Amsterdam was a unique trip in several ways. For one, it was the first trip I’ve taken by myself. I also went during the week instead of on a weekend, though I’ve been on vacation for the past month so I’ve had a lot of Saturdays in a row for a while now. And, sadly I suppose, it’s the last trip I’ll be taking to the continent for the next few months. Truthfully though, after seven European trips, five of them in the last two months, I’m actually looking forward to leaving my rucksack on the shelf for a while and taking daytrips around the English countryside instead.
In any case, all of the above made for a far more relaxed trip. I accomplished less in a given day, but relished the small moments all the more for it.
DAY ONE: ORIENTATION TO THE CITY
Without a doubt the most cyclist-friendly city in the world, Amsterdam must have the highest bikes-per-capita rate ever. People here look like they were born on a bike. They bike with one hand, no hands, while chatting on the phone, while eating, with children hanging over the handlebars or riding in attached crates and baskets; they kick off expertly, have incredible balance, swing their legs from one side to the other like horse tricksters. In short, they make me extremely jealous of their biking skills, and a little insecure about my tendency to fall off bikes, which you may recall from my Austria trip.
Whether it’s the proverbial chicken or the egg, though, the fact that everyone cycles here makes for a public transportation system that is expensive and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Pretty much every tram, metro or bus starts at the Centraal Station, located at the northern tip of the city and the point from which the rest of the city’s canals radiate outward. The transit lines do the same, so that if you want to get from point A to point B, you’re probably better off walking than passing through points C, D and E first. If you know what I mean.
So basically, you need a bike to get around this city. I didn’t have access to a bike on the first day, and underestimating the city’s size, I thought I would be fine on foot. I walked for an hour to get to the Van Gogh Museum, and by the time I got there, I was so hungry and cranky and my feet hurt so much that I sat down to eat at Cafe Loetje instead. Also, it was freezing. And raining.
Still, I forced myself to stay out and walk around for as long as I could, in the way that you make yourself do things when you’re traveling that you might not otherwise do. So sure, the city is pretty and all, but in my grumpy state all I wanted was a bit of sunshine and a hot cup of tea.
Sunshine I didn’t get, but the warmth of home did greet me when I went back to where I was staying. I had booked another Airbnb stay, and my hosts, C and N, were more like a host family. They invited me to have dinner with them since I was on my own, had an open-fridge policy and in all respects were so welcoming and kind. C even let me borrow her down coat and mittens (yep, it was THAT cold) for the rest of my stay, which was a lifesaver. You probably know by now much I love Airbnb, and it’s the people who make the experience so great!
DAY TWO: THE KEUKENHOF GARDENS IN LISSE
It didn’t get any warmer the next day, but I did get a few hours of sunshine! I also had C’s coat to keep me warm, which allowed me to brave the cold for six hours wandering around the gardens. Definitely worth a full day’s trip.
The Keukenhof features three main types of flowers: tulips, hyacinths and daffodils. They tend to bloom in the reverse order, but I’ve listed them in order of preference. Nothing against daffodils; the ones pictured above, called “My story” daffodils, were especially pretty. But I just loved the tulips and hyacinths!
However, the fact that tulips bloom last of the three is a key fact that was not in my favor. I booked this trip a few months ago, thinking the tulips would be peaking by now, but they needed another week or two and a lot more warmth! Remember, I was wearing a down coat; imagine how those poor tulips felt. I don’t blame them for not showing off their full glory, but I have to admit that I was a bit sad that so many of the tulip buds were still closed.
The fact that the tulips weren’t in full bloom may explain part of the slight disappointment expressed in my last post. However, I was still incredibly impressed by many aspects of the Keukenhof, especially the sheer scale of the gardens. The flowers and colors and patterns go on and on and on; everywhere you walk, everywhere you turn, there are bursts of color. There are perfectly-shaped flowerbeds everywhere you look, and that’s a feat difficult to capture in photos. All day, I felt the limitations of my photographic ability in trying to capture this sense of scale.
Another unique aspect of the garden is its cleverly designed interactive elements. There are a lot of kid-friendly features that made me want to be a kid again! A petting zoo, a zipline swing. The zipline swing especially made me sad that I’m not under 12.
I think what makes the interactive elements so unique though is how understated they are. The ability to walk on water in the pond, above left, gave me a double take! I passed right by it, then saw the illusion out of the corner of my eye and had to go back for a closer look. Clever, eh?
Above right, a 10-foot-high maze. I “cheated” in that I had seen someone at the lookout point in the center who exited as I was entering. So I followed his route in reverse, no problem. But I heard others getting good and lost in this maze! Haha.
A rainbow all the way across the sky! It was incredibly gorgeous. The sad part was that no one else on the bus noticed this. I suppose it’s an advantage of traveling alone—you notice more. Everyone else was engrossed in conversation, but I couldn’t get enough of the incredible view out the window!
DAY THREE: AROUND AMSTERDAM
My last day in Amsterdam! Time to do some sightseeing.
I went first to the Anne Frank House, where Anne Frank and her family stayed in hiding, and where she penned her famous diary. No photography was allowed, so I don’t have any to show for the trip. But it was one of the most moving, memorable places I’ve been. The wait to get in is long (you can avoid the lines by booking online in advance), but well worth it. I was on the verge of tears so many times during my visit here. I’d read her diary several times, since I was quite young, and to be there in person, to feel the claustrophobic smallness of the space, catch those precious rays of light from the attic, watch interviews with Otto Frank, the sole survivor of the eight people who hid here… I have so much admiration for Mr. Frank, and a renewed appreciation for the freedoms I so easily take for granted.
Afterward, I took C’s recommendation on the “best frites in Amsterdam” and stopped by this frite stand near Westerkirk. She had told me to find the bald guy who’s been there for thirty years. He didn’t look that old, so I doubt he’s been in business thirty years, but the frites were definitely very good! Make sure you get them with mayo, the Dutch way :)
Time to weigh my options. I had a few hours left in Amsterdam, and much as I wanted to see the Van Gogh Museum, I overshot it in my excitement to finally be cycling round the city. So I decided to keep going instead of circling back, and ended up cycling for about two hours! I am proud to report that I didn’t fall and even got pretty comfortable riding with one hand.
Not going to the museum meant that I had some extra time to kill before my flight, so I stopped by a brown cafe to chill a while, have a locally brewed beer and read a book. I ended up at Cafe de Doelen, a small, charming cafe that had a very local feel. Lots of people just sitting around with a coffee or a beer, reading the paper or a book. I did the same.
My last stop in Amsterdam was the Church of St. Nicholas near Centraal, where supposedly a Habsburg emperor’s crown is kept. Mostly, I went because entry is free and it was on the way. As you can tell, I wasn’t sweating the sightseeing experiences all too much; I’m sure I missed a number of famous sights. But what can I say, I was too weather-beaten to take tons of photos! I did pass by a lot of the famous spots, but I preferred to have the local experience than catalogue all the sights.
And that’s my trip in a nutshell! More photos from the Keukenhof coming soon!