Friday, November 23, 2012

Amsterdam - Part One of Three

Other posts in this series:
Part Two of Three
Part Three of Three

Since we only spent 2.5 days in Amsterdam, I think I'll be able to cover our visit with three posts. This one will focus on the city of Amsterdam. We began that morning (a Thursday) by taking a Paris city bus to the Gare Nord train station. Not knowing how long it would take to get to the station, we left our hotel very early and were pleased to catch a bus within ten minutes of arriving at the stop (it took about five minutes to walk from the hotel to the bus stop), and then to arrive at Gare Nord within 20 minutes of getting on the bus. So, all told, it took little more than 3/4 of an hour to exit our hotel and get to the train station. We actually arrived two hours or so before our departure time. Being in a strange city, not knowing the local language, etc., we decided it was far better to arrive early and get our bearings in the station than to be just on time or, worse, late. So, we arrived, checked in at the Thalys train line window, found the track from which our train would depart, then found a little cafe in the station where we ate a light breakfast and relaxed before boarding the train. As we waited, we frequently saw armed soldiers - not security guards, but actual French military soldiers - patrolling the station. It was a little disconcerting, but, given the number of terrorist atrocities that have been committed in European train stations over the past several decades, it wasn't surprising.

The train ride was excellent and relaxing. We had free WiFi and lots of refreshments, including lunch, on our four-hour journey. I took advantage of the free WiFi to send some emails to family and catch up on news via the Internet (our hotel WiFi in Paris was iffy, at best, but it was free). I know I've mentioned it before, but I'll mention it again here: Dave and I really like using trains to travel between cities in Europe. We like the relaxing ambience, the comfortable seats with plenty of leg room (unlike most airplanes these days) and the opportunity to see the countryside outside our windows.

We arrived in Amsterdam in the middle of the afternoon. After enjoying lots of sunshine in Paris, I was disappointed that the weather was rather gray when we arrived, as it was much of our second day too. Maybe that just helped me appreciate the glorious sunshine of our final afternoon in the city. Upon arriving at Amsterdam's central train station (a stately old building, like many stations of a bygone era), we took a trolley to our hotel. The trolley took us along a couple of Amsterdam's main streets to the Leidesplein stop. From that point, we walked a couple of blocks to our hotel. This is the view from our window. The hotel was situated in a lovely, quiet little neighborhood.

This is how our hotel looked from the street:

After unpacking our luggage and settling into our very nice hotel room, Dave and I decided to walk around a bit and wend our way, on foot, to the staging area for the canal cruise we had booked for that evening. Here are some pictures of the Leidesplein neighborhood, a bustling area of the city.

One of the things we really enjoyed about Amsterdam was the wide range of cuisines available. In addition to traditional Dutch fare, restaurants offer food from all areas of the world: Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Italy.... You name it, there's probably at least one restaurant in Amsterdam that serves it. On this evening, having had our fill of French cooking, we decided to eat at an Italian restaurant. We were lucky enough to get a table by an aquarium.

A note on cuisine: I like French cooking okay, but I prefer Italian food far more. After five days in Paris, I'd had enough French food (although I will say that all of the Parisian breads and pastries I ate were outstanding; my mouth still waters remembering a wonderful raspberry custard tart I had for dessert one day). In contrast, when we spent seven days in Italy two years ago, I never got tired of the food. In Amsterdam, we ate Dutch (of course), Italian and Brazilian food. Had we been there longer, we probably would have tried some other places that looked good. While I'm writing about food, I'll mention that our hotel had a very good breakfast buffet. I think we paid ten euros apiece for each of the two days we ate there, and it was money well spent.

Given that most, if not all, of The Netherlands lies below sea level, it's not surprising that Amsterdam is lined with canals. When we planned our trip, we thought it would be nice to book a candlelight cruise for our first night in town. Moreover, since we love exploring places on foot, we decided to walk from the hotel to the cruise staging area. Not a good idea for one's first night in a totally new city that has no straight streets in its city center. Amsterdam's canals cut throughout the the city in a series of U-shaped rings, which can be very disorienting to the uninitiated. Upon finishing our great dinner beside the fish tank, we realized we would have to really make tracks in order to catch our cruise. We started hoofing it, thinking we were traveling in fairly straight lines, only to discover, about 30 minutes before boarding time, that we were well over one mile away from our destination. We found a local fellow who gave us some directions, then starting jogging/walking/gasping for air for the next 25 minutes or so. We arrived at a ticket window (wrong cruise line - of course) just 2 or 3 minutes past 9:00 p.m. (2100 local time). The clerk called the right office for us and discovered that the boat had just left, but told us to walk back across a bridge and speak to the agent over there about re-booking. So, we went over there, put on our pitiful sad-stupid tourist faces, and the very understanding clerk allowed us to re-book our cruise for Saturday, our last night in town. 

