A day in Amsterdam

According to legend, Amsterdam was founded in the 12th century by 2 lost fisherman who vowed to build a town wherever they touched land.  Once they reached the banks of the Amstel River, their seasick dog anointed the chosen location with his vomit.  In a city famous for sloppy tourists indulging in legalized prostitution and drugs, such a legend seems sadly fitting.  Yet Amsterdam is so much more than that.  A melting pot of cultures and a juxtaposition of old and new – architecture, art, music and food- this picturesque canal city, with a clever ‘I amsterdam’ slogan, couldn’t be a more charming and tourist-friendly city to visit.

The famous tourist landmarks like the Heineken Experience, the Anne Franke House and the Van Gogh museum can give you a glimpse into an important segment of Dutch culture, but spending an entire day leisurely strolling along the scenic canals and taking in the city’s breathtaking landscape is a better way to spend your time in Amsterdam.  Leave your guidebook behind and weave through the labyrinth of narrow canals to see where your walk takes you.

You’ll want to start your adventure on a bicycle and join the other 540,000 cyclists that inhabit the city.  Only bike if you know how though, for riding through this beautiful city only seems like a charming idea.  You will not be humming your favorite tune while eating a herring, carrying a bunch of tulips and waving to smiling children on the street- in reality, it’s a hair raising dangerous mission that can turn into a violent contact sport at any turn. Bumpy uneven paths make for teeth rattling off-road riding and sharp inclined turns are not kind to unaccustomed tourists.  I myself ended up with a broken elbow and a sprained ankle on this trip.

In addition, locals will spot you from a mile away and teach you a thing or two about road etiquette through passive aggressive measures.  And if you manage to survive Amsterdam’s extreme cycling, don’t breathe a sigh of relief and let your guard down when you park, for it will be gone if you forget the heavy chain-linked lock (150,000 get stolen annually).  Make note of where you park your bike too, for it can easily be lost in a sea of others.

“Throughout the city there are as many canals and drawbridges as bracelets on a Gypsy’s bronzed arms.” – Flex Marti-Ibanez, Spanish writer.

165 canals criss cross through the medieval city, circulating through 3 main artery canals called Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht, that form semi-circular rings around the Old Centre (Oud Centrum).  These canals, crossed by 1,400 bridges and averaging 3 meters deep, are dotted with colorful boats of all sizes and flanked by rows of tightly stacked tall lean houses.

The rippling reflections of lush green trees and expansive blue skies on the murky waters of the canals are a sight to revel at, hiding some 10,000 bicycles, 22 million gallons of sludge and any one of 50 corpses of drunken fools that tragically fall into the waters every year.

The Netherlands was once one of the world’s greatest shipping powers, and at one point in history it controlled more trading ships than the combined fleets of France and England, as well as more than half of all ships sailing between Europe and Asia.  Amsterdam’s maritime legacy and prosperity can be seen in the decorative facades of the houses that line the canals, which were built in the 17th and 18th century for wealthy merchants.  All houses are built with large windows that allow pedestrians to peek in to admire the opulent interiors and beautiful furniture.  One could easily spend a whole week walking around the city and marveling at the unique architecture.

Amsterdam is built on reclaimed marshland, and all structures are built on pilings sunk deep into soft soil, which has caused many of them to sink, lean and shift over the years.  Houses are stacked adjacent to each other for reinforcement, but continued ‘leaning’ of houses and entire blocks is easily visible from the street if you look at them from the side.  Some houses appear to tilt forward, while others look lopsided and askew in all directions, creating an optical illusion of a warped misshapen world.

On any given day in Amsterdam, you’ll be able to find an array of outdoor markets, from the Nieuwmarkt flea market and the Noordermarkt organic farmers market to the Albert Cuyp market in Amsterdam’s Latin Quarter De Pijp.  For those wanting a more urban shopping experience, venture to the ‘Nine Streets‘ in the heart of the city’s canal district for kitschy boutiques, specialty products, designer clothing and beautiful antiques.

For a uniquely Dutch shopping experience, trek down to Bloemenmarkt (the world’s only floating flower market) on the southern side of the Singel canal where you will find an array of flowers in full bloom if in season, or tulip bulbs and interesting seeds of all shapes and colors if not.

They even sell cannabis seeds which, obviously, won’t be of any use unless you’re planning to settle down in Amsterdam.

