Travelogue: Amsterdam

TRAVELOGUE AMSTERDAM
13-15 June 2018
As all trips tend to, this one started with a mad race to the airport. Having recently started a new job, I wanted to leave the office as late as possible to try and still get in a full day. We’d logisticked the plan to suit, packing yawning dogs into the car so they could be dropped off at their grandparents by 6am and I’d get dropped off at the office by half past.
Managing a breakneck day, I hailed an Uber at 4pm to take me to the Sandton Gautrain Station and was very lucky to have been just ahead of and in the opposite direction to the rush hour traffic. The Gautrain did me no favours, rejecting my card as expired from lack of use and requiring me to buy a new one for my journey.
Still, even with all that, I arrived at the airport only shortly after Christian who had meanwhile driven from his conference venue (conveniently in close proximity to the airport) and dropped our car with the valet parking people.
It was very strange arriving at the airport with nothing but my handbag… But a welcome relief to check in our suitcase – well in time – and head to the Emirates Lounge for an exhale and a snack before our flight.
We were exhausted so managed to get quite a bit of sleep on both flights and arrived in Amsterdam ready and raring to meet our friends.
The trip had been inspired by Tim and Wendy (commonly collectively referred to as ‘Twendy’); lifelong fans of Pearl Jam, the band who we’d all travelled to see at the popular Pink Pop Festival. Twendy had come earlier to catch a Pearl Jam concert in Amsterdam on the Tuesday night as well, but we were happy with a couple of nights to sightsee Amsterdam and then the weekend at the Festival.
We had booked Airbnb accommodation near to Twendy’s in Prinsengracht Street, on the outskirts of the city centre. A short train ride and a brisk 20 minute walk from Central Station later, we were in our digs to drop our bags and turn out again to get to the designated meeting place.
Twendy’s dropped pin guided us straight down the canal to the Ellis burger bar cafe restaurant nestled against a busy (with bicycle traffic) intersection. We were delighted to see them and spent a couple of hours catching up on what they’d seen and done and had yet to see and do, washing down quality burgers with cold Heinekens.
Making the most of our proximity to our investments, we went past Twendy’s first and then via the grocery store to get some Heinekens and Grolsch for sundowners on our roof terrace. It was hardly the summer we’re used to, struggling to maintain 20 degrees Celsius, but it was a very pleasant evening and a big novelty to be drinking Dutch beer in Amsterdam.
Twendy had booked tickets to another concert that evening so we walked them to their venue – since everything was new, everything was an adventure – and then caught a tram to the notorious Red Light District.
I still had the Rick Steves app on my phone from our Italy tour the year before, so we used his easy-to-follow route and narrative to guide us. Funny enough, when we were stopped outside a church, a family pulled up next to us and, hearing the voice from our speakerphone, excitedly said to us “Rick Steves! Rick Steves!” pointing at their earphones and phones.
On concluding the walk, we used the opportunity to visit one of the many Irish bars to log on our Guinness Index. We settled in a bar called Slainte and earned made it famous at a fairly respectable #15.
Shortly after we arrived we spotted a chap wandering around the pub, clearly looking for his people. On a hunch, I asked if he was Neil, Twendy’s friend who lives in Amsterdam. He was!
By the time Twendy joined us, we were old friends with Neil and we all enjoyed a catch up – and celebrating the turn of midnight into the 40th birthday of a lady with whom Twendy had made friends on the bus between the concert venue and the pub.
Shattered from our long journey and enthusiastic arrival celebrations, we only managed a couple before calling it a night and wandering back to our apartment.
We’d pre-booked a walking City Tour (through Sandemans, the same company as the one we’d recently done in Dublin). When we’d booked, 10h30 seemed like a very reasonable start time and we’d had dreams of a lovely fry-up to start our day. It was not to be, when we first fluttered eyelids at 09h45!
Fortunately, we’d had some experience with the city now – and it’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do – so it was simple enough to navigate to Dam Square where the tour was starting (and for Christian to nip into Burger King for us to get their first order of the day).
We met with our guide, Sam; an American actor who’d done stints on both Broadway and the West End in London and was now permanently based in Amsterdam. We went through the usual ‘meet the group’ routine and then headed off on the tour.
Starting the tour in front of the memorial in  Dam Square commemorating WW2’s fallen soldiers, Sam told us that the city formed over the river Amstel in 1100 and joked that only such an old city could have something called ‘New Church‘ that was 600 years old! He also shared that Justin Bieber had recently bought the most expensive property in Amsterdam, overlooking the Square – there goes the neighbourhood!
We walked across to the Old Church, which was built in 1306. Amsterdam was the largest trading city of the world back then and where the Central Station is now was a massive harbour with ships from all around the world. These brought hordes of sailors, so the church started the prostitution business to protect the virtue of the ‘nice’ ladies and pimped to benefit from the massive money the industry generated – and absolved the prostitutes’ sins when they confessed to them on a daily basis, even allowing them to pay (literally) for their sins in advance!
Legalisation of sex work was only formalised in the year 2000 (very progressive, being the first and only country to do so). Previously it’d fallen under ‘gedogen‘ (not legal, but not enforced) because it was good for business, didn’t harm anyone else and was done (relatively) discreetly. The legalisation was to make the industry safe, protect the prostitutes and stop the child abduction rings. It’s now the city’s safest place, with response times as quick as under a minute when panic buttons are pressed.
