Road trip #2 took us a bit farther north to Amsterdam. Maybe it was the weather (which was finally beautiful--sunny and warm for longer than 15 mintues at a stretch) but I fell in love!
Gone were the rolling hills and fairy tale forests replaced by patchwork quilt squares of green and gold fields stitched together with silvery threads of waterways and canals. Boats and tractors were parked within feet of each other in front of thatched roof farmhouses where cows and geese grazed peacefully beneath the shadow of nearby windmills. And everywhere were people young and old cruising around on bicycles! And yes, the whole place really was that idyllic.
We stayed in a hotel in Volendam, about 25 minutes outside the city that was on a partially blocked street (traffic was only allowed to go certain directions at certain times of day and was closed to all but pedestrians the rest of the time) lined with shops out front and facing the water in the back. The shoreline consisted of billions of seashells making a white but not barefoot-friendly beach while the nearby dikes were grass covered hills that hid the sea behind them.
The city itself was definitely a big city yet somehow was able to retain the charm of the nearby towns. The countless bridges, waterways, boats, and bicycles probably helped. The highlight of the day was a bike tour through town with a quick detour through the Red Light District, past the Anne Frank house (we didn't get there early enough for tickets), and weaving in and out of crazy traffic. We were told that in a city of about 800,000 there are approximately 1.2 million bikes! They are everywhere! And the bike traffic there is comparable to auto traffic in Italy--there are written rules but no one seems to follow them exactly. Mostly it's a free for all with everyone assuming the right of way and lots of near misses. It was a tad intimidating for this non-biker but I survived...and even enjoyed it!
And a close second was the canal tour. It's not called the Venice of the North for nothing! There's something uber soothing about floating around on a boat in the sun. All vacations should include boats. And cheese.
Have I mentioned the cheese yet? There were cheese shops everywhere, just as there were chocolate shops everywhere in Belgium and Germany. We taste tested a ton of different flavors, watched it being made and then spent hundreds of dollars buying little wheels of it to bring home. (I've had several occassions to relive vacation moments by indulging in a deluxe grilled cheese sandwhich followed by a big of fine chocolate...mmmm!)
We also spent a bit of time in the Rijksmuseum which ended up not being my favorite. It was rather small and was heavy in Dutch influence (of course!) I guess I'm a bit spoiled by having so many opportunities to visit the British Museum, the Met, the Louvre and the Smithsonians but I just wasn't all that impressed. However, I was struck by the intense color and emotion displayed in this piece by Vermeer and this windmill by Paul Gabriel (though of course, neither of the digital images come close to the beauty of the actual works.)
Bottom line? What a fun place! If you've never been...go!