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Maria & Brett's HUGE Trip 06-07-08-09-? ok, so the Socceroos lost in 'that' penalty against Italy; Adriatic summers aren't long enough (bliss!); and we found that you should never use the term "Eastern Bloc" when talking to a Czech (Central Europe, please).

The High Life in Amsterdam

NETHERLANDS | Tuesday, 15 August 2006 | Views [1439]

Maria arranged this sign so we can keep a track of where we've been to... but then this family came along and did a Brady Bunch impersonation in the letters... and the extras girl on the bike improvised with a bit too much flair - she said the sunflowers would make it look authentic. I guess they all want their one minute of fame...

Maria arranged this sign so we can keep a track of where we've been to... but then this family came along and did a Brady Bunch impersonation in the letters... and the extras girl on the bike improvised with a bit too much flair - she said the sunflowers would make it look authentic. I guess they all want their one minute of fame...

“What should we do with miles of boggy wasteland, covered by water?”

Someone answered that one in the late 1500s with the brilliant idea of damming the Amstel River, draining the lowlands of most of their water, and then building on this land reclaimed from the sea to give us the modern-day Amsterdam (from ‘Amstel Dam’).

With about 20% of the Netherlands below sea-level the legacy of the Amstel dam has given us a vibrantly fascinating city of canals and sinking buildings where, if you scratch about 40cm under the surface anywhere in town, the chances of reaching water are near 100%. (We tried, but got bloody wet and feared me might have an early trip home through Middle Earth!)

You thought Amsterdam was in Holland? Well, it is too. Holland is the provincial region that Amsterdam is located in, and due to Amsterdam’s significance for such a long time (think about the old Dutch traders who settled lands all over the world, including modern day Dutch Guiana; and Australia even had a Dutchman, Dirk Hartog, visit in the 1600s), Holland became the informal name for the country, although its formal name is the Netherlands.

On our visit we found a city of more-than-friendly and perfect-English-speaking Dutch locals; settlers from all other parts of the world who now call this place their home and share their culture with the locals and visitors alike; colourful buildings – some of which date back to the 1600s and most of which have a certain slant away from vertical due to sinking into the soft earth underneath; markets and museums that outnumber the canals; and even rubbish everywhere – an image completely at odds with the pristine self-image and stereotype of the Dutch.

Our Dutch adventure began with finding an €18 special fare on the Deutsche Bahn network from Stuttgart, and arriving in a city defined by its canals yet overcrowded by tourists – but we escaped this madness soon after. By chance we had found a quirky yet comfortable B&B just outside of the city called The Collector. We didn’t need to ask why because every room and hallway was themed by tens or hundreds or even thousands of collectors’ items. The owner, Karel, was a self-described collector of all things… collectible.

The first thing I’d do in Amsterdam is get your butt onto a canal cruise to orient yourself with this city – which is exactly what we did. We walked away not only with wobbly sea legs but more disoriented than before as the canals consist of linked rings that spiral outwards from the city centre. I’d always imagined Amsterdam to consist of a New York style grid where the roads and canals run along long parallel lines. To give you an idea of the scale of madness we’re talking about we were a little more oriented after the third day, but not completely.

I bet you thought Amsterdam is a city people visit just to get high. This is true, but only partially; this is only one of the city’s real faces.

Venturing into Vondelpark, the city’s green lungs, to see how locals relaxed we found a densely packed park full of hippies from the 70s and all walks of life: students, vagrants, mid-life crisers and people just like us with eyes boggling out of their heads at the sight of the flagrant drug and alcohol indulgence.

Like in any other great European city we jumped on one of Amsterdam’s rickety trams to take in the city by night, including a coffee at a cool little Belgian bier café with an intoxicating atmosphere made up the sultry summer evening, the quietness and unpretentiousness of the café’s location in a rear lane, the smiles on the faces of the 5 or 6 others who were sipping on creamy lattes or Belgian Leffes there, and the feeling in your heart that you’re here – in one of Europe’s most colourful and vibrant cities, which has something for everyone.

We took a compulsory stroll through the old quarter including the red light district with its scantily clad night girls standing in curtain-less windows under the crimson hue of fluoro lights. We couldn’t put our fingers on it (not only because it was prohibited!) but this part of town didn’t have the seediness that its counterpart in Sydney’s Kings Cross or other Dodgy Town would have – although after our visit we had cause to debate the morality of one the world’s oldest professions for hours.

After dodging billions of bike missiles all weekend we decided it was our turn to give in to the craze and get pedalling. We set out to find bikes within our price range within the city limits (ie under the cost of a kidney!) to ride to rural areas on other side of the harbour, but instead decided to chance it and continue the search across the river, jumping aboard the free pede-bike ferries that run every 12 minutes to the other side.

After walking for an hour and only seeing housing commission-filled suburbs, we decided to call it a day with the bike search, head back to the city for some museums, and vow to return in the April-June season when Amsterdam and its rural areas blossom with the blooming of millions of spring tulips. On heading back to the boat we took a ‘wrong turn’ (which in my language means “I think there may be something to see down that road, but if there isn’t then I realize we’ll have to walk all the way back again – on our already exhausted legs – but let’s take that chance anyway” and in Maria’s language means “if we take a detour, we're gonna get lost, full stop.’).

On fear of not speaking to one another forever more, Maria was persuaded to take a chance - again! After several previous legit wrong turns, this one turned out to be very right (I was forgiven this time….), and led us down a peninsular along man-made canal dikes lined by old houses and a medieval-aged cathedral to T’Sluijce – a place known by locals for its entrance for small boats from the harbour to the low-lying networks of water systems and canals (about 1.5 metres lower). Luckily for us there was a pub-come-beergarden (we were in Holland afterall, and not in Germany, but the Dutch do good beergardens too!) which surrounded the lock from all angles, and a boat which passed through the locks while we were there. Working up some strength from refreshments, we picked ourselves up again and…. Walked back to the ferry.

Lonely Planet no doubt offers an entire edition on Amsterdam and The Netherlands. We're open to other suggestions but we reckon you only need to tick these things off your list when you go there, then spend the rest of your time wandering aimlessly around the place - which you will anyway:

    • heading to the restaurant called the Bazaar, the essence of the Middle East. We chatted with an Israeli waiter there for over an hour while he was meant to be working – one of the nicest people we’ve met on our trip
    • a trip to the Sex Museum – go and see it for yourself, but just don’t sit down anywhere. I did, and within microseconds the ordinary looking chair started pulsating with a frenzy. I can’t remember the last time I screamed like a girl!
    • Hire a bike – but you'll need to negotiate the multistorey bike parking stations, and of course remember where you park it.
    • Visit during tulip blooming season (April/May?), when literally millions of different coloured tulips light up the Dutch countryside in thousands upon thousands.
    Return to Stuttgart via World Cup Final

Although we intended to stay in Amsterdam for 2 nights we extended it to 3 once we were there. This still wasn’t enough! Wrongly or not, we'd assumed the place would be full of tacky day tourists and would have little to offer others. Beginning its life as stop-off point for international traders, sailors, aristocrats, artists, and anyone drawn to the bright lights of the Big Smoke, Amsterdam has certainly built up a modern buzz on top of these old roots - so much that you could almost taste it coming off the seas, from all corners of the globe and laced with the dankness of a colourful, spicy, and multicultural history. We have vowed to return one day to try to bottle the rest of the essence that this place oozed.

On our return to Stuttgart we met a bunch of Mexicans on the train, all decked out in their national green, who were trying to find their way to Berlin on the other side of the country for the World Cup final that night. As the train was pulling into a connecting station one of them (now know as Hugo) asked whether we knew if this was the place to change trains for Berlin. Each of their eyes promised a night of unknown adventure and revelling with an unknown number of differnt different nationalities (and when was the last time we hung out with Mexicans?). We quickly scanned the timetable info that was lurking dogeared in the seat pocket and found that this was our only chance to change our plans. I looked at Maria and without having any time for words we quickly grabbed all our worlding things from under seats, above our heads and around our necks - and got off with the Mexicans.

We'd been chanting the tune "Berlin, Berlin, wir farhen nach Berlin" with Germans for weeks now, and this was one time we could sing our own theme song Sound of Music Style.

We were using ticket which would allow us unlimited travel on the Deutsche Bahn network for 24 hours after crossing over the German border from the Netherlands. On the Berlin train with the Mexicans (with a keg of beer that we'd bought to get us in the spirit to cheer on.... whatever team was playing in the final - most Aussies would prefer not to remember that Italy had made it all the way) Maria and I worked out that we'd have to be back in Stuttgart the following morning by 9am. Ouch. A seven hour trip from Berlin. Ouch. So we'd party with the mex'ns tile 1:30am then hotfoot it to the station.

With mixed emotion we watched Italy become 'campioni del mondo' in a controversial headbutting-Zidane-fueled final, but quickly got over it and looked beyond the Siegessaule monument along the Strasse des 17 Juni (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stra%C3%9Fe_des_17._Juni) which was lined with over a million revellers from all over the world. Wow! Colours, languages, alcohol, dancing, alcohol, fireworks, did we mention baaaaad 80s music? (What is it with music in Germany???). By the time we walked half of the strip and through 3 separate DJ towers, the small hand on our mobile phones clicked past 1 - time to go. We bid our fond farewells to the M'ns and began our long, upright journey back to Stuttgart. Upright because it was World Cup night and there were no unbooked seats on any train leaving Berlin that night. Somehow we devised a way to sleep perched against each other whilst standing up, arriving in Stuttgart at 9:30am with thousands of fresh commuters beginning their first monday after World Cup. Ahhhh, the hot apple tarts that awaited us....

Tags: Party time

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