London to Amsterdam

London to Amsterdam does not end up being a smooth journey. I take my time in the mornings as I do regardless of the affair, and arrive in the Gatwick South Terminal with only minutes to spare to catch my bag drop off. However, the trains from south terminal to north were broken for about an hour already when when I arrived (which I didn’t know until later) and people were standing around looking as anxious as you could look when thrown in the situation where you may miss your flight. Apparently cabs were not taking people from from the south terminal to the north so we were stranded. Needless to say, I missed my flight and had to buy new ticket.

I waited around in the information desk on the ground floor with a few other people who also missed their flights, and after a good hour and a half of standing around a young Denzel Washington who was manager at the floor promised a cheque refund. Hopefully one day I will see the aforementioned cheque.

I arrive at my hotel pretty in Amsterdam pretty damn late (pun intended), but I meet Lucie for dinner after getting lost in the maze of bridges and winding rivers that all look the same. We eat Argentinian and smoke shish in a bar with a bunch of muslims playing bingo. Not the Amsterdam party scene I had envisaged.

After 3am everything shuts, and after a casual walk to her hostel I just miss the 350am bus. Next one 450am. Ouch. At least I don’t have to wake up early the next day.

Day at Haarlem

I wake up early.

Breakfast ends at 10:30 at the hostel AND I’m supposed to meet a few couch surfers in a little town called Haarlem at the same time so I drag myself out of bed. After battling through the buffet breakfast crowds like a gladiator in an arena and telling my couch surfing buddies that I’ll be fashionably late, I make my way to Haarlem for what specifically I don’t know. I just know a visit to a windmill is involved at some point of the day and, being in Amsterdam, I reckon that’s a visit worth doing.

I arrived at the Haarlem train station and made my way through the pretty buildings and trendy shops flanking the small cobbled high street. I meet up with Ellyse (a girl from Shanghai who organised todays event) and her band of merry men: an Aussie and two local Dutchmen. We proceed to the Corrie Ten Boom house, which prior to that moment I knew Jack Dukie about, and en route to the house I’m surprised about the enthusiasm of Ellyse at going to a little tiny house in the middle of the high street. I later find out that Corrie Ten Boom setup the house we visited as a safe house for the Jews during the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam and was successful in protecting over 600 Jews between 1938-1945. Although she was caught and taken to a concentration camp, she survived and continued her mission on helping people (and preaching on God’s forgiveness) all around the world until her timely death at age 90. Inspiring story, and seeing just how tiny the hideout in the house was, you get a strong visual hint of just how hard it was for Jews in that time.

From here we made our way to the Adriaan Windmill, which has been one of the main landmarks of the city for centuries. Although it burned down in 1932, It was recently restored to its former glory and is capable of grinding grain (which is used in a nearby brewery to produce Adriaan beer!). We do the €3 tour of the windmill where a Danish man shows us the many different floors of the windmill and gives us a lot of information on the different types of windmills and how they work (none of which I remember)! After taking a multitude of photos, we walk to a really cute nearby artificial beach and cool down from the heat with an Adriaan (white) beer.

I pick up Lucie’s toiletry bag and then we head on to the food fair “Culinair”! All the people I am with are too tight to take anything, but as they’re all in a rush to leave for various different reasons, I stay behind and sample a few of their food as a mid-afternoon snack. I Head back to Amsterdam to meet Lucie for drinks at Dam Square where beers go for €8 a pop. There I meet two lovely people called Raymond and Tanja, fellow couch surfers (couch surfers are awesome people!) and finish the night dancing away at a nearby club.

Amsterdam Walking Tour & My First Coffee Shop experience

The morning starts like every other morning in Amsterdam, with me rushing to grab my breakfast of champions at the buffet in the hotel. I pick up Lucie at her hostel in the center, and as she is food deprived the first stop is a restaurant on her street where she grabs a bite to eat and I a coconut smoothie, a good energy refresher before our 2hour walking tour with a crazy guide who is sporting tattoo’s, piercings and has a constant twitch around her mouth that I can only attribute to a certain amount of drugs that must be flowing through the veins right now. We are in Amsterdam afterall!

