Sunday, May 28, 2017

City of Freedom and The Capital of Europe

“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.” - John Green
Welkom to Amsterdam; World famous for its museums, art galleries, coffee shops, Red Light District, historical canals, and the hiding place of diarist Anne Frank. -Though I am still unsure whether Amsterdam is considered in Holland, as Dutch travelers I’ve met would say, or if Netherlands is the correct term. Nonetheless- Welkom to this vibrantly youthful yet historically daring city. 
I have gotten the question, ‘Why Amsterdam?’ quite a lot since returning and beforehand, so I’m going to start with how we got there in the first place. My friend Brittany and I were having a discussion late September of last year about the places we have been, the experiences we’ve had, and what other destinations we could possibly go to while living abroad (insert eye roll here). We were now in our fourth year of living in SE Asia and having been to a dozen of the nearby countries, the conversation led to bigger, more out of reach possibilities.  During this one of many balcony chats, she mentioned having a relative who, after travelling all over the world, decided to reside two hours north of Amsterdam as it was one of her favorite places.  We continued on, discussing stories we had heard of Amsterdam, and spouting out what-ifs, neither of us really planning to say “hey, let’s go there.” For me there was something so exciting, yet unknown and nerve-wrecking about the freedom and history of that city. Not to mention I had never been to Europe, and all my traveling in the USA and SE Asia hadn’t prepared me for what Europe could be like.
When Brittany finally did say we should go, the only thing we could think of after that was “Of course, why didn’t we think of this before,” and better yet, “Why not?!” So we booked our tickets nearly 8 months in advance through a guy named Nick Chen from Whose Travel, a wonderfully helpful and quick-responding travel agent who I’ve used on a few other occasions. Normally, I wouldn’t boast about prices, but we got a $520 round-trip ticket to Europe! I have yet to find another deal like it.
Fast-forward to mid-March when I began booking our hostels and planning our daily activities based on the areas we would be staying in. It was then I discovered two things; first that we would be landing just hours after the country would be celebrating King’s Day, as well as we would be there for the Memorial Day and Liberation Day celebrations, the King would be in the city, and it was the one time of year where the tulips bloom. Second, because of this, hostels were either fully booked or top-dollar, which gave a perfectly good reason to visit another city during our nine night stay. This is where Brussels, Belgium would come in to play.


So let’s get there already. On Thursday, April 27th we took an evening flight to Shang-Hai, and then overnight to Amsterdam, landing around 6 in the morning on Friday, April 28th. I had never seen a line for customs so long, yet move so quickly. I was hardly even glanced at as my passport was stamped and then we were on our way to get our bags within the hour. Now just a few among the many, we picked a line that would get us on a train to Amsterdam Central, boarded, and were finally in the heart of the city.

Usually, when in a new city I like to use a good old fashioned map to get around. However, when you’ve got large suitcases, far few hours of flight sleep, and in need of a shower, you’ll wait in those info lines to find the exact location of where you need to go and the quickest route to get there. No time for diddle daddling as my mom would say.
We hopped on Tram 1, making our first mistake of only buying the one-hour card not the 24-hour tram card, and got off on Prinsengracht. We walked to our first of four hostels, Amsterdam Hostel Centre on Leidsedwarsstraat. This hostel was not a typical low-budget hostel because of its location in the museum and shopping district, as well as being along a canal in an old historical Amsterdam building.

We left our bags and went out for our first meal and my first discovery of the flavorful creamy cheese of Holland. We also each had a Captain Morgan infused hot chocolate. Warm and delicious.
We got a bit lost walking back and forth, up and down, behind, in front of, and next to the streets and trams and canals before really looking at Maps. We then realized we were just a short walk along the canal to get to the Heineken Brouwery, in today’s terms; the Heineken Experience.
Now I have been to a brewery once before, the Budweiser Brewery in St. Louis, Missouri. Therefore I already knew the ingredients, the equipment, and the simple yet tedious steps to make beer. I knew what we would see in many of the rooms as well. What I did not know was the history of Heineken (founded on the same day of my birthday!) and the international popularity of this beer, a beer I would usually not drink unless someone had brought the limes on a hot summer day.
Founder of  Heineken & Co. on Feb. 15,
1864 at the age of 22. 

One of my favorite parts of the Budweiser brewery in St. Louis was the Clyesdale horses. When we saw the horses at Heineken, I was also very excited, especially while in the stables where they kept them. The cool, crispy air reminded me of a Midwest fall morning. Although they were a bit too far away for a good look, they seemed to be just as large and majestic as a Clysdale. Later, I read Clysdales will pull barrels of Heineken beer during King’s Day celebrations, (we happened to be there on the morning after) another good clue they could have been.




