Archive for the ‘Germany and Netherlands’ Category

ornaments for sale at a Christmas market in Munich

Last week, I literally pigged out.  I was in Munich for four days and ate pork products at least three times a day.  Despite articles like this one touting Munich’s cutting-edge food scene, I was quite happy to stick with eating the traditional Bavarian specialties that are offered everywhere in town, which meant a lot of beer, dumplings (knodel) and pig.

weisswurst with suesser senf (sweet mustard) and pretzel

To start my day, I’d seek out weisswurst (white sausage), which, according to my colleagues in Munich, must be eaten only in the morning.  Weisswurst also has the distinction of being the only boiled sausage in the world that I love.  The veal-and-pork filling has a smooth, slightly spongy texture that brings to mind nursery food — very comforting, especially when it’s snowy and cold outside.  The accompanying suesser senf (sweet mustard) is so good that I’ve used it on non-weisswurst-related sandwiches.   Several Munichers told me you’re supposed to suck the filling out of the sausage casing, but I opted for the pansy option of cutting open the skin and pulling out the sausage filling with a fork.  (I didn’t feel as lame about my technique after I saw other German speakers doing the same).

The photo above shows the organic version I especially enjoyed at Munchner Schmarkert, a small caff in the Vitkualienmarkt.

gluhwein stall in the Residenz Christmas market in Munich

This being December and therefore Christmas Market season in Germany, I’d find gluhwein stalls everywhere in Munich.  I found it was a tough call deciding whether to nurse my gluhwein so I could warm my hands around the mug or scarf it down to warm up from the inside.  In any event, I loved the way friends would gather around the gluhwein stalls even on a cold, weekday evening.


brewery restaurant, Andechser am Dom

The places to order Bavarian classics all seemed to be affiliated with a brewery.  Andechser am Dom came highly recommended on Chowhound and a friend who is a former Municher (who called it “hands down the best brewery”).  I was initially suspicious because the place is located just off Marienplatz (the Times Square/Piccadilly Circus of Munich, but a million times more charming), but there are exceptions to every rule:  Andechser am Dom was packed with more German speakers than non-.  And as at several other “traditional” restaurants I tried in Munich, I ended up seated at a communal table with total strangers.  It was entertaining.

The food at Andechser wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t spectacular.  The resto’s selling points were the beer and the atmosphere, which was convivial.  Andechser was the first place in Munich where I tried some of the local specialties and learned that all those pretzels in the breadbasket get added to your bill at the end of your meal:  your waitress asks you how many you ate, and you’re on your honor to ‘fess up.

roast suckling pig (spanferkel) and potato dumplings (kartoffenknodel)

The above photo of spanferkel was taken at a Paulaner restaurant, zum Spockmeier, which was also close to Marienplatz.  zum Spockmeier was the worst of the three traditional beer-driven places I visited, and ironically, it was the one my Munich colleague picked out (which really goes to show you that locals don’t always know best).

In case you wondered, the best version of spanferkel I tried was at Spatenhaus an der Oper, where the suckling pig crackling could be shattered with a fork  and the meat was tender and moist.  zum Spockmeier’s gluey potato dumplings (kartoffenknodel) were also vastly inferior to those of Spatenhaus.  Service at Spatenhaus was also more attentive (though the maitre d’ at Spatenhaus seems to have an attitude problem).

roasted pig knuckle (schweinshaxe)

At zum Spockmeier, I tried some of Jon’s roasted pig knuckle (schweinshaxe), and I have a feeling my lukewarm reaction has more to do with Spockmeier’s mediocre execution than with the dish itself.  Where I’d expected gooey, silky joint meat, I instead tasted meat that was dried out.  Good thing the pan-dripping sauce saved the day.


For dessert at zum Spockmeier, I couldn’t resist the kaiserschmarrn, which was by far the best dish we had there.  Relative to the cost of the main courses at zum Spockmeier (most of which cost about 15 euros), the kaiserschmarrn was a pricey 11.50 euros.  But it tasted hot and freshly made, so well worth the money.  The eggy airiness reminded me of brioche, but denser, like a cake.

rostbratwurstl sandwiches at Nuremberg Christmas market

And last but not least in this roundup of pork-based eating:  I ate a lot of rostbratwurstl while in Munich.  In every Christmas market (and on every beerhall menu), I’d find these small, juicy sausages.  The colder the day, the more appealing these little guys.  Costing about 3 euros for three rostbratwurstl, they made for a filling, cheap snack.