On every street corner and in every neighborhood, even the nice family-oriented quiet neighborhoods, are the infamous ‘coffee shops’ selling marijuana, hash and various drug paraphernalia that include coke bottles with special little spoons for elegant snorting.  There are around 300 establishments in the city where you can choose from an array of high quality hash and potent cannabis, and shops will provide you with rolling paper, bongs, pipes, vaporisers and stellar atmosphere to heighten your experience.

Stay away from the potent hydroponic weed which will render you unconscious, and stick with the mild organic type for smooth riding.  After you emerge from the coffee shop, you may want to ditch your bicycle and opt for the tram until you regain normal brain function.

Wander through hidden medieval alleyways, sleepy canals and gothic neighborhoods- you never know what new discovery awaits you around the corner.

If you manage to find the secret doorway that leads into the enchanting courtyard of Begijnhof, you will find yourself in one of the most quiet and serene places in the entire city.  Established in the 14th century, this peaceful enclosure is made of former almshouses, run by the Catholic Beguine order, that surround a small church.  They used to house unmarried ladies who took vows of chastity, but are now some of the most prime real estate in the city.

A perfect follow up to Begijnhof is a tour of the nearby Red Light district, where one will see a plethora of sex shops, prostitute booths, cinemas, bars and live shows.  A small brass bosom inlaid into the pavement in front of Oude Kerk, a wooden chapel and Amsterdam’s oldest building, marks the center of Sin City.

A brass prostitute statue will also officially welcome you to this oldest and most notorious part of Amsterdam, which generates more than 500 million Euros worth of revenue per year.  Prostitution in Amsterdam dates back to the 14th century when sailors arrived in need of female company, and newly widowed women who lost their husbands at sea needed a way to make a living.

The first visit to the Red Light District is always an eye-opening experience.  Every street is packed with door after door of scantily clad women standing in red neon-lit doorways of small rooms.  Prostitutes, often wearing provocative lace lingerie, are arranged like items in a grocery store, and passersby check the merchandise as they go window shopping.  Some strike a pose and get in your face while others, bored, sit on stools and pick at their nails.

Whatever your type you will find them here- blonde, overweight, Asian, transsexual- and while the stark display of erotica may be shocking, the reality of this centuries old profession in Amsterdam is that it is legal, strictly governed, highly patrolled and protected by police, accepted by the local community and unionized.

Adjacent to the Red Light District is a small quaint Chinatown marked by the colorful Fo Guang Shan Temple and lined with  dim sum parlors, antique shops, Chinese herb shops and cozy cafes like Latei.

After a nice morning biking and walking through the city, now it’s time to see it from a different, and perhaps more exciting and beautiful perspective.  With over 46 miles of waterways in the city, a leisurely afternoon canal cruise starting at Herengrachet to the Amstel river through to Prinsengracht is in tow.

Ignore the massive enclosed sightseeing boats, crowded with hoards of loud tourists, and find a small private boat to take you around.

Suddenly you will find yourself catching a cool breeze with the wind in your hair, far away from the sounds of traffic, gliding above the surface of the water with a full panoramic view of Amsterdam at your fingertips.

You will even start to notice the little things, like the smallest house in Amsterdam, a barely existent tiny narrow structure sandwiched between 2 buildings.

Look closely, for there’s a secret doorway under a canal belt- it’s the entrance to Brug 9, the hottest jazz club in the city.  Ever wonder how live music will sound in an underground brick cellar?  There’s only one way to find out.

Choosing a small private boat over a large tourist cruiser will give you access to the smaller canals and the hand-operated wooden drawbridges that date back to the 17th century.  It will also give you an opportunity to satiate your voyeuristic tendencies while you quietly float past large open windows of house boats, going unnoticed by its inhabitants who scratch their heads and yawn as they stretch out on the living room couch.

Touring the city is hard work, calling for a well deserved reward of hearty brews at the neighborhood bar where you will find locals engaging in friendly conversation over artisanal ales and bokbiers.

Slide up to the wooden bar at any cozy neighborhood ‘Brown cafe’, which is the Dutch version of a British pub.  Dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, brown cafes are named so because of their dark brown nicotine-stained walls that are a result of years of smoking patrons.  Order beer in a small vaasje or miniscule fluitje size to go with a bowl of nuts and wile away the rest of the afternoon chatting it up with your new friends.

