Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Final Hours...

The trip is entering its final hours. I've just come back from my last dinner and am enjoying my last beer (Chimay) while I type this. Let me fill in some details of the last few days. I'll attempt to do this in a family safe manner. And, I can start out by saying I did absolutely nothing illegal.

Amsterdam seems to be another city with a focus on shopping, eating and passing time at the numerous cafes. Different streets and squares attract crowds at different times of the day. For example, walking down one of the main pedestrian only shopping streets is shoulder to shoulder in the afternoon. But, after 7pm or so its completely deserted. Deserted to the point where you no longer feel safe just walking down it. There were a few places like this in the city, but it was always easy enough to backtrack and be in a crowd again. This is also a city that definitely requires a map. Many of the streets bend and curve and you often end up in unexpected places. But, its generally easy to find out where you are and get headed in the right direction again. And the city area is definitely small enough that getting around on foot is quite easy.

In Dublin, I commented that everyone looked familiar and still had strong features from their ancestry. In Amsterdam, no one looks the same as another. The people that I've met that work here migrated either from other parts of the country or immigrated from other countries - truly a melting pot. Similar to New York (which is fitting since New York is New Amsterdam).

Other than the bars, cafes, coffeeshops and wandering the streets, I didn't get a good sense of other things to do at night. The language hampered this - all the free events papers are in Dutch. One of the locals mentioned concerts from well known bands are a frequent occurrence.

The weather has remained a bit less than ideal. Its remained a bit cold and extremely windy which makes sitting outside at a cafe not that enjoyable (though many try). All the cafes have indoor areas, but they can be a bit smokey (which is even more of a problem when you have limited clothing and no access to laundry). There have also been passing showers, with this morning (Sunday) being the worst with a fairly steady, cold rain until about noon. As a result, the parks are a bit muddy and not a place where you want to stop and read (or do a Sudoku puzzle).

As with Brussels, there are lots of construction projects underway. Some of them are in the parks and other public places. I'm guessing that they might be trying to do a lot of this work in the "off season" to make the city nice during peak season - but it could be that Amsterdam is just so old that there will always be a number of projects underway for maintenance of the buildings, canals and streets. And, as you walk the streets, you can't help but notice that many of the buildings are crooked (uneven settling). Altogether, it seems that Amsterdam is "well worn" - don't expect the major buildings to be clean and shiny or the parks to be well landscaped and inviting. Again, a bit like New York - when certain things are viewed from a distance, they still look grand, but as you get closer you find lots of faults or just a general dinginess from many years of heavy use (and abuse) that's hard to describe. Some may find this part of Amsterdam's charm - I'm not one of them.

Back to the museums. I promised more details on why I would recommend them all - but I'm not sure there are many more to provide. The Rijksmuseum did a good job with the narrative that took you from hall to hall - telling the story of Dutch painters and art, culminating with Rembrandt. The Night Watch is an impressive work - and there is a 3d version (sculpture) in Rembrandtplein which is great to walk through after you've seen the painting. Another plus with the Rijksmuseum is that the rennovations to the main building means that only the core works are on exhibit which makes it fairly easy to get through in its entirity without feeling overwhelmed.

In the Van Gogh museum, there was a Rembrandt - Carravaggio exhibition that compared the works of the two painters. The biggest problem with this was the crowds - otherwise it was well presented with a decent audio tour. After that, on to the main collection which was presented as a chronology of Van Gogh's life. It was interesting to see the changes take place in his style - including some experimentation in other styles that he did along the way. And, there are a number of works that are often reproduced in print or books that are fun to see in person - especially since his style is rich in texture.

The Heineken Experience was a combination of a brewery tour and Disney. In addition to telling the history of the company, you go on two rides - one where you are a bottle going down the bottling line and another where you guide a set of horses through the streets of Amsterdam to deliver the beer. Basically, you stood or sat while what you were standing or sitting on moved in sequence with video you were seeing. Nothing special - but it was nice that they tried to do something a bit different. Halfway through, you are treated to your first half-pint of beer. At the end of the journey, you get 2 more half-pints. On exit, you get a free gift - a nice glass in a tin canister to make getting it home easy. Given that this cost 10 euro, it was a good deal for the money.

But, the Anne Frank house was definitely the most impressive in terms of impact - again not so much for what it contains, but the manner in which it tells the story - mostly in her own words.

Yesterday (Saturday), I went to Keukenhof ( This is a famous flower park that's only open for about 8 weeks each year located in Lisse. Getting there involved taking a train to Leiden and then a bus to Keukenhof. Neither was that difficult and both the buses and trains run about every 15 minutes so keeping a close eye on time isn't necessary as you never have to wait long.

