Arriving in Amsterdam the weather had definitely changed to hot hot heat. I crossed a few canals and knew instantly that I was going to get ridiculously lost here. Every street name is the exact same except they add another h or c. Ridiculous Dutch urban planners! There are bikes everywhere so if you like a good peddle and have a fetish for canals, Holland is the place for you to be.
After walking the canals for about an hour getting incredibly lost I found myself in the red light district talking to a lady in white laced undergarments smoking a joint. Looking back I can’t believe I actually knocked on her door to get directions, um I’m crazy. The moment was a bit awkward as she kept fondling my shoulder while showing me on the map where to go, I told her I was a Mormon so she stopped.
I finally got to my hostel, had a quick shower and darted out of the house in hopes to see Anne Franks House which was a huge disappointment as it is overpriced and they have built a modern façade right over the original house so from the street you can’t even see it. I headed east to Dam Square and took pictures of the palace and cathedral.
Throughout the city all you can hear is screaming. It was 6pm by now and Germany VS Argentina was playing. Bars were brimming full and the streets were packed with people holding Heineken’s in their hands and screaming at the projection screens.
I made my way to the large red light district (by mistake again). I didn’t enjoy that spot at all as it is really odd to walk down a small little street with women sitting on stools literally a foot from you behind glass knocking on the window and staring at you. I kept my eyes on the ground and booted it out of there.
I decided to walk around in the evening so took the canal route south to Rembrandt Garten where a huge life sized statue of the artist is located behind another huge life size sculpture of the famous Nightwatch. I spent about 2 hours drinking a Grolsch at a very trendy upscale bar called Arc. I watched the Italy vs Ukraine match (the Italians schooled them).
On my walk home I got incredibly lost. It is so hard to find your way around this city, enraging! However the walk was nice as the canals are lit up and it is incredibly romantic (even when you are walking on your own). Every few streets you see Coffee Shops and get a good whiff of weed which I am not to fond of. Sex drugs and rock and roll. They are just missing the rock and roll apparently but actually I take that back as last night in front of the palace they were setting up a huge stage for a music festival going on this weekend. So they do have it all it seems! After walking around for an hour I finally asked a giant on a unicycle where I was. Apparently I had been walking in a circle for an hour and was where I had started! It was now 12:30 and I was exhausted and wanted to be in bed. It was rather funny to see the locals trying to get home after an evening with friends at the bar. Rather than taking the public transit or a taxi they all have to peddle their bikes home. Never have I seen such public displays of hilarity as drunk locals zig zag across the streets on their little bikes all the way home. I walked briskly home and as I finally found the right street I found myself in another mortifying situation. I tripped on the sidewalk and when I landed on the ground I heard a scream. I looked up and saw two pairs of feet with jeans around the ankles. I looked up further and noticed that on this main side street, under a bright lamp post, two young lovers were attempting to start a family. A vertical dance of sorts, they looked down at me and all I could think to say was sorry. Even though I was clearly not in the wrong. Crazy canals, drugs, the red light district and sex on the street. My welcome to Amsterdam!
My sleep was less than spectacular as the glaring exit sign was shooting right into my face. Snoring was also an orchestra of wheezes and squeaks from all directions in the room. I woke up looking like I had been suffocated and went downstairs for my free breakfast of coffee and French toast. My day was going to be plenty busy as I was using my Amsterdam City Pass.
I started off at the Amsterdam Historic Museum which tells the story of the city and had two exhibitions on including Anne Franks Letters and Rembrandt (it is his 400th anniversary so everywhere is celebrating him in Holland. You can buy chocolate bars with “the Nightwatch” imprinted into the surface of the bar). The start of the museum discussed the reclaiming of the swamp wetlands for agricultural purposes and then creating the dam to make water flow more controllable (which happened in 1275). The city was actually called Anstel and the name Amsterdam was a fluke as a politician enacted a law allowing free tax for certain traded goods (namely beer) through the port and called the city by accident Amestelledame, which has now evolved into the city as we know it today. The miracle of Amsterdam was also discussed in a huge room. The miracle apparently occurred when a man on his death bed was given the last sacrament but vomited up the Host. The nurses threw the vomit into the fire and the wafer would not burn. This became a huge deal and a church was built at the very spot the miracle happened and from all over the world people made pilgrimages to this holy site. Throughout the many rooms of the galleries you get the impression that trade, wars with England, windmills on the canal banks and ship building were common place.