Admittedly, I had one dinner in Munich that wasn’t all pork and dumplings:  the Wein Cantina in a posh corner of the Haidhausen neighborhood served a sophisticated four-course tasting menu for less than 40 euros.  The place is primarily a wine shop, but there are a few dining tables, and the Cantina’s food is tasty, creative and a nice break from large, rib-sticking portions of traditional Bavarian dishes.

And that’s it on my dining in Munich.  I’m now back in the U.S. for Christmas so wherever you’re reading this post, have a Merry Christmas.

Andechser am Dom, Weinstrasse, 7, 80333 Munich, Germany; +49 (0)89 29 84 81; closest metro stop:  Marienplatz

Spatenhaus an der Oper, Residenzstrasse, 12, 80333 Munchen; +49 (0)89 290 70 60; closest metro stop:  Marienplatz or Odeonsplatz

Wein Cantina, Elsasser Strasse, 23, 81667 Munich; +49 (0)89 44 41 99 99; closest metro stop:  Ostbahnhof

zum Spockmeier, Rosentrstrasse, 9, 80331 Munich, +49 (0)89 260 55 09; closest metro stop:  Marienplatz

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Nuremberg Christmas Market (image from http://www.zimbio.com)

I have to be in Munich for a few days this week, so I took a daytrip today to visit the Nuremberg Christmas Market, which is just an hour and 45 minutes away on a regular (non-fancy) Deutsche Bahn train.

I’m not a huge fan of Christmas ornaments or freezing cold weather, but things I *can* get behind are a festive atmosphere, mulled wine (gluhwein), cakey Christmas cookies (lebkuchen) and hot-off-the-grill small sausages (rostbratwurstl), all of which are available in abundance in Nuremberg this time of year.

It was snowing today in Nuremberg, and while my friends searched out all manner of Christmas ornaments made of straw, wood and even prunes (click here or google zwetschgamännla), I occupied myself with lots of snacking and drinking.  I’ve come to love buying gluhwein in all sorts of cheesy commemorative mugs, and the wine sellers ensure you bring the mugs back by charging a 2-euro deposit for every gluhwein you order.  And if you just *have* to have that mug, well, at 2 euros, that’s the cheapest souvenir you can buy.

Even gluhwein proved to be no match for the cold after three hours, so in search of a heat source of the fossil-fuel-generated kind, my friends and I ate a fast, cheap and good dinner at the self-service chain, Vapiano.  I’ve eaten before at this type of place in Munich, where you’re provided a card on arrival, and then you choose food from different stations (in my case, a pasta station) where the food is made fresh in front of you, have the food ‘charged’ to your card, and then you pay for whatever’s on your card as  you leave the resto.  For 5.50 euros, I ate an enormous bowl of freshly-made spaghetti with pesto.  It was a nice break from all the schweinshaxe and general pig-and-potatoes diet I’ve been ODin’g on this weekend.

Nuremberg’s Christmas market was a sight to see, and I’d highly recommend a visit, especially for the Christmas fanatics among you.

To reach Nuremberg from the UK, I flew into Munich and then caught a Deutsche Bahn train from the Hauptbahnhof.  The trains leave almost every hour and tickets were 20 euros roundtrip.  The trains get standing-room-only crowded, so wait on the platform early.

Vapiano was about a five-minute walk from the Nuremberg train station at Konigstrasse, 17, 90402 Nuremberg.

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If you’ve been to Europe, you know that Sundays are not the best days to play tourist. In most cities, 99% of stores and restaurants are closed on Sunday, and Leipzig is no exception. Luckily, we had several sources of activity available to us despite the Sunday effect: (1) personal sights courtesy of the infinitely-patient Hubert; (2) the Leipzig train station (Hauptbahnhof); and (3) the Stasi museum.

Jon at Josef Kalfus grave, Jewish cemetery, LeipzigWe drove first along Berlinerstrasse to see the Jewish Cemetery where Jon’s great-grandfather is buried. Hubert pointed out notable community members during our walk through the graveyard – a woman who was a women’s suffrage leader, a famous rabbi and so on. There were updated gravestones erected on family plots to honor those who’d died in the Holocaust, and there was a plaque commemorating the fact that the graveyard was at some point the only place Jewish children were allowed to play (because they were otherwise banned from public parks).

After paying respects, we headed back into the center of town to find where Jon’s grandma grew up. Based on the address and description Grandma Gina had given us (i.e., it was across from the municipal liebhouse where Jews had all their belongings confiscated), we determined that the building she lived in no longer exists, and where it once stood, there is now a parking lot.

It started to rain, and we went to see the building where the Jews like Grandma Gina had found protection on Kristallnacht. The building sits across the street from what is now the US consulate, and it’s no longer the Polish consulate. Rather, it’s a city-owned guesthouse, whatever that means. There’s a small plaque in front to remember the Polish Consul General who decided to give safe haven to Jews on Kristallnacht. It’s amazing to me how much this city remembers.

