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Posts tagged ‘amsterdam’

the happiest place on earth?

I spent a lot of time in Europe last year so there is still more to tell but next time we will hit another continent for some variety but, first, more adventures in Amsterdam…

I am not sure if it’s me or the Dutch – or the chemistry between us – but I have never had so much fun in any other city.  I have lovely memories from New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Prague, Sydney, Bucharest, Ljubljana and the list goes on…  But Amsterdam is this mix of friendly locals, outrageous tourists and a general spirit of embracing pretty much everything the Tea Party hates.  It’s full of history yet easily embraces the future.

The day started with a bang.  Staying out until 5 or 6am every night is not a great idea when you have to catch a flight.  The hotel was amazing (K+K Elisabeta).  When I didn’t respond to my wake-up call, someone came and knocked on my door until I answered the knock clutching a towel around me and looking sheepish.  The early wake-up call meant I had about an hour of sleep but at least I had lots of time to get ready and made it to the airport earlier than really necessary.  As an added bonus, I got upgraded to business class!  Too bad it was just a short flight but meant I tried not to sleep on the plane so arrived in Amsterdam exhausted.

amsterdam on a sunny day!

amsterdam on a sunny day!

Luckily, my hotel was easy to find.  It was another experiment via internet searching – Art Hotel Dulac.  Now that I have done the test run, you can stay there knowing it is excellent.  You can walk from Centraal Station.  If you are a hipster, you will fit into the neighborhood perfectly.  It’s close to the canals and you can easily walk to most tourist attractions.  Pre-Bucharest, I went east.  This time I was closer to the west within flirting distance of De Jordaan.

After a survival nap, I headed over to Café Ruig.  I had discovered it when I was trying to follow the SAIL parade without paying enough attention to the map.  I missed a second chance to catch the parade but had far more fun by succumbing to fatigue.  By that point I had been walking for six hours or more so sitting down and drinking a beer seemed like a great idea.  The bar caught my attention because it advertised craft brews rather than the ubiquitous Heineken.

It was really quiet so I got lots of attention from the bartenders and had them suggest local beer for me to try.  It was yet another fascinating conversation with locals.  Ruben had studied set design and was a budding entrepreneur so we started talking business.  Then I discovered he had recently made his first trip to the USA.  The American media is everywhere and people think they know what the country is like but then they arrive and are frequently confused.  It’s a fascinating place full of contradictions.  As I try to explain, there is no such thing as a typical American.  The propaganda says otherwise but the actual citizens agree on almost nothing except that they are proud to be American – but what they think that means varies so widely foreigners just leave perplexed.

I have to thank the Americans, though, for being the catalyst that made us bond.  He even got some take-out and we ate dinner together on the outdoor patio. There is also a DJ and dancing as the evening progresses.   I ended up staying so late that I had to take a taxi back to the hotel because the metro was closed for the night.  I met other people and even met an Iranian Canadian who was the object of affection of a lovely Dutch woman with whom I discussed relationships.

On my second visit Ruben wasn’t working but I did meet Rick who had played ice hockey in Canada so spoke English with a Canadian accent.  Eventually other ice hockey players showed up to hang out with him and I went looking for new adventures.  I wandered down the canal in the direction of the hotel and spotted some bright lights and plenty of patrons so I got a beer and figured I would just stand around for a little while absorbing the local culture and admiring Dutch guys 😉  No one was speaking English.  I was obviously in a “real” place not frequented by tourists.

Then one of the Dutch guys talked to me – first in Dutch.  He seemed impressed that I had found this place as a tourist.  It turned out that he was at a bachelor party for his friend Rutger.  It was the night of surprise accents.  Rutger worked in London a lot so, in English, he was Roger with an English accent.  It was a second marriage so an older crowd and most departed quite early (by Amsterdam standards at least 😉 but Hans and Rutger weren’t ready yet for the night to end so they invited me to come with them to De Twee Zwaantjies (The Two Swans).

