Next stop, Amsterdam Centraal!
No, that’s not a typo… things are just spelled a little differently in Dutch. Anyway, we traveled from Paris northeast to Amsterdam by train, and the central station is obviously the main one in the city. With Amsterdam being such an expensive city to stay in, we stayed just to the west of the city and traveled in each day to this station. Save money, and in the city center in 5 minutes. Works for me. In case you don’t know, Amsterdam is a city that should technically be underwater. It is actually below sea level, and there are several dykes (dijks in Dutch) used to keep the water at bay. Not only that, the city became a huge trading hub once shipping became popular some 500 years ago. The Dutch East India Trading company grew out of The Netherlands’ seafaring exploits, and during their Golden Age had many overseas interests, and Amsterdam grew immensely as a result. This growth also led to come great art and architecture. But with a city already built on ground borrowed from the sea, and swampy marshland all around, where would the city expand to?
The answer was the very thing that gave the city it’s name. To grow the city and get fresh water to new inhabitants, the powers that be decided to dam the Amstel River. They put up an Amsteler Dam. Amsterdam. The flow of water from the dammed river was fed into several man made canals created in a U shaped pattern surrounding the city’s center. Since houses during this area were built from stone, they would naturally sink into the marshy ground. To prevent this, 30 meter deep wooden poles were driven through the marsh into the solid sand bed below, and tall, skinny stone buildings were built with the wood poles as their foundation. For the most part, it’s worked surprisingly well over the years. A lot of engineering for one city! Another thing that makes Amsterdam so neat is in the way most people get around. Without a doubt, Amsterdam is a city of bikes. Most locals learn how to ride at a very early age and the city is very well equipped for bikes, with a plethora of bike lines, signage, and traffic lights all designed to accommodate all the bike traffic right along with cars and people. In most cases bikes get the right of way! Because of all this, there are bikes literally everywhere in the city. In fact, there are far more bikes than people! How does that even work? Authorities even pull some 60,000 bikes out of the canals each year. I wonder what happened to their owners? In actuality, most of these are thrown into the canals by hooligans. As a result of this, you won’t find an expensive bike in the city.
A sea of bikes
As I mentioned earlier, the buildings are all tall and skinny, and all of them are beautiful. Since they are so tall and skinny, more or less each of them have a hook on top that’s been used for centuries (and still used today) for hoisting things to the upper floors. Sure beats carrying things up those stairs! Some of the houses have a bit of a lean to them, probably a result of those wood poles starting to rot. This makes for some really unique houses!
Dancing (leaning) houses
All these unique features make Amsterdam an incredible city to visit and see. Other cities have rivers and even canals, but none of them are like Amsterdam. On our first day here we pretty much just wandered the city, through the winding streets, crossing bridges, watching boats, dodging trams and all those bikes. Our eyes didn’t know where to look, as there was something neat in every direction! We did visit the royal palace in the afternoon, which is not lived in often but is still a residence of the royal family. Upgraded to a palace from a town hall by the brother of Napoléon himself, it offers a stunning array of rooms, paintings, and sculptures to gawk at.
This is Amsterdam!
The Royal Palace
Inside the palace
One of the places we really wanted to visit was the Anne Frank house. After visiting the location the day before, we discovered that we had to log in to the website for the Anne Frank house early in the morning and join a queue to try and get tickets. Since it is just a small building, a very limited number of tickets are sold each day, and they have to be purchased online. Luckily we were able to procure tickets at noon, and then went out to begin our day. If you aren’t familiar with her, Anne Frank’s story is a tragic tale about Jewish persecution during World War II. The house we went inside shows where she and her family hid for two years before finally being discovered by the Nazis. No photos are allowed inside the building out of respect for the family, but being there is an unforgettable, unsettling reminder of the horrors of the past. It is a story no one should ever forget.
The Anne Frank House
We spent the rest of the afternoon pondering life while we strolled through one of Amsterdam’s bigger parks, and Ethan had some fun playing on the playground. Later that evening, we decided to see the city from yet another angle – in the water. We grabbed an hour long trip through the canals on a smaller, open roof boat. We got to hear some interesting commentary as our driver maneuvered through even some of the smallest canals and under very low bridges. This was a relaxing and entertaining way to wind down the day.
Cruising the canals
Watch your head!
Somewhat unintentionally, we spent pretty much our entire last day in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum, which is home to a huge collection of Dutch art from the 1100’s to present time. It includes works from van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and a bunch of other Dutch artists I am not familiar with. We only planned to spend a few hours there but time got away from us wandering the halls. I’m not even that big into art, but these works really are spectacular. The only break we took was for lunch, where Catherine and I each had an Amsterdam special, raw herring with pickles and onions on a bun, and Ethan got a massive hot dog that he polished off. The herring doesn’t sound appetizing, but it wasn’t too bad. I don’t think I’d order it again though!
Raw herring sandwich
We wandered the streets one last time before leaving, reflecting on just how beautiful of a city Amsterdam really is. With so much history and a city that you can photograph from any angle, I definitely don’t feel like we spent enough time here. Guess we’ll just have to come back to Europe some day… what a bummer! Little did we know that our next city would be just as beautiful… so stay tuned for more!