When it’s time to head back home, you’ll find that the sky has turned a deep indigo blue against the soft orange glow of streetlamps as Amsterdam settles into dusk and your content mind settles down from the exciting day you just spent discovering the beautiful city on foot.


Random trivia:  Did you know that approximately 12 cars accidentally reverse into the murky waters of the Amsterdam canals each year?


Toulouse, France

In the sunny southwest of France, close to the Pyrénées mountain range, lies the pink city of Toulouse.  Easily accessible by train or plane from Paris, Toulouse has been called the ville rose for its rose colored brick buildings in the historical center.  Being the fourth largest city in France after Paris, Lyon and Marseille, Toulouse is not only known for its universities, but also as homebase of the European aerospace industry.

The historical center of this quaint and lovely city is easy to explore on foot, although it’s more fun to explore by bicycle.  There are numerous bike rental stations conveniently scattered throughout the city so that pick up and drop off can be done at any of these stations. By swiping a credit card, one can rent these bikes for 1-2 Euros a day. On a recent trip to Toulouse, my friends and I took this bicycle tour of Toulouse, and it was one of the most fun activities that I had done in a long time.  The weather was sunny and the wind was low, and we set off on these two-wheelers through this charming pink city.

We weaved in and out through the narrow cobblestone streets lined with beautiful old buildings.  The first sight that we saw was the majestic Basilique St. Serrin, just down the street from my friend Olivier’s apartment.  It’s the largest Romanesque basilica in the western world, and the signature octagonal bell tower popped against the dramatic cloudy sky.

The Cathedrale St. Etienne has a unique exterior that looks like a mishmash of different architectural styles, since it was constructed by joining two incomplete churches.  Once inside, you can also appreciate the 2 different styles of Gothic architecture that are also structurally askew.

We bought delicious Indian chicken curry and tandoori chicken wraps to go, put them in our cute little baskets on the front of the bicycles, and headed to the serene Jardin des Plantes for a picnic.  On that Sunday afternoon the park was alive with smiling joggers, university students lost in their textbooks, lovers cuddling on their blanket and families enjoying their quality time playing games.  I love the feeling of grass and moist soil on my bare feet- it’s a good feeling to take off my shoes from time to time and really feel the earth under every part of the soles of my feet.  With the sun filtering through the green trees and caressing my face with its gentle warmth, the lullaby of laughing children in the distant background and a content belly full of good food, I drifted off into a quick postprandial snooze…

…but not for long, as we had a lot more pedaling to do.  The 150 mile long Canal du Midi is the oldest canal in Europe still in use, and has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.  It felt exhilarating to pedal along this picturesque canal that was beautifully lined with lush green trees and where people still live on crazy looking old boathouses. 

The Place du Capitol, the epicenter of Toulouse, is a place of public gathering.  One can sit at any of the numerous outdoor cafes to people watch against the background of the majestic town hall and opera house.  When we went there, there was a demonstration going on in one corner of the plaza, while street vendors tried to entice people with paintings and trinkets on the other end.

After we returned our rental bikes to one of the rental stations, we walked over to the Garonne river to watch the beautiful sunset.  As the sun disappeared behind the pristine bridges of Pont Saint- Pierre and Pont des Catalans, the expansive sky captivated us with an awe inspiring panorama of lights, patterns and colors.  We talked about lost loves and new loves, as we  sat on the banks of the Garonne and stared at the sky until it turned dark.

Naturally, this  full day adventure made us hungry.  What shall it be tonight?  Which Toulousian specialty shall we indulge in?  Perhaps the most typical dish that represents Toulouse is cassoulet, a rich slow-cooked bean stew with white haricot beans, duck confit and pork sausage.  This heartiness of this stew was almost intimidating, and I couldn’t finish it off.  We enjoyed our meal with a bottle of Cahors red wine, and finished the meal with a glass of Armagnac to round out our Toulousian culinary experience.  Armagnac, which is a French brandy similar to Cognac, is made exclusively in this area.

Toulouse, beautiful charming ville rose of southwest France- come discover this treasure on bicycle and enjoy the delicious flavors of the region.

Random trivia:  Legend has it that France’s King Henry IV (1553 – 1610) had Armagnac and garlic placed on his lips by his grandfather on the day he was born. He is said to “have drawn wisdom and strength for his whole life” from that experience.