......stories that endure......



Helen and Jenny's trip to Amsterdam
and Tulip Cruise on MS Amadagio


Friday 13th April 2007

I love this city! My first impression - and everyone else's - is of hundreds of canals criss-crossing the city like a spiderweb, then of bicycles - bicycles for one, a rider and two children or a dog, and groceries, women riding with very erect posture, young girls with mobile phones glued to their ears. They're lethal because they swoop down on you so silently from the wrong direction and they have right of way even over red lights. But what a relief to walk without endless cars around. They're here of course but seemingly in the background as the 600,000 bicycles dominate. The trams are good, 4 compartment behemoths with lo and behold, a conductor sitting in the middle to take your money or stamp your ticket strip.

Once Jenny arrived from San Francisco and we'd had a cup of tea we set out in the tram to find the floating flower market, which we managed easily thanks to good directions from a man in the hotel gift shop. After a little diversion into a Delftware shop where I bought a necklace we found the flower market which is full of the most incredible flowers and bulbs especially the amaryllis which are the size of soccer balls and come in amazing shades of red, pink, white and striped and stand 6 feet high.

floating flower market

cannabis for sale

floating flower market


amaryllis for sale


Jenny was very tempted as they will ship to the US but it's no good for Australia: I can only lust after them. What an amazing variety of bulbs, plants and seeds, things we never see. Like strawberry spinach which has young green edible leaves and later bears sweet fruit. Then there's all the bonsai and plants beautifully presented for the tourist market. We went into a cafe for tea and poffertjes, which are little fat pancakes the size of a 50c piece - OK but a bit stodgy.


It was a spring day and the natives seemed to be unfolding their petals and enjoying the weather - or pehaps they're always happy and unstressed in this city. All except the young man whose bicycle taxi we hired to take us to Central Station: we deliberately picked a nice strong-looking one but he was red and puffed by the time he'd pedalled us up the hill to the station.

exhausted pedicab driver

We took a canal cruise Red Line around the Prinzengracht (Princes Canal) and it was so nice and relaxing that we stayed on the boat and went on the Green Line, enjoying the glide past houseboats moored in the canals and the tall canal houses that seem to lean forward. It's not just an illusion: they've actually been built that way so that furniture can be hauled up the outside from a beam on the gable and not hit the front of the house. 4 storeys is the maximum height allowed so it makes for a very pleasant and cohesive look.


houses lining the canals

bicycles everywhere
bicycle parking
With so many bicycles, the difficulty comes when you have to leave them somewhere, so there is a huge bike park near the Central Station for 3000 bikes. However - the guides told us that bicycles are constantly being stolen which is why they are not particularly flash, and it's a Saturday hobby to go to the flea markets in search of your next bike: with any luck you can buy back the one that one that was stolen last week!

Our hotel is the Hilton, famous for being where John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent a week-in-bed-for-peace on their honeymoon. Their suite is available for rent at a vastly higher tariff but we were happy with our room and the Fish Market dinner in the restaurant with very fresh fish. It's out in the suburbs but with the tram service so excellent it didn't matter at all.

Saturday 14th April 2007
Back on the tram and the canal cruise again, because we had picked several things to look at more closely - not the Anne Frank House which is a must-do for most people and had a long queue snaking around the block - but the Tulip Museum, the Houseboat Museum and the Kat Kabinett (Cat Museum). However we saw a street market from the tram and hopped off for a closer look - hundreds of stalls selling everything from fish to cheese to second-hand bicycles. I wanted to buy a travel-size hair product and was very touched when the shop-lady gave it to me: people are so nice! The Tulip Museum was more of a Tulip Shop with exquisite tulip-themed merchandise but the Houseboat Museum was the real thing moored in the canal and furnished as they lived there about 100 years ago: it must have been cold judging by the pot-belly stoves and cuddly-looking bunk beds.

houseboat museum

Jenny on houseboat

Helen on houseboat

Lunch was at a restaurant in Rembrandt Square, a great place for people watching with a huge statue of the great man himself brooding over the square and large bronze figures from his famous painting The Night Watchman below, then just a short walk around the corner to the Cat Museum which is listed in the guidebook under 'Quirky Amsterdam'. On the way we encountered some singing British lager louts all dressed alike in pink t-shirts and filling the narrow road - fortunately it was early in the day and they were still happy! Even stranger were two party bikes - five men facing another five and all pedalling like mad with a beer keg on the front, then when they went around a corner only half pedalled. They too were singing... well it is a happy town...

