Feb. 5, 2016: Amsterdam
This morning we walk the short distance from Joost’s house to the Beverwijck train station. There is no attendant on duty to check our Eurail passes, and we can’t get through the turnstile. But fortunately there is an assistance phone on the wall, and equally fortunately, the lady who answers speaks perfectly good English. So in no time we are on our way to Amsterdam Central Station.
The first thing you notice about Amsterdam, at least when exiting Central Station, is not the canals, though there are certainly plenty of those.
It isn’t the classic architecture, though there’s certainly plenty of that.
It isn’t the legendary Holland tulips, though there are indeed plenty of those.
Nope. It’s the bicycles.
Tons and tons of bicycles.
There are reportedly more bicycles than people residing in Amsterdam: about 800,000 people as compared to 850,000 bicycles.
This is not hard to believe, because not only does virtually everybody ride one…
… but people often seem to own more than one, with different bikes for different purposes.
So there are more bikes even though riders sometimes double up.
Or even triple up.
These bikes (which will bowl you over if you’re not careful) lead us down some narrow, colorful streets and alleys.
And into some colorful plazas.
Filled with colorful people doing colorful things.
The mass of humanity is overwhelming in many places, even though it’s the middle of winter. This is definitely the most crowded city we’ve visited yet. And yet, there are also a few relatively secluded little nooks like the Begijnhof, which is accessible by what is almost a hidden passageway.
It’s Amsterdam’s only medieval courtyard, and features some very old houses.
Including the oldest wooden house in the city, constructed in 1528.
These are mostly private residences now, but were originally part of a beguinage, a quasi-monastic religious community. During the 17th Century, Amsterdam experienced one of those periodic episodes in which one religious faction establishes itself by brute force as the One True Way Of God, and all others scramble underground. This time it was the Calvinists who were “it”, and the Catholics had to lay low; the little church here was a secret place of worship for them. The entrance still looks rather covert.
And the chapel is still in use today.
Another place that provides a bit of respite from the madding crowd is the Amsterdam Museum, housed in what was an orphanage for about four centuries.
In the rather quiet courtyard is a sampling of exhibits found inside, displayed in little windows.
One of the remaining traces of the orphanage is the very old water spigot, accompanied by a plaque explaining that rain water was collected for drinking because water from the ground was terrible tasting rather than terribly tasty.
There is an admission charge for the museum proper, but it does have a little foyer with art exhibits that you can pass through for free.
Naturally, this being Holland/ The Netherlands, we encounter windmills, including a very old one in the heart of town. We start doing goofy poses in front of it, and a couple of college-age guys whose car is stopped at an intersection are so amused that they start taking photos of us, which in turn amuses us, and inspires us to ham it up for their cameras even more.
When our electronic devices start to become drained and our feet have become weary and our bladders have become full, we seek out a coffee shop to plunk ourselves down in for a bit. That’s when we realize that “coffee shop” in Amsterdam often means pot parlor. They have several varieties of the stuff, stacked on the counter in Tupperware containers, that you can savor along with your cup of Joe (and lots and lots of pastry, no doubt). These establishments are sometimes labeled as green coffee shops to avoid confusion, but with most of them, you don’t realize what you’re getting into until you walk in the door and the burnt-rope aroma hammers you hard enough to knock you into the next block.
But we at length do manage to find a suitable coffee shop in the old-fashioned sense of the word. And it serves pretty good coffee. And it has a restroom free to customers, which is always a vital consideration in European cities.
Actually, Amsterdam offers a sort of partial solution if you happen to have a Y chromosome and are not overly concerned about privacy. There are little outdoor urinals, enclosed in a very minimal screen, where you can take a whizz as traffic and pedestrians whizz by.
So if you don’t mind draining the dragon under such circumstances, have at it. If you’re a female, you’ll just have to hop around frantically for a while longer. You’d think that in a city progressive enough to decriminalize marijuana and hookery the officials would be savvy enough to realize that women need more real estate for tinkling than men do.
Anyway, after we’ve replenished ourselves we continue strolling around this city’s grand old houses and buildings.
And along the waterways.
Where we explore the many stalls selling their wares.
And pass a compound of some kind that seems to be having a very high-security event attended by dignitaries. The law enforcement personnel of many flavors are thick.
Inevitably, we come to a red light district. Not “the red light district” as you often hear people say, because there are more than one. This seems to be a major one, however, and we stumble into it quite unexpectedly in a narrow pedestrian thoroughfare across from a church. So after parishioners receive absolution for their sins, they can dash across the alley to acquire some new ones, thus sustaining two ancient institutions.
There are signs up telling you not to take photos of the businesswomen who are stationed in their shop fronts. So we don’t. We do, however, take photos of the street itself. Whenever some jerk tries to photograph one of them against her will, she’ll hide behind a curtain and peek out until he’s gone. One of the ladies, thinking that I’m violating the rule, taps on the glass as we walk past and wags a finger at me disapprovingly. I gesture to indicate that I am quite innocent of the charges, and she must have mistaken me for another jerk.
Before we head back home for the night, we stop at an Albert Heijn, a superb supermarket chain. In fact, if this one particular store is an indication, they are the best places to shop for food that we’ve found in Europe yet. The selection is dizzying.
On the train back to Joost’s house, we have first class accommodations, even though it’s a rather busy commuter train. I sit in a seat behind Kimberly, and across from her is a commuter who apparently doesn’t belong in first class. Along comes the female conductor, who stops at Kimberly and checks our passes, then turns to the man across from her and gives him what-for, in Dutch, for being in the wrong car. We can’t understand a word, but the gist of it is clear: he protests that he should be allowed to ride here, since the other cars are packed, and there’s plenty of room here. But she stays on him like a pitbull until he grudgingly moves. Then she turns to me, apparently expecting another fight, but I point to Kimberly as if to say “I’m with her — you checked our passes, remember”. She nods in understanding, seemingly as relieved as I am, and she moves on.
Back at home, we tell Joost of our plans to visit the Anne Frank House tomorrow. He seems bewildered that we would bother, mentioning that he recently had guests from Texas and, “they also thought it was really important to go there.”
Maybe it’s just because you tend to take tourist attractions for granted when you live nearby — I lived in San Francisco for 15 years, but never went to Alcatraz until years later. But we can’t imagine being this close to such an important historic and cultural landmark and not going.