City Trip Amsterdam
Canals, Clogs, Cheese, Tulips and Sex & Drugs
Only four days in hand and the whole of Amsterdam and its surroundings to explore. Coffee shops, the Red Light District, the amazing system of canals, art museums: there is much to see in this city. In its surroundings are also places worth visiting: the open air museum Zaanse Schans; the tulip gardens at Keukenhof; and the miniature village of Madurodam, with small copies of famous places in The Netherlands.
Travelogue & photos: Gaurav Bhan
I take a bus from Schiphol Airport to downtown Amsterdam Central Station. I am sitting on the edge of my seat inside the GVB bus, eagerly waiting to see the city's landmark canals. I am one of the approximately 4.5 million international tourists who visit this city every year.
First sound to draw my attention as I arrive at Central Station is that of a bell that sounds as people walking on road scurry away and a blue-white GVB tram slowly appears right where people were walking seconds ago. It passes through the crowd like a whale that swims through a school of small fish in the ocean.
The tram moves beyond the range of my five senses, and I notice the immense diversity in the people and culture of Amsterdam, from ethnic locals to foreign tourists, to saffron clad Hare Krishna followers to women in black face veils. You name the race, religion or culture and there are people in Amsterdam belonging to it.
I disembark the bus and take the Damrak which is the main street to the west of the oldest area of the town, part of which is known as de Wallen, the city's iconic Red Light District. The Damrak, which is along a canal, is dotted with eating outlets which are mainly run by Bangladeshi or Pakistani nationals, youth hostels and sex shops.
The cheapest youth hostel I can find is a cosy neat one that makes my pocket lighter by 17 euros per night. The narrow cobble stone streets around my hostel, which are covered with fallen brown autumn leaves, are absolutely peaceful. The silence is broken by the bell of a church and squeals of small blonde children moving on bicycles with baskets of flowers hanging on the handles.
Amsterdam provides to its tourists the facility to hire bicycles at cheap rates which one can use and drop off at another point anywhere in the city. Not having any particular schedule to follow, I start walking towards the Dam Square in search of the coffee shops Amsterdam is famous for.
Amsterdam is one of the few cities in the world which has made soft drugs and prostitution legal. The Dutch government's justification is that by making these legal, they are nullifying any chances for goons making black money.
In Amsterdam, you may just walk into a coffee shop and choose from the menu you will be given: hashish or marijuana in dozens of flavours. All other drugs are banned by the Dutch government. Some tourist shops still sell hallucinogenic mushrooms, but these are dangerous because they can trigger psychosis. A gram of marijuana costs around 10 euros. You can also buy small bags of 7-8 marijuana seeds for a whopping 50 Euros, but those are only useful if you want to grow the weed yourself. Amsterdam is one of the most liberal cities in the world.
I am walking in the alleys behind Dam Square when I see tourists in a boat looking very curiously and pointing towards the houses behind me. I turn around and at first I do not notice the world's and Amsterdam's narrowest house. This house is barely a meter wide and any tourist would easily miss it if he does not have the information about its whereabouts or someone to guide him. The back of this house is much bigger than its front but it looks squeezed like a slice of smoked ham in a sandwich.
Amsterdam is also known for its history in art. Its museums dedicated to the greatest artists of all times include the Rijksmuseum, where the most famous Rembrandt paintings are exhibited, the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, the Rembrandt House and many smaller ones.
For those who are allured by diamonds, Amsterdam offers the Diamond Museum which is about the history of this precious stone. One place which needs special mention is the Anne Frank House dedicated to the life of a Jewish teen age girl who, along with her family of four faced the atrocities of Nazi persecution during World War II. While seeing the house I can clearly visualize the pain of the unfortunate millions who suffered under the Nazi regime.
The canal system of Amsterdam is a result of brilliant city planning, done centuries ago. To safeguard the city from floods, rather than building dams, water engineers came up with the idea of diverting the water throughout the city via canals, which not only make the city picturesque, but can be used for transportation. These canals are dotted with small and beautiful bridges.