Because we’d read so much about the Voelkerschlachtdenkmal, we figured we ought to see it despite Hubert’s warning that it’s no great shakes. The V is a monument commemorating The Battle of Nations, a victory of several allied countries over Napoleon in 1813. Hubert was, of course, absolutely right. The thing is a hulking, brooding hunk of stone that, frankly, looks pretty damn scary and ugly. Considering the Prussians decided to build this thing 100 years after the battle it commemorates, the monument is more about Prussia’s own aggressive ambitions at the time than it is about commemorating anything.

Leipzig’s train station, the Haupbahnhof, is the largest in Europe and houses 140 shops, half of which are open on Sunday. Other than dropping by the post office and pharmacy, though, there wasn’t much we found super exciting in the shopping mall. The clothing stores and houseware stores were closed, so really, what else is there to see?

The Stasi museum, which illustrates the banal, but fierce control exercised by the East German secret police, was pretty interesting despite our having to follow along on a photocopied brochure in English (.50 euros well spent) in order to understand anything on display. The museum is in the building on Dittrichring where the Stasi had their Leipzig HQ, and everything from the drab beige linoleum floors to the musty smell of a 1970s office creeps me out. I thought the disguise kits for Stasi agents and the tools used by the Stasi for opening and reading mail sent to/from Capitalist countries were the most interesting.

Today’s Eating:

Bagel Brothers, LeipzigBagels at Bagel Brothers (Nikolaistrasse, 42) were tasty. Chewy, moist interiors and slightly crunchy, shiny exteriors. The store was bright and clean (it’s likely a chain, though we didn’t see any other locations in the city), and we laughed about how it marketed the bagels as “new york style with a schmear.” We’ve always thought of bagels as originating in Eastern Europe, but it seems that the way to sell them as “authentic” now is to make them come from New York. Bagel sandwiches were named after JFK, Doris Day, and someone named Dick McDay.

Telegraph Café & Restaurant (Dittrichring, 18-20) was the perfect way to relax and warm up after our hour at the Stasi Museum down the block. Cozy banquettes, newspapers from around the world (no Sunday NYT, alas) and wi-fi access, combined with low prices for pots of loose-leaf tea – how could you not drop by, really?

As if we weren’t grateful enough that it was open on a Sunday night, the generically-named Restaurant Sushi Bar (Klostergasse, 18, around the corner from Barfussgasschen) served up a 19-euro all-you-can-eat sushi menu today. We sat on these high stools at an oval-shaped counter, and cheesy little wooden boats floated around the counter “carrying” various sushi. It’s the pre-cursor to conveyor-belt sushi? We ate our weight’s worth in shrimp tempura sushi and then called it a night. After all, we have a 4 am wake-up call tomorrow in order to catch our 6 am flight back to London.

The Dismount:

I just finished reading an excellent book called Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer who, among his many other accomplishments, transformed the way the medical establishment thinks about treating drug-resistant TB in poor countries. According to the book, Dr. Farmer always asks his medical students to take him through a “dismount” – a lessons-learned, summary-style debrief at the end of every case. So here’s my dismount on Leizpig:

It’s a historically-rich, beautiful city that’s struggling to find its place in a post-unification Germany that favors institutions and industry centers in the former West Germany. As cities in western Europe go, it’s an affordable place to visit, and there’s enough variety and quality of food and cultural activities left in Leipzig to make it worth a visit.

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Zill’s Tunnel restaurant, Leipzig

I had low expecations for the dining scene in Leipzig – the former GDR’s image may have informed this impression, as did the fact that in Prague, we ate a whole lot of dense potato dumplings that I think are still weighing me down.  That said, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of eats today (see the previous Leipzig Day 1 post for a description of what else we did besides eat).

For lunch, we’d asked Hubert to take us to his favorite “traditional German food” restaurant, and that’s how we ended up at Zill’s Tunnel Restaurant. The restaurant sits on Barfussgasschen, which is a cobblestone alley lined with restaurants. I don’t think I would have picked it out on our own because of concern that it was on such a touristy-seeming street, so once again, I was glad we had Hubert with us.  I guess the reality is that even though in any other geography, the Barfussgasschen would scream tourist trip, maybe there aren’t enough tourists around to make it so.  And this means you take it for what it is – a street that happens to have a lot of restaurants on it.

Although I wouldn’t eat it every day, I have only good things to say about my eisbein sauerkraut, which are slices of braised beef with red cabbage sauerkraut, topped with gravy and served with airy potato-and-butter dumplings called klosse. Hubert explained that my dish, especially the klosse, are a Saxon specialty, and I definitely wouldn’t complain if I crossed paths again one day with a klosse.

