Eurotrip 2011: Amsterdam

Nope, this post is not about Cayman! We're past the mid-point of our 3-week Eurotrip, which you can read all about here.

We left the home of our gracious Brussels hosts by 7:30, but not before we were given two healthy slices of homemade apple bread to fuel our travels. There is something about cold-weather countries that entices people to bake. I'm always enticed to eat. The combo works out beautifully.

Once the 9:00 a.m. train arrived in Amsterdam, we managed to obtain a map at the information center near the central station, and set off to our first adventure. One look at the city layout on the map let us know that navigating in Amsterdam was going to be no easy task - the streets wound around the canals and harbors, and of course, the Dutch map promoted long words with unpredictable letter combinations. Try squeezing street names like "Oudezijds Achterburgwal" into a small-scale map, over and over again, and you're left with a jumble of words and lines and colors, with lots of little unnamed alleys thrown in just for kicks!

Is it just me, or is that building leaning??

Our first order of business was to find our accommodations - Shelter City Hostel in the New Market area - so we could relieve ourselves of our bags. As we walked along - nearing China Town and the section containing our hostel - we passed many of those infamous coffee shops that Amsterdam boasts.  The green lights combined with the smoky interiors made it seem like some kind of green fire-breathing dragon was living in each shop, blowing billows of smoke as we passed. Okay, so it wasn't that bad, but I certainly didn't enjoy the frequent cannabis smell.

Don't worry; it's not at racy as it looks. This is Amsterdam's coat of arms,
representing three St. Andrew's crosses. What were you thinking?!

We found the hostel and waited behind the desk for quite some time while a young German volunteer (who was very sweet but also frustratingly inefficient) helped visitors in front of us. I was hitting that point in the day where food was becoming a necessity, yet there was no rushing the check-in process. (He had so many things to remind each guest: Where to find lockers, how many keys were allowed, where breakfast was served, when Bible study was held, how to access the internet, who to notify if you were coming in after curfew...!) I was losing patience, which was not a good show in a Christian hostel, so I dug the apple bread from the morning out of our bags and went to town on a side bench and let NS deal with Mr. Sweet-but-Slow.

The hostel was a funny experience for me. It's a Christian youth hostel, which means guys and girls sleep separately. Including the two of us. I checked into a 4-bunk room, while NS checked into a 12-bunk dorm. Each room had lockers for all occupants, but they weren't nearly large enough for our huge packs, so we had to rent lockers downstairs in the common area for our belongings. I wasn't too keen on being separated from all my stuff when I woke up in the morning, but at least I knew my stuff would still be there. (Not to be suspicious of the visitors in a Christian hostel, but still.)

Soon enough we were off again, trying to use the map to find the bike tour shop. After walking down a few winding roads, we found it near a canal. (Ha! That's a meaningless location; everything in Amsterdam is by a canal.) We were plenty early, so we sat ourselves down in a nearby café where I sipped on a cup of illy coffee, NS finally ate, and we caught up on email (and of course, Facebook) using the free WiFi. I was at the point in the trip where a cup of coffee and a half hour on Facebook was a major blessing.


Our bike tour guide/Christopher Lloyd-lookalike took us on a 2-hour ride that wound us up and down the canals, covering a lot of streets (but not a large geographical area.) There are so many small roads and cut-throughs in Amsterdam that we didn't need to stray too far from home to get a great feel of the city.

Amsterdam is truly designed for bikes. There are bike lanes absolutely everywhere, and cars are extremely cognizant of the many, many bicycles that share the roads on a daily basis. Furthermore, there are barely any inclines - let alone hills - in the city to speak of, so riding around on 3-speed bikes served us well. I had been a bit apprehensive about biking in a city where everyone cycles, figuring there was little to no room for error, but surprisingly enough, everyone seemed courteous, and I didn't get run over. Mission accomplished.


During the tour, we learned about why the buildings of Amsterdam are built with a forward lean: When combined with the hooks near the roof of each house, large objects can be hoisted above ground level through the windows (as the interior staircases are too narrow for certain things). The forward slant of the buildings prevents lower-level windows from getting smashed by a couch being lifted to the third floor. I would have assumed that the hooks were part of a formerly-used technology, so I was surprised to hear that the Dutch routinely use the hooks to this day.

Still in use. Why not? If it ain't broke...

