City life sure is different than mountain life! We arrived in Amsterdam dusty, smelly, and exhausted.
Having taken a red-eye from Tanzania, we were in desperate need of a shower and a bed. Unfortunately, we did not know where to get either. After much scrambling, train rides, and lugging our bags across the city, we were lucky enough to find a room at the Bicycle Hotel, a charming place in the De Pijp district.
We stayed there for 4 of the 5 nights we were in the city. It was a cute little place with a thin windy stairway. Breakfast was included and we were sure to get our fill of chocolate-hazelnut spread and rainbow sprinkles every morning. The décor was “hip” but the clientele was surprisingly “un-hip”. We mostly ran across businessmen and un-talkative travelers. We highly recommend this place to people that want a quiet place in a quiet neighborhood; something we desperately needed given our hectic schedule.
In a frenzy to see absolutely EVERYTHING, we woke at 7am, were ready when breakfast opened at 8am, and out the door ASAP. We did not return until 9 or 10pm most nights. Well, this is all excepting the first, hazy day.
Day one in Amsterdam was a slow moving day. We knew we needed food, soap, and shampoo but kept passing places that served food or sold hygienics. We were too tired to decide on anything. After hours, yes hours, of sleepwalking, we finally made it back to the hotel with food in our stomachs and soap in our hands. We took a shower and decided on a bar for the night. Then, we promptly fell asleep for 12 hours. Oooops.
But we were up and ready to roll at the crack of dawn. Armed with our Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided we would do Amsterdam on the cheap. No fancy restaurants, no attractions requiring money, and certainly no large, double shot, soy lattes with extra foam and sugar (luckily, they only have one size latte…)
Being that we were walking, crawling, and taking pictures for something like 12 hours a day, Amsterdam is all one big mess in our heads. However, a few impressions are stuck hard to our hippocampuses. Amsterdam is beautiful. Amsterdam is cold. Amsterdam is old. Amsterdam is friendly. Amsterdam has the world’s fattest pigeons. Amsterdam has some major beer issues.
Let us explain:
The buildings played wonderfully with the canals. For us, the older areas of the city were fascinating. Buildings that leaned forward and had built in hoists to get furniture up were neat but the truly intriguing aspects were the hofjes. A hofje is a courtyard surrounded by apartments. They were surprisingly quiet (and warm). We found several that were open to the public and tiptoed our way in. Some were closed to the public at the behest of the tenants and others were closed for conservation. Some days, we wondered into 4 or 5 hofjes and all were amazing.
The best part of the hofjes was the cost; totally free! Viewing architecture was also free. We saw Rembrandt’s death house, the Royal Palace, the outsides of all the fancy museums, Dutch West India warehouses and offices, bridges, boathouses, more bridges, and themed–houses. All without spending a penny.
Creativity was ever-present in the bustling city; street art was frequently displayed and gardens sprouted everywhere possible. One of Sharon’s favorite spots was OT301, squat buildings that covered in art. Even many of the bicycles were personalized. Although, personalizing a bike seemed imperative to locating it amongst the zillions in the city.
Bikes were everywhere you looked and people of all shapes, sizes, and dress rode them. Young chaps hitched a ride (hands free) on the luggage racks of their friend’s bikes. Business folk rode in suits. Questionable women rode in mini-skirts. People even rode with umbrellas in the drizzle. Bikes clearly outnumbered cars and cars gave way to cyclists. A strange and wonderful phenomenon. Stateside, Luke and Sharon are bike commuters and have to deal with cars that hate cyclist; it was wonderful to see cyclists winning for a change!
We even spent a day riding out into the countryside. This was a truly wonderful experience. Sharon felt like Lucy Ricardo! She wanted to bike to the border and forget where she put her passport (although, these days, that might get a brown person sent to Gitmo). There were large bike lanes off to the side of the roads and large signs trying desperately to explain the bike route network. As we biked through one small hamlet, bike lanes outnumbered car lanes 2:1.
Back in the city, we finished out free whirlwind tour of Amsterdam. The only exception to our No-Pay Rule was the Anne Frank Huis, a must see. Adjacent to the Huis was the Homomonument, a tribute to gay men persecuted by the Nazi’s. Visiting these 2 sights on the same rainy morning was depressing to say the least but an important stop for all tourists.
As typed earlier, we were using the Lonely Planet guidebook as a sightseeing tour. The book breaks the city into 10 neighborhoods and we were determined to see them all during our 5 day stay. We tried to take the walking tours indicated, but often got distracted and/or lost. Some might say this is bad but we say this is a must in traveling cheap. We saw so much of the city by accident; so many interesting alleyways and graffiti walls are not in guidebooks. Getting lost and walking in circles was a great idea!
The flexibility that comes with such a schedule is also good when a person needs to get out of a sticky situation. For instance, while exploring Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s answer to Central Park, we came across a nice man; a very talkative, well-traveled, opinionated, self-proclaimed crack addict. And while this man was very kind to welcome us to his city and pontificate the benefits of Obama, we simply did not want to spend all day talking with him. So many sights needed seeing. So after breaking free, we wondered the long way around so as not to bother him again. Along the way we saw many lovely statues and trees we would have otherwise missed.
Vondelpark also presented an interesting issue, which we discussed at length. As many know, marijuana (of which we do not inhale) is decriminalized in Amsterdam. Nonetheless, coffee shops (places to buy and smoke weed) are in trouble and will likely be gone soon. We could smell the stuff everywhere we went: In parks, on the street, by playgrounds (coming from the adjacent coffee shop). The coffee shops were filled with men and women of all ages and walks of life.
Coming from the States this all seemed unreal but then again why shouldn’t smoking be so public. In the States drinking is a common part of life and drunks are much louder, more destructive, and more unpredictable than stoners. All stoners do is walk into coffee shops carrying long dowels which they bang across all the fixtures, make a commotion in Dutch, then walk out carrying a serving spoon. True story.
Our politics aside, Amsterdam seemed very liberal. Coffeeshops, the Red Light District, art. The city is a hub of acceptance; many locals offered unsolicited directions as we stumbled around the city.
The only problem we had in Amsterdam was this inability to find beer. Well, good beer. After a couple days of extensive touristing, we NEEDED beer. We thought this would be an easy task. We went into a café (Dutch for pub). All they had was Heinekein. We went into another one. All they had was Amstel. This Heinekein-Amstel battle continued through several more establishments. Finally, needing to sit and figure this out, we sat down. Luke paid an arm and a leg for 6 oz of Amstel and Sharon for cigarette water (waitress smokes cigarette while grabbing ice with her bare hands). We finally decided to head to Arendsnest. A great choice as they had 30 beers on tap and 300 bottles; all Dutch!
We sat and pondered Amsterdam. We discussed why Amsterdam pigeons might be so very fat. Is it that kids in Amsterdam don’t chase them like American kids so they don’t get exercise? Is it that Americans are too greedy to share food with pigeons but Amersterdamians are more giving?
Sharon complained about the bathroom situation. So few public restrooms and these even charge for use. She would have gone broke if she stayed any longer.
We talk about how the service at restaurants was very slow, and inattentive. Ordering was difficult but getting the check even more so. All part of the laid back attitude.
We hung out at the bar as long as possible. We still had one more night in the city but we did not have a room to spend it in. As with most places, the bar did not mind that we loitered. We spent time people watching at the train station and then made our way to the airport as the drunks headed home. We caught one final nap on foreign soil in the amazing nature-themed relaxing room at the Amsterdam airport before heading home.
Time to plan the next trip.