“That’s different.” – A Minnesotan visits Amsterdam

(This is the 4th in a series of 5 posts about my spring break trip to Belgium and the Netherlands)

A case could be made for Amsterdam representing either the best of civilization or the worst. For me, it’s unique city of contrasts, irony, and possibly the best people-watching I’ve ever seen.

After 3 days in European dreamland (see previous post) and a leisurely 3+ hour ride through some beautiful farm country, the first steps out of the Amsterdam Central Train Station are a shock to the senses.

The first thing you notice (and probably my most lasting image) is bikes, bikes, everywhere.

The central train station is in the background. Watch out before you step into the bike lane. (photo by Steve Date)

This is Biketown. Sure there is some car traffic, but you barely notice it as you walk through the city. Bicycles dominate the scene to an extent that I hadn’t imagined.

They are constantly whizzing past you in every direction. Toddlers to old fogies, business people, hipsters, families, tourists, locals, are all on bikes, and nobody — N-O-B-O-D-Y — wears a helmet.

Apparently wearing a bike helmet is one of the few things that's against the law in Amsterdam. (photo by Steve Date)

Kids often double- and triple-up on parents' bikes. (photo by Steve Date)

After our usual getting-lost-a-bit walk from the train station we found the Nieuwmarkt square, which is where the B&B we’d booked was located. When the nondescript door to the place was locked, there was a moment of mild concern — but only a moment. “Hello, Steve and Sandy?”, asked the young man who had just trotted across the square. “I’m Daniel. I didn’t know when you were coming, so this is good timing”.

Daniel is the owner of the “Inn Old Amsterdam” bed and breakfast. We’d booked it after a lot of searching on the internet. For some reason that nobody seemed to understand, many hotels were fully booked for the dates we’d be there. The photos of this place on the website looked nice and it got some good reviews — and they HAD a room available for the 4 nights we needed — so we took it.

Daniel led us up a steep, narrow staircase to our room. He looked to be in his mid to late 20s. Like everyone of his generation Amsterdam, he spoke English better than most Americans do. Daniel was friendly, helpful and informative. Like the city itself, the room was beautiful, but had an edge to it.

Our room at the Inn Old Amsterdam (photo by Steve Date)

The edge was that it was located over a bar on a busy square. I loved the view and the noise of the bar below didn’t keep me awake, but Mrs. D had some trouble sleeping because of the voices from below. I liked standing in the window, watching and photographing the scene below.

Nieuwmarkt from our window (photo by Steve Date)

Our room provided a great vantage point for visual eavesdropping on the sidewalk seating of the bar below (photo by Steve Date)

Amsterdam fans out from the area near the train station. It takes its structure from a series of roughly concentric canals. The layout seems logical and systematic on a map, but in reality it’s tricky to find places because few streets go straight for very long. The “spoke” or “radius” streets are pretty direct, but of course they get farther apart from each other the farther from the center you go.

The streets follow concentric rings of canals.

Because it’s so flat, Amsterdam is very walkable. But as I said, bicycles dominate the traffic. Residents and tourists alike fill the bike lanes with wheels. You don’t see a lot of expensive racing-type bikes. What most people ride is either single-speed or beat-up geared bikes, often painted bright colors and adorned with plastic flowers.





But for the time being, we’re walking. So let’s head out and see some of the famous, infamous, and otherwise interesting sights of this capital of all that’s good and bad about civilization.

Might as well dive right in and hit the Red Light District. It’s just a few blocks from our B&B. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the “RLD”, but we did walk around a bit, and I have to say it seemed pretty tame to me. Most people walking around are couples or groups of either young men or young women. I saw fewer drunk or high people than you would on an average U.S. college campus on any given weekend. The vast majority are just there for the same thing I was — to gawk at the whole scene. Apparently the RLD is actually one of the safest parts of the city, because of the many cops and bouncer-types around.

You're not supposed to take pictures of "the girls". I guess it's in bad taste or something.

There seemed to be very few actual customers. The window ladies were expressionless, for the most part — almost mechanical. Maybe it was the weird, red lighting, I don’t know, but they seemed like like ordinary-looking women with mannequin-skin, wearing lots of make-up and dressed in bikinis. It’s clear that it’s nothing more than a hum-drum job for them. We walked by one window where one of the prostitutes was sitting on a stool eating a Subway sandwich — working through her dinner break, I guess.

Variety is the spice of life. For an eerie experience, see the potato exhibit photo in my previous post about Bruges (photo by Steve Date)

In one of the brothels, a young man was trying to enter as another guy was leaving. The lady of the window was arguing with him, trying to close the door and asking him to not come in. She kept saying “no blacks”. After a couple of minutes he gave up. Wow, a racist prostitute. I lost all respect for her.

