April 26, 2013

Venice of the North


“So long as we live among men, let us cherish humanity.”  Andre Gide

Carol writes:  Might as well jump in with both feet, and that is just what we did when we decided to rent a car and drive 300 miles from Ramstein, Germany, to Amsterdam, where we eagerly anticipated meeting up with our RV later in the week.  Thankfully, our drive to Amsterdam was uneventful.  Our feeling was that the European highway system seemed to work quite well, even at very fast speeds, with only two lanes!  We tended to stay with trucks in the slower lane and marveled at the speed of BMW, Audi, and Porsche drivers that zoomed by us at speeds over 100 mph.  Every driver we observed was very courteous, only used the fast lane to pass and then quickly moved into the slower lane.  No one we saw drove recklessly, no one beeped their horn in anger, and generally all seemed to navigate quite efficiently.  However, I will not be sorry when we are required to travel in the slow lane with the trucks, with a maximum speed of 65 mph when we are traveling in the RV.  Seeing Al’s speedometer register over 140 kilometers an hour (85 mph) was a bit nerve-wracking.

We decided to rent a small apartment in Amsterdam.  We went through the website airbnb.com and met up with Katinka, our lovely Dutch hostess.  Our apartment location was a 5-minute walk to a wonderful grocery store and was only 2 tram stops from Central Station.

 


 
 Our first trip into central Amsterdam suddenly threw us into the bustling, crowded, confusing, lovely atmosphere of our first major European city.  However, after deciphering the Metro and tram system, plus a few stops at the tourist information desk, we successfully navigated our way to most of our must-see attractions.





For me, the Anne Frank House was at the top of my wish list.  When we purchased our entrance tickets earlier in the day, we were told to ring the bell at the little glass door next to the house at exactly 7:20 PM, no earlier and no later, and we would be let inside.  We did as we were told.  European efficiency at its best! 

As we moved through the steep staircases, rooms and narrow corridors of this historic and poignant multistoried house, my first reaction was a sense of reverence.  The multiethnic crowd was very quiet, very polite, and very curious.  The tour was well designed and it wasn’t hard to imagine the horror of being cooped up in those few dreary and crowded rooms, barely able to see the light of day or experience fresh air, totally dependent on the goodwill of friends to bring food, magazines, and simple creature comforts. The cruelest part of the agony the 8 people in hiding had to endure was the fact that they were betrayed and arrested after two long years.  All were deported to Nazi concentration camps, and only one, the father Otto Frank, survived the war.  Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen 9 months after she was captured—only one month short of Allied liberation in April 1945.  I was mesmerized by the actual pages from her diary that were on display.





At the tourist information booth we were told that you haven’t seen Amsterdam at all until you have taken a ride through the canals—so very true!  Our canal ride allowed us to sit back and relax so we could appreciate the marvelous architecture of Amsterdam’s buildings and get a sense of the many centuries of history that have played out there.  I was surprised at the huge number of houses/buildings that had dates on the facades from the early 1600s.   








 
A marvelous, unique feature of Amsterdam was the many styles of houseboats moored along the canals.
 

 

Sunny days are a treasure in Amsterdam.  It is hard to resist outdoor meals and stops for drinks in lovely pubs.  Beer was no more expensive than nonalcoholic tonics and sweet drinks—Al was in heaven.
 
 
We had been warned about Amsterdam traffic.  In fact, on the flight over, the couple in the sleeping bags behind us who were experienced European travelers warned us, “Don’t drive in Amsterdam; traffic is a nightmare and bikes rule the road.”  They were right!  I was astounded at the massive number of bicyclists.  Bikes had their own lanes set aside, but those lanes were not always readily apparent to us.  Cars had much more freedom than we were accustomed to—U-turns at will, very fast driving on streets that weren’t much wider than a walking path.  Fast little mopeds were allowed on the bike paths and the streets, so as pedestrians we quickly learned as we walked to look frequently in a 360-degree circle, and always to yield to the bicyclists! There were bicyclists of all ages...and seas of bikes parked everywhere.  Every metal railing of any substance was covered by bikes chained to them.

 
Yesterday, our trip to the Port of Amsterdam came off without a hitch.  I cannot express how much our nerves were on edge until we met up with our RV and found everything intact—with the exception of the absence of a few saucepans and my favorite large upholstery-type bag that I use to go back and forth to campground showers.  All can be replaced easily, so we got off lightly, but it still stings to know that someone went on a snooping/stealing spree in our unlocked RV, either at one of the ports or while on the ‘roll on-roll off’ Hoegh Beijing vehicle transporter ship.  When you think about it, what happened makes sense; our pots and pans thief needed a large bag in which to transport the stolen saucepans!
 