Jon had a little less luck with his sauerbraten mit klosse. Like me, Jon is now a fan of the klosse, but the sauerbraten could have used more seasoning to make it interesting. Sauerbraten is a “pork knuckle,” which is a giant, fatty leg of pork. It was cooked so that it was still tender and juicy, but when you’re eating a hunk of meat that serious, I think you need a little something something to lift up or hide the heaviness.

Ur Krostitzer, the local pilsner I ordered, was so hoppsy (is that a word?) and flavorful that I downed two during lunch, and Jon was equally happy with his dark lager, Schwarze Perle.

Our tab for three came to less than 50 euros. Check it out when next you’re in Leipzig.

Because eating ten thousand calories’ worth of meat and potatoes wasn’t enough, we also stopped by a large, bustling Movenpick café near the Old Town Hall for desserts and coffee. I’m so creative, I ordered black forest cake (schwartzwald kirsch torte) and tea. No complaints about the goodies, though I must humbly apologize to my fellow Americans for furthering the stereotype of Americans as dumb and bumbling. After all, I was the loser in the bathroom who couldn’t figure out how the soap dispenser worked. I pumped and pumped and wondered where the soap was. Too late, I realized I’d managed to pump soap all over my arm.

As if this bit of genius weren’t graceful enough, the bathroom attendant had to witness that and my embarrassment at not having any spare change to leave with her (as is the custom here).

For dinner, we walked back to the Barfussgasschen to try out,Varadero, a Cuban restaurant (think Communist-era connection). We were disappointed there were no plantains on the menu, but the beer was again good (Wernesgrun pilsner) and overall the food was hot, fresh and cheap. I loved all the black-and-white photos Varadero Cuban restaurant, leipzigon the wall of Che and Fidel, and when you throw in the lightbox photo of a beach and assorted palm trees, I’d say the décor was comfortingly not German.

Jon’s garlic shrimp appetizer was a standout (surprisingly not overcooked), our main courses were fine, and our one disappointment was with the black beans and rice.  The beans were undercooked (still hard) and the dish was very dry despite the liberal use of bacon fat. How hard is it to cook black beans and rice?

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St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

Today was an action-packed day.

Our gracious host was Hubert, a German lawyer who handles restitution-of-Jewish-property cases (what a huge back story that is!). Having spent five hours with him, I feel confident that he’s one of the smartest, most patient and thoughtful people I’ve ever met. It’s impossible to detail, even in this lengthy post, the many examples of these qualities we found in Hubert, but I guess you’ll just have to try to meet him yourself someday.

Broyder Synagogue, LeipzigWe set off on foot in the bright sunshine, and within five minutes, we stopped in front of the lone active synagogue in Leipzig. Hubert told us the only reason the synagogue survived World War II is because it was incorporated into a large apartment building where non-Jews lived. Before the Holocaust, 14,000 Jews lived in Leipzig, and 1,000 live there today.

I loved that the block on which the synagogue sits now includes a Bang & Olufsen and Poggen Pohl store. Time certainly does march on.

Next we crossed the Pleisse River, which was really Monument on the Pleisse, Leipzigmore like a stream, and Hubert pointed out a small monument remembering the Jews who were forced into the water and subject to public humiliation a few days before the escalation of Kristallnacht. The Polish consulate nearby is where Grandma Gina and her niece, Ruth, sought and were granted protection during Kristallnacht. Hubert explained that legally, consulates (unlike embassies) are not foreign soil and so it was only a matter of luck that anyone who sought refuge there was actually protected from the rampaging violence that night.

We visited 18 Pfaffendorferstrasse, where Ruth’s family lived. The street, Pfaffendorferstrasse is, relatively-speaking, a busy and noisy road, but to get to the building where Ruth’s family lived, we walked down a small, quiet alley. The apartment building now houses small businesses: an apartment developer and publishing house, among others.

We walked around to the back of the building to take a photo of what we could see of the apartment, which must have been a long walk up on the top floor of the building.

No doubt Hubert has given up many weekends in the past to play host to people like us, looking for connections to the past. Without pause or break in conversation, he walked us over to Carlebach School, set up in 1913 when all Jewish children were required to attend the same single school, instead of mixing with the general population. The building today is now used by a publisher of Braille and recorded books for the blind.

Memorial of the Great Community Synagogue, Leipzig

Last on our personal “must see” list today was the memorial of empty chairs, which sits where the city’s largest synagogue stood until burned down on Kristallnacht. Each empty chair represents a congregant killed on Kristallnacht.

