We arrive in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, a huge and crowded site, the weather chilly and overcast. Our hotel, the Amrath-Amsterdan in the old quarter near the Central Station. Our suite, looking out onto a canal with houseboats docked along its sides, has 14-foot ceilings with nicely decorated walls coverings. The mini-bar is gratis which we make good use of by finishing the two half-bottles of wine with our daily portion of peanuts that are provided each day.
On our first walk, we pass through the red-light district, which is not very far from our hotel. Sex must sell because it is the most crowded area we experience during our stay, the narrow street and pavements overflowing with tourists and customers; the area, however, is as much, perhaps more so, a tourist destination than an old style bordello area. Restaurants and small businesses, including sex shops, are interspersed among the bay-window houses where the girls display their wares in half-naked garb, occasionally cooling at passersby and, no doubt, amused by them.
Of course, the houses along the canals are unique, mainly 4-stories high with tall, usually single pane glass windows. The brick work in the improbable-looking narrow facades all seem to be fairly recently built and the gables, probably their most unusual and distinguishable characteristic, certainly one of their most well known, are varied in their designs, making a full view of them along a canal a pictorial smorgasbord and visual treat. Along each row of houses, however, one or two will show a noticeable flaw, facades and window frames leaning, sometime severely, toward one of their neighbors. This feature is, probably, a metaphor for the city, a neat, orderly overall administrative structure with a slightly skewed underbelly of bordellos and smoke cafes (pot cafes), orderly but, nonetheless, a little off-center.
Despite the red-light district and leaning houses, the most noticeable feature to me is the bicycles. Bicycles, bicycles, bicycles everywhere; black bicycles, light colored bicycles, new bicycles, small bicycles, big bicycles, bicycles with plastic container boxes on them, bicycles with saddle bags on the, bicycles with baby seats on them, bicycles with fair, blond, pretty long-legged girls on them, bicycles with grey-haired women on them, bicycles with suited men on them, all trying to run over me, to catch me, to savage me. O.K, O.K, it is not quite that bad. But they have a plan. Yes, they place their bikes in neat bike racks when available. But they tie them to the railings along the canals, tie them to traffic signs, singly, also triple layered, rest them against a stoop, usually stacked-up, taking over the narrow pavement, even lay them on the pavement stacked-up leaving no room for a pedestrian to walk. A pedestrian’s only recourse is to step into the bike path which rests between the street and pavement to advance down the pavement. One must look 16 ways before stepping into the bike path and, then, before taking his first step, reconsider his action.
The bicycle is king in Amsterdam; keep in mind that there are more bicycles than people in the city. It reigns over the pedestrian, the automobile and even the tram and many cyclists, knowing this, ride with abandon down the paths. The gabled-capped houses are worthy of admiration, but you risk admiring them at your peril. Walk down a canaled street heads-up admiring the gables, and you are likely to have a confrontation with a bike, avoiding the ‘king of the street’ only with a quick sidestep.
Amsterdam has many restaurants with sidewalk tables which, in sunny weather, would make for a pleasant respite from a day of walking. Unfortunately, the weather for us was chilly and cloudy with only occasional sun mixed with occasional drizzle and prevented us and many others from taking advantage of that prominent feature of the city. On our way to the Museum area, we leisurely walk down many canaled streets with their narrow facades, fanciful gables, bridges leading to the next street, some of commonplace design, some lacking any design, some designed with architectural interest in mind, and a few old draw bridges that add an additional feature to an already satisfying image of the city.
The museum square is a large park-like area, the famous Rijksmuseum anchoring one end, the Van Gogh Museum anchoring the other end with the Diamond Museum off to one side. A large piece of artwork spelling the letters, Amsterdam, has children and teens posing for pictures on the letters and lies between the two. The area is teeming with tourists anxious to see the two most visited museums in Amsterdam. After collecting our tickets for the Van Gogh at a kiosk, which gives us an 11am entrance time to the museum on our blue colored coded tickets, we approach the entrance, which has other separately colored coded lines. After some initial confusion, the lines seem to merge together, we find our place in the appropriate line and wait. Eleven passes without entrance. Tired of being herded together like cattle, I decide to leave the line.; Diane, terribly interested in seeing Van Gogh’s, decides to continue and enters the museum a little later. She later relates that once in the building, it was not overly rowded and genuinely enjoyed the venue. I, meanwhile, sit in the crowded park next to a young couple and inadvertently take in the sweet aroma from their cigarette.
The following day we travel to Keukenhof Gardens south of the city, about 45 minutes away. The garden is a 32 hectare (about 80 acres) park abounding in tulips and other tubers arranged in multi-colored rows, simple patterns and complex designs, all creating a truly panoply of color and imbuing one with a feeling that they are in an old Walt Disney animated movie and should be dancing along the paths. The tulips are just about at their peak, and you are surrounded by color, bright, brilliant color, as you leisurely walk through the park that is not as crowded as we expected. It is one of the highlights of the trip. The park is dedicated to the tulip and is only opened when the tulips are in bloom, about two months a year, usually April and May and is one of the reasons we decided to stopover in Amsterdam.
The journey to the park exposes us to the singular characteristic of Holland, flat, reclaimed land brought into agricultural use, usually grazing land. The highway on which we ride is elevated several feet from the landscape that we pass and narrow canals, perhaps 8 to 10 in width, enclose the land and separate the elevated highway from the landscape. On one stretch of the road, a house would from time to time sit on one side of the canal and an automobile on the other side, a raft resting on the water ready to transport someone to their home on the other side.
Today, we tour the cities of Edam–the home of the eponymous cheese, now often produced outside of the town in automated factories–Vollendam and Marken, once an island, now connected by a causeway to the mainland and Zaanse Schans which has several old-fashioned windmills. Both Edam and Vollendam are clean, neatly arranged small towns several miles apart. We walk through historic Edam with its small, pretty homes, cottage-like, standing without much space between them on the narrow cobblestoned streets, more like alleyways, running alongside narrow canals. Across the canal are larger, more modern homes with meticulously manicured gardens. All are attractive to see, but there is nor much else in town.
Vollendam is a more touristy town, the retaining dyke a promenade with souvenir shops and restaurants lining it and the place we are to take a boat across the Markermeer, a large sea created from the country’s reclamation activity. At lunch we sit with a Chinese national businesswoman on her way to a meeting in Germany and have a pleasant conversation.
On our last day a light rain is falling making for a perfect museum day. We decide to end our visit at the Hermitage Museum, a branch of the St. Petersburg Hermitage, one of the less known museums in the city and we hope less visited. Our wish is fulfilled, and the exhibition on display is devoted to artwork depicting the battles, with written narratives as well as artifacts of uniforms and weaponry, of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.