Groeten van Nederland!

18 Oct

Greetings from the Netherlands and Happy Monday, y’all!  So most of you already know that we spent this past weekend in Amsterdam celebrating two things: John’s birthday (see the last post if you missed all of our cake fun!) and our ‘last hoorah’ (for now, of course) in Europe.  Mission accomplished!  What a perfect, FUN city to cap off our European adventure!

Before I get ahead of myself, let me start with some background…A small country located in northwestern Europe (check the Maps page), the Netherlands, established as a country in the mid 1500s, is often referred to as Holland, although North and South Holland are actually only two of its twelve provinces,  The word ‘Dutch’ is used to refer to the people, the language, and anything pertaining to the Netherlands.  It’s a geographically flat, low-lying country, with about 70% of its area located at or below sea level, which has led land preservation through elaborate systems of polders and dikes. As you might suspect from all the water, it has a comfortable maritime climate.

Some fun tidbits about the Netherlands:

  • UNICEF ranked the Netherlands 1st in child well-being.
  • The country is one of the world’s 10 leading exporting countries.
  • It has the lowest unemployment rate (4.1%) of all EU members.
  • The Netherlands introduced the Euro.
  • The Amsterdam Stock Exchange is the oldest in the world.
  • Dutch people are the tallest in the world- men average 6’1″ and women average 5’7″ (yes, I felt very small!)
  • The official language is, of course, Dutch, but about 70% of all adults can read, write and speak English.  Nearly 55% can also do the same with German.  WOW.
  • The country has the oldest standing army in Europe.
  • The Netherlands is one of the most secular countries in Western Europe, with only 39% being religiously affiliated and fewer than 20% visiting church regularly. (Roman Catholicism is the largest sect with 26%.)
  • The Netherlands has had many well-known artists, including Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Gogh and Escher.

As you probably already know, Amsterdam is the capital and largest city of the Netherlands, with a population of more than 2 million people.  Derived from ‘Amstellerdam,’ its name is indicative of the city’s origin: a dam in the river Amstel. Settled as a small fishing village, Amsterdam became one of the most important ports in the world during the Dutch Golden Age, a result of its innovative developments in trade. It also grew to be a leader for finance and diamond trading.  Just this year, Amsterdam was ranked 13th globally on quality of living and ranked 3rd in innovation.

OK, enough with the school lesson, on to our adventure!   I know I don’t usually post on our hotels, but this one was just too cool not to!  We stayed at The Toren, a smaller ’boutique’ hotel right in the middle of town on one of the main canals.  It was so different from anywhere we’ve ever stayed- a perfect blend of old world charm with modern elegance, all wrapped up in a sexy, bordello package.  I know, sounds crazy, right?!

 

The Toren Hotel (with the awnings)…
Our room…Red, velvet walls, shiny gold ceiling and lots of black furniture…Definitely over-the-top, but in a really neat way!
Our bathroom. Since our apartment doesn’t have a bathtub, we always try to stay at hotels that have them. This time, we took it a step further and went with a jacuzzi. 3 bubbly baths a day? Don’t mind if I do! 🙂
Our fun mantel…So glam 🙂
Max and Dulcie enjoying their ‘Royal Pallet…’ Ha!

Being the foodie that I am (and considering that Amsterdam isn’t known for its cuisine), I definitely did my meal homework before we got there and made reservations for the restaurants worth visiting- a must when traveling, especially to big cities!  Our first meal in Amsterdam?  A tiny, hole-in-the-wall place called ‘Moeders’ (Dutch for ‘Mothers’) known for its ‘motherly’ decor and its authentic Dutch cuisine.

 

Every single wall, floor to ceiling, is covered in pictures of mothers. You can't help but smile.

First dinner in the Netherlands 🙂

Moeders is known for having the best Stamppot in town.  Well what the heck’s a stamppot?  It’s a traditional Dutch dish made from mixing mashed potatoes and bacon pieces with one or several other vegetables (usually sauerkraut, endive, kale, spinach, carrot or onion), generally served with a sausage, meatball and gravy.  There’s also variations depending on what you like.  We went with a traditional (with endive and onions) and an ‘autumn vegetarian’ (with pumpkin and feta cheese).  DELICIOUS, folks.

