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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Amsterdam

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Although most of the day would be dedicated to our walking tour of Amsterdam it began in the Grote Markt of Haarlem. Every Saturday the main square in front of the cathedral fills with vendors selling artisanal foods and crafts. We found some tasty items including some surprisingly good empanadas that would tide us over until the first market in Amsterdam. There was no time to waste so our full exploration of Haarlem would have to take place the next day.

Amsterdam occupies a lofty position on any list of the most visited European cities, somewhere around the level of Prague or Barcelona. When one considers that those tens of thousands of daily tourists are concentrated within the semicircular Centrum district between the Singelgracht canal and the IJ river the prospect of a walking tour of the city seems somewhat intimidating. Couple that with the high cost of parking in the city and its reputation for pickpockets and purse snatchers and it was with some trepidation that I drove into the heart of Amsterdam on Saturday morning. I had reserved a discounted spot in a garage through one of the online sites, although it was still expensive. One might think that Saturday wouldn't have been the optimal day if we found crowds unappealing but with regard to markets it was by far the best option. We parked close to the main train station and the first thing we saw when we exited the garage was a ransacked wallet that had been tossed over a railing. I patted my shorts to ensure that my wallet and phone were safely ensconced in my deep front pockets and reminded Mei Ling for the tenth time to be aware of her surroundings when she was taking pictures. We then proceeded west in the direction of our first market of the day.

While the area immediately around the train station was a little gritty it didn't take long for Amsterdam to reveal its charms, especially once we crossed the inner Singel canal into the Canal Belt. This iconic neighborhood of Amsterdam is traversed by four parallel canals that were the result of a seventeenth century engineering project to improve commerce within the city. Colorful houseboats lined the sides of the canals while smaller pleasure boats cruised between them. Bicycles were absolutely everywhere. There wasn't a single railing or post in the center that didn't have a bike chained to it.

The Noordermarkt was in the Jordaan area, just on the other wide of the outermost canal of the Canal Belt. This was another energetic artisanal market that filled the cobblestone plaza in front of the Protestant church Noorderkerk. There has been some form of market in this plaza since 1623. As in Haarlem there was a mix of local farm produce, Dutch standards like breads and cheese, and crafts. We supplemented the snacks we had had at the Haarlem market with awesome savory crepes with freshly sauteed sausage and bacon. The array of small tables that filled the remaining space in the plaza was filled to capacity. The sculpture of faceless figures wrapped together commemorates the Jordaan insurrection of 1934 during which five people were killed by police during a brief economic uprising.

Just a block away is the long Lindengracht market which extends along the wide boulevard created when a canal was filled in in the late nineteenth century. Because of its linear nature it was quite crowded but not to the point that we couldn't move through without being jostled. This market had some of the most beautiful cheese and fruit stands we had seen since France. The highlight was an array of tables laden with crates of used books. At first I thought there wasn't much for kids but when the vendors saw Cleo and Ian thumbing through the books they started bringing out more and more material for kids and young adults and we soon had as many books as we could possibly carry in our backpacks. Combined with the haul from Brussels a few days earlier we were set for the last two weeks of the trip.

The Jordaan comprises the western part of the outer ring of central Amsterdam and is considered to be one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of the city. It's not as upscale and commercial as the Canal Belt but there are still plenty of delicious-looking ethnic restaurants, art galleries, and small boutiques. There was much more residential real estate here as well which gave the Jordaan the atmosphere of a real neighborhood rather than a shopping and tourism district. One constant was that even in the quietest areas there were always crowds of people on the bridges and the streets along the canals. We slowly worked our way south through the neighborhood using the ornate belltower of Westerkerk as a landmark.

Westerkerk was built during the Renaissance and has the tallest belltower in Amsterdam. Its red clock face and lapis crown are icons of the city. Rembrandt van Rijn died in bankruptcy and was buried as a pauper in Westerkerk but the exact location of his grave has been lost. He is remembered with a concert at the church once a year.