Unlike the parks in Amsterdam, this park was extremely well landscaped with many, many (many) different flower beds planted throughout. They did a good job ensuring some were in full bloom, but from the looks of things, the real show starts a few weeks from now when even more of the beds come into bloom. Even so, it was quite an enjoyable day in the park. There are plenty of areas to sit and relax and a number of different cafes to grab a coffee or bite to eat. There was also a working windmill (working in that the canvas was lowered and the blades turning - at quite a good clip actually, due to the high wind - it wasn't actually milling anything) that you could go in and climb for a view out to the tulip fields. There were also a couple of indoor pavillions - the two most impressive being the orchids and the tulips. Both contained numerous flowers in full bloom with several that were far different than anything I've ever seen. Add in some pigs, sheep and bunnies and a bird show and it makes for a nice outing - again, it would have been more enjoyable on a nicer day (or at least less windy) and I'm sure would be even more impressive later in April or early in May.

On return, I wandered through a quite a large and nice outdoor market that takes place every Saturday in Noordermarkt - a mixture of food, clothing and other goods available at good prices.
Today, I joined a guided bike tour - I figured it was a good way to ride a bike through Amsterdam without getting hopelessly lost or killed. As the weather this morning was terrible, I waited for the last minute to join the group, but am glad I did. The group was only 3 others plus the leader, so it was very informal (though sometimes the "script" becomes so programmed for the guides that its hard to make the narrative fully interactive). We stopped at a handful of places in the city and the guide (from Minnesota, but moved here in 1999) gave a history of the city's vices along with some of the country's history. We then followed the Amstel upstream south to a cheese and clog factory just outside of Amsterdam. A bit touristy, but they did make a clog which was interesting (though the machinery makes it quite easy) and the cheese samples were quite good. Unfortunately, the lack of hills and easy pace didn't provide much exercise, but it was a welcome change to walking everywhere.

I should comment on the hotel. The hotel breakfast is not much - toast, cereal, croissant and coffee. The hotel walls and doors are also extremely thin - you can here everyone coming up and down the stairs and talking in the halls. A lot of times it sounds like someone is in the room with you or about to enter the room. And, there's been a crying baby next door for the last 2 nights. But, it is on a tram line and once I got a pass it's been easy to get back and forth to other parts of the city when I don't feel like walking. Overall, I probably wouldn't stay here again even though the price was good (115 euro) and the staff friendly.

On to the food. The first meal I had was Belgian fries with pepper sauce. I have no idea why there is no American chain that makes and serves them in the same manner. They are truly better than anything I've had elsewhere and there's always a line. Maybe I'll start a chain and get rich. Hmm... Dinner Thursday was at a good Thai restaurant in the Chinatown area. Saturday was a nice Mexican restaurant where I had a type of Mexican lasagne that was made with cacao - never had anything quite like it before. Tonight, it was the same Thai place - but this time the less formal (cheaper) restaurant/take-out place across the street.

On Friday, I did venture into a coffee shop (for "research purposes" of course). In the one I visited, the smoking area was in the basement. As you walk down the stairs, you see a booth with a man inside next to a scale. Next to the booth is a big red button. Press and hold the button and a "menu" lights up outside the booth. On the menu are about 20 different types of pot for sale and the prices for different amounts. When the people ahead of me ordered, it appeared as if something came down from above, was measured out to the right weight and then given to the buyer.

I was next - how to choose... Simplicity was important, so I asked what was already rolled. There were only two - I chose "white widow". For something like 20 euro, you get 5 all nicely rolled with filters. The pot that's sold rolled comes mixed with tobacco - from visual inspection, I'd say its about 65-85% tobacco. Next, you have to order something if you wish to stay and smoke. Not all coffeeshops have liquor licenses so I had a diet coke. Then, you find a seat and join the many others that are smoking. There's a wide mix of people inside - in this place on this particular night, most seemed young and no one seemed to be totally stoned or out of control. Overall, an interesting experience - but didn't really get much from it other than being able to share the tale with others.

I'm sure the high number of coffeeshops explains the other common sighting - snack places with what looks to be bread covered with cheese in just about every from you can imagine - from sandwiches to pizza. All of it looks cold and a bit like plastic. But, I'm sure many people get the munchies at which point this food looks like heaven. There are also stores that sell hot food via what is essentially a giant vending machine. Hot food is placed behind windows in little compartments. Sometime later, people like what they see in that window, put money in, the window unlocks and they take the food. I didn't try any - I can't imagine how it could taste good.

As for the other vice - the red light district - again, an interesting experience to walk through mostly for being able to pass on the story of the experience. On a number of streets in the district (which is fairly small and concentrated), you see red lights above glass doors with red curtains. When someone is available, the curtain is open and the woman inside attempts to entice you to come inside - this includes tapping the window, the "come here" finger movement, and sometimes opening the door to say "come on in" or some such. The girls are scantily clad - but about the same as you'd see on a beach (no nudity). Some girls are good looking, some average and some you truly wonder why they chose this profession and wonder how they stay in business. You always feel safe as you wander through as there are always crowds around. It seemed like the most promiment groups were college age boys on holiday or middle-age Japanese businessmen. And, as you'd expect, there are a large number of adult themed stores and other adult shows available for those that wish to part with their money.

Throughout the trip, there have been other things that I wanted to share but had forgotten when I got a chance to type. If/when these surface, I'll post them, but for now one parting observation. It seems like every country has there own style of toilet. This is something that you would think would have been perfected by now and that there would only be one style necessary worldwide. Guess not.

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