Monday, July 13, 2009

Bound for Belgium

The Netherland's photo album. Stay tuned for the Belgian album in my next edition!

Fortunately there were no vengeful bike-slicers on the streets of Amsterdam that night. The next morning they were still chained to the bike rack and we knew MacBikes wouldn’t get any more cash from us. Before we returned our hot, red rides we had a few more Amsterdam icons to check out.

First we headed towards Anne Frank’s house, the site of “The Secret Annex” where she lived with her family and a few family friends. In order to get there we cycled along the canals that drape necklace-like around the Amsterdam train station. Despite the abundant water, it’s not Venice. It has a more industrial edge that speaks to buzzing, purposeful activity. Basically Amsterdam isn’t Venice because it’s Dutch.

As we rode I caught a potent whiff of pot. It was 9:30 in the morning so I thought it might be a coffee shop airing out before opening. As we continued on, I caught another whiff. Then I noticed a thirty-something woman riding ahead of Tim with a cigarette hanging limply from her fingers. As she neared an intersection she adjusted a document tube across her back and took a puff. Wow. I was getting a little stoned from riding behind her, and this on her morning commute! It seemed like such a perfect distillation of Amsterdam with the canals, the bikes, the cobblestones, and the legal, visible drugs, but it didn’t quite summarize our collective experience so far. That would require more open cow pastures.

When we arrived at the Anne Frank House and Museum we found a line leading down the street. We hadn’t planned on going inside, but the line put any thoughts of just slipping in to see the annex out of my mind. I guess you can only tramp so many people through a cramped attic to see a swinging bookshelf.

Because of the time-crunch and the experience at Dachau, I really didn’t feel much of the weight of history hanging over the house that has come to symbolize both the irrational hatred of oppressors and the hope that the oppressed can overcome. Maybe next time I will actually be able to explore the exhibits and rooms and place myself in the innocent shoes of Anne and her family.

We took off again, weaving past street-sweepers and other bicycles in search of a site particularly dear to Tim’s heart: the Heineken brewery. Again, we could only admire the massive building from a distance, this time perched on an arched canal bridge. The tour sounded interesting, but the brewery had been closed the previous day and we didn’t think a 10AM tour of the facility would really be worth the investment. We would tour a Belgian brewery to get the free sample experience.

With Heineken on our minds it was time to leave Amsterdam. We spun our bikes around and dropped that back with Mac. Too late we discovered an oversized chess set in the courtyard of Hard Rock Café Amsterdam (of all places). We staged some epic pictures of the battle of wits we might have had if we didn’t need to catch a train.

On our way back to the hostel to collect our equipment we passed an American and British Food Import store where we could have bought frosting and peanut butter.

In a few short weeks I will be enjoying the widely available comforts of these staples. Good bye Amsterdam, but not goodbye to the Netherlands quite yet.

The night before we had hatched a plan to jump into the North Sea. So, around noon we stepped off the train in The Haage. Whenever I hear the city referred to it’s usually by an NPR newscaster telling me about weighty international crime. I don’t usually think of it as a place to hit the beach, but after loading up on sandwiches and figuring out the tram system with the help of a very friendly attendant, we were chugging across town to work on our tans.

The beach wasn’t a public affair. Cafés and bars offered lounge chairs and none-too-private patios for evening out your tan lines. (The people most interested in this opportunity seemed to range from 55 to 70 years old.) We set up on the sand with our bags and picnic, but weren’t able to find a public shower or changing area. We forked over a couple Euro at a private restroom to prepare for a frigid dive into the sea. In Europe, it’s a privilege to pee (or put on a bathing suit).

We mentally prepared ourselves for a nippy dip as a cool wind blew over us despite the clear blue sky. The seagulls edged in, waiting for us to take the plunge so they could move in on the lunch crumbs we had dropped for them. Tim decided to watch our stuff first while Mike and I hopped into a new body of water. I waded in, sucking air between my teeth and whooping to try to dull the pain. It was cold. Quickly my body reacted, dilating my blood vessels and flooding my skin with warming blood. I was bright pink, but I was comfortable. I dove under the churned, opaque waves and tried to get Mike to do likewise.

He decided he would survive without an immersion experience, and we trooped back out. Tim came down next. This time I was already wet and prepared for the experience. I had to force myself to slow down a little as Tim gingerly moved into the surf. We dove under then beat a hypothermic retreat back to our bags. We took triumphant pictures and packed up. An afternoon at the beach was welcome, but we had a third and final city to discover before we slept.

Someday I may go back to the Haage, seat of Dutch governmental power (but not the capital, that’s in Amsterdam. Don’t ask me how that’s possible) to see the international offices and Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earing. But I was satisfied with my sunburn, so we turned south for Belgium (our 4th country of the trip) and quaint Bruges.

Bruges was the most powerful city in Belgium circa 1400. Eventually the harbor silted up and commerce moved elsewhere, leaving Bruges a kind of medieval ghost town. I was mostly familiar with the city through this movie trailer:

Beyond that, I only had what the guide books told me as we rolled south. I was expecting a tiny train station populated by horse-drawn carriages and cab drivers praying on excited tourists. What we discovered was a large and expanding station on the fringes of a buzzing city. Bruges may have lost its position as the most powerful city in Belgium, but apparently everyone didn’t get the message to move out of town.

We rode a bus (my favorite form of transportation) past an expansive park with lounging students and tourists, and hung a right into the oldest part of town. City hall and it’s iconic bell tower swung into view and we crossed a canal or two before stepping off at our hostel, the cheapest, roomiest place we would pay for the entire trip. We couldn’t lounge around our bunks for too long, though, we needed dinner and a jump start on our exploration of Belgian beer varieties.

The central market square of Bruges is lined with cafés and all offer a beautiful view of gothic city hall and the guild halls that funded the expansion and power of the city. It was beautiful. We ate relatively cheap pasta and enjoyed the Trappists’ best brews (some Trappist fruitcake might have paired well with the Triple Tim had).

After basking in our accomplishment – sightseeing in three cities in three days – we moved on to explore the gothic and baroque town at night.

Lone lanterns cast a yellow, fiery light over the quite canals. Central squares and church facades were lit by the glow of quiet cafés.

We searched for a bar to continue our beer exploration. Foiled by a bar recommended by Lonely Planet and Mr. Steves (they were closed for vacation) we found a low ceilinged, wood paneled pub with the extensive selection we were hoping for.

With glasses raised we toasted Belgium and called it a night. We would explore Bruges more in the morning. Little did we know there were hundreds of tour busses motoring towards us with the same idea…
One more chance to click through this album.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Wow, those night pictures turned out really well Matt!