We had always heard laudable things about Amsterdam but, being the skeptic that I am, I put little stock in the rumors, except the part about the prostitutes hanging out in the windows of the Red Light District brothels. That I deeply believed. When Jessica’s father, Jeff, and his wife, Cindy, booked a cycling trip that ended in Amsterdam and some dear friends from Pittsburgh told us that they would be there at the same time, we jumped on the opportunity to both spend some time with them and to see this city that had long held our curiosity.
We arrived in Amsterdam a day later than we had planned. (If you really want to know why, read this post, http://worldwideeyed.com/travel-tips-or-things-not-to-do-if-you-want-to-keep-your-wife/ but I’d rather you didn’t.) After an Alitalia flight from Rome took us directly over Mont Blanc and other Alpine peaks, we easily found our way, thanks to the fact that all directional signage was translated into English, to the train station where we caught a commuter train to the main station in Amsterdam. The first impression on our arrival in the city was “crowded” and then we remembered that the day before was the gay pride celebration for Europe. The second thing that struck us, almost literally, were the bicycles. The place was lousy with bicycles and not nice bicycles, but the kind you used to ride when you were 8 years old and for which you were always embarrassed, you know, with the big fenders and spring-loaded carriers and poofy seats. Some of them pulled carts and others had a trailer for children. Clearly the traffic system was structured for the reliance on bicycles as a form of transportation as there were specific lanes and traffic signals just for the bicycles. Crossing the streets in Amsterdam required, not only a wariness for cars, but even more caution when it came to the two-wheelers.
From the train station to our hotel, it was a twenty-minute cab ride during which we crossed six canals. We came to learn that Amsterdam’s canals are in a pattern of four concentric half-circles with a number of interconnecting canals. Counting canal crossings, then, made it relatively easy to walk the city without getting horribly lost. The strategy would serve us well over the next few days.
When we got to the hotel, we found Jessica’s folks preparing to have lunch in the restaurant. With Jeff and Cindy were Hanneke and Giancarlo. Hanneke had been an exchange student at the high school Jessica had attended and she lived with Jeff and Cindy during her stay in the States. Hanneke and Giancarlo, her Italian-born husband, had lived in the Netherlands for many years, some of them in Amsterdam so they were to be our guides for the next day or so. Feeling obligated to the readers of this blog to report on the attributes of some of the renowned Dutch beers, I had a few of them at lunch and I can duly attest to the fact that they were really good.
After lunch, we checked into our room at the Hotel Vondel. It will be the last time we check into the Hotel Vondel. Our room was so difficult to find that the front desk person who accompanied us got us lost and we had to start the search all over again. When we finally found the room, I understood why the poor girl had a problem locating it. The room required that we go up a flight of stairs, at the top of which was another staircase that was so narrow, so curved and with such small treads that we had to put our feet on the stairs sideways and hand our luggage up to one another. Once we got into the room, we found it to be tiny, cramped and dirty. To add insult to injury, the hotel ownership refused to let us change the dates on our guaranteed reservation so that, since we arrived a day late, we nonetheless were forced to pay for four days on our three-day reservation. In Pittsburgh, we called people like the owners of the Vondel hotels jagoffs.
As with a visit to any place for the first time, having a local’s insider knowledge on things to see, points of interest not on the chamber of commerce list, and the history of sites is such a benefit and Hanneke and Giancarlo gave us that and more. We walked the Nine Streets shopping district with them, saw the floating flower market and visited a Dutch cheese shop, all the while hearing about the canals and the people. It was a real benefit to have them with us.
We squeezed a lot of touristy stuff into the three days we spent in Amsterdam. Here is a quick assessment of some of them:
Canal Boat Trip
Highly recommended. The canal boat trips last for about 90 minutes and include terrifying 90-degree turns from one narrow canal into another narrow canal. More importantly, the tour is the best way to gain an accurate perspective on how Amsterdam’s canal system works, how it affected the city’s architecture and how it had impacted the culture of the city. It is 15 euros well spent.
Sitting prominently at the head of Museum Square, the Rijksmuseum re-opened in April following a 10-year, 375 million euro renovation. According to a cab driver, the first three of those ten years was spent talking about the project. The museum contains the largest collection of classical Dutch art in the world. Among the works are paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. I couldn’t help but be moved to nostalgia when I came across Rembrandt’s “The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers Guild.” It is the graphic that graced every box of Dutch Masters Cigars and was even embodied it their television commercials of my youth. The Rijksmuseum is a must-see when in Amsterdam.
The Anne Frank House
I must say that I dreaded this part of our visit to Amsterdam and for good reason. I have always been terribly affected by the Nazi atrocities and am quickly brought to anger when reminded of them. As a result, I choose not to visit places that present those reminders such as concentration camps or museums dedicated to the holocaust, nor do I watch films, however well done, on the subject. Going to the Anne Frank House was, for me then, a concession to Amsterdam and to Jessica. And, though I am glad to have gone through the home that hid two Jewish families from Nazi persecution, the knowledge that, in the end, the bastards murdered two beautiful, bright young girls simply because they were Jewish put thoughts of violence in my mind. Just as I predicted.
The Red Light District
It was raining the day we walked much of the northern part of the city and that included the Red Light District. We walked the District, dodging bicyclists holding umbrellas over their heads and tried to keep dry while breathing deeply every time we walked past a coffee shop with marijuana smoke wafting out of its door. The Red Light District is an area, perhaps 3 blocks wide and 8 blocks deep that hosts the brothels for which Amsterdam is notorious. Red lights signify places where the services of women can be purchased and in the storefront windows of many of them stand the inventory. They are clad in tiny amounts of clothing and some of them are even attractive but, while a visit to the Red Light District while in Amsterdam is obligatory, it struck me that a stroll down Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a summer afternoon at a beach in Cannes, an evening on Collins Avenue in South Beach, or almost anytime on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok are more titillating adventures, if that’s the kind of thing you’re into.
No offense to anyone associated with the promotion of Dutch cuisine (if there is such a thing), but there is a reason that you’re unlikely to hear anyone say, “Hey, let’s go out for Dutch tonight.” The Dutch version of food is hearty and features both land- and sea-based ingredients but, for our taste, the preparations are overdone and meant to mask the featured foodstuff rather than to enhance it. It’s like the Dutch are embarrassed to present their native ingredients and try to hide them from your palate. This makes for dishes that taste much the same as one another and explains why the cuisine has never quite distinguished itself. It was no surprise to see long lines at McDonald’s, though the Indonesian meal we had at a restaurant near Museum Square called Sama Sebo was wonderful, so much so that we ate there twice. I suppose, in fact, that the Dutch could lay claim to Indonesian food, given that Indonesia was, for many years, a Dutch colony as a result of the spice trade on which the Netherlands was so reliant.
Other Worthwhile Stops
The Stedelijk Museum is Amsterdam’s modern art exhibition venue and is certainly worth the two hours it takes to walk its galleries. Right next door to it is the Van Gogh Museum that contains the largest collection of the artist’s works in the world. A tour of the Van Gogh Museum was high on our list of must-see places in Amsterdam but every time we went by, the entrance lines were hours long and we did not want to use our precious time there standing in a queue. We, instead, decided to use the fact that we could not take in the museum as our excuse for having to return to Amsterdam (as if we needed one) and that is something we definitely shall do.