Ambling Around Amsterdam
We were so excited! After traveling alone for 2 months we were going to meet up with good
friends Diane and John in Amsterdam for a few days. We have known them for 10 years and always enjoyed hanging with Diane when she was staying in her Cocoa Beach Florida condo, or visiting them in California. They, along with 8 other friends were departing from Amsterdam on a river cruise so it was a perfect opportunity to meet up.
September 1st. We took the train from Paris to Amsterdam and walked 20 minutes to the hotel, stopping for a quick slice of pizza & cappuccino. Susie had booked a room at NH Collection Flower Market, the same hotel their group was staying. Our room on the 5th floor was large and modern with great views of the flower market and canal behind. Included was a delicious buffet breakfast with just about everything you could imagine, including beans! None of those for breakfast since the Komodo dive boat!
Diane just happened to be in the lobby when we walked in, and we wasted no time making plans. Squared away our luggage and off we went, walking through town, observing the lively crowds of pedestrians – and bicycles! Bikes everywhere! Every street had dedicated bike lanes, and that meant bicycles had priority, not pedestrians. So – watch out. Diane had organized a canal tour with a small boat, so it was just the 4 of us and one other lady in a comfortable small, electric boat. The guide was great – witty and knowledgeable on local history and current events.
Amsterdam started as a fishing village where they built a dam on the Amstel River. It grew up as a trading port when Holland was a world force, with colonies all over the world during the 17th century. Ships laden with everything from spices to silk to gold would sail into Amsterdam to unload their wares at the merchant house lining the canals. Pepper was a particularly hot commodity. Even today, many of the canal houses have a boom sticking out from under the roofline, where block and tackles would hoist the goods from the ships to the storerooms. Some buildings actually “lean” towards the canal to provide more clearance. And a few unfortunate buildings lean sideways, as some of their pilings sink into the ground below.
The city is also known for the colorful houseboats moored along the canals. These floating
homes started out as an economical alternative to expensive apartments, but as the population grew the houseboats became a "hot property" in their own right. Mooring space is very difficult to get these days, and as dear as waterfront in Miami! The vessels range from a few derelicts to outrageously decked out modern craft, and some are rented out as boatel rooms.
All that boat riding makes a feller hungry, and there was no shortage of restaurants to choose from. One “hawker” got our attention when he said the fish of the day was dorado. Seemed a little sketchy since most places bill dolphin fish as mahi (Hawaiian). Dorado is the Spanish word. And they like warm water. So in we went with more fruitless conversation about what type of fish it was with a rather snippy waiter. Turns out it was dourada, a salt water bream, and was really quite good. White & mild flavor.
One of the great museums in Amsterdam is the Van Gogh, so Thursday we put on our walking shoes and trucked on over there. It was a spacious (but not huge) 3 level building dedicated to the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh and some related art. The audio guide was nice – providing information on individual works, complete sections, or biographical data.
As Van Gogh developed his craft in early years, he found he had a passion for painting peasants – working in the fields or in commonplace situations at home. He felt it was a more honest type of painting. Van Gogh maintained a close relationship with his younger brother Theo, who became a successful art dealer, and helped sell his work. Together they became part of an influential group of artists during that period in Europe, although Vincent never made much money.
He struggled with ill health all his life, and mental illness later on, exacerbated by poor nutrition and excessive drinking. One theory is lead or other chemicals in the paint may have contributed to his manic episodes. He was aware of his affliction, and checked himself into treatment centers, where he produced a prodigious amount of colorful work during his last years at Arles, France.
Well, art makes me hungry also, so yeah, time to find someplace! Whilst window-shopping
cafes we met the two snippy waiters from yesterday, who now acted like best friends! Haha. But this time we stopped at a tiny café beside one of the canals for sandwiches, watching the boats go by. Strolling on from there we came to one of the canal houses that had been turned into a museum, so in we went to check it out.
8The Willet House was a fine example of a home owned by a wealthy family that did extensive remodeling and upscale furnishing. Taxes and value are calculated on the canal frontage, and number of windows in the front. This was a “double-wide” building sporting 5 large front windows. The (slightly below) ground level was for the servants; up steps to the main entrance and first floor, with 12-foot ceilings and large windows. A beautiful staircase led to the 2nd floor with the family’s living quarters, bedrooms and office. A small stairway climbed to the attic which was storage and spare rooms for less-desirable relatives.
That evening we took another canal cruise to see the town after dark, with the buildings and bridges lit up. This boat was larger, and thankfully stocked with blankets as the air chilled down quickly as the sunset. We did enjoy seeing everything with a different perspective and learning some other facts about the waterways and people. Getting back to our room and a hot shower was also very enjoyable.
As the village became a city, more canals were dug out to provide access for the merchant ships. Carts and vehicles needed access as well for land transport, so a variety of fixed and opening bridges were constructed over the canals. Some of these older bridges are well preserved and decorated. I also noticed a trend in city names here in the Netherlands: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Zaandam – see what I mean?
Another fun fact: I, along with many other had referred to the Netherlands as Holland, thinking the two names were interchangeable. The country's official name is the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Holland is the two provinces of Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland.
Friday morning, we all met upstairs for our last group breakfast, as Diane & Company made
preparations to depart on their river cruise. After saying our goodbyes, we walked south to Vondelpark, a beautiful 19th century park with lovely landscaping, ponds, birds, playground, and an open-air restaurant with a band playing. Plentiful clouds of cannabis in the air. After many busy days in Paris & Amsterdam, it was a perfect sunny afternoon to laze around and read or snooze. Zzzzzzzzzzzz…..
Next day and we’re up early – excited to see friends we had met in Malaysia who live just north of Amsterdam, and also love to travel. We walked back to the Centraal Station, which was also a ferry terminal, having docks along the river. After a couple of false starts we found the correct wharf and boarded a small passenger ferry running north to Zaandam, where we had to get out and walk about 15 minutes around some locks and board a smaller vessel for the rest to the trip upriver to Zaanse Schans.
This is a beautiful area that has been created to represent a typical 19th century village. Authentic windmills and historic green wooden houses were relocated here along the river. We toured a clog-making shop and store, and a cheese store with an ample supply of tasty samples. There was a museum displaying exhibits of local culture, clothing, and crafts, with occasional workshops.
We met Vivian, Julian and Oliver when we were all staying on the island of Langkawi in Malaysia and have kept in touch since then. They are originally from Argentina but have been living in Holland for many years, though they may be contemplating a move in the coming year. They drove up from Zaandam to see the village and we chatted for bit, then decided there was no suitable eating places and should go back to their apartment. So, they drove back while we looked unsuccessfully for rental bikes – finally taking the train south to their town. We had a great time visiting and talking about past and future traveling adventures. We had looked forward to seeing them for the past 2 years and it was a wonderful reunion!
Sunday September 5th. Up at 3:15 AM (!!!) to catch a flight to Portugal. Ugh. NEVER want to do this again!!!