DAY 21 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands:
*knock* *knock* *knock* “May we come in? My daughter has a pet dove that she keeps in the balcony and she pets her every morning,” visibly stressed Vera asked through the slightly ajar door, but before we could say anything, Graciella came skipping into our room and out to the balcony, squealing softly as she did so.
We learned that Vera had two children, Graciella and Adriano, and after a quick introduction, they waved goodbye to Miriam and I before they set off for school. My tummy wasn’t doing very well and I remember breakfast being really small for me, but it sure was tasty… apple-chocolate-cake kind of tasty. I was having leftovers from dinner at Joana’s because, hey, we were on holiday.
We reached Prinsengracht 263 on time for our allocated entrance time for the Anne Frank Museum. It was where, for more than two years, Anne Frank and her family lived in (more specifically, in the Achterhuis (Dutch for “back house”) or Secret Annex), and where Anne’s father, Otto Frank, also ran his business. The doorway to the Annex, which was shared between the Frank family, the Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer, was concealed behind a moveable bookcase constructed especially for this purpose. The office personnel knew of the hiding place and helped the eight people by providing them with food supplies and news of the outside world. On August 4th, 1944, the hiding place was revealed , but up till today, no one knows who betrayed them. The people in hiding were subsequently deported to various concentration camps, a and only Otto Frank survived the war…
Nowadays, the rooms at the Anne Frank House, though empty, still breathe the atmosphere of that period of time. Quotations from the diary, historical documents, photographs, film images, and original objects that belonged to those in hiding and the helpers illustrate the events that took place here. My favourite corner was little Anne’s room in the secret Annex, where she stuck her favourite posters and pictures and made it as homey as she could.
I found an amazing video which gives an excellent tour and narration of Anne Frank’s house. I highly recommend a watch if You can spare 4 minutes 36 seconds.
Tip: Buy tickets online beforehand to avoid insane 2 – 4 hours worth of queueing.
Moving along, just as we approached every new city, we went for a free walking tour around Amsterdam. One would mention the city as a haven for drugs and sex, with joints (marijuana ice cream and ‘space cakes’! We didn’t have any of it! By the way, this is hilarious.) and red-lit houses everywhere. Another would think of its fetishism for cycling through the city, the seemingly neverending maze of canals (165 canals with a combined length of 60 miles) and its odd cityscape with houses leaning (The houses were built slightly leaning forward to make it easier to haul everything in via the hook and window at the front of the house!) Culture in terms of a historical centre and many contemporary art exhibitions could come to the fore too.
But what amazed me most about Amsterdam is the fact that all these different descriptions exist side-by-side and meet each other in the city. How better to describe that notion of tolerance and diversity than to show a space where these can be seen together?
I learned and realised a few things as we walked around the city…
Forget looking either way for cars when crossing, it is the bikes one is more in danger of being run over by! Cycling is key to the city’s character and with 248 miles of cycle paths, it’s the best way to get around the city besides the terrific tram links. The city authority claims that there are around 600,000 bikes in the city alone!
Amsterdam has the most beautiful canal houses in the world, they’re so iconic. Because of the fast trades in Amsterdam, emerging merchants, artists and political classes who wanted to show off their new wealth made their homes along the canals. Due to space restrictions as the city grew during the 1600s, a policy of taxing buildings by the width of the front of the houses came in. Residents in Amsterdam dealt with this by building their houses tall and slim at the front and extending their houses at the back which is what makes them so unique. We dropped by the ‘kleinste Huis van Amsterdaam’ (‘smallest house in Amsterdam’), and found out that the guy who lives in it is more than 2 metres tall!
In the middle of the Red Light District, next to the canal Oudezijds Voorburgwal, there is this little square called Oudekerksplein. A big church is placed in the middle: de Oude Kerk. In the past, sailors went on trips that usually lasted for months and by the time they returned, let’s just say that they were deprived. They’d dock their boats and head straight for the Red Light District and… You know… before asking for forgiveness at the church.
Understandably, there is a zero tolerance policy on photography in the Red Light District but it’s important to mention as Amsterdam has one of the largest and most well-known Red Light Districts in the world. This statue titled “Belle” was placed in the heart of Amsterdam as a way of honouring sex workers in the Red Light District. The plaque reads: “Respect sex workers all over the world.”
Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, the government ensures that all prostitutes are able to access medical care and work in better conditions by regulating and monitoring working practices and standards. Since October 2000, window prostitutes have been allowed to legally ply their trade and also pay tax! Miriam and I kept our heads facing downwards because the ladies at the windows showed so much skin, it made us a little uncomfortable.
