Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Day in Amsterdam

I’m a big believer in the practice that says – even if you only have a little time to tour a place, while on vacation, almost wake-up naturally; and so, even though I had less than one full day to tour Amsterdam, I took my time in the morning. Woke up fresh at around 9:30am, then Jeroen and I decided to hit the local grocery store and prepare breakfast at home.

We left the apartment building and started walking towards the grocery store, a pretty short walk.

Delft to Amsterdam is similar to what Waterloo is to Toronto. It’s around an hour away, and much more laid back than the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam. There are more bicycles on the road than cars; the weather was cold, sky were cloudy and the air – super-fresh, as fresh as air can be in a small city in which bicycles are the primary means of individual transportation.

The Netherlands (not Holland; “Holland” is actually a small part of The Netherlands, split into two regions – North Holland and South Holland. Amsterdam, Delft, The Hague and Rotterdam are all located in South Holland) goes out of its way to prove to you, the visitor, that it has no shortage in water. There are canals – mostly man-made – everywhere, and you can’t swing a cat anywhere without hitting some green.

Construction-wise, Delft provides for a typical European atmosphere. Crowded houses, mostly very old, with orange-coloured shingles; tall church towers in the horizon. In grey weather, the city looks a bit gloomy, somewhat asleep, waiting to be woken up by sunlight.

Another phenomenon that I found totally puzzling is the concept of building homes with direct access to the sidewalks. The Dutch appear to either be rather unconcerned with their privacy, or space is really, really scarce, or both. As you stroll the sidewalks, all you have to do is to look to your left (or right) and you can look into one’s house through the window. I’ve never seen anything like that in North America – if anybody knows of the existence of such construction please let me know.

We went to the grocery store, “where everybody knows your name”. Small-town atmosphere, it seems like everybody knows everybody else. We bought some old cheese (they were out of Gouda) and some other supporting elements, and went on to the bakery next door.

I am not known for being pastry-averse. The scent of fresh pastry makes my brain suspend all other activities and concentrate fully on locating the source of the smell and eliminating it by way of quick and efficient digestion. It was very hard to finish our bakery visit with just a loaf of fresh bread and a couple of croissants.

Went back home and prepared (OK, OK; again, Jeroen prepared and I cheered) some breakfast – a “typical Dutch breakfast” as per Jeroen. Slices of bread with old cheese and smoked ham on butter and a cup of tea. Very light breakfast – which was perfect as I wanted to spend the day touring Amsterdam rather than feeling bloated. For dessert, Jeroen prepared some sort of a Dutch snack with a name way too long and complex for me to remember (Jeroen, feel free to comment and fill in the blanks). Essentially, a piece of toast with butter on it and some chocolate sprinkles. Tasty.

We finished breakfast and headed outside to the train station. Took us an hour to get to “Amsterdam Centraal”, which is (you guessed it) Amsterdam’s main transportation hub.

There I am, with a few Euros and my passport in my inside pocket, going to tour a totally foreign city.

We left the train station into the city. I was excited. Same excitement Chris McCandless must have had as he wandered into the wild, except that I had very slim chances of having to live on squirrels, porcupines and such.

We spent a total of a little more than five hours in Amsterdam, mostly walking with a few breaks for lunch and coffee. The weather was cold – to a point where I was considering buying an extra shirt – and a bit windy, but altogether rather enjoyable.

“Downtown Amsterdam” (if you can call it that way; anyway, I’m referring to the area in Amsterdam where the exciting stuff happens) is a real fun place to hang out in. Think of Manhattan’s millions of stores and restaurants, with the atmosphere of a European city – hardly any extremely tall buildings, everything small-scale.

“Coffee Shops” abound. Tip: when in need for Coffee, don’t go to a “Coffee Shop” – look for a “Cafe” instead. Most (if not all) “Coffee Shops” don’t sell coffee at all – weed is the weapon of choice here. There are some talks in The Netherlands now about the possibility of illegalizing the sales and consumption of weed, as it appears that the legalization of it yielded more problems than benefits.

Coffee-wise, though, Amsterdam boasts great European-class espresso. I haven’t seen even one Starbucks (yuck) – which is obvious, as their “coffee” and “espresso” stand virtually no chance at all to compete with the excellent coffee products offered here.