Hans enjoyed giving me a hard time so told me I had to pretend to be Dutch to get in.  It is definitely a Dutch experience.  Lots of loud singing of traditional songs in Dutch.  There was even a conga line.  So different to the bars around Leidseplein catering to tourists.  Eventually their driver arrived so I made my way back to the hotel.  Good thing I had the nap 😉

much more romantic than gracht sounds ;)

much more romantic than gracht sounds 😉

My final day in Amsterdam was a Sunday so chilled out a bit but did do a couple of things I would recommend.  The first was a visit to FOAM on the Keizergracht.  I have been there before and there are

moving photos - literally!

moving photos – literally!

generally really interesting photo exhibits.  It is also on a really romantic canal so make sure you walk to it.

The other discovery was a random accident when I was trying to get away from Dam Square.  It’s called De Drie Fleschjes and is at Gravenstraat 18.  It has been a tasting room since 1650 and has an excellent selection of Genever if you are a fan like me.  For the uninitiated, Genever was a precursor to gin and is a spectacular way to have a local experience in the Netherlands.

Writing about Amsterdam makes me yearn to be there.  This is the first year since 2010 I haven’t passed through Amsterdam for at least a couple of days.  My KLM points will expire in 2017 unless I fly one of the partners so what better reason to book a flight 🙂   Hans thought I should move to Amsterdam.  If only I knew how to finance that… for now, I’ll just play tourist – and share my discoveries and enthusiasm for all things Dutch 😉




normal people do not fly to another continent to go on a date… ;)

This is the first year since 2010 I won’t be making a pilgrimage to Amsterdam.  This will need to be corrected in 2017 🙂  I need to keep my KLM points and keep yearning for Africa.  As has already been documented, my rekindled love affair with the Dutch began when I essentially flew to Amsterdam to go on a date with a Dutch guy I’d met briefly in New York.  The “dating” part of the trip was an unmitigated disaster but it did mean I was stuck in Amsterdam for ten days.  I think it ended up being the best travel story of my life but it’s hard to choose 🙂

atypical amsterdam weather :)

atypical amsterdam weather 🙂

There were many corollary benefits of that crazy trip but one of the most unexpected was discovering SAIL.  I accidentally arrived in Amsterdam just as it was beginning.

The Netherlands has a long maritime history.  It was their skill with boats that allowed a teeny country to be an imperialist power for a considerable period of time.  SAIL was created in 1975 as part of the 700th anniversary of Amsterdam.  It’s meant to honour and celebrate the impressive history of the Dutch conquering the seas.  Ships from all over the world were invited to moor in Amsterdam.  You will never see that many boats anywhere else in the world.  Everyone is invited but what is most impressive are the tall ships and historical replicas.  In addition to mooring where visitors may be able to come aboard, they sail in and out of the harbour in a naval parade on the first and last day of SAIL.

In 2010, it was something that I stumbled upon and never really figured out.  But it was a fantastic blue sky day that Friday (very rare I have learned) so I trotted down to the harbour and spent hours soaking up the sun and climbing aboard tall ships.  By accident, I then stumbled upon the parade of sailors dressed either in impressive naval uniforms or crazy costumes.

it's a pirate's life for me!

it’s a pirate’s life for me!

For SAIL 2015 I was more prepared!  They were semi-prepared…  I would definitely encourage you to attend SAIL but it isn’t Dutch organization at its finest.  I met some locals who were more scathing in their criticism than I was.  It’s strange because the Dutch are normally super competent so it’s surprising to see some chinks in the hardware.  Of course, the scale of it is vast and there is a lot of volunteer labour so I think one has to be patient and forgiving.

Each SAIL is getting more ambitious.  SAIL 2015 had 44 tall ships, five oceans and all kinds of entertainment and activities.  My big disappointment was the SAIL Music Marina.  It sounded fantastic on the website.  Music near the water and then fireworks exploding over the IJ river.  I went large and signed up for the VIP section where I would not only get a great view but a glass of champagne.

I was a bit concerned as the venue was on the other side of the water from my hotel and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get back home late at night in Amsterdam Noord but I went on-line and there was a ferry from a pier close to Centraal Station to the concert venue.  Transportation issues solved!  I bought the ticket.

