Friday, June 19, 2015

A bit of the Dutch touch: Amsterdam

Amsterdam houses
One of the narrowest houses in Amsterdam.  Do you see it?
Oh notorious Amsterdam.  The Mecca to all free-spirited, bohemian artists and cannabis connoisseurs. Yeah, I'm just going to open with that because it really is everywhere.  Not that I mind - to each their own - which seems like it would be an appropriate motto for Amsterdam.  Europe in general tends to be much more liberal about issues - especially when it comes to sex- but in my experiences so far, Amsterdam takes the cake, and then eats it.  If you are easily offended by public pot smoking, body parts, sleazy bachelor parties full of drunk Brits, S&M shops or tulips, then Amsterdam is not for you.  Yes, Quintin Tarantino wrote Pulp Fiction in 3 months while staying in the Winston Hotel in the Red Light District.  So yeah, you get the picture, but with far less guns and watch smuggling.

If you love paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, Van Gogh, enormous pancakes, Indonesian-Dutch historic fusion, drifting through gorgeous neighborhoods by boat on a system of concentric canals, and stopping to sample "coffee" shops, then by all means, book your ticket right now.

A butt with eyes
Well hello there!
My first piece of advice for Amsterdam: It is a lot safer than one might think, as long as you keep your wits about you (READ: Don't be a completely stoned moron bumbling around after dark and keep an eye on your wallet).  Even in the Red Light District, the working girls have a panic button of sorts that call the police if they feel threatened.

My second piece of advice for Amsterdam: Don't always trust hotel reviews on popular booking sites. While these sites can be really useful and I am in favor of the power that social media and the Internet gives consumers, keep in mind the reason many people visit Amsterdam and then do your research to decide if you are in their same camp.  If you pick a hotel that is close to the main train station (Amsterdam Centraal), you've likely picked a hotel that is in the Red Light District.  Amsterdam is really a city where you will want to dig into the reputable tourist guides and pick a decent hotel if you are really looking for something quality.  

Planning a last minute trip, we ended up with a dud of a hotel (The Black Tulip in, you guessed it, the Red Light District).  Pretty much a dump, but a cheap and safe one - see the picture on the right of the sign posted outside of our hotel.

Thanks for keeping it nice sign
Right back at 'cha!
But hey,  the dude that was rolling joints on the outside windowsill of our room at the Black Tulip Hotel laughed when I surprised him by suddenly opening the curtains on him .  I was actually a bit concerned when he somersaulted backwards into the street and a bicyclist swerved to avoid him. And the  illegal drug dealers that tried to sell Nick cocaine (three times) were very polite.  Please, that junk would just get all stuck in his beard, no thank you.  Note: While Amsterdam is very lax about marijuana, selling drugs on the street (of any kind) is illegal and dangerous.  The dealers tend to come out once the bars and coffee shops have all closed for the night.

While it really hits you in the face, even for a Coloradan where a trip home is a bit like a Republican rave (insert Mile "High" Denver joke of your choosing here), there is so much more to experience:

-During the high tourist season, which is longer in the Netherlands due to the beautiful tulip bloom in the spring, reserve your tickets for big sites early.  Especially for the Anne Frank House, which can book out for months.

-Take a canal boat tour.  It is really, in my opinion, the best way to experience this amazing city built on millions of pilings.  You'll see the curious looking boat houses that came into being during Amsterdam's housing shortage.  Be sure to notice that the regular houses are built very narrow and tall, due to the fact that real estate prices are adjusted based on the width of a building.  If you notice that these buildings seem to be leaning forward, it's not the "coffee"!  They really are built slanting forward in order to make the pulley system on the facade easier to pull up goods to the top floors.

-The Rijksmuseum is a must see.  While during the Baroque period artists all over Europe were painting to cater to the rich, the Dutch painters were catering to a more common crowd: the middle and upper-class business men making bank in Europe's richest trading port during the 1600s. There is no better place to sit and contemplate the works of Vermeer, Hals, Rembrandt and my personal favorite, Steen.  The museum is huge, so focus on the Dutch Masters and then pace yourself for the rest.  If you only have a little time in Amsterdam and can only visit one museum, this is the one.  Sad you can't see the Van Gogh Museum as well?  They have a collection of Van Gogh as well.  You could spend days in here.

- Watch where you are walking.  Not just because some of the streets were Party Central the night before, but more because there is a traffic lane, a bike lane, and trams.  Getting hit by a bike hurts a lot more than you think it would.

-Thank the Dutch for gin and try jenever.  First sold in the 16th century as medicine, this is not what you might think of as gin for your gin and tonic.  Made from distilled malt wine and flavored with juniper berries, jenever is an interesting Dutch tradition.  Some is served room-temperature, but some types are served in a tulip-shaped shot glass, taken straight from the freezer, and filled to the brim.  Don't want to look like a gringo?  Don't pick up or touch the glass at first.  Bend over and take the first sips straight from glass on the table.

-Eat a risstafel.  Literally meaning "rice table" this is an amazing example of the cultural influence of the Dutch colonies.  A dozen tiny dishes featuring spices from all over the world are served with rice tapas style.  

Lastly, traveling is like a buffet, you take what you want from the experience and leave the rest. Reserve your judgements, relish the experiences, and be flexible.

Here are some picture highlights of our trip - enjoy!