If I were walking through this area with children, I think the store window displays would be much harder to explain than women standing around in swimsuits. Here’s one shop that seemed to have a wider variety of the same basic product for sale than all the others.

Yes, you can also buy pot there.
Yes, you smell it from time to time as you’re walking around.
No, it’s not a big deal and no, you don’t notice a lot of people acting stoned.

OK, so now that we’re higher than a kite and have had our fill of prostitutes and marital aids, let’s switch gears a bit. How about some antique hunting to calm down that libido?

We found some great antique stores, markets and an antique shopping mall.

One of the rooms in a great antique mall (photo by Steve Date)

We got interested in Delft tiles. One shop had thousands for sale. They were salvaged from old houses — very old houses. We bought a couple of tiles, one from 1650 and the other from 1675. They have great pictures painted on them and they travel well in a suitcase — good souvenirs. If I was rich, I’d do a whole wall in my house with them.

Delft tiles date back to the early 1600s. (photo by Steve Date)

Amsterdam has some great museums.

We went to the Rijksmuseum, which has a lot of Rembrandt paintings, a few by Vermeer (including the iconic milk maid) and the other Dutch masters. It’s housed in a beautiful, old building. But I have to say I was a little surprised that the museum only uses a small portion of the building, and is actually not a huge collection. Still worth seeing, though.

The Van Gogh Museum is great. They have the biggest collection of his paintings in the world and while there are works by some of his contemporaries and influences, the focus is on Vincent. There was also a temporary exhibit about Picasso while we were there. This museum is a must-see.

"Crows in Wheatfield" poster outside the Van Gogh Museum. These tourists are in a lot better mood than Vincent was when he painted it. (photo by Steve Date)

The Anne Frank House is another must-see on any tourist’s itinerary, but one I chose to not-see. I walked by it a couple of times but the line was discouragingly long and people were talking about a several-hour wait. I didn’t buy tickets online ahead of time like I should have and didn’t want to wait around that long. You have to save some things for the next trip, right?

Amsterdam must have been quite a place during the late 60’s and early 70’s, where it was the epicenter of the counter-culture in Europe. There are a few remnants of the old hippie days, but the city has moved on. Let’s face it, young people today might smoke a little pot or tie some flowers to the basket of their brightly painted bike, but those who remember the real deal are getting on in age.

But a few old people (my age) are still around from the heyday. We met some (and some a little younger) at a little bar called the Cafe de Gaeper.

Cafe de Gaeper was our version of "Cheers" (photo by Steve Date)

What pubs are to Great Britain, “Brown Cafes” are to Amsterdam. The names derives from the dark-colored wood often used in interiors, stained even darker by years of smoking. We stumbled into one of these our first night and liked it so much we ate there again a couple of days later. The food is burgers, sandwiches, and fries. The atmosphere is a friendly, VERY casual mix of mostly locals and a few tourists. It’s a European version of the “Cheers” TV show.

Cafe de Gaeper was our little glimpse into local life in Amsterdam. On our first visit, there was a dog sitting on a bar stool, looking ready to order. The half-dozen people at the bar, as well as the bar-tender and the people at another table all knew each other and it was obvious they came there all the time. I ordered fish and chips. They were delicious, and at €8.50 a relative steal. While we were eating, two young ladies came in and began talking to a man sitting at the bar. They knew each other, too. One of the women said to the guy, “Hey, I’m wearing the underwear you gave me on my birthday a year ago, remember?” With that, she turned her back to him, dropped her jeans to her knees and reminded him in a memorable way. It was all very innocent, friendly, not-drunk, and funny. Then she sat down for a beer. The dog curled up on the stool next to her.

I love that place.

This is the kind of place I want in my neighborhood - dogs on barstools. (photo by Steve Date)

The city of Amsterdam was fascinating, but the crowds and frenetic pace of the street get to you a little after a couple of days. The most enjoyable thing we did during our 4-night stay there was on the last full day of our trip, when we took the train to Haarlem and rented bikes for the day. My last post in this series will be about our day of biking through the flower bulb fields and to the sea coast. Look for it in a few days.

As usual, I have posted enough photos about Amsterdam on Flickr to bore anyone to sleep. But if you’d like to see more pictures, go to my Amsterdam Flickr set here.

Here are a few more random shots. See you soon in Haarlem!