While it often appears that I am a free spirit wandering the world without a plan and willing to take risks and thereby end up touring Madrid in the wee hours with a handsome escort named Javier or stealing kisses with staff members who aren’t supposed to be fraternising with the guests in remote lodges or onboard ships ;), I am actually the boring person who has three contingency plans.  Why my seemingly crazy adventures end up as charming stories…

So I knew I needed a recognisance mission to the concert venue to make sure I could get there and – more importantly – get back to my hotel!  That’s when I discovered that, while SAIL was a cool concept, it was organized and staffed by a lot of volunteers and they did not plan for contingencies like I did…

Neither the website nor the site signage was very clear on exactly how I was going to get to the concert site.  So I started asking staff.  Most people were clueless but I finally got some decent intel, which just proved to be disturbing.  Apparently the ferry service would be suspended due to the fireworks so my obvious transportation choice was likely to be disabled.

Surely there would be better info at the concert site.  I took the ferry well before the fireworks prep time and checked it out.  No one knew anything!  The concert venue info desk wouldn’t open until the ferry service to the site had already been suspended for fireworks.  It seemed there was a ferry to Centraal Station from another part of Amsterdam Noord.  Could I walk there post-fireworks?

I had lots of time and exercise is always good so I started walking in the direction suggested by the map.  It may be possible but it was definitely not easy.  Neither a short walk nor clear how to get to the other ferry terminal.  But it did provide a fascinating glimpse into Amsterdam Noord, which is where the hipsters are migrating.  It’s also where a lot of immigrants live.  You can still see the bones of Amsterdam but it is a fresh reboot and well worth checking out.

it's over...

it’s over…

There is actually a new hotel opening this year, which looks to bring even more “cool factor” to Noord.  Last summer, I had already paid for my hotel in the Oost and didn’t want to be trapped on Noord overnight so I retraced my steps back to the original ferry and jumped aboard before it was suspended for the night.

Unfortunately, my unwillingness to take big risks meant my champagne concert was not a great memory but a charitable contribution to SAIL.  While it did leave me feeling ripped off, in general SAIL is free and I would highly encourage you to check it out.  Just be leery of stuff you have to pay for…

And I am keen to see if I can get a reservation at the new hotel, Sir Adam, and hopefully explore Noord more without having to take a ferry to get back home.  First, we have to talk about Oost.  Stay tuned 🙂

And the next SAIL isn’t until 2020 so you have lots of time to get your plans in order.  I think the best way to experience it is on the water so that is my plan next time…


travel is my drug

It rained practically the entire time I was in Amsterdam.  It was like my trip to Iceland where the sun shone as I arrived and then tantalized the morning of departure, as though I had committed some grave sin and was being punished.

The hotel wasn’t as exciting as most but it was cozy – and did lots of stuff right.  It was in a historical building in the center of the city and customer service was excellent so if being on the bleeding edge is not part of your travel criteria I would definitely recommend it.  (Convent Hotel)


when the sun shines

when the sun shines

I was feeling very cozy there on Saturday night as I ordered some food at the bar and debated whether I should chance going outside to battle the weather.  But it was Saturday night in Amsterdam and it seemed pretty lame to just hide in my hotel room.  It’s not like I come from a country without weather…

And it was clear skies when I stepped outside! I strolled up Warmoesstraat until I got to Zeedijk as I knew there was lots going on there (from my Stanley Cup watching in Amsterdam – another story…)  Indeed, there are lots of options on Zeedijk and the big question is what random spot to check out.

I thought a bar with a bearded man in drag wearing a wedding dress would offer some entertainment value…  I was not wrong J  But the place was tiny and packed!  I think it was a gay bar.  There were a couple of women in there so I might have been wrong.  It was an entertaining crowd, all I ever seek.

And the music was quite good.  It was obscure, however, just what was going on.  For sure there was a gigantic television screen and people were singing, apparently in some sort of competition.

I watch the news a lot when I travel (it’s often the only station in English 🙂 so I knew the Eurovision song competition was on – but this didn’t seem to be that.  But people were singing along and marking score sheets… everything was in Dutch.

