Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Showing posts with label Anne Frank. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anne Frank. Show all posts

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Day-Tripping in Amsterdam

Moving into the colder months, be sure to carry an umbrella or rain coat when you visit Amsterdam. Don't let the rain stop you from renting a bicycle. It's still the best way to see Amsterdam.

A city on a uniquely human-scale, there's so much to see in Amsterdam, focusing day trips in a single area will help you enjoy the city at a leisurely pace.   

Amsterdam is home to dozens of great museums, not the least of which are the Amsterdam Historical Museum (Kalverstraat 92) , the inspiring Dutch Resistance Museum (Plantage Kerklaan 61), the Filmmuseum (Vondelpark 3), the Foam-Fotografiemuseum (Keizersgracht 609), the Royal Palace (Dam), and the remarkable Hermitage Amsterdam (Amstel 51). 

For a day trip, three of Amsterdam's best museums are conveniently within a block of one another in the Museum Plaza (Museumplein) just south of the city center.  

Ongoing renovation has temporarily closed the Stedelijk Museum (Museumplein 10) which houses an impressive collection of modern art. The national art museum, the Rijksmuseum (Jan Luijkenstraat 1), is also undergoing renovations, but part of the museum is still open. Even though you can't see all the collection, the oil paintings by the Old Masters are on display and well-worth the visit. Don't overlook the decorative arts collection, especially Room 3 with the amazingly detailed dolls' houses of Petronella Oortman.

Half a block away, the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7) awaits you.  The collection is the most comprehensive in the world, as you would expect, given that this is Van Gogh's home.  What is unexpected is the building itself. Light, airy, and spacious, a walk through the exhibit space is invigorating. The museum is one of Amsterdam's most popular.

Having spent several hours in the museums, you're probably hungry.  In the spacious park behind the museums you can have a snack or relaxing lunch at the small stands, like the Kiosk Rembrandt Van Gogh, that serve sandwiches, salads, coffee, and dessert. 

Or, stretch your legs and walk a couple of blocks to the popular Heineken Experience (Stadhouderskade 78) and take a tour of the old brewery.  Because of the crowds, it is recommended to make an on line reservation. The price of admission includes two glasses of beer.  

For dessert, De Taart Van M'n Tante (Ferdinand Bolstraat 10) is around the corner.  The cozy tea shop is famous for its elaborately decorated cakes.  

The always crowded Albert Cuypmarkt in de Pijp (the Pipe) is also nearby.  Part country fair, flea market, farmers' market, and food bazaar, the market stretches for blocks with stalls selling an amazing variety of goods, including freshly squeezed fruit juices, farm fresh produce, meat, poultry, cut flowers, ready to eat food--including freshly made stroopwafels (crispy waffles with a caramelized sugar filling) and frites served the Dutch way with mayonnaise--clothing, fabric, sundries, cell phone accessories, thread and buttons, household goods, furniture, and jewelry.  

After you've checked out all the bargains, you might need some peace and quiet.  Walk over to Vondelpark with its expansive meadows and network of ponds. You can picnic with the food you bought at the Albert Cuypmarkt or stop at one of the two outdoor cafes to have a coffee, beer, or sandwich.

Another full day can be focused around the Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht 267) in the Jordaan.  Bordered by the Prinsengracht and Lijnbaansgracht canals on the western side of the city, the small streets of the Jordaan, originally a working class area, now a favorite home of young professionals and artists, has a unique charm.  

A visit to the Saturday Northern Market (Noordermarkt) is an absolute must.  The market on the northern side of the Northern Church (Noorderkerk) stretches for several blocks and resembles an outdoor supermarket as much as anything else.  Long refrigerated cases are filled with a great variety of meats, cheeses and poultry.  But it is the market on the southern side of the church that you want.

The organic or biologic, open air market on the south side fills the area in front of the church much in the way markets have done in Europe since the Middle Ages.  If the weather is sunny and warm, you're likely to encounter young musicians playing in the courtyard.  For a picnic, you can buy a loaf of just-baked bread, a kilo of ham, and a piece of delicious Dutch gouda.  Or if shellfish is your passion, freshly shucked oysters plucked that morning from the Wadden Sea are offered for €1.50 each.  

