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Visiting Amsterdam

I have wanted to visit Amsterdam for decades. The art collection in the various museums, the liberal mindset, and the fact that the city is below sea level have always fascinated me. The first time I tried to visit was about 15 years ago during a winter break. I even got a visa for the trip (back when I used to need one). My trip did not work out as planned because George Bush invaded Iraq to free Kuwait. I was in Dubai at the time and had to flee quickly. I spent the rest of the winter break in the UK before returning to the US.

The next opportunity came earlier this year in September. I had to be in London for a week for work. I decided to bring Janice and the kids. We had tentatively planned to go to Amsterdam for the weekend before returning to the US. By the end of the week we felt that it would be too much to travel to Amsterdam with the kids, and there was still plenty to see and do in London.

Two months later in November I needed to be in London again for work. This time I was going alone since we did not want Unity to miss any more school. I added a weekend (November 11 and 12) to the end of my trip so that I could visit Amsterdam. I spoke with a few friends from work about travel tips - they suggested flying there since the airport is very close to the city, Centraal Station is about 15 minutes by train. I also got in touch with a very good friend of mine, JHC, who is Dutch, to get tips on things to do (beyond the usual touristy stuff).

I had two half days to spend in Amsterdam so I had to stick to a very tight schedule. I had decided to stay at the Hilton by the airport since it was less expensive than staying in the city. And more importantly, it was walkable from the terminal through an overpass. Since I was using a cane for my knee injury I did not want to carry the luggage to the city on Saturday and back to the airport on Sunday. The 15-minute train rides to and from the airport were convenient. Also, on Sunday, I could leave the luggage at an airport locker when I checked out of the hotel instead of lugging them around town. Next time I have to remember to stay at the Sheraton since it is a shorter walk to the airport terminal.

After I settled into the hotel, I washed up, picked up my cane and camera backpack, and headed out. I picked up an I Amsterdam card from the tourist bureau - this includes a travel guide, a public transport pass that is valid for 24 hours and a museum entry pass that is valid for 24 hours (you can also get ones that work for 3 days or 7 days, but 24 hours was enough for me). I bought a train ticket and stepped on the next train to Centraal Station, the main train station in Amsterdam. Once I got there, I picked up a tram map. It took me all afternoon to figure out how it all worked because there were no written instructions - you have to find the correct numbered tram and then once you get on you have to put a time stamp on the card by holding it in a timestamp machine. My first destination was Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum has been closed for a while for renovations, but they have kept one wing open with a limited exhibit called "The Masterpieces." It took me a little over an hour to go through the exhibit. I could not believe I was actually there looking at Rembrandt's masterpieces. It was getting late, so I headed out and started walking towards the Van Gogh Museum. The Van Gogh exhibit was an incredible experience - I learned more about his life, about how his paintings evolved over time, the significant role his brother had in his life, and how his brother's wife helped make Vincent famous posthumously. It was a very moving experience - there I was in the midst of all the paintings that were made by Vincent's actual brush strokes, not the copies you find in the museum store. I could spend a whole day here, but it was nearing 6:00 p.m. when the museum closes. I quickly went up to the 3rd floor to look at the exhibit on modern photography. There was a real surprise here: I found photographs from Ernst Haas and Duane Michals (among others) that I had not seen before - this was the real stuff, not just prints in a book at the local Barnes and Noble. These are people I have been reading about since I was a teenager, and have been trying to emulate them since then. Wow! They announced that the museum was closing. I was hungry.

I took the tram to Rokin and started walking to find a place to eat. The Netherlands is the 3rd most densely populated country on the planet (after Bangladesh and South Korea respectively). There were a plenty of people out and about. There were also a lot of bicycles - a lot more than I was expecting, even though I had read that people ride the bicycle a lot in Amsterdam. Next time I should rent one to get around town. The other thing that I was not expecting was how friendly people were: random people would greet, start conversations, and switch to English as soon as they realized I was American - in the tram, train station, cafes, museums. It reminded me of the South in some ways and NYC in some other ways. I kept walking until I came upon Rembrandtsplein (Rembrant Square). There were a lot of restaurants here. I started checking the menus that were posted outside the restaurant entrances.

I remembered talking to JHC years ago (16 to be exact) about Indonesian food in the Netherlands. Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony and so a lot of the food culture was brought in by the Indonesians, similar to Indian food in London. As a side note, I tried a couple of different Indian restaurants in London and Tamarind is still my favorite - absolutely delectable, one of the few Indian restaurants with a Michelin star. As I was thinking about all this I picked out one of the many Indonesian restaurants. I looked at the tables around me and the quantity and variety of dishes they brought out at each table was astounding. The couple across from me had about 18 different items on their table; these were sizable portions. Needless to say, they barely scratched the surface although I think they tasted everything. I was seated by the window and after ordering my 4 course dinner, the food started coming quickly. I also had many different dishes, and I naturally I could not finish everything. At the end of dinner, while I was waiting for the check, I looked out the window and saw a hotel across the street called "Hotel Atlanta." I chuckled. It was past 10:00 p.m. I walked around some more around Rembrandtsplein, took some more pictures - handheld night shots - and then headed back to the hotel.

The next morning I needed to check out of the hotel. I brought my luggage to the airport, found the place for left luggage and left them there for the day. My first destination was Museum de Loon. This was a very interesting glimpse into the 17th century heyday of the Dutch. The museum used to be the residence of the de Loon family who founded the East India Company. There wasn't enough time to make it to the Anne Frank House or to Jordaan. So I walked from Museum de Loon to Rembrandtsplein, and then from there through Rokin to Dam. Dam is where the old Royal Palace is, now converted to a museum, but unfortunately it was closed. I walked around the Dam, and the little alleys around it looking for the cafes that JHC suggested. I found some of them. The coffee and pastries were really, really good - gotta hand it to the Dutch. The rest of the morning I walked around through the streets and alleys enjoying the architecture, the canals, and the miscellaneous impromptu interactions with people until I eventually got to Centraal Station. It was time to head back to the airport. I had to fly to Birmingham to spend an evening with my cousin and then head back to the US first thing in the morning so that I could make home in time for Janice's birthday dinner.

Click here to see photographs from the trip.
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