Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Dream Week In Amsterdam

I'm not sure exactly when the bug got up my butt.  I would say it was about 3 or 4 years ago.  I may even have to partially credit reading The Fault in Our Stars.  I can only say at some point Amsterdam became a city that was a major item on the Bucket List.  It seemed like a city that contained a little of everything I love as a tourist: beautiful scenery and architecture, friendly people, and plenty of museums and culture.

I put it off for a few years.  I never seemed to be able to get the money together.  Twice my father made me offers I couldn't refuse for other vacations like Prague and the cruise to the Mediterranean.  Amsterdam was put on the back burner again and again.

I had no major plans for the back half of 2017, so I considered taking a trip in the fall.  I got Kevin tentatively on board with the idea.  We were planning our usual Chincoteague trip in July and wanted to escape winter in March by going to Hawaii.  I thought it would be pleasant to take a trip in October when I have a long stretch of time with no days off between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.  I penciled Amsterdam in for the week of our anniversary.

Then Kevin was cast in the recent Harrison Players production of Inherit the Wind and our Hawaii trip would have cut into his rehearsal schedule.  He suggested we postpone the trip until October and celebrate our anniversary in Hawaii.  I was sick of winter and reluctant to ruin my chance to get away from it for a week, but I'm a theater person too, and I know how important it is to be loyal to your production.  With much grumbling and whining and fuming, I reluctantly agreed to wait out the end of winter and not go to Hawaii.

That left me with three months between Presidents' Day and Memorial Day with no time off.  I needed a vacation in the spring.  I had to get away.

Now was my time to go to Amsterdam.  This was the universe giving me an opening.  The time had come to move on this and  stop wishing for the right time to go.  I did my research on hotels and flights.  It was February and booking Amsterdam in April isn't easy, but I managed to find a recommended hotel and flights that had plenty of seats.

So what happened?

Day 1 - Sometimes a flight can be so easy it seems too good to be true.  I was able to book Economy Comfort seats so I had priority boarding (well, I could board immediately after business class anyway), legroom, free wine, and unlimited entertainment.  The flight was on time and smooth.  We touched down in Amsterdam in mid morning, quickly cleared passport control, claimed our bags, and met our pre-arranged ride in good time.

We arrived late morning at our charming hotel, The Hoxton.  I wasn't sure what to expect from this hotel.  The top rated hotels on Trip Advisor were mostly all booked.  I preferred a small boutique hotel in a central location and the good ones fill up fast.  As a fallback I could have stayed at a large Doubletree and used my Hilton Honors discount, but it wasn't in my ideal location.


Once we arrived at the Hoxton we knew we had made the right choice.  It is a bit modern and hipster, but it's still cozy and warm.  The staff was friendly and spoke perfect English.  It was still too early to check in, so we sat in the cozy lobby and ordered mimosas (they were serving brunch in the restaurant after all) and planned our next few hours.  We decided to go on a canal cruise to get the lay of the land and just walk the neighborhood a bit.

The cruise was interesting some of the time and boring other times.  There were some fascinating lectures on local history and it gave me some idea of the layout of the canals (although in the end I got by knowing the four canals around my hotel: Herengracht, Singel, Kizergracht, and Prisengracht). It is hard to understand the layout of the streets when you're viewing the city from the water though.  I have to admit jet lag was getting the better of me and I nodded off for part of the cruise.  I didn't feel bad as I also saw Kevin and the woman sitting across from us nod off.



We did a bit more exploring on foot and ate a late lunch before returning to our hotel to finally check in and take a nap.   It was a small room, but it had a beautiful view of the Singel canal.  The trees were budding and I always had a beautiful spring day to view on the other side of my window.  The room was tiny, but pretty.  I was frustrated when I began unpacking because I had no closet (just a rack with some hangers in one corner) and no dresser.  I grumbled for a while about how I would have to live out of a suitcase for a week.  Wednesday I discovered there were two large drawers under the bed.  Oops!


We had dinner at our hotel and attempted to take an evening walk.  The sun sets much later in Amsterdam than it does in NY this time of year, so I wanted to enjoy the scenery at sunset and maybe take some good photos.


Day 2 -  What do you do when you only have a few days to spend in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and so much to see?  If you're traveling with me, you hop out of bed and hit the ground running.  We ate an early breakfast and headed for our first stop of the day, the Anne Frank House.

Before we booked this trip we learned no one should ever try to purchase tickets at the door.  The lines build up and go around the block and you're better off buying tickets online for a particular time slot.  I bought tickets ahead of time for 9:30 giving us enough time to have a leisurely morning and still have time to enjoy the rest of the day.

We started out in the main rooms of the museum where we saw displays and videos about the history  of the Jews in WWII and the history of the Frank family.  Eventually we were led into the rooms where the Franks and the Van Pels hid.