I remember feeling like this brewery seemed to be a fun place to work, maybe this was just the atmosphere in Amsterdam, but everyone seemed to be in good spirits. I was surprised right away at how comfortable the staff members were with each other. The men were friendly, the women were confident in their messy buns, and nobody was in a hurry. While standing in the room being introduced to the magical four: water, barley, hops, and the secret Heineken ingredient, the presenter looked at Brittany and I and said we must have also had a good time / long night the night before by celebrating King’s Day, but we unfortunately hadn’t. We laughed and I quickly corrected the assumption that sadly we had just arrived.  Really kicking ourselves that we didn’t arrive just a half a day sooner!

What I really enjoyed about Heineken was the ‘Experience.’ In the second half of the self-paced tour there were dozens of activities: video games, music boxes, foosball matches, virtual goal keeping, free framed photo and video shoots, pics with rugby players, you name it. After all the fun you get two Heinekens in a vibrant room with large views of the Hong Kong skyline (ironic). In a connecting room you could practice pouring your own beer. Both rooms were very social places, with tall tables, people enjoying themselves and dancing. The slow evolution and adaptations of the atmosphere as people moved quickly in and out of the rooms gave a small thrill. Heineken did well at selling their beer, we had a great time and I’ll always think of Heineken as a good time beer with friends.
"Amsterdam has more than 150 canals and 1.250 bridges,
but it never seems crowded nor bent and bitter from fleecing the tourists."


It was around 1 PM when we left and we were having the best time walking along the canals. We saw tulips blooming and families of ducks near the water. We continued on through the streets and found ourselves among dozens upon dozens of art galleries (we had been told early on that there are over 200 art galleries in Amsterdam and over 50 museums!).

One of the shops I liked the most and stopped at every time it crossed our path
was this little one of old antique prints. Landscapes to pin-up girls to famous Amsterdam streets.
Check Mate
Tulips in May in Amsterdam. 
Because it was on nearly every list of things to do in Amsterdam, we shared a Haring (Herring) sandwich. I do often like fish, but this was not for me.
Now that it was mid-day and the city had really awoken, we were learning quickly to stay out of the way. I say we learned quickly, but throughout the entire trip we had to constantly remind ourselves to stay out of the way of the bicyclist, and most importantly their bike lanes. The trams were much easier to watch out for, however there were many of them, and many crossings, to be clear of.

We stopped at #8 on a ‘best of 10 cafes in Amsterdam’ list, Dutch Flowers. It was very small on a corner that would have been all too easy not to notice unless you were like us, hunting for the exact address. Inside it had miniature artwork on the wall, of the room you were already in, later we saw this at few other shops.
At the hostel we got ready for our dinner with Brittany’s cousin (Chicago) and relatives who live in the North of Netherlands. I also chatted with the helpful Dutch hostel host and he helped me to star, circle, underline, and number my potential attack on the town over the course of the next week using the assortment of notes and lists I had brought with me. His lack of accent when speaking English was astounding after hearing him speak Dutch just moments before. Dutch seems utterly complex.
We walked the streets until we got nearby the restaurant, De Brabantse Aap, and made our second mistake of having appetizers and a beer 45 minutes before our 8 o’clock dinner. We ordered bitterballen, another must-try (I liked this one, creamy, a bit sweet with mushrooms, just extremely hot to bite in to). Needless to say after that I didn’t have the appetite fit for a seafood feast.

We had a great time at dinner. Brittany’s first cousin Jamie, and two relatives by marriage- Katie and Krissy were waiting as we arrived promptly at 8:00. The conversations continued to rotate around the table just as easily as the bottles of white wine. Krissy was a bit of a wine connoisseur which helped.

After ordering the enormous seafood platters, it takes an hour or two to prepare and present the masterpiece. It was beautiful, and I was a bit ashamed I had no appetite at the time. I still nibbled at a few things and had a bowl of lobster soup I would later come to regret.

Everyone got to wear bibs and I was astonished at the feast I (mostly) watched be devoured. Afterwards, we ventured out for a few dark beers at the last remaining bars still open. We met Katie’s boyfriend and checked out the amazing Air BNB they were staying in before heading back. It was an exhausting, exhilarating, awfully intoxicating first day in Amsterdam. 
Britt's family & I 
Saturday morning we woke up around 10 am, had some strawberry..you said banana…no she didn’t…crepes, and then went to the Rijksmuseum. We were at the museum for about 2-3 hours.