Some of the old buildings seem to be on the verge of falling over (photo by Steve Date)

Mom's birthday, maybe? (photo by Steve Date)

Typical Amsterdamer of a certain age. (photo by Steve Date)

Brussels — waffles, chocolate, frites, beer, cartoons, architecture and a ubiquitous urinating boy

(This is the second in a series of posts about my spring break trip to Belgium and the Netherlands)

Are you worried about a possible federal government shutdown? Did you know that Belgium currently has NO government? They haven’t had one since last June, and on March 29, they broke the 289-day record previously held by Iraq. Go Belgium!

What’s most bizarre about that is that Belgians don’t seem too shook up about it. Life goes on. Things get done.

Brussels, Belgium’s capital, is also the de facto capital of the European Union. Go figure.

Bruxelles is a mostly French-speaking city in the middle of the Flemish (Dutch)-speaking Flanders portion of Belgium. Go figure some more and let me know when you get it figured out.

And by the way, Belgium is where “French Fries” originated — but you knew that one already.

Now this is what I call Europe! (all photos by Steve Date)

Brussels (or Brussel or Bruxelles, depending on your language preference) is not usually considered an “A-list” destination for tourists. People from outside Europe might dream of going to Paris, Rome, London or maybe Venice, Prague, Barcelona . . . but Brussels? Hmmm . . . maybe on the way to somewhere else.

But it’s a beautiful, complex city that grows on you. Kind of like the quiet sister of the homecoming queen, it can be just as interesting as its more popular, outgoing sibling (and maybe even more appealing in many ways) — if you just make a bit of an effort to get acquainted.

We arrived by train in a sleep-deprived state from Amsterdam (see previous post) at about noon on Saturday, March 19. For some reason, the street layout confused me (not a particularly difficult thing to do) and we walked around for a while before finding our hotel, which was less than a mile from the central train station.

View down to the little courtyard from our 3rd-floor room. Not sure what was legendary about the place, but it was very nice and a good value.

We stayed at a “Hotel La Legende”. Now might be a good time to disclose our European hotel priorities – old (hopefully with some character), clean, priced around $100 (€75-80), and fairly centrally located. If any kind of buffet-style breakfast is included it’s a big bonus. Also we’ve (mostly the Mrs.) added shower-and-toilette-in-room (“en suite” as opposed to shared) as a high priority in recent years. La Legende got high marks on all of these categories and we felt it was a great deal at a rate of €75 a night, tax included.

We’ve chosen to book hotels ahead of time on these trips, for several reasons. With the internet, you can (usually) get a fairly good idea of what you’re going to get, especially if you’re willing to spend some time on travel advice sites such as TripAdvisor. I’m all for spontaneity, but on a brief trip to a country where you don’t speak the language, it’s much easier having a reservation than spending time schlepping your bags from door to door asking about availability and prices.

On this trip, we also pre-paid for our hotels for two reasons — first, you get a slight discount and second, you can use a credit card, which is not quite as welcomed in some parts of Europe as in the U.S. (see future Amsterdam post). When you do use one in Europe, you usually pay more than you would for using cash. So it was cheaper and one less thing to worry about.

So what did we do during our 44 hours in Brussels?

I don’t profess to be any kind of expert on this, or any city I visit for the first time. But I would like to share some of my experiences with you.

Time for another priority disclosure — walk, walk, walk. Most of what I’m interested in seeing in European cities is outdoors, on the streets and sidewalks. Ordinary people doing what they ordinarily do. The resulting experience is a combination of stuff you’re “supposed” to see with things you notice along the way. That’s where the fun is.

Crossing the street can unexpectedly become a moment of joy. (photo by Steve Date)

Here’s a rundown of some of the things we did that Brussels is known for. If you’re interested in more photos of things I noticed along the way, go to my Flickr set about Brussels.

1) Belgian Waffles
They’re fresh, they’re covered with more stuff than you can imagine, and they’re everywhere.

2) Chocolate
Easter season in the world’s chocolate capital? Use your imagination.

3) Pommes frites
Ate quite a few spuds. Much more about this in the next post about Bruges.

4) Beer
OK, I was going to hold off on little pisser-boy until the end, but it’s a beer picture, too — a “twofer”. Much more about beer in the next post as well.

5) Cartoons
I didn’t realize that Brussels is also the cartoon and comic strip capital until I started reading the guidebooks. The Smurfs came from there, as well as Tintin, the young Belgian reporter who, with his dog Milou, has adventures all over the world as well as in space. The Belgian Comic Strip Center is a unique museum that’s worth a visit.

Tintin follows Captain Haddock down a fire escape in this mural (blue vertical wall in the center). There are 30 of these comic strip murals spread around Brussels. (photo by Steve Date)

6) Architecture
Brussels survived WWII with most of its old buildings intact. The Grote Markt, or “Grand Place” is an amazing central square, surrounding by beautifully ornate buildings, including the “guild houses”, tracing their ancestry back to the medieval guilds. This public space is a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.

