Our latest adventure took us to Amsterdam. The city of red lights and tulips and canals and cannabis.
At least two of the above sound romantic, right? Depending on what you are in to…
Prior to this trip, I had spent a quick stop over in Amsterdam with a friend over our 21st birthdays. We were only in the city for a few hours in the day, and spent the rest of the time in nearby Rotterdam, where she was studying.
During that short trip, I can’t say that I got a proper taste for the city.
It seemed big and busy, kind of seedy, but with a nice museum square.
However, in just a few hours of arriving for a long weekend, my opinions were completely changed.
Jimmy and I landed at 10 am and made directly for the center. ( I had booked us the budget flight that maximized his time off, which meant that we left for the airport at 4am, having to take the city bus because the airport bus -which takes half the time- was not yet running. We stopped over in Riga before our usual alarm had even gone off… ) Jimmy was already sick with a lingering cold which I was starting to catch, and neither of us had slept much the night before. We had considered taking a nap as soon as we checked into out Air B&B apartment, but once we hit the streets and canals, we were revitalized by the charm of the city.
The apartment we rented was a bit of a crap shoot. Nearly everything in the city was booked out for the weekend over a month in advance (usually ample time for a small group), including hostels and large chain hotels. I had made 5 requests for apartments on Air B&B and all turned up negative (despite advertising availability) and became a little desperate. By the time I got a confirmation for a little-too-expensive place a little farther away than we had wanted, I was just happy to know that we would have a place to sleep.
The neighborhood turned up to be completely darling, and the apartment spacious, comfortable and complete with a generous hostess who made herself available at any time.
We were staying on the Prinsengracht canal, in the south eastern corner of the city. If you follow this canal long enough, you will find the Anne Frank House on the north western side. It is the outermost canal ring in the center, and most river cruises go by here. Just around the corner was a particularly scenic view of multiple arched stone bridges, a large square and canal houses. It was just far enough away from the crazy, but close enough to walk there easily.
Soon after arriving and getting cleaned up, we made our way back to the train station to find Leah, who arrived just a few hours later. After eventually finding her, we took a more meandering route back and stopped for lunch on the way.
This first day was my birthday, and all I wanted to do was enjoy the beautiful spring weather with a glass of wine outside on a canal. Coming from Helsinki, this was the best weather we had seen all year. Sun! No clouds! Light wind!
So that is exactly what we did. We stopped one place and had a drink. The waitress then ignored us each time we flagged her down, so we moved next door for lunch (and another drink). We then dropped Leah’s stuff off at the apartment, took a rest, and then went out again.
We had an appointment to see the Anne Frank House at 8:50 PM, so we left a few hours early in order to take a more casual walk in that direction, stopping at a cafe here and there for a drink or coffee. It was a really pleasant way to see the city, with gusts of (very mild, by Helsinki standards) wind blowing up dried blossoms from the trees, making it seem like spring was snowing over the romantic canals.
Note: we were pretty bad about taking pictures this trip. We got very caught up in enjoying the city, that we kept forgetting to stop and document. However, sometimes that is the best way to travel!
I was equally as obsessed with he creeping wisteria plants that were all over the place. They were absolutely gorgeous and I must have stopped to smell every other one!
The canal houses are said to “dance,” as their facades jut out at varying angles and they seem to all be settling at different rates. Its as if each house has a bad hip. We saw many once-square door frames with trapezoidal doors cut to fit, slanting cornices and saggy windows. Everything added to the overwhelming charm of the city.
Quick fact: The houses angle out over the sidewalks and canals intentionally. Each has a hook extended over the top eave, which is used to hoist large items, perhaps even groceries back when, up to the top levels. Amsterdam houses have notoriously narrow and steep staircases. The angle of the facade was to keep the goods from banging into the house.
At the appointed time, we showed up at the Anne Frank House and walked passed the line that was winding around the city.
Traveler’s Tip: with any major museum, save yourself precious traveling time and book tickets ahead. You can show up at a specified time and walk right in. Save yourself more time to enjoy the city.
Once inside, there was a strict no photography rule in place, so I do not have any photo evidence for you.
If it weren’t for the hoards of people and massive new modern museum wing, you would never look twice at the old storeroom that housed Anne and her 7 other companions in hiding. Which, I suppose, was the entire point.
The house has been preserved as it was for the sake of the museum. Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the only one of the group to survive the Holocaust, purchased the building in 1960 for the museum. It is empty now, but each room has reconstructed photographs of how it looked while they took refuge inside.
