Saturday, July 9, 2011

Weekend in Amsterdam - Part II

Saturday, 25  June 2011

The group had intended to wake up around 8:00, but after last night’s adventure, we only managed to leave the room around noon.  That was ok though, because the weather hadn’t been great that morning.  We decided that we needed to try some of the Dutch pancakes we’d heard so much about and settled on The Pancake Bakery ( two blocks north of the Anne Frank House on the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal).  This popular restaurant has attracted the tourist crowd (a fact reflected in the prices), but the restaurant’s reputation is well deserved.  I gambled on the chicken, cheese, and pineapple pancake:  an odd combo which turned out to be quite delicious when paired with caramel-flavored stroop (Dutch syrup made from sugar beets).  The omelets were also very good.  Still not feeling 100% from my illness the day before, I skipped coffee in favor of mint tea and was quite surprised when a tall glass with a huge sprig (stalk?) of mint was brought out.  The mint was so fresh I could practically taste the dirt from the garden (there was a definite earthy aftertaste which I could have done without).  While the tea was a little too much for me, by ordering it I made my favorite discovery of the weekend:  stroopwafels, thin syrup-filled wafers which the Dutch often serve with coffee or tea.   Overall, the meal was worth the trip!

The line at the Pancake Bakery at 2:00pm!

After brunch, we walked the two blocks south to the Anne Frank House.  We were prepared to face the rain, hoping that the other tourists would be kept away.  However, when we arrived we found the line stretching around the corner with an hour wait time.  Fortunately for us, the museum is open until around 9pm on Saturdays during the summer, so we opted to try our luck again later in the day.
Ryan is thirsty after the long walk. 

Map in hand, we headed across town to check out the Heineken Experience, an interactive tour of the old Heineken brewery (   Arriving around 3:00pm during a break in the rain, we found the wait to be only five minutes or so.  The Heineken Experience features a small museum covering the brand’s history as well as a 4D film, but the real highlight is of course the tasting room, or should I say rooms?  Visitors receive a small 0.3L glass of Heineken and are given an explanation of the beer’s qualities.  After the tour visitors may then head downstairs to the World Bar and enjoy two larger glasses and a strobe light-induced headache.  For only 15€/person, the Heineken Experience is a great way to spend an afternoon, escape the rain, and enjoy 2.5 beers (plus more for any spare tokens you can bum off other visitors, if you’re that cheap).

(FUN FACT:  During the tour, I couldn’t help but notice that the museum soundtrack includes songs from Neutral Milk Hotel’s record “In the Aeroplane, over the Sea”.  An odd choice for a brewery but great nonetheless given the album’s Anne Frank connection.  Best moment of the trip so far? Perhaps… Anyway, I've found my soundtrack for the weekend.)

Sorry, Blayze. Couldn't resist...
We then returned to the Anne Frank House to find the line just as we left it.  Still, the museum was a must-see on our list so we braved the rain and late-afternoon chill for 45 minutes.  To stay warm, we took shifts in line while one-or-two at a time went to a nearby kiosk to purchase advance tickets to the other museums we’d hoped to visit on Sunday.  
 (TIP: advance tickets often cost the same as regular admission but allow you to skip the line.  These may be purchased at various kiosks and souvenir shops around the city. Some museums offer discounted online tickets if you have the means to print confirmation slips.) 
Meruyert spent her time reading through the English and Russian guides for the museum.  As I’ve mentioned before, Meru is from Kazakhstan and speaks fluent Kazakh and Russian (her Russian is even better than her Kazakh since Russian is taught in Kazakhstan’s schools), speaks good English, and is now learning German though our course at BEST (which is taught in English).

Anne Frank Museum. (Photo:

The Anne Frank House ( is the actual business/warehouse where the Frank family and others hid from the Nazis from 1942 until 1944 when they were betrayed and sent to the concentration camps.  Only Anne’s father Otto Frank survived the camps and returned home.  Anne’s diary of her early life and the years in the “Secret Annex” were discovered by family friends and returned to Otto who published them and spent the rest of his life promoting peace and humanitarianism.  
The museum is small and the rooms are, at Otto Frank's request, left bare.  Small models of the building plans show how the rooms looked during the years the Franks occupied the secret upper floors accessible only via a stairway concealed by a movable bookcase.  In the 1940s the building housed Otto Frank's business, a small manufacturer of the ingredients for making jams and preserves.  His coworkers and employees agreed to shelter the family following the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.  As I mentioned, the Secret Annex is rather small, but compared to hiding places of the period, it was rather spacious and safe.  The family had only to remain quite during the day to avoid the notice of the warehouse employees below.

I admit this visit brought back a lot of memories.  I once visited the house many years ago and was quite moved by the experience.  All these years later, these rooms still felt familiar.  In one of the rooms,  I noticed a large picture of Otto Frank taken during one of his return trips to the Secret Annex after the war.  I can only imagine how he felt walking these rooms again, what memories they stirred.
We left the museum around 9:00pm and after walking in circles for about an hour, arrived at the Dam, the central square of the city where the royal palace and New Church are located.  We ate just off the square at a Mexican restaurant called, appropriately, The Mexican.  The enchiladas were very good, but the chips and salsa were a little unusual.   Here and at other restaurants where we’ve ordered chips and salsa, the chips were smaller and thicker than those back home and were covered in a chili powder while the salsa was more of a chili glaze than the thin liquid with diced tomatoes that is served in the States.

The evening grew late and we decided to explore the neighborhood a bit further before returning to the hotel.  A few twists and turns later, we found ourselves in De Wallen, the city's notorious red light district.  There is something strange about such a sordid industry taking place in such a picturesque setting. The gaudy red neon from the clubs and working girls' stalls (literally stalls, or "cabins" in the trade terminology,with little more than a bed, a glass door, and a curtain) along the canal reflected in the water and cast an eerie glow on the night's proceedings.  We weren't alone; hundreds of our fellow tourists had been draw to the district to gawk at the merchandise.  Most seemed all talk though.  The Scots seemed well represented; I guess due to the short commute.  I left soon after in hopes of catching a tram while the others found a bar and took their chances on finding a night bus.

De Wallen at night (Photo: Rungbachduong at Wikipedia)

I found nothing glamorous about De Wallen.  Despite the lax regulations on prostitution which are meant to legitimize the industry, sex trafficking is a still a serious problem here.  Half the women look to be Eastern European or Asian. I've heard that the city government is making an effort to clean up the district.  In the last two or three years new regulations have been passed, limiting the number of "cabins" in the district and allowing some areas to be redeveloped with restaurants and boutiques.  Time will tell if the city's efforts will pay off.

I became lost while trying to navigate my way out of the back alleys of De Wallen where the cheaper (older) women reside.  Sure enough, by the time I found by bearings I had missed the last tram and was forced to walk through the rain down to Leidseplein and the first night bus of the evening. 

While the trams with their electronic route displays are great, I have found the buses in Amsterdam to be terrible.  Both this night and last, I have been forced to ride the bus out to the final stop and then half of the return journey in order to reach the hotel because the driver didn't stop at our hotel though I had pressed the stop-request button.  It would seem one must have memorized the route in advance AND know the secret handshake AND press the drop-off button three stops in advance to get anywhere!!   The others stumbled in around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, exhausted from having bartered a ride from a shady motorist after experiencing similar problems with the bus service.

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