This month of February we returned to Amsterdam. We had originally planned to go to Crete, but due to some unforeseen complications on the part of our prospective Greek hosts (very nice people) we decided to change our plans. We look forward to seeing some of Greece in May on our Greek island tour with Explore UK. Unfortunately it doesn’t take us to Crete, but to some of the smaller islands, which we are excited about.
We were a little apprehensive about the weather in Amsterdam in February and if we would be able to bike much, but still rented bikes for the whole month from Mike’s Bikes. This company has very pleasant staff and is very user friendly.
Fortunately our first day back in Amsterdam was very sunny, even warm, so it was a good welcome back. We spent the whole day in the city, walking in the sunshine, having our first cup of Dutch coffee of 2017 (!) and went for lunch at an adorable tiny restaurant, called Gartine, that somehow had a table free for us. They serve hearty healthy fare, and their produce is truly “locally sourced” (from their rooftop garden).
Our flat in the Riverienburt (Riverside neighborhood – by the Amstel) looked out onto a very wide street, Vrijheidslaan, which we originally were worried was going to be noisy, but we soon realized it was quite quiet. Coming from the US where a wide road means constant traffic, we soon realized that in spite of the lanes for three types of traffic, bikes, cars and trams, it wasn’t too busy. Sam and I enjoyed watching the bike traffic during the morning and evening rush hour pass by our front window. Our flat had an extra room for guests, and was formerly lived in by the owner Han, so had a very homey feel to it. We felt very comfortable there right away. The neighborhood has everything in it that one could need, and is also near a popular slightly trendy street that we had discovered last time, called Van Woustraat, with lots of cute restaurants and cafes and boutiques, and coffee shops (remember what they are?) This street leads into De Pijp, the neighborhood we stayed in in November.
This time in Amsterdam we tried to focus on getting to know the city and the surrounding area by bike, and didn’t set foot in any museums (except the houseboat museum!) The first Sunday we took a lovely bike ride along the River Amstel out of the city. It winds a bit and is flanked by polders and ditches, just part of the complicated and sophisticated Dutch irrigation system.
We saw quite a few rowers on the river while their coaches stayed on shore, riding bikes parallel to the river and using megaphones to shout out their instructions. It was mostly a very quiet ride, and we stopped at a windmill just outside the village for photos prior to reaching our destination. People seem to take the time to ride in the countryside on the weekends, especially Sundays.
The village was mostly closed because of it being Sunday, but one of their oldest pubs, “De Frije Handel” was open, and we sat at the bar and had a drink alongside some of the locals in for their Sunday lunch and a few glasses of beer. The regulars were friendly, in an understated kind of way. One of the drinks that I’ve been enjoying since being back is mint tea, just fresh mint and hot water. Also, ginger tea – hot water and slices of fresh ginger. The latter was served at the cinema!
Our first day we got some bike maps of Amsterdam and the surrounding area, with recommended bike routes on it. So in addition to going south on the Amstel we also explored the islands in the IJ Meer (which used to be the Zeuderzee until they built a dam and it became an inland lake. This means taking a 10 minute ferry ride (riding onto the boat if you’re on a bike) and then riding right off again in North Amsterdam. This part of Amsterdam is part dockland, part new housing with many innovative designs.
One day we aimed to do a 30k ride, but because we got lost several times (one time looking for apple pie….which we found eventually) it turned into more of a 20k ride. We ended our ride in the pretty village of Durgerdam. To get there we had ridden parallel to the dike, (you couldn’t see over it to the water) until we got to the bay where this little village lies. To me it looked like a Dutch landscape, with a bleached windswept water and sky space and houses in the middle. (Sorry to be so lacking in the language of describing the world of painting).
One day I decided to take a longer ride, and Sam was happy rest his legs. It was a 25 mile ride round trip to the castle at Muiderslot. One of the bike guys told me he passes this castle on his way to work every day. So, I was pretty impressed as I finally reached the castle after about 90 minutes riding. Some of it was amidst the docklands, some along dikes, and a bit through a rather isolated industrial area. The village of Muiden where the castle is, which I didn’t have time to explore unfortunately, is another lovely village by a canal, very near to the inland lake the IJ Meer, so the phrase from Philip Larkin’s poem “Here” that talks of “ships up streets” definitely fitted (well, I guess Hull is not that far away really!)
While I was in Holland I texted my sister Claire to ask why it was that even though we grew up in Hull, and could take the boat to Rotterdam directly, with only a short train ride to Amsterdam, we never visited Holland as a family. She seemed to remember hearing that the crossing of the North Sea was very rough, and my parents were a bit reluctant to undertake it. (Perhaps comparing it to the often gentler more protected crossings to the Inner Hebrides in the northwest of Scotland.) Since our family loved cycling, especially on flat lands, it seems a shame that we never did. As we discovered there is quite a lot of beach on the West coast of Holland, and there are even urban beaches in Amsterdam. Apparently there are some lovely cycle tracks that go up and down the coastline, and one can reach the seaside town of Zandfoort by train. Perhaps we could have a Purkis family reunion there one of these days! ( I reverted back to my maiden name when I became a citizen in December 2015).
Early in the month we had a few days of snow, which was quite pretty. Many residents continued to ride bikes through the snow, and the bike paths were clear of snow several days before the sidewalks because of heavy use.
