Atmospheric Amsterdam

April 26, 2016.  Yep, I know I just finished a whole series of posts on Turkey, and now I’m talking about Amsterdam.  Makes me sound like a real jet-setter.  But the truth is, not much happened in our lives for a good solid month.  Just the daily work grind; no time for cultural experiences.  So when Matthew’s birthday rolled around at the end of April, we were ready for some R&E (Relaxation & Exploration).  And Amsterdam seemed like the perfect combo of both.

Now to be honest, we’d made our first foray into the city last September, but I’ve just never had any time to write about it.  That’s why I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you how Amsterdam has won our hearts and become our top recommendation for a weekend getaway.  Plus, I’ve provided some whopping photo galleries to give you a taste of the city’s atmosphere — be sure click on the images for bigger views:

As is typical with European countries, the Netherlands reserves most of it's land for agriculture -- about 70%. Main crops include barley, wheat, beets, potatoes, and flower bulbs. But it's also Europe's most densely populated nation. More than 800,000 people live in Amsterdam alone.
Like many other European countries, the Netherlands reserves most of its land for agriculture — about 70%. Main crops include barley, wheat, beets, potatoes, and flower bulbs. But the Netherlands is also Europe’s most densely populated nation. More than 816,000 people are packed into  the capital city of Amsterdam’s 85 square miles.

Amsterdam’s Got More Canals Than Venice
Yup, bet that little factoid surprised you.  But it’s true.  Flying into Amsterdam, I was astounded by the Burberry Plaid pattern created by the city’s network of criss-crossing waterways.  The Dutch are fond of saying, “God made the Earth, but the Dutch Made Holland.”  And from the skies, it becomes perfectly clear that they’ve got a legitimate claim.

The name "Netherlands" means "lowlands" -- about 27 percent of the country is below sea level. Windmills provide the power to pump water into canals and create dry land. In preparation for the eventual rise of sea level, the Netherlands is leading innovations in de-salination technologies, dike construction, and floating homes and greenhouses.
The name “Netherlands” means “lowlands” — about 27% of the country sits below sea level and hosts 60% of the nation’s population. Windmills provide the power to pump water into canals and create dry land. In preparation for the rise of sea level, the Netherlands is leading innovations in floatable homes and greenhouses, as well as desalination technologies (visible in the foreground).

Thousands of canals neatly cleave and drain the below-sea-level landscape into perfect little pastoral parcels, although industry has clearly carved out some space.  I couldn’t help but marvel at Dutch engineering, which has used dykes, dams, locks, canals, and windmills to reclaim soil from the sea and literally double the country’s landmass.  (The Netherlands is now twice the size of New Jersey.)

Given the country’s long battle to keep the ocean at bay, it will come as no shock that the Dutch lead the world in preventing floods and preparing for the rise in sea level that goes hand-in-hand with climate change.  All this knowledge has come in handy for Americans, too.  After Hurricane Katrina, we called in Dutch consultants to brainstorm about how to rebuild New Orleans’ levee system.

The canals range from grand and loud, to small, quiet, and quaint. Same for the houseboats -- doesn't this cutie look like the perfect place to kick back and relax?
The canals range from grand and loud, to small, quiet, and quaint. Same for the houseboats — doesn’t this cutie look like the perfect place to kick back and relax?

But lest you think Amsterdam’s canals are purely functional, they’re perfectly picturesque, too.  Within the city proper, these waterways drop their stick-straightness and form a series of concentric half-circles, ideal for wandering along — and losing your way.  But who minds getting a little lost when you have a view of elegant 17th-century houses?  Not to mention more than 1,200 photogenic bridges (Venice has only 400).  Plus, you can always take a cruise through the canal system, or hang out on a houseboat for a closer view of the water.

I couldn’t leave the topic of canals without a small gallery devoted to the city’s odd assortment of houseboats — more than 2,500 ply Amsterdam’s waterways.

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During the Dutch Golden Age (1600s) wealthy merchants, bankers, doctors, lawyers, and craftsmen built the lovely homes that line Amsterdam’s canals. Owners were taxed based on street frontage, so many houses are quite narrow in front, but open up towards the back.

Amsterdam Offers Great Hiking & Biking Views of the World’s Best Collection of 17th-Century Houses 
My personal opinion is that there’s no better way to detox from a stressful life than by strolling or rolling down Amsterdam’s quiet, tree-lined lanes to check out the housing stock.  I’m always fascinated by indigenous architecture, and I’ve fallen in love with the city’s Dutch Colonial masterpieces.  Their fancy false gables remind me a bit of Charleston’s signature Single Houses, which sport fake front doors that disguise the long verandas of shotgun-style homes.  If you haven’t seen these American architectural gems and can’t manage a Euro trip, make Charleston, South Carolina, your next USA-vacay destination.  It’s a true homegrown treasure.

The St. Andrew's Beginhof (subsidized residence once built to house widowed and unmarried women) shows some of the range of gables. I love the twin sisters that sport curly mops.
A Begijnhof (a subsidized residence built in 1364 to house widows and spinsters) shows some of the range of gables. I love the mop-headed twin sisters located to the left of the tree.  (Click on the image for a bigger view.)

