I love to travel. This is not news for those who know me even a little. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if you met me one time, you would know this straightaway as I always manage to bring this up as an icebreaker – I love to meet people who have a passion for travel. So when the opportunity arises to go somewhere new, I’m just the person who would show up knocking on your door. Consider this a warning should you ever say “you should come visit”… because I will. This is how I happened to come to Amsterdam. A friend and former colleague moved to The Netherlands at the end of 2010 to begin what she thought would be a year long contract working and traveling around Europe (she’s currently heading into the middle of year two). Being a smart women and seeing this as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to grow personally and professionally, she took a leap of faith and moved halfway around the world to a place she’d never been to before. From the moment I heard she was headed to Europe, I knew I would need to pay her a visit. In fact, I was very close to visiting in December after my trip to Copenhagen but opted to come later, when the weather would be warmer and the days longer. As it turned out, the days were much longer (sunset at 9 verses 3:30) although I can’t say the weather cooperated as much… One nice day out of four but it was the best day so I shan’t complain.
It was a particularly grueling flight because of a short turnaround after being home just 4 days from a business trip to the UK, but I was excited for vacation and crossing off a few more cities off my bucket list. Getting virtually no sleep on the flight, we landed mid morning. Rachel was waiting outside the arrivals hall. It was nice be welcomed by a friendly face after traveling so many hours and especially helpful for navigating Schipol – a very large shopping centre, train station and yes, sometimes airport. For the record, we landed at the outermost runway and it took a good 15 minutes just to get over by the terminal so it’s not just the actual terminal that’s large.
We hopped the train (after Starbucks, of course) and headed to Centraal Station and Rachel’s apartment. It was as I imagined it to be… Canals surrounded by old buildings, all with their own unique style. There were bikes everywhere, parked along the railings and cars that seemed a little to close to the canal for my comfort. Trees were leafed out, some with pretty pink blossoms a sure sign that spring had arrived. What I noticed right away on the 10 minute walk from the station to Rachel’s was how quiet it was for a city. Very little to no traffic sounds and you could hear the birds singing. Rachel lives on the second level (internationally this actually means the third level) so we had 2 flights or narrow, windy steps to climb with baggage. This was not easy after our travel but the thought of a shower and change of clothes was motivating enough.
Rachel was a bit surprised that we were ready to start touring right away but not being a napper, I knew if I went to sleep, I’d struggle with trying to adjust to the time so I had to suck it up and keep moving. We managed to cover quite a bit of ground with Rachel sharing her knowledge of her home and life as an expat. We stopped for lunch and for a piece of apple pie and mint tea. Oh, and more Starbucks. Like the Energizer Bunny, we kept on going. And going. And going. Surprisingly, we lasted until 10 PM when we couldn’t go any further.
Saturday we were raring to go despite the gloomy weather. First stop was the Van Gogh museum. Rachel got us on our way by train then by tram. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought a rainy day meant museum day as the queue was quite long. Rachel then met back up with us at The Apple Store so we continued on with our sightseeing and ending with a canal tour in the evening as the sun was setting. This is where we learned that despite spending a rather large fortune on curbs alongside the canals, they still fish out on average, one car a week. You cannot imagine how narrow the streets are and how close they park to the edge. No thank you! I’d stick to walking or biking. Parking is bloody expensive anyway and there are trains and trams (my favorite!).
Other fun facts include the city has existed from 1275, the reason the buildings are narrow is because they were taxed based on the ground space so better to build upwards rather than outward. To move large items, one must use a rope and pulley system verses hauling them up narrow staircases. They flush the canal system nightly, which helps with the trash but it is still not water you would want to swim in. There are many people who live in boats along the various canals, some resemble shacks whilst some are quite fancy. The biggest and probably most important lesson – don’t go looking for coffee in a coffee shop. Coffee shops are where one might indulge if one were interested in getting high. If you truly want coffee, then look for a cafe. Yes, marijuana is legal in Amsterdam but before you go booking a ticket, you must be a citizen of The Netherlands and they will ask for ID that is verified electronically in real time so unless you find a hungry college student looking to make a buck, it is not easy to partake in this particular recreational activity. Personally, I have no interest in something that smells so bad I want to vomit.
Then there is the red light district. The infamous area where scantily clad women show their wares in windows. Again, not something I was interested in. But be careful, if you want to avoid this area you’d better know where it is, because one wrong turn you could be seeing things that would make Vegas blush. Obviously, we did this… took a wrong turn but quickly realized where we were. The red lights on the side of the building are your first clues albeit they are harder to see during the daylight hours.
Sunday was another rainy day so we set out to see Anne Frank’s Haus. I read her diary several times growing up but there is nothing like seeing the actual attic where eight people hid for two years. It was a truly moving experience, seeing the pencil marks where Otto marked his daughters’ growth and the picture Anne hung on the walls to cheer her up. There was an American couple behind us in line discussing the book. The man had not read the book, saying he didn’t see the point, he knew how it ended. Towards the end of the tour however, he told his wife he didn’t realize what it all meant (hiding, being quiet, no lights, not being able to look outside, food shortage, being betrayed, etc.). I believe I saw a smug grin by his wife who spent the better part of an hour trying to get him to realize the importance of reading a girl’s diary. We then went back to meet Rachel before heading out to Zaanse Schans, just outside of Amsterdam to see the windmills. That evening, we met up with two friends of Rachel, Americans who live in Germany, for dinner and some pre Queen’s Day activities.
As for Queen’s Day, I’ll save that for another post. Stay tuned…
Oh, about pictures… I’ll have to post later. I didn’t bring my laptop so they are still on my camera.