From Paris I decided to go soak up some Dutch culture so I ventured northward to experience Amsterdam. Aside from the famous red lights and hash houses, Amsterdam is a truly cosmopolitan city filled with canals and bicycles, and surrounded by lovely countryside farms and fishing villages. I stayed in the Grand Amrath Hotel which allowed for easy access to the entire city.
While the 800,000 residents of Amsterdam were busy peddling the 600,000 bicycles that are ubiquitous throughout the city, I chose to wander the streets and explored several of the many neighborhoods by foot including Chinatown, and Dam Square at the City Centre where I bought some new clothes at the high-end Walhalla shopping center. I got pleasantly lost in the Jordaan District, which is full of specialty shops, galleries, and brown pubs (local watering holes with cozy wooden interiors that make you feel like you’re in a neighborhood living room). Twice, while I was tucked away inside of little local dives, I was pleasantly surprised when spontaneous singing broke out! The locals were really enjoying their camaraderie and although I could not understand their traditional sounding melodies, the hearty sing-along was a fun spectacle to witness. I skipped the Van Gough museum, but took time to tour the Anne Frank House (from the 17th-19th centuries, Amsterdam was known as the “Jerusalem of the West”), the massive Heineken brewery, and hung out for a while in Leidseplein, an outdoor entertainment area filled with rides and concessions. I also came across yet another protest rally of some sort with a moderate police presence. It was all a bit confusing and I am still not sure what they were marching about.
I took a trip up to Zaanstad, where at one time, there were over 30,000 windmills. These fabulous windmills were built with a giant corkscrew inside and made to suck up water in order to make the land farmable. I toured the ”De Zoeker” working oil mill and watched as they were using the mill with a huge imported stone to crush and make linseed seed oil out of flax seeds. The owner stated that the windmill had been operated by his family for generations and that they had received their milling permit in 1672!
I then made my way along the “cheese route” through Edam to the major cheese hub factory in Volendam where famous Dutch cheeses are created and aged. This town, filled with meandering little streets, produced the original “cheese heads” who were so-named because of the large baskets of cheese they would carry on their heads as they walked through the marshes.
I next took a fun boat ride to North Holland where the people live in quaint cottages that are hundreds of years old and which can only be found by burrowing deep into a maze of narrow alleyways. This was also home to Dutch chocolate country, giant sheep, and houses with pyramid-shaped thatched roofs. I puttered around the sleepy fishing village of Volendam where I met a fellow traveler, an Egyptian detective, who was on a solo vacation. We made our way to Marken, and visited a local traditional clog maker at a small wooden shoe factory, where shoes are made from willow or poplar and come in all sizes and colors. We had lunch at Café De Visscher, one of the many local, quality fish restaurants, where I had an incredible smoked eel sandwich before checking out the lively and busy harbor.
Amsterdam! Welkom en Veel Plezier! (Welcome and have fun).
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