The Belgium Diaries: V

Part V: Amsterdam!

I have to admit, I was a little cool on Amsterdam, and this city did not figure in my initial plans. You see, I am of the opinion that one should visit one country at a time and take some time doing so, in order that one enjoys the country one visits. Thus, my original schedule was to do Belgium in its entirety, spending nights in the cities of Antwerp and Ghent. However, when MS told me that she’d be visiting Amsterdam and that I should go as well, I was intrigued. GM, who had been there some time ago, also voted for Amsterdam and I decided to alter my plans so that I could do the cities that I wanted as well as Amsterdam — and what a good decision that was!

We arrived late evening after the conference, and were immediately conned by a Turkish taxi driver, who charged us 20 euros for 2 kms — no meter or anything; it felt like I was in Chennai! In any case, we walked in to our smallish hotel, where the stairs were pretty much at 90 degrees and could accommodate one thin person at a time! I later learnt that this was not a condition peculiar only to our hotel, and the entire city of Amsterdam was built this way — small entryways with deep housing, apparently to reduce the cost of the house, where the price was a function of the amount of frontage involved. One of the most radical examples I encountered later (thanks to Rick Steves’ book) features in the photographs. Almost all of the buildings have a rod sticking out from the top, perpendicular to the building, so that furniture may be pulled up into the houses through the spacious windows, thereby avoiding the problem of the narrow stairways! Once inside, however, the hotel was spacious and neatly laid out, and the manager was extremely helpful with the stuff to see.

After quickly dumping our luggage, we decided to take a walk through town — to get a feel for the city. Given that MS had only one full day, she wanted to make the most of her time in Amsterdam, and I was more than willing to accompany her. We walked through the streets, not really knowing where we were going, and followed the lights and sounds. We hit a popular and crowded street, filled with bars, cafes, bakeries, restaurants and “coffeeshops”. Coffeeshops in Amsterdam = Maruijna and other drug smoking lounges — all legal and above the table. Apparently, one goes in and asks for a “smoking” menu, since it is illegal to display the menu without being asked for it. It gets weirder. Due to the ban on smoking in public areas, you are not allowed to smoke a doobie with tobacco, but a pure maruijna joint can be rolled up and had  in the coffeeshop! I was oblivious to the pungent odor that surrounded us and MS brought the fact to my attention — a little reading and I was a pro at spotting and smelling hash shops!

My intense love for chocolate drew me to a nice bakery where I devoured a chocolate croissant — one that reminded me of the wonderful croissants at Croissants etc., in Chembur, Mumbai, which I used to frequent quite often back home! The chocolate filled goodness in my hands, we made our way through the streets and chanced upon the city center — which we did not realize until the next day when we took a tour of the city officially. Our walk back was fun, and we noticed the number of bikes parked on the street and the canals — though the full magnitude of their effect was only felt the next day.

We woke up on time the next day and were immediately innudated by cyclists who were livid with us, since we had not yet learnt that there was a portion (colored pinkish) of the road reserved for them and that they had right over pedestrians! Add to the mix the multiple trains, the cars careening through the small streets and the barrage of human bodies navigating through the town; crossing the roads was a feat by itself, and so was walking ten minutes without going — Sorry, pardon, excuse-moi! It never got to us though, the constant rush of people and the constant need for street vigilance — for one because the people themselves were extremely nice (well, as nice as the Dutch can be) and the other because of the city itself.

Lined with small luscious canals filled with cascading streams of water, their edges dotted with tall greenish-yellow colored trees, expensive German cars and anchored boats, Amsterdam is a sight to behold. We walked through the sunlight streets of the city, our mouths agape at the wonderfully European cobbled streets and street-side cafes, our eyes gulping down the tall series of houses lining the canals, their sides joined with other houses like co-joint twins, stretching as far as the eye could see. We gleefully made our way through the flower market (not as many flowers as I’d thought there’d be), our cameras clicking away at the historic buildings that the locals passed by with nonchalance. You know what they say about Europe — culture is only a block away!

We headed to the town center and took a neat walk through the shopping streets (pedestrians only), the small colony that houses nuns and other such women (called Kopfs — all across the low-countries) and I managed to keep gulping down chocolate covered and filled delicacies, as MS stopped for some standard women-ly shopping. We took a neat little boat ride through the canal system and realized how well connected the city is through the water body, and then made our way to the Van Gogh museum. A nice little museum tour later, we headed out to the IAMsterdam montage that MS so wanted to see and took a set of enchanting photographs before sitting down on the grass and discussing Yoga & Ayurveda!

