|Where's Marcela? Amsterdam|
Adventures in Amsterdam
Learn how to live like a local in Holland's capital city.
By Marcela Swenson
Having just spent three days in Berlin, my traveling group of seven was eager to see what Amsterdam had to offer. Eurail passes in hand, we boarded an ICE train and after six hours with one transfer we would be in Amsterdam. At least, that was the plan. But as all travelers know, things don't always go according to plan! Five hours into our trip, we pulled into a stop and a train attendant informed us that we would have to get off the train; we were at the final stop. Confused, we went to the ticketing counter to find out just where things had gone awry.
MISHAPS EN ROUTE TO AMSTERDAM
We pieced together the problem; sometime after we boarded our second train in Druisberg, about an hour outside of Amsterdam, the train split (as trains apparently do sometimes), one half headed for Amsterdam, the other headed in the opposite direction to Dortmund, Germany, where we now found ourselves. It was already 10pm, so trains were no longer running in the direction we needed to go, meaning we would have to wait until 2:45am to catch the first of four commuter trains which would eventually get us to Amsterdam at nine the next morning.
We were all dumbfounded. How did seven, well-traveled individuals mistakenly get on the wrong train car and not notice the sign that clearly stated its destination? So, fellow travelers, heed this warning: if it happened to us, it can happen to you! Always find a train attendant and ask them where the train is going … and if it splits off. You can't count on them to come to you, because we saw neither hide nor hair of ticket takers after the first train. Being proactive can spare you hours of unnecessary delays and complications. Thankfully, we all had Eurail Global Passes, so although we lost time, we weren't out of pocket, having to purchase new tickets ... not that it mattered since ticket takers were strangely absent. However, travelers who purchased separate tickets would have also suffered financial repercussions. Eurail information.
That being said, what could have been a disaster, in the end, really defined our trip. The experience turned what would have been a relatively normal week of travel into a memorable story (and lesson) to be told and retold for years to come. Without complaining or grumbling, we all made the best of it and took refuge in the train station's bar (which thankfully, never closes) and played poker with Tic Tacs purchased at the gift shop. This kept spirits high and eyes open for a couple of hours until we started dropping off like flies at around 1am. Fortunately, the bar's padded bench seats made for great beds and a few of us were able to catch a little shuteye while the rest played Crazy Eights. Bleary-eyed, we left our makeshift hostel around 2:30am to resume our odyssey to Amsterdam.
All of the ladies in our group very quickly learned the virtue of packing light as we lugged our suitcases up excessively long flights of stairs. It seems European train stations aren't as handicap- or suitcase-friendly as those in the United States. This would have been tough enough under normal circumstances, but was nearly impossible considering how exhausted we were. Speaking of impossible, try as we might to sleep on the trains, it just couldn't be done with the unnecessary bright lights and seats that were just long enough to tempt you to lie down but too short to actually be comfortable. We traveled this way (lug bags, get on new train, try to sleep, repeat) for the next seven hours until we finally completed our journey, some 16 hours after it began. To put that into perspective, I could fly from Los Angeles to Amsterdam in less time than it took us to take a train between two neighboring countries. In a zombie-like state, we first took advantage of our hotel's free breakfast, then slept for less than two hours before meeting again for an extremely busy day exploring the city via Like-a-Local.
AMSTERDAM LIKE A LOCAL
Founded by three Amsterdam natives, Like-a-Local is designed both for travelers who want an authentic experience in big cities and for locals who love their city and want to show it off to visitors. Three programs are offered: Live!, Go!, and Eat! Like-a-Local. The prices are comparable to the cost of sight-seeing, dining or staying at a hotel, but far more rewarding (Note: The Eat! and Live! programs might be out of a budget traveler's price range.) In addition to the price of each activity, there are booking fees; 25 euro for Live!, 15 euro for both Go! and Eat! Like-a-Local currently operates in several major European cities as well as in New York with plans to expand globally.
Our first experience was to Eat! Like-a-Local with Jonah, a delightful woman who showed us around Vondel Park. Initially it was difficult to enjoy the park; rain forced us to take shelter beneath a nearby bridge where part of me couldn't help wishing I were still in my dry hotel bed. Eventually, it subsided and we enjoyed a lovely lunch of sandwiches and mustard soup (a little bit better than it sounds) at Vertigo (Vondelpark 3), a café overlooking a lake in the park, despite the pesky (and rather daring) pigeons aggressively vying for our table scraps. Thanks to the cappuccinos and the emergence of the sun, I was a new person with energy uncharacteristic of someone who had just spent a sleepless night on six trains.
Like a baton in a relay race, Jonah passed us off to the care of Flo and Wouter to Go! Like-a-Local on a leisurely cruise through the canals in a boat Wouter built himself. Flo pointed out the hotspots, bars, clubs and shopping areas as she recounted her own adventures from the night before, while Wouter expertly navigated the Amstel River with nothing but his buttocks. That, my friends, is talent.