The Kat Kabinett is gorgeous! It is in a canal house on the exclusive Herengracht (Gentleman's Canal) and was bequeathed to the city by a lady in memory of her cat John Pierpont Morgan. You ring the bell and are admitted into a cool dark narrow house furnished with cat art - French posters, statues, paintings, Chinese embroidery, porcelain, carvings, an amazing array - and us the only visitors. In quite a large garden at the back we saw an actual cat daintily walking amongst the parterre hedges and met him later sitting in state on a sofa in the reception room. Not sure if it was JP himself or not, but as Jenny said, it was a wonderful way to look inside a canal house and admire the richness of how they lived.

Jenny went back to the hotel for a nap while I set out to find an internet cafe - successfully - and wrestle with the fact that my blogger is now all in Dutch and so are all the instructions, which is why it looked rather strange until I could sort it into English.

For dinner we'd had the concierge book us into an Indonesian restaurant and here I saw the power of tipping. Jenny is a generous tipper on the principle that most women aren't and it's up to her to redress the balance so she tipped the hotel doorman - with the result that when a taxi arrived we went straight into it ahead of 4 people waiting to go to the airport. Not that it did us much good as we both loathed that taxi ride with a horrible aggressive driver braking behind bikes with millimetres to spare. The restaurant was traditional Indonesian and we ordered ricetable which is lots of little dishes sitting over candles to keep them warm, mild for me and stronger for Jenny who has a much higher chili tolerance. It was very tasty and the service was excellent. But we took the tram back to the hotel, because it's light until 9 pm and the city feels very safe unless you're in a taxi.

Sunday 15th April 2007
Just time to fit in the Rijksmusem before boarding the boat this afternoon for our cruise. There are long lines due to security x-raying every bag but eventually we are in to what is a very abbreviated museum as it undergoing substantial re-furbishing which will take five years. All the favourite Old Dutch Masters are represented including of course The Night Watch, some amazing silver landscapes and most stunning - 2 huge wooden wardrobes covered in flower marquetry.

Museum Square
Outside Museumplein (Museum Square) was filling up with family picnic parties, bare-chested youths playing soccer and lots of bicyclists.

The guide book says that in 2006 when the Netherlands was to play Germany in the World Cup a t-shirt was produced saying 'Give us back our bicycles' - a reference to the historical fact that as the Allies were approaching Amsterdam in 1945 the Germans stole every bike they could and rode back to Germany. It's still remembered, not fondly!

An interesting feature of Amsterdam is the Coffee Houses - which we investigated only from the outside - of course. There are 250 of them in Amsterdam with names like Cheech and Chong or Serenity and they legally sell coffee and marijuanha to people over 18. They don't look like dens of iniquity, just a rather smoky room with security around the entrance. I was also taken by specialty shops selling mosquito nets in every possible bright and pretty colour and realised that with so much water - 60 miles of canal in Old Amsterdam alone - mosquitoes are going to be a hazard. Not to mention that the 2,500 houseboats empty their sewage directly into the canals which are then flushed with fresh water three or four tims a week. No wonder no-one is swimming in the canals even though the temperature is an unusually warm 25'C!

You may be wondering when we are going to the Red Light District: answer - next week!

Sunday 15th April 2007
Amsterdam (the Netherlands)

Our taxi ride to Amsterdam Harbour to meet the boat was much less exciting than the previous night's and we and our luggage made the transition successfully.

The cruise boat MS Amadagio was built in 2006 in Holland, is 100 metres long and 11.5m wide, carrying 41 crew and 140 passengers - 134 of them are American and 6 are Australian or New Zealand (Jenny counts as Australian). We're mixing with the others, but tend to get together with the Antipodeans - Alice and Bob from Sydney and Sue and Rowley from New Zealand - for relaxation... Our cabin is small but adequate with ensuite bathroom and an amazing shower with buttons and extra shower heads in odd places. Best of all is our very own computer in the room which doubles as a TV and DVD player - but there's not time to use all the facilities as lots of tours and activities are on offer. The only flaw so far is that the obliging Hungarian hotel staff have no idea of how to make tea and bring you a glass of hot water with a teabag on the side, a strange brand of the variety 'Early Grey' which is like drinking warm creosote.