I might well have stayed for the night but I was being constantly jostled by the crowd milling back and forth through the tiny bar so decided I would finish my beer and then wander off into the night, potentially back to my warm bed if nothing caught my attention.  At least I hadn’t stayed home on Saturday night!  In case, you weren’t following, the bearded lady from Austria DID win the Eurovision competition so I am sure the bearded dude in the bar in the wedding dress was an homage…

On my way back to the hotel I was lured into some full moon party at the Winston.  It was in the red light district so I hoped everyone inside would be fully clothed but I thought I should try and not be totally lame as it was Saturday night.


Amsterdam is apparently the land of amazing random decisions 🙂  No other city has provided so many incredible life moments where serendipity – and possibly pixie dust – fueled the adventure.

Winston proved to be a proper dance club – with real music – lyrics instead of thumping drum beats.  Once they had played Vampire Weekend, I was hooked 🙂  Shortly after the song ended some young man full of mind-altering substances put his head on my shoulder and declared that he loved me. Luckily, he had a handler so she quickly towed him away.

I was content to just dance in the corner alone to the great music but some cute guy with a killer smile started dancing with me.  He had real style so we quickly became a duo.  And then he told me he was from Montreal!

Sebastian was also a little over 25.  He was a great dancer – and had that Latin charm that is very hard not to fall for.  So I ended up staying a lot longer than planned.  And had sore muscles the next day.

But in the best way.  We egged each other on so it became not just shuffle around but let’s try out for “Dancing with the Stars”.  I was glad to see that I could still bend that close to the ground 🙂

Sebastian then became my designated bodyguard and walked me back to the hotel because that is what his mother would expect.  The young kids can have their hooking up.  There is something magical about being properly courted… if only he had been on his way to Paris instead of Nice…

a place you could fall in love...

a place you could fall in love…

“Travel is my drug” is Sebastian’s phrase, not mine… obviously a boy from my tribe 😉  He’d had to buy a better umbrella but had spent four days in the rain wandering the canals. It was so cool to meet someone else who came to Amsterdam not for cheap Heineken, myriad forms of pot or beautiful hookers, but to indulge his senses in one of the world’s most incredibly romantic cities – even when the monsoon hits – just don’t bring your best shoes 😉


I always have so much fun in Paris and have now had two trips that haven’t made it to the blog – but some of the exhibitions are now over – and I will always be back in Paris again so I am going to condense the Paris chapters a bit so we can get to Norway – and catch up on Cambodia and Slovenia…


p.s. my blogging is being severely handicapped by my obsessive watching of the World Cup.  It was also inspired by my real introduction to the wonders of Amsterdam.  I was watching the Nederlands in the last World Cup in preparation for my date in Amsterdam with some Dutch guy I met in a bar in NYC.  An event that inspired so many incredible moments in my life since – and meant that I was cheering yesterday 🙂  But my jersey is German – dating Deutsch has been more successful 😉

not quite dutch – but getting closer ;)

I can ride a bike but it’s been a few years since I actually pedaled one so normally I walk in Amsterdam – and try not to get hit by a cyclist 🙂  I also get lots more offers for rides when I walk so I have never felt motivated to rent a bike.

But I do see lots of locals on bikes, though, so it shouldn’t have come as a shock that everyone was biking around town on Friday night.

To get to my biking adventure though, we will need to backtrack through time a bit.  Not a galaxy far, far away – but Vancouver August 2013.  That was where I met Rune.

As is likely obvious from these pages, I love meeting locals.  At the time, I was the local and he was just wearing a name tag that said Amsterdam.  I told him I come to Amsterdam regularly so we arranged a meeting.

He is a co-founder of an accelerator so a very interesting guy.  He invited me to come to his company on Friday and listen to a talk he was hosting for his budding young entrepreneurs.  An interesting way to spend a Friday night in a foreign city.

Europe is a lot more relaxed than North America so there was also lots of beer since it was Friday night.  I ended up speaking to a lot of the entrepreneurs and their enthusiasm was infectious.

Since Rune is Danish, I also met some Danes visiting for the weekend.  Finally it got to the time of night that the Dutch go out into the greater world.  It was decided we would go to Roest.  It was in the trendy east so a decent bike ride – and definitely not walking distance.


