Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vacation 8: Amsterdam, Days 3 and 4

Tuesday. We slept in even longer today than we usually do, leaving the hotel by just before 11:am to catch the 11:05 CanalBus, one of the long, low passenger boats that can be seen everywhere. 18 Euros gets you a 24-hour pass, and we caught a Red Line down to the big train station. We had breakfast next door to the hotel where trumpeter Chet Baker died in, I think, 1988, and then caught another boat line, the Blue Line, thru a section of the city we had not seen at all. Very cool. As with Paris, the city looks different from the water, and the bridges are very cool. The boats have a recording that plays while you go--all in English--explaining the highlights of what you're passing on the shores. The canals are cut away from the Amstel river (from which Amsterdam gets its name), and the city is blocked from the salt water and the tides by a series of locks. The locks are still used three times a week to flush the canal system out with fresh water, so even though the gates look impossibly old, they're all kept in working order. The business of infrastructure, always a favorite subject for me, looms large when the city is so different from other places. There are over 1,200 bridges in the city, and everything is complicated by so much water: locks and sewers and water supplies and subways and trains.

After our Blue Line tour (about an hour), Susan took off on her own to hit a big shopping thoroughfare we'd seen the previous day, and I took yet another boat back to the hotel for fresh camera batteries and then off to the Rijksmuseum. When I'm in New York, I've walked ten times to the Guggenheim or the Metropolitan Museum only to decide that I'd rather just walk around than blow the $25 to get in. And so it was today. I opted instead to spend a couple hours on streets & canals I hadn't seen. We discovered that there is a houseboat museum, which we'll hit tomorrow, that talks about living on the river here. The CanalBus driver said that the houseboats are the most expensive places to live, not for the boats themselves but because of the expense of the SPACE, which was doled out years ago by a central government office. There are no new spaces to be had, so the ones that exist go for a premium. But the houseboats I saw were, many of them, almost falling apart from neglect.

(These buildings really ARE leaning that much)

Wednesday. Again, we began with only the sketchiest plan of attack. We knew we had only until noon before our CanalBus passes expired, so we decided to catch a Green Line boat near the hotel and take it to the Waterlooplein market, which is near to old downtown, not far from the Central Station train depot. The market was just getting underway when we got there 11-ish, and it reminded me more of what I'd expect in a third world market, a bunch of used and scavenged stuff being used to try and earn a buck. There were a bunch of t-shirt vendors selling obviously touristy stuff, mostly dirty and related to the Red Light district. Our guide says that Albert Cuylpstraat market is much larger and more authentic, so we're going to try and hit that on Friday. We walked across town after the market, finding a fabulous little cafe South of the Red Light district on the Old Side where I could have sat watching the world go by for days. We had wonderful sandwiches, and lingered for more than an hour over Susan's hot chocolate and my (dreaded) CocaCola Light while the world whizzed by, mostly on bicycle. The street leading up to this market (Staalstraat; our cafe was on Staalstraat and the Klovniers Brugwal canal) was narrow and filled with cafes and sweet shops and shops. This would be a place to live in town. From there we walked up thru the Red Light district again, in search of a post office, which we found.

I took a quick tour of the New Church (I saw the Old Church on Monday) and took a bunch of pictures, and then headed over past the Anne Frank museum, which Susan saw last night. She found it very moving, especially the little things like the pencil marks on the wall tracking the growth of the two girls. The museum is next to another of Amsterdam's big churches, the Westerkerk, which was closed last night when Susan was at the museum. But it was open today, and I went in to find--go figure--someone playing the organ! There is a large, beautiful organ on the rear gallery, but the sound today was coming from a much smaller unit up near the front. Turns out, this instrument is by none other than my favorite builder, D.A. Flentrop, from 1963. It was being played by a young woman--30-ish, I suppose--who was clearly practicing, as she worked on the same three or four pages for 20 minutes while I watched from a distance. It sounded like something from Franz Schmidt, but I did not recognize it. She was quite skilled, and the organ, though small (probably about 15 stops; I have pictures), sounded brilliantly in the big space. I had hoped to talk to her, but there was a scary letch of a guy who hovered by her for most of the time, interrupting her whenever she stopped, and I decided she didn't need my distraction. Still, another fabulous organ in a beautiful, old space.