You begin the tour in the basement with a video describing the war and the round up of Jews in Amsterdam. You then begin to process upwards into the house, through the store rooms and offices (this was the office building of Otto Frank’s jam making company) and eventually passed the bookcase and into the small doorway that it concealed. Then you continue into the top two small floors of attic spaces that housed 8 people for two years before their discovery.
The rooms are accompanied by quotes from the diary of Anne Frank as well as Otto Frank. They detail the living conditions -not being able to move or use the single toilet during working hours, never being able to look out of windows or see the light of day, sharing small rations between 8 people. Anne’s room still has pasted magazine clipping of Ginger Rodgers, Greta Garbo, and other starlets and Hollywood hunks of the time. It was so interesting to understand her as a real girl.
The final room you look into is the uppermost room in the attic. You cannot climb the ladder, but you can look through an angled mirror to catch a glimpse at the only view of the outside that she and the other captives had for two full years: a tiny window that looked up into the sky through the branches of the trees. Aside from this small skylight, they saw no nature, weather, light, or seasons.
Then you begin to process down through the modern museum wing, which has various artifacts from the captives and the diary, as well as video recordings taken from both her non-Jewish friends and others who had survived and known her in the camps.
There is also a bit of space dedicated to the particularly moving story about her father, Otto, continuously looking for her and her sister to return after the war, waiting at the train station day after day. Anne passed away only one month before Auschwitz was liberated, after her father was liberated and had begun his long trek home.
What I found particularly interesting was that, at the very end of the museum, is a compilation of videos discussing the book; everyone from Emma Thompson (I love her) to Natalie Portman to esteemed scholars on Judaism and the Holocaust. They talked very candidly about how Anne Frank should not be held on a pedestal as “St. Anne Frank” nor be viewed separately from every other Holocaust victim. Rather, it is a lesson we can take forward into history. There was also an entire section about Anne’s roommate, who she did not depict favorably in her diary. His son, who had been sent internationally at the beginning of the war, described and defended his father as being an entirely different man than his place in literature has made him out to be. I thought it was very nice that all sides of her story were told.
“…all her would-haves are our real possibilities. Alle her would-haves are our opportunities. And the book’s a flame, a torch, we can light our own candles and take them and illuminate our hearts with the incandescence of her spirit.” -Emma Thompson
After the house, we met up with some of Jimmy’s co-workers and fellow travelers. We went to two funky bars in the area before both Jimmy and I began to completely crash after the sleepless night and long travel day.
Of course, we stopped for street food on the way home.
The next day, we woke up and got moving very slowly. Jimmy and I went out to bring breakfast in while Leah wrote a cover letter. Eventually we headed out towards the museum square and Vondel Park, where we planned to have lunch.
We landed at the Vondelpark3 restaurant, suggested by our apartment owner for its large outdoor terrace. And we got their right on time, as we walked right in, but after us there was a constant line to sit.
We sat down to order, in no particular hurry, except to grab a waitress when we could. Looking around, we saw no drink menus around, even though each table had full menus laid out. So I just ventured a guess and ordered a glass of white wine.
Most places pretty much have two options, but she listed out a bunch of vintages. At this point, I probably should have asked for a list but I just asked for the oaky Chardonnay -a taste passed down from my mother. I also should have kept in mind that these tend to be the more expensive wines.
Jimmy and Leah ordered the same thing, which made us just opt for a bottle. When it came out and the waitress said it was both her favorite and their best wine, I looked guiltily at Jimmy..
Thanks, honey. Happy birthday to me??
I recognized the bottle, but just by the taste you could tell it was amazing.
We figured, oh well, and enjoyed our delicious wine and small lunches that made their way out.
In the end -being in Europe -it was not that expensive nor worth stressing over. In fact, I would go back and order two bottles. But the lesson was learned- ask for the menu!
After lunch, we wandered through the park, took pictures with one of the three famous I am Amsterdam signs, and sat in the grass to enjoy the sun.
One of the things that all of Europe -and Helsinki, in particular- has not figured out is breakfast. They love to brunch, they just eat the worst food ever. Meatballs? Pasta salad? Deli meat and pickles? Floppy bacon?
No no no.
So when the guys found this gem of a place, G’s, we had no option but to just go.
It was a tiny shop with just a few girls working. They had a full Bloody Mary menu for the boys and a special mimosa for us ladies, and actual brunch food.
