Trains, Boats, and bicycles. Riding Amsterdam.
“Beside Paris, where else are we going in Europe?” That was Anne asking. While I would have happily stayed in Paris with my folks for 3 weeks, it would have been a shame to travel all this way and not see more of Europe. So after a few brainstorming sessions, some destinations scratched of the list ( London due to Brexit concerns, Italy and Spain because we already sailed there, Poland is too far…) we settled on cities that met the following criteria: they had to be new to all of us, easily accessible by train, enjoy an interesting food scene, and have at least one place of interest for each of us ( being an multigenerational family that means pubs for Mr T, museum for me and fashion shops for Anne ). That’s how Amsterdam in Holland and Munich in Germany made the cut for our one week European escapade.
Amsterdam for 3 days? Here’s what went down.
It is an early start to catch a Thalys train from Paris Nord. The trip is to take 3.5 hours to Amsterdam. All goes well (class comfort, the equivalent of premium economy) until we reach Brussels.
There they can’t close the doors and after 30 minutes trying to fix the issue, the SNCF ( French Railways ) decides to cancel the train and instructs everyone to move to another train on the platform next door and grab whichever seat they can. It is mayhem, as both trains are full and need reservations, so no one gives up their seats. We end up standing in the luggage section for 90 minutes all the way to Amsterdam. So much for photo opportunities and a relaxing trip!
We arrive in Amsterdam before lunch and catch a tram to the hotel. We are staying at the Apollofirst, a boutique hotel in the Southern district of the city. While it is a 20 minutes tram ride from the Central Station, it is within walking distance of the museum quarters and the historic centre.
As our room is not ready yet, we drop our bags and have lunch nearby at Vanderveen Bar & Kitchen, as recommended by the hotel manager. We’re told it is Dutch food but really it wouldn’t be out of place in a Cronulla café. Anne orders a Caesar salad while Mr T and I share a fish platter (smoked salmon, white anchovies, soft shell crab, raw tuna…yummy) as well as bread and dips. Service is friendly once you get the boys attention, I think you need to be assertive and make eye contact otherwise they leave you alone. After 2 pints of beer Mr T comes to life again.
We head back into the centre of town and catch an open boat for a tour of the canals. The skipper is our tour guide, Martin. He is nice and knowledgeable, giving us a running commentary of sort.
Amsterdam was originally founded as a fishing village in the 12th century and derives its name from the Amstel River on which it is located and the dam that was built in 1220 to avoid the floods from the ZuiderZee (South Sea) entering the inlands. Most of the 165 canals were hand dug in the 17th century, during the Golden Age, as an efficient way to transport goods from the big ships in the harbor to the doorsteps of canalside merchants. They combine for a length of over 100 kilometers (about 65 miles) and became part of the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2010.
We cruise around the Canal Ring for 90minutes, passing the grand residences of the Gentleman’s Canal, many Dancing Houses ( so called because the soil was so swampy that homes along the canals had to be built on stilts. Over the years they have settled and sunk into the mud, so now many of the canal houses in Amsterdam are tilted and leaning forward!) All have very narrow steps and entrances, so need a crane device on the front façade to haul furniture or large items that can’t be brought in thru the stairs. And why are the buildings so narrow? Because they used to be taxed on how wide they were, inspiring people to build long, narrow houses to avoid high taxes.
Now that we have our bearings, Anne drags me to one of the main shopping streets looking for clothes she apparently can’t find in Australia or France. In Kalverstraat she is in teenage girl heaven with big chain shops like Zara, H&M and Urban Outfitters . Mr T is not impressed and retires in a “brown” bar which happens to be run by a guy with an Irish accent and swallows a shot every time he serves a customer. The perfect pub owner!!!
A couple of hours and drinks later, we’re all too tired to look for a fancy place for dinner so we make our way closer to the hotel and we split: burger and golden fries takeaway for Anne who goes back to the room, Chinese for Mr T and I down the road at the New China City restaurant. It is not the Dutch delicacy I was hoping for our first night in Amsterdam, but it is nevertheless a comforting meal of fried rice and roast duck after a long day.
We shun breakfast at the hotel the next morning, Anne and I going out to the local bakery on an early walk instead. The neighbourhood of Beethoven Strasse is a residential one with stately homes and quiet streets. It is different from the congested canal houses which Mr T finds claustrophobic. We walk past schools, bookshops, delis setting up for the day…the bakery offers choices of breads, pastries and biscuits. We lost all healthy resolve and buy Dutch scones ( they have raisins in them ), frikadelle pastry ( like a sausage roll except the curried tomato sauce is already INSIDE the roll with the pork and veal meat filling ), and I can’t resit a gevulde koeken because it reminds me of my friend Marie Suzanne who is half French-half Dutch and taught me how to make them years ago when she visited me on the boat.
The plan for the day is to split. Terry and I are headed for the Rijkmuseum ( that’s the only request I have while in Amsterdam, that and the Tulip gardens ) while Anne prefers to browse in the other main shopping quarter of Leidsestraat. I am glad I followed the advice to book entry tickets to the museum online, as the queues at the ticket counter are incredibly long. Inside the museum hall, the crowds are equally dense, and it takes a lot of juggling and positioning to get a photo of the paintings without anyone in the frame.
I feel very fortunate to have attended the Rembrandt exhibition at the gallery of NSW in Sydney a couple of years ago, where some of the works were on display, so I don’t feel too disappointed and can see less known items instead. Still, it took us 2 ½ hours to explore the 4 floors displaying collections of Dutch masterpieces, mostly paintings but also sculptures, jewellery and even an aircraft!