A central room entitled “the Essence of Rembrandt” is on special exhibition this summer and focuses on the artistic genius and his use of medical portraiture. Three large works of his are hung in the room and all have central themes relating to early medical school anatomy lessons. In the Anne Frank exhibition there are many original letters of hers in glass cases and quotes from her book are written all over the walls. There was a very well done video montage that summarizes her stay in the attic. “I have to write to prevent myself from becoming ignorant. I must hold onto my ideas for one day I may be able to carry them out.” For such a young girl, she was admirably wise. Another room focused on the evolution of the cities apartments (as they all were built on 20 meter poles dug into the sand under the canal water). The final area deals with the modern issue of sex and drugs in the city. It explains that soft drugs were legalized to make the issue transparent to the public and authorities. In 1975 the famous Bull Dog coffee shop started to sell hash to the public. A very neat replica of the Bet van Beeren cafe was my favorite part of the museum. She opened the first gay friendly cafe in Europe and the inside was full of interesting antiques and post cards. She never allowed people do be publicly affectionate but on the Queens Birthday the cafe celebrated as men dressed up as women and women dressed up as men. I’m sure the Queen would have been thrilled!
The huge Rijks Museum is Holland’s top tourist attraction and had a long line ticket line crossing its gardens. Rembrandts 400th anniversary really has made this city buzz with excitement. The gallery is going under huge renovations until 2010 so all the major works of art are located on one wing of the gallery. This makes seeing the gallery a very quick experience (35 minutes). I saw many Frans Hals, my favorite being the famous Merry Drinker. There is also a large room dedicated to antique Dutch Doll houses which you actually have to get onto a ladder to properly see the many levels. I stared in awe at Jacob van Ruisdael’s Dutch windmill filled landscapes, so much incredible detail!
His full name is Rembrandt Harmenz van Rijn and his famous Jewish Bride “Isac and Rebecca” hangs in the center of his designated viewing room. Above all the most interesting part of the museum had me in complete shock. There is a huge queue to see the Nightwatch. The best way to describe this experience is to compare it to that of a queue at Disney World. You enter a room after the first batch enter to see the actual art piece. In the large room there are 56 plasma screens surrounding the walls. An amazing and spectacular show including pieces of the painting and actors explains the history of the painting and the mystery behind the murders. I felt like I was being entertained “before the ride’ similar to that of a theme park. Once the spectacular theatrics finished the lights came up and a sliding door opened with a small man beckoning us into a large dark theater. I was now perplexed and very intrigued at this never before seen art gallery extravaganza (if only they did this for the Mona Lisa!). The entire room is dark and then you begin to hear the noises of guns being loaded, men screaming, the sound of a man running with metal boots on a stone walk way and a dog barking in the distance. A spectacular light show starts the 3 minute adventure of this one famous painting. The lights create a mini movie as they dance on certain choreographed parts of the painting. It seems to rain at one part and houses are lit on fire. You actually feel as though the characters in the painting are coming to life! At the very end of the show a white laser shoots across the ceiling and magically outlines each character in the painting like a puzzle piece. The lights come up and the painting is revealed in all of its wonder before you. The painting is impressive to say the least and after leaving the room all I could think about was the amount of work it must have taken to organize such a theme park experience for one painting, incredible!
Exiting the gallery I walked onto the huge park in the Museum central cafe district. A huge tourist spot is the gigantic I AM STERDAM sprawled across a pool and water fountain. Here you can find many tourists jumping onto the different letters to get a great picture towering over the “AM”. Across the way is the Van Gogh Museum which was packed like a mall on Boxing Day. The swarms of people didn’t bother me as much as my allergies which started to itch at my nose in the ticket line up.