As if it weren’t enough that Hubert spent time showing to us Jewish and personal monuments, he also took us to see a few of the general sights of Leipzig. Based on the gorgeous old buildings and landmarks Jon and I saw today, Leipzig is a city that seems to have come out of the years of war and Communist rule relatively intact.

Hubert explained that unemployment in Leipzig hovers around an unconscionably-high18%, and there are too many apartment buildings and stores sitting empty, but overall, I’d say Leipzig is far from being out for the count.

So here’s what you can see if you’re not in town to find your grandma’s birthplace:

Interior of St. Nicholas Church, Leipzig

St. Nicholas Church: When you first set eyes on it, it’s just another gorgeous church in a soaring Renaissance style. It turns out, though, that the church’s claim to fame are Peace Prayer Services that took place in and around the church in 1989, which grew into demonstrations that brought down that famous wall.

Madler Passage, LeipzigMadler Passage: Walk a few steps around the corner from St. Nicholas and you’re in front of a large, indoor arcade called Madler Passage. Most of the stores in the Madler Passage are global luxury brands (Wempe, Mont Blanc), but there’s a local store at one end of the passage, Gourmetage, where we found not only the usual global delicacies (prosciutto, whiskeys, French and Italian wines) but also a variety of local German wines. Hubert, being the stylish, worldly man that he is, recommended a few bottles by Schloss Proschwitz and a sparkling wine (Rotkappchen). So we’ll give them a try and report back. The bottles weren’t cheap, so I have high hopes they turn out to be the find of the year.

AuAuerbachs Keller, leipzigerbachs Keller: Down a set of winding stairs in the Madler Passage and flanked by enormous sculptures depicting Faust and Mephistopheles, this local attraction is hard to overlook. Hubert warned us away from the food (we figured the souvenir shop in the corner of the restaurant reinforced his advice), but because the restaurant is where Goethe set a scene from Faust (he and the devil eat a lovely dinner there), we went downstairs to poke around and take photos. The dining room is cavernous but cozy – how I have always pictured an old-school German restaurant.

St. Thomas’s Church: J. S. Bach was choirmaster here for the last 27 years of his life. We weren’t able to go into the church because a concert rehearsal was taking place this afternoon, but all the stores near the church include “Bach” somewhere in the name and street musicians play (what else) Bach. We satisfied ourselves with a photo of a giant Bach sculpture (his pocket turned out to show how poor he was during his life) and walked on.Opera House, Leipzig

The Opera House: On the north side of a square called the Augustplatz sits Leipzig’s ginormous opera house. On the south side of the Augustplatz is Gewandhaus, the home of the Leipzig orchestra. Tickets this evening for the orchestra were for a children’s concert, so we went with opera tickets. I’m therefore going to blame this evening’s adventure on Jon, who ordered the tickets in advance and didn’t know what we were going to watch tonight.

When we arrived at the opera house, most of the building was pretty dark, but then we spotted a random lion statue holding a sign saying that if you’re looking for the Keller Theatre, you have to go around the side of the building. So we walked over to that theatre and saw that it was open. Our tickets were inside waiting for us at the box office, and then we descended two flights of stairs to find ourselves in a basement reception area that had all the charm of a, ummm, basement.

It wasn’t quite the opera atmosphere I’d been expecting. We felt like we were waiting to see an off-off-Broadway production, which was generally fine with me. When the theatre doors opened, our impression was reinforced by the rows of folding chairs in a black-walled room.

The opening act lasted less than 30 minutes and although we didn’t understand a word of it (all songs were in German), we got the gist: the Girlfriend is constantly on the phone; the Boyfriend tries everything to get the Girlfriend’s attention; the Boyfriend stomps out of the apartment and calls the Girlfriend from a payphone, at which point the Girlfriend pays tons of attention to the Boyfriend. The End.

It wasn’t the best piece of musical theatre we’ve ever seen, but we figured it was good enough that we’d wait around to see what happened after the intermission. Big Mistake.

After intermission, we sat through an hour-long, one-woman opera. Again, the phone played a prominent role. As best we could determine, the woman is alone in her apartment and gets a number of phonecalls throughout the night. Here are the parts we could understand:

[piano player duplicates ringing noise made by telephone]
[woman picks up the phone] “Hallo! Hallo!”
[1 hour of solo singing, in German, by the woman ]

So for an entire hour, we had plenty of time to think about an interaction we’d had during intermission with a German woman sitting in the otherwise-empty row behind us. She had busted out in German asking us to move over a seat so that she could see over Jon’s head. We told her we didn’t speak German, so she repeated her request in English, and we moved over because it wasn’t a big deal for us.