I think what struck me the most about the area was how small it was.  When you watch TV shows or movies or plays about Anne Frank, it is impossible to stage or shoot in a space that small, so the Secret Annex looks much bigger on screen than it was in reality.  You're never really prepared for seeing those small, close rooms.  They feel so dark and claustrophobic.  It's almost impossible to imagine everyone in the house gathered in the kitchen when you know the Van Pels also had to sleep there.  I was surprised the rooms could have stayed hidden for so long.  The warehouse building is fairly large.  Wouldn't the Nazis have noticed the public rooms were smaller on the inside than the building was on the outside? (I suppose someone did eventually figure it out since the family met a tragic end.)

Everyone needs to see places like this as well as the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague.  It's the closest one can ever come to truly seeing the human side of the Holocaust and how important it is to never let something like this happen again.

Once we left the museum, we quickly moved on to happier events.  We met up with our friend Miriam for lunch.  We met Miriam on our trip to Italy in 2011.  At the time she was newly pregnant with her daughter Lisa, so we also go to meet Lisa "on the outside" along with her younger sister Ada.  Kevin and I rarely have opportunities to meet up with people we know when we travel, so it was great to cross the ocean and be able to see a familiar face.  We had a delicious lunch and caught up with Miriam and were amused by the girls (although they don't speak English yet, so we couldn't really talk to them).



After lunch we pushed on for some more exploring.  We went to the Westerkerk, a Protestant church next to the Anne Frank House.  The weather wasn't great for pictures, so we didn't bother climbing the tower.  There was live organ music playing when we walked in, and that enhanced our experience.  Unfortunately, we couldn't find Rembrandt's grave.  There are tombs under the floor everywhere, but we couldn't find Rembrandt's.  The church does nothing to mark it.






I wanted to explore the Jordaan district, but it was raining by then and we thought we should head to some of our more sheltered destinations first.  We walked through the Red Light District on our way to the Oude Kerk.  At first we didn't see any of the area's most infamous residents.  We did see a lot of sex shops though, and also many coffee shops.  There is one chain of coffee shops called Bulldog that seems to have a monopoly in that area.  Bulldog even has it's own gift shop.  (Kevin wondered if the t-shirts they sold were made of hemp.)

Eventually we approached the area where there is a high concentration of the infamous glass doors with the women behind them.  Most of the doorways were empty, but I noticed one woman hanging out expectantly behind one of them.  Kevin and I were walking a little apart from each other (one could say we were doing a Donald and Melania impersonation) and as Kevin approached her, I saw her start to open her door and look out.  Then she quickly closed it again.  I joke she was trying to proposition Kevin, but then saw me and realized he wasn't alone.


I did my best not to gawk too much at the women before we made our way into the church.

Oude Kerk is a unique experience.  The map they give you when you enter looks like an illustration from a children's book.  There is something almost playful about the place.  There is strange, conceptual art throughout (the most prominent one being a bunch of shattered mirrors at various spots on the floor).  If you want a view of the sanctuary from above, they have someone taking you up on an open elevator.  I would have done that if there wasn't such a long line (only one person can go up at a time).  I would say it shattered many of my expectations about what I would find in a centuries-old church.







Later in the day when the rain seemed to hold off for a while, we headed into the Jordaan.  We did linger in one interesting gallery, but many of the stores and galleries were closed that day, so we didn't see as much as we had hoped.

Sadly, the rain came down harder and steadier at dinner.  We hoped for a better day for our outing in the countryside.

Day 3- Today we took a bus tour to the towns of Zaanse Schaans, Volendam, and Markem.  We met with our tour group in the morning and headed out of the city.

Our first stop was Zaanse Schaans where the Dutch tradition of windmills is meticulously preserved.  It is a charming town, although definitely set up for tourists with shops meant to lure you in at every turn.  We didn't linger much.  Our tour brought us to a windmill that grinds linseed oil.  We went inside and had a demonstration on mill operation and we even went to the second floor to enjoy the view from the top.  We took plenty of windmill photos, but never explored more than that because we were herded back on the bus pretty quickly. 



Although our guide Velika gave us some talks and guidance on our tour, we mostly listened to recorded lectures on the bus.  The most fascinating ones were about how the Dutch farmland was created.  It was such a brilliant feat of engineering to create the polders and to keep pumping and channeling out the water.  Equally astounding is how the canals have to be at different elevations in order to channel water below sea level back out to sea.  Although windmills are no longer needed for industry, you can still see them scattered throughout the countryside pumping the water out of the polders.

I learned this week the Dutch have no fear of climate change because of their advanced water management systems.  They are confident they will always be able to pump the encroaching sea back out where it belongs.