It is very warm and the airconditioning in the lounge is on the blink which made life very hard for the group of Dutch dancers who came to give us a demonstration in their heavy woollen national costumes. (They're not allowed to wear clogs as it ruins the parquet floor.) They were good and very nice people, elderly though: I guess the young ones don't want to do it...

Monday 16th April 2007
Volendam & Edam (the Netherlands)

Straight after breakfast we were shepherded onto 4 buses and sent off on a tour of Amsterdam: we got the yellow bus and a very nice Dutch guide called Marthe who could make jokes in English and walked around carrying a yellow lollipop for us to follow. It was interesting to get a commentary on places we had seen from the tram and be taken to other places we hadn't seen, then into a boat for yet another canal cruise - which is our favourite thing to do - and wave fondly to the Kat Kabinett. Jenny and I are now officially Yellow Group and destined to remain so for the rest of the tour.

Volendam from the boat
During lunch - four courses - we set off north through the a lock to the Ijsselmeer, formerly the Zuiderzee before it was closed off from the North Sea, to Volendam which is a picturesque fishing village. It was all incredibly flat and watery with the horizon merging sea and sky and seeming to go on forever.  

25 of us elected to take bicycles and ride to Edam where the cheese comes from. The bikes are new and in good repair but novices like me have to concentrate hard riding over cobbled streets and on top of the narrow dyke that keeps the Ijsselmeer out of the town. Someone commented on all the sheep and cows we'd seen but all I saw was the water on one side and the person in front of me...

Edam is picture-book perfect with narrow cobbled streets, hump-backed bridges and pretty houses with sparkling clean windows. The official story is that Edam's housewives pride themselves on cleanliness and wash their windows at least once a week. Curtains are always open because they have nothing to hide. A cheese-tasting has been arranged for us, a nice nutty sweet Edam, but the local guides won't touch it: "We only eat Gouda". Alice can't have had her glasses on because I heard her commenting into her camcorder "here are trays of grapefruit" to a tray of yellow cheeses. Jenny was inspired and bought a dear little teapot with a windmill on the side and a packet of English Breakfast teabags. The bicycle ride back to the boat was hair-raising as it was on roads with actual TRAFFIC and us with no helmets but we all made it, even the person whose pedal dropped off as she crossed a busy road. Bicycles have right-of-way but I don't believe it in my bones.

Helen riding to Edam

town centre, Edam

cheese at Edam

The boat turned around after Volendam and headed back towards Amsterdam, not that anyone noticed much as we were all busy with dinner - 5 courses - and a music quiz. We took our teapot into dinner and instructed the waiter about pouring BOILING water onto the teabags: no doubt gaining a reputation for eccentricity but too bad. Dinner comes with wines included (other drinks are put on the bill) so it was a lively group that assembled in the lounge to hear the ship's pianist play little snippets of music that we had to identify. Our group was merely average with 12 right out of 20 but the pianist is good and I'm looking forward to hearing more from him. It's restful going to sleep in a moving ship which is very stable: at dinner the wines barely moved in the glass.

Tueday 17th April 207
Arnhem and Oosterbeek (the Netherlands)

We awoke to find the boat moored on the Lower Rhine River at Arnheim close to the John Frost Bridge which was the object of a famous Allied battle in WW2 as portrayed in the film A Bridge Too Far. The operation was a horrible failure with Montgomery failing to listen to the local Resistance, supplies and ammunition being neatly parachuted to the enemy and only 2,800 survivors from 10,000 British and Canadian troops. We got into our designated buses and drove 50 metres to a photo spot for the famous bridge where most of us photographed the very pretty plantings of orange tulips with an understory of pale blue forget-me-nots. More interesting was a black-and-white painted barge which is a 'drug ship' - somewhere for addicts to go for treatment.