Dozens of vendors sell fresh produce, cheese, baked goods, meat, poultry, and seafood alongside others who offer antiques, jewelry, handmade articles, clothing, paintings, drawings, and used cds and vinyl records.

There are treasures to be found at the market.  Not the least of which are the hand-fashioned wool animals made by Josche Mooyman (Beeldend Kunstenaar, Klassiek Portret, Maskers en Dierfiguren, 020/671 21 47) who sits quietly on a stool, making her wonderfully empathetic miniature animals that sell for as little as 1 Euro each.    

The Jordaan is home to many cafes.  If you want to eat authentic Dutch pancakes, which are more like French crepes than the American version, the Pancake Bakery (Prinsengracht 191) is several blocks north of the Anne Frank House.  Dutch pancakes can be savory or sweet, the choice is yours.  You can feast on pancakes, giant omelets or poffertjes, another local treat, soft little pillows of sweet dough, flavored with butter and powdered sugar.

Cafe Winkel (Noordermarkt 43), across the street from the Northern Church (Noorderkerk), is a favorite of locals who flock to the intimate cafe for slices of apple cake with raisins, topped with a generous portion of whipped cream. The bar menu offers soups, omelets and sandwiches, including one with a "filet Americain," a finely ground beef patty with herbs, kind of a fancy hamburger.

Because this is Holland, there is a Tulip Museum (Prinsengracht 112).  Not one of Amsterdam's major museums but a delightful one, none the less.  Fortunes were made and lost in the 17th century tulip trade and the Dutch passion for tulips spawned an important, modern industry.

Although the floating Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt) is not in the Jordaan, if you love tulips, you owe it to yourself to follow the Singel canal south to Koningsplein, where you will find stall after stall of vendors selling an amazing variety of tulip bulbs.

The centerpiece of a day excursion in the Jordaan is, of course, the Anne Frank House. There is usually a line to enter the museum, so bring something to read and an umbrella because there is always a chance of rain, even in summer.

Visitors take a self-guided tour through the beautifully preserved house.  Moving together in small groups, sharing the small spaces, ducking under the low threshold of the hidden doorway, and climbing the impossibly steep staircases, it is easy to feel the claustrophobia that the Frank and Van Pels families experienced.  

Walking through the house is an emotional experience shared with Anne Frank herself. Her words are etched into the walls and her diary, with its delicate, precise handwriting, is displayed for all to see.

In an attic section of the annex, portions of a 1967 interview with Otto Frank are projected on the wall.  He talks about reading Anne's diary for the first time after the war and being surprised by her deep thoughts and self-criticism.  The Anne he read in the diary was "quite a different Anne than the one I knew."  From that fact he comes to a realization felt by most parents who have lived far more ordinary lives, "My conclusion is that parents don't know really their children."

The second floor museum cafe has a simple menu of sandwiches, pastries, and beverages.  What is remarkable about the cafe is not the food but the view.  

In one of the quotes from her diary, Anne talks about how she longs to ride her bicycle and walk the streets of Amsterdam without fear.  The cafe's wrap-around glass wall looks out onto Prinsengracht and the pretty houseboats below, exactly the view that was blocked from Anne's view by the blackout curtains that covered their windows.  We can enjoy the view that she was denied.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Amsterdam 101


The Netherlands is a good starter-country for Americans who want to visit Europe.

With easy access through Schiphol airport, Amsterdam is a compact city, hosting dozens of world class museums, miles of picturesque canals, well-maintained parks, narrow streets with old-world charm, hundreds of outdoor cafes and cozy bars.

Most importantly, English is the second language. So don't worry if you need help. You don't have to ask, "Do you speak English?" because everyone does.
The city is a good destination for couples on a romantic get-away, families with children who want a rich cultural experience, and young men and women on holiday in search of entertainment and night life.

Amsterdam prides itself on being a dynamic city and the best way to keep up with new developments is to check out the Netherlands Tourism Board's frequently updated web site offering the latest information about accommodations, attractions, and entertainment.