Our next stop was the lakeside village of Volendam.  This is a traditional fishing village where many locals still try to preserve the old culture and dress in traditional clothing.  IJsselmeer lake itself is another engineering wonder.  The old harbor could not hold back the southern sea and keep it from flooding the farmlands.  The lake was created with a dike and more of those wondrous Dutch water management systems.  It is now the largest freshwater lake in western Europe.



Once again, we didn't explore the more interesting or historical parts of town.  We went to a major cheese shop and walked down one of the main streets.  It's a resort community and I thought of it as the Dutch Jersey Shore.

The weather grew steadily worse at Voledam.  The rain became more frequent and there was even some sleet mixed in. I didn't have an adequate coat for this kind of day. 

After lunch we took a boat ride to the village of Markem on the other side of the lake.  It a much quieter and more rural village.  All we did there was visit a wooden shoe factory where we did get a carving demo.  I suppose it's part of the experience, but it wasn't really necessary.




We returned to Amsterdam in the mid-afternoon.  We had some time before dinner, so we took a walk to the Rembrandt House museum.  Although he moved out of the house after several years (he was in debt and couldn't pay for it), it has been preserved and restored to look the way it would have looked when he lived there.  Many paintings were on display as well.  What impressed me the most was learning how Rembrandt worked.  He was devoted to realism and accuracy.  We visited his cabinet room that was an example of how he amassed a collection of curiosities and antiquities to use as models in his paintings.  If he was going to do a painting about Greek mythology, he wanted to work with real Greek statues as models.  Maintaining this collection wasn't cheap, so I can see how he would have been unable to afford the payments on the house.  In a sense he was bankrupted by his own devotion to his art and its process.


Day 4 - We stayed in the city today and made it our Museum Day.  We started off on foot to the Van Gogh Museum.  We made one major mistake with our visit.  We bought city passes that gave us free admission to most of the city's major museums and attractions.  We didn't realize the Van Gogh museum is small and only lets a certain number of people in at one time.  If you buy tickets online ahead of time, you bypass the line.  If you don't, you have to wait in line for an hour until they let the next wave of people in.  We must have waited in line for an hour.  At least we didn't have to pay admission.

Photos were not allowed, so I can't share anything, but I will say it is a well-run museum and well laid out.  Each of the five floors covers a different period of his life and work.  The audio tours are not your standard recorded messages.  We received multimedia devices that provided us with photos (so we were always sure we we looking at the correct paintings) and other interactive features.

I enjoyed contrasting the works of van Gogh and Rembrandt.  At the Rembrandt House I learned how Rembrandt would go out of his way to buy unusual objects to use as models for his paintings and how his work often represented stories that were not of his time.  Despite the fact that his work did not represent real, present life, his style was solidly realist.  On the other hand van Gogh believed in painting the real world.  His models were objects right in front of him.  Despite his belief in painting reality, his paintings were decidedly not realist.  His style was whimsical and impressionistic.  He painted objects as he saw them and not how they were.  Great art runs such a grand spectrum, doesn't it?

After lunch we headed for the beautiful Rijksmuseum.  After waiting so long to enter the Van Gogh Museum, we decided not to take any chances.  Even though we had free admission to the Rijksmueum, we didn't want to wait in line again.  Kevin bought advanced tickets on his phone.  Of course the museum is huge and anyone can walk in at any time, so we didn't need those advance tickets.  Life is ironic.

The museum is such a beautiful building.  It is an attraction by itself.  I wondered if had ever been a palace like the Louvre, but it was built in the 19th century and built to be a museum.  Once again the audio tours were on interactive devices.  The devices offered several options for touring the museum focusing on different areas for differing amounts of time.  They also provided explicit navigation where you followed a little shadow man on your screen.  We did a 90 minute highlights tour that covered the major collections and most famous pieces.  I wish we could have seen more, but the museum is huge and we were exhausted.  You really need a few visits to truly see all this place has to offer. 


We had been moving nonstop from breakfast until dinner that night.  It was a good day, but an exhausting one.  We were so tired by the end of the day we spent a ridiculous amount of money just to take the hop on-hop off boat one stop so we wouldn't have to walk back to our hotel or figure out which tram to take.

Day 5 - This was the weakest day of the trip. It was King's Day, a national holiday where the country shuts down and everyone parties.  It didn't seem like the best day to be hanging out in Amsterdam, so  I booked a bus tour to Antwerp and Brussels.  Although Amsterdam was the focus of the dream trip, I was interested in seeing as much of BeNeLux as I could.  This tour seemed like a good option.  We met with our guide in the morning and took the long ride to Antwerp.  We hit a lot of traffic and the ride was torturous (no bathroom breaks). 

