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Published: August 31st 2014
Canals and bikes
Lots of both in Amsterdam
I love The Man in Seat 61.....
....Sometimes I just browse it, imagining all the places I could go by train. It goes without saying that the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian Express is on our bucket list; I'm just waiting for the opportunity to travel between Asia and Europe without having to carry our lives with us.
So when we decided to take the job and move to Ukraine, I ended up surfing into Seat 61 while looking for anything I could find on Odessa. On the page was information on how to travel by train from London to Odessa. You could do it in three days. It was settled right about then. I wanted to do a real Seal 61 overland trip. We had time off in August when our school was closed and were going back to visit everyone back home so had the perfect opportunity to try it out and travel back overland.
Originally we had all of August off work. Our school closed on the 1st August and teaching began on 1st September (although we had to be back on the Friday before to pick up timetables etc.). We planned two weeks at home
and two weeks over-landing. Then I got promoted. That's a good thing, I'm now the Academic Manager of our schools so I get some say over how things are done, but it meant that I had to be back a week early to set everything up and do the induction for the new staff. Our holiday was a quarter shorter. We decided that the journey from either Wolverhampton to Amsterdam (by Eurostar) or Newcastle to Amsterdam (by ferry) could be cut out, so we cheated a bit and flew. Budget airlines also make it a lot cheaper than the booze cruise ferry where you had to book a cabin instead of just sleeping in a chair in the bar.
After a few variations on a route (which obviously got a bit optimistic in terms of time - the way my travel plans always do before Kris comes in with the voice of reason) we decided on Amsterdam - Berlin - Warsaw - Krakow - Lviv - Odessa
, only a slight variation of the original Seat 61 suggestion because the rail link between Berlin and Krakow has been suspended so you have to go via Warsaw anyway.
August found us flying into Amsterdam after a lovely time in the UK. We found the train into the city and then hopped on a tram to our hotel - the Best Western Leisde Square
- basically what you would imagine from a Best Western - your typical 1990s hotel with an en-suite room with TV. Not the biggest room ever, and being up on the top floor of a narrow Amsterdam building, with a slanty roof but perfectly fine for what we needed it for - sleeping.
Sleeping in expensive Amsterdam
My first investigation into Amsterdam revealed what you might imagine, that it was bloody expensive. Within what we wanted to pay for a room, we were offered hostel beds in dorms. One hostel offered a double bed in a 16 bed dorm for €50 each
. Really? Who wants a double bed in a dorm room? It's hardly romantic or coupley to wake up cuddled up together with 28 pairs of eyes on you, is it?
We might like travelling rather a lot, and had chosen to overland back (to which many people we told asked "Why? Can you not fly? Are you scared/skint
?") but we
are no longer your traditional 'backpackers'. We do not want to share a room with strangers. We do not particularly want to share a bathroom with strangers either. Hostels are great because they have great facilities and a nice atmosphere as a rule, but we want our own room with our own bathroom in such places. As Travelblog's Donna and Neil
discussed in their recent blog
, these days you often don't save money from staying in hostels anymore. A short time with Google, Booking.com and Agoda can reveal great deals on hotel rooms for cheaper than a dorm bed in a hostel (more on this in a later blog). However, this was not to be in Amsterdam. What to do?
Luckily, last year we flew twice long distance with British Airways and collected Avios points. We had plenty of points to pay for a room in Amsterdam with them, so decided not to break the bank on a double bed in a dorm but to have some comfort. The hotel had a great location near lots of restaurants from all over the world and many bars, by the Museum Island and next to a tram stop about 7 stops from
Central Station and an easy walk to most of Amsterdam's attractions.
Free walking tours
With only two full days in most places we had decided to do some guided city tours to get the feel for each city and learn some history without relying on the trusty guidebook (in fact, we didn't bother buying one this time). Shortly after arriving in Amsterdam we headed to Dam Square - about a 20 minute walk - to join a Red Light District tour.
For just €12 each our guide Tim spent 2 hours taking us around the slightly more dodgy streets (although actually very nice and quite safe) in Amsterdam telling us lots of really interesting stuff along the way. For example:
was introduced to Amsterdam by catholic priests in the 14th century to protect local women from being corrupted by the sailors who started arriving to the new port. Women were brought in to 'service' the sailors and paid a small 'fee' to the church. The catholic sailors then went to confession to confess their sins and were asked to pay a penance to the church. Our guide went so far as to suggest that
that made the Catholic Church the first pimps in Amsterdam, but I wouldn't say such a thing myself because my mum is reading this!
• Prostitutes in Amsterdam are registered with the Chamber of Commerce as single person businesses and pay taxes.
• There is only one peep show
left in Amsterdam because the internet has put them out of business.
is actually still illegal in the Netherlands; it's just that the authorities decided that they more serious crimes to worry about like heroin so decided to turn a blind eye. There are coffee shops all over (that only sell coffee and dope - no alcohol) and shops selling seeds and various drug paraphernalia but you can actually get a €90 fine for smoking it in public.
I won't spoil the tour for you by telling you more. We passed many of the windows with girls in their underwear on the other side - some posing provocatively and some texting and looking bored. Apparently they don't like to be photographed and you risk getting a cup of wee or a stiletto thrown at you if you try
The next morning we went on the free tour
offered by the same company Sandeman's New Europe
. I'll explain how the free tour thing works in other blog because this one is getting quite long, but for a tip (we gave ten euros each), our guide, Kendra, took us on a three hour walk around Amsterdam through Red Light District again, to the Jewish Quarter, through the Canal District and to Jordan, where Ann Frank's house is. I'd recommend these tours as they were great. Amsterdam reminded us a lot of York and some of the older parts of Leeds
. There are lots of narrow streets with little cafés and bars and cute boutiques and shops selling homemade products. When you look up, you realise that the houses are all really tall (they used to be taxed by width, like in Vietnam) with hooks just below the roof for them to pulley up furniture when they move. Of course, there are more canals than in York, but the houseboats and housecafes and boat trips up and down were familiar of waterside living in other places we've been. It's a lovely place just to stroll around and soak up the atmosphere.
Another observation about Amsterdam was the sheer amount
These twins are some of the most famous prostitutes in Amsterdam
We actually saw them walking down the street in identical clothes.
of English everywhere. People immediately spoke in English in shops, bars, restaurants and even when apologising. Signs are in English and even on TV half the adverts seems to be in English and half in Dutch. As English teachers this was interesting. The Dutch are generally excellent at English and many of those we met in Amsterdam sounded like native speakers. What came first? Did English become a widely known language through commerce or tourism or something else, so it became commonly used in or did it become commonly used in advertising and tv so it became easier for young people to pick up and become good at? And will it overtake Dutch as the official language of some areas?
Well after two days in Amsterdam we had seen a windmill and some tulips. eaten some cheese, worn clogs, seen girls in red-lit windows, smelt a lot of dope, had dinner with Frank and Carol from Haiphong
(who we incidentally met through this blog - they got in touch because they were moving to Haiphong and said our blog helped them understand more about it).....
Time to move on to our next destination - Berlin.
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