My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “canals”

Return to Amsterdam

It was an early morning flight that took me away from my Homeland once more, speeding towards Amsterdam with an unusually high tail wind. In fact, the flight I was on broke a record for the route, having reached Amsterdam well ahead of schedule and before I knew it I was back at the Clink Noord hostel in Amsterdam Noord. There was a totally different vibe to the city than there had been a couple of weeks prior. The weather was looking a lot more unsettled for one, but it was a Saturday, and as it turned out, there was a city-wide walking festival taking place in a city full of bikes. The crowds on both sides of the IJ river were intense. But despite this, I couldn’t come back to Amsterdam and not do it on wheels this time, so after dumping my stuff at the hostel, I hot-footed it round to the nearby bike rental office to get myself some transport for the day.

The free ferry across the IJ river was as packed with walkers as it was cyclists, and a surge of people disembarked at the Amsterdam Centraal pier. I cut up and under the railway station and immediately came out at a mass of people, cyclists, trams and cars. It took every sense I had at full alert to navigate this sea of hazards whilst trying not to get herded in the wrong direction nor fall off the bike. I didn’t want to end up in the city centre which was where the masses were going, so I cut off towards the Jordaan district to try and shed the crowds. I wasn’t always sure of the street signage to determine rights of way so at times I meandered off in random directions, doubling back or winding round canal networks if necessary. It wasn’t being lost, it was just making an interesting route. I knew where I was aiming for, but I had no time commitments and it was fun to explore side streets as I went. There were pockets of the Jordaan district that were busier than others but the main bridges across the canals were often a focal point for tourists and I could see some locals getting annoyed with those that abruptly stopped on the bridges when they were trying to go about their daily lives.


The crowds started to build up as I circumnavigated the main city centre and aimed for the crossing near the Rijksmuseum, marking the entrance to the museum district. This is one of the city’s major tourist zones and there were people walking, cycling and stopping everywhere. Whilst the large facade of the famous museum dominated the view forward, I was more interested in the beautiful turreted building that stood on the river opposite it. The bridge here, like many of the city’s bridges, had flower baskets along the railing and the blooms added a pretty touch to those canal views. Amsterdam has some incredibly famous museums with some incredibly famous exhibits, but the museum district was not my target destination at that stage, so after getting my fill of photographs of the canal, I cut in front of the museum instead of under it as most people were doing, and headed a couple of blocks away to the narrow entrance of Vondelpark.


I loved cycling through Vondelpark. From this access point, the park was narrow, and consisted mainly of the access path and a bit of green space either side, but after a long stretch of this, it cut under a road and entered the main part of the park where immediately I found myself at a lake and a route decision to make. Although busy being a Saturday, only small pockets felt crowded, and I was loving the cycling, so I started off by looping the park round the outer trail, past pretty buildings, statues and lakes. The main track was wide enough for multiple bikes to pleasantly pass each in other in both directions and before I knew it, I was back at the first lake where I’d started. The second time through, I utilised the narrow secondary tracks to snake through the park and enjoy the various points of interest. Being late September, it was autumn, so there was a variable amount of blooms and foliage. I spied a heron in a lake where some fountains sprouted up, and nearby there was a rose garden where some roses were still thinking about blooming.


After this second circuit, I was getting hungry and decided to get lunch at one of the cafes halfway up the park, but when I got there there was absolutely nowhere to lock up my bike. I’d noticed often as I’d cycled through the streets that every available post or bike park was often taken and in other places, especially bridges, it is not allowed to lock your bike. I certainly didn’t want to risk losing the bike, so after circling round the area looking for somewhere free, I eventually had to give up. I cut across to the more southern side of the park where a path hugged a lake across from some large houses. The sky was rather grey but the reflections of the houses on the water were still distinct. Nearby, there was an exit from the park and I headed back into the melee of streets and urban life.


I was only a few blocks from the museum district and turning onto the main street of Van Baerlestraat took me deep into chaos. The pavements were packed with people, the cycle lanes packed with cyclists and between all of this was a very busy tram line. I passed eateries that were packed to the brim, and struggling to negotiate the crowds, I found it difficult to get off this street, being herded by the masses in a straight line. There was definitely a knack to turning against the flow, and whilst the locals knew how to do it, I certainly did not. I ended up a lot further down than I’d planned to before I was able to cross over and double back. My hunger was driving me, so I decided to park up the bike and look for a place to eat on foot, but this was easier said than done as every possible bike park was full. Cutting down back street after back street I finally found a single bike park and quickly claimed it, only to discover that I couldn’t work the padlock. Finally sussing it out, I was glad to get walking for a bit, mentally making a note of where I’d left the bike as I made turn after turn to retrace my steps back to the main street.