What we wondered for the next hour is why, given that she’s sitting in an empty row, couldn’t she move over a seat?

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Leipzig Airport

Guten tag from Leipzig, Germany, where J.S. Bach was choirmaster for 27 years, Goethe studied law and Felix Mendelssohn lived and worked.Jon and I have just checked in to the Leipzig Westin.

Our Air Berlin flight here was uneventful, though as a testament to how often we fly budget airlines in Europe, we were surprised that we were given assigned seats when we checked in at Stansted Airport. When was the last time we flew on a European airline that assigns you seats?

We landed a little behind schedule, and then Jon and I were stuck at the back of the plane and then waited on a long line through immigration (I loved the customs guy with three-star epaulets. He’s a three-star immigration official, don’t you know?), all of which means that we missed the last train into Leipzig.

We then schlepped back and forth across the large, shiny-and-new Leipzig airport to find a cash machine and then a taxi into the city. Our ride cost 31 euros, which is about three times more than the train would’ve cost, but at least (1) the taxi was super nice – all of the ones waiting at the airport were humming mercedes; (2) we got to whiz along the autobahn at a blistering 140 km/h; and (3) it took only 15 minutes to reach the hotel.

The hotel is pretty standard-issue Westin: gleaming, splashy lobby with trendy lighting, and rooms that don’t live up to the lobby (do they ever?). I have to admit I feel cheated not to find a Heavenly Bed in our room. How ever will I sleep at night?

Frivolous comments set aside (for just a moment), Jon and I have serious plans ahead of us this weekend. Over the next 48 hours, we’ll search out the old neighborhood and haunts of Jon’s Grandma Gina, whose family lived in Leipzig for generations until the Holocaust came and almost wiped them out.

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Over May bank holiday (which coincides roughly with Memorial Day weekend), Jon and I went to Amsterdam for four days to hang out with Anthony, who’d flown in to relax and celebrate completing his MD PhD. A well-deserved celebration, and Amsterdam was the perfect choice for fun and games thanks to its gorgeous canals and shops, pubs, clubs and coffee shops. Plus, everyone speaks English and everything is walkable or trammable, which makes it super easy to orient the minute you arrive.

Jon and I were surprised at how quick the trip from London to Amsterdam was: just 40 minutes after takeoff, we landed at Schiphol Airport, which has a rep for having the best duty-free shopping in the world. We didn’t have time to investigate this particular claim, but it’s worth looking into on your next stopover in Amsterdam, I suppose.

We zipped through immigration and immediately caught a train for the 20-minute ride to Centraal station, which is a really large, brick structure on the outside, but oddly tunnel-like on the inside.

Amsterdam MapBrief geography overview: Centraal station sits in the oldest, most central part of Amsterdam, and radiating outward from the station are rings of canals, which make up the part of Amsterdam known as the “Canal Belt.” Within the Canal Belt (which is where most tourists, like us, spend their time), you have sub-neighborhoods like the Leidseplein (which I describe below) and the Jordaan, which is a yuppie SoHo’y neighborhood of picturesque canal houses, shops and cafes. Just outside the Canal Belt is the Museumplein, which is pretty much identical to the Upper East Side – you’ve got a big park, the Vondelpark, the major museums, and ultra-high-end shops (Cartier, Tiffany et al.)

When Jon and I arrived in Amsterdam, Anthony had already checked into the Marriott at the Leidseplein, which is a centuries-year-old square that’s one of the main centers of nightlife in Amsterdam. Most guidebooks to Amsterdam refer to it as the Times Square of Amsterdam (I love how every city seems to have a “Times Square of [insert European city here]” as if it’s something brag about), but the problem with that comparison is that it carries so much negative baggage and at the same time causes disappointment when you see how small and not-nearly-as-busy the square is compared to Times Square. I’d say the only resemblance is in a few (modest-sized) neon signs and the fact that three or four tram lines converge in the square.

I had my doubts about the Marriott, by the way, because Jon and I usually try to find small, more “local” places to stay in places we visit, but because Anthony is the master of Priceline, we got our rooms for about $100 a night and the hotel was shiny, new and comfy – the beds, in particular, get a shout out. I haven’t used that many feather beds since staying at the Ritz-Carlton for work.

We ate a huge meal that first night at Sahid Jaya (Reguliersdwarsstraat, 26). All our research about food in Amsterdam pointed in the direction of Indonesia, particularly towards the rijsttaffel (“rice table”), which is a set menu of dozens of small Indonesian dishes that are served with rice. Indonesian tapas. At Sahid Jaya, the rijsttaffel menu was 23 euros each, which turned out to be a little bit pricey for what we ate. One of the plates was just a few peanuts buried in powdered coconut, and another was cabbage cooked in cream. Basically, the one or two plates that were really delicious came in a size too small to consider a meal, and the other dishes weren’t particularly memorable. At least the service was accommodating and friendly.