Our tour also included the man-made islands within Amsterdam (the Dutch are well-noted for their control of water), several local distilleries (including those that first created gin from the re-processing of "bad" beer), and the "miracle of Amsterdam", which helped to position Amsterdam as a major shipping city. In addition, the tour led us past houses from the 17th century, historic bars, and Rembrandt's house. I honestly don’t think my photos do justice to how picturesque this city is, with its waterways and bicycles and brick buildings and flower stalls and cheese shops.


For our evening entertainment, NS suggested we go out on a proper date (as in, shed the running shoes and don a real dress). I felt quite excited about "dressing up", until we arrived back at the hostel to find that of the four bunks in my room, two were occupied by sleeping girls! I found it odd to be tip-toeing around a room at 6 p.m.  My pack had many interior zippers that I had to get to, making it a struggle to be perfectly quiet. Oh well; I guess that's all part of the hostel experience. Finally, I was showered and dressed, with fresh make-up and clean hair.

Before moving to Grand Cayman, we often vacationed on Caribbean cruises as our post-busy season break. I loved many things about cruising - the ports of call, the entertainment, the activities, and of course, the food - but one of my favorite things is that I had almost endless opportunities to wear fun clothes and/or dress up. There was always a dinner or a show to being heading off to, and I was the kind of passenger that brought extra skirts and dresses and high heels, just for the sheer joy of feeling pretty. As silly as it sounds, looking cute on vacation is part of why I go on vacation.

However, this vacation was more of a "trip" than a vacation, and most of the time, feeling comfortable took priority over looking cute. At any rate, this "date night" might have been the first time since leaving the West Country that I felt photo-ready.



We went to Looks based on our tour guide's recommendation. The interior design and attached patio were clean and modern, and the restaurant had a great ambiance.



The food was absolutely fine, although nothing to write home about. But the guy sitting across the table from me made the date pretty fabulous.


Back at the hostel, I just didn't feel like putting my large bag in the downstairs locker, so I chose to sleep with it propped under my head. This led to me not exactly getting the best night's rest, but apparently this vacation wasn't about sleeping.

The next day, we began in the Resistance Museum, which documents the lives of the Dutch during World War II. The museum's first exhibit outlined the story of Wally van Hall, a banker who used fraudulent bookkeeping to help misappropriate funds for the resistance movement. What a way to entice two auditors into the rest of the museum! 

After lunch we passed by Anne Frank's house. We chose not to go in due to the line, plus we heard there wasn't that much to see. Still, I remember reading Anne Frank's diary when in grade school, so I was happy to at least pass by.


We had an evening train to catch, and with just a couple hours to kill, we popped into the Reypenaer cheese shop to check out their wares, only to find out they were about to host a cheese tasting. Wonderful! For 15 euros/person, we sampled several naturally-aged goat and cow cheeses. We learned about the aging process, which this company still performs in the traditional manner, using a old, naturally ventilated wooden building. The cheeses were delightful, especially since the host showed us the proper method of examining and smelling the cheese before letting it melt on the tongue. Mmm. [I'm writing this portion of the post while sitting on an airplane without (free) food service. Not smart.]


We purchased a few packages of the delicious cheese, as we were told that none of it had to be refrigerated for a couple weeks. I guess that's the benefit of buying aged cheese! (I'm pleased to report that all of the cheese made it back to Cayman safely, and we've since tried to ration it as much as possible. There is nothing like a quality cheese as a form of comfort food!)

Our final task for the day involved checking ourselves into a sleeper car on an overnight train to Prague. NS had reserved a 4-person berth (as opposed to a 6-person), but when we arrived in our accommodations, we were the only two in the little room. What a bonus! We rearranged two of the six bunks so that we could sit on the lowest level, putting all of our belongings in the overhead area. This was as close to a hotel room as we had been in all trip long! The gentle motion of the train lulled even me to sleep easily.  European trains seemed to be agreeing with me at every turn. What a convenient, affordable way to travel!

Tucked in and ready for a peaceful night's rest!

And I felt very happy and content and restful. Until 12:26 a.m.

More on the rest of our train ride in the next Eurotrip post.


3 comments:

  1. Aww, Jss! I never worry so much about being quiet in hostels when people are sleeping at weird hours--for goodness sake, other hostelers often don't worry about being quiet even when people are asleep at normal sleeping hours...

    LK

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  2. so what happened?? The Train ride? 12.26am? Post already! Feel a bit like I did when I finished the first Twilight book and had to wait to get the second book....

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