The cafe that I’d eyed up from the bike was beyond crammed when I walked there and so was every other cafe within sight. Only when I found myself at the Stedelijk Museum did I realise there was a large restaurant there, so finally I could satiate my appetite. I spend a lot of time travelling solo and this means I eat out a lot solo. Even at home in New Zealand, I have no qualms about dining alone, but in different countries, this habit is often met with a variety of responses. The man that was serving me here at the museum restaurant seemed a little put out that I was on my own. It wasn’t that there was a shortage of tables, but I seemed a little unimportant to him, and I struggled to get served. If I hadn’t been so hungry I might have walked out, but eventually I got myself a coffee and a sandwich. My coffee arrived with a little Stroopwafel, a small Dutch wafer biscuit, and although the coffee was much better than the one I’d had near Anne Frank Huis on my first visit to the city, it still wasn’t as good as back home.

The weather was really making a turn for the worse by the time I was back out on my bike. The clouds were thicker and darker and there was a hint of rain in the air. There had been a few light and brief showers as I’d cycled that morning, but the afternoon was looking ominous. I’d seen photos on social media of the ‘I amsterdam’ sign outside of the Rijksmuseum and when I first saw it in the distance, it was only a hint of the red and white amongst a sea of people. The crowd here was phenomenal and for the first time I felt like was seeing the Instagram effect. As I moved closer, I was astounded by the mass of people posing on or in front of this sign, with people dictating to and grumbling about the people in and around their shot. It was impossible to get a photo without a multitude of other people and I found myself taking photos of the crowd itself rather than the sign. It was an unbelievable scene. There were some distinctive buildings around here though, so I left the crowd to ogle at these for a while before it started to rain.


I wasn’t interested in visiting any of the museums, so when it looked like it might get quite wet, I decided to head for the nearby Heineken Brewery. Finding a bike park round the corner from it, I joined the long crowd of people waiting to get in. If planned ahead, it is possible to book a time slot to turn up for, but on a whim, I had to wait in a queue for a space to open up. It took quite a while to get in, and the rain was just starting to get heavy as I finally made it indoors. It turned out to be both interesting and fun. In groups, we were led round an introductory section where staff talked about the history and the beer itself, and as we went deeper into the experience, the groups merged together to form a mass of people gradually meandering around the one-way system. Passing giant vats and an old cart horse, the experience became a bit more digital as we got shepherded into a large room for a CGI experience. Out the other side of that, we got our first taste of the beer with a small glass of Heineken.


The rest of the levels were quite interactive with the ability to film short movies, and pose for silly pictures. There was so much information about the history of and association with this famous beer, and I was amazed with how much time could be spent here. These latter levels were also completely blocked in with no windows to see the world outside, and it felt like a rabbit warren walking through small corridors and holes in the wall, up and down stairs with no idea where I’d come out. Where the route did end up was what I assume was down in a basement, in a busy and loud bar where you could claim the 2 glasses of Heineken that were part of the entry fee. This sort of thing is the one time I can feel a bit self conscious being on my own, especially as I’m introverted and won’t openly talk to strangers. Nonetheless, I found a spot with my beers to hover and I enjoyed them immensely. I’m really not into beer, but Heineken and Stella Artois are the two that I actually quite like, so I enjoyed these more than I had done the Tennents Lager on my recent trip to that brewery a week or so prior.

After quite some time in the cocoon of the Brewery, I was shocked to step outside to heavy rain. Back on my bike which was soaking wet, I pedalled back to the Rijksmuseum to discover that the crowd had thinned out a lot by the famous sign. The food trucks I’d spotted earlier were thankfully still open and I ordered some waffles to huddle up and eat under an umbrella as the workers started to pack up for the day. The rain got heavier and heavier until it was torrential so by the time I’d finished my waffles, there was barely a sole at the sign and I was able to snap a quick photograph before the cold drove me onwards. In the archway of the Rijksmuseum, there was a group of men playing classical music and they had drawn a decent crowd. It was a good excuse to shelter from the rain for a bit, but it became increasingly clear that the weather was not planning on abating. I had had a whole route planned back to the hostel to see a few more sights but the weather meant that my day was going to have to be curtailed as before long once back on the road, my waterproof jacket failed and I became soaked to the skin.