I have a deep objection to too much military history - what I call Luftwaffe - but had to suppress it at Oosterbeek which is a cemetery out in the forest for the killed soldiers, a lovely calm place cared for by the local school children then on into the village to the Airborne Museum in an old house which was the headquarters for this mission, dubbed "Market Garden". They showed us a film of the battle and let us loose in the museum which is full of dioramas of young men in battle scenes.

"A Bridge Too Far"

war cemetery

azaleas at Airborne Museum

Back at the boat we farewelled Marthe with a tip: she was worth it being full of information and funny. Jenny and I missed the cruise director's talk in the afternoon and the trip to the wheel-house (shame!) as we were fast asleep but were refreshed and ready to tackle dinner and a nasty quiz in the lounge afterwards. We were better than average this time with 18 out of 20 but bombed out on this curly one: 'How far can a dog run into the woods?' Jenny put "until he drops dead" but you already know the answer: "half-way - because after that he's running out of the woods."

Wednesday 18th April 2007
Antwerp (Belgium)

The boat arrived in Antwerp at 3am but so smooth is the ship that hardly anyone noticed. It tied up at a wharf very closed to the centre of town and we met our new Yellow guide Matthieu on the quay - he was the one with long hair holding the yellow lollipop - and turned out to be a very funny guy. 'Come along, all my little yellow chickies' he would say and we'd dutifully tag along behind him. The guides have a wonderful audio system called the Vox System where they talk into speakers and we are wearing a Vox Box and head-phones and can hear his every word - I was the only one that laughed when he sneezed into it. There was a bicycle race about to start so the main square was barricaded off although very few people were around so early. There are some magnificent mediaeval buildings still standing including Steen Castle, the Butchers' Guild House built in the bacon style of architecture - no joke intended as it is in alternating layers of red and white bricks. "Watch out for the little piggy" says Matthieu as a small child trots by our group. We traipsed by the huge cathedral and the statue of Rubens then crossed Big Market Square and dived into a tiny narrow street, followed by a herd of Japanese tourists similarly following their guide's umbrella.

Steen Castle Antwerp

town square Antwerp

These guides give a lot of facts, dates and figures but the only things I can remember relate to food: there are 3000 cafes and 3000 restaurants in Antwerp, most people live in small apartments so spend a lot of time eating out. Chocolate is the most important food - it's a food group all on its own, being an anti-oxidant, anti-depressant and aphrodisiac. Swiss chocolate is too sweet, French is too bitter and Belgian is JUST RIGHT. There are 800 beers in the whole of Belgium, 270 of them brewed in Antwerp, and each has to be served in its own distinctive glass. Brussel sprouts are in there somewhere too but you don't see tourists buying them to take home.

After Matthieu had finished we disappeared into a cafe with Alice and Bob for Bob to try some beers and us to have hot chocolates. He enjoyed his Devil's Beer ("it feels as if a flight of angels has landed on your tongue" says the advertising but I think that would be more appropriate for the hot chocolate.) I bought cherry beer (5.4% alcohol) to have during happy hour and liked it: it's neither sweet nor bitter and quite cherry tasting. Bob found a pub during the afternoon that sold 5 different beers for 12 Euros and enjoyed trying them all. Then we decided we had to buy a present for Rowley the New Zealander who is having a birthday on Friday. I'd seen chocolate penises in Amsterdam which sounded like fun and the cafe owner directed us to "Swiet and Seiksie" - say it to get what it is... What it is is a shop full of erotic sweets... Chocolate penises were judged too tacky so we bought chocolate breasts and had them wrapped in breasty gift-wrap.

There was an optional bus trip to Brussels during the afternoon but we declined, a good decision as it turned out because they were held up in rush-hour traffic and didn't get back till after 7pm. I went on the bus tour to the diamond centre, which is Antwerp's major industry, and didn't like that much either. It was a 15 minute talk about how diamonds are cut and a 45 minute look around their showroom where nothing was priced under 1000 Euros. I should have stayed on the boat and caught up with the blog, but happy hour was nice with the cherry beer, most of the passengers away and the pianist playing just for us.

After dinner the crew produced a show for the passengers which was fun - a few skits and mimes - talent wasn't a necessity. Things can't be too long as we all fall asleep!

