Friday, April 27, 2012

Bikes, Blue Eyes and Canals

Big city hopscotching has been the pace of our journey for the past few weeks, which lead to many days when we awakened and had to ask each other where we were. I was thrilled to finally wake up in Amsterdam, for my third visit and Joe’s inaugural, because I was anxious to show him why I so love the Netherlands. It was a delight, and an oddity, to finally be somewhere at the height of its season (and the price of our Easter week hotel room proved we’d found Holland’s peak) since we’ve spent so much time in so many locations where the attractions are closed and the place is deserted. The tulips were in bloom and Amsterdam was teeming.

You first realize that this city will be different as you gaze over the hundreds – no, thousands – of bicycles parked and packed like sardines in row after row beside the Amsterdam Centraal train station. Our hotel was right next to the always-bustling transportation hub and overlooked what is the largest bike parking lot I’ve ever seen. The multistoried facility was filled with the city’s carriage-of-choice, all of them rattletraps with rusted rims, duct-taped seats, patched tires and corroded bodies. They were transportation tools at their most basic, did the job for their owners and what they looked like didn’t much matter. The extent to which Amsterdam is bike-centric becomes readily apparent as you stand on a street corner waiting for the pedestrian light to give you the go-ahead. To one side are cars in the vehicle lane awaiting their green light and on the other, in the ever-present bike lane, are riders waiting for their very own cycling light to turn green as well. Yes, there are three directional lights at each intersection and walking around town can become quite dicey at times, even if you’re paying close attention. While the automobile is certainly present in Amsterdam, it appears to be much less important than the almighty bicycle and the trolley. As a pedestrian, you’re much more likely to get hit by a bike than a car or a tram, and on several occasions we came awfully close.

Amsterdam is a beautiful city and for several reasons is unique among European metropolises. Its more than one hundred kilometers of canals (it boasts even more than Venice) that radiate from the harbor in a concentric pattern of semi-circles crossed by perpendicular spokes carve the central city into a patchwork quilt of increasingly large canal-bordered islands and provide its distinctive charm. The urge to treat ourselves to a special meal hadn’t tempted us since we’d left Italy, but the allure of a romantic dinner cruise on a canal boat caught our fancy. We hesitated just a bit, thinking it might be too touristy, but we went ahead and lost ourselves in a lovely two-hour, candlelit meander through Amsterdam while enjoying a delightful dinner with fine wine a-flowing.

The city is filled with fabulous art and architecture and we managed to fit in visits to two of my favorite galleries in the world: the stately, old world Rijksmuseum and the contemporary, sunny Van Gogh Museum. We enjoyed the works of the Dutch Old Masters and marveled at Rembrandt’s massive Night Watch. The exhaustive Van Gogh collection always makes me both happy and blue because the paintings are so lovely and the colors so bright (like my favorite, Bedroom in Arles), but the gifted artist suffered such a short, tormented life. While I don’t find the Dutch monumental buildings particularly appealing -- the churches, palaces and municipal structures -- I absolutely love the narrow townhome residences and small shops that line the canals with their peeked, crenulated rooflines and interesting, white, multi-mullioned window frames. They appear to be filled with warm, cozy garrets and interesting office spaces in which I could imagine myself wanting to spend lots of time. My cheery imaginings quickly vanished however, with our visit to the Anne Frank House in one of the homes along the Prinsengracht. It was my second pilgrimage to the former warehouse and now museum in whose secret, concealed annex the young author, her family and four others hid for two years prior to being deported to concentration camps in 1944. Moving through the cramped living quarters on whose walls Anne’s celebrity magazine clippings are pasted and the wall chart her parents used to mark the growth of their two daughters, hit me just as hard as it had 35 years earlier. There’s no statute of limitations on sadness and heartache.