After passing Westerkerk we crossed back into the Canal Belt whose lower segment is known as Negen Straatjes, the nine streets. The idea of giving this small section of the city its own name is a fairly recent strategy designed to bring more attention to the upscale galleries and boutiques that pack the narrow lanes. It was pleasant to walk through but I didn't get a sense of anything particularly different from the northern part of the Canal Belt. By this point Amsterdam was starting to feel rather homogeneous. Regardless of which direction we turned there would be a canal, boats, cafes, bicycles, galleries, and crowds and crowds of tourists. It was picturesque but I felt like there weren't any discoveries to be made. It was a contrast to Venice where we often stumbled upon beautiful and empty courtyards just a block away from some overrun major attraction. We crossed the Singel again and brushed by the touristic heart of Amsterdam before turning south towards the Cuypmarkt. One of the main draws here was the Bloemenmarkt, purportedly the world's only floating flower market. If anyone visualized hopping from boat to flower-laden boat in the middle of a canal they would have been sorely disappointed. Although the rear sections of the stalls are technically floating on the canal, anyone browsing from the street would never know they were even near the water. Long ago the flower and bulb traders would bring their boats in from out of town and sell to pedestrians directly but this part of the experience long ago fell by the wayside. My research had advised me that the flower market was a tourist trap with overpriced and poor quality goods so we just stopped by one stall to see what the fuss was about. It was colorful but we didn't have much interest in the omnipresent tacky souvenirs that were sold alongside the flowers.

I had misjudged the distance to the Albert Cuyp Market so by the time we arrived after twenty more minutes the kids were a little bent out of shape. We were soon restored because it turned out to be a really fun market with something for everyone. It felt more like a street festival than a market although there was no shortage of vendors of fruit, souvenirs, street food, and clothing. Of course most of the people wandering the long street were tourists but I think there were a fair number of locals sprinkled in taking advantage of bargains on clothing and partaking in the selection of ethnic delicacies available. There were some cool things I hadn't seen before as well, such as the guy doing bespoke monograms on baseball hats with a computerized sewing machine. The market is over a hundred years old and arose spontaneously from a collection of pushcarts and traders in a working class section of the city. I held off on eating anything until we found the perfect spot, the quintessential Amsterdam seafood joint with pickled herring and fried fish. The herring was an obligatory experiment and it wasn't unpleasant, although I probably couldn't have managed more than the small portion I had been served.

At this point I was regretting my decision to park in the garage and walk the entire city. Central Amsterdam was larger than I had anticipated and we had spotted street parking around the Cuyp Market. Nobody was excited about walking all the way back to the car but there wasn't any good alternative. We took an alternate route directly through the central neighborhood of Binnenstad and it surprisingly felt quite different from the Canal Belt and the Jordaan. We walked in the direction of the train station along the Kloveniersburgwal canal until we reached the last market on my list at Nieuwmarkt just as it was closing. I don't think we missed anything that we wouldn't have seen at one of the other markets and the kids cheered when they realized we wouldn't be doing any browsing. At the end of the market was the fifteenth century Waag, a remant of the old city walls that currently houses a restaurant. This is a popular area with tourists because it includes the famed Red Light district which I was intent on avoiding. That was unfortunate because it was intermingled with Amsterdam's Chinese commercial area which would have been interesting to see but there was way more seediness than I wanted to expose my kids to. We got one quick look at the scene from a bridge and I don't think the kids realized it was any different from what they had been looking at the whole day.

The area between the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal and the Singel contains some of the most majestic churches and government buildings in Amsterdam but is also crammed with tourist tack like franchises of Madam Tussaud's and Ripley's Believe It or Not. One of Amsterdam's odd little quirks is the proliferation of rubber duck stores around the city center. Many visitors have come to believe that the rubber duck is a symbol of the city and make a point of buying a rubber duck as a souvenir, but nothing could be further from the truth. The actual story is that one gift shop owner noticed she was selling a lot of rubber ducks for reasons unknown and expanded that portion of her store until eventually she was selling rubber ducks almost exclusively. A viral trend was born and now almost every souvenir store in Amsterdam has rubber ducks on display.