Famous Paintings at the Rijksmuseum.
This painting has something to do with a father returning to his spoiled son after many years, and the ungrateful son turning his father away even though the father gave everything in his life up for his son to have his privileged life. Don't quote me. 
 Inside & Outside 
"I read. I travel. I become."
Fine China
A whole room dedicated to miniature dollhouses.
This would have been the golden ticket as a child.  
Afterwards, I got a hotdog on our way into Vondelpark. Thinking ahead, Brittany had snagged an airplane blanket that we could use in the park. We enjoyed the tulips and people watching while sitting in the grass, and then walked the entire park twice. 
Besties 
On our way back we stopped into one of many cheese shops to try a few samples. We also stopped at a cute little bakery / ice cream shop “the best on the street.” I had chocolate ice cream in a waffle cone along with a cafĂ© mocha and tried a raspberry macaroon. Later we went to an Italian restaurant and soon after called it a night.
You can spot a group of friends/travelers on their own mini canal cruise. 
Great example of why this city is an amazing place to come with a large group of friends.
Sunday, April 30th we went to Dam Square to meet an old friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in years and happened to be in Amsterdam during the same week. It was nice to get to just hang out for a few hours with an old friend before our mid day train to Brussels.
 
The Thalys high speed train can take you from Amsterdam to Brussels in less than two hours. (It would take just over three to get to Paris.)
Inside the lobby of our hostel.
Highly recommend this place if you're ever in Brussels! 
Quite a lot of construction going on once we got there, including at the Bruxelles Centraal, so we got off at the North station and made it to our check-in location.
The check-in location was not our final destination; we would be staying at 2G04 Hostel, which was literally steps away from the Grand Place. When you walked out the front of our hostel, you could see the towering beauties of the Grand Place. With just a few steps more we were in this truly grand, wide-open, brick-paved exquisite area of Brussels. We decided to really dress up to be in this magical place. Then we took beautiful photos with and around every grand building we could find. After walking along the entire place, we stopped for a beverage, cheese, salami, and olives at Le Roy D’espagne. We walked some more and later shared some beef stew and an ice cream waffle. Oh My, it was divine, pure bliss moment.

B K in the G P 
Knock Knock 
I will have to research why everyone was touching this man from head to toe.
But I did it too. 

A photo of the Grand Place in it's original market days. 
The Grand Place market square today. 
Band music all over this city! 
In the hostel I met a guy named Muhammad from Morocco and he joined us for one more beer at Delirium. One of the most popular bars in Brussels. A strict rule in Brussels is to ‘never order the same beer twice’ due to the 3,162 different beers. On the walk back we witnessed a man running faster than a track star through the streets with a large black bag…you can guess what that meant.
Delirium Bar 
The next morning, May 1st, Brittany and I headed out just in time for lunch at Bia Mara for some amazingly perfect fish and chips, (I had the Cuban tempura with a blonde beer). Around 1:30 we met up with our new friend and joined a free walking tour around the city with about 30 others. Dora was our hysterical, raspy- voiced tour guide, with a witty sense of humor and a love for the city and people of Belgium (she was originally from Greece).
Manneken Pis
We started in the Grand Place of course and went down the famous “waffle street” stopping to see a famous cartoon painting(many comic book characters came out of Belgium including the Smurfs) along the way before reaching the #1 tourist spot in all of Brussels, the Manneken Pis. Dora told of her annoyance with the popularity of this little pissing boy and the legend from which it came. The legend says a young boy walked up to a stick of dynamite that had been lit and did his business on the end, putting it out and saving the city. He has somewhere over 900 custom made costumes for any and all occasions, celebrities, and celebrations.
Chocolate Manneken Pis, anyone?

Afterwards Dora led us to the “girlfriend” or “squatting sister” you could call her which was near the Delirium bar and the famous Florish Bar known for its absinthe. This is when we found out about the Guinness world record of beers and too often occurrence of pit-pocketing in the city.

We walked by a cathedral, the original royal palace (now half park – King Phillip 1st, Queen regent Elizabeth will be the first queen to not have to marry to keep her crown), federal parliament, and ended the tour near King Albert’s park.

We went back to try the famous frites at a spot where the potatoes are never frozen and the line wraps around the building from open to close. Then we tried an original waffle with no added ingredients, as we were told this was the true way to try a Belgium waffle.


Once a place for high end shopping for the wealthy who did not want to be rained on.
Now full of high end chocolate, a huge industry in Belgium
Love, Chocolate, Brussels 


I went back into the stunning cathedral and took some photos. Then we relaxed and listened to the street music on the steps of Bourse/Beurs (Brussels stock exchange founded in 1801). That night we went back to Le Roy D’espagne and had the best meal yet. First a Greek salad, then a chicken mushroom dish with of course, frites (every meal in Brussels). Then back to our 25 Euro per night hostel along the walls of the Grand Place.


