Monday, December 31, 2012

Buses and Amsterdam, Day 1

I left for the bus station early-ish on Saturday morning, and noticed for the first time the canal and lock not two minutes walk from my hostel. It was a lock exactly like Amélie skips stoned over in Amélie, but there was no time to stop as I wanted to get to the bus station and have time left over for grocery shopping, because I wasn't sure if the Netherlands would be like many other European countries and have no shops open on Sundays. It took a while to find the bus station, though, and then two queues (one unnecessary) and some frustrated moments later it was time to get on the bus and no sign of a grocery store. They really need more signs - I could read the ones in French, and they still didn't help me much.

In any case, soon we were speeding along the French motorways and on into Belgium. We stopped for a bit in the shiny-building district of Brussels, which wasn't very inspiring apart from some very long curved park benches (I'm sure Brussels is very lovely in other parts), and then continued into the Netherlands and to Amsterdam. I managed to catch a tram to my hostel where the One Who Speaks Russian was waiting, and collapsed into bed. It's funny how travelling can make you tired.

This morning we had a few objectives: sleep in, get Dutch fries and go on the free walking tour of Amsterdam. The first objective obtained, we followed the tram tracks to the centre of town and found ourselves some frites at a Dutch fast food chain where most of the food comes out of pseudo-vending machines. There's a bank of them along one wall that keep getting refilled, and you put your money in, open the door and take your cheeseburger/sausage etc. etc. The frites didn't come in the vending machine boxes, unfortunately, but they were still good with the special Dutch mayonnaise that is much, much better than ordinary mayonnaise.

We found the tour guide and were finally accepted onto the tour (apparently tour guides get arrested if there are more than 40 people in their group, and they had way more people than expected), and started on our grand tour around Amsterdam. Old Amsterdam is very walkable, and cars are definitely not the main mode of transport. You're much, much more likely to get hit by a bike (they're everywhere, and going pretty fast) than anything else, and there were a few near misses.

The main square in Amsterdam has the Royal Palace along one side, though the palace is royal in name only and the royals were never allowed to live there (Amsterdammers are very independent people and wouldn't allow the royal family in). Amsterdam is one of the youngest cities in Europe, with people coming together to live here less than a thousand years ago, drawing their city out of the marshes and almost encircling it with canals over the centuries. There are lots of pretty views along the canals from the bridges, and I love the narrow houses with their pulley systems for hauling goods up into attics. The narrow houses come from placing a tax on house width, because if you have narrower houses you can fit more along the canals, and so have more merchants living in your city.

We walked through the red light district, where there are actual red lights along all its little alleys and workers in full-length windows. One wasn't paying that much attention to the people walking past - she was texting. In the middle of the red light district is the oldest church in Amsterdam, where sailors would come to say confession after their night's activities, or sometimes before if time was short (this cost more). Apparently it got so there was a price list at the confessional, and then the Reformation came down hard. For a while Catholicism was banned in the city, which meant that attic churches sprang up where Catholics could go to pray. This is where the Amsterdam 'looking through the fingers' policy came into play - people knew these churches were there but they were tolerated because they were quiet, weren't hurting anyone, and it was good for business to have more people (i.e. Catholics) in town.

We visited the headquarters of the Dutch East India Trading Company, where modern capitalism started, and saw the former Jewish quarter. Amsterdam's Jews were not lucky in escaping the Holocaust, and during the harsh winter of 1944 the main Jewish street was stripped of wood for fires (staircases, wooden foundations) because the rumours of concentration camps had filtered through and the Amsterdammerrs knew the former residents probably wouldn't come back. The street was rebuilt in the 1950's-60's, designed by architecture students, and is now known as the Lego street because of its colourful, blocky design. We also saw the highest point in Amsterdam: 1.3m above sea level.

We ended at the Anne Frank Huis and went for dinner at a nice restaurant where I had a traditional Dutch dish of mashed potato, onion and carrot with a meatball on top. Then. returned to the hostel for a quiet night in preparation for tomorrow: the last day of the year.


1 comment:

what do you think?