Welcome to the 2014 Flower Power trip journal, so named because we plan to go to the Amsterdam Tulip Festival and expect that we will see evidence of spring's flashy dresses on the greening countryside of the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Hungary while traveling on the Viking Skinir.
We arrived in Amsterdam around 9:00 Saturday exhausted from the flight from Philadelphia. The flight was fine but the plane was circa 1990 with no selection of movie, no individual TVs and since we were in an exit row, we couldn't see the TV anyway without looking between the couple in front of us. That said, we did have alot of extra leg room and managed to doze a bit on the flight. The Viking river cruise staff met us at the airport and we had private transportation to the five star NH Barbizon hotel in an opulent Mercedes Limousine. The hotel was beautiful and the room interesting located along a small canal across from 3 bars that hosted soccer/futbol fans dressed in elaborate costumes. We saw one group dressed like fish with yellow slicker like hats. The purpose of the hats was clear when all of a sudden, with a cheer, one of the fans dumped a beer on his own head. Hmm...interesting local customs. There was a small foyer as you entered the room and six steps down to the room itself. We both know that there were six steps because the steps and the landing were both dark and both of us misjudged where the last step was, falling down the the landing below. Thereafter, we made sure to count the steps, especially at night.
This city is absolutely enchanting and probably my favorite of any we have visited nudging Venice out of first. I knew that Amsterdam had canals but really didn't know how the city had been wrested from the swamps and created through the genius of water management. But what a beautiful, vibrant, exciting and accepting city it is! The first day (Saturday) while waiting to get into our room, we took a one hour tour of the city from a canal boat. Later, after a nap, we strolled through the city, explored its maze of neighborhoods and canals and had dinner in an italian restaurant. You never get the sense that you are in danger on the streets even at night. There are few homeless people visible though panhandlers are present. It was a weekend so the streets were jammed with mostly young people enjoying what Amsterdam has to offer. (More about that later) Of course, what we Americans have to worry about in Amsterdam is being run over, not by cars but by bicycles. The people get around by bicycle and there are thousands weaving in and out of the throngs of people; some while texting at the same time. Thousands of bicycles are parked everywhere and each year, the city removes more than 15,000 bikes from the canals. The bikes are cleaned and repaired and given to the needy.
This is a city and country whose philosophy can be summed up into one word, "tolerance". Instead of banning practices like prostitution and marijuana, it seemingly tolerates all ways of life but there are rules that must be followed; a small price to pay for acceptance. It is not permissiveness but rather, tolerance for all races, religions, and ways of life. The rest of the world would do well to adopt this tolerant way of life.
The engineering that went into all of Amsterdam and the Netherlands in general is mind boggling. Centuries ago, the people learned to control water through a series of dykes and created this marvelous city and country from swampland. Today, the Dutch are the world's experts in water management with clean canals and fresh drinking water. That is not to say that there are not obvious problems with 14th century home leaning against each other in a sort of dance. These old homes are built on pilings that support them and stay strong because the water levels in the canals are controlled to ensure that the beams are not exposed to air which would cause decomposure.
Sunday morning, as part of our extended Viking package, we took a walking tour of the city with a very funny, very knowledgeable guide who explained the engineering of the city and its homes and businesses. Step gables, bell gables and neck gables adorn the tops of homes while long beams with a pulley and cable extend over the street. Because originally, the owners of the homes were taxed according to the width of the home, the residents built narrow, but tall homes with staircases that would not allow for delivery of furniture to the upper levels. So, the goods were simply hauled up the side of the house and through a window using the pulley system. Ingenious and it works even today. Still it was a little disconcerting to see these homes leaning forward over the streets to give clearance for the hoisting of goods.
After the tour, we got a cup of coffee and a croissant and took a short nap. Then, we were off on a "taste of Amsterdam" tour with another wonderful guide. With only 6 in our group, we strolled through the crowded streets and into the Reypenaur Cheese Shop where we tasted goat and cows milk cheeses ranging from the very young to the very old. The cheesemaker talked about what cheese to eat with what drink and we got to taste a very "old" cheese paired with a port wine. I hated this cheese until I drank the port with it. Then, I didn't hate it so much but while it was an astonishingly different taste, I wasn't keen on the crunchy texture or harsh flavor. Bob liked them all.
We also got to taste the Dutch pancakes called Poffertschutes. Yum! Tasted like a funnel cake. And then there were the bitternbols which were little deep fried beef croquette-like balls and the Jenever, the Dutch liquor made from juniper berries and tasting like grappa to us. They pour the liquor into shot glasses all the way to the brim, and call it a head. You have to bend over and sip the "head" off the liquor before drinking the rest. Not my favorite thing but it was fun to taste all of these different things.
In short (or long), Amsterdam is a wonderful city;vibrant and alive but proud of its past and present as a world leader in water management. We loved it here.