She leads us through the historic center around Amsterdam Centraal and the red light district, where she delves into the history of the area being one of the most important trading ports in Europe and how the country is mostly meters below sea level. Interestingly, she points out that the old church is right at the Red Light district, situated purposefully as apparently the priests used to charge for absolutions for the sins of the sailors who paid for sex. Quite the money making industry! The tour ended by the Anne Frank museum, where after saying my goodbye’s to Lucie as she continued on to Stockholm, I met up with new found travel buddies for our first coffee shop experience!

We weren’t particularly fussed which coffee shop we ended in, so we just asked the bartender in the pub we were in where the nearest one was. Sure enough, there was one just a couple hundred meters round the corner with locals sitting outside and by the bar puffing their troubles away. The highlight of the experience was going through the menu at the bar with the different joints on offer, and after settling for a ‘medium high’ one we welcomed in our newly relaxed state. After a few puffs of the magic dragon, we finish our joint (and pretty much my day), a little premature in my opinion, so I make a promise to myself to return to a coffee shop again soon to get a bit more of an experience. Two days later I do just that by sampling the best space cakes that Amsterdam has to offer.

Gay Pride

It was quite fortuitous that Gay Pride landed one of the days that I was in Amsterdam. To be in a city during any festival is fun, but to be in a city where everything is tolerated and accepted provides probably the best stage for Gay Pride.

Amsterdam’s Gay Pride really took place over the whole weekend (the Egyptian I had shared a joint with the day before was in a hurry to catch the Transvestite Olympics that night), but the main event was a boat parade that went through the canals encircling Centraal station between 2pm and 5pm that day. I met with a crazy local called Sander at 11:00am who could have been the soul mate of the tour guide who led us through the streets of Amsterdam a day earlier and a good 25 or so other couch surfers who were up for a good time. He led us like the Pied Piper to one of the 1,281 bridges that go over one of the main canals of the parade. Having claimed a good viewing spot thanks to our fearless leader, myself and a guy from Thailand called Keo went to the nearest supermarket to arm ourselves with food and drink as it was going to be a lot of hours of siting and standing around.

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Bike to Holysloot

After perusing through Timeout’s Top 20 things to do in Amsterdam, I thought it would be a good idea to channel my inner cyclist and do the recommended cycle to a Holysloot. Holysloot is a little fishing village only about 5 kilometres north of Amsterdaam Centraal, with promised scenery of typical Danish country homes as well as landscapes filled with livestock grazing on fields amongst canals and dikes aplenty. So I had my power breakfast in the hostel and made my way to the centre to rent a bicycle.

Getting off from Centraal station, I walked southwest towards one of the most famous stalls that sells Pickled Herring (a delicacy in the Netherlands) in hopes that this would be my packed lunch but being a Sunday the stall was closed. I knew my culinary compass would lead me to one the following day, so I quickly made a beeline and walked directly east through the labyrinth of coffee shops and arrived at my bike shop. The Danish man who worked there equipped me a new bike that had no handbrakes!!! Apparently a fair majority of the bikes in Amsterdam aren’t built with handbrakes, and to stop the bike you simply need to pedal the other direction. A very foreign concept to me, and one I imagine wouldn’t be effective if you were cycling at a significant speed, but I suppose most cyclists casually glide through the streets of Amsterdam so it is fit for purpose. I take a few seconds to get used to this new concept of braking and quickly get into the knack of it.

The first few minutes of my cycle is pretty much motivated by not running over pedestrians: they are everywhere! You literally need to navigate your way through them like walking through a land mine since people seem to see bike lanes as some sort of an extension of a pedestrian lane. Luckily, it’s a short ride to the dock at the north of Centraal station where a free ferry takes you across to Amsterdam Noord. Most people getting on the ferry are accompanied with bikes like myself, stressing just how important the bike is as a mode of transport in Amsterdam. There are an astonishing 600,000 bicycles in Amsterdam to the 2.25 million inhabitants. That’s about one in every three people in Amsterdam who get around by bike. Anyway, the boat ride across is as short as it is visually attractive (the view of Amsterdam is pretty much blocked by the huge Centraal Station behind you), but being on a boat and crossing a river is enough to get me excited!

Back on solid ground, I bike further North towards Vliegenbos park (stopping through a local supermarket to pick up a tuna salad for lunch) and after passing through the park continue through to Schellingwoude by following the dike. It’s almost possible to get lost to Holysloot as most of the time you only need to follow the dike until Schellingwoude and then little signposts lead you the rest of the way. The dike I follow is flanked with some of the prettiest little houses I’ve ever seen, and there are residents enjoying the fine hot weather by fishing and sharing a beer with each other. This soon comes to an end and is replaced by fields filled with sheep, cows and goats; no doubt contributing to the plethora of cheese you can find throughout the country.

