“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”
- John Hope Franklin

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Adventures in Amsterdam

Kasey, Craig, Eric & I in downtown Amsterdam

This weekend, I decided to shake things up and took off with my friends to Amsterdam! The whole time we were there, we couldn't stop saying how strange it was that we wound up vacationing in Holland (how many people back at home would just pack up and head to the Netherlands on vacation?), but there was so much to see and do that the days flew by and we had a great time!

One of the city's many canals lined with row houses and houseboats

Class scheduling here is great since most classes don't meet on Friday, so you can pack up and leave on vacation Thursday afternoon to get in a full weekend of sight-seeing. We left Paris Thursday evening and took the Thalys high-speed train for 3 hours until we reached Amsterdam. It was a little intimidating to step off the train and hear everyone speaking Dutch and see signs with extremely long words on them in a language other than French, but to our delight 99% of people there speak Dutch and English equally well. 

Our train brought us here, to Centraal Station 
We hopped on a city bus and made our way to Hotel Slotania, a cheap youth hostel on the outskirts of the city. We had all braced ourselves for the worst, because for only 20 euro a night we weren't expecting high-quality accommodations, and were pleasantly surprised to open our door and find a very clean, modern hotel room. 

We woke up bright and early Friday morning to go exploring, and started the day with a strange "breakfast" at the hotel: various lunch meat & cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, breads and this delicious chocolate spread (called "chocolate pasta" according to the packaging). Not my typical breakfast, but when travelling I really like to dive right in and eat like the locals do, so by the third morning I didn't find it all that strange anymore.

Having heard that certain tourist attractions are better to see first thing in the morning to avoid huge midday crowds, we took the tram over to the Anne Frank House (huis in Dutch) to see where she and her family spent 2 years in hiding from the Germans during World War II. It has been about 10 years or so since I've read her Diary so I was a little fuzzy on all the details, but the museum here integrates various citations from it in each room to help visitors understand what they're looking at.

The short house is where the Frank's spent 2 years hiding
In total, 8 people were living here in the top two floors above Mr. Frank's jam business which operated out of the ground floor. They hid in the "Secret Annex" which was not visible from the street and very complicated to find inside the building. To enter the Annex, visitors climb behind the bookshelf which swung away from the wall to reveal a series of EXTREMELY steep staircases leading to the hideout. Climbing up all the creaky stairs, you really get a sense of how tight the quarters were here and how hard it must have been not to make any noise, as the workers in the factory below had no idea all these people were hiding in the floors above their very heads.
The bookcase and secret stairway
After the family was betrayed and discovered by the Nazis, all of their belongings were cleared out of the house to be destroyed, and so the museum has respected Mr. Frank's wishes to leave the building exactly how it was when everyone left it - he was the only member of his family to have survived the Holocaust, and it is thanks to him that Anne's diary (which is on display for visitors to view) was published and this museum opened to the world.
Model of the Frank's house, with the Secret Annex on the right, where the family occupied the top two floors and attic
On a much lighter note, we headed to another touristy area to seek out the St. Nicolaas Boating Club's secret binder for free canal cruises. We had heard about it online, and after a little while we found the back-alley street where the binder was located. (More about this later...)

Bitter Balls!
We mad a pit-stop for lunch, which turned out to be super pricey, albeit delicious, and sampled some regional cuisine. We all decided to split an order of bitter balls as an appetizer - they're pretty much like a ball of thick gravy with little pieces of meat in it that are breaded and fried and served with mustard. Yum!

My Dutch pancake
Main course: Dutch pancakes! They are thinner than an American pancake but still much thicker than a crêpe and can be topped with whatever you like - I ordered one with bacon, onions, regional cheese and curry sauce on it, a delicious choice!

Beginning the "Heineken Experience"
To further lighten the mood after a sobering morning at a holocaust museum, we headed off to the "Heineken Experience," an interactive tour at the first Heineken factory. First off, I really am not a fan of beer, but many of my friends had raved about the visit and said it was a must. And secondly, if I hadn't gone, I was risking being disowned by my family, as we have our fair share of beer aficionados! 

Giant copper vats cook the barley and the hops
We toured the areas where the 4 ingredients (water, barley, hops and yeast) are all processed and cooked, got to try our hand at playing "beermeister" and cooking the barley here.

Beermeister Rach?
Also got to go on a virtual reality ride (we got to "be the beer" and go through the brewing & bottling process) and did some tasting & drinking. I did two tastings that day, my first....

