Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Amsterdam

Well, one of my main goals in Amsterdam was to take a boat cruise along the canals. The web suggested going with a local company that uses small boats and only asks for a donation. It also suggested getting there first thing in the morning since the tours fill up fast.

Sticking to our plan, despite the lateness of the hour, we park. At first, we were frustrated with the 'find a legal parking space' game but we did land near the supposed tour spot. It is near a lovely square in Amsterdam - this shot is in front of a school - note the hundreds of bikes! We wander onward, seeing this cool split stone. I like this shot because it is easy to see the Dutch language - I thought I was lost with French but this?? I truly have no clue except I'm pretty positive it's nothing like my best guess. Which would be that this rock is some sort of memorial to: "Mr. Gestra who was very gifnooked and had a vision of beef, opening a stadium". Maybe he invented hotdogs? Well, we found Leisesplein square - but no one knew where the bar "boom" (the supposed name) was. We headed toward some other boat tours and found they were going to cost about 15 euros per person - that's like, a lot. (especially x 5) I, being stubborn, as you probably already realized, asked another person about 'boom' on Leidesplein. Oh, do you mean BoomChicago??? Um, yeah... maybe??

We head back, passing this lovely red hotel building and lots of cool bikes. People use them so much they need trunks - not the one Callie is in front of. Well, we manage to find BoomChicago at about a quarter to 2pm. It seems to be simply a bar - no signs, no indications of boat trips or tours anywhere to be found. Not too promising - it also seems dark inside but, when we test the door, it is open. The bar is deserted except for one man. Well, when he sees us he immediately says - Oh, are you here for the boat tour? Oh (big sigh of relief), yes, of course we are! (and thank goodness, he just spoke in our native tongue) He continues to ask, "Where are the other 3?" (Other 3????) After further conversation we figure out that that he already has a group of 8 coming at 2pm and he's only supposed to take 12 in the little boat. Oh please, please, please, I beg, (none too tactfully) these kids are small, they basically only count for like, 1 person, right? Andre' tried to apologize for my pushiness and luckily the guy was a good sport and he agreed to let us sneak in.



If YOU ever find yourself with only one day in Amsterdam - do this tour. Especially if you have kids who can't cover a lot of ground! It is the best way to see lots of stuff in a short amount of time and we got to go in this great old fashioned boat that was really authentic. No annoying intercom voice feed either. Plus it is a service run for charity - The St. Nicholas Boat Club - they are trying to make enough money to restore these boats and keep them working in the canals as they have been for hundreds of years. The kids were soooooooo excited. They even had life vests for them in case we needed to abandon ship. Well, I'm not sure if the 8 slightly drunken Irish tourists were so happy to see us horn in on their tour but - there we were! Here are TONS and TONS of shots from the water. I really enjoyed seeing the unique architecture of the buildings along the canals in Amsterdam. Some of the houses had these really awesome kind of sunrooms extruding from the upper floors. Others had GIANT wooden shutters over the windows. Most of the older houses had a hook protruding from the roofline - we think it is simply for hoisting things up to the upper floors of these buildings. We saw tons of waterfowl, lots of swans and a very mutated colored mallard like duck - the kids thought it would look great at Duckhaven! We went under lots of low bridges and saw tons of houseboats. These ranged from the tiny to the huge, the decrepit to the luxurious, and most of them look like they never, ever leave their docking place. It's hard to believe some of them are even floating, they are so large. The guide told us they have to pay for their spot and are hooked into the city's water, electric and (most of the time) sewer systems.


Then we came out of the canals reaching the famous Amstel River (yes, like the beer), the namesake of Amsterdam. (They dammed up the Amstel... so...Amstel-Dam...Amsterdam, it's a stretch, but hey it must work in Dutch). There are these giant towers along the river - left over from when the entire city was walled up. There is also this great statue of the former queen. I love how she is so 'normal' looking - no crown, no super fancy dress, just riding on her horse (albeit sidesaddle). The famous bridge of Amsterdam, Megere Brug, was there - gee, looking at it I'm not so sure why it is famous. It looked a lot like other bridges I have seen. Is this the original drawbridge? Well, we were hoping we would get to see it open up for a taller ship, but no such luck. The captain did see a few friends on the bridge though and he let them hop on as well. Hmm... the limit was supposed to be 12 and now we had.... 16? It was kind of scary the way he just pulled the boat over at a random sidewalk and the people leapt on the boat. Guess he knows what he is doing, though, since we didn't sink. I was also very interested to see that the river is still used for work - you can see the crane here on a barge swinging some giant piece of timber to help build I have no idea what. Well this wood kept dipping in the water and smacking into the side of the floating dock things, making loud crashing noises. It all didn't look very professional, or safe, frankly, I imagined if one of the workers got knocked overboard they might never be heard from again.



