If you've been following our blogs you'll notice that we are well behind and in need of some serious updating. It's been difficult to find some lazy time in Western Europe to write blogs and get caught up.
We're used to having some down days in the mix, but with European prices being so high we seem to be maximizing our time, leaving little space to blog and share our experiences with you.
What can we say about Amsterdam that hasn't already been said before? It's a city of clichés and assorted reputations. Being one of the world's most talked about and liberal cities, it needs little introduction and was ranked high on our list of European adventures.
Quick facts - Amsterdam was founded in the 13th century with the building of the Dam that gave it its name. The name 'Aeme Stelle Redamme' is Medieval Dutch for: 'Dam in a Watery Area'. The city is claimed to be the most watery city in the world, competing with Venice in Italy. It is also said to have a canal grid that spans over 65 miles with a large number of housing and streets built over water. In fact, over a quarter of the Netherlands is actually below sea level.
Our train arrived early in the evening from Belgium. We stumbled our way through the city by tram and on foot and eventually found the obscured boutique hotel that had our reservation.
While traveling in other parts of the world it was cheaper to just walk down the tourist strips and barter our way to a good deal. In Europe it's the opposite. We've found that prices are almost double as a walk-in customer so we've made it a habit to search the Internet for last minute deals. This practice has served us well but it can be quite time consuming. But finding where to eat, sleep and travel has become our full-time job.
We checked into the hotel and climbed up several flights of tight, windy stairs to the top floor. Dutch architecture is interesting to say the least. The stairwells are so narrow that furniture needs to be lifted outdoors by anchors that are fixed on the roofs. We could barely get up the dizzying stairs with our overstuffed backpacks!
When we opened our attic room door we were greeted by Amsterdam's cliché - a waft of stale marijuana stank that seemed to stick relentlessly to everything in the room. It gave new meaning to the phrase 'smoking or non-smoking?' We opened the tiny windows and hoped that the smell would dissipate in our absence.
It was wishful thinking.
Fast forward to the following morning - the stank would not leave so we complained and got upgraded to the best room in the hotel, complete with a new soft bed, thick and comfy linen, private bath and cable television that actually had English speaking channels (this last perk proved very useful during our future 'Dam' hangovers). It's truly amazing what you can get by simply asking.
Our first order of business was to refuel at a neighbouring tapas restaurant. After a few pints of local draft in the popular but overcrowded restaurant we decided that there was no better time than the present to visit a 'coffee shop'.
Now for those of you that have been living under a rock and don't know what I'm talking about, 'coffee shops' in Amsterdam sell very little coffee, if any at all. Instead, the colorful cannabis coffee shops offer up a wide variety of legal narcotics that would otherwise get you arrested in your home country.
It was so bizarre to walk into an establishment that has a laminated menu of various magic mushrooms, marijuana and mild forms of organic uppers, each with an explanation of the buzz that one could expect if consumed. Only in Amsterdam!
Seeing as this is a public forum, we'll leave it at that and let you use your imagination (but don't read too far into it - we behaved ourselves).
We didn't really have an agenda for the Dam, aside from a tour of the original Heineken Brewery and a stroll through the Red Light District. So that's precisely what we did on our second day of exploration in Holland's unusual capital.
You want an 'out-of-the-ordinary' experience?
Spend an afternoon walking through Amsterdam's Red Light District.
Okay, so picture this. You're walking along Amsterdam's cobblestone streets admiring the many waterways and bridges. You can't help but marvel at its unique architecture, bohemian cafes, boutique shops and remarkable 17th century heritage housing.
You feel like you're cruising through a nice trendy neighbourhood. Everything seems very normal and ordinary. As you continue strolling down the street you catch movement in your peripheral vision. Curiously, you turn to the left to see what has caught the attention of your eye.
Then it hits you with its peculiarity.
Standing directly in front of you behind a large glass window, in nothing but a black string bikini and high heels, is a prostitute waving and winking at you with a seductive, yet extremely awkward smile. You do a double take because it appears as though the manikin in the window has come alive. But that's no lingerie manikin!
It's daytime so you can barely see the illumination of pink and red lights around the windows. As you walk further you pass more windows with much of the same on display. All different shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicity are on offer to the anonymous clientele. Now how weird is that? It's retail sex!
And, like recreational drug use, it's all legal in the Dam.
But after the initial novelty and shock wears off you start to feel a little voyeuristic and deviant (assuming you are not a potential customer of course). You see that the smiles are not genuine and feel bad for the working girls, but pity is not what they're after. We later learned that there are approx 1,000 to 1,200 prostitutes working over 350 windows. With those numbers it's undeniable that there's a healthy market for their services.
Regardless of your beliefs or opinions, taking a moment to experience the world's most famous Red Light District is a must when visiting Amsterdam. But you'll need to keep an open mind and remind yourself that it is still the world's oldest profession.
The Dam's extremely relaxed tolerance on drug usage and prostitution make it the capital of sin cities, topping the other heavy-hitters like Las Vegas, Macau and Bangkok (in our opinion anyways). Our guidebook put it best - it's "an X-rated theme park for weekend warriors".
We like to think of ourselves as pretty liberal people with an open mind for cultures and sub-cultures. Legalization of marijuana is fine with us and it seems that Amsterdam's pot culture has created positive tourism for the city. Weed plants on souvenirs are as popular in Amsterdam as 'I love New York' T-shirts are in New York.
That said, I can't say that we've ever visited a city that has so many blitzed stoners roaming the streets aimlessly. But you've got to take the good with the bad I guess!
The Heineken Experience was next on the list. Fortunately, the historic brewery was located within walking distance from our hotel. It's a cool building and the info was actually quite interesting (hard to imagine Cameron taking an interest in beer making). And the two free beers afterwards was a nice way to cap off the hour-long tour.
The evening brought us to a section of the city that is littered with bars, pubs, cannabis coffee shops, sex shows and fast food eats. We're not exactly sure where we were because that theme appears to be consistent throughout the city.
Although the bar we selected was fairly empty it didn't stop us from having one last evening with our old friend - green apple shisha. We thought we left our mild shisha addiction in the Middle East but Amsterdam has a funny way of convincing you that 'it's okay to indulge'.
Amsterdam has another reputation as the city of endless bicycles. It's no joke. There are bicycles everywhere! There are more bikes than cars, boats and buses combined. But the funny thing is that they are all really crappy bikes. They're the types of bikes that don't have hand brakes or gears - just the plain and simple one gear with back brakes. It's actually quite comical watching dolled-up, fashionable women with expensive boots and designer purses struggle to ride the ancient piece of junk through a sea of cyclists that literally take over the streets.
We spent our final few days doing much of the same.
We ate the popular herring fish from street side vendors (apparently great for hangovers) and sampled several draft beers at dodgy pubs. We explored the city streets and canals and wandered the many outdoor markets and pedestrian shopping squares. There is so much to see and do but unfortunately we had to be selective because it can be an expensive city if you're not careful.
We spent an afternoon visiting the popular Van Gogh Museum. Definitely worth a visit if you're into art history, and even if you're not. Aside from a phenomenal collection of Van Gogh's original artwork, the museum boasts several original letters that the famed artist wrote during his short and troubled lifetime.
The Dam is a fascinating and unique place. I can't say that there is another city like it. The clichés and reputations are true. It's one of those places where you truly have to 'see it to believe it'.
As is a common occurrence on this trip, our time in Amsterdam ran out too quickly. But we needed to push on in order to maximize our remaining time in Europe. We made our way back to the Central Train Station and boarded yet another high speed train.
Our next stop on the adventure trail was a visit to family in Cologne, Germany.
December 13th, 2009