Oh, I like Amsterdam. I like it a lot. And I like the Dutch people, too — unexpectedly very kind and thoughtful.
I will go back at any opportunity. As I usually fly through Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport when I fly to North America I can extend my travelling a day or two and make a visit to the city as part of my travel plans. The city is only 15-20 minutes from Schiphol via trains which leave every ten minutes. It couldn’t be easier. And though I packed a great deal into my two days, there is much, much more that I would like to see and do there.
Amsterdam is expensive to stay in though — it can cost double to stay in a hostel than what I paid for a small room in Paris. And it can be very pricey to fly there. Once there, food and everything else is fine and about the same as here or in N. America. I took the Dutch Flyer return with Stena Lines, a combo train and ferry trip out of London. This gave me a night each way on the ferry with two full days in Amsterdam (but only one night) and I was able to begin and end the trip with a day in London.
I dropped my luggage off at my hotel after about a half hour’s walk from the Central Station, though my map wasn’t adequate and I got a bit lost, worrying that I wouldn’t make my slotted time for the Anne Frank House. I was packing my visit with lots of museum time and had bought my tickets online beforehand in order to avoid long lineups. This is really recommended for the Anne Frank House. I walked right in through a side door, but with two groups of students who also had passes. We were inside almost two hours and I don’t think the lines outside moved much in that time.
The Anne Frank House is sobering. Her diary of the years she spent in hiding from the Nazis with her family is one of the first books I remember my mother giving me to read when I was just a bit younger than Anne was when she began her writing. What impressed me the most was just how very well-hidden they were. Up flights of stairs, we went behind the actual bookcase that hid their living quarters. From the outside you never would have guessed that so much space was above the business that her father once ran. From the inside the claustrophobia of those rooms with their blacked-out windows weighs heavily. I was very glad to get out into the fresh air afterwards. The reality, that of so many Jewish families in World War II, is heartbreaking — you know that the father Otto Frank did everything he could to save his family, beginning with their exit from Germany in 1933 and his preparations for their hiding in 1942. Another mindnumber is seeing Anne’s room with the photos of movies stars she pasted on the wall.
Amsterdam is easy to find your away around (despite my early dislocation) and with a couple of hours before my visit to the Van Gogh Museum, I walked along the canal away from the Anne Frank House towards Vondelpark, one of the city’s largest parks. I was hungry and wanting to try a herring sandwich, which is a Dutch favourite, but all I could find was hotdog stands. (I later found out herring is seasonal, though I was able to eat two the next day.) I began walking towards the museum, found an excellent sandwich shop, and continued to the Museumplein, the large green lawn space surrounded by the Van Gogh Museum, the modert art museum, the Stedelijk, the majestic Rijks and the Concertgebouw, and sat on a bench to each my lunch.
One of Amsterdam’s ubiquitous bike paths cuts through the centre of the square and right through tunnels in the Rijks Museum. Across the field from the bench where I sat school boys played football (soccer). It was midday midweek and the sessions seemed to be school outings or classes. However at one point, a mother drove up in one of the cargo bikes, a bakfiets, and out jumped her son, about nine years of age, to join the game. Besides the regular bikes that threaten pedestrians everywhere, the baksfiets are a cycle version of the family van and you see parents with one or two children (not necessarily small ones) enroute with groceries.
Vincent Van Gogh is my favourite artist. He is probably one of the world’s most misunderstood artists as well, not really as crazy as he has been portrayed, though he suffered from some form of mental instability . The book Dear Theo, a collection of his letters to his brother Theo, edited by Irving Stone, is an eyeopener. I read it years ago. Van Gogh was a beautiful, prolific writer, a sensitive philosopher and a keen observer — a man juggling deep gifts and energy. The Museum has since collected all of his letters and they are available in book form for a hefty price or online for free. His writings and those of Anne Frank have been cornerstones — and revelations — for me.
The Van Gogh Museum closes a little earlier in late September and the two hours slotted for my visit were not quite enough. I did a quick dash through the top floor which contained many of his last works. Now, unlike during his life, his paintings are so well known. However, I was very struck by the intensity and darkness of his famous Wheatfield With Crows, so much darker than any print I have seen. Everyone was taking photos inside the museum, on every level, of every painting. Any museum I have ever been in has forbidden photo-taking. This appears to be a new trend in museums, as the same was allowed in the Rijksmuseum when I visited there, though certainly not in Venice in the churches. I didn’t take any photos inside, but I see now on their website it is encouraged.
The brilliance of Van Gogh’s images was uplifting. I wandered by the Rijksmuseum where I would start the next day and headed back towards the Leidseplein area where my hotel was situated and began the search for a place to have my dinner.
