......stories that endure......
Jenny's trip to Amsterdam
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.
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.
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
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
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!
15th April 2007
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...
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.
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
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.
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
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
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!
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.
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
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.
Rowley was thrilled with his chocolate breasts but we didn't hear what was inside them... filling, that is...
Saturday 21st April 2007
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.
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.
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.
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!