It’s been so long since I’ve posted anything that you’ve probably forgotten who I am… or thought I had dropped off the face of the earth. But I didn’t. I’m still here. I’ve just been suffering from a severe lack of motivation, not only for writing but for most things in general. Yes, I have been in a slump. You could call it the February Blues but I’ve been like this for some time. I’ve also had boarders for the last six months which left me with considerably less spare time than normal but that wasn’t a bad thing… I’m certainly not complaining about having people around!
In the last couple of weeks, however, I have felt better… & of course, a vacation always does wonders for curing a case of the winter blahs. While there were days I wished we were somewhere warm & on a beach, our trip to Amsterdam, the city of 88 beautiful canals, was wonderful despite the wintery weather.
Upon hearing the words canals & city in the same sentence, most people tend to think Venice, Italy, & until our trip to Amsterdam, I was no different. I had no idea there were so many canals in Amsterdam, 165 to be exact (iamsterdam.com). Nor did I realize that nearly 26% of the country is below sea level (www.holland.com) & that the highest point in the Netherlands is only 323 meters above sea level. I guess the country is aptly named since Netherlands literally means lowlands or low country. But wait, I was talking about canals, wasn’t I?You are probably wondering why the title of this post is The City of 88 Beautiful Canals & yet I just told you there were 165 canals in Amsterdam. I will freely admit that math has never been my strong suit but there are no mathematical errors here. 88 Beautiful Canals refers to a Dutch tongue twister we heard while on a bus trip outside of Amsterdam.The Dutch sentence reads something like this: Wij smachten naar achtentachtig prachtige nachten bij achtentachtig prachtige grachten. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/yoursay/tongue_twisters/dutch/beautiful_nights_beautiful_canals.shtml)
The English translation: We long for 88 beautiful nights by 88 beautiful canals.Having heard this sentence spoken in Dutch, I can assure you that it is quite the tongue twister. And needless to say, Colin & I did not master the Dutch pronunciation. But it seemed like a fitting title for this post, as there are many beautiful canals in Amsterdam as you can see from my photos.Okay, so back to the trip. Colin had to go for work…& I was tagging along. His job is so much more exciting than mine… I never get to go anywhere exotic when my job requires me to travel. Yet in the past six months alone, Colin has now been to Hamburg, Germany & Amsterdam, Netherlands for work… Sigh… At least this time I was able to go as well. When we were first discussing it Colin was kind of hesitant but I quickly told him how it would turn out. I could not go with him, but I would be upset & bitter that he was going to Europe again without me & it really wouldn’t be much fun for him! I couldn’t help it. I was going through Europe withdrawal. While I was in university I had somehow managed to travel to Europe in 2001, 2003, 2004 & 2007… which meant it had been over 5 years since my last European adventure. Now, my husband is a smart man so it was quickly decided that I would indeed be going with him! He had not been thrilled by his first European experience but I assured him that Amsterdam would be so much better merely because I would be there! (Hopefully, I was right!).One of the great things about traveling to Amsterdam is how easy it is to get around, as it is in many other large European centers. We flew into Schiphol airport & proceeded to take the train into downtown. The train station is located directly under the airport so it was super easy… the hard part was finding the right track & dealing with a jet-lagged & tired husband (the picture below is actually from the day we left… he was not so smiley the morning we arrived)! As I said, I’ve been to Europe several times & used public transit on many of those occasions. I’ve navigated train stations & subways in Paris, Rome, Athens, & Berlin, so Amsterdam, where almost everything is posted in English, was easy. This was a trip of firsts for my husband, however, including his first time on public transit & a train. I find it amazing that at 33 years of age my husband had never been on a train before. Of course, I realize now he probably would have been more receptive to his first train ride had we not just landed after an overnight overseas flight & had he managed to sleep for a few hours. With only a few hiccups we made it to our hotel in downtown Amsterdam right next to the Central Station (this is the train station – not our hotel).Our first hotel was in a great location & we found we could easily walk almost anywhere from here. We were only blocks from great restaurants & coffee shops as well as the red light district, which is an adventure all in itself. Since our hotel was right near the train station, access to the tram system was also right at our door step, which was great when it was raining. We discovered during our time in Amsterdam that I am totally okay with wandering… my husband, however, would probably tell you it was aimless wandering. If we had no specific destination I was far better to leave Colin back at the hotel! Walking is one of the great ways to explore a new city though & a good way to get out of the tourist areas & discover how people really live (in Amsterdam it’s tall & skinny houses or houseboats!).Had we been brave, we might have rented bicycles. I have never, in all my life, seen so many bicycles & all in one city. I think I read somewhere that if there are 800,000 people in Amsterdam there are 880,000 bicycles!They are everywhere. Literally. We spent the week wondering how people ever found their bicycles again if they weren’t painted bright colours! Bike lanes are standard in Amsterdam & heaven help the person who mistakenly walks in the bike lane. Watch Out!I did almost get run over once, although it was not entirely my fault. Not only was I afraid of being run over by a bike but I was certain that if we rented bicycles & tried to navigate the city that way, nothing good could come of it. I am a klutz at the best of times & always running into things… (I actually managed to sprain one of my toes while we were gone if that is any indication). Trying to ride a bike as a tourist in a city where the population cycles 365 days a year did not sound like a good time to me. So we walked… & walked… & walked.Tulips are synonymous with the Netherlands & we saw lots of them while walking through the flower market (although I am sure we would have seen many more had it been springtime). Colin suggested that we bring some tulip bulbs home since they were for sale everywhere. Despite the fact that I don’t think we actually could have brought them home, it likely wouldn’t have been a good idea. I do not have a green thumb at all & last year the squirrels dug up all my tulips!! On one of our walks (in the rain) we came across Rembrandt Square (we missed the Rembrandt museum but saw his statue in the square). Can you tell it was raining & wet? Luckily there were things to do inside when the weather was bad… like tour the Heineken Factory! One of the best parts about the Heineken tour, apart from tasting some fresh Heineken, was labeling our own bottle of beer. For a small fee, of course, you could create your own label for a bottle of Heineken! Now, we didn’t spend all of our time only in Amsterdam. We did take a bus tour one day to get out of the city. I have taken these kinds of bus tours before in other countries & while they are a great way to see the sites, they also have their draw backs… like being bound by the schedule & other people. Overall, our tour wasn’t too bad, except for three couples who held us up continually from before the tour even started! We made three stops while on the bus tour.