Our evening was a little less hectic, and we quickly visited the popular attraction of Amsterdam — the Red Light District. Both of us were a little queasy going there, and both of us held the opinion that it’d not be fun; still, we were both convince that if we were in Amsterdam, we would surely have to see this area. We did a quick shuttle through the streets and returned back to our Hotel. The area itself was depressing, though the sheer mass of tourists and the well-lit streets made it a better experience than it’d have been otherwise.

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MS got up early the next morning to return to the US and I managed to stay until the official checkout time, when I left the bags and made my way back into the city. A neat little incident occurred the previous night and I discovered it when I was ready to leave the hotel — I had left my jacket in the cafe downstairs, where I had stopped to have a hot chocolate and some munchies. I went down, and to my surprise, the waitress on duty could not find it. She asked me to come back in the evening and check. Since I was planning to come back any way to pick up my luggage, and quickly agreed, resigning myself to the conclusion that I had lost my jacket. You see, I have had only terrible luck with the jackets that I have bought in the US. I have lost both the jackets I have bought on trips to California (and both trips were for conferences!). I thought that the jacket God was displeased with me and had done his regular duty by stripping me of my jacket. I thanked God for the sweater that I had had the foresight to bring (it was a bit nippy) and donned the sweater while wallowing in some depression due to the lost jacket. I of course underestimated the power of the city.

I had binged too much on unhealthy food and I really wanted some veggies and a good quantity of yogurt inside me and hence when I spotted a grocery store, I entered, hoping for some yogurt. To my delight I found a half-liter tetra pack that housed some of the best drinkable yogurt that I have ever tasted. Glugging the delicious white nectar away, I made my way through the city streets, my spirits already revived and hit the Classical Arts museum — something that we had missed out the previous day. A nice little tour later, I headed to the town center and I spotted a Maoz outlet. Maoz is a small European brand that has vegetarian salad bars with falafel and pita thrown into the mix. I had had a neat meal at this place in Barcelona and was more than willing to give this one a try. I stopped by, ordered a 5 euro salad and ended up filling the falafel filled small plastic cup with all the veggies that I had craved for some days now. Topped off with a yogurt sauce, this was one of the best lunches I had had yet. It got better after that. I went back to the grocery store and had another one of those yogurt packs and I was happy. A coffee, a neat walk down the Jordan-district and some coffeeshop visiting later, I found myself outside the Anne Frank museum — the queue was short as the guidebook had assured me it would be at that hour, and I was pretty touched by the rooms that Anne lived in. While the price was a bit much for that place, its significance made up for the over-charge. The best part of the museum was the end where ambiguous situations are presented and people present are asked to vote — and the results (instant as well as history cumulative) are presented and are very enlightening.

A quick dinner at another Maoz and a pack of yogurt followed, making this the most wonderfully healthy and cheap day for food! I did some small walks that Steves recommended and it was about 7 by the time I got back to the Hotel to pick up my luggage. I stopped by the cafe, and as luck would have it, the day only got better — I found my jacket! I was a happy man when I boarded the tram to head down to the Youth hostel that I had booked a place in for that night. I had never before stayed at one, and this one was cheap, and since I had to leave early the next morning, I thought it’d be a good idea to try one. The hostel itself was neat and I was asleep by the time the other roomies (I was on a bunk bed in a 6 bed room) got back from their bar hopping and was up before anyone else got up. I did not mind the stay, and although I may never try it again, I know I have a neat little backup in case I need a cheap place to sleep. The best part about the hostel was its breakfast (included in the room rent). Cereal (many varieties), fruits, juices, milk, yogurt, cheeses, loads of meat, many many croissants and breads, jams, butter and a (European) coffee machine — you could make some really good coffee here! It was possibly one of the best breakfasts I had had, and I stole a piece of fruit to eat on my long (4 hour trip) to Bruges.

Amsterdam was wonderful — a must visit if one is in the region, and the stay was nothing but pleasant. I’d have liked to eat better, but then I was a tourist, and what is 1-2 kgs, given the enormous amount of fun the experience produces?!

 Anush

High res. pix:

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