Day Two:

Jon and I searched out a synagogue in the morning to remember his Grandma Sylvia, who died last year. It took us almost an hour on the trams to reach the synagogue, though I did enjoy orienting myself to a series of street names in Dutch (straats, pleins and so on) along with some really American ones (Kennedy, Roosevelt, etc.).

When we arrived at the synagogue, there was a young guy blocking the double-gated entrance. We got the full 20 questions, which included reasonable questions about where we’d come from and why we were trying to go to temple, and also some sort of petty and juvenile quizzing about Jewish vocabulary. “What’s a bar mitvah?” “On what holiday do you say the Kol Nidre?”

My two cents’ is that even if we’d gotten those questions wrong, we should still be allowed to go inside and worship, but I understand I’ve never lived in a country where Jews were hunted down, deported and killed. It’s just sad that in May 2006, we would be encountering this level of caution to go to an everyday service.

The service was entirely in Dutch, which was not good, because at least if there’d been Hebrew bits, Jon could follow along. So we stuck around for an hour and a half, and we were grateful to the Dutch woman next to us who would translate occasionally for our benefit.

We met Anthony after the temple service and walked along Prinsengracht, which is one of those picturesque streets that run along a central canal. Not realizing the Anne Frank House was on this canal, we saw a huge line by the museum (which has a very sleek and modern annex to the original Frank house) and initially thought it must be a line of diners waiting to get into a “really cool” restaurant. We’re such hedonists.

We ate a surprisingly good Dutch pancake at the Pancake Bakery, and I say “surprising” because this place was tourist central. Everyone waiting on line to get in was carrying a guidebook, though at least the guidebooks were from different countries (i.e., not just Americans waiting on line). The pancakes, which are really nothing like an American breakfast pancake, were fresh, hot and delicious. They’re more like thick crepes that you customize with fillings. With crispy edges and hot, savoury fillings, you can’t go wrong.

We spent most of the day checking out small shops in the Jordaan, and then we caught a band at the Paradiso, which is a concert venue in an old church. I think the band was from Canada. They were loud. I felt old.

The highlight of the evening for me was dinner at Zuid Zeeland, Herengracht, 413, which serves delicious French/New American food in a small, elegant room. Probably the only negative thing you could say about the place is that you could have been eating anywhere in the world. But we needed a break from the rijstaffel and pancakes.

Day Three:

Bookshelf at Anne Frank HouseA sunny but breezy and chilly day. We walked up the Prinsengracht and by 9:30 a.m. we were on the already-long line at Anne Frank House. Although the line was long, we were in the House by 10. And you know what? It’s a really great museum. The original “house” (really, it was Otto Frank’s office building) is in its original, cramped state, so walking through is powerful because the building is relatively bare. There’s very little text and videos to distract you, and everyone knows enough of the story to feel the sadness in the house. The rooms really do speak for themselves – for example, when you see the bookcase that hid the stairway to the attic, you’re struck by how real Anne Frank’s story was. And then you look around the small room she shared, and it’s heartbreaking to see the movie star photos she pasted to the wall, still there.

After walking through the house, the modern annex houses a lot of exhibits and videos to put Anne Frank’s story in the larger context of the German occupation of Amsterdam, the Holocaust and World War, and then in the context of continuing intolerance today.

Because we’d decided to continue our museum-going streak, we headed to the Museumplein (Museum square) and decided to have a picnic in the sunshine. We found an open supermarket right on the square, Albert Heijn, and had quite a lunch on a park bench near the Von Gogh museum. We had to fight off a lot of aggressive pigeons, and Anthony managed to cut open his hand somehow using the picnic knife, but overall, the picnic was a success.

We paid 25 euros for a ticket that admitted us to both the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum. Audiotours were additional euros, and all I can say is that culture certainly gets pricey. The Van Gogh museum was enjoyable, mostly because there are so many of his works on display that you see all the changes in his style and themes over time. That’s about as deep as my art analysis gets. I have to admit the one thing I will always remember about the Van Gogh museum is the crazy fistfight we witnessed in the Van Gogh café. It was definitely weird. Anthony, Jon and I couldn’t make out the dialogue (which we think was in Dutch), but two guys appeared to be fighting over a table in the café, and somehow the disagreement escalated into hard shoves and swings. I was surprised by how long it took security guards to pull them apart, and if you saw the museum, you’d be surprised that this sort of thing happened. It’s such a gorgeous, light-filled, crowded-with-tourists museum, so you figure people just try to be on good behavior in this sort of surrounding.