The first was Marken, where we visited a wooden shoe factory. It was interesting to walk around this little Dutch village (& see how people live in the country) & then visit the wooden shoe factory. The girls working inside were dressed in traditional Dutch clothing & of course, wooden shoes. They assured us that wooden shoes were really quite comfortable but I still have my doubts. We learned that wooden shoes are made either from willow or poplar because the wood is initially soft & pliable after being soaked in water but when the shoes dry they become hard & durable.
We were given a demonstration about how the machines today make wooden shoes. It is a rather interesting process & the machines can turn out a wooden shoe in a matter of minutes. The machines create a mirror image so if you want to make a left shoe you need to place the piece of wood on the right hand side. There is one machine that carves the initial shape of the shoe, another that carves out the inside & then the finishing touches are completed by hand. I believe we were told that there are only something like 20 people left in the Netherlands who know how to make wooden shoes by hand – it is a dying art.We also learned about different types of wooden shoes – who knew there was more than one! The ones with pointy toes were worn by fisherman, to help them retrieve their nets. The ones with rounded toes were worn by farmers so that if an animal stepped on your toes, it wouldn’t hurt. Perhaps my favourite shoe, however, was the smuggler shoe, worn during the Second World War (imagine that – me liking something that has to do with the war!). The smuggler shoe named because of its reverse footprint. The shoe was carved in such a way that if you were walking forward, the footprints your shoes left would make it appear that you were walking the opposite direction. That, if you ask me, is pretty ingenious.
The second stop was Volendam where we visited a cheese factory & museum. Upon arrival there was a short presentation on how Dutch cheese (Gouda) is made. Most of our time at the cheese factory was spent wandering the store, sampling different flavours of Gouda & deciding what kind of cheese to purchase to bring home. Colin & I ended up with some smoked Gouda (which I often buy here at home but I’m sure what I buy here does not even compare with what we bought in Volendam) & the traditional spiced Gouda with cumin seeds (which is my favourite). YUM!
Once we had our fill of cheese we were free to wander the town of Volendam before boarding the bus again & heading to our final destination. The final stop was the village of Zaanse Schans where we saw some old fashioned windmills. Since it was wind turbines that brought us to Amsterdam in the first place, we figured we had better see some of the old fashioned ones too.
We also took a canal boat tour in Amsterdam but it was not quite what we were expecting. It wasn’t quite as bad as the boat tour we took in Frankenmuth, but it wasn’t the best ever. Colin & I both agreed that during the summer, it would probably be fabulous. In February, not so much. The boat was crowded & due to the cold temperatures all the windows fogged up making it virtually impossible to see anything. The rain didn’t help either!
On the days when Colin was working, I visited some of the many museums in Amsterdam with the wife of a colleague of Colin’s who was also tagging along. We visited the Anne Frank House (http://www.annefrank.org/). While in university I had taken numerous courses relating to the Holocaust & I knew the story of Anne Frank well. It was sobering to actually see where her family hid during the war & learn more about the Frank’s life in hiding & their capture.
We also visited the Dutch Resistance Museum (http://www.verzetsmuseum.org/museum/en/museum). I have to thank Tanya for indulging the history geek in me on this one… sometimes I forget that not everyone likes military history or places relating to the Second World War as much as I do.
The botanical gardens in Amsterdam was another amazing place we visited. While I am sure it would be even more beautiful in the summer, when all of the outdoor plants were in full bloom, it was still very interesting. There are a number of endangered & almost extinct plants, 4,000 different species of plants to be exact, that are housed within the greenhouses of the Hortus (http://en.dehortus.nl/homepage). One of the coolest things I thought was the cork tree… It makes me think that perhaps synthetic corks in wine are not so bad after all if it means saving these beautiful trees.
Although it was a sunny day, it was also quite chilly so my favourite greenhouse was the tropical one, where we were hit by a wave of warm, humid air. I could have stayed there all afternoon & imagined I was on that beach.Despite the fact that we did see snow while we were in Amsterdam, the winters are not as harsh. There were already crocus’ coming up in early February in the garden at the botanical gardens!Colin & I both agree that we would like to go back to Amsterdam again… perhaps in the summer, when it’s nicer!! During tulip season would be fine by me. There are so many things left unexplored & left to see. One of the most interesting things we saw while there was something that we could easily not have… the man in the tree. If you don’t look close, you’ll miss him.Apparently no one knows how he got there…. one day he wasn’t there & the next he was… in the city of 88 beautiful canals. Wouldn’t you like to visit?