The gallery holds the largest collection of his works (over 200 paintings, 700 sketches and lithographs and 500 letters). The 1st floor are his early works. Such paintings as his famous self portrait which was painted in Holland. The rooms are organized by place and time as he traveled and progressed as an artist. The famous portrait of the Potato Eaters can be seen in the Antwerp room and in the Arles room you can see the famous bouquet of orange and yellow flowers. The second floor houses a huge collection of 700 prints and lithographs that Van Gogh created throughout his life time. The collection of his letters written to family and friends was most intriguing as you can see his illness progress (before he admitted himself to an insane asylum). For the record, the man wasn’t just an amazing painter, he was also a very talented calligrapher! His hand writing was perfect and beautiful, I wish someone would write me a letter like that! Most interesting was how he finished his letters. Instead of a signature he would always sketch a small picture in the bottom right corner. The third floor houses his contemporaries and friends. Paintings by Lautrec, Monet, Cezanne and Gaugan are along this banistered floor overlooking the park.
I had the most amazing experience at the very end of my visit at the gallery. I saw a blind man who looked around 70 years old sitting by himself on a bench in the last room so I decided to sit beside him for a chat. I asked him if he enjoyed art galleries and he explained that he had been coming to the Van Gogh museum for the last 20 years at least once a week. This was his 214th trip to the gallery! I asked him why he came if he couldn’t see the paintings. He said he loves the SOUNDS that paintings make. The commentary he hears people making about the different pieces, the sound of people weaving in and out of the gallery, incredible. I asked him if he wanted me to take him around some of the rooms and explain what the paintings looked like. He got very excited to I ushered him back into the gallery and for an hour spent an incredible amount of energy trying to explain in the most detailed manner, the famous pieces of art that I could see, and that he could only hear. After about 30 minutes he started crying which touched my heart. He had been here so many times and yet had never had the paintings described to him by someone with such enthusiasm and panache. The last painting we saw was a winter scene and I described it like this: “it looks as cold as you feel when you have been walking in a windy cold snow storm for hours and you come into your house and walk right into the freezer and eat an ice cream.” He called it Brain Freeze. Forever I will remember that blind man, my one hour with him gave him a big smile with tears of joy. Van Gogh will forever mean more to me than just a few famous oil paintings.
I had lunch at a famous Dutch restaurant called the Pancake Bakery which is located in a 17th century warehouse. The menu has over 200 different kinds of Dutch pancakes (the thickness of an American traditional breakfast pancake but with the texture of a crepe). I had one of the international dishes and choose The Canadian in support of the Motherland. The dish was delightful and made with mushrooms, crispy bacon, ham, onions, cheese and topped with drizzled curry sauce. One of the other notable International Pancakes was the one from Sweden: minced deer meat, coriander, thyme, onions, carrot and cabbage topped with stewed pears and lingon berry sauce. The table had plenty of “pancake friendly condiments” such as Maple Syrup, Table Syrup, Butterscotch and Stroop (a Dutch dark and thick syrup). I will only list one of the dessert pancakes which caught my eye: Pancakes with ice cream, marinated cointreau cherries, raisons, Marasquin and roasted hazelnuts. The restaurant also offers the traditional Dutch Poffertjes which are small circular pancakes eaten as a snack throughout the day with fresh fruit.
After lunch I walked along the main central canal to Central Station and across the harbor on a huge floating dock. There are many floating restaurants and shops such as the huge Chinese restaurant on stilts and a little cafe where I was finally able to purchase some authentic Dutch treats called Mini Stroopwafels. This sweet snack is made up of two crispy wafer like waffles with a caramelized honey filling holding the “sandwich together”. My destination was the Stedelijk Museum CS National Contemporary Art Gallery. The gallery is not easy to find as it is located in a large office building which used to be the immensely busy national post office sorting dock. The 3rd and 4th floors comprise the gallery and the industrial ambiance of the huge rooms adds a lot to the unique charm of this very quirky gallery. I have to say that this was one of the most interesting modern art experiences I have ever had. The main floors theme was Saskia Olde Wolbers “The Falling Eye” which consisted of an entire huge floor (a block long) of divided rooms displaying artistic modern video media and sound. My favorite was called Placebo and consisted of slow video capture of paint being blasted onto surfaces and into the air. All of the surfaces and environments are places and objects you would find in a hospital. Here is a quote from the commentary. As you read it imagine watching paint travel in slow motion as globules across a hospital bed. “I heard of phantom doctors roaming around hospitals. Charming but unqualified men dressed in white coats. Doing their imaginary rounds through endless corridors. Sporting a name badge with a fancy title. Giving care behind cubicle curtains. Dispensing the treatments they in fact need themselves.” The place is a mind trip!
