Canals and Bikes in Amsterdam
I promised to dig out some of the older travelogues. I hope nobody minds reading about a trip that was taken a few years ago. I have travelogues that go back a lot farther than 2009 when we took this trip. The full set of photos for Amsterdam is here and the photos from the Open Air museum are here.
I was going to the UK again, as usual, in the spring, early May. When we thought about where we would travel, I really liked the idea of going to Amsterdam to see the tulips. I didn’t realize that early May was too late to see the flowers in bloom, at their best! If I go again, I will know better and plan for an April visit.
Never mind. We didn’t know so we made plans. We flew into the madhouse that is Schipol on a Sunday afternoon, changing in Heathrow T5 en route. Yes, Schipol is insanely crowded. It’s not a large airport and thus, especially in the luggage hall, it’s way too crowded and there’s a huge bottleneck to get out of that area and into the main terminal. We had trouble with the ticket machines, as well, though in retrospect I may have had my PIN for my credit card wrong! It worked perfectly well when swiped by a ticket agent at the booth.
We arrived on a sunny Sunday and our hotel was only a few blocks from Centraal Station. It was recommended to us by a coworker of mine with the caveat of a very small room. It was indeed. But the bed was comfy and the room was clean. What more do you need? We decided straight off to go back to the station area and get on a 6 pm canal cruise. There are a lot of different companies but they all offer pretty much the same things and charge the same price. It was a lovely night for it, too! Amsterdam is so pretty from the water and they take you up the main canals and down a few side ones as well.
Right. Food. The main street from the station to the main public square, Dam Square is Damrak but we found it a bit tacky lined with fast food joints, tacky souvenir shops, theme restaurants and arcades. We also noticed a *lot* of litter all over the streets and in the canals but maybe that’s because it was the end of the weekend and the crews hadn’t cleaned up yet. From Monday onwards we never noticed a scrap on the ground. We did notice that there weren’t many if any public trash cans around so you can blame the City of Amsterdam for the somewhat less than stellar first impression we had.
We eventually found a little bar on one of the small pedestrian streets behind Damrak. It wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t sky high either and we enjoyed it. We walked a bit more, exploring in Dam Square as the sun went down and headed back to the hotel for the night.
Monday was a nice, bright, sunny day, yay! First order of business was to get transport tickets for the local trams and train tickets for Arnhem tomorrow. The Netherlands transport has a special kind of train pass, called a Lentetoer, that cost about 40 euros back in 2009 and covers two people all day (after 9:00) and you travel in first class. It isn’t always available but definitely check when you buy a day travel pass on the trains. That’s a pretty sweet deal but we discovered, when we bought the tickets, that those tickets must be paid for in cash! We also got our one way tickets for Brussels for Wednesday. The clerk worked it out that it was cheaper to get another one of those first class for two people tickets and then two second class singles from the Belgian border. It used up all our cash, however so we were going to have to find an ATM sooner than later. We tried to get tickets at the nearby tourist office for the local trams but the queues were way too long and we’d waste too much time so we ended up paying as we went when we needed a tram and since we didn’t use it a great deal, we wouldn’t have saved a whole lot anyway with the strip cards that they have for the transport system locally.
Our first stop was the Waterlooplein flea market which was interesting. It is in what was the Jewish quarter and the original market was set up for the Jewish merchants. This is a good place for souvenirs and crafts. We were handy Rembrandthuis but were disappointed because it was closed, setting up for a new exhibit. We had a coffee break and then found an ATM, followed by a nice little walk along the quieter canals. It’s interesting that there are still streets for cars along side the canals though often only narrow enough for one lane. While there are thousands of bicycles, there are also cars but bikes are generally more used. You need to watch out though, they come up behind you quickly and don’t always warn you with their bells until it’s almost too late. You’re supposed to watch for them, not the other way around, it seems!
Another pretty square is Rembrandtplein with lots of cafes and restaurants. We stopped for another brew and shared our sitting area with a black and white cat who was curled up along the banquette seat near me. Our next stop was the floating flower market. I expected it to be an explosion of colour and a heady cloud of floral perfume. What I got was quite different. All the tulips I saw were either wooden or they were bulbs for sale. That’s when I discovered I had missed Tulip season and it was too early for the majority of other flowers though there were some. A lot of the canal boats and market stalls, at least half or more, had souvenirs and crafts for sale, so it felt more like a tourist trap to me.