The city's Red Light District is the historic area for prostitution, which now is legal. It comprises a network of narrow alleys with hundreds of one room apartments hired on per night basis by sex workers from around the world. Women in skimpy bikinis allure men looking for a night of adventure or those who are there just to look around. Whatever gets revealed behind curtains of a bedroom is out there behind a glass window in the Red Light District.
Among the tourists I see a balding man dressed in the costume of Superman going full out like it's the last day before Armageddon. I have a good laugh looking at this guy before moving on.
The majority of the sex workers are from Eastern Europe and Latin America, sometimes brought to The Netherlands on false promises of good jobs. The rooms and alleys are typically lit by red lights which visibly make this place true to its name. Police patrol cars constantly scrutinize the alleys to keep law and order in place.
Amsterdam is a city that stands worlds apart from this world. You name the kind of vacation you want to spend, be it a family vacation or with your friends, it's available for you. This city will surely leave you high on excitement.
Flavour of Authentic Dutch countryside
If you want the flavour of authentic Dutch lifestyle in the 17th century, Zaanse Schans, an open air museum located on the banks of the river Zaan, is the place for you. It's a town just 20 kms off Amsterdam which can be reached by car, bus, train or even on a bike. It's a 10 minute walk from the Koog Zaandijk train station to the boat landing, followed by a boat ride towards Zaanse Schans.
It is a rainy day and tiny droplets of water are making small splashes in the river Zaan. There is not a speck of dust in the atmosphere and the whole panorama seems almost painted by an artist over a canvas. After an approximately 15 minute boat ride in ice cold weather which freezes my fingertips I reach the drop off point for tourists.
It's a walk of another 5 minutes from there before you reach Zaanse Schans. Even though the temperature is freezing I muster enough courage to pull my hands out of my pockets and click some snapshots.
There is a world of difference between a modern city like Amsterdam and the Zaanse Schans. It has a collection of well-preserved historic windmills and houses dating mostly from the seventeenth century; the ca. 35 houses from all over the Zaan region were moved to the museum area in the 1970s, to create a lasting memory of what life was like in the old industrial area along the river Zaan.
The Zaans Museum, established in 1994, is located in the Zaanse Schans. The place is swarming with canals which provide a way of transportation directly to the doorstep of the houses.
I feed my eyes with views of 17th century windmills which are still working. Windmills which produce oil, flour, saw, paint. They give the visitors an insight in how windmills contributed to the economy of Holland. The De Zoeker windmill dates back to 1672, and is the oldest seed oil mill in the world. It is capable of producing 100 litres of oil per day and works throughout the year.
I walk into the cheese factory in Zaanse Schans which gives me a view of how Dutch cheese is manufactured. I look in awe from behind a glass case wondering if I could taste it. The Dutch have been manufacturing cheese since 400 AD.
Today this country is the largest exporter of cheese in the world. Although it's a milk product, the hygiene standards are so high that my nose could not detect a single unwelcome odour. The whole cheese factory was spic and span.
The tourist shop beside this cheese factory is swarming with innumerable varieties of Dutch cheese. Merely looking at all the varieties of cheese there takes me two hours. One can walk in and taste different types of cheese which are sliced in chips and kept for tourists.
The flavour of each sample is so distinct from the other, that I taste the samples slowly, as each one of them tingles my taste buds in a different way. Some taste really pungent while others have a very subtle flavour. I have never tasted so many varieties of cheese ever before.
Some of the varieties include Gouda cheese which has a creamy texture and intensifies in flavour and hardness as it ages. Edam cheese is another very important variety. It is salty in taste and semi-hard. Other varieties of cheese include boerenkaas (farmers cheese), goat cheese, smoked cheese, Dutch blue cheese, herb cheese, to name only a few.
The Zaanse Schans open air museum also houses a clog workshop. I see a man expertly making these shoes out of poplar wood. Once he is done with making a set of clogs he turns around to the mass of gathered tourists to explain the significance of clogs and their history in Holland. Traditionally clogs were worn by people doing heavy labour, like farmers.
Clogs, although wooden and seemingly primitive, provide excellent ventilation for feet and act as absorbent for sweat. In some parts of Holland clogs are still commonly worn by its inhabitants, sometimes out of love for tradition, but mostly for practical reasons, by farmers and fishermen.