At this point, I'll make a note about service in Amsterdam. Most of the people we encountered in Amsterdam were extremely polite and helpful. Most of them also spoke excellent English (unlike many Americans and Canadians I know), so language was absolutely not a barrier. 

Now, to continue my narrative. After re-booking our cruise, we decided to walk back to our hotel through Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District. Since this is a family blog, all I'll say about that is that everything you've ever heard or read about the district is true. We also figured out that the best way to travel on foot for the remainder of our stay would be to follow the trolley tracks for any of the three trolley lines that led to Leidesplein. We applied that method, and it worked wonderfully. We never got lost in Amsterdam again. 

Now, since I've written a lot of verbiage, it's time to show you some pictures of Amsterdam's canals.

Two interesting facts about Amsterdam canals.
1. Even though Amsterdam is sometimes called "The Venice of the North," Amsterdam actually has more canals than Venice. Moreover, the characters of both cities are strikingly different. Venice has incredible old world charm, while Amsterdam is a bustling modern city. It has a different sort of charm from Venice, but it's definitely not the same sort of place.
2. Unlike Venice, many people live in houseboats on Amsterdam's canals. Since Venice has a milder climate than Amsterdam, I would have thought the reverse would be true. 

Street traffic in Amsterdam is substantially different from street traffic in North America. One striking difference is that, unlike most North American cities, bikes are clearly the preferred mode of transportation in Amsterdam, and many roadways are designed to accommodate bikes. Bikes are everywhere in Amsterdam. In fact, bike theft is such a serious problem that bikers often use two locks to secure their bikes outdoors. On the plus side, there are plenty of bike rental vendors available, so anyone who is up to biking around the city would probably find it a great way to see a lot in a short while.

A word of caution: pedestrians should always ensure that they are walking on pedestrian sidewalks rather than bike paths, because bikers zip through the lanes where they have the right of way at a good clip. Listen to the voice of experience: one or two close encounters with a fast bicyclist will quickly teach you the wisdom of watching where you walk.

In addition to watching for bicyclists, pedestrians need to watch out for trolleys. As you can see from the photos below, pedestrians, trolleys and bikers all compete for space on several of the main streets. The only distinguishing feature on some streets is the trolley tracks, which mark clearly where the trolleys must go. Pedestrians, bikers, and even car drivers (though none are visible in my photos; there aren't very many of them anywhere in the city - bikes outnumber cars by a huge margin) all compete for space that is up for grabs to the bravest (or stupidest), fastest, or biggest individual on that bit of road.

Another interesting feature of Amsterdam is its architecture. The overall impression I got of Amsterdam was of tidiness. Many of the buildings had clean, attractive lines, although some of the modern buildings are changing that. Many of the buildings in the city center were tall and narrow, and more than a few of them are well over 400 years old.

A note here about cafes and coffee shops. Dave and I ate lunch in a cafe one day. We did not enter any coffee shops, although we walked by quite a few of them. Cafes serve food and beverages and nothing else. Coffee shops sell a variety of marijuana products (I've been told they're stronger than the varieties typically consumed in North America) as well as food and beverages. On a busy night or weekend day, one can smell the marijuana from the street (I suspect that, if one timed it carefully, one could inhale some of the smoke...).

A couple of random shops on one of the city's main thoroughfares (I'm not sure I've ever used that word before except, perhaps, on a spelling test).

Phew! This has been a long post. I'll close with a photo I took on our last evening in town, just before we enjoyed a lovely 90-minute canal cruise. As it turned out, I was happy that we re-booked the cruise. It was a wonderful way to finish our visit to a great European city.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Great pictures!! I love all the canals. That last picture is stunning.
I'm not a big fan of French cooking, but I agree with you about the pastries. YUM!