By the time I reached Amsterdam Centraal it was dark and gloomy and I was hungry again. I parked my bike and headed inside to eat at one of the eateries there. Grabbing a free spot in an otherwise busy restaurant, I waited and waited and waited to get served. I failed to grab anyone’s attention, and after an extended time drooling over other’s people meals and feeling positively ignored, I walked out and bought some food at the market shop to take back to the hostel. It was still grey the next morning when I made the now familiar trundle with my suitcase to the pier, across the IJ river and into the train station to head to the airport. I’d left with plenty of time and so had a lot of time to wander around the expansive terminal. The elephant parade was on display so there were several of these dotted around the terminal to look at and I laughed to myself when at the end of the terminal, I stepped outside to find another ‘I amsterdam’ sign with absolutely no-one about. The backdrop might not be as impressive as the Rijksmuseum, but that was okay. Finally it was time to leave Europe behind and head to Asia, to finally explore the city who’s airport I know so well.


Exploring Amsterdam

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my life transiting in airports, and some airports have stolen more of my life than others. As a former resident of Scotland, London Heathrow was my often unavoidable transit stop to reach a large portion of overseas destinations. After yet more arduously long layovers at LHR on my previous two return trips to my Homeland since emigrating to New Zealand, I vowed to do my damndest to avoid this soul-sucker of an airport. So when it came to my most recent visit back to Scotland in September of last year, I had done some searching of alternate routes and decided that Amsterdam would be a great alternative, given that I had never been there before and it had great connections to Glasgow, my final destination.

My style of travel differs from one holiday to another. I stay in hostels in some places, hotels in others; and I’ve done B&Bs and motels too. Some trips are planned to the hour, others are spent winging it and making it up as I go along. I might be on a budget on this trip, or able to splurge on that trip. But I will always ensure I know how to get myself from the airport to my first night’s accommodation, and it is often the ease of transit to said accommodation that determines where I will stay. The city of canals and rivers has plenty of options and locations to choose from. The city’s main sights are spread about the city and there is a multitude of transport options to get around, so after doing some research on how I would get from the airport and which parts of the city I wanted to avoid, I ended up booking in at the Clink Noord hostel in Amsterdam Noord, an area of the city across the IJ river from the main city sprawl.

After 2 flights and my customary transit in Singapore’s Changi airport, I arrived in Amsterdam tired and eager to dump my stuff and shower. The train took me straight into Amsterdam Centraal in no time at all and then I just had to trundle my bag out to the river side, jump on the free ferry across the river and trundle across the canal and round the corner to the hostel. It was too early to check into the hostel but a shower was at least an option, so once freshened up I got straight back outside again to explore. I had 1.5 days in the city before moving onward, so with this full day, it was all about walking the city. Taking the free ferry back to the city side, it was all about my two feet and I prepared to walk until they gave out.

Amsterdam is a very busy city. The pavements are crammed full of people and the roads are as filled with cyclists as they are with cars. It took a lot of concentration to make sure I wasn’t mowed down by somebody in control of wheels. The canals full of boats begins immediately past the main train station, and following a vague route, I wove my way towards the Jordaan district. I really could not recount the exact route I followed that day. I just wanted an overview of the city and its highlights and had a rough idea of where some of the city’s more distinctive buildings were. This was definitely one of those trips where I’d done a bit of research, but was effectively making up my plans as I went. I’d missed European architecture, and although the streets can at times be narrow and struggle to remain fit for purpose in a modern World, I was in love with the style of the place, quick to acquire that grin that covers my face when I go to a place for the first time that I’ve long read about or seen photographs of. As I followed first one canal and then another, I was accompanied intermittently by the noise of a passing canal boat. They came in all shapes and sizes.


As I approached Anne Frank Huis, the streets got busier and busier. By avoiding Centrum, I’d managed to escape the worst of the crowds so far, but now I was in touristville and everywhere was packed. I managed to find a vacant table across the canal from Anne Frank Huis and settled in to drink some terrible coffee and consume a tasty sandwich while watching the World go by. People watching is a favourite pastime of mine. The sun was vaguely trying to push through the clouds and it was nice to feel a bit of warmth having come from the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.

Once satiated, I pressed on with my wanderings. At the bridge by Westerkerk, I turned deeper into Jordaan in search of interesting side streets and photogenic canals. I had no desire to go to Anne Frank Huis and as the crowds outside attested it needs to be booked ahead. I do like historical sites and some museums, but I’m not a museumophile and don’t feel the need to go to a museum just because it’s famous. I did however stop at the Anne Frank monument on my way past as I gradually headed into the melee of Centrum.