 

Traditional (comfort food) Stamppot...

I had read somewhere that Moeders always welcomes new pictures to its walls, so of course we went prepared and couldn’t leave without leaving our stamp of approval!

 

We heart our moms! My mom and me in Paris just a few weeks ago, John and his mom at our wedding reception in 2004.

Unfortunately, Day 1 in Amsterdam was filled with lots (and I mean a TON!) of rain…but have no fear, we’re pros at dealing with downpours!

 

Venturing out for Day 1 🙂

The canal outside of our hotel...

Our first stop was the Westerkerk (‘western church’), a Protestant church built in 1620.  Its spire, at 279 feet tall, is the highest church tower in Amsterdam.  The crown topping the spire is the Imperial Crown of Austriaof Maximilian I.

 

The Westerkerk

Moving right along...You can see the Westerkerk spire in the distance...

Amsterdam is often called the ‘Venice of the North’ for its 100+ kilometers of canals, 90 islands and more than 1,500bridges. It’s actually the most watery city in the world- its canals and harbors fill a full quarter of its surface!  The three main canals- Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht- dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, form concentric belts around the city, known as the ‘grachtengordel.’  The whole, compact, uber-walkable city is structured as a half wheel, with the center being ‘Old Town’ and the concentric canals radiating out from there.

So many canals...

Today, the water in the canals is cleaner than it has ever been in their history. Three times a week, 14 of the 16 waterlocks around the city close up, so clean water can be pumped in from the big lake, IJsselmeer. The current created then pushes the dirty canal water out through the open locks on the other side of the city. Specialized cleaning boats with big scoops and nets patrol frequently to clean surface dirt. Best part? The clean water has attracted life- about 20 different species of fish and crabs live in the water, which also attracts waterbirds like herrons, ducks, coots, gulls and swans.

One of the main canals and its dam...

For lunch, we had reservations at a really cool concept restaurant called De Kas, housed in an old greenhouse.  In 2001, the top chef, who had already earned the reputation as a top Dutch chef, found a new direction for his own career and a new purpose for the old 1926 Amsterdam’s Municipal Nursery, by converting the unique 8-metre high glass building into a restaurant and nursery.

The concept is simple: food tastes best when it’s prepared using the freshest ingredients, grown and harvested with respect for nature.  The restaurant only serves what it produces- herbs, vegetables, spices, edible flowers…Meats are supplied by local partner farmers and fisherman.  All chefs and waitstaff spend time in the gardens every single day- working the soil, weeding, planting and harvesting.  How cool is that?!  OK, this restaurant totally brought out my hippie side.  Don’t judge :).

De Kas, set in the middle of Frankendael Park...

Another neat aspect of De Kas is that there’s no menu.  The chefs choose the ingredients at the beginning of each week and create dishes from them for that week.  So when you sit down, the server asks you if you have any allergies or any foods that you really don’t like.  Then you snack on whole grain bread, olives and pickles while the chefs create your 4-course meal (you each get your own dish, not splitting anything).  Whatever they feel like concocting is what you’ll be eating!  Neat, huh?  I will say that this took a little bit of blind faith on my part as I tend to be quite picky!  I told them of my peanut allergy and that I don’t like seafood and left the rest to them!

1st Course: Warm Pumpkin Soup with Sliced Veal (John's had lobster)

2nd Course: Mixed Salad with Fennel, Capers, Melon and Hibiscus

3rd Course: Mushroom Ravioli with Fried Celeriac and Giant Spinach (the ravioli is the long white tube under the spinach)

Main Course: White Fish in Sauce with Bok Choy, Grilled Polenta and Spicy Petals (Mine came with grilled lamb instead of fish. Unfortunately, I don't like lamb (yes, of course I tried it!), but the rest of the course was delish!)

