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Amsterdam Netherlands, October 26 - November 2, 2016

a visit by Jenny and Charlie Plesums

In the early 1970s we visited Amsterdam as part of our first European trip. It was dirty and not tourist-friendly. So when we went to Belgium in 2012, four years before this trip, we spent just a couple days in Amsterdam. Boy was that a mistake... Amsterdam has become clean, convenient, and tourist friendly, with lots of museums and attractions. A couple major museums were closed for renovation during the 2012 trip, so they contributed to the "need to return" in 2016.

Getting There

The trip to Amsterdam was uneventful - Austin to Dallas-Fort Worth Wednesday afternoon, then DFW to London Heathrow (our American Airlines status gave us a free upgrade to Business Class). The transfer in LHR from Terminal 3 to British Airways Terminal 5, has improved, and gave us time to enjoy the BA club (ah, Airline status). We then flew on to Amsterdam arriving late Thursday afternoon.

Amsterdam - October 27

Last trip we stayed at the Hilton DoubleTree hotel next to the central train station. It seemed like a great location, but this time we went far better - the Barbizon Palace close to the Centraal train station but on the side far closer to town. This was taken from a canal boat, roughly in front of the train station. Incidentally the infamous red light and drug district is a few blocks to the right of the hotel. The church to the left of the hotel is the Basilica of St. Nicholas, the city's major Catholic church.

There are still countless bikes in Amsterdam, and the joke is they get 20 points for each tourist they hit. The bike lanes are far wider than the pedestrian sidewalks, and far more dangerous than the streets. Nevertheless, it is a safe city. Bicycling is easy because of the flat land - one pundit said if a dog dropped a load, it should be surveyed as a potentially the highest point in the country.

Friday October 28

One of the reopened museums that led to this trip was the Van Gogh museum. Fortunately for you, they did not allow pictures other than this oversize copy that you could pose near.

The line to get tickets to get into the VanGogh museum was absurd. If you buy your tickets in advance, on line, it has to be for a specific time. If you buy an I AMsterdam card, you wait 20 minutes in a shorter line alongside the maze (as we did) to get the actual admission ticket. If you scroll to the extreme right, you see a few people in the distance finally entering the actual museum.

Not far away was the Stedelijk museum of contemporary art and design. Admission was included in our I AMsterdam card and the line was not long. It showed us why many of their things will only exist in the current period, not preserved for centuries. For example this "Jean Tinguely: Machine Spectacle."

There were a few interesting ideas.... for example this house was designed for disaster areas, such as Haiti where inhabitants lost their homes in the 2010 earthquake. The boards are produced locally from crop residues such as grass, pruning chips, or reeds, with a binder. A CNC machine cuts the boards into panels that can be assembled without tools or fasteners. The roof is shaped to collect rainwater.

We had a debate whether the lights over many of the streets were because of the upcoming Christmas Holiday (Jenny's vote) or because of being a tourist town at night (Charlie's vote)

Not all of the streets are as large as above - this is a parallel street a block over.

And for our friends and family that rate cities on their bakeries, Amsterdam is okay, but far fewer than Germany and Italy, and we suspect the baked goods come from elsewhere, not the back room.

Saturday October 29

Near our hotel was what I thought was a neighborhood snack bar, only to learn it is a highly rated "breakfast or anything all day" cafe. This is the pancake named after their business... Prins heerlijk Pancake. After I had already eaten a quarter of it, I realized it was worth reporting! Some reviews said it was in the Red Light district, but I would say closer to the central train station and almost next to our hotel (which was NEAR but not IN the Red Light district).

Our "I AMsterdam" city card included a "free" hour-long canal cruise, so we took it this morning.

One of the sights was Montelbaanstoren, a tower that was built in 1516 as part of the city wall for defending the city and harbor. The more decorative top is a modern addition - added in 1606 - making the tower 48 meters (157 feet) tall.

Amsterdam is often compared to Venice Italy. In central Venice there are no cars (or bicycles). The houses come directly up to the water, and on the back side are pedestrian streets with stairs that climb the 409 bridges over the canals.

In Amsterdam most of the streets are between the houses and the canals, and there are private backyards. There are at least 1281 bridges (some references give a higher number) over Amsterdam's 165 canals.

This could be called the armory... the two wheeled weapons so common in Amsterdam.

Many of the houses were owned by rich merchants centuries ago, who conducted retail sales on the ground floor, "lived above the store," and had warehouse space on the upper floors. Note the support for pulleys on the top floor, with delivery doors below. As these old business buildings have become very expensive homes, the protective doors now act as shutters on picture windows.