(All pictures of the New Church)

From there we then made our way over to the Houseboat Museum, a retired residential boat parked not far from our hotel (I guess nothing is too far from our hotel, as the old city is quite compact), now serving as a museum about life on Amsterdam's canals. We sought it out yesterday evening after dinner, and figured it was well worth the 3.25 they asked for admission. Unfortunately, the movement of the boat, especially when we were up in the darkened bow to watch a slideshow, made Susan quite queasy, and so she exited after only a couple minutes. Bastard that I am, I left her to yack in the bushes outside, and I stayed in and looked everything over for a good 15 minutes. The barge itself was maybe 60-70' long, and quite beamy, and actually had quite a passable amount of space for a boat. The clerk gave us little laminated sheets to take with us as we walked around which explained most of the things that had been on my mind since we got here. Most all the houseboats are now connected to city sewer as well as water and power, so nobody dumps into the canals (in theory--there are still quite a number of regular powerboats tied up long-term). The houseboats are either converted steel working boats or specifically-constructed floating houses. The converted boats all have their engines removed, and must be hauled out every three years for hull work, getting to the yards by tugboat. This work takes a week if bad shit is not found. Families are allowed to live on the boats while in dry dock. The purpose-built houseboats have a floating concrete pads which require no maintenance, and the square shape makes for more efficient space utilization--most of these look much more like floating houses than boats.

(That's a real, live swan right thar)

(This is a concrete hull)

I probably ought to talk about our hotel here as well, the Hotel Vondel. It's on a great, curved street in a little intimate neighborhood between the Rijksmuseum and the Leidseplein, the very active public square near here. I was afraid from the ratings at that it might be kind of a dive, but it's really quite posh, especially compared to our Best Western in Paris. It's billed as a "boutique hotel," and it's very fashionable inside, with original art everywhere and a kind of German techno feel. Everything is black and chrome, with rough wood floors and sculpture everywhere. There is a lovely private courtyard out back, which is surrounded by the apartment buildings and hotels around the block, which effectively blocks the sound of traffic from the other side of the buildings. Our room is on the ground floor (always a dicey thing for Susan, who does not sleep well on ground floor rooms) facing the street, and when we checked in it was about a thousand degrees. Downside No. 1: the hotel has no air conditioning. After our first night dealing with sidewalk sounds seeming as though they were coming from inside our (otherwise very quiet) room, and it being so hot that you couldn't cover up (a situation exacerbated by their not using a top sheet at this hotel: there's a bottom sheet and a down comforter. That's it) we decided to see if they had a room further up so we could open the windows wide instead of just tipping the tops in (Dutch windows both swing and tilt, like an old station wagon tailgate). The managed to find one for us next door on the fourth floor, but we realized that the room would be no cooler and was not as swank as ours, so we got them to find a room fan for us, and our problem was solved. The room boasts quite a nice bathroom, with a tub big enough for two, a shower with hand-held sprayer and overhead rain head, a funky faux-stone sink (with no stoppable drain) and, my favorite, a wall-mounted toilet with big and little flush buttons, depending on how many troops you wish to bring to the party. It gives me a giddy pleasure to push the big button just to watch the mayhem thus unleashed; sometimes I even do it for a simple peeing episode, just to feel powerful.

(Our hotel, at the end of the street)

(Our street)

True to form, we went from the houseboat museum back to the hotel so Susan could try to recover, and it ended up being a nice afternoon nap! Then we were out for another walk which terminated with pizza for dinner. We sat outside next to a couple girls who were on a whirlwind tour after graduating from college. One girl was from California, and the other from Singapore, and they had just come from London and were on their way to Paris and beyond. So we talked to them for a good half an hour while we ate. After this we went for yet another walk, this time out to the district known as De Pijp, where the Cuylpstraat market is located. It was 8:pm or so when we walked thru, so the market was long gone for the day, but it looked like quite a fun area, and another one we had not seen before. So we decided we'd try to come back before we left and check it out. It was 9-ish when we got back to the hotel, after sitting a bit by a pond behind the Rijksmuseum and watching the soccer players, and we finished our day with a game of cards in the little courtyard out back (where Susan stole the bar snacks from what she hoped was an abandoned table, in spite of there being a half-drunk glass of wine and a pen still sitting there with the other empty glasses).

A really, really good day. We both decided we could get along here with minimal trouble, though we'd both have to figure out how to get around by bicycle without getting killed. Speaking of which, I've reserved a couple bikes from the hotel here for Friday, and I've been tasked with going out on my own for a trial run before coming back to fetch Susan. I confess that after watching traffic for three days, I'm still not sure why everyone doesn't crash regularly, even without cell phone conversations and iPods. But they manage to stay upright, so I'm hoping what is not clear now will become so when I start riding. Otherwise, I may get to try out the Dutch healthcare system.

(Off in the distance, the Rijksmuseum)

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