Me, with a happy, full belly...and frizzy, rain hair 🙂

Next on our list was one of the top places I’ve wanted to visit since we got here…the Anne Frank House.  I’ve always been intrigued by all things Holocaust and I remember reading the Diary as a kid and just thinking she was the neatest girl. So being able to finally SEE it was like checking something off my Bucket List…

Although born in Germany in 1929, Anne Frank spent most of her life in Amsterdam, having moved there with her family in 1933, the year the Nazis took over Germany.  By the beginning of 1940 they were trapped in Amsterdam due to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. As persecutions of the Jewish population increased by 1942, the family went into hiding in the hidden rooms of her father, Otto Frank’s, office building. After two years, the group was betrayed (by whom is still unknown) and transported to concentration camps. Anne and her sister, Margot, were eventually transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where they both died of typhus in March 1945, just a month before liberation.

Otto Frank, the only survivor of the family, returned to Amsterdam after the war to find that Anne’s diary (kept from June 1942 until August 1944) had been saved, and his efforts led to its publication in 1947. Otto was also responsible for opening the ‘house’ to the public in hopes of educating and promoting tolerance among all people.  His only request was that it be left unfurnished.  Unfortunately, they don’t allow pictures in most rooms, so you won’t get to see very much here… 😦

The Anne Frank House...Definitely not how I expected it to look...

And what it looked like then...Keep in mind, they were hiding on the top three floors at the back of the building on the left...

The famous moveable bookcase that hid the entry to the 'Secret Annex'

My favorite part of the house...The wall of Anne's bedroom decorated with pictures she'd pulled out of magazines. Just thinking that she pulled out each one...smoothed them onto the wall by hand...It gave me chills. I know, I'm a nerd...

On the way back to the hotel to walk the pups, we stumbled upon the Cafe Winkel, which I happened to remember from my research, is said to have the best apple pie in ALL of Europe.  Considering it was time for the usual ‘coffee and cake’ anyway, of course we stopped in, only we tweaked it to be ‘beer and pie!’ Ha!

Although not as good as old fashioned American apple pie (European pies are different- all fruit and crispy crusts, always served chilled), this was definitely, hands down the best apple pie we've had in Europe! The waiter said they go through about 90 full pies...DAILY. Guess we weren't the only one who'd heard the rumor! 🙂

We spent the rest of Day 1 just exploring the city- always one of our favorite parts of any adventure…Amsterdam, what a beautiful city you are, even in the rain!

Moving right along, the ‘brown bar’ is a Dutch staple, an old-style drinking environment…and they’re everywhere in Amsterdam!  Why are they called brown bars?  Well, because they’re brown.  Seriously, they’re all made of either dark brick or dark wood and have a cozy, hole-in-the-wall feel. And basically, you get beer, cheery red faced locals, canal-side seating, and not much more. Ah, bliss.  But luckily, we found one, Cafe Bern, that not only served food, but is known for having the best fondue and the best entrecote (premium beef) in the city (OK, we ‘found’ it as a result of doing a little homework ahead of time, but still!).  And while the food was very good (I think we were spoiled a few weeks ago by having true Swiss fondue…), it was the experience itself- being nestled into a dim, canal-side pub, enjoying Belgium beer and cooking our own dinner (the entrecote comes out raw and you cook it over a flame in an herb sauce)…Great evening…

Fondue and Entrecote, both over flames...

After dinner was alot of fun…So, as many of you probably know, Amsterdam is famous for two things: legal marijuana and its Red Light District.  Unfortunately, I can’t be of much help on the pot front as we’re not into that scene, but I will say that it’s definitely legal, it’s definitely available everywhere you turn around and its smell is most definitely pungent throughout much of the downtown area!  But, unlike in the States where it would be sensationalized and made into a big ‘to do,’ it’s very casual here- very ‘take it or leave it.’  In other words, if you want to smoke or to eat a ‘space cookie,’ then stop in and pull up a stool.  If not, that’s cool, just keep on walking.  The ‘coffee shops’ are on every street corner, the smoke wafting out and drifting down the streets…Since it’s illegal for these shops to sell alcohol, most people are just camped out at tables with their friends, a round of Coca-Cola and their weed, whether it be a joint, a bowl, a pipe, etc…

Random 'coffee shop...'

A main town square...Notice the 'coffee shop' on the left...

A menu, posted in the window...