It was in an interesting complex and definitely expanded my experience of Dutch nightlife.  You can get there in a taxi but I would make sure you have a number to call to get back home if you are intrepid and want to party like a local.

amsterdam transportOr you can be really local and rent a bike!  The Dutch appear to not need sleep so when Roest closed down the plan was to go to a bar in the newly gentrifying east.  The two of us without bikes would ride on the back.

I’ve had offers along the canals but so far had just stuck to walking but sometimes you have to try a new adventure.  So I learned how to ride on the back of a bike.  The key is balance.  You need to keep your legs out of the way of the spokes and the peddler and make sure you absorb the bumps and the turns so you don’t topple over your escort.

All the effort ended up being for nought as the bar was closed.  I ended the night in a taxi but, crawling into bed at 5am having drunk a good amount of local beer and spent time on a bike in the wee hours of the morning, I felt a little closer to being Dutch 😉

For more on Rune’s entrepreneurs, check out RockStart:



how do you spend your days…

world press photoI wrote about the World Press photo contest in an earlier post.  The first time I checked it out I was on my way to Egypt in the middle of the first democratic election in its history so it was especially poignant to see all the photos from the Arab Spring.


world press photo contestThis time the poignant photos were from the Philippines.  I was in Australia when the storm hit so saw lots of coverage along with lots of talk of global warming.  Sadly a lot of the winning photos depict conflict and devastation.  That is, of course, the stuff of photojournalists.

The contest though is about photography so there are some happy photos too.  And all sorts of interesting subjects, from a cougar stalking the Hollywood sign to a lady who has rescued so many stray dogs it seems there is no room left for her.

It’s a fascinating mix of subjects and points of view to consider.  It definitely makes one examine one’s own life and – in my case, appreciate how easy my life is and how privileged I am.  The winning photo this year is beautiful and haunting, like a master painting.  It depicts migrants standing on a beach on the coast of Africa, holding up mobile phones trying to get a signal so they can communicate with the people they’ve left behind and give an update on their progress in finding a better life.world press photo winner

As I noted last time, it starts in Amsterdam but moves around so check it out if it comes to a city near you.

It was also a way to escape from the rain in Amsterdam.  It is a city that is noted for its “four seasons in one day” weather but this time there seemed to be only one – I think it was winter.  It was windy, cold, with lots of persistent rain in any event.  It was pretty miserable but it’s still hard not to love Amsterdam.  And one has to admire the Dutch, biking with an umbrella in one hand!

I still haven’t written about last year’s trip to Amsterdam so I am going to mix it up a bit to hit some of the highlights from both visits.

For now we will stick with culture.  The other thing that got me to drag myself across town in the pouring rain was an exhibit at the Hermitage.  The Hermitage in Amsterdam is pretty cool.  I have been there on most visits as the concept is that they will bring a subset of the 3,000,000 (I think) objects from the Hermitage in St Petersburg to Amsterdam as part of a special exhibition.


The current exhibition is called The Silk Road and it provides a glimpse into centuries of world history.  There are artifacts from all kinds of countries, some that sounded familiar and some not.

I learned quite a bit of stuff from the exhibition but what was most interesting is that the Silk Road wasn’t just an ancient highway.  It was a network of intrepid merchants and few travelled the entire length of the trading area.  There was a lot of desert and camels involved and oases were key.

It certainly makes my current trip around Europe look like a piece of cake.  Without all those early entrepreneurs, our current 24/7 world would not have been possible.  They carried silk, spices and other hot commodities but they also carried ideas and influence.

It all definitely makes you think of your daily life, your goals and your impact on the world.

p.s. I also picked up a book on the Silk Road by Colin Thubron since I needed some English language reading material 🙂  Why haven’t I discovered him before?  Highly recommended!



the museum whose name I can’t pronounce…

But I’m working on it!  It’s called the Stedelijk Museum but you can also just refer to it as the Museum of Modern Art when you are here and people will likely know what you are talking about.

a little different than the rijksmusuem...

a little different than the rijksmusuem…


You should definitely go!  Like the Rijksmuseum, it’s been going through a giant renovation and relocation so I’ve only seen a mini exhibition on a different street.

