23 Hours in Amsterdam

I build up blog drafts – articles and essays that I start and sometimes don’t finish because they’re either no longer relevant, I’ve lost interest in the topic, or because I step back and say to myself “Are you sure you want to post that on the all-knowing, immortal internet?”  But sometimes I scan my drafts and re-discover a really cool idea for a post that I just never had time to complete.

This is one of those.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a little while, you might remember that back in July I went to Italy (<— there it is, if not).  It was a great time and the last two weeks of my July archives are filled with stories of our adventures in Perugia, Assisi, Florence, and Rome.

But I never posted about Amsterdam!

On our flight back to the States, the Hubby and I had a “forced” overnight layover in Amsterdam.  I say “forced” because we actually paid an extra $170 to take the 23 hour layover instead of the shorter six-hour layover that was also available.  We were so excited – we were able to add an extra day and an entirely new country to our vacation!

I wanted to get a glance at the different culture,  architecture and fashion, and I wanted to ride the local rail and hear the Dutch language, but with less than 24 hours to soak in the city neither the Hubby nor I had any huge plans for Amsterdam.    There was some adolescent-like giggling about walking through the Red Light District, and all of our friends who have been to Amsterdam recommended that we take a canal cruise.  Since both are equally accessible from the Centraal Station and the area of town we were staying in, we figured we’d try to hit those two.

Arriving in Amsterdam

It was a cloudy, gray day when we touched down at Schiphol airport.  The countryside was green and there were a lot of ponds, lakes, and rivers visible from the plane as we landed.  We were guided by the flow of human traffic through the terminals into the cavernous indoor rail terminal.

I have no background in or understanding of the Dutch language – we didn’t even have the foresight to grab an English-language tour book of Amsterdam before we arrived (wtf?  How did that happen?  Who shows up in a strange country without a friggin’ map?).  By the way, the language did NOT disappoint – it sounded intense, sharp, gutteral; it reminded me of German.  I have only briefly studied French, Italian and Spanish, so the Dutch language was completely foreign to me, which I liked.

So, back to the Schiphol train station:  We had to ask a few people for directions before finding what we hoped was the right track.  It was here that we discovered that English is a common second language in Amsterdam.  Unfortunately, all of the English speakers on the rail platform appeared to also be tourists with no solid grasp on how to get where they wanted to go.  In a move that I thought was particularly daring we boarded a train that we hoped would deliver us to Centraal Station.  Luckily, we chose wisely and arrived downtown after a short 20-30 minute ride.

Centraal Station felt HUGE.  There were huge crowds of people, huge numbers of rail tracks with exotic destinations like France and Germany (Exotic…awww…isn’t the land-locked midwestern Yankee cute?  XD) and huge, bustling convenience stores planted around the underground walkway beneath the tracks.  When we left the station and looked behind us, we were not suprised that it appeared as big from the outside as it had seemed inside.

Centraal Station from across the waterway.  The sun came out for a little while.

One of the first things that caught my eye was the number of bikes!  Bikes, bikes and more bikes!  People of all ages and types of dress were riding bicycles in incredible numbers.  I learned the hard way that bikes have the right of way over pedestrians in Amsterdam.  Outside of Centraal Station I walked right into a bike lane and got ring-ringed by the rider’s bell, and also what I assume was a good cussing out.  Ah well, I learn quickly.

On the right side of the picture above is a multi-story bike park, which to my eyes looked more like a car park.  There were at least three stories of bikes parked side-by-side, filling up the entire lot.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many bicycles in one place before.  I loved it, and it made me wish that we had more of a bike culture in Minneapolis.  Better public transportation would be a good start…

Another view from Centraal Station – this is where a lot of the canal cruise boats were docked.  The boats were these long, flat deals with windows for roofs.

Finding the hotel was the next adventure.  This was another time when I was extremely happy that the Hubby and I had packed lightly.  With only one backpack/suitcase each, we weren’t too worried about lugging our stuff while we wandered around looking for the hotel.  Which was good, because as I mentioned before, we had no map.  Well…we had a map that we had printed from the internet that indicated that our hotel was about four blocks from Centraal station, but that map sucked.  It was too zoomed out and only named the larger streets.  So, essentially, we had no map.

