We stayed in the Hotel Mercure Amsterdam aan De Amstel which had a pretty decent location outside of the tourist mess that was still a quick walk from a tram as well as a night bus stop. We did a bit of walking around being tourists, but there really isn't much to do. The line to see the house that Anne Frank hid in was far too long, a chance organ concert was less amazing that we thought it might be, and after a while all the canals and bike roads start to look the same! (And there were bikes and bike parking everywhere.)
The main tourism things in Amsterdam are sex and drugs: there is a "coffee shop" on every corner, and many streets have glass doors with prostitutes behind them all day every day. Given that and our plans for the trip, 4 days in Amsterdam was far too long! I spent a bit of time walking around with Josef (one of the Gallery developers) and San got to shop some, but most time was spent with the entire Gallery crew. One evening we had a fabulous dinner at Nomads: huge plates of appetizers, dinners, and deserts; a belly dancer; a masseuse; etc! It came up to ~$1200 Euros for our crowd of ~13 if I remember right, and was well worth it. Another evening was a ghost walk which was pretty entertaining, though not as much as some other ones I've been on.
Both that night and the next, we all stayed out until 6am (getting asked to leave the same bar each night at closing). Things done between 3am closing and the hotel included:
being taken to strange places by the night bus instead of our stop, and trying to figure out how to get back home
On July 15th, San and I hopped on a train to Paris where we found our way to Hotel Jardins de Paris Marais Bastille. It's location was perfect: surrounded by small cafes and shops, and very close to a metro station towards the center of the city. After getting settled, the exploration began! Paris has a whole lot more to offer than Amsterdam, and we managed to keep ourselves pretty busy. We definitely got our money's worth of our 5-day metro passes:
The Catacombs - gorillapod and remote shutter for most of these, as no flash allowed
Versailles - it's big, we didn't go inside, spent a few hours there, and only saw a small portion of the grounds
The Louvre - free on Friday evening for us youngins, and while we didn't see a whole lot of it, seeing the whole musem would take weeks. We spent most of our time in Egypt, then some in Iran as we tried to find our way out. (And after a while, musems start to all look alike.)
Pompidou Center - last time I was in Paris, the main musem was on strike, this time it was open! hoorah! Architecture is cool, as is some modern art, but needless to say I didn't take pictures of a lot of things for "taste" reasons.
Notre Dame - a "must see" but again, after a while, all churches start to look the same!
Food everywhere was great and we were able to sit outside almost everywhere we went. We didn't eat at many nice places, but had a few nice meals that were great. Around every corner there were places selling plain ham and cheese sandwiches in french bread which were always great, and the cheapest red wine on the menu at restaurants was almost always pretty good.
While there were public bikes everywhere as part of the Velib system, we didn't ride them. It's a great system with thousands of bikes all around Paris, available for very little to free, depending on your usage. Reasons for not riding them included the fact that parking at your destination could be a problem when all the spots in the Velib station are full, and while there were seemingly no rules, police were pulling over some people on bikes and fining them on the spot! I imagine we would have been fine, but I'd rather not see the inside of a French jail (or hospital).
Our last day in Paris, we camped out to watch the final stage of the 2008 Tour de France. After 4 hours in the sun, the hour long parade was a welcome interruption (especially the 4-pack of drinks on wheels) but we had another hour+ to wait before the racers arrived. Nick (a professor of mine from GT) met us for breakfast one day and gave us a great location to watch from, and because we were on the Paris circuit part of the course, we got to see the race go by 8 times. While I bought a 20 Euro t-shirt and took some pictures, it wasn't a much different experience from the Tour de Georgia. More miles, bigger crowds along the course, and seeing the maillot jaune in the pack are certainly different, but I probably wouldn't get there as early next time!
The only real problem on the trip was trying to get home. Air France bumped us off of our flight on July 28th because it was overbooked by 20+ people and for some reason they thought we were Delta employees? After waiting in several different lines, they finally got things straightened out but it was too late. In exchange for them causing us to fly home 24 hours later than planned, they gave us free lunch, free dinner, and free breakfast, a night in a hotel and a shuttle both ways, and 600 Euros for each of us. The meals and the hotel were pretty low quality, but the cash should pay for most trip related expenses besides airfare (which Gallery is helping with) and the hotels, but at the same time it would have just been nice to be home!
Some General Observations
I acquired Garmin MetroGuide Europe before going and loaded the maps for Amsterdam and Paris onto my Garmin 60csx which proved to be a great idea. I was able to find our way to some things I marked on the map, and the breadcrumb thing to show where we walked was pretty neat, but by far the most useful part was being able to find the closest Metro station to us in Paris. Anyone heading to a city with a great transit system should consider this because it makes getting around a lot easier.
Just knowing neighborhoods to go to isn't quite enough. Several times in Paris, we got off the Metro expecting to find something that just wasn't there! If I was going again, I'd make a few notes of walking directions to places from the Metro (or mark them on the GPS).
Next time, I'd spend either more or less time in each place, not the amount we spent there. We had so much time that we got a little bored of doing touristy things, but so little time that we felt guilty for sitting back and relaxing.
The wide angle (10-22mm) lens was a lot of fun! Last time in these cities I had a 70-200mm (which I almost never used) and a 24-85mm, so I didn't feel the need to keep switching from wide to zoom, and The wide angle really captured things well as you can probably see from above. I'm definitely glad I got this before the trip. The only time on this trip that I used my 17-85mm that I also brought along was for a few shots of the TdF.
Europe was nice, but it's great to be back home (and back on the bike!)