Amsterdam Museum - Saturday

As we got off an hour long boat ride, with no restrooms, our first stop in the Amsterdam Museum was, of course, restrooms. Note the middle person of the three on this sign. They also had just finished an exhibition on transgenders.

The Night Watch, Rembrandt's most famous painting, belongs to this museum, but is on permanent loan to the Rijksmuseum (tomorrow). It is considered part of this collection of paintings so large that they cannot routinely be displayed. Note the size (Night Watch is 12 x 14 feet; the characters are nearly life size) compared to the people viewing it, in this picture borrowed from their web site.

There was an extensive exhibit of the 100 year history of Schiphol airport. Quite interesting but not photogenic. There were even interactive displays where you could try to bring multiple planes in to land (without having collisions as I did).

One of the hallways was lined with almost parallel mirrors. It was fun even for us old folks.

One area had a David and Goliath exhibit... or perhaps Jenny and Goliath. The floor was carpeted with different artist's carpet panels.

Sunday October 30 - Rijks Museum

This museum is not free with the I AMsterdam card like most of the others - only a token discount. Therefore we saved this museum until the expiration of our card. We arrived early to avoid congestion, and had breakfast in the Museum cafe.

We have always enjoyed ship models. From the 1600s through the 1800s designers built detailed models to guide the builders, rather than extensive drawings. Sometimes the models were only of one side of the ship, or other cross-sections. This model had animated holograms (white) of people in different parts of the ship, doing what that part of the ship was used for. I don't think the original builders had the holograms, but they were neat.

This cabinet of a Militia company, from about 1520-1530, would have held valuables such as drinking cups and guild chains. This is considered one of the finest pieces of 16th century in the world.

With my love for pictures of museum furniture, which reasonably bore many of my friends, you are welcome to view or skip the additional furniture pictures from the Rijks Museum.

I found this sculpture charming. Notice the lady is carrying her child. Notice the dog at her feet - she is carrying the dog's puppies as well, in the cloth in her left hand, and the food from the market in her right.

Rembrandt's famous "Night Watch" is here, but there are other, more dramatic and larger paintings on display as well. (I wasn't as impressed with Night Watch as I was supposed to be.)

These carvings of Dysmas and Gestas, the good and bad thieves who were crucufied on either side of Christ. They are only 11 cm and 16 cm tall (4 and 6 inches) so the detail in the expression and carved ropes in that miniature wood carving is amazing, especially as preserved from about 1490 or 1510.

This wasn't an exhibit at the Rijks Museum. It was a visitor. "May I take your picture?" "Sure." It is Amsterdam, after all.

Monday October 31 - Windmills tour

We had a beautiful day for a trip to Zaanse Schans to see windmills up close. Bright sun, clear sky, no wind. Ugh. No wind, so the windmills didn't move. This community is where the traditional windmills have been retained, with some preserved and moved here from elsewhere. It was less than an hour ride in a luxury bus from central Amsterdam.

Our group got the "inside" tour of this windmill. The very top rotates to catch the wind; the green boards lead to a wheel on the deck that "points" the blades into the wind. The upper part of many windmills (including ours) is thatched. (Why? Why not, made with local material, and it lasts 40 years or more.)

Our particular windmill was a sawmill. As the operator explained, he made lumber, the next mill ground flax seed (making linseed oil, the base component of paint), the next windmill in the line ground various materials to make different pigments - the colors added to the linseed oil that becomes paint for his lumber. But, he said, the most important windmill was the water pump.

Many of the little canals are below sea level; the typical pump raises the water a few feet to the next higher canal, which at some point raises the water to the next higher canal, as many times as required to flow into the sea. Like everywhere, Netherlands has sea walls to protect from ocean storms, but the primary protection of living below sea level is not a massive dike (as I had always visualized), but a series of canals each a few feet higher than the next.

The logs are stored in water for about a year before they are floated to the sloping dock, where a large rope is attached to pull the log into the mill using wind power. The year soaking apparently changes the wood chemistry so it warps less when cut.

The windmill moves the blades up and down, and moves the log forward 1 mm each saw stroke. Therefore on a good day, it can saw 2 meters (6 feet) per hour. To make up for the slow progress, multiple blades are put on the saw, so an entire log can be sawn in a single pass. To my amazement I found a youtube video of THIS sawmill in operation.

The lumber is then "stickered" and stored outside to dry, about a year for each inch of thickness. In the local humidity it can only reach 19-20% moisture, so to get 6-8% for furniture it needs to be kiln dried elsewhere.

The local residents don't live in or at their windmills, as historically correct, but across the canal in modern homes.