I eventually found myself at De Dam near the National Monument. There was a buskers show taking place and the performer seemed to be stirring up a bit of controversy as there was some tension between him and a local man who was heckling him. This place was surrounded by distinctive buildings, and despite the crowds, I hung around for a bit taking photographs and acknowledging the immense number of tourists. Heading north from here seemed to be one of the main shopping districts and tram lines which I was quick to leave behind.


Nearing Amsterdam Centraal, which is prettier from this side of it than the IJ side, I picked my way via the canal system to the Red Light District. It is probably a very different experience at night, but most of the windows were inactive during the daytime. Instead it was an interesting and curious region to explore and the aroma of marijuana hung thick in the air in places. This was another busy place, full of tourists and devoid of locals. I ogled at shop windows as I went and contemplated popping into the Condomerie for some novelty condoms before deciding to pass on it. I also now know where to go if I ever want cheap sex toys whilst in Europe.


There are some pretty buildings here too, including Oudekerk. I really loved the Dutch churches and took detours to see as many as were nearby. The tall narrow buildings that line the canals are generally very picturesque too and I spent a lot of time looking up as I wandered. Eventually I found myself at Amstel, the large canal to the south of Centrum which was broader than all the other canals I’d seen so far and was full of boats powering along in one direction or another. I’d previously spotted a boat tour that looked a little more low key compared to some of the larger commercial canal boats, and decided I’d head back to go for a canal trip. However, I’d wandered in such a maze of streets and canals, that I couldn’t quite find it again and after a large chunk of the day on my feet, I decided it was time to head back across IJ and take a break.


After checking into the hostel properly, I organised a ticket for the A’Dam Toren which was almost next door. After posing for some obligatory silly photos as part of the entrance fee, I headed up to the rooftop where there was a 360o view and a bar. It was a cracking view in all directions, from the expanse of IJ either side, to the city rooftops beyond Amsterdam Centraal, and elsewhere the more industrial and residential portions of the city. There was even a glass floor inside offering a view directly down to the pavement below. After taking my fill of the view, it seemed only right to order a Heineken at the bar, but I was a little shocked to be presented it with such a head on top, accounting for around 20% of the proffered drink. In the UK, the British Beer & Pub Association states that poured beer shouldn’t be served with a head exceeding 5%, so this was a strange concept to me. I didn’t complain as I was on holiday and didn’t care enough to be pernickety but on enquiring with a Dutch friend, it turned out that this larger head was normal in the Netherlands. Eventually hunger took me back across the river again, and I joined the large queue at one of the city’s recommended fast food joints to partake in some friets, the quintessential Dutch fries with sauce.


My original flights had me in Amsterdam for 2.5 days, but after arriving in the country, I was worried about a short connection time on my way home so opted to split my Amsterdam trip in two. So the next day I had only the morning ahead of an afternoon flight to Scotland. As I didn’t know whether I would ever return to the Netherlands or not, it made sense to seek out a molen, or windmill, one of the iconic Dutch landmarks. Being in Amsterdam Noord, I noticed on my map that there was a molen within walking distance. About 40 minutes following the Noordhollandsch kanaal brought me to Krijtmolen d’Admiraal which was built in 1792. I’ve seen windmills before in Denmark but that seemed so long ago and I was glad that I’d gone out my way to see this one.


My last exploration before heading to the airport was the NDSM Werf on the bank of the IJ river. With the aid of Google Maps I took as direct a route from the molen as I could and this meant wandering through residential and industrial parts of the city. Whilst I didn’t see anything of particular note, it was still interesting to see the real Amsterdam, away from the tourist hot spots and the crowds. I saw nothing but locals going about their daily business and it was a side of Amsterdam that most visitors won’t see. My reason for visiting NDSM Werf was because I’d read that it was a bit of a mecca for graffiti art which I am a fan of. There wasn’t a lot of activity when I got there, and the place was more industrial than the industrial chic that I was led to expect, but there was plenty of artwork on the walls and even a crane that had been converted into a hotel. I absorbed as much of the art as I could, including a stunning mural of Anne Frank by the incredible Brazilian artist Kobra, before working my way back to the hostel to grab my belongings. There was still plenty of things to see on my return, but my tired legs could attest to the amount of ground I’d covered on my time in the city so far. Now, there was just a few hours between me and seeing my family for the first time in 2 years.

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