One of the complications of not knowing ANYTHING about Dutch was that all of the street names looked very similar; they were very long and had a lot of vowels in them and often contained a dizzying array of K’s, D’s and T’s.  Along the way we stopped at several corners; the Hubby pulled out the slip of paper that contained the hotel’s address and he would spell out the name of the street it was on, and I would follow along letter by letter with the street sign we were standing in front of.  I refused to hail a taxi because I knew that we were  really close to where we needed to be, but I did eventually agree to go into a souvenier shop to buy a map and ask directions.  The store clerk was very nice and confirmed that we very close.  He even drew a line from his shop to the hotel.  It was on the next block over.

Success!  The hotel is behind me off of the right side of the picture.  This is the alley/street that the hotel opens onto.

The hotel was everything we hoped it would be – which is to say, standardized to meet our American expections of what lodging should look like.  It was clean, secure and well-staffed by multi-lingual concierges.  If we had been staying for more than one night, I would have liked to room at a place with more character, but old reliable would do for the night.  The one thing that did catch us by suprise was the lighting.  Through some trial and error we discovered that you had to leave your room key in a slot to keep the electricity on, which I thought was clever once we figured out why the lights kept going out every five minutes.

Evening Festivities

By then it was about 5pm local time.  We dropped our bags and headed downstairs to see if we could book seats on a canal cruise.  The only cruise that was advertised through the hotel that was still available for the evening was a “romance package”.  The description for the romance package appeared to be just like a regular cruise, but with cheese, wine, chocolate AND  a guided walking tour of the Red Light District.  Apparently nothing says romance like sex workers, sex shows and adult toy shops – woo hoo!

The cruise was scheduled to leave at 7pm from the waterway right up the street by Centraal Station.  We figured we’d walk down at 6:30pm, and that gave us about an hour for dinner.  There was a Mexican restaurant with outdoor dining right outside of the hotel.  Mexican – not Spanish, but Mexican food!  You have to understand:  We had been savoring some incredibly lovely and delicious Italian and European meals over the past two weeks, but the one type of food that had been absent was Mexican fare – tacos, enchilladas, tamales, burritos, guacamole, salsa – none of it was anywhere to be found in central Umbria or Rome.  As soon as I saw the restaurant I started salivating.  I turned to the Hubby and said

I.  Want.  THAT.

Either I had a terrifyingly crazy look in my eye, or the Hubby felt the same way I did about getting some refried beans and Mexican-style rice, because the next thing I knew I had a frozen margarita in front of me, he was drinking a very expensive Corona beer and we were noming salsa and chips.  Yummmmy!

This coffeeshop was right next to the Mexican restaurant that we ate at.  While we were doing some cursory research about the city, we learned that when coffeeshop is spelled with a “c” in Amsterdam it is a place where one can smoke pot.  Koffeehouses usually just serve coffee.  I think.  The Hubby and I aren’t into pot (no, really!  It’s not our bag, baby.) so we didn’t go in, but I like Betty Boop and thought I should get a picture of one of the infamous Amsterdam marijuana bars while I was there.

Being the seasoned explorers of the path between Centraal Station and our hotel that we were by this time, we made it to the dock and found our tour group with plenty of time to spare.

Our boat,our captain.

The cruise was everything we could have wanted.  The tour guide pointed out sites in English, and then in Dutch, and he was very laid back and seemed to enjoy his job.  The captain was a riot – he was very silly and would play cheesy music over the guide (who played along), he’d dance, he’d pretend to fall asleep at the wheel and he traded laughter and insults with what I assume were locals walking along the canals as we floated by.  We got a chance to see all of the permanent house boats that line the canals, we were amazed by how close cars park to the edge of the waterways (no guardrails!), we went under low bridges and made a few amazing three point turns to clear some of the narrower passageways.

These are some of the larger buildings that we passed by during the tour:

The residential architecture was very different from what I’m familiar with.  All of the buildings were very narrow, and the guide explained that this had to do with the way property is taxed.

Because the buildings are so narrow, large furniture rarely fits up stairwells.  They have to be lifted up to their intended floors with pulleys and special hooks that are permanent fixtures on all of the houses.