Sometimes, we'd find variations of the 'coffee shops...' This one specialized in 'shrooms 🙂

On to what we found to be much more interesting, the Red Light District, which covers a large area in the oldest part of the city.  The buildings are tall, thin and crowded together, overlooking the tree lined canals. It’s a beautiful area during the day and the later it gets, the busier it gets. The darker it gets, the more obvious the glow of the fluorescent red lights above the many windows in the area becomes.

Red Light District- with the famous Casa Rosso on the left- from one of the many bridges...

Dating back to the 14th century when sailors arrived in need of some ‘female company,’ the district is full of massage parlors, sex shops, brothels, bars, strip clubs and cinemas- plus a few hotels and museums, just for kicks!  Luckily for us curious folks, this part of the city is a major tourist attraction.

Prostitution became a legal profession in Holland in 1988, the idea behind the decision showing typical Dutch pragmatism: prostitution is inevitable, so if it is legal, at least it can be controlled. In turn, women set themselves up as self-employed entrepreneurs- they’re required to pay taxes and are eligible for health care. The decision was also designed to increase the respectability of the trade and decrease criminal activities such as human trafficking and forced prostitution.  While not all these things have been achieved, the attitude to sex in the Netherlands is probably the most open-minded of any country in the world. In addition, the practice of scantily clad women parading their wares from behind red-lit windows (there are about 250 windows total!) is distinct to Holland and puts the trade in plain view. The chance to window-shop in this way, whether it’s simply out of curiosity or with the intent to buy, is what attracts most people to the area. The women, dressed scantily in cheap lingerie and enticing passersby from behind the glass, are used to being looked at, flirted with, etc…

It's like a buffet of women...If you want to 'spend time with' a girl, you just go right in her door and she'll close the curtains.

Take your pick...Each 'lady of the night' is in her own room with a glass door opening to the sidewalk...

Contrary to what you might think, it’s actually not a seedy part of town.  With the exception of the red lights and the (nearly) naked ladies, you honestly can’t tell you’re anywhere different than you were before!  How is that, you ask?  Well, it’s estimated that Amsterdam’s sex trade generates around $700 million each year, of which the government receives a hefty slice in taxes. In other words, the Red Light District is a good earner and not something the government would risk damaging!  The high concentration of security cameras and police patrols make the Red Light District one of the safest places to visit in the city.  Needless to say, John and I had an absolute BLAST wandering the narrow alleys and just taking it all in…Please note, there’s not a chance in Hell that anyone would’ve assumed we were anything but tourists- our eyes bulging out of our heads and mouths hanging wide open probably sealed that deal.  Hey, you would’ve been the same way!  Ha!

Day 2 got off to a much sunnier start (BAZINGA!), so we set out without much of a game plan, just roaming the streets and stopping in shops along the way…

Canal with pretty colors...

Just like home 🙂

The Flower Market...

Notice all the bikes parked on the left? You can also see them in many of the other pictures in this post...

Amsterdam is the most bicycle-friendly large city in the world with hundreds of bike paths, bike racks, and several guarded bike storage garages.  Last year, there were about 465,000 registered bicycles in the city.  Bikes are used by all socio-economic groups because of their convenience, Amsterdam’s small size, the 400 km of bike paths,the flat terrain, and the arguable inconvenience of driving an automobile (streets are narrow and crowded and parking is expensive). The bike paths are coloured brown to differentiate them from pedestrian sidewalks and they have their own traffic lights. A wide variety of bicycles- road bikes, mountain bikes, racing bikes and even recumbent bikes are used, but the vast majority are second-hand, older-model, heavy bikes with one gear and back-pedal coaster brakes. Luckily, bicycle traffic is relatively safe with only an average of 18 bike-related deaths each year.

On a side note, while there may be plenty of bikes in Amsterdam, there’s no shortage of house boats either!  In the old days, when the canals were still used for transport of merchandise, living on a houseboat was a sign of poverty in Amsterdam.
 But as their transport function dwindled in the last century, the old ‘industrial’ canals became upmarket residential areas. Old warehouses on the canalsides were converted to deluxe apparment complexes and the barges that supplied them began new lives as comfortable houseboats with ample living spaces in their former cargo holds. Many have been afloat for more than a century, the oldest being built in 1840 as a waterboat for fresh drinking water.  A neat fact: all stationary houseboats are connected to city sewage and water supplies.