Even with so much going on, the scale of the old city is very people-friendly.  Most buildings around the canals are three to five stories tall.  Cars and trucks avoid the narrow cobblestone streets, leaving pedestrians and bicyclists in charge. Every few blocks there is a central square ("plein") with cafes, shops, and markets. 

Because the Dutch love gardens, many neighborhoods boast a park with large expanses of open space where families and friends can walk, picnic or just hang out. Besides Oosterpark, Hortus-Botanicus, Museum Square behind the Van Gogh, Rijksmuseum, and Stedelijk Museums, Vondelpark, and Westerpark, there are dozens of smaller public and private parks, scattered through the city. Even a small museum like the Museum Willet-Holthuysen (Herengracht 605) has a lovely formal garden in back.

June is the beginning of the summer holiday season so a lot of tourists are in town.  You'll see mobs of young men and women from the U.S., U.K., Italy, and Spain partying together, usually drinking and often singing--mostly in bars, around the squares and walking through the Red Light District.  Keeping to the quieter parts of town, families with kids visit the museums, canal cruises, and entertainment centers. Couples get around town on bicycles or take long walks, hand in hand, along the canals taking in the sights and enjoying being together.  

What's great about Amsterdam is that the city works for all of them.

When I first arrived in Amsterdam, I arranged for a tour guide to help me figure out the city.  

We took a leisurely walk around the old city, starting at Centraal Station, the mammoth transportation center that is the hub of the city's transportation system.  All the trams, trains, ferries, subways, buses, and canal boats originate at Centraal Station.  As Frans, the guide told me, "If you get lost in Amsterdam, just hop on any tram or bus that says 'Centraal Station' and you can start all over again."  

Following the narrow streets that cross the canals, we walked through the Red Light District and several entertainment centers with clusters of bars and cafes, some large like Dam and Rembrandt squares, some small like Spuistraat.

We passed innumerable churches, monuments, statues, small clothing shops, jewelry stores, large department stores, high-end boutiques and flea-markets.

It was obvious why Amsterdam is such a popular destination. But there was a problem.

Without a tall landmark as an anchor, walking down one narrow street after another, I felt dizzy as if we were walking in circles. Which is exactly what we were doing.

If you live in a city based on a grid, like New York or Los Angeles, Amsterdam will feel very confusing. The streets are not laid out in a simple north-south, east-west configuration.  In fact, the streets go every which way.

That's because the city is organized around the four original, 17th century canals--Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht--that encircle the old city like rings. Starting on the north-western side of Amsterdam, the canals curve south and then circle up to the north-eastern edge of the city.  

All those curving canals mean that the streets running alongside will do some acrobatics themselves. So if someone tells you to meet them on Singelgracht, they could be in the western, southern, or eastern part of the city.

To make matters more confusing for first-time visitors, streets change their names without warning.  In the center of town, even a major thoroughfare like Rokin changes its name to Damrak when it travels north through Dam Square.

So if you get lost, don't blame yourself. It's not your fault. What you need is a good map. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done.

The problem with most maps of Amsterdam is they don't indicate all the streets, so when you get lost and you're staring up at the street signs on the sides of the building, the map won't help.  

The one exception is the "Cito Plan Amsterdam" (15th edition), a large map that won't fit in your back pocket but shows most of the streets in Amsterdam as well as the stops on the tram (electric streetcar), metro (subway), and bus routes, with an easy to use street index on the back. The map is widely available in department stores, tourism offices, tobacco shops, and gas stations, as well as on line

The "Amsterdam Museums Guide to 37 Museums" from the Amsterdams Uitburo is another helpful map, given away free at participating museums.  Besides locating the most popular museums, it also describes each of the museums, gives the address, phone number, days and times of operation, as well as the tram and subway stops for each.

Amsterdam is getting a face lift.  Parts of the city that are usually very picturesque are now obscured by scaffolding.  Important public buildings are being renovated, including Centraal Station, the Royal Palace in Dam Square, the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum.  Subway construction is very visible in the busy commercial district on Rokin and Damrak.  For the most part you'll only be mildly inconvenienced, although some popular venues like the Stedelijk are temporarily closed.

