A few months back I was lucky enough to visit the Netherlands. My brother and my sister-in-law (Thomas and Danika) live in the Netherlands and I was lucky to be the first in the family with the opportunity to visit. They happened to be moving house on the day we arrived - a slight inconvenience - but we repaid them by helping them set up parts of the new house.
Since then I have finally found some time to update my blog on my experiences there. Instead of following my adventures chronologically, I shall cover one city at a time, incorporating a little history into each post. It seems inevitable that I should begin with the capital.
Sunset over the train station on the edge of Amsterdam.
It's important to remember that the Netherlands is quite multi-cultural. While sipping sangria awaiting our meal merely a stone's throw from the Rembrandtplein, we were entertained by a group of Brazilians practicing either capoeira or some similar martial arts dancing.
The lights at night in Amsterdam are beautiful and this can best be seen at the waterfront near the train station. I was there in the Summer and I found I had to remind myself how dark the Netherlands could get in the Winter months.
Here is a typical Summer scene in the Netherlands - hundreds of people relaxing at the park, enjoying a leisurely picnic.
Though a little hard to see, this is a bridge crossing a canal and on the right hand side are chairs and tables. This is one of many bridges that has restaurant seating spanning the bridge.
Amsterdam is the capital city of The Netherlands, even though Den Haag (The Hague) is the seat of the Dutch government. In the 17th Century Amsterdam became one of the most important ports in the world as a result of its innovative developments in trade. The Dutch people began the enterprise of shares in their shipping trades. Investors would invest capital in ships leaving port (which would often be away for well over a year, if not years). Investors who found themselves low in finances could then sell their share of the profits off to other investors or parties wishing to become investors. Usually the closer it was to the time of the ships’ return the higher the price of the shares. Unsurprisingly then the Amsterdam Stock Exchange is the oldest stock exchange in the world.
It was also one of (if not the) first country to legalise cannabis, putting it on par with alcohol as a recreational stimulant.
The Netherlands has historically been a place of learning and freedom of thought. Many non-religious people moved to the Netherlands in the past centuries in order to continue their studies free from religious bigotry and persecution.
The Amstel River terminates in the centre of Amsterdam where it is funnelled into various canals spanning more than 100kms. The three main canals form concentric rings that are the heart of Amsterdam. They are the Herengracht (the Lords’ Canal), the Keizersgracht (the Emperor’s Canal) and the Prinsengracht (the Prince’s Canal).
In the distance can be seen one of the few old-fashioned windmills that is still operational.
One canal boat passing another.
One of the great ways to see these canals is to join a canal tour. There are many that operate throughout the city, usually on a hop-on, hop-off system. They often double-up with other attractions to give you discounts, which help if you’re there to sight-see.
It's helpful to know that canal boats come equiped with lavatories. It's also important to know that the seats in them look more like tall bar stools and that the rooms are less than a metre wide.
There comes a point when some canal boat tours leave the canals and enter open water for short periods.
This boat, though unable to sail, is a recreation and (if I recall correctly) a museum in and of itself. The building behind is another museum and if you arrive before it gets to late (so unlike us) you'll be able to hop off here and take a look around.
Our last stint on a canal boat was near the end of the day just before the boats stopped running. As there were only a few of us on the boat (and because we had to wait for another boat to pass us by where a bridge was raised) the captain obliged us by leaning out over the water and collecting a glass-full of the canal water. What was surprising was how clear the water was. She advised us against drinking it, though.
In the Netherlands water is taken very seriously. This should seem natural as water is essential to life and because parts of the Netherlands are below sea-level. The people of the Netherlands ensure their water is taken care of. It's arguably the country with the healthiest tap-water.
The Rijks Museum and the Van Gogh Museum are close to each other, in the vicinity of a large open space that many use as a picnic spot.
Across this open field one can see the Rijks Museum in the distance. Left, beyond the scope of this picture, lies the Van Gogh Museum.
The open field terminates at a road and, crossing it, one gets to a park/playground area before the Rijks Museum.
My advice to anyone who wishes to visit a museum is this: go early and only go to one place. It’s also a good idea to pre-book tickets to places. We went early and queued for over half an hour to get into the Van Gogh museum. By the time we came out there were people filing around the corner, waiting for hours.
This was the queue when we exited the Van Gogh Museum. It spilled down onto the pavement and continues down the road. People there had been waiting hours and would continue to do so for many more. This was around midmorning.
The Anne Frank house was even worse. We took one look at the queue and moved on. There are a limited number of pre-book tickets for the Anne Frank house and they usually sell out about three months in advance.
Markets are a great part of life in the Netherlands. Amsterdam, like every other city, has its own markets. Some, like the flower market, are permanent. Others are set up on certain days of the week.
The permanent Flower Market near the city centre.
There is a wonderful boat sitting on a canal called De Poezenboot or the Cat Boat. It is a home for stray cats. They are kept and looked after, though some are up for adoption. They rely upon donations to keep going.
It was only after I snapped this shot that I realised I had dropped my pen. It must have fallen out of my pocket when I was crouched down chatting to another cat.
Amsterdam - indeed the Netherlands as a whole - displays many idiosyncrasies that are utterly charming. Here are a few we saw in Amsterdam, though there are more to come.
The "George Takei" resturant
A group of Scotsmen playing bagpipes are they float downriver.
A musical group commandeering the attention of passers-by in the train station. The piano in the picture of one of many - each placed in large train stations across the country - which are open to the public. The music that comes from them is spontaneous and enjoyed by all. In this instance the group in question interchanged who was playing and accompanied it with song, getting many to stop and join in the singing.