Monday, January 11, 2010

Canals, Red Lights and Cafes; you just have to Gogh - Amsterdam, Netherlands

Destination:   Amsterdam, Netherlands
Number of Days Spent:  4 days
Where we stayed:  When we met in Laos, our friends Marije & Fetze invited us to stay with them.  We had an amazing time exploring the city with them both on foot & by their boat.  Thanks again guys, you made our stay in Amsterdam really special!
Best restaurant:   Fresh raw herring from a street stall (numerous located all over the city).  Topped with onions and a couple of pickle slices thrown on the side it does not look too appealing, but it was surprisingly delicious.  If you have a few extra $$'s, we are told the freshwater eel is even better.  Next time...maybe.
Best of:  Cruising around the famed canals, wandering through the Van Gogh museum, the chilling Anne Frank House, learning just how short you really are - the Dutch are the tallest people in the world.
Worst of:    While waiting for a free outdoor concert to start, it started to pour down rain - we were soaked head to toe by the time we made it back to the train.  We were sad to miss the concert but it was still unforgettable.
Most Memorable:  Pizza delivery in a boat?  Our friends called ahead and ordered pizza for dinner while we were cruising around the canals.  Due to recent changes in the health code, they are no longer able to hand the pizza to you while in the boat..perhaps one too many drunk drops in the water...

Useful Tip:   "The Netherlands" refers to the country itself.  "Holland" is a providence (or state) within "The Netherlands".  Anything made in or anyone living in "The Netherlands" are considered Dutch. 

Progressive, entrepreneurial, free thinking, tolerant.  The city of Amsterdam and its people are all these things.  The worlds first stock exchange was created here.  World renowned artists like Van Gogh and Rembrandt called this place home.  Religions of all creeds have looked for refuge in the "low lands" of The Netherlands.  That free spirit plays out on the streets of Amsterdam like no other place on Earth.  Regardless of your personal feelings on morality and equality, the government here does not see itself as the morality police, but rather, a protector of its people.  Things that are considered criminal in most countries are instead controlled and regulated here.  Marijuana smoking is legal, but only in specified areas.  Prostitution, i.e. the famed "Red Light District", is practiced but with heavy rules and regulations.  The whole out in the open policy creates an interesting dynamic.  Business attired men and women stroll past red lit windows and smoke filled "coffee" shops on their way to work.  Whether you agree with these policies is irrelevant.  It's these policies that makes Amsterdam...well...Amsterdam to a, sadly, large part of the visiting tourists. 
The rest of this blog, however, represents the less "seedy" aspects of Amsterdam.  Beyond the haze and red lights lies a city that is chic and modern; yet, reflective on its upbringing.  From shop lined squares to the famed canals; sombering remberences of a dark time to the Golden Age of Dutch art, it can all be found right here. 
Created mainly from reclaimed land, the city lies a couple of meters below sea level making it a pleasure to explore on foot or bike.  Once again our friends Marije and Fetze showed us around the town.  First on the list was the Oude Kerk or "Old Church".  Built in the early 14th century the mostly wooden interior ceilings have remarkably withstood the tests of time.  The floors are made primarily of gravestones from some of the early important people of Amsterdam, notably Frans Banning Cocq made famous by Rembrandt's "Night Watch".  Ironically, the church sits in the heart of the present day red-light district.        
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Upon leaving the church we simply strolled around town checking out the architecture, sampling the afore mentioned herring, and drinking a couple of beers with our friends at several pubs around town.
One of the best things to do in Amsterdam is to simply stroll around and check out the architecture, do a little people watching from the numerous street cafes and let life stroll by. 
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After having a nice dinner, we tried to see a free concert going on in one of the squares but the rain started and by the start of the event, it was pouring down rain.  Good thing we brought one umbrella for 4 people!
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Another must while in Amsterdam is to see the canals from a boat.  The purpose built canals were laid out and designed in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age when the population of the city was bursting at the seams and access to the ocean was a must.  From the main harbor a series of half moon canals gyrate out easily allowing boat access to the harbor from nearly anywhere in the city.  Somewhat of an engineering feat, and yet a simple design that still works til this day.  Passing under quaint little stone bridges, cruising by the numerous kitschy houseboats, and craning your neck to see all the multicolored buildings that line the canals make a cruise along the canals one of the top things to do.  Marije and Fetze once again showed us great hospitality by taking us out on their boat for the afternoon complete with wine & a stop for pizza eaten on the side of the canal!  Does life get any better?
Here is where they live, just South of Amsterdam: 
The funky looking building is a Children's center of some sorts.
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Someone certainly had a sense of humor when they built the "Wooden Shoe" boat. 
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The canal also allows you to get different views and angles of the multitude of architectural styles.
Here we are waiting our turn at the one lock that we had to pass to get from their house to Amsterdam.
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The next day we took the train in and went museum hopping.  The Rijksmuseum was first on the list. The most important museum to Dutch art, the Rijksmuseum contains over one million pieces ranging from paintings to giant doll houses.  The more famous works of art were completed by Rembrandt and his pupils with the highlight of the museum being the "Night Watch".  One of my favorites, the Nightwatch is a massive canvas covering an entire wall and displays Rembrandt's excellent use of light to highlight the afore mentioned Frans Banning Cocq in amidst his company of men.  As large as the canvas is, it used to be even larger.  In the 18th century the canvas was chopped down to fit on the wall, a tragic but all too common practice during that time.
Leaving the Rijksmuseum, we crossed the park over to the Van Gogh museum.  While Van Gogh only lived here for a short time, his brother, and receiver of his estate, lived here and thus took his collection and turned it into a museum after Van Gogh committed suicide.  This is the largest collection of Van Gogh's in the world and includes  many "Self Portraits" along with the "Potato Eaters" and "Sunflowers".
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Leaving the museum area, we headed back into the heart of the city.  Since Tracy had been to the Anne Frank house on a previous trip she opted to do a little shopping while I headed into the museum.  The Diary of Anne Frank is a personal diary written by a Jewish girl who went into hiding when Nazi Germany invaded Amsterdam.  For nearly two years, the family hid in a space above the warehouse where the father worked.  Sadly, the story ends with Anne and her family being discovered and hauled off to concentration camps.  Anne dies just before the war ends, but her father survives and turns her personal journals into a book.  It's a moving story and  has been mandatory reading for so many literature classes ever since.  The museum takes you up to the hidden rooms and explains how they lived in hiding, were helped by workers at the plant and their eventual discovery by the Nazis.  
After a filled day of sightseeing, Marije and Fetze served up a feast fit for kings and queens.  Thanks again guys!
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Our last day in town was spent wandering the canals, sipping coffees while people watching in the many different neighborhoods like the Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein & our favorite area, the Jordaan.  We topped the afternoon off by drinking away our sorrows at the Heineken Brewery.  What the brewery lacks in charm it more than makes up for in over the top brand promotion and hi-tech attractions.  From e-mailing video messages back home to a ride where you are beer being made (including getting "splashed" as you, the hops, hit the barrel), the brewery is more like a theme park.  At least you get a couple of beers at the end.  
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Out of beer and out of time, Fetze took us to the ferry where we were off to England to begin our cruise back to the US!  Thanks again to our friends and we promise to come back, clad in Orange, for Queens Day!
To see more photos click here: Amsterdam!


Keith said...

Great pictures of Amsterdam! I'm considering spending a month there and your post has given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

Jason and Tracy said...

Thanks for reading, and feel free to drop a line if you have any questions.