Will travel for tulips – Day 3 – On to Amsterdam and the Western Canal Ring
After only a quick two days in Brussels, I was heading back to Amsterdam for the bulk of my spring holiday. I was here for tulips, and Amsterdam it, I would see tulips.
I made the mistake of waiting to book my train ticket back on Monday morning (Easter Monday) until late the night before. By the time I got online and looked for tickets, only a handful of first class tickets were left. I sucked it up, book first class on the fast train to Amsterdam and actually enjoyed the comfortable seats, breakfast snack, and pleasant conversation with my three seatmates, a grandmother, mother, and daughter trio from Canada.
Tip: At the Centraal Train Station in Amsterdam, get the I AMsterdam card for the days you’ll be there, available in 24, 48, 72, and up to 96 hours (four days) for a fair price. It gives you unlimited public transport within the city (trams and buses), discounts in some places, a free canal boat tour, and free admission to museums and other popular places. If you plan on using public transport repeatedly and visiting a lot of the Amsterdam sites, this card makes it easy and convenient. I recouped the price of the 96 hour card easily with all the museums I visited. The only drawback is that you do have to queue to get into places like the Van Gogh Museum, which can have 2+ hour waits, as the card isn’t a “prepaid” ticket.
Outside Centraal station was the beautiful waterfront. The day was bursting with sunshine, blue skies, and a pleasant coolness in the air. Cyclists zipped along the trail as I crossed to take a deep breath of the air. I had one of those moments of contentment, an instant liking of a place I was visiting. It doesn’t always happen when I travel, but Amsterdam made me happy from the moment I arrived.
I settled into my AirBnB apartment for the week and immediately took advantage of the day by taking a walk around the Western Canal Ring.
Buildings to look out for – if you’re on the hunt for Amsterdam’s finest:
Noorderkerk (North Church) – My first stop and the broad park outside it a popular place for children to play with plenty of bars and cafes nearby. On Saturdays, there is a large outdoor market worth cruising through. Spinach and feta pie – delish!
Greenland Warehouses – Identifiable by its brown brick exteriors and red-shuttered windows (labeled Greenland), these warehouses used to store whale oil. I’m just thinking that it was a rather greasy commodity and probably smelled something awful.
Rode Hoed – At first I thought this building was called “Red Head.” I was thinking it was secret society of Dutch red-heads, a protection agency, perhaps, for people with ginger hair. Not so. It means “Red Hat” – as if the red hat emblem near the rooftop wasn’t enough of a clue – and used to house one of Amsterdam’s “secret churches.” Basically, at one point in their history, Dutch people weren’t allowed to worship as freely as they’d like. This was mostly true of Catholics. As the rules relaxed, people were allowed to worship in “secret churches” as long as the church wasn’t visible from the street. Therefore, many of these popped up in buildings across Amsterdam, particularly in attics of buildings put together, such as in the case of the Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer Op Solder, which I’ll write more on in another post.
West Indisch Huis (West India House) – Perhaps not the most incredibly interesting place architecturally but still no less beautiful, this is the historic location where, in 1625, it was decided that the Dutch West India Company would build a fort in … Manhattan. Yes, here was the foundation place of New Amsterdam, aka New York City.
Westerkerk – Meaning “West Church”, its princely exterior was notable for the little crown topping the steeple and also for being the church bells which Anne Frank could hear whilst in hiding from the Nazis. Outside the church is a small statue of Anne Frank and also the large triangular memorial to homosexuals also persecuted and killed by the Nazi regime.
Anne Frank Huis – The museum at the warehouse where Anne Frank, her family, Van Pels family, and Fritz Pfeffer living in hiding for just over two years was easily identifiable by its long, winding lines of people wanting to visit. This was one of my primary reasons for visiting Amsterdam – I had to meet the world of the girl whose diary I had read many years ago. It was next door to the Westerkerk.
Details to look out for on buildings include the hooks near the steepest part of the roof – these were used for bringing up heavy goods into the warehouses, as staircases in the canal houses were narrow, spiraled, and steep. Also, some of the older houses will have some kind of detailing near the roof or above the door, an emblem of sorts, which “explains” what the building was. This could be something like grapes (wine warehouse), a pig (butcher or meat), or sheaves of wheat (baker or flour). Lastly, my favourite part was finding the leaning buildings. Because of the settling of foundations in the water-thick landscape, several of the canal houses and buildings lean to the side or even forward. You feel a bit like you’re too tipsy – or took too many hits walking past the cafes – but they are tilting. You’re not crazy.
While I was able to wander for a few hours along the canals in the Western Ring, I did want to visit one more location that just beyond the Western Ring and more in the Medieval District – Nieuwe Kerk. This “New Church” was built in 1408, which is newer than the Oude Kerk (Old Church), which was built in 1213. All of it is insanely old, if you ask this American! Nieuwe kerk doesn’t really host many services these days, but it was the house of the World Press Photo exhibit. I wasn’t anticipating this exhibit – I had just wanted to putter around an incredibly old church – but it turned out to be magnificent.
The photographs (to a budding photographer such as myself) were stunning – and the photos which were “heard” around the world. Some of them were poignant, sad, heartbreaking, iconic, and – fierce. It’s one thing to look at the photographs, with their emotional appeal, but it’s another to think about the photographer who must’ve been there, taking that picture and knowing exactly what to capture. Or, perhaps it was an accident. Either way, the exhibit was an unexpected but thrilling surprise at the church.
From Nieuwe Kerk I found the docks for the one hour canal boat cruise that was included with my I AMsterdam card. It was a pleasant hour on the canals, listening to the history of the city and watching the architecture and bridges go by. One of the most interesting and perhaps out of place buildings was the bathtub-shaped NEMO museum, a science center along the river. The shape of the building was meant to reflect the shape of the tunnel underneath the water.
I feel like I should mention the bridges. I don’t think there is an ugly bridge in Amsterdam. Whether its a sloping canal bridge, several bridges stacked like Legos down the water, or an iron bridge meant to be lifted by levers, the bridges are beautiful – and packed full of bikes.
Ah, the cyclists. Beware the cyclists. You’re more likely to be run over or cursed at by a cyclist than someone in a car. Cyclists who know what they’re doing are okay – it’s the cyclists who are renting a bike for the day and have no idea of the rules (or, as I saw, even how to ride the bike or apply brakes) are the ones to worry about. Look all ways before crossing a street, even if it looks empty, because BAM! a bike will literally come out of some dark alley and nearly run you over. Or, you’ll knock the person off. Or, they’ll apply brakes so hard it’ll sound like a movie stunt gone wrong. The bikes. Just keep an eye out.
Thankfully, I made it past day one without inadvertently getting in the way of a cyclist – or a tram.
Yeah, watch out for those, too.