Bikes, bikes and bikes – I have never seen so many in one place at the one time without it being a major fundraiser!
So, my arrival into Amsterdam was a little hairy. The humungous backpack was an obvious sign I was a tourist but even without it, the fact I kept walking into the path of oncoming bicycle traffic on the bike paths was an obvious siren. Of course the left/right thing is an added catcher. Nonetheless I made it in one piece to my airbnb accommodation, located just off one of the canals. A lovely bright and airy apartment in the heart of a groovy neighbourhood.
It was a beautiful summer day (it was 7pm but still many daylight hours remaining) so my host suggested I take a picnic to Vondelpark for a bit of relaxation and people watching. It was like an oasis in this sprawling city, filled with friends, families, lovers and, of course, bicycles. On the way there I had passed canals that were equally full of people in their boats. It seemed everyone was out enjoying the beautiful weather.
I was a tad exhausted by the late night before and the day’s 6am train ride so I dozed off for an hour or so. Re-energised I went for a walk into the city centre. Amsterdam has a lovely atmosphere; the outside tables of bars, cafes and restaurants were all full with a fusion of locals and tourists.
After a good night’s sleep and the energies recharged I set an ambitious plan of visiting museums for the day. I started at the Rijsmuseum, which has been closed for ten years for renovation and only just opened again in April. I could see what all of the fuss was about (I’d heard about two hour ticket lines), it was certainly a beautiful building in which to admire a gorgeous collection of art. The most visited pieces of the gallery were those of Rembrandt (particularly the Night Watch) but there was a collection of pieces from Vermeer, Borges and Van Gogh and a host of other local artists of the Netherlands (or Holland as it was in those parts then). I enjoyed my lunch in the lovely sculpture garden behind the Museum – it was full of copies of Henry Moore sculptures.
Before moving onto the next museum I thought I would take a canal boat cruise before the light fell. It was a lovely way to spend a couple of hours. A few facts I picked up about Amsterdam included that the old city of Amsterdam is built 1.5m above sea level whereas new Amsterdam is 1.5 below. This is why the dykes are so important in keeping the water out. There are 45000 locks to control the canals.
The houseboats were an interesting feature of the city. The city has prohibited the establishment of any more and as a result it has pushed up the prices. You can pay up to 250 000 euros for a real dump but the upside is that it has unobstructed water views, easy access to the city and an ice skating rink at your doorstop for three weeks during winter.
The national bank has taken full advantage of the canals too by creating its safes under water with gates directly accessed by the canal. If entry is detected the gates open and fill the safe with water within 28 seconds. Money would be safe but what a mess!
The ‘Amsterdam’ flag flies everywhere. It has three crosses on it representing the three enemies of the state – water, fire and the plague. Speaking of the plague, I learnt that the buildings painted black (in the city centre) are those in which people had caught the plague. During the plague they were brought food but were confined to the house until their deaths. Now the same paint (which couldn’t be removed because of its composition) is used because of its mould resistant qualities. Timber houses are also no longer allowed, a law spurred on by the deaths from a horrendous fire that took hold killing a large part of the population.
Just how many bikes are here? 650 000! Not a bad effort for a population of 850 000. There are 180 nationalities residing in the city. This has come about partly because of the high student population but also the refugees that have settled in Amsterdam. They receive $26 000 worth of support to integrate. About 11% are not successful at integrating and so are sent back from whenth they came. The rest are the legacy of the groups of people who were taken on by the Dutch East India Company when they lost sailors due to disease.
They certainly seemed to have nailed water management. There are engineers from the Netherlands helping New Orleans rebuild their water management system (even I thought their levy looked pretty ineffective) – taken ten years, expected to take another 25.
The houses didn’t have house numbering before Napoleon’s arrival so some still contain their differentiating plaques on the facades, which were used for distinction. Otherwise they described their house by house design and colour – resulting in each facade looking a little different.
Another museum, this time the Van Gogh Museum (and a lesson in how to pronounce his name correctly). The collection was extensive – so lovely to see Irises and, my favourite, Bedroom at Arles. It took me back to the Van Gogh exhibition we’d had in my 20s. Mum had bought Maria and I lovely plates from the exhibition.
It was 8:30pm but I thought I’d try my luck with the Anne Frank Museum, I’d read that the lines could be smaller closer to closing time, which was 10pm on a Friday. I was pleased to get in with only a 45 minute wait so the detour had paid off. I’d read The Diary of Anne Frank as a young child so found it quite haunting to visit the the place written about. It was the quietest visit to a museum I’ve ever experienced.
Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the only family member that survived the holocaust, had opened up the house that the family had hid in for two years (with four others) during nazi occupation as a museum to remind people of the atrocities of the past.
I was physically and emotionally spent so jumped on a tram to head home – or so I thought – another unintentional city sights tour on public transport, just when I thought I had it nailed. On the journey home I was passed by plenty a gal donned in heels and flash hair pedalling her way to her night’s revelry. No helmets spoiling the ‘do’ in this town!
The next day I decided to get out of the city. It was to be a day of just exploring (knowing the only museum of my interest – displaying the works of Escher – would likely be closed) visiting the towns of Haarlem, Leiden and The Hague by train.
My first stop was Haarlem. I had arrived on the day of the market so it was fresh bread and yummy truffle cheese for lunch! The Dutch certainly do cheese well.
Haarlem was a small but lovely old town, albeit filled with tourist shops and restaurants. It adjoins the sea so there were lots of sailing boating motoring out of the canals. It didn’t take long before I had a nice feel for the place and so was ready to move on.
It was then onto Leiden, the train passing fields of tulips and other bulbed plants. Unfortunately it wasn’t the flowering season so no displays of tulip flowers. I do like tulips – my favourite being the African Queen.
Finally I stumbled upon a wind mill. Okay it was a Museum, but nonetheless a windmill. I discovered that the first mills had in fact been developed in the Middle East around 700AD. So the Dutch weren’t onto anything new. Having said that they had their fair share of them – 950 windmills and 60 watermills left. The Spanish had taken hold of a number of Dutch cities in the latter half of 1500 (they had a hand in everywhere those spaniards) so in the case of Leiden the residents had demolished the mills to hinder the prosperity of the invaders. The later replacement mills were built on fort walls to provide better defence in the future.
I went inside The Valk, which was built in 1743. It was used to mill corn. These windmills were built with stages, each stage serving a purpose; the lower generally being used for housing of storage and the upper for the milling processes. This particular windmill had a trunk 29 metres high and the sails had a length of 27 metres. It was funny to hear the whoosh of the sails as they circled past.
All the mills were pretty much out out of use after the introduction of steam and diesel driven engines so now they’re just saved for their cultural value.
On visiting the backstreets of the old town I came across Pieterskirk church, which had been the place of worship for those who had emigrated from England seeking to purify/simplify the Church of England. These same people later sailed The Mayflower to America, becoming the Pilgrim Fathers of New England. The church had been visited by GW Bush and more recently Barrack Obama, who have ties to the church.
Leaving the city I passed the Stadius (City Hall) and wandered around the Burcht, which was built between 800 and 1150 on a man-made dirt mound in the city centre as a means of protecting the people in the event of floods.
Den Haag, known to us as The Hague, the seat of the international criminal court, had the feel of a very cultural city. It is not a ‘hot spot’ for tourists but still had its fair share – the Pleins (squares) were full of people and music.
I arrived into the city to pumping tunes – a free concert on in the main square. As with the other towns visited that day, I just wandered around enjoying the architecture and people watching in some lovely cooling parks. I was then ready to make my way back to ‘The Dam’.
The ticket conductor kindly pointed out to me that I was sitting in a first class area and only holding a second class ticket – I had thought this cabin a little flashier than the others I’d used that day! It had taken nearly five months but I was finally coming to the realisation that I don’t do public transport well.
The day had been lovely, just wandering alongside canals, observing the latest fashions in the shops and listening to the range of music being played for the entertainment of the Saturday crowd. Despite the tourists in each town I had concluded they had a little more of a raw feel about them than Amsterdam.
It was decision time – a day of chilling (yes, yes I hear you all screaming) or a visit to Delft? Both were appealing so I decided to make up my mind in the morning.
Delft won – I just felt I couldn’t leave the Netherlands with it in striking distance – and then a visit to the infamous Amsterdam red light district. I took the same track as the day before to reach Delft, home of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (Girl with the Pearl Earring fame). Vermeer hadn’t done many of his paintings here but of course there were places relating to his life, which you could visit like his family home.
I had concluded that the citizens of Delft were indeed skilled at reverse parking. The parking was along the edge of the canals and there were no barriers to warn you that you were close to the edge. You can imagine this also presented a challenge for your passengers getting out on the canal side. I wonder how many nubies they lose over the edge each year?
The Museum Het Princehof was the major attraction of the town – the place that had originally been a monastery before being given to Prince William of Orange, who had been the leader of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish in the 1500s. Prince William had been assassinated in his home, likely stemming from his unwillingness to cede to the catholic doctrine desired by the Spaniards. This political assassination is said to be the first to have occurred with the use of a gun. The museum housed a lovely collection of works illustrating life during the Dutch Golden Age, an exhibition of Delft ceramics and relics from the former monastery.