The walls of Bourse stock exchange, now a memorial after the 2016 Brussels bombing.
“The Church knew what the psalmist knew: Music praises God. Music is well or better
able to praise him than the building of the church and all its decoration; it is the
Church’s greatest ornament.” – Igor Stravinsky
Might not be my "religion" It's still beautiful. 
I love this city, but it will rob you blind.
City Art 
Image may contain: people standing, night, sky and outdoor
Tuesday the 2nd, we were up early, kebabs for lunch, and on our way back to Amsterdam. The train we took back was a bit longer and we arrived around 4 o’clock. Our newest destination was within walking distance from Amsterdam Centraal. Hooray!

The Flying Pig Hostel Downtown was getting a fresh new paint job when we arrived. We quickly gathered the rules, collected the keys, wifi codes, and towels, then headed upstairs and met a few of our new roommates for the next three nights. A couple who were there for a John Mayer concert, a solo traveler from Chicago, and one from the UK.
The Lads Go Mad In Amsterdam 
Britt and I headed straight out, not to waste another moment. First to Argentina’s Steakhouse, and then to the Red Light District. We purchased tickets to an evening show and then went to the Erotic Museum. A couple red wines, lots of shocking moments, and hours later we came out to a rainy evening. There wouldn’t be much more looking around, but on our way back we met a couple of guys from Wales, chatted with them for a bit and made it back a bit late, but safe and sound. We had a nice laugh this night after realizing neither one of us had any attraction to a white, especially blonde men, in a business suit.

 Rated XXX
XXX AMSTERDAM XXX
Wednesday, May 3rd – We headed out around 10:30 grabbed a delicious Panini before heading to the pre-paid time slot of our Anne Frank Huis tickets. The only thing we were advised to purchase beforehand, and I am glad we did. You could spend a whole day waiting in line, and if you came after 1PM, you may still not get it.

No pictures are allowed inside, which is sometimes nice when we forget to experience the present. A few moments really stuck out as remarkable to me, although now that I have actually read the book as an adult, I wish I could go see a few things again.

Much different from the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. or other places which focus on the Holocaust as a whole, this place was specific to Anne Frank, her life, hopes, ambitions, her journey through adolescence in hiding. It was fascinating to walk through Anne and her family's hideout huis, as well as it was interesting to experience walking around in the design of this type of European house, as you can well imagine nothing has been changed to the structure/layout since then. You walk through the rooms that were once used as the shop, the storage, and their hiding quarters. You can read bios on the people who helped to protect them, see a map of Jews in the area from 1941, hear the story of the neighbor girl who was the last known person to speak with Anne Frank at a concentration camp separated by a fence, and you can listen to her father's (only survivor from the house) testimonial after discovering Anne's diaries. I remember one thing Otto Frank said after reading Anne's words, he says: "And my conclusion is, as I had been in very, very, good terms with Anne, that most parents don't know, really, their children." 


When you have seen and walked through nearly every room, you finally make it to the place of her dairies. One specific one was on display and gawked at the longest. It was very moving to see her real handwriting and marks of the pen on the actual diary.  Yet my favorite, or the most moving part for me, was walking through Anne's old bedroom where still the walls are decorated with old magazine clippings that her father had given to her during hiding to help brighten up her room. She talks about this in her diary, and how grateful she was for them. Of course, I had read this after the visit, yet her words and details made me relive walking her bedroom. 

The tour ends in a room full of decades worth of others reflections, reactions, and life changing perspectives on Anne and her story. The best reminder was:
"Her would haves are our opportunities."


He just finished signing the painting I bought from him
on the streets just outside of Anne Frank's Huis.
Image may contain: outdoor
It was a pretty solemn mid-day after that, and I left feeling sadness, yet more hope than I had had in a long time. It was a place that afterwards, you wanted time to just be with your thoughts. So we bought a canal tour, boarded, and spent the next hour or so just viewing Amsterdam from one of the better seats in the city.  The one down side to this was the guide was spitting out the most interesting facts I had yet to hear of the history of Amsterdam, from its houses, to tulips, to ice skating and bikes, and my mind was some place else. A few things I do remember learning, the houses on the canal streets are historical and not allowed to be changed at all, even in color. There are furniture hooks above the windows since the houses were designed so deep and narrow that's how furniture would have to be brought inside. The tax paid on your house back then was based off of how much street space the front of your building took. Brittany was patience enough with me to hunt down the house with the most and the least amount of street space in the city. 