Antwerp is a depressing city.  It is just dingy and dark.  It didn't look economically depressed.  I didn't see any outright signs of extreme poverty.  There were high-end stores everywhere and the people were well dressed.  The city just looks in bad need of an update.  There were few historic buildings in the area and they just looked old and worn.  The newer buildings looked as if they hadn't had a face lift since the 70s.  At best I would call the city visually boring.

The tour only stopped in once place.  We went to the Jewish quarter and stopped at a large jewelry store called Diamond Land (I kid you not).  This might have been interesting if our guide or the staff at Diamond Land gave us any sort of talk about the history of the area and the history of the diamond trade.  All they did was give us a lecture on the 4 Cs, which anyone who has ever been engaged via diamond ring would know.  We did see the diamond cutters working behind a glass wall, but we had no narration as to what they were doing.

Antwerp is home to a cathedral with one of the tallest towers in Europe.  It is also home to Rubens' house and museum.  We saw none of that.  We had time to grab lunch before heading to Brussels.  More traffic ensued.

We made it to Brussels and stopped by a few highlights with some lame narration.  Our guide was phoning it in.  We passed the royal palace and stopped for a photo of the giant statue of a magnified iron molecule before boarding the bus again.

We ended up in the central square of Brussels.  It's a pretty city and I'm sure there is a lot to see there, but we had maybe two hours to enjoy it.  We saw the old guild halls and the main cathedral. Our guide also took us to the famous Mannekin Pis statue.  I know it's a tourist trap, but I felt I might as well see it if I was going to be in Brussels.   Kevin and I opted to spend most of our free time in a bakery where we could eat some Belgian liege waffles.  We managed to spend about 5 minutes in the cathedral before it closed for the day and we had to board the bus again.




We came back to Amsterdam late that night. The King's Day celebrations were winding down, but we had to fight heavy crowds of drunk and stoned people to return to our hotel. 

Day 6 - I booked another bus trip for today.  This time we went to Bruges.  I had heard many stories in the past about how beautiful this city is, so I had high hopes of this being a better day than Antwerp and Brussels.  Fortunately we had a much better guide this time and she kept us entertained and informed during the entire 3-hour drive.

Our tour was well organized.  We drove to the south end of the city and our guide Maryann gave us a narrated walk north to the main square where we viewed City Hall, the belfry, and the Palace of Justice.  Then we had three hours to explore the city on our own and make our way back down to the bus.


Bruges has three churches.  At one end of the city is the Basilica of the Holy Blood.  There is a vial here containing a cloth stained with Jesus's blood obtained during the Crusades.  I don't know how authentic it is, so we skipped this one.

In the center of the city is the main cathedral St. Salvator.

A little south of that is St. John's hospital and the Church of Our Lady.  That church contains the tombs of the king and queen and a Madonna statue carved by Michelangelo.  It is one of the few Michelangelo statues existing outside of Italy. 





If we had more time we would have visited the Dali Museum in the main square and the old hospital.  I would have liked a boat tour of the canals too.  Climbing the bell tower for a view of this charming city would also have been fun.


In order to enter and leave the city we had to pass the Minnewater Lake, said to be a lover's spot.  The legend of the lake is that it is made of the tears of a man who could not marry the woman he loved.


We also had to pass through the Beguinage.  This was once a place where the city's working single women could have refuge from lusty men.  It is now a convent.  We took a peek inside the small affiliated church and saw the nuns engaged in vespers.  It was interesting to watch and listen to them sing.  Kevin thought it felt intrusive, but the church prints up a schedule of all masses and activities happening at the church.  I assume they expect spectators.

Before we left I managed to snap a few last photos of the tulips in the local park and eat one last waffle.

We had another late night as we had to both eat dinner and pack.  Our vacation was ending.

Day 7 - Remember what I said about our easy flight being too good to be true?  It was.  I received a notification from the airline our flight had been cancelled due to a faulty plane.  They were able to schedule a new flight at the same time with a different plane, but it was also a smaller plane.  I had a comfort seat on the way to Amsterdam, but the couldn't give me one on the way back, even though I had paid for it.  After being spoiled by nicer seats, we were back to being squished with no free wine to lubricate the experience.  At least we had enough movies to keep me occupied.

If I had one consolation about returning to New York it was the weather.  After a week of continual rain and temperatures that were in the low 50s at the warmest, I returned to a sunny, 80-degree day.  I miss Amsterdam terribly, but at least I have warm and sunny weather now.  I am so glad we did this trip.  Amsterdam is a beautiful city.  It is as if Prague and Venice had a beautiful baby together.  The people are warm and friendly.  The sites are plentiful.  If you are considering a trip here, I recommend you book it.  If you're not considering a trip here, I suggest you start considering it.
You won't be disappointed.

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