Thursday 19th April 2007
Ghent and Brugge (Belgium)

The boat had to dock away from the centre of Ghent so there were buses to take us into the town centre and yet another Yellow guide, this time Miriam. Miriam doesn't like the lollipop system and relied on her yellow coat, but with Japanese tourists for competition we soon began to appreciate the lollipops. She had an endless flow of history facts which washed over everyone - they were too busy complaining we walked too fast and the cobblestones were difficult.

The cathedral looks sombre and forbidding outside but inside it's full of beautiful works of art and little side-chapels for very rich families and powerful guilds. We followed Miriam's coat on a walk along the river, past the old fish-market and through to the Castle of the Counts. Our cruise-director had said there was no shopping but he was wrong - the shops were full of tempting and interesting things. In our tiny bit of free time Alice and I set out to have a hot chocolate and a loo stop but found the shops far too interesting with different non-touristy goods and pretty fashions for size 8s. I bought bags and Alice toenail clippers and a bag. You can always tell an avid shopper: she's the one with her legs crossed!

Ghent skyline

inside Ghent cathedral

Ghent canal

The afternoon trip to Brugge was promised to be a charming, beautiful, magical high-light. And it was! It's a mediaeval village in wonderful repair with 120,000 inhabitants, only industry tourism. Miriam waffled on about the history, none of which I heard as I was too busy just gazing aound in awe at the beautiful old houses interspersed with canals. We wandered around the cobbled streets, over little hump-backed bridges and into the cathedral where there is an original statue by Michelangelo.

Brugge across the lake

nesting swans

Sue, Bob & Jenny at Brugge

In our free half-hour the Down-Unders had hot chocolate and beer ("it's too warm for hot chocolate!" said the waiter who seemed genuinely shocked. It's been marvellous weather, warm and sunny but not too hot and no rain - in a country that has 200 days of rain per year...) Jenny and I had a Belgian waffle between us, I bought some Tin-Tin socks and we pottered in and out of very nice shops. Belgium seems to have different and interesting shops - I just wish there was more time to look at them but we had a 5 o'clock appointment in the square with Miriam and her yellow lollipop for a canal-boat ride - charming and magical.

huge delicious waffle

canal ride Brugge

"all the yellow chickies"

We were taken to an artisan chocolate maker and I bought a block for David. The big chocolate maker in Belgium is Neuhaus who was originally a pharmacist who tried to make tablets more palatable for his customers by coating them with chocolate. This was so successful that everyone was over-dosing on their medication so he gave up pharmacy and went into chocolate-making - to the world's gain!

The streets were very crowded with tourists we thought, but no - Miriam said it's almost empty so I don't think Brugge would be as enjoyable at the height of the season. As it was one of our group almost got run over by a bicyclist and when another of our group remonstrated with the young man he went troppo - well they both did - like two rutting deer. Our brave cruise director John tore them apart but it was touch and go for a moment and gave us a scrap of drama to talk about over dinner.

Miscalculation: Rowley's birthday cake turned up a day early so we sang the song and ate the cake anyway - will save the chocolate breasts for tomorrow on the actual day.

Two violinists and a guitarist called La Strada played for us after dinner in the lounge and were excellent - classical and gypsy music played with energy and passion.

Friday 20th April 2007
Willemstad and Dordrecht (the Netherlands)

Willemstad is a neat fishing village, entirely surrounded by a high dyke - and no jokes allowed about sticking your fingers in holes: the guides were very dismissive of that story. Prince Maurice was influential here and built himself a palace which is now the town information centre.

Maurietzhaus Willemstad

Jenny & Helen at Willemstad

gardens at Willemstad

We were promised an organ recital in the protestant church which is a strangely elaborate building, circular with a very high roof so it's like sitting in the bottom of an egg. The Down-Unders climbed into the gallery so we were a quarter of the way up the egg which proved to be a good place for Alice and me to sing along during The Holy City: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your voice and sing". Schoolgirl choristers don't fade away, they go on singing.

organ recital

Alice and I rushed out at the end to be first back to the boat to get bikes so we could ride right around the town on top of the dyke, but no need for haste, only about six of us did it. It was a terrific photo opportunity as everything was so picturesque - and we saw our first windmill!

