Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Amsterdam, Netherlands (Part 1)

Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. Its name is derived from "Amstel dam", pointing to the city's origin: a dam on the river Amstel. The city is known for its historic port, the Rijksmuseum, its red-light district, its liberal coffee shops, and its many canals which have led to Amsterdam being called the "Venice of the North".

After living in Brussels for almost 1 year, this was my first trip to the city of Amsterdam. My good friend, Rick, arrived on the 14th and we were off to see as much as we could! He must have brought the sunshine with him as the weather was beautiful the entire time he was in town!

Rick arrived on Thursday so we did not plan much for the day as I knew he would be a little jet-lagged! We did manage to walk all over the entire city (so much for being tired) and found the BEST Italian restaurant for dinner! It was a little hole in the wall close to where we were staying! What a great find!

We also toured the Van Gogh Museum!

Amsterdam is a great city to walk around and enjoy the sites! I was in desperate need of some American food, so on Friday we met up with my friend Pam and headed to the Hard Rock Cafe! Oh this place hit the spot with some potato skins, nachos, chicken wings, cheese sticks, and Long Island Ice Tea! Yum!!

After lunch we walked around and checked out the famous coffee shops and Red light District. Let me just say it is everything you have ever heard it to be and more. Wow! I have never seen so much craziness in my life! I think Rick had a little too much fun looking! For more me!

After walking around all day and checking out the sites, we decided to head back to the hotel and rest up before dinner. Dan (Pam's husband) was driving up from Brussels to meet us and we wanted to get back in time to meet up with him. We stayed at the Hilton in Amsterdam and since I travel a lot I am an elite member with access to the private lounge where you can get free food, drinks, etc. Well, Rick LOVED this little treat and made it a point to not let a day go by without making an appearance! By the time we left, they all knew us by name and what we were having! The lounge is located on the top floor of the Hilton so the view of the city was breathtaking! Can you tell we spent a lot of time up here getting free drinks??!!

Friday night we took Dan and Pam to the yummy Italian restaurant (it was that good we had to go twice!). They LOVED it!

Saturday we got up and took a little tour of the famous canals in Amsterdam. I love how quaint the city is and how beautiful. Much of the Amsterdam canal system is the successful outcome of city planning. In the early part of the 17th century, with immigration at a height, a comprehensive plan was put together, calling for four main, concentric half-circles of canals with their ends resting on de IJ bay.

Because the soil on which the houses were built was not entirely firm, many houses along the canals are leaning. We also heard that some houses were built to lean forward on purpose, so that the furniture and other goods raised to the upper levels with ropes would not bang against windows. All structures in Amsterdam were built on pilings sunk deep into soft soil. They get added reinforcement by being built adjacent to one another, so each building "leans" on the others in a block. These pilings can be made of wood because the muck they sit in doesn't allow oxygen to break down the wood. Way back when, people used to put in their own pilings when building a house. Not everyone was good at it, nor did many have the resources to set big pilings very deep. So houses started to lean; then whole blocks started to lean. So the government finally said "enough" and put in pilings themselves. They taxed residents to recoup the costs. The tax was based on how wide your house was. So, of course, you built the narrowest, longest, highest house you could. How cool is that??!! Makes for one interesting house!

Something else we found very interesting in Amsterdam were all the bicycles!!! They were everywhere!!!!!! It definitely a city built for bikes. Not only are there bike lanes on nearly every major road, but some stairways have special steel tracks underneath the handrails so you can slide your wheels up the staircase. I think we were told that over 300 bikes are stolen each day...amazing! We saw many bikes locked up with locks the size of my hand!

A Dutch friend told me that Holland has more bicycles than people, and more bicycles per capita than any other European country. In Amsterdam this statement seems particularly true. It is the first place that I've ever visited that has a real bicycle parking problem. There just isn't enough space on the streets and sidewalks to put them all. And because the theft rate of bicycles is extremely high you find them securely latched on to all kinds of odd fixtures; anything that is cemented to the ground or bolted to a building is fair game. They have piles of bike racks around town, but I've never seen one that isn't filled to capacity. The scene in front of the train stations is especially amazing; hundreds and hundreds of bikes chained to the racks, railings, sign posts, each other - and stations typically have special covered garages where you can lock up your bike for a fee. I'm told those are usually filled too. I loved the little horns they would beep at you if you got into their way!!

I think I am going to buy a bike this weekend! I am inspired!

More on Amsterdam will be coming soon! We had dinner Saturday night at an incredible restaurant that I have to tell you about!!

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