My first trip to Amsterdam was more than 20 years ago, when my wife (then girlfriend) and I toured Europe after our military service. I have been to Amsterdam several times since, but always on business. A couple of weeks ago I was there on business again, but my son joined me and we stayed for three days in the city.
Amsterdam has not changed much from how I remembered it being two decades ago. More bicycles than people, a lot of water, regular and non-regular coffee shops and friendly, English-speaking Dutch people. The city was more orange than usual due to the World Cup though.
We got into the city by train from the airport area and emerged into the wide, open area in front of the central station. Unfortunately, there were road works in progress, so much of the view was obstructed by makeshift walls. I quizzed my son about the facade of the central station, asking him if he remembered anything similar from the past. He failed to make the comparison with the replica facade at Tokyo station.
Amsterdam Central Station
Tokyo Central Station
At the central station we embarked on the unavoidable boat canal tour, which took us out to the harbour then back into the city through the Amstel river and many side canals. As the weather was warm and sunny, the canals were busy with boats packed with people enjoying food and wine.
The following day we rented bicycles to feel a little more local and pedalled around the city to take in the sights. We saw the Old Church and the surrounding red light district (which was packed with curious tourists; I have no idea how the ladies can plough their trade in this crowd). The museum quarter around Leidseplein provided a relaxing pause from the heat and commotion. The imposing “I Amsterdam” sign was a novelty I found a little out of place a few paces from the Van Gogh museum and overlooking the Rijksmuseum:
Vandel Park provided another quiet island, where we could pedal around unhindered by cars, trams and motorcycles. I always thought the SMART was the smallest urban car around, but we saw several of these tiny cars – with, amazingly, two seats – that were not much larger than our bikes:
Tiny Car 1
Tiny Car 2
We were lucky that we were in Amsterdam for one of Holland’s matches (against Cameroon). Heeding the advice of some friends, we avoided the city centre during the match and instead walked around the gentrified Jordaan neighbourhood to search for a place to watch the game. We settled on a relatively quiet Mexican Taco joint instead of cramming into one of the over-crowded bars:
Jordaan Bar During a Game
The next morning we walked around the Begijnhof, one of the medieval enclosed courtyards that used to house a community of the beguines, Catholic women. One of the houses in this courtyard is apparently the oldest house in Amsterdam.
To avoid the long queues, we visited the Anne Frank house just before Shabbat, which in Amsterdam in the summer does not begin before 9:30PM (and ends after 11PM!). The house on Prisengracht – where the Frank family and others hid for more than two years before being betrayed and handed to the Nazis and where 13-year-old Anne wrote her diary – is still Amsterdams’ most visited site. The museum was modernised since I saw it last, and it was as moving as I remembered it. No pictures are allowed inside the house.
For shabbat services we went to the old Portuguese Synagogue. This monumental building was erected in the 17th century by the local Jewish community of Portuguese origin. These Jews were originally expelled from Spain in 1492 and fled to Portugal, where many were forcibly baptised. The most (in)famous member of this Dutch Portuguese Jewish community was the Baruch Spinoza (side note: a good book about Spinoza is Rebecca Goldstein’s “Betraying Spinoza”). Till this day, the building remains as it was, with no electricity or central heating; light is provided by thousands of candles scattered along the benches and in huge hanging chandeliers. Most of the Jews in Amsterdam today live in the south of the city, so there were very few people at the synagogue.
When I booked our hotel I didn’t know it was a famous place (it appears in the “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”). It is indeed an intriguing place, as it was built by joining a few existing buildings together. Because of the difference in architecture and levels, the hotel is a veritable maze, with many nooks and crannies.
Before flying out on Sunday, we strolled around the flower market, where one can get stocked up on cannabis seeds of various shapes and colours (the “white widow” one doesn’t sound too safe, if you ask me; not that I would know):
We went early to the airport, so we could watch England being humiliated by Germany. It seemed like most people around us were actually supporting England (I guess this has something to do with the Dutch-German rivalry), so we kept our cheering to a minimum level, even though our satisfaction level was considerably high.
All in all, a most pleasant few days in a very pleasant city.