The final stop on our walking tour was Dam Square, considered to be the heart of Amsterdam. The square is surrounded by some of the city's iconic buildings such as the Royal Palace and the fifteenth century Nieuwe Kerk. It was also the site of a tragic massacre by German soldiers of Dutch civilians celebrating the impending liberation of Amsterdam by the Allies in the final days of World War II. In modern times the square is frequently the site of festivals and protests. We arrived at the very end of some kind of conflict between someone delivering a religious oration and women's rights advocates. It wasn't clear which was the demonstration and which was the counterdemonstration but it was over very soon after we arrived.

I had expected that we would be in Amsterdam through the evening and would have dinner there but by five thirty we were completely exhausted with the walking and the crowds. There was still plenty of ground we hadn't covered but I felt a strong conviction that it would be more of the same atmosphere, similar sights, and neverending streams of tourists. We had simply had enough Amsterdam for one day and there was nothing to be gained by pushing it. I decided that we had time to visit the villages of Volendam and Marken north of the city that evening instead of the following day as I had originally planned.

Volendam is an idyllic fishing village at the shore of the Markermeer, an enormous fresh water reservoir that was created by damming the former Zuiderzee inlet at its border with the North Sea. This dam and another dyke created later are testimony to the incredible power of Dutch engineering in transforming the topography of the Netherlands. The skill the Dutch have developed over many centuries in this area is probably the signature achievement of their country. Less than an hour from Amsterdam by car or public transport, Volendam has become a popular destination for a day excursion for locals and international visitors alike. When we parked a few blocks inland it seemed like a sleepy, bland town but once we arrived at the lakeside promenade it was quite crowded and commercial. It reminded me a lot of seaside towns I've visited in busy parts of New England. There was a large number of bars and restaurants one of which had even brought in sand to create the impression of a beach. Some of the other options for visitors were the replica of the old ship Halve Maen and a cheese factory which is operational for much of the day. We planned on eating in Volendam but couldn't find a restaurant that suited our tastes since they were generally centered on pub-type food like fried fish.

It was too late to take the ferry to Marken so we had to go the long way round by car. The advantage of this route was that it took us through some beautiful rural countryside that was dotted with wind turbines as well as the Zeedijk causeway that was built in 1957 to connect the island to the mainland.

Marken was a much calmer and more intimate scene than Volendam. The village was tiny and at first I made the mistake of driving into it before realizing that the only parking for visitors was in the solitary lot at its southern edge. Next to the lot was a small canal with ducks and swans, and oddly enough a rather realistic plastic crocodile that was submerged except for its head. The funniest part was that there was a group of tourists who thought the crocodile was real and were quite agitated that the birds seemed to be unaware of it. We had some stale bread crusts in the car that we threw to the birds and I was finally able to show the tourists that the crocodile was plastic by bouncing a crust directly off the top of its head with no reaction whatsoever.

Marken just had a small harbor and a few cafes and shops without any of the heavy tourist tack of Volendam. Because the ferries to Volendam were done for the day there was hardly anyone left in town except the locals. The conversion of the saltwater Zuiderzee to the freshwater Markermeer by the dikes deprived the island of its fishing livelihood in the mid twentieth century and most locals make their living from tourism or manufacturing. The village was very bucolic with traditional Dutch country houses and narrow bridges crossing the omnipresent canals.

We were quite lucky because there was just one real restaurant at the harbor but the menu appealed to us much more than anything we had seen in Volendam. We had an excellent meal outdoors on a wooden patio overlooking the peaceful harbor, very pleased with ourselves for not having compromised with a safe choice in Volendam. It was the perfect ending to a long day exploring one of the most famous cities of Europe.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:57 Archived in Netherlands Tagged road_trip family haarlem volendam marken jordaan family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog cuyp_market

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