Nowhere where I have traveled have I been so aware of traffic and people as in Amsterdam, the city of canals. (The general chaos of Naples comes close.) If you are out on Amsterdam’s streets you constantly have to be aware of where you are and on the lookout for bicycles, motorbikes, trams, more bicycles and people. They all seem to mingle in perfect harmony, but one step to the right or to the left without looking and you can end up in front of a fast moving bicycle.
A classic Amsterdam memory
Traveling in winter have benefits: Shorter lines at museums and restaurants, but on the weather front it was mostly dreary with the sky varied from woolly clouds interspersed with rare patches of light blue to a dirty dark grey with occasional rain. Luckily, on the worst weather day when it was very windy and rainy we were indoors in the Rijksmuseum.
The flower market and cheese caves
Traveling from America to Europe inevitability means an overnight flight and an early morning arrival, which means one cannot book into a hotel/apartment/Airbnb before 3 pm and walking around in any city dragging even your single suitcase everywhere is a schlep. Some hotels allow you to store your luggage before checking in. Ours, the JL No. 76 Hotel on Jan Luijkenstraat, a stone throw from the Museumplein and the Rijks and Van Gogh Museums, did allow for storage, and we went straight to our hotel after our arrival in Amsterdam and asked if we can book in earlier. I was not expecting an affirmative answer, but I took a chance! They can only say no.
It was then that I experienced the latest trend being employed by hospitality establishments, especially in Europe. If you try to book in earlier, they will make a show of looking for a room to book you, never find your room, but magically find an alternative room and then offer you an upgrade, in our case, $50 per night extra. We don’t usually stay in hotels so we have never experienced this sales pitch before, but luckily I read about it on Tripadvisor and Google Reviews and didn’t fall for the trap. Interestingly, it would happen again in Paris, even though we arrived there after the eligible booking time. Times must be hard in Europe or scamming hotel guests must have become the norm?
I respectfully declined the offer to an upgrade, knowing full well, based on prior research on the internet of the types of rooms available in this hotel, that what I originally booked was one of the better rooms on offer. We selected to store our luggage at the hotel and floated into the streets of Amsterdam.
Sitting inside De Vier Pilaren restaurant and watching the world float by
On one of those occasional rainy moments, on our first day out walking towards the Jordaan area, we popped into De Vier Pilaren, a “Poffertjes en Pannenkoeken” restaurant for lunch, located near the Vondelpark entrance on Stadhouderskade and across the Singelgracht from Max Euweplein. Of course the Dutch pannenkoeken (pancake) is not a strange dish to us because we grew up with it. Every traditional Afrikaner gathering in South Africa usually served the thin styled pancake, mostly with a cinnamon and sugar mixture on top and rolled up like wrap. M went sweet and had a pancake with only a granular sugar coating. I went the other way, savory, and had one with aged Gouda cheese and liberally layered with cured ham, a light burgundy colored ham. It was so delicious! The tiny restaurant’s service was excellent, the aroma of the freshly baked pancakes and “poffertjes”, the warmth inside while it was cold and raining outside, created a cozy atmosphere that was perfect in that moment. We lingered inside De Vier Pilaren for quite a while. Feeling the effects of jet lag, time was not important, resting our feet was, and taking an early break to absorb the Amsterdam vibe was important. And we did. While we watched people come and go and tourist canal boats floating by on the Singelgracht, M sipped on a hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and I savored some French Chardonnay. [Gracht is Dutch for canal.]
Rembrandt's The Night Watch
The day after our arrival was all about the main purpose of this short vacation. The Rijksmuseum: The pride of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. Rembrandt van Rijn and his fellow schilders (painters) from the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, are a major love of M’s art interest. We spent a whole day in the museum. In the end, the Rijksmuseum offered so much more than just a bunch of paintings against walls. It presented the history of the Netherlands and its conquered lands in art form and how the different cultures impacted the country. It certainly turned out to be one of better museums we have been to. One criticism though: Although they had a special exhibition of South Africa and its relationship with the Netherlands in the Rijksmuseum in 2017, it seems the settling of a halfway station at the southern tip of Africa by the Dutch and the incredible impact it had on the creation of the Afrikaner people, its language and on South Africa in general for centuries to come (after all the Dutch ruled the Cape of Good Hope for 150 years) are not enough to justify a permanent section on South Africa in the Rijksmuseum. Except if I missed it.
The Rijksmuseum at night and the Christmas market on the right of the ice skating rink
After the Rijksmuseum and a walk through the Christmas market in front of the museum we were famished and went searching for a restaurant. A few blocks away we came across an Irish pub, packed to the rafters. After all, it was Friday night and happy hour was still in full swing. Two blocks away, M found the Le Garage, a Michelin Bib listed restaurant, French/Europe in cuisine and molecular gastronomy in style. However, the restaurant was less than satisfactory with terrible service, nicely decorated plates, but rather tasteless food. I had a bland rotisserie chicken which barely had any color on it. A chain grocery in Danville sells better rotisserie chicken than these “wannabe” chefs. Harsh, but that’s how bad it was. M’s fish was only slightly better, but they forgot to bring her side dish and when it eventually arrived after we had to ask for it, it was cold. The next evening’s dinner at an Irish pub on Max Euweplein, the atmosphere was livelier, the music much better, the food a slight improvement on the night before, and the price much less. In general, even in Paris, this trip cannot be described as a visit to foodies’ paradise. But that’s our fault; we never made a serious effort to find exceptional restaurants.
Although we also visited the Van Gogh Museum, the rest of our time in Amsterdam was spent walking the streets, at times using the tram to save our feet and we went on a canal tour late one afternoon and returned to our base as dusk descended upon the city.
The Basilica of Saint Nicholas near Centraal Station
A small lunch and tea for two. That tea was very delicious (Rooibos, orange, vanilla and honey)
The Red Light district with the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam's oldest building, in the background