Holland is the largest distributor of their world famous tulips, yet they originally came from Turkey. 
The popularity of bicycling came from Denmark and people used to ice skate in the winters in the frozen canals.  

  We ended the day at the Pancake Bakery where we had some strawberry pancakes. Walked through the streets, stopping to window shop, and had our sixth of a dozen mint teas. 

Remembrance Day, Thursday, May 4, 2017

Thursday, May 4th, Remembrance Day
At 8PM the Dutch commemorate civilians and soldiers who have died both in war and peacekeeping missions since the outbreak of WWII with a two minute moment of silence. During the day, there are commemorative speeches and laying of wreaths at the National Monument at Dam Square.
VAN GOGH 
To start the day, we spent four hours at the Van Gogh Museum.  I learned that he had committed himself to an asylum earlier in life, I read about his studies and works in Paris and the Netherlands, I learned that he didn't begin painting until 27 and killed himself at 37 with a shot to the chest. Although he didn't die until two days later at an inn nearby the field he shot himself in. In the museum you could listen to letters he had written to his brother which showed his deep confusion on life and his love for painting fields, peasants, and nature, where the real meaning of life came through. I also learned that his brother's wife and son were the main factors to why his work has been recognized worldwide. The Starry Night was not in this exhibit, (it's in NYC) but we did get to see the Sunflowers and many other famous pieces. No pictures, of course.
We had some amazing steak fajitas and
 met some Taiwanese friends during dinner! 
This 'Aladdin' style coffeeshop is where we were at during the two minute moment of silence. 

In the evening, we took our last chance to visit the streets of the Red Light District where we had now learned that the woman rent their rooms for 150 Euro a night, and charge 50 Euro minimum for 15 minutes. While walking through the alleyways of the red glowing lights, you'll hear the tapping on the windows and catcalling of stag parties or lone men in sweatpants. We also heard a few lines we'll never forget, watched negotiations happening in the stoops, and witness countless sly smiles of men leaving a red room. Some of the ladies were smoking or on their cell phones or both, seemingly disinterested in passersby. Any type of woman under the sun could probably be found in these windows; young, old, thick, thin, tall, or tiny, fake curves or real, voluminous hair or a messy bun. The choice was yours, literally. 
Friday, May 5th, Liberation Day! 
We checked out and into our houseboat for the final two nights.
Such a peaceful, pain in the a** walk to this boat.

Friday was one of my favorite days in Amsterdam. We had been here for a full week now, and I finally felt like I knew my way around (for the most part). We took the tram to the flower market to see the tulip bulbs and shop around. Stopped at another cheese shop for tasters and purchases, found the cutest little Christmas shop that I spent a mini fortune at, and then we found  RembrandtPlein
Brittany & the Pup
After, we crossed over to Waterlooplein flea market. I only got a recycled scarf here, but they had much to look at. Clothes, crafts, jewelry, and antique memorabilia.

We had (another) amazing meal at Braumburg Cafe, -a touch of perfection in a cafe I swear- before heading to the Amsterdam Dungeon. After walking ALL over the city, this was the unexpected best way to end a Friday night. We had thought it would be more of a museum on the dark history of Amsterdam, back from its early port city days and pirates. But actually, they brought the stories to life with actors, scenery, sounds, and even individual participation from the group. I was elected 'poop girl' on the ship, and Brittany was 'burned at the stake' for being a witch. 
In the last room they told a tale of two sisters who were in love with the same man. One sister killed the other, the living sister was haunted by her ghost, and eventually killed the man and herself. Again, Brittany and I were the best chance of a good scream so we were used as the target audience. When the lights flashed off and back on, in an instance a woman in a long white gown stood inches away from us. We jumped with a piercing scream as the entire group roared in laughter, and in the next flash she was gone. It was awesome! 


Saturday, the final day, was the most beautiful blue sky, cool breeze, sunshiny day (or maybe I was just falling in love with the city). We started the day with an Amsterdam Omelette, fresh OJ, and a visit to St. Nicholas Church

We made our way to Dam Square, Magna Plaza, and Forever 21. ^^ 
Chandelier inside the Magna Plaza, built in 1895-99,
formally the main post office in Amsterdam.
XXX
Final sunset in Amsterdam
This trip was taken over two months ago (my last edit) and while much of it I wrote the week after returning, it has taken some time to finish it up and pick out the best pictures to capture my first trip to Europe. These two cities won me over, and I can't wait to return. Love to you & yours. x - K
" See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories."