Amsterdam? More Like AmsterWOW!

Jun 7, 2018   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

I’m relatively sure I have a new favorite city in the world. And, I can’t believe I waited until just before my 62nd birthday to visit it. Amsterdam was everything I’d hoped for, while still being so much more. I’m looking forward to the day we can return and spend more than 48 manic hours soaking in the history, meeting the wonderful people, and marveling at the beauty and culture of the place. Should you visit Amsterdam? Yes, you should. And don’t wait as long as I did.

Before I dive into the retelling of a trip that started on Thursday night and ended upon our return to the Twin Cities on Sunday evening, I shall first delve into this philosophical question: “What criteria do you utilize to consider a place to be one of your favorite cities in the world?”  That’s a question that probably would generate a wide variety of answers from different people. For me, it’s based on things like character, unique charm, the people, history, beautiful scenery, and a sense of “Wow” at every corner. My short list, prior to our visit to Holland, included San Francisco, Seattle, London, Edinburgh, Willemstad (on the island of Curacao), and Florence (as in Firenze, in Italy.) Add Amsterdam to the list, and don’t be afraid to jump it all the way to the top. Or as friend and colleague Alan Reinhart would say, on the P.A. system during qualifying at any NHRA Mello Yello event, Amsterdam goes “TO… THE… TOP!”

And, a quick note. Our WordPress blog formatting system has been updated to include a new “Photo Gallery” option for pics. I’m going to try that, later in the blog. If it doesn’t work or I can’t figure it out (the second option there would be the more likely) I’ll just select a few of my favorites and post them the normal way. Wish me oodles of luck. (LATER: Okay then, never mind. I’ll need to get with our web expert later to figure out how the gallery process works. Grrr.)

OK, back to last Thursday. It was great to spend an hour with Erica Moon after she arrived from work to take up residence with Boofus and Buster while I traipsed around The Netherlands for a few days. Typically, we don’t cross paths on these cat-sitting escapades, but I think it helped the boyz to see the two of us together, in a sort of “hand off” fashion.

I got to MSP early, by design. There are quite a few things you have to be ready for when traveling internationally, and there’s the fact you’re probably going to be flying on a big airplane with lots of other passengers. I’d rather get there early and spend 45 minutes in the Sky Club than feel the stress of dashing through security and standing in line at the gate.

The lay of the land in Amsterdam. Our hotel was near Vondelpark in the lower left corner. (Click on any image to enlarge).

Having used Delta miles to upgrade to the front cabin, I selected seat 5A for my Amsterdam flight. The First Class seating configuration on the A-330 is 1-2-1 so having a window seat puts you all by yourself on the left side of the cabin and, with “lay flat” seats, that gives you a little cocoon area all to yourself. Acknowledging my tendency to not sleep when sleeping is highly recommended, I hoped for the best. On long-haul flights like this, Delta puts a little “overnight kit” on every seat in the front, and that fun little package includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, socks, ear plugs, a pen, eyeshades, and a few other goodies. It even looks like a miniature version of a Tumi rolling bag. Barbara had advised me to use the eyeshades, so the plan was this: Get comfortable and relaxed, eat dinner, avoid movies, and take my Melatonin tablet as soon as my tray was taken away. All I put on the entertainment screen was our visual Flight Tracker, so I could see where we were in the world.

I think it worked to some degree. I put the seat all the way down, put my eyeshades on, and tried out my new “white noise” app on my phone. I chose the “electric fan” noise, and that was pretty awesome considering I like to have a fan on in my room normally, just for the steady drone of the blades. I listened to the ocean waves and gentle rain noises, but could tell instantly that my brain would overly engage with those, trying to find the point at which the sound loop starts over again, so the fan sound was best. I remember noticing that we were finally over Newfoundland in eastern Canada, and then recall picking up the corner of my eyeshades to look at the screen again, not sure how much later it was, and at that point we were past the southern tip of Greenland and closing in on Iceland. I think I slept for two hours, at least. That’s a huge win for me.

As we crossed over Ireland and England, I started to get a little nervous about my arrival. Schiphol Airport is huge and things like Passport Control and Immigration/Customs can be different and hard to figure out at any big airport. Barbara was flying in from London, and we had a basic plan to somehow just meet up. Upon landing, when both of our phones were working again, I got a text from her letting me know her flight was at least an hour late leaving Heathrow. So, I made my way through all the arrival checkpoints and just went to baggage claim. An hour later, Barb arrived. Badda boom, badda bing. Worked like a charm.

Barb had arranged a private car for us, so we headed for the meeting spot they’d chosen (Barbara is VERY familiar with Schiphol, because most of her business trips to Europe go through there – and for the record, it’s basically pronounced “Skipple”). Our driver was waiting and so was his car. It was a Tesla. That was the first “Wow” of the trip. What a zoomy ride!

Bicycles and canals. It’s a recurring theme.

The trip from the huge airport to the city was mostly a generic series of hotels, office buildings, and other standard European stuff, but once we got close to the city center it all began to look very much like the Amsterdam I’ve always admired in photos. Endless streets of row houses, outdoor cafes, and bicycles. Gazillions of bicycles. As our driver told us, “There are more bikes in Amsterdam than cars, and they get the right of way. You really have to be on the lookout for them at all times, even when you’re walking. The riders are pretty fearless.” He told the truth. They were everywhere.

After arrival at the Marriott, at around 2:00 in the afternoon local time, where Barbara had used points to get us a beautiful room on the Executive Level, we hatched our plan to get unpacked and then go for a walk. We knew we needed to stay up until at least 9:00 to get acclimated, although her three days in the UK had her quite a bit ahead of me. So, off we went with little more than a glance at a map and a general idea of how the city is laid out.

Basically, the historic city center of Amsterdam is defined by a series of concentric canals. The whole place is reclaimed land from the sea, thanks to dams and dikes, and the canals circle and intersect just like the surface streets that run parallel to them. What all that creates is a beautiful and unique city, where bicycles and electric trams rule the streets while boats ply the water, both as tour vehicles and transport. It was all mesmerizing, and it was clear and obvious that Amsterdam ticked off all the boxes for being a unique and beautiful place.

The view from our Marriott window

I’d learned just before leaving Minnesota that Roger Spee and his family were also going to be in Amsterdam on Friday. Roger was a key contact for us at Mac Tools, throughout the CSK – Worsham years, and he and I have always enjoyed each other’s company. We were emailing on Thursday and we were both hoping we could meet up. After our long walk, Barbara and I returned to the hotel and headed for the Executive Lounge area, where our room keys gained us entrance for free food and drinks. We were sipping on glasses of wine when I checked my email and saw a note from Roger. In it, he asked “So where are you?” and I quickly replied “At the Marriott in the city center, in the Executive Lounge.” He immediately wrote back, “I know. I’m looking at you!” He and his family were about 10 feet away. That was enormous fun, and an even bigger coincidence. What are the odds I could travel all the way to Amsterdam, and end up not only in the same city, and the same hotel, but in the same room at the same time, with a longtime friend and colleague? A million to one? We had a great time chatting and comparing tourist notes.

As far as I can recall from that night, we both slept okay and were ready to go in the morning. I’m not sure of that, because it was all kind of hazy at the time and it still is now. But, on Saturday morning we knew we had to be at the Rijksmuseum at a specified time to meet our tour guide. We’d walked to the museum on our long Friday evening walk, so we knew how to get there but I’d also figured out a bit of a shortcut to get to our meeting point, and that worked flawlessly. It was a short 15 minute walk, and moments later we were meeting Selena, who would be our guide. I could tell she wasn’t Dutch, so I asked where she was from. She was from New Zealand! Her husband is Dutch, however, and they live in the city. She was also an art historian, who was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about everything she was going to show us over the course of the next couple of hours.

With our guide Selena, at the Rijksmuseum

Her carefully planned route through the museum had us taking a real history lesson, about Holland, Dutch trade around the world, and art. She was incredible, and we were soaking up the insight and history as fast as we could. In real time, I knew the value of this guided tour. By ourselves, Barbara and I would’ve walked through the various rooms and exhibits while thinking it all looked interesting. With Selena, we got to hear the backstories and connect all the dots from the late 1500s to the present day. When we finally came to a room where we saw our first Rembrandt, and then our first Vermeer, it all made a lot more sense. And seeing that first Rembrandt and first Vermeer were absolutely the “Wow” moments we expected. We crammed an awful lot of learning and looking into two hours. Could you have a great time at the Rijksmuseum without spending the money to hire a tour guide? Of course. Was it worth it to do it with a guide? Absolutely. It was priceless.

Our next scheduled event was an evening “Wine & Cheese” canal cruise, so we had the afternoon free to snoop around the city some more. Four hours later, we were back at the hotel after having walked another four or five miles, following the canals and admiring the beauty of the city. And the people. Oh my gosh the people. Wonderful, friendly, and totally fluent in English. As one guy told us, “They don’t let us graduate from high school without being totally fluent. Unlike the French, we enjoy welcoming people to our country and we love to talk in your language.” I totally got the “unlike the French” comment, and most of the locals we interacted with were not just fluent, but also completely conversant and with very little accent. The same guy said, “Growing up, we mostly had American shows on TV, with Dutch subtitles, so even before we went to school we were immersed in English.”

