Belgium was an unexpected delight; what had been scheduled originally just as a midway point between Paris and the Netherlands turned out to be a wonderful surprise. No one really speaks of the country at all when talking Europe, but I couldn't recommend it more. You get the cuisine and culture of France mixed with the friendliness and melting pot of the greater European continent. Put it on your to-do list.
It was sad, then, to be move on upwards. It definitely feels like we're in phase two of the trip now. The first stage was all the essentials, the big names. Italy, France, Austria, Germany. I'd visited them all before. Now we're in new territory, and it's exciting. The pace has eased, and the weather cooled. There's no longer as much of a feeling of obligation to be hitting big sites each day. We're outside the tourist hotspots, for the most part.
And thus, after a couple of hours by train we arrived in the Netherlands, in a small student city called Utrecht. It's not in any guide books, but we didn't want to spend all our time in Amsterdam and Rotterdam is a bit industrial and boring. So we're in a student paradise, and it's fantastic. It is quiet. Very quiet. Basically no cars and all cyclists. Cheap but quality food. Greenery, waterways, and the most friendly population we've yet encountered. We're in another hotel (spoilt) and it has great facilities and views. Given the lack of real destinations here, it's going to be a bit of an R&R stay. The hotel has a gym, pool and bowling alley. Bowling alley. In our hotel.
At dinner, a fantastic local lounge/pub that does curry night on Saturdays (it was like coming home), the waitress took the time to ask if we had a map of the area. She was proud of the city and happy that tourists were seeing it. She told us good bars to visit, where the cinemas were to see The Dark Knight Rises (tomorrow!), and just generally went above and beyond to help us out. Amazing. We're already booked in again for our last night here.