Reunited at last!

April 30 will mark a very historic event in the Netherlands.  Beloved Queen Beatrix will be abdicating her throne and her oldest son Willem-Alexander will become King.  Since the last three heads of the monarchy were queens, most people we spoke to were excited at the idea of a king as the head of their monarchy.  During my first day in the apartment, while Al was dropping off the rental car, I watched some historic nostalgia films on the life of Queen Beatrix.  Although the TV program was in Dutch, it was obvious to me that Queen Beatrix was a very lovely and popular queen, was very regal in her bearing, yet very approachable to her people.  In casual conversation while showing me our apartment, our hostess, Katinka, reiterated this feeling about the queen.  We could see the April 30 celebration building every day—orange streamers appeared on buildings, orange scarves on the women, and pride in the voices of all who talked with us about this.  So, it is a little fun to be at a moment in time and place that will go down in the history books.
 
Royal palace

For all who are curious and want to know if we saw the Red Light District, the answer is, OF COURSE.  On our evening stroll through the main streets of the Red Light District, my first impression was this was ‘much ado about nothing’.  I saw nothing unusual.  Then, along with many other casual strollers brimming with curiosity, we detoured into the very narrow side alleys.  Oh my goodness…there we saw rows and rows of little cubicles with glass doors with red light bars above the door, and behind each door was every variety of female dressed in limited articles of clothing, in seductive poses with body styles to suit every customer’s desire.  Al and I just looked at each other, and I recall myself saying over and over, “I can’t believe this.”  This area was very close to a large church, and as we were passing by, the church bells loudly tolled 10 o’clock in the evening.  By now we had fulfilled the cultural experience we had wondered about and so we increased the pace of our walk toward the church, only to be shocked by another string of glass doors of ladies of the night located only a few yards from the church walls! 

As far as the free-drug culture of Amsterdam, this was evident to us only in subtle ways—a few shops with drug paraphernalia and an occasional whiff of pot smoke.

During one of our last strolls through lovely Amsterdam, we went through the floating flower stalls where we experienced a delight of colors, a prequel to our next week on the road.
 

 
We will begin our first official day of travel in the RV tomorrow.  Because of the nightmare of everyday vehicle traffic in Amsterdam, we have decided not to press our luck in the huge crowds here to celebrate the abdication and to head out of town along the Flower Route, where we hope to enjoy the abdication celebration in a smaller venue, in addition to viewing miles and miles of fields of famous Dutch flowers.

Al writes:  I will give a few more observations to add to Carol's description of Amsterdam.  This is the land of rusty bikes.  You do not use a nice 25-speed expensive bike.  The typical bike looks like the same design from WWII with a bell, hand brakes, fenders to block the moisture, and something to carry packages, dogs or kids.  It is very heavy.  And all bikers can text on their phone while weaving through the traffic and pedestrians.  I am totally impressed.
 
This is the most secular country in Europe.  We noticed that all the very large cathedrals in the city center had a look of disrepair and abandonment. We could not go into a single one.  I checked some stats and only about 20% of the population goes to church on a regular basis, and the younger generation seems to be turning its back on religion.

The only comment I will make on the Red Light District is that Carol asked me if I saw anything I liked and, of course, the required response was, "No, dear!"

I was in the checkout line at our local supermarket and was asked if I had a “bonus.”  I did not know that a bonus is a card like we have in our supermarkets that knocks down the price on items.  The middle-aged lady behind me said, "Oh, use mine…"  Before I could respond, she passed her bonus card through a reader and saved me 2.5 Euros, and this was just fine with the cashier.  I told her when she comes to the US, I will send her my cards.

This is the land of tall women.  Geez, I feel height disadvantaged.  Our host, Katinka, is an example, coming in about 6' 3".  There is so much in her apartment that I cannot reach, and poor Carol is definitely out of luck.  
 
“When I write I can shake off all my cares.  My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived!”  Anne Frank, 5 April 1944

3 comments:

  1. My sister Martha married into a Dutch family. Richard's three sisters are all tall and beautiful.
    Do you plan to go to the Madurodam minature city? It is quite charming.
    Pem

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  2. The Dutch are an attractive people. With all the walking and biking, the only heavy people around here are the tourists. I do not know about Maduraodam yet. I have trouble planning a few days in advance. We will be concentrating on seeing the tulips in the next few days.

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  3. Your blog of Amsterdam makes me wanna sing, Rooooxxxxaannee!!!!

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