For lunch, we wanted to try another traditional Dutch cuisine…pancakes!  And, of course, we had to have the best of the best, so we went to The Pancake Bakery.  Yes, we got there at their opening time and still had to wait about 45 minutes to get a table, but it was SO SO SO worth it.  Now, those of you who really know me know that very few things rank hire on my list than breakfast carbs, so this was the meal I’d been waiting for!  And it didn’t disappoint!  The menu offers every single topping- both savory and sweet- for a pancake that your mind can fathom.  I’m talking hundreds of combinations here, folks!  Oh my goodness, I knew with each bite that I’d died and gone to Heaven…

We each started with a ‘savory-‘ chicken and cheese for me, ham, cheese and onions for John- followed by a ‘sweet-‘ cinnamon sugar profiteroles for me, Nutella and banana for John.  I suppose I should tell you that their pancakes are about 14″ in diameter (think small pizza) and the consistency somewhere between a French crepe and an American flapjack.  Oh, and their secret ingredient for getting the nice crispy edges with a hint of saltiness?  Leftover bacon grease.  (*Disclaimer- I didn’t learn this secret until after the fact or I wouldn’t have eaten them.  Oh who am I kidding, I TOTALLY would’ve still eaten them! Ha!)

The Pancake Bakery...Who would've thought such an institution would look so unassuming!

My chicken and cheese pancake (the 'toppings' are actually sandwiched between two thin pancakes for a 'baked in' taste)...See how huge they are?!

John's Banana and Nutella Dessert Pancake (Bananas baked in and a big cup of Nutella (hazelnut chocolate for those of you living under a rock) to spread on top...)

My Cinnamon Sugar Dessert Profiteroles (silver dollar-sized mini pancakes, another Dutch specialty)...

And before you ask, yes we ate all of the above.  Every.Last.Bite.  Mmmm…Moving on, next we were off to the Heineken Brewery, one of the highlights for my husband who has aspirations of opening a brewery one day. 🙂 (I can say that he makes a mean home brew, too!)  The company was started here in Amsterdam in 1873.  Today, it’s brewed in 39 countries worldwide, with the majority still being produced in the Netherlands.

The Heineken Brewery

Heineken, through the years...

First bottle...

Where the magic happens 🙂

The Heineken Horses, rivals of the Budweiser Clydesdales 🙂

Sampling the brew after the tour...

Probably one of my favorite pictures of us...Classic John and Erin 🙂

Still full from our ginormous pancake lunch- and now some added Heineken delight- we decided to skip dinner altogether and just take our time getting back to the hotel.  Along the way, we found ourselves at an uber-crowded, jam packed outdoor market selling everything from fresh fish to surplus Army clothing.  Best part?  There was a vendor making fresh stroopwafels, one of the last traditional Dutch delicacies we’d yet to sample.  So what are stroopwafels?  They’re thin, crispy waffle cookies (the dough is actually mashed onto a waffle iron) sandwiching a layer of caramel.  Let’s just say I was in Heaven twice that day!

A stroopwafel street vendor, selling them as fast as he can make them...

A true foodie, needing you to actually SEE the warm, gooey deliciousness between the fresh, crispy waffles...

Mmmm, Mmmm...Good. 🙂

There you have it!  After eating, drinking, and playing our way through Amsterdam, I think it’s safe to say that our Dutch adventure was a success!  We had a great time celebrating John’s birthday (although that would’ve been true even if we’d camped out in a fort in our living room for the weekend!) and squeezing every last drop out of our last (for this time!) European hoorah.  Traffic even cooperated with us for the 6 hour drive home, leaving us just enough time to enjoy (lots of) birthday cake!

‘Til next time…

One Response to “Groeten van Nederland!”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Hallo, Amsterdam! | Thomas Wanderings... - October 3, 2016

    […] his favorite delicacies, and one delicious homemade bake by yours truly❤. You can check that out here , along with all the nitty gritty details about the Netherlands and its capital […]

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