The Grote Markt (photo by Steve Date)

Brussels also makes a claim as the capital of Art Nouveau (enough with the capitals, right?) There are many beautiful examples by Victor Horta as well as others. A walk through the Square Ambiorix area reveals some stunning houses.

The slender Saint-Cyr House on Square Ambiorix was designed by Gustave Strauven, a student of Victor Horta. (photo by Steve Date)

7) And finally . . . . the impertinent, naked young lad who shows up EVERYWHERE.

Here's the little guy high on his perch showing how he feels about the tourists snapping pictures.

From Wikipedia: “Manneken Pis (help·info) (literally Little Man Pee in Marols, a Dutch dialect spoken in Brussels, also known in French as le Petit Julien), is a famous Brussels landmark. It is a small bronze fountain sculpture depicting a naked little boy urinating into the fountain’s basin. It was designed by Jerome Duquesnoy and put in place in 1618 or 1619.”

There are a half-dozen theories about the historic scene he’s commemorating — a couple of them have to do with urinating on opposing armies. I like those the best.

I hate to aid in promoting something like this as THE symbol of a city as beautiful as Brussels is, but the reality is that they do it themselves — no other single image is as widespread in store windows, knock-off statues and tourism brochures as this thing. So here are a few of the endless variations on this bladder-emptying theme. You have to admit, they do have fun with it.

Here he is helping to sell candy.

I find this utilitarian version kind of frightening

Waffles here! Get 'em while they're . . . hang on a second . . . aaaaahhh, that's better.

Who could have imagined in 1619 that it would come to this?

Well, I’ve gone on far too long and didn’t even talk about restaurants, museums, parks, neighborhoods or a bunch of other stuff that people are interested in. I’m not a very good travel writer, I guess.

I’ll try to do better in my next installment. Back on the train after two nights in the capital of everything.

Soon we’ll be “In Bruges”. (Rent the movie if you haven’t seen it. It’s pretty good)

To see more of my photos from Brussels, go here.

Spring break in Europe: 1st of a series

As a teacher, I get quite a few weeks off every year (not as many as you might think, but that’s another discussion). Travel abroad during the summer months and around Christmas is expensive and crowded. So Mrs. D and I have often used my week off in the spring to travel, usually adding a Friday or Monday to make a 10-day trip.

We’ve taken 7 spring break trips to Europe (plus a winter break trip to Spain) beginning with a visit to France with the kids in 1999. People tell me they wouldn’t go for that short amount of time, but it’s actually quite nice if you take it for what it is and don’t plan to do too much. I’ve learned through experience that it can be unnecessarily stressful and tiring if you have an unrealistic itinerary.

We hadn’t gone on any vacation for 3 years. Airfares had been high, the exchange rate not great, and home repairs and improvements were eating up funds. But it was time to go somewhere again. We decided that if a decent airfare popped up, we’d grab it. $900 – $1,000 was too much, and that’s where they hovered for a few weeks. Finally, when a $645 fare from MSP to Amsterdam appeared, we grabbed it.

So we decided on 3 cities we hadn’t been to — Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels. (Mrs D had been to Amsterdam many years ago)

After arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport at about 8:30 AM on Saturday, we hopped on a train at the convenient airport station and headed for Brussels.

From the train between Amsterdam and Brussels

The first day after an overnight flight is a tired, bleary-eyed affair, so rather than stumble around Amsterdam waiting for our hotel room to be available, we decided to watch the countryside go by for 2 and a half more hours, then start the week in Belgium and work our way back to Amsterdam.

We rode past early-blooming bulb fields.

I’ve rented cars in Europe several times, but the train has a lot of advantages, especially if you’re spending a large amount of time in cities. First and foremost, it’s relaxing. You just float along and look at the scenery. It’s not always beautiful, but it’s usually interesting.

There's a fair amount of this kind of scenery on the train, too. In many areas, Europe is just as ugly as the U.S.

I think this guy was trying to race us.

My first mishap of the trip happened as the train pulled into the station in Brussels. I realized my new jacket (the only one I had brought) was not in the luggage rack with my suitcase. Who knows why. There were multiple opportunities for forgetfulness between Amsterdam and here and anybody who knows me knows that I will take advantage of every opportunity to leave something behind. Oh well . . . or I should say, “C’est La Vie”. I was in Bruxelles and it was going to be fun — jacket or not.

I’ll post soon about our two days in the city of waffles, cartoons, pommes frites, beer, and a certain little boy who urinates all over town. Au revoir!