Amsterdam And Beyond

Amsterdam And Beyond

Most people, at the mention of the Netherlands, usually think of Amsterdam. The capital city of Holland does, after all, attract over 4.5 million visitors every year. Many are there to experience the active and diverse nightlife (legalised prostitution and marijuana dens, included). But Amsterdam isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Let’s be honest, its reputation is enough to ensure that many don’t even step out of Schiphol Airport.

But there’s more to Amsterdam than the Red Light District. For example, did you know it has over 60 miles of canals and more than 1,500 bridges? (It’s not called the Venice of the North for nothing). There are also more than 880,000 bicycles. Over 8,000 are parked at Amsterdam Central Station on a daily basis – quite a spectacle and well worth a photograph or two.

There’s also plenty of culture and history in Amsterdam. The Rijksmuseum, for example, first opened its doors in 1885 and is now home to the largest and most important collection of classical Dutch art, including works by Rembrandt.

Van Gogh is also particularly popular is Amsterdam (he actually lived there for a while) and the Van Gogh Museum is dedicated to his work. Sunflowers, arguably his most famous painting, is on display there. What a feeling to be standing in the same room as such a masterpiece, admiring every stroke, every shade of this classic work of art.

Ann Frank House offers another glimpse back in time. The house is where Ann Frank, a young Jewish girl, was hidden from the Nazis during World War II. The house, now a museum, opened in 1960 and shows her hiding place behind a large, moveable bookcase. It’s one thing reading about such hardship and terror, but to stand in the shoes of those involved is another thing entirely. Understandably, the house is a very popular tourist attraction so be warned, even though you book and pay for your timeslot on line, you may still be faced with lengthy queues.

Another favourite with tourists is the Maritime Museum. Situated close to Dam Central Station it’s very easy to spot – just look for the replica sailing ship outside. The museum includes exhibits on a variety of themes including ‘Port 24/7’, ‘The Navigational Instruments’ and ‘Voyage at Sea’. There’s plenty to keep the kids amused too.

From shipping to shopping, Amsterdam has it all. Jordaan is an especially charming neighbourhood boasting independent art galleries and unique shops as well as some of the most desirable residences in the city. Its maze of narrow streets is also dotted with a fine selection of restaurants. ‘9 Streets’ is another quirky area known for its vintage and designer shopping. It certainly makes a change from the predictable chain-store experience in Kalverstraat.

Talking of Kalverstraat, just behind the mayhem of this crowded shopping metropolis, you’ll find the oldest wooden house in Amsterdam (built in 1528). It forms part of the Begijnhof, a group of medieval court houses formerly home to the Beguines – a community of unmarried, religious women. For obvious reasons, their time was limited, but their legacy remains and includes a hidden church, built after the ban on their Catholic faith in the sixteenth century. It’s a far cry from the more commercial, liberal side of Amsterdam.

Holland is also famous for its tulips and what better place to see them than Bloemenmarkt – the world’s only floating flower market? You can also take a trip to Bollenstreek to see the flowers at their beautiful best, stretched across miles and miles of open fields, as far as the eye can see. You need to time your trip right though. Springtime is the best time to catch these colourful blooms – and don’t forget your camera!

Another of Holland’s attractions is its windmills and Amsterdam itself is home to two of these beauties. Molen van Sloten mill is a 19th century polder draining mill and a guided tour allows you to trace the history of the mill. Or, if you’re lucky, you may get to witness a wedding ceremony as it’s now possible to get married at the windmill.

The second mill, De Otter mill, was built around 1630 and is a twenty minute walk from Dam Square. It’s the only wood-sawing mill of its kind still in operation and well worth a visit. Imagine seeing those sails in operation, hearing them slice through the air and feeling the wind on your face.

During my last, most recent trip to Amsterdam, I decided to stay outside of the city centre. Bus travel in and around the city is cheap, safe and convenient and the choice of accommodation for our party of seven was less restricted (and less expensive) away from the city. Having explored Amsterdam numerous times before, we looked to our host for new ideas and inspiration.

His first suggestion was a trip to Monnickendam, a short bus journey from our apartment. This picturesque town was the polar opposite of its boisterous, noisy neighbour and gave us a taste of the ‘real Holland’. Its immaculate terraced houses, quaint street market and elegant, historic bell tower afforded plenty of opportunity for photographs before being spoilt for choice with the water-side cafes and restaurants. The Dutch hospitality was particularly welcoming and it was with some reluctance that we bid farewell to this pretty little fishing town. But not before stumbling across a hidden gem in the high street. This particular store was brimful of vintage clothing, shoes, handbags and hats. Entering the store was like opening a chest full of treasure; a treat for the eyes and pure indulgence for the imagination. This wasn’t your average second-hand store; the goods were high-end, top-quality, with a price tag to match. I could easily have lost myself among the rails of coats, beneath the rims of hats, or by stepping into the kitten heels of those who had walked before me. If only I’d had more time….

Our next destination was Marken. This was the perfect place to find two more typically Dutch products – clogs and cheese. Whether you wanted to wear them or hang your keys from them, there were clogs of all shapes, sizes and colours. You could even visit the clog making workshop. Similarly, the choice of cheese was astounding – the free samples alone were enough to keep us going until dinner time – and we couldn’t resist buying at least one mouth-watering variety to bring home.

Marken itself is a traditional, quaint village known for its wooden houses, many of which are built on stilts. It was once an island, completely surrounded by water, but is now connected to the mainland by a causeway. It has a lighthouse, Het Paad van Marken (the Marken Horse) which dates back to 1859 and is still used today. It’s possible to walk the entire perimeter of Marken – about 9 kilometres; the perfect way to appreciate this charming Dutch haven. Again, we were welcomed with efficient hospitality and enjoyed an afternoon beside the waterland, admiring the boats and basking in the warm, spring sunshine. Definitely a day to remember.

Many people take a boat trip from Market to Volendam, another example of the ‘real Holland’. It takes just twenty minutes and allows you, amongst other things, to witness cheese making and a fish auction – a treat for more than one of the senses, I would imagine! Time restraints prevented us from taking the trip this time but at least we have an excuse to return. Because, as this trip reminded us, Amsterdam isn’t just for overexcited youth looking for kicks. It offers so much more than its reputation will have us believe. Beyond the crowded, noisy city centre streets, Amsterdam really does have something for everyone and I, for one, am looking forward to finding out what my next visit has to offer.

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