Having worked up an appetite, we end up grabbing a snack from the Seafood Shop in Leidsestraat before meeting Anne. Herrings sandwich for me and fried fish sandwich for Mr T, typically dutch we’re told. It is different, mine is quite tasty and filling despite its small size!
Once reunited, Anne and I end up wandering the streets and canals for a while, discovering the different areas of 9 Streets, Jordaan, Old Town while Mr T explores the delights of the Red Light District ( nothing to see, he tells me later on!). We pass by Anne Franck’s House, the queue is long snaking around the building, an evidence of how hard it is to obtain a ticket. I particularly enjoy the quirky specialty shops and the intimacy of some of the cafes and restaurants. Mr T finds the whole place too claustrophobic for him, and I can understand how the dutch are so social and open, you would have to be in order to get out of these houses!
As the weather is cold and rainy we decide to have dinner closer to our hotel again, this time at Cafe Wildschut. This is like a brasserie style cafe/bar that serves classic dutch fare like kroketten and frikadellen as well as standard pub grub such as cheeseburgers or caesar salad. We start with the mixed plate of fried bites, made up of vegetable spring rolls, cheese rolls, beef croquettes, and spicy flames. Anne gives the thumbs up to the chicken satays served with fries, Mr T went the simple way with steak and chips, while I sampled the salad of the day made of greens, fried mushrooms, bacon, tomatoes and taleggio cheese. Some was in cubes, the rest was melted on top, different but still good!
On our last day, I insist we go to Keukenhof, the famous tulip garden. It only opens 2 months of the year during blooming season, March to May. It is easy enough to get there, after getting directions from the hotel ( 15mn walk to Europaplein, catch bus 852 direct to the garden for 30 euros each ). The excursion is a popular one though, we have to wait 40mn to board the bus or the equivalent of 3 bus loads, it is that busy!! The journey takes 40mn driving thru the dutch countryside.
Once again, I bought the tickets online to save time queuing, but the crowds at the gardens are crazy! It feels like the whole of Europe and half of Asia decided to visit on that Easter Thursday. There are busloads of tourists, carparks are full of motorhomes and hundreds of bicycles are whizzing around ( you can load your bike on the train or bus, and ride for the rest of the way ). Mr T is unimpressed, comparing the place to Disneyland, and I make a mental note to stay away from mass tourism next time. Then I side with Anne who is excited to tick an item of her bucket list, no matter how ridiculously crowded it is.
SO we spend 3 hours, walking around, literally smelling flowers, while dodging prams, wheelchairs, walkers, selfie sticks and trying to take photos of the beautiful flowers without too many people photobombing. We’re lucky, the weather is gloriously sunny and it ends up being fun. Until it is time to hop on the bus back and we’re standing up all the way to Amsterdam. By then Mr T has had enough of our shenanigans and decline the next activity of the day, which is bicycle riding for Anne and I.
As pedestrians we’ve had troubles dealing with bicycles so far. They are supposed to follow the road rules but they don’t. They have dedicated bike lanes and ring their bells whenever pedestrians walk in their way, cross the roads whenever they feel like it,… But since you can’t go to Amsterdam and NOT ride a bike, we hire a couple for a few hours and very quickly feel like locals riding all over the place ( except in the city centre because that’s too scary !) We stick to parks ( Beatrixpark and Vondelpark) and the quieter neighbourhoods near Apollolan and Cornelis Schuytstraat. I love it there, the place really reminds me of New York City and Central park area.
Probably because of this bit of travel trivia. Do you know that today’s NYC occupies what was once the dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in the 17th century? It served as the seat of the new colonial government of New Netherlands until the end of the second Anglo-dutch war of 1667, when England and the Netherlands signed a treaty where the English kept the island of Manhattan and the rest of the colony in exchange of Surinam in South America and the island of Run in Indonesia which were abandoned to the Dutch.
Our last dinner in Amsterdam is at Brasserie Vandam , in the very elegant neighbourhood of “De Schuyt” bordering Vondelpark. It is a balmy spring evening and all outside tables are taken so we sit inside. The clientele is a mix of local families, well dressed ladies out for a wine and salad night, older couples sharing a decadent dessert…Service is swift and friendly, with a sense of efficiency. The waitress comes back twice within 5 minutes asking for our order before realising that we’re not going to look at the menu without drinks first. Arghhhh, Aussies!!
We share a cauliflower pizza with prosciutto and rocket ( very on-trend !) , Mr T orders truffle ravioli ( very unusual for him!) and Anne a veal schnitzel served with fries and mayo ( that’s a Dutch thing!). All is nice and familiar flavours, but not much different to what you’d find on a Sydney restaurant menu.
Asparagus are in season and that’s tonight’s 25 euros special. Mr T questions the wisdom of paying that much money for a bunch of asparagus, but they are white fat asparagus, rarely seen in Australia and such a delicacy here, they are the heroes of the dish, served with ham, soft boiled eggs, baby potatoes and a beurre blanc sauce. Pricey? Yes. Worth it? At least once.
Both Mr T and Anne order dessert ( lemon tart for one, Nutella Cheesecake for the other ) which we then need to walk off by wandering in Vondelpark as night sets in and this part of Amsterdam turns quiet and silent.
This was a quick visit but we really enjoyed it. Though Amsterdam is a major European city it doesn’t feel like one. It is easy to navigate on foot or by bike. Public transports are quite efficient, with the purchase of a chip card that allows you to travel on tram, buses, metro and ferries ( similar to Sydney’s Opal card ). While the Dutch people are a practical and assertive bunch ( i.e direct and to the point! ) they also are very gregarious and open minded with everybody speaking English quite fluently. And for those of you wondering, no we didn’t try any brownie in a coffeeshop!