Romancing the Netherlands
or, When I Asked You to Go Dutch, I Had Something Else in Mind...
by Jennifer Bruni
It's not hard to fall for Amsterdam. I first visited the city by myself ten
years ago and vowed to return one day with somebody special. That promise finally
came true this year when my husband I went to Amsterdam for Valentine's
Surrounded by larger European countries, many Dutch speak at least two or three
other languages, which makes it a great place for less intrepid travelers to
visit. It's less intimidating than Paris and avoids London's big-city hustle
(and its cultural similarity to the U.S.). And unlike those cities, you can
see almost all of A'dam on foot in a weekend.
TIP: If you're starting your European trip in London, don't lug
heavy guidebooks in your luggage from the States like a typical tourist. Instead,
stop at one of London's numerous bookstores (try any Waterstone's or anything
along Charing Cross Road, for example). Head straight for the Travel section,
where you'll find slim and portable Weekend Guides to almost any European
city on your itinerary. A great series to look for is Hachette's A Great Weekend
in Amsterdam bicycles nearly outnumber people, and God knows how many flat-bottomed
houseboats line the canals.
It's a bite-sized city, so take that as a clue to arrive by train or air. Skip
the car -- or houseboat -- rental until you're well outside the city.
Amsterdam is a vacationer's utopia:
you can do pretty much anything and everything you desire. Prostitution is legal,
and so is, uh, "recreational hemp." The city is a favorite weekend destination
for Europeans, especially for big groups of bachelor parties flying in from
the U.K. Yet even though Amsterdam definitely has a wild side, it's easy to
feel comfortable and at home here.
Most Amsterdammers have a tolerant, laid-back conviviality mixed with a wry,
self-deprecating twist of humor. Their city is home to lots of good-looking
blondes and delicious cheeses, Heineken
and coffeehouses, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Everything Goghs (sorry), from sex
to drugs to great architecture, history, quirky modern fashion and design. So
there's plenty here to satisfy the most eclectic couple.
Let's Get Lost
is a narrow city -- the houses, canals, stairways, and cobblestone lanes and
streets are often extremely unpredictable and zigzag every which way. But don't
worry, the city is small area-wise and it takes an effort to get truly lost.
At one point we were totally lost in the wild Amsterdam night when people stopped
us twice to ask us directions. That's when we both started to relax -- we must
fit in after all! It's always interesting to see how you and your significant
other react to getting lost.
For some of us, it's an adventure; for others it's a total nightmare. No matter
how panicky you may feel, remember it's inevitable to lose control once in a
while. That's what makes traveling fun. You're supposed to push up against your
comfort zone a little; otherwise, why bother to leave the house?
Home of the tulip, Amsterdam is a city of bodacious flowers. Check out the
big floating flower market (Bloemenmarkt) in Singel near the city's
epicenter. Beautiful wrapped bouquets are plentiful and surprisingly cheap --
a great impromptu gift for your loved one. Check out the marijuana growing kits
for sale alongside the rows of tulips, a great photo op -- but no souvenirs!
Amsterdam, incidentally, is a paradise for smokers of all kinds. The city's
brown cafÈs, or bruine kroegen, are named after their traditional dÈcor
-- walls stained with a years-old nicotine patina. You can go there to linger
over a coffee -- another A'dam staple -- and pretend to read your Dutch newspaper.
Vehement non-smokers may as well hang it up. Tobacco smoking has been a part
of this city's culture since the 17th century. If you're really suffering, sit
in one of the larger places like American CafÈ (Leidsekade, 97) and ask for
the non-smoking section -- perhaps more aptly called the "passive inhaling"
section. Otherwise, spark it up!
More: Strong dollars, spicy meatballs,
and Jodenbreestraadt! !