But back to Amsterdam.  It has more well-preserved 17th-century homes than any city in Europe.  Stately townhouses sport bogus gables that hold pulley systems meant for hoisting stuff in through steeply pitched attic roofs hidden behind the frilly façades.  The overall effect creates rows of slope-shouldered buildings that look as if they have heads topped with curled and fluffed George Washington wigs.  You could spend days cataloguing their different “hairstyles.”

A 1920's movie palace, the Tuschinski Theater still shows first-run films and offers an eye-popping mixture of Art Nouveau and Art Deco details both inside and out.
A 1920’s movie palace, the Tuschinski Theater still shows first-run films and offers an eye-popping mixture of Art Nouveau and Art Deco details both inside and out.

The homes all sit snuggled together like packs of gossiping ladies, with the taller, spindlier old maids leaning against their squat sisters for support. That’s because the ancient wooden pilings that cradle most houses have experienced a bit of decay over time, causing subsidence and creating a “stumbling drunk” appearance for a few of the grandest old dames.

We spent several hours quaffing beer at canal-side cafés while squinting our eyes and imagining the ghosts of pantalooned men and ruff-necked women ambling in front of their erstwhile homes.  But if houses that look like they stepped straight out of a Vermeer painting aren’t your thing, you’ll also find several Belle Epoque, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco darlings scattered throughout the neighborhood.

How about renting this bike with a kiddie clown car in front?
How about renting this bike (around $15/day)?  It comes complete with a Dutch-shoe kiddie car in front.

About those bike rides I mentioned.  There are almost as many bicycles as there are people in Amsterdam.  (The average household has four bikes but few if any cars.)  You’ll also find every possible cycle configuration your heart desires, from triplets, to tandems, to single-seaters with bins in front and buggies in back.  Especially amusing is watching a mother pedal her five kids to school, two in the bin, two on the fender, and one in the buggy.  Think of it like a two-wheeled version of a family station wagon.

Check out this barge converted into a floating parking lot for bicycles.
Check out this barge converted into a floating parking lot for bicycles. Notice that bikes are called “fiets,” just like in Belgium.

Bikes even have their own parking garages and enormous, four-lane highways (complete with traffic jams) that snake through the town center.  These are incredibly intimidating for an American cyclist, but downright terrifying for a pedestrian.  Bikes always have the right-of-way, and we’ve almost lost our life more than once by inadvertently stepping into a cycling zone.  When biking, I suggest sticking to quiet side streets as much as possible, since I’ve heard more than one local yell, “Watch out, tourist!  Don’t bike if you don’t know how to ride like an Amsterdammer!”  (In general, the Dutch are friendly people, but don’t mess with their cycling habits.)

Tasty bitterballs, two frosty beers, and sunshine -- just what the doctor ordered.
Tasty bitterballs, two frosty beers, and sunshine — just what the doctor ordered.

Amsterdam Rivals Paris for Café Culture
I’m not kidding — adorable little pubs, cafés, and restaurants populate virtually every corner of Amsterdam.  And the cheap bar snacks can’t be beat.  We tried everything: varieties of Edam and Gouda cheeses, frites (of course), a smattering of sausages, little ham-and-cheese broodjes (sammies), plus delicious croquettes nicknamed “bitterballs” (breaded and deep fried meatballs.)

Matthew tries out one of Amsterdam's famous herring stands, where you can get your herring pickled, raw, curried, or doused in mustardy mayo.
Matthew tries out one of Amsterdam’s many herring stands, where you can get your herring pickled, raw, curried, or doused in mustardy mayo.

But I think my favorite eateries just might be the herring stands that are the equivalent of our food trucks.  Here, you can pick up pickled herring, fried fish, shrimp, and other seafood, then tote your picnic to a canal-side park bench and watch the parade of humanity go by.  To whet your whistle, pop into one of the cornerside bars or “brown cafes” (so-called for their nicotine-stained ceilings and walls; smoking has now been relegated to the great outdoors throughout Amsterdam.)  These places serve up typical pilsners like Heineken and Amstel, but if you really want to go local, use your beer as a Jenever (gin) chaser.  This procedure is known as a kopstoot (head-butt), so don’t expect to have much of a memory of the experience later.

The variety of Asian teas available in Amsterdam's Indonesian restaurants is astounding. I'm trying "Fairy blossom" tea here, delicately pretty and tangy.
I’m trying “Fairy blossom” tea here, delicately pretty and tangy.

However, if you’re more in the mood for ethnic food, eating at one of the zillion Indonesian restaurants offering a risjttaafel (“rice table”) will leave you stuffed and satisfied.  These places are a little like gnoshing at Korean barbecue joints — about twenty small dishes show up at the table.  By the time you’ve sampled each, your stomach will be stretched to maximum capacity, and your tastebuds will have been taxed to their limits sorting between salty, sour, sweet, and bitter.  Truly a melting pot of tastes and textures, which should be topped off by trying one of a multitude of Asian teas available — more than I’ve ever seen even in San Francisco or New York. 