...and my last!

 For the record, I did manage to throw back the entire small beer during the official tasting portion of the program where we had someone telling us what we should be tasting. Supposedly, there were hints of all these delicious things, but all I could taste was YUCK!! Needless to say I played the good Samaritan and gave my other full-sized beers that we exchanged our tokens for at the end of the tour to my friends so at least somebody could enjoy them!

Me, Eric, Craig & Kasey being all touristy
After everyone else enjoyed their beers and I struggled to get the taste of mine out of my mouth, we went back to find the boat that we'd be taking a tour on. Volunteers donate their time and boats to drive visitors around the city's canals in order to give tourists a unique perspective of the city. And the best part? It's free! The Boat Club is a non-profit organization, so you just leave a donation on your way out if you had a good time.
A duck's-eye view of the canal from our tour boat, "Athena," built in 1926
We hopped on a boat with 4 other ladies and our captain, Ken (who happened to be an American from Chicago, now living in Amsterdam) and took a leisurely ride around town for a little over an hour. Ken shared lots of cool facts about the city with us even though it technically wasn't a 'guided' tour, and I learned some cool things:

  • Amsterdam has about 760,000 residents (or about 800,000 counting illegal immigrants).
  • The city has 5 miles more of waterways than Venice, and totals about 27 miles altogether.
  • There are over 80 varieties of fish, crab, eels and turtles living in the canals.
  • Canals here are 10 feet deep and dredged twice a year.
  • Lots of things are found in the canals and need to be pulled out: 1 body a week, 1 car a month and right around 250,000 bikes a year on average.

Kasey and I enjoying our ride
Some things we got to see from our boat:

Lots of cool row houses

Amsterdam's smallest inhabited house (the tiny window and door in the center) - only 6 feet wide!
A floating cat shelter called "DePoezenboot" (Puss In Boots)
A breath-taking sunset
The next morning, we set off in search of the Van Gogh Museum. The lover of art and art history that I am, I couldn't pass this one up, and it definitely did not disappoint! I really like art from the Impressionists & Post-Impressionists (Van Gogh belonged to the latter), and as I'm taking a class on both in Paris, this museum tied in nicely with my studies.

Some of Van Gogh's irises
I had visited Van Gogh's asylum in St-Remy de Provence during my first trip to France, and that housed some of his works as well. The museum was organized chronologically and it was really interesting to see how his style evolved over the course of the 10 years or so that he was actually a working artist. Unfortunately he cut his own life short when he shot himself in the chest after battling with serious bouts of depression and epilepsy, but there's no denying he left behind a great collection of works and was an instrumental figure in the development of modern art.

"Skeleton with a Cigarette"
Right next to the museum is the famous "I amsterdam" sign that everyone always takes pictures with. So of course we followed suit.

"E" for Eric, "R" for Rachael

Another thing about Amsterdam: BIKES. They are everywhere and pose a serious danger to clumsy pedestrians like myself who are too busy taking in the scenery to notice a bike silently approaching and then whizzing by and only missing you by 2 inches. It was cool to see so many people riding them, but it really makes you stay on your toes because they come out of nowhere and do indeed hit people who are in their way.

Good luck finding yours when it's time to go home at the end of the day!
And we can't forget clogs. Holland's known for its wooden shoes, and you can find them in practically any shop you walk into, all either intricately decorated or blank so you can create your own!

Who wouldn't want to ride in a giant wooden shoe?!

Oh yeah, there's also this little thing called the Red Light District. You're not allowed to take pictures here for obvious reasons, but we managed to sneak one on a bridge in the neighborhood. Amsterdam is definitely not a prude city, and it's just really strange to walk around and take in all the sights in this neighborhood - we certainly don't have anything like this back at home!

The city was just starting to be decorated with winter and Christmas trimmings, and it made walking around in the evening really picturesque. Since it gets dark there starting around 4:45pm, you have plenty of time to see lots of Christmas lights!

We finished off our evening at Susie's Saloon, a low-key bar with really cold drinks - which are thoroughly appreciated by us Americans since no one ever puts ice in drinks here and they're all usually only slightly cool. I decided that Strongbow Cider was delicious, and the bar made for an enjoyable last night in Amsterdam!

Yummy cider!
I'll leave you with this little clip from the movie "Austin Powers in Goldmember," which was running through my head and making me laugh on my way to Amsterdam...!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great weekend Rach! Keep up the traveling....your time there is going to be winding down soon. Miss you tons :)