I had Eggs Benedict with avocado and smoked salmon, most everyone else had some form of huevos rancheros, and then there was also some Challah french toast on the table.
The girls working apologized a million times for being slow, short a chef and out of many ingredients. Really, as long as they had mimosas and bloodys, we were happy to stay on our couch and chairs for however long it took.
Our original plan that day was to rent bicycles and ride outside of the city. However, it was raining at the time, so we all settled on a covered canal cruise instead. (especially when they found out that you can bring drinks aboard)
The weather was spotty, but eventually, it cleared up enough for us to occupy the back of the boat and enjoy a leisurely tour around the city.
We ended our tour and wandered more (not to worry, with all of this wandering, we actually did see everything in the city, we just never took photos to prove it!) and took a walking break at the boys’ apartment.
This evening, my great friend Katie Tillou happened to be in Amsterdam on an over night layover on her way back to the states from a family trip. She was SO AWESOME enough as to come into the city that night to see us. We planned on taking a Red Light District tour with her that night.
So we took off to find her at the station (never an easy task) and ended up going to dinner with the big group o us at a rather crappy Mexican place. In hindsight, we do not know why we ended up there, and I am sorry we did. We should have gone to dinner in a smaller group, because I feel like I did not get to see Katie nearly as much as I wanted to. Also, our plan of biking all day had turned into drinking and it was not the best way to go into the night, nor to greet my friend.
But after dinner, we found our quirky tour guide, Martijn, and headed off on our tour.
We chose this tour because we didn’t know if we would go and see the area on our own initially. However, once you are there, it is so seamlessly woven into the city that you would be hard pressed not to go there on our own, intentionally or not.
Either way, the tour was a good way to go because we learned a lot about the laws about drugs in Amsterdam (it is illegal, but possessing and using is not) as well as the history and nuisances of the Red Light District. Our guide was very candid about what was acceptable and what was not, what to not do and where to not go. He also discussed the protection that the sex workers receive under the government, and how it compared to other countries, where the profession exists underground. It was certainly an interesting experience, especially considering the prominence it has in the city. If it weren’t for the occasional window lit by a red light, it would seem like a regular lively bar scene.
Our tour ended with a few drinks with our guide and lots of street food. I demanded both crepes and falafel at that point because I am a bottomless pit. Plus, I finally got to chat with Katie more, which is what I really wanted.
We walked her back to the station, said goodbye, and then headed home. The poor thing ended up having a terrible time getting back to her hotel -which should have been easy, but wasn’t -so I have to thank her a million times for coming in to see us! I wish we had had the whole day together! It meant so much to me!
Jimmy and I plan to come visit you in DC!
The next day -our last day- we ate breakfast at the house while we packed and cleaned up a bit. Jimmy and I didn’t leave until the evening and were allowed a late check out, but we were walking Leah to the station by noon.
On the way, we went through the flower market and looked at the insane amount of flowers and bulbs for sale. I wish we had a garden to plant, because I would have bought a little bit of everything. I have really fond memories planting the tulips in our garden when we were kids, and I would love to do that again. Although, I am sure I would kill them.
We dropped Leah off, then wandered through a more tourist-y area that we had not been through yet, stopped for some amazing burgers (and then churros-yum! again, bottomless pit condition) and then popped in and out of some fun shops on our way home. We tried on fancy hats, Jimmy bought some very preppy pants, and we just enjoyed our last few free hours before a very long flight path home.
We left our apartment by 5pm (in the basement- Jimmy was way too tall for the door!) and made it to the airport with enough time for duty free and Starbucks (a luxury in Finland). By 1 am, we had landed in Helsinki via Riga, Latvia, and took a cab home instead of the bus, in a desperate move to get to sleep.
Jimmy jumped right into work again on Monday, so he still has that lingering cold. Mine peaked on Sunday and I have been sleeping in, so I feel much better. However, this weekend will be very slow, with lots of sleep and very little alcohol involved.
Despite the tough travel hours, it was a really wonderful birthday weekend for me! I got to explore a beautiful city AND see two of my good friends! Plus, I have this wonderful hubby who just spoiled me completely by taking me on this trip and allowing us to really enjoy it. Thank you so much to Jimmy for working hard and keeping me SO happy!
That is our last adventure until we head stateside (my first time back!) in June. Until then, we have one visitor and -hopefully- I will be running my first half marathon.
The weather in Helsinki has improved immensely, so I am sure we will do at least some adventuring until then!