I’ve been going to museums since I could read so it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the concept.  There were a few museums that really wowed me as a child but generally the 21st century incarnations (or reincarnations) are far superior.

There is a clever use of technology via pre-recorded audio guides in many languages. Not as charming as following the French tour because it’s the one going at that hour – but you do understand more 😉  And don’t have to jostle others to see the objects.

When I first started going to museums I would try to read and see everything, absorbing as much as possible.  Anyone accompanying me would normally be hanging out in the gift shop or sitting on a bench near the exit.  Once you’ve been to most of the famous museums in the world multiple times you need to reassess your strategy.

The museums of a city are a reflection of its culture – how often the weather forces people indoors, the interests of its citizens and the wealth of its economy.  I’m not sure if bankers “get” all the art but they definitely like seeing their names on display 🙂  It’s no accident London and New York City have no many world class museums.

The museums in cities without armies of investment bankers or who have been the epicenter of the art world like Paris are smaller, more provincial affairs.  It’s easy to dismiss them.

But every museum holds a few treasures, whether some local art or artifact native to the region or some painting from a favourite artist you’ve never seen before donated by a local collector.  What people collect and choose to display, include the design and architecture of its showcase, will reveal some secrets about the local culture and enrich your understanding of it.

The Stedilijk is not the Pompidou but it is well worth a visit.  And learning how to pronounce will improve your Dutch 🙂

look at those cakes!

look at those cakes!

p.s. after you have explored museums, head to the Pijp for cake at De Taart van m’n Tante – it’s worth the walk



giving the mona lisa a run for her money ;)

I really need to quit travelling so much as I have so many half-written posts now, spanning three continents… and I am travelling again, knocking off country #48…  have decided the best strategy is to just start in the past and knock them off country by country… so my current travel destination will be revealed in future… some of the post were written in the moment so we’ll stay there, even if the moment was in 2013 🙂

With the preamble out of the way, let’s go to Amsterdam!  First with a post from last autumn…

I booked this trip so my KLM points wouldn’t expire.  But I also wanted to check out the renovations of the Rijksmuseum.  It has been going on for years and finally completed in April 2013.


the grande dame restored

the grande dame restored

They promised me a brand new museum last night and I think they were not mistaken.  It’s been a long time since my first visit to the Rijksmuseum but the 21st century version is definitely impressive.  And crowded!

I followed Dutch history chronologically from 1100 through 1050 but I would recommend you head for the Rembrandt gallery as soon as the museum opens!

It wasn’t quite the Louvre in July, when I made my mom and niece line up half an hour before opening – and then dash to all the really famous sites within the first hour before the Louvre turns into an iphone launch scenario, but I bet Rembrandt wishes he’d been able to brand himself and put the Nightwatch on t-shirts in his day 😉

the rembrandt masterpiece

the rembrandt masterpiece

My first viewing of the Nightwatch was a transformative experience.  I was on my first European tour and learning art history by visiting many of the world’s greatest museums.  By the time I encountered Rembrandt I knew a little about art – and could recognize his extraordinary rendering of light.

I was certainly impressed by my first viewing of Nightwatch but this time I understood much better the extraordinary talent it took to capture not just the light – but all the movements of the various players in the portrait.  As I learned today, guild portraits normally had a bunch of stationary posed figures like a high school graduation photo.  Rembrandt’s lively composition was an evolution in Dutch art.

The evolution of Dutch art – and the Netherlands – is celebrated in grand style in the new/old Rijksmuseum.  I am still evolving in my understanding of Dutch – and European – history.  But there is definitely much that can be learned from the Dutch.  According to the Rijksmuseum, for a few centuries this tiny country was the most prosperous in the entire world – and even then there was a push toward a fairer distribution of wealth.

If the crowds snapping photos in the Rembrandt Gallery today are any indication, I am not the only one fascinated by the Dutch 😉  Like the Dutch, its beauty and power are subtle and you really need to see it in person.  No doubt you will become a fan – not just of Rembrandt, but of the Dutch who bred him 🙂

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