Amsterdam is a place that can be done in a hazy, rushed, adrenalin and cannabis fueled weekend. Or a city that can be explored at leisure. Many Brits come to do the former, and are unlikely to leave the very centre of the city. We, on the other hand, came to do the latter. To be fair, one doesn’t take one’s non smoking wife for an orgy of pot smoking and prostitution. And anyway, this was my third visit to the city. The first two were twelve years ago, as a singleton. I may have partaken in some of the city’s pleasures. But if you must know, I kept my dignity intact. I was asked to leave a brothel, but that’s another story for another day.
But anyway, I am waffling. Back to this trip. So what does one do in such a city of vice if vice is not your thing? There’s plenty to do. Absolutely loads. Some of it costs. Other things need planning. There are other things which are free! I like free. Let’s start with one of those.
Amsterdam is such a walkable city. If you look at a map, it may seem daunting. But these are not New York sized blocks. They are far more manageable. It’s easy to navigate too. And if you can find a canal, you can regain your sense of direction in a jiffy. There are plenty of canals to stroll along and neighbourhoods to trample though. Jordaan, Nine Streets and De Pijp were our favourites. There’s also Vondelpark, a huge expanse of grass and trees, paths, fountains and entertainment. Of course, this is free. You should definitely set aside one day to just walk the city. You’ll be saving yourself 7 odd euros on a tram pass too. Just remember to wear comfortable shoes and watch out for the cyclists and trams, both of whom will conspire to kill you if you give them half a chance.
Walking not your thing? Need to get about a bit quicker? Rent a bike. They are available everywhere. Most seemed to charge between 10 and 15 euros and come with locks. Some wanted a 50 euro deposit. We rented ours from our hotel, and needed only to leave them with our credit card numbers. Which they already had. The bikes are ever so easy to ride and just as easy to find a parking space. There are cycle racks everywhere. If they’re full up, which happens often, then just lock them up against a wall nearby. Mrs P and I both love cycling. Me more than her, perhaps. I miss the Ciclothon on Sundays in Mexico City. Every day is Ciclothon day here in Amsterdam. Amsterdammers ride them through rain and shine.
The Netherlands like their beer. They brew quite a bit of it themselves. Heineken is surely the most famous brand they possess though. Have you been on a tour of a beer factory before? Then you know what to expect. This one is better than most though. It tells the story of the company very well through pictures, exhibits, old items, video and text. It’s a genuinely interesting story. And of course you get some free beer at the end. Free? Well, included as part of the 18 euro entry fee. You might notice that taking a trip on a boat down a canal doesn’t feature on my list. That’s because you get one with the Heineken tour. A pleasant thirty minute trip in a Heineken liveried barge to take you back downtown. That was enough canal boat fun for us.
There’s also a free gift at the end of your ride. What is it? Don’t get too excited. Should I spoil the surprise, or let you find out yourself? Heck, I may as well tell you. It’s just a postcard. But it is a unique postcard, with something a little extra attached. It’s a tour that is well worth the money, what with all that beer, the boat tour and mystery postcard thrown in. I must confess though, I really don’t like the taste of Heineken.
House of Bols
Another alcohol related tour. If you go along on Fridays after 5pm, it’s just 9 euros and a few cents. Otherwise it’s 15 euros. It’s easy to find, just across the road from the Van Gogh museum. Bols is, so the tour tells us, the oldest distillery company something or other in the world. They first started brewing up way back in the mid 15th century and have been at it ever since. Which is a long time ago by anyone’s standards. Their most famous concoction is genever. The British copy which hit the shelves at a much later date is the most famous gin. Once again the dutch lead the way, only to have their product and market usurped by the Brits.
The tour is a blaze of colour, lights, smells and tastes. There’s the standard tasting session at the end. One cocktail each and a couple of tasters of the liquers themselves. They do have some truly imaginitive flavours. I chose a vanilla and strawberry flavoured cocktail. My tasters were banana and caramel. In the end I threw them both into my drink and created my own brand new but not yet patented cocktail. I shall call it the Dutch Gut Rumbler. Mrs P and I both left half cut. One cocktail and the tasters were more than enough.
Van Gogh Museum
Art galleries are where pretentious people go to look more intelligent and sophisticated than they really are. I should know. I go to galleries reasonably often. And I always leave with a false sense of sophistication that I lacked before entering. I assume I also look more intelligent. Maybe, or maybe not. However, there are some art galleries/museums which I do, really, genuinely and thoroughly enjoy. There’s not many of them. But this is most definitely one.
The museum is the story of the artist told through his paintings and with a few canvases of his contemporaries. Van Gogh is someone I can relate to. He decided to do something, went to classes briefly, quit them and then just played around, working it out for himself. Through experimentation, reflection, conversation and more experimentation he developed his own style. I don’t think he can be regarded as the finest painter ever, by any stretch of the imagination. His career lasted only a decade after all, from his decision to become and artist to his untimely death. But by the time he’d finished, he’d created something new and influential, changing the world of art. I truly enjoyed the story of Van Gogh’s life. The audio guide might set you back another five euros, but it’s well worth it.
It’s always nice to head out of the city. From Amsterdam you have plenty of choices. We choose Zaanse Schans to go see some windmills. There are other windmill options, but this was the one day of our trip that rain was forecast. Zaanse Schans has a museum and other indoor things to do and see, so it seemed the sensible choice. The forecast was spot on, and we spent the couple of hours of drizzle learning about the hardships that the founders of the local villages endured.
There’s a whole bunch of windmills to see, each doing something slightly different. Eight of them at least. Maybe more. I lost count, as the ones in the distance came into view through the mist and then disappeared again.You can go in them all if you wish, at 3 euros a go. Or just buy a 10 euro Zaanse Schans card which gets you into the museum and one windmill. I chose the mill crushing peanuts to make oil. I love the smell of peanuts.
Getting there is easy too. Just jump on the No 391 bus at Central Station and you’re there in about 45 minutes. The train journey is quicker, but you’re left with a 15 minute walk from the station. There’s a whole museum, all those windmills and a village of wooden cottages selling tacky souvenirs, overpriced cheese and local fare to walk around. Save your legs for that I say.
Anne Frank House
I’ve read the book. We all have, haven’t we? It’s tragic. Stalin didn’t get much right, but his notion that a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic, seems right to me. I’ve walked around Auschwitz and other sites of genocide and massacre. They are shocking. But the scale is often incomprehensible. The story of Anne Frank, a single girl in a small family, hiding in a house in Amsterdam gives the Holocaust a very personal and emotional side to the story. It’s a story we can easily digest, understand, relate to and the horror of the unwritten ending rams home the terror and evil of the Final Solution.
We went to the Anne Frank House. We looked at the queue. We started walking towards the back, ready for a wait. We got to around the corner and saw a sign, indicating a 45 minute wait from that point. We looked at the queue, which stretched all the way to the end of the street and then along the next. The people at the 45 minute sign were clearly at the beginning of the queue. I had no patience to wait two or three hours. I left very, very disappointed. This was the one place I wanted to visit most. I highly recommend buying tickets online well in advance. They seem to be sold out a week or two in advance.
In fact I recommend buying tickets in advance to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum too. I did manage to snag a pair to both places which saved a lot of time. My photos? Heavens, I have sets and sets of them. Some, taken with my HTC One, are on Google+ here, here, here, here and here. Others taken with a proper camera are on 500px here, here, here and here.