It was finally time to get our big backpacks out again! We made plans to spend a few days in The Netherlands enroute to our three week stay in Tanzania. Arriving in Amsterdam in the wee hours of Sunday morning was as if we had just arrived in a ghost town – barren streets lined with neo-gothic architecture; the odd broken bottle on the cobblestone as evidence of the happenings the night prior. With all of the locals seemingly still recuperating it seemed an appropriate early morning welcome to the party capital of Europe. In our tedious search to find accommodations that would allow us to get a real feel for the city without completely busting the budget we were rewarded by finding a private B&B in one of Amsterdam’s infamous houseboats. With the UNESCO World Heritage listed Canal District celebrating it’s 400 year anniversary in 2013 we couldn’t think of a better place to stay! After “taking the scenic route” we eventually found our way to the houseboat and met Peter who would be our host for the next couple of days. He was kind enough to allow us to leave our bags for the morning and after a quick
introduction we headed out into the city in search of some coffee. Unfortunately for us, it seems the city well and truly sleeps in on a Sunday and after about an hour of walking about the only place that was open for coffee was McDonalds. In need of some caffeine, we settled in and watched the city slowly come to life.
Our time in Amsterdam was spent wandering the streets and soaking in the local culture. We had expected to see many bikes and canals but were unprepared for the sheer volume of both. In Amsterdam it seems that bicycles definitely have the right of way and as a pedestrian one must remain alert to avoid being run over! Bicycles have generous and well defined bike lanes and their own traffic lights; and a wide assortment of people – young and old, modern and traditional – seem to use bikes as a regular mode of transportation. The Canal District of the city is quite beautiful, and Amsterdam actually has more canals than Venice. While following a canal to the Anne Frank House one day we happened across an area where we found cut flowers laid along the canal border
The large central plate shows the address of the house across the canal while the smaller name plates represent each occupant of that house who was killed during the Holocaust. It states their name, age, and place of death.
and upon closer inspection we discovered that the area was dedicated to the remembrance of the Holocaust victims. Across from the canal houses were plaques dedicated to the former Jewish residents who had lived in each particular house and were killed during the Holocaust. Seeing the houses they had lived in, along with their names and ages - some as young as one year old, really brought this historical monstrosity to the present. After taking some time to pay our respects to these innocent victims of genocide we continued on to learn more about the Holocaust at Anne Frank House. Having just read her diary, it was a poignant experience being in the exact small and dark rooms where a teenage girl struggled through the emotions of adolescence while isolated in hiding and in fear for her life, which ultimately was taken from her far too early. History is much easier to assimilate with in such significant places.
We took a day away from the city to visit a small rural neighbourhood in North Holland. Zaanse Schans is home to a number of historic windmills and houses as well as a few small museums and chocolate factory. Part of
the area is set up to provide an insight into the history and culture of the region; while the town itself still considered home to the locals that work and live there. A few of the mills are still in use today and we were able to get an inside look into the working sawmill of the region. While this particular windmill had been renovated, it was done in a way that continued to use the same technology and mechanics as it had a couple hundred years ago. We saw the power of the wind as the saw blades effortlessly cut through a large tree trunk while a couple of the local men supervised. The lumber created by the mill is sold for use throughout the Netherlands.
A trip to The Netherlands wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Red Light District of course! We visited on our last night in Amsterdam - it was unlike any other place we have traveled before and is a testament to the liberal culture of the Dutch (that and the coffeshops!) Located in a central area of the city, the district transforms at night and is packed with locals and tourists
alike. It is a relatively large area but still the streets were so busy it was difficult to walk at times. The prostitutes stand in the windows outlined by red lights, some nonchalantly on their cell phones or smoking cigarettes, others vying for attention. Most of the rooms aren't much bigger than a closet, with a small bed behind a clear glass door and a curtain that is drawn when they have business. The industry is heavily regulated, with security and even a union for the workers; and is not associated with the stigma surrounding the sex trade in North America.
While we only had a short time to spend in Amsterdam we were able to get a good appreciation for this unique European city and a feel of the Dutch culture. Hopefully one day we will have the opportunity to explore the rest of the country, but for now it's off to Africa!!
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