The other floor has the summer exhibition titled “Mapping the Studio” which shows how artists relate to their work space, the studio. Before the modern movement of the 70’s artists would work in seclusion and this exhibit tries to explain how modern art does not focus on the art itself but its environment and the perspective required to understand and appreciate it. A favorite video of mine in this gallery was entitled “Work” and focuses on the mundane jobs we find our self doing through life as members of the middle class. The video features a women at her kitchen. The counter is covered in egg cartons full of eggs and she is standing over a bowl with a manual egg beater. She looks board and a bit upset as she throws everything but the eggs into the bowls. She puts in cucumbers, bread, sausage and even a rubber band. The look on her face is priceless as it becomes harder and harder for her to use the egg beaters. Finally she throws the bowl out the window, genius. By far the most amazing installation was the interactive hall by Jahn Bock entitled “Salon de Beton”. As you enter the room you find yourself walking through dark corridors made up of hanging wool blankets. As you enter the room you see many odd “props” such as obscure furniture (a lazy boy with a toilet seat attachment) and even a loony guitar. At the end of the room you see what looks likes a childs fort made of blankets and passing through the entrance the entire prop room starts to make sense. The videographer created props and displays them before visitors watch his movies. In the movies you see all of the props which start to make sense and come to life with purpose. The video was very odd and cut in and out using interesting video styles. The story is supposed to be a tragic love story of a women who is pursued by a giant migraine pill. She finds her Romeo of sorts and they perform a duet (with aliens and robots) and the final scene is the Romeo character in utter despair as his new love has left him. He finds himself melting into a tub of black thick liquid. This is weird entertaining and bazaar, give it up for Amsterdam!
My final trip of the day was a one hour canal cruise which was as cheesy as I expected it to be. I am glad I took the trip as it is essential to get a view of the city from a boat on the canal as a vantage point. The most interesting fact of the tour I noted down, there are over 1200 bridges in Amsterdam and over 500 of these are from the 17th century! On my walk back to the hostel I passed by the infamous Amsterdam Sex Museum and said WHY NOT. It was cheap, educational, thrilling and oddly enough interactive. They actually have several artifacts from around the world and some funny sculptures as I am sure you can imagine. My favorite part of the evening was when I walked down a replica of a Parisian red light district from the 1800’s and mannequins jumped out at me as I passed by. The first mannequin was a huge fat naked French Prostitute with arms like goliath and a face like a gorilla. I screamed my head off as it totally took me off guard. The three black guys from New York who I had been walking around with laughed their heads off. They all demanded that I get a picture with the lady so they could remember the moment forever. Upon returning at the hostel the shocking news that Brazil had lost to France was running through the streets. What a shocker of a day! And Portugal beat England (I’m glad I didn’t place any bets today!).
In the morning I had my free huge pancake breakfast with coffee and walked south to the area of town I had not yet visited. I spent a staggering 2 1/2 hours at the huge park located across from the Film Museum (they have a big expo on Robbie Deniro right now). I sat in the shade for the first hour and fell asleep under a tree looking over the pond. Then the sun really came out so I moved onto the side of the river and got a bit of a tan. As soon as I woke up I decided to start my day right with a beer binge. I walked to the AMAZING Heineken Experience. It isn’t a brewery tour in the traditional sense at all. It is more like a fantastical wonderland of education and thrills. The museum is located in the original brewery so all of the exhibits are in the old production areas of the building. For 10 euros I spent 3 hours in this place having a ball with my three friends from California (that is about the same amount of time I spent at the National Gallery and Van Gogh combined!) The museum has 19 separate areas of interest and I will mention the highlights.