Arriving at Holysloot is a little bit anti-climactic, as the little fishing village is so small there almost isn’t anything to see. There’s probably only about 20 houses, an old church and a pub where everyone who is anyone is at! Nonetheless, I take this chance for a quick stop at a bench to eat my tuna salad with a view of fields and the skyline of Amsterdam in the distance. I take a slightly different route going back, also filled with beautiful danish homes and cute cafe’s which, if I wasn’t ensuring I got back to the bike shop before they closed at 6pm, I would definitely have stopped for a coffee.

But so came the end of the my day, a sample of some really beautiful danish homes and a prime example where the journey is often more important than the destination.

Anne Frank, Van Gogh and a trip to outer space

Last day in Amsterdam, so what do I do? Cram everything that I want to do in it!

The crazy girl from New Europe who gave us the free tour a couple of days ago recommended that I start queueing for the Anne Frank museum before 9am to be able to get in with minimal wait when the museum opened at 9, but as I don’t take to mornings very well I didn’t get down there until 9:30 and sure enough had to queue for 50 minutes. I entertained myself by using the free WIFI the Anne Frank museum offered and by chatting to a Chilean guy who was in the queue behind me. When I told him I had visited Santiago and Valparaiso in Chile he quickly warmed up to me; nothing like the familiarity of home to bond people together!

The Anne Frank hideout was a lot bigger than I had expected. Comparing it with the Corrie Ten Boom house in Haarlem where the hideout was a mere meter long and 2-3 meters wide, the Anne Frank hideout had 3 bedrooms, a large kitchen + living room, a bathroom and an attic. All hidden behind a bookcase on the first floor of the jam factory that Anne Frank’s father (Otto Frank) owned. For some reason, I had imagined all these years that Anne Frank hid in a room as small as a wardrobe (like the Corrie Ten Boom hideout) and was surprised at the scale of their hideout. Otto Frank seemed to be an extremely wealthy Jew: to be able to transfer his family from Frankfurt to Amsterdam when Hitler came into power on 1933, become Managing Director of a jam factory in Amsterdam upon his arrival, send his children to a reputable school until they went into hiding in 1942 and be able to setup such an impressive hideout on the first floor of their factory.

Probably just as impressive of the scale of their hideout are the passages from Anne Frank’s diary that are imprinted over the halls of the house. Her maturity and insight towards the anti-Semitism that was at its height during Hitler’s regime, self-reflection and emotional transparency really leaves you with a heavy heart. Reading the thoughts and feelings of a 14 year old girl written so well makes what happened in the past so personal and also so present. I couldn’t help but not buy her diary on my way out. I’m only halfway reading through it, but writing in my Blog from the seat in my train as I travel across Europe couldn’t be in any more stark contrast than her writing in her diary from the house she hid in for two years until she was discovered by the Nazi’s and sent to a concentration camp to die. I hope I never forget how lucky I am!

With my heart as heavy as a cannonball, I leave the Anne Frank house and walk south-east towards Museumspiel where the Van Gogh museum is. One of the handful of artists I really like, I make it a point not to miss the post-Impressionist Dutch artist while I’m in Amsterdam. On my way, I pass through a stall that sells Pickled Herring and after having one, decide that it’s too good not to have another!

Museumspiel is something you need to experience! Imagine a huge garden with flowers and fountains, filled with talented artists either playing classical music or endorsing their own compositions in a setting of magnificent museum buildings built in classic Roman style. I listened to a few of the artists for a while and had a coffee while I read about Van Gogh as I killed time until my 3:00pm entry to the museum.

It’s hard to put into what I saw during the 90 minutes I spent going through the 4 floors worth of Van Gogh art, but all I will say is that I really like him as an artist for his attention to colour theory in his paintings as well as his style of brush strokes. In a lot of his (late) artwork, he utilises minimal amount of colours that complement each other very well (yellow and purple seemed to be his favourite) and strong brush strokes that evoke a lot of emotion. I took some photos of the works that I particularly liked, more to remind myself of them than an attempt to capture its splendour.

The day finished with my space cake experience at the Paradox with Tyrone and Felix, a fitting end to my time at Amsterdam.

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