Then we headed back into the canal system to see the older part of the city - here is Zander loving the chance to be in the front of our little boat. We floated through the infamous Red Light District. The guide told us there are hardly any girls in windows any longer as the city is trying to 'clean up' the area - what a shame. Luckily they haven't been completely successful since we did see one, from afar. We also saw some crazy museums such as, the purse museum, the hemp (i.e. marijuana) museum and the erotica museum. The houses here were the older style built right on the canal, it was amazing to see how the doors of the houses opened right up onto the water. We imagined what it would be like to live in such a house. Of course, we would have to choose one right across from one of those areas that is not too cleaned up.

Then we came back out onto a different section of the Amstel near the maritime museum and saw an amazing model of a pirate ship. Zander was absolutely obsessed with this boat! It was really a perfect day for such a trip - it was warm (especially considering it was March 2) and sunny. Here is Callie and I with a more modern bridge and buildings behind us. We also passed some of the other tour boats and all agreed that ours was the best. Behind the boat you can see the leaning house - it seems that, much like Venice, Amsterdam is completely built below sea level and all the houses are built on stilts. The guide said that every 10 years or so, they have to replace the supports since they slowly sink into the silty bottom. The leaning building needs some new stilts I guess! We knew there was a church that you can visit that is located in one of the old canal houses - but would we have time?? We headed back down the canals again towards our parking spot, praying we wouldn't get ticketed as we would be 15 minutes over time. We enjoyed Amsterdam so much we considered staying in a hotel overnight - nothing was available that we could afford, unfortunately. Our luck held, however, with the parking, no ticket!

Then we headed over to the Anne Frank house. There was this amazing bird perched on a houseboat right next to where we parked - it was ridiculously close. Then, on to Anne Frank. I have read the diary of Anne Frank like, 10 times, (including re-reading it over the past week since we were going there) I also, in anticipation of the visit, read a great kids book about this topic outloud as we were driving. It's called "Number the Stars" about a Christian family in Denmark that helps a Jewish family escape the Nazi's. It's a story full of hope and courage but it introduces the subject to them. Zander was fascinated and asked tons of questions. It is always tricky to know how much to tell my kids about these topics, how to introduce them, what to say and what level of information they can handle. I have no desire to traumatize them, but, on the other hand, these things DID happen - and I want them to know what happened. I think going to the Anne Frank house was a good choice (rather than the Resistance Museum, which we also really, really wanted to see) because it is digestible. It is a story of just one person - they get a bit sad but it is not to overwhelming (or graphic). Anyway, it was really a cool experience to visit the actual house and 'Secret Annexe' where she lived. The Nazis removed all the furniture so we couldn't see how things really were (on the request of Otto Frank, her father, they have left it empty) but they did have a model. There was also a museum attached. I took this shot of one of the yellow stars they were forced to wear (before Andre' told me I wasn't allowed to take pictures - whoops).

Well, sadly, the all too short day was done, my friends - we did drive over and stop for a half hour or so at Vondel Park - as you can see the sun was setting. It was lovely. It made me a bit sad about our timing - I've always heard of the amazing tulips and other flowers in this area of the country - but we were there just a bit too early - the tips of bulbs were popping up all over the place, and we did see lots of crocuses - but the full glory was definitely not in place. We still needed something to eat and the bagel place was (tragically) closed. (Man, I miss bagels - haven't had a bagel since the USA) We ended up at a cheapo pizza place but I did trash pick a great souvenir - a genuine Netherlands license plate. However, we finally lost the "find a legal parking space" game (even though we thought we read the signs!) When we got back to the car there was a ticket - for 52 Euros!!! We heard later that this was actually kinder than it used to be. Apparently, in this area of the world, they simply booted any car found in violation. We got a bit lost going home again - but still made it in about 4 hours. Luckily tomorrow we get to rest.

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