Another thing very noticeable in Amsterdam is the dumbfounding abundance of extremely, mind-numbingly beautiful women. Atmosphere is loose and relaxed; this place is a bachelor’s paradise.

We walked through the narrow streets and alleys, as I was trying – with much success – to grasp the city’s atmosphere. I know of no better way to grasp a city’s atmosphere than simply walk through it.

We reached one of the places I wanted to see – the Anna Frank house – only to realize a line-up about 50 meters long. Will be saved for the next visit.

We stepped into a cafe for some espresso (for me) and tea (Jeroen) break. I greeted the cashier there with a huge smile and a very warm welcome, a gesture she appeared to have taken with great surprise and pleasure. Later, Jeroen told me that the reason is simple – nobody does these things in The Netherlands. Not that flirting is frowned-upon or anything; it’s simply extremely uncommon so it appears to take people by surprise.

Obviously, a visit to Amsterdam cannot be complete without a visit to the Red Light District – regardless of what you think of prostitution and the sex industry, it’s hard to be in Amsterdam and not even take a peak at what’s considered one of the most lascivious districts in the world.

Somehow we found our way to the district, which is not much more than one street (split in the middle by yet another canal). Sex shops everywhere, displaying all kinds of merchandise that I couldn’t even imagine ever existed. Peep shows everywhere, with owners trying their best to allure you to enter their establishments for (quote) “good time”.

Shortly after, the infamous windows start appearing. Women of all sizes and ages engage in what I believe is one of the most useless, extraordinarily stupid activities in the world of posing, almost nude, to pedestrians. The sights leave very little to imagination.

It may or may not have been incidental, however it appears that the women posing in those windows are sorted by age groups, with the youngest ones being closer to where the “action” is and the older ones further away. Regardless of what you think of prostitution – free-choice or an impurity that must be extinguished – this phenomenon must, at some level, be disgusting.

After walking up (and then down) the district, rapt in deep, thoughtful conversation about prostitution and drugs, we left the Red Lights District back into more mainstream existence.

We went to have lunch in some local touristic Italian restaurant. Can’t remember the name, but the food was decent, yet expensive. We then hit a pizza place for some “dessert”. As we were through, we decided to hit the same coffee place we visited earlier, for another coffee / tea break with an option for some apple pie.

The apple pie option has been unanimously agreed-upon. I exchanged some words with an extremely cute barista until our order was ready. We chilled out for about 15 minutes, talking, sipping great beverages and consuming a tasty apple pie.

We went outside, not before I exchanged a few more words with that same lady. We continued roaming the streets of this wonderful city until we could barely walk anymore. A few minutes walk back to Amsterdam Centraal, a few more minutes for our train to arrive (have I mentioned already how deeply in love I am with western European public transportation?) and we’re already on our way home.

We had a two-minute connection between trains (changing trains in The Hague); fortunately the connecting train’s platform was just facing ours, so the one-minute delay of our train didn’t matter much.

It was already dark when we arrived back in Delft. We chilled out for a bit, to the sound of Eddie Vedder’s “Into the Wild” soundtrack (I got Jeroen hooked as well; slowly but surely, I’m conquering the world and making new friends by introducing them to this extraordinary album), and then decided to hit downtown Delft for the evening.

What a wonderful city Amsterdam is. Very recommended. I will for sure be here again soon.




Anonymous said...

short and sharp: sorry dear, but your deep love for european public transports will be destroyed if/when you try italian trains or buses, bet it ?? daria

Anonymous said...

Well, sorry to hear about that. Is this true only for Italy, or for other west-European countries as well? I'm planning on a European trip this spring / summer so this knowledge can help.

If you posted this comment in order to dissuade me from visiting you in Italy... sorry, didn't work. Expect a visit.


Anonymous said...

ooohhh, I have to hurry up then....I was thinking about 2010 (seven well known guys are planning a tour)

About transports: I can only speak directly for my country,anyway to my knowledge: Germany ++, France +++, Spain +, Italy --,England -(here maybe GF can help)
ciao daria