As is our custom, we did much wandering around the city, in and out of the winding streets combing for potential dinner spots. We sought out the establishments we’d glimpsed on our dinner cruise but those that appeared to be warm, cozy boĆ®tes in the dark from our canal cruise were simply plain, local hangouts when we returned in the early evening sun, so we continued our rambling. We had five dinners in Amsterdam, only one of which was at a Dutch restaurant where we had a simple but hearty meal of pea soup, salad and roast chicken. The other four nights we chose Italian fare twice (we do miss the pastas we’d so come to love), Indian once and of course, we had to experience an Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table). This elaborate meal, adapted by the Dutch from the cuisine of their former colony, consists of multiple small dishes (we had seventeen) served all at once with several varieties of rice. Our meal included egg rolls, lamb, pork and beef satay with peanut sauce, stewed and pickled vegetables and nuts and was delicious. While Dutch cuisine is not the reason most visitors come to the Netherlands, it does include some incredibly fine cheeses, my favorite of which was a sharp cheddar-like Polder Gold. 

Amsterdam is an experiment in progressive living and thrives on its attitude of live-and-let-live. Prostitution is legal as is the sale and use of cannabis in so-called “coffee shops.” I’ve always found it suggestive, given Amsterdam’s reputation (or perhaps its just convenient for the purveyors of all-things-erotic), that the official flag of the city is three white X’s on a black and red background. I understand that they’re actually Saint Andrew’s crosses with a link to tradition, but the evocative triplets are used ubiquitously to exploit X-rated entertainment. A trip to the city of laissez-faire would not be complete without a mosey through the lanes near the train station where deep cleansing breaths in fragrant clouds of smoke outside hazy coffee shops have the potential to ease all manner of aches and pains. And then there is De Wallen, the infamous Red Light District. Just as I’m always amused when visiting New Orleans by the sight of Midwestern, suburban parents pushing strollers and older couples clutching their grandchildren’s hands walking down Bourbon Street parting the waves of wild partying, so it is in Amsterdam. The incongruity gets me every time. Tourists of every variety stroll the streets: there are Asian tour groups snapping pictures, backpackers munching on gyro sandwiches, elegant couples arm-in-arm and elderly troupes with matching visors off cruise ships. Witness the quarter in the evening and it’s like being in some strange otherworld on steroids. I feel a bit like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life when he stumbles into the sleazy, neon world of Pottersville that developed in his absence. You leave the conventional world of Amsterdam, cross the street and enter the tenderloin knowing exactly what you’re going to see – prostitutes in windows under dim red lights -- but to actually see the women on display in person, like mannequins (or electronics), is definitely surreal and more than a little sad. You want to avoid looking but just can’t help yourself -– it’s like watching an accident about to happen and not being able to turn away. So many of the women just looked bored, were busy texting or chewing gum and others would catch men’s eyes and then tap on the window. It was unnerving, depressing and downright bizarre.

We took the train north of Amsterdam to see the flat, marshy countryside in the Zaanse Schans area on a rainy, windy morning and the raw weather, typical of the Netherlands in April, chilled us to the bone. The open air conservation park presents life in Holland as it used to be and we welcomed the temporary shelter from the elements provided by the well-preserved, functioning windmills and the collection of historical dark green cottages with pretty white trim and red accents. Our explorations outside Amsterdam also took us to Alkmaar, a picturesque town known for its cheese. Hundreds of visitors flock to the town for the weekly reenactment of a typical market day of yore (and lucky for us this day was sunny) with workers in traditional costumes -- loose white pants and shirts with black sashes and straw hats with brightly colored bands -- hustling enormous cheese wheels on shoulder barrows across the square. We met many lovely Dutch people both in Amsterdam and on our visits to its environs and as I’d noted on my previous trips, while we saw few with the flaxen hair often attributed to the Dutch, we’d never, ever seen so many people with beautiful blue eyes – light and dark and all shades in-between.

Holland is a compact country with so much to experience beyond the classic highlights of windmills, wooden shoes, tulips and cheese. We made sure to include all of these in our visit, but we’ll have barely scratched the surface before it will be time to leave. We have one more essential stop to make before our departure – the world-renowned Keukenhof Gardens – and then it will be time to head south for our return to the city of light, our next reunion with Chris and Caroline and our long-awaited participation in the Paris Marathon.

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