Some good news for Americans.  For the moment, the drop in the exchange rate amounts to a 15% increase in purchasing power.

The bad news is that American credit cards are not widely accepted in Holland.  At high-end restaurants and hotels, your credit card might be honored, but maybe not, so ask before you run up any bills.  When you're walking around town, stopping in cafes, or shopping in small stores, you'll definitely need a pocketful of Euros.

Don't wait to buy Euros at your hotel.  Get them at Schiphol Airport. But don't trade your cash. Find a bank kiosk. You'll get a better rate using your debit card.  If you do business with more than one bank, before you leave home, check to see which one has the best deal for overseas ATM withdrawals.  Each time you make a withdrawal, you're charged a fee so take out enough for a week or more so you cut down on bank fees.

Small electronics can make a big difference.  

Although we always resolve to "travel light," that doesn't mean we aren't going to bring along all of our electronic toys.  Very few countries use the same plugs we do, so bring an electrical adapter in case your hotel doesn't have one. So you can charge your cell phone, laptop, and digital camera overnight, bring along a 3-way plug to use with the adapter.

Most American cell phones don't work in the Netherlands.  The ones that do, carry hefty roaming charges.  Unfortunately disposable cell phones aren't readily available, so you might have to get used to living unplugged.  Mostly, that's ok, but if you're meeting a friend or family member and you're running late, you won't have a way to connect so it's good to meet at a cafe where if one of you is late, it won't matter.  You'll have a second beer and another plate of bitterballen.

If you want a cup of coffee, don't ask for directions to a "coffee shop" because you'll find yourself in one of the many shops where people go to have a joint or smoke hash. "Koffie houses" serve coffee.  But don't expect to find a Starbucks. There are only three in all of Holland.  

When you are paying the bill in a restaurant or a cab, don't tip.  If you liked the service, the polite thing to do is round-up the payment.  Leave €2.00 for instance on a €1.75 bill. The tip is always included in the charge. On those very rare instances--I didn't encounter any--where the tip is not included, the menu will say so. For an American, not paying a tip feels bad, but paying an American-style 15-20% tip is considered inappropriate.

Restaurants are not cheap in Amsterdam.

Asian food, for example, is priced higher than Americans would expect.  Dishes that cost $7.00-10.00 in the States, might cost double that in Amsterdam. The exchange rate and the fact that tips are included somewhat off-sets the added cost.

Buses, trams, and the subway criss-cross Amsterdam in a very efficient way. Since June 1st, to use the public transportation system, you have to buy a Chip Card (OV-chipkaart) which can be loaded with any amount.

Single rides are expensive (€2.60). If you're only in town for a short amount of time and want to see as much of Amsterdam as possible, an economical way to use the Chip Card is to buy a time period during which you have unlimited rides: 24 (€7.00), 48 (€11.50), 72 (€15.50), up to 120 (€23.00) hours. The clock starts the first time you use the card. At Metro stations and on the tram, you will need to use your Chip Card to enter and exit.

Another option for tourists is the I Amsterdam Card which allows for unlimited rides during 24, 48, or 72 hour periods, plus a number of discount coupons to local businesses and access to almost all of the museums (not the Anne Frank House). The cost is considerably higher.

Chip Cards and free copies of the tram, bus, and subway routes can be picked up at the GVB store across from Centraal Station or online and also at the many information kiosks, indicated by signs with an “i”.  

A word of caution.  Some of the public transportation maps are wrong.   

For instance, when I was on the #4 tram on my way to meet a friend at Rembrandt Square (Rembrandtplein), I used my map to help me navigate. When we headed north on Vijzelstraat, I rechecked the map. The tram was supposed to be on Utrechtesestraat, traveling between Frederiksplein and Rembrandtplein. Utrechtesestraat not Vijzelstraat!  (Did I mention it took me awhile to get used to the long, unfamiliar sounding street names?)

I was completely lost. 

But it wasn't me, it was the map. Subway construction had forced the rerouting of the #4 tram line and the maps haven't been changed. Given ongoing construction, when you're getting directions from the hotel's concierge, ask whether there have been any route alterations.  If you want to double-check, you can always ask the tram driver.