Apart from the snow, the weather has been mostly mild, between 5-12C. Even though we didn’t go to museums, we got a little culture in the form of revisiting the Royal Concertgebouw. Early into the month we attended a lunchtime free concert featuring Alan Gilbert conducting the Concertgebouw orchestra in Bernstein’s Serenade for violin and orchestra with soloist Augustin Hadelich.
Then last Saturday we attended Mozart’s Requiem, which I have never seen live. It was performed by the Bach Orchestra of the Netherlands and Chorus conductor Pieter van Leusink. It was my first time seeing this work performed live, and even though we were quite far back in the stalls/orchestra seats we enjoyed it very much, and I would say it was one of the more memorable performances I have attended. Instead of an alto voice along with soprano tenor and bass, this conductor uses a counter tenor, which was a different sound for me, and made it even more interesting.
Our last full week was spent enjoying Murray and Chayley’s company, and showing them some of our favorite sights and experiences in Amsterdam. They visited Anne Frank’s house, after which we met them for lunch at a nearby brown café, followed by a boat tour of the canals.
We went to the houseboat museum to see what life on a houseboat (one of hundreds in Amsterdam) might be like. We took them to eat at two places where the patrons sit at a communal table, first for Chayley’s birthday to “Olive and Cookie” a small veggie restaurant in De Piijp that was so gesellig (cosy) it felt like you were eating in the host’s own home. The food was delicious, and we had a lovely conversation with the owner/chef, who owns this business with his wife. They both divide their time between working in the restaurant and the care of their boy. The restaurant is closed on the weekends so they can have time together as a family. The second place was a return to Spaghetteria Zuid, which serves a few simple pasta dishes every night, a few house wines and a house beer, and is cheap and very yummy! We got there before the crowds – along with the people with young kids and other retirees.
Other highlights were taking the train to and spending the day in Utrecht, where the canals are slightly different (they have basement shops and restaurants at the canal level and the streets are up higher on the first storey). We visited a windmill there, and after some hesitation went into the Atelier of two craftsmen, a guitar maker and repairer and a wood turner. We had a nice chat with them both, and Murray bought a beautiful wooden bird from the wood turner. The wood was so smooth and it felt very soothing to hold. The guitar maker restores old mandolins as well and so I tried one out, as well as a lute, which the wood turner plays. They seemed content with their lives, and very open to us.
We also visited the University’s Natural History Museum which Murray liked a lot, and was a fairly manageable size. Dinner with her friend, husband and two young boys was lovely, and we found ways to communicate with their boys in spite of our lack of Dutch and their very basic English. Murray had fun playing the older boy in chess. I realized that this was our first time sitting down to dinner in a family home with children in a very long time.
Their last day we all rode down to Oudekerk aan de Amstel, and took a slightly different route back. It was even more pleasant than the last time. Chayley and Murray really enjoyed the canal, the fields, the windmills and lunch in a sweet little café that we hadn’t noticed on our last trip there. I think the biking gave them a different perspective on the city, and how easy it is to reach open spaces.
One thing that struck us again this second visit to the Netherlands was the much healthier work life balance that the people we met seemed to have achieved. On our last evening we returned to the windmill brewery, Brouwereij ‘t IJ, and got talking to a young man in his twenties who is a bike mechanic for one of the bike rental companies in Amsterdam. He seemed very well traveled. He said he gets 5 weeks of paid vacation a year, and makes a decent living, and lives in a neighborhood about 20 minutes by bike from the center. Contrast this with the lot of a similar worker in Chicago. My Lydia wants to be a bike mechanic. Might be better to learn Dutch and move to the Netherlands.
The taxi driver who took us to the station this morning to take the train to Zurich (which we are on now) said he makes good money, and that the city of Amsterdam regulates taxi drivers so that they take three days off in a fourteen day period. We told him that taxi drivers in Chicago barely make a living wage, and have to work very long hours, and he said that the living he makes is very comfortable. His family was from Iraq but he has lived here all his life. Most of his family returned to Southern Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He said that this part of Iraq is fairly safe. In a pub in Utrecht, where we went with Chayley and Murray to visit her a friend and her family, we talked to a man of 62, who was a farmer, but who was able to cut down his hours over the last five years or so, and now works part time (he said he has someone who fills in for him…..) He travels all over Europe in his free time, and had biked in the Dolomites. When we commented how we don’t see any homeless people in Holland, he said, “Well, we have social security so we don’t have homeless people.” He also said that the safety net here is good in spite of higher taxes, because everyone is taken care of. From what we heard the taxation is graded depending on income, and after a certain amount of income it doesn’t make much sense to work more because you end up paying so much in tax. Which keeps people’s hours generally reasonable. This is all anecdotal, but everyone we have talked to has few complaints about this system. They also feel very lucky with their healthcare because for 200 Euros a month you can get the best policy and be completely covered. There is a more basic plan of about $140. Still, very reasonable compared to the costs in the US. If this is socialism we embrace it. No signs of social Darwinism here! What a contrast to the US, and even the UK, which seems to be emulating the US, to many people’s great dismay.
And so we left Amsterdam early this morning, and took a train to Frankfurt, and now to Zurich via Basel. We spend two nights in Zurich, three nights in Lucerne, and then head down to Milan via the Bernina Express, a train ride through the Alps which is at a very high elevation. We should arrive in Venice around lunchtime on March 7th and are there for a week.