Sam and I changed things up a bit recently and took our first organized “luxury executive coach trip.” Translation: We hopped on a bus with a bunch of strangers and headed to Holland. We booked the four day, three night trip to the Netherlands for an excellent price, so we were willing to tolerate a few hours on a bus to get us there. The transportation and lodging was not what we typically plan – nor was it “luxury” – but it got the job done. It was well worth it once we arrived in vibrant Holland.
After boarding the coach at 0530 and driving to Harwich, we had a 6.5 hour ferry ride to get us to Holland. They failed to mention that on the trip itinerary beforehand. It wasn’t terrible though. We passed the time by reading, snacking, napping, people-watching and playing cards.
We arrived in Holland in the early afternoon and took in the countryside as we drove to Amsterdam. My first impression was that Holland seemed agrarian yet sleek and modern. Fields of farmland neighbored sprawling glass greenhouses. An occasional iconic windmill would peek up from the horizon. Each nursery had it’s own small bungalow house and was ringed with a canal.
In the more residential areas, there were stylish, bright apartment complexes with teeny tiny hatchbacks in every drive. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that hatchbacks were mandatory. I think everyone either drove a hatchback… or a bicycle.
We arrived at our hotel – sadly, not in the city of Amsterdam, but near the airport – checked in, took a nap, and then headed into the city for dinner. When I visit new cities I like to do a bit of research first… mainly of restaurants. 🙂 I had heard great things about La Perla, a pizza joint, so we took the coach into Amsterdam and immediately walked about 15-20 minutes to find it. Looking back, I am glad we made that trek, even though we passed many other restaurants, because it gave us a good idea of that part of the city and we saw other things to come back and look at later.
La Perla did not disappoint. It consisted of a large pizza oven, a cash register for ordering, and counters and barstools by the windows. We ordered our pizzas – one for each of us, of course – and sat down. We looked out the window and noticed that the actual restaurant was across the street. We just ordered at the takeaway counter. Whoops! But our foible meant we got our pizza faster and we could chow it down without the decorum that would have been required at the real restaurant across the way. We did return to the real place later in the week for lunch and had some excellent baguette sandwiches. Oh, but back to the pizza! It was gooood. It was the best traditional style pizza I’ve ever had. (I mean, it’s no Marion’s Piazza, but that’s an unfair comparison). We snarfed down every last crumb, headed back to the hotel and slept a heavy pizza-induced sleep.
We woke up on Day 2 to a bright blue sky. I was immediately relieved because it was KEUKENHOF DAY. There was nothing I was looking forward to more than the Keukenhof, the world’s largest flower garden. I had heard horror stories of people planning trips there and getting poured on, or arriving and discovering the tulips hadn’t bloomed yet. I’m pleased to say our trip was perfect. We could not have asked for better weather! And the flowers… speak for themselves!
The main portion of the Keukenhof is set up almost like a zoo. You’re ushered in through a main gate and then met with branches of trails to choose from. Each path casually winds you through woods, past flower beds of various shapes and sizes (with convenient snack and gift shops along the way). As touristy of a spot as it is, it didn’t seem overly commercial to me, which I was thankful for. Views were not spoiled by concession stands or merchandise. Lawns were quietly mowed by manual push-powered mowers. The manicured beds didn’t detract from the natural setting. It all seemed surprisingly organic, as if we were Dorothy and her friends, frolicking through a poppy field. Okay, so there wasn’t much frolicking. But we did a lot of slow, relaxed walking. 🙂
After much walking and picture taking (and coffee for me and Heineken for Sam), we realized we hadn’t seen any tulip fields yet. We checked the map and headed to a viewing area. We were surprised to find a beautiful windmill that had evaded our view up until that point.
It really was a lovely day. Much like Dorothy, we ended our flower frolic with a nice nap. Then, headed into Amsterdam.
We walked back to the Jordaan area of Amsterdam to tour the Anne Frank House and Museum. I had heard the queues can be hours long, so we went during dinner time and only had to wait about 45 minutes. I remember reading her Diary of A Young Girl when I was in the 8th grade; it was incredibly moving and upsetting. We had to write a historical fiction story for English class, and I wrote something very similar to Anne’s experience, based on what I had read. I wrote it as journal entries, handwritten, in small tight script. I remember my teacher pulling me aside and asking me if everything was okay – she could tell from my handwriting and the subject matter that it had greatly affected me. Those emotions were fresh in my mind as I entered her house. The self-guided tour leads you through the house from the downstairs workshop, up floor by floor, ending in their hiding place. Though the house was packed tight, we all walked through at a hushed, respectful pace.
