It took about 4 hours by train from Bruges to Amsterdam. We reached Amsterdam at 12:00 AM. We got off the train and found the station bustling in activity even at that late hour. The station was a beautiful old structure and we loved it.
Saru: Hey, look there is a NY Pizza shop here. I love this place!
Me: You love this place because they have a NY Pizza shop?
Saru: Enna periya attitude? You can like Belgian fries that taste exactly like McDonalds fries, but I can’t get excited about NY Pizza?
Me (muttering): They are fried twice….for the extra crispiness.
Saru: SO…are we going to stay in another attic tonight.
Me: No no, I booked us a 4-star hotel on Priceline for $150. It should be one of those glass and concrete buildings with no character.
Saru: Character???? Now we want character in a hotel?
We walk for 15 minutes along a nice road to a huge 20 floor building called Movenpick hotel. It is a 4-star Swiss hotel chain. The entire gound floor was a lobby and a restaurant. We were checked in very quickly and stepped into our 16th floor room. The giant room was super clean with granite floors and funky fixtures and a huge king bed. One entire side had a glass wall which gave us a sweeping view of the waterfront area.
Saru: Are you telling me that THIS room has no charm or character?? You know what? I don’t care for character. I love rooms without character. In future, please book me only in characterless rooms.
Saru (walking towards the glass wall): Now…THIS is called a view. What we had in that charming attic of yours was a prison window!!
We woke up late the next morning and walked towards the ferry terminal to go on a canal cruise to get an orientation of the city. It was a bright sunny day about 70F. The weather was as perfect as it could be. The boat ride was useful to give an overview of the neighborhoods, but all in all not very enjoyable. On a day as gorgeous as that day, it didn’t make sense to sit inside a glass covered boat and get roasted. But from the few glimpses of Amsterdam we saw from the boat, we knew we would love the city. We came to Amsterdam with the least amount of expectations. Everybody I spoke to said that it was too tacky and touristy. We still came here because it was very close to Brussels and Amsterdam is one a world class city that warrants at least one visit. I am so glad we came because we loved it. Maybe it was the perfect weather, maybe it was the springtime scene with green trees and flowers or the outdoor cafes full of people, but we both absolutely loved it. They say that Paris is the lover’s capital of the world, but to me Amsterdam was the perfect place for romance with its crisscrossing canals, Victorian homes, cobble stone streets, the sweet smell of lilacs and of course the outdoor cafes facing the canals. Later in our trip, we went to two towns that were the most romantic towns we had ever been to: Cesky Krumlov in Southern Bohemia and Hallstatt in Austria.
Amsterdam roads were not built for cars. In the late seventies, when oil prices were rising, Amsterdam decided to reduce its dependence on oil by promoting public transportation and biking. Biking makes up for over 50% of traffic in the town!! Everybody there rides a bike. We saw youngsters, oldies, pregnant ladies, women with kids, executives in suits…..literally everybody. They say that in a town of 7 million people, there are at least 6 million bikes. Most people have 2 bikes – a sleek road bike for longer trips and a dilapidated old bike for city use. Bike thefts are very common; hence the old bike for city use. Here is one of the 3 storey bike parking facility near the train station.
Europeans certainly know how to enjoy life and the first example of that is in outdoor cafes. We took a tram to a square called Leidsplein. The entire place was full of outdoor cafes and at 2:00 PM in the afternoon, it was full of people eating lunch, drinking gigantic mugs of beer and smoking pot. It was incredible. I saw this guy take 15 minutes to roll pot into his tobacco sheet with such concentration; it was almost as if he was praying to the tobacco gods to make him high. Street performers were going on with their jobs. There was a guy who ( I swear I am not kidding) swallowed a long balloon and pulled it out of his butt (through a hole in his pant!).
They say that if you want to eat local food in Amsterdam, you should eat Indonesian or Middle Eastern food! We settled in an outdoor Indonesian restaurant. Food was okay, but the outdoor scene was awesome. You can sit and people-watch all day and you won’t get bored.