Rembrand's famous painting nicknamed "The Nightwatch" shows his characteristic mastery of movement and chiaroscuro (the play of light and shadow to create moodiness and drama). Up close, it's amazing how much his dabbling brushwork resembles impressionist techniques.
Rembrand’s famous painting nicknamed “The Nightwatch” shows his characteristic mastery of movement and chiaroscuro (the play of light and shadow to create moodiness and drama). Up close, it’s amazing how much his dabbling brushwork resembles impressionist techniques.

Amsterdam’s Major Museums Are Totally Doable in A Weekend Visit
Let me qualify that a bit.  The enormous Rijksmuseum is a little intimidating, but if you stick to the Dutch Masters, you can totally do it in an hour without getting museum coma.  And you wouldn’t want to miss all those Rembrandts, Vermeers, Steens, and Hals, would you?  These guys make living in the 17th century look like a whole lotta fun; drinking, making merry, and posing for portraits.  Not so different from today’s college kids with their frat parties and selfies.

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I had no idea Van Gogh was such a big Trekkie. JK. The museum had a photo ban, so I had to make do with a shot of the AV display showing Van Gogh’s influential style.

The Van Gogh Museum is another must see, but be prepared for your own emotional meltdown while reading through heart-rending quotes from the artist, which are paired with paintings spanning his short ten-year career.  It’s amazing to think we wouldn’t even know about him if it weren’t for the efforts of his brother’s widow.  She preserved Vincent’s letters and notes, as well as all of his tools, studies, and paintings — and then worked like hell to make sure he got the posthumous attention he deserved.

Rembrandt stored his props across from his studio. These bits of ephemera not only allowed him to capture naturalistic details, but the collection itself proclaimed him a wealthy and learned man.
Rembrandt stored his props next to his studio room. These bits of ephemera not only allowed him to capture naturalistic details, but proclaimed his wealth and sophistication.

Aside from these blockbuster institutions, there are dozens of smaller museums that make for quick excursions.  I particularly loved the Rembrandt House; not only do you get to see how he managed his art gallery, ran his own printing press, and kept a “cabinet of curiosities” for painting true-to-life details, but docents demonstrate his processes for making etchings and mixing paint.  Plus, you’ll hear all the sordid dirt on his personal life, from his bankruptcy to his affair with a housemaid almost three decades his junior.  Juicy.

Amsterdam’s Not Nearly as Debauched as You’ve Been Told
That statement might actually be a turnoff to some of you, who are looking for a drug-n-sex-filled weekend.  Both vices are easily acquired in Amsterdam, but they’re fairly location specific.  Sure, on some of the side streets known for their “coffeehouses,” we had to hold our breath through nauseating clouds of weed.  (Our jobsite practices random drug testing, so we didn’t want to take the chance that accidental inhalation would result in our being fired.)  But I wouldn’t say the drug culture permeates the whole city.

Check out the right side of the canal, where red lanterns and display windows outlined in neon announce the presence of a prostitute open for business amongst all the lovely historical homes and shops.
Check out the right side of the canal, where red lanterns and display windows outlined in neon announce the presence of a prostitute open for business — amongst all the lovely historical homes and shops. Closer photos of the girls in the windows will result in your camera being smashed by bodyguards.

The requisite walking tour of the Red Light District also revealed it wasn’t as seedy as we’d expected.  Every hooker had her own narrow, rectangular display window outlined in red neon.  Most ladies simply stood face-forward, hands on hips, eyeing the the crowd defensively.  Such stiff stances and cellophane surroundings made each girl look more like an individually-wrapped, Porno-Barbie-in-a-Box than a backstreet bimbo.

By the way, Amsterdam’s prostitutes work for themselves, not for pimps, and pay income taxes just like everyone else.  It’s a job.  And it’s clear these women are earning some serious coin, as many are surgically enhanced in a variety of ways and scantily clad to show off the doctor’s handiwork.  But oddly, interspersed amongst the prostitutes are high-end restaurants and homes.  I had to laugh as I watched one guy pause to do a double take between a culinary tasting of grilled meats on his left, and a dominatrix on his right.  Clearly, he was struggling to decide whether he wanted ham on the bone or off it.

A variety of colored condoms decorates one of the more tame windows to be found in Amsterdam's Red Light District sex shops.
A variety of colored condoms decorates one of the more tame windows to be found in Amsterdam’s Red Light District sex shops.

But if you’re planning to visit for a weekend or even a week, I wouldn’t worry that you’ll return home a depraved maniac.  I’d even bring the kids, just as long as you steer clear of certain streets.  Seriously, we watched tourist families take their toddlers for a stroll along the sex stalls.  How do you explain the scenario to your three year old?  “Honey, these pretty ladies are mostly naked because they’re making a living in the best way they know how.”  Now there’s a goal-setting speech for your daughter.  Nice work.

And on that note, stay tuned for my post about Amsterdam’s Flower Festival.

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