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Prinsengracht

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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