Remember too that trams and the subway only run between 6:00am and 1:00am.  Some routes end even earlier.  If you're planning a late night, ask about the night buses which run every hour until regular service resumes in the morning.

Taxis are plentiful in the old part of the city but expensive. Before the taxi moves a foot, the charge is €7.50 euros, which makes even the shortest trip cost at least $15.00-20.00, depending on the distance and current exchange rate.

Renting a car is not recommended.

Trying to navigate the narrow, pedestrian and bike clogged streets of Amsterdam is challenging at best and after you arrive at your destination you’ll be confronted by a bigger challenge, parking.

Car rentals are available if you want to travel outside of Amsterdam, but for most trips, the train is a convenient, affordable alternative.  For example, if you want to visit the Friday morning cheese auction in Alkmaar with its young men and women in traditional costumes, the 45 minute trip costs only €13.00 for both ways.

Amsterdam's canals are not only picturesque, they're functional. Canal tours, water taxis and canal buses leave from Centraal Station and offer a unique view of the city. Canal-Bus' Hop on, Hop off Canal Cruise is a good way to see the city and visit major museums like the Hermitage, Rijksmuseum, and the Anne Frank House.


In the States many cross walks have count-down signals indicating how much time remains to cross the street.  In Amsterdam, the opposite is true.  The count down clocks tell you how much time you have to wait.  A motorcycle officer explained, “That’s how we get the pedestrians and bicyclists to obey the red light by letting them know they only have a few seconds to wait.  Otherwise they don’t wait for the green light and we have accidents.”

You’ll also notice at some busy intersections that when the green light comes on, the signal clicks like an over-excited alarm clock.  As the time to cross runs out, the clicks slow down.  When they stop, the red light comes on.

Amsterdam is bicycle heaven because bicyclists have the right of way.  Bike rentals are widely available.  At Centraal Station where all the trams, buses, subways, ferries, canal tours, and trains stop, there is also a MacBike store (Stationsplein 5), so when you arrive in town, you can pedal away and start your tour of the city.

The most efficient way to get around Amsterdam is on a bike but keep in mind that while bicycles are allowed on the subway, they are not permitted on the tram.  

In a city of 750,000, it is said there are probably that many bicycles and many of them have been stolen at least once. When you rent a bicycle, it would be wise to buy theft insurance and to listen carefully to the instructions about how to lock your bike.

While streets may be marked one-way, that only applies to cars and trucks. Bicycles and Vespas, which share the bike path, can go whichever way they want. So when you’re crossing a one-way street, be sure to look both ways.

In the Netherlands, bicycles aren't just a sunny-weather means of transportation. During my recent trip, I got a taste of bicycling Amsterdam style. Traveling with my raincoat, I was bicycling around the old city when it started to drizzle. With my hood on, the light rain wasn't a problem. I saw parents with their children bundled up the same way, although some people preferred umbrellas to hooded raincoats. Then the drizzle turned into a steady shower. I was drenched in a few minutes.  Luckily a cafe was up ahead so I locked up the bike and took refuge inside.

I had stumbled into 'Skek (Zeedijk 4), a cozy student run restaurant-bar a few blocks from Centraal Station.  First I had a coffee to ward off the cold, then a sandwich to build my strength, and a whisky because, well, because I was on holiday.

Remarkably I discovered that in the time it took to enjoy my late lunch, my clothes had dried and I was ready to head back out.  It was still raining, but I had learned an important Dutch lesson: if you get wet, stop in a cafe, have something hot to drink and a bite to eat.  You'll be just fine.

The Dutch are a generous and polite people, but not when you violate their right of way.

When you’re walking, stay on the sidewalk. If you hear a bell ringing on the left, move to the right, a bicycle is about to pass you. If you don't move quickly enough, you're likely to hear the Dutch equivalent of "Are you deaf?" or worse.

If you are riding a bicycle yourself, remember what you learned as a kid.  Don’t stop suddenly and always use arm signals so you won’t cause an accident.