After a lovely few days in Paris, we boarded a train for Amsterdam. The train was just a means to an end, but an ideal means it was. Foggy expanses of European countryside dotted by the occasional village. I wanted to stop at every single one.
Amsterdam is all parts style, grit, Dutch Masters, pancakes, bicycles and the Amstel River, tossed and mixed to create the network of charming canals that comprise it. If you hear someone mention Amsterdam and don’t think of drugs and prostitution first, I commend you, because this city is so, so, so much more.
We arrived in the late afternoon, hungry, tired and missing Paris. To remedy our misery, we ate pizza and went to bed, and wouldn’t you know, it worked. The next days were filled with food, new friends, exploration and a step or several back in time.
Some notes and highlights:
1. BIKES. BIKES. BIKES. Biking in Amsterdam is no joke. Everyone owns a bike and rides it everywhere. To simply walk across the street, you must be sure the way is clear of cars and then the tram, and once you’ve made it that far, you have to look out for the multitude of bikes coming and going in all directions. It’s real-life Frogger. In fact, pedestrians carry Valium with them to combat the anxiety they suffer every time they have to cross a street. I’m kidding, but I did find it nerve-wracking at times. Bikers have their own lane, and they will yell and/or ding their bike bells at you if you so much as set your big toe on their allotted pavement. (Read this New York Times piece for more insight.)
2. People. I’d say all the people we encountered in Amsterdam were friendly, helpful and proud of their city (not to mention they spoke flawless English). I was impressed with their knowledge of the canal layout, restaurant recommendations and help with tram stops. I was challenged to better know the city I live in and be the kind of helpful ambassador I encountered in Amsterdam.
3. Anne Frank House. A sobering but necessary experience, the Anne Frank House was worth the wait and emotional strain. Anne wrote often in her diary about the challenge of that many people living in such a small space, but their endurance of those cramped conditions was literally a matter of life and death. Anne’s and Margot’s mother marked their growth progress in pencil on the wall; the markings are still visible. My own mother did the same with me and my siblings.
4. Language. Dutch is a mixture of German and English. Like most city transportation systems, an automated voice on the trams would call out each stop and then name the next one. I liked listening to all the different grachts, straats, pleins and skades; the street names exuded a manner of significance. Perhaps it was the amount of syllables?
5. Cheese. The Netherlands has a big dairy scene, so CHEESE. YES, CHEESE. I LOVE CHEESE. Most shops in the city sold shrink-wrapped selections for tourists to take through airport security. I brought back smoked goat cheese, which I had never seen over here in the States; shock of shocks, it made it all the way home untouched, tempting as it was to rip into and scarf down (it was a gift for my sister).
6. Other Delicious Culinary Treats. So, if pancakes are your thing, you’ll love Amsterdam. Savoury, sweet, local, international, you can get anything you want. The dish pictured below easily falls in my top ten list of most delicious foods I’ve ever had the privilege to enjoy. It was a pancake filled with warm apple compote topped with homemade apple ice cream, chocolate, whipped cream and a type of buttery syrup. Cara’s selection, which I was more than happy to help her eat.
The city is full of ethnic options–we had some delicious Italian food on multiple occasions, including homemade pasta–and lots of fried food stands, for obvious reasons (In reference to the photo below, coffeeshops in Amsterdam don’t specialize in coffee).
We met a nice lady named Mary on the tram one night, and we asked her for a restaurant recommendation. She told us she’s a chef at a cafe called Van Puffelen and that we should stop by for lunch. We had hot sandwiches with a side of Dutch cheese and mustard. I also ordered bitterballen, a fried meat snack.
7. Dutch Masters. The Rijksmuseum is The Netherlands’ national museum where you can see works by Rembrandt and Vermeer, among other Dutch Masters. The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s wall-sized masterpiece, is certainly a highlight. You can also visit Rembrandt’s Amsterdam home; of course, the house has been staged for tourists, but it still is an educational glance into his lifestyle and artistic habits. I felt much the same sense of awe I had when I stood at the door of Carl Sandburg’s personal home office.
8. Dutch Trademarks. I hope to return someday to see the tulip fields in the spring, but the bulbs were readily available everywhere. The cold weather didn’t shut down the enchanting Bloemenmarkt. Another trademark of the Dutch is the wooden shoe, the prevalence of which in Amsterdam is that of netted bags of seashells in a beach town; it’s what tourists know and want. Also, the blue and white motifs like those found on Delftware, a famous and historic Dutch pottery brand, accent many of the city’s interior walls and dishware.
9. Zaanse Schans. A short train ride took us outside the city to the small town of Zaanse Schans. An idyllic change of city scenery, Zaanse Schans is home to several historic windmills and a delicious-smelling chocolate factory. The arms of the windmills waved to welcome, and the flat, wet plains stretched as far as I could see. We went inside a windmill and climbed to the top; I’m glad I can say I did it, but it was certainly precarious.