A short bus ride away we came to the seaside village of Vollendam. Interesting discussion of making cheese followed by free samples and a hard sell.

After as many tours as we have taken, we are immune to the hard sell part.

As a fishing village we walked to the waterfront. The sign on the building reads "Fresh eel is a feast for young and old at every meal." Jenny was hoping for traditional Herring for lunch, but the waitress explained that they only serve fresh herring and the fishermen were not out today - a holy day - the eve of All Saints day. We simply call it Halloween, and are less serious about the holy day part.

Then the featured 20 minute ferry ride to Marken. It was an island for many years, but there is now a causeway, so we came back, all the way to Amsterdam, by bus.

The highlight of this island is a wooden shoe factory. The guy doing the demonstration in four languages was most entertaining - he could compete with Jay Leno. The TV shows I have seen on making wooden shoes have close-ups that are better than the pictures I was able to take - if you are interested, watch this youtube video.

Why do people wear them? They are waterproof and easy to remove like loafers. They should be worn with heavy wool socks. I tried them with athletic socks - the length was right but many more layers of socks would be necessary for my comfort.

Monday afternoon Walking Tour

Back from our windmill tour, we decided to take the Rick Steves walking tour of the most infamous part of Amsterdam - the Red Light district. It starts at Dam square, once the site of the dam that kept the sea out, close to the original harbor.

We were hardly started when we encountered a condom shop. Outside pictures only, but inside many sales people offering a huge variety of ... toys.

The center of this "Sailor's Quarter" is De Oude Kerk, "The Old Church." Since the Dutch Reformed took over the church from the Catholics, centuries ago, and removed all the offensive decorations, the word is that it isn't worth the entrance fee to tour the church itself. But outside the church is a bronze statue of Belle, honoring sex workers all over the world. I didn't take a picture of the explicit bronze breast coming out of the sidewalk nearby, with a groping bronze hand.

I didn't go into, and therefore don't have a picture of, a coffeeshop. That is a non-alcoholic, minimal food bar that doesn't sell much coffee. So I borrowed this picutre from Bulldog's web site. See my rambling on pot, sex, and other Amsterdam things.

This is one of the few areas where the houses are directly on the canal like in Venice. The gate, behind the no parking sign, connects this section of canals to the river. When the water levels are right, the gate is open to allow water to exchange between the canals and the river connected to the sea. You could say this is the sea dyke, or look at the street name ZeeDijk

Tuesday - House Boat Museum

We visited a house boat museum... in a real house boat. Since it was classified as a museum nobody is allowed to live on it now, but it was a residence for much of it's 100 year life. This is a true sailboat, with the mast, rudder, and other accessories still in tact. As a steel hull boat, it has to be taken to a shipyard every 5 years to refurbish the hull. (Residents can remain on board in the week or so in the shipyard). The fancy houseboats are now concrete and are not required to be examined in the shipyard periodically.

Is it expensive to live on a house boat? This one, 65 x 16 feet, is offered for sale for €749,000 (US$824,000) with an annual mooring fee of about US$1,000. Utilities are similar to a land-based house, with regular water, gas, sewer, and electricity. There are no more mooring spaces available, so you buy a houseboat with it's mooring space.

And you can hang out your laundry even if you live on a houseboat in the city.

Some of the houseboats had unusual decorations.

This older man played his calliope/organ and other instruments, as he trolled the canal with an electric motor. He had a larger gas motor when we later saw him "going home." It didn't make sense other than just fun, since there was no way for him to collect donations from the audience.

Our Lord in the Attic

In the 17th Century, the Netherlands took over all the churches and converted them to Dutch Reformed. Being the liberal tolerant type, they allowed other faiths to practice discretely, so in 1660 a merchant living in a canal house converted the top 3 floors of his house to an elegant Roman Catholic Church.

He actually had the beams cut on the two floors above the primary church level, giving two balconies, and got extra height by cutting into the attic above the upper balcony. There is even an organ, and a residence for the priest. The church is only used occasionally but is primarily a museum. The rest of the house is the usual archeologist and historical artifacts that were interesting to see once, but don't need to be repeated here.


Bicycles, yes. Children, yes. Wooden shoes, yes. Now put the three together in a two child passenger bicycle.

Return home Tuesday November 2

Pretty much the reverse of arriving. Train to the Amsterdam airport, British Airways lounge while waiting for the BA flight to London, then American Airlines with a free business class upgrade to Dallas, and after a too long layover in DFW, a flight to Austin. We were tired on Wednesday, but fully functional on Thursday.

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