I knew I’d be impacted by the visit, but I wasn’t quite sure what to really expect. First of all, I was moved by the amount of people from so many demographics and nations all drawn to this little house in Amsterdam, nearly 70 years after her death. Fear and hatred of people who are “different” was one of the many evil motivations behind the Nazi party, yet here we were all gathered. Secondly, when I read her diary as a child, I don’t think I realized how much time was passed in such a dark, depressing space. For close to two years they hid out in the dim and crowded annexe, with no privacy, sunshine, music, etc. Photography was not allowed in the museum for understandable reasons, but I don’t think photographs can even accurately represent the space. I was also personally challenged by the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women who helped Anne and her family hide safely for two years. I can only hope I would have done the same thing in that situation. But the thing that effected me most of all was unexpected… We had walked through the entire house, through the bookcase/door that hid their Secret Annexe, stood in Anne’s small bedroom, seen numerous pictures of Jews suffering at the hands of the Nazis, but the thing that brought me to tears was a book. A book that held the names of the many Jewish men, women and children who died at the hands of the Nazis during the war. As I looked at that book – an entire page containing only the surname ‘Frank’ – I began to cry. How can anyone be so evil? Be filled with such hate? But as quickly as that thought came, I remembered that evil has not won. Though there is so much evil in this world, and in each of us, we have been redeemed, bought at a price. And through Him we have HOPE, even in the midst of evil.
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:37-39
With that being said, I hope that more people go to Amsterdam for that experience than for what Amsterdam is mostly known for… drugs and the Red Light District. At first I was hesitant to plan a trip to Amsterdam – I wondered how much of it was as seedy as the RLD – but we found the rest of the city to be historic, charming, and ultimately worth the visit. On our third day we walked through much of the city…
Things I noticed in Amsterdam:
1) CANALS of course, and the beautiful boats, houses, and boat houses that line them.
I thought Cambridge had an innumerable amount of bicycles, but Amsterdam put it to shame. Every bridge and telephone pole was looped with as many bike locks as it could support. Before crossing the road you must look both ways as usual, but for bikes not cars. I also noticed all the bike riders seemed put together, healthy and overall happy! We passed several people who smiled as they peddled. My favorite bicycling sight was a father carrying all FOUR of his daughters on his bike… three little blond girls giggling in the wheelbarrow bucket on the front of the bike and another grinning toe-head riding piggy back. Precious.
Maybe they’re on to something. 🙂 All the bike traffic contributes greatly to the eco-friendly, residential vibe of the outer circles of the city as well.
3) Graffiti – once again confirming my previous observation of “Continental Europe = Guaranteed Graffiti.”
4) Kind, welcoming people and happy dogs. Really, every interaction we had with a local, be it a store owner, server or stranger on the streets, was pleasant. One night we went back to the Jordaan area for dinner and stopped at a great “gastropub” called Eetcafe Het Kalfje. It was affordable, quiet, and the food (salmon for me, steak for Sam) was excellent. But the best part of the evening was the chat we had with the restaurant’s only visible employee. I’m sad to say, I didn’t catch his name. But we spent the entirety of our meal talking about our various life experiences. The conversation originally began when he found out we were Americans and “students.” He asked questions about how higher education was perceived in the US compared to Europe, if we liked our time in England, etc. He just celebrated his 35th birthday in Paris. We found out he had lived in Amsterdam, Ghent, Antwerp and Bruges. In fact, he was a set painter on the set of the film “In Bruges.” He said most of the production staff was British and they guzzled Belgian beer every spare second they had. Ha! I was surprised by how easy it was to converse with this stranger from a completely different part of the world. We had so much in common though our life experiences were vastly different. We wished we could have stayed and talked longer, but we had to get back to our bus for the free ride back to our hotel. We thanked him for the excellent dinner and enjoyable conversation, wished him a happy birthday, and made our exit.
And, as I’ve also mentioned on here, you can tell a lot about a place by how many happy pups you see. 🙂
I enjoyed visiting a new place and taking in a new culture, but I was surprised how much this trip revolved around people and our interactions. In the Keukenhoff I loved seeing old couples, new families, and groups of friends experiencing it together. At the Anne Frank house those names in the book were people. Daughters, sons, friends. The waiter was a man with diverse life experiences and interests. Several of the “strangers” on the bus ride there became people with names who we swapped stories, laughs and email addresses with on the way home.
I am often content on my own, in my little bubble, but this trip reminded me to notice others. There are people all around us. People. With their own trials, joys, struggles, stories. I was challenged to think of others in that way, to see them as Christ does. To take the time to say hello, have a chat or meet a need.
Overall, this trip was enjoyable. I don’t know if I’d go on another organized coach trip again… maybe if it were closer… but I was thankful we went. Amsterdam was a great city, despite it’s seedy reputation. I did abhor the main touristy area right outside the central station; I couldn’t walk through that area fast enough. But once we left the High Street madness behind I found a warm city buzzing with life. My recommendations? If you go, be sure to stay in the city, but maybe not in the touristy city center. Rent a bicycle, go for a stroll, eat good pizza, and meet some locals. Just avoid the red lights and special brownies, alstublieft.