Food of the evening included a really tasty falafel at Moaz near the Leidseplein, followed by a so-so Indonesian food dinner at Bojo, Lange Leidsedwarsstraat, 51. Walking down the Leidsedwarsstraat, you’re pestered by touts, which is always a bad sign, but we were going to a Daniel Powter (Mr. “because you had a bad day”) concert at the “legendary” Melkwag in the area, and we’d read that Bojo was the best of the bunch. That may be true, but it wasn’t good. The menu offered diluted Indonesian food (satay in all its forms, anyone?), made worse by a lot of use of the heat lamp to keep food warm indefinitely.

Day Four:

In the morning, we went to the Rijksmuseum, which is famous for its collection of Rembrandts and Vermeers. There was a huge line to get in, but because we’d bought a museum pass yesterday for both the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum, we followed the arrows directing those of us with the passes/pre-ordered tickets to the front of the line. We loved it. It’s definitely worthwhile to get one of these museum passes in order to skip the long entrance lines.
Standing in front of the RijksmuseumThe vast majority of the Rijksmuseum is closed for at least another year because of renovation, so the “treasures” are currently all gathered in four or five small galleries. The thing is, you spend the first 3 galleries trying hard to pay attention to commentary on haphazardly-collected things like the “William rex” model warship or the Delft earthenware and silver, and then when you get to the Vermeers, they’re beautiful, but amusingly enough, they’re displayed so tightly a small corner that you can barely see them because of all the crowds trying to see the same small gems.

Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” is in a room of its own in the last gallery. I was glad for the commentary on how it’s unlike your usual guildhall decoration because of the active, chaotic posings of the figures, but I think I would have gotten more out of it had there been other large-format “guildhall” decorations to contrast it with.

Overall, I think that while the museum is under renovation, it’s probably worth skipping because everything is so jammed together and haphazard that it’s hard to get much context out of the exhibits.

The best part of our day was going on a super-touristy “Yellow Bike” tour (guess what color the bikes are?) through Amsterdam. We cycled through the canals and learned gossipy facts like which canal rings were traditionally wealthier than others, and overall, as Anthony pointed out, we were “checking” things off our mental list of things we’d seen and done already.

I enjoyed cycling through the Vondelpark, which is like a small version of Central Park, but it was surprisingly unkempt. I guess take for granted the carefully-manicured parks of London and New York and was surprised to find bald patches of grass everywhere.

Our bike tour ended with a pass through the red-light district. Even though I keep reading how cleaned-up and touristy the red-light district is, it’s still creepy and unsettling how openly all the women (and a few men) display themselves in the windows. So on the one hand, it’s a shock to see people selling themselves in one way or another in a “shop window,” but on the other hand, they’re all wearing lingerie that you see in catalogs and ads, so maybe most of the shock value of seeing them standing in windows comes from our imaginations. I can also see the truth in the argument that sex workers in Amsterdam are better off than in other countries, simply because there’s some kind of regulation in place for the industry in a country where the work is legal.

Most of all, I’d like to believe the sex work in Amsterdam isn’t so evil and oppressive if dorky tourist bike tours stop by the red-light district as a matter of course.

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Sadly, I have not been eating or cooking anything photogenic or worth describing over the past few days.

However, in my slow-but-sure quest to write up all our wanderings in the last 12 months, I finally created a page about our trip to Amsterdam this past May, so please have a look.

In other news (not food or travel related, but such an accomplishment it has to be mentioned – plus, New York was originally New Amsterdam – OK, am I grasping for a connection or what?), my brother-in-law Matt ran in the New York City marathon last Sunday. His time was an impressive 4:12:46, which is a pace of just over ten minutes a mile. I struggle to keep that pace running a measly 5K, so cheers to Matt! [If someone has a photo of Matt crossing the finish line, send it my way and I’ll post it here so he’ll be world-famous. : )]

And I know I said a few weeks ago that I’d try to cool it with the gym stories, but since I’m talking about running, I’m giving myself license to segue into the gym again. Tomorrow (Thursday), the gym will inaugurate the opening of two new studios for classes by hosting a special 1.5-hour class that you can attend only if (get this) you wear “fancy dress” (i.e., a costume). Not just any costume – you have to wear a superhero costume.

I am definitely going to have to take a photo. How anybody manages to exercise for 1.5 hours in a costume is impossible to imagine.

This costume extravaganza will be followed with (alcoholic) drinks in the gym cafe/lounge. As if you weren’t already dehydrated from exercising in your superhero costume. I love my gym – it adds so much color to my week.

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