rainy weather during our May visit. But luckily we had plenty of warm clothes and jackets, so we made the best of it.

One nice thing about the bungalow park’s location—besides the gorgeous countryside that surrounds it—is you’re only about 15 minutes from a Park + Ride lot, where you can catch the tram to the center of Amsterdam. The cost to park is minimal, especially on weekends when it’s just one euro, but read the brochure and make sure you validate your tram passes getting on and off the tram or you’ll be charged the higher parking fee.

Try Jenever at Wijnand Fockink in Amsterdam

Then Head for the Nine Streets and the Pijp

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Visiting Amsterdam was a must, even though it was overflowing with tourists. So we took our buddies into the thick of it, starting with Wijnand Fockink, our favorite jenever distillery just off Dam Square, where we met a couple from Britain—old friends of mine and Peter’s who planned their trip to Amsterdam to coincide with ours. We grabbed our jenevers and headed outside to the alleyway (it’s nicer than it sounds) to quaff our tulip-shaped cordial glasses of this authentic Dutch spirit. Here’s to old friends and never-ending adventures.

We explored markets and back streets together and let ourselves get lost in the city. In fact, getting away from the tourist areas and discovering the real Amsterdam is what makes traveling worthwhile. For example, don’t miss the Nine Streets neighborhood in the Jordaan. It’s filled with boutiques, design stores, and whimsical shops. Canals are everywhere, and bicycles, too. Keep your eyes open for cyclists in Amsterdam, and look both ways. 

We also love the Pijp neighborhood, which is where the Albert Cuyp market is. This is where the real Amsterdammers shop, so you’ll hear vendors hawking their wares—from cheese to fish to produce to everything else you can imagine. Peter ran into an old friend who works in the market. He said Amsterdam is changing and has gotten so expensive that people can’t afford to live there anymore. The past is elusive for everyone, it seems.

Our week together in the Netherlands passed quickly, and soon we were seeing Robin and John off for their three-day adventure in Paris. Peter and I would spend our last few days visiting family and friends, eating more French fries and these peculiar but delicious croquette-like balls called bitterballen. Raw herring served with pickles and onions is another treat we can’t get enough of. Sometimes I think the main reason I love going to the Netherlands is the food. I always bring back a couple extra pounds—in addition to the cheese in my suitcase.

For more information, visit: www.holland.com

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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