Trams stopped running for a few hours because of some celebrations at the Dam Square, so we walked back for an hour towards the hotel. The entire city was so charming with all those brick facades, Victorian homes, crisscrossing canals, the bridges over the canals and the trees with their new light green foliage. Jet lag had kicked in, so we took a short nap in the hotel and then walked back to a neighborhood called Jordan which is famous for clean tree lined canals and good restaurants. While Saru was clicking night shots of the area, I looked around for a dinner place and found a small Pizza joint with a long line of locals. Taking that as a good sign, I stood in the line for a good half hour watching two girls roll out pizza dough and make pizzas without a minute’s rest. We noticed that in most of Europe, folks in restaurants were overworked. In almost every other place, there were 2-3 people that were seating, serving and cooking. This explained the bad service that we encountered pretty much everywhere.
My plan was to buy pizza and sit by the canal on a bench and have dinner. It didn’t happen because just when it was my turn the girls announced that their dough was over. I would have normally gotten angry, but I was in Amsterdam and on vacation, so went and found an Indian restaurant and ate parathas and curry. Saru’s night shots of the canals show how cool the place is during twilight.
Three themes recurred pretty much every day during our 2-week vacation – Walking, Outdoor Cafes, staying up late. We walked at least 4-5 hours a day and at least 5-10 miles. The best way to discover a new town is to walk all over, get lost and then walk some more. By the end of the third day, we didn’t need to look at a map. Eating in outdoor cafes is so much fun. The weather was perfect every day and the people on the road provided live entertainment, so it was like a dinner and a show. We stayed up at least till midnight every day. There was daylight till 10:00 PM, so it didn’t make any sense to go back to the hotel, plus we were having too much fun and sleep was the last thing on our minds.
May 4, Monday, Amsterdam
The next day, we went to the Dam Square that was built to commemorate building a dam on the Amstel River (thereby giving the city its new name – Amstel-Dam or Amsterdam). It was a very beautiful square with the Royal Palace, a Cathedral, some hotels and an Obelisk in the middle. We spent some time there and then had lunch. We had Panakoken or the dutch pancakes.
We then took off to go to the Kuekenhoff gardens, famous for their tulip fields. It was the first week in May and usually the peak time for spring bulbs is April, so we didn’t know how good it was going to be. We took a train to the airport and took a quick bus to the gardens. From the bus itself, you could see the tulip fields. It was like a rainbow of colors with long lines of tulips in red and yellow and pink and white and numerous other colors. We rented bikes and rode on a 2 mile bike path along the tulip fields. Something about beautiful flowers is so romantic that you want to break into a bollywood song “Dekha ek Khwab to yeh silsila hua”. The flower fields were so incredibly beautiful; we could not resist taking these filmi pictures.
Every few meters, we would say that we have had enough of pictures and swear not to take any more, but the next vista would bring in millions of tulips in a different color and we would be getting off our bikes and taking more pictures. At some point Saru said” You know Vam, it is actually boring to see the same things again and again.
Me: What do you mean same things, these are pink tulips.
Saru: Yes, but what is the big difference between red or orange or pink tulips… they are all tulips.
Me: How can you even say that these are boring? Do you know how much effort it takes to grow a single flower? Imagine how happy the farmer would be when he grows these millions of flowers? The Dutch flower industry is several million dollars. The loamy soil and mild weather make Netherlands an excellent place to grow spring bulbs.
Saru (thinking to himself): What the hell is loamy soil?
Me: You know it is pretty sad that you are surrounded by such beauty and all you can think is that it is repetitive. For heaven’s sake, wake up and smell the roses…
Saru: But I can’t smell. You know that something is wrong with my nose.
Me: Arrgh! Just take the picture and we can move on.
Saru: See, that’s the problem. There are a million flowers. What do I focus on?
Me: There are a million flowers!!! Focus on any one of them!! Jeez!!
This picture in the middle of pink tulips was where Saru complained. Now, you guys tell me if he is justified. I don’t care if flowers are a girl thing, but you just cannot complain when surrounded by such beautiful scenery.
