There's something about Amsterdam - Part I
Trip Start May 31, 2006
170Trip End Ongoing
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We could tell as soon as we landed. Airport personel smiled when we walked passed and bid 'alstublieft' when we were given our passports back or when we requested information at the tourist counter. We were given clear and concise instructions (someone even took the time to write it all down on paper) on which buses and trams to take into the city center, and where our hotel was.
Once we found the appropriate bus, the seemingly thick shroud of clouds we had seen over Amsterdam when we were descending was now breaking apart, and a warm summer sun was beating down hard. We enjoyed the bright Holland countryside on the way into the city: endless canals and pastures; the land flat all the way to the far horizon.
Once in the Old Town district of Amsterdam we were taken aback by the silent residential streets, populated only by the old town houses and the occasional lone cyclist. And everywhere you looked there was a green element: pine trees, shrubs, climbing vines and creepers, pots and bowls of flowers. We walked by shop selling the dollhouse-like handcrafts related to the art of drinking tea: flowered cups, kettles, pots, tiny hand painted tables, baskets, colored tea bag holders and tea pot coasters.
There's something about Amsterdam. And it wasn't until we checked into our hotel and walked into the heart of the Old Town that we saw its full magic. The noon sun was strong and bright, and since this was the first cleared blue day in a long while, everyone was out in the streets. We walked though a market with sunny yellow canvases with tulip bulbs on display, small blue and white ceramic windmills, hand painted wooden clogs, colorful bags, hats and t-shirts. There was a stall selling weird sandwiches with the largest pickled gherkins we'd ever seen. Ed was intrigued so for €1.50 he got a semi-raw herring fillet and pickle sandwich. It didn't look too appealing, but it tasted like heaven.
By this time, Ed could no longer conceal his desperation to go to a coffee-shop. We found a bike-taxi and asked the driver to take us to a good coffee-shop, and for a €6 rip off, he did. The Bulldog was dark and musky, and except for the assortment of fresh fruits on display behind the bar, there was not much color. Here's an interesting Amsterdam anomaly: you can drink a fresh fruit juice, a cappuccino, a diet coke with lemon, and light up a joint but you will never find alcohol being sold in a coffee-shop. Also, never confuse a 'coffee-shop' with a 'coffee house' where they only sell coffee.
There was a weed sommelier on duty waiting to share his weed wisdom. His personal suggestions to us (and many other newbie tourists, I'm sure) was to "smoke till you drop". We didn't follow his advice although we did have a wee taste of the mild 'Thai Flowers' he eagerly suggested. (And before the parental unit gets all agitated, where it's legal it's ok)
Dazed and confused, we headed back out to the sunlit square in search for the Rijksmuseum. It was difficult to follow the map, but once we spotted the huge 19th century Gothic and Renaissance revival building, it was hard to lose our way. We had ice cream to cool off (otherwise known as the 'munchies') before we entered the museum and sat on a bench near a canal, watching the tiny boats float by.
Once inside we cruised by the Rembrandt's and the Vermeer's, the Hal's and the Steen's hanging dark and beautiful on the walls. Amsterdam's Golden Age in the 17th century made it the richest city in Europe, forging the heritage of art and architecture that we can enjoy today. Institutions and families made wealthy by the growing commerce, commissioned art works from the most popular Dutch painters of the time. The Flemish masters of this time were the envy of the art world when it came to color and expression. And as far as capturing a human sentiment, no one exceeded Rembrandt van Rjin. For bourgeois textures and light effects there was no one better than Johannes Vermeer. And for mirthful portraits reflecting the good times that rolled in Amsterdam during the Golden Age, was none other than Franz Hals.
From the Rijksmusem we crossed over to the edge of Vongelpark were kids in their undies were bathing in the big fountain, couples walking hand in had with big sun hats and sun shades, groups of elderly friends sitting under large umbrellas enjoying raspberry waffles and iced tea. We were standing in the heart of the Museum Quarter, in between the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum of modern Art, and the Van Gogh museum; the trinity of art.
But it was the Diamond Museum which caught our gaze. I remembered Amsterdam with my parents ages and ages ago, and I distinctly recalled a Diamond Museum. So in we went. Jews introduced the art of diamond cutting to Amsterdam in the 16th century, and today Amsterdam is the diamond-cutting capital of the world. Having watched the film 'Blood Diamond' just recently, we were anxious to see how the subject was treated within the museum.
Once inside, we were dazzled. "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" sung by Marilyn Monroe was played as we walked through the halls and chambers of rough diamonds, crowns, tiaras, scepters, brooches, necklaces, bangles and earrings. Some of the diamonds were bigger than avocado seeds! There was a section on engagement rings which enthusiastically I pointed out to Ed who pretended to be distracted with something else. A small area at the end of one of the diamond halls explained what blood or conflict diamonds were and told how very few of them are in circulation today thanks to the Kimberly Certification Scheme, which certifies the origin of the diamonds. I wondered how true this was, considering Dutch corporations where the ones buying all the conflict diamonds from war-torn countries before the issue exploded.
The final part of the museum had a computer interactive game where you could take a picture of yourself and drag life sized crowns and necklaces unto your head and neckline. I used the Tiara from the Imperial Treasury of Russia and the Queen of Holland necklace. Ed wanted to join in too so he chose the crown of Louis XV of France, the Golden laurel wreath of Napoleon I of France, and a Coster Collection diamond necklace. At the end we were able to email ourselves the finished photographs, so it made for a cool memento.
It was almost 5pm so we didn't have much time until the Van Gogh museum closed its doors at 6. We entered anyway, speeding through the rows and rows of paintings with their increasingly interesting explanations. It was like traveling through Van Gogh's troubled but talented life. The closure of the museum was announced at the precise moment I set eyes on a Van Gogh painting I had never seen, yet instantly fell in love with. It depicted the blossoming branches of an almond tree against a turquoise sky. Van Gogh painted it for Theo, his brother, and his newborn son, as a symbol of new life.
The sun was now hanging low, giving Amsterdam a warm fuzzy glow. We thought the temperature and the lighting would be perfect for a canal tour, so we hopped on the first tour boat we saw. Ed and I got the privileged back seats, on the very back of the barge. The tour took us to see the neighborhoods of Amsterdam. People everywhere were hanging out, having drinks in little tables under the sun, giggling and music, old bicycles leaned on the railings of the canals, and some sat dangling their bare feet over the edge, chatting and drinking out of beer cans.
The atmosphere was invincible. I was savoring it together with the fresh wind in my face and the afternoon glow on my lids. The buildings that characterize Amsterdam spread organically along the canals. They were the old residences of the wealthy Dutch merchants, lawyers, and politicians, with their large decorated windows and frames. And what sets apart Dutch architecture from all other are the infamous gable tops which escalate above the building, in different styles from classical to Gothic to Baroque. As far as the eye can see the gable tops stand above Amsterdam as a reminder of the opulence and wealth in previous centuries.
Soon the canal led us to open sea, or at least it looked like it. The sky had turned a silver tangerine and far away, the domes and steeples of Amsterdam's larger buildings were like huge hazy ghosts reigning over the skyline. It was a perfect ending to the hour-long canal ride, with the final moments of sunset over the water.
After an entire day, there was still something about Amsterdam. Not that we were desperately eager to find out what it was yet, because we still had an entire day (and two nights) to figure it out.