The afternoon was super-windmill time: during lunch the boat cruised to Dordrecht where the buses met us and took us to Kinderdijk where there is a concentration of windmills that were built to pump water out of the low-lying areas and turn them into productive farmland. They're just for tourists now with one or two working and the rest turned into holiday homes with elaborate thatched roofs and the sails anchored so they don't turn. Strange thing: seen one windmill you've seen them all and the families of ducks in the canals got just as much attention from the tourists as the windmills. It's been a good year for ducks with about 12 ducklings per family.

working windmills

windmills to live in

Rowley was thrilled with his chocolate breasts but we didn't hear what was inside them... filling, that is...

Saturday 21st April 2007
Utrecht, Keukenhof, Amsterdam (the Netherlands)

At last! Tulip Day! We were up bright and early to get to Keukenhof Gardens at 9 am soon after the gates open and then, as instructed, walk briskly to the back to climb the windmill for premium photos. The gardens are only open for 2 months because they are a show-case for 45 nurseries to exhibit their spring bulbs, particularly tulips, and in that time around 700,000 visitors come. The advice to go straight to the windmill was good because from you there's a wonderful view of the garden and of next-door's fields of tulips all laid out in straight lines. These are sold for bulbs and as soon as they come into flower have their heads cut off.

By the time we descended from the windmill a line was forming and I noticed later it was a long line snaking around the flower beds. This was the premium day being smack in the middle of tulip season and in the afternoon was the big Flower Parade with decorated floats and queens. We could have stayed to see it but would have had to battle crowds and make our own way back to Amsterdam.

tulip fields from the windmill



I have never seen such gorgeous displays of bulbs! Early flowerers had been cut back so that every bed looked perfect - thickly planted in amazing colour schemes like purple and orange that actually work here.


Then inside the pavilions the nurseymen really let their hair down with stunning arrays of decorative plants in every colour - I was particularly taken with the orchids that look like pansies, and Jenny remains faithful to the amaryllis which were 10 feet high, absolutely amazing! The in thing in floral arrangements this year seems to be stick your compost heap in the vase - all sorts of twigs and brownery running in every direction: don't think I like it really, it's certainly not restful, especially as some flowers are upside down.



flower arranging


Our cruise organisers were right: we'd had enough by 12 o'clock - tulipped out - and ready for an Amadagio lunch and a nice cup of tea from our little pot. Saturday afternoon was free time so I went into Amsterdam city to buy another bag and had such a search through the crowded winding lanes to find the shop, which I finally did, having nearly given up hope. Saturday afternoon must be a big shopping day as it was shoulder-to-shoulder around the main plaza where there is a fun fair and mega-noise.

The Down-Unders
or Kwaussies:

Helen, Sue, Bob,
Rowley, Alice, Jenny
and The Teapot

and special dessert
for farewell dinner.

Then after dinner, Alice, Rowley and I joined the group going to the Red Light District with strict instructions to keep an eye on each other... 48 of us went under the guidance of the cruise director who does it regularly - as a guide, he was quick to point out. No cameras allowed and no lollipop to follow which made it rather difficult with such a large group. The Kwaussies were appointed to bring up the rear and keep the stragglers together: we had our work cut out, particularly as one 76-year-old Canadian man in a flat cloth cap kept getting left behind. He was positive that he just couldn't walk fast enough but I don't know...

John knew where to go and soon we were over a hump-backed bridge and walking alongside a canal with rooms either side containing the "working girls". They sit or stand in a dimly lighted room with a glass door and the moment a punter makes a motion, they've opened the door, dragged him in and pulled the curtains over. I was struck by how young and pretty the girls are, often with fluorescent bikinis which seem to float in the darkened room. Business wasn't brisk and apparently it doesn't really get going till after midnight, but a few bold spirits were being pushed in by their mates to the accompaniment of loud jeers.

Further back off the main drag the girls were older and not so pretty or not girls at all as we saw in the transvestite street. There are pissoirs set up right out in the open which are removed every morning and replaced at night. We saw the PIC - Prostitute Information Centre - where the girls go for advice about setting up a room and help with their tax. Many of them are from Eastern European countries and come here as a job opportunity: there are no pimps, they get help with the business side of things and monthly medical checks. The Dutch certainly have the practical side of life under control!

We returned to the boat with our original 48 - thanks to hard work from the sheep dogs at the back!