We completed the farm loop, returned our bikes and entered the Kuekenhoff gardens. These folks took gardening to a totally different level. There were many daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and muscaris grown in beautiful designs. I am going to keep using the term “incredible beautiful”, so many times that I should just stop writing and let the pictures show how beautiful (there we go again!) the gardens were. Something about beautiful flowers and gardens bring out the romatic in you. Saru and I were very happy, walking hand in hand and enjoying the beauty.This was probably one of our most romantic outing ever. We spent a good 3 hours there and left only when the garden closed.
The garden was not just beautiful, but also very fragrant from the smell of hyacinths and daffodils. I was walking and taking in deep breaths.
Saru: Vam...Are you OK?
Me: Yes, why?
Saru: Why are you breathing so hard?
Me: Oh!! I am trying to take in the fragrance from the flowers.
Saru: And.....you cant do that by breathing normally?
Me: But I want to take in as much fragrance as possible. They smell heavenly!
Saru: You look ridiculous! People are staring at you!
Vam: I dont care. I am on vacation. I can do whatever I want.
Saru: manam pogathu!! (am embarrassed)
Vam: Wait a minute, People are not staring at me...they are staring at you!! Your fly is open!
Saru: Shoot!! OK, Cover me.
Vam: Look who is embarrassing who now!
Saru: Man....The zip is busted!! Do you have a safety pin?
Vam (sarcastically): Sure...here is one from my mangalsutra.
Saru: Dont be a jerk
Vam (laughing uncontrollably): Oh Man!! Are you going to walk around like this all day?
Saru: Shut up!!
We walked around with Saru pulling his T-shirt down every few minutes. Dont look too carefully at his pictures:)
We came back to Amsterdam and went to dam square to do the ‘Red Light District’ walk. Unfortunately we didn’t realize that all shops there closed at 7:00 PM. There were some streets where the entire street had rooms with glass doors and semi-naked woman standing with an open invitation. There were women of all kinds, some dressed in classy lingerie and some that could re-define sleazy. What struck me most was that a number of these women were young and very beautiful. Somehow I had imagined these prostitutes to be a bunch of helpless women, but these women behind the glass doors were confident beautiful ladies who probably make more money than us. They charge anywhere from 50 Euro to 500 Euro for an hour. There is also an old church and a children’s daycare facility signifying that life is quite normal for these sex workers after they get done with their work. We had dinner in Leidsplein and then walked back to the hotel.
May 5, Tuesday, Amsterdam/Trip to Prague
Today was the last day in Amsterdam. Given the negative reviews I got from people, I only planned 4 nights and 3 days in Amsterdam. If I had to do it all over again, I would have stayed an extra day here to take day trips to other small towns in Netherlands.
Saru and I decided that this vacation was to relax and unwind. We mostly wanted to get a feel for the town instead of just visiting the “must-see” attractions. We decided to skip the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh and Reich’s museum in favor of the less crowded ‘Amsterdam History Museum’. We wanted to find out how the city went from being a small town to the biggest port in the world to the hippie haven to the liberal country.
Amsterdam used to be a small fishing village. Twelfth century saw the damming of the Amstel River and the beginning of trade with other parts of Northern Europe. A shipping canal was built in Rotterdam (world’s busiest port until 2004 when Shanghai overtook it) which was used as a transfer point for goods traveling between the North Sea and the Balkans. This was the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. 17th century was considered as the golden age in Netherlands. It became one of the wealthiest countries from trading and acquiring of foreign lands. 19th Century saw the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in Amsterdam. The government was liberal and allowed the use of soft drugs, thereby attracting the hippies.
After lunch we walked to Museumplein, the square that houses the Van Gogh and Reich’s museum. Both were very beautiful buildings with a big park and a place to rest your feet in water and cool down. We then walked through some more famous squares like Rembrandtplein and ended our day sitting in an outdoor café with hundreds of other people watching street performers.