Classic Amsterdam bell shaped rooftops. The black house is the oldest in Amsterdam, found in the Begijnhof courtyard
We walked a bit more, trying to find an isolated quad called the Begijnhof, an area that used to be a religious retreat for women though not strictly a nunnery. Women could leave any time to get married and weren’t bound by vows of silence, chastity or poverty. You find the square through a narrow passage off a busy shopping street and you enter into a leafy green area, quiet and peaceful and lined with some of the oldest houses in Amsterdam. The last “Beguine” died in 1971 and since then, the houes are now occupied by senior citizens. There is a church and a chapel that you can go in to see there as well. This area, near the Spui tram stop, is quite nice, too with shopping and street performers and a student population I think.
We found a nice little cafe called de Rozenboom for a late lunch in an old canal house. It’s on three levels, with steep staircases between them and the toilet is on the very top with a spiral staircase to get there. It’s a bit of a menace! Don’t leave it too late! By the time we finished our late lunch it was nearly 4 p.m. and with most museums closing at 5 or so, there really wasn’t time to see one of them. We headed to the main harbour front and decided to go up to the top floor of the new public library for a birds’ eye view of the city. That was kind of neat though a bit of a hike to get to it even though we’d taken a tram to the central station. It’s also near the Nemo science museum if you’re interested in that.
It was a long day with a lot of walking. We went back to the hotel for a rest and watched a war memorial service on telly that was taking place in Dam Square, not that far from the hotel, but between sore feet and a dislike for crowds, we stayed where we were. We headed out later to a pancake restaurant I’d heard about in a guide book. To get there, we walked past some canals behind the restaurant and discovered we were actually staying on the edge of the red light district! We walked past a couple of windows with women sitting in them, wearing not a lot and noticed other red lights over windows down some of the nearby lanes. We found the restaurant and had a nice meal. Pancakes in the Netherlands are not like North American ones. They are more like what we would call Crepes and can be filled with meat and cheese or they can be dessert and they can be enormous so don’t have a starter!
Example of a merchant’s house, Arnhem Open Air museum
The canals are pretty at night with the lighted lamps along them and some of the bridges lit up as well. We felt quite safe walking in the dark in this area.
The next day was grey and it threatened to rain for most of it. We were headed out of the city to meet someone I’d met through the Virtual Tourist travel site. The Arnhem Openluchtmusem (Open Air) is in the outskirts of the city of Arnhem which is about an hour away from Amsterdam by train. You then have to go to the nearby bus station and take a city bus to get to the museum if you aren’t driving.
This museum is a collection of about 80 houses, farmhouses and buildings that come from various parts of the country and from different eras. You can get a feel for how people lived in Holland at different points in time over the last couple of centuries here. It’s not set up like a historic village as such. Each building is kind of it’s own little museum. There are different kinds of buildings, farms, shops, gardens and businesses from various eras. Good think our friends were Dutch, because not all of the signs explaining what you were seeing had English. You could buy a guidebook in your language of choice, however. There’s also an old tram that you can get to travel around the vast park area. We spent all afternoon there, with a lunch stop in one of the cafes.
It was really interesting and I’d recommend it. The rain finally settled in however, so that cut our visit short, though it was getting close to closing time anyway. Our friends drove us into the city centre where we found a really nice restaurant for dinner, aided by them in translating the menu! The price was quite reasonable, just under 100 Euros for the four of us but alas, they didn’t take credit cards. Between the four of us we scraped together enough to pay the bill or we’d have ended up washing dishes! Time to find another ATM en route to the train station before our journey back.
We had one last morning and part of the afternoon in Amsterdam and, under grey skies, we went to our must-see museum, the Rijkesmuseum. Part of it was closed for renovations but we were anxious to see the Rembrandts. We checked out of the hotel and left our bags there, and found a cafe near the museum first for breakfast then queued for tickets. We didn’t get the museuem or iamsterdam pass because we rarely find those types of passes worth our while. The queues moved quickly and we were in before we knew it. Because of the renovations, they only had most of their top items on display but they actually have quite a lot more, apparently. We did get to see the best of Rembrandt which is G.’s favourite painter and I can see why. Even next to some of the other masters, his work knocks the spots off everyone else!
After leaving there, we wandered some more, poking into some of the souvenir shops before collecting the luggage and heading to the train station. We found the right platform and got on the right train and figured out we didn’t have to change trains when crossing the Belgian border, just change our cars from first to second class. We had sandwiches for lunch on the train and arrived in Brussels in late afternoon.
We really only had a taste of Brussels and and day trip to Bruges but that’s something for another travelogue.