30 July 2010
After a three-hour layover in the City of Brotherly love, I got on my flight to Amsterdam. I flew US Airways to take advantage of a some credit left over from a previously unused flight. I wouldn't recommend it. It was one of the most uncomfortable flights I have ever had. There were no individual tvs, and I was seated next to a rather corpulent man (which I suppose is not strictly the fault of the airline, but which I will blame them for in any case.) Consequently, I got maybe one hour of shoddy sleep. The good news, I suppose, is that since I could not sleep I was able to see the sunrise over the clouds:
I arrived in Amsterdam around 7:30 am local time. I got my baggage with no trouble, brushed my teeth, got through customs, bought my ticket to get to Amsterdam Centraal Station on the train, and then promptly got on the train to Utrecht Centraal Station. We passed through a couple of other Amsterdam stations (not including centraal...) and then we started passing cows... And somehow I doubted there were cows in the middle of the city.
Luckily the ticket collector was very understanding, and helped me figure out how to get back to Amsterdam from Utrecht. I didn't have to buy another ticket, either. I forgot to take any pictures of Utrecht, and to be honest all I saw of it was the inside of the train station. Oh well.
I got into Amsterdam Centraal around 10 am. My hostel was only a 5 minute walk from the station, but hélas ! When I arrived, I discovered my reservation was for the previous night. Oops. Luckily they did have a bed available for the night I needed it..... But I had to pay for both. Tant pis...
After dropping off my luggage, I headed out to explore the city. I started off somewhat at random, and managed to walk directly through the red light district right off the bat. It was mostly deserted, but even at 11 am it managed to feel super seedy and uncomfortable. There were only a few women in the red neon lit windows (one of whom was sitting there in a bikini doing her makeup...) but it was more than enough for me. After my one hour of sleep and mistakes with the train and hostel, I was in no mood for prostitutes.
Luckily, soon enough I wandered into some open air markets. Everything is so vibrant and colorful!
My favorite was the bloemenmarket: the flower market. It's the only floating market that still remains in the city. The ceiling of the first stand/shop was completely draped in dried flowers, and their heady perfume as both overwhelming and lovely.
I always thought of the Dutch craze for tulips as a product of the 17th century; I had no idea tulips were still as huge and important as they clearly are today. The market was filled with blubs of every shape and size:
The closer bulbs are bigger than my fist - I had no idea there were bulbs so large ! But more than anything, there were thousands and thousands of tulip bulbs. I would love to come back in April to see the blooms !
I had planned out each meal: where I would eat, what kind of food I would have, before I left the US. However, I didn't eat at any of those restaurants: the Indonesian place I picked out for the first lunch was closed until August 1; the traditional Dutch restaurant for dinner ran out of their 10E prix fixe by 7 pm, and we never found the pancake house I had noted for brunch the next day. Somehow I survived... I found a pancake place for lunch, where I had a pfannkuchen ananas (pineapple pancake) with Stroop (traditional Dutch syrup). Note to self: stick to local fruits; the pineapple came from a can and added nothing to the dish.
The pancake was maybe 30 cm in diameter and .5 cm thick - like a large thick crepe. In taste and texture it was also similar to a crepe, though a little thicker and chewier and eggier. The stroop smelled of molasses and brown sugar, had a viscosity between that of molasses and maple syrup (slow to pour and very sticky), and tasted like molasses, only not quite as dark or heavy. Not surprisingly, it was a good compliment to the pancake.
After lunch, I went to the Rijksmuseum, the most famous art museum displaying many well-known Dutch masterpieces. I found it rather a disappointment; the collection was too limited. They had an excellent collection of 17th century Dutch work - Rembrandts, Vermeers, pottery, silver platters in bas relief... but nothing else. Not even, say, 15th century Dutch Renaissance (Jan van Eyck, anyone???) The museum was under renovation, and I think maybe they had a limited collection for this reason.
After the museum, I visited one more market: the Albert Cuypmarket, which is the largest open air market in Amsterdam. It certainly was large:
It filled several blocks of a street. There were vendors for all kinds of products: cheeses, poultry and meat, fruits; clothing and shoes; small trinkets. But overall it has nothing on my beloved Marché de la Bastille - j'y reste fidèle :)
After walking for several hours, I was getting rather tired... So I headed back to the hostel to wait for my friend Celine to arrive. Celine is one of my closest friends from high school. She spent the last three months in Ghana doing an internship for her Masters in Public Health, which she is pursuing at the University of Michigan. She and I had made plans to meet up in Amsterdam, then head to Brussels for a few days together and see her family. She arrived around 6:30, and we unpacked a little and chatted. Our next adventure was to find an ATM... which was harder than it might sound. It seems that whenever you need something in Amsterdam (an ATM, a public phone...) it is impossible to find. After maybe 20 minutes of searching, we finally found one, and then, having worked up an appetite, we went to an Indonesian restaurant for dinner. Indonesia was a Dutch colony, and there are Indonesian restaurants all over the city. They all serve Rijsttafel (literally, rice table). It's a bowl of rice with many different traditional side dishes:
There was chicken and pork and beef and vegetables in varying sauces of peanuts and coconut and anise. Each dish was unique and many of them were very good. It was nice to have so much variety - like having your own mini buffet at your table. Actually I don't know why this isn't taking the US by storm: it's like your own personal buffet at your own table - you don't even have to get up for second helpings. Laziness at it's most sophisticated.
