We’ve booked a hotel in the Leidse Square area of Amsterdam, which is just a few minutes walk to a whole lot of Cool Stuff, but has quiet, tree-lined streets. We even score a parking space on the street with 24 hour parking right outside the hotel, and we are thrilled with our luck – until we go to pay for the spot. You see, the parking pay machines for the streets, as well as the parking garages, all take ONLY European-style chip credit cards. No cash nor magnetic-strip type cards like what we have in the US are accepted. In general, we discovered that anything automated takes only Chip credit cards, so that is the rule of thumb to remember: if there is no human interface, you’d better have a credit card with a chip. It’s a whole new world over here this year, so if you’re heading for Europe, you may wish to talk to your bank or credit card company about getting a pre-loaded chipped card.
But I digress. We wind up parking at a garage with a real live human cashier 10 minutes drive away, and taking the tram back to the hotel, courtesy of a pre-paid tram pass from the garage, a system that works quite well. But hey, you can’t take the New York out of this girl: it was really, really hard to just drive away from a primo parking space!
Amsterdam has traffic patterns unlike any city I’ve ever been in. It’s a city of canals, for one thing. Just stand on a bridge on a main street for a few minutes, and watch what goes by: tour boats, water taxis, work boats, trams, buses, pedestrians, mopeds and bikes. And very few cars. Street parking rates at 36 Euros per day and center city lots at twice that sort of dissuade the daily car commuter.
There are lots and lots of bikes, which have their own dedicated bike lanes. Take care to watch for them as you cross! Fortunately every bike has a bell. There are men in suits on bikes, women in high heels riding bikes, parents with children in front and/or back child seats, parents with child-hauling bikes that have what look like wooden wheelbarrow buckets o’ children in the front. Bikes are utilitarian here: there are no $3000.00 Treks on these streets. They are single or 3-5 speed affairs with fenders, chain guards, racks and kickstands, and they get locked to trees, railings and each other, outside in the elements, all day and all night. Commuting, shopping, child pickup at school, going out to dinner, going out to a club, all happens on bicycles.
Walking around Amsterdam, one understands that we’re a little bit uptight in the States. We sit down for a rest on a bench overlooking a canal, and the distinctive scent of Mary Jane wafts our way. There is a shop on every corner dedicated to its sale. I assume it’s perfectly legal to smoke it on the street, because the police didn’t seem to care one way or the other about what was being smoked. The Red Light district is of course legendary, what with prostitution being taxed, regulated and as legal as pot. Oh heck, both trades have their own museums – true story! And stores selling sex toys are just another stop on the way home: honey, don’t forget to pick up some more BodyGlide.
Meanwhile, back at the Rijksmuseum…. It’s finally open again. After several years of remodel, the museum opened just a week before we arrived. The galleries are stunning; each room has a color scheme that compliments the set of paintings. The masterpieces themselves need no introduction: Rembrandt’s Night Watch; Vermeer’s Milkmaid, Pieneman’s Battle of Waterloo. Many Dutch masters that I had never heard of, but who created extraordinary portraits and landscapes. One of the high points for me was seeing Vermeer’s The Little Street: we are all familiar with his interiors and portraits, but I had never seen any of his exterior scenes. We had planned to go to the Van Gogh museum as well, but as luck would have it, the entire collection was at The Hague until the day we arrived, and during our entire stay, it was in transit between the two museums.
We ducked out of Amsterdam on Saturday morning, just as the city was gearing up for Queen’s Day, which this year includes Queen Beatrix’s abdication after 33 years on the throne on Tuesday. Already the store windows were decorated, the boats were being draped in garlands, and groups of cyclists were spotted in orange wigs and capes. Onward to Brugge — and just in time!