This town had plenty of canals so I opted for another cruise. I was the only English speaking person resulting in the tour guide having to guide in four different languages. Needless to say I didn’t learn much as each language seemed to meld into one. I just sat back and enjoyed the view from the boat; it really is a neat way to get around.
Delft had its very own leaning tower. The Old Church (the town also had a ‘New Church’) was on a visible lean, likely from it being built over the canal.
Delft was also a beer loving town – 200 breweries in this small town.
The town’s prison had been closed for some time but the canal entry was still evident – generated images of prisoners being escorted in by boat on dark nights under lantern.
I enjoyed the views of the gorgeous little garden patches by the canals on the way home. I assumed they were owned by property owners who don’t have a garden at their residence. It seemed a lovely retreat for them – some functional with veggie gardens others purely aesthetic with beautiful flowers and shaded sitting areas.
My walk though the red light district was pretty uneventful. The place was brimming with tourists (particularly young guys who had clearly spent a little time in a ‘coffee shop’ or on a canal party boat). The girls market their wares in window booths without making any real eye contact with the on-lookers . If you’re keen there are a few options to see live sex on stage….classy place.
With that brushed off I walked across to Jordaan via Dam Square. It’s in Dam Square that you get to see the Royal Palace. The Palace is used at different times of the year and couldn’t be visited during the time of my visit.
Jordaan turned out to be an interesting area of Amsterdam. It’s full of edgy locals, cafes, bars and ‘coffee shops’. I was very tempted to sample some stock in one of the coffee shops but concluded drugs are no fun on your own. The other deciding factor was that while I only had to catch the number 1 tram home, my recent public transport experiences didn’t fill me with confidence I’d make it home by myself while under the influence!
So it was homeward bound. My late nights were resulting in late starts to the day. As Diana had pointed out in one of her travel posts, it was going to be hard to adjust to life back home.
How could I leave the bicycle capital of the world without partaking in some pedalling myself? I picked up a rental bike at Central Station, caught the pedestrian/cyclist ferry over to North Amsterdam and then started off for Waterland (official name of the region not a corny theme park).
The ride showed me what I had imagined rural Netherlands to be like – cute flower adorned homes fronting onto metre or so wide canals and dykes. The wind turbines on the landscape replacing the windmills of old. Speaking of wind, it was a struggle against it on my journey to Marken. The bike path was elevated so you caught all the breezes and bugs. A single gear back brake bike was probably not the wisest choice! Passers by managed a clenched mouth smile – more seasoned at dealing with the bugs!
It was only a 20km ride to Marken but it had taken much longer than I anticipated. I had time for a quick stop for lunch and a chat with a fellow cyclist. Ted, a Dutch Canadian, had been doing day rides out of North Amsterdam since arriving after his 1 600km cycle from Sweden – some people are keen!
After the short stop I was back on the bike in a bid to make the rental shop before it closed for the day. Of course I pushed out an extra five kilometres on the way back having missed the right turn – wasn’t real smart of the bike path constructors to put the signage on the low road out of sight of the elevated path! I had chosen a different track back which took me through marshlands and a farming area. I was chuffed when I saw a farmer washing out his pointy, painted timber clogs after a day in the fields!
The ride back was as enjoyable as the ride there. This really was a cruising cyclists heaven (not for you Simon – no hills – or ‘hillocks’ Karyn). Interestingly the guys on the path using road bikes were actually wearing helmets. I made it back with 20 minutes to spare.
I had chosen not to drink in the Netherlands knowing the Belgium beer and chocolate stop was next but decided after the day’s escapade I deserved an icy cold beer! I whiled away a few hours at a lovely bar/restaurant along the canal where I was staying. This was away from the tourists so it was nice to just people watch and hear the Dutch chatter of the locals. Another late night but I knew a sleep in was possible before my journey to Ghent, my base for Belgium.
I learnt much more from your post than when I was there! You certainly get around,
Your info about the Banks using the canals reminded me that we saw another use for the canal lower reaches in one place where prisoners who refused to work in work gangs were placed in these cells that the water seeped into so they had to work the pumps to save themselves from drowning. Strategically situated in the structure of the some bridges leading into Amsterdam as a warning to anyone entering who thought they’d get up to no good.
Well that was something I didn’t know. These Europeans were a brutish (or maybe strategic) bunch so nothing surprises me anymore! Are you still in London? Hope you’re having fun. I’ve only got the Tate Modern on my list of things to do in London but may also go to the British museum (saw a lot of London in 2005) but I’d welcome any ideas on special spots you found.