After dinner, we went back to the hostel and fell asleep in approximately 2 seconds.
31 July 2010
The next day, we woke up early and had a free, decent breakfast at the hostel. After checking out and storing our luggage for the day, we headed out to book our train tickets to Brussels and explore the city on foot. From the train station, we headed up along the Singel canal to Leliestraat. At this intersection, there is an extra wide bridge over the canal. On the bridge, there is a small open space with a statue dedicated to Multatuli, whoever he may be:
Looking around, we noticed a cheese shop on the corner advertising a cheese and wine tasting at 1 pm; we decided to come back for that, but more on that subject later. We continued to wend our way through the neighborhood to the Anne Frank house. We didn't go inside; the line was super long - down the block and around the corner. We continued wandering for a while. I liked this part of town much better than the part I explored the day before; though they were both fairly empty, Jordaan felt quiet and residential and comfortable, whereas Centrum felt alien and a little oppressing. I'm sorry not to have had a few more days to explore the city more fully.
After stopping in a bakery for a loaf of bread and a pastry, we headed back to the cheese shop for the tasting.
The tasting was by far the coolest thing I did in Amsterdam. Reypenaer, the cheese company, is evidently the only company in Holland that ages their cheese in the traditional method; that is to say, without heating and refrigeration, but in a 100-year-old warehouse, according to the changing of the seasons. A few of their cheeses have won awards, and after tasting them I can see why.
There were only 8 people at the tasting. Four were Dutch, and the other four of us were tourists: Celine and me, and two guys from Dubai. The tasting was consequently conducted in English. I had heard everyone in Amsterdam was fluent in English; I can attest to the veracity of this statement. I felt rude playing the part of the dumb American who assumes everyone can speak my language, but everyone was polite and helpful. But I digress.
We tasted seven cheeses: the six shown above, including two goat cheeses and four cows milk cheeses, and finally one cows milk cheese treated with ginger. We also had a glass of Seurat (a French red wine) and one of Ruby port. We moved from left to right down the line, moving from more subtle flavors to bolder ones. I won't bore you with my notes, but they were all excellent. The Reypenaer (third from the right) a one-year old cow milk cheese has won the most awards; the Reypenaer VSOP (second from the right) was my favorite. It started with the same base as the Reypenaer, but was aged 2 years. It was bold and tangy and wonderful, and it formed beautiful salt crystals for a perfect creamy-crunchy texture. YUM.
The really amazing things about the tasting though were, a) it was FREE (though we paid 10E for the wines), and b) they let you cut your own pieces. So instead of having one thin slice to examine and savor, we could cut as much as we wanted. In the end, we ate enough cheese that we didn't feel the need to have any other lunch.
The tool we used to cut the cheese was called Le Guillotin. It's pretty cute.
We didn't buy any cheese, but the shop told us you can order everything (including Le Guillotin!) online, and they will ship it anywhere. They are only beginning to import the cheese to the US (in Atlanta), but it's great to know you can get it directly online.
If you go to Amsterdam, I would highly recommend searching out Reypenaer! Even if you can't attend a tasting, they have plenty of samples (and guillotins) to try in the shop itself - it is well worth the visit.
After the tasting, we wandered around a little more before heading to the train station to take off for Brussels... But that is a story for another day.
One final note: you know I had to try at least one pastry in Amsterdam. Celine and I split a room croissant:
'Room' means cream, which was fitting: the pastry was filled with something akin to a sweet crème patissière. The pastry was croissant shaped and very buttery, but in texture and flavor it was more similar to a brioche than a true Parisian croissant (that is to say, more bready and dense than flaky and sweet). Overall, it was sweet and forgettable; but then, I've never heard of croissants as a Dutch specialty.
I'll leave you with a few images of the city:
|Celine! And bikes!|
|Would you care for a filet of raw herring?|
|The quintessential canal Siegel|
Coming soon: Bruxelles and the Case of the Missing Backpack