Our voyage ended in front of a 17th-century canal house where we were greeted by its owner, Hanneke, and were invited in to see what Live! Like-a-Local was all about. During our boat excursion, we had noticed that many of the buildings were leaning slightly to one side or the other due to shifting foundations beneath the canals. But now, inside the traditional Dutch canal house, we could actually feel the slanting, which resembled a wacky fun house at a carnival. Another amusing feature about the house was the growth chart in the doorway: instead of the tick marks reaching midway up the wall like I'm accustomed to seeing, they went up a good seven feet, serving as reminder that the Dutch comprise the tallest populace in the world. Hanneke gave us the history of her house as she served us organic beer and glasses of Genever (a Dutch gin served cold and straight that takes a minimum of three sips to get used to) while her young son, dressed as Spider Man, passed around traditional Dutch hors d'oeuvres. In the spirit of “living like a local”, I tried everything offered to me, including the cured herringbone and eel on toast and some of it was actually palatable to my Western taste buds, particularly the ham wrapped asparagus. On our walk back to the hotel, we marveled at the ingenuity of Like-a-Local; it's rare to have a meaningful and authentic experience in a foreign city with its locals, but thanks to Like-a-Local, now that experience is available to anyone. Recommended website: Like-a-Local.com.
SOUP KITCHENS, COFFEE SHOPS AND HUNGARIAN JAZZ
For an atypical dining experience, we visited Keuken van 1870 (Spuistraat 4), a former soup kitchen with a pre-set, three-course meal for 7.50 euro. True to their roots, they still have a table where those who can't afford it, can get a free meal. Granted, the fist-sized meatballs and mashed potatoes weren't gourmet, but for the money and the amount of food, it would serve a budget traveler well. Strolling through the streets, we took note of the numerous “coffee shops,” which is code for cafes that sell legalized marijuana. We even went into one of the best-known shops, The Green House (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 191-2HG), though we were probably the only ones there who were actually there to buy coffee. Perked up with caffeine, we took a tram to the bustling Leidseplein square where the 10th annual Amsterdam Roots Festival and our evening's entertainment awaited. Inside the Melkweg (Lijnbaansgracht 234a) concert venue, three different bands were playing in separate theatres, each from different regions of the world, abiding by the festival's Rhythms of the World theme. My personal favorite was Besh o Drom, what I can only describe as Hungary's version of jazz, the main appeal of which was the mesmerizing finger work of the drummer.
With the evening rapidly coming to a close, we opted to walk home rather than wait for the night bus, using the opportunity to take pictures of the illuminated canals, people watch and get a delicious falafel from a grumpy vendor at Maoz. The odd pairing of Amsterdam's quaint streets filled with party-all-night-pedestrians gave it the feel of New Orleans, Las Vegas and Disneyland all rolled into one. Amsterdam is indeed one of a kind.
THE ANNE FRANK MUSEUM
Early the next morning we went to visit the Anne Frank house. We arrived to find a line already wrapping around the building. If you go to the Anne Frank house, expect to wait in a long line; if you don't then consider yourself lucky. Despite the wait, though, it is absolutely worth seeing and extremely moving. Walking from room to room, reading the excerpts from Anne's diary posted on the walls, I had to constantly remind myself that these were the words of an adolescent girl. Despite her age, she had remarkable perspective and insight on human nature and the events that drove her into hiding. Every room is devoid of furniture, making it hard to truly comprehend how little space the attic's eight occupants had to share. As I progressed through the house, I learned more and more about each person living in the house, their birthdays and holidays spent in hiding, and eventually where they were sent after being discovered. My one disappointment in the museum was the lack of information given on the fate of Anne's cohabitants; aside from knowing how Anne died and that only Otto Frank survived the Holocaust, very few details are given about the others after they were discovered in the attic. If you intend to visit the Anne Frank House, do yourself a favor and brush up on her diary for context and know that you may have to do supplemental research to find the answers to your own questions. Anne Frank Museum, Prinsengracht 267. 7.50 for adults, 3.50 for 10-17, 9 and under free.
PARKPOP AT DEN HAAG
Although we never wanted to see another train again, we boarded a local train to venture an hour out of Amsterdam to Den Haag, the city where Holland's government is located but oddly enough isn't the capital; that title goes to Amsterdam. Our taste buds were treated to French fries from Bram Ladage, a shop that sells only fries (Europeans love their fries and I love them for it) with a variety of dipping sauces. I chose the peanut sauce and despite its unappetizing appearance, it was scrumptious. Burning off calories with a stroll through Den Haag, we came upon an outdoor art exhibition called “Down Under” with pieces from Australia and the Netherlands, which inspired us to pose for a slew of pictures, namely those with a giant gorilla head. Sufficiently entertained, we moved onto the main event, The Parkpop, a free outdoor music festival with Kim Wilde (of Kids in America fame) as one of the headliners. At this point, it had begun to rain so our stay was short, but in the time we spent there I witnessed, with a mixture of amusement and disdain, an abomination against all bladders: a sign advertising an All Day Pee Pass for two euro a day, in port-a-potties no less! The Dutch do not believe in free relief, and to that I say, God bless America, land of the free (public toilets).
BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION IN LEIDSEPLEIN
Back in Amsterdam and after a hearty meal of Indonesian food at Puri Mas (Lange Leidsedwarsstraat 37-41), we returned to Leidseplein Square to find a lively locale in which to celebrate my 23rd birthday at midnight. No sooner had we settled into our table at Bulldog (Leidseplein 15) and drank our commemorative birthday drinks than we were told that it was closing time. Closing time at 1am? In Amsterdam? The city where everything is legal? And I thought closing time at 2am in the U.S. was ridiculous. After a bit of protesting, we grudgingly retreated to our hotel to play Tic Tac poker until fatigue set in.
FIRST CLASS TRAIN STATIONS
Following breakfast at the Grand Cafe Restaurant 1e Klas at the Amsterdam Central Station, we were given a tour of the station's HiSpeed lounge. Apparently, European train stations are beginning to introduce these HiSpeed lounges, the hipper, more lavish counterparts to business class lounges in airports, which is definitely something to take advantage of when traveling first class with Eurail. See Netherlands Railways for more info.
BIKING THROUGH AMSTERDAM
We turned our focus to other means of transportation and went to MacBike (Stationplein 12) to rent bicycles. Donning rain ponchos and hopping on bright red bikes, we traversed through the wet streets of Amsterdam with Basti, our guide, leading the way. Although MacBike has three locations throughout the city, they don't any have guides on staff so we hired Basti from Zoom Tours (Zeedijk 65-B) at 16.50 euro per person (including bike rental) for 2.5 hours. Basti provided historic information about the various stops we made along the way, and sometimes got a bit long winded. But I'll forgive him. After all, he did treat us to a glass of BOLS (a Dutch Liqueur) coincidentally at a café that shared my name, Café Marcella. Stops along the way included the Tower-of-Tears at the city walls where sailors' loved ones would give their tearful goodbyes (which indirectly determined the location of Amsterdam's Red Light District), Waag, (Dutch for weigh house) a castle-like building where both executions and some of the first autopsies took place, and in Dam Square Basti gave us a brief history lesson on the Jewish community, pre- and post-Holocaust. Following the bike tour, he was kind enough to take us on a walking tour through the red light district and even pointed out a transvestite prostitute before leaving us to explore the city on our own.
FLEA MARKETS AND THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT
We took a break from the district for dinner, shopping and taking refuge from the sporadic rainstorms. All of my shopping was done at the Waterlooplein flea market in the old Jewish Quarter, where unusual finds and price haggling abound. Now nighttime in the red light district, we were able to see the transformation that had been made in our absence: the ladies of the day weren't nearly as attractive as the ladies of the night. However, no matter what time they were working, many seemed to have a complacent look of boredom on their faces as they waited for customers to approach, many of them talking on their phones to help pass the time. Seeing prostitution being treated not as a shameful practice, but as a legitimate career was bizarre to say the least and provided conversational fodder for our walk back to the hotel.
Now back in the United States, I think it's a bit of a shame how Amsterdam, one of the most aesthetically impressive cities I've ever seen -- with an endless supply of museums, history, culture and diversity to explore -- has so often been defined by its liberal attitude toward drugs and prostitution. I personally only learned a couple years ago that Amsterdam had canals, because I had never heard about anything else from people who had been there. Having experienced Amsterdam myself, I am happy that I can now appreciate the Venice of the North for all of its facets.
For discounts on public transportation, museums and attractions detailed in this article, get the I Amsterdam card at the airport or tourist information offices.
To learn more about Amsterdam from “local” foreigners, visit their blog at Trippist.com.
Marcela Swenson's Bio:
I have a hard time staying in one place for too long. My international travels began when I went to Colombia at 2 months old and I've been obsessed with traveling the world since. Sometime during high school I decided I wanted to travel the world for a living. So far I've only gotten the traveling part down, now I'm just waiting for someone to pay me. So far I've been to 18 countries, traveling mostly on a frayed shoestring budget. When I'm traveling you can find me in streets, alleyways, or on front stoops with my beloved iBook, searching for a free wireless signal (I haven't paid for Internet access in over a year, both abroad and at home). When I'm home I can be found hosting karaoke at numerous bars around Los Angeles.
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Note: This trip was sponsored by Eurail & Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.
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