The charms of Zaanse Schans do not end here. The museumshop Albert Heijn Grocery is a beautiful and detailed reconstruction of the original grocery store from where Albert Heijn, now the owner of Ahold supermarkets began his business. The entry to this museum is free of cost. As I enter, I am thrown back into a late 19th century grocery store reconstructed to perfection.
The Blooming Bulbs of Keukenhof
A full day of bliss in an ocean of colours
It's a great sunny morning of my third day in Holland and I am making my way to the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens. The original meaning of the word keukenhof is 'kitchen garden'. My bus drops me at the main gate of Keukenhof and I see tourist vehicles from practically every European country parked outside.
Upon seeing such vast span of tourists my curiosity is now amplified multiple times and I speed up my walk to the ticket window.
You can buy tickets over the counter or you can book them online to save time. As I am nearing the main entrance I know I am going to have a full day of bliss in an ocean of colours. Upon seeing the tulips in the garden I know that this is one place where I can't associate a particular colour to a type of flowers. I see tulips of practically every possible colour around me.
Keukenhof is located in the province of South-Holland near the town of Lisse. It can be reached by bus from Schiphol, Amsterdam, Haarlem or Leiden. It is open for tourists from the last week of March to mid-May every year.
Holland is world's largest exporters of tulips, most of which are grown in this region. The Keukenhof was established with the intention to provide a common place for growers from Holland and other countries to showcase their hybrids. Keukenhof, although originally established in 1949, looked as virgin and untouched to me as it must have looked when it was first opened.
I am walking around breathing in the serenity when I come across a bunch of happy to the core tourists sitting on a bench, clad in traditional Dutch attire with women in frilled dresses and swanky hats and the only man in suspenders. It takes me right back to the early 1900s when such costumes were common.
The tourist can hire these traditional Dutch costumes at Keukenhof, for men as well as women while they walk around and drench themselves in the aura of classical Holland.
A full day of strolling in the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens takes me to a completely different world. I can see people from all walks of life, including lovers holding hands, families out with their children, to students out on school trips. The tulip garden also has some beautiful canals within its premises. How can I imagine a tourist spot in Netherlands without a canal, after all canals are what Dutch countryside is known for?
The garden also has a small zoo within its premise which has some rabbits, an ostrich which is the centre of attraction for tourists - a turkey, hens, goats, an owl and a shed for seasonal birds. Children can find some interesting things like a wooden Flintstones car to play with.
The animals are clean and well fed. Surprisingly, they are very friendly and one can walk around in their premises with them. Feeding them is strictly forbidden.
A miniature Holland
The last venue on my menu is Madurodam, a miniature village on the outskirts of The Hague (Den Haag in Dutch). It is a miniature model of various locations across the Netherlands constructed on a scale of 1:25. It is open from 9 AM to 8 PM every day. The precision and expertise with which these models are built show the extreme passion of people behind the idea to construct this fairy land.
You can reach Madurodam by taking a train from Amsterdam to The Hague, which takes approximately an hour, followed by a ride on tram 9 towards Scheveningen which will take another 15 minutes. The tram ride is throughout next to the roads used by daily traffic.
Three hours at Madurodam take me through a miniature village where I am Gulliver. Night has fallen and my day ends with a surprise which I haven't planned for, a laser show. It depicts the whole story of the era when The Netherlands was constantly ripped apart by annual floods and how water engineers came up with the plan to tame those using canals.
It is the last day of my trip and I am back in Amsterdam checking out of my hostel. My trip is coming to an end and nostalgia grips me as if a feeling of belonging in this city is created in a matter of days. Reluctantly, I wave goodbye to the bells of trams, the gongs of the nearby church, museums and the streets filled with pretty children on bicycles. I am content that all my questions that I had about this city are answered and this city offered more than I had anticipated.
As I travelled around The Netherlands I may not have found the swanky aura of London or the romance of Paris. The capital Amsterdam itself may be a bit easy going but that is what is so unique about it. Dutch culture has its own flavour of canals, clogs, cheese, tulips which are distinct to this country and so enticing for its lovers. And of course its liberal drugs and sex policies...