Near the end of the tour, the boat docked in an unassuming residential neighborhood and the guide announced that we were invited to join him for a walking tour of the Red Light District if we so chose.  Of course we all leapt from our seats to follow him – how often do you find yourself in a situation where it’s social acceptable to look at pretty, barely dressed women in windows?  The guide did tell us to leave our cameras on the boat, or at least turned off and out of sight or risk having them confiscated.  We walked through a narrow alley and emerged in the Red Light District – tah dah!

I wouldn’t recommended this portion of the tour.  I felt like a tourist gawker – oh that’s right, we were tourist gawkers!  In a big tourist gawker group!  Many of the women turned away when we walked by, and a few even rolled their eyes or shut their curtains as we passed.  It was still early and the neighborhood felt very slow.  The only good thing about this experience is that we had a brief introduction to the neighborhood layout, so we had a better feel for the area when we went back later that evening without the tour.  Oh yes we did.  You knew we would.

We left the Red Light District and walked by some churches and historical sites before returning to the boat and making our way back to the starting point of the tour.  The Hubby and I were giddy with the newness of everything.  We walked home to the hotel and grabbed some extra layers – it was actually getting chilly!  We pocketed our map of the city and a few dollars and headed down to…dum dum dum…The Red Light District!

Our visit this time was a lot more fun!  Remember that no camera thing?  I didn’t take any pictures, but the internet is a wonderful thing…

This is what the Red Light District looks like when you’re not standing in front the window of a sex worker, theater or toy shop.  It’s very pretty, very pink-tinged from all of the red lighting.  Evening had fallen and all of the lights were on, just like in this picture.  We walked for maybe three blocks down one side of the canal, and then back up the other.  The sex workers’ windows were actually doors, and we saw plenty of instances when a women would open her door to speak with men who showed an interest.  Aside from the windows on the main canal, the very narrow alleys also had doors, and these were a little unnerving.  We were so close to women on both sides of the alleyway that it felt sort of like navigating the aisles of a haunted house.  A haunted house with beautiful women staring at us and beckoning, but still a little creepy.

But in all it was fun to walk through the carnival-like atmosphere of the Red Light District – everyone was selling some sort of sex or something to help you have more or better sex.  Men stood outside of their theaters and stores going on about the tantalizing this or naughty that which was to be found in their unique businesses.  The Sex Museum had posters of porn from the 1920s on the walls.  And the mood was festive but polite; we didn’t see anyone being rude or yelling or being overly drunk and obnoxious.

The one annoying thing was the abundance of “coffeeshops” in the area – the smell of pot smoke was unescapable, even though we were outdoors.  And since the anti-smoking laws that prohibit indoor smoking passed in Minnesota, I haven’t been surrounded by that much smoke of any kind, let the cloying, sweet smell of pot smoke.  My clothes reeked.  Bleh.

We had a couple confusing seconds of trying to determine which way was home at the end of the night, but a nice bouncer outside one of the sex shows pointed us in the direction of Centraal Station, so we started walking that way until we recognized familiar landmarks (did we see those boobs earlier, honey?  I’m not sure…)  We were in bed by midnight.  In Amsterdam.  I couldn’t help but feel a wee bit lame, but I like sleep and that was a good time to do it.

Monday Morning

We woke up early the next morning and packed our bags.  I wanted to go walking around some of the neighborhoods surrounding the hotel before we had to head to the airport for our 3pm flight.  We decided to search for some authentic pannekoeken for the Hubby and along the way we passed some incredibly too-charming-to-be-true local shops (and way too charming to be open at 8am on a Monday morning).  We also walked by the Anne Frank house.  That gave me chills.

We go walking.

Pretty gray morning in Amsterdam.

We did eventually find the Hubby some pannekoeken and I was introduced to the misery that is English breakfast (beans and cabbage with breakfast???  Seriously???)  Sadly, the gluten-free pannekoeken had not made it’s way to that particular establishment.

After that it was all business.  We checked out of the hotel and walked up to Centraal Station, narrowly missing a torrential downpour that started just as we entered the building.  We made it back to Schiphol and arrived our gate with plenty of time to spare for customs and only a few euro left in our pockets, which was exactly what were aiming for!

Bye, Amsterdam!  Thanks for the good times, and hopefully we’ll get to hang out again sometime!

23 Hours in Amsterdam