The Leidesplein, the Rembrantplein, and Amsterdam’s city centre by the Centraale and probably many more areas of Amsterdam of which I’m not aware, are heavily frequented by tourists and have that frenzied energy along with a little worse-for-wear tackiness and weariness about them. The Dutch are not particularly known for their cuisine and in these neighbourhoods you run the gamut of the usual suspects of international fastfood chains and a lot of pizza joints. Being a lone traveller I’m not particularly comfortable in these places and after walking up and down a lot of picturesque sidestreets and being approached by a lot of front-of-house pitchmen, I found a little Greek restaurant on the edge of all the madness with a few inviting outside tables.
It was a good choice. I ordered grilled sardines, which were excellent when they finally came as I think they sailed to Greece to catch them. This was alright though as the evening was mild for late September and the cafe bordered a living neighbourhood. I was able to see Amsterdammers coming up to their homes after their workday or going out for a night-on-the-town. They park and lock their bikes so quickly — to anything not moving. Guys pick up their girlfriends and the women ride double on the backs of the bikes or the handlebars. Young ladies dressed up for the evening hop off their bikes and look none the worse for their mode of travel.
I haven’t really talked about THE BIKES. The bike culture transcends everything else in Amsterdam. One can read about the Dutch and their love of bicycles, but it in no way prepares you for the actuality, which bears no resemblance to what most of us would consider a leisurely ride or a road-race challenge. There is no lycra, there are no helmets in sight. There are no fancy bikes — bikes are utilitarian with fenders front and back, crates and baskets and paniers. Most of them seem to be black and nondescript. They are parked everywhere and often in tangled masses around trees. How they find their own particular bike at the end of the day must be a talent embedded from childhood.
As a novice pedestrian in this whirring world of wheels I had spent most of the day unintentionally walking on bikepaths I thought were sidewalks and narrowly missed being hit by a flying bike or motor scooter several times. It can take a long time to cross a street away from a light — there are bikes going in both directions at differing speeds on the same paths as motor scooters (very scary) as well as automobiles and trams. Bikes seem to have right-of-way over all other forms of transport. Yet the Dutch don’t look harried or annoyed about all these people wandering into their paths. They all appear to have a happy secret and probably also consider it part of the fun to weave in and out of walkers and cyclists as part of a giant dance choreographed from above. For a wonderful sense of all things bike-related to Amsterdam and the Netherlands, visit Mark Wagenbuur’s excellent blogsite Bicycle Dutch.
As I finished my dinner, and the neighbourhood cat Tom circled my table over the promise of leftover sardines, dusk had fallen and I began to notice that along with very few Dutch using their bellbikes (very Zen of them), they also didn’t seem to believe in nightlights. This prospect made me consider self-preservation. Running a gauntlet of tipsy, night-enclosed cyclists was something for which I wasn’t ready. I’d had a wonderful day and had a full one the next, so I headed back to my hotel room for some solid sleep. I’m afraid I didn’t do Amsterdam’s night scene any justice.
My second day in Amsterdam began with included breakfast at my hotel and then on to the Rijksmuseum for several hours. The Dutch have an inordinate number of Master painters from their lot — a stunning history of art. I am particularly fond of Vermeer’s sensitivity with the domestic and women and Rembrandt’s etchings were a revelation. My favourite was this whimsical Grandfather clock by Dutch designer Maarten Baas as part of his Real Time project; it will take about five minutes to get a real sense of it.
A leisurely canal cruise awaited after my last museum bout. On the boat there is a central hub on each table where you plug in with earphones to a tour given in your own language. It is less personal than listening to the pilot give an insider’s view of his city, but only practical given the tourists from all parts of the world. I haven’t mentioned that the Dutch all speak English and with ease and no negativity or resentment. They all speak Dutch as well. They are so kind and considerate that it makes you want to learn Dutch in gratitude and consideration.
Following the hour-and-a-half cruise, thankful as well for the chance to just sit back and relax, I was once again in search of a herring sandwich and on to the Albert Cuyp street market. This is real Amsterdam and wonderful with side streets full of small cafes. I had a broodje haring (herring sandwich) and liked its delicate sweetness so much I went back for a hungry second. I was also able to sample a traditional Dutch dessert, a stroopwafel, which is two flat waffles lined with a honey syrup. Ymmm — very satisfying.
My train back to the Hoek of Holland to catch my ferry didn’t leave until late afternoon, early evening so I wandered back to the city centre along the picturesque Reguliersgracht, with photos in the next post.
Amsterdam makes the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary, existing in a state of practical magic. The Dutch capture this sense of playfulness and practicality well in this video created by the city’s transport division. It is all about Amsterdammer’s and how they love their bikes. Enjoy!