The first part explains the educational bit about the four ingredients of beer and how it is made. The first shocking experience was the Beer Bottle Theater. You are ushered into a standing theater in which you are told to hold onto the banister as the floors move. It was crazy! The video makes you feel as though you are a Heineken bottle from creation to cleaning to filling, labeling and finally at a disco being enjoyed by many! I felt like I was at Disney World on some crazy ride as I braced myself and jerked from side to side and felt rumbling under my shoes. Throughout the trip you go to two different bars using three tokens. The first bar is right after you walk through the brewery area (the big coppper tanks). The bar plays classical opera of all things and you can chat looking over the huge maze of copper beer tubs. After the first bar the four of us (the three Californians and I) went into a video and picture area which had tons of memorabilia and booths where you can email video and pictures of yourself on the tour to friends and family. The next room was an amazing collage of thrilling clips from different international Heineken commercials. The ad made you want to work for the company so badly as it was intensely patriotic (for beer not a country). This is when I realized that the tour was an excellent business technique to harness a customer base and firm up loyalty in a meaningful way. For three hours all I saw was the Heineken logo, drank only Heineken beer, gave Heineken my email address and had a great time all the while! On the bottom floor there were three really cool rooms: a DJ disco where you can mix your own music and dance, a bright green neon room full of time capsule/matrix looking sci-fi beds that people sit on and stare up into the ceiling to watch even more Heineken commercials. The final room was my favorite. You enter and find 4 Heineken carriages looking straight ahead at video screens. After buckling yourself in the once again MOTION induced ride of jostling begins. There are also fans and water sprayers in the ceiling that turn on at perfect spots in the video making you feel as though you really are in the 1800’s delivering Beer Barrels across the city of Amsterdam. The final bar was huge, stylish and decorated with thousands upon thousands of green Heineken bottles decorating the walls. Here we used our last 2 beer chips and pleasantly got drunk at 2pm. It was now around 3pm and we needed to eat. We swaggered through the streets in the now blistering heat until we found a nice Italian restaurant serving a 5 euro lunch. I left the ladies and headed back to the hostel for a much needed shower and nap. On the way I walked down some side streets which had amazing graffiti and poetry scribbled on the bricks. My favorites being “I am certain there is to much certainty in the world AND As she dances in the widescreen of her existence the wind that shifts won’t be gas.” Clearly the last statement makes no sense but I loved it non-the-less.
My last incredible experience in Amsterdam was of a culinary nature. I took the hike to the famed Japanese Pancake World. It is the only restaurant outside of Japan and in Europe that serves traditional Japanese Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pancakes). Okonomiyaki means “cook as you like” and denotes the cuisines accommodating nature. I sat at the open grill and chatted with the chef while chomping on spicy rice crackers. The traditional pancake is made up of flour, egg, pureed mountain potato (which gives the dough a light crispy exterior and creamy interior). This mixture is then added to a bowl of cabbage, dancing fish flakes, egg, scallions, marinated ginger, Worcester sauce, mayonnaise and aonnori. I got the butatorma osaka style pancake which is topped with pork strips, mushrooms and young Dutch shredded cheese. The chef spent 5 years at Culinary School in Osaka getting his diploma in the art of pancake creating. It truly is an art and a thrill to watch (and take pictures of). After the 20 minutes of layered creation and sizzling on the grill I was served a round savory treat. I absolutely loved the little fella. The pancake is so creamy in the middle (thanks to the special potatoes) and the drizzled Worcester and mayonnaise make the dish look really beautiful!
I walked back home feeling content within my stomach and in my mind. I had an excellent albeit odd time in Amsterdam. Looking past the cliché Amsterdam trade marks the city has a lot to offer the pallet, art enthusiast and crazy cyclists. I will forever remember the canals, Pancakes (both Dutch and Japanese) and the best Beer Museum on earth!