Walking by the Royal Palace, we were told that a group of Jews used the palace’s basement for hiding and managed to survive! A funny story followed: When Louis Bonaparte got appointed by his brother, Napoleon, to rule Amsterdam as king, he chose to reside in the then Amsterdam Town Hall which he renamed to the Royal Palace. During a speech to the locals, his poor grasp of Dutch led him to say ‘I am your Bunny Rabbit’ instead of ‘I am your king.’ From then on, he was known as “Konijn van ‘Olland” (“Rabbit of ‘Olland”).
Note: In Dutch, “Rabbit” is “Konijn”, while “King” is “Koning”.
Along Spui (a street pronounced as ‘sh-paeuuu’), we visited a mini chapel and Begijnhof, a triangular grass courtyard. Years ago, nuns were given this court square to practice religion and care for the sick. Moving on to present times, unmarried women currently live there (93 is the current count) — single, widowed, not necessarily nuns — and they’d leave the place when they get married. We were told to keep quiet and maintain the peace of the area. It was so calming to be there.
Read more about Begijnhof’s secrets here.
Something rather hilarious happened at the church… On a frigid Tuesday night before Palm Sunday in 1345, the ordinary circumstance of an old man quietly dying at home took a strange turn. Shortly after the man was given the sacrament of Holy Communion, he vomited, and the women who were attending him were confounded to see that the bread reemerged from his mouth whole. They threw the vomit on the fire, presumably reasoning that flames offered the least sacrilegious way of disposing of its holy contents, but the bread did not burn. The town’s clergymen processed to the church bearing the wondrous bread – which seemingly behaved with a supernaturalness akin to the body of Christ that Catholics believed the Eucharist to be – and a miracle was declared. An imposing church was built on the site of the man’s house, and when it later burned to the ground, not once but twice, and each time the bread survived the fire, the “Miracle of Amsterdam” became a medieval phenomenon.
Although Amsterdam is well known for tulips, they’re actually indigenous to Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other parts of central Asia. They were originally brought to Amsterdam in 1593 and tulip mania subsequently followed! Today over four billion tulip bulbs are planted each year and continue to be popular, there’s even a whole museum in Amsterdam dedicated to them.
Amsterdam is so cute, like a cosmopolitan city that has always remained a little town. Amsterdam is as exciting a place to be as anywhere in Europe. This city is worldly, exciting, attractive, likeable, and fun. There are many places to go and things to see all within reasonable walking distance. The side streets for blocks and blocks are filled with curious little stores of all types. Amsterdam is a town where discovering new places can be more fun than finding famous sights.
That day, rain fell like it meant to wash us away, like it meant to keep hammering until we smudged like a Monet masterpiece… a day of inescapable wetness. It started pelting so heavily towards the end of the tour that hearing what our guide had to say became near to impossible.
Vegabond, a chill Vegan restaurant with recipe books for leisure reading and a large variety of Vegan goodies, was our refuge during the downpour, and that was where we shared a rice wrap summer roll, almond ‘brie’ and fig jam toast and a granola-topped soy yoghurt breakfast bowl. We enjoyed every bit of our dinner and when two little boys sitting across the room left one of two of their pesto-tomato toast untouched, we saw the perfect opportunity for seconds. We predicted embarrassment on our part if we were to get caught, but we were also still hungry. So my role: Create a diversion by searching for ‘something’ in my bag in a very over-the-top manner. Miriam’s role: Quickly make her way across the room and calmly and swiftly bring the plate of untouched toast over. Never before has either one of us done anything like this, hahaha it was fun and not to mention, delicious.
Amsterdam decided to be kind and give us a bit of sunlight as we emerged from Vegabond, and we made our way to the famous TFIOS (The Fault In Our Stars) bench a few
blocks canals west. It wasn’t difficult to spot the bench — love locks fastened on both ends and quotes written wherever it could be written… ‘Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.’ We were really happy here and we just sat on the bench, refusing to believe that we indeed were in Amsterdam and experiencing all of this.
On the way back to Vera’s that evening, we stopped by the Bloemenmarkt (flower market) where we read that ‘All you need is Laaf’ and where we saw more tulip onions than actual tulips. And finally, when we reached Vera’s apartment, there was chaos as Graciella stood in the middle of the hallway, bawling, while Vera rushed around trying to get bedsheets and clothes in the washing machine and the floors vacuumed. Miriam somehow knew that it had something to do with the dove and asked Graciella about it, trying to comfort her as she did. Later that night, we found out that as Graciella ‘tried to teach her dove to fly’ in the apartment, Vera started feeling itchy and realised that the dove had brought fleas into the apartment! She was worried that the fleas had infested our belongings, but thankfully, we were spared.