We walked along Zeedijk Road – the highest point in Amsterdam, at 1.6m above sea level. With more than 30% under sea level, it’s felt that this is part of the reason for the city’s history of tolerance and brotherhood. Because everyone had a common enemy; the sea.
Sam stopped us outside the old gate to the city. An important building that had also housed the Guilds, among them Rembrandt van Rijn who had been contracted to paint the surgical procedures being conducted in the top of the same building in the 1600s. He was only 26 and became a very wealthy man in his lifetime (rare among the classic painters) from his signature portrait painting.
Next up was a building in the University of Holland, housed in what was the headquarters of the Dutch East India company from 1606. Sounds like a business well ahead of its time, modernising the industry with fleet sailing to mitigate risk while harvesting and trading spices, gold, cotton etc AND introducing the investment/stocks model for a continuous stream of money to plough into taking over the world, as a global mega-power colonising in every direction with such gems as New Amsterdam (now New York), New Zealand and Cape Town. The only Dutch protectorates left are the 5 islands in the Caribbean, which Sam qiupped is to give the Dutch somewhere warm to holiday.
We took the midtour break in a bar in a building that used to be a convent. You could see evidence of some of its former purpose in odd elements like a lingering pew and a small staircase up to an altar-like podium with austere gilded cross backdrop. Quite a contrast of past and present!
Our tour had circled round and we were back in Dam Square, this time on the opposite end, outside the Royal Palace. The story goes that Napoleon sent his brother Louis to rule the Dutch. He didn’t do very well and Napoleon took Holland back from him within 3 years. But even in that short time old Louis had made some monumental changes, like introducing street numbers and surnames.
Sam pointed out that Amsterdam, being built on swampland, wanted to make the most of their land so they taxed homes according to their road frontage. This is how the narrowest house in Amsterdam – a red brick building only 1.8m wide, coincidentally adjacent to the widest bridge in Amsterdam – came into being. Ironically, the house is inhabited by a couple over 6 feet tall with 2 large dogs!
The houses have pulley hooks attached to the top of the house and the fronts generally lean forward a bit, so that (back in the day) stocks and wares and (even today) bulk furnishings can be hoisted into the house. Some of the houses have sunk in their foundations so also lean to the left or right, leaving rows of houses looking like multicoloured teeth in dire need of braces!
These houses line the 165 canals in Amsterdam. French Hugenot Protestants came to Amsterdam looking for religious tolerance and work and ended up digging these concentric semi-circular canals to bring goods to the merchants’ houses. So, essentially, the city is 190 islands connected by 1200 bridges.
The tour ended at the Anne Frank House. Although voted by the Dutch as one of their most famous and beloved, Anne was actually German (born in Frankfurt); her family had moved to avoid Nazi persecution (Amsterdam was among the safest places in Europe) and the house was actually her dad’s business building until 1942, when they were forced to seek solace so went into hiding. Two years they spent, holed up in that tiny attic with windows boarded up and separated from the business by a sliding book case. Eight people, in complete silence all day while the business ran in the rest of the house.
It’s a really poignant story that this teenager kept such a vivid account or their story and ended up perishing with her mother and sister in a concentration camp, leaving behind only her father, who retrieved her diary – a gift he’d given her for her 13th birthday, in fact – and made her documented dreams of becoming a revered author come true posthumously.
Sam recommended a traditional Dutch restaurant for lunch, so we messaged our friends to meet us there in a couple of hours and took a brisk walk to the Rijks Museum for a cultural whirwhind whip around to see some Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt Van Rijn masterpieces on home soil. Very impressive. Especially Van Rijn, whose The Night Watch is truly breathtaking.
The museum was a bit further than we anticipated so we were a bit late to meet at Cafe Sonneveld for our traditional lunch. No mind though, the restaurant was very quick to serve up our ‘stamppot’ and we were soon enthralled in the meatballs and mash style meal.
The plan for the afternoon was to rent a boat and see the city from the water… But it had started to rain, so we took an hour out to sit in a coffee shop and play cards (which was a very fun excursion of sorts in itself).
It didn’t rain for long, so we were soon back on course, with a full cooler, a picnic of snacky things and a playlist of the main contenders at the impending festival to complement the trip. It was pretty chilly and the rain had obviously scared off other potential boaters, so we had the canals largely to ourselves, which was wonderful and a couple of hours later we’d seen more of Amsterdam than I’m sure most see in their entire stay!
Our body clocks must’ve been quite confused by the dark coming so late (you can’t really say from the sun staying up so late when there was no appearance of the sun to speak of), so when we went to Foodhallen for dinner, we somehow missed it completely. The venue is a warehouse of food stalls of all varieties – from pizza to seafood to Mexican to frozen yoghurt – but they had all closed (at 10pm sharp) before we’d made our minds up… So we just went to one of Neil’s favourite restaurants, Rotisserie, instead for massive, juicy burgers.
It’s always good to walk home from the pub after such long day/night outings – and it was much easier this time, since we had a better lay of the land.