The Anne Frank house

We managed to find the Anne Frank house, but tickets to tour the house and museum are very hard to get. They sell out each time slot weeks in advance, but it still meant a lot to us just to see that historic building in person. If you went to a grade school like mine, you probably had “The Diary of Anne Frank” on your mandatory reading list.

And we discovered one other interesting thing about the very vertical homes on every street. Considering this is all reclaimed land, taken from the sea, it maybe shouldn’t be surprising that most of them lean, in various directions. Whether it’s right or left, or forward and backward, once you notice how many of them lean you can’t stop noticing it. Then you look to the top of the buildings and notice two things. They almost all have pulleys up at the top, right at the crown, because that’s how you get your furniture inside (through a window.) The staircases are too narrow to use for moving purposes. And, many of them have strong steel cables holding the various buildings together, as upright and straight as possible. It’s amazing.

When it was time for the cruise, we knew we had to get to Central Station, the big train depot on the other side of the city center, so for that trek we took a taxi. Heck, by then we’d walked about 20 miles in the day and a half we’d been there. We’d dined at outdoor cafes, shopped in small stores for local merchandise, and admired the incredible vibe and friendliness of such an old and historic city. And then we sipped more wine, consumed some local Dutch cheeses, and enjoyed the two hour cruise around the canals. “Amazing” doesn’t come close to describing it. And the young couple seated next to us, who were from Switzerland, were great too. We had a rollicking conversation about all things Dutch, Swiss, and American. Great fun.

Look closely. They almost all lean one direction or another.

Now, I shall digress to answer the first two questions everyone has been asking. 1) Did we visit the Red Light District?  No, although most visitors do. It really wasn’t on the way to anywhere we were walking, but oddly enough the taxi driver who took us back to the hotel after the canal cruise did drive through it. I was awfully tired at the time but I remember Barb poking me in the side and pointing to a building as we drove by. The ladies of the evening were on display in their street side windows. 2) Did we visit any marijuana or hashish places?  Also a no, but the unmistakeable scent was pretty common just walking down the sidewalks. It smelled like I was back at a Led Zeppelin concert in high school. And for the record, in my life I’ve taken one puff on one joint. That’s it. With asthma, I had a hard enough time breathing air, much less smoke. I have never smoked a cigarette, either.

We had one last glass of wine in the hotel lounge before heading off to bed for one more night in Amsterdam. In the morning, another brisk walk, this time through the beautiful Vondelpark just around the corner from the Marriott. Then, another Tesla ride to the airport, another series of “Passport Control” security stops, and a brief visit to the KLM lounge before heading to the gate. Traveling together this time, we had chosen a pair of seats in the middle section of First Class, although with the lay flat seats and the way they’re configured for privacy, it’s not that easy to even see each other much less talk. This time, I did watch a couple of movies and got another hour’s sleep or so. Heading west, it’s the same eight and a half hours but when you leave at 1:00 you get home at around 5:30 on the same day. That night, I slept for 12 hours.

Canals, canals, and more canals…

It was a whirlwind. It was mind boggling. It was Amsterdam, and it was incredible. So much fun, so much history, and so much to admire. In a city where a typical residence might very well have been built in 1750 rather than 1950, you’re also surrounded by so much technology and ecology it’s startling. With bikes and electric trams providing most of the transportation, it’s a city that’s cleaner than just about any I’ve ever visited, and Amsterdam is not done yet. They have a plan to be completely emission-free by 2025. They’re not far from it now. They take great pride in how they treat their environment, how they welcome visitors, and how they organize and prioritize what’s really important in life. I could live there. It’s an incredible place.

So that’s it for this week. No more jet lag for me for a while, but it sure was fun to put up with that slight inconvenience just for the chance to sample the wonders of Amsterdam.

Since I was not intelligent enough to post a gallery, I’m going to add a few more random photos below. Hope you enjoy!

As always, if you just read this blog and liked what you experienced, please hit the “Like” button at the top. The more likes the merrier!

Bob Wilber, at your service with travel reviews.

On our wine & cheese cruise. Very fun!

And more canals

Rijksmuseum!

A young Rembrandt, in self-portrait. Painted in 1628.

Such a beautiful city!

Beautiful Vondelpark

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